Ok, this is incredibly late, but… reasons. Mostly to do with over-extending myself, and never having written up a review for a series before. But this one was worth it ❤
A trio of short stories with a big impact.
Fans of old-school sci-fi where the authors unapologetically dropped the reader down into an alien situation and made them fend for themselves. For those who enjoy discovering other worlds and cultures. And heartily (haahaa) recommended for romantics.
HOW I FOUND THIS BOOK:
I am friends with the author. Well, it’s more like I’m a fan she can’t get rid and so lets me read her stuff in advance. Does that qualify as friendship?
AS A WRITER (I know, this part usually comes second…):
There are a few authors who I follow in part because I love their style and am trying to learn from it – Terry Pratchett, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ben Aaronovitch, Joshua Cejka…… and this author, Ashlyn Forge. The reason why there are that many ellipses is because while the authors to the left are very similar–detail-centric, humor oriented – Forge is really in a category of her own. Every word of her writing carries a poetic weight, a multi-faceted purpose. There is no fluff in these pages, no paragraphs of detail or reiteration of points already made. There is humor, but it is wickedly sharp and comes at a cost.
The details sci-fi readers are accustomed to drinking down in enormous chunks of purple prose, Forge instead inserts into the same sentences as action. The same sentences as dialogue. The same sentences as character building. There is very little TELL to Forge’s books; it is all streamlined SHOW. This means these are not books that can be skimmed, because if a reader tries they will lose out on significant chunks of story and world-building.
The upside to this style is that there is no reason to skim – because every word serves a purpose as it propels the reader along, and the books end up being remarkably quick reads.
The downside to this style is that if can be easy to lose the thread – a single word (especially a typo) can be enough to derail the entire train of thoughts, and the reader has to skip backwards to see if they can find it again. There are familiar words used in unfamiliar ways, to denote unfamiliar concepts, and so the steps forward can be tentative when the reader is wondering if gourde is a new piece of the puzzle to pay attention to, or a misspelling of “gourd”.
And there is much that will BE explained in the course of the story… but might be introduced long before that explanation.
I will never be able to duplicate this style, but it is a great thing to be exposed to because it smacks the whole “info-dump” mentality squarely in the side of the head.
It also helps that she tells damn good stories, with great, very REAL characters.
AS A READER:
This is a romance.
What I was just saying about those real characters… this is an author who makes detailed ALIEN BUG SEX um… incredibly romantic. And she can do it because while the characters are not human, they are still people.
I wanted to write about these books as a series. Even though each part can be taken alone – in fact many people have read and adored Caterpillar as a solo work – the romance spans all three.
Caterpillar starts as a bored and spoiled Leveler King is making his way to his breeding grounds across what used to be his people’s territory, and now is controlled by Earthers (aka human colonists), and farmed by the occasional Summoner “pet”. The two races – Levelers and Summoners – used to have a symbiotic relationship, but since the humans came that bond has been destroyed.
There are so many books from the human colonist encountering alien side (Like Elizabeth Moon’s incredible “Remnant Population” which this reminded me of in parts), but this book has only one human as part of the story. However the effects of the ‘Earther’ presence taint every aspect of the alien cultures and poison their interactions. For the aggressive Levelers it is a literal poison – the Earthers introduced a drink to them made from a native plant, but distilled into an addictive cocktail. For the Summoners it is a more figurative poison –always the more gentle race, humans used that to conquer, enslave, and convert them to their religion and morality.
At the start of this book, both races have become dependent on humans, antagonistic towards each other, and are slowly dying off.
So that is the situation when the Leveler King Lyndel*, in the mating stage and desperate to reach the breeding grounds, shares a drink of the addictive “nectar” with the fool entertaining him on this trip… and then is forced to shield himself when the fool unexpected explodes, blowing their ship apart. Lyndel survives the explosion, but is badly hurt.
(OK, the * is because “Lyndel” is the name I’m going with for simplicity in this review. The King has three names, for each of his three stages, and rather than give a crash-course in Leveler biology and culture I’m sticking with Lyndel here.)
Enter Summoner farmer Aton, dismayed at the ship turning so many of his goats into little chunks decorating the landscape. He finds Lyndel in the bushes, and reluctantly brings him back to his Earther-designed farm-house to care for until Aton can return the King to his people. And hopefully not get killed in the process. Added to his own headache is the Earther Smith who is pissed at Aton for his goat herd being decimated, and is demanding payment that Aton doesn’t have.
And then there is Lyndel himself… arrogant, injured, greedy, manipulative and coming down from a narcotic high which transitions into nasty withdrawl symptoms. AND he’s in his mating stage, which means he’s in incredible pain until he can “release his seed”.
