Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Masha du Toit
 12 April 2014
 YA, fantasy
eARC from the author

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

The Light of Kerrindryr by H. Anthe Davis

The Light of KerrindryrTitle: The Light of Kerrindryr
Series: The War of Memory Cycle #1
Author: H. Anthe Davis
Published: 11 May 2013
Publisher: self-published
Source: review copy from author
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

Cob is a 17-year-old slave doing physical labour for the Crimson Army of the Phoenix Empire. He’s been a slave since the age of 8, as a consequence of his parents’ heretical belief in Dark faith. The idea is that punishing the children of such heretics is an effective conversion tool, and this strategy worked perfectly with Cob. He converted to the faith of the Imperial Light, and his devotion means that his tenure as a slave will end when he turns 18 in 5 months time.

Unfortunately, Cob is robbed of that freedom when his friend Darilan, a freesoldier, frames him for murder and chases him from the army camp. Cob finds himself doubly condemned, both for murder and running away.

Alone in the wide world for the first time, Cob turns out to be hopelessly ignorant. He’s illiterate. He grew up on a strict diet of Imperialist propaganda that he swallowed whole. He travelled with the Crimson Army, but he viewed every new place through an Imperialist perspective and doesn’t understand the nuances of people’s beliefs and cultures. Almost every time he speaks to someone he finds his beliefs challenged. People hate the Phoenix Empire and its Imperial Light religion and for good reason. The Light is not what he’s been told it is. The Dark is not the evil he believes it to be.

Cob doesn’t want to hear it, but the people who tell him these things are also the ones who help him because they oppose the Empire. He toys with the idea of returning to the Crimson Army and trying to set things straight, but then Darilan is sent to hunt him down with a contingent of soldiers. Darilan’s motives are a mystery – first he chased Cob away, then chases after him with terrifying zeal. Because of course, Cob is not just an ordinary slave. There’s something about him that the Empire wants under its control, and as a result, Darilan will chase him across the world.

First off, I’d like to mention that this is one of the best quality self-published novels I’ve read. Whenever I pick one up I brace myself for errors, weaknesses, and the kind of overall confused weirdness that typically characterises books that haven’t had enough critical readers, haven’t had a thorough scrubbing from a good editor, or should never have left the author’s brain.

The Light of Kerrindryr is not like that. It’s got some errors, but nothing major. It has the feel of a serious, structured endeavour rather than an early draft, and it doesn’t turn into an increasingly random mess as has been the case with some indie and self-published novels. There are two things in particular that I want to talk about – Cob, and the worldbuilding.

Cob’s character goes through a standard kind of hero’s journey – orphan turns out to be a chosen one with special powers – but mostly I was interested in the psychology of his character even though I didn’t like him because he’s a daft, self-righteous little git. He starts out being rigidly religious. Even though the Empire killed his father, imprisoned his mother and made him a slave, he believes wholeheartedly in the Imperial religion, blaming his father for his ‘Dark’ beliefs rather than the Empire for its intolerance. He’s proud to be an Imperialist, grateful that the Empire saved him. He accepts slavery the same way that other people accept having to go to high school. He says he wouldn’t hesitate to turn in his fellow slaves if they acted against the Imperial Light. He doesn’t mind that the Imperials mages routinely brainwash people to keep them controlled. When a woman offers him food an shelter he accepts it reluctantly, thinking guiltily that he should instead kill her cat and burn her books because she’s obviously witchfolk. The Empire offers Cob nothing but slavery and death, but he sees it as offering purification and salvation.

He knows very little about the world so people are always explaining things to him (a useful way of explaining things to the reader too) and he scoffs whenever their information contradicts what the Imperials told him. It’s not surprising that he reacts with hostility or even violence when his beliefs are challenged, although I feel particularly unsympathetic to him when he’s hostile toward the people who help him, often at great risk to themselves.

So yeah, Cob can be a stupid asshole, but that’s alright. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to like the main character; I just need to understand them. What I like about the way Davis wrote Cob is that you know why he does what he does even when you want to slap him, but he’s not so vile that he makes the book unpleasant.

