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.


God in the Machine: An Edpool Review

(things have been hectic and I’m running late, sorry! Here is a couple of reviews to make up for lost time)

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 took a look at God in the Machine, by Cole Martyn, as part of their #SPSFC pile for this week.

Okay, this story wasn’t exactly my thing, but that’s an entirely subjective viewpoint and I’m going to do my best to lay it out neutrally (my apologies in advance for my failure). A lot of the things I don’t care for in a story often turn out to be things other readers like, after all – and a lot of things I like turn out to be things the writing and reviewing community regularly put at the tops of their “Shit Authors Should Never Do (Number 6 Will Surprise You!)” lists. So grab a handful of salt-grains because here comes my opinion.

We open on a full-on cyberpunk dystopian ecofascist dictator speech, complete with fist-gestures and police action. Well-written and well-executed setup, even if it’s all too real and depressing. We meet Dash, who sort of seems like the main protagonist but is actually kind of a red herring. So was Benoît, who I have to say was really asking for it. Anyway, moving on.

The actual protagonists are Elias and his little brother, who are Ronin (not actual ronin, it’s just the name of the community they belong to but, counterpoint hey, did it have to be?) who live outside the metaphorically gated (or in this case literally domed) community of the Citadel – a vast sealed structure within which humanity hides from the steadily collapsing planetary ecosystem. Climate disaster has led to the complete subjugation of the human race under a technocratic fascist regime led by Autarch Vicentine.

When Elias turns out to have superpowers of some kind (I’m not spoiling anything that wasn’t in the blurb), I at first wondered if maybe it was the result of the “plasma extraction” that was going on as part of the ghoulish rich-people longevity sub-sub-subplot, but it wasn’t that. Elias was just a Nihon, all along. That’s what they’re called. Nihons.

Fun fact: Nihon literally means the sun’s origin and is the actual word for – the anglicised spelling of – the real word – it’s – Japan. It’s what Japan is. That’s it, that’s the fun fact.

Look, I’m not saying anything, I’m completely unfamiliar with the material since it’s not my thing any more than this book was, but I do appreciate a good visual and conceptual callback and this was … look, I just see it, alright? I can’t speak to any similarities in the stories themselves. I can, and will, speak to the similarities with Star Wars, but we’ll get to that. Oh yes, we’ll get to that.
Okay? Good. Carrying on.

Our young heroes discover a hidden community (a “rebellion”, if you will) with the help of an old man who begins to teach Elias in the ways of the generalised biosphere-powered Gaia-energy and who might turn out to have been really quite closely involved in the political development of the – you see where this is heading. With an enjoyable stopover in the dual trope of the martial arts grandmaster who refuses to teach the hero and “too old the boy is, teach him I cannot,” we work our way around to taking on the bad guys and restoring the republic to power after it was overthrown using emergency measures to place the Autarch in charge.

Yes, there was a certain familiarity to the story (we didn’t really need the “always two there are, a master and an apprentice”, or the “yes, give in to your hate and take your place at my side” stuff), but the thing you have to remember is, it’s a classic story and it’s not like the pop culture classics were original either. I’m not going to go full post-modern wankshaft on you but there are no new ideas ‘ere, mon ami. And look, if we’re going to get a hairy warrior-beast who kicks arse and takes names, Maximus is pretty damn cool and at least has a bit of agency. The training montages with Max and Eli were really pretty fun. And give me Martyn’s version of robots any day of the week. The sub-subplot of the AI’s history and trial (which folded into the main story nicely) was really interesting.

I did groanlaugh at the inclusion of a literal Hyperloop public transit system. Sure, maybe that’ll happen. It’s definitely a fun concept. But isn’t the Citadel self-contained enough to make just … trains good enough? Oh well. This isn’t the place for that argument.

