The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours is the latest anthology by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, following The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories from last year. I love stories set at night; a lack of action forces the characters to face their inner troubles, in turn making the story more introspective. That combined with me thoroughly enjoying Djinn a few months ago made this an instant request.

Anthologies, by design, have some similar theme or genre and The Outcast Hours is no different. As can be deduced from the title, it focuses on the night, on those who live and work and thrive in the midnight hours. It’s quite an open-ended theme (especially compared with Djinn’s relative rigidity of requiring a specific supernatural creature) and as a result features a vast array of genres – fantasy, horror, contemporary, slice of life, light science fiction – ranging from the darker aspects of humanity (portrayed both realistically and fantastically) to the hopeful. There are 26 stories, so I will just quickly highlight some that I particularly enjoyed.

This Book Will Find You – Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes & Dale Halvorsen
This story makes for an excellent start to the collection. It’s an intense, depressing reflection of woman’s recently ended relationship with a spooky framework pushing the story along. The reader follows a heavily self-loathing character trying to atone for the mistakes she made in said relationship and goes about it in a way that only gets more disturbing. Very creepy and entirely engrossing.

Blind Eye – Frances Hardinge
This one has a pretty original concept – it’s about a babysitter who watches children of some unsavoury types. She must take care of a little girl overnight and spooky things ensue. It’s hard to discuss it any further without delving into spoilers so just know that it’s a fast paced, exciting supernatural tale that covers more than expected with an emotional depth that’s often not seen in shorter stories.

Patron Saint of Night Puppers – Indrapramit Das
Despite the title, this was a great little tale – an anecdote almost. It sits firmly in the slice of life category following a night shift caretaker at a dog pound. In sharp contrast to almost every other story in the anthology it’s just another night taking care of dogs. Das sets up easy horror slam dunk tropes then happily subverts them repeatedly.

Tilt – Karen Onojaife
Follows a woman spending her nights at a casino trying to deal with an awful loss and given the option to fix it at a terrible price. I’m a sucker for impossible choices and Tilt delivers in spades with a simple but wonderfully executed premise. Short stories sometimes have a problem with endings, they can feel rushed or just stop arbitrarily. Mostly they end just fine but rarely are they particularly great. Onojaife leaves it on a great hook, revealing nothing but just enough all at once.

Welcome to the Haunted House – Yukimi Ogawa
What a weird story. In a good way of course, but just so odd. I’m not sure if it’s based on some folklore that I’m unaware of but wow it’s just so uniquely interesting. There’s this group of animated household objects à la Beauty and the Beast but they work in a haunted house scaring humans and can’t quite remember why or how they got there. That doesn’t really do it justice, look, read it and you’ll get me.

Lock In – William Boyle
Okay so I love The Catcher in the Rye so Lock In was an easy pick as a favourite. It’s another slice of life style book and is mildly reminiscent of Catcher in its latter half. Betsy is a young teenager who sneaks out of catholic school at night to wander the streets and find a cinema after being disillusioned with her authority figures. The story finishes fittingly but I would like an extension just to see what she gets up to for the rest of the night.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to the Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters – Kuzhail Manickavel
First of all, what a fantastic title; I love long, detailed titles like this. Secondly, if only one of these stories should be expanded, it must be this one. It’s a sort of epistolary novel that acts as a welcome guide for an orphanage that brings up a hundred questions despite being one of the shortest stories in the anthology. There’s so much potential here, I need more!

After reading The Djinn Falls in Love, I had an interesting chat with Shurin on /r/fantasy about how he and Murad grapple with their anthologies’ structures for ‘probably too long’ (his words not mine!) so I would be remiss to not quickly give some thoughts on it in this instance. Generally speaking, the stories were well organised. Each tale was very different to its predecessor with shifts in either genre, setting or tone almost every time. In fact, it was so well done that there were two adjacent stories that happened to stick out just by nature of being mildly similar. There were also interludes scattered in every few stories that were an interesting addition. They provided a nice breather every so often, but I don’t think they were really necessary. They were very short pieces of flash fiction that were unrelated and seemed more experimental than anything else.

