Dead Star: 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.


Next up on the SPSFC semi-finals roster for Team Space Lasagna was Dead Star, The Triple Stars Book 1, by Simon Kewin.

From my initial chuckle about the Omnians – do they have pamphlets? They’d better have pamphlets! – I was drawn into this story by the sheer scale of it. This is the sort of thing I like. We’re treated to a great opening with a nice layer of deep-history space gospel and a side order of alien megaengineering, an intriguing and gut-wrenching introduction to our protagonist with a sprinkling of moral dilemma about forcing life on someone who wants to die in the moment … and then it’s off at breakneck speed into a series of adventures across (and in some cases behind) interstellar space.

Selene is the last surviving inhabitant of Maes Far, a planet of bucolic innocents that was destroyed by evil space zealots the Concordance by way of a massive shroud set up between Maes Far and its sun, cruelly strangling all life in the darkness and the cold.

“What’s that? It’s too dark to read the Big Book of Omn? Well you should have thought of that before refusing to read the Big Book of Omn! Bwaaahahahahaha…”
– Omn, probably

The Concordance, a strange and terrifying cult who went to the centre of the galaxy and found Omn there, are a constant and oppressive presence throughout the story. Their goals are mysterious … but “your soul goes through a wormhole when you die and depending on whether you’re good or evil the wormhole deposits you in Heaven or Hell, and this is all taking a bit too long so we’re just going to go ahead and kill everyone now and let Omn sort them out,” as far as sci-fi religious premises go, is a fucking banger.

Oh, and along with Omn they also found a big stash of doomsday weapons and other tech, to help Phase Two happen faster. Anyway, think “the Ori from the latter seasons of Stargate SG-1, only less goofy” and you won’t be too far off.

Selene barely manages to survive the death of her homeworld, with the help of an old family friend named Ondo who literally rebuilds her – turning her into a cybernetically-augmented whup-ass can-opening machine.

Ondo has many tools at his disposal in his secret hollowed-out asteroid, and he uses a lot of them to info-dump.

Now don’t misunderstand me when I say this – I know a lot of people get the wrong idea when I do. A lot of people also don’t like info-dumps, but they’re wrong. Info-dumps are good actually, and I will die on this hill but here’s the important thing: I will die on a hill made out of info.

I will always have time for an author who finds interesting and plot-appropriate ways to get the reader and the protagonist up to speed about what the stakes are, what the general situation is, and ideally also summarise what’s just happened a little bit so we can move on to the next action scene with confidence. I may be in a minority of readers and viewers who enjoy info-dumps for their own sake and in more or less any format – I’ve rambled about this before – but when it is done right, it should be more respected than it is. I feel it was done right in this story. These dumps were necessary, and every part of them was interesting. They’re good dumps.

The quest to understand and ultimately overthrow the Concordance seems insurmountable, and we only take the first little steps in this book, but there’s still a lot of ground covered. From the beautifully surreal superluminal physics to the massive scope of the galaxy and its zones, from its strange mythology of Omn and Morn to its fabled history of Coronade (the Lost Planet of Gold … okay it’s not that but that’s what I’m calling it for now), there is so much to enjoy. What is the sacred tally and the seventeen sevens? What were Ondo and Selene’s dad up to? What are the entities like the Warden, and who assembled its weird and mega-cool trove and the other dead zone mysteries? What about the Radiant Dragon and the Aether Dragon? What in the name of Omn’s perfectly-formed balls (hah!) is it all about?

Now, is it perfect? Well no, there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Some of the action and other plot elements felt a little slapped-together – although that definitely sounds harsher than I’d like. Let’s try again. There is a certain sense of … “oh yeah, I heard about this, we could go there,” to the story, and while it hangs together with the characters following a trail of clues and relics on their quest to discover the secrets of Coronade and the Concordance, it still made me go “huh” a couple of times. Ondo has a fascinating backstory and setup with his rebel asteroid and gear, but he inherited it from predecessor-rebels and seems unaware of a lot of it until the plot brings it forward. This is almost certainly by design and it can be explained away – Ondo is cautious, and has been alone for a long time, and new facts and gizmos are coming to light – but it is a little difficult to plot out and all. Look, I love to say it, but if anything it felt like Ondo should have info-dumped more at the start. I might have ended up being the only reader who went for it, but that lack of establishing knowledge is kind of what makes the story’s underwear visible in some of the later chapters.

Still, it’s absolutely forgivable and this was a really enjoyable story. Highly recommended! Let’s go to the meters, shall we?

Sex-o-meter

Dead Star includes one (1) sexy time, but it’s not particularly graphic – it’s sweet and nice, and provides a foundational shift in character and pace for Selene. One-half of a perfectly-formed Omnian space ball out of a possible three. Omn has three balls until book canon establishes otherwise, and I haven’t read the next books in the series – yet.

Gore-o-meter

Butchered kids, eradicated planets, and a reconstructive surgery that borders on mad scientist grotesque. Yep, this story has some stakes – not literal stakes with people impaled on them, but fuck it, might as well be. At the same time it’s not overdone, the anguish and death and loss handled well and not lingered over in a weird way. Four-and-a-half flesh gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

The entire big-picture and origin of the Triple Stars galactic civilisation is a solid block of WTF with ‘WTF’ carved into it by a sharpened WTF. I love it. The dead zones, particularly the cool chamber of pedestal-mounted alien wossnames, shows there is a lot here still to tell, a huge background that we’ve barely scratched, and a whole lot going on under the hood, and that’s exactly what I like to see in a story. A seventeen-minute Smeg ‘n’ the Heads Om solo out of a possible crypto-fascist bourgeoise tension sheet for Dead Star on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

With an amazing setting and villains, and protagonists you can’t help but root for (Selene’s traumas, and her trust / suspicion relationship with Ondo, is compelling and believable); some great tense space moments and exciting action sequences; and a grand cliffhanger  ending but also some closure to the book’s narrative that makes this satisfying on its own, Dead Star is another good ‘un. Do pick it up and take a look. I give it four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Iron Truth: 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.


Next on our semi-finalist roster for the SPSFC was Iron Truth, Book 1 (of 4) of the Primaterre, by S.A. Tholin.

Let me divert before I even start by saying that this book was unique in a lot of ways, but the most noticeable at first glance was its sheer size. This was an epic-fantasy-level chonker in sci-fi form. A unit among the slim and slinky space operas and dystopian spec fics. A real pagey boi.

And I loved it!

Yes, it was a job of work to read through. And I relished it. I would have relished it more, taken it slower, and delved right into the next one were it not for my other reading commitments. There are books where you can tell the word count is all padding, pointless description and messing around, but this wasn’t that. This was the big bastard book where the mass amounts to substance. It’s possible to provide a similar level (but I would argue not equal) of reality and granularity and foundation to a world in a smaller package, but I am all for the philosophy of here is my story. It’s fucking large. Get busy.

So, with that being said up front, the story itself was a whole lot of fun. When Joy, a noble but naïve would-be colonist in storage aboard a starship, is awakened to find her ship has crashed and over a hundred years has passed while her stasis pod lay in the wreck, she’s flung face-first into the deep end of a collapsing interstellar empire and more spiders than one could reasonably expect.

Nothing is what it seems and every new layer of complexity in the story brings everything that’s come before it into a new light.

