Cora Buhlert: Self-Published Science Fiction Competition Round 1

[In the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan, ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770 – will soon finish winnowing through their share of the 300 entries to decide which ones should make it to the next stage. Team members are reading the first 20% of each of their 30 books, and recommending the 10 they think the team should read in full. The 10 books that collectively get the most “yes” votes advance to a second stage where they will be read in full by the team and scored.  Here, Cora Buhlert shares her notes about the books she picked to advance.]

By Cora Buhlert:

A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden
  • A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden

This one starts out strong with a graphically described prison whipping of a new prisoner, who later turns out to be the protagonist Nate. The prison scene, told from the POV of a guard, is well written, but then I have a soft spot for prison stories. Then the story jumps ahead in time with protagonists Nate (who’s now out of prison, even though he barely escaped execution) and Catherine escaping dystopia to the outlands. This part is not quite as good and Catherine is sadly afflicted by the Doctor Who companion tendency to sprain her ankle.

This feels like a typical dystopian YA novel, but it was promising and I wanted to read on.

Yes, please, give me more.

  • Alterlife by Matt Moss
Alterlife by Matt Moss

John is about to rob a bank to support his family, when he just happens to hear someone mentioning that they made five thousand dollars playing a virtual reality game called Alterlife – quell coincidence. Of course, both game and videogame system cost five hundred dollars each and John already didn’t have money. Never mind that the game is sold out. So John lies to his wife and talks his boss into giving him a loan to buy the bloody game and console. Then he holes up in a friend’s apartment and starts playing a faux medieval virtual RPG.

I found this one dull, to be honest. The first few chapters are just John and his crappy life. Only by the end does he actually enter the game and it’s still not very exciting. Also, I feel sorry for John’s wife who’s married to a lying loser. This one also has technical issues, jumping between first and third person POV and present and past tense.

No thanks, not for me.

Aurora Ascending by Dennis Ideue
  • Aurora Ascending by Dennis Ideue

Starts off with an infodump prologue, which is thankfully short. But even when the novel proper starts, it just goes on and on infodumping. It takes until chapter 2 until the shuttle with the Aetherian crown princess Ember even lands on Earth and then another chapter for her to descend the ramp and promptly get shot, before we witness the landing yet again through the eyes of a random spectator. It takes several more chapters until we finally learn that Ember’s own father wanted her killed.

The attempt to tell the story from different POVs (Ember’s bodyguard, Ember, a random spectator) in the first person is a nice idea, but it doesn’t work, because the narrators all sound the same. The attempt to build up a romance between Ember and her earthly body guard Commander Elliott Greyjoy (her Aetherian bodyguard has been shot after randomly changing his surname) fails completely, because there is no chemistry, just Ember recounting their interactions. When they finally have sex, it’s a handled in a single line. The next day, a new assassin gets lucky and Ember dies. And then the Aetherian Empire goes to war with Earth. The rest is infodumpy war stuff

I’m not the target audience for overly technical military SF and I found this one a chore to get through, to be honest. The only interesting thing is the budding relationship between Ember and Greyjoy and that’s glossed over and then she dies.

No thanks, not for me.

Condition Evolution by Kevin Sinclair
  • Condition Evolution by Kevin Sinclair

This one opens with protagonist Shaun at the doctor, because he’s obese and steadily gaining weight since he had an accident, which cost him his job as a roofer. The doctor sends him to an experimental therapy using another immersive VR game. All expenses are paid, but the therapy takes year. The game turns out to be yet another pseudo-medieval fantasy world. However, Shaun is still overweight and has little stamina and gets captured by lizardmen almost immediately. He becomes a mining slave.

Again, I’m not the target audience for this one, because I find LitRPG with its focus on stats irritating. Though this one is more interesting than Alterlife.

No thanks, not for me.

Cranax Outbreak by Candice Lim
  • The Cranax Outbreak by Candice Lim

The prologue is a boardroom scene of several scientists at a research lab discussing whether to release a virus in order to ensure continued funding for their research. Lots of talking heads and I also found this plot highly problematic in the light of the conspiracy theories surrounding covid (though the book was released in April 2020, early in the pandemic, so it might be a coincidence). Naming a villain Cash and the company she works for MAD is also pretty on the nose. Later, there is a character named Vaxine. Really.

Once the novel proper starts, we get a POV shift (third to first) and an infodump about the history of STEM-focussed Asia Nova, courtesy of narrator Roxy, who also has a bad case of imposter syndrome. The story picks up once Roxy finds her mentor Dr. Jane Hershey in a suspended animation tank and stumbles upon two professors stealing a deadly virus, while helpfully blabbing out the plot again. Roxy can’t help Hershey, but manages to copy her data. However, the bad guys are on to her, as is the mysterious Vaxine.

There’s a potentially interesting story in here, but it’s buried in infodumps and stilted dialogue. Besides, a pandemic novel is not what I want to read right now.

No thanks, not for me.

Don’t Speak by Vanessa Heath
  • Don’t Speak by Vanessa Heath

The novel opens with the narrator addressing the reader and promising a story/warning about the dystopian world of this novel. Then, we get a flashback to the narrator’s childhood plus yet another infodump about the history of this dystopian world where speaking and illegal writing is forbidden and punishable by death. However, the writing is much better and more atmospheric. I also like the use of different fonts to designate different “speakers”.

The dystopia doesn’t make a lot of sense and the plot – teenager gets in trouble with school bullies, until school bullies get in trouble with dystopian regime – is nothing to write home about, but this one is quite intriguing and well written.

Yes, please, give me more.

Dusk by Ashanti Luke
  • Dusk by Ashanti Luke

The novel opens with a prologue that plunges us right in medias res with someone named Dr. Cyrus Chamberlain assaulting a hangar full of enemy soldiers to get to a spaceship. It’s supposed to be action-packed, but unfortunately we’re not given any reason to care about Cyrus or his mission. The fight scenes are confusingly described, too, e.g. does the bullet pass through the air or through Cyrus’ ear?

Next we get an epigraph by poet Elaine Goodale Eastman and then we get a kid clamouring for a bedtime story and the kid’s Dad (probably Cyrus) telling a story about an abused unicorn.

Then we get Cyrus again, about to leave the overpopulated and polluted Earth for the newly discovered planet Asha, a mission that is supposed to save humanity. Cyrus says goodbye to his family and leaves. The novel now alternates between Cyrus and his son Darius talking and infodumping and the adventures of Cyrus en route to Asha, which involve such thrilling fare as a debate about religion.

I found this one dull, to be honest, and the action-packed prologue doesn’t make it any more exciting. Maybe there is an interesting story in here somewhere, but so far I’m not seeing it. The plot is a little reminiscent of “Far Centaurus” by A.E. Van Vogt, but “Far Centaurus” is much better (and shorter). And I don’t even like Van Vogt.

No thanks, not for me.

Fanatic’s Bane by Edmund de Wight
  • Fanatic’s Bane by Edmund de Wight

The novel opens in a place called Barbo Transfer Station, where an alien Narath is chased through the nighttime streets and finally assaulted and killed by a xenophobic street gang. All this is witnessed by a ninja monk named Brother Cassius, who does not interfere.

Next we get an infodump about the Interstellar Trade Commonwealth and its enforcers, the so-called Free Agents. Then we are introduced to Free Agent Emma Malbane and get a scene from Emma’s POV comparing herself to an unnamed receptionist which is very male gazey and a typical example of men writing women.

Emma is sent to Barbo Transfer Station to investigate the hate crime against aliens, because those might destabilise the Commonwealth and civilisation itself.

The opening is atmospheric, though Brother Cassius’ refusal to help the beleaguered alien makes him rather unlikeable, but maybe he’s supposed to be. The Emma Malbane sequences are very infodumpy, though. There may be an interesting story here, but it never comes together.

No thanks, not for me.

Godeena by Stjepan Varesevac Cobets
  • Godeena by Stjepan Varesevac Corbets

The novel opens with cybernetic soldier Henry Broncon and his squad on a mission on the planet Morad, where Earth is at war with the alien Ansker. Surprise, they are ambushed, and everybody dies except Henry.

Next the scene switches to a space prison imaginatively called Hades. Of course, no one has ever escaped alive. Henry comes to Hades to put together a Dirty Dozen/Suicide Squad team of criminals for a mission. One of them is a female cyber soldier, who murdered her lover after he tried to kill her while pregnant and managed to kill the foetus.

The ambush opening didn’t do much for me, because I had no reason to care about the characters and what happened to them. The space prison recruitment part is stronger, but then I have weakness for prison stories.

There are some writing weaknesses here like tense shifts and head hopping. Nonetheless, I wanted to read on.

Yes, please, give me more.

Gods of the Black Gate by Joseph Sale
  • Gods of the Black Gate by Joseph Sale

The novel starts with Craig Smiley, a disturbed serial killer who hears the voices of the seven true gods and his father, en route to the solar system’s worst prison on Mars (another space prison story).

Then the scene switches to police officer Caleb Rogers who arrested Smiley and is informed that Smiley has escaped. Caleb and his partner Tom are sent to Mars to recapture him.

We also get transcripts of Rogers’ interviews with Smiley as well as Smiley’s visions/dreams while in prison and his escape.

Nice science fiction noir. Recommended.

Yes, please, give me more.

  • Grandfather Anonymous by Anthony W. Eichenlaub
Grandfather Anonymous by Anthony W. Eichenlaub

Ajay Andersen is an elderly Indian-Norwegian-American living in Minnesota in a dystopian surveillance state in 2045. We first meet him dealing with a social officer, a social worker/police officer hybrid supposedly making wellness checks on elderly people, but in truth looking for illegal tech, which ex-hacker Ajay happens to own. Luckily, Ajay can hack into the police files.

The officer also mentions they are looking for a fugitive, a woman with two young daughters. This fugitive is Ajay’s estranged daughter Sashi. The girls are the granddaughters he didn’t know he had. Sashi soon shows up at Ajay’s doorstep, daughters Kylie and Isabelle in tow, and asks Ajay to watch them. When she doesn’t return, Ajay has to go on the run with the girls.

A Cyberpunk thriller with a protagonist in his 70s. Recommended.

Yes, please, give me more.

Harvested by Anthony O’Brien
  • Harvested by Anthony O’Brien

A man called Jon Stone witnesses the supposed suicide of his mentor Joseph Swartz. Only that it’s not suicide but murder, committed by people wearing shades. Surprise, everybody is living in the Matrix and Joseph was about to reveal this to the world.

Jon Stone delivers Joseph’s last paper, which asks if the world is real or just a holographic simulation. Soon, he is contacted by good and bad holograms, both of which turn out to be attractive women described in a male-gazey way. Brunette Tori is the good hologram, blonde Alyssa is the bad hologram. Tori extracts Jon from Alyssa’s clutches and the Matrix.

This one is too close to The Matrix for my taste. The descriptions of New York City are very evocative, but the descriptions of the two holographic women are very male-gazey. There’s a lot head-hopping, too.

No thanks, not for me.

Homecoming by R. D. Meyer
  • Homecoming by R.D. Meyer

The novel is told as a series of journal entries by a historian named Shallisto Kai, who then proceeds to infodump about the history of humanity after they had to flee Earth as well as share their CV. Shallisto Kai is an expert in Earth history and therefore accompanies a military fleet on an expedition to reconquer Earth after 6000 years to chronicle the events of the expedition.

The early parts of this novel are basically one big infodump. We get information about the history of humanity and their expulsion from Earth, a primer on the political system, the calendar system, a tour of the flagship, her bridge and her crew, how the SLS drive works and so on. The premise – humanity has been driven from Earth and they want it back – is potentially interesting, but the execution is dull.  

Also, the humans are not very likable in this novel. They are xenophobic, exterminated an alien race a thousand years ago (okay, they were genocidal, but still) and they attack a random fleet of the alien Traygar, simply because they need to pass through their territory to get to Earth. Maybe the point is that the humans are jerks, but so far I’m not seeing it.

