Swarm and Nexus by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld – a review

I recently read the second two books in the Zeroes trilogy by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld (Swarm and Nexus). Long time blog readers might recall that I read, and enjoyed, the first book in the series a while back.

From Goodreads:

EVERY POWER HAS A DARK SIDE. Keep the secret. Use your power for good. Keep out of trouble. Stick together. Or things will fall apart.

It’s the holiday season, but the celebration at the Zeroes’ underground nightclub is blown apart when two strangers with new powers take to the dance floor. The Zeroes pursue them, only to discover that they’re fleeing an even more sinister power-wielder, Swarm. The Zeroes must learn all they can about this dangerous new player if they are to stay safe.

Meanwhile each of the Zeroes also has their own issues to deal with. Bellwether’s confidence is challenged, and Mob questions the nature of her power. Crash’s conscience gets a workout, and Anon and Scam face harsh truths about belonging. And it’s up to Flicker to pick up the reins and lead the Zeroes into a terrifying showdown.

A terrific sequel with a cracking pace that raises the stakes in this brilliant and unique superheroes series.

From Goodreads:

The Zeroes are in disarray.
One of them has vanished into thin air.
One of them is in prison.
The rest of them are on the most-wanted list.
And something big is brewing.

After defeating Swarm in a breath-taking stand-off, Nate has been arrested for his murder. In prison and isolated, he can’t use his powers of influence at all. Flicker, Chizara, Kelsie and Ethan are on the run and in hiding from the FBI who believe the Cambria Five are domestic terrorists. And Agent Phan and the FBI have a secret weapon up their sleeve – a teenager with a superpower that the Zeroes haven’t encountered yet.

Meanwhile, Sonia Sonic and her growing band of weird-hunters are tracking inexplicable events across the country – and their investigations lead them to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where the celebrating crowds promise enormous power to anyone who can channel it. Time is running out for the Zeroes, but they must learn to trust each other again and combine their powers for good – to avert the looming disaster.

A brilliant, action-packed conclusion to the superb Zeroes series.

All my points from my review of the first book remain true. While it is very young adult perspective, there was enough adult material to hook me in.

I really like the idea of “networked” powers in this series. I was recently talking to a group of young people about the way they engage with social media, and I was blown away by what was essentially the sophisticated network theory analysis that they used to navigate that space. Rather than focus on individual posts or tweets, they seemed to hold a map in their head of a pattern of social media interaction from individuals they followed. They made judgements on authenticity and levels of accuracy based around these patterns. It was fascinating, and made the way the powers in this series work even more interesting as a reflection on this way of seeing the world. It made me feel old at the same time, but that’s my problem not the book’s!

The crisis level ratcheted up at an appropriate pace across the two books, with appropriately more powerful “bad guys” to stretch our heroes. What struck me though was how contained the story telling was. The progression seemed natural. Right up until the end, the stakes were high but not preposterously so. Of course, right at the end everything went a bit bonkers, with world changing consequences, but hey – this is speculative fiction. What’s not to like about a bit of bonkers? I could understand why some people might get put off by the sudden change in pace, but I liked it.

The level of teen angst was kept to a minimum, which I liked. That’s not to say there isn’t angst, but considering everything going on it was appropriate/proportional to the level of crisis.

The narrative voice for each point of view remained very consistent. I assume that the authors probably split up the work so that each author was responsible for different characters, but the overall effect worked. They seemed to work well together, and the work was well edited. If there were seams where one author ended and another began, they weren’t clunky, and I was well and truly able to suspend my disbelief.

Considering how over the top the last part of the last book got, I was happy with the ending. As a reader, I had a good sense of completion, without loose threads irritating me.

Overall, this is a good trilogy and one well worth your time, especially if you’re interested in a millennial take on super powers. Well and truly recommended.

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti – a review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.



I am a big fan of Australian author Deborah Biancotti’s work. It particular, I really enjoyed a short collection of hers called Bad Power from a few years back (see my review here). Bad Power focused on the downside of having super powers, and ever since reading it I’ve been hoping for a novel set in the Bad Power universe. I’m still waiting for that novel, but let me tell you Zeroes by Deborah Biancotti, Scott Westerfeld and Margo Lanagan is the next best thing.

