I was on vacation recently and long plane rides are a great way to knock off a few books. So let's take a look:
Pre-vacation, I wanted a bit of palate cleanser from the fantasy coming up so I blew through Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole. It's the opener to a military sci-fi universe that ranges from deep space fleets to boots on the ground. As you might suspect, this one focuses on the ground pounders. Sergeant Chhun is stationed with the members of his squad on some dirt water planet at the ass-end of the universe. His commander is some idiot political appointee, the natives are restless, and there's nothing to do. Then everything goes to hell.
I finished the book so it wasn't awful, but it was the most paint-by-numbers military fiction I've seen in ages. Yeah, they're on a different world with alien locals and the warship that got them here orbits overhead, but with almost no effort at all, this would read like modern day military fiction set in the Middle East. I realize that perhaps war never changes, perhaps there will always be idiot COs, and grumpy natives, and bad food, and sand in your shorts, and the bond of battle that forges strangers into family, etc., etc., but even the most hard sci-fi settings would have profound effects on the way war is waged. Even the idea that it'll come down to boots on the ground might not be true. C'mon guys, spark my sense of wonder *and* my thirst for bloodshed in one literary package!
Also...I am almost 100% positive there weren't any women in Sergeant Chhun's platoon. There were references to higher level female officers back at base, and I'm pretty sure no one is saying women can't fight, but I don't recall a single female trooper. Again, maybe I've just forgotten, but if I go back through to check, I'll either fall asleep or be mad that I didn't do something better with my time (like sleeping).
Next up: The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. I keep remembering how much I've enjoyed other Swanwick stories in the past and then I go searching around for more of his stuff. This time around, I came up with a dense, rich, prosaic, slice of fantastic reality that it took a bit to work my way through.
Imagine the Fae realms of Celtic lore, a world that's a fun-house mirror of our own. Now imagine that the alchemical-industrial revolution came along and turned the fields and forests into a dense urban sprawl. At the edge of the sprawl is a massive factory where dragons are made -- jet-powered, cybernetic, air combat dragons. Working in this factory is a young mortal girl named Jane. The book follows Jane and her attempts to grow up and grow out of Faerie.
I don't really want to talk about the plot because the plot is sort of a distraction -- the underlying metaphors are where the story is really at and as you read through it, don't be afraid to take in your surroundings, there's a lot to look at and see in new ways as Jane grows up and tries to get out of Faerie. It's not as thinky as some more "serious" pieces of literature, but it's not as obtuse, or perhaps it's poetically obtuse and that oddly helps you see it better. Anyway, it's a good book, give it a try.
On the flight back home from my recent vacation, I poured through Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. The blurb that grabbed my attention was: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!”. The palace was actually on the Imperial Capital, but otherwise that quote is 100% accurate and if that seems like your jam, rest assured it is totally your jam.
So you've got a far future empire that runs on Necromancy. It's suggested that a lot of high-tech hardware like starships are mostly well-maintained relics rather than something in steady production. Below the Immortal Emperor there are nine great houses, one for each planet in the Imperial Capital's solar system. Gideon is an orphan ward of the Ninth house. The Ninth is a near-forgotten house charged with maintaining the tomb of the Emperor's greatest foe. Run like a massive monastery its an endless round of prayer and ritual. Gideon wants out. Partially because she wants to be a warrior in the Second House (essentially the Imperial Military) and because she's the personal whipping girl of Harrowhawk, daughter of the rulers of the Ninth House and in no way are those two attracted to each other.
Just before Gideon is finally about to escape the Ninth House an Imperial summons arrives -- each house is to present their chosen successor and their Cavalier. Harrowhawk has no Cavalier and despite being trained as a soldier and not a noble bodyguard, Gideon is the only person available. These house scions have been called to the Imperial Capital, a world dedicated solely to the Emperor's abandoned palace where they will undergo a series of tests to determine who will go on to become a Lyctor -- a sort of undead lich-saint who serves the Emperor. The first Lyctors were created shortly after the Emperor's rise and no new ones have been created for thousands of years since then. It's a golden opportunity everyone is anxious to seize.
So the bickering pair travel to the homeworld, meet their rival teams and their enigmatic hosts, and start trying to work out what the test is and how to pass it. Then people start dying.
It's a fun book. It does have that YA "young people are somehow much more capable and experience than their age would suggest" issue, but the sci-fi necromancy is a lot of fun and the plot clips right along. It does set up an obvious sequel, but at least it doesn't end on a cliffhanger while still teasing something interesting enough to go back for the next book when it comes out.
Finally, I finished up another short story. This time a piece called To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Ms. Chambers writes, hands-down, some of the most human and humanistic science fiction I've ever read and this is another fantastic example. The Lawki 6 Exoplanet expedition has just completed its basic mission and now has a question for the people back home on Earth. The book is their account of the mission, but not in a dry, factual way or even an exciting, thrill-a-minute kind of way. This is a story of small moments and daily lives. Those lives may be in a habitat module on a planet light-years away from Earth, but you really get into the hearts and minds of the four-person crew of the mission.
It's short, it'll handily fit into whatever spare reading time you have, but there will come a point where you know you're getting close, so you'll just rush through the end and when the book ends your heart is both full and content and the daily wonder of our world is more apparent. What more can you ask of a story? Go read it.