Finally, as someone who took Latin in school, the name Novam Terra is grating, because the adjective is in the wrong case.

No thanks, not for me.

In My Memory Locked by Jim Nelson
  • In My Memory Locked by Jim Nelson

The novel opens with a security expert named C.F. Naroy arriving at a crime scene in San Francisco in the year 2038. His former mentor and associate Michael Aggaroy has been brutally murdered, shortly after he asked Naroy to meet him. The police want to know what Aggaroy wanted of Naroy. Naroy isn’t sure, but suspects it has something to do with the “Old Internet” (i.e. ours).

A bit later, Naroy visits the only remaining copy of the “Old Internet”, which is kept on Alcatraz Island whose caretakers want to hire him. Turns out someone has been deleting parts of the old internet and the caretakers want Naroy to retrieve the stolen/deleted data. They won’t even press charges, they just want their data back.

This one starts out strong with some atmospheric descriptions of the rainy San Francisco of the near future, but then stalls out with a lot of infodumping, once Naroy gets to Alcatraz.

No thank, not for me.

Into Neon: A Cyberpunk Saga by Matthew A. Goodwin
  • Into Neon by Matthew A. Goodwin

Protagonist Moss works for ThutoCo as a bot controller and lives in a fully controlled company town. He’s in love with his childhood friend Issy, but doesn’t do anything about it. One day a woman named Ynna in full punk get-up knocks on his door. She works for a group that wants to expose ThutoCo‘s machinations and they want Moss’ help to do so. Ynna also gives Moss a data chip from his dead parents and hacks his implant. Then, she escapes as a security alert is triggered, but asks Moss to meet her in a bar in the megacity he has never visited.

This one may eventually become interesting, but it starts very slowly.

No thanks, not for me.

  • Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater

Opal has stolen an AI-controlled spaceship named Clarissa from the military to go on a quest for a lost spaceship. The novel opens with Opal waking from cryo-sleep, as Clarissa has arrived at their destination, a neutron star surrounded by a dust cloud. The lost spaceship Opal is searching – the passenger liner Solace, which disappeared 13 years ago – is hidden inside that dust cloud.

Spaceships get lost in hyperspace (here called “nullspace”) on occasion and suddenly reappear after decades or centuries. Often, these ships have been altered and there is something else on board. Something that can predict the future.

Since Opal can’t hail the drifting ship and her drones don’t work, because the ship has been altered, Opal puts on a cool armoured and armed spacesuit and boards the drifting lost ship.

I liked this one. The relationship between Opal and Clarissa is fun and the mystery of the lost ship is intriguing enough. Some nice worldbuilding hints as well.

Yes, please, give me more.

Mantivore Dreams by S. J. Higbee
  • Mantivore Dreams by S.J. Higbee  

The novel starts with Kyrillia, a teenager on a hot colony planet, at the Node, the planet’s internet equivalent, listening to music and discovering Bach. There also is Vrox, an alien familiar whom only Kyrillia can hear (and who also liked Bach). Kyrillia thinks he’s her imaginary friend, though he obviously isn’t .

The music session is cut shot when Kyrillia’s abusive mother arrives to beat her. We gradually learn that Kyrillia’s mother has always been abusive and hates her daughter for reasons unknown and that Kyrillia is also taking care of her disabled uncle, whom the mother also hates and resents. The uncle also abuses Kyrillia and her life is just shit. Kyrillia hopes to work at the Node like her mother someday, but her mother won’t let her. Even though Kyrillia is better at the job than her flake mother.

We also get some worldbuilding details. The colony is on a downswing. Most people can barely read and there was something called “the turbulence”.

One night, Kyrillia receives a holographic visit from a teenager named Kestor Brarian, who’s an apprentice Node keeper, who asks questions about the music site, which is apparently forbidden, and who tells her that Kyrillia’s mom is looking for an apprentice who’s not Kyrillia. There’s the usual teenage awkwardness between the sexes.

Kyrillia gets abused by her mother and uncle some more, the villagers drop cryptic hints that her mother has reasons for hating her and she has more clandestine conversations with Kestor. There’s also Seth, the kid of a disgraced family, who works as a day labourer and is Kyrillia’s friend.

This feels very YA-like with the abused protagonist, almost comically evil mother (who seems to be making a play for the Darth Vader Parenthood Award) and the two boys vying for her. Still, the story is entertaining enough and the worldbuilding is intriguing.

Yes, please, give me more.

No Easy Road by Greg Camp
  • No Easy Road by Greg Camp

Lieutenant Tom Cochrane is in the Centauri space navy and has constant issues with his aristocratic superiors, who are ordering him about and blaming him for the messes they caused. When Tom is ordered to fix substandard equipment his superior Commander Shelley had installed, the faulty equipment causes a shipwide failure and a fire, which gets the captain – who always supported Tom – killed. Tom gets blamed for this, which kills his Navy career.

The Tom segments are interspersed with segments featuring a man called Bertrand Lile, who appears to be some kind of spy or secret agent. He’s summoned to a meeting in a dingy hotel with an agent he recruited. Turns out the agent met someone at the hotel for sex, only for those someones to be murdered. Bertrand deduces that someone is on to his agent.

The Tom segments are pretty dull. Even the fire and explosion that kills the captain happened off-screen. The Bertrand segments are somewhat more exciting, but we get no information regarding who Bertrand is, what his mission is or why we should care. I guess I’m not the target audience for this one.

No thanks, not for me.

Numanity by Alexander Lucas
  • Numanity by Alexander Lucas  

The novel starts in medias res with two teenagers named Neeto and Ada, a cyborg, engaged in hacking operation to illegally watch a game called Alphaball in an abandoned sports bar, while exchanging banter. The scene is set in some kind of post-apocalyptic flooded world. They get caught and have to make a run for it. Neeto escapes, Ada doesn’t. We later see her getting interrogated.

The scene now shifts to the company behind Alphaball. The vice president is furious, because one of the cyborg players went off script, displayed too many abilities and ruined the game. He asks random talking heads for solutions and finally fires all but two of them.

The scene shifts again to Tiber Achilles, the Alphaball player who went off script and showed off too many abilities. His CEO mother is furious that he upset the delicated balance between the Darwin and Achilles companies.

There’s another scene featuring a biographer named Janajreh seeing Emin Lator, head of the Darwin company. Apparently, Emin had an affair with Rain Achilles, husband of the CEO of the rival company.

This one never really comes together and I have no reason to care about any of the characters. The endless talking head scenes with almost no dialogue attribution don’t help either. After twenty percent, I can’t even see what sort of story this is supposed to be.

No thanks, not for me.

Piercing The Celestial Ocean by Kip Koelsch
  • Piercing the Celestial Ocean by Kip Koelsch

The novel opens with a prologue where a spaceship named Endeavour (wasn’t the ship in No Easy Road also named that?) intercepts a cylindrical object coming out of a wormhole. The cylinder contains a humanoid woman in stasis.

Captain Ekels of the Endeavour is the usual washed out troublemaker captain that is standard for the military SF genre. He’s even done a stint in prison. Ekels hopes the discovery of the cylinder and its occupants will get him back in the good graces of the scientific community.

Ekels is ordered to put the crew of the Endeavour into stasis and wait until a fleet can arrive from Earth to build a research station to examine the capsule and its occupant. This will take fifteen years.

Once the Endeavour’s crew is in stasis, Ekels orders the ship AI to open the capsule and revive the occupant. We have no idea why he does this.

After the prologue, the story jumps to events on the other side of the wormhole 655 years earlier, where everybody and everything has apostrophe laden names and an astronomer named G’lea is about to observe the wormhole. This is a periodic event and is viewed as the coming of heavenly visitors by the clerics of this world. But G’lea knows it’s a natural phenomenon and wants to convince the clerics. This goes about as well as you can imagine.

The basic idea of two human/humanoid civilisations from opposite sides of a wormhole meeting each other is solid. However, the execution is lacking. The Ekels section is cliched and Ekels himself is neither likeable nor do his motivations make much sense. It’s also irritating that every single crewmember of the Endeavour seems to be male. The G’lea section is stronger, but the story just doesn’t gel.

No thanks, not for me.

Retrieval by Regina Clarke
  • Retrieval by Regina Clarke

Gillian runs a diner in the Mojave desert. One day, she’s late to open up and finds her new employee Gabriel missing. Shortly thereafter, Gillian and the patrons witness seven streaks of light in the sky and hear a loud boom. They assume that a nearby airbase is testing some kind of new weapons systems. Shortly thereafter, Gabriel reappears. Supposedly, he overslept. Gillian knows she should fire him, but doesn’t.

Gabriel promptly disappears again on a walk and generally acts strange, but Gillian is too busy to care, especially Gabriel reappears around lunchtime and is otherwise really good at his job.

Gillian’s ex, Birdy, drops by and wants to show her something he found in the desert. This something turns out to be a strange glowing disc. When pressed, the disc and a rusty trailer disappear.

The fire streaks was an alien crash and the disc is an alien artefact. The Roswell crash involved the same aliens. They are worried that the military might find their lost tech, so they try to retrieve it. This is the job of an alien commander called Malakai. His brother Inac is none other than Gabriel, Gillian’s new employee. For reasons best known to himself, Malakai is interested in Gillian and wants her retrieved along with the lost tech.

This is well written and the chapters from Gillian’s POV are very evocative. I also liked the descriptions of the desert. The Malakai chapters are less interesting so far. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued enough to want more.

Yes, please, give me more.

Shakedowners by Justin Woolley
  • Shakedowners by Justin Woolley

Captain Iridius B. Franklin is an inept commander, who is given equally idiotic assignments. He’s captain of the freighter Diesel Coast (named for a 21st century ecological disaster), which is delivering artificially intelligent toy dogs to a disaster stricken space colony at the opening of the novel.

Franklin also has a reputation for breaking starships. Things tend to go wrong around him, a phenomenon that is dubbed Franklinisms.

When the Diesel Coast reaches its destination, no one is answering their hails. They investigate and find no life signs, so they enter the mining colony and find the crew reduced to pink goo and all logs and data erased. Franklin is attacked by a swarm of insectoid nano-machines. He and his away team barely escape with their lives.

However, despite all precautions, some of the nano-machines manage to get aboard and take over one of the artificially intelligent robot dogs…

This is a fun work of humorous science fiction, reminiscent of the TV show The Orville and Joe Zieja’s books.

Yes, please, give me more.

Sidnye by Scott Fitzgerald Gray
  • Sidnye: Queen of the Universe by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Sidnye is a teenaged orphan at a boarding school in Saskatchewan, Canada. She is messy and has recurring dreams about shooting stars. She’s friends with Emmet, who’s into astronomy. Her favourite teacher is McCune, who’s also her legal guardian.

I do like the descriptions of the Canadian winter, but the novel itself is not for me, I’m afraid. I’m no longer the target audience for YA-ish boarding school stories and there’s little in the early chapters that makes this story feel different from umpteen similar ones.

No thank you, not for me.

  • Sped-Bot by Billy DeCarlo
Sped-Bot: DroidMesh Trilogy Book 1 by Billy DeCarlo

The novel opens with fifteen-year-old Isaac, his father Harley and Isaac’s android (or gynoid) companion Carrie watching a soccer match on Novae Terrae (another case of using the wrong Latin case endings), a breakaway Earth colony. Isaac’s foster brother Liam is one of the players and wins the match for his team. This is not a good thing, because competition is discouraged on this world. Isaac apparently has some kind of intellectual disability (maybe somewhere on the autism spectrum), which is supposed to have been eradicated on this brave new world.

Isaac has problem with classmate Ralph Sampson who keeps humiliating him. However, Ralph’s father is Harley’s boss and a big deal in this brave new world. As we learn from one of Isaac’s lessons, Novae Terrae has a strict meritocratic caste system, disallows competition and violence, has abolished money and religion and dampened down the sex drive. Androids are omnipresent, but have no rights.

