Review: ‘Invasive’ by Chuck Wendig

Hannah Stander is a consultant for the FBI—a futurist who helps the Agency with cases that feature demonstrations of bleeding-edge technology. It’s her job to help them identify unforeseen threats: hackers, AIs, genetic modification, anything that in the wrong hands could harm the homeland.

Hannah is in an airport, waiting to board a flight home to see her family, when she receives a call from Agent Hollis Copper. “I’ve got a cabin full of over a thousand dead bodies,” he tells her. Whether those bodies are all human, he doesn’t say.

What Hannah finds is a horrifying murder that points to the impossible—someone weaponizing the natural world in a most unnatural way. Discovering who—and why—will take her on a terrifying chase from the Arizona deserts to the secret island laboratory of a billionaire inventor/philanthropist. Hannah knows there are a million ways the world can end, but she just might be facing one she could never have predicted—a new threat both ancient and cutting-edge that could wipe humanity off the earth.

I read (ok, listened to the audiobook of) Invasive just after finishing Zer0es, because I wanted more. Not necessarily more of the hackers from the first story, but more of that weird parallel Earth with its almost sci-fi tech and its Hollywood-esque storytelling.

It’s fortunate that I didn’t go into Invasive expecting it to be about the hackers from the first book, because it wasn’t (although Wade does get a brief cameo, and Agent Hollis is a secondary character). It was closer to single POV — the main character is Hannah, and although we get chapters from other characters, they are interludes rather than whole chunks of the story.

I loved Hannah. She’s a futurist who gets anxiety attacks about the direction humanity is heading in, the child of doomsday preppers who absorbed what they taught her but didn’t subscribe to their beliefs about the futility of trying to improve the world (except maybe in her nightmares). She’s good with people, good with tech … but not so perfect as to be super-human and unbelievable.

Did I mention that I love her?

Like Zer0es, Invasive is fast-paced. Unlike Zer0es, it has a lot more gore. If this were a movie, it’d have an MA15+ rating (an R rating in the States) for the gore alone. The blurb mentions weaponising the natural world, and one look at the cover will tell you which part of the natural world. Let’s just say that I wasn’t scared of ants before I read this book, but … well, I won’t be walking past a trail of them any time soon. Urk.

Still, I actually think this is a better book than Zer0es (which I loved). Having less POV characters gives it more focus, makes you more invested in the action, because a lot more is riding on Hannah’s perspective and efforts. In an ensemble cast book like Zer0es, the characters feel more … disposable, almost?

I don’t know if there will be more stories in this world, but I really, really hope there will be.

 

 

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Review: ‘Zer0es’ by Chuck Wendig

Five hackers—an Anonymous-style rabble-rouser, an Arab Spring hacktivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll—are detained by the U.S. government, forced to work as white-hat hackers for Uncle Sam in order to avoid federal prison. At a secret complex known only as “the Lodge,” where they will spend the next year working as an elite cyber-espionage team, these misfits dub themselves “the Zeroes.”

But once the Zeroes begin to work, they uncover secrets that would make even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist’s head spin. And soon they’re not just trying to serve their time, they’re also trying to perform the ultimate hack: burrowing deep into the U.S. government from the inside, and hoping they’ll get out alive. Packed with electric wit and breakneck plot twists, Zer0es is an unforgettable thrill ride through the seedy underbelly of “progress.”

This is a very different read (or listen) than the last audiobook I devoured. Zer0es is a techno-thriller, and not a genre I normally read, but I love Wendig’s urban fantasy and, to a lesser extent, his Star Wars books, so I figured, why not? It’s the sort of book that you can’t help picture as a Hollywood movie even as the story progresses — car chases, action scenes, witty dialogue — but with lashings of dystopian future tech that about halfway through take us into the truly bizarre.

The bizarre, and the supernatural, in our own world are my jam. It’s why I love urban fantasy so much. So I loved Zer0es. (Note: this isn’t a supernatural story. But some of the tech could be described as “science magic”.)

The characters are archetypes in many ways, but Wendig does his damndest to undermine the tropes as their stories progress. In particular, Reagan, the self-described troll, goes from utterly detestable to, well, unpleasant but sympathetic (even as I didn’t want to sympathise with her!). Wade, the scruffy vet conspiracy theorist, is probably my favourite character. Either that or FBI agent Hollis Copper.

