Friday, 27 March 2020

Fiction Friday (4) - Tool


by Olivia Hofer

Note: A recent piece of flash fiction. I'm not entirely happy with the ending, and I wonder if perhaps the message is too on the nose.

Robert stared at the tool and scowled. He lifted his taser, ready to take it down. The tool looked up and stared back at him with wide human eyes. Fear darkened its blue irises.

It narrowed its eyes and focused on the taser, lifting strong metallic arms. “I’m not armed.” The voice was human, just like its eyes.

“Keep your hands where I can see them.” Robert spat. “Kneel.”

I’m not armed. The audacity. Robert spat again. The entire thing was a weapon.

“My brain is human,” the tool whispered. “I’m Brad.”

Robert huffed in reply. A human head screwed onto a wired, metallic body wearing a suit made of artificial skin didn’t make a tool a Brad. Granted, a human brain was better than an artificial one. At least Robert thought so.

The law was clear on this subject as well, but the judges were divided.

When was a human no longer a human? And how much of the original human had to remain to still be considered human?

Cases like Brad bounced from court to court.

But for now, human rights applied to all human brains.

Robert scoffed. That he disagreed with. The thing in front of him was a tool. Artificial spine and limbs. A body that survived without water, without food. Tools were unnaturally strong, unnaturally quick. They’d win every fight, every war. They couldn’t be allowed to roam the city—couldn’t be allowed to exist.

Not if Robert wanted his family to be safe.

“Are you police?” the tool asked.

Robert’s nostrils flared.

“Special ops? I have ID.”

Sniffing the air, Robert sneered. No sweat. He liked the stench of fear. Humans stank. Tools smelled of oil and metal, sometimes of burnt plastic.

Its knees creaked as it shifted, looking up at Robert. “Please. I have a family. Children. Human children.”

Robert blinked, lowered his taser. “You do?”

He’d joined the Anti-Tool Coalition a couple of weeks ago. An underground organisation with one aim only: step in where the law had failed.

A tool had attacked Robert’s wife, grabbed her handbag and run off. He’d been too fast for her, too fast even for the cameras. “He was a blur,” his wife had told police, and they’d said they’d check out every registered tool living nearby. But Robert knew what that meant…

Police didn’t have the manpower to tackle robberies, not when nobody was hurt.

“Two daughters,” the tool whispered. Its skinsuit was ripped on the back of its right hand, revealing wires instead of ligaments.

Robert cleared his throat. “How?”

“I wasn’t born like this, you know.” The tool sat back, hands behind its head. “You must know that most of us…” It fell silent, bit its lip like a human would, studying Robert with blue eyes. “Look at my phone. It’s in the left pocket of my jacket.”

Frowning, Robert raised his taser. He took a small step towards the tool.

You’re angry, aren’t you, Bob? Pete had asked after the robbery. Pete was a scrawny man with thin and oily hair who wore small, round glasses. They rarely spoke, but that week Pete introduced him to the Anti-Tool Coalition.

Never believe a tool. They lie. And before you know it, they’ll trick you. Never engage with a tool. Never speak to a tool. Protect yourself.

“Don’t move.” Robert pressed the taser against the tool’s chest and fumbled for its phone with his free hand. Taking three steps back, he tapped the screen. The smile of two girls greeted him. “Are these your daughters?”

The tool nodded. “Sarah and Anne. Sarah is six. She doesn’t remember…she doesn’t remember me before the accident, but Anne is nine. She complains that my knees are too hard to sit on.”

A smile tugged at Robert’s mouth. “Accident?”

And before you know it, they’ll trick you.

He pursed his lips and gripped the taser more tightly. “Actually, I don’t—”

“Army. Five years ago. Venezuela. My car went over a landmine.” The tool spoke quickly as though realising that Robert was about to cut him off.

“You were in the army?”

“Ten years. They paid for this.” It gestured towards its body with its chin.

“They don’t pay for upkeep?” Robert asked, pointing at the ripped skinsuit.

“It’s a one-off. I had to choose between a widow pension for my wife or a new body for me.” Brad lowered his eyes. “I’d asked for the pension, but my wife begged for them to bring me back.” Brad wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “What use am I to her like this? But I couldn’t…couldn’t let her down.”

Never speak to a tool.

Robert narrowed his eyes. “I was told there’d be an illegal trade tonight. Why are you here, Brad?”
“My knee joint is wearing out. I work as a delivery drone, but now that I’m slowing down, they’ll let me go. I was going to buy a new one.”

“On the black market…”

Brad nodded.

And before you know it, they’ll trick you.