There may well be an interesting story here eventually, but the beginning never really progresses beyond Isaac’s bullying woes. And as I said above, I’m no longer the target audience for school stories.

No thank you, not for me.

The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp
  • The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp

Jennet Carter’s father is a game developer for the most immersive VR game system ever. Mr. Carter takes the prototype home and Jennet sneaks into his office to give it a try and play the new game Feyland. Unfortunately, the queen of the dark fae who rules the land has detected Jennet’s arrival and orders her captured.

After arriving in the game, Jennet meets a brownie and fights the Black Knight, who is one of the Dark Queen’s goons. Lucky for Jennet, the game glitches and throws her back into the real world, where her father has just come home, accompanied by his friend Thomas Rimer (!). Thomas gives Jennet a book about fairy tales, whose illustrations match the game.

The Dark Queen, annoyed that the Black Knight has failed to capture Jennet, sends the Wild Hunt after her, but they fail, too. Meanwhile, Jennet is dealing with the typical teen school woes. During her holidays, she keeps returning to Feyland and does quests. When Jennet’s father announces that they’re moving to a small town, she is heartbroken.

This is certainly well written, but I’m not the target audience for either LitRPG or YA school drama. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough that I wanted to read on.

Yes please, give me more.

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed
  • The Hammond Conjecture by M.B. Reed

The novel starts with a preface by the author, claiming that what we are about to read is a biography of one Hugh Hammond, based on his papers and requested by his daughter Eve. Clever framing device, which Reed also uses to urge us to sign up for their newsletter.

The novel proper opens with Hugh Hammond coming to in a hospital in World’s End, London, in 1982 with amnesia. No one will answer his questions and he believes he died and is in purgatory and this body is not his own.  The doctors of course think he’s crazy, but let him write a diary and prescribe a drug that will jolt his memories. This diary is what the novel is constructed from.

The first memory to return is of Hammond returning home from an assignment in 1971. We quickly realise that this is an alternate world, since there are airships landing at the Croydon aerodrome (long gone in our world). WWII ended with a peace treaty signed between the British Empire and Germany in 1941. The British Empire never died and neither did the Third Reich. Germany got to the moon, George V is still king and the 1968 riots were a lot more violent than in our world. In order to apply for Civil Service jobs, you have to prove Anglo-Saxon heritage.

We get another flashback to 1969 and Hammond arriving back in England after a lot of time spent in South Africa and India with the military. He joins the Secret Intelligence Service.

In hospital, Hammond befriends a nurse and chances to see a news program on TV. He realises that he has landed in an alternate world.

For once the blurb comparing this novel to early Michael Moorcock is correct, because it does remind me of the Jerry Cornelius stories. Philip K. Dick would also be a good comparison. This one is definitely intriguing.

Yes please, give me more.

The Prometheus Effect by David Fleming
  • The Prometheus Effect by David Fleming

The novel opens in the fall of 1945. Nineteen-year-old genius Jack is on the verge of developing fusion power and he is being questioned by the US President about a paper he has written, outlining challenges that humanity will face and the way to solve them. He is promptly recruited to head the secret organisation the City, which will be located in the Nevada desert.

The novel skips ahead to 2039 and a four-year-old boy named Mykl. Mykl appears to be a sort of genius, too. His single Mom works in Vegas and is murdered one night. Mykl ends up in a children’s home.

The scene shifts again to 2040 and CIA agent Sebastian Falstano aboard a submarine. Falstano is supposed to investigate extraterrestrial technology. The submarine crew is not pleased about this. Falstano is taken to a secret location, where he is met by an attractive blonde woman and taken to examine a billion year old alien artefact found on the moon. Then the woman shoots and drugs him.

The scene shifts to Jessica who is taking an entrance exam to join the military. Jessica is waist-deep in student loans and laments about the quality of education. Jessica wants to develop Cold Fusion, while the professors want her to study non-western cultures. The author can’t help getting on his soap box here. Eventually, Jessica joins the military and winds up at the City, only to be fire almost immediately for allegedly falsifying data. However, it’s just a test to figure out if Jessica is moral enough to join the City.

Jessica and Sebastian meet while chained to the seats of a bus. Sebastian wants to go public with the classified information. Jessica is horrified.

Once again, there’s probably an interesting story in here somewhere, but it never comes together. The fact that the author can’t resist getting on his soap box to hold forth about the value of higher education doesn’t help either.

No thanks, not for me.

The StarMaster’s Son by Gibson Morales
  • The StarMaster’s Son by Gibson Morales

The prologue begins with the StarMaster, ruler of the universe, about to “die” (his body is artificial, but his memory has been corrupted) after ruling for fifty years.

The scene shifts to a young man called Felik, who is debating the apparent demise of the StarMaster on a next generation social network. Felik suffers from a neural virus. He also happens to be the StarMaster’s clone son, one of many. His brother StarKeeper Oberon is the favoured successor, but another brother Megas is also in the running. Felik doesn’t care, he hopes to become Chief Philosopher. Meanwhile, he lives in a savanna projection, where he has sex and fights. By day, he works as an ambassador to technologically less developed species. One of these, the wraiths, capture him.

The scene shifts to Kai, an inquisitor (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who can project her consciousness into different artificial bodies. Kai and her ship Euphrates are attacked. The ship is destroyed and Kai has to flee aboard an escape pod. She comes to again thirty-nine years later and learns that she has been infected by a neural virus.

This one tries to cram way too much information and too many side stories into one novel and the result never really comes together.

No thanks, not for me.

  • The Voyage of the White Cloud by M. Darusha Wehm
The Voyage of the White Cloud by M. Darusha Wehm

The White Cloud is a generation ship and the novel consists of individual stories about the people living and dying aboard this ship.

The first one up is Susanne, a teacher. Susanne is religious and her experiences at a service are intermingled with her memories of struggling to become a teacher and falling for a boy who turns out to be gay. Susanne finds answers to all her questions in her religion

Next up are Janey, another teacher, and Tamar who are getting drunk and talk about aliens. The White Cloud has never encountered aliens, but Tamar believes they are writing messages in the stars. Tamar has proof and shows it to Janey. She wants Janey to tell the story of humanity and the White Cloud and encode it in the stars.

Then we get Lauren Ibarra, who has just turned sixty-seven years old and is dreading the party.

I love the idea of this one, but unfortunately, I don’t love the execution. The slice of life stories feel very inconsequential. Maybe it all comes together later, but not so far.

No thanks, not for me.

Where Weavers Daire by R. K. Bentley
  • Where Weavers Daire by R.K. Bentley

Melinda Scott is eighteen and works as a salvage specialist as part of a family crew. One day, during what’s supposed to be a test mission, she comes across a giant derelict spaceship of the Daires. She finds a spellbook and mysterious suit and realises that the ship belongs to a necromancer. Unfortunately, that necromancer or weaver, Spence MacGregor is still in his suit and regaining consciousness. He goes after Melinda, as she tries to escape and grabs hold of her. Her Mother Jainey and a relative named Tommy gives chase, but have to break off, when Tommy’s anti-magic weapons fail due to tampering.

Melinda makes her way aboard the ship again and finally meets Spence, who is struggling to bring his ship, which has been hacked, back under control. The hacker is one Wallace Stukari, an enemy of Spence’s. He tries to blow up the ship, but Spence and Melinda escape in an escape pod and land on the planet Stuk’s Hollow.

Jainey’s and Tommy’s ship is boarded by supposed tax collectors, who turn out to be Stukari agents. Tommy is working for them and Melinda was used as bait to draw out Spence, only everything went wrong. Wallace Stukari also appears and demands to know where Melinda and Spence are. He and Tommy land on Stuk’s Hollow to go after them.

This one is a tad confusing, explaining too little rather than too much. But the characters are likeable and I wouldn’t mind reading more about them.

Yes please, give me more.


SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Review: The Hammond Conjecture

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed

By Mike Glyer: Hugh Hammond thinks he has been swapped to another timeline. Or else he’s insane. He’s trying to figure it out.

Martin Reed’s alternate history tale The Hammond Conjecture finds Hugh regaining consciousness in an isolation ward of catatonic patients, one of many awakened by British doctors using levodopa, following the example of Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings. Unlike the encephalitics who have endured decades of stupor and inertia, he’s only been in treatment a few weeks. Why is he in a London psychiatric hospital? In 1982? Why is the first thing he remembers an airship voyage from South Africa in 1969? How did he get in this condition?

Hugh’s therapy, besides drugs and hypnosis, is to type out all his recollections. And things are beginning to come back to him. What he recalls of his past – missions as part of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in the early Seventies — alternate with scenes in the present with his therapist and other patients, two story tracks that promise to converge when they finally reach the event horizon.

Meanwhile, Hugh wonders if his first glimpses of the present world are true, or only staged for him to see, as part of some psychological experiment? Like the television news of a woman Prime Minister hosting a visit by an American President he remembers from the movies — how improbable! Where are the uniformed officials of the Third Reich who were running the Europe he knew?

Hugh’s memoir of his work with the SIS reveals he is just as lecherous, though not as cowardly, as George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman, who Reed calls an inspiration for the character. Another reviewer said it: Hugh thinks with every organ but his brain. On the other hand, one of the reasons Hugh is braver and more impulsively heroic than Flashman is that in every tight situation he asks himself — What Would James Bond Do? Because not only are the novels of Ian Fleming admitted influences on the author – his hero Hugh has read the books and seen the movies! And when SIS bureaucratic intrigue is at its most treacherous, we find he also is familiar with the books of John le Carré – whose George Smiley is dismissed as far too wimpy to be a role model.

The book is entertaining on so many levels. There’s the alternate history puzzle. Why did the Nazis win in one of these universes, and what changes did that cause to the map and daily life? In that universe, what familiar sights and sounds of British pop culture in the Sixties have persisted, slightly rearranged? The Beatles and Mick Jagger are still front page news in the world he remembers; Monty Python still makes people laugh.

Then there’s the espionage story – operations, interservice rivalry, a constant flow of tradecraft (even the tactically placed hair to tell if someplace has been disturbed.)

And the science fiction story. What event triggered the separation of these two timelines? Why was Hitler’s Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess upon landing in England immediately imprisoned in the current timeline, but hailed as a peacemaking emissary in the remembered one? Or is this altered history not the cause, merely a symptom of a split precipitated at the quantum level? Science and myth both come into play as characters trying to understand this mystery notice the strange resonances between scientific and religious explanations of the cosmos.

Recognizing all the references is great fun, whether they explain the universe or tease the reader’s private memories. Hugh’s home has an elephant leg umbrella stand – did you ever read the Sladek story about the elephant with a wooden leg? At the hospital, Hugh types his memoir on a computer using WordStar – waves of nostalgia for me, possibly huh-wha? for you. Those are just two of the things I noticed. (Readers who worry about missing any of the hidden history can consult author Reed’s website with footnotes, which explains quite a bit.)

While the trivia is seductive, to make this a successful story it is essential that some answers come out before it ends. We want to know, does Hugh survive his missions with the Special Intelligence Service? How did he wind up in the Eighties? Did his love life work out? Are we given satisfactory answers to any of these questions? At least I can promise at no point does Hugh wake up and discover it was all a dream. But he worries that he might!    

[The Hammond Conjecture by M.B. Reed is an entry in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.]

Review: Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater

Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater

By Mike Glyer: Opal steals an experimental AI-controlled spaceship from the military to begin Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater because she’s seeking something that’s been taken away from her. She hopes to find it on a Lost Ship, one of the spaceships that vanish with all hands, then reappear, strangely altered, derelict, and rumored to be full of horrors. And Opal knows where she expects to find one.

In the vicinity of a neutron star Opal locates a seemingly deserted spaceship – and from the moment she boards an endless variety of tech and lifeforms are trying to kill her. Her companion AI, named Clarissa, helps keep track of the threats – though their relationship is complicated by the fact that Opal isn’t telling Clarissa everything, beginning with the fact that she’s been stolen.