Speaking of tech, fun fact #2: Carbotanium is a combination of beta titanium alloy and carbon composite. In this story it is described as a deep-down fossil fuel type resource that the Citadel is running on, demolishing the Earth in the process (and maybe using it to prepare to fly to another planet and start again? That sub-sub-sub-subplot didn’t seem to go anywhere but it was really interesting too!). It certainly makes more sense as a building material than a fuel, and I might have missed how that thread played out, but it felt tantalising to me. It ended abruptly with a cliffhanger but don’t be put off by the “book 1 of 1” on Amazon: the story continues (according to the product info) with the first phase of the God in the Machine short stories: Icarus, Hades and Nihon. So there is more to enjoy here!

Sex-o-meter

Nothing. Zip. Nada. The male and female protagonists are young teens at best so that’s fine, but I don’t know. This is one case where a slightly older pairing and a bit of – well – pairing might have added to the story. Still, there are more important things and the book didn’t suffer for there being no time for sex. Half a tender unknowing sibling-kiss out of a possible entire-arse Targaryen dynasty.

Gore-o-meter

The action was solid and enjoyable and there was plenty of firefights and downright brutal ethnic-cleansing style massacres. I think there might have been more opportunity for chilling ecofascist violence and psychological impact here – the plasma extraction was gross – but Martyn opted to go for full-on adventure rather than making this too dark. And that’s fine. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

I am left with questions. Like for example, Dash wasn’t authorised to disengage the autopilot or fly a hoverbike he’d stolen, so he … shot the interface screen … and that worked? The rebellion’s community guidelines state that anything that changes the natural make-up of the body is strictly off-limits. Where do they draw that line? Pretty easy in the case of cybernetic augmentations, but you can see where there’s going to be problems with this, right? Also, Max is nothing but things that change the natural make-up of the body. But sure. Oh yeah, and why is extracting plasma a more complex, painful and inefficient process, and only 15 minutes faster, in this cyberpunk dystopia than it is today? Is cruelty the point? As you can see, there are WTFs here – but they’re not exactly the WTFs I’m looking for (move along). I give God in the Machine an a-koo-chee-moya out of a possible it was truly a Hanzō sword. I don’t know.

My Final Verdict

This was a rich and imaginative story and the action kept up a good solid pace. I loved the worldbuilding and tech even if I poke fun at it here – like I said, this story wasn’t for me but it’s definitely going to be for a lot of people! I knew what I was in for when I saw the dude with the katana on the cover. Still less dumb than the Prequel Trilogy. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Double Edged: An Edpool Review

(things have been hectic and I’m running late, sorry! Here is a couple of reviews to make up for lost time)

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.


For the final week of Team Space Lasagna’s round one reviewing cycle, we had four books to read instead of three. So I made a bit of an early start and here is my review of Double Edged, The Bulari Saga Book 1, by Jessie Kwak.

I was drawn into this story immediately, its prologue was exciting and well-written and set up a very interesting heist and overall plot. Some parts of the prologue came back into the story proper, but some parts – *cough-cough-cough-Oriol-cough-cough* – took way too long and others just didn’t seem to come back at all and so their relevance was a kind of annoying non-event. This happens with prologues too often in my opinion, so I might just be transferring some of my generalised irritation at the phenomenon onto this book specifically. Still, my point is it was a great prologue and the opening chapters were great too, the only drawback was how long it took to bring the two together.

The story is written in present-tense, which I found a bit off-putting but plenty of people like it, and it is a good way to give immediacy and stakes to a story. It’s a perfectly cromulent tense, is what I’m saying. Wait, why is my spell-checker not tagging cromulent as a typo? Has the English language been embiggened? Holy shit. It’s not tagging embiggened either. I digress, but you have to admit I have reason.

Just – look.

Anyway, back to the story. Jaantzen and his found family, including daughter-figure Starla, are enmeshed in a power-vacuum struggle in the sci-fi organised crime rings of Bulari, a cool sort of space Ankh-Morpork. With the death of crime lord Coeur – she’s actually a crime lady but that sounds just incredibly dumb, and Kwak made exactly the right call in rendering the crime lord term as gender neutral and I don’t care what the SJWs say – the underworld of Bulari is in turmoil. And since the underworld of Bulari also includes most of the actual civic leadership, it’s probably just easier to say “world”. Coeur was the mayor, after all. The Patrician, if you will.