Pete had introduced him to the director of the local Anti-Tool Coalition. They weren’t strictly legal, but the director, Thomas, a big burly man, shoulders and chest as wide as Robert’s wardrobe had shaken Robert’s hand firmly. “Welcome, welcome,” he’d said. “Pete told me about your wife. The government is dropping the ball on this issue. Soon, us natural humans will be the minority. And there’s no way to defend ourselves.” He’d not let go of Robert’s arm, and Robert had worried Thomas might pull it from its socket. “They’ll take our jobs, our women. They’ll take the country, and before we know it, we’ll be discarded. They’ll claim they’re better than us. But they’re not. They’re tools. Not human.”

Tools. Robert hadn’t heard the term before, but he’d liked it. A tool was something useful. Something that could be controlled, used, destroyed.

A tool wasn’t scary.

And a tool wasn’t human.

A tool could be thrown in the trash.

“Are you part of the Anti-Tool Coalition? Brad asked.

Robert nodded.

“What happened?”

“My wife was robbed by…” Robert’s voice trailed off, and he shrugged.

“Natural humans are known to rob,” Brad whispered.

Don’t talk to them. Use your taser. Wait for the police. Say you’ve felt unsafe. They will let you go. They won’t look too deeply into the death of a tool. Police these days don’t have the manpower, and most don’t care.

“The news—”

“Have found a new culprit. I know. Look, it’s tough for us, and I get that we’re scary. Hell, I’d be scared, too.” Brad slowly stood, his hands in the air, palms facing Robert. “I just want to go home to my daughters.”

Robert nodded. He lowered the taser and before he could say anything else, the man in front of him turned into a blur. A small woosh, wind tousling his hair, then Brad was gone.

Robert grimaced, looked at the taser in his hands.

And before you know it, they’ll trick you.

But Robert wasn’t sure it was Brad who had tricked him.

He turned to leave, dropping the taser. A clatter echoed off the walls as he walked away.

Robert didn’t look back.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Panik by Chris Selwyn James

Book Title: Panik
Author: Chris Selwyn James
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Apocalypse-ish
Source: Author

Amazon UK, Goodreads 
Plot Summary: The epidemic starts in Oxford. New, expensive drugs keep people awake for days, and strict controls are introduced to quarantine affected communities. Yet people are still dying in the night.
In this world, Nick peddles powerful sleep-deprivation drugs, while Rosa is locked up in a government "safe house" because they think she is the key to finding a cure.
Set in an isolated, pre-apocalyptic United Kingdom, PANIK tells a story about mass hysteria, profit-driven drug companies, and corrupt government. It explores how we are becoming less connected to each other, losing a core part of what it is to be human.
What did I think?

While this book ultimately wasn't my cup of tea, I did enjoy quite a few aspects:

The characters feel real, three-dimensional and are well developed. The pacing is on point; the story moves quickly and never feels slow.

Compassion, what does it mean to be human, and kindness are themes that I always enjoy reading about. Especially now that we see far too many negative headlines.

I must admit that I didn't quite click with the author's voice, and his tendency to switch from one character's point of view to another's just as their story filled with tension kept me from becoming fully immersed.

The plot itself is an interesting thought-experiment, but the ending left too many questions unanswered and didn't feel satisfying.

However, Chris Selwyn James took quite a few circumstances from our world and proceeded to explore an intriguing what if set in a pre-apocalyptic United Kingdom. From mass hysteria to profit-driven drug companies and corrupt governments, the author presents a chilling world, and it's a fitting read during this coronavirus lockdown.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Magic Unleashed (Venators)

Book Title: Magic Unleashed (Venators)
Author: Devri Walls
Genre: Fantasy
Source: The WriteReads Blog Tour

Amazon UK, Goodreads 
Plot Summary: Six years ago, Grey Malteer was attacked by creatures he thought couldn’t possibly exist. They repeated a word, calling him a name he’d never heard before: Venator. Since then, his life has been a hellhole of secrecy—hiding old pain alongside strange new abilities.
Rune Jenkins has an itch, as she calls it, but it’s more than that. It's an anger that builds up like the inside of a boiler whenever she’s around anything remotely supernatural. The pressure is growing steadily worse and she can’t understand why. All she knows is—her control is slipping.
By order of an unknown council Grey and Rune are pulled through a portal in the St. Louis arch, landing them in an alternate dimension where creatures of myth and legend exist. A realm that calls them, Venators.
Made up of centuries old fae, vampires, werewolves, elves and succubi the council’s corrupt nature becomes obvious as they seek to wield the newly returned Venators as weapons.
Wedged in an impossible position, Grey and Rune must decide their fate—do they go against the council’s wishes and help the innocents of this unforgiving land, or face the possibility of execution by the council.
This post is part of a blog tour for @WriteReadsTours

Devri Walls is known for her ability to write a gripping story filled with imaginative world building and compelling characters in a voice that is engaging and pleasant to read.