What does Opal hope to find? What happened to this Lost Ship? The way Drinkwater builds this story discovery-by-discovery, with all kinds of dangers thrown in, marries what I liked about Rendezvous with Rama to the array of lethal threats presented in the novels of Rusch’s Diving Universe. And the story moves at an even more dynamic and compelling pace than either of them.

An orphan who has been pushed into a military career, Opal may be a highly effective fighter but she hates taking orders or being under any kind of discipline, and has only endured it with her goal in mind. Eventually we learn what that goal is. Meanwhile, she fights her way through endless deadly situations aboard this mystery ship, protected by her armored spacesuit and its suite of ingenious weaponry. Writers have been improving on Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry gear for more than six decades, and Drinkwater brings a richly inventive imagination to the table, giving Opal the weapons of a marine, a suit of armor tailored for vacuum, visual displays worthy of a fighter plane (or maybe a video game), and the support of artificial intelligence.

One of the best and most difficult accomplishments, as the author unfolds this fast-moving action adventure, is that the two main characters – Opal and Clarissa – grow in identity and friendship. Their mutual loyalty makes the reader care about their survival. And the way the experience transforms them provides a satisfying sense of closure to this novel, while still leaving the way open for the follow-up.

[Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater is an entry in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.]

The Tapas Bar At The End Of The Expanse: Non-Spoilery Remarks After Finishing Book 9: Leviathan’s Fall

By Daniel Dern: A decade ago, Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the Expanse series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing together as James S. A. Corey, launched us into a (at the time) solar-system-wide adventure.

And now, a decade and three trilogies later, the tale/saga comes to an end, and, thankfully, impressively but not surprisingly, “sticks the landing” or whatever sports or other metaphor you want to use. Book 9 is a good read, and left me sad that the journey was over, but satisfied with how it went and ended. Leviathan Falls wraps up the major and minor plot lines and arcs, some going all the way back to Book 1, and gives closure to the various personal and interpersonal journeys of the main characters. Including a brief, touching epilogue, which, not unreasonably, does not involve shawarma.

(I had the same feeling of satisfactory wrap-up and closure with the third-and-final season of Netflix’s Lost In Space; ditto Andy Weir’s recent Project Hail Mary, to name a few.)

I had approached Leviathan Falls with the unfounded trepidation and baseless concern as to whether the book would do right by plot and characters. Again, it did, leaving me (ditto the friend who first got me reading these books, who I was chatting with at various stages of my reading) that combination of sadness that we’re done and the happy feeling for the journey and that the ending met our emotional (and critical) expectations.

My one suggestion, depending on how much you do/don’t remember of Book 8: Tiamat’s Wrath — consider going back and reading it. I was maybe 30-50 pages into Leviathan Falls when I read one too many references to [REDACTED] and said to myself, “Wait, what?”, got Book 8 from my library and read that before resuming Falls.

(I had debated backing up to Book 7: Persepolis Rising, because “Wait, Holden is what/where why?” but did some quick web browsing and decided that refresher was good enough.)

For those who haven’t yet read any of the Expanse books (or watched the SyFy/Amazon series, on the home stretch of its currently-final season (there apparently are legit ways to finesse contractual constraints to give us more), here’s a few quick notes:

  • Our story is PoV’d primarily by what becomes the close-knit plucky, adventury crew of the good spaceship Rocinante (and kudos to Abraham and Franck for consistently following one character’s PoV per chapter, and putting said PoV-er’s name as part of each chapter’s title).
  • Already-politically-jousting Belters, Martian colonists, Earthers and others encounter an alien technology, the protomolecule. (Somewhat like Babylon V in having the parallel and often intertwining people/political and big-ominous-alien-mystery-threat plotlines.)
  • Part of what’s gratified me about the Expanse has been that it feels like the author(s) live there, in near-future low- and zero-G, in spacecraft large and small, and that — with exceptions due to alien technologies — the laws of physics etc are explicit and respected, so, no FTL space drives or communication, for example.

No, I’m not going to say anything about what’s actually in Leviathan Falls, other than yes, James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Amos and Alex are still with us, plus other characters, good, bad and could-go-either-way from more recent volumes.

So again, all I’m going to say is, the book is available, and if you’ve enjoyed the ride so far, I don’t feel you’ll be let down by the finale. You will, I predict, be happy with [REDACTED], sad by accepting of [REDACTED], amused by [ALSO REDACTED], be expecting [REDACTED] but probably OK with [REDACTED]… and smiling at [REDACTED].

(Yes, there’s room for more stories in the Expansiverse, before, during or after, and I’ll at least try them such if they happen, but if that’s the end of it, I’m OK with that.)

And that’s all I think needs saying. Enjoy!

Or, as they say in Belter Creole, (according to Memverse) —

Dédawang ta xélixup! (That was excellent!)

The Twenty Percent Solution: A Self-Published Science Fiction Competition Judge’s Upvotes

By Mike Glyer: The Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan, is modeled after Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off.

Ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770 – will soon finish winnowing through our share of the 300 entries to decide which ones should make it to the next stage.

Team members are reading the first 20% of each of their 30 books, and recommending the 10 we think the team should read in full. The 10 books that collectively get the most “yes” votes advance to a second stage where they will be read in full by the team and scored.  

Based on reading 20% of Team File 770’s assigned books, I found there are actually 12 I’d say yes to – so I am going to need to cut two more before I finalize this list.

For purposes of this article, I have organized some books with common characteristics into categories – the contest itself doesn’t do so. And my comments are preceded by a condensed version of the book’s self-description, so you can see what the author is trying to do.  

INSIDE THE VIDEO GAME

I tend not to like stories about people being put inside a computer game, so I was pleasantly surprised that I really liked one of the team’s three books with that premise.  In these kinds of stories, unlike actual games, a lot of info has to be dropped in the lap of the point-of-view character so the story doesn’t stall. Therefore, the game play doesn’t feel genuine. (As a game player I may endure being repeatedly killed and starting over as I learn a game, but I don’t want to read that.)

  • Alterlife by Matt Moss (N) No, that’s enough for me

John Crussel hears of how he can make money in a virtual reality video game called Alterlife. But being a hotshot new guy that seems to have all the luck draws the attention of some dangerous people in Alterlife. Through a series of unfortunate events, John becomes the first to contract a deadly virus – in real life. The virus was designed to kill players outside of the game. And John was targeted to be a carrier. Can he rid himself of the virus before time runs out? All John Crussel wanted was to make some easy money. He thought Alterlife was just a game…

This story progresses both inside and outside the game. The prose is well-enough written, but after 20% I wasn’t engaged by a character who was willing to do anything and repeatedly deceives people he is supposed to care about.

  • Condition Evolution by Kevin Sinclair (Y) Yes, I want to read more

When Shaun’s life continues to go from bad to worse, he is offered the chance to escape into an epic game world. One with the power to repair his mind and body while he lives out his wildest dreams. What could possibly go wrong? It turns out fighting monsters and obesity is tough wherever you are! Then there’s the unrequited love. Weren’t the women supposed to fall head over heels with the hero? Not in Anatoli, a brutal and unforgiving land on the brink of apocalypse. If Shaun can survive this very real experience, he might just get to be a hero back in the real world!

Despite being an adventure inside a computer game the author hooked me – I had to learn the fates of his two main characters. Never mind 20% — I read the whole novel right away. It was pretty entertaining.

  • The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp (N) No, that’s enough for me

What if an immersive game was a gateway to the treacherous Faerie Realm? Feyland is the most immersive sim-game ever designed, and Jennet Carter is the first to play the prototype. But she doesn’t suspect the virtual world is close enough to touch — or that she’ll be battling for her life against the Dark Queen of the faeries. …Together, Jennet and Tam enter the Dark Realm of Feyland, only to discover that the entire human world is in danger. Pushed to the limit of their abilities, they must defeat the Dark Queen… before it’s too late.

Another inside-the-computer-game story, but with two intriguing characters. This feels like a YA novel, and while there are some YA series I thoroughly enjoy, I decided this one wasn’t compelling enough to make the cut for the contest.

FUTURE INFORMATION SYSTEM CONSPIRACIES (POST-INTERNET)

Four of the team’s books revolve around information technology of the not-too-distant future.

  • Grandfather Anonymous by Anthony Eichenlaub (Y) Yes, I want to read more

Elderly, unarmed, and extremely dangerous. Ajay Andersen was the best hacker the NSA had ever hired. Retirement hasn’t slowed him down one bit, thank you very much. When his estranged daughter shows up on his doorstep with his two granddaughters, Ajay will do anything to keep them safe. He’ll hack biotech corporations and criminal enterprises alike. He’ll brave the woods of Minnesota. Nobody after his girls will be safe, but the more he digs, the more he dredges up the shadows of his own dangerous past. He only needs to know one thing: What makes his granddaughters so darn dangerous?

This is a well-written page-turner. The way the story opens made me think of some John Sandford and Lee Child thrillers that begin from the villain’s POV – except this “villain” is the protagonist. At least we know he’s a very ruthless fellow!

  • In My Memory Locked by Jim Nelson (Y) Yes, I want to read more

They hired a cyberpunk detective to recover their stolen memories. They didn’t know his twisted past is the key to the crime. Security expert C.F. Naroy’s investigation across a desolate San Francisco uncovers blackmail, political intrigue, family secrets, and a few dead bodies. Meanwhile, he has to keep tabs on a beautiful young programmer addicted to Blue Pharje, a substance used to forget your past in a world where nothing is forgotten. He also learns the hard way that the stolen data is so explosive, people are willing to kill for it. Then Naroy discovers his own painful past is the key to the entire affair. He must choose between solving the crime…or burying it for good.

This noir-style mystery is set in climate-changed San Francisco of near-future. I didn’t mind the indulgent descriptions of the vegetation-choked cityscape. It’s a murder mystery with cryptic, Hammett-esque clients.

  • Into Neon: A Cyberpunk Saga by Matthew A. Goodwin (N) No, that’s enough for me

Orphaned and alone, Moss is happy to have found a place in the world. But his humdrum working routines take a terrifying turn when a mysterious woman breaks into his apartment and hands him a data chip from his dead parents. Suddenly hearing messages revealing his benevolent employer has a far darker side, he braves the dangerous megacity streets in search of the truth. Surrounded by outcasts and criminals and running on instinct, Moss stumbles onto a rebel group intent on exposing their corrupt oppressors. And though he fears for his life when his old boss has put a price on his head, the naïve man believes the key to taking down the enemy may lie inside the high-tech device… and his own cerebral cortex. Will Moss’s attempt to fight the power cause him to terminally short circuit?

Like The Matrix or Keith Laumer’s short story “Cocoon,” a character finds out his cocooned life isn’t “real”. But 20% into the book he’s only just starting to break out. I was willing to stop reading.

  • Harvested by Anthony O’Brien (N) No, that’s enough for me

The year is 3716. Earth’s resources are depleted. Humanity has been forced into a 21st century computer simulation, controlled by Ikelos, AI at its most terrifying. A seedbank lost to time in the frozen wastelands of a Norwegian island is mankind’s last hope for survival. Jon Stone, a New York physicist, has been extracted out of the simulation by another scientist, Tori. With no memory of Tori or his past life, Jon must trust her as they re-enter the simulation to locate, somewhere in this dangerous, illusionary world, the island’s co-ordinates. Can they avoid the traps in the matrix, find what they seek, and return to the 38th century in time to save humanity before the final extinction?

After an initial flurry of action, the rest of the opening 20% consists of info dumps. Not enough reason to recommend it.

REBELLING AGAINST THE REPRESSIVE REGIME

The world has no shortage of oppressive governments, and there are many successful sf stories about getting rid of them (The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) or failing to (1984). Unfortunately, I couldn’t upvote any of the four examples assigned to our team.  

