Speculative fiction — fascinating sci-fi anthology Exhalation and the timey-wimey literary novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold — make up this month’s reads, warping reality as we know it. But before then, I’ll be starting off with two light reads that I am happy to recommend for YA fantasy fans.
The Aeriel Chronicles: A Flight of Broken Wings / A Call for Brighter Days (Nupur Chowdhury, 2019 – 2021)
Six centuries after a lost war against humanity, the Aeriels are back on Ragah to steal a powerful weapon that could prove deadly to their own race. Their return to Earth stirs painful memories for Aerial hunter Ruban Kinoh, who arms himself not just to protect his city but avenge his family.
The set-up may feel slightly familiar to fans of urban fantasy. But A Flight of Broken Wings finds its own unique charm in the characterisation of the Hunters. The lore is the allure as the complex history between the two races gradually unfolds. A fun and fast-paced read, this introduction to The Aerial Chronicles easily draws genre fans in with its excellent world-building.
In Book 2, the death of their Queen has left the Aeriels divided, some joining forces with the worst of humanity and turning against their own kind. When human civilians fall victim to the war, Ruban Kinoh finds himself on the front line again, though it seems that Ashwin may not be entirely on his side this time.
A Call for Brighter Days wastes little time in the build-up and drops readers right into the thick of the action, where mistrust drives a rift between the leading Hunter and the Aeriel. Things move along even faster in this second novel that barely pauses for a breather. The pace is welcome, given that the plot can be predictable to urban fantasy fans. Tropes aside, immortality also means that the resolution to the conflicts often feels too neat.
That said, there remains much to enjoy in this page-turner for those who are in it for the combats. The charm of its protagonists works magic for everyone else. Of the families whether by choice or blood, their credible bond will keep readers invested in their story right up till the very end.
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Exhalation (Ted Chiang, 2019)
The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I’m glad it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.
Exhalation is, predictably, an incredible sci-fi collection for anyone who has ever read Ted Chiang’s works. Despite brevity, his short fiction always conveys deep philosophical musings with such clarity, that they provoke one to ponder long after his final word.
Take for instance, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (which I loved!). Each inhabitant of this hypothetical world acknowledges the consciousness of AI to varying levels. The story cleverly posits the possible consequences of developing AI with different extents of empathy and respect.
One of my other favourites, The Truth of Fact, explores a future where all of our memories becomes accessible. How then had our human fallibility changed our perception of reality before then?
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is yet another standout story that questions the meaning of freewill, if our choices affect our nature. That is but a few in the excellent anthology, where every story is truly an inspired display of brilliance that deepens our understanding of ourselves.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold (Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot, 2019)
Kazu still goes on believing that, no matter what difficulties people face, they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart. And if the chair can change someone’s heart, it clearly has its purpose.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, the time machine takes the form of a chair in the corner of a quaint café. The aspiring traveller must abide by strange rules for a glimpse into their pasts or futures, with the knowledge that they would be unable to change the present.
The simple prose does make one feel like something was lost in translation at times. Yet it doesn’t detract from the meaningful stories of its characters, whose irrevocable moments of regret are something that we can each relate to.
Every chapter tells of a different relationship – a broken up couple, a woman and her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband, two estranged sisters, and an unconditional mother-daughter bond. Their longing to make amends is bittersweet, in that while they are unable to change things, they each gain something unexpectedly beautiful.