Overall Rating: Recommended with Reservations (How I Rate Books)
Personal Rating: Probably will be in Top 10 best books I read this year
Genres: Sci fi, Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Biopunk, Sociological Fiction, LGBT, African Futurism,
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
I’m starting with a spoiler free review, then I’m moving on into a spoiler-heavy discussion of this book’s characters, themes and the like.
And for the record, I got this book for free from the publisher for the purpose of an honest review.
SPOILER FREE REVIEW
I personally liked this book. The author was very ambitious, taking on a broad-scoped project and trying to tell a sweeping story on a small scale. This will probably be in my Top 10 best books of the year. However for all the fact that I respected this book’s quirks, this had flaws. Let’s get this review started.
Bear in mind that I’m approaching this review as one author critiquing another author’s work, so I’m going to get a little technical and digging into the weeds. I’ll be focusing on the flaws a lot here, so bear in mind that Net Total I liked this book. But for the sake of my honest review I have to be forthright.
- All of the tropes which the author used individually used were used well.
- The authors’s prose seemed effortless (and my complements for making the different POV perspectives from the different characters seem different).
- The characters needed some fine tuning. A little more polish would have gone a long way.
- The pacing was too slow across the board, but especially at the beginning.
- Setting was awesome. Yay gross biopunk spaceship!
- I loved that the author wrote a book with little/no violence and combat. Breath of fresh air!
- I liked the sociological bent to this book. I liked the weird Matriarchal, poly society… even though the etiquette still makes no sense to me.
- Nice use of themes.
- There were too many plotlines demanding too much from such a small book. A few of them never got resolution.
While I enjoyed this book, I don’t think it’s for everyone. With all my ‘Recommended with Reservations’ books I like to tell you what target audience this book is aimed at.
- If you’re in the mood for a wild and disgusting setting, hunt this book down and read it NOW.
- If you’re in the mood for Sociological Sci Fi or Science Fantasy, check this book out.
- If you want a book with a flawed, Unreliable Narrator protagonist? Check this out.
- If you want a book with no violence and combat, make this a priority for your reading queue.
- If you want a fast paced book, make this a low priority for your reading queue.
- If you want a book with no narrative flaws or plot holes, make this a low-priority in your reading queue.
Concept and Execution
- Humanity has fled earth, and now the survivors live inside massive space-faring alien beasts (a la Starcraft Zerg). Human kind enters these beasts and alter their anatomical structure to make them more suitable for human habitation. Cool! This takes the whole ‘bio-spaceship’ to a whole new level. Also really disgusting, when characters take knives to their ships and reorganize the biological anatomy of the animals they live in.
- In short, to survive humankind has become invasive parasites inside larger animals, modifying the beasts until the beast dies and they’re forced to move. I thought it was both gristly and cool. Frankly this was one of the best concepts I’ve ever read, and the execution upon that concept was good. Not great, but good.
- At times I got a ‘Bloodborne’ vibe from all the body horror and tentacles in this book.
- Adalla and Seske are dark-skinned teenagers who have an illicit love affair. Their affair is illicit not because they are of the same sex (woman+woman relationships and poly relationships are considered to be the norm in their civilization) but because they come from two different castes. Seske is the future matriarch of their civilization (aka the Princess-heir), while Adalla is a lowly beastworker (beastworker= laborer who remodels beast anatomy to make it fit for human habitation). The lowest caste are the grisettes, slave labor with a mysterious source (More on the grisettes in the spoiler section).
- This book has a heavy caste vs caste theme. This was a sociological novel, where different castes strive for different things. The poor want to make the castes equal, while the rich… well honestly I don’t know what the rich want besides maintaining their power. The author didn’t really do a good job of giving the rich caste a nuanced viewpoint.
- Ghosts and spirits haunt the beasts, endangering the lives of people who live there.
- This theme wasn’t very well implemented. I could see what the author was going for, but she didn’t quite pull it off. More in the spoiler section.
