Review by Ardy Hart
Solarpunk was never a genre I considered reading. I didn’t know what it was or why it was, much less why it was important to people. The name sounds cool, sure, but who’s ever heard of a best-selling solarpunk novel that isn’t under the bigger genre of science fiction? What even is the difference between the two? Where science fiction focuses on the broad idea of possibility with enough technological advancement, John R. Robey says that solarpunk is more about working with the Earth while simultaneously creating a better world for those who are victims of corrupt government. That’s what The Reclamation Project is about, except with furries. If you don’t know what furries are, they’re anthropomorphic animals, or “human-like” animals. And if I just confused you even more, sit down, take a breath, and keep reading. In The Reclamation Project, furries are the least of your problems.
The Reclamation Project is about the conflict between humans and furries--also known as zoomorphs--in the world of Ambara Down. Long ago, zoomorphs were created by humans to do things that humans couldn’t do. Then, the flying city of Ambara fell to the ground, causing much destruction but also laying the foundation for many new zoomorph cultures to arise. At some point, the Pax Machina--a powerful AI looking to control everything--grew threatening, creating giant mechanical creatures and taking over the minds of humans and zoomorphs alike. As time went on, zoomorphs inhabited Ambara Down and made it their home, while humans took to their flying cities. Prejudice against zoomorphs slowly formed in flying cities like High Empyros, and soon the zoomorphs’ and the humans’ distrust grew to a dangerous level, causing the leaders of both societies to establish the Reclamation Project, a project aimed to quell the tension. Fourteen authors write about the world of Ambara Down and how the Reclamation Project has affected both human and zoomorph culture. With Pax Machina and other dangers hiding in the shadows, the road to peace is a difficult one.
John R. Robey gives quite the exciting start to this anthology with his story titled "Piece of Mind." The time for compromise has begun as Haru, a high-tempered collie and Chief Stewardess of the Prefect’s Office, finds a hoverskiff pilot named Rory, a smart-mouthed calico, to transport the Prefect to High Empyros. Once there, Prefect Durgavati can negotiate plans to look past the furry/human differences and bring peace to Ambara Down--if they manage to get there at all. When a group of bandits ambush the hoverskiff and leave Rory and Haru out in the desert, the two need to rely on each other to save the Prefect, as well as themselves. With a mysterious third party sending shivers down their spines, the hope for peace dwindles in Ambara Down.
It’s really the attention to detail that makes this story amazing. Robey is great with describing the world of Ambara Down and its intricacies--hoverskiffs and healing braces, cybernetic attachments and flying cities. You get a clear picture of what the world looks like through these depictions, but it's really the characters that make it all come together. Haru’s role as the Chief Steward contrasts nicely with Rory’s role as a hoverskiff captain because you get to see their vastly different ways of life, and their distinct personalities make for an entertaining story. Every detail builds on the one before it, so when the climax of the story hits, it hits hard. I’d really love to see more of this world.
Set in the same world as the first story, "Ambara Blues" by Indigare expands upon the socio-political side of the furry/human conflict. Delmar Nova, a human living on High Empyros, is called by Director Kyla to use his experience in studying zoomorphic cultures to assess how the Reclamation Project in Ambara is proceeding. After realizing he wants more in his life than sterile walls and light pollution, Delmar accepts the job and is transported down to Ambara where he meets the Council liaison and rabbit zoomorph, Tavistad Ridgerunner. When Tav and Del start touring the city, Del is attacked. Tav comes in to save him, but Del realizes not everyone is happy to see a human here. The two must stick together if they want to figure out who’s behind this attack, and what this all means for the future of both civilizations.
I really enjoyed Indigare’s take on this world. I wanted to see more of the conflict, and that’s what I got. The first-person perspective is really important because it hones in on Del’s thoughts and feelings about the situation as an outsider. He’s confused about the attack, but also in awe of this new world. That feeling captured me and made it easy for me to understand. However, the dialogue tended to pull me out of that space. It seemed a little...off, and as a result Del’s personality seemed to weaken. When I was in his head I felt what he felt, but that feeling didn’t quite match the words he said out loud. I think it would have flowed better if Del said what came to his mind more often--the descriptions of the cities, and the beautiful flowers he saw. This would produce a more genuine response from Tav and give the two of them room to play off each other and learn about each other, strengthening both their personalities and their relationship.