From Goodreads:

Don’t call them heroes.

But these six Californian teens have powers that set them apart. They can do stuff ordinary people can’t.

Take Ethan, a.k.a. Scam. He’s got a voice inside him that’ll say whatever you want to hear, whether it’s true or not. Which is handy, except when it isn’t—like when the voice starts gabbing in the middle of a bank robbery. The only people who can help are the other Zeroes, who aren’t exactly best friends these days.

Enter Nate, a.k.a. Bellwether, the group’s “glorious leader.” After Scam’s SOS, he pulls the scattered Zeroes back together. But when the rescue blows up in their faces, the Zeroes find themselves propelled into whirlwind encounters with ever more dangerous criminals. And at the heart of the chaos they find Kelsie, who can take a crowd in the palm of her hand and tame it or let it loose as she pleases.

Filled with high-stakes action and drama, Zeroes unites three powerhouse authors for the opening installment of a thrilling new series.

I’m not usually a big fan of young adult work. While there is some excellent quality writing in the young adult genre, I find that the themes and characters in the novels are directed (quite correctly) at a much younger market, and as a result they don’t tend to resonate as strongly with me. Zeroes, however, did manage to hook me in. The protagonists are all teenagers, all born in the year 2000 and all in possession of superpowers. But their powers have serious limitations and they screw things up as often as they fix them, and I found that did resonate with me. My own (fading) memories of youth are of uncertainty, inexperience and getting things wrong. I think one of the reasons why I don’t connect with young adult books very much is that there is too much competence amongst the young characters who have no real life experience.

The take on superpowers in Zeroes is very cool, and very 21st century. The bulk of the powers rely on networking effects, amplified impact when groups or crowds are involved. In the age of mobile phones and social media, this move away from the awesomely powerful individual makes a lot of sense and is remarkably engaging.

All of the characters are flawed, there are no pure heroes to be had here. Greed, narcism and one character who is worryingly sociopathic – a full range of negative emotions and motivations are on display. So, I was surprised to find myself feeling a real connection to this set of characters – as a reader I wanted them to overcome their limitations, wanted them to become better. And the authors skilfully guide the character development to a satisfying payoff. No-one qualifies for sainthood by the end of the book, but there is real growth across what is a large cast of characters.

I was interested to see whether a book written by three authors could achieve the right level of consistency for a novel. I was pleased to find that I couldn’t really see the seams in the writing, it did feel like a cohesive book. I have read and enjoyed works by Lanagan and Biancotti, and this book had echoes of both but was very much its own thing. As a writer, I’m interested in their writing process, I understand that they put a lot of emphasis on achieving that consistency.

The plot itself moves along at a good pace, and I thought the authors effectively ratcheted up the tension by creating increasingly high stakes situations and good interpersonal interactions between the characters.

This is a funny book – lots of humour from the characters and plenty of amusing situations. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a strong line in humour, but it was refreshing and served to counteract some of the teenage angst that is necessary in even a well written young adult novel.

There was a good focus on diversity in the novel, with a good gender balance amongst the protagonists and a mix of ethnicities and a disabled character. The novel isn’t preachy about diversity, but I’ve really been enjoying work that portrays a wide range of characters without making a big deal of it, and this book definitely fits that description.

Considering I originally picked up Zeroes partly to be a Biancotti completest, I had a very enjoyable experience reading this book. Highly recommended for young adult readers and people who like their superheroes flawed and very 21st century.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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Zeroes – news

I usually leave news items to people that are better at it than me, like Sean Wright and Alex Pierce for instance. But one piece of recent Australian speculative fiction news has got me very excited, and I just had to share.

Long time readers of the blog might recall that I have a slight literary crush on the writing of Australian author Deb Biancotti, in particular her collection Bad PowerI also loved her other collection The Book of Endings. And don’t get me started on her contribution to Ishtar. I have long bemoaned the fact that she hasn’t published anything for a while, and I have been particularly interested in how she might extend her take on super powers into the novel format.