- Wasting Diseases and Death
- Well implemented. Humankind are parasites in the beasts they inhabit, causing them to sicken and die by their mere presence. Overtime as Seske’s people inhabit a beast, the beast literally starts to decay around them. The walls leak blood and pus and the like, super gross. Metaphor for modern day mankind’s mistreatment of our earth.
- Individuality vs. Community
- Massive spoilers, so I’ll talk about this later. But my overall verdict for this is interesting but I was left scratching my head at the themes the author was trying to pull off.
- Sloooow start. The plot started rolling at the 25% mark. The author could have re-ordered chapters so the plot started rolling at the 10% mark or the 15% mark.
- Final 75%. It was a slow, but acceptably slow. The plot was happening at a steady pace so I never got disinterested.
- This book is a nonviolent, noncombat novel, which is a source of some boredom on my part. This book has very little/no combat/violence so the pacing has to be carried by plot advancements and characterization alone, which can be a heavy lift. A lot of scifi/fantasy books rely on combat to speed up the pacing in what would otherwise be dull novels. At times this worked in this book’s favor, helping this book fit squarely in the ‘Sociological SciFi’ niche, but at times it was dull.
- This was my second biggest problem with the book. The two protagonists were Adalla and Seske. Their characterization was a bit thin on the ground. I have little clue what their personalities are beyond being in love with one another and trying their best to make their civilization a better place.
- Of the two I liked Adalla better. Quite simply she was thrown through the ringer over the course of this book and that made her more likeable. She had some agency, but not enough.
- Seske was an interesting character. Major spoilers. Full review later on.
- And finally, we have Sisterkin. I liked Sisterkin as a character, moreso than either Adalla or Seske, but I can’t discuss the problem here cause of spoilers. Look below.
- The plot was a bit of a mess, honestly. It was a functional mess- the book was readable and I had fun at moments (about 25% of the book was fun, 60% was satisfyingly readable and the remaining 15% was rough). However if I were the one editing this book this I would have had a heart attack trying to unknot all this book’s issues.
- Now perhaps it’s possible my dislike here is because of subjective criticism and not objective criticism, so don’t take my word as gospel here.
- The narrative lacked cohesion between the plot arcs. What were the plot arcs? Here they are.
- Adalla and Seske’s romance (also their side romances)
- Adalla and Seske start the book as two teens in love. Honestly I never really understood why they were in love. They spent the vast majority of the book apart so I (the reader) never got the opportunity to witness any chemistry between them.
- Seske and Wheytt’s relationship was better. It inhabited that area of ‘what could have been had these two gotten together?’ They had a little chemistry together, and would have had a lot together if things had the opportunity to take off.
- Seske and Doka’s relationship was the best of Seske’s relationships. They had real chemistry and character dev together. But in the end the author decided that Adalla and Seske were the OTP so this angle of the love-pentangle came to nothing. (OTP= Official True Pair)
- Adalla and Leisze was Adalla’s ‘I broke up with my sorta toxic ex, go on a drunken bender with a random woman I met in a bar’ romance. And, oddly enough, it worked. Adalla+Leisze had the most healthy, consenting relationship out of all four listed here, and Adalla learned some solid life lessons. It didn’t last, unfortunately, because of the whole OTP thing.
- Sisterkin and Matris’s Antics
- Matris was the old Matriarch (Seske’s mother) and Sisterkin is Seske’s younger sister. Matris wants Sisterkin to inherit the throne instead of Seske, and Sisterkin is ambitious kill Seske to make it happen.
- Together the two of them get into all sorts of hijinks. No spoilers, because these two together are massive motivators of the plot. More later.
- Saving the beast and saving Seske’s people
- Seske wants to save the beast
- Politicing at home and abroad
- Again, spoilers.
- Saving the Grisettes
- Adalla wants to save the grisettes. No spoilers till later.
- Adalla and Seske’s romance (also their side romances)
- So what was my problem going on here? Well for starters, a lot of these plot arcs had very little payoff.
- The politicing plot arc kinda went nowhere, same with most of the romance sub-plot arcs.