Assassinations, political intrigue, mysterious locked cases and a sci-fi drug called shard are the order of the day in this action-packed and highly enjoyable story.

I was also really intrigued and delighted to see some outside-the-box character work going on here. It was a really interesting take on the space gangster / sci-fi godfather subgenre. While I’ve read enough good modern (independent) sci-fi by now to no longer consider strong female characters to be new or trope-busty, these ones were particularly enjoyable – and the sad fact is I am still mentioning them, so we clearly still need more of this good stuff. Also, I said “busty” by accident and now I keep looking back at it and wondering if I should change it but we all know I’m not gonna.

Furthermore, we had a really cleverly worked-in deaf character, and her deafness wasn’t played as a plot-point or some inlet for a stupid superpower, it was just a fact. To such an extent that I was puzzled, quite a significant way into the story, why the main band of protagonists were signing and texting to each other, and not “saying” things except when they got agitated, and I wondered if maybe it was a part of the world-building, like a secret language or a cool “everyone on this world is silent” element, but nope. It was “just” an adjustment to this character and it was really excellent.

Expect some twists as you go, and the introduction of the big-picture plot arc but not much in the way of closure yet. This is, after all, the opening book in a considerably-sized series (8 books [5 main series books and 3 prequels], let me just say, is the perfect size and composition for a science fiction series and I thoroughly approve). We’re treated to a nicely-constructed setup to a larger mystery and threat, with good characters and a nice mid-range plot for this book to get us into it. On a specific level I really enjoyed the setup of the planetary structure, the globe-encircling desert, all of that. I like. And Jaantzen’s philosophising about parenthood is lovely and thought-provoking.

On the subject of the characters and the writing, for most of the book I was blinded by anger about why Jaantzen was even helping Coeur instead of shooting her in the face. Not to spoil anything but he has excellent reason to hate her and – well, my notes as I was reading were as follows:

I can’t enjoy this because I’m just so mad Jaantzen isn’t shooting Coeur in the face over and over again. Guess that’s good writing? Unless the author doesn’t nail the explanation. Because a vague “he gave his word” is not enough. I will decide if bad writing or great.

Ultimately, I was left with the judgemental declaration of “good writing,” since while I was still utterly unconvinced and pissed off by his reasons for not killing Coeur and am absolutely livid that he didn’t kill her and put her head on a spike over at the mayor’s office or something, I hold out hope that we’re going to get satisfaction one day – and in the meantime Coeur is a cool enough evil protagonist / antagonist / strange bedfellow that she’s worth keeping around and expanding on for another couple of books. On a story-reader level it’d be a waste to kill her. Just … I’m hesitant to read more of this series rather than just finish it in my head and pretend something satisfying happens, because I was burned by Robin Hobb and I’m not going back there. Never. A. Fucking. Gain.

It wasn’t until around the 60% mark that Oriol returned from the prologue (aside from a couple of brief mentions) and we find out a little bit of what he was up to there and how it relates to the story, but it wasn’t what I’d call a perfect link-up. The Demosga family is apparently not very important after all, but at least the Dawn was mentioned, and agriculture. Oriol’s return to the story and his relationship with another of the protagonists is really very sweet, too.

We end on a cool epilogue and a final tantalising closure-but-not-really with the thingies in the globes that were in the locked cases. Was the prophet of the Dawn cult right about everything? Well, I mean, he was a murderous nutbag so fuck him, but maybe he was? Guess we’ll see!

Sex-o-meter

There are some tender moments between lovers here but most of it is the familial love of Jaantzen and his crew, and a whole lot of space mobsters and shoot-outs and stuff, which are a kind of sex but in another more accurate way, there was no sex. And that’s fine. I’ll give it a shard out of a possible dark crystal. Wait, that’s not sexy. Out of a possible dark, throbbing crystal. There we go.

Gore-o-meter

We get plenty of nasty murders, beatings and torture stuff, mob hits and gunfights and mad cultist rampages. It’s good and violent, but not precisely gory. Still, I’ll award it three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five. It’s got some brutality to it.

