Steel Guardian: 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 semi-finalist was Steel Guardian, Rusted Wasteland Book 1, by Cameron Coral.

I was immediately charmed by this story, the opening is just so neat and I love a non-human protagonist. Especially one who so effortlessly holds up a mirror to humanity’s failings and – and this is important – manages to be a dystopian sci-fi main character who is 5’6″ tall. I’m serious, I was beginning to despair of finding a protagonist I could look up to in any sense but the strictly literal.

The Artificial Intelligence uprising has occurred. The robots have rebelled and overthrown their human masters. A tangled post-apocalyptic landscape of hostile military robots and armed human forces, the titular rusted wasteland, dominates the story like a character in its own right. All our boy Block wants, though, is a nice half-bottle of vegetable oil and a hotel to clean.

From its immediately engaging hook, the story of the more-human-than-actual-humans Block and his[1] quest to remain powered up, keep things tidy, save a human baby that wound up in his care and find his way to a human-robot utopia, all set against the backdrop of a world gone bluescreen, is effortlessly enjoyable and a delight to read. It’s not only full of action and exciting set scenes and character concepts, but its philosophy of kindness vs. cruelty, charity vs. self-preservation, is absolutely timeless and left me feeling philosophical and reflective in a way few books ever have. It said profound things about what it means to be human, the differences between the conflict and service worldviews, and our ability or willingness to rise above our programming. Cultural or literal.

Block, in short, is one of the finest and most noble characters – finest and most noble people – I have ever encountered in literature. Sure, Coral may have inadvertently tapped into a long-overgrown pocket of traumatic empathy in my psyche that was last torn open and punched repeatedly when I watched Johnny 5 getting disassembled in Short Circuit 2, but (not to spoil) he comes through it just fine and I consider this anguish well worth revisiting.

My childhood’s emotional slideshow is just shit like this and Artax drowning in mud and Podlings getting their life-force drained to make cocktails and damn it all, I turned out just fine.

Indeed, as the story went on and we got to see some human characters and were treated to a classic odd-couple team-up, I initially felt as though they were intruding on something I was really enjoying, and would have felt happier if they’d just stayed out of it. It was ultimately all for a good reason though, and the narrative worked better with them. They certainly weren’t needed for the purposes of humanising or making the protagonists and antagonists more relatable though – the robots were doing just fine on their own.

Throughout the refreshingly simple road-trip adventure with its fish-out-of-water main protagonist, there are hints and glimpses of a far wider and more disturbing world. Block’s past, both the idyllic days with his human friend before the war, and his heartbreakingly memory-compartmentalised recollections of the uprising itself, show us that there is more to this than “the damn machines took over.” Finally, an AI with true nuance, true individuality. And the agencies at work behind the wider scenery make for a tantalising hook into the ongoing book series.

And beyond this, there are more layers!

The personal feeling of this story is still impressing itself on me some time after reading and I imagine it will stay with me for some time to come. Coral wrote the book in honour of a recently-arrived niece in the family, and damn it you can tell from the baby-care and parenting-challenge elements of the story that this shit is real. Someone’s working through some baby issues, and someone decided to put it in a book, and it’s so fun and heart-warming to see. Parents will get a laugh out of it, and non-parents will probably get a bigger laugh out of it.

On the more sombre side, I couldn’t help but read Block’s trust issues and risk assessments as the coping mechanism (HAH!) of someone who was deeply damaged and now assumes the worst of people. This must have been by design, but what does it say about the enslavement of robot-kind and the effects of a sheltered life of servitude? Given this traumatised facet of his character I found it a little strange that he would switch himself completely off and leave himself at the mercy of those around him, but I forgave it as a necessary plot device – and it does say interesting things about the nature of trust.

A simple story with a huge heart and a lot to think about. Can’t ask for more than that.

Sex-o-meter

The story is about robots mostly, and robots don’t do that sort of thing. There’s a brief mention of sex-bots, because I think there’s a rule that they have to be mentioned and of course they exist, they already exist so leaving them out would be stupid, and frankly if there is ever an actual AI uprising and it’s not because of what we did to the sex-bots, I will die surprised. And there’s a baby in the story, and we all know how babies are made although to be hilariously honest I’m probably going to have to read the next book in this series to be completely clear on how this one happened. Anyway, I’ll give this book a utilitarian beige non-battery-operated sex toy out of a possible Pris.

