Alex Acks, Murder on the Titania, and Other Steam-Powered Adventures, Queen of Swords, 2018.
The title says it all really: murder mysteries, adventures, steampunk. What it leaves aside is that it is a very, very entertaining read and it'll be a perfect addition to your summer reading list.
Captain Marta Ramos is clever, snarky, reckless. She's also a pirate who delights in robbing the good citizens of the Grand Duchy of Denver among others. Her second in command, Simms, is a long-suffering and competent man who has accepted that his task was to be dragged along in adventures led by Captain Ramos.
Murder on the Titania, and Other Steam-Powered Adventures includes five stories: three are murder mysteries; two are more along the lines of steampunk westerns, including train robberies. These two were my least favourites but I mainly blame the fact that westerns in all their flavours (weird, steampunk, you name it...) aren't my cup of tea. On the other hand, I had a delightful time reading the three murder mysteries and they are entirely worth getting the collection.
Many other reviewers have already drawn the parallel with Holmes stories, and I entirely support that. Acks hasn't rewritten Holmes adventures (for which I'm very grateful because I'm tired to death of Holmes rewritings) but they have taken the atmosphere, the society and the narrative workings of a Holmes mystery to write their own stories. The answers to the mysteries probably won't surprise anyone who is an old hand at reading Holmes, but there's still something utterly delightful in reading them.
This feeling comes mainly from the two main characters, Ramos and Simms. Their duo is entertaining to the utmost, full of snark and sarcastic comments. This is one of the great strengths of Murder on the Titania, and Other Steam-Powered Adventures: Acks' writing is light, well-paced and has fantastic timing (comical or otherwise). In short, it is brilliant for the tone they have chosen for their stories. A minor regret is that the main characters aren't that much developed--to say nothing of the rest of the crew--but these are novellettes. I expect them to be further developed in the second volume, Wireless and Other Steam-Powered Adventures as it includes three novellas.
Murder on the Titania, and Other Steam-Powered Adventures is pastiche, and it is great pastiche because it adds original ideas and takes: the steampunk world and the uchronia (Northern America has been colonised by Europeans but it's now a scattering of independent duchies); Captain Ramos is a character who couldn't be Holmes and yet who works like he would; the fun banter between the main characters.
It'll be a perfect summer read if you are looking for well written and entertaining steampunk adventures and mysteries.
DISCLAIMER: A free copy was received from the publisher but with no obligation attached to review it on The Middle Shelf.
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One Way and No Way are a duo of hard scifi novels set on Mars and written by Simon Morden. I'm usually not big on techno thrillers but I had so much enjoyed Morden's Books of Down that I gave it a try. Despite a slow start for me, I ended up loving it.
Frank is a murderer. He thinks he'll spend his life in prison, but he's offered an opportunity: being part of a team of convicts who will go to Mars to build a station for scientists who will arrive after them. The training is hard and very soon Frank realises they're expendable. When they arrive to Mars, people from his team start dying in accidents.
What sets apart One Way and No Way from your run-of-the-mill techno thrillers is that Morden, once again, weaves inside his narrative a thoughtful take on politics and society. I particularly enjoyed that he avoided 99.99% of the naive clichés considering where his story is going.
Regarding the characters, I have to admit that it took me some time to really warm up to Frank. Morden walks a fine line, after all Frank is a murderer. It's a bold choice that I appreciate. That fine line was nonetheless walked splendidly to the point that I ended up with something in my eye when I reached the end of No Way (due to my allergies, probably). Sadly, most of the secondary characters failed to grab me, apart from a couple.
One Way and No Way are full of delicious science, but - and that's so rare that it deserves to be praised endlessly - it doesn't get in the way of the story. It's a pitfall of hard scifi but Morden makes the science part of the story: from routinely dusting the solar panels to driving through the craters. The planet isn't explored with a narrative voice telling you from afar what it is. It becomes alive with the characters interacting with it.
As thrillers, One Way sets up the mystery to be solved (while trying to survive) while No Way adds a new mystery, and more trying to survive, with added "How will the character get out of this situation?" It progresses nicely and reaches a satisfying conclusion. Though at some point in One Way you may want to shout at Frank that he's really stupid to not realise what is happening.
