Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbit coverA Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link) is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. The interesting thing to note though is that it follows a completely different set of characters. The main characters of Common Orbit, Sidra and Pepper, appear in Long Way, but only in a few places. On the flip side, the main characters from Long Way are mentioned a few times but they never actually appear in Common Orbit. This means it’s possible to read Common Orbit without having first read Long Way. If you do read the books out of order, then the events of Common Orbit will give spoilers for a single plot thread of Long Way but not the main plotline. I heartily recommend both of these books and you can tackle them in whichever order you choose.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a story about figuring out who you want to be and making a purpose for your own life – which doesn’t have to be a purpose given by an outside force. It has two plotlines interwoven. The “present” plotline is focused on Sidra, an artificial intelligence program recently, and illegally, installed in a kit designed to mimic a human being. She has to deal with her new body, the restrictions imposed on her by her programming, and the fact that getting caught would mean her death. She navigates her new existence with the help of her friends Pepper and Blue, and later a new friend Tak (not to be confused with a character of the same name in the previous book). The “past” plotline tells of Pepper’s history. She was originally Jane 23, one of a group of girls genetically engineered to work in factories, her entire life focused on the tasks she was given. At the age of 10, she had never seen the sky and had no idea that there was a world outside her factory. This plotline tells of her escape from the factory and how she grew up, learned the skills she needed to survive, and came to the place where she is first encountered in the previous book.

The two plotlines come together towards the end of the book with the events of the past plotline becoming critical to the present plotline.

While there is some action, the story is primarily a character-driven one, dealing with the emotional growth of these two people, how they cope with their circumstances, and how they choose to define themselves. There is an underlying layer around the subject of exploitation, with both Sidra and Jane created for the purpose of performing task for their “owners”.

The story is very well written so that it tugs on the heartstrings and makes the reader invested in the lives of these characters who have gone through some awful things. The book deals with the after effects of those things – with characters having panic attacks and nightmares, struggling to deal with massive changes as they come out of traumatic events into somewhere safe. Even in the rich and imaginative setting, the emotional reactions of the characters feel grounded in reality.

Well worth a read and, as I said at the start, you can pick these books up in whichever order appeals to you. I found I actually liked this book better than Long Way, which surprised me because I really enjoyed that book too. Five stars. This one has been added to my favourites list.

Get a free book!

omega rising coverUntil the end of October, I am offering a chance to get hold of a free copy of Omega Rising, the first book in my Codename Omega series. 100 copies of the ebook are available – but it’s first come, first served so sign up quickly.

Simply follow this link and enter your name and email address to be sent your free copy. You can also choose to sign up to my mailing list to receive publication news about future books.


Jenny Harding has no money, no qualifications and no career history. A job working security for a big tech firm seems too good to be true. Maybe it is.

She is tasked with hunting down a group of thieves who have been stealing sensitive technology. Caught up in a battle involving alien forces, Jenny has some important questions to answer:
Who are the thieves?
What’s their real purpose?
And is she on the right side?


Omega Rising is available to buy on Amazon (UK link, US link). The Codename Omega series is continued in Traitor in the Tower (UK link, US link) and Hidden in the Signal (UK link, US link).

Alien aliens

I recently read The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link), which is a great book for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly liked about it is that the aliens really felt alien. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes in science fiction you get alien species that are basically humans but with pointy ears or green skin. Some are given characteristics of a minority group for the sake of analogy, and some get exaggerated physical traits or, sometimes, mystical powers, but in a lot of ways they feel like humans.

One particularly common example of this is in terms of gender, sex, and physical relationships. In films in particular, but sometimes in books, alien women look like human women but with some superficial appearance changes. Alien races appear attractive to humans in standardly human ways. Alien races have two genders and follow stereotypical patterns of gender dynamics. It is as though every species in the universe is based on the template of white, European gender dynamics.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a refreshing change from this approach. In this book, there are several alien species, and there is an emphasis placed on how different gender and sexuality would be for these different species. So there is a species where every member of the species starts out female but becomes male later in life. There is a species that coexists with a parasitic virus so they are all referred to as they because they consider themselves a joint organism – the host and the virus. There is a species that has three different families as a standard – the family that raises the children is not the same as the family that provided the genetic material. This species doesn’t consider children to be people until they reach adulthood.

There is a sense of a vast and complicated universe, with every species having their own biology that influences their behaviour and attitudes. This is a complete contrast to another book I read recently (which I won’t name because I didn’t enjoy it) where every single character from half a dozen different species would have fit right in with a gathering of middle class white Americans (plus every single character in the book was male, except for the protagonist’s love interest who showed up for about a page and a half).

When it comes to science fiction, that old adage of “write what you know” is less applicable than ever, because the point of science fiction is to explore the unknown. When writing alien species, we should think about the variety of biology that exists even on our own planet, and imagine the implications of a sentient alien race having more in common with say bees or clownfish than humans. Those differences can be in everything from their methods of communication (the aliens in The Bride by Janine Ellen Young (UK link, US link) live in a vacuum so they don’t have verbal communication but communicate using viruses), or in terms of family dynamics (in Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (UK link, US link) the alien young are protected by an older person who doesn’t have offspring of her own), or in terms of gender and sexuality as discussed with regards to The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet. When coming up with an alien race, let your imagination run wild or look at some of the weirder species on Earth for inspiration and design aliens that really feel significantly alien from us.

Cover Art Reveal: Hidden in the Signal

Hidden in the Signal cover

Those who oppose Grey’s Tower tend to end up missing or dead. Jenny’s friend Matt vanished while trying to uncover the Tower’s secrets. Jenny has promised to discover what happened to him, and she must keep those she loves from facing the same fate.

Meanwhile there is another threat looming. An alien spaceship is heading for Earth. Jenny and her allies must find a way to stop it but there may be another danger nearer to hand. Someone close to Jenny is keeping secrets – secrets that might hold the key to the spaceship’s mission, to Matt’s disappearance, and to what their enemies have planned.


Hidden in the Signal is the third book in the Codename Omega series, which follows the adventures of Jenny Harding, an ordinary girl who gets caught up in conspiracies and combat involving alien technology. The first two books Omega Rising and Traitor in the Tower are available now.

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen coverRed Queen by Victoria Aveyard (UK link, US link) has a lot of the standard hallmarks of a young adult dystopian novel, but it approaches them in a way that makes the story feel new and different. It is the story of Mare Barrow, a girl from a downtrodden people who finds herself in the middle of the political intrigue and machinations of the ruling class.

The world is divided into Silvers and Reds. Those with silver blood have amazing abilities, including controlling fire, manipulating metal, or even entering people’s minds and controlling them. The reds… don’t. Without power of any description, the reds do menial labour, working as servants, factory workers, farmers, and so on to produce the necessities and the luxuries that the silvers enjoy. Reds are also sent into pointless wars as canon fodder if they can’t get a job soon enough.

Mare Barrow is a red girl from a poor village, who steals to help her family survive. When she steals from the wrong person and gets caught, she expects to lose her hand. Instead, she gets offered a job as a servant in the palace. In a very public accident, she and the rest of the world discover that Mare has powers of her own – the ability to control electricity. Because the royal family can’t admit that anyone with red blood has power, they create a fiction that Mare is the lost heir of a silver family, and betroth her to one of the princes. Mare is suddenly trapped in a world of politics and intrigue. If she plays her part, she can keep her family and herself alive, but there is a rebellion stirring and she might be in a position to help all reds in a way she’d never imagined possible.

What I like about this book is the way that the characters all feel like people. There are a lot of different personalities mixed in, from the major characters to the minor ones, and they all have layers. A character who is cruel and vicious shows that they can be a loving parent. A character who at first seems kind and caring can find ways to rationalise brutal actions and a status quo that hurts millions of people. In the world of the silvers, there are characters you can connect with and feel sympathy for, even while they turn a blind eye to the fact that reds are being downtrodden. This focus on the people makes the book feel very real. Even in this sci-fi/fantasy setting, the reactions of the different characters to the events of the book felt very genuine.