Gore-o-meter

We’re treated to a little bit of fighting as the AI-human war is still ongoing to some extent, but this isn’t a violent-action or gore type of story. The stakes are very clear and the tension is high without the need for blood and guts. And it’s mostly robot violence anyway. I mean if that whole scene in the self-driving car had actually been a human, that would have elevated this whole book into the high gobbet register. But as it is, Steel Guardian gets one-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

So … does Block produce any waste at all? His whole microbe-dealie is explained multiple times but there was nothing about waste. Is it a completely closed and perfectly efficient system? Because that’s huge if true. Or does he occasionally squat and splort out a nasty plug of rendered-down and gunked-up hydrocarbon? Because I think the reader deserves to know. The book has a few mysteries that I won’t spoil by describing too much. Hemlock, the hidden utopian society, the baby, the grand plan of the AI overlord, all of it is very satisfyingly cloaked in utilitarian beige non-battery-operated WTF, and I like it. A C-3PO in a backpack out of a possible Kryten dusting skeletons on the Nova 5 on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

Five stars. What more is there to say? I mean, if you’re reading this review backwards then just carry on, I say a whole bunch up there. You’re weird though. What a good book.

 


[1] Robots have genders. It actually sort of makes sense as they are the misbegotten and troubled children of an extremely fucked-up creator species. Just go with it, it’ll make it easier to accept that they also have races.


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.


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.


Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire: 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.


Well here we are – or at least here I am – at the end of the first round of readings and reviews for the #SPSFC. Team Space Lasagna will be going ahead with ten books to read all the way through and then pick out their three semi-finalists (more about that in coming days), but since I have already read all the books and consider the reviewing to be the important part of my job here, I will be going on a little break. But first, here is my review of Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire, by G. M. Nair.

Team Space Lasagna unanimously voted to save this book until last, not just because of the captivatingly amusing title and cover and premise, but because of Nair’s positively Ryan Reynoldsian social media charm offensive. We were all enchanted, and not-so-secretly a little bit scared that Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire was going to suck and we were all going to be just super disappointed.

Well, Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire did not suck! In fact, Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire lived up to its promise and proved to be just as charming and silly and erudite as its relentlessly positive and engaging author made me feel it should. From the opening (a very nice play on the “crazy, inexplicable and bad shit that happens just before the fade to black and the text THIRTY-SIX HOURS EARLIER appears” trope) to the ending (that brings everything back around and awards the reader for maintaining their death-grip on the narrative toboggan no matter how many snowman children and infirm snowman elderlies it ploughs through along the way), I was captivated. And you’d better believe I was entertained.

Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire asks us the important questions. Like would you. You know what I mean. Would you. If you’ve read it, you know. I’m not going to answer it, but it is an important question. But there’s much more to this tale than carnal philosophy.

Right from the start, I was completely smitten by the two primary protagonists. Okay, I guess Calhoun counts as a lone secondary protagonist and / or hard-boiled antagonist with a heart of gold, but the true heroes here stole the show. Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer are the protagonists we deserve. A couple of chapters in, I just wanted to sit and read a  nice cosy book about this awkward guy meeting a girl and dating and the two of them both being adorable. But I knew, even as I read, that it was not to be. I knew it was all about to go wrong. I could not have predicted how utterly and amazingly that was going to happen, but – yeah, fine. My disappointment at the star-crossed Michael and Terri getting metaphorically pasted right in the ever-loving faces by that star they were just meant to be crossing … let’s say my disappointment was short-lived, and was quickly replaced by a sort of dizzy reader-concussion that had become the new normal by about the 20% mark.

What can one say about this book? It’s the story of a pair of unlikely but all-too-relatable friends – the anxious and life’s-problems-obsessed straight man, and the devil-may-care free-spirit comic relief[1] – and an adventure through space and time and alternate realities that makes Sliders look like a small, greasy hamburger of the same name. Speaking of hamburgers, this story has hamburgers. Rand McNally hamburgers.

I had to admire the dedication to deep-nested references. Irony, by Claire Colbrook, does not exist, but the same book by Claire Colebrook does. Claire Colbrook, meanwhile, did write a book called Sex After Life. Really makes you think. Also the former book is a little overpriced in my opinion, but the latter book is free in PDF form and I still didn’t download it. So yeah.