Ask any book blogger and they’ll say the same thing: anthologies are hard to review. There will always be some great stories, some bad and a lot that fit somewhere in between. Ultimately, I read anthologies to force myself to explore new genres, discover new authors, and see how wildly people’s perspectives interpret a common theme. If the job of the editors is to accomplish these goals, The Outcast Hours is nothing short of a resounding success.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the latest instalment in the Wayfarers universe and simply put, it’s incredible. I was pleasantly surprised to see it revert to the style of A Long Way with a large cast of POV characters rather than just the two in A Closed and Common Orbit. In the slice of life genre, characters make or break a novel and thankfully Wayfarers continues to make.

In fact, while all the POVs (except one) are human, there’s a huge range of main characters with a diversity in age and attitude that the prior two books didn’t touch upon. Chambers produces them all with sophistication: from the bored teenager, Kip, who can’t wait to leave the Fleet because ‘anywhere else is better’ to the polar opposite young man, Sawyer, immigrating to the Fleet because it has to be better life currently. From Eyas the caretaker steeped in tradition to Tessa (sister of Ashby from A Long Way) who wonders if it might be better to move on and go planetside. However, my favourite was easily Isabella. Elderly people are so rarely main characters that it was refreshing to see her point of view and every scene with her wife was utterly adorable.

The entirety of the novel is set aboard the Exodus Fleet – a collection of spaceships that house humans that left the Sol system when Earth became uninhabitable (bit didn’t join alien worlds). The Fleet is a fascinating concept and it’s interesting to see how Chambers created its customs. One of the more novel concepts was how to dispose of the dead. The easier route would have been to just have them send ashes into space but instead people known as caretakers reuse the Fleet’s remains, turn them into compost. It could easily have been a pretty morbid addition but is portrayed respectfully. The caretakers are revered by the Exodans (so much so that it is sometimes to Eyas’s chagrin) – the whole process is described in detail, it very much feels like a non-deity-based religion.

Whenever people ask for cosy or optimistic SFF, Wayfarers is always one of the first recommendations and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no execption. It’s probably the darkest of the three (though that’s not really saying a lot) what with the catastrophic loss of life that jumpstarts the novel. But even with that event (and others), Chambers manages to keep the mood upbeat throughout. It’s such an easy read throughout that the reader can just fly through the book.

The only problem I had is that sometimes it felt a bit too exposition-heavy. During the novel’s timeline there is an alien Harmagian documentarian that is visiting Isabella (the historian) on the Fleet. Chambers uses this trip as its very nature to relay cultural and structural explanations. While this is a clever way to infodump on the reader, it’s an infodump all the same. It feels a bit tiresome as it doesn’t further develop either the plotlines or the characters and is a copout-y way to expand the setting. The exposition also bleeds into Isabella’s chapters since she spends a significant amount of time with the Harmagian.

One thing in particular I really liked in Record of a Spaceborn Few compared to its predecessors was its conclusion. I loved the previous two but they both end a little jarringly, both could have gone on a little longer without a doubt. In this book, Chambers employs lots of time jumping at the end to fully conclude each story, giving the reader proper closure for every character – something that the other books, A Long Way in particular, were missing.

Ultimately, reviews of this book aren’t really needed. And I have a feeling this is the case for any future Wayfarers novels. If you liked the previous two, any aspect – the hopeful tone, the worldbuilding, the happy and friendly characters, it’s guaranteed you’ll like this one too. Becky Chambers has combined the many POVs of A Long Way with the more concrete interweaved storylines of A Closed and Common Orbit, perfecting her slice of life style. Chambers has dropped so many little ideas about the universe, it’s ripe for exploration and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers – A fantastically sanguine story of friendship and self-discovery

I read A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet a while ago and loved it. I don’t remember reading such a happy, positive book that presents itself in such a way that doesn’t come off saccharine. I thoroughly enjoyed the slice of life novel which incidentally is a genre that I’d never really come across.

