It’s a hugely exciting day, because today we get to announce our team’s top 3 books. That means we’ve gone as a group from 31 books down to 10, then down to 3. These are the best of the best, folks. And, as a bonus, I have my own personal choice for a book that didn’t make it based on our group’s votes but that I personally would include.
My full review of this one is still pending, but suffice to say this is an absolute masterwork. It’s got all the thoughtful brilliance of The Forever War, but asks even more questions and has better characters. Fans of military sci-fi will love it, and those interested in thoughtful science fiction should consider it a must read.
Unfettered capitalism meets a murder investigation in this surprising novel. The group didn’t choose this one for its top 3, but this would have been one of my personal top 3. I think it is superb. My full review.
The Trellisis a remarkable book. It engaged me from the beginning, held on, and eventually wrung me out the other end. It’s the story of two women. The first, Melody, is a detective summoned to the huge corporate building known as the Trellis to solve a murder that occurred on the premises. The second, Debbie, is a mediator looking to start a new job at the same place. Their stories take readers through an extraordinary tale of the near-future in which corporations run America, unfettered capitalism is the name of the game, and people start to wonder about whether they’ll be entirely replaced by AI programs.
The dark humor about unfettered capitalism dominates the early portion of the book, setting the stage for a, er, setting that supports the rest of the book. Whether it’s Debbie’s concerns about having drones snap videos of her face on the way to an interview, effectively sinking her before she starts because she had a wrong facial expression or Melody’s offer to a bigshot at the Trellis to expedite certain parts of her investigation for a moderate surcharge, there are all kinds of subtle or not-so-subtle looks at what happens if capitalism becomes the end and the beginning.
After several scenes that combine these two main characters’ everyday lives with vignettes of rampant consumerism, the plot switches things up and Melody’s investigation goes in earnest while Debbie spends time at her new job, discovering the ins and outs of her new job while balancing the concerns of her significant other back home. More and more complexity piles on here, as we learn about the inner workings of the police force in Chicago and how there’s another, larger force that looms over the investigation in which Melody is mired. Debbie, for her part, has to navigate office life while also trying to mediate disputes about often absurd conflicts and not lose her job because she’s being watched too closely.
The Trellis is a novel that has layers upon layers of secrets, and it’s not clear when first reading how deep it goes. However, once one gets deep into the plot, one finds that each small layer that got peeled away makes a difference to the whole, sometimes in surprising ways. The story is dense at times with the amount of detail, but the payoff each time feels satisfying.
I mentioned above the worries about AI programs. Cantor takes this in a different direction than most sci-fi I’ve seen. Essentially, she concedes through her characters that AIs could easily outthink and outsmart us but asserts that they simply don’t because they aren’t programmed to destroy us. Instead, they are content to do things like find out how a murder happened and dedicate all their energy to that until the problem is solved before moving on to another. It’s a subtle difference from how AI/robot tech is often treated in sci-fi, but it made for some compelling reading whenever the topic was broached. And, like so many other threads that seem to be unconnected to anything else in the novel, this ends up becoming important towards the end of the story.
The ending of the book is something I can’t really say enough about, but I don’t want to hugely spoil it. Let’s just say it took me somewhat by surprise but didn’t shock me, if that makes sense. It is the kind of ending I find myself enjoying more and more, in which consequences of all human activity can come down on some individuals.
If all this effusive praise seems a bit much, I would note that I didn’t think the novel was perfect. One very brief scene talking about how people in the now-separated country of California are coming for arbitration regarding preferred terms being used for people seems to hint at concerns about pronouns and other things being wholly unimportant. It’s hard to tell given the tone of the rest of the novel if this is the author’s voice making the claim or one of the characters, but it was a bit jarring. I’d say this: if something is ethically important, it doesn’t cease being so just because the state of the world has changed. Another very minor point is that the novel takes a little bit to restart the engine going from the spectacularly grim/funny introductory scenes before kicking into gear on the mystery and new job plots. I never got bored, but some may see that section as a little bit of a drag.
Jools Cantor’s The Trellisis a fantastic read that I highly recommend to fans of sci-fi mixed with mystery, dark humor, and/or flashes of cyberpunk. It’s a spectacular debut novel, and I hope Cantor has more coming.
I read more than 500 books again in 2021, and I wanted to highlight some indie works of speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy). Hopefully, you’ll find some reads here you didn’t know about! Let me know your own thoughts in the comments!
