Month: April 2016

Vigilante

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This is the second of the Ariane Kedros books written by Laura E. Reeve. All together, it is grimmer than the first book, as the members of the isolationist sect are a nasty, brutish lot, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in their plot. They are probably vertically challenged to boot.

Reeve once again spins up multiple plotlines from multiple viewpoint characters, then weaves them into a single tale. One of those plotlines feels weaker than the others for a good third of the book, as it is structured as a mystery of sorts, with the AFCAW military and the Terran authorities tracking down a potentially missing temporal distortion weapon. The characters in the other plotlines, though, know about the missing temporal distortion weapon well before the military catches up, and so this arc fell flat for me. But once the plotlines all merge together, it was forgivable, given the tense and meaningfully high-stakes climax.

The cultural clash between the Terran Expansion League and the Consortium of Autonomous Worlds grows even more central to the plot in this novel. The isolationists stem from a Terran sector, but are acting on their own, causing an uneasy alliance between the Terran Expansion League and the Consortium of Autonomous Worlds. Since G-145 is a newly developed system, the generational ship that planted the time buoy there has control of the system, and so the culture of the “crèche-born” who live and run that generational ship also play a very important role. As a result, we get some interesting new characters, and further development of those from the first book.

This book features more of the Minoans as well, so if you were pumped to see more of a great treatment of an eerie, enigmatic, advanced alien race, then you will definitely enjoy that. Definitely got a slight Vorlon vibe, not that that’s ever a bad vibe to get.

COVER ART NOTE: I botched the back cover picture, the text is not actually anywhere near that slanted. Apologies!
COVER ART REVIEW: definitely a step down from the first book. The composition is pretty good, not as great as the last one, and Ariane Kedros looks more haunted, which is appropriate… but I am pretty sure that 90% of all military science fiction / sci-fi book covers that display a main character fondling a massive Gatling cannon as it chugs down ammo and spews dakka off-cover actually never have a main character fondle a massive Gatling cannon and use it to mow down enemies in the actual book.

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Peacekeeper

Peacekeeper

Peacekeeper is the first of the Major Ariane Kedros books, written by Laura E. Reeve. I am phrasing it that way, instead of calling it the first book in a trilogy, because all of the Major Ariane Kedros books do a very good job at having a plot that is structured and paced for a single book, rather than having three separate books that each contain a third of the total story and structure. There are no stupid cliffhangers at the end, although the story does continue through each of the books. The novels also feel very well balanced, with great characterization, a twisty plot, pacing, a mix of subtle and forward world-building that establishes a plausible, believable universe, and a good quality of writing.

The universe is also surprising and creative, dominated as it is by Greek culture. It seemed like there is an alternate history event in 2061, although a later book mentioned Minoan first contact occurring in 1960, and then looking at the author’s website, it seems like the entire alternate universe bit stretches back to Alexander the Great. But the important part is that Reeve never sits you down and explains everything about the back story, but instead weaves it into the narrative in places where it makes sense, and conveys almost as much through people’s reactions, behavior, and viewpoints as she does through direct description.

The mystery is great, and in a structure I rather like, doesn’t end at the end of the book, but slightly sooner, leaving a good amount of time for further shit to go down. Which it does, taking a very dark turn with some very unpleasant scenes that are nonetheless totally in character for the universe we have seen throughout the book.

One aspect of the characterization that really shone was the how well the multiple viewpoints were done. Each character is distinctive in what they think about AND how they think about it, as well as what parts of the environment they notice and what thoughts and behaviors that triggers. This further reveals details about their culture and the three main cultures of the universe, which are well fleshed out.  Especially the Minoans, whom we don’t learn an awful lot about, but are super interesting and twice as eerie. I was pumped up to learn more about those enigmatic aliens in the next two books. (“SPOILERS”: you learn more about the Minoans in the next two books.)

Cover Art Review: I thought at some point it said she had brown hair, and I am not sure when she wielded that rifle, but I will pass on that and focus on the great composition. I also really adore the color of the sky, the silhouetted buildings, and the ridiculous background moons.

