The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

[dnf at 50%]

I have complicated feelings about this book. There were so much that I like, that felt fresh but the rest was like pulling teeth…idk let’s go through it:

It doesn’t read like the adventures of a select few ‘chosen ones’ in a fantasy world. Rather than follow one (or multiple) characters it follows the event of a revolution against the incumbent Emperor. Multiple people rise up organically to fight back in entirely separate circumstances as would realistically happen when a power vacuum exists. They’re also not all Lawful Good or out for revenge. Some just see it as an opportunity to lead or build a better standing. Some succumb to power just as easily as the Empire higher-ups and some, since they have no experience in military strategy or leadership, are defeated. It does a great job of simulating a history book with an eagle’s view of the entire conflict.

The world is quite fascinating, it’s diverse and just hints at cultural idiosyncrasies like how the position a person sits in company determines how formal/important they consider the meeting to be. Unfortunately, while the characters are nuanced and plentiful, they’re almost aggressively uninteresting. Maybe due to the vast scope of the book, Liu jumps between locations, points of view (occasionally with big time skips) and characters have only enough time to decide on their next action before we’re whisked away to the next. Occasionally the pace slows down and Liu’s short story skills come into focus as he reveals some grand event or intricate backstory through just a few words. But then, too soon we’re back to the top down view, the dry textbook that is recounting the notable events of this civil war.

I stopped just as the war was coming to an end so it may be that the second half of the book, that deals with ruling in the aftermath, is better. And I have heard that the sequel improves on it. So if the issues I had are not dealbreakers, it might be worth pushing through.

The Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

It’s difficult for novellas to receive glowing reviews. When done well, some of the most common responses boil down to “this was great, I wish it was novel-length”. People will naturally want more, which is a good thing but also defeats the purpose of a novella versus a novel. The idea of calling a novella just a shorter novel is akin to calling a dog just a smaller wolf. With a shorter length, there isn’t time to elaborate on a world’s structure (especially in the case of genre novellas) or set up a detailed plot. As a result, novellas have a tendency to look inwards and become character studies, leading to protagonists that the reader can deeply relate to.

This begs the question – how do you cater for readers who have become attached to characters which the novella has excelled in developing without compromising its structure and length?

Well, I don’t know. But Martha Wells had a pretty decent solution.

Releasing four novellas in quick succession allows Wells to have roughly the same amount of content as a single novel but in a more episodic format. With each novella having more or less standalone plots, the series is still not bogged down with exposition or settings. And due to the books’ self-contained nature, there still isn’t time to build complex narratives, and it shows with very unambiguously simple plots. All Systems Red can effectively be boiled down to Murderbot providing security to a group of scientists who, while doing ‘science’ for a company (literally called ‘The Company’), discover that something bad has happened to the other group of scientists and decide to find out what. And that’s it! There are explicit heroes and villains and plenty of pulp. Even the name of the titular character, Murderbot! Yes, it’s played as irony since Murderbot is almost entirely uninterested in dealing with humans, let along murdering them, but it’s still an unapologetic embracing of the most kitschy interpretations of AI sentience.

However, this isn’t to say the series is vapid in any way. With simple stories and Murderbot’s social anxiety both leading to minimal dialogue (especially in the first couple of books), much of the novella is concerned with Murderbot’s introspection. It’s rare to see a robot with such a vivid and ‘imperfect’ personality. It is a cynical, moody, drily funny mess of a robot, constantly trying to repress friendly emotions towards its human clients and get back to watching soaps. There have been many comparisons of it with Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide but unlike the Paranoid Android, Murderbot has a sort of self-resigned drive to trudge on and do the job that makes it so appealing as a lead.

All Systems Red was good fun but I enjoyed Artificial Condition, the best; the introduction of ART, a curious and an extremely intelligent transport ship, as a foil to Muderbot was an excellent idea from Wells and provides much wry banter between the two constructs. Both books deal somewhat with Murderbot’s past and how it came to be the only free willed robot and though the result is a little anticlimactic, it allows for Murderbot to slowly open up to others.

After the strength of Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol was a little underwhelming. It felt more like a filler story, not progressing forward the overarching story of The Diaries all that much. I was also disappointed with how the aftermath of the book  was handled. The extremely optimistic and friendly robot Miku was a great addition to show how human-robot relations should ideally be. Miku and its human owners being genuine friends is a novel idea for Murderbot. Murderbot has “complex emotions” about this in the moment but afterwards and in Exit Protocol it never reflects back on them. 

Exit Protocol bounces back from slump for the most part (in particular, it was nice to see the return of characters from All Systems Red) but doesn’t quite match the heights of the first two novellas. At this point, I think Wells was leaning a little too heavily on the insurance bond concept – everything was being tied to it, every so often some idea would be shut down or someone’s hands were tied because “oh the bond payout is too high so that can’t happen”. I’m a big fan of minimal worldbuilding, but it has its weaknesses and they were starting to show with this overreliance on one concept. Also, hacking was becoming way too powerful by the end of the book. Every hurdle was being solved by Murderbot hacking cameras and enemy drones and interfaces. In-universe it technically makes sense since, being an ungoverned security bot, Murderbot is much more powerful than humans or constrained robots but story-wise it was not that exciting to read.

Despite these issues, the novellas were all enjoyable reads that one can blast through in a couple of days. I do think that the ‘hook’ of the series was explored quite thoroughly  without overstaying its welcome so I don’t feel a great inclination to reading the follow-up novel. However, this premise of following such a powerful and yet nervous robot is so well-done and unique that it is well worth the read.