  • A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden (N) No, that’s enough for me

The last of humanity live inside the walls of the totalitarian Kingdom of Cutta. The rich live in Anais, the capital city of Cutta, sheltered from the famine and disease which ravage the rest of the Kingdom. It is only by the will of the King that Nate Anteros, son of the King’s favourite, is spared from the gallows after openly dissenting. But when he’s released from prison, Nate disappears. Catherine Taenia has spent her entire life comfortable and content. The daughter of the King’s Hangman and in love with Thom, Nate’s younger brother, her life has always been easy, ordered and comfortable. Two years pass without a word, and then one night Nate returns. But things with Nate are never simple, and when one wrong move turns their lives upside down, the only thing left to do is run where the King’s guards cannot find them – the Outlands. Those wild, untamed lands which stretch around the great walls of the Kingdom, filled with mutants and rabids.

The first 20% seems to dwell a lot on descriptions of the physical injuries sustained by the characters in their flight, which puts the brakes on an already slow-moving story. Didn’t make my cut.

  • Aurora Ascending: Armageddon is only the Beginning by Dennis Ideue (N) No, that’s enough for me

Follow Elliot Greyjoy’s adventures he gathers a force to challenge the invincible fleet surrounding Aether. Vowing to destroy the Emperor that shattered his homeworld, he’s joined by a beautiful telepath, a smartass computer, and an elite team of Terran military forces. First contact, planetary occupation, and evacuation are merely the first trials he must overcome before his quest even begins. Armageddon is only the beginning of the adventure.

This story is about freedom fighters who oppose an alien empire that wants to overwhelm Earth. Although the blurb names a particular protagonist, it takes awhile to get to him. First come a series of scenes each featuring a different male character who emphasizes strict military discipline — except when it might keep him from doing whatever he wants — on a team with a woman who wants to sleep with the commander (him), and does. Although there can be successful stories about a hero who is a puritan, or is a hypocrite, or is simply amoral, I wasn’t able to enjoy a story where nobody around these characters noticed the inconsistency.  

  • Cranax Outbreak by Candice Lim (N) No, that’s enough for me

You can run from the zombies but you can’t run from fate. In the alternate 2020, Asia Nova is governed by a group of elite scientists called the Community. The wrestle for power in the Community thrusts Roxy in the path of the covert party who has unleashed the deadly Cranax virus and abducted her high-profile mentor, Dr. Jane Hershey, who has the only known cure. The Infecteds aren’t the only thing Roxy has to run from. With the masterminds behind Project Cranax hot on her heels, Roxy finds herself in an accidental quest to rescue Hershey.

I found the book plagued by two-dimensional, unbelievable characters in an absurd predicament that didn’t make nearly as much sense as the blurb. Not recommended.

  • Don’t Speak by Vanessa Heath (N) No, that’s enough for me

Speech is illegal. Punishable by death. The doctor took your voice away mere minutes after you were born. Now, over two hundred years after the “Silent Night” bill, people go about their lives, flicking and tapping away at their communication pads while carefully choosing each word so they don’t end up like the ones with missing fingers or entire hands. For years, Rose was the same as everyone around her – nervous when Civility Agents requested a meeting or terrified when Voice Agents rounded people up for interrogation. But, when everything she holds dear is ripped away from her, she has no choice but to run and join the one group she was taught to fear… the Rebellion.

The major premise of why voice speech is surgically prevented from birth is completely undermined by a world of characters who find ways to communicate their words, emotions, and values without it. Therefore, the story is nonsensical.

MILITARY SF

  • Godeena by Stjepan Varesevac Cobets (Y) Yes, I want to read more

Henry Broncon is a Cyber, a type of soldier modified with cybernetics, built to fight in treacherous terrains on far-flung planets and battling alien monsters for their resources. As the only survivor of a brutal war against rebellions Ansker soldier on the planet Morad, the winning terrestrial colonies receive ownership of a system called Naude, comprised of various planets including Godeena. Scientists sent to research the huge, completely preserved but uninhabited city disappear and Special Forces sent to recover them also come up missing. It’s up to Broncon to gather a unit tough enough to withstand the harsh conditions. He takes the worst inmates from an inescapable prison on a poisonous planet Had, to investigate what is happening on Godeena. The unusual team of criminals, led by Broncon, discover what terrors await them there.

It’s not as close to The Dirty Dozen as the blurb might lead you to believe. However, up to the 20% mark it’s a well-written military sf story, and I’d be willing to read more. 

  • Where Weavers Daire by R. K. Bentley (Y) Yes, I want to read more

Ten years after the last war, on the desert world of Stuk’s Hollow, the New Year celebrations are in full swing with gatherings of Houses; the technological, the magical and the mortal. Invisible fingers pull the living, the dead and the banished towards the festivities. It’s just a question of who’s going to reach the festivities first and what secrets they will uncover. The Fallen Techno Mage. The Forgotten Weaver. The Lost Leader. The bloodthirsty evil.

This story is set in a universe where technology and magic are somehow integrated. As we know, it’s not just having that idea, it’s what you do with it. Here’s a fast-paced space adventure, people to rescue, a mystery to unravel, and plenty of interesting characters at work – possibly too many. They come in a flood, and it’s a challenge to keep track of their allegiances. But then, the characters themselves have trouble keeping track, so why should the reader have it any easier? 20% is just an appetizer. I’m ready to ride along for awhile.

COLONY SHIPS

  • The Voyage of the White Cloud by M. Darusha Wehm (N) No, that’s enough for me

The White Cloud is the most audacious experiment the human species has ever undertaken—to search for a new Earth. The ship and its crew exist for a solitary purpose—to reach a distant planet and establish a colony. However, the vast majority of people undertaking this journey will not live to see its result, nor were they part of the decision-making process to leave. A novel-in-stories, following the many generations who make the journey, The Voyage of the White Cloud asks how you can find meaning as a slave to destiny, a mere stepping-stone in history. These are the stories of the most ordinary people on a most extraordinary journey.

A series of scenes play out aboard a generation ship that will take many lifetimes to arrive. They amount to character sketches, and I found I didn’t get invested in the characters like I do with a Becky Chambers book. So for me, this book didn’t make the cut.

  • Dusk by Ashanti Luke (N) No, that’s enough for me

With the Earth overpopulated and polluted, a group of twenty premier scientists must depart on a mission to explore Asha, a distant, uninhabited planet that may offer solutions to humanity’s burgeoning problems.But when they arrive at Asha, the scientists are brusquely greeted by a mysterious human military force that imprisons them with no explanation. They find that during their journey, a faster ship not only delivered humans to Asha, but those humans defeated Earth in an interplanetary civil war. With this war and the discovery of an inexplicable link to mankind’s past, the team finds Asha holds more mysteries than answers. Astrophysicist Cyrus Chamberlain is among those who left behind their old lives and risked everything on this journey. Unfortunately for Dr. Chamberlain, he finds that even if he survives the many challenges this new world holds for him, he may have already lost more than he ever imagined.

Scientists on their way to study an alien world have time for many long, deep and real conversations, and to form cliques. But 20% of the way into the book, talking is all that’s happened. The major crisis disclosed in the blurb is still offstage. The highlight has been flashbacks to one scientist’s talks with his young son – though even these are just one more technique to deliver another infodump info to the reader. An infodump which the reader had nowhere to apply, suggesting the story hasn’t started in the right place. Not recommended.

SPACE OPERA

  • Homecoming by Russell D. Meyer (N) No, that’s enough for me

Earth. The mere name has had an almost talisman-like pull on the human race since we were driven from our homeworld over 6,000 years ago. Mankind’s ancestors ran from the genocidal threat engulfing them, fleeing like intergalactic refugees towards a new home that would allow us to flourish once again. And flourish we did. From a ragtag group of just over 12,000 survivors, humanity has grown to create a proper empire of nearly 900 billion spanning two galaxies. But we never forgot our home, so we waited and we planned. Now the time was finally right to return to Earth and take back what we once had no choice but to abandon. Our legends had defined us, but could those legends withstand scrutiny? What if everything we’d come to believe about ourselves and our world had been carefully crafted to cocoon us for our own good?

This is a complacently genocidal space opera with scenes of fleet-level conflict and violence. The unexamined racial bloody-mindedness would have fit in well with Fifties sf. As a reader I need more nuance than when this kind of story was the genre’s state-of-the-art. So I haven’t picked it to advance.

  • No Easy Road by Greg Camp (Y) Yes, I want to read more

Five years in the Centauri Royal Navy has earned Lieutenant Thomas Cochrane the disapproval of his superiors. And when his captain dies in an accident that Tom is unable to prevent, the young officer finds himself without a posting and without a future. Unless he can make a destiny of his own. Bertrand Lile spends his days in the shadows, obeying the orders of a clandestine society while harboring his own secret, his belief that a distant enemy is weaving its tentacles into the heart of the Centauri Empire. But his time to prove this is running short. Caught between pirates who want to kill them and their supposed comrades who could end their careers, Tom and Bertrand seek to save their worlds that do not yet know of the looming dangers.

This is a literal Aubrey/Maturin-in-space novel. I didn’t expect to like it precisely because I like Patrick O’Brien’s stories so much. But after 20% the homage was not wearing thin. I’d like to keep going.

  • Shakedowners by Justin Woolley (N) No, that’s enough for me

After graduating bottom of his class at Space Command Academy Iridius Franklin hasn’t had the glamorous career he envisioned, instead he hauls cargo ships full of mining waste, alien land whale dung, and artificially intelligent toy dogs across the stars. Iridius does have talent though – he is exceptionally good at breaking starships. So, when not hauling freight, he is captain of a shakedown crew, a skeleton crew used to test newly constructed ships for faults before the real crew takes over.

A humorous novel. There are some laughs. There are also stressful, supposed-to-be-funny bits. This includes the usual collection of alien crew from races with bodies and other characteristics designed to be mockable by humans. It’s hard to write a funny book, and the author does all right. Others may be ready to go deeper into this story than I am.

  • The Starmaster’s Son by David Morales (N) No, that’s enough for me

When Felik Ullon inherits the StarMaster’s prized ship, what seems like a blessing launches him into a universe of schemers, dark dealings, and truths too uncomfortable for even a black hole to swallow. If Felik is going to survive, he’ll have to discover how his father died, uncover an alien conspiracy, and prevent his brothers from plunging the galaxy into civil war. Meanwhile, across space and time, the bold and cocky inquisitor Kai tracks the biggest bounty of her life, hoping to restore her family’s reputation. Yet killing her target may require unleashing an ancient threat that could dissolve the fabric of the cosmos.

David Morales’ space opera features colorful and inventive military, communication, and space traveling tech. Sometimes it’s over-the-top, like the silly-sounding names of some of the alien races that reminded me of a scene in the Fifties EC Mad Magazine satire of Flash Gordon. Other readers may enjoy following along just to see what he thinks up next. But I didn’t vote for this one to move on in the competition.

  • Piercing the Celestial Ocean by Kip Koelsch (N) No, that’s enough for me

Disgraced scientist, Captain Anton Ekels, seizes the opportunity for redemption he recognizes in the Endeavor’s near-collision with an alien stasis pod. Expelled from the mouth of a remote wormhole, the capsule—once taken onboard the deep space research vessel–reveals clues that the captain believes may link its female humanoid occupant to an alternate reality. Six-hundred years earlier on the other side of the wormhole, Grand Master G’lea and her assistant, Master T’reau, aim their innovative celestiscope skyward and make a heretical discovery. Suppressed and warped by influential P’nesian Clerics, this startling revelation further secures the dominance of the Grand Conclave, enhances the mystery of the Heavenly Visitors and seals the fate of G’lea and T’reau. Hundreds of years later, on this oft-denigrated island, unique circumstances unite a sea captain raised on those whispered tall tales with the estranged son of the powerful P’nesian Archcleric. Aboard the Vagus, A’zra and G’regor begin an adventure that not only challenges entrenched religious beliefs, but eventually inspires a much greater scientific leap—towards the Celestial Ocean and beyond.

In the first 20%, a wormhole explodes, alien technology is explored at university; then we jump to a historical flashback to an islander culture with Stone Age level astronomical lore that ties in somehow. These intriguing beginnings make it a close decision, but I downchecked this book from my recommendation list.

GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION

  • Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater (Y) Yes, I want to read more

Sometimes spaceships disappear with everyone on board – the Lost Ships. But sometimes they come back, strangely altered, derelict, and rumoured to be full of horrors.  Opal has stolen Clarissa, an experimental AI-controlled spaceship, from the military. Together they have tracked down a Lost Ship, in a lonely nebula far from colonized space. The Lost Ship is falling into the gravity well of a neutron star, and will soon be truly lost … forever. Legends say the ships harbor death, but there’s no time for indecision. Opal gears up to board it. She’s just one woman, entering an alien and lethal environment. But perhaps with the aid of Clarissa’s intelligence – and an armoured spacesuit – Opal may stand a chance.

The protagonist finds and boards a seemingly deserted spaceship — but it’s trying to kill her. She’s helped by a companion AI, who she isn’t telling everything. The way the story builds discovery-by-discovery reminds me of what I liked about Rendezvous with Rama, except the lethal threats have more in common with Rusch’s Diving Universe. However, the story moves at an even more dynamic and compelling pace than either of them. I want to read more.

  • Mantivore Dreams by S. J. Higbee (Y) Yes, I want to read more

On a colony planet, in a hot, dusty village where no one wants to live, is someone who was exiled there a long time ago. Someone who stole something so precious, others are prepared to lie, kidnap and murder to get it back. Drawn into this web of deceit is Kyrillia, a teenager who dreams of running the village’s branch of the Node, the planetwide organic information system, but instead drudges for her mother… Seth, member of the disgraced Priest family who toils as a day labourer on the smelliest, most thankless jobs in the village… And Vrox, an ancient, sentient alien who lives only in Kyrillia’s imagination, or so she thinks… When Kyrillia sneaks into the Node and opens up a forbidden site, she triggers a chain of events that not only rips through her own life, but affects those living thousands of miles away in the capital. For when something so precious goes missing, others will stop at nothing to get it back.

The novel starts out as a story of village life, with a young protagonist who is abused, and seems to share her consciousness with an alien, or else is simply a child with an “invisible friend.” She hasn’t been told some important bit of her background. Neither has the reader by the 20% mark, but at least it all moves along at a good pace.  I think it’s a yes on my list.

  • Numanity by Alexander Lucas (Y) Yes, I want to read more

In a future beset with rising seas, and darkened skies, technology stays the tide and tries to plug the holes that humanity creates. Hubris sees two technological powerhouses with different philosophies at odds with each other. A son tries to figure his place in the world while two youths try to survive in theirs and unwittingly set into play a series of events that threaten to change the status quo of humanity.

In the future we see the development of a reality entertainment game from both the contestant and evil corporation’s sides. And on both sides there are rivalries between convincing characters – both the sympathetic ones, and the nasty ambitious ones.  It’s an engaging tale, and I think it should advance to the next phase.

  • Retrieval by Regina Clarke (Y) Yes, I want to read more

For Gillian Hall running her diner in the Mojave Desert is the good life, until a man calling himself Gabriel arrives as her enigmatic and unpredictable new short-order cook. On the same day fiery explosions streak across the sky. Everyone in town assumes their presence must be part of a military operation from the nearby base. What do the blasts really signal? Gillian’s quiet world shifts into an unknown reality when seven starbreakers—alien ships—enter Earth’s atmosphere. One of them is destroyed, scattering valuable and dangerous technology into the desert in its wake. Five ships depart. The last starbreaker, the Menocai, stays to retrieve the lost debris before the military can find it, but its self-absorbed commander, Malakai, has an additional need. He wants Gillian as well. He has sent his brother Inac, in the guise of Gabriel, to retrieve her.

In the American desert, aliens return to recover tech lost in a prior mission. Human locals, sympathetically and interestingly drawn, are unaware of what is happening around them but trying to figure it out. I want to know what happens to these people, so I’d like to read more. 

  • Sidnye (Queen of the Universe) by Scott Fitzgerald Gray (N) No, that’s enough for me

Life is complicated enough when you live full-time at boarding school because your parents are dead, and when the other students around you are mostly idiots, and when you’re doomed to spend the rest of your existence in cafeteria detention because you just can’t stop annoying the people in charge of your life. But that’s when you discover the headaches you’ve been having aren’t just a part of being thirteen and feeling the weight of the world hammering down on you. That’s when you realize the dreams you’ve been having are more than dreams, and the people you thought you were closest to are less concerned with caring about you than with keeping you from knowing the things they don’t want you to know…

First 20% is YA high school drama. Clearly some more complex story is being set up, but it hasn’t started by the 20%-mark, and I don’t feel a need to find out what it might be.

  • Spacefarer: Fanatic’s Bane by Edmund Walker (N) No, that’s enough for me

When Free Agent Malbane of the Interstellar Trade Commonwealth is summoned to the galaxy’s largest space station to quell racial strife she encounters sinister forces willing to destroy civilization to fight forces they believe to be from Hell itself.

A Lensman-like super-agent engages in posturing with other Important Officials, with a (literal) break for masturbation. Not meant as a joke and impossible to take seriously. Not for me.

  • Gods of the Black Gate by Joseph Sale (Y) Yes, I want to read more

“There are those who bow to darkness. And there are others to whom darkness bows.” In 2060 Caleb Rogers and his partner Tom Marvin put away one of the most dangerous serial killers Texas has ever known: Craig Smiley, an ex-infantry mental patient who believes he can summon seven gods through a series of disturbing rituals. Caleb and Tom secured him a life sentence in Mars’s toughest prison. They thought the whole thing was finished. But when Smiley escapes the prison seven years later and sets out once again on his insane mission, Caleb and Tom are sent to Mars to track him down. Both cop and criminal are determined to finish what they started.

It may be set in the future and on Mars, but through the first 20% it’s a crime novel. The story moves at a compelling pace.  A close call, but I am leaning towards a yes.

  • Sped-Bot by Billy DeCarlo (N) No, that’s enough for me

The remnants of human civilization create their own utopia on an alien planet. A brilliant robotic scientist breaks the rules in an attempt to make his impaired son whole. Meshing android and human minds is considered impossible, a societal taboo, and illegal. Can the sorrow of a father, the challenge of a feat never accomplished, and the promise of normalcy for a son who has never known it motivate a man beyond his ethical boundaries?

A robot-creating scientist with a handicapped son, after 20% of the book, appears ready to violate ethical standards and do hugely manipulative and untrustworthy things so the son can have a body that will let him play soccer. His antagonists are a piece of work, too. It’s unpleasant to keep reading how they treat one another. I’m out.

  • The Prometheus Effect by David Fleming (N) No, that’s enough for me

Would Jack’s technology save humankind? It started with Jack’s discovery, but he feared it was a power too great. All around the globe, energy reserves are dangerously low. Superpowers brace for battle over what remains. Should Jack share his energy solution? He thinks it’s too dangerous. The power potential is as important as Prometheus discovering fire and giving it to man. There must be a way to use what he knows, but he’s conflicted. Maybe the brilliant mind of Mykl can solve the puzzle? Mykl is five. Is the answer worth the cost?

The opening part of this novel unveils a dystopian conspiracy theory. There’s too much of what strikes me as child abuse for it to be entertaining. I’ll pass.

  • The Hammond Conjecture by Martin Reed (Y) Yes, I want to read more

Are you sure you know who you are? If your memories disappeared and were replaced with someone else’s, would you still be you? And what if those memories were not just from another person – but of a different world? London 1982 – perhaps. Regaining consciousness in an isolation ward of catatonic patients, glimpsing the outside world only through a television news bulletin, that is the dilemma facing Hugh Hammond. Gradually Hugh’s memories return – of his life as an MI6 officer a decade earlier. But in a world where Britain has been locked in a lonely Cold War against a Fascist-dominated Europe but is now being wooed by the Third Reich to join its European Community. Are his memories false: delusions, or implanted as part of a mind-control experiment? Or was the television news fake – and if so, why? And what is the role of Carlton, the shadowy Intelligence officer who delivered him there?

In this alternate history tale, the protagonist seems to have been swapped to another timeline, circa 1969 Britain. Or else he’s insane. He’s trying to figure it out. Oliver Sacks of Awakenings is a relevant part of the background. What I’ve read so far is very interesting.


SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Team File 770’s 30 Books for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest

The inaugural Self Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) judging teams have now been assigned their books — here are the titles, authors and covers of the works that will be judged in the first round by Team File 770 – Cora Buhlert, Rogers Cadenhead, Sarah Duck-Mayr, and Mike Glyer:

SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga – Review by James Bacon

Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga — Titan Books $29.99 

By James Bacon: This 176-page book is surprisingly nice and informative, given the incredible amount of literature available on Star Wars.

Each film gets an impressive double page photo spread, the bulk of the book are three columns of quotes, some quality film images, and loads of behind the scenes photos. Sometimes there is a bit of contextualization to these quotes, but there have been some seriously clever and judicious choices. While Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are much quoted, and I did yearn for more Alec Guinness, the actors speak considerably, we also get people involved in the production, we get Brian Muir who sculpted the Darth Vader costume,  Ralph McQuarrie who was a concept artist, Joe Johnston who was effects illustration and design and Peter Hirsch the editor of Star Wars. Added with images of cast that were cut from the film, it really adds up to a surprisingly enjoyable book, with quite a bit to interest most fans. 

There is a system, each film has around 18 pages, as well as an introductory double page spread, there is an image of a film poster and a page of trivia. The paper is very high quality and it is nicely packaged with what I think is an enhanced collage of images as the cover. 

This is the perfect book for someone who does not have much literature on the films, but who wants more insight, especially into the production and views of the actors, but who is not ready for the likes of J.W. Rinzler ‘Making of books’ at 360 pages each or Craig Miller’s wonderful Star Wars Memories: My Time In The (Death Star) Trenches with its 400 pages of sharp insight and unique perspective.  

An interest in the making of the film is definitely being cultivated here, without being inundated with information, and the quotes are fun, the editors have found some quirky pieces, none are ever too long and it feels very well matched to the imagery.  I suspect some of it may have appeared in the lifetime of the Star Wars Insider magazine, but I’m not checking 200 magazines, so it’s a suspicion. 

It’s for the newer fan to Star Wars who wants something relevant, but also something that can be dipped in and out of quite easily. 

Without doubt I think the behind the scenes images, cut scenes  and some of the more interesting quotes, really make this book, and I did love seeing Declan Mulholland as Jabba the Hutt and the guys at Torsche station that we never saw, and Lupita Nyong’o in motion capture suit who we saw as Maz Kanata. 

With so many books on Star Wars, it is vital to know the reader who a book best suits, and it make me think of some newer fans, with the Lego, who have seen the films, but not many books on the shelves, sharing details and maybe piquing interest in the art and work that goes into making a film. 

[Titan Comics says this can be ordered from Amazon: Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga The Official Collector’s Edition Book Hardcover]

Sample page spreads follow the jump. Click for larger image.

Continue reading

Iphinome Reviews Novik’s
A Deadly Education

By Iphinome:

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, Book 1) by Naomi Novik. YA, contemporary fantasy.

El (Galadriel) is pissed off. Her classmate Orion just rescued her for the second time –needlessly. She’s capable, more than capable, El’s powerful – El, power, get it? Get it? The YA tradition of unsubtle names is well represented–people need to know she’s powerful. Her future outside of school depends on building a reputation good enough for acceptance into one of the world’s magical enclaves. She won’t last out there alone.

She won’t even last in school alone.

Malficaria, creatures that survive by taking mana from other beings (if humans do it they’re called maleficers) see the young with their growing magic and low defenses as tasty snacks, in the outside world magical children have a low survival rate. The Scholomance built in a pocket dimension with only tiny connections to the outside world was designed to keep malficaria out so the kids – teens, in this case, it’s a high school – have a chance.

Bit of a failure, that. The place is infested. Students have to travel in groups, watch each other’s backs and always check over their shoulders because the place is infested. Only four out of five make it to graduation of which half of those make it past the maleficaria waiting in the graduation hall for their yearly feast.