Weekend Bonus: Damnation Alley

DAMNATION ALLEY COVER ART REVIEW
When I was looking for covers to post in my review of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, I came across over ten different covers with unique art, and almost all of them were fabulous, so I thought I would display them all here:

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If the mood of the book matched this, I would definitely have used it first. However, this is much more of an alien world vibe than a shattered earth vibe.

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Again, we have a masterpiece here. Make sure to pay attention to the small details: the broken road; the cockroach in the foreground; the giant armored insects in the background; the ruins looming in the fog; the black/red background/font colors, and the stylish slashing font of the book’s name…

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… and here we have a much different view, of a hellscape engulfed in flame. I like the destroyed traffic light, and we can see the important twisters wreaking havoc in the background. I feel the reddish pallor cast over the scene is too intense, though, and the title’s font, while inventive, resembles fur more than fire.

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There are some bits with motorcycles, but most of the book actually takes place in the battle-car. Pass. Also, what’s with the green fields in the background? Get with the times: Earth is an irradiated wasteland.

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This is a pretty sweet vehicle, but I don’t think it bears much relationship to the monster battlecar in the book. The mood is additionally much more “belter asteroid chaos death match” instead of “a race across apocalyptic earth.”damnation-alley-5.jpg

Hmmm, I like it, but this is much more terraforming equipment and much less mobile death messenger car.

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Mmm, still not quite right. Also, that snake is like WHAT.

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Huh. Nice font, but I am not so sure about the robed guy. I mean, that is like one scene. And I dunno about the book portraying Hell Tanner; not what I pictured.

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I am also not really sure how I feel about that one. Also, this novel didn’t seem particularly “Berkeley” to me, but sure, I guess.

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The mood on this is definitely way off from the actual feel of the novel. What is all that yellow doing there?

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Now THAT was unexpected! Definitely like the scale of it all, although I feel it’s not faithful to the book, and Hell Tanner most definitely looks not like the Hell Tanner I had in my head, and instead like some ex-military badass commando, but this cover is pretty amazing. Just not really for this book, I guess.

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. . .

wut

Damnation Alley

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As the author himself tells us, it is the setting, more than anything else in the entire world, that demands regard. The two coasts of the United States were largely spared the wrath of the nuclear war that destroyed global civilization, but the great plains were reduced to irradiated wasteland, known as Damnation Alley. The world’s ecology was also irreparably damaged, with all kinds of critters being massively mutated, and a massive global windstorm tearing across the globe, picking up detritus and raining it down again.

While the setting is the star, Hell Tanner is interesting. A former Hell’s Angel boss, Tanner is turned loose and strong-armed into a desperate mission of mercy. He must drive across Damnation Alley to deliver a vaccine from LA to Boston, where a plague is devastating the population. No noble anti-hero, his attitude provokes some interesting reactions throughout the book.

The plot itself is functional, a plausible excuse to start the journey and carry it through. There are some really evocative scenes, but generally the world feels drab and flat, in a way that is appropriate to the setting. The car is probably the second most important character, and is suitably badass and suited to the world, although the question of how they put it together with such short resources is unanswered.

I have read a few short stories by Roger Zelazny since reading Damnation Alley, and for large portions of the story, it doesn’t feel much like Zelazny’s writings, at least in the other works I’ve read. That’s not an indictment, just a notice of difference. There are portions where that Zelazny style peeks through in portions that are not written from Hell Tanner’s viewpoint. Additionally, the battle cars vibe definitely feels Zelazny-ish. But all in all, while the writing style contributes to the drab feeling of the world and is smartly done, it is still drab and common for much of the novel.

The split perspectives are functional, but nothing particularly great. The meat of the story is the world, the challenges Tanner encounters, and how he and his car overcome them.

Obligatory Kindle Note: I read this on a Kindle.