So imagine my delight when I recently read that Biancotti has co-authored a trilogy with fellow Australians Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld. The announcements can be found here, here and here:

The first book is due out in September 2015, and I am all excitement. You can probably assume I will review the book.

As a side note, I was very interested to read about the writing process when three authors collaborate. Especially as it seemed to involve a significant investment of time at the local pub!

It’s available for pre-order at Amazon (but only in hardback at the moment).

Ishtar by Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti and Cat Sparks – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

Ishtar is a collection of three novellas, each dealing with the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war and sex Ishtar. The book is cleverly put together, with each novella putting the Ishtar character in very different time settings (one in the ancient past, one in contemporary times and one in a dystopian future). This, combined with radically different story telling styles, avoids any continuity issues.

Having said that, the stories do work very well together. While they have obviously been written separately and in completely different styles, there are quite a few shared details that make the collection feel cohesive. Excellent editing must have gone into making this collection work as more than the sum of its parts.

For those who don’t know much about Ishtar mythology (such as yours truly for instance), the collection is an interesting insight into an unfamiliar pantheon. The stories seem very well researched (to the point of having a reference material bibliography at the back of the book for one of the novellas). Those who are better versed in Assyrian/Babylonion lore will probably find a layer of interpretation and meaning that eludes a newcomer such as myself.

In recent weeks the collection has been nominated in the Best Collected Work category for the Ditmars (Australian speculative fiction popular vote award) and in the Best Anthology category for the Aurealis Awards (Australian speculative fiction judged award).

The Five Loves of Ishtar by Kaaron Warren in the first story in the collection. Each of the titular five loves are spread out over a large timescale in ancient history and their stories are told as separate “sub-stories”. Ms Warren uses a third party narrator to describe each of the tales, but makes each narrator from a single family line of washerwomen servants to the goddess. This cleverly allows her to use different voices in telling each of the stories, while still maintaining a sense of connection between them. It also was a very effective in conveying the timescale of the story.

Ms Warren does an excellent job of capturing the mercurial nature of the goddess, and the ancient setting does make the reader feel like they are learning something as well as being entertained. The switch between voices of the very human washerwomen and their insights into the nature of the relationships playing out for the goddess made it much more interesting than if Ishtar or her lovers had been the point of view character.

And The Dead Shall Outnumber the Living by Deborah Biancotti is the middle novella of the collection. Set in modern day Sydney, the story follows a detective, Adrienne Garner, investigating a string of bizarre murders which lead her fairly quickly to a Ishtar worshipping cult.

The style of the story reminded me of some of the stories in Ms Biancotti’s Bad Power. It has a dark contemporary urban fantasy feel. The fantastical elements build in a very satisfying manner from the start of the story. The story moved at a fair clip, with a lot of action occurring (especially in the last third of the novella). This was the quickest read of the collection for me.

The main character, Adrienne, is well drawn and sympathetic. She is obviously very competent and experienced, but has an edge of fragility which makes the reader concerned for her ability to deal with the increasingly bizarre circumstances she finds herself in. The fact that she rises to the occasion makes for a very satisfying character arc.

For readers living in or familiar with Sydney, there are a lot of landmarks called out. Most of the action centres around places most people will recognise regardless of their knowledge of the city (the Harbour Bridge, Opera House etc), but there were also a lot of references to slightly more obscure locations which allows the native Sydneysider to feel knowledgable and slightly smug (which shows that Ms Biancotti knows what that particular target market likes).

And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living has been nominated for a lot of awards, including Horror Short Story in the Aurealis Awards,  Best Novella or Novellette in the Ditmar Awards and the Novella category in the Shirley Jackson Awards (international award focusing on “dark” speculative fiction).

The collection is rounded out by The Sleeping and the Dead by Cat Sparks. This story is set in the future, after some referenced but not fully explained war that has left the world devestated (some linkages between the novellas are drawn on to leave the reader wondering more about the events at the end of And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living). Anna is a doctor working in a remote location providing fertility treatments to the increasingly desperate women who survived the devestation (and there aren’t many of them).

Anna hears of a man running an underground facility who may or may not be a former lover. The story of her attempts to find him, and her discovery of more and more about herself and her past, form the spine of this novella.