It kept me turning the pages and while I wasn’t necessarily super-hooked by the opening, the immediate plot twists and dramatic development was so much fun. When you put a character out of time in the context of a hostile alien world, immediate immersion in what is essentially a post-apocalyptic frontier environment with Starship Troopers-esque[1] fascist autocracies behind the scenes … and then you throw in space marines of the Church of the Papal Mainframe … what you get is a whole lot of fun and I thoroughly recommend it.

My immediate guess was that the demons the Primaterre troops considered the great enemy of humanity were just part of the space marine training program – perhaps implanted memories for propaganda purposes. But there was way more to it than that, and there’s none of the neat-and-tidy classifying and resolving of plot points and mysteries that would be (to me at least) incredibly annoying in a story of this scope. No, things are not simple and what we end up with is a messed-up world that the reader struggles to understand just as Joy does. While we’ve been sheltered by an endless progression of simplified and homogenously-packaged narratives where arcs have endings and everything has a purpose, Joy was sheltered from reality by her brother. And we are all in for a rude awakening.

As the story went on, there were more and more layers, more and more details, and only the very skilled writing and very readable storytelling style kept it from becoming an overwhelming brick o’ words. Like I say, it’s possible for smaller books to achieve this but that sort of intricacy usually requires exponential complexity from the author and concentration from the reader. A big thumper can just lay it all out and let the audience become immersed. And that’s what Iron Truth did. Tholin told the story right, and did justice to its context.

From the deep dark history witnessed through an assortment of technology and storytelling techniques, to the quasi-religious concept of purity and the reverence with which the denizens of the Primaterre view Earth-born people … every part of this is stunning. Extra points, my Nordic associate, for slipping the Finnish Väinämöinen (okay, Tholin wrote Vainamoinen, needs the correct letters but I’ll let it pass) and the Kalevala into the story as planets and regions in the interstellar empire. Gave me a happy little Suomi mainittu feeling, and lent a real sense of human legacy to the future we see in the book.

Sex-o-meter

Tholin is tasteful and smart about it, but we know what the demons are doing when the really gut-wrenching grossness slides in and things go all Event Horizon. We know. Beyond those subtle but disturbing hints, some rapey Cato hillbillies and a sweet (dare I say, pure?) love affair between our two main protagonists, there’s a suitable amount of sauce on this 244,350-decker burger. Let’s award it a proper Swedish or Finnish sauna out of a possible that sauna from Goldeneye where Xenia Onatopp tries to crush James Bond between her thighs like a smarmy British walnut. It’s not actually a very high score, in case you were still uncertain about how saunas actually work. But it’s fine.

Gore-o-meter

The demons, especially once we start getting into their origins and possible explanations, are solid Firefly-reaver nasty. And don’t even get me started on the space marines and their combat injuries – and the injuries their armour preserves them through! That shit was haunting, and so well done. Add in some more classic body horror with ‘the red’ and a whole lot of gross spiders, and you end up with four-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five on the gore-o-meter.

WTF-o-meter

I enjoyed some of the more psychedelic inner journeys and confrontations in this story, even though I tend to roll my eyes and skim that stuff under normal circumstances. But all in all, there wasn’t a lot of WTF in this – so much as unexplained and unseen depths and details that are gradually revealed and explained. And while there is still a whole lot left untold by the end of this book, that’s what the rest of the books are for. I frankly don’t count a question I haven’t had answered yet as a WTF, so Iron Truth gets a great big pile of red lichen out of a possible … that Goldeneye sauna again? I don’t get it, but the point is there was plenty of mystery and intriguing construction here, but not much actual WTF.

My Final Verdict

I know I’ve listed and referenced a lot of ways in which elements of this story are reminiscent of sci-fi tropes and other creations, but there is nothing derivative in it. I only mentioned the things I was reminded of because I like them so much and was happy to see them so well handled in an interpretation this expansive and in-depth. Wonderful stuff. This was a grand story, on a worldbuilding scale you don’t often see in sci-fi. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale!

 


[1] The movie, not the book. Although the perpetual-war and other sociocultural elements of currency-according-to-contribution was cleverly similar.


Author Interview: G.M. Nair

Michael Duckett is fed up with his life. His job is a drag, and his roommate and best friend of fifteen years, Stephanie Dyer, is only making him more anxious with her lazy irresponsibility. Things continue to escalate when they face the threat of imminent eviction from their palatial 5th floor walk-up and find that someone has been plastering ads all over the city for their Detective Agency.

The only problem is: they don’t have one of those.

Despite their baffling levels of incompetence, Stephanie eagerly pursues this crazy scheme and drags Michael, kicking and screaming, into the fray. Stumbling upon a web of missing people curiously linked by a sexually audacious theoretical physicist and his experiments with the fabric of space-time, the two of them find that they are way out of their depth. But unless Michael and Stephanie can put their personal issues aside and patch up the hole they tore in the multi-verse, the concept of existence itself may, ironically, cease to exist.

You can find my review of Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hirehere. In the meantime, as part of the fabulous Escapist Book Tours (book your tour here) blog tour, here is my exclusive interview with the man himself.

I think the question everyone wants to ask, and I’m sorry for going in such a formulaic direction right off the bat, is how much variation between realities is required for sex with an alternate version of oneself to no longer count as masturbation, and how much variation between realities is required for sex with an alternate version of one’s spouse to begin to count as cheating? And as a follow-up question, how many versions of oneself and / or one’s spouse is it considered “fine” to accidentally explode due to one’s dampening unit coming off as a result of excessive lubricant use or insertion in orifi and / or crevici?

Yeah, this is a pretty boilerplate question, but what can I expect from such a hack journalist?

But I signed up for this, so fuck me, I guess?

Anyway, the answer is simple. As long as there’s genetic variation between the two alternate selves, it no longer counts as masturbation and, conversely, sex with an alternate, genetically distinct spouse counts as cheating. If the alternate universe merely changes circumstances/events and not the participants’ genes, it is masturbation. But, on the other hand, sex with the alternate spouse DOES still count as cheating, because while the genes of the spouse may not have changed, the circumstances (no matter how small) may have altered the spouse(s)’s personality, effectively making them a different person. This, of course, changes with respect to those couples who are in polyamorous or open relationships.

As for the explosion question, probably only one is acceptable, because afterwards the rest of the variants will avoid you because they know you don’t practice safe sex.

Next question.

Your bio says you have degrees in Aerospace Engineering and that you work as an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant, but I’ve read enough text produced by engineers to know you are clearly an impostor. What’s with that?

 

 

I never said I was a GOOD engineer. Next question!

 

 

 

 

On your website you have a standing offer to answer crazy questions using science (send mail to NairForceOne@gmail.com, put “[BACK OF THE ENVELOPE]” in your subject line). Have you ever encountered a question that was either too crazy, or too difficult, to publish? Or can “multiverse” basically cover every conceivable base and are you as amazed as I am that the scientific consensus hasn’t adopted it as the explanation for everything yet? It would, for example, have greatly simplified the recent pandemic.

To my great chagrin, I haven’t received very many questions for that column! So I’ve pretty much put out every single question that’s been posed to me. But, yes, ‘because multiverse’ could be an explanation for a great many things, if I were a HACK.

Next question.