So far, we’ve read about stories that take place on land, but "Insecurity" by L. Rowyn gives us a glimpse of what the solarpunk genre can look like underwater. When Ambara fell, a whole chunk of civilization was crushed beneath its weight. Aawee--a mermaid-type creature simply called a ‘mer’--finds the remains of a GloEx building during their team’s scuba diving mission. They explore a bit inside but become trapped when the front doors of the building slam shut. Kerick, a sedecpus and the team lead, comes to rescue them after their coms fail. With his octopus-like characteristics, Kerick finds a way inside and keeps Aawee company while the rest of his team prepare a drill so they can get out. But things don’t go as planned and the two sea creatures soon find out that the building itself might be more dangerous than they thought.
L. Rowyn really went all out with the creativity in "Insecurity." The concepts of the mer and the sedecpus--sedecpi?--are a great addition to the world of Ambara, though I would have liked a little more detail as to how they looked. There was plenty of detail in there--a creature with sixteen arms is hard to forget--but I still found myself getting confused as to how ‘anthro’ they actually were. One thing I found really intriguing was how Rick fit into the story. I think most zoomorphs and humans alike wouldn’t find an AI implant to be a person, but the fact that Kerick does, so much so that he combines his name with his own name, really emphasizes the strength of humanity in such a genre. It’s cool and fun to see how they communicate with each other. It’s also neat to hear how Rick encourages Kerick to get closer to Aawee, using their common characteristic of being trans as a topic of conversation. I didn’t think an AI could be that helpful when it came to such a topic, but I was happily proven wrong. This is a fantastic story!
"The Underground Star" by Nenekiri Bookwyrm gives another glimpse of what life looks like in Ambara--this time, underground. Life in the Warrens has been pretty boring for Eli the mouse, but his world changes when he discovers a huge tower of old Reclaimer junk in the tunnels of the Warrens. Entranced by a shiny object glistening on the top of the tower, he comes up with multiple plans on how to retrieve it. With each failure, more time passes and Eli starts to think he may never get the ‘star.’ Between his struggles to get the star and the mystery of his missing friend, Eli has to re-evaluate what he truly wants in life.
I think this story was trying to do too many things at once. The plot was centered around Eli and his quest for the star, which I enjoyed until the end. I was left with more questions than answers, which might have been the point. But if that was the point, why didn’t the story emphasize the mystery more? Jack goes missing for a long time and all Eli says about it is, “Life in the Warrens is like that sometimes.” His response seems more like an easy fix to a plot-hole than an actual character telling us what they believe, which would be fine if the story was more about the mystery. There are mysterious things happening in the background, and given Eli’s age I felt like Bookwyrm should have given him something weird to notice if they wanted the story to be about the mystery. As it stands, the story is so focused on Eli getting the star that the mystery aspect falls short. Which, again, wouldn’t be a problem if the ending was more triumphant. The mystery conflicts with the adventure because so much of the story is about his drive to get the star, but when he finally gets it and realizes what it is he just drops it and goes to find Jack, seeming only now to care about his friend. That all being said, I did really enjoy this story. Eli is a bright and persistent character. He tries and fails and tries again, which is enjoyable to read about in the way Bookwyrm described. The mouse had to work out creative ways to get what he wanted, and those ways--working for Ms. Smit, swiping some scrap metal here and there--really added to the atmosphere of the story. Ms. Smit was also a really interesting character. I couldn’t really tell why she was doing what she was doing, but that added to the mystery, along with her apparent history with Eli’s mother. Overall, it was a decent story, and I would really like to know what eventually happens to Eli.
Graveyard Greg continues the solarpunk genre through his story "Post-Mortem Telepathy." Immol, a lizardman, and Ventis, a jackal, are trying to find directions when they come across a Pax unit. After fighting it off, Ventis discovers he’s bulletproof and Immol chastises the jackal for being so reckless. As they leave the scene the chest of the broken Pax unit explodes, causing Ventis to protect his friend. Even though the two have been arguing this whole trip, they find that the incident leaves them closer than they’ve ever been.
