Quick Reviews: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal (2016), and Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis Chen (2016)

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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 16th 2016 by Tor Books
Ghost Talkers is a WWI-era novel that follows Ginger Stuyvesant, a medium (yes, that kind of medium) from America, living in London during the war. Ginger is part of a mostly-secret group of magical seers, the Spirit Corps, who communicate with recently deceased soldiers, reliving their final moments and helping to assist them into the afterlife, while using the information they gather from these deceased soldiers as a form of intel for the army. Her fiancee, British soldier Benjamin Harford, is an intelligence officer for the British Army, and is lucky enough to work alongside Ginger periodically, when he isn’t being sent to the front lines.
After a fairly shocking turn leaves Benjamin deceased (mild spoiler, sorry), he finds himself unable to pass on to the afterlife due to the unfinished business of getting to the bottom of who killed him and why, and is able to assist Ginger with this mission as an incorporeal being who has some ability to interact with the real world, at the cost of his post-life sanity and energy. It soon becomes obvious that there’s more to the situation than there seemed on the surface, and Ginger, Benjamin, and Ginger’s peers find themselves on a wild goose chase to find traitors and murderers.
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I’ve been a fan of Mary for quite some time, as much for her personality, wit, narrating ability, and other talents as for her writing (which I also enjoy thoroughly, mind you). Her regular series is a bit out of my “normal” reading genre, but is a wonderfully written set of stories, with a lot of really high quality characters – especially strong female characters. Ghost Talkers is no different, with Ginger being a force, a strong-willed, intelligent and persistent presence in the story, and the true powerhouse of the novel. The supporting cast vary greatly in background, attitudes, and actions, but work well alongside Ginger to complete their tasks.
The novel itself is a lot of fun. It’s quick and to the point, and a total page-turner – I found myself flying through it, and actually read it in one sitting. I had become excited by the prospect of this novel when Mary first mentioned it at a book signing something like 2 years ago, and have been eagerly awaiting it since, and it did not disappoint.

Rating: 4.25 / 5 

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Hardcover, 320 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Thomas Dunne Books

Curtis Chen is a local Portland author who I see quite often, and have hung around quite a bit (though much like David Levine, I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup), so I’ve had my eyes on this novel since he announced it some time back (last year?). Kangaroo is a spy, but one with a very particular and exclusive talent – he can open a “pocket” to a foreign bit of space, in which he can store anything of any size, for an indefinite amount of time, until he can return there and recover it. You can imagine that this would be pretty useful in general, but doubly so for a spy, as it allows him to have a variety of specialized instruments, weapons, etc for missions, as well as smuggling out important items without being caught with them. Neat, right?

Except Kangaroo is a bit of a loose cannon – too loose for his employers at times, as he finds a way to bungle some form of his missions seemingly consistently. So when Kangaroo yet again involves some collateral damage in a careless mistake, he’s asked by his boss to ‘take a vacation’, and walk away, specifically while their office is being audited, and there’s a chance he could blow it for them. However, as Kangaroo boards his cruise ship to Mars, he quickly finds himself unable to discontinue working, and is quickly entwined in a murder mystery on the ship, assisting the military-employee crew of the boat.

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Waypoint Kangaroo is a blast. It’s fast-paced, intelligent, witty, and has a lot of twists and turns. Not the most complicated plot line I’ve ever read, but I appreciate that because it let me simply enjoy the fast pace and pleasurable prose. Kangaroo isn’t your typical wittier-than-thou, smooth-talking protagonist we deal with so often in male-centered first person spyish novels, which was a nice break; he’s certainly witty, but isn’t perfect by any means. I had a good chuckle – I was reading this while on vacation, but on a vacation in which I found myself working more than not. Often my boss and friends tell me I’m ‘terrible at taking time off’ because I never stop working, and never let myself reset and rest. The entire novel, Kangaroo is ripped on for never relaxing, not knowing how to turn off work, etc – it hit very close to home, and made me laugh quite often at the irony of it.

In the end, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and found it to be an encouraging and fun debut from Curtis. I look forward to the forthcoming sequel, and hopefully I’ll see Curtis sooner than later so I can tell him in person that I enjoyed the work quite a bit.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

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Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published July 12th 2016 by Tor

I want to preface by saying that I know David a bit, as he’s a prominent figure in the local book scene, however I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. I’m a huge fan of his short fiction – I really have legitimately enjoyed pretty much all works from him I’ve ever read. Knowing that, I was more than excited to get my hands on his full novel, especially once the details on the plot and setting came out.