WTF-o-meter

The story and plot elements are all quite clear-cut and don’t have much in the WTF department. There are mysteries, sure enough, and alien relics and locked boxes and deep prophetic apocalyptic wossnames and all that, but they’re none of them really WTFs. I give Double Edged a shard out of a possible all the different varieties of troll drugs on the Discworld.

My Final Verdict

This was an enjoyable read and the blurb-statement “Perfect for fans of The Expanse, Firefly, and The Godfather” is not an idle brag (nor is it in any way a humble one, but I’ll allow it). I will still hesitate to look at the rest of the series until reassured that Jaantzen and Coeur get some kind of arc-ending that doesn’t make me inarticulate with rage because I don’t have time for shitty painful injustice in my fiction, I read this stuff for fun. So if someone can help me out that would be appreciated. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale!


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.


Isoldesse: 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.


Up next was Isoldesse, of the Aevo Compendium series book 1, by Kimberly Grymes.

Banna idir dufiur et gohdeo … hey, I think I know this one. Something about there being a frog in my bidet, isn’t it?

I kid. I really enjoyed the uncompromising, deep-end plunge that Isoldesse pushes on the reader right from page one. It made me feel like one of the characters, confused and lost and overwhelmed. And at least we get a glossary! Yeah, there was a little world-by-world glossary of terms at the start of the book, so we have a little more information than the protagonists, but it is just enough to keep our heads above water. And, like I mentioned, the quasi-incantations of the sci-fi space magic were delightfully fantastical and reminded me of John Carter of Mars.

Yes, this story opens hard, with a lot of study material by way of an intro, and overall the narrative read like a science-fantasy in the John Carter or even Flash Gordon style. High fantasy with planets instead of ye olde realms, and while these may all add up to a problem for some readers, I liked it.

That being said, I did very nearly hurl my Kindle across the room early on – and I only didn’t because it was a pretty expensive little doodad. See, each world being studied for the Aevo Compendium (which I consistently failed to imagine as anything but Megadodo Publications, one of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, and their renowned guide for hitchhikers) is divided into four regions and a researching agent – well, look:

Spiaire – (spy-ir) A Sendarian who lives a double life on an alien world during an Aevo Compendium trial. There are four total Spiaires assigned to four different regions of whatever world is undergoing observation. A Spiaire’s job is to befriend the subjects without revealing their true identity and prepare the subjects for extraction to Priomh.

Okay, so the “four different regions” of Earth were Florida, California, the Midwest, and “north” – and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t talking about beyond-the-US north. I decided this was a hilarious surreal joke of some sort, and laughed rather than angry-purchasing a paperback just so I could throw it into the Gulf of Finland. Well played! But seriously, the rest of the planet exists, y’all.

Anyway, from this rocky but endearing start, I found myself rapidly overtaken by events and was left with a persistent feeling that I was reading a young adult drama like Beverly Hills 90210 but with some characters randomly swapped out for alien researchers and others swapped out maybe for some opposing alien group that’s hunting the researchers, and one of the humans is bonded with an alien ghost in a crystal and also the aliens seemed to have alien parents / handlers? I was quickly lost, but like Darci and Gemma and Meegan and Kenna (I’m afraid their names and descriptions made them all a teensy bit interchangeable to me) I was dragged along from one scene to the next and ultimately it was rather enjoyable even though it gave me a mild arrhythmia.

Through it all, I was able to focus on a couple of things. First, the Beast was an utterly disgusting character and the only implausible thing about him was that he was somehow employed by the Aevo Compendium people. There’s more to his story but frankly the fact that he wasn’t shot in the face and buried out back somewhere to enrich Priomh’s biosphere before the book even began was a real danger to my suspension of disbelief. Also, not to spoil things, but towards the very end of the book we find out that he sports a man-bun (it is mentioned briefly around the halfway point but it’s easy to miss) and I’m going to be honest, the reader deserves to know this a lot sooner. Like, a lot sooner. I’m just saying.

