Abandoned – by W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #2

Science Fiction

DAW Books; November 27, 2018

436 pages (paperback)

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9 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Donovan #1—Outpost.

Welcome to Donovan.

Supervisor Kalico Aguila has been on fragile terms with Port Authority since she decided to remain planetside, rather than inverting on the Turalon. Rather than join the settlement and perpetually butt heads with the council, Aguila has chosen to carve out a mine in the wilds—one the wilderness is slowly but surely reclaiming. The trees take a more active approach on Donovan, often rootching forwards, covering miles in a single day. To make matters worse, a murderer is hanging out in Aguila’s camp, one pushing Dan Wirth’s agenda. As if Donovan wasn’t enough.

Mark Talbot is a dead man walking. Marooned in the middle of the bush, he’s alive at all solely because of his armor, which thus far has survived every threat Donovan has thrown at him, from quetzals, to nightmares, to death-fliers. But what it can’t do is feed him, or—something that’s his larger issue—keep a charge. The battery packs were tested and maintained for combat; somewhere around 1000 hours. So far Talbot’s has seen twice that, and the cells are slowly depleting. So when he sees his first sign of human habitation, Talbot has no choice but to throw himself on their mercy. What he’s confronted with, however, are three scientists with a flock of children—and the quetzal that one of them has bonded.

Lieutenant Deb Spiro is losing it. A marine with a head for taking orders but not giving them, she has been suddenly thrust into command, a position that sees her instability and lust for violence take center stage. In Port Authority she sees everything that’s the problem with Donovan, especially one Talina Perez. And Spiro isn’t great at talking through her problems.

Talina Perez has made mistakes. In this case it’s the woman whose husband she killed during her time as the supervisor’s assassin. A mistake she’s desperate to atone for. But she’ll have to do far more than that if she wants to survive what Donovan has in store.

For when Spiro makes a mistake that might just threaten to kill them all, Perez will gamble everything on an outcast, an alien, and an infection in her TriNA. As sides are chosen and tensions run high it becomes very clear that the two sides can’t live together. But with Donovan mounting an offensive, neither might survive at all.

On Donovan, only humans are more terrifying than the wildlife.

“At this rate, how long before the forest reclaims the whole farm and smelter?” Kalico asked woodenly.

“Maybe a couple months?” Ghosh hazarded. “But that’s just a guess. I’m not a biological science kind of guy.”

“Remember how you laid out a line of that toxic smelter waste?” Ituri gave her a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what to say except this is Donovan. The trees never even hesitated. Radioactive or not, they just rootched their way across.”

“Rootched?”

“That’s what we’ve been calling it. Sort of a mix between roots and ruts and wiggling through the ground.”

A great return trip to Donovan, Abandoned tells an excellent followup story to the science fiction debut, Outpost. Turalon has departed. The planet is once again on its own. It’s up to the people to band together—us against them—and survive all the planet has to throw at them.

Only, people are, well, people. They don’t always get along. Honestly, I feel like this is an understatement. Just look at the history of humanity: I don’t see why it should be any different on an alien world.

And neither, it appears, does W. Michael Gear. Humans are the most terrifying part of Donovan, though the planet tries hard to give them some competition. A conspiracy of quetzals, on a molecular level. A horde of death-fliers. Trees that eat people, spaceships, and, apparently, toxic waste. And yet even in the face of all that, the humans continue to squabble and kill one another.

The problem, such that it is, is Dan Wirth. The best villain you love to hate. And yet NOT the villain of Abandoned. I guess the author thought it was too early in the series to put a bullet in the bastard’s head. A shame, that.

Anyway, instead of Wirth, we’re given Spiro, who is a bit one-sided as villains go. Or indeed, as people. Now, I’m not saying Spiro is poorly written, as I’ve met a number of marines I feel could encapsulate her perfectly. Suited to violence, good at taking orders, but little else. And no, this is not me saying that all marines are psychos—just some of them. Some very, very few of them. The point is that Spiro, while being a bit boring as a villain, isn’t a bust as a character. Nor is she poorly written. Just I think we could’ve done better.