Cover Art Review: We have a masterpiece here. Make sure to pay attention to the small details: the broken road and scattered bones; the cockroach in the foreground; the giant armored insects in the background; the ruins looming in the fog; the muted palette; stylish slashing font of the book’s name…

Lhind the Thief

LHIND THE THIEF
by Sherwood Smith
Published 2013 by Book View Cafe.

I really enjoyed reading this book! It is a great lighthearted fantasy action adventure (young adult) story, where vivid characters, action, and omnipresent humor dominate. There are also quite a few plot twists, some of which are probably easily predictable, others of which might surprise even the experienced reader of the genre.

One thing Smith does very well is to establish a strong first impression of a character when she first introduces them, and then subsequently slowly develop that character meaningfully over the course of the story. This development always fits with our first impressions, but continually reveals new depths and unexpected niches.

I also found Lhind refreshing. Lhind’s narrative is highly entertaining, but there is also than meets the eye, and Lhind’s development over the course of the novel and her change in relations with Rajanas, Hlanan, and Thiana, as well as her change in worldview as a result of her experiences was convincingly portrayed.

Obligatory Kindle Note: I read this on a kindle, without seeing the cover or reading the back of the book text. I found it interesting how going in completely blind in this way rendered the story more of a treat than if I had read a book jacket intro that revealed some of the twists of the story.

Book Cover Review: Let’s just say I am omitting the book cover for a reason.

Eidolon

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Eidolon belongs to the “crappy particle accelerator based thriller fiction” genre. The omission of the word “science” from before fiction that was quite intentional. The highlight of this book was the “whaaaaaat” quality of the plot, which I will admit was entertaining, and will describe in brief with this list and in length with the following paragraph:

Things that should not appear in “good particle accelerator based thriller (science) fiction”:

  • Black holes
  • Ghosts
  • Dead people
  • Dead people with super powers
  • The New World Order
  • Pocket dimensions
  • Demons
  • Demons in pocket dimensions
  • Eidolons, Mindspace, and other Cryptic Yet Vague Purposefully Capitalized Words

The plot is literally nonsensical. A scientist might describe it as an object that would decollimate if it were a stream of particles. There is a particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider, and our main character has his dark matter research project funding suddenly disappear, so he heads home and hangs out with his family, and with an old family friend, except the old family friend died a day earlier, and at the wake some strange, shadowy men give him an invitation from an ominous man to go work at the particle collider when it switches up to a higher energy level. There’s some kind of a romantic subplot going on with his ex-girlfriend throughout the novel, except perhaps describing it as an anti-romantic subplot is more accurate. The main character takes a helicopter ride to the Large Hadron particle collider, which he has actually been paid to sabotage, except he meets his old family friend, who is dead, but actually came back to life as a living ghost, along with a whole host of living ghosts from throughout time, one of whom also happens to be the main character who as it happens died on that helicopter ride when the helicopter crashed without him realizing that he had died instead of just thinking he had a near-death experience. And so now our main character has living ghost powers, just like his sister, who his ex-girlfriend saw repeatedly after his sister died, but whom the main character has trouble convincing that there are ghosts. So he changes his mind about changing his mind about changing his mind and doesn’t sabotage the particle collider, which coincidentally is where his dad works, except while he is receiving ghost superpower lessons from the living ghosts, the villains sabotage the particle collider anyways, which means that eventually he has to sabotage their sabotage of the particle collider, except that the shadowy antagonist kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and dad, so he has to travel to a pocket dimension (i.e. hell) where he can defeat Satan (i.e. the shadowy antagonist) to rescue his ex-girlfriend and dad, who were being mind controlled, along with a few hundred thousand other people, by the shadowy antagonist so their minds could create a quantum field (i.e. hell) from which he could draw power to eventually rule over the earth. Oh, and then the main character finds out he’s a ghost on literally the last page. Whooops.

So if you are feeling somewhat disoriented from that experience you just read through, yeah, that’s what Eidolon felt like.

This isn’t a terrible book. The writing isn’t bad, but it’s eh. There was nothing really extraordinary, and there was a lot that felt trite. The characters were kinda eh too. I felt like the off the rails crazy plot drew my attention away from anything else going on, otherwise I would probably have sharper comments.