 

 

You’ve been working on an epic space opera for a couple of decades. As someone who’s loved your Duckett & Dyer worldbuilding so far, “The Centre of All Things” sounded immediately exciting and tantalising. Care to tell us a little more? Have your recent triumphs inspired you and are we any closer to seeing your magnum opus in print? Or if you’ve already talked about this a whole bunch because we’re quite a long way down the tour list, can you tell us which performing artist should have been the fourth Beatle (YOU ALL KNOW WHICH ONE I’M REPLACING)?

The Centre of All Things? Oh man, you really did your homework. I guess you’re not as much of a hack as I’ve been telling everyone you are.

Wait, what-

But, you can actually see some of the first parts of The Centre of All Things out on the internet already. I cleaned up some of my older drafts and put the first few chapters of it up on Kindle’s serialized platform Vella. But I’ve since realized my laziness production schedule doesn’t really allow for frequent serialized updates, and I’m much better when I have a longer timeframe to put together a full book. I’m not sure when I’ll have the confidence to finalize my mrhollands opus, but hopefully before I die?

You can find Centre here, if you don’t mind working with the semi-beta Kindle Vella platform, along with Birds of a Feather Flock Forever, which is the beginnings of an urban fantasy with big Duckett & Dyer energy.

Also, Fatty Arbuckle.

Next. Question.

You’re part of a sketch group based in New York City and some of your comedy scripts are hilariously reminiscent and clearly inspired Duckett & Dyer. Have you had many opportunities to see your writing performed on stage, and how great would it be to see “Duckett & Dyer: Dirty Rotten Lyres: A Renaissance Faire Murder Mystery: The Musical!” on Broadway?

(Ben Brantley said it was basically “Galavant” meets “Bill & Ted.” And not in a good way. Caitlin Huston called it “the greatest atrocity ever put to Corvus Corax music.” Although I think she did mean that in a good way.)

I’ve had a good number of opportunities to see my work performed on stage. It’s always a mix of ‘thrilled to see actors performing my work’ and ‘upset that I think some of my dialogue could always be better’.

I’ve never been much of a Broadway guy, so a Duckett & Dyer Musical might be a hard sell. But a normal stage play, you might have my attention.

Next question?

Stephanie Dyer’s evolution from hilarious, infuriating agent of chaos to heart-wrenching best friend (still with quite a lot of chaos) is something I compared to a John Candy character arc. Since I don’t have a question about that and just wanted to congratulate you again on making me cry a bit while reading such a silly book, what’s your favourite John Candy movie and why is it “Cool Runnings”?

“Cool Runnings” is the quintessential heroes journey with an already lovable cast of misfits that the presence of the big JC just elevates into sports movie greatness.

I don’t usually like sports movies, but I like THAT sports movie.

Proxima Pregunta.

 

This week’s leg of the blog tour has brought you to Hatboy’s Hatstand up in Finland, and The Nerdy Nook which, I did some snooping and they’re based in Minnesota. Ignoring the fact that this is all happening electronically and none of us actually got off our butts and went anywhere and this is all utterly nonsensical and everything is futile, I think we’d all like to know what you packed in your a) imaginary steamer trunk and b) make-believe cabin baggage for the seventeen trips back and forth between the two locations that you pretend-completed in the course of this tour stop?

a) My trunk would be filled with stuffed animals, eggs, and letters from my sweetie.

b) My cabin baggage would be filled with a laptop, an e-reader (for books), a tablet (for comic books), and about 3 more eggs.

c) Next Question.

 

 

You have clearly decided to lean into the joyous existential preposterousness of Twitter rather than its potential for misinformation and anonymous mean-spiritedness. Would you care to justify that decision, or has this question just answered itself for you?

 

 

Honestly, I think I should be meaner.

Next fucking question.

 

 

 

 

Remember how people used to go places and meet other people? How much of that do / did you generally do in the before times, and aside from Finland (where you would stay in my garage with a word processor and no connection to the outside world of your own free will), where would you most like to travel if you’re into that sort of thing?

 

After I finished my Master’s in the before time, in the long long ago, I did the stereotypical American post college Eurotrip, and I enjoyed every minute of it. If I could live in a different city every day, I really would. And although my travelling was curtailed by work – aside from some pretty decent work trips – I really do miss the freedom of it.

But New Zealand is definitely at the top of my list for once this whole disease/war/political strife at home and abroad thing blows over.

Next question!

We see a lot of independent writers chipping away at their “WIP”s in the author community, as well as traditionally-published authors and folks who go for a blend of the two. Given that the preferred business model for most writers I’ve talked to is “who cares as long as each person on Earth buys at least three copies of my book and also Amazon makes a hundred-million-dollar adaptation out of it and everyone shouts about what a betrayal of the source material it is but I still get paid anyway,” what were your dreams going in vs. your dreams now, and do you have any words of wisdom for writers just starting out?

Honestly, I started out trying for trad pub, but had no qualms about going the indie pub route when it became clear that D&D was too niche for the standard market. I get it. All I’m really looking for is for people to read and enjoy my writing – as many or as few as that may be. Would I like to see D&D optioned for a streaming series? Absolutely. I think it really belongs there, but do I have any delusions of that actually happening? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I?

But at the end of the day, I think I just want to have a cult fandom spring up for Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire. And for that fandom to call themselves ‘Dickheads’.

As for advice to writers just starting out, it’s to really do it for the love of the game, because that’s what’s going to keep you going. I would also advise them to ask for the next question.

The phenomenon of books, plots or themes “not aging well” is something a lot of authors struggle with. Do you consider your stories to be a product of their time, or is the sheer scope and surreal nature of the science a bit of a coat of armour when it comes to creating something hopefully timeless?

 

 

Yes and no. The weird out there stuff will always remain weird out there stuff (hopefully), and I hope those parts of the stories give them an evergreen quality, but there’s certainly going to be pop-culture references and jokes that ‘date’ Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire and its sequels.

But in an effort to counteract that, Duckett & Dyer was already dated when it came out in 2019. It dates itself – because all the events in the book (and subsequent sequels) are stated to all take place between 2013 and 2016. I did that on purpose for two reasons:

  • This way, all the pop-culture references and jokes are couched in a specific, now historical time, effectively making D&D a ‘period piece’ – and thus evergreen by the nature of depicting the past purposefully.
  • A bunch of shit happened in 2016 and has been happening since that’s basically ruined the world, and I didn’t want the hopeful, fun world of Duckett & Dyer to be tarnished by the terribleness of our present reality.

Last question.

I’d like to finish on a question open-ended enough that you can basically say anything else that still happens to be on your mind. What do you think such a question would look like?

 

 

 

What?

 

 

Nair’s books are available on Amazon and come with a Hearty Hatboy’s Hatstand Heckommendation.


ARvekt: 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.


Next up for SPSFC round two was ARvekt, Book 1 (of 1 so far) of the Instant Reality series, by Craig Lea Gordon.

Alrighty! This one started with a bang and a nice gory opening, which immediately drew me in and let me know how serious shit was, even though .. well look. In an artificial reality, the stakes are only as high as the storyteller’s ability to write in an edited version of reality where the protagonists get through. And I’m not saying the stakes weren’t high. They were super high. So was the storyteller’s ability. So was I. Everyone and everything involved in this story was just the highest. I kid, but that was the way I was left feeling, you know?