This duology is very entertaining, avoiding all the trappings of hard scifi and techno-thrillers, and with an interesting main character. It has most certainly made me certain that I'll follow what Morden will write in the future.
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Temi Oh, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? Simon and Schuster, 2019. Audio version available on Audible.
I had mixed feelings at the end of Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, a near-future scifi novel. Without a doubt, Temi Oh has written a story which has many strong points, but other aspects were less convincing to me. Nonetheless, it is an interesting novel with a lot of potential.
In the 19th century, Tessa Dalton, a British woman, proposed the existence of a planet orbiting a binary system discovered by her father. She used to dream about that planet, Terra-Two. In 2012, the UK Space Agency is about to launch a colonising mission to Terra-Two. Veteran astronauts will go, along with six teenagers who have been chosen all over the UK and selected through a rigorous process.
Teenagers main characters? Aye, there's the rub for me. I don't enjoy teenagers as main characters, and, sadly, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? hasn't changed my mind about this. I was also disappointed in the flashbacks: we get to see their lives before the launch, before the program. I'm not sure it brought me a better understanding of their characters, or more empathy for them.
So, yes, to me the weak point of the novel is the characters which was a bit of a pity in a novel that is designed to be character driven. But liking characters or not relies so much on personal tastes, that you can feel free to dismiss it and see what I enjoyed instead.
The story is extremely compelling during the first half of the book. Apart from the annoyance at the characters, it was well told, at a fast pace. I was really looking forward to know what happened next. I was slightly underwhelmed by the second half. It felt both a bit predictable and unfinished. Will there be a sequel? As far as I know when writing this review, none has been announced.
The strongest point of the novel, to me, is the notion of dreaming Terra-Two, from Tessa Dalton to Astrid, one of the teenage astronaut. There's a slightly surreal and lyrical aspect to it, and it's a great metaphor for the search of an utopia as humanity destroy Earth blindly. I wish it had been explored even further but it echoes superbly with the theme of loss that you can read throughout the novel. Hope and grief, both interwoven and creating diverging paths. Maybe that's why there should be no sequel, why it feels unfinished. It is the dream of Terra-Two that counts.
Do You Dream of Terra-Two? will no doubt appeal to a lot of readers, particularly if they enjoy teenage characters and a novel that has both action and introspective moments. As for me, I don't regret reading it because I enjoyed it a lot despite not being the target audience for some aspects of it.
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Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Insurrection, Orbit, 2019. Audio version available on Audible.
"C., " are you saying because you faithfully follow my reviews, "I clearly remember you reviewing Rosewater in 2017. Why are you doing a new review rather than add to the original?" Well, dear faithful reader, when I first read Rosewater, I thought it was a stand alone and I reviewed (and enjoyed it a lot) as such. But it's now a series. So rather than retconning the review, I'm writing a new one. Because as you'll see, it changes things. When a story moves forward, you lose some things, but you also gain others.
Jack Jacques, the charismatic mayor of Rosewater, faces many problems. Alyssa wakes up one morning with absolutely no memory of who she is. Aminat, who works for Section 45, the government agency that studies the alien in Rosewater, must take charge of a woman, Alyssa. In the meantime, a plant grows in Rosewater, and patches appear in xenosphere...
"Right... So where is Kaaro?" are you asking. And that's my only gripe with the story (I thought I'd get it out of the way as soon as possible). I absolutely loved how Rosewater ended in a nihilisitic way, with Kaaro walking away from it all. The trouble is that he has, indeed, walked away. In a sense, I'm very grateful that Thompson didn't turn the character on his head and have him becoming an action hero. On the other hand, Kaaro seems extremely passive in this volume - despite saving everyone a couple of times. I have to confess it left me frustrated that the nihilism of Rosewater led to passivity in Rosewater Insurrection but it's because I loved this initial nihilism and I'd have loved to see how it in action.
"So is anything happening at all?" are you asking again, because you are also an inquisitive reader. A lot happens. And when I say a lot, I mean, a lot. The Rosewater Insurrection is action packed. One of my main gripes in Rosewater was that the female characters were very much secondary characters. Here they are front, left and centre, and they rock! In a very enjoyable reversal from the conventions, the action hero is Aminat, Kaaro's girlfriend. Thompson has wonderfully developed her and made her a fully rounded and truly believable female character. I also particularly enjoyed the character of Alyssa, who, while searching who she was, also asked some hard truths about society and relationships. I said there's a lot happening and there is. To start with, there's an insurrection (duh, it's written in the title), furthermore all is not going smoothly with Wormwood, the alien who has settled in Rosewater. There are two different frontlines--to say nothing of the characters' internal conflicts-- and Thompson carries everything off very smoothly. Thompson also expands a lot the alien background. We know now a lot more about them, their goals, their methodology.
