Archive for January, 2011

Cowboy Angels — Messing With Your Mind, One Page At A Time

So I sat down late last night with a copy of Paul McAuley‘s latest SF novel, Cowboy Angels (Pyr Books), with absolutely no preconceived notions. Seriously, none. I had never heard of McAuley before the kind folks at Pyr sent me this book, and I probably would never have glanced twice at the book if they hadn’t.

But they did, and here I am, and dear God this book totally screwed with my mind!

Thanks Pyr, I now have something to torment people who argue online about the meaning behind the movie Inception. Like bear baiting, only far more dangerous.

Yay!

First off, there are multiple versions of the United States spread across various dimensions. Before you go and yawn and complain about how every single author nowadays is doing something similar (Chris Dolley and Resonance came to mind when I first started reading), bear with me here as I tell you that McAuley has the “Real” America inciting civil wars, populist insurrections and rebuilding after nuclear wars across the various “Americas”.

Whoa, you (and Keanu Reeves) say. That’s what I said when I stopped reading for a minute and really thought about it. McAuley really goes in a direction that nobody has ever thought of before, and goes there with a vengeance.

The book starts off in one such America as our hero, Adam Stone, is with his old partner and buddy Tom Waverly getting ready to kick off a rebellion in one of the Americas. Unfortunately for Waverly’s cause, President Jimmy Carter is insisting upon spreading peace through the other dimensions instead of leading America to a glorious Pan-American Alliance. This, quite naturally, pisses off the clandestine organization called “The Company”, who proceed to go ahead and kick start their revolution in an America which is ruled by Communist dictators. Adam Stone goes through and rescues Tom Waverly before it all hits the fan, getting them both out in the nick of time.

A few years later, Adam is retired and living a quiet life in one of the “wild” Americas, where man doesn’t exist except for those who travelled across to that dimension. Staying with the widow of a good friend and their son, Adam is approached by an old friend from The Company. Reluctant at first, Adam accepts the job after discovering that his old friend and partner, Tom, has killed the same person across six dimensions, called “doppels”.

*warning – this is where the mind-frack begins*

Adam goes into the dimension where Tom is cornered to track him down and find him. With Tom’s estranged daughter Linda tagging along as his partner, Adam eventually finds Tom and they talk about what is going on. Tom admits to Adam that he knew who his parents were, something that the clandestine “Cowboy Angels” of The Company weren’t supposed to know in order to keep them from tracking down their own “Doppels” and causing irreparable harm. Tom then drops a bomb on Adam – he was dying.

After sharing a moment in the shadows of an old house, Tom turns and shoots himself in the head, right in front of Adam. Then the real story begins as Adam tried to piece together what Tom really was working on.

Side note: As alluded by its name, The Company is another version of the CIA in the Real. The cloak and dagger stuff in the book is enough to make your head spin, but it never quite pushes you over the edge of insanity. It allows you to follow the story while simultaneously messing with your head – repeatedly.

*mind-frack beginning in earnest here… you have been warned*

This book is, quite simply, good. It’s a little hard to follow until you realize that they name the alternate America’s after the president or leader of that reality, and it’s much easier to track what’s where after that revelation. The science is sound (I picked over it a little using what little I remember from my long conversations with physicists about alternate realities) and it makes sense, which is easier than just spouting off a bunch of techno babble and saying “understand now?”, which a lot of authors do these days. McAuley manages to explain it to me like I was an idiot (and trust me, I can be when it comes to complex math) without actually talking down to me. Very courteous, I’ll add. That’s one of the reasons David Weber turns me off in his writing at times.

Anyways…

The story wanders around a bit, as you never know who to trust or what to believe. It continues this way right up until the very last page, which is the only time in the entire book I sat up and said “That didn’t make sense”. Everything else? Well, let’s just say if Christopher Nolan (director of Inception) wrote SF, it would be much like what McAuley gave us in Cowboy Angels. It’s fast, gritty, terrifying and wonderful. He really nails the details of the combat scenes (something I always pay attention to) and doesn’t skimp when to mapping out the various worlds our hero is wandering around in.

If you liked Inception, you will love this book. Pick it up. Gift it to someone who you want to lose sleep after reading a book. Laugh at them when they turn to you and say “Wait, what the f***?”. I actually had dreams about this book (I had to quit at 3 am because I was tired, damn it) and when I finished it this morning, I had my very own “WTF?” moment.

Definitely recommended.

–Reviewed by Jason

 

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Donaldson’s “Against All Things Ending” is depressing, yet hopeful

Stephen R. Donaldson‘s AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING is the ninth novel in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and as such it has a huge backstory that is reminiscent of Robert Jordan‘s “Wheel of Time” series, yet has much more emotional weight and heft than Jordan’s epic.  This is a book that’s hopeful, yet that hope arises from extreme situations and a great many desperation moves; it’s also a book that if you haven’t read any of the previous eight novels that’s going to be very difficult to understand.

Thomas Covenant’s story started in our world, where he was a leper (having Hansen’s disease).  He’d been married and had a son but his wife, Joan, could not handle her husband’s leprosy and divorced him, taking their infant son, Roger, with them.  Covenant’s life took an immediate and drastic downturn, as you might expect, and he ended up in the Land — a completely different world than ours, where magic works, and the different types of people have different abilities that arise partly from learning, partly from skill, and mostly from a lot of faith.  Covenant couldn’t really believe in the Land (thus his main title, the Unbeliever), but ended up saving it anyway, going from an anti-hero to a full-fledged hero in the course of the first three books.

Covenant met up with his lover, Linden Avery, in the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; she is a physician from our world, a healer, and has dedicated her life to healing minds as well as bodies.    They had many adventures before Covenant ended up dying near the end of the sixth book, WHITE GOLD WIELDER; Avery ended up going back to our Earth, alone.

