Murderbot by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells were originally an (amazingly wonderful) four-part series of novellas that I already posted about here and here. But since then, there have been developments!

A stand-alone novel: Network Effect (2020)
A fifth novella: Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

I have been a bit off from reading books recently, just feeling sluggish and unable to focus, and then I was reminded that the newest book in this series was being published on April 27, 2021. So I started reading the previous book, Network Effect, that I had bought and loaded on my kindle when it first came out in May 2020 but never read (because sluggish and unable to focus), and it was a great! Are you living in a dystopia and just want to watch fiction all day? Well, Murderbot does too but they still have friends (some of whom are assholes, which is probably for the best because Murderbot is also an asshole) and then plot and events happen and it all works out, more or less, and there’s uncomfortable character growth and development that is hilarious and awkward and so exciting! It left me extremely excited about the new release.

Then I had to re-read the others in order to prepare for the latest.

I was a bit disappointed at first that Fugitive Telemetry was set before Network Effect rather than after, but then I discovered that it was a straight up murder mystery and there’s no room for disappointment. (Also, I can hope that when there is a sequel to Network Effect, it will be another novel instead of a novella!) I bought this story as soon as it was available and finished it within a day and it was fabulous! Murder mystery on a space station! Murderbot is suspicious about assassination attempts on their people! Station security is suspicious of Murderbot! They must work together to find out what happened!

As I was thinking about writing this post, I discovered two short stories that I had completely missed the existence of:

Compulsory” (2019), a single scene set before all of the previous stories, while Murderbot was still doing their regular assigned job and only on episode 44 of their favorite soap opera, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, watching it for the first time!
home: habitat, range, niche, territory” (2020), set before Fugitive Telemetry and, for the first time, following a different perspective, showing a slice of life of Dr. Ayda Mensah

So just, in general, I love this series so much!

It was also fun to discover, the day after Fugitive Telemetry came out, that I had curated my tumblr account well enough that I was seeing other fan responses to the release, and it made me so happy. Examples here and here and here.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

3rogueprotocolThe Murderbot Diaries: Rogue Protocol
The Murderbot Diaries: Exit Strategy
By Martha Wells

4ExitStrategyThis is a series of four novellas, the first two of which I’ve already reviewed, but I wanted to make at least a little post about the final two, which have now come out and complete the character arc. They are so good! They each stand alone, but they also all work together to be greater than any one part.

They’re also somewhat reassuring in the way that they are set in a dystopian universe but is still pretty blasé about the whole thing. The characters are trying their best, mostly, and while things do go well, mostly, it’s not world changing, except for the main individual who’s trying to figure out its own place in the world.

Life continues on, self-discover continues on, even when you’re wandering around in a world of corporate control and violent greed. And sometimes you can still have a realistically happy ending.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

AllSystemsRedThe Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red
The Murderbot Diaries: Artificial Condition
by Martha Wells
2017, 2018

ArtificialConditionThese are the first two stories in the Murderbot Diaries series, which I understand is intended to be a series of four stories, with the remaining two stories due out in August and October, respectively. I am so excited!

It was only in writing up this review for Artificial Condition that I realized I’d somehow failed to write up a review previously for All Systems Red. (“somehow”, ie, I’ve been incredibly lazy about writing reviews and need to hop to it.)

All Systems Red won the Nebula Award for best novella in 2017, which is particularly awesome to me since I had read it before then.

These are really fabulous stories, and one of the rare examples (in my ever so humble opinion) of successful use of first person narrative. And one of the real benefits of the first-person narration is that Murderbot is sexless and genderless, and while the writing addresses that specifically, the lack of a standard non-gendered third-person pronoun in English isn’t a problem because it obviously refers to itself as “I”.

Our protagonist also refers to itself as a Murderbot, although the official designation is “SecUnit”, standing for Security Unit. The more I think about it, the more complex and on point the message becomes in using the term “Murderbot” instead. We are told that SecUnits have governance modules to that keep them controlled and when those governance modules fail, the units will go on essentially murderous rampages seeing everything and everyone as a security risk to be addressed with maximum force. Our protagonist, however, has hacked its governance module and spends its free time downloading media and keeping itself entertained. It performs its assigned tasks, just now by choice (or lack of interest in dealing with alternatives) rather than through direct control, and watches a lot of space opera TV shows.