The story is multi-POV, which I know some people find divisive, but I don’t mind that. Likewise, Wendig isn’t afraid of “the swears” and has a love affair with the grotesque … so if you’re squeamish, maybe give him a miss. But if you love high-speed apocalypses, conspiracy theories and tech gone wrong, then definitely check out Zer0es.


Review: ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente

Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t … then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

This book came out a few years ago, and many of you will have already read it. I had a few Audible credits to spend, and I added this one to my haul, mainly because the rather hefty title caught my eye. I didn’t regret it.

The Girl is a middle grade story about a girl, September, who runs off to fairyland at the drop of a hat because her life is a bit boring and lonely — her father has gone to war and her mother works long hours in a factory, making planes and similar. She doesn’t think twice about running off on her poor mother (whom I feel sorry for, not gonna lie), because, according to the author, “all children are heartless”. The main character growth of the story is September’s growing of a heart — learning to think more about others rather than acting on selfish impulse.

I liked September. She wants to be irascible, like storybook child heroes, but is instead incredibly polite and sweet (despite her alleged semi-heartlessness). She sometimes despairs, but she gets back up again. And she’s not afraid to act in the face of injustice.

The side characters are great — especially A-Through-L, the wyvern mentioned in the blurb (though he identifies as a wyverary — half wyvern and half library). But the real star of this book is the writing. I’ve never encountered Valente’s work before, but she is a master of the language. She doesn’t dumb down her style for the younger reader — in fact, there’s a quote from the book that is particularly apt in describing the style:

“September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

I could include dozens of other quotes that would make my point here, but it might be quicker if you went and read a few for yourself. You’ll know soon enough whether the writing is for you.

On the subject of the audiobook itself, it was read by the author. She wasn’t bad, but she also wasn’t to the usual standard of the actors I’m used to hearing. It took me a while to get used to her style, her vocal quirks, but eventually she became the voice of the story and I stopped noticing. (Which is, honestly, what you want from an audiobook.)

The Girl is the first book in a series, and I’ll definitely be going back for more — less because I’m invested in what happens next, honestly, and more because I want to continue my love affair with Valente’s prose! ❤


Strangerville – a Sims 4 Let’s Play

Brad Zimmer and his twin daughters, Maddison and Mathilda, have just arrived in Strangerville as part of Brad’s newest military posting. Follow their adventures in this strangest of towns.

As I flagged a couple of months ago, I’ve been busy experimenting with the whole “YouTube content creator” thing, by playing and uploading Sims 4 “let’s play” videos. I’ve finished recording one of those story arcs; it’s a short one (only eight videos long), and I thought it was a good one to recommend to anyone who’s curious about that sort of content and what I do specifically — which is basically create stories and narrate them with an Australian accent. (Hawt?)

This year, the Sims 4 team released a downloadable game pack called Strangerville. If you imagine a combination of The X-Files and a zombie movie (but where the zombies don’t eat you, because of the game’s rating), that pretty much sums it up! The entire video playlist can be found here if you’re interested — the last part comes out in two days, so in theory you could binge watch the entire thing before then.

If you like. 😉

If you watch it, I’d love to hear what you think — you can leave comments here or on any of the videos! (I’m still a baby YouTuber, so please be gentle!)


Review: ‘Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

Morrigan Crow may have defeated her deadly curse, passed the dangerous trials and joined the mystical Wundrous Society, but her journey into Nevermoor and all its secrets has only just begun. And she is fast learning that not all magic is used for good.

Morrigan Crow has been invited to join the prestigious Wundrous Society, a place that promised her friendship, protection and belonging for life. She’s hoping for an education full of wunder, imagination and discovery — but all the Society want to teach her is how evil Wundersmiths are. And someone is blackmailing Morrigan’s unit, turning her last few loyal friends against her. Has Morrigan escaped from being the cursed child of Wintersea only to become the most hated figure in Nevermoor?

Worst of all, people have started to go missing. The fantastical city of Nevermoor, once a place of magic and safety, is now riddled with fear and suspicion…

If you threw Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland in a pot, added in some Wizard of Oz, and stirred vigorously, you might get something like the Nevermoor books. And, frankly, I think that’s all the recommendation you should need. 😉

If you need more than that, you can read my (gushing) review of the first book, Nevermoor, here. If you haven’t read it yet, then be aware that this review will be a little bit spoiler-y of the first book. It’s sort of unavoidable.