By the time the Last Chronicles started (first book of that being THE RUNES OF THE EARTH), she’d adopted a son, Jeremiah, who is severely disabled and autistic.   She’s become an outstanding doctor who is good to everyone, not because she’s a “goody-goody,” but because she’s seen her own inner darkness and understands how devastating it can be to get lost within yourself.  Avery had adventures throughout the Land in the first two books of the Last Chronicles, culminating at the end of FATAL REVENANT by doing the impossible: reincarnating Thomas Covenant, which allows the Worm of the Earth to run free as the Arch of Time has been broken.

So the start of AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING is this: Covenant’s alive, but he isn’t right.  His mind can only contain some of what he’s experienced after he died; he’d been part of the Arch of Time, and now has a new title to deal with (along with all his others), Timewarden.  He can’t remember everything he knew, but all the memories he does have are crushing, and he tends to get lost within his own thoughts rather than be able to deal with Avery or any of her companions.   Avery feels terrible about what she’s done, which causes her to fall prey to her own despair, which leads to various and sundry adventures where her mind feels more flayed than her exhausted body could ever be.

The adventures these two go through, along with their companions, which include some Ramen (those who tend the great wild horses, but do not ride them), Giants (great-hearted, huge souls who love to laugh and sing), a Stonedowner or two, and a gentle-hearted madman, are variously exhausting, exhilarating, or nearly incomprehensible.  But the thoughts of Avery and Covenant are remarkably congruent; these are people who have found ways to forge power out of guilt, loss and suffering.  (Covenant, in fact, believes it is impossible for an innocent person to be able to do anything at all, because once someone moves along his path of life, he’s no longer innocent.)

Donaldson’s grasp of language, as always, is stellar.  He uses words I rarely see, including “surquedry” and “reification,” for dramatic effect, and is definitely a writer who will only use the best word — not any word that might fit, but the absolute best word available, no matter how archaic the usage — so you want to read this man if only to study how he uses language so effectively.

But the main reason you want to read any of the Thomas Covenant epic series is because of how well Donaldson understands the human mind.  We all have things in our past we can’t stand about ourselves; the wise person accepts these things (he doesn’t have to like them, mind you; he merely has to accept them) and uses what knowledge he’s gained from them to beneficial effect, in effect marrying wisdom, intelligence and guilt into one potent package.  Donaldson does not accept that bad things must make everyone evil; he believes anyone can change, and he certainly seems to understand that some people won’t change no matter what happens to them — it’s only those (mostly represented by the Haruchai, they who were the Bloodguard in the first three books, and now make up the Masters in the last three) that Covenant worries about, because they have enough knowledge to be dangerous to themselves, yet not enough wisdom to get past the horrors they know in order to make good and positive choices.

The upshot of this particular novel — that Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery must fight against the evil Kastenessen, who actively serves Lord Foul the Despiser (analogue: Satan), along with Joan and Roger Covenant (Thomas Covenant’s ex-wife and son; Joan is crazy and doesn’t do harm on purpose but is powerful in and of herself, while Roger is sane but does evil willingly, purposefully, so in the end he’ll have power and control), and try to find something, anything, that will keep the Worm of the Earth from devouring everything in its path – is that without guilt, there’s no way to choose anything that’s beneficial.  And without wisdom, guilt is irrelevant.

In other words, if you are somehow expecting light reading out of any of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, you are beyond deluded.  But if you give this book time — about sixty pages was what I needed to get back with the story (those first sixty pages though were awful to drag through, not through any fault of Donaldson’s — it’s just that the story is so huge!) — and if you have the mindset that you want to see what’s going on and listen to the philosophical arguments for and against guilt, and for and against wisdom, along with some diverting humor from the Giants and from one of the Insequent, Ardent, who has become an unexpected ally (the Insequent are a magical race who don’t live sequentially, or at least not sequentially the way we’d see it), you will enjoy this book.

This book’s grade is going to be split into two parts.

Language, Style, Characterization, and Plot: A+ — couldn’t be any better.

Understanding of what’s going on: B+ — it took me sixty pages to get involved in the story because it’s a huge canvas, plus it’s a philosophical journey that reflects on the nature of evil and how sometimes only by making a bad choice can you do something good with your life and help others.

I highly recommend this novel to all who love epic fantasy, who have read any of the previous Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, or who love philosophy as much as they love fantasy.  But if you haven’t read any of the previous novels, I suggest you start with THE RUNES OF THE EARTH, then read the previous six books, then go on with FATAL REVENANT.  (This is partly because FATAL REVENANT skips around a great deal in time and if you don’t know anything about the first six books in the series, you have no chance to understand anything.)

As for me, I plan on waiting avidly for the final, and concluding, book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, THE LAST DARK, which is due out in 2013.  (Write fast, Mr. Donaldson!)

Reviewed by Barb

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Modesitt’s “Empress of Eternity” is intriguing, engaging, and intelligent

L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s EMPRESS OF ETERNITY is a very smart and engaging novel with an unusual set-up.   Modesitt, Jr., uses three radically different far-future time periods, all set on our Earth, to illustrate some interesting theories on the nature of time, space, the human mind, the human spirit, and much, much more, along the way delineating a sweet husband-and-wife romance which as much as anything defines the heart of this book.

Before I go further, I should mention that EMPRESS OF ETERNITY is a follow-up to THE ETERNITY ARTIFACT, but can be read alone.  (Good thing, too, as I didn’t read the previous book.)   And the only thing that you need to know about the previous book that’s essential to follow this plot is that the Moon has been blown to bits and is now a ring of some sort through a process that’s gradually explained, bit by bit, through the narrative.  I picked this up as I went, but knowing this going in would’ve been a help (which, of course, is why I’m telling you this right now to save steps).

The three time periods, all far in our future and set on the North American continent, are that of the Unity of Caelaarn, the Empire of the Ruche, and the time of the Vanir.  These are sequential, meaning Caelaarn is the closest to our time period (even though they don’t really remember anything about us), and the Vanir are the furthest away; there also is some genetic drift going on and some fundamental changes to how humanity has evolved by the time of the Vanir (that the females are bigger than the males unless genetic modification is performed is one of those things; another is that the tips of head-hair and eyebrows, for the women, can show their emotions by a “mood ring” type of thing where the color depends on the person’s mood), though the people of the time of the Unity of Caelaarn are really no different from thee and me (though they use a lot of double “a’s” and a whole lot of “y’s” to differentiate their names, as if the Dutch had taken over the United States). 

