Monday, January 11, 2021

Space Virus Cult

I've mentioned that I'm terrible about advance copies. In an effort to be less terrible, I'm reading books that came out last year that were given to me for early review. Retroactive responsibility for the win!

One that I'd been really excited about was Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace. The cover just screamed "space action movie" and the premise--"A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller"--promised the same. And it delivered very precisely on that promise.

In addition to "space action movie," we also get a layer of "heist" and "cult" in the plotting--again, all in space. Just catnip. Our two narrators are both on a shuttle that is hijacked in an attempt to board a floating relic--an enormous research ship that has been adrift in the solar system for a decade, since everyone aboard succumbed quickly to a virus believed to have been released by an angry, discredited scientist. One was the lone survivor of the virus as a child; the other is leading the hijacking on behalf of the Family, a group of outsiders searching for a permanent home.

This book would make an amazing movie. The flashbacks to Jas's memories of his childhood trauma; Zahra's determined loyalty to the wrong cause and moral struggles; the dorky tech nerd, the creepy, haunted ship. A lot of the strokes in the story are a little broad, especially the characterization of the other members of the Family, but in my mind, Zahra in many ways makes up for that. So many books about people in cults are about them being full of doubt, but Zahra believes in her mission. She's had a hard life, and the Family has genuinely saved her. But she's also smart, and when things start happening that require her to improvise, she starts thinking faster and faster. 

Jas was raised by his very powerful aunt and lives a life of privilege, but his relationship with his best friend, whose immigrant family suffered a great deal to get him everything he has gives Jas important perspective. He's got a lot of suppressed issues around, you know, his parents dying horribly. Being back on the House of Wisdom is bad news, especially when it looks like the virus didn't die with the crew.

This is all backstory, but I think the richness of all the details as they unfold really makes the story. It's fast paced, with chasing and hacking and fighting and parasites and explosions. The entire backstory unfolds as the plot does, which keeps the pacing from being too breakneck or too info-dumpy. There are some very cool action set pieces, and the virus is super creepy, but I think that the character and history unfolding are really what make this an above-average read.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Hogwarts Was a Dangerous Place

 I read a Tumblr post back when school started up in person that said something like "I used to that people sending kids to a school where they're likely to be eaten by a giant snake was implausible, but now I see it." 

I'm reading Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, about a school of magic where your job is just to survive while the school spends four years or so trying to kill you. Or rather, the beasties try to kill you while you're stuck in the school; "graduation" is just survival, and the rates are dismal.

This book is making me so happy I can't even tell you. I keep having to put it down because I like the cranky, grouchy, snarky narrator so much and every time she has a warm feeling she grouses about it and my heart explodes. 

It's one of my favorite kinds of books, which is a detailed, systematic look at how to go about living in a difficult situation. A big part of what I love is just the exposition, the ethnographic detail of how 1,000 teenagers do everything from negotiate status to use the bathroom without getting eaten by something out of the drain. There is so much worldbuilding and every bit of it is fascinating in both its creativity and its mundanity.

El, the main character, is a very gifted magician with a natural affinity for enormous acts of death and destruction. But she refuses to be a malificer. Unfortunately, that means working against her own magical affinity, and everything is twice as hard for her, and everyone still looks at her like she just might kill them in their sleep. Her whole life has been this way; she's used to it.

Then she meets Orion Lake, who is Not Harry Potter but is prone to wandering around the school saving random lives. He saves her life at an inopportune moment, and she snarks at him. Thus begins a friendship that is entirely incomprehensible to everyone at school, including El. 

El is an angry, brilliant delight. She is unlikable and knows it and has worked around it all her life, but god she's tired. She's very good at the strategy and tactics that are involved in the elaborate political and survival machinations in the school hierarchy, even though she's near the bottom of the pecking order. And as people start to really see her--for better or worse--she stays determinedly herself.

In the larger sense, the book is about power and privilege, and the parts of the power structure that you can only see from the outside. It's also about what makes a person a good person, or a worthy person, especially when driven to extremes. And it's about deprivation, and human contact, and friendship and strength and my heart is in a puddle on the floor again. I'm going to die because of how much I love this book. Five stars. All the stars. I might have to read it again.