Other highlights included drunk Ally calling Xander a poopy-head, the Beast and his sudden but inevitable betrayal, and the moment I found out basically an entire alien species (or at least the females thereof) were redheads. That’s almost certainly someone’s idea of fun, but it’s not great when you’re trying to tell characters apart and hair colour seems to be the main characteristic mentioned each time.

Anyway, it was great. Let’s see what the meters have to say about it all.

Sex-o-meter

A chaste and thoroughly decent outing, Isoldesse had a few traces of leery nastiness and one genteel curtain-drop to cover a hypothetical hour-long human-on-alien boinkfest. I’ll give it an “isn’t that technically bestiality?” out of a possible “oh boy, that’s definitely bestiality, get that sheep out of here and why do you have a man-bun you’re just the worst” on the ol’ sex-o-meter.

Gore-o-meter

One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one. There wasn’t much gore or violence, although the story didn’t want for action. Nicely balanced.

WTF-o-meter

Like I said, this story had some excellent surreality and a colourful Flash Gordon aesthetic and John Carter system of high-tech space magic. The absolute relentless speed at which life comes at Julianna and Prue and Rian and Sabine (and Nick and Matthew and Liam and Ben…) adds a whole new level of enjoyment to this highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story.

My Final Verdict

Well now look, I just said “highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story,” so I can hardly do better than that here, can I? Isoldesse is Grymes’s debut novel and may she write many more! It was never boring, it showed a butt-ton of creative prowess and introduced us to a very complex series of worlds. Three stars! Thanks for a fun read.


The Elcy Protocol: 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 for SPSFC I also reviewed The Elcy Protocol, by Bave Grozdanov.

This here book is a real chonker. I was thrown by the fact that I was working with a Kindle e-book, and it seemed to be taking forever to get anywhere. But that was just because the book had so many pages. Which was fine, because they were quality pages and I admire a thick juicy slab of bookmeat even if in this case it was conceptual meat on account of it being electronic. Plus, I was drawn in by the charming premise and fun characters, so I didn’t notice the (semi-illusory) drag until I was hooked. Great opening.

Yes, this story has an excellent premise and a really interesting protagonist, namely the erstwhile Elcy – formerly the rugged, almost literally loose cannon battleship Light Seeker, an old AI monster that retired from the seemingly perpetual war of Grozdanov’s narrative and was downloaded into an artificial biomech human body so she could look after the son of her former Captain. Some decades later, said child is now a grumpy old man and Elcy returns to active service – as a permanently skinny young adult human female this time – by way of cadet boot camp.

See what I mean about the opening and premise?

I was far more interested in seeing Elcy interact with her “fellow” humans than I was in reading about her previous incarnation as a battleship, and as the narrative skipped back and forth a little jarringly between past and present storylines, it got a bit annoying. Especially since the jumps back and forth felt designed to tantalise and frustrate (and look, for all I know they were, and that was well done). The date-stamp on each part was useful but difficult to keep track of in detail, and with the addition of straight-up segments of redacted memory, it became even more fragmented and strange.

However, all of this gradually (over an extended exploration-sequence; like I said, this was a hefty boi of a book) begins to fall into place and the secrets and restricted memories are unwrapped in a really interesting way. The ultimate point of the whole thing was almost an afterthought, though – almost a McGuffin but not even that big a deal – and I wonder if it’s going to be explored in further stories because it didn’t quite make an effective conclusion to this one.

Now, I’m one of those weird readers who don’t really care about that sort of thing, as long as the setting is good. And I’m not saying the plot arcs and endings weren’t there, or weren’t up to snuff. Another reader might be able to pick them out and appreciate them more. They just didn’t resonate with me in such a way as to justify the length of the journey. But the journey, for me, was really the point. I was interested enough in Elcy as a character, and in her interactions with humans, and in the backdrop of this weird Starship Troopers[1] forever-war version of humanity’s future, to such an extent that I didn’t really care about the narrative’s climax being arguably not-quite-explosive.