Note that all three time periods are grappling with a mysterious, canal-like artifact, and have sent teams of scientists to study it and report anything they can find out to the higher-ups in the various eras.  I view the canal-like artifact as a MacGuffin, but it’s a necessary MacGuffin indeed.

The most human story of the lot is that of Caelaarn Minister and Lord Maertyn S’Eidolon and his wife, Maarlyna.  Maertyn, years ago, risked everything to save his wife, up to and including illegal cloning, because he felt at that time he hadn’t shown his love for her enough — and love, by definition, risks all to gain all.  Maertyn’s time is one of political strife, similar to that of our time or that of the Vanir’s struggle with the Aesyr later on; he and his wife have a complicated, yet sweet relationship that shows just how good companionship can be no matter what may come.

The second story deals with those of the Ruche, specifically with two scientists, Eltyn and Faelyna.  (I told you that Modesitt, Jr., uses a lot of “y’s” in this narrative, possibly because of how vowels change over time, but maybe also for Jason’s stated rule of “don’t make names too hard to pronounce.”  More on that later.) They communicate mostly by pulse — electronic speech which may as well be telepathy — and it took me quite some time (nearly a third of the book) before I figured out they really were human beings, just altered in some way to make this pulsing necessary.  The reason I finally figured it out is because of a trucker, Rhyana, who is like any human being I know right now on this Earth, or like those from the Unity of Caelaarn — she speaks aloud, gets annoyed with Eltyn and Faelyna because they don’t speak aloud overmuch, and once she comes to stay with them (for reasons I’ll let you figure out) ends up doing all the cooking and “grunt work” so they can get on with their scientific duties.

The third story is that of the Vanir, who are fighting the Aesyr.   These two names come nearly directly from Nordic mythology, and the allusion is intentional; the Aesyr are militant racists who have genetically engineered men to be larger than women again (oh, the horror!), while the Vanir are peace-loving, freedom-loving people in an isolationist phase.  Helkyria, a scientist, and her mate, Kavn Duhyle (a man — sound out his name; it may as well be “Kevin Doyle”), are racing against time to prevent annihilation — not just of the Earth, but of everything, everywhere, in every time.

How do they all get saved?  And what does the love story of Maertyn and Maarlyna mean to all three different time periods?  Well, those are left up to the reader to find out . . . but I’ll say this: if you give this book time, you’ll get hooked.

Modesitt, Jr., did his homework here.  His theory of time as event-points that our minds can’t help but infer as motion and as sequential is up-to-the-minute, and points to string theory and some other things having to do with universal mechanics and physics as a way to construct a humane and thrilling plot.   It’s rare to get a book that’s based solidly on science that has so much else going for it — the humanity in all three different time periods is palpable — while the politics and observations that are endemic to all of Modesitt, Jr.’s work are there in full measure.

While I do not feel EMPRESS OF ETERNITY is Modesitt, Jr.’s best book — I’m partial to the four books about the Ecolitans (now comprised in two omnibuses, EMPIRE & ECOLITAN and ECOLITAN PRIME), I thought ARCHFORM: BEAUTY and ADIAMANTE excellent stand-alone novels and truly appreciated the FOREVER HERO omnibus, and of course Modesitt, Jr., came to prominence through his far lighter series of Recluce novels — it stands as one of Modesitt, Jr.’s better books.

If you need a grade, I’d give it an A-, mostly because some of the names were unnecessarily difficult to pronounce or even conceive of (as I said, Kavn Duhyle sounds like “Kevin Doyle” if you sound it out, but apparently Modesitt, Jr., did not believe we’d appreciate a future hero if he was named such, so we got the syllabic equivalent that “looked futuristic” instead, which to my mind comes perilously close to Jason’s stated axiom of “no unnecessarily complicated names”), and partly because it took me the first third of the book to figure out those from the Ruche really were human.

I enjoyed EMPRESS OF ETERNITY very much, and believe if you give it a chance, you will, too.   This is an outstanding work of science fiction that deserves to be read by many — and I hope it will be.

– Reviewed by Barb

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Sharon Shinn’s “Troubled Waters” is Good, but Slow.

Sharon Shinn‘s TROUBLED WATERS is about Zoe Ardelay, a gifted woman in the spheres of water and blood.  In her world, there are five elements — earth, air, fire, water, and wood/bone.  Note that the spirit element is not given pride of place as an element of its own in TROUBLED WATERS; instead, it is grouped with air for reasons that escaped me (but I’m sure Ms. Shinn understood full well).

I mention all of this because the fact that Zoe is gifted in water and blood makes her a Coru woman, with all the strength of the water element plus the ability to distinguish who’s related to whom by the mere touch of her hand.  That she’s an important person is obvious from the start though Zoe knows it not because her father, Navarr, has kept her from both the knowledge she should have (as he’s Sweela, or the fire/mind element) and from most of her relatives because he wanted her all to herself and thought this was the only way to do it.

The book starts out with Navarr Ardelay newly dead, and Zoe not knowing what to do.  Navarr was a powerful personality, you see, and had more or less subsumed his daughter into an extension of his own personality for years.  (She’s twenty-three as this novel opens, but acts more like she’s in her mid-to-late teens.)  Zoe’s grief for her father leaves her open to many things, so perhaps it’s fortunate — for her, at least — that the first person who finds her is Darien Serlast, a Hunti man (one of the folks who identify with wood and bone the best, and are both dogmatic and practical by nature) who is one of the King’s top advisors.    Darien is taken with Zoe from the start, though once again she isn’t aware of it.

(Note it took a great deal of skill for Ms. Shinn to get these two things across without her point-of-view character Zoe being able to even form a coherent thought for a good fourth of the book, so I applaud her for that, and think she did a very good job with the type of plot she ended up needing to construct in order to tell Zoe’s tale properly.   But I digress.)