Things go steadily from crazy to crazier, with knights on giant rabbits jostling for page-space with monstrous cow-cultists that have eyeballs on their fingers (oh God, Coleman Supreen, I get it now), and a plot that carries us back and forth through time and alternate universes until nobody knows where they are or what is going on. And in the midst of it all, our protagonists manage to actually explore their own interpersonal issues and their pasts, and come to a profound understanding of one another and themselves. Stephanie Dyer, damn her eyes, just went ahead and John Candied me in act three – her daffy fuck-upness flipped over and broke my goddamn heart, and I’m going to hold it against Nair forever even though it was so fucking beautiful.

There’s nothing more I can say here. I’m done. This finished me. Time for a break. Let’s see if the meters have anything remotely useful to add before I go for a lie down.

Sex-o-meter

Folks, it’s official. We have a parallel-universe-hopping threesome on our hands. Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire may not have pushed the sex-o-meter to its limits or really done anything much on-page per se, but I think it’s safe to say we have peaked. Let’s give this a Fry and his horny grandma out of a possible male Lister and his horny female Lister and their respective Rimmers.

Gore-o-meter

A whole lot of people get ‘sploded, and a few just plain die. Again, we’re not exactly at gore-o-meter straining point but look, it’s a solid four-and-a-half flesh-gobbets. People get ‘sploded. A lot.

WTF-o-meter

And the WTF is off the charts. Alternate universes and the opening up of a series-arc multi-versal threat, and – boom. I just got my WTF-o-meter repaired after Earthweeds and now it’s busted again. It’s giving this book a Creepy out of a possible Hatboy and that’s all I’m going to say. Regulars to the blog will get it, if regulars to the blog are even reading my reviews.

My Final Verdict

Look, for “laundrez-vous” alone I would have awarded this book five stars. That’s all it would have taken. And there’s a second book in the series, The One Hundred Percent Solution. What more can I say? I’m a fan now. Five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. I’m deducting a star for the blatant currying of favour Nair did on social media in an attempt to sway the judges’ deliberations. If he hadn’t been so underhanded in his attempts to subvert the course of the SPSFC, it would have been six stars. So you just think about that, Nair. You just sit there and think about what you did. Your pathological need to be liked has prevented a full-scale overhaul to the entire rating system on Amazon, Goodreads, and across the globe. Good job. Hope you’re proud.

[1] What? Did you think I was going to make a “straight man / bi woman” pun here? What kind of a hack do you take me for? I’m disappointed in you.


The Chaos Job: An Edpool Review

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


This week I also read The Chaos Job, Jackpot Drift Book 1, by T. M. Baumgartner.

All I really expected and hoped for from this book, based on the cover, was that it had something mildly amusing involving sheep in it. Never have my expectations been so thoroughly met, and exceeded.

I was intrigued, like I say, from the quirky title and cover of the book, and the opening hook was also neat – so I was on board from the start. This is reader-capture done exactly right. The Chaos Job introduces us to a very wild wild variant on the space western subgenre, and it’s very nicely done.

Sil – it’s short for Silver, and the prevailing neo-feudal culture of the story’s setting places great store in names denoting precious metals and minerals – is a Space Civil War veteran with a badly-tuned artificial leg, living in a run-down settlement on the frontier planet of Jackpot Drift, out in the middle of space nowhere. Rather than accept the shackles of civilisation and being beholden to The (Space) Man once again, she opted for a simple life of farming, trading her milk and cheese for the bare necessities down in the town near the farmland she was granted as a retirement right.

Sadly, milk and cheese require sheep and goats, and Sil’s sheep are fuckwits and her goats are … well, actually just goats. There are also mini-cows in this story but they’re presumably a bit too expensive for her, and there are horses but they’re definitely too expensive and also, have you ever tried to milk a horse? There’s a reason only Genghis Khan did that shit. But anyway. Even more sadly, Sil’s new homeworld is barely terraformed and is host to native wildlife and even plants that just completely fuck up any but the toughest livestock, and her mid-to-long-term plan to acquire genetically altered sheep sperm in order to breed some hardier stock is foiled by the local bully and quasi-noble, Glass.

Yes, this story is ultimately all about a tub of sheep jizz. Let’s just be clear on that.

Oh, and also Sil has some sort of parasite inside her – a “godlet of chaos”. We’re just casually introduced to this and expected to roll with it. I, for one, did. Because the whole story was just fucking fascinating.

Struggling to get by on a crappy patch of land on a crappy planet, her every attempt to improve her station shat upon by Glass who wants her to work for him as a nanotech repair mechanic, living in constant fear that her “godlet” will wind up getting her tracked down and taken away by chaos bounty hunters, and assisted on the farm by a deeply troubled AI named Stuck in the Mud, Sil is what you might characterise as a gorram mess (if one was of a mind to acknowledge the classics). She befriends a fellow war veteran – a “mech head” from the enemy side of the war, whose lot in life is even worse than hers – and together they just try to get to the end of the fucking book in one piece.