The over-arching question in this book was, “what even is real, man, like, okay, say if a dude gets shot in the face but then it turns out, you know, that the bullets were just an illusion and the blood-splatters on the floor were, like, drawn there, and also the guy’s face was a simulation and he didn’t know it – and so was the floor and also the gun probably … you know … what if … what was the question?”

ARvekt is a book that dares to ask that whole thing I just said.

I read Gordon’s Obey Defy before this one, which was a stand-alone novella in a similar setting. It could almost be the same world but the technology and history had played out somewhat differently. Still, if you’re into cyberpunk and questioning the nature of reality, both of these stories would definitely be your jam. And when it comes to combining the sanitised artificialness of a highly technological (but illusory) post-scarcity utopian world with entirely-gritty realism, Gordon’s your guy.

I was struck, in reading this book, how much I was letting the scenic cues and the visual descriptions wash over me. This was ultimately a psychedelic trip set to words, the cool shape-shifting weapons systems and the action-packed plot just sort of weaving through the bright and dizzying backgrounds to hold everything together. The grimy dystopian future of the opened lotus is captivating in its contrast, and the weaving-together of the overlapping worlds is really well done. In this story, setting is quite literally a character.

So, the world of the future is regulated by a benevolent AI overlord, people immersed in augmented reality layers (thanks to “ARvekt” implants directly inside their heads) to such an extent that the very nature of what is real and what isn’t has become beyond blurred. A nasty war between humans and AI had taken place, but right from the start it is clear that we’re being misled about something.  Probably everything.

Ix, our helpful AI presence, is simply too pervasive and omnipotent at times. In a world composed of data, a construct capable of wholesale manipulation of data would rule and the plucky rebels wouldn’t have a chance. I was left, at times, feeling like the odds were insurmountable and no matter what people did to cut away the layers of illusion, there was no way to know they had escaped. It was the classic “turns out we never stopped dreaming” trope and conundrum from a lot of immersed-in-simulation stories: how do any of the characters know when it’s really over?

The interweaving narratives were interesting to see, and never got to a point where I was annoyed to skip from one to the other, although they were active and episodic-cliffhanger enough that I was flipping pages good and fast.

Sex-o-meter

The sex-o-meter pinged in with a single raised eyebrow out of a possible “oo-er, don’t mind me nurse, I’ve had colder thermometers.” To be honest I don’t know what it’s on about but this was more about cyber-espionage and running gunfights and explosions through a hallucinogenic wasteland, so there wasn’t much room for sex.

Gore-o-meter

Plenty of gore here, both simulated and real (OR WAS IT???). I adored the old school battlemech suit that just up and creamed a whole bunch of guys, it was fucking hilarious. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

ARvekt was almost entirely high-definition digitally enhanced WTF, cover to cover. It’s not my usually preferred brand of WTF, but it certainly hit the spot. Love a good poking and peel-back on the nature of shared experiences and communication, a story like this can effortlessly undermine what we as an information-sharing species hold dear – and we did it to ourselves! Any similarities to current issues we face with social media and misinformation can safely be disregarded as an accidental coincidence. I’m kidding, you should be deeply concerned. I give ARvekt a giant computer-generated Elmo with a singularity in its mouth and eyes made out of deep-sea mining drills, out of a possible HAL-9000.

My Final Verdict

Now look, augmented-reality cyber-noir action thrillers aren’t exactly my thing. But I enjoyed this book and if you’re a fan of the genre you’re likely to get even more out of it than I did. Three stars! But this is just, like, my opinion, man.


A Touch of Death: 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.


I’m launching into the semi-finals of the SPSFC with gusto, and I started with A Touch of Death, Book 1 of the Outlands Pentalogy, by Rebecca Crunden.

Crunden made it to the semi-finals but you know what didn’t? The Oxford comma. Hee hee, I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist. Anyway moving on.

A Touch of Death is the first book in the Outlands Pentalogy. Which is great to see. Love a pentalogy. The story introduces us to the Kingdom, a dystopian post-apocalyptic dictatorship where mind-boggling luxury and technology conceal a multitude of scars. Literally and socioculturally. Freedom and history are explicitly banned by royal decree, and the waning human population (those who survived to crawl out from underground and begin to reclaim the surface world after “the Devastation”) is shored up by grotesque authoritarianism and breeding incentives that more than border on atrocity.

Still, you’ve got to laugh, am I right? Tag yourself, I’m Muntenia.

We’re treated to a harrowing but very nicely-constructed hook at the start, an insight into the fate of dissidents and the existence of decent and empathetic people amidst the broken sheep of the Kingdom’s population, all wrapped up in a tight two-and-a-half-character prologue that we circle back to very satisfyingly by the end of the book. Prison life, the brutality of it and the realities of one law for the rich and another for the poor, the overall political and geographic setup, is done well and served to draw me into the story.

This was good because I have to say, I was unconvinced by our main protagonists Nate and Catherine. However! The prologue served its purpose and by the time that magic started to wear off, our heroes’ plight had taken up the slack and I was back on board. Nate and Catherine flail off into the main body of the story, sniping at one another all the while and bouncing from one fuck-up to the next like a pair of pinballs where all the bumpers and paddles are fuck-ups, and it’s great.

My immediate theory, that Nate was definitely the king’s bastard son and that he and Catherine were taking part in a novel-length Only One Bed trope, didn’t quite pan out at least in this book, but I’m ultimately going to have to stand by it. Their “infection” seemed mega contrived and I had a really hard time relating or getting behind it, or any of their actions or motivations. Fortunately, Crunden avoided the bear traps and turned the setup into an … I won’t say satisfying ending, but an ending that made sense and encouraged me to sleep on it. Yes, I went to sleep mad, but I’m glad I slept.

Look, I’m making this seem really bad. It absolutely wasn’t bad, it was good. If I’m mad, it’s because a) I personally prefer a setting-and-action based story to a character-and-situation based one (at least within this story-type), and b) the characters and situation here were at once infuriating, and so well written. I’m just going to say this and let the chips fall where they may, but Crunden is better than Robin Hobb[1] at this. And judging by the reviews I read of the next four books in the pentalogy (as I tried to figure out whether I wanted to read on), it seems like she improves still further and does something truly great here. And I could not be more happy about that.

It’s just that, for me, and this is my review … I will need to know way more details about what happens in the next books before I read them. Like, way more. Because a story that has a female protagonist forced into a gross arranged marriage to save the lives of her friends? That story needs to end on a fucking killing spree, or I’m out. And this book … didn’t end on a killing spree. Simple as.

What else? Oh yeah, Thom isn’t dead and I was annoyed that any of the characters thought he was. Part of my problem was that I didn’t buy Catherine’s naïveté. I get that her belief in the official propaganda that Thom was dead, her rash remarks about why nobody’s managed to kill the king if he’s so evil (how hard can it be?), and her stubborn refusal to admit that a relationship where you’re constantly challenged and enraged and stressed is better than one where you’re in love and at peace (Jesus fucking Christ are you serious), are probably meant to be a sign of her childlike blindness … but I’ve got to say the only one of her traits I really saw as naïve was that first one. She was simply too strongly written, too bright and fierce and wonderful, for me to believe even for a second that there was a trace of sheep in her. Her belief in the broadcast read, to me, like the only way to get her moving on the rest of the quest – because if she hadn’t believed it, as in my opinion her character demands, then she would have stayed in Anais and tried to rescue him. The author had to get her out of there, and this was the solution. I’m sorry but that’s how I read it – and I am fine with that. Some readers might grumble about narrative convenience taking them out of a story – not me. It’s a story. And a good one.