Things start to heat up when Zoe goes missing in an “accidentally-on-purpose” way.  She encounters many people in the capitol city that she hadn’t expected, people poorer than she believes herself to be (remember, her father did not tell her the truth about anything, so this is a major plot point), and drifts from one adventure to the next until her mind kicks back in somewhere around the year-mark of her father’s passing.

Zoe, though she’s been drifting and “just existing” as she, herself, puts it, has been finding out many things.  For example, her Lalinder relatives (all Water signs, or Coru like she is) have been without a Prime — or a ruler — for the last few years since her Grandmother Christara passed on.   This puzzles her, so she travels to her grandmother’s seat in order to find out what’s going on.

Of course, this being a coming of age novel, we know Zoe has an important role to play — all this drifting she’s done can’t be the entirety of her life.  And where does the dashing Darien Serlast come in, especially since she can’t stop thinking about him or talking about him?

I enjoyed TROUBLED WATERS for its honest depiction of how a grieving young woman restores herself and forges a new life for herself, but was frustrated that it took nearly a full half of the book to figure out who, exactly, Zoe is supposed to be.  I also thought that Darien Serlast needed to be much more open with Zoe from the beginning — the main reason she goes missing when she gets to the capitol city is because she doesn’t trust him even though she’s drawn to him, and it turns out both of her feelings (odd and contradictory though they were) are right — in order to get past a lot of stuff that, to my mind, didn’t need to be there.

All that being said, it’s an enjoyable way to spend two or three hours of your time, though this book isn’t anywhere near as good as her THE SAFE-KEEPER’S SECRET, THE DREAM-MAKER’S MAGIC, or THE TRUTH-TELLER’S TALE (all set in a different magical universe).  It’s also not as much fun as her earlier, stand-alone novels JENNA STARBORN or THE SHAPE-CHANGER’S WIFE.

In conclusion, if you like fantasy, and you like coming of age tales, and you enjoy books that are dreamy, a little out of focus, and take quite a while to develop before finally sharpening nicely, you’ll enjoy TROUBLED WATERS.

But if you’re expecting a quick read, skip this book and go for anything else Ms. Shinn has ever put out, as this one has to be the slowest of all of them to make up its mind as to what it, exactly, really is.

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The Eastern Front – A Primer of Things To Come

1635: The Eastern Front

One of the nice things about the 1632 series is that there’s always something new and exciting in the political arena. With typical deftness, Eric Flint can usually create a great story featuring the dynamics of the misplaced West Virginians in the midst of the Thirty Year’s War. Unfortunately for fans of the series, The Eastern Front seems to be nothing more than a primer for the next book in the series – 1636: The Saxon Uprising.

The story kicks off soon after the events of 1635: The Dreeson Incident. Michael and Rebecca Stearns have just moved into their new house in Magdeburg, the capitol city of the United States of Europe. Michael, who recently lost the election for Prime Minister, is activated to the rank of general and is being prepared to ship off to war against the rebel provinces of Saxony and Brandenburg. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the series, you will be very confused by the convoluted events leading up to this and probably by this review. I’m not about to rehash the entire series (because I don’t have a week’s worth of time). Suffice to say, democracy is in the process of taking place in 1635 central Europe and it’s a very messy process, since most of the ruling kings and princes really don’t like this idea.

Of course, nothing really gets going in this book until midway through, when the armies of Gustav Adolphus, ruler of Sweden and the USE, move forward to go to war with the rebel provinces. He quickly crushes the two rebel provinces but the Poles, who have a vested interest in a buffer region between the growing greed of the King of Sweden and their own borders, sends a token force to assist with the defense of Saxony. Adolphus uses this as a pretext for war against Poland, and the great Grand Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski.

(side note – Koniecpolski is, in my opinion, one of the ten greatest generals of all time. A lot of people would argue that Adolphus helped create the modern concept of warfare, but it is Koniecpolski who was the first (and most successful) at holding the “Lion of the North” in check before his real-life death at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. Koniecpolski knew his limitations and the capabilities of his armies, never asking them to do things he knew or suspected that they would fail at. He is the first man to truly think that your army is only as great as your weakest division. If Hitler had been up against him, it would have been a much longer war in Poland. Oh, the Poles still would have lost, but the delaying action could have potentially given France and England enough time to avoid a Dunkirk. Sorry, got sidetracked there…)

This is an Eric Flint novel, so you know the editing is going to be sound. The story takes awhile to get going, focusing primarily on the growing political dissent between the Crown Loyalists Party (consisting of a lot of wealthy princes and upper class) and the Fourth of July Party (which has Stearns and everybody who is labeled a “non-racist. Politics in the 1632 universe are rather simple). Meanwhile, while the political front at home is getting squirrelly, Gretchen Richter is helping to stir up a rebellion in her own right.

Richter is a very weird figure in the 1632 universe. In the first novel, she was a camp follower who was the “wife” of the company commander who was slaughtered by the suddenly arrived Americans in 1632. As the series moves onward, she becomes a centralized figure of a very radical democratic movement which is spreading like wildfire across Europe. She is, naturally, feared by all the princes and kings of Europe, though the King of Denmark is particularly amused and impressed by her earlier in the series. In The Eastern Front, she needs her own bodyguards from the Committee of Correspondence, the radical democratic movement she helped found years before after being saved by the Americans, particularly her husband, Jeff Higgins. So take that as you will.

As I said, the book ends with a cliffhanger, leaving you to wait for the next book in the series to resolve pretty much anything. I won’t give much away with this little tidbit, but Crown Princess Kristina of Sweden and her betrothed, the prince of Denmark, are going to play a much bigger role in the upcoming books if things stay the way they appear to be at the end of the book.

Good buy if you love the series. If you’re new, I’d recommend starting with 1632 and 1633, then branching out so you aren’t lost by the time you read The Eastern Front.

–Reviewed by Jason

 

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Pulse by Jennifer Lunde — Eh?

So… here we are, again.

