Year One by Nora Roberts (2017)

Chronicles of The One series, Book #1

In Year One, Nora Roberts has published what I consider one of the best books she has written in years, and I have read every single book she has ever written. This futuristic novel is a combination dystopian science-fiction thriller and fantasy story: introducing readers to a cast of characters, both human and super-human, who are fighting preserve the United States from an apocalyptic civil war.

As the story opens (presumably in 2017,) an ill passenger boards a flight from Dublin to New York City and unknowingly infects hundreds of people who cross his path. This man sets into motion a violent, deadly plague — called The Doom — that in less than a month kills more than half of the world’s population. In almost no time at all, The Doom causes cities to crumble, governments to dissolve, and turns the United States into a violent waste-land.

Among the survivors there emerges three distinct groups of people: humans who are for unknown reasons immune to The Doom; a population of peaceful magical people (called The Uncanny) who have extraordinary powers; and their murderous counter-parts, The Dark Uncanny. Fear and paranoia grows between the three groups, as everyone struggles to find a way to survive in a world that is quickly running out of supplies needed to keep the remaining population alive.

A group of main characters emerge from the over-arching story, humans and Uncanny who want to work together to build a new, peaceful civilization. This group rescues survivors, stockpiles food, medicines, and other essentials, and who — after a months-long struggle — begins to build a city together, New Hope. At New Hope, the residents take up farming, raising animals, building schools and hospitals, and offering each other solace and peaceful respite from the bloody battles that have raged since the epidemic emerged.

However, two terrifying threats appear on the horizon and threaten all of the hard work the residents of New Hope have done. The Purity Warriors are a group of Christian extremist determined to rid the world of the Uncanny, often in the most bloody and horrific ways. The Dark Uncanny also begin to grow in power, they are using their supernatural abilities to kill everyone who attempts to control them — human or superhuman. A civil war begins to brew between the three groups.

One woman, an Uncanny named Lana, who has worked for months to protect survivors and help bring them from the across the country to New Hope becomes the target of increasingly terrifying attacks; many people begin to believe that she is the person prophesied to bring an end to the civil war to the restore peace to what is left of the United States.

This book is Nora Roberts at her very best: a unique and thrilling story populated with great characters; one that she manages to keep well-balanced between contemporary drama, science-fiction, and fantasy. I am looking forward to Book 2!

 

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Artemis by Andy Weir (2017)

artemis

Andy Weir, author of the wildly popular novel The Martian, returns with another (unrelated) science fiction novel set in space. Artemis, a colony built on the moon, is home to approximately 2000 Artemisians who run mining operations, conduct scientific experiments, and — for the vast majority of the moon’s permanent residents — work in jobs serving the wealthy tourists from Earth.

Enter our anti-heroine, Jasmine Bashara, a shady smuggler who has a reputation on the moon for drinking, promiscuity, and trouble-making. “Jazz” sees herself as someone just trying to get by, someone willing to bend the rules in order to better her place in the economic hierarchy on Artemis. Since the moon is sovereign, the laws there are flexible and illicit business dealings are par for the course: somethings that many residents, not just Jazz, take advantage of.

After several rocky years since leaving her father’s home, Jazz is still living in the worst section of the moon city and barely saving up enough to cover the basics. When one of the planet’s wealthiest citizens (a man for whom Jazz often smuggles illegals onto the planet) makes her an offer for millions of “slugs” (moon currency) to help him with a dangerous task, Jazz agrees. Seeing dollar signs and not danger signs, Jazz initiates a wild attack on the on-planet mining company and sets into motion a complex series of events that lead to chaos, corruption, and murder.

The author’s, admittedly considerable, knowledge of the phsyics and the realities of the atmosphere on the moon helps add the believability of the plot. He has clearly done extensive research into the technical aspects of the book and, although he gets carried away a lot with the details, the more complex parts of the setting are conveyed well to readers. Setting aside, the plot of the book is a bit stale and the pacing of the story uneven…it is clear that those parts of the book were less considered than the space city where the action takes place.