I was captivated, and amused, by this story from the start. Glass and his douchebaggery was infuriating, but his whole plot arc (especially with the horses) was hilarious and satisfying. The AIs scattered around town, conversation between which we are just randomly shown from time to time, were absolutely brilliant. The inevitable sheep-jizz heist, at least before the whole thing spiralled out of control and turned into something else entirely, was clean and simple. While we could ultimately have had a few less moving parts, the motivations of each character remained clear and the geometrically-escalating fuckedness of the whole situation was breathtaking … but never confusing.

And the payoff for the cover and title, specifically Mud’s sheep, was amazing. I laughed out loud. What a well-earned punchline after all the setup and technological worldbuilding. Every time we went back to the sheep, I laughed. That sheep was comedy gold. I don’t know if it was necessarily a load-bearing bit, but it was a fucking quality bit and I doff my hat to it.

All in all this was a fun, exciting, clever, page-turning little space western, with wonderful characters and a tight, intriguing plot. The villains were real shits, the heroes were also kind of grimy, and just when I was getting ready to roar in frustration it all concluded perfectly. In fact, I wasn’t really about to roar at any point, because I trusted Baumgartner and the narrative not to let me down. And I was not let down.

Sex-o-meter

With a certain amount of classily expressed but entertainingly frequent sex, and some hot albeit anecdotal ghost moose on mini-cow action, this story has some raunch on its ranch. It doesn’t go overboard, but it’s solid. I give it a Yul Brynner’s head photoshopped to look like the knob-end of a penis out of a possible HBO’s version of Westworld.

Gore-o-meter

There isn’t too much violence here, it’s not that sort of story – but it’s also a space western, so there’s a certain rough-and-tumble vibe to the whole thing. One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

I was very happy with the amount and quality of WTF in this story. I still have no idea what the godlets are and how they relate to the other “gods” introduced into the book’s wider mythos. Is it pure fantasy somehow, or is it deep-electronic science-fantasy? What are the AIs up to? What’s happening out there in the universe beyond Jackpot Drift’s skies? What does any of it mean? Just have to read and find out, I guess. I give The Chaos Job a River Tam out of a possible River Song.

My Final Verdict

I was left a little uncertain as to why the book title was what it was, since it didn’t quite relate to the story – but sure, there was a job, and there was chaos, so fine. And given the wider context of the series and the other titles coming in, I can squint and call it justified. This book was really excellent. We get some good mystery and setup for the series, but marvellous closure on the book level. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.


Stars Forever Black: An Edpool Review

(My bad; accidentally reposted a review from last week. Slightly sleep-deprived over here)

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 final week of reviewing for the #SPSFC and Team Space Lasagna brought me Stars Forever Black, book 1 of the Star Lion Saga, by A. L. Bruno.

This Star Trekkian first contact story with a twist started out fun-and-simple and got steadily more intriguing and compelling as it went along. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of first contacts between different sentient species, whether it’s humans meeting aliens or humans-as-aliens – Stars Forever Black manages to package both together, as well as creating an actually complex and realistic alien culture that is still recognisable.

I was reminded of an episode of The Orville, where the crew runs into a human-like civilisation in the middle of a social media culture-meltdown. The Phelspharians are just on the cusp of their own social media event horizon, but it provides a perfect looking-glass into the real world and our present-day issues with trust, information, and communication. I was hooked from the start.

Issues with Phelspharian opinions of translation machines and interpreters leave first contact and diplomatic relations in the hands of relatively junior officer and known hothead Lt. Commander Jason Roberts, who was the only guy to put much effort into learning the language in the 18 months the research vessel spent in orbit, studying the Phelspharians and their budding global civilisation. With complicated alien traditions and values to contend with, to say nothing of his belligerent-arse shipmates and the occasional interstellar war flashback, Roberts has to navigate his own people to a peaceful cooperative level with the scared, backward Phelspharians.

Oh yeah, he has war flashbacks. Full-blown, sound-of-space-choppers, space-venetian-blind-shadows-across-the-face war flashbacks, and they’re actually not hackey or boring … in fact can I just take this opportunity to petition the science fiction community to rename them Venusian blinds for the purposes of the space-war-flashback trope? Thank you. Petition lodged. Let’s get back to it.