And sometimes I really felt for him. He might have chosen the Empire over his parents, but he describes them as quasi-hermits who never spoke much so they probably didn’t have a strong bond. They seemed to fail him while the Empire seemed to save and support him. His whole world falls apart when Darilan betrays him, and while he might seem stupid for wanting to go back to being a slave in the camp, you can also understand that he wants to return to a familiar, structured world. I want him to be smarter and more open to different beliefs, but you can’t demand that a character fit your desires and most people find it difficult to change their beliefs, especially so suddenly and drastically. And Cob is forced to go through all this because he’s being used and manipulated. The poor boy has very little agency and no one really seems to care about him (not that he ever helps matters).

The one thing I admired about him was his friendship with Darilan. And it is a friendship, despite Darilan’s betrayal. For years, Darilan was a kind companion to Cob in an otherwise lonely life, and when Cob was severely injured by a wraith arrow, Darilan sat at his bedside until he recovered. Cob isn’t so stupid as to go running into Darilan’s arms when the man starts hunting him, but he never forgets that Darilan was good to him. Darilan himself turns out to be an interesting character, although it would spoil things for me to say why.

Let me get on to the worldbuilding. It’s pretty extensive, and keeps going throughout the book. There are loads of locations, descriptions of sociopolitical relations between those locations, Imperial politics, religion, myth, magic, culture, etc. What I need to admit though, is that a lot of this goes in one ear and out the other with me. I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy specifically because it’s extremely detailed in ways I don’t necessarily enjoy or even care about. Two major exceptions are The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I devoured the worldbuilding in those books because it’s particularly vivid and unusual but I get the impression that these series are unique in the genre. I like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I find the amount of detail in those books increasingly tedious and too easily forgotten. I don’t ever want to read Tolkien again.

But I know epic fantasy fans love long books with lots of detail. And this is a long, detailed book – it’s listed as being 446 pages on Goodreads, but my Kindle shows over 10 000 locations, which puts it something more like 800 pages. This is not something I appreciate, but I feel bad because I get the sense that the author put in a lot of effort and yet I’m never going to remember how the architecture of one town differs from another or the specifics of the creation myth.

That said, I liked was the novel’s ability to surprise and impress me with its worldbuilding and plot. The world just keeps growing, opening itself up to you. Several times when I thought it was becoming a bit too conventional or dull, something new and interesting would be revealed. The characters will be riding along on their horses, which turn out to be weird breeds – Tasgard horses are powerful lion-tailed omnivores with sharp canines; Ten-Sky horses have striped coats, short spiral horns and split-hooves. I thought all the people were human until suddenly ogres, goblins and other creatures popped up. Cob is not the only character who is more than he appears to be. And in among the fantasy are elements that feel more like sci fi, giving the book a more interesting feel.

However, there are things in which I wish the author had more surprises and nuances to reveal. Like in the Phoenix Empire, which is irredeemably evil. I don’t like this; I prefer the moral complications of grey areas, and the Empire… well. Under Imperial rule, cats are killed because they’re believed to be witchbeasts who spy for the Dark. It’s illegal for commoners to own books. Mages brainwash people as a matter of routine. The Empire is a fanatically religious, propagandising, cat-killing, slave-owning, book-burning, brainwashing monster. There’s no hope here.

I would also have preferred more female characters. There are a few, most notably a 21-year-old woman named Lark who teaches Cob about the Shadow world, a parallel realm in which she is a kind of business person/diplomat. But Lark is one of very few women and the only one with a major role. As seems the norm in epic fantasy, this is a sexist world and the female characters are scattered. On the plus side, there are plenty of POC characters because this is an openly multicultural world, and that’s worth a lot in this genre.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but it’s similar to the worldbuilding in that it’s long and detailed (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but it has twists and surprises that I liked. Lots of different elements are brought into play, preparing the stage for an even more expansive and thrilling sequel. I’m not sure if I’ll read the next book, but that’s because I think this book just isn’t for me. I have to admire it as a self-published novel though, one that I’d definitely recommend to epic fantasy fans.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
First published 2012; published by Crown on 11 February 2014
science fiction
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Mark Watney is on the Ares 3 Mars mission with 5 other crew members when they’re forced to abort because of a devastating sandstorm. But before Mark can get to safety, he’s swept away by a dust storm and left injured and unconscious. His biomonitor is damaged, so the crew have every reason to believe he’s dead and are forced to leave without him.

Mark wakes up and manages to save himself, but finds himself in rather bleak circumstances:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m fucked.

In addition to this he’s also working in very delicate circumstances, in a very hostile environment, so the slightest mistake or oversight could kill him too.

But none of it deters Mark. He immediately focuses on survival, finding unexpected solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. His goal is to survive until the next Mars mission. In four years.