This book was published in 2013 by Solaris Books, an imprint of Rebellion Publishing. Coincidentally, that’s the year CERN shut down the LHC while upgrading it to run at the higher energy level.

Cover Art Review: This cover art is pretty bad-ass looking, except that the main character’s head makes him look like he is a kobold or something. Which honestly would fit right in with the plot.

Heaven’s Shadow

HeavensShadow_All.jpgI typically try to avoid spoiling the plot of books I review, so if it seems like you might enjoy a book, you can get it and read it and still have that “first read” experience, as you only get that once. However, for this book, I determined to spoil the heck out of it in order to hopefully dissuade you from reading it ever. So if you want to read this book, make sure you stop reading this review when you hit the comma in the next sentence.

Heaven’s Shadow is a well-written piece of hard science fiction about astronauts performing a plausible space mission in the near future interspersed with vignettes from the ground crew and astronauts’ families up until around page 183, at which point the novel goes completely FUBAR and never even attempts to recover. See, apparently the near-earth object they were investigating was not an asteroid, but an alien craft. And it has gestation chambers that harvest quantum information from the blahblahblah to build döppelgangers of the main characters’ deceased loved ones. Who the main characters, professionally trained astronauts all, proceed to completely trust (Americans / etc), or go beserk (Russians) and try to kill.  Irregardless, all kinds of crazy stuff happens, and they find a dying alien monitor thingy, who reveals the craft was sent here to kidnap slave warriors for a battle on their home planet. And then the alien craft beams up a bunch of main characters from JPL / NASA who were trying to follow what was going on with the mission from the ground in the secondary plotline, and then all the alien döppelgangers die because of course they do and the craft worbles off on its way back to wherever it came from.

Let’s go back to where this all goes wrong: the “alien chamber” itself. I found it very poorly described, even though it was the book’s tipping point. The main characters enter the chamber, and… that’s it. They cannot see the horizon at all, and they describe the walls a bit. And there are some towers made of coral, and some rain. And then some plants. But none of it builds any kind of a coherent picture, and as the characters venture forward into it, it never coalesces into anything more than a big foggy cavern with some crazy stuff going on. It’s also worth mentioning the book is ~500 pages, and a good portion of it is spent here, but it never comes out as anything other than “characters with no idea what to do wandering doing nothing interesting until the plot demands that something interesting happens.”

Additionally, the alien chamber is where the astronauts’ characterization breaks down. They go from being carefully selected experts on a mission to being bickering idiots whose behavior is so unprofessional they wouldn’t be picked for either team in a pick-up basketball game, let alone for an extraterrestrial mission that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. All reason and logic go out the window, and everything the characters do makes you tempted to yell at them like it’s some C-rated horror movie and those characters are walking into the forest at night seriously have they ever watched a horror movie what are they doing!

Ahem.

I did enjoy the bits of alternate media scattered throughout the book (text messages, interviews, forum posts, social media, etc.), and thought that it interfaced with the book and pre-FUBAR theme really well. I also thought the book did a great job at characterization, both with the astronauts dealing with stress (although I am not convinced they would break so easily) and showing the ground crew and families dealing with the stress and tension that having an astronaut for a parent or significant other or coworker places on your relationship. I just wished that a lot of the alien nonsense had been trimmed out.

Unfortunately, I saw two sequels in a book store the other day, so I fear that at some point I will have a mental break and end up ordering the next two.

Cover Art Review: Haunting and beautiful. I just wish the astronauts had explored that place, instead of an empty, foggy cavern.

Published: Ace Books, 2011.

The Braided World

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By Kay Kenyon

There is a lot packed in here, and in a good way: varied, believable characters who change as the story goes on; a deeply disturbing culture that is quite plausible; a mystery of a galactic scale;  a first contact situation; power struggle politics; love and romance; mutinies; etc etc etc.

