Zero World by Jason M Hough (2015)
Hardcover, 592 pages
Published August 18th 2015 by Del Rey (first published August 11th 2015)
While the largest bulk of my reading is in the fantasy genre, sci-fi is certainly the second largest part of my list. When I read sci-fi, I generally feel that I am not quite smart/nerdy enough to really enjoy ‘hard’ content, with focus on spaceships and math and realism and such – I often say I err towards the people-centric, ‘soft’ stuff, ala Scalzi. Beginning with his Dire Earth series, I certainly found that Jason Hough’s works fit enough in that mold to engage me, while also including some ‘harder’ elements that he makes very easy and unintimidating to consume.
Zero World is the story of Peter Caswell, a spy/assassin who works in a unique field – he does covert ops, assassinations and the like, however his memory of each of these missions is wiped afterwards, Men-in-Black style. His missions are received semi-anonymously, transmitted to him via a liaison from his employer, and at the end of the day, he has no idea what he did, who he killed, or even how many people he killed, aside from a clever but subtle method of leaving himself notes via beer bottles.
Peter’s world is flipped a bit when he’s given a new mission, to track down a missing crew member from a recently re-discovered ship. However, this crew member turns out to have found a way to travel through something similar to ‘tear in the fabric of space’, and Caswell soon finds himself on an alternate version of Earth – one with similar speech patterns, slightly outdated versions of Earth’s technology, and their own set of politics and problems. As well as Alice Vale, the missing crewmember from the ship, who in this world has made herself a super-scientist and celebrity, slowly introducing technology from Earth to this planet.
The book is an absolute blast – it’s very fast paced, and despite being quite long, it reads very quickly and easily. I found myself blowing through the pages, eager to find out what happens next, and caught up heavily in all of the politics and action. The book was never too predictable, and I found the twists to be surprising to me almost every time, including several “aww snap!” moments. The characters were unique and engaging, and I found myself feeling for Caswell as he felt his way through the isolation on this planet, the problems he faced, and his forthcoming memory wipe. As the story progresses, he’s put through more and more trials, and eventually has to come to terms with being forced to face all that he’s done in the past, which he was assured would remain anonymous and unknown to himself.
Zero World lived up to it’s hype as an action-film-on-paper, but despite that it never felt shallow or unfulfilled. The plot was unique enough (at least to me), very interesting, and did not feel cheap or easy. The politics felt very real, very realistic, and very plausible, and the way the characters interacted, adapted, and communicated was as well. Hough’s writing is incredibly approachable to almost anyone, while still being professional and well rounded – space is not wasted on unnecessary elements, while I was never left feeling like bits were skipped over, or shortcuts were taken.
I enjoyed this every bit as much as I did The Darwin Elevator, in fact I’d say I enjoyed it more. It was a great balance of substantial storyline and characters, mixed with breakneck action and exciting plot twists. A great read, and it was really nice to have a page-turner that also kept my mind stimulated throughout.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung(2012)
Kindle Edition, 210 pages
Published November 28th 2012 by Michael McClung
The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids came fairly highly acclaimed as an independent novel, even winning Mark Lawrence’s self-published Fantasy Blog-Off. I heard quite a bit of buzz about it in the last couple years, enough that I felt it must be added to the reading list. When I finally got a chance to read it, however, I found it didn’t necessarily live up to all the hype.
Amra Thetys, a thief, finds herself in the middle of a quagmire, after her friend comes to her following a heist. He’s been hired to steal a set of artifacts, but feels the need to keep one of these for himself, for reasons unknown at that time, and asks his friend Amra to help guard it, as he’s being hunted in order to recover it. Shortly thereafter, he turns up dead, murdered in cold blood in front of his house, and Amra is quickly swept up in the investigations, and the many layers of drama involved.
While a bit on the sparse side, the worldbuilding in Thief is interesting enough, presenting an interesting city, full of vivid and unique characters and places, as well as some very interesting (and morbid) customs and supernatural problems. The characters are numerous, which can be a bit of a problem at times as there’s quite a bit to keep up with in a very short novel, but they are all distinct enough, with their own voices and habits, as well as their own ways of handling things.
There are tons of twists and turns in the story, as Amra fights off various forces, incarceration, contracts on her life, supernatural monsters, and various other obstacles in her quest to resolve her friend’s murder, as well as gain the revenge against his killers that she so desires. She enlists the help of a friend, a powerful mage, who assists her in her struggles, while at times feeling almost too powerful.
Wherein the crux of some of the book’s problems begin – Amra seems to be constantly in unbeatable situations, extreme danger, extensive bodily or mental harm, yet comes out just fine, often with very easy, simple solutions that seem too convenient for the situations she finds herself in. The main issue I had with the novel was essentially that – everything seemed so…underwhelming. So convenient. So undeveloped. The novel is short, yet a TON of things are wedged into it, so very little time and energy is spent on individual events.
It ends up leaving an anemic feel to things – situations get built up quickly, then resolved quickly, and on to the next thing. Lather, rinse, repeat. And at the same time, the writing lack a very distinct something – I could only describe it as “soul”. Everything is so matter-of-fact, so “this happened, it was ok”. Amra goes through an amazing amount of trauma, and each is just presented as a thing that occurred, with very little insight into the effects, very little “feel” to it. The entire book felt like a casual storytelling, with no heart, nothing to make me feel for the characters, or situations, or drama. It just came across so bland in presentation.
McClung’s writing and ideas are clearly good, but the execution in this novel is lacking. I found myself unable to “get into” the book very much, because it lacked anything to draw me in, any feeling to give to the story or characters. I love a nice short novel, but this book would have benefitted greatly from another 50 pages, wherein McClung could explore the emotions, and take some time to show some impact to events, rather than just saying “x happened”. There was a ton of potential here, but it just missed the mark for me. It was close to being a very good book, but yet very far away at the same time.