The story is written in a very different style again from the first two, and this is a very different take on Ishtar. It was very interesting how the details of the dystopian world harken back to the mythology explored in the earlier stories. Without saying too much about the end, there was a feeling of a circle being completed.

Ms Sparks sketches fantastically vivid minor characters with an enviable economy, which added to the ambiance of the novel. The locations were also well realised and suitably hellish for a dystopia. I was particularly partial to some of the imagery when Anna could see visions of the time before superimposed over the wastelands around her.

The Sleeping and the Dead has been nominated in the Best Novella or Novellette category in the Ditmar Awards.

Ishtar was very enjoyable and I can certainly see why it has garnered such praise and award nominations. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

A Book of Endings is a short story collection by Deborah Biancotti. I first came across Ms Biancotti’s work when I read Bad Power earlier in the year, which I liked very much. As a result I’ve been eager to get my hands on A Book of Endings.

So, already being predisposed to like Ms Biancotti’s work, I got about three quarters of the way through A Book of Endings and felt compelled to click the “become a fan of this author” button on Goodreads. I enjoyed the way that characters were described and developed (difficult in the shorter forms), I enjoyed the turn of phrase used and I found the settings and language to be atmospheric. It was a great reading experience.

That’s not to say that I necessarily “got” every story. There were quite a few times where I had to go back and give a story a second read (or at least read the last few paragraphs very carefully) to draw a conclusion about what I thought had happened. In the Afterword, Ms Biancotti talks about her stories being criticised for having an unsatisfying ending (hence the name). As I’ve reflected back over my reading experience of the collection, I realised that I’d spent a great deal of time over the last week or so musing over various stories, puzzling and teasing away at them at the back of my mind while I formed an opinion on what I thought they meant. That, to me, is not an unsatisfying pastime.

(Of course, in re-reading the previous paragraph I realise an alternative explanation for my inability to achieve immediate comprehension could be a lack of intellectual horsepower on my part. I choose to believe that the stories are designed to provoke thought and thus have a deliberate level of ambiguity. It helps me sleep at night).

Ms Biancotti speaks in the Afterword about the theme of work that runs through many of her stories – one’s sense of identity outside of work, balancing work with life, the terrible things that can be justified as just being part of a job. It was interesting to reconsider some of the stories in that light when preparing for this review. That kind of reflection is not something I would normally do when I finish a book – a benefit perhaps of taking the time to write up a review!

There are 21 stories in the collection. I’m not going to comment on them all or give away much by way of plot/storyline (not useful when describing a collection of short fiction), but I will make comment on a couple of examples that particularly struck me.

The collection opens with a couple of intriguing stories that start off in a seemingly normal world, and get progressively weirder. Diamond Shell and Number 3 Raw Place create the sense of a contemporary setting, then gradually created a steadily increasing sense of the disconnection for the characters using supernatural devices. Both stories had endings that fell into the “read twice” category for me.

Hush was an interesting take on future world where human minds are mashed in with animals. Once I started to read it I realised that I had come across Hush before in audio form on the Terra Incognita Speculative Fiction podcast. The ending of this story really stuck with me.

I enjoyed the structure of Pale Dark Soldier, with the form of the story matching the state of mind of the narrator. Well developed and very disturbing.

The stories in the middle section had a more dystopian feel – futures with energy and water shortages for example. A good example was Watertight Lies, which particularly caught my attention for its very enjoyable dialogue and was certainly one of the stories where the ending was easily understood, but was somewhat of a cliff hanger, leaving you wanting to find out more.

Six Suicides was another story where our found the structure very interesting – interconnected mini-stories which gave an experience somewhat akin to peeling an onion as layers of the story were revealed.

I really enjoyed The Tailor of Time and King of All and the Metal Sentinel. Both stories focused on creatures acting out a pre-programmed course (literally in one case). The stories providing interestingly contrasting treatments of the ability transcend the limitations of your job, and I think it was a good choice to have the two stories next to each other in the collection.