Spiro aside, I flew through this book! I loved the addition of Talbot (especially given his circumstances), the return of Talina and Trish and Kalico and others. I binged the final 250 pages in a night, and had to resist going immediately to the next one as it was 6am and I needed to sleep. But I wanted to go back to Donovan. And that’s what I’d recommend you doing; don’t just GO to Donovan, go back, time after time. I sure hope this series continues to deliver like I expect it to!

Ymir – by Rich Larson (Review)

Standalone

Science Fiction

Orbit Books; July 12, 2022

391 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

A dark, otherworldly retelling of Beowulf takes place on a dystopian ice-world where the company owns and tells all. A tale of two brothers separated by time, space, and bad blood. Yorick hunts monsters—specifically the eyeless grey terror known as the grendel, that lurk beneath the earth on many company worlds. He left home early, after a spat with his brother that cost him his jaw.

And now he’s back in the one place he hoped never to be again: the ice-world Ymir.

Thello is a mystery. In Yorick’s mind, his homecoming would coincide with his brother’s apology—that or a fight to the death—but upon landing Yorick finds neither. In fact, he hasn’t seen Thello at all, instead greeted by a company man Dam Gausta, his former mentor, the woman who ushered him into the company; and a hulking red clanswoman, Fen, who clearly wants to gut him at first sight. At first Yorick thinks that she must know him—but no, he’s been gone decades, and the Butcher that Cooked the Cradle must be assumed to be well and truly dead by now.

Without his brother, there is only the hunt that matters now.

But this grendel is different than the mindless killing-machines Yorick has dispatched in the past. Beneath that cold, clammy skin there is definitely a very alien mind at work, but there is also something disturbingly human to it as well, something Yorick recognizes and knows all too well.

Thello.

Written in the style of Takeshi Kovacs, Ymir takes a fast-paced, minimalist story designs of Richard K. Morgan and applies them to a Beowulf inspired tale, complete with nordic themes and terrifying grendels. A dark, gritty tale takes place on both sides of the ice of Ymir, even plunging deep underground in pitch-black tunnels where only those desperate or alien live.

The pacing itself is strange, but it is what the story makes it. It’s the way the story is told; in glimpses—with chapters so short we might as well be visiting the story as opposed to spending a book’s length with it. We jump from action to action, spending just enough time to progress the plot—but no more.

While I loved the dark, gritty feel of the ice-world Ymir, there was never enough of it to go around. When you’re only spending one to five pages in the same place, it’s hard to get a real sense of worth from it. Thus, instead of a full-body immersion, this was like a bath taken in quick dips, where you get a shock of cold that eventually builds up into a deep freeze, but only after a long period. It was an interesting way to tell a story—and not one I entirely enjoyed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative between the two brothers, though it didn’t last as long as I’d’ve expected, coming to a cliffhanger well before the close that felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a mystery by the time it was resolved at the end.

TL;DR

While there was more than enough to like about Ymir, very little about the tale wowed me. It did prove a great read and a good story besides, as well as an interesting and unique retelling/tale based heavily on the epic Beowulf. But there was just too little there: too little time spent in any one place; too little depth on any of the supporting characters; too little backstory on the company, the grendels, Ymir itself, anything of the world to make it feel real. Overall, while I enjoyed pretty much everything I saw from Ymir, I’d’ve liked to have seen more of… pretty much all of it. For what is a tale told in glimpses than no tale at all?

Annex – by Rich Larson (Review)

The Violet Wars #1

Scifi, Dystopian, Aliens

Orbit Books; July 24, 2018

317 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

Peter Pan meets Independence Day in Annex, where aliens isolate a small city and attach clamps to the necks of all adults over the age of 16, essentially turning them into zombies—called “wasters” by the Lost Boys that still run the streets. But few of these waifs remain free. The rest of the children have been rounded up and collected into warehouses, where they are implanted with parasites and kept drugged, waiting for whatever nefarious plan the new overlords have in mind.