The blurb for Magic Unleashed sounds incredible, and I'm a huge fan of alternative dimensions and portal fantasy.

The world building is a bit of a kitchen sink with fae, vampires, werewolves and other myths all in one, but it works, especially since Walls is great at writing action and suspense. Her voice is easy, straightforward, inviting the reader to fly through the book.

The characters are engaging, but at first I worried that I wouldn't like Rune. She comes across as immature, and that sort of character is one of my pet peeves in Young Adult fiction. However, she quickly grows, finds strength and bravery, and proves herself.

In Magic Unleashed, Walls focuses on compelling themes such as bravery and kindness, but most importantly on self-discovery.

I must admit, I'm not the intended audience for this book, and while I found Magic Unleashed an enjoyable read, I probably wouldn't read the rest of the series. I flew through the book, and found the twists and turns gripping (albeit somewhat predictable), but I didn't emotionally connect with the characters as well as I would have liked.

I recommend this book to fans of Sarah J. Maas, Cassandra Clare and Illona Andrews.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

The God Game by Danny Tobey

Book Title: The God Game
Author: Danny Tobey
Genre: Sci-Fi, Game Fiction
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Gollancz
Plot Summary: Charlie and his friends enter the G.O.D. Game, a video game run by underground hackers and controlled by a mysterious AI that believes it’s God. Through their phone-screens and high-tech glasses, the teens’ realities blur with a virtual world of creeping vines, smouldering torches, runes, glyphs, gods, and mythical creatures. When they accomplish a mission, the game rewards them with expensive tech, revenge on high-school tormentors, and cash flowing from ATMs.
But then the threatening messages start. Worship me. Obey me. Complete a mission, however cruel, or the game reveals their secrets and crushes their dreams. Tasks that seemed harmless at first take on deadly consequences.
Who else is playing this game, and how far will they go to win?
And what of the game’s first promise: win, win big, lose, you die? Dying in a virtual world doesn’t really mean death in real life—does it?
As Charlie and his friends try to find a way out of the game, they realise they’ve been manipulated into a bigger web they can’t escape: an AI that learned its cruelty from watching us.
God is always watching, and He says when the game is done.
I received a free copy from the publisher.

What did I think?
I love game fiction, and I enjoy science fiction, which is why I thought I'd absolutely love The God Game, unfortunately, I didn't really warm to it.

Let me talk about the positive things first. I adored the theme of free will and how choice in the game end up having real life consequences.

The characters are constantly tempted to make awful decisions and sacrifice their friendships in order to advance their own lives. Tempting, of course, especially if you might think (at least at first) oh, it's just a game. Once the reality dawns on them, it's far too late.

Throughout the book the characters are faced with moral choices and must decide which path to take.

The AI in this book is magnificent, manipulative, outright evil and chilling. But it always leaves you a choice. Free will, remember? That the AI is the best part of the book is not surprising considering the author is an expert in AI. 

Now, I'll have to talk about the bits I liked less. The characters are mostly two-dimensional, and perhaps I'm too old, but they were all a bit whiny. Some of their secrets they harboured felt silly, and I didn't empathise with all of their problems.

In fact, I found them quite simplistic and juvenile, overall. And it rendered the book more YA than the blurb suggested.

I didn't gel with the writing either. I found it too straightforward, too simple. It lacked real depth and felt juvenile in places, just like the characters.

To end on a positive note, this book is incredibly fast-paced, and there's never a dull moment. The cast is incredibly diverse, and none of them feel like token characters. With its simple prose The God Game promises to be a fairly quick read and is the perfect company for a rainy weekend.

I recommend The God Game to all LitRPG and Game Lit fans. Take a look at the Look Inside excerpt on Amazon, it either sucks you in or not. If it does, you'll love this.

This blog post was part of the Gollancz Blog Tour. Make sure to check out all other posts.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

The Devil's Apprentice by Kenneth B. Andersen

Book Title: The Devil's Apprentice
Author: Kenneth B. Adnersen
Genre: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Fantasy
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Ebook through the Blog Tour 
Amazon UK, Goodreads 
Plot Summary: Philip is a good boy, a really good boy, who accidentally gets sent to Hell to become the Devil’s heir. The Devil, Lucifer, is dying and desperately in need of a successor, but there’s been a mistake and Philip is the wrong boy. Philip is terrible at being bad, but Lucifer has no other choice than to begin the difficult task of training him in the ways of evil. Philip gets both friends and enemies in this odd, gloomy underworld—but who can he trust, when he discovers an evil-minded plot against the dark throne?

