Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The Vela – A Serial Box Original

43472049The Vela is a serial box space opera in ten episodes, co-written by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon and S.L. Huang. So far, only one season has been announced, and I will be reviewing all of it, but I don’t exclude that there will be others.

The Vela is a story about a mercenary teaming up with a young hacker to find a lost starship in a planetary system in which the stars are dying and there’s an ongoing refugee crisis.

Something that stood out to me right from the start was the way The Vela portrayed discrimination. This is the first time I’ve ever read a story that was dealing with issues similar to what is going on in my country. Refugee crises and the combination of xenophobia + racism isn’t something I often see in American fiction, but it’s closer to the kind of stories I’d love to see published.

The Vela is an action-packed story in which the stakes keep getting higher as new elements are revealed – and I have to say that the reveals usually caught me by surprise – and the main characters often have to question their morals and loyalty. This is a story that has a lot of interesting things to say about ethics and judgement: how can you condemn a whole population, but at the same time, how can you not when their leaders are currently attempting genocide? It’s a complex situation and this story does not shy away from that.

I also really appreciated the diversity. One of the main characters is a brown-skinned trans sapphic mercenary who uses hearing implants, the other is a non-binary hacker (they/them pronouns!) and there are several queer and disabled main characters as well. Also, there’s no romance, which makes sense, as their planetary system is basically falling apart.

I can’t talk about the sci-fi technology in depth without spoilers, but I want to say that I really liked reading about it, it was kind of terrifying at times. I also really liked the descriptions of the spaceships, when they were there.

One more thing: while the writing styles were often easily recognizable and I could usually tell who was writing what even if I didn’t remember which episode I was reading, the story didn’t feel disjointed to me.

What didn’t work for me: 

A story about xenophobia in which the cultures aren’t developed isn’t going to work as much as it could if they were. I just know that these people look different from each other, but when you’re talking about both xenophobia and racism… there should be also other factors at play? It doesn’t really make sense to read about a war between people of different cultures when I know nothing about the cultures. This ended up being the weakest aspect of the worldbuilding.

While I was invested in the overarching plot, I realized that I couldn’t get myself to care about the main characters. I didn’t have any problems with Asala, it’s just that she couldn’t carry this whole story by herself, and Niko… I didn’t like the portrayal of Niko, because they’re several years older than me but read as younger than I am. Yes, they grew up sheltered, but they shouldn’t have read like a gifted fifteen-year-old if they were supposed to be in their twenties.
But what really didn’t work for me was Asala and Niko together as protagonists. Their dialogues weren’t interesting to read – there was nothing interesting about their relationship, or what they thought of each other. They just happened to share the same space for most of the novel and not always trust each other, but I wanted so much more.

As I said before, the story didn’t end up feeling disjointed, but I also felt like what made these authors’ books stand out in their genre, what made each of their books and style memorable in their own way… just wasn’t there.

My rating: ★★¾

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

37534869Zero Sum Game is a sci-fi thriller and the first book in the Russell’s Attic series. It follows Cas Russell, a mercenary whose superpower is based on mathematics.

I think this is the kind of story that would work perfectly as a movie. It’s fast-paced and full of action, fight scenes and unpredictable twists – just the kind of thing I’d like to see on a screen. Someone please adapt this, I need to see it.
As a book, it’s not exactly my kind of thing, but I liked it anyway.

I’m not sure sci-fi thrillers are a genre that appeals to me, but I can’t deny that I was really invested in the characters even when I wasn’t finding the plot interesting. If you like this genre and you’re interested in a story with magical mathematics and a diverse cast, I really recommend this. I decided to read this story because I want to read most books in which the main characters are women who are in some way scientists – and I ended up really liking Cas and the descriptions of her mathematical abilities, but the main reason this book worked for me were the character dynamics.

I loved Cas Russell’s narration. Hotheaded, antisocial, not as rational as she think she is, flawed, one-woman army Cas Russel. I love her. And she’s not too powerful for the story (reading about a character who solves things only with their superpowers would be boring), since the villain’s power ends up being literal mind control.
I also really liked the side characters:

  • Rio was my favorite of the side characters. I never would have thought I would like a character who is basically a really religious psychopath, but he was a really entertaining one.
  • Arthur Tresting is a black PI, probably the most normal person in the group and would ordinarily be the sanest person in the room. Since sane people are easier to manipulate for the villain, that isn’t always true.
  • Checker is the hacker. He collaborates with Arthur, is very good as disappearing, and has a sense of humor that often includes annoying others. I loved the humor in this book (another aspect that, again, would translate really well on a screen). Checker uses a wheelchair.

I loved them individually, but I loved them even more as a group. Powerful people working together against someone who’s worse and reluctant friendships are some of my favorite things to read about.

Another thing I really liked were the questions this book raised about ethics and free will. I would have liked to see more of that.

While I did really like the characters and their interactions, I wasn’t always invested in the plot. I think mind control makes the plot less interesting – when the villain can make everyone act like they want, there’s an excuse for really unwise decisions that isn’t only “because we needed a plot”, but it doesn’t make those decisions any wiser. It doesn’t leave that much space for interesting character growth. Mind control also seems to make for a somewhat unsatisfying ending, but I can’t explain without spoilers.

My rating: ★★★½