There is something Aton could do about that – something his people historically did for the Levelers – if only everything he was taught at the hands of the humans hadn’t convinced him how wrong it was for one male to lay with another.
[spoiler] But of course they do. [/spoiler] I very much recommend the extended version of this book because the later half of the story is much more polished, more thoroughly explained than it was in the original free version.[spoiler]In the free version we know that Aton takes Lyndell to the edge of the caves and leaves him. In the extended version, we see all the events that happened, and how Aton tried to defend Lyndell but still ultimately had to run away. [/spoiler]
Love still blooms between the two characters, despite their differences. They are parted… but this is a romance, so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that they are reunited. There are two more books after-all.
The 4-star review above is for the extended version. The free-version gets 3-stars from me, mostly because it was unsatisfying in the sci-fi elements. The extended version fixes that.
Chrysalis showcases the Leveler culture, and what choices a King must make to maintain his status and fulfill his role. In direct conflict with this is Lyndel’s love for Aton, and the hostility the pair encounter from the Levelers who can’t see past Aton’s severed tail, and the Summoners who regard male-male attachments as blasphemous. Lyndel must make peace between Levelers and Summoners for the survival of his people, but when his every act makes Aton miserable and when the children he fathers are threatened, he has to choose between the ways his people have always done things and forging his own path.
This book was amazing. Coming after the relative simple plot of the first book, this one had rich conflict that was easy to follow but also deeply integrated within the cultures of the alien peoples. Humans are gone, but their ways have been absorbed by the Summoners who depended on them, and so have replaced a lot of the buffers the Levelers and Summoners traditionally had to live in symbiosis.
There are real (constant) misunderstandings between the characters, and since only one point-of-view is offered at a time – and in Chrysalis the view point is almost exclusively from Lyndel’s perspective – this lead to a lack of sympathy with Aton’s plight for much of the book. His emotions are mainly apparent in retrospect (hint – instead of tearing up when they’re depressed, this species gets DRY). But that might be as much a problem with me as a reader (with a background in Anthropology I tend to give culture a priority over individualism), as it was with Aton.
My only problem with this book revolved around the amount of explicit sex in it. Now it wasn’t gratuitous – this is a book about reproduction vs. love, tradition vs. individuality, and sex is a big part of that- but I still skimmed through it towards the end. This review was based off of an ARC version of Chrysalis however, so that may have changed.
Kings…. here’s where I get into spoiler territory. I can say that Lyndel and Aton leave the Leveler city with two children (in chrysalises), to raise as potential future Kings. If they succeed, one of the children will grow up to fight for his place to lead the Levelers.
What I loved was that the children – Crane and Boon – had such distinct personalities, but also that their personalities grew and broadened with them. Neither is perfect, neither is too flawed, and as a reader I was uncertain as to which should be King until the last moment.
And as a parent, Kings had me on edge the entire time.
This book also has a complex plot, and introduces more about Summoner culture – particularly the aspects tainted by human interactions – than we ever saw before. Lyndel and Aton continue in their love for each other, but with children comes a growth of that relationship, and conflicts that parents will easily recognize.
This is another book mostly from Lyndel’s perspective, so many of the actions Aton takes are again presented without the buffering of getting his side first. And he makes some gigantic mistakes – one that was difficult for me to take in stride. But there is karmic balancing by the end.
The ending is… best taken in context. It’s not cuddly-feel-good, but it could have ended worse for Anton and Lyndel. It’s a “happily ever after” if happy is looked at through the lens of their culture. And I think it IS the right ending – anything else would have cheapened what came before.
I maybe should add that there is no explicit sex in Kings. It is clear that Forge takes her plot-momentum seriously – while it was important to establish what obstacles her characters had to overcome to still have a sexual relationship (kids!!!), and to maintain that they still did have that component to their lives, it wasn’t important to delve into the details of it any longer. This is not an author to present sex just for titillation, and I respect her for that.
Overall, this is an amazing series. It is presented without judgment or complicated explanations – the actions and thoughts of the characters are handed unfiltered to the reader to experience. There are very well presented alien and human cultural components, some truly alien biological components, and a love between the two main characters that ties everything together and drives it home.
This series is available through Amazon, along with Forge’s more conventionally human-starring novels. Caterpillar is available as a free eBook, but I SERIOUSLY recommend the extended version for a more polished read.
I’m still working on what’s next – I took the last few weeks to read and start a ton of books, so I’m going to get the next installment of “First Impressions” on crafting a first chapter that makes the reader want to read more, and then get back to my normal schedule of reviews 🙂