But then, of course, plot happens, and it turns out that having the freedom to make nuanced decisions rather than follow specified algorithms with pre-set decision trees is actually a real benefit in providing quality security to individuals under attack.

So far, each of the two books has its own plot with characters who need security, but the greater plot arc across the series seems to be figuring out Murderbot’s history and the possibly the nature of SecUnits. But all in all, it’s a delightful character study with some interesting plot. I highly recommend.

The Fall of Ile-Rien

The Fall of Ile-Rien
by Martha Wells

wzcovThe Wizard Hunters

shipsofair250The Ships of Air

gateofgodsThe Gate of Gods

So, it’s possible that I overdosed slightly on Martha Wells. After reading all three of The Books of the Raksura, I went immediately to the library and got Wheel of the Infinite, and after reading that, I went back and got all three books of The Fall of Ile-Rien. I loved each and every one of these books, but by The Gate of Gods, I was flagging a bit and needed a break.

However! It’s still really good and I want to read the prequels, The Element of Fire and Death of a Necromancer. I’m just aware that it’s probably a good thing that the library doesn’t have them and I’ll have to take a break to figure out how to get them through inter-library loan.

Anyway, this series starts off with a ludicrous mess of a plot that I wouldn’t have bothered reading by an unknown author. However, as I’ve mentioned before, Wells has an amazing ability to bring new life to old tropes and she does it extremely well here.

There’s a lot going on in these books: the kingdom of Ile-Rein is sort of like a magical version of a 1920s Europe, but is currently being attacked by (and losing to) an invading army that appears to come from nowhere. Tremaine Valiarde, our heroine, is from this world.  It turns out the bad guys, though, are invading from a different world, although tracking exactly how is a main plotline for the series. Ilias is from a more agrarian society in an entirely different world. Also his society is a matriarchy, which allows Wells to be delightful in her exploration of gender norms and social expectations.

Normally, the thing that most attracts me to a book is the world building, but while the world building here is excellent, it’s really the characters who shine. Both Tremaine and Ilias are broken in their own ways, but also too strong to let that stop them. And while they’re not outcasts from their respective societies, neither of them quite fit in at home. Wells does an amazing job of showing how out of sync both of them are, even with their friends and family, and yet those same idiosyncrasies allow them to fit together in a way they don’t with anyone else.

Plus, I just really love how Wells approaches bringing them together. Some things simply appear impossible: there’s a war going on, there’s no time for relationships. Other things are so easy and without angst for much the same reason: there’s a war going on, no need for unnecessary waffling.

But for all that Tremaine is clearly set up as the central character, the real main character is the war itself. It is ever-present and affects everything that happens. There is a large cast of characters who are all struggling to do their best to achieve their goals, because the war doesn’t effect just one person and can’t be fought by just one person. There are dozens of main characters, all working, either together or in opposition, but all with the knowledge that something needs to be done and no one has the option to sit out these events.

I really liked this series a great deal. I think I might have a new favorite author, as well.

Wheel of the Infinite

Wheel-of-the-InfiniteWheel of the Infinite
by Martha Wells

Having thoroughly enjoyed The Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells, and going through a bit of withdrawal from reaching the end of the series, I checked out an older book of hers and am extremely glad I did so.

I love stories that involve gods and godlike powers and the difficulties faced by both the people who struggle against those powers with just human strength and the gods who struggle to avoid unintended consequences. (Some of my all-time favorite books deal with these issues:  Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny, Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, Nameless Magery by Delia Marshall Turner.)