I found Stealing Free to just be a fun story – I liked the level of the absurd (I’ve never ever thought of a thieving Salamander as the hero of a story). The vast bulk of the stories in the collection deal with more serious themes, Stealing Free did a good job of providing some comic relief – a transient lowering of intensity which helped sustain the reading experience.

The Razor Salesman did an excellent job of building tension throughout the story with a surprising result at the end. I found it quite gripping.

Overall I found this to be an excellent collection, thought provoking and beautifully written. It has reinforced my hope of seeing more work by Ms Biancotti in the future – I would love to see what she would do with a longer work. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti is one of the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press (12 boutique collections of stories by Australian women writers). It is made up of five shorter stories, including:

  • Shades of Grey
  • Palming the Lady
  • Web of Lies
  • Bad Power
  • Cross That Bridge

This is the first work by Ms Biancotti that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The five stories are set it the same world, a version of modern Australia where some people have highly unique and personalised powers (the exception being the short story Bad Power which is set in the same world but in an earlier time period).

I think the setting established in this collection would lend itself well to a longer story as well, and this collection did an excellent job at establishing a very interesting background if Ms Biancotti ever decided to go in that direction.

I loved the way the stories related. They were very cleverly crafted to fit in to one other well. Minor characters introduced in one story become dominant in another. I don’t think you’d get anywhere near as much impact/understanding if you read the stories out of order. The writing is fairly dark but with very balanced characters and each story contains an interesting exploration of aspects of human nature and how people react to the unknown.

Shades of Grey introduces the world and Samuel Rainer (“Esser”) Grey, a wealthy man used to getting his own way in life who finds that he is literally indestructible and isn’t impressed. It is an interesting exploration of a man who, through both his wealth and his power, finds himself living a consequence free life and the lengths he goes to in order to try and re-introduce consequences into it to feel more human. This is not a pleasant tale – Ms Biancotti takes Grey to a dark place. But as a result the story packed more of a punch.

Palming the Lady takes a minor character from the first story, Detective Enora Palmer and makes her the lead. In this story, she is investigating a complaint by a university student (Matthew Webb – somewhat unlikeable in this story which is unfortunate given our shared last name) about being stalked by a homeless woman. It turns out the homeless woman has a power as well. I liked the way the unnamed homeless woman was described, taking the reader from a superficial description of her appearance (mimicking most of our initial reactions to homeless people) to making her a very sympathetic, richly described character, all without telling us her name.

Web of Lies focuses on in on the Matthew Webb character. His father has just died, and it turns out that Webb has a power as well, one that his father has kept him medicated against for most of his life. The story is mostly told from Webb’s drug/alcohol/hangover addled perspective. With Webb’s disintegration we also see his mother’s emergence from her own prescription drug haze. The mother character is very interesting/chilling, and by the end of the story I found myself rethinking the entire family power dynamics.

Bad Power was very interesting. Told in first person and in a different (much earlier) time period, it tells the story of one of the first people in Australia to have emerging powers and the reaction of those around her. The style of story telling is very different, and to be honest it took me a couple of pages to work out what was going on (the connection between the first three stories is a lot clearer, this one you have to work at a bit). The story telling is strong and quite dark, but the ending is more surprising as a result. Having finished the book and looking back, I would say this is probably my favourite story of the lot although I might not have said that when I was in the middle of reading it. I think the shift in time and setting worked well to provide a contrast to the other stories.

Cross That Bridge is back to modern Australia, this time focusing on Detective Palmer’s new partner Detective Maxillius Ponti. Detective Ponti has a knack for finding lost children and uses it to track down Angie, a young girl who has used a power of her own to leave her suburban life behind. It is probably the most optimistic of the five stories, with Detective Ponti seeming comfortable with his power and using it for good. It nicely rounds out the collection.

The blurb for this book says “If you like Haven and Heroes, you’ll love Bad Power“. Having just watched season 1 of Haven, I can certainly see where the comparison is coming from – Detective Palmer reminded me a lot of Special Agent Audrey Parker and the view of powers as more of a curse than a blessing is a theme that runs through both shows. Bad Power is sufficiently different as to stand apart though – as much as I enjoyed Haven, Bad Power is a much more intelligent treatment of the subject.

This is an excellent collection, and I highly recommend it.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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