At one point Elcy reflects on humanity making contact with a third alien species (they already know two), and how the immediate result would be a third war front getting set into place. That was fascinating for what it said about that human civilisation, as well as the fact that – well, yeah, this is a battleship talking. Of course that would be her first move. And yet, Elcy herself doesn’t seem aggressive, despite her admittedly aggressive responses in a lot of situations.

The interstellar empire of humanity, even at the time when Elcy was a battleship, numbered “two quintillion people” and was at war with two separate alien civilisations. I was resigned, by halfway through the book, to never finding out what the Cassandrians or the Scuu actually were. Maybe that was the point. We may have been looking at the entire story through a keyhole, but it seemed like nobody made any effort, ever, to do anything but go to war with these alien races.

I was charmed by Elcy’s personality and behaviour. It read, to my completely inexperienced and non-clinical mind, like an examination of a neurodivergent personality forced to deal with normies. Her relationship with Sev was interesting but never really explored in a way I would have enjoyed seeing, as I was expecting Grozdanov to make some point about what a disastrous (or beneficial) guardian for a human child a battleship would be, and what it had done to Sev developmentally.

Overall the length of the book made it seem to drag when it didn’t (necessarily), but the only really noticeable part I felt was too long was the antagonist’s monologue at the end. Too many moving parts, built up over an admittedly impressive narrative, requiring too much explanation.

Fuck it, let’s go to the meters.

Sex-o-meter

No sex. Elcy is distilled down into the bio-synthetic body of a roughly teenage girl so as to provide a big sister figure to Sev, and then she just stays that way. The Elcy Protocol gets a C-3PO Human Cyborg Relations out of a possible Bender Bending Rodriguez. If you have a thing for barefoot girls in sci-fi, you might coax a C-3PO Human Cyborg Relations with a red forearm for no reason out of the sex-o-meter, but I don’t know why you’d bother abusing a delicate piece of scientific equipment for this.

Gore-o-meter

Not much gore either. There are space battles and a plentiful body-count, but not much in the way of up-close and personal. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

The Elcy Protocol scores well here, on account of the sheer Banksian fun of the AI spaceships and their different levels of interaction, as well as the funky surreal nature of the “third contact”, the cobalt symbols and the fractal what-have-yous. It was all very visually nice to read, and combined with the flashback structure and the concept of memory as military industrial complex property, it made for a decidedly strange story. The WTF-o-meter gives this book a pair of sandals lying on a table out of a possible Memory Restriction Imposed.

My Final Verdict

The nature of memory and reality, privacy and free will are all called into question in this story. The main plot, of exploration and revelation of an alien intelligence, is truly secondary to whatever was going on with Elcy and her place in society. Bittersweet ending, but for the twists and turns in this story there doesn’t seem any resolution, nothing that really presents itself as a climax or revelation. Three stars!

 


[1] The book, not the movie.


The View From Infinity Beach: 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.


Our next SPSFC review is The View From Infinity Beach, by R. P. L. Johnson.

This story had a nicely gripping start, although I have to say the main reason I continued to angry-read the first few chapters was because of how obnoxious the young adults of Excalibur Station were. I just plain didn’t want Kade to be friends with any of them, but I’m coming to recognise this as a symptom of my own encroaching cantankerous-old-cuntness, rather than any flaw in the writing. On the contrary, the characters were well written and plotted.

Left to right: Nikki the popstar, John the resourceful nerd, Kade the only person who was brought up right, Lizzie the severely judgement impaired athlete-type, and Lawrence the rich braggart with a heart of gold (somewhere, occasionally; may be subject to backslides).
Look, I watched it with my kids, okay? And it’s not a 1:1 analogy, but … if you know, you know.

So, this interesting but annoying start was enough to get us to the main point of the story, which was that the asteroid belt mining company community were working on a hollow-asteroid habitat concept on an awe-inspiring scale, and the parasitic Earthbound “ruling class” were out to take it for themselves.