The opening threw me for a loop, though, so I’ll get it out of the way here. The first thirty-odd pages are disorienting, and not in a good way: we get a scene-setting prologue, psyching us up for a first contact scene, and then a chapter title page, and THEN… it transitions into a calm scene revealing they’ve been on the planet for weeks, speak the native tongue, and established basic relations. Whaat? Then the viewpoint skips around a bit, and it skips forward in time again (though not as far), and again, and it was around there that I fell into the rhythm of the book and didn’t notice it any further.

The different viewpoint characters are well done, with each character’s view and thoughts being convincingly different without being artificially so. Nick’s viewpoint is the only one that seems too contrived. The non-viewpoint characters are also well established, with surface and subsurface & sub-subsurface layers, with corresponding motives, each colliding and allowing dynamic character development that changes as the novel goes on.

Initially, the story strikes a grim tone, with the humans’ starship threatened by a breakout of lethal plague, no sign of the high-technology culture they are seeking, and lost, alone, and inable to understand or act effectively in the local Dassa culture. The integral role that slave labor and mutilation play in Dassa society only strengthen that feeling. However, partway through that grim feeling peaks, and a more determined, resurgent feel flares up to replace it, as the characters begin to gain more agency and understanding. While the humans’ feeling of being alone on an alien world surrounded by alien cultures never fades, they begin to understand the local culture and how to interact with it.

Some may wish to steer clear of this novel, as The Braided World portrays slave labor and mutilation fairly unflinchingly. However, these traditions of the Dassa are wrestled with by the main characters and some Dassa, and raise important anthropological questions about humanity, the Dassa, society, morality, and individual characters. They also provide important motivations and conflicts, and are the basis of nearly everything in the novel. Essentially, they are handled with care. Less grimly, the first third of the book was filled with scenes that evoke that awkward feeling that arises from witnessing a social transgression, as the humans are not entirely sure how to treat the Dassa.

The worldbuilding is very well done, establishing a unique and detailed world, both in terms of the landscape and ecology, the dwellings and buildings and artifacts of Dassa cultural life, and their behavior, before slowly fading in intensity as development of the world and introduction of the characters gives way to plot action, character action, and drama.

Cover Art Review: Actually relevant to the story! Simple yet effective design! Super neat LENS FLARE! AGHHHHH I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!

Postscript: Dark matter clouds and information gradients are not a thing that sounds plausible, but- okay, okay.

Avalanche Soldier

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Avalanche Soldier
By Susan R Matthews

I started reading this novel, and about five pages in, due to something about the quality of the prose, I felt that I had read this author before. Turns out I had read, as Susan R Matthews wrote Prisoner of Conscience. Avalanche Soldiers is quite a different novel, though: where Prisoner of Conscience was tortured, difficult, and painful, Avalanche Soldier is earnest, inviting, and introspective. It is a story of two religions, the societies that follow each religion, and what happens at the intersection, where orthodox meets heterodox.

The world is fascinating, with a complicated history that is both well thought out and subject to the same issues of interpretation as real world history, with cultural, religious, and political considerations playing roles in shaping that history and how it is told. There are a wealth of terms and synonyms relating to religious and cultural persuasion, and it lends a richness to the work, although between the pilgrims, wayfarers, orthodox, Shadene, heterodox, believers, and dreamers, it can be hard to keep the terms straight at times.

I really enjoyed the viewpoint character: she was professional, capable, likeable, sympathetic, and a million other positive adjectives, all while espousing very different viewpoints from me. Her attention to the details of the natural world.

The immersion of the main character in the heterodox teaching is a great exploration of religious sentiment, how religious belief and faith functions, and was super interesting in general. That also leads into Varrick, the leader of the Varrick Teaching, and the mysteries behind her origins and motive. This is an aspect that I think was very well done: much at the core of spirituality and religion is about the mysterious, and that survives and is conveyed very well here.

Storycraft wise, the book is great. The flow and pacing are very well done, and  the mixture of scenes to summary was perfect, although there did seem to be an unusually high frequency of depicting characters lapsing into unconsciousness.