The plot is also one that kept me hurrying through this book. It has layers and factors, with the in-fighting within the silver houses, the rebellion of the reds, and Mare just trying to keep her family and friends safe. There were twists I didn’t see coming, but afterwards I could spot the seeds that had been leading up to them.

One thing I struggled with was trying to keep track of all the different silver houses, their house colours, and their powers. Fortunately, part of the story involved Mare struggling to learn all that, so there were reminders and it became another way to connect with the protagonist.

If you enjoy YA dystopias, I definitely recommend Red Queen. It’s the first of a series and I have the second one on order and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Five stars.

Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day coverEvery Day by David Levithan (US link, UK link) is the story of A, who lives each day in a different life. Each morning they wake up with a new body, a new name, and a whole new life. They must bluff their way through the day and then, the next morning, start all over again. They have no control over whose body the inhabit and no way to stop the transfer happening. Normally, they try to leave the people they inhabit exactly the same after the experience, but sometimes they make exceptions to the rule, such as when they spent the day in the body of a girl contemplating suicide.

When A meets Rhiannon, one day is enough to fall in love. A doesn’t want to leave her behind when they move into another body and so they start taking stupid risks for the chance to see her again. And now one of their hosts knows he was possessed and is desperate to find out what happened.

This was an enjoyable book and it was fun to see the different lives A briefly experiences. It gives a real variety of family situations, from an undocumented underage worker to the rich and bitchy queen of a high school. The book is really good for the diversity of people included, with A jumping between bodies of different races, different genders, and different sexualities. I loved that it showed the depressed sufferer as having serious problems with her brain chemistry that impacted A as well, rather than being dismissed as a “bad mood”. A themselves describes themselves as not really having a gender. Because they jump around each day, they don’t really feel either male or female but a bit of both.

Plot wise, most of the book is about A trying to stay with Rhiannon, but there is the threat of Nathan poking around, trying to uncover the truth. It’s more of a romance than an adventure.

I enjoyed this book. There were a couple of things that irritated me, including an event that happens near the end, so I won’t spoil it for anyone, but on the whole it was entertaining and enjoyable and kept me guessing. Four stars.

Review: Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes

Viral Nation coverViral Nation is a post-apocalyptic book with many of the standard hallmarks of a YA dystopian story. The world was ravaged by a deadly plague and now the few survivors have come together into a small number of cities. They are all reliant on a drug that keeps the virus suppressed. Without regular doses, the virus will return. In the cities, law is kept because a time portal lets the authorities know what crimes will be committed so that they can stop them before they happen.

Clover is an autistic girl who depends on her support dog Mango to help her through loud and crowded situations which are incredibly stressful to her. She is extremely intelligent and is accepted into the prestigious Academy, only to be told that Mango can’t stay with her. When she refuses to be parted from her dog, she is sent instead to be a time mariner – to travel through the portal to bring back information from the future. In her new job, she learns that the system may not be as perfect as she’s been told.

The story is told largely from the perspectives of Clover and her brother West, with occasional sections from their father’s viewpoint. Clover’s character is a real strength for this book. Her experiences and thought processes are clearly described and made understandable to non-autistic readers. The way she behaves feels completely genuine and there is a real emotional connection. That feeling of reality is also reflected in the way she is sometimes treated by other characters in the book because of her autism. There were times when I felt fury and indignation on Clover’s behalf about the unfairness of how she is treated and I wished I could leap into the pages and yell at the other characters.

On the other hand, I didn’t think the plot did justice to the strength of the main character. There were a number of plot elements that seemed really convenient. I don’t want to give spoilers, but in particular the way the time travel is handled seems to lack consistent logic and there are details that are revealed that make no sense and seem to be there only because it furthered the plot.

The book also suffered a bit for being obviously the first one in a series. There are a lot of significant plot points that go unexplained which is frustrating, but I know I do this in my own series, so I can accept this. I trust that these mysteries will be resolved in the second book of this two-part series. The second book is already out, so at least I won’t have to wait to get the answers.

This isn’t going to make it on to my favourites shelf, but it’s an enjoyable read if you like dystopias and especially if you like well-written representations of autistic characters. Three and a half stars.

Review: Not Your Sidekick by C B Lee

Not Your Sidekick coverNot Your Sidekick is the story of Jess, a girl born to superhero parents, whose older sister is set to become a superhero too and whose younger brother is intellectually brilliant. She, on the other hand, has no powers and feels that she’s not enough for her family’s legacy. When she gets offered an internship and discovers she’ll be working for her parents’ nemeses, she decides to go for it. However, the job is not what she expected, the villains aren’t exactly evil, and there’s a lot more going on with the battle between heroes and villains than she’d have ever guessed.

The story plays with superhero tropes around powers and secret identities, while simultaneously telling the coming of age story of a teenager trying to figure out who she is in relation to her family. As a character, Jess is relatable. She goes through a lot of very normal things, dealing with school and friends and a crush on her fellow intern. Even in a world of superpowers, Jess is a very human character. She’s also the child of immigrants, and this plays nicely into the story of her figuring out who she is. She doesn’t want to ignore the heritage of where her parents come from, but she also needs to fit in the society she lives in now.

There are other interesting characters as well. While Jess is the main character, she has interactions with friends, family and strangers. The interplay between the different characters gives the impression of a rich, full world.

The only thing that I feel let this book down was that it didn’t really surprise me. In a story of superheroes, a lot of the characters who are introduced also have secret identities and these were sign-posted so much that they might as well have been shining in six-foot neon letters. The identities of various heroes were obvious. There was also a key relationship between a major character and the villains that could be seen coming from miles off. Key plot points were predictable. There was nothing subtle about the hints. There was only one detail of a plot twist in the whole book that came close to surprising me, but I won’t spoil that surprise now.

Not Your Sidekick does well from a diversity standpoint. Jess is an Asian bisexual, one of her friends is trans, and there is good representation from both a racial and LGBT+ perspective among the other characters. This representation feels genuine and it adds layers to Jess’s character and the overall theme of coming to terms with who you are.

I did enjoy the book. I liked the characters and the story, and there were some entertaining interactions between Jess and some of the other characters, I just wish it could have surprised me a bit more. If you enjoy superhero stories and what a quick read, you’ll probably have fun with this one. It’s probably a good book for younger readers, who might be less familiar with some of the tropes and who might therefore get a bit more surprised than I was. Three and a half stars.

Review: All the King’s Men

All the King’s Men by Alex Powell is a story set almost entirely in the artificial world of the Cerebrum. The protagonist Fox is part of a group of hackers who uncover corrupt government practices and expose them to the world. The group is led by a man known as King. When King is captured, he erases his memories rather than risk them being stolen by the government. Fortunately, in the digital world, backups are possible. Fox and the others must hunt for the backups of King’s memories but that won’t do them much good until they can rescue King’s physical body. Meanwhile, the government agent known only as Seven is on Fox’s trail, but he has some questions about his role.

On the whole, I enjoyed this story. There are a number of threads of mystery running through the plot: where are King’s memories, how did the government capture him, how will they get King’s body back? These keep the story going and kept me turning the page to find out what happens next.

The world building was interesting. Most of the action takes place in a virtual reality that builds on concepts familiar to internet users, with the characters able to take links from domain to domain. There are concepts of private domains and public spaces, with the ability to create virtual representations of places and even memories. This provides a rich backdrop to the story.

The one thing that I wasn’t sure about was the romantic element, which seemed to build extremely quickly. I don’t want to give spoilers, but there is a romance that seems to build from strangers, to being interested in each other, to being a couple, in a very short space of time. Given everything else that’s going on in the story, with hunters and betrayal, it seemed that they started to trust each other too soon.

Despite that, I did like the characters. They each had different personalities. Seven in particular has a great deal of character development over the course of the story.

If you enjoy cyberpunk action, this is an enjoyable book. Four stars.

Author reading: Helen Comerford

Last weekend, I was at St Leonard’s Festival, an event which included a vast range of events from market stall to folk dancing, puppet shows to a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in a park. One of the events was a workshop with author Helen Comerford, who as part of the workshop did a reading from her book. I took a recording on this opening.

You can find out more about her book at http://afterlifethenovel.com/ or check out the book on Amazon.