First off, author Jennifer Lunde has a good voice when she tells the story. It’s very mellow and weaves the words together nicely. It’s an average length book (400 pages or so) and has a very interesting premise. Her structuring is sound, and this is a good novel for the literary minded fantasy reader. Which, of course, means I am the last person you want to review your articulate piece of fantastical literature.

Pulse starts off well enough, with the young prince Vettar sleepwalking through the castle once again. This time, though, he is about to plunge to his death when his older sister grabs him before he can fall out the window. She chides him and carries him to his room, while he complains that he doesn’t need to be carried. This coming from the kid who just about walked out of a fifth story (or sixth?) window in the middle of the night in his sleep. It sets the tone right off the bat that Vettar is a little off while his loving sister, Eryn, is responsible and mature beyond her years. On purpose or not, I immediately drew a reference between these two and two characters from George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” series. And like the Martin series, I was hoping for a similar chain of events.

Alas, it was not to be. For Vettar is the character that we’re supposed to like and love after Eryn accidentally, well, destroys her entire city. The whiny, complaining Vettar is the hero. The mature, caring and wise sister is a mass murderer. This novel could go places, I thought as I settled into my chair and continued onwards.

The author, Ms Lunde? She don’t mess around and she definitely is avoiding all the common fantasy tropes which drive me crazy.

I am pleased so far.

The story picks back up about sometime later in the future (I think, this part was a little weird for me), though for Vettar no time seems to have passed. I’m not certain whether that time has moved on and Vettar is still the same age, or he remains mentally a child while his body has aged. It really isn’t explained well until much later, though his behavior towards his next “friend” and guardian, Iena, lends one to think that he is still a little boy of body and mind. It is here when the story more or less lost me.

In epic fantasy adventures there should be rules. If you have read my reviews before, you know my personal rules for writing fantasy. Call them the “Three Rules of A Highly Unsuccessful Fantasy Writer”. They are:

  • 1- Do NOT have a “boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy fights evil wizard and saves girl and becomes king” plot. I will shoot you in the face with a shovel if you use this plot.
  • 2- Do NOT make the names so hard to pronounce that it smacks the reader in the face and kills the momentum of the book. Bricks at dawn is my weapon and time of choice for the duel should you break this rule.
  • 3- Do NOT make a world so gigantic that it threatens to dominate the story. Face it, you are not Tolkien. You don’t need to be. Be yourself, or I’ll force you to watch the animated tale of The Hobbit over and over again until your eyes bleed.

There, rules established. Those aren’t hard rules to follow. For the most part, the majority of entertaining and successful fantasy writers avoid these mistakes.

Unfortunately, Ms Lunde hits Every… Single… One.

*headdesk*

So the story sort of gets weird at this point. I’m no longer sure what the plot is, but it’s there, feeding me a beautifully written… thing. As I stated before, her voice and tone are wonderful. But I found myself not giving a crap about any of her characters except Vettar, and he disappears for long lengths of the novel.

Wait, you ask. He’s not the main character?

Nope.

Frack me, you mutter.

My sentiments exactly.

Already somewhat emotionally invested in Vettar, we are forced to watch Iena traverse through the desert blindly while trying to find Vettar and save him from the enemy. Which one? Well, there’s a lot of enemies because for some reason, everyone dies or is the villain in this book. Death, destruction, carnage and mayhem in the flowing, mellow, soothing tone of voice of the author.

This woman should be writing stuff like the Brother’s Grimm. I’m certain she can scare the holy crap out of anyone. This woman made me nervous and I’m the guy who has dreams about scary stuff and wakes up saying “That’d be an AWESOME movie!”.

So this book has promise, but could use a good editor. I don’t usually review a self-published book, but as I favor I agreed to. It’s not a bad book, much better than some of the crap I’ve read over the past six months. That being said, this needs a lot more polish, and I really wish I could have been drawn into the characters better. Ms. Lunde has something here, but needs to find a single character and draw the best out of him or her. So… an ebook purchase maybe, or a library check out book.

–Reviewed by Jason

 

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Linnea Sinclair’s milSF is very, very good.

Today’s reviews are on Linnea Sinclair‘s sequential military science fiction (milSF) titles HOPE’S FOLLY and REBELS AND LOVERS.   Sinclair is best known as a writer of romantic science fiction, but these two books are somewhat of a departure as the romance is obviously secondary to the action, perhaps in order to cross over to a wider audience.  They both succeed brilliantly as milSF novels, while only HOPE’S FOLLY hits fully on a romantic level . . . but even without the romantic angle in REBELS AND LOVERS being as strong, it’s still a fine, worthy book by an excellent author.

We start with HOPE’S FOLLY, in which Fleet Admiral Philip Guthrie has rebelled against his Empire, mostly because the Empire has been usurped by a madman, Darius Tage, who’ll do anything for power — including turning verboten weaponry against children if it’ll help him turn a profit somehow.   Guthrie has been badly wounded, necessitating a cane and physical therapy, most of which he skips; he’s in his mid-40s, in the middle of a war, and romance is by far the furthest thing on his mind.

When Guthrie ran from the Empire, many of his top men and women did, too.  But there aren’t enough ships for everyone who’s already rebelled, much less the rest of the honest Empire captains who don’t wish to deal with a madman, so more rebels keep coming out of the woodwork all the time.  This is why Guthrie needs a new flagship, pronto, so when a battlecruiser becomes available, he grabs it even though it needs a great deal of repair and is named — you guessed it — Hope’s Folly (not for the common phrase, but because it was last a merchant ship/fruit hauler and named after the merchant’s only daughter — recently killed in an unprovoked attack by Empire militia sent by the nasty Tage — and her cat, Folly).

On the way to pick up the Folly he runs into Rya Bennton, the daughter of his now-deceased best friend (and former CO) Cory Bennton.   Rya is twenty-nine years old, a devotee of weaponry, uses the common Anglo-Saxon word for fornication more often than is good for her and knows it, and as she puts it wryly more than once, “has hips and thighs.”  She weighs thirty pounds more than optimal but is in excellent shape and condition due to her former job as Special Protection Service — these are sometimes assassins, but are more often used to protect against an assassin, and on Empire ships are used most as the chief of ship’s security.  Normally someone like Rya Bennton wouldn’t rebel under any circumstances, but when she finds out her father has died in an unprovoked attack by Tage, she’s had it — and is off to find the Alliance.

