Short works

Books : reviews

Martha Wells.
City of Bones: revised edn.
Tor. 1995

The city of Charisat, a tiered monolith of the Ancients’ design, sits on the edge of the vast desert known as the Waste. Khat, a member of a humanoid race created by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, and Sagai, his human partner, are relic dealers working in the bottom tiers of society, trying to stay one step ahead of the Trade Inspectors.

When Khat is hired by the all-powerful Warders to find relics believed to be part of one of the Ancients’ arcane engines, he and his party begin unraveling the mysteries of an age-old technology.

This they expected.

They soon find themselves as the last line of defense between the suffering masses of Charisat and a fanatical cult bent on unleashing an evil upon the city with an undying thirst for bone.

That, they did not expect.

Martha Wells.
The Element of Fire.

Where high-tech wizardry meets fairy magic and a kingdom hangs in the balance…

The country of Ile-Rein lies in peril: Young king Roland sits uneasy upon the throne, surrounded by nobles who would use human sorcery to hasten his downfall. The king’s bastard sister, the Fayre Queen of Air and Darkness, is hell bent on revenge against him and all he stands for.

The only power to save the land rests with the Dowager Queen Ravenna…and Thomas Boniface, Captain of the Queen’s Guard – a rakish cavalier who would cross swords with the Devil if it would save his Queen.

But will one man’s steel be enough to counter all the world’s magic?

Martha Wells.
The Death of the Necromancer.
Avon. 1998

Martha Wells.
The Wizard Hunters.
EOS. 2003

Once a fertile and prosperous land, Ile-Rien is under attack by the Gardier, a mysterious army whose storm-black airships appear from nowhere to strike without warning. Every weapon in the arsenal of Ile-Rien’s revered wizards has proven useless.

And now the last hope of a magical realm under siege rests within a child’s plaything.

Martha Wells.
The Ships of Air.
EOS. 2004

Ile-Rien has fallen to a ruthless army of sorcerers intent on conquering all civilizatizn. Now a small band of heroes aboard a majestic rescue ship must undertake an epic journey to preserve the remnants of a once-great land and drive the heartless invaders back to the shadows.

But there are other evils—far more terrifying than the Gardier foe—alive in this world in chaos. And they’re closer than a whisper.

Martha Wells.
The Gate of Gods.
EOS. 2005

Tremaine Valiarde and a small brave band of heroes ventured into a wondrous new realm on their desperate mission to save Ile-Rien from the conquering Gardier. Now, as a relentless enemy creates chaos and destruction—with the fate of the magical city of Lodun hanging in the balance—the last hope of a land besieged may rest on the far side of a secret portal.

But the doorway leads to a mysterious ruin hidden behind the awesome Gate of Gods—and to perils that dwarf anything Tremaine and her allies could have possibly imagined…

Martha Wells.
All Systems Red.
Tor. 2017

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 28 January 2018

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ’droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Planetary survey missions must be accompanied by a Security Unit: a protection robot supplied by the lowest bidder. The current survey team don’t know that their SecUnit calls itself ‘Murderbot’, and has overridden its governor module. But when mysterious things start happening, they are going to be very glad it has.

This is a zippy little novella, just 150pp of snark as we listen to Murderbot narrate its story, and discover more about its background. There’s not time for a lot of character development other than the first person narrator, but we get an interesting world, an engaging protagonist, and the set-up for a lot more action and robot-soul-searching.

This makes a good contrast with that other recent ‘robot learning to live in a human world’ tale, A Closed and Common Orbit. They are quite different in feel, but both are thought-provoking.

Martha Wells.
Artificial Condition.
Tor. 2018

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 1 July 2018

“As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.”

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself Murderbot. But it has only vague memories of the massaacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a research transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the A stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

Murderbot has decided to investigate the planet where it originally went rogue and earned its name. This means avoiding being discovered by humans who would be hostile to its very existence. So it hitches a ride with an unmanned research ship; this is not necessarily a safe option, as the ship’s AI is somewhat curious, and can’t be completely distracted by Murderbot’s collection of space opera shows. And then when Murderbot reaches the planet, it decides a good cover is to sign on as a security consultant for a group of naive scientists who may have just made a big discovery. What could possible go wrong…?