But sure, let’s say that she was supposed to have some simplistic notions and she learned and grew as the story progressed. Good. Excellent. It doesn’t explain why Nate, certain of Thom’s survival, also didn’t seem to want to save him, but let’s chalk that up to a combination of not knowing where to start, feeling it was absolutely futile (and he would know, unlike Catherine), and wanting to bang Catherine. And no, I will not say that in a more dignified way. I just plain did not particularly care for these protagonists. And that’s all to the good, really it is. That’s some complex shit right there.

I loved the worldbuilding and the backstory. I want to know the full and real story of the apparent divergence of humanity that led to the emerged-from-underground “humans” and the above-ground-all-along “mutants”. Because we’re not being told everything, not by a long shot. Catherine’s story of her first kiss was unbearably cute and I adored it, an absolute highlight. The technology and culture on display was fascinating. Really well done. I was unable to shake the Victorian feel of it, and yet there was stunning technology at every turn to show us what sort of world we were really visiting. And I liked it.

Just … needed a killing spree. Sorry.

Sex-o-meter

Beyond some fairly distasteful allusions to rape, forced breeding with a lesbian character, and a lot of spreading warmth that made me squint at my kindle every time Catherine and Nate touched, this was a relatively sexless affair. Zero children out of a possible certificate of nobility and a free house.

Gore-o-meter

Some nasty flaying of backs in the prison flogging scene, a bit of up-close and personal cutting and bleeding, and a whole lot of social violence and executions and such. Add to that a downright prison-camp-experiment sequence of doctor’s notes about wartime testing and mutilation, and the burns that Nate and Catherine experienced on the regular as a symptom of their malady, and you end up with quite the grotesque offering. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for A Touch of Death. Man, if only there’d been some sort of … spree at the end, it might have made it to a perfect five. Oh well.

WTF-o-meter

There’s a lot more going on here, with the worldbuilding and the politics, than meets the eye. Not for nothing is freedom and history outlawed in the Kingdom. We get tantalising little glimpses of larger mysteries, but all in all I wouldn’t call this a WTF-heavy outing. Let’s give it a Bart Simpson holding out his hand with thumb and pinkie extended, going “nyaaaaaaa…” out of a possible actual touch of death.

My Final Verdict

It really feels like I came down hard on this book when that absolutely wasn’t my intention. It made me feel things that I generally don’t want when I read a book, but a lot of people are going to love it for exactly that reason. The very fact that I’m even thinking about reading the next four books in the pentalogy means it hit what is, for me subjectively and specifically, a really small target from a considerable distance. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. Thanks for a good read!

 


[1] Okay, so I guess we’re going to talk about Hobb.

Robin Hobb is an outstanding author. You don’t need my take on this: she is immensely popular and successful and you will find a half-dozen people willing to sing her praises right here on this blog (I mean they’re unlikely to speak up, but they are here; I’ve seen them subscribe). Read her books and make up your own mind.

I, however, read the Farseer trilogy at a really low point in my life when I was already cataclysmically unhappy, and the relentless mistreatment of the main character and the seeming shitting-on-him-for-the-sake-of-shitting-on-him of it was not only life-draining, it felt artless and tacky. I will never like those books, I will never read any more of Hobb’s work no matter how many people whose opinions I trust assure me it gets better (and many have tried), and Hobb’s very name is usually enough to take me instantly back to that dark place where a shitty thing a person wrote in three shitty books made me want to kill myself. So no. Fuck those books and fuck any book that makes me feel that way ever again. Fuck it utterly and methodically and categorically.

This is, it goes without saying, my own personal opinion and should be taken as the opinion of one reader under very specific and difficult circumstances and with lingering and ongoing trauma, and not as a recommendation of any sort. I am not a psychiatrist and so cannot even warn people with depression to avoid these books. They may find them uplifting. Many, many people do. All I can really say is that if you are me, don’t go there. And you’re not me. I am. And I’m already exercising my own damage control. This is just to explain my own mental landscape a little, so you know where I’m coming from when I compare an author to Hobb. It may or may not mean that I hate them, but it definitely means that they’re really, really good. Probably. If they can grow the fuck out of the “burning dolls with a magnifying glass while masturbating” phase of authorial teenagerhood. And now I’ve used up all of my diplomatic words and am going to end this sidebar before I start saying what I really think.


Rise: 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.


Week nine of the #SPSFC read-a-rama brought us Rise, Last Chance book one, by K. T. Hanna.

There’s a lot going on under the surface of this story that at first glance was maybe not explored very much, but it did leave a lot for the reader to enjoy on their own. For my part, I was immediately charmed by the small Doctor Who reference right up front – although I have to point out, that is not how you use a TARDIS, and it’s certainly not how you capitalise TARDIS, Hanna.

The opening of the story was confusing but definitely intriguing, and this theme continues throughout the book. The premise, in short, is that … someone or something … is enabling the resurrection of people just after death, giving them a second chance at life – provided they adhere to the terms of service. This delightfully chilling take on “nobody reads the terms of service” isn’t quite played as solidly as it could be, but the main moving parts are there.

This book was marketed as “gamelit dark contemporary science fiction,” and I have to admit I have no clue what that means but if any book is gamelit, it’s this one. You die, you wake up with an essentially virtual reality augmentation feeding you instructions and data, telepathically and also through a kind of heads up display built into your eyesight. Also, you get moderate-level superpowers based in some way on how you died. You are given assignments. They start small and easy and get gradually more difficult. If you pass an assignment, you advance in grade and unlock new abilities (complete with VR HUD padlock icon), and get paid. If you fail, or refuse to comply, you are in violation of your terms of service and your “contract” is terminated. That means y’dead. Gamelit. I’m with it.

A very interesting premise, I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that raises just – God, so many questions. Prepare for an awful lot of them not to be answered. You don’t get much information about your first life, so why would you expect any about your second?

I was interested to see whether anyone refused to be part of the Second Chance program, thus choosing death over service. Would a person do anything they were told, given that second chance? Or is it too abstract an idea to convince someone? Would you tell yourself you hadn’t really died, that you’d just been knocked out or injured – but now there is an agency inside your head, capable of killing you, so you’d better do as you’re told?

This wasn’t necessarily explored very much as a concept – but it was the point at which it started to dawn on me that this whole story was a brilliant, if slightly rub-your-face-in-it, allegory for life. Specifically, life in the service sector (or just upper-middle-class-or-lower life in general).

I saw some complaints about this book, and its failure to address the idea that the characters were being forced to do things they didn’t want, under threat of death. And the fact that nobody said “this is slavery, I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” Anyone making this complaint, seems to me, is very privileged, very naïve, and hasn’t actually stopped to think about how life works. Because when you live paycheque to paycheque, and depend on a job for the roof over your head and the food on your table, and are one missed shift away from homelessness and starvation, there’s pretty much no difference between first life and Second Chance. You’d rather die on your feet than live on your knees? Chances are you’re already making that choice already, every day. And you choose to live. For enough money to survive but never to be free.

