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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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

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).

Ditmars, Galactic Suburbia award and the Stella Prize

A few items of news from the last week or so, all in one handy post!


For anyone active in the Australian speculative fiction scene, the annual national SF award, the Ditmars, are now open for nominations. Why not nominate your favourite speculative fiction story or novel by an Australian author from 2012?

The Ditmars also include lots of ancillary categories for fan writing, artist etc. There are a lot of excellent reviewers out there in the Australian scene, such as Sean the Bookonaut or Alex Pierce, that are worth your attention.

Speaking of what to nominate, if like me you don’t remember what was released in 2012, or how long your favourite story was, you can go to the excellent Ditmar eligibility wiki here.

Get your nominating skates on! Nominations can be lodged here.


The speculative fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia has given out their annual award for “activism and/ or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction in 2012”. And this year the award went to Elizabeth Lhuede for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Details can be found here, as well as links to the podcast where they announce the award.

I enjoyed my participation in the 2012 challenge, and found it an excellent catalyst for expanding my circle of reading. Congratulations to Elizabeth, a very well deserved award!


One of the most frequently reviewed books in the 2012 Australian Women Writers’ challenge, Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, has been long listed for the inaugural Stella Prize, a new major literary award for Australian women’s writing. See the full long list here and more details about the prize here.

There have been many reviews of Sea Hearts, including one by yours truly here.

Congratulations Margo!

Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – review

Cracklescape cover

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

Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan 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 four shorter stories, including:

  • The Duchess Dresser
  • The Isles of the Sun
  • Bajazzle
  • Significant Dust

Cracklescape is a beautiful book, with the stylish writing that characterises Lanagan’s work. In some ways it is more literary than genre, where exploration of language and elegant passages and phrases are prioritised over plot. Despite its short length, I do not recommend coming to this book for a quick read. More than one of the stories that I read late at night before going to bed I found myself having to read again with a less sleep deprived brain to make sense of it. For this reason more than anything else, I appreciated and admired Crackescape without loving it.

I recognise that this loses me genre-cred.

The Duchess Dressor tells the story of a share house dweller who finds a duchess dresser by the side of the road. The dresser is cursed/haunted. This opening piece is filled with strong imagery, evoking sadness and quiet desperation with gorgeous prose. I was a little let down by the ending, the story just seemed to peter out.

The Isles of the Sun involves a Pied Piper style engagement of alien/other worldly creatures with a town’s children. The ring leading child Elric was particularly well drawn here, with a distinctive voice and an almost cultish vibe to his engagement with the other children. Switching perspective to the mother for the last part of the story was very effective, and there was an ambiguity to the end which I found very appealing.

Bajazzle was an uncomfortable read. The point of view character Don was very unsympathetic. In fact, all of the characters were unsympathetic but yet the story remained engaging. This story had a bit of raunch in it, which was vividly described and quite visceral.

Significant Dust was probably the least genre of the stories, going back to the early 80s to describe a young woman’s retreat into a lonely existence working in a roadside diner in the Western Australian outback. The backdrop of the story is a UFO encounter, but the story itself doesn’t really have any genre elements. I thought this story was structured very effectively, with interspaced flashbacks that effectively filled in the reason for the lead character’s despair.

I’ve been impressed with the whole Twelve Planets collection so far, and Cracklescape is a worthy addition to the series.


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

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan – review

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

Sea Hearts (also published as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US and UK) by Australian author Margo Lanagan is a powerful exploration of the dynamics of a closed community when put under (magically induced) stress.

After a brief prologue, the story opens from the perspective of a young girl, Misskaella, who is growing up in a small village on Rollrock Island. Unloved and unliked by family and neighbour alike, she grows to resent her whole village. When she discovers she has the ability to draw out selkies from seals, who take the form of women with an unearthly beauty and a strong level of docility, she begins to exact a measure of revenge by accepting payment from men to get a sea-wife for them.

The remainder of the novel tells the story of the impact of that action on the community. It is told from multiple points of view over several generations. One of the effects of this technique was to give a great sense of the timescale over which the story is being told (in this way it was similar in effect to the recent collection Ishtar although over much shorter timeframes).

I struggled to understand the men of Rollrock Island. The desire for beautiful but docile women who keep house and are only in the relationship because they have no choice seems… well seems stupid. So there was a certain satisfaction in watching a society based on that premise slowly disintegrate, that form of relationship critiqued and found wanting. However, where the tale was most powerful was when it showed the impact of such imbalanced relationships on the children exposed to them.

The writing was very poetic and quite lovely. I’ve only read some of Ms Lanagan’s short stories before this, and this novel reinforced my impressions of an author who has a very strong mastery of language.

The structure of the book was very interesting. The changing points of view is a good vehicle for creating rich characters, none more so than the witch Misskaella. Essentially, the novel traces out the arc of her life, from young woman to dying crone but by showing her from different perspectives it allowed the reader a measure of sympathy for someone who otherwise risked being just another evil witch caricature. It lent the novel an air of tragedy instead of being a simple morality tale.

The exploration of the consequences of different forms of ill treatment was also compelling. From Misskaella’s treatment by her family and general community, which led to her revenge by introducing the sea wives, which led to unbalanced marital relationships, which led to tragic outcomes for children – the chain of consequences was profound. It made me want to be a little nicer to people around me.

This is not a novel that is strongly plotted in the traditional sense, more an exploration of character and community. Each part of the story told from a different perspective forms a mini-arc of its own (perhaps reflecting the novel’s origins, growing as it did from a World Fantasy Award winning novella in the X6 anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing). The overarching story arc requires the reader to either track the fortunes of the whole community or the life of the witch Misskaella. Either unifying thread requires some very satisfying work on behalf of the reader to pull together. This is a story that I kept thinking about for a long time after finishing reading it.

There are hints of a more familiar world away from Rollrock Island, with mentions of London and other cities. These touches gave the story a sense of enchantment just out of reach of the “real” world which were quite effective.

This is a powerful and thought provoking piece of writing. Highly recommended.

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

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Speculative star spotting in Sydney

I love living in Sydney. I took my little girl (M) to swimming lessons this morning, as we do every Saturday, and saw Australian author Margo Lanagan doing laps. In true Australian fashion I of course took the “she doesn’t want to get bothered at the pool” course of action and left her entirely alone, although we did exchange a smile over the antics of my little girl, who wasn’t being the world’s most attentive student.

It did afford me the chance to have a chat with my daughter about how people can write for a living, so I didn’t completely waste the opportunity. M is at the tracing letters stage of learning to write, and she seemed very impressed with the concept that Ms Lanagan had a) mastered that tricky art and b) used it to make her living telling stories.

M then proceeded to tell me a story about her commercial brand tank engines and their adventures in the snow. Then we had an ice cream. All in all a good morning.