When Bo escapes from the warehouses, he wants nothing more than to reunite with his sister. Instead, he finds the Lost Boys—or rather they find him.

Violet—a transgender girl—is our main link to the group, led by influential Wyatt and his followers. Unlike Bo, Violet isn’t disappointed the world ended. In fact, she feels liberated. The world ending changed her life—but for the better. And she’s never going back. In this new world she does what she wants, when she wants, as the person who she wants to be. And yet her struggle isn’t complete. There’s still something for Violet out there—and her path to it leads through Bo.

And so these two and the Lost Boys must confront the apocalypse before it’s too late, and before the aliens complete whatever it is they’re up to.

So what do I have to say about the aliens, about the characters, about the world? Not much, to be honest. Other than Violet and Bo they’re pretty much a wash. Wyatt and Bree are the only other characters of note, and both of them are chaotic—though in different ways. Though as the two leads define sooo much of the story, essentially they’re everything important about it. Which is both good and bad. On one hand it’s disappointing that the characters suffer so much of a drop-off from primary to secondary, but on the other, at least the important characters have their shit together. The world and the lore are both equally disappointing. Neither do we know or discover much about throughout the entire story.

Luckily the story itself was entertaining. A no-nonsense plot about alien invaders and the fate of the world, science and action, atmospheric tension and subtle horror—I mean, there’s not a whole lot to complain about. Or analyze. Or… write more words for.

There are a few holes in the world-building that does exist: such as the electricity being out for months though the characters constantly seem to forget it and expect something different. And I really hate the: “it was just a few days, but felt like a lifetime ago”. It’s overused and ridiculous.

TL;DR

Annex is an entertaining read, if a bit of a far-fetched one. Full of action and mystery, deep lead characters, an engaging plot and interesting story—the book is one that certainly starts out on the right foot. But a flawed premise, one-sided secondary characters, and more than a few missteps along the way slow it up. Annex is definitely an example of world-building in a bubble, as the known-world is very much trapped in a bubble. While this can heighten the suspense, it also limits the scope and weight of the story. And as little is ever revealed about the world outside our little bubble of reality, the mystery and suspense can only deliver for so long. When the end comes, it brings with it a sense of fulfillment of the plot and character arcs, but little of the fate of the world itself. All because the world never much seemed in danger—only a piece of it did. All in all, I’d definitely say that the good outweighs the bad and recommend this for anyone who’s a fan of dystopian or young adult, alien invasions or science fiction—particularly where deep issues exceed particularly deep scientific lore or world-building.

Prison of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (Review) + Blog Tour!

I absolutely love the cover—especially that of the paperback version that I completely failed to illustrate above. Its glossy, black background and golden cage, overlaid with bright blue tentacles works in a way that this picture just can’t convey. Huge props to artist Kieryn Tyler for the design!

Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2

Scifi, WORMholes

Angry Robot; April 26, 2022

261 pages (paperback)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot #AngryRobotBooks) for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

• Doors of Sleep Review •


“They invented multidimensional travel but they haven’t figured out how to make guns?”

At one time, Zaxony Delatree worked as a harmonizer in the Realm of Spheres and Harmonies. Then, following the death of a patient—who died in his arms, covering him in her blood—Zax fell asleep, only to awaken on another world.

About one month later, on his twentieth world, Zax met Ana. Less than a day later, he knew he never wanted to leave. Something that… could never be. So he fell asleep with Ana in his arms. And she travelled with him, through the place between, awake. Her mind couldn’t handle whatever she saw, and fled Zax immediately upon his waking. Though he searched for her, eventually Zax grew tired, and fell asleep—never to see her again.

On his 20th world Zax found love, only to lose it on the 21st.