Look, I’ll circle back to that, but there were some other really interesting facets of this story that I like more the more I think about them. For one thing, it was told in first person and the protagonist was never (as far as I saw, and after a while I was looking for it) identified as male or female. It honestly doesn’t matter, and that was a really interesting choice for Hanna to make – there was a lot of fluidity in Dare’s relationships with friends and potential love interests, allowing the reader to really make up their own minds about what was going on. I would have thought it’d get awkward or difficult to maintain, and it certainly went on well beyond the point where I could tell myself it was an unintentional bit of vague-outery … but it held up really well.

On the less entertaining side, we have a character who is six feet tall and still gets irritated when he can’t reach things? Fuck outta here. If you’re six feet tall, you’re tall. You don’t get to be annoyed at stuff like that. Also, the kids have names like Orion, Cyan and Dare. And I think only Cyan had the “weird hippie parents” excuse. Oh well, it helped them stand out a bit as characters so can’t argue with that. There were a few small technical issues, for example some parts where Dare communicates with the SC and it’s not italicised to show internalised communications, but it’s easy enough to figure out.

Some parts did a bit of a number on my suspension of disbelief. Some of the things that Dare brings to SC’s attention, and SC  winds up thinking and hearing about for the first time, is really basic stuff. What have all the humans drafted into the SC program up to now been doing? Is everyone else really a sheep, and Dare is the first one to question things?

Other parts straight-up enraged me, until they developed further and I saw them for what they were. The SC draftees are expected to continue to live their normal lives and blend in, while doing this additional bullshit secret agent work. This is really only possible in a small network (or terrorist cell?) of SC agents covering for each other, and this sort of works out. I’m still not clear on how many people get brought back. Is it everyone to have an accident and “survive”? It’s one of many unanswered questions, but the SC program is apparently latent in all of us. So go ahead, have a fatal accident. You get one free one! Pro tip: If you recover and don’t start hearing a voice in your head and get superpowers, that means you still have a free one!

But yeah – to circle back to the point – it was the very stage at which I was almost shouting at my Kindle that I realised this had to be an intentional allegory. At one point, our protagonist is overwhelmed and has no reasonable way forward. Performing missions means discovery. Discovery means death. Not performing missions means death. The SC says it will take Dare’s name off the mission roster for a few days, to rest. They’ll only activate Dare in the case of emergencies, the SC says. And what do you know, twelve seconds later there’s an emergency.

Anyone who’s been told they can take time off, and only need to come in to the office / restaurant / supermarket if there’s a desperate need, only to be immediately informed there is a desperate need, will find this familiar.

Don’t like it? Die on your feet, cunt.

Sex-o-meter

This was another essentially young adult outing, with some mooning and speculating with a side-order of affectionate description … but not really any sex. I imagine it’s going to be difficult to go there without opening the box and finding the cat dead or alive, if you know what I mean. Anyway, as you might expect, I give Rise a small piece of radioactive matter and a haphazardly half-assembled gadget for detecting atomic decay and breaking a vial of cat poison out of a possible awkwardly strained metaphor.

Gore-o-meter

As the missions grew more serious, as in many video games the stakes were raised and the body-count increased. Also the book started with the protagonist literally getting smoked by a falling power line and dying grossly en route to the hospital. That was the prologue. Still, for all that, there are definitely gorier books. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There was tons of WTF to be had here. The SC program is a failsafe built into humans and has been around for thousands of years? What’s with all the random file retrieval tasks? Is it just how gamelit works? For that matter, does the game reward system just happen to mirror the rat race futility of real life, or is there a deeper lesson that was intentionally planted here? The shadows, the portent ability and glitches, the fate of the other electric-supers, it was all very interesting. I still had no real idea what was going on in the story at the 80% mark, and I like that. Others might not. I’ll give it a Cyan out of a possible Neo Was The Impostor on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

The SC program’s sad, almost wistful attempts to be Dare’s friend, while simultaneously being the (heh) author of every shitty thing that’s happening in Dare’s life and being utterly beholden to the SC’s higher directives, had middle management written all over it and convinced me this couldn’t be anything but an intentional dig at life in the service industry or other high-value, low-paying jobs. Either that or it was all subconscious and Hanna desperately needs a vacation. All in all a really interesting story that left me feeling thoughtful. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


The Binding Tempest: 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.


Next up for the #SPSFC we have The Binding Tempest, first book of The Luminance Saga, by Steven Rudy. For the purposes of this contest, let’s agree that it was sci-fi but I’ll go into more detail below.

I felt for this book, I really did. I identified with it. This book … this book is me. Complete with the arguably unnecessary padding. More of us to love, that’s the justification.

There’s more of us to love.

Okay, this started weird, so let’s get into it. The Binding Tempest is not a science-fiction story, but then it’s not a fantasy story either. It’s kind of a steampunk outing but that’s just because of the New World and Revolutionary War theme, not to mention the horses and guns and zeppelins. Don’t be misled by the horses and guns and zeppelins, as the old Aztec saying goes. They exist only to lead you into strange rooms where men with odd facial hair

This is not getting any less weird. Sorry. I blame the Aztecs. My point is, this is a distinctly genre nonbinary story and I love that. It’s inspiring. When I read a book and it makes me want to get back to my own writing, it’s either because the book is terrible (this wasn’t) or because the book reminds me of why I love to read, and love to write. This was that.

So, there was magic and early industrial stuff as well as high energy weapons and portals and automatons. Awesome! There were different lands and histories and relics and politics and the whole tapestry was so incredibly rich. And the maps! I loved them. Extra credit for the maps, I want an A3 glossy print edition of this book just for the maps, the Kindle really didn’t do them justice (who zooms? Not me).

There were a couple of great characters in it. Qudin, from the moment he first does his quantum magic thing and bleeds from the ears, absolutely charmed me. The setup of his backstory with the Sagean Emperor felt a little bit like Szeth in the Stormlight books by Sanderson, but so what? Tali, and her magic pressure-blowouts, well she’s just purely epic. Loved it. And Ellaria Moonstone, aka Ms. Moonstone, is amazing (in fact compared to her, most of the other characters were a bit run-of-the-mill and she could have been edited into being the most central, perhaps even lone, point of view). And she’s in her late fifties! Mature female protagonists, represent.

So what was the problem?

Okay, so I have to say there was a bit of clumsy language throughout, that made it difficult to engage with. The story had a lot of exposition and description, and you have to combine that with readability or it’s going to be really obvious there’s pages and pages of exposition and description. Take it from a known waffler. It’s nothing a round of good hard editing couldn’t improve, but this is a very big and very dense book so said edit would be a large undertaking. The story needs the exposition, because ultimately this book is an exploration of a world and its history set against the backdrop of a motley hero group on a quest, rather than the other way around. But that means a lot of it needs to be stripped and cut down and washed out.

I am a big fan of the Massive Worldbuilding Infodump metagenre, so keep in mind that I suspect my tolerance will be higher than average. This book is a very deep, very loving tour of a world that obviously took a ton of creative effort. Our heroes seem to do a lot of treasure hunting and digging up of old knowledge, which to me was quite enjoyable to read for its own sake – but it does tend to leave the overall plot feeling messy and difficult to quantify. The titular Binding Tempest is the result of the Quantum Man and the Sagean fighting, which generated the power to unleash the Wrythen, and I think that’s what they were trying to do something about? Considering that the action keeps clipping along, it is at once busy and aimless. Also it’s a part one, so the ultimate story arc is incomplete anyway.

