A Tech-Heavy Murder Mystery: Emma Newman – After Atlas

When I finally picked up Planetfall for my Reading the Hugos project this year, I was blown away by Emma Newman’s ideas and her original characters. It ended up ranked second on my Best Series ballot (just after The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden), so of course I couldn’t wait to continue the series. I am very pleased to say that my initial euphoria for the series continued with its second volume even though it was a completely different experience to Planetfall.

AFTER ATLAS
by Emma Newman

Published: Roc, 2016
Paperback: 369 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 46 minutes
Series: Planetfall #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: It’s times like these, when I’m hunkered in a doorway, waiting for a food market of dubious legality to be set up, that I find myself wishing I could eat like everyone else.

Acclaimed author Emma Newman returns to the captivating universe she created in Planetfall with a stunning science fiction mystery where one man’s murder is much more than it seems…
Govcorp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.
To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…

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Carlos Moreno is a detective working off his debt as an indentured servant to the Noropean Ministry of Justice. When the leader of a religious cult is found dead, Carlos is sent to investigate, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he himself was once part of that cult. He discovers a lot more than the usual stuff you’d expect from a murder mystery. Cause of death, murderer, murder weapon, sure. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And it all ties into the events that led to the story of Planetfall.

Although it’s called the Planetfall series, I heard that the individual books were tied together loosely and can all be read as standalones. That is true at least for the first two volumes (I have yet to find out about the rest). After Atlas takes place 40 years after the crew of Atlas left Earth to find god. If you’ve read Planetfall you already know what happens to the people on that space ship. But they also left something behind. First and foremost, a capsule that is supposed to be opened 40 years after their departure. Secondly, people! Carl is only one of them and he was only a baby when his mother got a coveted spot on Atlas and left him and his father on Earth to go searching for god…

After that came a time spent with the Circle, an anti-tech religious cult founded by Alejandro Casales. When Carl left the Circle, his life didn’t exactly become easier but finding out more details about how he came to be an indentured servant is part of the fun of this book, so I won’t spoil.
The idea itself is both brilliant and terrifying. Carl is one of the lucky ones. He worked his ass off to turn himself into a useful “asset” and so got a well-paying job with the Ministry of Justice. It’s not a bad job as such, but there are many, many little ways in which he is reminded that he is not free. Making choices is not an option. He goes where his boss says, he does what his boss wants, he has to keep his anger in check and never step out of line, or else his contract might be prolonged for a few years and freedom may creep ever further away…

Needless to say, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding. Whereas in Planetfall we saw a completely different planet with a small society of people, here we return to Earth and learn what’s been going on there. Not only is the world run by Govcorps – corporations that own everything and so are essentially the government – but people are chipped and constantly connected and monitored. The way Emma Newman used existing technology, spun the idea further, and created her version of a future Earth felt utterly real and very much like something out of Black Mirror. The tech is both a blessing and a curse – it’s nice when MyPhys monitors your heart rate and sends an ambulance your way in case of a heart attack, for example. It’s less nice when your boss finds out about an elevated heartrate in the presence of certain people, or when your flaring anger is reported to your superiors and gains you a black mark.
I also really enjoyed Carl’s relationship with food. Most food is printed – it looks like food and it has all the necessary nutritents, but it’s not food the way we know it. You don’t use something that has grown from the earth, prepare it, cook it, spice it, and then enjoy it. You just push a button and something resembling lasagna comes out. Carl’s one luxury is that he goes out of his way to get to real food and while it’s not a very important part of the book, I totally understood him and liked him all the better for it.

But this book is also a murder mystery. Carl is sent to the hotel where Alejandro Casales was found dead. And not just dead… hanged, drawn and quartered dead. He does what any good investigator would do – he interviews people, visits the scene of the crime, looks at the evidence and draws possible conclusions. The murder itself is actually solved pretty quickly, except some small details just don’t seem to add up. Even when it becomes truly clear who killed Alejandro and why, there is still a third of this book left to go. So while the murder mystery was engaging to read, it was not the most important part of the story.

Let me talk about Carl for a second. For quite a while, I didn’t know what to make of him. He is likable enough from the start and his reaction to journalists wanting interviews with the (former) baby that was left behind by his own mother when Atlas left, is understandable to say the least. But for a long time, I didn’t see how his work for the MoJ was all that bad. It read mostly like any old job and the fact that Carl is a slave didn’t really come into play. Until it does, of course! This story may be pretty fast-paced but the worldbuilding unfolds slowly. For that reason, one of the plot twists hit me really hard and apparently put a look of utter shock on my face (the boyfriend asked me if I was okay). Because the Govcorps that owns you doesn’t just decide where your job takes you. They also decide what restrictions on technology apply to you, what music you’re allowed to listen to, which websites to visit, which mersives to watch… As comparatively easy as Carl might have it, there is always this possibility hanging over his head that his owners (how fucked up is it that Earth would find its way back to slavery in this future setting?) could take everything away that makes life somewhat worth living for him.

We follow Carl as he unravels the mysteries within mysteries, but the side characters are worth mentioning as well. There aren’t many of them but as I think back, every single one of them felt multi-layered and real. There’s not even a single character that came across as totally good or totally bad. Even the hotel staff that Carl interviews and otherwise has little contact with, felt like real people. I don’t know how Emma Newman does that, but she is damn good at it!
Throughout the story, Carl explores not just a murder, but confronts his own past and his own history with Alejandro, as well as his fraught relationship with his father whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Even his one friendship with fellow indentured servant Dee takes a hit. There’s a lot of emotional baggage to unpack for Carl and that was as much fun reading about as the plot itself.

This book does tie into the larger Planetfall universe in that the time to open that mysterious capsule has almost arrived when the story begins. No spoilers here, but I’ll let you know this much. You will get answers to the most pressing questions and Carl’s story – with its ups and downs – reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion. The ending was phenomenally done, not because everything is suddenly all sunshine and happiness – that doesn’t seem possible in Newman’s version of Earth – but because it, like the book’s characters, felt so eerily real.
I didn’t love this book quite as much as I did Planetfall but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic sci-fi novel. I’m pretty sure I’ll finish the series this year because as wrapped-up as this story may be, there is a lot more to discover in this universe.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

 

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.

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