Dog Country by Malcolm F. Cross–Dog Country is a military science fiction novel about geneforged dog-people who were created for war only to find there’s no war waiting for them in adulthood. The thought behind the book evokes other war adaptations while bringing up questions of PTSD, sexuality, and more. Time and again, there are problems with our major protagonist, Edane, attempting to adapt to the “real world” and away from war. Then, a crowdfunded war to oust a totalitarian regime gets underway and we get some solid military sci-fi action that feels believable and surprisingly intense at times. Edane struggles to find out how to express himself to his girlfriend, Janine, and takes comfort from the his two adoptive mothers. The inter-character relationships are of utmost importance in the book, and I found it impossible not to get deeply invested in Edane’s story and struggles.
Project Nemesisby Jeremy Robinson- I love Kaiju, and this novel delivers on the goods. Robinson has readers follow Jon Hudson, an investigator following lead after lead which leads him into absurd scenarios of crackpot theories and false Bigfoot trails. Ultimately, though, we get some serious Kaiju action that Robinson manages to make more thoughtful than you might think. Check out my full review of the book here.
The Amethyst Panda by Kay MacLeod– The second book in the Maiyamon series by Kay MacLeod is another fun monster-catching romp. What do I want from a monster-catching book? Battles that feel intense and a plot that keeps it going. The Maiyamon have their own weakness/resistance archetypes, along with evolutions and switching in battle. It’s like reading a Pokemon novel specifically with adults young and old in mind. I hugely enjoy the first two books, so I cannot wait for book 3! Check out my full review of the first book in the series here.
The Trellis by Jools Cantor– Here’s the elevator pitch: it’s a murder mystery in a future America in which the dangers of unfettered capitalism are on full display through the eyes of multiple characters. I love mysteries set in the future, but Cantor makes this one its own unique ballgame. One character POV is a detective using a somewhat out-of-date robot to help solve the murder. Another is an eager new-on-the-job mediator-type who provides glimpses into what society might be like if corporations were allowed free reign. It’s a fascinating read and has a powerful ending. I loved it.
The Seeds of Dissolution by William C. Tracy– A portal fantasy gets combined with first contact sci-fi and space opera in this soup of subgenres that Tracy deftly navigates to create a powerful experience. Following in the steps of a human character thrown into a society of allied aliens that appears on the brink of crumbling, readers get to experience a science fantasy adventure that is wonderful from the beginning to the end. The magic system is based upon the notion that the universe has music behind it that some people can sense and modify–but at a cost over time. The characters are compelling, diverse, and complex. The relationships build slowly in believable fashion. I savored this one over the course of about a week, and then immediately grabbed the next one.
We’ve done it! Team Red Stars has narrowed our 31 selections for the SPSFC down to 10. 10 groups have done so, which means the remaining books are the top 100 out of about 300 entries into the SPSFC! Without further ado, here are our 10 books for the round of 100, along with some comments on each!
Our whole group was enthused about this read from the sample we read. We loved the character-driven drama and the hints at science-y, dragon-y plot. I have since finished the book and will have a review coming… eventually!
The group was sold on this AI/Robot mystery that seemed to get deeper the more we read of it. I personally quite enjoy the cover art–it’s not often you see art in this style, which looks like a kind of advanced colored pencil drawing.
I may as well say it: I’m a sucker for the mashup of science fiction and mystery. The Trellis has that from the get-go, and Cantor also sprinkles in some commentary on unfettered capitalism and more as the novel gets going. I am about halfway through and it’s captured me completely.
This story takes place in three different time periods spanning from our past to a future a few hundred years from now. The group was into the main characters, as well as intrigued by the way the plot hinted at bigger things to come.
Our group had a bunch of dystopias, and this one was one that stuck out from the crowd with its setting and potential for big implications about its world. We also liked the main character, for whom we’re all rooting!
I couldn’t stop reading this first contact/hard sci-fi novel by Peter Cawdron. It just kept getting bigger and more intriguing as it went on, and I think it’s just a wonderfully told and timely story. Others in the group enjoyed the tone and were interested to see where the plot goes.
Our group enthusiastically selected this no-luck military sci-fi drama that intensely focuses on character-driven plot. I have finished it since, and I’ll save my main thoughts for the review; for now, let’s just say the story is as good as its cover.
Artificially intelligent robots are trying to revive the human race in this touching novel about robots. I wasn’t entirely sold on it until I got about 20% in, but it truly starts to ramp up from there. I’m excited to see where it goes.
Our group dug this dystopia (maybe–it’s not clear if it’s a dystopia or simply playing on the subgenre’s tropes yet) about a looming threat that lingers above the sky. I admit I’ve been sitting on it, waiting for a good moment to start truly diving in. I anticipate savoring it based on the sample I read.
First Round Status
As a group, we’ve determined our final 10 books. I have several posts in the docket to show how I came to my personal top 10, as well. 8 of my personal top 10 made our quarterfinalists, which is pretty exciting for me. So what’s next? More book reviews and discussions. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you think in the comments!