Arabella Ashby is a Martian. Actually, let me rephrase that: Arabella Ashby is a lady of English descent, who is part of a generation of colonists who were born and raised on Mars.

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In the 1600s, leaps in technology allowed Captain Kidd to take an airship to Mars, and begin the process of colonizing the planet. Obviously, there’s some suspension of disbelief here, but this is a fantasy/steampunk novel afterall, so that’s expected. The sooner you get over those improbabilities, the sooner you can enjoy novels like this. Arabella’s family runs a wood plantation on the colonized Mars, however her mother is concerned with the danger Arabella faces on the planet, as well as her increasing levels of tomboyish endeavors that take her away from being a proper English lady. Mother packs up Arabella to head back to Earth, leaving Arabella’s father and her brother, Michael, behind to run the plantation. However, word comes back later of her father’s passing, and soon after Arabella is surprised by deceit within her family, necessitating her getting to Mars to protect her brother – as soon as possible.

Arabella then escapes her family (whose mother I don’t remember her ever actually getting a hold of, despite thinking about it at one point) and looks for passage to Mars, however without any money on hand. She steals some men’s clothing, poses as a boy, and joins the military. However, before she can leave, she’s approached by a private sailing cargo ship, who employ her as a captain’s boy. The book follows Arabella’s adventures on the trade ship Diana, a dirigible capable of space travel on coal/steam power, wherein she learns valuable skills and proves her worth, fights the French, and has to deal with a ship mutiny, while hiding her true sex, before negotiating with the native Martians to get her brother back.

There are a lot of pieces moving in this story, despite it’s overall straightforward feel. Levine’s writing is, as always, an easy and pleasing read, technically sound but not stuffy at all. The dialogue is intelligent, believable, and consistent, and the story flows at an excellent pace, without major stalling at any point, or unnecessary info dumps. The shorter format of the novel means it’s a quick read overall, which is superb as it’s a hell of a page-turner. All of the characters are diverse, with unique voices and traits, and I had no issues keeping people separated based on their actions and speech alone.

I really enjoyed the way the space travel was handled – hints at some of the various things that went into it occurring, but not going overboard in technical explanations, or using magic of some sort. The fact it was just “it is what it is” was a great touch for me, and helped keep me from thinking of unnecessary details, and just enjoying the story within the framework of the world developed. The ship scenes were well done, giving the intrigue and excitement of a long voyage, but without some of the boat-porn we get in other novels, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies. There were ample anxiety-inducing scenes, where I found myself actually concerned for what might happen or the consequences thereof. The ending of the book, while a bit expected, was a satisfying conclusion to this novel, leaving it open-ended enough to continue if desired, but closed tight if not.

There’s a bit of been-there, done-that for sure. Less so with the steampunk aspects, as I found the dirigible-to-Mars to be a fresh take, and really interesting. However, Arabella is similar to most teenage female protagonist in Regency-style fantasy I’ve seen; the proper lady who desires to do the things denied to her by her status as a woman. The girl posing as a boy and staying undiscovered while proving their worth. I could continue – however, this archetype works, this is popular, and people obviously enjoy it, being as I’ve seen it time and time again. Arabella herself is a deep character, who is intelligent and unique in her own way, despite meeting a lot of the characteristics I’ve seen time and time again. The cast of supporting characters are, however, quite vibrant and interesting, and help carry Arabella through her trials.

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However, what I missed in this entire process was that this is a YA novel, through and through – I’m sure this has been mentioned, but I missed the memo. While it does not appear to be directly marketed that way, it contained all the elements: teenage protagonist (bonus points for female), mild romance storyline, the proper-but-intelligent-and-full-of-ingenuity protagonist who goes outside their comfort zone to save the day, etc. The ending, while containing some fantastic writing and plot twists, also had a very feel-good-everything-went-ok feel to it that I associate with YA novels. While this is not a problem, it did catch me off-guard, as I was used to the much more adult feel and tone of much of Levine’s short fiction. He does a terrific job at this style, however, keeping the book interesting and complicated enough to keep anyone invested, while making it accessible and enjoyable to most reading age brackets.

Arabella of Mars isn’t perfect, but it’s a really great read, and a tantalizing taste of what David Levine can do when writing at novel length. If you’re the type who enjoys steampunk settings, even with a bit of Regency-era behaviors and dress, as well as space tales, this book is a home run for you, and a must-read.

Rating: 4 / 5