Thirteen hundred worlds later, Zax found something impossible. He’d reunited with Vicki and Minna following the events of Doors of Sleep. The closest thing he’d ever had to a family was back together, even though he feared he’d never see them again. Shortly after, Zax found Ana.

Prison of Sleep skips forward a time from this meeting, so you’ll have to wait a bit to see how it went down. There are a pair of POVs within: Zax, who looks forward; and Ana, who looks back. We find Zax alone once more, traveling into the unknown. Only this time, while he may not have any idea where he’s going, Zax is following a specific path—a trail left by the Cult of the Worm.

The Cult worships the Prisoner: a god imprisoned in the place between worlds that can only whisper to its subjects as they traverse the place between. These followers it has gifted with the ability to Travel—done via a parasite injected into their bloodstream. It wants only two things from them: to Travel to new worlds and recruit further devotees who will do the same. The more Travelers, the more Wormholes in the ether. The more Wormholes, the weaker the stability of the Multiverse. Only when the Multiverse destabilizes completely can the Prisoner ever hope to escape.

When Ana found Zax she recruited him into a secret war against the Cult, one that he was only too willing to join. But now that he has, Zax is having second thoughts. Once more he’s lost Ana, Minna, and Vicki. He’s lost his new friends, his new home. But he has a plan—and while it may not reunite him with his friends, it may well save them all.



“What I’m hearing from you is that the Cult of the Worm is horrible and they suck.”

“They knew what they were getting into. When you declare war on everything, you have to be prepared for everything to fight back.”

Prison of Sleep explores one the biggest unanswered questions left by Doors of Sleep before it: what happened to Ana?

Ana, as it is known from the first few chapters of the first book, was Zax’s long lost love, first companion, and lost her mind after traversing the void while awake. When Zax and Ana are reunited at the end of Doors, we are promised the continuation of their story—but who would’ve guessed just how far the rabbit hole went?

While Doors was more of an adventure driven via exploration of its sole POV, Zax, Prison is more of a mystery, slow-paced thriller, and character driven title about the relationship between its two main protagonists: Zax and Ana. Now Doors does feature the same style of slow-paced thrill later on, so it shouldn’t be an entirely foreign concept. And… while I say it’s a “slow-paced” thriller, I guess it really isn’t. Both Doors and Prison are rather short books—running between two and three hundred pages—so once things start happening, they don’t have too long to lounge around before the story winds down. It’s more that these two stories feel more leisurely in their approach to telling. The stories were both good, immersive, interesting, highly entertaining, and no trouble to read whatsoever. It’s just that there… there aren’t a ton of heart-pounding thrills, pulse-racing action, or the like that you’d find in most good thrillers. Instead, it’s narrative driven; a tense, atmospheric adventure through the multiverse—on a mission to save the multiverse.

Prison of Sleep features a back-and-forth, alternating POV structure that I’ve seen before in books like the Boy With the Porcelain Blade, where the first perspective takes place in the present and the second takes place in the past—1, 2, 1, 2, in that order, until the end. Now, I have some qualms about this approach—as I’m not sure I’ve really read anything that deploys it very successfully. At a certain point what has happened in the past becomes clear in the present long before it’s time for the big reveal. Prison can’t escape this particular issue, as long before the end I had figured out what happened when Ana finally caught up to Zax, along with the aftermath. What I had NOT figured out, however, was that while I’d assumed this to be the big reveal, it um wasn’t. Instead, there’s a twist come Ana’s final chapter—one that caught me completely by surprise.

Otherwise, it’s more of the same exciting adventure from Doors of Sleep. Only Zax knows he’s not alone anymore. And instead of wandering aimlessly, he’s a man on a mission. While the mission itself feels a little forced, a little cliché—it’s still a great read. I really can’t object to anything too strongly or find much of a problem with any of this. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m fairly certain you’ll enjoy the second. If you were bothered by cliff-hangers, or empty threads in Book #1—well, #2 ties everything up quite nicely. No major issues, no problems getting through it, or getting immersed in the tale. I’d certainly recommend checking it out!