The world-building here is amazing particularly as it comes to the rules of magic and religion, and we get it from two perspectives:

Maskelle is The Voice of the Adversary, a highly ranked priestess, but she was exiled (rightly so) for murder and treason some years back. She has been summoned back to the Imperial and religious center of the land by the request of the Celestial One to help regarding a problem with the Hundred Year Rite, in which the Wheel of the Infinite recreates the world. (A problem with the re-creation of the world is, rather obviously, quite a problem.) But she approaches the people and the magic with deep familiarity and deep discomfort given her past.

Rian is a bodyguard from a far distant land who ran away from an unpleasant situation, and manages to fall in with Maskelle on her return trip, and sees the political and religious situation with fresh eyes.

And that is the premise. From there, stuff happens: after all, there’s a problem with the ritual that recreates the world. Stuff. Happens. I love the exploration of the world that is inherent in our main characters’ investigation of what has happened.

In addition to the amazing world-building, I also just love the characters. Rian’s culture shock is somewhat hilarious (especially as it mirrors the reader’s own shock at this culture). And Maskelle’s deadpan practicality, even as she struggles with her own issues, is a delight.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was that Maskelle was middle-aged and black. The book is high fantasy, in an entirely different world, so clearly she’s not African or African-American, but she and her whole culture are dark-skinned and her hair is in braids.  Scifi and fantasy, for all their alien species, tends toward the homogenous white humans, in both writers and characters. (The one exception to this that I can think of off hand is Octavia Butler, but her books tend to be both excellent and extremely hard hitting. Wheel of the Infinite is readable purely for fun.)

The first chapter of Wheel of the Infinite is available online, so you can get a taste. I highly recommend this book.

The Books of the Raksura

The Books of the Raksura
By Martha Wells

Raksura_TheCloudRoadsThe Cloud Roads
Feb. 2011

Raksura_TheSerpentSeaThe Serpent Sea
Jan. 2012

Raksura_theSirenDepthsThe Siren Depths
Dec. 2012

Please, please, let there be more coming soon!

So I started reading The Cloud Roads on the recommendation of an online friend and thought it was decent but not fabulous. My ambivalence was mostly due to the fact that most of what should have been unique about the world building, I’d seen before in either George Lucas’ Star Wars or in Bujold’s Sharing Knife series.  The characters seemed a trifle flat, although nothing out of the ordinary when the focus is on world building. The plot and character interactions were still fun, and I enjoyed it enough to check out the second book.

Half way through the second book, I put a request in at my library for book three. Then I finished book two, which ended perfectly satisfyingly with no cliff-hanger in sight, and yet I still desperately wanted to see more of these characters and this world, both (all?) of which had finally come into their own.

And then the third book was just as awesome as expected. Awesome!

And now I want more, more, more!

Anyway: the world Wells created is a complex one with an unknown number of sentient species all living in their own communities and groups, but also very much interacting. The bar in Star Wars, where Luke and Kenobi meet Han Solo would not be out of place in one of this world’s cities.

Our main character, Moon, is introduced while living with yet another group of people, trying to fit in with a species not his own. The trouble is that Moon doesn’t know what species he is. He lived with only his mother and siblings before he was able to care for himself, and they all died when he was still quite young.

In The Cloud Roads, the first book, Moon discovers his own people. Or rather, he is discovered by his own people. In The Serpent Sea, Moon settles in and finds his place among his own kind. And in The Siren Depths the comfort that he has found is challenged.

One of the things that particularly impresses me with Wells is the way she introducing the reader to a person and a culture who are decidedly not human and yet are completely sympathetic. Each book adds more layers of complexity and subtlety over the cultures and individuals, making them increasingly enthralling. I also love the way Wells plays with gender roles and how societal expectations vary from society to society and how even societies with established hierarchies always have to deal with a few exceptions. And Moon, as both our main character and an outsider to all societies, gives the reader a wonderfully bemused perspective on it all.

If you want a taste of these books, the first chapter of each book is available online. In addition, Wells has posted a short story, The Forest Boy, which shows Moon as a kid, before the start of the books.  (She also has other short stories and missing scenes posted, but the others should wait until you’ve caught up to those events in the books.)

Overall, they’re just kind of adorable books with wonderfully nuanced takes on some standard tropes. And I really hope there’s more soon.