Meanwhile, at NASA, an undervalued engineer notices that the satellite picture of the Ares 3 site show unexplained signs of movement…

This sounds like it could be extremely boring – one lone man going about the very practical business of surviving on Mars without even the drama of aliens or something? Sounds too much like a documentary. But it works. Not just works, actually –  it’s also interesting, tense, exciting, funny, and emotional. It doesn’t need aliens because surviving alone on Mars is insane enough. It does drag at times, but it still manages to be a more entertaining read than many books that have a lot more to work with.

So, what makes it good? Mark’s character plays a huge role in that. One of the reasons he has a chance of surviving on Mars is that he’s an amazing problem solver, and a large portion of the book is devoted to the mission logs where he describes how he survives. This sounds like one of the most potentially boring parts, but even as someone who hates the rigour of hard sf, I found it very interesting and impressive. He specifically states that he’ll explain how Mars missions work just in case a layman reads his logs, and he sticks to that style throughout.

Mark is a botanist and engineer, so it’s not long before he’s figured out how make water FROM SCRATCH and turn his habitat into a potato farm. He sorts out his air supply and modifies his rover for long-distance travel. On the downside, he also turns his habitat into a bomb and causes an explosion by breathing, but that’s all just part of the thrills of life on Mars. In many ways, this book provides a basic education on how complicated and dangerous space travel is.

I couldn’t tell you how accurate it all is, but it certainly gives the impression of being completely accurate, which, for sf fans like myself, is really all that matters. Admittedly I didn’t always understand exactly what Mark was doing, but the how and why are easy to understand and that’s good enough. Yes, there’s a ton of science and maths, but Mark keeps it manageable.

The other thing that helps Mark survive and make the book readable is his sense of humour. He’s always making little jokes or framing his life-threatening endeavours in amusing ways. It keeps the tone light, keeps Mark motivated, and is often laugh-out-loud funny. I love how he complains that he’s stuck with disco music and crappy 70s sitcoms for entertainment, and how he explains that, according to international law, he is in fact a space pirate. This kind of stuff is is essential. His story could be very depressing and the realism of it suggests that Mark could die before being rescued. The humour saves it from that fate.

It could also be bogged down by Mark’s emotional and physical suffering but, thankfully, there’s very little of that. Most of Mark’s narrative is made up of mission logs, which means he chooses how to describe his experience. He focuses on his methods of survival, throws in a lot of perfectly justified bitching, and makes jokes, but he very rarely feels sorry for himself or wallows in the wretchedness of his situation. If anything, he survives because he’s the kind of person who doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s quite possible that he gets depressed and maudlin, but he doesn’t make the reader suffer through that too.

Another thing that makes this a good book narratively, is that it’s very well paced. We alternate nicely between dilemmas and triumphs, between great worry and huge relief. When Mark’s narrative starts to get a bit tiring, we suddenly go back to Earth where an observant engineer realises that Mark is still alive. That adds another dimension to the story, and from then on we move back and forth between NASA and Mars. It becomes quite a page-turner.

It did drag for a bit in the middle though. When I hit the halfway point I was so ready for Mark to be rescued, and I was a bit depressed by how much book I still had to get through. After a while though, the story climbs out of the rut and gets interesting again, as we move closer to what will either be Mark’s rescue or his death.

There is one thing I wondered about that the novel only mentions in passing – the public’s reaction to the cost of saving Mark. It costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to save one man (albeit a highly intelligent and skilled man whose experience constitutes unprecedented research). On the one hand, it’s an incredible story and people all over the world are following closely and hoping for a happy ending. I was hoping desperately for a happy ending too. On the other hand, it seems easier to get money and resources for this than, say, public health care, housing for the poor, environmental protection, etc. It’s mentioned that people start asking how much is too much, but that’s really all the book has to say about it.

