SF that didn’t peg the engineer’s baloney meter!
Just a quick note of explanation, both of these novels use alternate reality as a way to get around some glaring scientific issues with their universes (one deals with FTL and the other with the Large Hadron Collider). I like my hard science fiction, but these days you can’t really write some types of stories using hard science unless you make up some new science. The trick is to add new science into the story in a way which doesn’t trip the baloney meter of us real science and engineering types. As a bonus both of my favorite SF reads in recent months were by new female SF authors, this is such a rare occurence that I had to feature them in a column here!
Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Masque, December 2013)
First of all, Your Humble Reviewers rarely buy books from authors and publishers we don’t know. This trade paperback had made its way to our local Barnes & Noble’s new SF section, it had a hot babe in a cool spacesuit on the cover and the blurb indicated that said hot babe was a techie. Okay, so it looked interesting but we had come to the store to buy something else, so we left without it. A couple of days later, having polished off the urban fantasies we had bought that day, I was wishing for that new space opera. Rarely do I find a new author who can do that genre correctly and not make me want to throw it across the room from the magitech used, but the cover and blurb of this one made me think this might be one of the good ones. Besides, as much as I dislike the way B&N decides what to stock, sometimes their system does work and a new gem will surface in the new section, which I would not have found on my own. I did something I haven’t done in years, I drove back to the store (its 25 miles away) just to get that book. Read the rest of this entry »
The Exploding Spaceship Reviews Some Recent Good Urban Fantasy Reads: The Cormorant, Black Arts and Ghost Train to New OrleansPosted: 15 March, 2014
The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, January 2014)
This urban fantasy/hard-boiled thriller stars Miriam Black, a woman with the paranormal talent of precisely predicting the date, time, and circumstances of anyone’s death. She does some illegal things to survive, usually conning or stealing from the unfortunate who wants to know about his or her demise.
Miriam and the people she encounters all get gleefully skewered, folded, spindled, stapled, and mutilated by Wendig; there is kidnapping, torture, and a paranormally-sensitive cormorant (yes, the bird.) in this story, as well as an appearance by Miriam’s mother, who is supposedly one of the reasons that Miriam left home. Miriam has one ally who genuinely likes her and helps her out, and since he manages to survive the story we may see him and his run-down Florida hotel again.
Miriam Black is a bad-girl heroine who has some serious issues because of all the morbid and gruesome imagery she has seen in her head. Her primary goal is survival, so she tends to follow the money, which always seems quite elusive. And when the con is on the other foot, Miriam does not react well at all, because people she likes are getting hurt, not just her.
Wendig has set his tale in a world of thrift-store shopping, seedy motels, fast food, public or stolen transportation, petty theft, and repeatedly experiencing messy and painful death; this is a far cry from the usual middle-class apartment, nice car, nice wardrobe and steady paychecks usually seen in urban fantasy. It’s action-packed, has a heroine who is best described as bat-shit crazy, and an engaging, twisty plot, but it isn’t for the faint of heart: Wendig pulls no punches, and some of the vile imagery he describes may have you reaching for the brain bleach more than once.
The Cormorant is Wendig’s third Miriam Black novel, and Your Humble Reviewers are sure that he will be gleefully torturing his protagonist in another volume. Wendig’s urban fantasy is much like his blog posts: well-written, profane, irreverent and hilarious, and never fails to keep you coming back for more.
The Exploding Spaceship Release Day Edition (a day late in US and a day early in the UK): Reviews of Emilie and the Sky World and the 57 Lives of Alex WayfarePosted: 5 March, 2014
Emilie and the Sky World by Martha Wells (Strange Chemistry, US release March 4, 2014; UK release March 6, 2014)
This is a sequel to Emilie and the Hollow World. Emilie has family problems and runs away from her aunt and uncle, and then finds employment and adventure with the Marlendes as they travel the aether in an airship, exploring the currents and the ways they could lead to alternate realities.
In this volume they end up in another world, a jagged, mishmash landscape that looks like it was formed from pieces of other places. They encounter a couple of different types of beings, one friendly and helpful and the other one not. The magicians in the crew get taken over by the bad aliens, who invade their bodies. This results in some adventures to keep everyone safe and to return everyone to their own universe, and members of a previously lost airship crew are discovered. Emilie discovers that a family member is a stowaway on the Marlendes’ airship, and with the help of Emilie’s plant-person ally Hyacinth, some ladder and rope stunts and harrowing mid-air transfers, almost everyone gets back eventually.
At first the story appears to be a “run-away-and-join-the-airship-crew” story, but due to the complex universe and multiple alien species found, it becomes more of a space adventure.
Emilie and the female scientists who employ her are not your typical females for this genre; they are self-reliant women who can and do defend themselves, and Emilie shows herself to be mature and quite a capable airship crew member.
This is an exciting, fast-paced adventure story with original characters and interesting steampunk technology. The tech is a tool for exploring, but the plot revolves around the characters, as it should. This is a good read for any age and either sex, and hopefully we will soon see further volumes of Emilie’s adventures.
The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare by M.G. Buehrlen (Strange Chemistry, US release March 4, 2014; UK release March 6, 2014)
This is the story of a teenage girl from Annapolis, Maryland, Alex Wayfare, who has had strange visions periodically thoughout her 17 years. She has two little sisters, one of whom has leukemia. Her parents are researchers at an institute for medical research.
Alex is a techie who likes to fix everything she can get her hands on, including her Dad’s old Mustang. This makes her a very odd girl and her school days consist of getting bullied and teased plus an occasional disagreement with her teachers, particularly the history teacher.
After a bad experience at school she runs off and hides in an abandoned auto repair shop to wait until the school day ends. She finds a message to her on a flyer on the wall which directs her to meet Porter at a restaurant in the historic district. Porter gives her an explanation of why she has accurate visions of historical events, but his explanation at this and at subsequent meetings just makes her more confused. Eventually Porter takes her to Limbo, what she knows as the black place before visions, and she is finally able to understand where her visions come from.
She asks Porter about some people mentioned in one of her visions, but he won’t explain. She gets upset and triggers a vision to the past right before she was born, and she resolves several mysteries while in the vision but she still doesn’t know where her soul-mate Blue is in her current time. They set up a meeting time during winter break, but this volume leaves her arriving in Chicago with Porter and seeing the fountain where she is to meet Blue, but we don’t know if he is there because that’s the end.
Alex is an interesting character and her visions give some quite shocking views of historical periods. The history seems well researched and her supporting characters add a great deal to the vision sequences. Obviously, there will be more adventures since we have been left on a cliffhanger. It will be interesting to see how long Alex can continue her adventures without the bad guys discovering her name. Having her soul-mate in the present day would help too, because they both have memory issues when in a vision.
Having a character with multiple lives is not a new concept, but the way this is set up is different, with bad scientists behind it and a unique explanation given about limbo. Also, other multiple-life characters don’t have as many lives as Alex, because hers go back into the B.C. era. This is an interesting adventure story which is fast-moving and entertaining, so it should grab the attention of teen readers. Although the main character is female, since she is a tomboy her main peer issues have to do with her geekiness and not her sex, so boys should be able to relate too. There are also plenty of male supporting characters including Blue who show up in many scenes. Because much of the book does not take place in a high school, there are still plenty of things to interest adult readers. The mystery of what is going on, how Alex got the way she is, and who is really the bad guy will interest everyone, even those adults who aren’t interested in a tale of modern high school.
After a four month hiatus, we return to reviewing!
So sorry for the downtime, but we had a parental heart surgery, several trips, and a house move in the last quarter of 2013 and the first couple of months of 2014. We should now return to our regular appearances on the pages of the magazine.
The last quarter of 2013 was a busy time for good anthologies. Having not read many all year, there were suddenly five which looked like good winter reads. Hank Davis of Baen edited both Halloween and Christmas anthologies. For those who like a good scary science fiction story, In Space No One Can Hear You SCREAM (of course it was released in October, 2013) contains a variety of old but not seen recently stories and some stories in a classic style from modern authors. All the stories have a spooky element to them, but none of them are gory. This volume contains stories by George R.R. Martin, Arthur C. Clarke, Neal Asher, Theodore Sturgeon, and several Baen regulars. One of the best things about Hank’s anthologies is his choice of content. Some science fiction magazines contain some stories which bear no resemblance to Your Humble Reviewers’ definition of science fiction (or that of anyone else who likes classic adventure stuff). Hank likes the classic stuff and writes some of it, too, so we rarely find a story we don’t like in his anthologies. So while we primarily read novels, a few anthologies get in which are either Hank’s, contain stories by people whose novels we read, or are edited by people we know.
Review of 23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd (Pyr, trade paperback, September 10, 2013)
This is the fourth Cassandra Kresnov novel.
Four years before the start of this novel, Sandy and Rhian had claimed asylum from the League on the planet Callay, the new Federation Grand Council location, a few years after the war between the League and the Federation ended. Since then about 50 GIs had arrived on Callay and asked for asylum there. GIs are synthetic biological people created in a lab by the League, but creating them broke the law, and it was concerns over the use of the technology used to create them which started the war. Using the technology to develop artificial brains on the order of humans was banned in the Federation with only very limited use of synthetic biological enhancements allowed for Federation military personnel. In the League use of the technology to provide uplink implants was extremely widespread.
Many of the GIs seeking asylum were the more intelligent higher designations who found jobs in the military or para-military with only a few non-combatant designations finding jobs in data processing or technology. Sandy, the GI with the highest designation of any who sought asylum, works for Callayan Security Agency (CSA) as a SWAT team leader and is seconded at times to the Federal Security Agency (FSA) which used to be the Callayan Defense Force (CDF). Read the rest of this entry »
The Exploding Spaceship Release Day Edition: Reviews of Under a Graveyard Sky by John Ringo and The Undead Hordes of Kan-Gul by Jon F. MerzPosted: 3 September, 2013
Review of Under a Graveyard Sky by John Ringo (Baen, September 3, 2013 hardback)
Under a Graveyard Sky is John Ringo’s contribution to the zombie-apocalypse genre. In this story the zombies are not hordes of shambling undead, but the living victims of a viral plague brought about by a bioterror weapon, and Ringo uses real science to explain why the infected people act like zombies.
The Smith family (husband and wife John and Stacey and their daughters Sophia and Faith) are doomsday preppers, people who are trained and ready for almost any emergency, as well as any conceivable end-of-the-world scenario. When John and Stacey receive the “Zombie Apocalypse” code from John’s brother Tom, they walk away from their jobs, pull their daughters from school and allow them to contact no one, load up their supplies, steal a boat, and head out to sea to wait out the carnage.
The family travels up the coast to New York, where Tom is located, but after some adventures in his office building and receiving some vaccine, they head out from the city into the ocean. They end up traveling down the Atlantic seaboard salvaging from groups of zombies and saving non-infected people. Their boat and the salvaged ones travel in a loose fleet of survivors.
Along the way the survivors encounter some larger ships that are infested with the “infected”, but they hope some survivors might be holed-up in some cabins so they fight cabin to cabin. At the start of the emergency, middle-school-age daughter Faith had been very excited to learn that their foes were rampaging zombies and had been very impatiently looking forward to shooting them. Wreaking such havoc loses its charm after doing it for seemingly endless days, however, and Faith and her teddy bear are not nearly as happy to be shooting everything.
John and Stacey Smith love their daughters dearly, but they also know that they need to keep gathering supplies in order to survive; Faith is the one best able to deal with the weapons and tactics needed, and Sophia is needed to drive the boat, so putting their children in harm’s way is unavoidable; Their survival, and possibly that of the rest of humanity, is at stake.
The family dynamic depicted in the story is very believable, with Ringo clearly stating that Sophia and Faith are based on his own daughters.
Under a Graveyard Sky is very much a Swiss Family Robinson-style adventure at sea with most of the other boats being full of monsters. It is a well-researched, plausible look at survival during a bioterrorism emergency. There are realistic gun battles with accurately described weaponry, and naval operations akin to those of the Coast Guard. The Smith family and their traveling companions are well-developed and all very strong characters. We will be seeing more of the Smith family in future volumes. If you like a good zombie tale, then this book is for you.