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

Stars and Bones – by Gareth L. Powell (Review)

Stars and Bones Universe #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Titan Books; February 15, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
8hr 28m (audiobook)

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6.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When worst came to worst, the Angel stepped in to save us. Not an actual Angel mind, but super advanced aliens that stepped in in humanity’s last hour and saved it from destruction. So, kinda an actual Angel. Something that saved humanity. Or, rather, saved the Earth from humanity.

Now, cast out upon the stars, humanity exists on a multitude of great Arkships, where everything is provided and no one is left behind—a true paradise. And so the fleet wanders, knowing that the eye of the Angels will forever remain on them, and knowing that they can never return to Earth.

Eryn is a scout pilot. Together, she and her ship, the Ferocious Ocelot, scout the edges of the Arkships’ path as they wander through space. When her sister Shay disappears while responding to an alien distress call, Eryn insists on being part of the crew to find her.

Candidate-623 is a lonely rock, but harbors something both terrifying and deadly. Something that might spell humanity’s doom should it reach the Arkships. When the crew is attacked, Eryn races to warn the fleet, all the while dreading whether or not this certain something might have followed her home…

“Holy shit,” she breathed, “You are not going to fucking believe this.”

And she was right, I didn’t. At least, not at first. Because high above the atmosphere, something vaster and older than the Earth had reached down and snatched every ICBM from the sky, every torpedo from the ocean, and every tank shell, mortar round, and bullet from every battlefield on the planet.

And is was not at all amused.

Man, this was a weird one.

First off, if you’re put off by language, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or terribly done romance—maybe skip this one, eh? Otherwise, read on.

It started out like a house on fire: an extraterrestrial attack right out of the gate that quickly transformed into a desperate race against time. That transformed into a… mystery? Whereupon suddenly introducing several new characters and plot-lines around the third- or halfway mark. The last third read a bit like the latest Star Wars movies, where they just ran with whatever thing first came to mind (despite it making little sense in the overall narrative) and made sure to add plenty of action sequences.

Beware spoilers ahead for the romance! If you want to avoid them just skip the next paragraph.

The romance was… cringeworthy. What happens between Eryn and Li isn’t so much a will-they-or-won’t-they as it is a why-is-something-going-on-i-hadn’t-noticed. What starts out as a one-night stand (or, a not-even one-night stand) in the face of a certain-death mission, slowly resolves into… nothing. There are a couple of kisses, interspersed by long gaps where Eryn looks at Li like a guest, but a stranger. Seriously, they talk only a handful of times—and it actually equates to anything meaningful once. And yet I’m supposed to believe that they’re madly in love by the end? That Eryn is so smitten with the person she routinely describes as a stranger that she actually says “I realized that I was always going to love her unconditionally and forever” at the end. Now I realize that some people can go head over heels damn quick but… were they reading the same book I was, or did I just miss something? Because this romance seems so forced it literally made me cringe, and gape when they so unexpectedly ended up in love.

In addition to a truly cringeworthy romance, the conclusion to the story was a bit of a blur. By which I mean confusing. I’m not going to get into it because of spoilers, but… I spent half of the time lost and the other half either experiencing deja vu or wondering how it’d possibly come to this point. But despite all odds when the end actually came, all my questions had been answered. As far as I could tell, all major threads had been tied up. It was extremely odd, but extremely impressive.

Yes, there was a talking cat, no, I don’t want to talk about it.

Despite it all, Stars and Bones wasn’t bad. It had a solid story, so long as you overlooked all the tangents, pseudo-parenting, and the romance (ye gods, don’t get me going on the romance again). A race against the clock as humanity faces extinction. Where Eryn must do everything she can to save the human race, despite the fact that all of it should be so, so far over her pay grade. From an action and adventure stand point: it was a decent read; there was a lot of both action and adventure. As an existential crisis: it wasn’t bad; it tackled several surprising issues like the nature of love and friendship, parenting, existence, and perseverance. As a mystery: it was crap; a bit like playing pin-the-tail while ignoring any and all hints or clues—you’re bound to get it eventually, monkeys and Shakespeare and all. As a book though… Stars and Bones was certainly a mixed bag. It had a lot of strong points, but some weak ones as well. And there was a lot to unpack.