On a flea-bitten port out in the middle of no man’s land, she runs into Philip Guthrie and saves him from being assassinated without him, at first, knowing who she is.  (This is because the last time he saw her, she was only nine years old and things have obviously changed quite a bit since then.)  They find a common bond in their love of guns — all sorts of guns — and Guthrie is impressed by Bennton’s good sense as well as her marksmanship, every bit as good as his.  She is obviously in much better physical shape and condition than he, which worries him, along with her much younger age, but their physical attraction is obvious from the start.

The refreshing thing about HOPE’S FOLLY is that the story, not the romance, comes first — but without the romantic angle, I’m not sure I’d care as much about these two.  These are highly driven people who are really angry, albeit for a good reason; they aren’t folks I’d want to meet in a dark alley despite their obvious idealism and care for the innocent.

In any event, both elements work well and result in a highly satisfactory conclusion for all concerned — this is an outstanding novel that works on every level.  Don’t miss HOPE’S FOLLY.

As for REBELS AND LOVERS, things are a bit different.  Devin Guthrie is an accountant, the last person anyone would ever think would want to get in touch with his inner “alpha male,” yet has had an attraction to ship captain Makaiden (“Kaidee”) Griggs for years and has done nothing about it.   He’s the younger brother of Philip Guthrie, and comes from a great deal of money; his family is still bound to the Empire, even though Devin obviously sympathizes with his brother.  Devin has no patience for family duties, and what seems like few social skills aside from those forced on him; this is a man in his mid-30s who’s never asserted himself but does have two military skills on his side: he’s great with computers, and he’s an excellent marksman.

When Devin’s nephew Johnathan III (called “Trip” or “Trippy”), who’s only 19, disappears from college, Devin knows something’s wrong even before he finds out that Trippy’s bodyguard is dead.  He leaves his family, his family-approved fiancée (someone he likes and tolerates, but does not love), and his job behind and tracks Trippy to yet another remote space station.  Fortunately for him, Kaidee Griggs is also there and has formed a sort of mentor relationship with Trippy (whom she recognized as she used to work for the Guthrie family).  Devin and Kaidee join forces to try to save Trippy’s life, then strike out to find Philip Guthrie and join the Alliance as that seems best for all concerned.

The military science fiction of REBELS AND LOVERS is excellent; the stuff about computers, ships, weaponry, all of that, plus the backgrounds of Kaidee and Devin, all make sense.  I liked using Trippy as a plot device as well as a character; it made sense that both Kaidee and Devin would want to save this young man’s life, and it also made sense that Devin would throw his entire life away to get his nephew to safety.

But the romance here is not quite right.  There’s more sexual attraction going on than actual romance, and while that is realistic — these two are in a war zone, along with Trippy and everyone else along for the ride — it is not as satisfying as the previous book HOPE’S FOLLY.  I realize lovers often have a difficult time learning to communicate; if it was easy, no one would do it — not in real life, not in a book.  But I have a problem with passages like this one (from page 364):

“You don’t believe me.”

She turned back, her expression softening.  “No, idiot that I am, I do.  It’s just that . . . ”  And she stopped.

He heard a slight quavering in her voice.  It was all he needed to shove himself out of his chair and cross the short distance to where she sat at the front of the bridge, arms now crossed defensively over her chest.

He touched her shoulder, then cupped her face with his hand before she could pull back.  “You’re not an idiot.  I could never fall in love with an idiot.”

Something flashed in her eyes, then she sighed.  Confusion?  Frustration? Capitulation?  He couldn’t tell.

“I can’t . . . deal with this right now, Devin.  I have an Imperial destroyer an hour behind me and closing, Talgarrath two and a half hours in front of me, and no idea what’s waiting for us when we get dirtside.  If we get dirtside.”

And then what happens?  Does Devin back off?  Of course he doesn’t; he instead kisses Kaidee on her own bridge, where she’s already told him she doesn’t want him, and she responds rather than shoves him away.   Comparing the behavior of Kaidee Griggs with Rya Bennton, there’s no comparison; Rya will kick your butt if you try to do something against her will, and rightfully so, while Kaidee just puts up with it, ship captain or no.  And to my mind, Kaidee’s behavior while in a war zone just doesn’t cut it.

Look.  This is a good book, regardless of how lacking I found the romance angle.  REBELS AND LOVERS has good interplay between the characters, a nice infatuation between Devin and Kaidee, and some really good ship-running stuff.   I think it’s a book everyone will enjoy, especially my male friends who do not expect there to be a solid romance in every milSF book.

But compared to HOPE’S FOLLY, it is not as good.  And compared to Linnea Sinclair’s best books – of which HOPE’S FOLLY is only one; the other two I really enjoy and turn to again and again are AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS and THE DOWN-HOME ZOMBIE BLUES REBELS AND LOVERS just doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders, partly because the romance still feels up in the air as Kaidee never seems to feel settled in this romance (as she’s far below Devin, socially, on the totem pole and knows it; she’s also average-looking and a bit on the plump side, and knows that, too).

The passage I quoted is all you need to see the problems here.  They aren’t huge ones, but they are there — mostly, if a woman is a ship captain, romance should not be going on unless the ship is in hyperdrive, warp, or whatever they’re using to get across big distances in a blink of an eye.  And secondarily, Devin’s whole “I’m going to be an alpha male now” shtick just didn’t work for me in the way I’m sure Ms. Sinclair was hoping.  I kept seeing this slight man who’s an accountant and computer genius trying to dominate someone he feels he’s in love with, and I didn’t buy it at all.  This is not the union of two equals, as it was in HOPE’S FOLLY; this is the union of a taker and a giver, and it’s obvious which one is which.

As for grades, here we go:

HOPE’S FOLLY:  A.  A first-rate novel in every respect.  Excellent adventure.  Excellent intrigue.  Excellent romance.   A keeper.

REBELS AND LOVERS: B+.  Works on the suspense, adventure and military levels, but the romance is a bit flat.  (I’m still waiting for Kaidee to kick Devin’s butt off the bridge; Ms. Sinclair, please write a sequel and have Kaidee do just that, and I’ll up this review to an A-.)

– Reviewed by Barb.

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Citadel — Not John McClane, John Ringo…

Women look at men who watch professional wrestling as a child who doesn’t want to grow up. Women should look at professional wrestling as a soap opera for men. In that vein, I decided to review John Ringo‘s latest effort, Citadel (Baen Books), which was not too deep but a lot of fun. Think “romance novel in candy form for men” and you’ll basically have a John Ringo novel. Throw in some ‘esplodyness, science and aliens out to destroy humanity and voila! there’s your prototypical Ringo novel.

It’s been a few years since the events in the preceding novel, Live Free or Die (which I thought was an awesome title until I realized that Ringo had NOT serialized John McClane into his universe). Tyler Vernon has built his massive space station (that’s no moon, that’s a space station!) which now sits at the exit zone of the gate which had been thoughtfully distributed by friendly aliens before the bad guys took over and started running their protection racket (gives us goods, ’cause it’d be a shame if an asteroid dropped on your planet). The Troy is the only thing which protects Earth from the evil alien scum of the universe (sorry MIB), and our three new heroes are now on board to help defend Earth.

Fairly fast paced, the story around the Troy and the subsequent battle station, Thermopylae, as they defend Earth are fun. Candy, something to be eaten without taken seriously. If you go into this book with a care-free, “let’s blow crap up” attitude, then you’re going to love this book. It has attractive, no nonsense women who are capable of blowing you up or… well, yeah. It has men who and brave, strong and loyal without being condescending.

Nothing jumps out at you as “wow, this changes my life”, which is the right idea for this book, since it’s just plain, old fashioned fun. A definitely fun read that let’s you kill a few hours and not feel guilty. Ringo, to me, is turning into one of those guilty pleasures you don’t admit to unless you’re really drunk or on a panel at a convention. Have fun with this one, and just let it take you where it wants to go. It’ll be a good ride.

–Reviewed by Jason

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“The Dragon Variation” and “Mouse and Dragon” — Two More Excellent Books by Lee and Miller.

As it’s the beginning of the New Year, it’s time for my inaugural review.  I’ve chosen to review two books: THE DRAGON VARIATION and MOUSE AND DRAGON.  Both are by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, the celebrated husband and wife writer team, and are outstanding.

Because THE DRAGON VARIATION is an omnibus, and because MOUSE AND DRAGON is a sequel to only one of the books in that omnibus, I’m going to review the three books comprising THE DRAGON VARIATION (which are, in order, LOCAL CUSTOM, SCOUT’S PROGRESS, and CONFLICT OF HONORS) out of order so as to give my reviews for SCOUT’S PROGRESS and MOUSE AND DRAGON sequentially.

THE DRAGON VARIATION omnibus starts off with LOCAL CUSTOM, one of the best books of mores and manners I’ve ever seen in the SF genre.  It is the story of Anne Davis, a Terran professor of comparative linguistics, and Er Thom yos’Galan, a Liaden Master Trader.  They had a romantic interlude years before this story started which resulted in a child, Shan yos’Galan, who lives with his mother.  In fact, Anne Davis didn’t tell Er Thom anything, because in her culture, it isn’t necessary to do so in this far future time.

However, Er Thom’s culture on Liad has very strict rules about this sort of thing, and once he realizes Shan’s existence, he moves to have him recognized by his clan of Korval.  Er Thom is one of two genetic “lines” that are allies within Korval, yos’Galan and yos’Phelium; that the Liadens feel it necessary to ally with Clans and kin records and extensive genetic genealogies is part of the cultural confusion surrounding this couple.

Because both Anne and Er Thom feel something deep and profound, their romance, once rekindled, is powerful and all-encompassing.  This is strongly alien to Er Thom in particular (as on his birth-world of Liad, they go in for short-term contract marriages rather than life matings because of the cultural need to keep their genetic lines mixing), but is also unusually expressive to Anne Davis as well.   This is an apparent “star-crossed romance” in the best of senses, and the typical romantic conventions are followed, yet in a way that seems almost anthropological — the study of other cultures, other customs — than would be seen in most romances of any sort, even SF ones.

How Anne Davis and Er Thom circumvent their differences and forge a life together is for you to read, but I would highly encourage you to do so.  This is a couple worth cheering for, and Shan yos’Galan’s observations, whenever they occur, are priceless.

Next would normally be SCOUT’S PROGRESS, as it is second in the omnibus, but I will for the moment skip it to go on to CONFLICT OF HONORS, which is about Shan yos’Galan as an adult and his first encounter with the extraordinary Priscilla Delacroix y Mendoza, a Sintian Witch who’s been outcast from her planet.   Priscilla’s story is the one we mostly follow in CONFLICT OF HONORS, yet Shan, once again, steals the show whenever he shows up.  Shan is a Healer — he has psychic gifts, and is an empath — and Priscilla’s psychic gifts match up well with Shan’s, though are stronger than Shan’s, so when Shan’s empathy tells him Priscilla has a very important story to tell, we listen.  And read.  And re-read.

The most important questions being answered here are: what is the duty of an employer (as Shan’s now a Master Trader, and runs his own ship)?  What can you do when life has thrown you a major curveball, and you’ve been put into a bad situation through no fault of yours?  And, finally, is it possible to reach for love when you haven’t quite claimed your own personal power?  (Not just in a psychic sense — in every sense.)

This is a fine book, well worth reading and re-reading again and again, because Priscilla is a heroine worth cheering for, and Shan is one of the most lovable rogues in romantic fiction.

Finally, we come to SCOUT’S PROGRESS, the middle book of THE DRAGON VARIATION omnibus.   This story is about my favorite character in all of Lee and Miller’s output — Aelliana Caylon, an abused woman who’s treated horribly by her own family with the exception of her one, younger sister.  She is a mathematician and a scholar, and is extremely intelligent, yet because of the way Liadens view marriage, she’d been married off quite young (perhaps as young as sixteen) in a short-term, contract marriage to a highly abusive man who treated her very badly because of her controlling, manipulative and scurrilous brother, Ran Eld Caylon Clan Mizel.  Ran Eld is the second-most important person in Clan Mizel, being Nadelm — trained to run the entire Clan — and has abused his power over and over again because he’s the type of person for whom power is not only addictive, it is explosive.

At the start of SCOUT’S PROGRESS, we see that Aelliana is revered by Pilots — because she’s updated the ven’Tura Piloting tables as she found errors in them.  These tables are what Pilots use to go from port to port, and mathematical errors obviously will lead to more deaths than not.  (Math is vitally important in the space-trade.)  She also is highly appreciated by her students, by at least some of her colleagues, and by her younger sister, Sinit.  But she has no awareness of this due to how long she’s been downtrodden by her vicious elder brother Ran Eld.  Aelliana is still in her mid-twenties, mind you, but has the mindset of someone much older due to the abuse.

Then, Aelliana wins a small ship in a game of chance, and needs to learn how to fly it in a hurry.  This causes her to meet Daav, a man about ten years her senior, who is a Master Pilot needing distraction.  Daav teaches Aelliana how to care for her craft, then how to fly it, and introduces her to many of his Pilot friends, some of whom are Liaden Scouts (thus far more broad-minded than most Liadens as they travel to many worlds and know the value of “local custom” more than most Liadens).  Daav takes Aelliana under his wing, first as a colleague, then as a friend.

(Note: if you do not want your reading spoiled, you may want to look away at this point, and re-start two paragraphs down.)

As Aelliana realizes she has more to offer than she’d ever thought possible, her vicious brother does his best to bring her down.  This precipitating moment causes Daav to realize he’s not been totally honest with himself; he is in love with Aelliana, and regardless of his high rank as Delm of Korval (something he’s kept from Aelliana because he didn’t want to scare her off as Korval, arguably, holds the highest rank of any Clan on Liad) needs to be with her, or else.

In MOUSE AND DRAGON, Aelliana is recovering from the hurts taken at the hands of her awful brother, Ran Eld, in Healer’s Hall.  Daav meets up with her, admits he’s the Delm of Korval, and tries to sort out what they can possibly do now.  So you’d think everything is great, right?

Hardly.

Daav yos’Phelium has duties, obligations, and had been about to enter into a contract marriage, but that’s not the worst of it — no, Daav can get out of all that, and does, though at a significant financial cost.

The real problem, instead, is with Clan Mizel.  They have cast Ran Eld out; he is now considered dead to the Clan.  And Aelliana’s worth as a Scholar, and as a Pilot and ship owner, is now valued much higher than before.  Plus, Aelliana’s mother, the Delm of Clan Mizel, is recalcitrant regarding her daughter, and seems to have a form of selective memory, to boot.

Aelliana is having none of this, and removes to Daav’s home, a considerable distance away from the abode of Clan Mizel.  They start a relationship, but cannot marry in the life-mating ceremony (where they will stay together for always, but one must leave the Clan in which he or she was born; obviously, this is going to be Aelliana’s duty as Daav couldn’t do so as Delm of Clan Korval) because Aelliana’s mother throws up roadblock after roadblock.

Complicating matters, Aelliana’s sister, Sinit, is not getting the proper education — and Aelliana worries about this.  Sinit doesn’t deserve the fall-out from Ran Eld’s getting cast out and their mother’s extreme depression over it all.  But Clan Mizel’s finances are awful; this is one of the reasons why Aelliana’s mother does not want Aelliana to leave the Clan after all.

How Aelliana gets out of this mess, how she and Daav form a life together, and how Aelliana’s sister Sinit is provided for, is for you to read.  But once again, I would highly encourage you to do so.  This is a poignant, deeply romantic story of personal growth, self-sacrifice, and almost insurmountable change, and is possibly the best writing of Lee and Miller’s career.  It is emotional, yet somehow not too personal, and shows how two highly competent, highly intelligent people can make a life for each other despite all obstacles, and all odds.

Finally — and once again, this is a spoiler — it shows an unusual SFnal way to deal with the pain of being widowed at a too-early age.  Daav’s agony is palpable, true-to-life, and highly realistic; I do not know how these authors, who have not been widowed to the best of my knowledge, got these emotions right, but they did so.  (That Aelliana’s influence is still felt from time to time, and that Daav, despite this, cannot be the same person he was when his amazing wife was alive in all senses, is also realistic.)

You see, no matter how strong your bond is with your spouse, and no matter how much you feel his or her presence, you are still, physically, alone.  You can’t be the same as before; nothing is ever the same.  But what you can do — and what you must do — is take the lessons, and the memories, and the love you shared and use them to improve your life with whatever time you have left.

Daav’s solution, and Aelliana’s solution, is a unique and extremely unusual one, yet it rings true to this widow.  Because, you see, Lee and Miller figured this out — our spouses do live on.  In us.

*** end spoilers ***

As for grades, here we go:

LOCAL CUSTOM — A first-rate novel in every respect.  I loved it.  Grade: A.

CONFLICT OF HONORS — A coming of age tale, an understated romance, and some really good Trade going on.  I highly enjoyed it.  Grade:  A.

SCOUT’S PROGRESS — An outstanding piece of work that for many authors would be the pinnacle of their achievement.  I thoroughly appreciated it, admired it, and wish I could write like this pair.  Grade: A+.

MOUSE AND DRAGON — An even more outstanding piece of work about love, about self-sacrifice, about change, about loss, and about the permanence of love regardless of the form.  I am amazed by this book.  Grade:  A+++++++++

In conclusion:  Grab these novels!  Then go read everything else they’ve put out, too.

Reviewed by Barb.

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