Because it is action packed, the novel loses a bit of the dreamlike, surreal quality of the xenosphere exploration we had in Rosewater. But since this is now a series rather than a stand alone, it feels natural for the second volume to have things moving forward at a fast pace. I always dislike reading a series without reading it complete. I need to absorb it all to understand where the writer is heading. Honestly, right now, anything can happen in Rosewater. So I may be a bit underwhelmed because I don't know where it's all going, but it's also an excellent sign that the series is able to keep us all on our toes in this way.
I had loved Rosewater and sung its praises endlessly. I enjoyed The Rosewater Insurrection almost as much. And I am definitely, very much, looking forward to the last volume!
Disclaimer: a free copy was received from the publisher, with my sincere thanks.
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The Poppy War is the first volume in a trilogy of fantasy novels. I was immediately drawn to this world and the main character, but the second part of the book wasn't what I expected.
Rin is a war orphan. She's fostered at a family who exploit her and intend to marry her for their gain. To save herself, she studies to pass the test of the prestigious Sinegard academy and she succeeds. At Sinegard, she remains the odd one out, surrounded by students who all come from a privileged background and she has to go beyond what is expected to earn her place. But war is looming.
The first part of the book is focused on Rin at Sinegard, and I enjoyed it so much that I devoured it. Despite not being a fan of teenage characters, I felt a real empathy for Rin who has to fight against privileges and stereotypes. I should have seen where it was going: Sinegard is a military academy and war is looming, so the second part veers dramatically into military fantasy and grimdark. If you are familiar with this blog, you know that these genres aren't my cup of tea, and, to put it frankly, there's only a certain amount of dismembered people that I can bear in the fiction I read.
Nonetheless, I kept on reading (though, I have to admit, at a slower pace) because the great strength of The Poppy War is in the characters. I particularly enjoyed that Rin wasn't a perfect character. Nonetheless, in the second part of the novel I kept groaning as she keeps making stupid decisions. But, overall, I wanted to see where she was going. The secondary characters and their relationship to Rin were also quite interesting and I particularly enjoyed how Kuang wrote the divide between privileged and unprivileged characters and how it influences their role in the war. But some had my attention more than others.
Kuang wrote a complex world, complete with gods and creatures. This is another aspect that kept me going because it plays an important part in the human plot. You can feel that this first volume is really about Rin becoming, and the gods play their part in that. I think this will be developed further in the following volumes, and, to be honest, this is what I'm most interested in.
I was unsettled by the shift in tone and I've found the character development to be sometimes awkward. But the first part is so strong that it makes me want to read the following volume. I would heartily recommend it to any grimdark or military fantasy reader. But if these genres aren't your cup of tea, then you may want to wait until the trilogy is complete to see if the story remains in those waters or if it moves from there. Nonetheless, Kuang is a very impressive writer and I look forward to reading more from her.
I haven't liked what I've read of Lavie Tidhar as much as some reviewers have, but Unholy Land has certainly fascinated me. This tangle of uchronic worlds that some people are able to visit centre around the question of Zionism and identity. I've found it an intriguing novella despite some niggles.
Lior Tirosh, a writer of crime novels, leaves Berlin to go back to Palestine, a piece of land in Central Africa, "donated" by the British to Jewish people in the early 20th century. The Jews have built there a nation but there are tensions with the people the land belonged to in the first place. Lior is also a very confused man: his son may be dead, or maybe not; his niece has disappeared and he wants to investigate. Special Agent Bloom keeps an eye on him, but it seems Special Agent Bloom comes from another Palestine. To say nothing of Nur, who comes from an entirely different Palestine.