The 40% chance of living to 18 and making it out the door alive is still considered better odds than being a magical kid on the outside. Good times.

This brings us back to El, she wants to live. In the teacherless, libertarian, capitalist, world of the Sholomance, where every bit of material even pencils must be bartered for or life risked to obtain, she has to show people she’d make a good ally. With her affinity for destruction and death magic that should be easy. It takes a lot of juice though and unlike most, El can’t just flirt with a dark side a little bit, sacrifice a bunny for a little malia, and juice a flashy spell — if she goes bad it’ll be the full Sauron. She hoarded mana the hard way, waited for a chance to show her stuff, and got rescued like a helpless waif.

Orion doesn’t have El’s problems. Filling the rich kid/star athlete role he has a much easier time at the Scholomance. His mother is a politically powerful member of the large New York magical enclave, he arrived with people who’ve known him since he was a toddler all prepared to help him out. He has access to a store of mana and magical artifacts that have been passed down inside the school for years, generations. There’s still danger but he has the resources to face it. And that’s all he does, half-assing his classes Orion gets to white knight around the school hunting down maleficaria.

Orion, hunter. Maybe in the meta world of YA, the characters are like cats and some magic forces them to take after their names.

After convincing Orion that she doesn’t need saving – like so soon it should be funny – El’s ambushed by one of the students who’s gone full murdery maleficer. So now she does need saving.

Or she could go bad, rip out the guy’s magic and live on.

El doesn’t do it, she passes the test, she will diminish and remain Galadriel – not my joke, the text hits hard on the love me and despair line. Orion swoops in to save the day then spends the night in El’s room guarding her.

And is seen leaving in the morning.

Now he’s sitting with her at meals. People see her as Orion’s girlfriend even though she’s totally NOT. And the rise from outcast to having the rich, popular guy follow her around leads to dangers on a different level, cliques, jealousy, rivalries, maybe – for the first time –friendships.

The YA tropes are well represented, from the politics of who can sit where in the library and lunchroom to more than a few Hunger Games parallels. Some students come in with allies, the less privileged need to find them, oftentimes by taking on personal risk in exchange for favor from the haves. El, like Katness, resents the enclave kids yet even she has to offer what she can do for what they have.

Which leads us to the theme of balance. Magic requires it. El’s mother is a hippie healer living in a commune so El is a potential dark lord navigating a world where everything from notebooks to keeping watch for maleficaria while someone else showers is a negotiated exchange for advantage. Orion with his Targaryen-silver hair is liked and even held in awe while ambiguous brown El is unpopular and suspect. Until Orion’s hunting leaves the malfaceria starved of low-hanging fruit and to balance it out, the privileged and powerful have to suffer attacks. For all that it’s heavy-handed – YA remember? – it all pulls together rather well.

Your own enjoyment is going to depend on a tolerance for the many YA stereotypes and for an angry-snarky-unpleasant at times teenage protagonist. I like El, I like her arrogance and paranoia and surprise when not everyone’s as bad as she thinks they are. A potential evil overlord should have a chip on her shoulder. It makes doing the right thing harder and it makes it more rewarding when she does. I’m eager for the sequel.

I’d rate A Deadly Education slightly lower than Spinning Silver and slightly higher than Uprooted both of which got four stars from me so this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Fou…

Did you think I wasn’t going to mention it?

Controversy: An early edition of the book contains a racially insensitive passage about the danger of wearing hair in locs (dreadlocks), I didn’t notice it in my read-through and couldn’t find it with a text search which makes it difficult to comment on. There is an apology posted on Naomi Novik’s website. https://www.naominovik.com/apology/

The second controversy: Midway through the book I came across this passage:

Predictably, an Arabic worksheet appeared on my desk the instant I sat down that morning. There wasn’t a single word of English on it; the school didn’t even give me a dictionary. And judging by the cheery cartoonish illustrations next to the lines—most notably a man in a car about to mow down a couple of hapless pedestrians—I had the strong suspicion that it was modern Arabic, too.

Predictably, I grabbed my notebook and added this eloquent line, “51% Man mowing down pedestrians, WTF?”

Mowing down pedestrians has in recent years become a fixture of the American extreme right-wing. From driving over Standing Rock protesters to the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer while protesting the Unite the Right rally and now several Republican-controlled states introducing laws that specifically make it legal to drive over protesters, it’s completely unfair to treat native Arabic speakers as sharing the same murderous impulse that Republicans have regarding people on foot.

More seriously, what the hell? A comment about hairstyles gets an apology and an edit, a line that implies Arabic speakers are violent stays in the book? Even if El’s other language worksheets imply violence–which would make sense for El though it goes unmentioned–singling out Arabic specifically strikes me as a Bad Idea. She does later follow this scene having El hang out in the library near a bunch of Arabic speakers who show no particular propensity for vehicular homicide but still. It is–as the kids say–messed up, yo.

And I hope it was a one-off because I really did like the rest of the book.

Four stars.

Four Reviews by Iphinome

By Iphinome: Reading. That’s what I do, I read and I snark things.

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries) By Martha Wells. Space Opera

This story takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect.

It all starts with a body of a human–the dead kind–dumped in a hallway. This doesn’t happen often on Preservation station, station security is used to dealing with intoxicated humans not conducting murder investigations. Because they have the same sort of media infused-preconceptions about SecUnits as most other humans and augmented humans, they see Muderbot as, well, a murder bot, a possible suspect. This leaves them less than enthused about accepting help from a dangerous weapon that, even if innocent, presents a far greater danger than any single human or augmented human murderer.

What’s one murderer compared to the threat presented by a murderbot?

Murderbot could leave this one alone, it knows it didn’t kill the human, but not knowing who the killer or the identity-obscured victim is means not knowing if GrayCris is involved or if Dr. Mensah is in more danger. Gotta get that risk assessment down.

Fugitive Telemetry is a classic whodunit wherein Murderbot must work with the humans, augmented humans–even a few “free bots”–collect evidence and eliminate suspects (not that way!) alongside humans who know exactly what a SecUnit is. Humans who wonder if Murderbot did the murder.

Don’t worry, Murderbot still finds time to shoot things with the energy weapons in its arms, attempt a daring rescue, and watch Sanctuary Moon.

All the stuff we know and love is in there.

Let’s look at my notes.

16% Security insists that Murderbot can’t be stealth, it has to be out loud and proud in its feed identifier so people don’t get fooled. Two cycles later, not being satisfied with outing Murderbot as a SecUnit to any passers-by, a photo is published in the planetary newsstream.

Won’t that be fun when the next rogue SecUnit comes through and gets instantly read?

21% Ooooo is this the bot on the cover?

36% Someone else can hack Preservations crappy surveillance

40% Oh, maybe this is the cover bot. So many bots.

70% Time to shine baby. This is a job for Murderbot.

The inclusion of a heroic SecUnit really made this story work, more writers should do it.

I liked it. I always like Murderbot and feel a bit bad about not rating it higher but while Murderbot experiences a bit of personal growth we’ve already seen the results of in Network Effect. There’s a disadvantage in having this released non-chronologically.

Three stars plus a half because Murderbot. Recommended.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. Space opera.

This story takes place at the truck stop in Little America Wyoming where a group of travelers are trapped by a blizzard. No, wait. I’m being told that this book takes place under a small habitat dome at the Five-Hop One-Stop on the planet Gora, an airless rock that serves as a convenient anchor for five interstellar tunnels. My bad.

The proprietor is Ouloo a Laru, (a quadrupedal mammalian species with long necks and long fur) helped by her adolescent child Tupo. Three ships are scheduled to arrive for short shopping trips. Her deal is to keep the customers happy and coming back. She’s a sort of suburban business owner.

Tupo, Ouloo’s adolescent child. Xe has created a small natural history museum (on a lifeless planet) and otherwise helps out around the One-Stop in a sometimes sulky and sometimes excited way. Xe’s the moody teenager archetype.

Gapei Tem Seri, an Aeluon (fine scales, no natural hearing). Pei’s still dating Ashby from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, still, despite declarations to the contrary, apprehensive about the potential social stigma her people assign to those in interspecies relationships. She’s just gotten a bit of free time and is en route to Wayfarer for a little waterball. Wink wink nudge nudge.

In some ways, Pei represents the partially closeted homosexual. She’s not quite hiding her relationship as much as controlling who does and doesn’t know but she still fears the very real consequences that come with openness. Some Aeolins might be open and comfortable with interspecies sexuality but staying in the closet keeps her employed. In other respects, she’s just a woman making hard choices in the work/relationship/friends balance. Straight people have to figure it all out too.

Roveg, a Quelin (They have shells and lots of legs) exiled from his people. He makes his living as an artist who designs sims. In video game parlance we’d call his genre walking simulators. No plot, just lots of pretty stuff to walk through and look at. He’s on his way to an important and very time sensitive appointment.

For Pei Roveg represents a cautionary tale. He knowingly violated the taboos of his people, now he’s paying the price far from home, a pariah to other Quelin. To Tupo he’s the wise and understanding adult, to Speaker he’s someone who can empathise and to Ouloo he’s low maintenance.

For himself, he’s apprehensive about his looming appointment and while usually possessed of a healthy outlook regarding his status and some of the opportunities it allows him there’s some melancholy there. You can make the best but can’t always have all the things you want.

Speaker an Akarak. The species made an appearance in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as the raiders in mech suits who infiltrated Wayfarer and injured Ashby. The Mech suits are necessary to survive in an oxygen atmosphere and thematically exist to create an outsider status, physical separation for a member of a lesser-known and distrusted species.

A life of mistrust and misunderstanding along with an uncountable number of microaggressions leave Speaker’s feather easily ruffled, er, so to speak, but she’s practiced at not showing it. She’s a very kindhearted person and her main concern is getting off Gora and back to her ailing sister who remained in orbit while Speaker made a supply run.

Kyra described this as The most Becky Chambers plot of all time. Soooooooooooo apt.

While our three travelers are making scheduled stops between wormhole tranists an accident happens. The planet’s orbital infrastructure undergoes catastrophic failure, the linkings are down and space is full of junk. It’s not safe to leave, and anyone who tries is going to get so many points on their license that they’ll be walking between planets for the rest of their lives.

Our characters are stranded in Ouloo’s habitat dome with strangers around them and their own problems weighing. Imagine the modder colony visit in Angry Planet but as a whole book. They begin in the overly polite and guarded way as one does when in close confines with strangers. They talk, they hold different opinions, they gain understanding, they bond.

And yeah. There’s a complete lack of humans which makes things a bit more interesting. The characters do a far better job of drawing you in than anyone in Spaceborn Few which seriously dragged. All the themes of the previous books are there. As a worldbuilding bonus, we get some backstory on why the Quelin were such dicks to Corbin in the first book.

It didn’t have the same charm as the first book and didn’t have the same power as the second. On the bright side, it wasn’t as mind numbingly boring as the third and it managed to do what it intended. I cared about these people. It was pretty good.

Recommended if you like Becky Chambers, not recommended if you’re looking for action.

  • Liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. 4 stars.
  • Loved, love, will always love A Closed and Common Orbit. 5 stars.
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few bored me, not enough to deduct a star though. 3 stars
  • The Galaxy and the Ground Within. It didn’t bore me, also didn’t quite meet the threshold for a fourth star. 3 stars.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht. Space opera.

Our protagonist, Angel–introduced in chapter 3–leads a mercenary squad of former corpse soldiers. Their job was to go on suicide missions and then get revived later. They keep doing that till the cumulative physical and psychological damage makes them unfit for military service. Good times. Now she and her team work for Rosie, a local crime boss. Their current assignment is an assassination which goes according to plan until a second team pulls off another assassination–the planet’s corporate owners’ local head honcho–at the same party. Angel’s group along with a woman from the party named Kennedy Liu make their escape.