Review of the Undead Hordes of Kan-gul: Book 1 of the Shadow Warrior by Jon F. Merz (Baen, September 3 release, trade paperback)
Ninjas, samurai, zombies, evil wizards controlling nasty weather and tortuous landscapes, all components for an enjoyable weird fantasy tale with a strong Eastern feel to it. Sort of a literary version of a samurai and ninja buddy movie crossed with a Ray Harryhausen monster movie. Not much gun use, but many sword deaths, so definitely a normal Baen high body count. There are quite nice descriptions of sword fights without being overly detailed to pull the reader out of the battle. There is a female warrior and a female wizard (not the evil one) in the supporting cast and their relationship to the male characters is done well: everyone acts like colleagues, not silly people letting their hormones run their lives.
The plot in this volume is only the beginning of the Shadow Warrior’s wandering quest to prove he is ready to be a full member of his clan, so while the evil wizard and his zombies are dealt with, it is not the end of the quest. This will continue in Slavers of the Silk Road and The Temple of Demons.
Ran is an interesting character who is obviously a bit naïve about the world outside his clan, so he is learning how to deal with other people as he travels. The continuing relationship of the characters will be an interesting component of the later volumes. The landscape descriptions are quite vivid, with everything in the evil wizard’s lair being quite travel-unfriendly due to nasty traps, wild creatures, zombies, and magically-generated bad weather.
If you like a good adventure tale, a quest story or appreciate a good zombie/monster tale then this book is for you.
The Exploding Spaceship YA Release Day Edition: Review of The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond and When The World Was Flat And We Were In Love by Ingrid JonachPosted: 3 September, 2013
Review of The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond (Strange Chemistry, September 3, 2013, trade paperback)
This is a story set in a Washington, D.C., where all the pantheons of gods have been awoken and have been prevented from returning from the afterlife if they die, so dead means dead. As a consequence of this strange turn of events there are regular encounters with gods if you are in downtown DC. The trickster gods of the pantheons serve as a court to determine the outcome of problems between the gods and humans. The chaos of the gods’ power interrupts modern electronic communications, so DC is a little technologically backward, which is strange given the many first adopters of technology who live there.
The gods have their powers of myth but can be killed by magical and physical attack, so they fear death because they can’t return to life immediately like they could previously. DC is a weird place because power struggles for jobs, housing, and prestige all have a political bent, so having all the gods added to the mix makes it a very weird place (Your Humble Reviewers used to live in the DC suburbs) with even more strange power struggles.
Kyra is a teen who struggles with a complex family situation: estranged parents who live apart and a dad who is away for work sometimes at odd hours. She is rather rebellious but her dad is so wrapped up in other issues he just tries to ignore it. Her best friend Bree has a TV anchorwoman mom. They have a third friend, a youth named Tam, and the three of them make a sort of strange love triangle, with Kyra the old girlfriend but still friend and Bree wishfully watching and hoping for a chance.
Kyra has an encounter with Legba, a West African trickster god, and things proceed downhill from there. All three teens and their parents are wrapped in a save-the-world-from-disaster scenario which uses the DC landscape and building for things which you will have to read to believe.
This is an exciting urban fantasy adventure which hopefully will get further volumes. The characters are engaging and the setting familiar but with strange twists. One of the most enjoyable young adult contemporary tales set in the US that Your Humble Reviewers have read in a long while.
Review of When the World Was Flat and We Were in Love by Ingrid Jonach (Strange Chemistry, trade paperback, September 3, 2013)
The first comment has to be the wonderfully engaging name, which immediately lets you know it is a romance but has something strange going on, since we know our world is not flat but spherical. It is set in a small town in Nebraska, and the characters are all students at Green Grove Central High School. The story of Lillie and Tom is enjoyable and seems like an ordinary teen romance but Lillie keeps getting memories of them together and in love before they have even been on a date.