The way Graveyard Greg describes his characters and how they interact are my favorite thing about "Post-Mortem Telepathy." He makes them feel real, and as a result, the danger feels real. I haven’t said much about the Pax Machina in this review so far, and that’s because I don’t feel like I’ve had a great representation of them...until this story. Immol and Ventis’ fear of them say a lot about the Pax in the world of Ambara Down, and that fear is justified in this story by the destruction they cause. What I didn’t like about the story was how dialogue-heavy it was. By itself, dialogue isn’t something that will necessarily make or break a story. However, when it’s the dominating way of telling the story, with little use of setting descriptions or other world building mechanics especially in a story as short as this one, the writing is bound to feel like it’s lacking. I would have liked to know what the terrain was like around where Immol and Ventis were camping, or at least where they were going. It would have been nice to see more of how they got into the first fight so there’s more rising action, and the climax would be more noticeable too. I would have also liked to see more of how their telepathy affected the two characters. Seeing a change of mind, especially from Immol, was really satisfying. He has a soft side to him that I think could be better represented if the story was lengthened and the dialogue was spread out. I really hope that the two of them get to where they’re going.
"Skipping Stones," by Bryan “StarryAqua” Osborne, is about a wolf named Katalia who shares a keen interest in humans with her friend Richter, a maned wolf. Katalia’s degree in Anthropology of Human Studies leads her to Alurai, a district in Ambara Down where she comes face to face with a human student. His presence piques her interest, but the societal prejudice against humans stops her from interacting with him--that is, until the human returns her notebook to her after accidentally dropping it while walking home. The chance encounter leaves Katalia wanting to know more about him. After the human is attacked in an alleyway, Katalia saves him and soon realizes that there are a lot more secrets looming in the shadows of Ambara Down than she previously thought.
"Skipping Stones" plays on the conflict between furries and humans very well. That, mixed with the solarpunk technology, makes this a solid story. My favorite thing about this story is that Osborne includes background information about the manufacturing of the technology we’ve been reading about. Osborne essentially creates a new place--Astraven--in the world of Ambara Down and fills it with a dark history that is then told through the eyes of someone who escaped. Even though the characters end up safe in the end, it’s far from a happy ending. I was left feeling sad, and rather horrified at what Everett had to endure. The plot twist, by the way, was also very well done; I didn’t see it coming at all. The only thing that threw me off was Katalia being the main character. I greatly enjoyed her character, but the significance of the story as a whole really rested on Everett after he told her about his history. I would have liked to see more of a reason as to why she was involved. She knows a lot about humans but that knowledge is never really put to the test, so her character ends up being more like a supportive character rather than a protagonist. Regardless, "Skipping Stones" is a great story.
"Silence and Sword," by Royce Day, is an exciting adventure story about Joe, a tinkerer cheetah, and his unlikely mercenary companions. Hamia, a Wazagan, explains that he and his friend Ali, a vixen, are on a quest to try to remove the collar locked around her neck. After a miscommunication, Joe agrees to look into the collar problem. The next day he tells the mercenaries that he cannot unlock it, but that the source of their troubles may be linked back to where Hamia found Ali all those years ago. Joe convinces them to let him travel with them to the source, finding that the Pax Machina are still about their slaving ways. The group will have to put their talents, and their trust, to the test if they have any hope of freeing Ali from her silence.
"Silence and Sword" is an amazing story! Royce Day perfectly combines the risk of danger with the thrill of adventure. The characters are dynamic, though flawed, and all of them have something to gain, something to lose, and something to learn. Day also does a great job with balancing the different parts of the story. The parts where Hamia mentions his culture don’t overshadow or distract from the emotion he feels. The scene where Joe takes off his shoes and climbs a tree using his claws shows that he has his own talents, and, at the same time, it doesn’t take away from the sense of urgency the group feels in the moment. Ali’s frustration is depicted beautifully alongside Hamia’s fatherly nature even though she can’t speak. The descriptions of the scenery and the pacing of the story were well done too. Nothing felt too fast or too slow, and the story held my attention all the way through. If I had to critique anything it’s the part at the end where Ali says, “Thank you, Father.” Her serious and thankful line contrasts with her more comical one in the next scene when she says, “Why not?...It’s been fun so far.” Maybe it’s the flippant attitude Joe gives when he asks her if she wants to stay with “this big lizard.” I just felt the difference in seeing Hamia as a friend rather than a father figure is a bit strange given how much time they’ve spent together already. I really do hope that they find out what happened to those other kits though...
Written by Kayode Lycaon, "Dark Garden Lake" is about the life of the painted dog Moshi, a mercenary whose position on the political chessboard is all but safe. It’s not until he spends a night with Bajit, a hyena prostitute with a sharp tongue, that Moshi realizes how lonely he is. Pushing his desires to the back of his mind, Moshi attends an extravagant dinner with his handler, Joyce. After some political eavesdropping and some clever wordplay, Joyce lines up an assassination job for Moshi, telling him that he’ll be greatly rewarded. Moshi takes the job reluctantly. His mission to kill the leader of a group that’s been raiding an agricultural center is called into question as his friends’ words haunt his mind, and Moshi will have to decide if his loneliness is worth another’s life.
I absolutely love this story, so much so that I was tearing up at the end. At first I thought that explaining the way Moshi’s and Joyce’s wordplay affected each other was a little redundant, but then I realized it actually emphasized Moshi’s disjunct thoughts and the inner conflict he feels. The characters were all complex and interesting to read about. The settings were clear and beautifully descriptive. But what I love most about this story is the third person limited perspective on Moshi and how it emphasized the conflict between what he wanted and what he had to do. It’s also impressive how Lycaon used Moshi’s cybernetic attachments to further enhance that conflict. The less exciting moments of the story were filled with wonderful descriptions of the world that used every sense to fill my imagination. The rising action was intense, layered with tension and emotion from every angle. Reading "Dark Garden Lake" was like eating a professionally cooked meal; mouth-watering from start to finish, and saddening because you wish you could eat the whole thing again.
Dan Leiner Turthra Jensen writes about a particularly interesting friendship between a maned wolf and their corvid friend in "Sewer Tea." The story begins with Vyvian entering Treeklak’s tea shop, greeting the old avian and showing them their fancy new glow rings. Treeklak, the corvid, responds with a version of sass that has taken Vyvian years to understand, since corvids speak in a different dialect. The story flashes between past and present as Vyvian recounts their history. A normal escort job for some tech turns dangerous when the two break open a lock in an old sewer system. Although they just met, the two will have to trust each other if they want to make it out alive.
I really enjoyed the switching between past and present perspective. It was well done and kept up the excitement throughout the story. The soft moments that focused on Vyvian’s feelings contrasted with the tense moments in the sewers, and I enjoyed seeing their vulnerable side in both instances. Treeklak was refreshing, if not a little confusing. Jensen’s dialogue for Treeklak was a bit confusing to understand--I had to frequently read over what he said to make sure I read it correctly--but writing in two different dialects is difficult. I was happy to read it over again because it emphasized a culture of the Ambaran world that I haven’t seen yet, and I felt it strengthened the story more than it took away from it. Their friendship is an odd one, but their quirks made "Sewer Tea" a fun read and a really nice addition to the world of Ambara Down.
Pax Machina are a sure threat in the world of Ambara Down. As dangerous as they are, however, they’re not the only ones with mysterious agendas. Juan Carlos Moreno writes about a group of humans who plan on using a centuries-old teenage girl, named Persephone, to inflict a virus upon the entire race of zoomorphs in "Persephone’s Chance." It’s up to Tabitha, an experienced tiger, and her group to stop them. The news of the planned demise of the zoomorph race is brought to Tabitha’s attention via the Hyacinth twins, brother and sister humans who left the Reclamation Project. After escaping an RP drone and discovering that the twins’ badger assistant, Sara, was also human, the group flew towards a Special Expeditions camp where Persephone was being held. With their own plan in place, Tabitha leads her group on a dangerous quest to try to free Persephone. Even with all the help, Tabitha will learn that the same instincts that give her an advantage may also be her downfall.
This entire story read like a cliche adventure story, and it missed many opportunities to implement some good meaning. I really enjoyed the struggle at the end when Tabitha had to fight her instincts, but that inner conflict only showed up at the end of the story. Until that point, the only conflict was figuring out how the group was going to free Persephone, which wasn’t really that much of a conflict given how many times they all got lucky. It would have been nice to see how Tabitha dealt with the knowledge that her whole race could be killed, rather than just chalking it up to “alright everyone, let’s all save the world.” Additionally, she didn’t have much presence in the story, even though it was told from her perspective. The story seemed to be happening around her, rather than her having an active voice in the story. Sure, she was the leader, but it felt more like Sara did most of the work. I liked the Brontides. They had the motive and the means for everything they were doing, even if it was downright evil. There’s that moment where the daughter realizes her dad is kind of crazy. I really, really enjoyed that because I knew he would stop at nothing to stop Tabitha, which made him all the more frightening. Overall, the lack of deeper thought and more telling than showing made this an okay story. The adventure is there and the action is there, but it’s very surface-level. I would have liked a little more depth in all the characters, especially Tabitha.
"A Journey to the Skies" is a tale of two bird siblings, Lisa and Tango, who begin their long journey to Flying Mountain on Lisa’s fifteenth birthday. As part of their culture’s tradition--told to them by their Matriarch--two capable siblings must venture forth together to Flying Mountain in order to learn how to fly. After the Matriarch’s speech, Lisa and Tango set off for the mountain, using their survival skills to make it through the dangerous forest. A few days in, they come to a break in the forest where they spot a farm in the valley below. A young human boy comes up to them and tells them a little about their culture. They ask him for a bit of direction and then continue on their way. When they get to the base of Flying Mountain, Lisa and Tango have to fight the machines that guard it. Such is the price to pay for the ability to fly.
Ferric the Bird did a good job with this story. It has all the things that make up a hero’s story: good characters, a solid plot, some worldbuilding, and great action. I really liked the Matriarch’s telling of why they had to leave. More importantly, I liked that Lisa calls the whole thing into question at the end of the story. It shows growth and change which I feel fits with the theme of the anthology. The twist at the end was also really well done, and I felt the confusion Lisa felt. I didn’t quite understand the scene with the human boy but maybe that was just to put this story in perspective to the rest of the stories in the world of Ambara Down. Either way, "A Journey to the Skies" is a solid adventure story.
Huskyteer writes about the relationship between a human child and a hyena explorer in her story "Star of the Savannah." Chuck values his alone time traveling from place to place in his hoverskiff called “Star of the Savannah,” but when he sees the town of New Haven up in flames, he discovers that he won’t be alone for much longer. His friend Mama Bill asks him for a favor--to transport a human child, named Dawn, back to her home in Ambara Down. Both Chuck and Dawn are unhappy with the arrangement, but they both learn that it’s better to be together than alone. When a group of pirates called the Watersnakes capture them, the pair will have to learn that sacrifices must be made if they want to protect each other.
Great humor is hard to write, especially in serious stories, but Huskyteer does it perfectly. Chuck’s personality, along with his and Dawn’s hilarious interactions, are what made this story one of my favorites from this anthology. There are witty lines from both of them, and yet it doesn’t feel like the story it’s trying to be witty. It’s just the kind of thing that happens when you have two strong characters going up against each other--or in this case, traveling together. While reading I could feel the two of them growing together, and the situations they found themselves in tested their trust. By the end I really felt like they needed each other. That type of feeling is hard to make a reader feel, especially when you don’t have a whole novel to do it. Huskyteer wrote a fantastic story that is funny, tense, dangerous, and heartfelt all at the same time.
Robey was right when he said that "The Flavors of Sunlight" was the most “solar” of the group of stories. Angle, a rabbit, doesn’t need to eat anymore. Instead, her body gets its nutrition from sunlight, kind of like plants do. Because of this, her days aboard a group of ships that float nonchalantly in the ocean are usually peaceful...at least she and the other Islanders get attacked by ‘Claimers. Ready to fight, Angle goes after a tegu--a species of lizard--and subdues her. As soon as they came, the ‘Claimers leave, abandoning Teal the tegu in the process. Teal wakes up in one of the ship labs. A couple scientists, including a man named Sokin, offer her life in exchange for experimentation. Teal refuses, but Angle manages to convince her that a life where you don’t have to eat or harm others is a life that can be worth living. The lizard agrees and their friendship begins. Angle teaches her how to live now that parts of her body are lined with algae, but the two will find out that a change of lifestyle isn’t just about biological change. The real danger lies deeper.
"The Flavors of Sunlight" by James L. Steele is one of those stories that you spend a lot of time thinking about after you read it. The concept is enough to warrant complex thought because it’s so distinct. Not only that, but to have a concept like this in a world that is already so complex and fantastical is amazing. It stands out among the other stories because it addresses the need to be able to change your mindset towards something. It’s the difference between a furry reading these stories and a non-furry reading these stories. Furries will automatically understand the characters these authors are writing about because they’ve been exposed to similar content, but when shown to a non-furry, these subjects may be difficult to understand. That difference, that ability to understand something that is so far-fetched is what makes this story amazing. Combining that with some great characters in a story that already has established villains--not just in the story but in the anthology too--makes "The Flavors of Sunlight" that much more incredible. It’s a wild concept, but it has depth because of Teal’s and Angle’s history. Well-written depth in a story with such a unique concept is what makes this story absolutely amazing.
"Chromium Maneuvers," by Matt Trepal, is a story about how Chrome and her friend Rust go head-to-head with some ‘Claimers. The story begins when Fiery Chrome Orchid, a fox-kin musicmancer, who is shocked to find out her performance for the Founder’s Festival has been cancelled. While setting up her stage on the balcony of the Damselfly, Chrome overhears the real reason the ‘Claimers have decided to cancel the festival. With help from Rust, and a couple other friends, Chrome concocts a devious plan. It’s dangerous, and if one thing is out of place it might not work. However, with how much faith she has in her friends, Chrome is sure the plan can’t fail.
I found this story to be particularly entertaining. It was a fun read all the way through and was a fitting end to the anthology as a whole. It’s a story about friendship and having fun and remembering where you came from. Chrome is a magnetic character; her strong personality and daring attitude make her a great protagonist. Yet it’s clear she needs her friends to help her. Although she’s reluctant at first, her decision to take Tischa’s help is what made this plan all possible, and what better incriminating evidence than pillow talk at a brothel? "Chromium Maneuvers" is a fun, refreshing, and significant addition to the anthology because--assuming you’ve been reading the stories in order--it just doesn’t stand for any of the crap that the ‘Claimers have tried to change in favor of themselves in the past thirteen stories.
Overall, The Reclamation Project was organized and framed very well. The characters who reappear in the story, like Prefect Durgavati and Director Kyla, along with specific places, like Ambara Down and the Damselfly, really solidify the world. No story seemed too different from the others, but each was unique. I didn’t know going into the anthology that all the stories took place in the same world, so I was pleasantly surprised to have my wish of getting more of this world written granted. I liked that the story started off with such a significant event--it established the important characters and just how tense the conflict was between humans and zoomorphs, setting the foundation for the stories to come. I was a little let down by the fact that there was no extravagant ending where the Pax Machina were defeated, and I say this because in the earlier stories it almost seemed that they were getting progressively more threatening, especially at the end of "The Underground Star." It almost felt as if they were going about some hidden plan of theirs that I thought was going to be revealed at some point. The anthology was never specifically about them though, so I’m not holding it against Robey or any of the other authors. Honestly, what could they really do about an AI race with that much power anyway? Editing-wise, there were a lot of typos, but maybe that’s just the e-book copy I was given. I also think that having the author of each story on a separate line and in a smaller font would help clarify the difference between title and author. The “About the Authors” section in the back is a must-have and I always like reading about them. Great job, Robey!
The Reclamation Project would appeal to those who love adventure stories. With such a wide array of stories and heroes in all shapes, sizes, and species, there’s a good chance this anthology has a story you will like. Furry is niche as it is and putting another niche genre like solarpunk on top of that makes it even more niche, but I strongly urge fans of either genre to give this anthology a shot. Just keep an open mind and you’ll be fine.