Additionally, Weir does an admirable job creating a cast of characters that spans all races, ethnicities, religions, and income levels, and in having chosen to divert from most sci-fi literature in telling the story through the eyes of a young, brilliant, bad-ass Saudi Arabian/Artemisian woman. However, the characters come across as juvenile and insufficiently fleshed out, conversing with stilted dialogue and following unrealistic story detours arguing over petty grievances they have with one another.

While it was an enjoyable book and a fast read, Artemis left something to be desired in the way of  character development and plot. My guess is that the movie will be better than the book.

Secrets in Death by JD Robb (2017)

Book #45, Eve Dallas In Death Series (Several of which are reviewed in this site, search tag “Nora Roberts” to see them all.)

secrets in death robb

In the forty-fifth installment of her futuristic, sci-fi, police procedural mystery series, JD Robb brings back her entire cast of colorful, and often lovable, characters to New York City of the future; a place of crime, abuse, and violence; but also one of huge technological and social advances.

This book opens on a cold, February evening in a swanky wine bar, where Eve Dallas is meeting a colleague with whom she has had a contentious relationship with in recent years. As the two women discuss the best way to get past their personal differences, a women drops dead of a stab wound at the bar in front of them.

Although Eve and her colleague cannot save the woman, they are able to immediately open the investigation. The murdered woman was a TV personality famous for her ability to dig up dirty secrets on celebrities. Immediately it becomes clear that there are nearly infinite numbers of people who this woman has harmed with her malicious form of journalism. But Eve senses there is a rage even deeper than embarrassment behind the murder, and digs even deeper.

Soon Eve and her team uncover a list of people who the reporter was blackmailing: demanding both huge financial pay-offs and dirt on other rich and famous people as payment. It is in this group of people that Eve is certain her murderer lies…someone fed up with secrets and the horrible cost that the murdered woman extracted from them for not revealing it.

Another solid installment in a long-running and (mostly) enteraining franchise.

The Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987)

Western-novel writer Bobbi Anderson lives in rural Haven, Maine, where she spends most of her time alone, writing, hiking with her dog, with an occasional visit to her neighbor Jim. Jim “Gard” Gardner is an barely functioning alcoholic, failing poet, and anti-nuclear activist; he is also Bobbi’s sometimes lover.

One summer morning, Bobbi and her dog, Pete, are hiking in the woods outside her home when Bobbi stumbles across a metal object that she cannot identify, nor remove from the soil. Intrigued, Bobbi makes a cursory attempt to remove the object but finding it too heavy, and lodged too deep, and thinks to continue hiking and forgot about it. But she finds that she cannot. She is inexplicably drawn to dig the object up. She works for hours the first day, and then finds herself returning day after day, digging endlessly trying to retrieve — desperate to retrieve — the object and find out what it is.

The object has an immediate and hypnotic effect on Bobbi, and her obsession with it begins to take over Bobbi’s life. Despite the fact that bizarre and terrifying events begin happening once she discovers it, Bobbi cannot stop her excavation.

Three weeks after Bobbi’s discovery, “Gard” arrives back in Haven to find Bobbi a changed woman; nearly mad and physically almost dead from the efforts of her digging and other “projects” that have consumed her since finding the object. Bobbi reveals to Gard what she has found — what she calls The Tommyknockers — and he is stunned…not just by her discovery but by the way it has transformed her into someone almost unrecognizable.

The two must decide what they will do with the discovery: the revelation might change the world (if they can convince the world that the Tommyknockers are real) but it also might mean that the two of them would be locked up and interrogated for more information. And there are the fascinating projects that Bobbi has begun to build, things that seem as if they should not exist at all, and certainly not built by a writer with no previous technical skill; things that are of immense importance and value.

To keep it secret means they risk the unearthly pull the object has on them, with no one and nothing to dilute its effects. However it also means that whatever gifts or knowledge the Tommyknockers have to bestow upon the world will belong to just the two of them…at least for a while.