I am going to start by explaining my major quibble with this work. Lior Tirosh is an avatar of Lavie Tidhar. Tirosh has written a novel called Osama, for instance, and they have the same initials. I don't enjoy meta as much as I did in the past, and in this book, it also created a distance between Tirosh and me. I felt that it was such a personal novel that I had no place in it. Nonetheless, the other characters are interesting. I particularly enjoyed Nur, though I regret that she wasn't more developed and that her ending felt to me a bit swept under the rug.
Unholy Land is above all a bold interrogation of Zionism. It doesn't attempt to provide any answer but walls and conflicts abound. And yet, in some worlds people leave in peace. And yet, in some worlds, there was no genocide. And yet... I think this is the great strength of the book: by choosing a portal fantasy where all the worlds we glimpse (except one) are uchronias, it attempts to explore this complicated, often awful, history and its consequences. I would have loved a longer exploration of some worlds which are barely hinted at. Tidhar uses wide brushstrokes which are tantalising, but the story remains focused.
I think Unholy Land will particularly appeal to readers who are looking for SFF that will give them food for thought or who enjoy multiverse stories.
Kate Mascarenhas, The Psychology of Time Travel, Head of Zeus, 2018. Available as an audiobook on Audible.
One of my favourite trope in SFF is time travel. It can be done magnificently or it can fail miserably. But The Psychology of Time Travel isn't so much about time travel than about what make humans tick. Time travel becomes the means to illuminate power, the sense of belonging, mental health issues, love and revenge.
Margaret, Lucille, Barbara and Grace are scientists. They have invented time travel. They test it themselves, then call the BBC for a live interview. But while they are filmed, Barbara suffers from a mental breakdown. From that moment on, the other three will dissociate themselves from her. Decades later, Barbara is an old woman who still regrets not being part anymore of the time travel adventure. Though it's not so much an adventure these days than a powerful corporation with its own laws and its own money, led by Margaret. One day, Barbara and Ruby, her grand-daughter, receive a message from the future about the death of an old woman. But who is that woman?
The Psychology of Time Travel presents a murder mystery as the hook. In itself, it's a pretty decent murder mystery; it has a locked door, time travel shenanigans (of course) and I didn't guess who did it before being three quarters into the book.
But the novel is more about human relationships and what make us tick. Mascarenhas deals sensitively with mental health issues (CW: some scenes of abuse of mentally ill persons) and explores the human psyche in depth. The time-travelling corporation, the Conclave, offers also a thoughtful take on obedience, authority and conformity. In a sense, The Psychology of Time Travel is more like The Time Traveller's Wife than Connie Willis' Oxford novels. Yes, there are two characters who are romantically involved, but it's not why it reminds me of the Niffenegger's novel. It's more because what both these novels are studying is the effect of time travel on people. Romance isn't the focus, as the murder mystery isn't the focus either. It is how these women, who are all different (race, sexual orientation, class, age, mothers or not), relate - or not - to each other. In case it wasn't clear, the book offers as an annex the psychology assessments created by the Conclave for the time travellers. It's a really nice touch, which probably involved a lot of work from Mascarenhas. It adds a little depth to the world and it underlines that the key word in the title really is "Psychology".
The characters are a bit give or take. Though I found myself really touched by some of them, in particular Odette (I love a quiet woman as a main character) and Ruby, some were a bit too mercurial or aloof for me to be involved in what happened to them, though this comes down to personal tastes.
The Psychology of Time Travel is certainly not a book for gatekeepers who "know" what "the laws" of time travel are, what science-fiction is, and who should be in it and who should be allowed to write it. It's a book for people who want a thoughtful study of humanity, with fascinating characters and a really good premise. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's bleak, often it's intriguing. Basically, it's a typical small press publication because it's a novel that takes risks. And they pay in spades.
"No, I'm sorry, I don't review an unfinished series," I usually say. Except that it's exactly what I'm doing here. So be warned: The Books of Down is a trilogy and the third volume hasn't got a publication date yet. But it's the best portal fantasy I've read in a long time and it deserves some love bombing so that this third volume can finally hurry our way.
Two groups are in the London Tube at night. One group is composed of cleaners, another is made of workers. Suddenly, a roaring fire. Whoever can, flees in the tunnels; many die. In front of a closed door, the fire right behind them, are Mary, Dalip, Mama, Elena, Luiza, Grace and Stanislav. When they can finally open it, they see the sea and a coast. They step through and the door disappears. They are now in Down, a place without rules and where magic exists. A place whose inhabitants have all come from London through portals, now closed to them.