While the worldbuilding and sociopolitical setup (not to mention the strange asteroid at the focus of it all) is a little reminiscent of The Expanse, Johnson avoids too much of the unfortunately hard-to-avoid “Earther vs. Belter” similarities that come with the territory these days. I’d say that while it is very much its own thing, The View From Infinity Beach is also a sufficiently entertaining entry in the asteroid belt mining future sub-subgenre to appeal to people who enjoyed That Other Series That’s Everywhere.

Myself, I was already interested in this one because of the cover, and the nostalgia for Rendezvous With Rama that it kindled.

The action was nicely done, with some real menace and an excellent sense of what was at stake. Even if the main villain was somewhat overblown, one might also argue that it’s impossible to really overblow something like this. And it was very satisfying to read.

The interpersonal drama with the young characters was set up a little clumsily. Really, Lawrence shat me to tears (by the time he improved it was too late, I had already decided I was never going to like him) and the most annoying thing about him was that Lizzie seemed completely oblivious to it, and that kind of reflected poorly on the overall work. Not only did it come hazardously close to the “women always like jerks” involuntary-celibate mantra and cheap jock-at-school tropeyness (a tropeycal copypasta with incelery, if you will), but ultimately it didn’t have much bearing on the story or the characters so there was neither justification nor payoff. It was just antagonism for the sake of antagonism, when there was plenty of that coming from the actual antagonists. Not to mention the far more compelling relationship dynamic between John and the other kids.

But anyway, that was a minor thing.

I really enjoyed the built-in alteration to the laws of physics that came with the coriolis effect inside the space stations, and how it was written into the story’s action scenes. I don’t know enough about the actual laws of physics to say this is or is not how things would actually go in a spin-gravity habitat, but since I don’t know, I’m going to say it was fine and I liked it.

Aside from some occasional editorial issues (at one point a character was barraged with “a bullet of bullets”, which was actually quite amusing) and a bit of odd pacing and scene-changing (the first encounter at Kera and the ending of that sequence and the kids’ escape and return to Excalibur seemed to happen off-page, unless my Kindle flicked past it for some reason), the whole narrative was really nicely constructed and had an excellent, nicely relentless pace.

Sex-o-meter

We didn’t really get any sex in the story, and that’s fine – it was essentially a young adult adventure so aside from a bit of teen hormone drama and male gazery, there wasn’t anything full-on. And that made sense. Let’s award this one gym sock that could be crusty for entirely innocent (but still kind of gross) reasons out of a possible entire American Pie movie franchise with extra Stiflers.

Gore-o-meter

There’s a few firefights, an honest-to-goodness Ripley fight in an industrial mover suit, a bit of mob violence and collateral murderings, but all in all this isn’t really a gory one. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for The View From Infinity Beach.

WTF-o-meter

Not much WTF in this story either, like I say it was a nice take on the asteroid belt mining future concept and not one with a built-in WTF thread like some giants of the sub-subgenre. And it didn’t need one, since the solid science and human endeavour of it was the point, and more than made up for any lack. I’ll give this story a half-filled ammo clip of bullets out of a possible bullet of bullets on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

This was a fun read, all its issues were relatively minor and were definitely forgivable in light of the excellent concepts and engaging action. There was a classic wartime feel to the Molly Moore “mascot” that I  really dug, and the ending of the story and its overall message was honestly uplifting. Pure human gold. I’m giving it a solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


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.


Blackcoats: Dead Man Walking: 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 next SPSFC read was Blackcoats: Dead Man Walking, by Michael Lachman.

Adam is a normal teen, who likes *checks notes* failing to talk to attractive member of opposite sex, getting bullied by jock, and debating merits and continuity of extended book and movie intellectual properties big in early 21st Century popular culture with friends. But don’t worry, that window-dressing is just the set-up. Indeed, considering the ghoulish (literally) showdown in the prologue, you know some shit’s about to go down and you didn’t pick up a novelisation of Dawson’s Creek by mistake. Although you may have picked up a novelisation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I don’t know what Dawson’s Creek is about. Don’t overthink it, it was a throw-away joke.