When she finally comes to realize the truth about her and Tom’s relationship, it is almost heartbreaking when the older characters try to keep them apart. Tom does some strange things during the course of the book because he is trying to keep from falling for Lillie, but it doesn’t work and he falls in love anyway.
There are the usual bullying activities going on at school and the risk-taking activities of the teens in their off-hours. Things seem like a normal small town until Tom reveals a truth about the universe to Lillie which changes the way she see things forever. This truth pushes the entire book into science fiction and causes you to reflect on Tom’s previous actions in a different way.
For those who like their romance with a great deal of trouble tossed in, like a good contemporary tale with a bit of an SF twist, then this is the novel for you. It has some well-developed characters and supporting cast with some strange and annoying parents thrown in there too. Definitely a small town tale since the teens all seem to drive and some of the scenarios wouldn’t work in a more crowded urban environment.
The Exploding Spaceship Special Pre-Release Dragon Con Edition: Review of Torchwood Exodus Code by John and Carole E. BarrowmanPosted: 30 August, 2013
This book doesn’t release in the US until later in September but for those of you at Dragon Con, John and Carole have promised to have copies available so they can sign them. So go find them in the Walk of Fame!
Review of Torchwood Exodus Code By John and Carole E. Barrowman (US paperback Sept 24, 2013 UK Hardback Edition September 13, 2012, UK paperback August 15, 2013)
A new Captain Jack adventure written by the Captain himself along with his sister!
Captain Jack is trying to investigate why some women have been driven crazy by their senses. He tracks the problem to Peru where he experiences some fantastical landscapes and meets some very interesting characters. The first chapters are set in 1930s Peru and in Part One Jack’s story alternates between past and present. Jack has evidence of alien involvement but it is not clear exactly what is going on nor why.
Gwen appears in Part Two of the book, directly following an appearance by Rex at the end of Part One. Jack meets up with Gwen, Anwen and Rhys about a third of the way into the book in a very unexpected and violent way. Gwen had been trying to keep from becoming a victim of the female madness and she has discovered something in Cardiff which is alien and connected to Jack in some way.
Eventually Jack is able to put some of the pieces together and solve the mystery which involves odd sensory input, a boat trip and some ancient Incan ideas. The Incan civilization is explored quite a bit in the book, with some views into older and modern ideas and how Jack fits into it somehow. This isn’t a culture which is a common background for books in English so it adds an even larger feel of mystery and magic to the book.
This is the best Torchwood book published to date, so if you are a Torchwood or Captain Jack fan then this is a must-read. If you aren’t familiar with the characters but like a good mystery, there is enough background in the book to figure out the cast of characters. There was a long delay in the release of this volume in the US, but hopefully the Barrowmans will be able to write more adventures for Captain Jack and the rest of Torchwood since we aren’t getting more on the TV.
Review of Crux: Book 2 of Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, paperback, August 27, 2013)
Nexus 5 was released upon the world in the previous book, Nexus. This volume is about the repercussions of that release. Kade watches all the interesting and wonderful things people are doing with Nexus, only interfering when someone is using it to abuse others. He deals harshly with such abusers by using the backdoors in the code, but everyone else wants these backdoor codes as well. His partners who were captured are tortured by the government to reveal the passwords, but they don’t know them since Kade changed them, so this causes even more problems when the government tries to use invalid passwords.
At the beginning of the book Kade is getting his eye and hand replaced in a clinic in Cambodia since he lost his originals in the fights in the last book. While he is recovering, the government increases its efforts to find him because they discover the passwords don’t work. He and Feng have to flee and end up running from temple to temple to stay ahead of their pursuers. Eventually a confrontation results in many monks getting killed and injured, so Kade and Feng head to Saigon to try to blend in with the tourists instead of hiding where others will get killed.
Several groups of people are looking in Saigon for Kade, including Kevin Nakamura and an Indian man named Shiva Prasad, who had to flee his homeland because he dosed all the coral with an engineered virus in order to help it survive. It worked but upset everyone because he didn’t asked permission and many believed it to be a crime against nature. Eventually Shiva Prasad’s people get Kade to their Burmese island which was given in exchange for help with their biotech program. Eventually Kade, Feng, Sam, Shiva, and Kevin are all on the island fighting for control of Kade and the children from the orphanage.
