Review: The Safekeeper by Esther Archer Lakhani

The Safekeeper book coverThis is a really creative YA sci-fi book with what I would consider fantasy elements, which is mostly set on a contemporary Earth. It really is very unique, with an interesting premise that’s revealed over the course of the early part of the novel. 

The protagonist is the 15-year-old Macy. She’s a good character anyone should be able to relate to. She has an unusual family secret: her parents run a retreat center for very unusual visitors. In the book, a group of visitors arrive and all sorts of trouble comes with them. While helping to work at the center, Macy also is trying to have a life and meets an interesting boy named Nick. Nick turns out to be a very important character with quite a surprise to be revealed. Macy really rises to the challenges that crop up in the story, proving herself to be strong and resourceful when the situation demands it.

As I mentioned, this book is super creative. Lakhani's aliens are incredibly original, as is the way they visit Earth. The powers they have are interesting and varied. There’s also bit of the fantastical in the book, which I think is really cool—I love genre-bending stories. 

Highly recommended for fans of YA sci-fi, especially if you're looking for something different.

Review: The Firebird Trilogy by Claudia Gray

A Thousand Pieces of You book coverThis is the first sci-fi I’ve read in a while, but I quite enjoyed it, despite some reservations I had and will address below. I consumed these three books as audiobooks, which I think were well-executed, all by the same narrator.

The overall plot involves dimensional travel. The idea is that there are an infinite number of dimensions (fully-formed worlds) that make up the multiverse. The idea is that all dimensions derive from the same starting point, but every possible variation creates a new dimension that proceeds from that point and so on. As an example, if someone is presented with a choice, choice A will continue with the same dimension, but choice B will spin up a new dimension that’s identical up to the point immediately before the choice. Apply this choice-based dimension-splitting to every single person who’s ever lived and you can imagine “infinity” is really incomprehensibly large and always growing.

Marguerite Caine is the artist daughter of two scientist parents who have invented a way to travel through the dimensions with the help of their two graduate students, Theo and Paul. In the first book, A Thousand Pieces of You, Marguerite’s father is apparently murdered by Paul before he fled to another dimension, the first to do so. Theo and Marguerite take off after him, intending to kill him in revenge. One of the dimensions Marguerite spends a great deal of time in is a Russia where the House of Romanovs never fell. And to her surprise, Marguerite is in the middle of it all. It’s also where a love triangle between Marguerite and Theo and Paul starts.  The book eventually wraps up fairly tidily, with only a hint at a sequel.

Ten Thousand Skies Above You book coverIn the second book, Ten Thousand Skies Above You, Marguerite deals with a major conspiracy (I’m trying to not give away much here) involving multiple dimensions and her in a way she never would have expected. She travels to several different dimensions in this one. The conspiracy unfolds more and more, which is interesting and complicated. The love story gets complicated. Then the book ends on the worst kind of cliffhanger. At first everything seems great, and then in the last sentence, you discover it’s not.

Reading the final book, A Million Worlds with You, is necessary once you finish the second, because of the killer cliffhanger. Marguerite again travels to different dimensions here, this time trying to save her other selves, who are all in danger because of the conspiracy. This book has some heart-breaking moments and also explores the ethics of dimensional travel a little more than the earlier two. The series is effectively wrapped up, with an epilogue to give us an even more illuminating conclusion.

Now, to my reservations. I have to admit that there are some pretty significant logic and scientific weaknesses in the worldbuilding of the book. For instance, each person travels by inhabiting the body of their counterpart in the new dimension, the original person’s consciousness getting pushed down, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I was really bugged in the first book by the fact that I wondered how they could be gone more than a couple days if nobody was feeding and watering their body in their original dimension (this was eventually explained, but not until near the end). More importantly, the big conspiracy involves many dimensions, but they’re all ones where all the main characters exist, which would actually be a tiny (infinitesimal, really) fraction of all the dimensions out there—why would these be so important? There are more things, too, that bugged me as I went along. But I chose to ignore them as the books proceeded because the story overall was well-told and interesting. If you just accept that this is how things are, you can go with it. But if you start the first one and these things nag at you and you can’t get past it, you should know that the latter books just get even more hard to believe.