Admittedly though, that issue might have hindered rather than helped what is already a (mostly) excellent story. I’ve heard that the movie rights have been sold and I think this would be fantastic on the big screen – all the tension and humour of the book, with a stunning visual component. That’d also complete the indie-dream that is this book – it started out as a free story on the author’s website, then he sold a Kindle version on Amazon for 99c, it got picked up by a major publisher, and film rights were sold. How awesome is that? But deservedly so. Well done Andy Weir 🙂

Review of Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle

Twin-Bred2 by Karen A WyleTitle: Twin-Bred
Series: Twin-Bred
Karen A. Wyle
 13 October 2011
science fiction
 eARC from the author

When considering the possibility of alien contact, I worry how humanity will behave. As a species, we have frequently proven to be intolerant or hostile when confronted with difference (of race, gender, culture, nationality etc.). Sf has frequently used the alien as a metaphor for the other, exposing and critiquing modes of prejudice and oppression. Less socially conscious tales often reveal our assumptions about the other; consider the stereotype of aliens kidnapping humans for experiments or how many sf stories are about violent alien invaders, portraying other intelligent species as our enemies.

Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle is a case of humans behaving badly towards an alien whose motives and culture they do not understand because they can’t or won’t speak to them. It’s an almost embarrassing portrayal of close-minded people encountering a race of technologically inferior beings who might turn hostile.

In the novel, a human colony has been living on the planet Tofarn for 70 years. They share the world with the indigenous Tofa, a race of inscrutable four-armed aliens who don’t have any facial features except a blank pair of eyes. The humans do not know how to communicate with the Tofa, and after seven decades of co-habitation the two races still don’t understand each other. So far, this hasn’t been too problematic and the Tofa didn’t seem accepting of the human presence on their planet. But every now and then a conflict arises: the Tofa pack up and leave a village for reasons the humans cannot discern; they complain that humans are shaking hands in public or wearing the colour blue; they make a noise to prevent the humans sleeping at night.

Mara, an ambitious but emotionally dysfunctional young scientist, comes up with a solution: breeding human and Tofa twins. They will not have any genetic relationship; instead, a host mother (human or Tofa) will be implanted with both a human and a Tofa foetus. Mara believes that sharing a womb will forge a unique bond between the twins, finally enabling the two species to communicate. The humans will be able to learn about the Tofa, and the twins will be trained to resolve inter-species conflicts.

Mara’s idea is the result of her bond with Levi, her own twin who died in utero. Mara has secretly kept him alive in her mind as an entity who is also her only friend and confidant. Mara even names her twin project after him: the Long-Term Emissary Viviparous Initiative or L.E.V.I.

The Project gets government backing, probably because the government officials all have their own agendas, hoping to use the twins and their abilities to gain power and influence. Even the Tofa seem to be plotting something, not that any of the humans have the means of finding out what they’re up to.

Now that you have the gist of the plot, I’ll return to the start and begin unpacking all the ludicrously implausible aspects of this story. Humans lived for 70 YEARS on Tofarn without talking to the Tofa. SEVENTY YEARS. There are actually villages and towns where the two species live together, but still, nothing. Granted, the Tofa are not what you’d call sociable, but the overwhelming impression I got is that humans didn’t even try. It seemed like they took one look at the Tofa’s featureless faces, and gave up any hope of conversation. A couple of them might have tried speaking loudly in English.

But guess what: the Tofa have mouths and they can speak. A little girl named Laura learns this when she befriends a young Tofa who tells her his name. Her father tells her that Tofa mouths are just hidden by membranes. She tells her friend Veda this and introduces her to the Tofa. They play together until the Tofa’s father comes and breaks up the friendship. Laura, her father, and Veda never mention this groundbreaking information to anybody, and no one reports a similar experience.

So humanity plods along in total ignorance. Apparently they left Earth without realising they might encounter beings who aren’t exactly like humans. Many of them are outright racist and a couple behave like rednecks whose ideal social gathering would be a lynch mob. It’s been seventy years and the sight or close proximity of the Tofa still disgusts and disturbs them. The Tofa basically allowed them to set up a very comfortable colony on their planet, and all the humans can do is complain about how weird and icky the aliens are.

Enter Mara with L.E.V.I. Because when people don’t even want to look at the Tofa you can try implanting human women with their foetuses. Humanity goes from making virtually no effort at communication to setting up an extremely complex, long-term, expensive Project based on an “uncertain and speculative” hypothesis from a scientist with serious mental problems.There are so many holes in this Project it’s easier for me to put a few in point form:

  • Humans know NOTHING about Tofa biology. They haven’t even realised that the Tofa have mouths. They don’t know how Tofa reproduce. How could anyone possibly conceive of a Project that involves implanting Tofa and human mothers with embryos of both species?
  • Most humans seem disgusted or at least disturbed by the Tofa, so why is it so easy to get host mothers who are willing to carry an alien foetus?
  • The humans can’t speak Tofa and the Tofa can’t speak English so they have to explain the Project using drawings with stick figures. WTF?
  • If the humans can explain something as complex as the Project using stick figures, then why didn’t they try this before or after?
  • The Tofa are technologically inferior to the humans, so how are they able to harvest and store embryos for the human scientists to use?

But whatever. The Project continues as (badly) planned, with a few hiccups like foetuses dying or human mothers freaking out when they see alien babies inside them during the ultrasounds (were they not briefed?). Nevertheless, a bunch of healthy human-Tofa twins are born.

The Tofa children are taught to speak English, which they do as easily as the human children. And to everyone’s shock, the Tofa mothers learn to speak English too, picking it up while living in the Project compound. If communicating was so simple why have none of the Tofa done it before?! Yes, they aren’t generally in favour of speaking to humans, but if the mothers are so willing to do it, I find it impossible that they were the first. The ending reveals additional reasons for the Tofa remaining aloof, but it’s unconvincing and just leaves you with another slew of questions.

It’s impossible for the humans to truly learn the Tofa language, because it has a telepathic component, so humans are conveniently exempt from having to bother. But you’d think that the human scientists would spend every waking moment learning everything they can about Tofa biology and culture. They don’t. Or at least they don’t seem to. Every revelation happens by chance, usually when the twins are playing together and one of the adults notices something unusual and asks for an explanation. It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider what some of the staff members are like – even after years spent working on the Project they still squirm at the sight of human and Tofa children sitting together, or seeing a Tofa come up to speak to them. Considering the resources that must have gone into the Project, it seems almost fruitless.

Even more so when the twin-bred are actually sent out on their first assignments. Up to this point, the Project remained top secret (highly unlikely, given their sloppy security measures). You can imagine what happens when the the results of a human/alien breeding program are introduced as surprise communication specialists to a world full of people who don’t like aliens. FAIL.

There are loads of other plot issues, but there’s not much point getting into them; you get the picture. I’ll move on to the writing, characters and worldbuilding.

The writing is fine and seems to have been properly edited, but the style or structure is very strange – Wyle tells the entire story in brief sections with more POVs than I could possibly remember. Most of these are only a few paragraphs long; the longest scenes are maybe 2 or 3 pages. The result is that the story moves very quickly because each little section is like a report on an issue or development in the plot, which covers 30-40 years. You could argue that this very perfunctory narration suits the pseudo-scientific plot, but it’s also completely… um, alienating. It struck me as a means of writing a novel if you were focussing on the plot but weren’t in the mood for things like character development or worldbuilding.

There are far too many characters, quite possibly more than I’ve encountered in any novel. Many of them make such minuscule contributions to the plot that it doesn’t matter if you instantly forget who they are. Sometimes Wyle randomly throws in a new character with a name, job title and a cup of coffee just so they can make a minor point about something. There’s almost no characterisation except to distinguish Tofa children from their human twins and to emphasise how socially inept Mara is. She’s actually the only character with a personality, but at the same time I found her thoroughly unlikeable.

The worldbuilding is equally flat. Tofarn is the most un-alien alien planet I’ve ever come across. It’s like a human society on Earth with a scattering of aliens thrown in. We hear very little or absolutely nothing about the flora, fauna, climate, geography, etc. of Tofarn. Whatever is mentioned has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The humans are still in the process of reproducing what they had on Earth (they don’t have the resources to farm cows yet, for example), but most of the time you could forget that they were on another planet. Their society is almost identical to an affluent American town. They eat chocolate and muffins, wear leather, keeps cats as pets. The only major differences are the technological advancements like hover cars and the tablets everyone carries around in lieu of cellphones.  It makes perfect sense that they brought the necessary plant seeds, animal DNA and tech from Earth, but how is it that everything works perfectly on Tofa? Did they not have to make any adjustments? How do the humans even know that the planet is called Tofa?

Even though I didn’t like the way the humans behaved or how mysterious the Tofa are as an alien race, I can accept that as the tough situation within which the characters must struggle. One of the more interesting aspects of the plot was the way some people viewed the Project as a means of customising the Tofa, making them more acceptable to humans. Clearly the novel is meant to function as a critique of intolerance, which is good, although it ends up being quite defeatist about the issue. But I can accept that too – we can’t always have he endings we want. What I can’t ignore are all those other flaws. It’s just so deficient in the speculative part inherent in speculative fiction.