Constellation: An Edpool Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex-o-meter

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

Gore-o-meter

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

WTF-o-meter

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

My Final Verdict

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


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!


A Star Named Vega: An Edpool Review

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


Next up on the SPSFC list was A Star Named Vega, by Benjamin J Roberts.

What a fun story! It somehow managed to take a pair of teenage protagonists, and an interstellar-scale bit of worldbuilding and future history on a par with the prehistory of Dune, and make it work in an entertaining and very readable way.

Now, when I talk the big talk comparing the Vegaverse to Dune, I know that’s going to raise some eyebrows. Dune is one of the Sacred Texts, how dare I?

Well, fuck it. Come at me, nerds.

Besides, what I’m mostly talking about here is the Dune prequels, which I really quite liked and an awful lot of purist fusspots didn’t – specifically the Butlerian Jihad phase and the AI overlordship of the old human diaspora. Also, look, Dune is amazing but I don’t hold it in such reverence that I can’t say so when another book deserves to stand on the same shelf as it and not get beaten up by the Culture books and have its wallet stolen by the Foundation series.

Where the main Dune series is gothic and the Dune prequel series is Tim Burton gothic, however, A Star Named Vega is as colourful as a Paul Verhoeven adaptation of a Heinlein story. You know the one I mean. From that Alice in Wonderland meets Maleficent cover to the joyous post-scarcity utopian opening – that’s a lot of spiders! – to the slow but creepingly inevitable revelation of the big, dark questions underpinning paradise to the explosive ending, this book delivers. It’s fast and bright and full of cool science-fiction shit, and it’s just plain fucking entertaining.

Also it has a character named Brännström who likes semlor. So we have a little Swedish nod to go along with the Finnish nod I enjoyed in Shepherds. It made this little Australian exile in the Nordics very happy.

Compared to the easy interactions between the main protagonists, the ‘villains’ of the story seem a little stilted and one-dimensional – but that seems to be by design, as we learn more about the tragic history and the complex webs of propaganda and ignorance surrounding everybody. And while there was a certain amount of needless drama-add by the admittedly thirteen-year-old protagonist and her failure to divulge certain information … ehh, we’ll let it slide. It was earned, and it all turned out nicely. Or did it? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

The old philosophical dilemma of hardship vs. freedom; to remain primitive and in constant danger or to live safe as cattle; the idea that anyone who trades liberty for safety deserves neither … these are always timely questions for a global civilisation wading through the dark ages of social media and information technology and emergent ‘benevolent AI’ style advancement. While too much care and safety can be stifling – and in that, the glorious little seeds of chaos and the overall concept of the Arpex itself are very effective in dispelling such stasis – there is a lot to be said about well-meaning guidance and a nurturing, overruling vision. I don’t know, all I know is that humans are a savage species and something needs to domesticate us. We’re not going to domesticate ourselves.

Roberts does a good job walking the line between storytelling and soapbox-yelling, between drawing parallels to today’s news cycle and perpetual commercially-driven wars and making it all too much of an allegory. All the threads escalate and tie together, each character gets an arc of sorts, and you wind up caring about them all. Great job, and I want to read more stories from the Thirteen Suns.

Sex-o-meter

The main characters were kids, and not particularly horny kids. The story didn’t lose anything for not having sex in it, because everyone had slightly more important things to be getting on with at the time. I’ll give A Star Named Vega a dreidel out of a possible horga’hn.

Gore-o-meter

There was some fighting, some outright brutality, and one dude totally got cut just about in half by a femtoblade. Which frankly is what we like to see when Chekhov’s Femtoblade is introduced in the first act. Overall though, there’s not a huge amount of gore – just a suitable amount. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

I really enjoyed the slow reveal of the AI seeds and the interstellar civilisation they had created and now watched over and enabled. It wasn’t so much WTF as a dawning realisation that there was some shit going on. Lots of fun to watch it all unfold. Oh, there were some references to human digital transcription and posthumanism that made me think there could be more to talk about … but there are always other stories. At least I certainly hope there will be!

My Final Verdict

A well-earned four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale for A Star Named Vega. I really enjoyed this and I want to see more stories from the Thirteen Suns as soon as possible. Thanks for an entertaining and enjoyable read!


Shepherds: An Edpool Review

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


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

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

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

Just … you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we can all learn something from that.

Sex-o-meter

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

Gore-o-meter

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

WTF-o-meter

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

My Final Verdict

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


Silicon Override: An Edpool Review

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


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

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

What am I talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex-o-meter

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

Gore-o-meter

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

WTF-o-meter

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

My Final Verdict

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


The Awakening: An Edpool Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

I’m talking about Jay Beerman.

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

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

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

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

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

Sex-o-meter

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

Gore-o-meter

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

WTF-o-meter

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

My Final Verdict

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

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

Aw.

Anyway, four stars for The Awakening. Great stuff!


Eos: An Edpool Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what else have we got?

Sex-o-meter

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

Gore-o-meter

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

WTF-o-meter

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

My Final Verdict

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


 

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