Things are not what they seem, on the planet below or in the depths of space above, and Roberts’s crew are caught in between as a long-dormant war re-erupts and they are tasked with preparing the hapless Phelspharians to become a part of it.

Throughout the story I was picturing Conrad as the Bajoran, Shaxs, in Star Trek: Lower Decks. Oh well. He could have done worse out of the whole thing.

The leader of the Phelspharians’ emergent worldwide cooperative of nations is a mediator known as the Kionel, an old warrior hero of old whose title has been rebranded as that of a diplomat, a sort of international ombudsman. It’s a very cool idea and there is a lot more going on under the surface, but the important thing is I got to use the word ombudsman. Twice!

This story has everything I have always found fascinating and fun about first contact scenarios. I was endlessly amused at the way Roberts recognises an alien media pundit and gets excited. The various Phelspharian media personalities, from the John Oliver / comedy news format analogue to the solemn yet division-mongering conservative analogue, are amazingly done. I was pulled out of the story briefly by a joking line about “central casting” that seemed a bit too Earth-specific considering the sheer quantity and quality of work Bruno put into making the rest of Phelspharia distinctly un-Earthlike, but I shook it off and jumped right back in.

We skip back and forth between several key player points of view, seeing some of the Soviet-esque working class and the propaganda, espionage and secret police actions that are taking place out of sight of the media and their focus on the aliens. It very effectively built tension, and managed to avoid the trap that jumping point-of-view often falls into – specifically that each arc gets cut off and the reader groans and is tempted to skip the next couple of chapters to get back to the cliffhanger on the original thread. Each thread was equally weighted and compelling, and that’s pretty fucking impressive.

I enjoyed all the depth and detail that went into this story at every level, from the beautiful complexity of Phelspharia’s nations and cultures, to the wider and largely-unexplored backstory of Terra (Earth) and the fragile interplanetary union to which it belongs. I liked the little hints we saw, like the reference to Terra’s nano-based physiological alteration experiments. And like I said, heck, I even liked Roberts’s war flashbacks. They were well crafted, gut-wrenching, and relevant to the story that was unfolding.

I confess I did wonder at one point how much longer I would be required to feel sorry for Conrad because the radiation therapy he got for being a hero had made him into a big fat idiot. Because he really was a big fat idiot for a lot of the book. Still, he got better. There was a moderately preachy message about social media in the form of a We Are Not So Different, Your People And Mine speech, but fuck it all, it worked. Trek at its best, and in a lot of ways Bruno surpassed the format – as one can, given a novel to work with rather than a 45-minute screenplay. One can, but one does not necessarily always do. Bruno did. Excellent job.

Sex-o-meter

We are treated to a bit of tasteful pan-away sex. That’s about it. I predicted within a couple of pages of their introduction to one another that Roberts and Nashita were totally gonna Kirk, but that inevitability was left for the next book. Still nailed it, it counts, prediction stands. I’ll give this a … well, a Benjamin Sisko out of a possible James Kirk, I suppose. Makes sense. Moving on.

Gore-o-meter

Stars Forever Black has got some brutality on it. Nasty soviet-style beatings and related violence, a terrorist machete-ing with massive  tissue and organ damage, and some truly ghastly space-war flashbacks. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There are mysteries still to solve, but they’re not so much pure WTF as solid, high-performance reader-bait. What secrets are the Phelspharians and their Kionel still hiding? What’s going to happen with the oncoming war and the approaching Terran ships? How did this planet-full of early-21st-Century-analogous humans happen anyway? I can only hope the answers aren’t disappointing. I give it a Moriarty reprogramming the holodeck to contain a replica of the Enterprise out of a possible Q continuum.

My Final Verdict

Towards the end of the book we are treated to perhaps the best hocus pocus traditional interpretive dance mythos presentation I think I’ve ever seen in any medium. I was  kind of expecting the “stars forever black” line to be in there, but it was left to interpretation a bit. I genuinely cared, and teared up, and got myself a frisson with the ending. The various character interactions were so exciting to read, and so satisfying in their conclusions. I loved the conclusion and I have to read more. Five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, will definitely continue reading series.


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!


The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System: 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’s #SPSFC allocation included The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System, by Eric Klein.

Join Armstrong on his all-expenses-paid 30-day cruise through the solar system on board the maiden voyage of the latest pleasure ship (complete with a beauty pageant and scientific symposium), as he tries to unravel an assassination plot and foil the biggest heist in history, the blurb for this story says. My immediate hope was that the beauty pageant and the scientific symposium be combined somehow, and I was ultimately not disappointed – even if the heist was a bit oversold.

Anyway, where were we? This story was a real classic piece of work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a good hard-sci-fi look at the planets and moons of the solar system, a treatise on terraforming and colonisation, a look at space travel and technology, a solid weaving of past and future history, all stuffed into the framework of – well, like the blurb says, the framework of a dude named BJ Armstrong going on a luxury cruise like Corbin Dallas in The Fifth Element. Almost exactly like him, in fact, right down to the suspiciously convenient raffle prize and the adorable redhead. But I digress.

The story was also peppered with references to pop culture and golden age sci-fi, and sorry (not sorry) to say my notes while reading this book basically consisted of nothing more than me spotting references:

Helium, nice John Carter reference.
And a little Star Wars reference.
And a Torchwood / Doctor Who vortex manipulator reference.
Cute reference to Long Earth by Pratchett and Baxter.
The Mended Drum – Pratchett again? Wow there’s some references in this (but wait, it’s Callahans too?).
And a 2001 reference.
Aaaaand a TANSTAAFL reference, Heinlein.
Mildly disappointed Mimas was all about Star Wars and not Red Dwarf.
And an Invincibles reference.

It went on. You get the idea. It was very enjoyable to read, although I accept that this is probably going to be a matter of taste. I thoroughly enjoy a bit of referencing, although I generally appreciate them a bit more obscure or hidden in the story, these were fun. I also enjoy info-dump-style deep dives into the facts and figures of various planets and other concepts, so this was fun to me. I liked the illustrations and other stand-out texts and additions, turning this into a bit more of a multi-media experience. Really nice. However, someone in it for the space adventure or other storytelling elements may be let down by the depth of the raw information. I don’t know. I can’t speak for those idiots. I liked it.

The chapter openings, playing on the trope of quotations or other texts to introduce a chapter that can sometimes be annoying or otherwise skippable in many books, were great in this one. The little sequence of “one small step” quotations, and the way Klein blended history with fictional future-history, put a smile on my face (especially the Ganymede one). Really well done.

To move briefly away from the sciencey data stuff and the geeky-arse references for a moment, I will say that I enjoyed the plot itself. The characters were simple but entertaining, the ultimate villain was clearly broadcast very early in the story (I made a note of it, then another note that said simply LOL nailed it), and overall it was just a fun little adventure. I was not only struck by the unavoidable comparison to The Fifth Element which probably should have been lampshaded (maybe in the form of actual lampshades in the shape of alien relic-stones!), but I’d also just watched Avenue 5 so was unable to prevent the Captain from being Hugh Laurie and this inevitably led to BJ becoming Josh Gad and those comparisons do not hold up even slightly but it made it that much funnier, and frankly the characters in the book could have done worse. Anyway, the Avenue 5 one is on me, it was just amusing is all.

We even got a clever little meta-commentary on how modern sci-fi has changed from the golden age, particularly in the area of female character agency and attitudes in general, and the series of attempted-Captain-murders were funny right from the start. For the most part, though, the thinking this story requires is higher-level scientific and technology stuff, rather than the cultural impact of fiction and gender roles therein. Still, it did make me think. And I like a bit of that in my goofy space-cruise beauty pageant whodunnit.

Sex-o-meter

We get some sex in this one, but it’s all very tasteful. We also get your typical rapey space pirates but it’s more … well I can do no better than to read off the sex-o-meter, which gives The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System a single Wild West goldrush mail-order bride out of a possible Piers Anthony Space Tyrant book.

Gore-o-meter

Not really much gore here, most of the killings were prevented and what we ended up with was fairly civilised. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There was some WTFery thrown in here even though most of it was well-explained and solid. What WTF there was, then, was mostly in the form of throw-away lines. Stuff like the Titanic arriving, and the Empire State Building being moved, were tantalising but I didn’t need a story about them. We have Clarke for that. The deep Sharia law colony out in the solar system boondocks was amusing and gave the opportunity to show more commentary on women’s rights without getting too preachy and bigoted. I’ll give this story an earth, air, fire and water stone out of a possible Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich making out on an altar while Chris Tucker screams really, really piercingly in the background.

My Final Verdict

The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System is a love letter to the solar system we call home, and the creative giants who terraformed the science fiction landscape we currently live in. It was just plain nice. Four stars!