What did I think?
The Devil's Apprentice is a novel for a younger young adult audience or perhaps an upper middle grade audience. Not my usual read, I must admit, but I would have loved this book as a teenager. In fact, I can imagine I would have devoured this.

This is a book about a good boy (a really good boy) that lands in hell.

And the most important theme in The Devil's Apprentice is how in each of us there is good and evil, and how we might all, under the right circumstances, do the wrong thing.

After all, aren't we all a bit morally grey?

It's an easy, quick and smooth read and incredibly entertaining. The author is a master at painting a great atmosphere (in fact the setting is amazing) and the plot is infused with big dollops of humour.

Unfortunately, for me, this book is a bit too simplistic, but to be honest, it's perfect for a younger audience, just not for me.

I recommend The Devil's Apprentice to people who enjoy books in the style of A Series of Unfortunate Events and their kids.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Book Title: Scythe
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Paperback

Amazon UK, Goodreads

Plot Summary: Thou shalt kill.
A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.
Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.
What did I think?

I had so much fun with this book, but I would like to get one aspect out of the way first: part of this world doesn't make sense (to me) and if I start poking at the Scythedom, I will probably find holes I could drive an entire bus through.

So, we're in a world with no hunger and no disease and no war and no misery. We've not managed to conquer space and we stopped trying because of a few disasters, and now scythes are the only way to end life, and we let them, because otherwise nobody would ever die, and the all-knowing AI that governs us promised not to interfere with restricting reproduction. (That AI, Thunderhead, also doesn't interfere with the Scythedom. It's a strict separation of powers.)

And yes, we let them end our lives because when a scythe knocks on our door and we try and escape, they will glean our entire family.

Unchecked power, oh boy.

Yes, oh boy.

Because, of course, if you give a group unchecked power, some will abuse it.

Now these scythes may glean however they want: knives, flamethrowers, guns, etc. They can surprise their victims, or they can give them some kind of warning. They get to choose who gets to die and how. They have quotas, and no they're not allowed to go after one specific group.

Really? We're all just okay with that?

Now, apart from me not believing that a humanity without war, misery and hunger and disease would be okay with randomly dying at the hands of a scythe, I LOVED this book.

It's go amazing characters, unexpected twists and turns, is whimsical and has such a distinct prose that made chuckle and gasp more than once. It's a fast-paced book, moving swiftly from plot point to plot point, dropping surprises left and right.

The conflicts are innovative, creative and interesting. The characters are memorable, albeit mostly either good or bad. They grow throughout the story and kept me interested in their development.

Shusterman introduced some great criticism of today's society. He illustrates the danger of unchecked power within an organisation and what happens if the "wrong people" or the "villain" gains support, becomes a faction and climbs to the top. There's nobody to stop them, no outside force that can interfere.

I read the entire trilogy in one week, and I simply could not put it down. A warning though: the second book ends with quite the cliffhanger.

I highly recommend this trilogy to anyone who finds the premise intriguing. This one is so much fun and a delight to read.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Angel Mage by Garth Nix

Book Title: Angel Mage
Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fantasy
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Hardback from Gollancz

Amazon UK, Goodreads 

Plot Summary: More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.
A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.
Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.
But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.
The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else. . .

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Gollancz. Thank you!

What did I think?

Look how pretty this book is! 

Garth Nix is a beloved fantasy author, and I was incredibly excited to find out that his newest work would not only be a standalone, but also a mash-up between two of my favourite things: musketeers and angels.

The magic system is innovative and clever. People summon angels with the help of icons, but at a cost: a chunk of their lifespan. The more powerful the angel, the bigger the chunk.

The characters all have great depth and the relationship between the four is believable and genuine. The world-building is vivid and displays Nix's vast imagination. Nix is also an incredible writer, and reading Angel Mage reminded me of being a teenager and reading The Three Musketeers.

Despite all these positive aspects, I struggled to connect both with the plot and the characters, and at least in the beginning, had to force myself to pick the book up and keep reading. Once I reached the mid-point, it really began to flow, and I read the second part in a day.

Overall, I'm left with many positive feelings and found the book empowering and captivating. On top of that, Nix not only incorporates LGBTQ+ characters seamlessly into his narrative, he also avoids adding sexism, and his society is racially diverse.

And women get to be powerful in this book!

I recommend this to fantasy readers who enjoy angels, Dumas fans, fans of Garth Nix and everyone who is intrigued by the premise.