The large cast of characters on the ship felt very Firefly-esque but with far more relatable crew members. The characters were all very realistic and familiar to the reader despite the majority being aliens. Becky Chambers spends a good deal of time developing the worldbuilding of the universe and does so deftly. I particularly like the use of chat logs reminiscent of IRC channels to give us a glimpse of the ‘main’ characters exploration of the space-wikipedia. I say ‘main’ because while Rosemary is introduced first and probably has the most POV chapters, each crew member gets their own storylines. None are world ending but just show that they all lead complex lives with worries and goals.

I was fascinated by the diversity of aliens; never were they just humans-but-blue or humans-but-reptiles (looking at you, Mass Effect) but instead totally uniquely designed. There’s an alien race called Sianats that has entirely been infected with a virus that lets them comprehend multi dimensional space allowing them to pilot ships through wormholes. Since every member of the Sianat race is paired with a parasite, they are referred to as Sianat Pairs and use plural pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘I’. There’s a reptilian Aandrisk race (okay, there is one…) but it’s a supremely unique race in that their concept of family is totally different to humans. Every Aandrisk has three families, one that raises them, one that they live with as adults and one that they raises others as a a part of. They have a very casual sex culture, happy to mate with strangers and multiple others in public. The Aeluon are a race of aliens that communicate solely through their colour changing skin. Their skin is admired by all other races and can transition through the entire colour spectrum. These vastly different alien species really highlight Chambers’s imagination in creating her world and them all coexisting peacefully in the one ship is representative of a major theme of acceptance examined throughout the book.

Having enjoyed the lack of plot in A Long Way, I was mildly surprised that A Closed And Common Orbit is a less meandering, more focused novel on just two new main characters. Chambers uses this to explore the characters in more depth by keeping the storylines focus heavily on character development. There’s very little action in the book, probably even less than A Long Way; the characters generally do not develop through actions but more through conversations with those around them and self-reflection. The two storylines are mostly separate but they intertwine occasionally in a thematic manner. Both are about the the discovery of oneself, discussing the idea of what one does after rejecting their designated purpose.

One of the storylines continues off from where A Long Way ends. The AI Lovelace is taken out of the Wayfarers ship due to her predecessor’s relationships with the crew and decides to live with a mechanic Pepper while she tries to get used to going from being a ship AI to a body unit AI. The change is shown to be extremely uncomfortable for Lovelace as she goes from having cameras all over a spaceship and constant access to the galaxy-wide Internet (which she requires to research new ideas and concepts, a task she requires often as she has only just been turned on) to pretending to be a human. Since unshackled sentient AI is at best a touchy subject in the Galactic Commons and at worst, illegal, Lovelace has to disconnect herself and act as a human, limiting her natural inclinations.

The claustrophobic feeling that Lovelace continually experiences is represented excellently and despite my being not a robot, it was surprisingly easy to relate to. She felt like an extreme introvert forcing herself to endure public places and meet new people. Repeatedly, she would run back to her comfort zone and plug herself in to the cameras set up around Pepper’s house to simulate a spaceship monitoring system.

The other storyline covers Pepper’s early years as a human child clone called Jane-23. She is forced to work in a scrapheap sweatshop, taking apart scrap metal to salvage working components. She and all the other Janes are supervised by robot ‘Mothers’ that is somewhat reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunts. Her story follows her awful childhood there briefly before detailing how she leaves it behind, and finds a ship whose AI raises her. It’s a very touching story that shows why Pepper was willing to help Lovelace adapt to her new life despite the dangers it included. There are lots of cute little moments like Jane discovering her first cartoon TV show, or how she decides on the new name Pepper.

A common problem in A Closed and Common Orbit in multiple POV books, especially those with just a few, is that often the viewpoint switches too often. I had this problem with The Lies of Locke Lamora too, just as the reader begins enjoying one storyline, it switches to the other. A minor criticism really but just something that made me sigh every so often.

Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed A Closed and Common Orbit. The casual nature that Chambers discusses sexuality, gender and inter species culture is wonderfully refreshing. Often when a book attempts to include societal norms that are more progressive than our own or are simply just different they do so in a hamfisted, self-congratulatory manner that undercuts the sincerity of it. Some have criticised Chambers for being overly optimistic in her depiction of the future’s accepted customs and while I agree, I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing.