Constellation: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week I took a long, loving look at Constellation, by Robert Scanlon.

In this sci-fi action thriller, we follow India “Indy” Jackson, a sassy space pirate who I simply could not not picture as Merida from Brave, only in spaaaaaace. And shit, what the fuck’s wrong with that? Nothing, that’s what. Anyway, we follow her from planet to planet as she attempts to unfold the mystery behind and avenge the death of her father, rescue her brother, put up with her unbearably saucy ex-boyfriend and basically survive in a galaxy that, as I believe young people said back in 2010 or so, be cray. And it’s great!

My immediate thought on opening this book was uggghhh, not first person present tense – but that’s a me problem. It’s fine. Once I got used to it, I found it worked nicely.

The twists and turns and revelations just keep coming. I won’t go into them too far but very little is what it seems and the simple space pirate life of space heists and space deals (and spacetoast, I had a genuine LOL at that) soon turns into a struggle on an interstellar scale as whole civilisations square up and struggle for supremacy. And in the meantime the Blood Empire, headed by the very satisfyingly space elven (dare I say, sci-fae? I do. I do dare. Did I just make up a new sub-genre? A quick google assures me I did not. But fuck it, it’s great) warlord Oberon, is looming on the space horizon.

I really enjoyed the way human and alien cultures and characteristics interwove. The aliens were nicely alien, the humans were nicely human, and the comparative alienness of both was really cleverly handled in the story and dialogue. I would not want to be an alien forced to deal with humans. I was a little puzzled (okay, more than a little) by the idea that if you save a Rykkan’s life, they need to serve you essentially forever or else kill themselves. Aktip saves Indy’s life at least twice before they even get started, and it doesn’t cancel her debt until she damn near dies saving her life for the third or fourth time. Still, it all serves the story and I’ll allow it.

The stakes are always clear and the action and scene-changes are well-outlined. We know what Indy wants, what the Scorpion wants, what Aktip wants, what Sloper wants. I do want to brag a little about figuring out the real deal between Sloper and Indy’s father, at least in the broad strokes, from Sloper’s first appearance … but suffice to say, things are more complicated than we are led to believe and it’s a lot of fun getting from start to finish.

The Constellation itself is great, by no means a McGuffin – and I would even say a character in its own right. I dig that stuff. And like I said, Oberon and the Blood Empire represent a cool and mysterious big bad alluded to just enough to not seem extraneous in this first book, but posing a legitimate and persistent threat. The politics, espionage and corporate / cultural clashes are nicely balanced with character work.

I really did hope Indy and Plexi would end up as a couple, they really seemed to have cute chemistry on the page and you don’t see that very often. But oh well.

Sex-o-meter

This is another story where there wasn’t much sex because sex wasn’t the point. The Rykkan mercenaries have a strong gang-rape and sex trafficking subculture going on but (thankfully) we don’t see much of it. Indy is sexy and confident and manages to get herself into a skin-tight black leather outfit and sci-fi high heels (dare I say, sci-heels? Did I just create another subgenre? I’m not googling it) at least once, but it’s all in service of the plot and didn’t strike me as lascivious (for better or worse). Also since I was picturing her as Merida, her Scottish accent was hot. According to the sex-o-meter this books gets a Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen out of a possible Montero by Lil Nas X.

Gore-o-meter

Not a lot of gore in this sci-fi adventure. Some alien dismemberment and some shooting, but most of the violence was ship-to-ship with a little bit of mobster beating and torture and deprivation of liberty thrown in. But the Blood Empire is coming! Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one.

WTF-o-meter

This book delivers a lot of quality WTF for your buck. Quite aside from the Blood Empire and the considerable mysteries of Indy’s father and his creations, there’s the entire Rykkan species and their ability to basically read minds but then also apparently be completely vulnerable to an extremely compelling life-debt tradition that I’m frankly stunned more humans haven’t taken advantage of. In this story alone it is a major motivation for both Aktip and the Chief. I initially wondered if there was some kind of elaborate alien joke happening, or if there was more to it like maybe the Rykkan mercenaries were being ‘hired’ by use of this system, and there may still be more here to examine in later books, but … yeah, for something that Indy didn’t even know about at the start of the story, it sure does seem like a huge part of Rykkan culture and you’d think it would be more widely known. Furthermore, their lie-detector abilities are conveniently worked-around at some point and you’d think that would also have been a priority for shitty humans to learn about. Anyway, there was plenty of good WTF in here. I’ll give Constellation a Montero by Lil Nas X out of a possible Kiss Me More by Doja Cat.

My Final Verdict

Four stars for a very cool launch into new series! The SPSFC is doing terrible things to my to-read and to-buy pile, as I read the first books of so many great stories I want to see more of. This one is no exception, and well worth a look.


THE LAST KING OF OSTEN ARD | THE WITCHWOOD CROWN & EMPIRE OF GRASS (Spoiler Free)

New York Times-bestselling Tad Williams’ ground-breaking epic fantasy saga of Osten Ard begins an exciting new cycle! • Volume One of The Last King of Osten Ard

The Dragonbone Chair, the first volume of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was published in hardcover in October, 1988, launching the series that was to become one of the seminal works of modern epic fantasy. Many of today’s top-selling fantasy authors, from Patrick Rothfuss to George R. R. Martin to Christopher Paolini credit Tad with being the inspiration for their own series.

Now, twenty-four years after the conclusion of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad returns to his beloved universe and characters with The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard.

Thirty years have passed since the events of the earlier novels, and the world has reached a critical turning point once again. The realm is threatened by divisive forces, even as old allies are lost, and others are lured down darker paths. Perhaps most terrifying of all, the Norns—the long-vanquished elvish foe—are stirring once again, preparing to reclaim the mortal-ruled lands that once were theirs….

Review

Many of you will have read MST some time ago so this is really more of ‘why you should read’ post, more than it is a straight review. I felt that i would cover some of the questions that think you may have and try and inspire you to pick up this series after such a lengthy break.

Should you return to this Osten Ard after all this time ?

Absolutely yes !!! Many of you may be apprehensive about the follow up to such a hugely successful series such as this, but this instalment delivers and will likely exceed you’re expectations !! I can tell you that i was totally overwhelmed when i began these books and i was so drunk on being back in this world and re-joining the cast of beloved characters, that i just couldn’t put these books down. As you would expect from Tad Williams, the prose was as sharp and as flawless as MST, the world building was even more immersive and the characterization was just phenomenal. Every aspect of this book felt polished and sharper and I can definitely say that this Duology does not suffer with middle book syndrome at all. What i really like about reading the middle books essentially is that the world is obviously very much established and means that you can just absorb the parts of this world that were formerly unseen and just makes you appreciate the scope of the world that Williams has created. I was hugely captivated by new cast of characters and I was totally engaged from the moment that i picked it up The Witchwood Crown. Williams is so consistent in every aspect of his story telling and the pacing for a Duology of this size is amazing.

The Cast new and old…..

Williams characterization always has a huge impact on me as its always to the point of being as close to perfect as you’re gonna get! I love the meticulous attention to detail with the development of the characters and the way he describes them, they’re always so stylized and totally vivid in there description that they really burst into life within your imagination. The character development of the original cast is portrayed incredibly well and the progression of their characters felt natural and provoked a feeling nostalgia in that it was almost just like seeing old friends again. But as they didn’t over shadow the new characters it really put the focus on the new cast and it was really balanced. The multiple character POVs served as well as they did in MST and provided intimate insights into these complex characters and by the end of the duology, the new characters were as engaging as the original cast. The new cast members that we’re introduced to are Morgan, Nezaru, Jarnulf, Tanahaya, Tzoja, Viyeki and Unver and we spend most of our time with these characters. I felt that each of their POVs had hugely emotive themes which really helped me to connect with them and the tone changed when we shifted from one to the other. This was something that i felt really kept me engaged and something that i feel is so important with books of this size. At no point did feel that the pace drag at all and as always the intrigue surrounding these characters was hugely captivating. I’d say my favourite characters were Unver and Nezaru. The majority of the characters development was a slow burn, each having a cliff hanger towards the EOG. But I liked the above characters more as I felt that there PoVs definitely had the most impact, especially Unver, with one of his scenes being amongst my favourite scenes of any novel that I’ve ever read. I definitely gravitate towards the darker more tortured characters.Some people might find some very common character tropes in these novels, but I found all the characters to be quite nuanced in so many ways.

How does the History/Lore of this world progress in this Duology?

The Lore and the history of this world is as spellbinding as its always been and over the course of these books it unfolds perfectly. I’m more engaged in this series now more than ever and this is mainly because we find out so much more about the garden born and their origin story. After reading MST i was so eager for the expansion on the history and the lore of this world and these books delivered and it was so worth the wait. But in general terms all of the different races of Osten Ard bloom in this part of the story, especially the Norns, the Thrithings men and the Nabbanai. This duology clearly defines the cultural identities of all the of the races within Osten Ard with much more depth. This is very much the build up to the concluding part of the series and the wealth of history and Lore that comes with it. The deeper dive into the Nabbanai culture really brought a new level of political intrigue which really made the the Italian, Roman catholic, almost Machiavellian influences on the politics abundantly clear. In MST we did nt spend that much time with the Thrithings clans, but in this Trilogy we see a much broader picture of their Nomadic culture and with it and there place within this worlds history and their major role in the story going forward. So as you can imagine by far the biggest focus is with the Norns and by the end of this duology you’re fully immersed in there complex culture, which really ushers in a much darker atmosphere to these books. Their culture is the polar opposite to the Sithi culture and so we see a very brutal, dark and unforgiving nature to their world, that is completely structured in a way that serves there queen Uttuk’ku. They really represent a large portion of the magic users of this world and really turn these books into a high magic fantasy compared to its MST. It does have that traditional feel to the magic system as it did before and the mystery surrounding it really suits the series so well. Towards the end of the book we’re guided towards the history of the Tinukeda’ya which grows in importance the further we go into the series. You will have known them from MST as the Niskies and the Dwarrows. In this duology you understand that they too have a huge part in what’s to come in the final conclusion of this story. So despite finishing everything that has been released thus far, there is still so much more to know about this world. I can’t wait to find out more in The Navigators Children, which will be realeased in 2022.

Its a huge Duology. Is there a big pay off ?

Heading towards the ending I didn’t expect that it was going to be as impactful as it was given that these are the middle books of a huge series and it’s not something I expected. I can tell you that the intrigue leading up to the dramatic conclusion was earth shattering. The pacing and the general execution a series of this size really has meant that in no way was it a slog to read. The way that Williams has sets up the final leg of this series is perfect. It leaves you with the impression that what’s to come is going to be magnificent! I just think that after all this time and given that Tad Williams is better than he’s ever been, I cannot even imagine how amazing The Navigators Children will be !! I’m more than confident that we will get an equally satisfying ending as we did with Green Angel Tower, perhaps better… Much better, which totally melts my mind.

My final thoughts….

This was quoted as being one of the seminal works of modern Epic Fantasy and in my opinion this installment is another glowing example of why Tad Williams is one of the most respected Epic fantasy writers working today. I was so excited to return to Osten Ard after becoming obsessed with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and i cannot emphasize how satisfied i was with The Last King of Osten Ard. I think fans that have read MST will not regret returning Osten Ard and will be as excited as I am for what’s to come. Everything that has come before has convinced me that this series when completed will be revered as one of the definitive works of epic fantasy ever to hit the shelves. It is totally captivating and I consider it to be a stand out series that towers over most epic fantasy from that era . Tad Williams is without doubt amongst my favourite authors within the fantasy genre and has managed to improve on something that I all ready considered to be near perfect.



Outpost by W. Michael Gear

Today I bring you some Science Fiction; Outpost by W. Michael Gear is book 1 of the Donovan Trilogy. I have some mixed feelings as I read/listened to it and as I write this. I’m glad I don’t rate books because this one would be tough. Let’s just jump into A rundown of the synopsis. In the future humans live in a corporate run solar system, but this book takes place on a colonized far-off alien world named Donovan. Unfortunately, after around 23 years after humans set foot here, starships have been vanishing after going there. This left colonists alone to create their own society where our main protagonist Talina Perez is one of the leaders. Seven years after the first ship vanished A corporate vessel has finally made it there again; only to find a colony that is supposed to have their rigid rules and regulations along with the corporate supervisor all gone. This vessel is led by corporate Supervisor Kalico Aguila, a up and comer in the corporate world. The ship also has a Captain of the Marines Max Taggert. There’s another major player too, but we will get there. I will however quote the final paragraph of the synopsis that hooked me into giving this one a try along with the cool cover you see above.

“Just as matters spiral out of control, a ghost ship, the Freelander, appears in orbit. Missing for two years, she arrives with a crew dead of old age, and reeks of a bizarre death-cult ritual that deters any ship from attempting a return journey. And in the meantime, a brutal killer is stalking all of them, for Donovan plays its own complex and deadly game. The secrets of which are hidden in Talina Perez’s very blood.”

So, here I go to do my best in dissecting how I feel about this book. What Gear does brilliantly is create a new alien planet with its own unique biome. This planet is very predatory. Humans are not at the top of this world even being there for around thirty years already. They still have much to learn even by the end of this book. Gear makes this planet feel alien and unique. We also get a great sense of how the main earth solar system operates as well even though we never go there. It’s kind of like a corporate run resource-based economy, but people do earn credits. Though people have no understanding of property ownership outside of Donovan now. No poverty or hunger, but a corporation decides on work contracts and how resources are dispersed. World/universe building is top notch.

Long range space travel is also quite fascinating. In Gear’s universe long range vessels must rely on artificial intelligence to invert space. The issue is that no one knows where the vessel actually goes when this happens and there’s a 20% chance the ship may never be heard from again. The fact this dropped to 100% chance going to Donovan for 7 years until Kalico’s ship arrives is of great concern. It was assumed the ships would be at Donovan taken over by a hostile colony force, but alas that is not the case. Those ships are just missing. The colonists welcome Kalico and Max with no violence.

There are two big mysteries that are the most interesting throughout and unfortunately didn’t give me enough in this book. There’s an alien creature on the planet that seems animal like but displays higher cognitive functions. It also seems to be able to bond with humans in a way and they decide what humans they kill or leave alone; mysterious. We also have a ship that was only missing for 6 months show up with a crew that died long ago of old age and created a death cult on board. These mysteries are why I stuck through this story until the end but left unsatisfied. I need more investigation into these mysteries if you wish to sink the hooks into me, so I pick up book 2 right away. I may someday, but not anytime soon.

The characters have interesting and strong personalities. I think Kalico and Talina were the best from start to finish. Max has quite the journey that felt pretty straightforward but made sense. Now my least favorite character PoV is Dan Wirth. This guy is a textbook archetype psychopath. He is a boring character who talks crudely of women. He’s a misogynist looking to manipulate people to become powerful on this new frontier. Dan is also not good at even hiding this for long stretches of time. He will tell you how great he is, but it is not shown. He exposes himself quite easily. Dan brings frustration to the story, but nothing interesting. What he does bring is a lot of obnoxious language and crude thoughts. He works hard to makes manipulative plans others can see through, but that no one tries hard to stop. Couldn’t stand his PoVs. There are other characters in the series that are interesting which does help deal with having Dan round, but he gets far too much page time.

This brings me to another huge distraction in the book. Grown adults on a hostile planet trying to kill them and a ghost ship above the planet, but there’s constant reminder of how sexual attractive other characters are to them. Men and women alike need to take some cold showers in this book. I don’t need a constant reminder of sexually desirable characteristics all the time. I don’t have an issue with sex and hormones in books, but it sometimes felt like it was written from the perspective of a horny high schooler. Show sexual interest through flirtation and actions instead of constant thoughts of sexual appeal of others. Gear does this at other times as well; tells instead of shows. His prose is way above average for a science fiction book, just not always used to enhance the readers experience. I do want to give a shout out to the Audible narrator, Alyssa Bresnahan . She was brilliant.

Overall, the world building, science, and mysteries are captivating. Seeing humans work hard to survive on the frontier of space travel is always interesting. The story just gets bogged down with less interesting nonsense and PoV. I just want to know more about this planet Donovan and what is happening when ships invert space in this system. What we have is a quintessential mixed bag of a story in my opinion.


Shepherds: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week I dived into Shepherds, by J. Drew Brumbaugh. It’s a near-ish-future aquatic sci-fi so that’s the level I’m at with the whole ‘dived in’ thing. I’m not even sorry.

This was a really interesting and suspenseful action drama, let down by one tiny thing that I think would probably be pretty easy to write out of the story or otherwise minimise. The author is just a little bit too keen on describing the female characters. Specifically, their boobies.

Now look, I like boobies. So do a lot of readers. All up and down the gender and sexuality spectrum, boobies are a thing that unite an awful lot of us. Boobies are great.

Just … you know.

Anyway, if it was just the hopeless sleazy hapless villain Captain Poddington who was obsessed, that would be one thing, but it was fairly widespread. That being said, it was a really small and fixable thing, and probably also down to personal taste as well, so let’s move on. It certainly didn’t spoil the story for me.

I immediately loved that the male protagonist was a Finnish guy. No idea where it came from (Brumbaugh appears to be from the US), but Toivo was repressed, melancholy, fatalistic and deeply conflicted about his feelings regarding Russians. It’s written with knowledge. Toivo is a great, tragic, triumphant protagonist. And his boat being named Sisu is just perfect.

I know I said we were moving on but this meme demanded to be included.

Anyway, what the villains of the story lack in complexity and relatability, they more than make up for in being giant shitbags who keep you turning the page and angry-reading about until they finally get their comeuppance. The world of the late 21st Century is well-realised and (depressingly) all too plausible. The developments, in the ecology and fisheries and sociocultural / bio-science issues … all really nice. Subtle, and not infodumped too extensively, but that gives it an intimate feel. Like the Pacific ocean isn’t all that big, really (when, you know, by the end of the 21st Century if anything it’s probably going to be even bigger than it is now).

The dolphin sub-plot is nice, understated and clever, not overblown and somehow not silly despite the fact that it lands somewhere between Flipper and Seaquest DSV. The revelation of the deep history and mythos of the dolphin species, as well as their ‘religion’, was really interesting. Their use, as scouts and helpers, swung between extremely effective and kinda pointless, but it was far more often the former.

The action kept the pages turning, the ending was darn exciting, and the human drama was refreshingly innocent. People are people, no matter whether they have webbed fingers or are Russian!

I think we can all learn something from that.

Sex-o-meter

A couple of raunchy old sex scenes in this one, and an awful lot of male gaze, for better or worse … but for all that, I think the emotional connections between the characters were more important than the physical ones – and that came through in the story. One Nemo and eight hundred and fifty assorted Wendy Juniors and Marlon Juniors out of a possible mass shoal spawning that turns the ocean to cold chowder with its explosive, instinct-driven passion.

Gore-o-meter

Shepherds boasts some brutal murders, but what hit hardest for me was the hate behind a lot of the killing, the fear of the alien, and of course the senseless butchery-for-profit of the sweet and Douglas-Adamsian dolphins (the main difference being these ones didn’t fuck off when Earth was about to be destroyed). It was a gut punch every time. It just … wasn’t all that gory. Let’s give it two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

It all hung together quite nicely, the genetic engineering and the cultural and religious backlash against it, the future of human farming and drug-running and corporate greed and all the rest of it. Not really much in the way of WTF at all, I was just left reading about a world with a history I wanted to learn more of. I’ll award this one 17% of a Kyle MacLachlan out of a possible David Lynch production.

My Final Verdict

Shepherds was interesting to read and while a lot of its characters could have used a bit more rounding out, I cared about them and was happy with how it all went. I’ll give it a very solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, although I would have been inclined to give it three-and-a-half if I could. Good stuff!


Blackflame: Book 3 of The Cradle Series

Who else has kids and adjusting to the school year along with their extracurricular activities? Cause I have been off kilter in trying to get back into balance. I’m getting close though so I thought I would drop a quick review on the Cradle series by Will Wight. So far there are ten books out. If you want to see what I had to say about the first two books, then go HERE. This will be a continuation on my journey with book 3, Blackflame.

Will Wight has drawn me further into his world with this entry. I feel extremely invested in Lindon, Yerin, Eithan, and now A giant dragon turtle as well. You’re probably either saying yes Orthos is awesome or what the hell are you talking about Will!? I don’t want to spoil too much, but I never knew I needed a giant black flame spewing Giant Turtle in my life until now. Orthos is a new animal companion that’s not just powerful, but talks and has an attitude. It is the most original animal character I have encountered. Its absurdly brilliant in the context of this story. If you do the audio book, the narrator is perfect in how a giant dragon turtle should sound. So yah.

We last left Lindon with quite the predicament. Our boy needs to level up quickly. Luckily or unluckily for him he has Underlord Eithan Aurelius to push him beyond his limits. Lindon of course still has my favorite character Yerin by his side. She’ still deadly, smart, and looking out for our boy Lindon. Eithan brings our characters to the city of Serpent’s Grave within the Blackflame Empire. Serpent’s Grave is literally built in a grave of Dragons using their skeletons as buildings. It’s as awesome as it sounds! I promise. The Blackflame Empire is of course named from the now extinct Blackflame technique, a path of the sacred arts used by Dragons and the human rulers who came after them. So….you know, nothing crazy.

What I love about Will Wight is his complete dedication to his magic system and fleshing it out. It may be the most intricate system I have encountered in fantasy. I feel like if we had the sacred arts in this world, that I would have an idea of how to use it. It’s fascinating to see characters really work out how to better themselves in the rules of the magic system Wight developed. Of course, nothing is easy for our protagonists. Yerin is dealing with her own issues of trying to become better in her path but can’t seem to let go of her Master. Lindon is trying to figure out what path in the sacred arts to follow in order to become as powerful as possible. He of course got a late start in life thanks to his backwards community. What path should Lindon follow? It’s quite the mystery where this could go…nothing dangerous, I’m sure!!

I really enjoyed this book. It started to further develop Lindon from a more passive personality to really push his journey to the next level. It also builds up Yerin’s struggles and fleshes out her character development. They go through quite the trials in this to build up Lindon and help Yerin overcome some of her emotional blocks to better herself. We also get to know Eithan more. He’s a fascinating character with quite the mischievous bravado. Its hard to really pin down his motives in this book, but wow does he impress as the story unfolds until the end. I mean how often can a character make a broom and scissors seems deadly? Do not make Eithan take out the broom, its no joke. There are great battle sequences in this book.

The great thing about this series is the books are shorter compared to many long series so you can jump in and out of this world whenever you want without having to devote a lot of time into it. If you love magic systems, slow burn world building, and characters who need to struggle in order to become more powerful, then continue on this journey. I’m having a fun time as Wight brings us along on a journey to the unknown. Stay tuned as I report my thoughts until I catch up to book 10.


Silicon Override: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


My latest read was Silicon Override, by Shawn Ketcherside. Let’s take a look, shall we?

This action-packed techno thriller started in a fairly muted way, with a nice buildup of sympathetic and relatable characters (Chase and Abbey, and arguably Doctor Edwards who I immediately pictured as Sigourney Weaver and to be honest that was a difficult one to shake so I just went with it). Maybe a bit more of a hook is needed to pull the reader in. If you’re going to have a Jurassic Park-style Hammond-video intro that the protagonist doesn’t listen to, then make either the information in the video or the protagonist not listening to it the main point of the chapter. And if you go with the latter, the protagonist needs to do something else interesting, like eat a bunch of sunflower seeds and spit the husks all over the exposition-giver.

What am I talking about?

Well, Chase has a backstory and it’s important to the narrative, but at the point we were just starting out I had to wonder why he had worked so desperately to get in on the ArcSIS project and was so desperate to work there (in ‘app development’, which … okay I’ll get to that), but then so aggressively refused to take part in viewing the introductory video, or any kind of preparation for the job, or the orientation even though he was being given a personal orientation tour and assistance by the female protagonist he was definitely kind of super into at first sight, or … well, any of it. Just didn’t make sense to me why Chase’s motivations and actions were so unclear and he was going into ArcSIS with such a vague yet churlish yet super-keen yet meh attitude. That did fold kind of nicely into his ultimate fate and his lack of an emotional aura (I’ll get to that too), though. So, okay.

Also, I’m afraid I completely missed what ‘ArcSIS’ stood for or meant. It’s a cool name and stuff but I somehow managed to not see it expanded anywhere. I’m pretty sure that’s on me, though.

ArcSIS is a little city under the sea, a technological wonderland isolated from the world. The potential of its construction and setup is unlimited. The things all the scientists who live there could be doing is very exciting. And the inclusion of all the necessary behind-the-scenes people (and making them into main characters) was really great the more I think about it. Those people are necessary, and often forgotten, and you can tell that Ketcherside gets that. It could have been … okay, stay with me on this.

You know how, in Gremlins 2, there was this high-tech self-sustaining smart tower with a bunch of office grunts but then also a freaky lab run by Christopher Lee where they were doing, just, tons of weird shit? This was that, only it was also the ocean lab in Deep Blue Sea.

So, as tradition demands in such a setting, a bunch of gung-ho mercenaries go full Dennis Nedry on that shit and everything goes to Hell in a handbasket. Their appearance and interaction with Sigourney Weaver, and everything that happens with them, is weird but oddly readable nonsense. I had fun.

Should Chase have sat down at some point and explained clearly why he wanted to work in app development in this incredible sci-fi lab? Maybe. Should Doctor Edwards have explained why Chase needed to be reassigned to some kind of management role? Sure. Should Abbey … okay, you know what? No notes on Abbey, she was great. Her weird superpower was perhaps somewhat surplus to requirements, but damn it, it was interesting.

I loved that, for a while there, it seemed like the day was going to be saved by the junior analyst grunt who was actually reading the boring data and double-checking figures and actually spotted a catastrophic problem. That was a cool little side / intro drama and definitely made me like Abbey way more than Chase.

I was less fond of the fact that, considering the fact that this was an undersea super-lab, very little of the story seemed to focus on the fact that they were under the ocean. I’m not saying there had to be a genetically engineered hyper-intelligent security octopus (although there objectively should have been), but the main point was that they had no easy way to get to the outside world or communicate with anyone, and that could have been done underground, or in space, or in Clamp Tower in the middle of New York City. The ocean needs to be a character in an undersea sci-fi setup.

As I was reading this story, I thought to myself that it definitely wouldn’t be out of place in a lineup of TV shows and movies where there are intricately-set-up and dangerous settings, lots of dudes with guns, and a gross but unique zombie outbreak scenario. There are good examples and bad examples of such adaptations, but Sigourney Weaver would definitely have to carry any TV show or movie that got made out of this one. I’d still watch the shit out of it, though.

Sex-o-meter

The male and female protagonist have an immediate thing for each other and eventually share a tender kiss. The beefy head of security is doinking the male protagonist’s mum off-page. I award Silicon Override one very small piano player and accompanying musical instrument out of a possible Carry On movie.

Gore-o-meter

The gore wins the day in this one, even if it wasn’t too explicitly written. Lots of firefights and cold-blooded executions, tons of zombie violence. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for Silicon Override.

WTF-o-meter

The phrases you’re kidding / joking, and you can’t be serious, were used just a little too regularly and at a certain point I started to get a funny surreal jolt every time a character said it. At no point in the story was shit not serious, so why anyone would be joking … I know it’s a figure of speech but it’s – anyway. I also liked the fact that different people were using different terms – Trax, Initialized – instead of zombie. Which nobody seemed to even lampshade as a term they could be using (except one time, someone throws the z-word, but that’s it). Also out of nowhere they decided the group noun for the zombies was pod, which was at least sort of aquatic even if it was the only thing that was. Adrian’s increasingly cataclysmic inability to take responsibility for his own actions was hysterical. And the cyber-sphere and AI point of view stuff was fascinatingly imaginative. I’ll give this a Lawnmower Man movie out of a possible Lawnmower Man Stephen King short story. That is, very close to one another in WTF terms, but on inspection nothing alike in any way.

My Final Verdict

When you decide to combine mundane-conflict office narratives, a mother-son drama, an undersea lab getting overthrown by mercenaries, a greedy multinational corporation with dark motives, a bunch of utopia-seeking scientists, a zombie outbreak with a nanocyte twist, a junior analyst who can see people’s emotions and a lovable-nerd IT Guy plucky comic relief, that’s definitely a choice. With so much going on, the result was at once page-turning and cacophonous. I’ve got to give Silicon Override two and a half stars, which I’ll bump to three for the Amazon and Goodreads scale for the sake of the endearing banter between Chase and Rider.


The Awakening: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


My latest #SPSFC book was The Awakening, by Adair Hart. Book 1 of the Evaran Chronicles.

Man, where to start? At the beginning, I guess. And bear with me because this doesn’t sound great but it’s crucial to remind you that it all works.

This book opens hard, and it doesn’t apologise for it. There’s a space thug named Jerzan Graduul, there’s Dalruns and Bilaxians and Greers, oh my! There’s a whole lot of information all at once – not so much an info dump as an info tommy gunning – and there’s a space anomaly, and…

And then, in a switchover that made me wonder if we were about to read the novel equivalent of Critters (or even worse [better?], Alien vs. Predator), we were whisked away to a sleepy little college campus on more-or-less-present-day Earth, where we meet mild-mannered Dr. Snowden and his niece Emily. Only it turns out they’re in a simulation of Earth after they were abducted by aliens, and the simulation is breaking down, and they’re pulled out of it and back into crazy over-the-top space by a mysterious alien named Evaran. As in Book 1 of the Evaran Chronicles Evaran.

Then, of course, we skip across to meet another couple of humans who were abducted and are in the same situation as Emily and Dr. Snowden. Including the real hero here:

I’m talking about Jay Beerman.

This army vet truck driver introduces himself to the reader by shitting his actual pants, pulling over at a truck stop to wash the clinkers off, then responds to the deactivation of the alien abduction simulation and the encroaching dark of utter existential negation by balling up his fists and shouting, “Well c’mon then, you pussy-ass darkness!”

Needless to say, I was smitten. Jay Beerman, the hero we deserve.

This book has a bit of everything. Alien monsters, cool tech, time travel and reality-hopping and worldbuilding on an incredible scale, and Jay Beerman. We circle back around to the characters from the prologue after a few chapters of complete, relentless immersion and the result is a very satisfying ohhhh, now I get what’s going on here. You suddenly see Evaran in a new light, and as the story fills out it is just very cool. I never did quite get the CrittersThe Last Starfighter imagery out of my head, even when I realised this was really more like the R-rated Doctor Who we could have gotten but we got Torchwood instead (and Torchwood was fine, I guess, but – and this is important – it didn’t have Jay Beerman in it so fuck Torchwood), but that’s okay. It’s all good.

You get a distinct, if a little hackneyed-slaver-pirate, sense of menace from the mercenaries, and the rest of the characters are nicely relatable and you definitely get invested in their fates. Oh, and the universal translator, with its “nearest available colloquialism” function? Nothing short of brilliant. It provides a perfect explanation for dialogue that might otherwise pull the reader out of the story. All in all this was a really enjoyable read.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

Sex-o-meter

The space mercenaries were a bit on the rapey side, but it was mostly talk and soliloquy – there was not really any sex in the story itself. Which is good, because the gang-rape of lesbian character trope is pretty on the nose. I mean, rape of any kind but you know. Like I said elsewhere, I’m saving up for some grimdark here and I know what comes with that territory so I’m toughening up. Anyway, the mercenaries were gross but it was fine (as long as you’re “okay” with reading that sort of thing). Let’s give this story a single dried-out scrap of melon rind out of a possible five melons of assorted firmness and pulpiness, with a variety of different-sized and -shaped holes cut in them.

Gore-o-meter

Plenty of gore, lots of death and dismemberment and gross alien killing methods, severed limbs and stinky decomposing corpses. I was mildly disappointed the worm pit didn’t get used for one of the bad guys but I’ll cope. Can’t ask for much more than this without the gore becoming the point of the story, so nicely done. I’ll award The Awakening four flesh-gobbets out of five.

WTF-o-meter

The Farethedan and the Matter Mages, the timelines and alternate realities and the different variants of people, all of it, it’s very big and very cool and very WTF. Evaran fixes things in some cases but doesn’t undo or prevent disasters (like the massacre of Neoparene) … I wondered why that was, but the explanation holds up. We veered a little bit derivative particularly towards the end, with the sonic screwdriver and the TARDIS stuff Evaran was working with, but considering some of the incredible revelations Hart springs on us in the closing chapters of the book, I’m going to allow it. And the similarities are earned. Evaran’s couple of closing lines to the main bad guy are just brilliant, and just serve to add a juicy WTF cherry to the top of the WTF sundae. Which is what I will give this story, out of a possible same thing but with some sprinkles. And honestly, I don’t care for sprinkles.

My Final Verdict

The Awakening could use a bit more polish, there are still some parts that read more clumsily than others and Hart has some quirks that take a bit of getting used to. I admire the fact that this was a second edition and it was clear that a lot of issues had been patched up and re-worked and new scenes added. The improvement is somehow noticeable even without having seen the first edition. This story concludes with a nice lesson about not judging people on first impressions, and showing your emotions, but it doesn’t get preachy. The whole thing, I want more. And there’s a ton of these books, so it’s an absolute win! I can only assume Jay Beerman will continue to…

*Word-searches for Jay through the Evaran Chronicles product pages*

Aw.

Anyway, four stars for The Awakening. Great stuff!


Eos: An Edpool Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Oh hi there. Today I’ve mostly been reading Eos, by Jen Guberman.

I’m torn when it comes to characterising this book as a young adult dystopian sci-fi in the vein of Maze Runner and The Hunger Games, but those were the stories I was reminded of as I was reading. That’s just a risk of this subgenre, and I know it will read as a point in favour to some and a point against to others. Personally, even though I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of young adult dystopian sci-fi, it’s solid entertainment and Eos Dawn can easily stand next to Katniss Whatsherface without feeling self-conscious.

And just for the record, I didn’t hate the Hunger Games series as I read it. It was good escapist fun and said some interesting things about humanity. Eos, in my opinion, might say even more (potentially) – and that’s pretty darn cool. I’d watch movies of this, and I’d definitely snoot about how I read the book first, and the book is better. Also I read it before it was cool.

Anyway, let’s get into the meat a bit more.

Eos tells the story of a post-cataclysmic-war world where the known population is restricted to a handful of cities because of the radiation and other devastation. Travel between cities is strictly controlled, and society frighteningly regulated. Any threats to this regulated existence, from violent crime to just kind of being a sassmouth, are neatly removed and placed in “exile towns” according to their category of non-conformity. This is a rather cool concept and makes for a nice self-contained story map (literally) with lots of potential for expansion. And the names of the exile towns are clever.

Eos Dawn is, at least on initial impression, an extraordinarily gullible and naïve thief who puts up with people being shits to her at least three more times than she should at the outset. And she’s given one, what, half-hour job to do each day and somehow forgets to do it after two days? Fuck me. But here’s the thing: that’s a very human and relatable set of failings (and it doesn’t really matter, since we don’t get bogged down in that bullshit pseudo-normal nine-to-five thing anyway). I’m just saying, it’s not hard to water a garden if that’s the one thing you have to do the entire day. I just – fine. Bygones. Moving on.

Eos isn’t your typical hero, who after an obligatory period of angst immediately sets about righting wrongs and taking names. No, Eos is a big dumb-dumb who isn’t really great at anything, and even a couple of learning curves and a training montage later, she’s still getting herself needled with knockout drugs (which seem to be everywhere, but are we even surprised? This is an authoritarian Everybody Be Nice dystopia after all). Everything she does is kind of seat-of-the-pants and she doesn’t seem to get bitter and broody about it. She just sighs and throws up her hands and goes you see what I have to deal with here? Her quest isn’t for justice and unity or anything else. It just seems like something she’s doing because it’s slightly more interesting than watering the goddamn – fine.

Yeah, I thought it was a fun read. There are some clumsy segments of dialogue and inserted thought-statements explaining what is going on in the story – they looked to be added in to clarify what had just happened in case the reader missed it, and in some cases they’re necessary because the scene was misleading, and in some cases they’re not necessary and serve to pull the reader out of the moment … but none of it ultimately interferes with the simple and highly imaginative narrative and setting.

Sure, there’s a few issues with the world Guberman has created here. It all seems very flimsy and prone to security breaches, and with all the apparent malcontents and people with … let’s be generous and call them skills … outside in the exile towns, it’s hard to believe they haven’t just busted out and overthrown the cities before now. Maybe the second and third books in the trilogy go into more detail about this. The nature of the war that destroyed everything is also unexplored, but that’s not a deal-breaker. We only need to know it happened. It wiped out things like birds and rabbits, but the hunting teams still bring in game … I’m not certain about that, but eh. It all works. The Fabian set-up and pay-off, once we get to it, seemed a little too miraculous to me. Some more earning of that coincidence would have been nice, but the ultimate ending of that thread helped me get over it.

And what’s with the daggers? They definitely mean something and we need to know.

As I said, this is the first book in a trilogy – it had a nice cliffhanger ending, leaving the reader all too ready to one-click purchase the next instalment for the ol’ kindle, but did not leave the first book wanting for a proper beginning, middle and end. I like the symmetry of the clickclick storytelling device.

So what else have we got?

Sex-o-meter

Solid and rather innocent young adult fare, barring the occasional assault-and-near-rape one should probably expect when detailing a journey through dystopian penal settlements populated almost entirely by specific types of violent criminals. Hey, at least there wasn’t a Fiddlerville[1]. I award Eos twelve and a half shades of grey out of a possible you know the fuck how many shades don’t make me say it.

Gore-o-meter

Not much violence in this story – a throat-slashing, a gut-stabbing and a head-on-floor bashing, along with some random fights and stuff … okay I guess it had its share of gore but I’m aware that we probably have some grimdark still to come in this contest so I’m leaving myself space to expand. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

How did this whole world happen? What was the nature of the war and is there anything left outside the (apparently) inhospitable nuclear wastelands? How are they feeding people now that Eos stopped watering the carrots (no I will not let this go)? How did they even start with the truck routes and lockup system and where are the rations coming from? Are they people? Is the mystery meat people? Why all the fuss over a key that can open stuff that can generally be opened in other ways? What are we missing from this story’s past? There’s a lot of WTF here, to be sure, but it’s mostly unanswered-questions WTF rather than the higher-grade uncut surreal WTF I need in my veins. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a polar bear dressed up as The Fonz out of a possible The Fonz dressed up as a polar bear.

My Final Verdict

Eos was an enjoyable read and was a great introduction to a fascinating and troubling world where society comes at the cost of all the things that make society robust and vibrant (but I mean, yeah, if people could stop stealing and killing, that’d be nice). A little more exploration of the different interwoven threads – the thieves who steal out of poverty and oppression, the noise polluters who are just speaking out against injustice, the privileged joy-riders who just got kicked out because therapy is hard – might have been nice to see, but there’s a lot going on under the surface. I remain uncertain just how much of a video game MacGuffin the assorted keys and boxes and the final goal were, but it was fun to watch it unfold. Solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


 

[1] For … people who play the violin badly. What? What did you think I was going to suggest? Yeesh.


“By the maiden, Mother and Hag!” A review of the Bone Ships by R J Barker

Welcome to my first review here at The Book in Hand!  Westu hal, I am delighted to be here contributing reviews to this amazing blog, it’s an honour to be here helping this blog grow.  I do hope that you are staying safe and well and reading something awesome as well.

I am bringing a review to you today of an amazing book, it was easily one of the best opening books of a trilogy that I have ever read. This is my review of The Boneships by R.J Barker and by the Maiden, Mother and Hag this is why you should read it.

First of all, check out the premise.

The Premise

TWO NATIONS AT WAR. A PRIZE BEYOND COMPARE.

For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war.

The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.

Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

The Review

This is a great story, it takes a hold of you in the first few pages and this is testament to R J’s flowing writing style. It is easy to read and wonderfully descriptive, and immerses you in this brutal world.  The story begins with one Joron Twiner, Shipwife (Captain) of the Tide Child being confronted by “Lucky” Meas Gilbryn and a changing of Hats happens.  Hats are an important symbol in this world as you will discover, this event is an important one for the story as well.

Meas is about to take over “Tide Child” a black ship of the Hundred Isles fleet.  Black ships are ships of the dead, those who serve aboard are sentenced for crimes I would rather not mention here, needless to say it is not a happy place to be.  As the book progressed I began to see the ship as home, it was very much a home for the crew and each battle fought they came more and more together.

The world that R J has created is wonderful as well, a brutal and unforgiving world though which is sharply divided by birth.  Let R J take you around this world, a brilliant example of secondary creation with it’s own creation myth (I loved this), religion (the Maiden, Mother and Hag) and ways of life. One of the most unique aspects ( I know I should have mentioned this before) are the ships, the tall ships, the bone ships.  Carved from the bones of dragons, the hundred isles fleet of this world “fly the ocean” on great Bones Ships in their war against the Gaunt Islands.

An issue that R J brings into the book is that of class, and how sharply divided the Hundred Isles is.  It is very simple, your class is determined by birth, if you are born okay and your mother does not die in this world, you join the “Bern”, if you are not or your mother dies then you join the “Berncast”.  R.J addresses very sharply in the book, it plays a key aspect and comes to the fore when the “Tide Child” and it’s crew are given a mission of great importance to the Hundred Isles.

You are introduced to many characters, but my favourites were Joron Twiner and Meas Gilbryn.  Joron is an interesting character, he is not sure of his place in the world but gradually finds he has a place and a role.  Meas Gilbryn is charismatic and she will draw you to her, her determination to succeed against the odds is an endearing factor to both the reader and her crew.  Other characters such as Farys, Barlay and Solem Mufffaz will greet you, tell you their stories and hopefully like me, draw you in.  R J really does write some wonderful characters, charismatic, determined, fearful and with shameful and storied pasts they are all here.

Putting it simply, I loved this book, as soon as I finished the first chapter I became immersed in this world and it really rewarded me as a reader.  As a fantasy book, the fantasy is there in the world as it’s a secondary created world, but be prepared to meet some of the stranger creatures of this world, The Guilame, those who control the wind.  

This really was a great book, one of my best reads of the year so far and a book and a series that I really recommend that you read.  R J really is a writer to watch, I loved his first trilogy and this trilogy could be something special with it’s wonderfully created world, intriguing and charismatic characters and glorious sea battles because those scenes (for me) are extra special.

By the Maiden, Mother and Hag, this is why you should read “The Bone Ships” by R J Barker, one of the best reads of the year for me, a book I highly recommend and an excellent start to a trilogy!  I couldn’t wait for book 2!

All that remains is for me to say westul hal, stay safe and enjoy what you are reading.