In Wundersmith, twelve-year-old Morrigan finally gets to study at the Wundrous Society, a secretive organisation that promises her the sense of belonging that she never had with her family. Of course, things are never that simple, and she finds that she is regarded with everything from disdain to outright hostility by her peers and even the teachers. Still, she has a steadfast friend in Hawthorne and a devoted (if rather overworked) mentor in Jupiter. She also has a sanctuary in Jupiter’s hotel and with the staff there, which means that she is never completely overwhelmed by the occasional awfulness at the society.

I loved both Morrigan and Jupiter. Morrigan is determined and insightful, often serious as a result of her strange upbringing and circumstances, but never boring. Jupiter is exuberant and fierce, and — as an adult reader — I have a crush on him and his wild ginger hair. ❤ Just a little bit. (As an aside, Dumbledore could stand to learn a few things from Jupiter in terms of how the mentor thing should really work!)

The story is enthralling and strange, well paced and delightful. The content is solidly middle grade, but with the same broader appeal to older readers that Harry Potter has. There are no romance and no swearing or real violence (unless you count bullying). There are some scary scenes at different points, but nothing too overwhelming.

I read that Townsend is planning nine books in this series, and I am so here for this!


Review: ‘Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds’ by Brandon Sanderson

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems … for a price.

His brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

Whenever I’m looking for an audiobook with some cool world-building to escape into, Brandon Sanderson is the first name I search up. He’s a prolific writer whose fantasy novels tend towards the weightier end of the spectrum (The Stormlight Archive paperbacks are released in two parts each).

This isn’t one of those tomes, and it isn’t fantasy. But it was exactly what I was in the mood for — a set of three novellas about the same character that are, together, novel length. The stories are set on Earth, more or less, though the technology Sanderson uses (such as the camera in the blurb) is outlandish and Leeds’s … ability? condition? … isn’t something that exists in our world, at least as far as I am aware.

The stories have elements of the thriller genre about them. They have clever banter (between various aspects, primarily) and are fast-paced enough to keep anyone happy — I was utterly engrossed from start to finish. And, as well as the fantastical technology elements, Sanderson also highlights — with beautiful prose — strange and unusual things that exist in our own world (for example, did you know molten iron fireworks are a thing?). It was like being inside one of his fantasy worlds, but so much more familiar.

I loved Stephen and those of his aspects we got to know. I wanted to take them all home with me, especially when things start to unravel for them (the first two novellas are lighthearted enough, but the third, Lies of the Beholder, takes a darker turn). I’d make them lemonade and wrap them in snuggly blankets by a fire.

You might think that a genius would be a hard character to get close to, but Stephen outsources all of his genius to the aspects — he’s closer to a project planner than anything else, coordinating the aspects and keeping them on task. It’s fascinating. I loved it.

Read this book.


Mini-Review: ‘Iron Lights’ by Felicity Banks

Emmeline Muchamore was respectable once. Her sweetheart, Matilda Newry, certainly put a stop to that. But when Emmeline gains magical insight into a disastrous future battle, she weaponises her wild reputation in order to draw trouble and death away from her adopted home … risking everything and everyone she loves in the process.

Iron Lights is a steam-powered tale of honour, love, magic, adventure, and mechanical spiders.

This will be a short review, because it’s of the third book in the series, and I always feel like people would find the reviews of the first — or even the second — book more useful. Also, everything I said in those reviews is true of Iron Lights (except that the back matter isn’t a story in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure but a series of of letters from side characters in the main book).

I really enjoy Emmaline as a main character. She’s the sort of intellectually curious scientist and adventer that I can’t recall seeing much of in fiction (even if she does lean a little towards the “mad” variety of scientist, if I’m honest). She’s also unfailingly polite; devoted to her sweetie, Matilda; and capable of coming up with the most harebrained schemes I think I’ve ever seen! I wonder if it’s because she gets the science of things, but not necessarily the humanity of them. Seriously, some of her schemes in this book were never going to end well!

I love the world that Iron Lights is set in, with its magically activated metals, clockwork soldiers and cyborg-ish creatures. I also love Banks’s writing style. It’s beautiful, and is a large part of how Emmeline’s pure Britishness is conveyed. I’m always left wanting more, wishing the stories weren’t quite so fast-paced, because I don’t want them to end.

If you enjoy alternative worlds and steampunk, and would like to see both of those things in a colonial Australian setting, then check this series out.