Knocking off someone for Rosie is something Angel can get away with. Criminal knocks off rival is an old story, but this second death means that not only does Angel have to explain the situation to Rose but being blamed for assassinating a corporate VIP buys a whole load of trouble.

Rosie owns a bar that they use as a base for extra-legal dealings. Don’t get your hopes up, this isn’t space Casablanca. Then again, space Casablanca would be like Barb Wire and that sucks so maybe do raise your hopes a little bit.

Angel makes her way there and Rosie is quite forgiving, she even has a new job that will get Angel and company out of town. Protect a very secret town of Persephone’s native sentients–so secret that Rosie and the Serrao-Orlove corporation plus any number of smugglers know all about it–from an impending invasion by corporate mercs.

It’s another suicide mission and this time no revivification boxes.

The B-plot centers on Kennedy Liu, she’s an AI in a highly illegal human appearing body. People in these stories always get it wrong. Things not to give AIs: Nukes. Things that it’s okay to give AIs: Bodies that appear human, cat pics. She comes to Persephone after receiving a call for help and gets drawn into the Angel/Rosie versus Serrao-Orlove struggle.

Chapter one: This is a prologue, it doesn’t call itself a prologue even though the epilogue calls itself an epilogue. It concerns a people called the Emissaries, a species with some shapeshifting abilities attempting to negotiate with the planet Persephone’s owners, the Serrao-Orlove corporation, and in particular one corporate representative Vissia Corsini who has betrayed the Emissaries in the past. It goes badly for the Emissaries and Vissa commits a war crime.

And it’s completely skippable. Our protagonist learns about the Emissaries and Vissia’s cruel nature as the story progresses.

Chapter two: It’s a couple pages long and mostly serves as a second prologue. Rosie, a local tavern owner (and crime boss) finds a corpse dropped on their doorstep. They know who the person is and after offering a quick prayer for the dead Rosie continues with their day.

Skippable. The death and the identity of the deceased are revealed to Angel in short order.

Chapter 3: Start here because this is where our protagonist steps on stage.

10% Things started flowing and I was afraid to let myself relax into the story. My notes say this book is like a mechanical bull that keeps trying to toss me out.

That was a lie. My actual written note says “10% now it’s going. Mechanical Bull Book!”

Sophisticated and erudite I’m not.

39% Welcome to Emissarytown. No, that’s emISSARy, not emBASsy. China Mieville’s not here.

We’re not human but we have all the human stuff right down to a standard pre-fab landing bay. Shhh, no one knows we exist and if you need anything we’ll order it for the next regularly scheduled smuggling run.

We know you have a choice when it comes to suicide missions, thank you for choosing Emissaries.

43% “Four women, one man, and two non-binary people approached”

I have so many questions the worldbuilding didn’t address. At no point does the narrative explain how a non-binary person might declare themselves such without stating it. There’s very little information about gender presentation or stereotypes. Rosie is non-binary and wears makeup and skirts. Is it color-coded? How the eff were you able to tell at a glance?

Ah well, not today mechanical bull, not today. Gonna press on.

Retroactive bonus point to Winter’s Orbit which did explain the culture-specific gender signifiers.

76% I’m a leaf on the wind.

It took eight days to get through this book, more than once I had a feeling of dread when reaching for the kindle, would I get bounced again? Not so much, it tried once or twice but if not for the bad taste left by the first two chapters then I wouldn’t have spent the rest of the book with a lingering fear about it all going wrong.

The story was fine. The characters are fine. My complaints are–to my everlasting shame–the complaints of a backseat editor. Some worldbuilding lapses some poor authorial choices in the opening chapters.

Leave that aside and you have an average sci-fi adventure story of the mercenaries decide to stand for something variety.

I could drop half a star for the beginning but I round up anyway so what the hell, three stars.

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno. Media tie-in, space opera.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

It is a period of civil war. Separatist systems, led by the Sith Lord Count Dooku, use battle droids to fight The Grand Army of the Republic in a never-ending struggle to control the border worlds. After one battle, Republic operators managed to obtain plans for the separatist ultimate weapon, a battle station the size of a small moon. The side that completes the battle station first will have the power to win the war.

Republic engineer Orson Krennic searches for Galen Erso, the researcher who can complete the weapon, save the Republic, and restore peace and security to the galaxy.

Dah dah dah daaaa daaaa dun dun dunt duhhhh duhhh.

Since this is a media tie-in, readers are expected to be familiar with the first six Star Wars films.

Galen Erso–because of course there’s a Galen, as the length of a genre series increases, the probability of there being a Galen approached one–is a deep thinker. He’s the kind of scientist who stops speaking and ignores people to start scribbling. He’s the kind of scientist who forgets to comb his hair because he’s thinking thank you very much. He’s also the kind of scientist who doesn’t want his work used to create weapons despite his specialty being crystals and power generation–exactly what you need to make laser weapons in Star Wars–that’s why he and his wife left Coruscant for the Vallt system where he can sit out the Clone Wars working in the private sector.

The war comes to him in the form of a coup switching the planet to the Separatist cause and the arrest of Erso on fabricated charges with the understanding that if he just transfers his loyalties, he’ll go free. At this point, Galen switches from absent-minded professor to expert in psychology and influence techniques–which totally isn’t going to last–allowing him to hold firm even when his wife Lyra gives birth to their daughter Jyn while he’s in captivity.

Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic, Republic Corps of Engineers, and ambitious member of the Special Weapons Project sees getting his old school chum Galen involved as the key to his eventual rise. With a combination of money, threats, and plausibly deniable sabotage, smuggler Has Obitt is convinced to work as Krennic’s agent. They rescue Erso who, while thankful to see his old buddy and get a ride out of prison, doesn’t want to work for the government.

Krennic arranges for Erso to both be under suspicion for his time spent with Separatists and thankful for the only crappy non-military job available to him and he finishes out the war-making communication devices.

Despite the Jedi and Dooku being gone, the Galactic Empire still doesn’t know peace. Pockets of resistance remain along with anarchists and criminals, the battle station still needs completion and Krennic finally has the leverage he needs over his old friend. Kyber crystals, hoarded and hidden by the Jedi, now available for research. Perfectly above-board civilian research.

Project Celestial Power, the Emperor’s dream Galen’s told. Renewable energy, unimaginable amounts for developing worlds using Kyber crystals. Will Erso lead the project? He will.

Catalyst was released ahead of Rogue One as a way of building hype and giving bookish fans easter eggs to search for. It’s a tough situation, being unable to spoil the future, being very limited even in how much you can telegraph when the movie’s where the money comes in and the author’s job is to combine storytelling with ad copy. I’m not sure it was a great idea but only the Disney accountants know for sure.

Early chapters might fool the reader into thinking Galen Erso is the protagonist. It’s Krennic. Story events focus on his lies, power grabs, struggles against Tarken,, and the bodies of anyone who stops being useful. His I’m your friend approach to Galen Erso echos Palpatine with Anakin and his trail of bodies echoes Vader with anyone who disappoints him. But the Sith lords embrace evil. Orson Krennic’s actions come off more creep than mustache-twirling.

Call it the banality of darksideism.

A few notes.

My spell-check already knew the word Coruscant. That tells you all you need to know about Star Wars and popular culture.

Dropping a beast of a word like somnambulantly into the middle of a sentence is a good way to bounce a reader out of the text, at least momentarily.

There’s an odd spate of excess scenery detail for a couple chapters around 70% of the way through. There hadn’t been as much earlier in the book so it came out of nowhere.

Tarkin makes a dad joke, Tarkin should not make dad jokes. My brain hurts.

Catalyst ends at 87% on my kindle. Any readers keeping track of how much story is left be aware that the last 10% is the preview for another Star Wars book.

As a stand-alone novel, I’d give it two stars, much is left unexplained. As a media tie-in where you’re expected to know and judging by the standards of other media tie-ins, three stars.

Another Well-Titled Book

By John Hertz: In one of Forry Ackerman’s more inspired puns, he called us the Imagi-Nation.

We make things up.

Of course all art does.  Maybe all life does.

I knew people with a bookshop that had two names, “Bookfellows” and “Mystery and Imagination”.  I told them I liked “Bookfellows” better because all books were mystery and imagination.

SF is particularly hard.  If it’s just like what we already know, it’s only mainstream.  If it’s too unlike what we know, how are we going to engage with it?

I’ve mentioned C.S. Lewis’ advice I call the One Strange rule: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Ambitious SF authors may try both.

Glorious, the Greg Benford – Larry Niven novel appearing last year, is one of the more ambitious SF stories.  It’s third in a series.  I didn’t re-read the first two before reading it.  I don’t think you’ll have to.

It’s an interstellar-travel book. To manage that, some authors make up a way to go faster than light.  So far as present-day science knows, it can’t be done (yes, I’ve heard of the Alcubierre drive; even if it’s possible we can’t build it now).  There’s no faster-than-light drive in Glorious.  There are no generation ships.  There’s suspended animation – “cold sleep”.  The authors don’t suppose that will be easy or simple.  There’s a lot of high-power computing machinery – artificial intelligence.

I don’t know if AI, cold sleep, or FTL will prove achievable.  A century or a millennium from now any might have been demonstrated to be fantasy.  Meanwhile a story treating any well is science fiction.

Some of Glorious might contradict some people’s religious faith. That faith might be right and Glorious wrong.  But faith – I have some – isn’t science.  It isn’t less valid – or so I believe – just different.  Science is based on things that can be detected and measured in certain ways.  Faith doesn’t have those limitations – so it has other limitations.  I happen to believe some of Glorious is wrong.  But I don’t read books to be agreed with.

Colonists in Glorious think they’re high-tech.  They’ve left Earth, and found what looks like a suitable place far enough away.  It would be only a short hop in an E.E. Smith book, or a Larry Niven Known Space book, but this isn’t one of those.

Colonists try to prepare for surprises. History shows and SF tells they’re surprised anyway.

People in Glorious get downloaded – if I were writing a few decades ago I’d have had to explain that – into bodies and even machines.  That’s almost trivial – I did say almost – compared to what these colonists have to face.

They also have to find how to perceive what they’re facing.

We’ve had stories like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with protagonists on the high-tech side.  Oh, look at those benighted creatures over there.  In Glorious the sucker is on another tentacle.

There’s some reason to believe the Glorious protagonists are being played for suckers.

Benford is known for imagining physics.  Niven is known for imagining aliens.  Plenty of both in Glorious.  There’s poetic writing too.  It isn’t quite like either of them.  This is a collaboration.

The landing team arrives.  We’re a quarter of the way into the book.

The long meadow before them lay quiet and placid.

No greeting party.

No sign of any reception at all.

Not what any of them had planned.

…. a forest that seemed a writhing mass of wide, hollow limbs.  Every living thing seemed endowed with light, airy mechanics. Translucent spiked leaves wove in an easy breeze, and diaphanous flowers of a shiny blue and golden yellow…. Beth knew that this plain was underpinned by struts, and so was clinging to a silvery tether trellis [p. 119].

Things will get more beautiful and more strange.

In another ambitious feature of this book, it has illustrations.  The graphic artists are Don Davis and Brenda Cox Giguere.  That hasn’t been an ordinary part of novels for adults in quite a while.  The pictures are monochrome.  They aren’t captioned.  Like the words, they result from and invite imagination.  I thought this had better not go without saying.  Getting there took me a while.

Much farther along an alien being says,

“You have encountered our transmitter, which distorts space-time.  You correctly deduce that we use this channel to speak with distant minds that carry out large, powerful experiments.”

“Look,” Viviane said, “we came here to communicate and colonize, if you will be so kind.  Not about physics and such, at least not right away.”

Redwing whispered to her… “Let Twisto go on.  It wants something from us [p. 354].”

If the space – land-space – or something – isn’t unoccupied, and if the people (“Science fiction is about people.  Some of the people are aliens”) are higher-tech than our protagonists, how can colonization be possible – if they will be so kind?  Must our protagonists, or anyone, be careless, arrogant, or worse?

There’s glory for you.