This second volume lets us see Kade get over his naïve thoughts of what others would use Nexus 5 to accomplish and we also see him mature a bit due to all the adverse consequences others experience because of him. He learns that fighting to control what people do with software after release is like trying to stuff a genie back into its bottle. When he looks at all the things people do with it, we get to see Ramez’s great imagination at work full speed, but to reveal more would spoil one of the greatest parts of this book, where we see Ramez Naam the futurist thinking about how the entire human race would use this software in people’s brains to do fantastical things.
Kade and Sam both have more mature moments when their stories are being told separately, and it is interesting to see how the changes in them affect their relationship when they get back in the same location. Sam’s past continues to be a strong influence on her decision-making because she expects the worst of everyone but Kade is using a more recent view to see the worst in humanity at times too. All the characters, even the supporting cast, are well developed and have great depth. We see the past of everyone and how it influences their present as well as how the shared history in different cultures can lead to different results with the same data. The settings in Asia are quite vibrant and having experienced China, Japan and Korea ourselves it really feels like you are there. Ramez’s extensive travel history was put to good use for this setting.
This book is a fantastic near future science fiction adventure with interesting neurosoftware which is implanted as a recreational drug. The software concepts depicted are realistic, but the use in human brains is obviously a bit vague on the details since our neuroscience isn’t quite on that path yet. The US government depicted is very scary but with the wrong people in charge we could be headed that way. It has interesting main characters who are college-age young adults with different types of childhoods. This makes the motivations of the characters different and sometimes confused and conflicted, so what could be a straightforward adventure plot ends up with many twists and turns. Any lover of science fiction adventure should read this book.
Review of Wrath-bearing Tree: A Tournament of Shadows Book Two by James Enge (Pyr paperback August 13, 2013)
Morlock Ambrosius has an adventure on his own in Kaen, a land of strange religions, when the ship he is traveling on is destroyed by fire attacks from the Kaen coast. After he makes his way back to the Wardlands, he is sent off on a ship again, but this time Aloê, the girl Morlock thinks he likes, is assigned to captain the ship. She grew up on the water and so is very much at home on a boat, but Morlock gets seasick, so he isn’t sure whether to be pleased or mortified that Aloê is on the mission with him.
Aloê and Morlock end up in Kaen on their own so it becomes an adventure in young adult relationships, which moves on to an adventure in sexual relationships and how one partner can be helped through damage done by previous sexual violence if they find the right understanding partner. The two get separated, but eventually meet up again and encounter members of Morlock’s family whom he has never met because they were banished from the land as punishment when Morlock was an infant. This is why he was raised by the dwarves.
The characters of Merlin and Morlock’s sisters are developed in this volume and their reactions to discovering Morlock is life partnered to Aloê by feeling how their magics are entangled is quite amusing. Morlock’s and Aloê’s relationship changes and takes on new dimensions as they share secrets and passions. Morlock seems immature at the start but once he discovers she isn’t perfect either, the relationship soon moves from slightly confused to very confident and adult. They are still journeying at the end of this volume so hopefully there will not be a long wait for volume 3.
This story is hero-journey fantasy at its best. The setting is interesting, complex, and has vast numbers of cultural groups that Morlock can travel through and encounter. Some of the characters have familiar sounding names but Enge’s versions are very unique. The dwarves’ society, their psychology, and the relationship with dragons are fascinating. The explanations of magic are also not your average fantasy trope. Magic is bound up with the essence of who a person is and is bound up with their inner energy and the place they reach when deeply focused. It reminded me of Asian meditation techniques employed to center and calm oneself. Morlock understands himself, Aloê and the universe so completely that his ability to make magical items and use magic is far beyond anything attempted by any of the others from the Graith.
There are sex scenes in this book, some of them quite detailed but only in places relevant to the plot and they are realistic and don’t have the characters doing physically impossible things. Definitely this is an adult book for very mature teens and adults. This is the second book in the series, following A Guile of Dragons, but the adventures share characters and have independent plots so if you get volume 2 first it’s not really a problem.