I had a smile at the Hex-like computer and I definitely enjoyed the big old guard robot thing towards the end, that was when it really started to feel like a science fiction story (the epilogue was almost entirely sci-fi) but like I say – I don’t believe in stories having to be one thing or another. Stories don’t work that way. Sorting machines do.

After all the build-up, the final showdown and revelations seemed strange and abrupt. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a symptom of the Massive Worldbuilding Infodump metagenre. Overall, I quite enjoyed this but I think maybe the best way to tell the story would be to just have the characters exist in that world, and let the reader know the author is intimately familiar with it rather than attempting to upload the same level of familiarity to the reader. That will happen organically over time and (I hope) many books.

Sex-o-meter

This, again, wasn’t that sort of story. Stop trying to have sex with me, we’re in the middle of a deep dive through an entire science fiction / fantasy atlas, history book and encyclopaedia here! Goodness, there’s a time and a place, okay? Anyway yeah, you get the point. The Binding Tempest gets an atlas, a history book and an encyclopaedia out of a possible one sexual intercourse.

Gore-o-meter

There was some good action, some thrilling and violent wolverack attacks (loved the critters in this book!), some blood and fighting. But overall there wasn’t much more gore than there was sex. It was fine, one flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

A rich, heavy vein of WTF runs through this story, as it should when we’re talking a genre-defying spray of unconstrained creative juicery. Most of the WTF is explained, of course, so TF is quite solidly quantified by the time we’ve explored Rudy’s impressive world. We know exactly WTF TF is all about, if we’ve paid attention while TF is being outlined for us. So stop asking. The WTF-o-meter gives this a Spearpoint / Godscraper out of a possible Dark Tower.

My Final Verdict

I can only admire the scope and ambition of this story, and reiterate how great the maps and illustrations were. Ultimately there was just so much worldbuilding and exposition to fit into the story, the story itself got lost in the woods. And that’s saying something, coming from me! Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Ghostwater by Will Wight (Book #5 Cradle Series)

To see book 4 Skysworn go here.

Ghostwater by Will Wight is #5 in the Cradle series. If you’re here I’m sure you’ve already become vested in this universe.  Sorry it took so long to get this out. Let’s get into it. So, once again I feel like each book is going to be my new favorite. The interesting thing about this one though compared to the past ones is Lindon pretty much is in a brand-new pocket world (Ghostwater) inside the world we already know. It’s quite brilliant in finding a way to create new lands, creatures, and adventure without having to find a way to whisk the characters off to new geographic locations. It’s a fun way to flex your creativity and level up the characters to do better in the situation they’re still in. I always love new lands or in this case pocket dimensions to explore. 

This book is where I am 100% in on the character of Lindon. I mean I’ve been liking him more with each book; I just feel he made broad strides in this one. He and Orthos are essentially trapped in this pocket world as the weaker of the people there. No one to bail him out. They draw the ire of Ekerinatoth, a gold dragon, on the path of the Flowing Flame. There are also some crazy swarms of giant fish too. Sounds kind of delicious. Ok, so Lindon and Orthos have to find a way to survive as they look to get out of this mess. Having sealed themselves in in some underground bunker they explore to find…pretty much someone has looted the area already. Though interestingly Lindon finds a memory construct chilling in some high-grade mental elixirs. It seems to have given the construct a consciousness. It knows everything about Ghostwater. Sweet deal. This construct ends up with the name Dross helps form a plan for our duo…or trio now I suppose…no foursome because we have little blue too! Lindon doesn’t just get out of it, but he kills her which has repercussions. Unfortunately, she lives long enough to get back to her people, so they know she was killed and by what kind of path. BLACKFLAME.

This leads to chaos for Yerin and Mercy. Oh, side note, I really enjoy those two hanging out together, fun dynamic. Anyways they try to get to Lindon by pissing off the Skysworn and some angry dragons. Lindon kicked the proverbial dragon nest..roost? Yerin has to hide a lot which makes her quite unhappy. Yerin and Mercy get beaten down pretty badly. They too have to find a way to deal with their situation. I don’t have much to say about them in this, but they are fun.

This very much felt like a Lindon adventure though. There are a lot of cool and also deadly things left behind by the Monarch who built Ghostwater. Lindon comes across many valuable elixirs, meat, books, and overall knowledge. Leveling Up, Scott Pilgrim has nothing on you. We also meet Emo warrior Ziel of the Wasteland. Seemingly bored with life he doesn’t mind lending his oversized Warhammer to help out the weaker. Ziel manages to help not only Lindon in Ghostwater, but helps save Yerin and Mercy on the outside. Cheer up bud, the world needs you. 

After Ziel is gone we of course have the arrogant Akura Harmony who comes along to steal Dross from Lindon. This was not very nice. Lindon and Orthos go after him even though Harmony is part of a Monarch faction and was the most powerful person in the pocket world in the beginning of this book. Lindon, Orthos, and Dross manage to beat him with a mix of power, quick thinking, and strategy. Lindon offers to take Harmony out of Ghostwater before it collapses. Harmony instead threatens retaliation and revenge. What can you do? Lindon leaves him behind with Orthos breaking off his chance of escape. SAVAGE. Harmony seems to be trapped when the pocket world collapses. Gone forever? Who knows? This will have repercussions in Lindon’s relationship with the mighty Akura family. Oh, Harmony was also Mercy’s ex-fiancé. AWKWARD. Lindon is great at making enemies. Excellent skill to have my man. It certainly makes things more entertaining for us readers. 

Lindon reconnects with Yerin and Mercy. Yerin and Lindon seem to be connecting more especially now that Lindon is closing in on becoming her equal. Hmmm. Will their arc lead to more than best friends? Stay tuned you Cradle lovers. Wait, that sounds weird. Cradle Fans!!!


Mindguard: 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.


Next up we have Mindguard, by Andrei Cherascu.

I had fun reading this story, which was a very interesting and page-turning adventure with some compelling characters and fascinating sci-fi tech. Tamisa, highly-trained living-weapon soldier of the Interstellar Federation of Common Origin’s Enforcement Unit, was sufficiently reminiscent of a Legionary of Moros to tickle my nostalgia bone and enjoy reading about her struggles.

The story centres around a team of private security specialists – Bodyguards and Mindguards, for the physical and telepathic safety of the client – and their efforts to get a person carrying sensitive information through a gauntlet of hostile environments and a space-fascist-y government under the heel of a military wing long since gone rotten. Every side in the story has its own secrets and every motivation has its own complexities, and I was left wondering who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Ultimately, I suppose the lesson was that things are never that simple. And I like that.

Our characters’ journey takes us through one of the most dangerous “deserts” in the human interstellar empire – I really enjoyed the concept of lawless or otherwise contested regions of space being deserts, by the way. Telepathy and teleportation / portal use are relatively commonplace. Also there’s a planet (or part of a planet) of space lepers, which is great. No notes.

A few things didn’t make sense to me as I was reading. The uploaded-consciousness thing was cool and all, but if it was a new discovery how was it much of a carrot for Sheldon? He could have (and probably should have) just refused to take the mission, and waited for the technology to become common. He’d waited this long, what’s a little longer? Go public with the knowledge and wait for his turn. Still, I suppose it was tightly controlled and exclusive and – well, we needed the plot to happen. I also wasn’t sure what was going on with Tamisa’s phobia of her own beauty. Was it a veiled method of talking about how attractive she was, or was it a clever way of showing her mental damage after growing up on rape planet? Why not both?

