Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis
I knew of Lindsay Ellis through her excellent Youtube video essays on media criticism so was interested to see how her first novel turned out. Could a critic actually produce her own work worth reading? The answer is yes.
The year is 2007 and it seems that the US government might just be hiding, among all the other stuff, first contact with aliens. Cora is just trying to live quietly as a young adult, which is difficult when your estranged father is a famous off-grid conspiracy nut. But it seems like he might just be on to something this time.
Axiom's End is a fast moving tale of aliens and men with guns, with Cora in the middle with her bonded alien frienemy. Random bits of naughties slang and culture abound which could by gimmicky but the story fits the time period well. The writing is more or less invisible and doesn't get in the way and the alien's backstory is fascinating as it is slowly revealed. I also really liked that Cora was written as a realistic character, not super-humanly intelligent but not idiotic either. She makes a great protagonist.
My one criticism is that the book is just a little too well structured. It reads a little like the novelization tie-in to a really good TV mini-series. Each chapter contains almost exactly the right amount of plot for 20 minutes of TV and you can mentally see each scene fading to black before the ads kick in. Actually I don't think that is even a bad thing, really. Axiom's End is really well done solid scifi with a very visual flare. I wouldn't be surprised by an adaption in the near future.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
My copy of The House in the Cerulean Sea has a pull quote that promises reading this book is "like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket." I guess that is pretty accurate although honestly it isn't really that gay. I mean, it is, but only in the way that Jane Austin books are rampantly heterosexual.
Linus Baker is a bureaucratic case-worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, normally assigned to inspect facilities for containing children that show signs of being otherworldly. Dreaming of a life outside of the dreary city, he is assigned to investigate a far-flung orphanage holding 6 exceptionally powerful children of various ages, one of whom might literally be the son of Satan. Nothing is what he expects, the orphanage is highly unorthodox even by magical standards, the children are strange and frightening, and the man who runs the place is just so dreamy.
The House in the Cerulean Sea turns out to be a feel-good novel of acceptance and hope that wears its heart on its sleeve. It reads a lot like light YA fiction except that all the characters are either too young or middle-aged to appeal to that age group. The good-hearted Linus bumbles his way around the plot, discovering minor revelations and making friends through dogged optimism. There is never any doubt how things are going to turn out, you just sit back and enjoy the pleasent journey with a satisfied sigh.
The Last Watch by JS Dewes
I don't read a lot of military scifi - it tends to get a little samey after a while. And quite often a little fascisty as well, if one is being honest. That said, you could do worse than The Last Watch.
At the edge of the universe (yes, this universe has an edge), a group of soldiers guard the border on a decrepit station. Each member of this pathetic bunch has a story - disgraced, exiled, court-martialed - the dregs of the military serving out their service as far away from central command as possible. Nothing ever happens out here since humanity wiped out the last of the alien threat decades ago. But suddenly...
If this sounds like a subplot in Game of Thrones then you are correct, right down to one of the soldiers being the disgraced heir to the empire's throne. The Last Watch doesn't quite rise to the tightly plotted intrigue of GoT but has a decent stab at it. Isolated and overtaken by events, the characters are thrust into life-and-death struggles. Spaceships, lasers, a surprising amount of knife fighting, you know the drill...
As with all good scifi, the back-story is the most interesting part, with revelations coming thick and fast. Of course, being the first part in a 2 book series, nothing is actually resolved but I finished this quick read actually wanting more.
The Last Watch's only real crime is that it is neither as exciting nor as imaginative as the Hexarchate books by Yoon Ha Lee, which cover much the same ground in a more entertaining way. But that is just nitpicking a perfectly fine if uninspired novel.