By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Ling Ma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
As a 20-something living in New York, Candace Chen is living month-to-month, just trying to get by. The first-generation Chinese American has recently lost her parents and spends her life working at a publishing company, specifically troubleshooting the Gemstone Bible, which is targeted toward teens. Candace is so wrapped up in her routine that she barely notices when Shen Fever — a new illness spreading across the world at epidemic proportions — has hit the Big Apple.
Candace soon finds herself as the lone worker bee at her office and spends her days photographing an abandoned New York as NY Ghost, an anonymous blogger. But she can’t make it alone forever and ends up joining a group of survivors, led by Bob, a power-hungry IT tech. The group is making its way toward the Midwest to a place Bob calls the Facility, with the promise of safety and shelter.
Part workplace comedy, part coming of adulthood, part post-apocalyptic survival story, Ma weaves several layers into her story that has a little bit of something for everyone. Ma will have readers thinking about their daily routines and whether they may be stuck in a rut, as well as considering what they might do in the case of an apocalyptic event.
In Candace, we have a seemingly unambitious young woman who tends to avoid deep connections and overthinking, choosing to keep her life simple. Even her relationship with her boyfriend Jonathan seems fairly shallow and their breakup after about five years together barely affects her — at least on the surface. But as we get to know her more, and as the story jumps between flashbacks from her past and her current struggles to survive, we see that there is more to Candace than we realize. And when we learn about the secret she is keeping from Bob and the rest of the survivors, we get a better understanding of her actions and why she does what she does.
By Yoon Ha Lee
After being disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics, hexarchate Captain Kel Cheris is given the chance to redeem herself. This chance comes in the form of retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that had been recently captured by heretics. And it’s not just Cheris’ career that is on the line. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate might fall as well.
Her best hope in being successful is Shuos Jedao, an undead tactician who has essentially melded himself with Cheris and shares her body. While Jedao has never lost a battle and might be the only one who could figure out how to get the job done, there is also a downside of Cheris (admittedly unwillingly) being tethered to him. In his past life, Jedao went mad and massacred two armies — one of which was his own. So Cheris has to decide how much she can trust Jedao because it’s not just the hexarchate that’s at risk.
“Ninefox” takes place in the far future in a world where technology and weaponry are closely connected to mathematics. Lee also doesn’t scrimp on the action, as there are several battles that will satisfy anyone looking for it. In addition to the science fiction, there is political intrigue to add more layers to the story.
For me, the relationship between Cheris and Jedao is the most interesting part of “Ninefox” as the character-driven story explores how the two come to cohabitate in a way that serves both of them. The fact that Jedao is a known madman and could turn on Cheris at any moment will have readers on their toes.
By Cixin Liu
Tor Books, 2018
In the middle of celebrating his 14th birthday, Chen watches his parents get incinerated right in front of his eyes by the natural phenomenon known as ball lightning. That moment has stayed with him his entire life and when he grows up, he devotes himself to learning everything he can about ball lightning.
The search takes him from his university to the stormy, far-reaching mountaintops of China, an experimental military weapons lab, and even an old Soviet science station.
The more he learns about ball lightning, what causes it, and whether it is possible to recreate it, the more Chen realizes that this is just the tip of the iceberg. He finds himself up against soldiers and scientists alike — each with their own motives to help, or hinder, his quest.
“Ball Lightning” is a story exploring that fine line between scientific discovery and the consequences of such discoveries. For Chen, ball lightning is the key to his parents’ deaths, but for others, it represents new technology in defense and weaponry. The character’s pursuit to recreate ball lightning in order to use it in the military raises ethical questions regarding a country’s defense and the cost of pursuing such avenues.
While Liu does a good job of explaining the science behind ball lightning, the part I found most compelling was Chen’s story. Even as a grown man, there is still a large part of him that is just a young boy, looking for answers regarding his parents’ deaths. This very human need to make sense of something — especially following a traumatic experience — is something most readers will be able to relate to. Liu develops his characters, even the secondary ones, so readers will care what happens to them and become invested in their lives.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.