Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review: Dark Orbit

Title: Dark Orbit
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Pages: 303
ISBN: 9780765336293
Series: Twenty Planets
Publisher: Tor
Published: July 2015
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate. Thora was once a member of the interplanetary elite, but since her prophetic delusions helped mobilize a revolt on Orem, she’s been banished to the farthest reaches of space, because of the risk that her very presence could revive unrest.

Upon arrival, the team finds an extraordinary crystalline planet, laden with dark matter. Then a crew member is murdered and Thora mysteriously disappears. Thought to be uninhabited, the planet is in fact home to a blind, sentient species whose members navigate their world with a bizarre vocabulary and extrasensory perceptions.

Lost in the deep crevasses of the planet among these people, Thora must battle her demons and learn to comprehend the native inhabitants in order to find her crewmates and warn them of an impending danger. But her most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lie beyond the boundaries of science.

Appearances can be deceiving and expectations doubly so. I thought Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit would be a traditional murder mystery set on a newly discovered alien planet; instead it morphed into an immensely fascinating exploration of the limits of sensory perception and how the way we perceive our world shapes the reality we experience.

“We are organisms evolved to destroy unfamiliarity by the act of understanding it.” (p 58)

The story revolves around two main protagonists, Sara Callicot an exoethnologist, and Thora Lassiter a former diplomat with an unsettling and unstable past. Sara is tasked by her patron to keep an eye on Thora in order to ensure her safety, but it soon becomes apparent that everything is not as it seems. A crewmember onboard the Escher is found beheaded, no murderer can be found and while on an expedition to the planet’s surface Thora disappears – only to discover that the planet is inhabited by the remnants of a long forgotten human diaspora, the Torobes, a community of blind cave-dwellers.

This revelation introduces us to Moth, a young Torobe, who acts as initial mentor to Thora, but also as a bridge between the scientist and the community of Torobe. There is a stark juxtaposition as both Thora and Moth are thrust into environments completely alien to their normal way of experiencing their world. Thora who relies on her sense of vision is plunged into the perpetual darkness whereas Moth, who relies on tactile and auditory input, is transported to the interior of the Escher which is devoid of texture or marks to guide the way.

“With the wind, Torobe became a soundscape with dimension and direction. There was no near and far, upwind and downwind.
‘We have a saying, that the wind is gracious, for it bringeth the world out of silence,’ Hanna said. ‘Each time it comes is like a new little creation, when all things form out of the voice. When the wind speaketh, its language is the world.’
I stood a while with my eyes closed, listening to the creation of the world around me.” (p 145)

When an attempt is made to teach Moth to see she has immense difficulty in dealing with the rudimentary concepts of sight - distance, angles, apparent and intrinsic sizes. Things we never consciously think about confound her. She thinks that sight conveys a magical ability to see the future, purely because sighted people can avoid obstacles before coming into physical contact with them.

“What good is this seeing?” Moth exclaimed angrily. “All it gives thee is deception.”

Both Sara and Thora are strong, compelling female characters. Sara is headstrong with a devious, inbred contempt for authority. Thora appears as an unreliable narrator at first, the flashbacks to her past reveals her hidden depths and the truth about her as character. She acts as the sensory conduit to the world, sharing her first-hand experiences in the form of audio diaries. But it's Moth who truly steals the show; I found her one of the most memorable characters in the novel. She has an incredible heart and a unique way of looking at the world.

“Their habitude is made of boxes,” Moth said. “They have boxes that slide, boxes that hinge, boxes that fold: they are never happy till they have made more boxes for themselves and everything about them.” (p 207)

As a great danger looms which could spell doom for both the natives and the crew of the Escher Thora has to race against time to find a solution to save them all. The key to their salvation lies in the uncanny metaphysical ability some of the Thorobes have developed. An ability which can’t be explained by science.

The open-ended ending is satisfying with some unexpected turns along the way. My only complaint is that Dark Orbit was far too short, I would have loved to see the repercussions of the discovery and the impact it has. Now that I’ve discovered Gilman’s work I will definitely be on the lookout for more of her work. Hopefully her next novel will have some of the answers I still crave.

Dark Orbit has the uncanny ability to challenge your expectations and perceptions in the most profound ways. There is one observation that has stuck in my mind and makes for some powerful food for thought:
“We bemind people all the time – making assumptions, creating illusionary roles for them – and it alters their reality. They start to become what we expect them to be...” (p 286)

If you are looking for something deeply thought-provoking then this is the book for you. You won’t be disappointed!

The Verdict:
Dark Orbit is a fascinating exploration of how our limited sensory perceptions shape how we perceive each other, the world and the universe at large. A cast of captivating characters and a truly remarkable premise makes this a must-read. The story is dizzying in both scope and implication and will have you re-evaluating how you look at the world. My only regret is that it was far too short.