I love a good portal fantasy and The Books of Down tick all the boxes when it comes to the genre: weird world and inhabitants on the other side of the portal, magic, maps and mysteries to solve. There are two things though which, to me, made this series stand out in the genre: the ideological aspect of it and the characters.
Down is a utopia in the sense of the highest state of anarchy: a land of plenty that provides for people who live freely, that grants shelter, gifts, and food. But Morden takes the ideology and puts actual people in it: so yes, you have the utopia but, people being people, the strongest enslave, kill, abuse. It's always a reversal that I find interesting: you start with the perfect place and you see what humans make of it. The character of Dalip, a young Sikh engineer, is a great choice in such a setting as he works out how to live and act according to his faith and to his family's expectations in this world. The character of Mary is completely different: a woman living in the margins of society and law in London, she finds in Down a place that suits her. Nonetheless, she faces her own struggles as she realises that power and anarchy raise also the questions of trust and friendship. Morden manages to write two conflicted and believable characters without making the religious and morality questions appear naive. They offer a very interesting and complete exploration of humanity faced with the possibility of true anarchy.
The characters in The Books of Down go beyond these two: from the slippery Crows, to a dashing pirate appearing in The White City, to say nothing of various henchmen... I particularly enjoyed the character of Stanislav and the effect Down had on him, an interesting illustration of the consequences of war. Two characters left me a bit underwhelmed though: Mama who doesn't go much beyond the maternal role her name hints at, and the geomancer Bells who felt a bit too quickly drawn. It is to be noted that the characters are diverse (race, gender - binary only -, faiths), and that, to my understanding, the representation is quite good.
The trilogy is, at the moment, unfinished. And it's a real pity because The White City gives a lot of answers but also raises new questions (also maps! Also time travel! Also portals!). Down Station establishes the world, the superficial answers, and gets you into it, but the series really comes into its own with the second volume and leaves you wanting for more. The pace is strong, the story is action packed with a lot of space left to mystery and speculation. It is, in short, a very enjoyable and entertaining read that deserves en ending.
Despite this unfinished status, if you love a portal fantasy as much as I do, go and buy it. Not only it'll signal to the publisher that, yes, there are readers out there who are interested and want more of it, but also you'll really enjoy reading it, even if we don't have the complete story.
To be noted: some reviewers have called it YA. Despite the main characters' youth, it's not YA (some aspects are pretty grisly). It's definitely not The Hunger Games either or any flavour of dystopia trending in YA currently.
"Werewolves in space!" is the tagline of this trilogy of novellas. Now, the word "werewolves" usually has me running very fast in the opposite direction, but in my never ending quest for space operas, I gave it a try.
Francesca Min Yue is the captain of the starship Starfang. Her parents, the leaders of a powerful werewolves clan, have asked her to kill Yeung Leung, from a rival clan. Her obedience to her elders and hierarchy will be put to the test as she will face battles in space, but also battles of her own against PTSD, or against prejudices and traditions.
I have issues with the concept of werewolves. Too often, to me, it leads to a highly hierarchical society and with a strong hint of the idea of purity of the race, two things I'm really not keen on. Happily, Starfang doesn't swipe these issues aside. The strong hierarchy sense in the series was something that I felt frustrating at times, particularly in the beginning. It was entirely cohesive with the world building: not only this was a werewolves pack, but it was also a Confucian society. But I found interesting how Francesca went from blind obedience to some kind of rebellion until she finds her peace and her place in a world she has subtly changed. I really appreciated that Chng also tried to deal with the idea of purity by introducing a mixed race character. I was less convinced by some aspects, particularly those about disability.
Francesca is an interesting character, but I think that it only really shows when reading the complete trilogy. Rise of the Clan establishes a few conflicts, but they really come into their own in the following volumes. It is in the facing of these external or internal conflicts that Francesca really becomes a fascinating character. She almost reaches Byronian heights when it comes to being a tormented figure: love and lust, honour and dishonour, fear and courage, the sense of self... All these are questions she will have to solve. I was less keen in Yeung Leung, her nemesis, who remains distant. In a sense, he's almost as much an abstraction than the society rules Francesca struggles against.