This is another great little novella narrated by the snarky Murderbot, as it discovers things about its past, and itself, that will have a big impact on its future.

Martha Wells.
Rogue Protocol.
Tor. 2018

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 4 November 2018

Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas?

Sci-fi’s favorite antisocial AI is back on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

Murderbot has noticed a set of unusual events that might just give it a clue in its GreyCris Corporation investigations. So it sets off to the edge of known space to find out just what has been going on. There it finds itself once again acting as protector for a group of humans. This time it might be impossible to complete its own mission and save the humans: which one will it sacrifice?

Another great novella. The plot thickens, and the snark continues. But it’s getting harder to believe some of Murderbot’s self-professed lack of care.

Martha Wells.
Exit Strategy.
Tor. 2018

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 31 December 2018

Murderbot wasn’t programmed to care. So its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the Width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah—its former owner (protector? friend?)—submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who’s going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it’s caught?

Murderbot finally has the evidence that will take down GrayCris Corp. But Dr Mensah is being held hostage by the Corporation. Can Murderbot deliver the evidence and save Dr Mensah? And why does Murderbot even want to do this?

This final novella in the Murderbot series zips smartly along like all the others, and ties back neatly with the characters from the first instalment. Murderbot continues to be snarky, and continues to run rings around tech defences. This being the last instalment, there are several times where it is not at all clear how things are going to pan out. There is a satisfactory conclusion, but I do want to see more Murderbot tales, and maybe in meatier novel form for next?

Martha Wells.
Network Effect.
Tor. 2020

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 25 August 2020

I'm usually alone in my head. And that's where 90-plus percent of my problems are.

It calls itself Murderbot, but only when no one can hear.

It worries about the fragile human crew who’ve grown to trust it, but only where no one can see.

It tells itself that they’re only a professional obligation, but when they’re captured and an old friend from the past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

Murderbot is now free, working with the crew it rescued. But on their way back to Preservation Station, they are kidnapped, by Murderbot’s old friend, spaceship ART. But it looks like ART and its crew have been destroyed by invaders. As usual, humans underestimate Murderbot, and mayhem ensues.

A novel-length Murderbot tale! Yay! It’s as frenetic, snarky, and suspenseful as the novellas, but longer. We get to see more inside Murderbot’s head (with parenthetical asides (and asides to asides)), and the range of reactions of the humans it works with. Murderbot never feels “human”, but never feels “inhuman” either. Excellent stuff.

Martha Wells.
Fugitive Telemetry.
Tor. 2021

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 27 June 2021

No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall.

When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people—who knew?).

Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans!


Murderbot gets to solve a murder!

This is an interesting security-bot procedural, where Murderbot is working with humans (not all of whom are happy to be working with Murderbot) in order to solve a murder on Preservation Station. The problem has all the usual red herrings and complications of a murder mystery, but Murderbot breezes through most of the puzzles with relatively little violence.

A novella-sized step in the humanisation of Murderbot.

Martha Wells.
System Collapse.
Tor. 2023

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 24 March 2024

Am I making it worse? I think I’m making it worse.

Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits. But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free work-force is a decent runner-up prize.

But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranzas SecUnit-heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast.

Murderbot is still traumatised from the events in Network Effect, and that is affecting its performance. Blackouts and paralysing fear are not in its standard repertoire of behaviours. Which is a problem, as there are a bunch of suspicious colonists to save from the predations of the Barish-Estranza corporation. Can Murderbot pull itself together before it experiences complete system collapse?

This took me a few chapters to get into, because of having read another Murderbot book between Network Effect and this, and because Murderbot’s trauma make the tale a little disjointed. But I soon settled into it, and enjoyed another tale of the snarky, competent SecUnit, and its growing contingent of friends.

Martha Wells.
The Cloud Roads.
Night Shade Books. 2011