The Rating: 7.5/10 (Very good)

Thanks to Desirae Friesen from Tor for providing the review copy.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Review: Emperor of Thorns

Title: Emperor of Thorns
Author: Mark Lawrence
Pages: 576
ISBN: 9780007503988
Series: The Broken Empire #3
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Published: 2013
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Lawrence brings the Broken Empire series to its devastating conclusion The path to the throne is broken - only the broken can walk it The world is cracked and time has run through, leaving us clutching at the end days. These are the days that have waited for us all our lives. These are my days. I will stand before the Hundred and they will listen. I will take the throne no matter who stands against me, living or dead, and if I must be the last emperor then I will make of it such an ending. This is where the wise man turns away. This is where the holy kneel and call on God. These are the last miles, my brothers. Don't look to me to save you. Run if you have the wit. Pray if you have the soul. Stand your ground if courage is yours. But don't follow me. Follow me, and I will break your heart.

“The path to the throne is broken – only the broken can walk it.”

Emperor of Thorns, the finale in the Broken Empire series, brings Jorg Ancrath’s journey to an end. And what a brutal, harrowing journey it has been. Jorg is the most loathsome, psychopathic anti-hero I’ve come across. Broken and scarred in so many ways, he is not a particularly likeable protagonist, but over the course of the series I’ve grown fond of him and his band of road brothers as they slowly managed to achieve the unthinkable despite all the odds being stacked against them.

“So much of the world is about surfaces, the eye deceived, with the truth in the unknown and unknowable depths beneath.” (page 256)

“... the darkest voice was ever mine.” (page 424)

Jorg is very aware of the fact that he isn’t a good man, the horrific things that have been done to him echo and reverberate throughout his life and shaped him into the dark, ruthless person he was forced to become. There are some truly harrowing events from his past that come to light in this final instalment and you can’t help but to empathise with his plight. Yet, despite his armor of scars, you also get glimpses of small pieces of his humanity hidden deep down below the surface. There is a real sense of growth to Jorg as a character, the impulsive boy is gone and a wiser, more experienced man has emerged to once again shape the world with his unwavering will.

Jorg comes up against his greatest foe yet, the mysterious Dead King who holds power over the dead. Their paths converge as Jorg stands within grasp of fulfilling his ambition to become Emperor. Jorg might not be the hero the world wants, but it turns out he might be just the hero they need. Saving the world could finally offer the redemption he has so desperately sought...

The ending is satisfying and offers up some unexpected twists. My only complaint is that the final confrontation felt rushed. I would have loved to see a more prolonged battle between the two foes; it took so long to set the stage for the conflict yet it was over far too quickly.

Emperor of Thorns is a worthy conclusion to Jorg’s story. It took me just over six years to finally finish his tale and throughout that time he has stuck in my mind. If that’s not the hallmark of a great character then I don’t know what is. I’m sad to finally have to let him go.

The Verdict:
Emperor of Thorns brings Jorg Ancrath’s tale to a stunning end. The Broken Empire trilogy is dark and brutal, but I think this certainly counts as the most harrowing book in the series. A story that started out as a simple tale of revenge has expanded into something far greater. If you are looking for an anti-hero unlike any other then this is definitely the read for you. I can’t believe I waited so long to finish the series. Well worth reading!

The Rating: 7/10 (Very good)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Taming the TBR Mountain: A New Hope

Each year I set out to buy fewer books and read more of the books I actually own. And each year I fail miserably. In 2017 my book buying was... excessive.  Yes, let's go with excessive. Tallying up the totals was quite a shock to the system. Counting only physical books I ended up buying more than 70 books last year and the total costs was, err, something I don't want to talk about.

Now if you consider that I only managed to read 37 books during last year, it becomes abundantly clear that my TBR is out of control. I add books at a far greater rate than I'm reading them, which means that Mount TBR continues to grow on a yearly basis.

I could go on a book buying ban, but we all know how effective those are. I say I won't buy any books, but as soon as I see a shiny new book the ban goes out of the window faster than the Enterprise jumping to warp speed.

This year I'm going to try something completely different. I'm going to incentivise my TBR. For each book I read I'm going to reward myself with a certain amount to add to my book budget, which will allow me the flexibility to continue buying books without the foolishness of an outright ban.

I'm still tweaking the numbers, but my reward systems will be as follows:
  • Starting fund of R200
  • Books with less than 300 pages - R20
  • Books with less than 500 pages - R30
  • Books with 500 or more pages - R40

The beauty of this system is that I will be able to buy new books and still manage to curb my spending since I will have to read 3-5 titles for each new book I buy.

I'm not sure how effective this will be, but I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Let the experiment commence!

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