The worldbuilding is extremely strong. Chng takes time away from battles and mind games to show us life on a space station, or life in a werewolf clan, food and rituals. It gives a real depth to Starfang, which coalesces very nicely when, by the end of the last volume, people gather: their interactions, the decisions being made, all make sense thanks to this great background Chng has given us early on.
The writing in the first volume is efficient and fits a chase-and-revenge tale. But from the second volume, Chng's writing really soars and becomes, at times, truly beautiful, particularly when drawing these intimate worldbuilding moments. I also appreciated that her depictions of the aliens both gave the sense of their alieness but also gave us things we could relate to. It's a difficult balancing act, and she succeeded very effectively.
Starfang really comes into its own when you have read all three volumes. Considering these are three novellas which are often action packed, this isn't really time consuming! It's more than werewolves in space: it's a coming-of-age story, in a complex world held by traditions, feuds and prejudices, and that reminds us that you need it to shake things up regularly to remain alive, as a person and as a society.
Samuel Delany, The Ballad of Beta-2, Ace Double, 1965 (original publishing). Reprinted in A, B, C, Three Short Novels by Vintage, 2015.
Some classic scifi stories are very much stories of their times. Some have aged well; others... less so. When I picked The Ballad of Beta-2, a Samuel Delany novella I had never read, for my series of classics reviews, I didn't really know what to expect. But I suppose this is how you recognise a true master of scifi, when their story, more than fifty years later, still feel incredibly modern.
Fourth in the series of "Stories published before 1978."
Joneny is a very frustrated academic. He wish he could go to study the Nukton civilisation of Creton III, a truly fascinating civilisation for an anthropologist, but his professor is adamant: he will go to study the Star Folk, a group of humans who travelled on generation ships to reach an uncertain destination; when they had arrived, twelve generation later, people back on Earth had discovered hyperspace drive and were already roaming the stars while the Star Folk were nothing but degenerate humans. So Joneny goes, much reluctantly, to study the Star Folk. He discovers a little known song, The Ballad of Beta-2. Barely artistic. Obvious metaphors. An intriguing variant, though. It's only when he arrives on site, where the Star Folk ships have been in orbit, that he realises that there's more to this folk song.
I was drawn in as soon as the novella begun. Joneny is such an arrogant young academic, that I chuckled happily at his dismay; but soon I was following his discoveries eagerly and read, fascinated as he unravelled an old mystery and an old tragedy. The character of Joneny was certainly the perfect one to accompany the reader on this journey that weaves through past and present to make sense of what happened. Arrogant but inquisitive, he is a great anti-hero. But of course, he's, in the end, only the facilitator to a much larger story.
The much larger story is a fascinating one. It draws on the ideas of physical purity, of fanatical religion to separate the Good ones, who are in the Norm, from the deviants, who must be hunted down. It reminds that what makes us humans is our intellectual faculties more than our physical aspects, and that humanity loses itself when it only watches the body and not the mind, when it wants conformity rather than diversity. The Ballad of Beta-2 is the story of the misfits, of the unwanted. In this, Delany delivers a clear message: what arrives at the end of the Star Folk journey isn't humanity, but degenerated humans. Purity based on such false premises only leads to bestiality.
But something else has arrived too. Here, the commentary of the novella should veer into how Delany drew on Christian mythology. But even if it is undeniable, I would be extremely wary of calling the novella "a Christian novella" because it isn't preaching for a Truth and a Saviour. It is preaching for difference and for communication. It even explicitly rejects the idea of dogma and twists the mythology to have some characters do what others should be doing.
The Ballad of Beta-2 weaves through different narrative devices to bring us back to the past: diary's excerpts, vids... I was particularly amazed at how, in a few brush strokes, Delany made all the characters come alive. Even if they only appear for a few moments, they are whole. Another high point character wise is the importance given to women, a feat rare enough in 1960s stories to be underlined, and none of these women are stereotypical but instead intelligently written.
I often have a love/hate relationship with Delany's stories. The Ballad of Beta-2 falls definitely in the category of the stories I've loved. The pace was gripping to the point that I read it in one sitting; the characters were wonderfully painted; above all, the story itself told of something that must be repeated over and over again, and particularly in our troubled times. If you want to read a classic by a master of the genre, I urge you to read this novella if it ever passed you by.