Getting busted for shaving her head was kind of stupid, and the lesson (learn to embrace your advantages, in this case do the va-va-voom trope and be all beautiful and stuff) was a bit on the nose. I think her arc from victim and escapee from rape planet to relationship-haver with Villo with occasional head-smashing outbursts was more than enough without adding that additional facet to it. But fine. It’s there. Incidentally, I was convinced as soon as Villo turned up that he was definitely going to betray Tamisa by the end and they would have a fight and be evenly matched and predictable and then she would win by being unpredictable. I’m still not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed by what happened. Why not both?

The action ticked along nicely and there were enough twists and turns for it to be compelling. The chapter introduction-texts either added rich background or tantalising snippets of what was coming up in the story without spoiling what was happening, and I liked that. Thomas Anderson’s showdown with the Millers around the mid-point was fun and tense, marking the point of the story at which I really started to get invested and leaving me uncertain what was about to happen, and who I wanted it to happen to. Why not b– oh.

I was a little put off by the fact that all the female characters were described in great detail while the male characters (aside from Maclaine ‘Mac’ Ross and his bigness and tight shirts) were barely described at all. A notable exception being Horatio, who – well I still don’t know what he looked like, but oh boy, his problems have got problems, don’t they? That fuckin’ guy, man. Nicely written.

The finale, tying together the action and intrigue and motivations of the main players, revealing a very satisfying mystery and even tying the leper planet back into it, is top-notch. Maybe a little over-extended, but definitely nice. I was left wanting to see what our heroes and anti-heroes did next, and that’s never a bad thing.

Sex-o-meter

Aside from gross rape planet (I joke, but the ugly events and culture on Tamisa’s former homeworld are really only alluded to in order to provide a backdrop, it’s not all that explicit) and incidents thereon, there’s a couple of sex scenes and a bit of skin-crawling nastiness from Horatio but none of it’s particularly graphic. I’ll give it a single sexual-performance-enhancing body-modification and two-thirds of a deep-seated emotional instability out of a possible … uh, Horatio.

Gore-o-meter

We get some excellent fights, killings, and police brutality. People’s heads are reduced to barely-recognisable lumps after their attackers lose track of how many times they’ve bashed them with whatever, which is something I always look for in a beat-down. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Like I was saying, the reader is treated to some excellent sci-fi concepts and a lot of good world-building in this book. But I wouldn’t say there was much in the way of WTF to contend with. The Opus Caine was something of a WTF, and there were some great psychic moments, but I was rather expecting more of that sort of thing, in a story that seemed like the telepathy version of a bodyguard adventure. Even so, it was fine. I’ll give Mindguard a diving sideways in slow-motion shouting “NOOOOO” out of a possible doing all that only in your mind.

My Final Verdict

Three stars for Mindguard on the Goodreads / Amazon scale. Not much more to say, this was an enjoyable read with some great characters. Also Horatio was there.


Planet B (Complete): 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.


Team Space Lasagna’s fifth-week selection included Planet B, the “complete” edition, by Micheal Beadley. Not his real name. His real name, according to the hilarious preface, is too similar to other authors’ names and might also identify him to the micro-managing psychopaths he previously worked a day job with. Other authors should take note of Beadley’s prefacing style. When you’re introducing first-time readers to your story, you don’t want to coddle the big babies into it like you’re sitting around at a goddamn pyjama party. You set the whole lot of it on fire and fling it into their faces like a declaration of war.

Edpool’s note: I just found out that this book seems to have vanished off Amazon, although it is still up on Goodreads. My apologies to anyone disappointed. By the Amazon part, I mean. Obviously.

Okay. Oh boy, where to start with this one…

In the beginning of the 22nd century, life seemed good for humanity. The problems of global warming in the early 21st century, Islamic terrorism etc only existed in the past.

Planet B, an excerpt.

Planet B is a very earnest sci-fi adventure story with genuine wit and imagination behind it. And you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, so let’s just get it out there. The story … needs some work under the hood. Or ‘bonnet’ as we UK English folks say.

Some work with an editor. Some more experience at the nuts and bolts of storytelling and writing. Some more time put into the post-production and release. I mean … look at the cover(s) we ended up with. There are sequels, and they seem even more rushed.

This seems to be the actual cover for Planet B II. Points for the self-awarded 5 star rating, though. Beadley’s got some stones.

This all said, I had fun reading it. It was challenging, but I’m damn good at what I do. I learned some interesting facts (for example, the etymology of the word tank, which was a cover to hide its actual purpose … I’m not saying it’s new or obscure information, but I didn’t know it) and had a few laughs along the way.

The delightful Britishness of it was heartwarming. It’s like this book was written by Arthur Dent, if he had never managed to befriend an alien and his house had been bulldozed just before his planet was demolished, but he’d had time to write a book in between. The existence of cricket doubles and the fact that Spaceballs references still happen in the future makes me happy. The concept of termite cities was great! The Sons of Al Qaeda, eh, not so much. But what can you do.

I laughed aloud at the fact the Uglies (aliens) showed up at Earth and destroyed Bath (in the UK!), specifically. I laughed at the mental image of the invincible Captain (or possibly Commander) Hilton punching out a big alien cat. I laughed at “three Uglies or one polar bear” as a measure of deadliness. I thrilled at the giant alien narwhal on ichthyosaur action and was glad to hear the baby narwhal was okay even though there really wasn’t any plot-supported reason for us to be so reassured. I enjoyed the way the story was told through switching perspectives to cover the action, and appreciated the way each shift was signposted – especially since a certain amount of the story was written in the first person, which could have gotten confusing.

Excessive use of commas took us into unsettling territory somewhere beyond James T. Kirk. Like I said, some editing work is needed on this book.

Bloody Hell. Alright, let’s consult the meters.

Sex-o-meter

A little bit of sex, a bit of old fashioned sleaze, some standard rapiness but nothing too explicit or gross. It wasn’t an integral part of the story and for the most part the relationships and character interactions were innocuous and nicely folded into the story. Two very tall and drunk space jocks who won’t take no for an answer out of a possible same thing but there’s no Scorpion to beat their arses. I don’t know. It was fine.

Gore-o-meter

We get plenty of action, fights and battles and brutality – but it’s not overwhelming, and is only there to serve the story. I call this a good balance and think it shows decent instincts for crafting a high-paced and high-stakes story. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There was plenty of WTF crammed into this book, and I am happy to report that most of it came from the imaginative setting and history even if a certain amount also came from the chaotic, borderline bizarro style in which the book was written. Humanity’s madcap history of colonisation, invasion, genetic tampering and military misadventure made for a dizzying backdrop against which this tale took place. Still, I wouldn’t call it genuine surrealist WTF, so much as … look, I’m giving this three Uglies and a polar bear out of a possible Captain Hilton punching three Uglies and a polar bear while riding a giant alien narwhal. I will not be answering further questions at this time.

My Final Verdict

Planet B reads like an early draft that was rushed to production because the author was unable to bear another day working for such a bunch of disgusting evil micro-managing morons. And while I’m fortunate enough to not share such an experience, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Sometimes a story just has to be told. Still, I’m going to have to leave Planet B with two stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale on its technical merits.