- (Spoiler) The sisterkin/matris arc never got any resolution at all beyond ‘Sisterkin is arrested offscreen.’
- The caste war arc didn’t conclude believably.
- HERE’S THE MAIN TAKEAWAY: If I were to diagnose a problem I think that there was just too much going on here. The author should have narrowed down the scope of the book to three or four plot arcs at most, or dramatically expanded the novel and given the different plots proper conclusions. As is, a lot of the plot arcs wound up being halfbaked.
Prose and Narrative Structure
- The prose was functional. I don’t remember ever being wowed by gloriously beautiful prose. I think this is for the best: the prose’s lucidity helped the grossness of the biopunk setting shine through.
- The authors narrative style never quite clicked with me. There were abrupt movement between scenes, skipping important middle scenes in favor of moving on. This book would have been well served either being longer or shorter. As is, it felt like events happened without enough buildup at times.
Setting and Worldbuilding
- Bio-punk spaceship, made by colonizing the guts of an alien space-faring cephalopod. With ecological, sociological scifi elements. Also ghosts. Sign me up! One of the most creative settings I’ve read bar none.
- I had three problems, though.
- The author never gave the ‘beasts’ a species name. It’s super weird just calling them ‘beasts’ all the time. Same goes for Seske and Adalla’s people, they needed a civilization name.
- The author never explained where gravity in these beasts come from. They surely can’t be large enough that they have their own gravity, so gravity must come from somewhere.
- The author never explained where the beasts get their calories from. The author says they eat space rocks and minerals, and last I checked space rocks and minerals don’t exactly have an enormous calorie content. Did they have photosynthetic bio-solar panels? That would be cool.
SPOILER HEAVY DISCUSSION
Concept and Execution
- Ghosts and spirits in this setting were a little half-baked. The author was trying to go for a ‘ghosts as psychic visions from the beasts humanity is parasitizing,’ sort of thing, but in the end the spirits just weren’t commonplace enough to have deep plot relevance. Cool in concept, I wanted it more.
- The concept of using disease and death as a metaphor was a good one. I liked the symmetry of the old Matriarch falling ill and dying partway through the book, same as the beast grows ill as the story progresses. It was like a Miyazaki Nature-Is-In-Danger-Because-Of-Man sort of story, but with more tentacles.
- Individuality vs Community
- Hoo boy, here we go. The grisette caste are nameless, disposable slave labor. Grown in vats and used until they have no further purpose, at which point they’re liquefied and turned into fertilizer. They are the dirty secret which allows Seske’s civilization to be so productive. They stand as a metaphor for mistreatment of a laborforce (slave or otherwise). All in all, if you’re going to do Sociological SciFi this is a great inclusion.
- HOWEVER we’ve got a problem, and her name is Khasina. Except her name isn’t Khasina, because she’s not allowed to have a name. Everyone calls her Sisterkin, a slur word. Seske’s despised younger sister is in many ways a parallel to the grisette caste, being nameless and forced into servitude.
- Sisterkin is the main villain in this novel, and Seske hates her. In a flashback Seske recalls Sisterkin choosing the name Khasina, a name she isn’t allowed to have. And Seske HATES Sisterkin because Sisterkin is expressing her individuality. Deliberately or not, Seske is expressing the same bigotry against Sisterkin which the grisette caste endures.
- Sisterkin (Seske’s sister) mirrors Adalla’s grisette sister. One side of the coin are the Grisettes, while the other side is Sisterkin. Seske is a hypocrite for hating the practice of grisette-slaves, while also despising her sister. Maybe in the end Sisterkin couldn’t take society (and Seske) looking down on her anymore, and went rogue.
- I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. More on this later, when I talk about Seske more. But for now, I’ll say that it creeped me out. I wonder if Sisterkin would have turned out better if Seske accepted her as a sister from a young age instead of viewing her as a threat to her power.
- I think she was an Unreliable Narrator.
- At the beginning of the book the author gave Seske all the trappings of a standard ‘hopeful, nonconforming ideologue who doesn’t fit in with her strict society and wants to reform it’ trope protagonist. At first she followed that trope… but then things got weird.
- Seske started doing bad things, behaving like an Unreliable Narrator (Unreliable Narrator= a Point of View Character who colors the narrative of the story in such a way as to skew the perspective of the audience to make the audience believe something which might not be true).
- Seske, for example, publicly dumped Adalla in front of all the upper crust of her civilization, breaking Adalla’s heart hardcore.
- Seske married a guy, and then on their wedding night instead of making love with him Seske deliberately got him so drunk that he wouldn’t notice that he’s not having sex with her but instead with a doll.
- Seske didn’t ask for her husband’s consent, which makes this really gross.
- Seske sold a hundred grisettes into slavery to a bunch of racist bastards.
- In the end this trade doesn’t go through, but that doesn’t change the fact that Seske made it in the first place. Seske is as brutal as she is pragmatic. She feels bad about this trade, but that doesn’t stop her.
- Seske tortured Adalla and twenty other people.
- Seske had the choice of either torture or execution for Adalla, so she chose torture. We’re supposed to think Seske’s a good person because she chose the lighter sentence… but it’s still torture.
- And the cherry on top was authorizing the culling of vast swaths of her people to prevent overpopulation.
- There’s no way you can spin this that this is a good-guy move. I don’t think it wound up happening in the end, but… yikes.
- Seske goes from being somewhat bumbling at the beginning, to becoming a brutal monarch-dictator who’s nom de guerre is ‘The Cruel.’ As a character arc it was subtle.
- I don’t think the author intended Seske to be perceived as being evil. You see, at the same time as all of this evil stuff is going on, Seske is doing her Disney Princess routine, psychically bonding with the beast(s) and trying to save them. Seske realizes that the beasts are sentient and have emotions and culture, and shouldn’t be killed.
- In short, Seske was following in her mother Matris’s footsteps, but going double or nothing in terms of her mother’s cruelty. I liked her character arc. I’m just not sure the author intended for me to think that Seske is an antihero.
- But Seske’s not perfect. For the first 2/3s of the book she’s a bit boring. She’s blown along on the wind, not making her own choices but instead doing what’s expected of her. I wish she had more goals, motives and drives early on.
- Additionally I didn’t like how after Seske LITERALLY TORTURED ADALLA, Seske and Adalla got back together at the end of the book. Like WTF. Talk about a toxic relationship. I wish Adalla and Liesze/ Seske and Doka stayed together instead. It would have been good character growth all around had that occurred.
- Sisterkin, on the other hand, I liked wholeheartedly. She has a lot of personality traits which make her likable: disciplined, hardworking, motivated, agency, drive, the underdog and a solid goal. I wish more protagonists were like this, let alone antagonists. She reminded me of Rin from ‘The Poppy War’ a little.
- Sure, all of these likable traits were turned towards murdering Seske and becoming the Matriarch, but damn if Sisterkin doesn’t deserve to be matriarch. Sisterkin was given nothing in life, but she almost managed to manipulate and connive her way into power. You go girl.
- Seske, by comparison, went through life listlessly, without putting in any real effort into her studies.
- As mentioned, I wonder how much of Sisterkin’s brutality could have been prevented had Seske just accepted her as a sister from a young age and they were family instead of rivals.
That’s the end! This is the third thing by Nicky Drayden I’ve read, after ‘Prey of Gods’ and ‘Guilds of Ravnica.’ I wound up enjoying this novel despite it’s flaws, because I respect the author for being ambitious and trying to write such a difficult book. Net total I enjoyed it enough to recommend that you read it if you like sociological sci fi or gross bio-spaceship books. Just don’t go into this expecting all the loose ends to be wrapped up.
And if by some happy accident Ms. Drayden winds up reading this review, thank you for writing this book. I like where your career is headed. (Also, was Seske meant to be an unreliable narrator? Or am I reading into this?)
Stay Sunny folks!