I believe that was the biggest problem I had with Stars and Bones: its identity. This is simply a case of trying to do to much. In its bones, this was a Science Fiction/Space Opera. But with a little bit of thriller thrown in. Political thriller too. Romance, as well. Mystery. Adventure. Allegory for life. Philosophical endeavor.

TL;DR

There’s a lot to love about Stars and Bones, partly due to the fact that there’s just so much going on in it. Too much, I’d argue. A science fiction/space opera by nature, the story tries to hit up every single genre on the way from start to finish. Thriller. Romance. Mystery. Philosophy. Existentialism. The list goes on. And in the end, there was just too much going on. Stars and Bones couldn’t seem to make up its mind on what it wanted to be. And while it pulled some of these transitions off seamlessly, others it definitely didn’t. The mystery and romance, to start. But either way a number was done on the pacing; what started out as a house on fire quickly transformed to a barnburner, then an… allegory for life? A decent read, but one that I just never could get a handle on. I promise you—there’s a good story in here somewhere, even if I could never find it.

Audio Note
I suffered a few burnouts reading this. I started it only to lose interest fairly quickly. Part of this could be down to timing—early March is a busy time of year for me, then I got the flu immediately after. But then these both happened in the early part of the story, when it’s all action all the time in Eryn’s POV, and we’re just learning the fate of Earth in Haruki’s. Eventually, I picked it up as an audiobook and read it to fruition. Rebecca Norfolk did a great job—most of the time. While her reading of Eryn and most other POVs proved excellent, whenever she contrived to do an accent it… just sounded ridiculous. Frank was passable; Sheppard and Ginet were decidedly not. The AIs were night and day; the Ocelot was great, while any others were flat and emotionless, even when they seemed to be expressing emotion.

Diablo Mesa – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #3

Thriller

Grand Central Publishing; February 15, 2022

368 pages (ebook)

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3.0 – 3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Grand Central. All opinions are my own.

Yeah, there’s a reason I couldn’t land on an exact rating for this one. Read on to find out why.

If you’re not familiar with the series or wonder how we’ve gotten to this point, here are my reviews of the first two books:

Old Bones (Nora Kelly #1) Review

The Scorpion’s Tail (Nora Kelly #2) Review

Nora Kelly has a job to do—it’s just not the one she ever expected.

Former lead archaeologist at the esteemed Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, she is approached by Luccas Tappan, a wealthy and eccentric billionaire and incidentally the reason that she is “formerly” at the Institute at all. See, only hours before Nora was asked to lead a dig at the Roswell Site—perhaps the site of the single greatest conspiracy in American history. Unwilling to be mocked for the rest of her probably short career as “that alien archaeologist”, she refused. But then, the Institute wasn’t really asking at all. And Nora wasn’t backing down.

Enter Lucas Tappan, handsome and persuasive billionaire who’s ready to write Nora a blank check in return for her services. Yeah, a blank check. From a billionaire. And even for a successful archaeologist like Nora Kelly, it’s really, really hard to say no to that.

And so she leads the dig to uncover what really happened at Roswell. But she’s going to need some help.

After her initial excavations uncover a couple of murder victims, Special Agent Corrie Swanson is asked to investigate. But what she finds only begets more questions than answers. And after carrying on with her own excavation, Nora’s path does as well. But just what exactly is going on in Roswell? And is it really aliens? And is there really a government conspiracy that will threaten the lives of the entire team, or will the desert—and the little grey beings—claim them first?

What makes a good series? After starring as a mainstay in Preston & