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Stack Overflow: Digging into the New Year

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We’re halfway through the first month of 2023 and Storygraph tells me I’m a couple books behind my arbitrarily set reading goal, but I did finish one book from my “Reading Resolutions” list so I’m feeling pretty good about that. Since the past few weeks have been our traditional end-of-year/start-of-year posts, I’ve got a little bit of a backlog of books I’ve read that I haven’t shared here yet, so let’s dig in and see what I’ve got! Today I’ll look at some of the novels and fiction I’ve read in the past month or so.

Gleanings book cover

Gleanings: Stories from the Arc of a Scythe by Neal Shusterman

I read Neal Shusterman’s Scythe trilogy a couple of years ago; I was late getting started on the series but ended up reading all three books back-to-back and enjoyed it. In case you aren’t familiar with the series, it’s set in a future where humans are essentially immortal thanks to scientific advances. Most of the time, death can be reversed so it’s mostly just an inconvenience. Scythes are an organization of people responsible for permanent death—they abide by particular rules, but are allowed to “glean” people according to their own criteria, and anyone killed by a scythe is not allowed to be resurrected.

As I mentioned in my Stack Overflow at the time, a lot of the stories—published between 2016 and 2019—have parallels to US politics, including a character who is at least partially based on Donald Trump. One of the central tensions in the book is about who gets to hold power and how they should wield it.

Gleanings is a collection of short stories set in the Scythe universe, written by Neal Shusterman along with many collaborators. There’s a story about Scythe Goddard (a key figure in the trilogy) and how he got his start. You find out what happened on the failed space exploration that’s hinted at in the trilogy. You also get some stories that take place after the trilogy, a bit like an extended epilogue. One story, set fairly early in the scythedom timeline, ponders what sort of art—one of the ways that humans have attempted to achieve immortality—will be created when death is no longer a consideration for most.

I enjoyed this visit back into the world of the scythes, and it left me hungry for more. I generally like the way that Shusterman weaves ideas and topics from current events into his fiction, and that’s true of these short stories as well. I’m curious if there will be more Scythe books in the future, but if not, at least this is a little more to chew on for now.

The Q book cover

The Q by Amy Tintera

After a terrible (but apparently localized) pandemic, Austin, Texas, was walled off and turned into a quarantine zone known as the Q, with nobody to leave, and an entire generation of teens that has grown up entirely inside. Information is limited: those inside the Q don’t know a lot about what’s going on in the rest of the United States, and vice versa, though of course there are plenty of rumors. A lot of them are exaggerated, but what’s true is that the Q is mostly run by two different families: the Lopez family in the south and the Spencer family in the north, with a tense no-man’s-land across the middle.

One of the current candidates for US president wants to take a different approach to the Q and is gaining support—but then his son Lennon is kidnapped and kicked out of a plane into the zone with only a parachute. He’s saved by Maisie Rojas, who’s young but has strong ties to the Lopez family, and she promises to get him out of the Q if he’ll tell people outside what things are really like. But she’ll have to get him through Spencer territory to reach the exit, which would be hard enough without the current strife within the Lopez ranks. And she only has 48 hours before they fear Lennon will be permanently infected and won’t be able to leave the Q at all.

Although this is a post-pandemic story, it’s different enough from COVID that I’m not sure that it was actually inspired by the actual pandemic. The disease in the story was severe enough that the US blockaded an entire city, but apparently slow enough in transmission that they actually could keep it all in one place. If you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of a disease, this probably isn’t it. It does seem like it’s mostly an excuse to close off a city and turn it into its own microcosm: the people inside do get supplies delivered from the outside and there is some normality to their lives, but they’re also trapped inside a bubble. Not only that, but those in control on the inside have also chosen to shut out news from the outside world as well.

There are some fun action scenes and a lot of chases, as well as the expected romance (it is a YA book, after all), which is fun if you just stick with your suspension of disbelief about the disease itself, or how quickly our government would have been able to respond to it.

Edited book cover

Edited by Barry Lyga

Edited is a young adult novel about Mike and Philomel (“Phil” for short), who sort of stumble into a relationship during high school and then fall apart at the start of college. Mike, who narrates the story, made some dumb mistakes that he really regrets, and he spends much of the book trying to figure out how to win Phil back. The twist is that Mike seems to have the power to “edit” reality. He can make changes to things that happened (for instance, which dress Phil picked to wear for an event), but for everybody else that’s just the way things had always been.

But that’s not all: there’s also a meta story going on here, with emails between Barry Lyga and his editor inserted between some of the chapters and footnotes throughout the book that are usually asides from Lyga to the reader. There are references to the “original” story and the changes that the editor has made to it (often despite Lyga’s protests). Lyga doesn’t like the order that certain scenes appear; he doesn’t like changes to the dialogue. It means that the reader, seeing these emails, sometimes gets hints about things that will happen later in the book. At other times, there are references to things that were “cut” entirely from this version of the book, though they exist in the form of footnotes or these email threads.

In the story, Mike begins to wonder about his own life—why there are gaps in his knowledge that he can’t seem to fill. His best friend George is obsessed with an author named Gayl Rybar, and eventually we begin to see some strange parallels between Gayl’s stories and Mike’s life, too many to be coincidental. Barry Lyga even shows up as a character himself and things get really weird. The weakest part of the story may be the romance itself—it’s one of those relationships where you kind of wonder what the girl saw in the guy to begin with, and her character doesn’t seem fully fleshed out. But even this gets addressed to some extent, because we’re seeing the whole thing through Mike’s limited perspective.

There’s one more layer of intrigue: a companion book called Unedited, more than twice as long, that is purportedly the unedited (or partially edited?) version of the story. I haven’t read it yet, but I suppose it will contain all those things that the emails refer to. I do know, flipping through it a little, that it starts with Chapter 11, reflecting an email in Edited that says Chapter 11 was originally the first chapter. I’ll report back after I’ve read Unedited, but I’m curious to see how the two fit together, and how much it will feel like reading the same thing again, but longer.

The Spare Man cover

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

As you may know, some of my favorite reads from 2022 were catching up on Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, so I was really excited that she had a new book out near the end of the year. The Spare Man isn’t part of that series, and is instead a stand-alone murder mystery, set on a sort of interplanetary cruise ship from Earth to Mars. Tesla Crane is an inventor who is dealing with some past trauma that has left both physical and emotional scars; she and her husband are on a trip for their honeymoon, with their identities masked via some clever software hacks combined with simple disguises.

Soon after launch, however, there’s a murder right near their rooms on the ship. Tesla, the first to respond, is found with the victim’s blood all over her; her husband Shal, who ran after the murderer but failed to catch them, is arrested instead. Tesla needs to clear her husband’s name and figure out who’s actually behind the killing in case they aren’t done yet.

The story, despite its high-tech setting, also has the feel of a classic whodunnit, with a colorful cast of characters. Each chapter is named after a drink and starts with the drink recipe. I’m not one for cocktails myself, but it was a fun tie-in to the cruise ship theme, and Kowal’s characters certainly know their way around a bar.

Tesla relies on various tricks to find answers and has to decide when it’s worth it to reveal her identity to open doors that would otherwise remain shut. It’s rare that I’ve been tempted to root for a protagonist who is rich and famous; Tesla reminds me a bit of Nicole Wakelin in the Lady Astronaut series—she’s been pigeonholed a bit and plays her role well, but she has a sharp mind and knows how to get results without tainting her public persona.

I enjoyed this one a lot, though I’m still itching for more of the Lady Astronaut books, too! I’ll be curious to see whether Tesla and Shal—who was supposed to be retiring from his detective practice when he got drawn into this mystery—will make appearances in future books.

My Current Reads

I did read Flux by Jinwoo Chong, one of the sci-fi novels I put on this year’s Reading Resolutions list, but it’s not out until March so I’ll share a bit more about that one later. It’s a mind-bending book about memory and time and technology that’s too good to be true. Stay tuned! I’ve also just started on Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen, which is about vampires (who aren’t at all like the ones from the movies), and one in particular who loves punk rock.

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