A Million Worlds with You book coverAdditionally, I felt like the characters ignored the ethical ramifications of interrupting other people’s lives in other dimensions. This does eventually get somewhat addressed, but it bugged me throughout (especially some of Marguerite’s decisions along the way). And I should mention that some of Marguerite’s choices didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Still, although I clearly have reservations, I did like the series overall. If you’re a fan of alternate history stories, this one will especially appeal to you.

Review: Girl Gone Viral by Arvin Ahmadi

Girl Gone Viral book coverI stumbled across this book at Barnes and Noble and was really excited by the blurb. Supposedly, 17-year-old Opal Hopper is a big coder—she creates virtual reality worlds and so on. I thought this would be really interesting because a) girl coder and b) I wanted to see how the author makes coding interesting.

But this is one of those cases where the blurb doesn’t match the book very well, as she doesn’t really do much coding. Her friend Shane does the majority of it to create their channel on WAVE, the biggest virtual reality platform in this near-future story, while Opal becomes the accidental star of the channel. Opal, Shane, and their friend Moyo have teamed up with Kara, actress and fellow student at their challenging boarding school (PAAST), to compete in a contest by the company that runs WAVE. The prize is (among other things) meeting the company’s founder. Opal is convinced that the founder knows something about her father’s disappearance, and she has been trying to talk to him for 7 years, with no success. So she’s pretty desperate to win the contest, and that takes up the majority of the first part of the book. Kara is normally the face of their show, but when she ends up with food poisoning, Opal takes the stage and rather unintentionally starts something big.

Because Shane hacked some personal WAVE data and gave it to Opal, and she explored the data and discovered that people have empathy for a famous movie star with a reputation for breaking down in public. Now, the data scientist in me is quite skeptical about her managing to do this over a weekend (that’s not how data science works), but okay, I can suspend disbelief enough to go with it. Anyway, with Opal on camera, things explode from there.

While I did like the book, it wasn’t what I expected. It’s set in a technologically advanced America where virtual reality and augmented reality are the norm. But in a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel that different from our world, especially with the politics that seep into the story in surprising ways. But the most unexpected thing was Opal herself. I liked her even though she was nothing like I expected, as she turned out to be pretty self-absorbed and selfish at times and played some unpleasant social games. But she was interesting and I enjoyed seeing her grow and finally understand what happened to her father. The book ends a little abruptly after she finds out and I wondered what was going to happen next. Sequel, maybe?

This is a sci-fi book, but it’s pretty soft sci-fi, as it doesn’t focus on the technology—it explores the social impacts instead. So a lot of readers should enjoy it.

Review: Shadow Run (Kaitan Chronicles #1) by Adrianne Strickland and Michael Miller

Shadow Run book cover

This sci-fi book isn’t my normal genre (anymore—when I was young, all I read was speculative fiction). So I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it now. In the end, I quite enjoyed it.

Qole is a 17-year-old prodigy captain/pilot of the spaceship Kaitan. She is carrying on her family’s tradition of fishing for Shadow, a mysterious substance found in space that can be used as fuel, among other things. The whole setup is very reminiscent of Firefly, but I don’t mean in a derivative way. I’ve also seen comparisons to Dune.

The downside of being a fisherman of Shadow is that it poisons people exposed to it, making them lose their minds. But Qole is special because she appears to have some sort of resistance to it. In fact, she’s already “poisoned” by it but it  has given her enhanced abilities rather than driving her crazy.

Nev couldn’t be more opposite from Qole. Where Qole and her ragtag crew are barely scraping by, Nev is a privileged prince. He also happens to be a very competent hand-to-hand fighter due to a lifetime of training. He has a special, very expensive blade that works some sort of magic (I mean that metaphorically—it’s future-science-based). And for reasons that eventually become clearer later, Nev’s family need Qole and her Shadow-resistance to save his family. Nev works his way onto Qole’s ship with the intention of convincing her to come with him, but it doesn’t end up being as easy as he’d hoped.

As this is YA, it’s not surprising that there is a bit of romance involved, but the story is much more than that. The characters are interesting and varied, the world-building is excellent, and pacing is pretty good (though I think it gets a little rushed near the end). Qole is tough and believable without being overly angsty. And the choices Nev has to make near the end are difficult but they work in the novel.

If you like space operas, you’ll dig this one. I plan to pick up the sequel some time.