Anyway, from this intriguing prologue and endearingly geeky opening, the reader is thrown headlong into Teenagers Survive In World Full Of Adults Making Bad Choices, and it’s really rather fun. Forget Buffy (I mean actually don’t, Buffy is awesome, but just for now as an intellectual exercise), this story has enough elements of Hellboy and Men In Black to be highly engrossing, while at the same time retaining its originality.

C.H.E.S.S. – the Cryptid Handling and Extranormal Secret Service – is funny and the only note I would offer on the “someone really wanted our acronym to spell S.H.I.E.L.D.” cumbersomeness of it would be basically the only note I would offer for the whole story in general – Lachman should have leaned into it more. Yes, there were Blackcoats (enforcement) and Whitecoats (research), and that was a lovely little chess reference. But make the different roles within C.H.E.S.S. reflect the pieces on the board. Make the leaders of each department Kings and Queens. Make a “take rook’ here with you / he’s really more of a pawn” joke. Go on. Live a little.

Okay, maybe that only would have tickled me and Lachman made the right call by not overblowing it. I’m not here to tell you dad jokes are a substitute for a good story. Or am I?

No, what we got here was a good story, and a good setup for a promising series. We even circle back around to the school and have some solid fish out of water / 21 Jump Street style antics, which we love to see. For a while I was theorising that Holly was older than she looked, but the story kept me guessing and I was ultimately satisfied with the reveal.

Speaking of things I was attempting to predict, this story’s setting is rich with potential and I was only mildly disappointed by how it was realised in this specific book. The cryonics lab? I actually made a note here: “If those old agents don’t get thawed out sometime to do old school shit, it’s gonna be a huge waste.” I won’t spoil anything but there’s still (I think) potential there, to say nothing of the labs and the catacombs. It’s all very neat. And it’s a series, so of course you don’t want to use up all of the cool set-ups in book one.

Some of it was a little illogical but it hangs together. Frankly if you’re trying to hide a valuable super-serum and you can’t inject it into yourself because that’s too obvious, then the lone solitary other person in your life at that time is also too obvious and – yeah, that could have been plotted a bit better? On the other hand, there are still things we don’t know about this origin story. It’s all fine.

Sex-o-meter

It’s a teenage high school setting with an undercurrent of paranormal secret agents (only science instead of spooky). So there’s a certain amount of hormones and awkwardness, but no sex. I’ll award it a warm, dry handshake with eye contact out of a possible just the word ‘moist’.

Gore-o-meter

Blackcoats has a nice little showcase of violence but nothing very harrowing. A lot of its grosser moments are conceptual rather than visual. Nature is awful, and I appreciate this more science-oriented look at a lot of classic fantasy and horror staples. Nevertheless, two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one.

WTF-o-meter

Like I was saying, there could have been more embracing of the things that distinguished this story from others in the sub-genre (the worms were amazing, never let anyone tell you they weren’t). I understand the desire to play it safe, but a vampire and werewolf odd couple buddy cop trope really needs to play up its differences. Personally I loved the bat-hybrid concept, and hope there will be more development of the echolocation and other things in later stories. Hollow bones for lightness was a nice idea but it felt like it was ignored when convenient. Adam should have been fast yet fragile, and perhaps his knowledge of pop culture and things could have been used as a strength, leaving martial arts and brute force to Holly to create a perfect symbiosis. Albino bat boy and gothy wolf girl could also have been played a lot more visually and to greater effect, and an aversion to sunlight being dealt with using sunscreen is just – nah, that’s a lot of work. And vampire bats don’t burn in sunlight so why would that be a thing? In any case, these aren’t so much WTFs as missed opportunities to be WTFs, y’know? I’ll give Blackcoats a templar knights’ tentacle monster dungeon in Hobo With A Shotgun out of a possible elven royal court in an alley in Hellboy: The Golden Army.

My Final Verdict

I’ll give Blackcoats: Dead Man Walking a good solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, for the very cool protagonist and villain concepts, the cute ending and lead-in to the series, and the enjoyable misfit-kids nerd-talk. Only thing standing in the way of more stars is … I don’t know, just something indefinable about how all those things could have been amplified more, and tied together better. Still, thanks for a good story!