What will they choose? What will the Tommyknockers reveal? What risks are worth taking and what are Bobbi and Gard willing to give up of themselves in or to receive the Tommyknockers wisdom?

 

 

 

 

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn (2017)

“History consisted of big events and larger-than-life characters, like Jane Austen. The rest of us contributed to history in our little ways, as drops of water make up the ocean: collectively powerful, meaningless alone.” 174

A science-fiction novel about time-travel and a fictional account of a year in the life of Jane Austen: on the surface the two seem incompatible stories but Kathleen Flynn manages to blend the two in The Jane Austen Project and with good results, perhaps best appreciated by true Jane Austen fans.

In the distant future, scientists have created a time-travel machine that is still in its testing stage. Teams of experts are being sent to various eras in the past to attempt small changes so that the effect these actions have on the future can be studied, with the hopes that larger changes (stopping war and preventing the devastating effects of global warming) can be attempted.

Dr. Rachel Katzman and actor and scholar Liam Finucane have been selected to travel back in time to recover an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen. After years of study and preparation — horse-back riding, clothing making, etiquette classes — the two are finally ready to be sent to Regency London; posing as brother and sister West-Indies plantation owners who have decided they wish to live a “more civilized” life in England. Their mission is to befriend first Henry Austen, Jane’s closest brother, and then Jane herself with the hopes of recovering her unpublished novel The Watson’s and any other works they can procur. They are also under strict orders from the physicists overseeing the project to disrupt the past as little as possible while there.

Although they have studied relentlessly for their roles, they are beset by challenges almost immediately. The intricate behaviors they must adopt to “pass” as wealthy, the elaborate manners they must observe, and the patience required to be introduced to the right people; are all more complex then they seemed while studying. For Rachel, the requirement that, as a woman, she spend her time on only a handful of appropriate pursuits and appear unintelligent and subservient to men are especially heavy burdens.

Slowly, they meet the right people and soon find themselves close friends of the Austen family. However, the continue to make decisions — both large and small — that have the potential to change the course of history…something they will not know until they return to the future.

Months pass and both Liam and Rachel are pulled more and more into their roles and the future — and the consequences of their actions — seems more distant with each passing day. As they get closer to their goal of obtaining the manuscript, they also grow closer and closer to Jane. Rachel, in particular, finds herself star-struck by Jane’s brilliance and heart-broken as the author grows weaker and weaker from the illness that, both time-travelers know, will soon kill her. As a doctor, Rachel has the potential to diagnose and cure the author but to do so would be a direct violation of her mission’s rules.

What will they choose to do before they must return to the future? Save a new friend and change the world in dramatic, possibly catastrophic ways, or watch her — and the chance for new novels — die?

 

 

 

The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is a near-future dystopia where one super-tech company (think Google + Facebook + Amazon) is attempting to integrate the entire human experience into an online sphere, where everything you do, buy, wear, and think is shared in a continuous stream with the entire world; with the ultimate goal to erase anonymity and make privacy obsolete.

The story’s main character, Mae, is a young woman, newly recruited to work at a tech company called The Circle, a dream-job for her. Mae is dazzled by the extravagant campus — gyms, pools, restaurants, a hospital, shopping, theaters, and more — and cutting edge tech at the company. While Mae expected to be part of a highly competitive and extremely hard-working group, it quickly becomes clear that working for The Circle is not a career but a lifestyle. Mae must not only meet her work deadlines and commitments, but become part of the social structure of the company: dedicating nights, weekends, and countless hours online during her days and nights connecting — endlessly — with her co-workers.

Also startling, is the lack of privacy she must adapt to: her medical records accessed and used to monitor her health; her entire online past uploaded and shared with the entire company; video monitoring her all day and night; and the constant reminders from her superiors that she is being watched and judged. All of this, she reasons, is the price one pays to work for the largest company in the world and to be at the fore-front of the tech revolution.

The Circle beings to announce more and more radical products and services — including hidden cameras stashed that can be bought and placed (undetected) anywhere in the world to send a constant video feed to the Internet — in becomes clear that the company plans to force the world to adapt to The Circle’s ideas of democracy, privacy, and accountability…without asking government for permission.

Two characters emerge as foils to devotion the employees of The Circle’s maintain: Mae’s high school boyfriend who is a critic of the direction The Circle is taking the world, and a mysterious co-worker, Kalden who Mae starts an illicit affair with and who shows her a different, darker side of The Circle. But Mae is in too deep, she agrees to “go transparent” and wear a camera and recording device 24/7 to ensure her complete honesty and makes her lack of privacy utterly complete.

Eggers has created a richly imagined and greatly detailed world and presents it to readers in such a straight-forward manner that it seems like an entirely plausible near-future. However, the book has some drawbacks that distract from the story; many of which seem to stem from a stereotypes about women that the author — perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not — renforces in this book. Among these flaws are the unevenness of his main character Mae, who Eggers tries to portray as a a woman smart enough to quickly become a star employee and charming enough to be quite popular, but is also naive, selfish, incompetent, and back-stabbing. It is unclear whether these are character flaws that stem from her personality, or from the fact that she is a woman. Furthermore, Eggers does what so many male writers do with their female characters by oversexualizing Mae’s character in ways that are out of step with women in general, and this character specifically.

Also of note is the fact that the author feels the need to repeatedly, and at length, lecture readers about the finer details of the plot. Instead of relying on his readers to deduce what dastardly things the company is getting up to, or allowing us to use plot clues to make sense of the dangers of a world without privacy might present, he uses character monologues — almost everytime it is male characters who are “mansplaining” to Mae what is going on at the company or in the world — once again suggesting that his female character is unable to comprehend on her own complex ideas and therefore must be to force fed them by her male counterparts.

This combination of gender-stereotype flaws are wearisome by the middle of the book, and seem practically condescending by the end of it, overshadowing some of the books more interesting ideas.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (2016)

“For anyone who has wondered what their life might be like at the end of the road not taken” — The dedication, Dark Matter

dark matter

What if you knew in advance that in making one single decision you could alter the course of your life forever, in ways you could not predict and were potentially irrevocable? Would you take greater care in making your choice, follow your instincts, or would you make one choice but spend the rest of your life obsessing over the path not taken? That questions burns at the heart of Dark Matter, a whip-smart science fiction thriller with surprising emotional depth and a rich, well-developed plot.

Jason Dessen, our main character, begins the novel as an average man, on a average night. A physicist of great promise turned mid-level professor of no real acclaim, Jason is struggling with envy over the news that his former roommate (and to Jason’s mind, a lesser scientist) has won a prestigious international prize. The news has rattled Jason, who is happy with his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie; living an ordinary life in Chicago. But he cannot help, as he walks to a bar to a party to celebrate this colleague, think that he could have been him, that he could have done great things and changed the world…if only he had not chosen to marry Daniela and raise their son.

Beyond all possibility and reason, that exact night Jason is forced to see exactly what the “path not taken” looks like, when he is kidnapped, beaten, and drugged by a masked man who demands intimate details of Jason’s life and — just as he leaves him for dead — asks Jason, “are you happy with your life?”

What follows is a wild sci-fi roller coaster; filled with mind-bending physics experiments, inter-dimensional travel, cutting edge psychotropic drugs, as well as betrayal, lies, and murder. Jason is torn from his life and thrust into another, where he is — and is not — himself. He is presented with alternate versions of who he could have been and what he might have accomplished, if he had walked away from Daniela all those years ago.

While science fiction often tends to be emotionally removed; choosing to sacrifice plot for details of the world the author trying to create, Dark Matter goes in another direction. Crouch delves deep into the emotional landscape of Jason’s life and the wild turn it has taken. Jason’s deep and abiding love for his wife and son are the center of the story, propelling him away from the “alternate” versions of himself and back toward the family he so desperately longs to rejoin. He knows with certainty the path he has taken, not the one he has not, is the perfect choice for him.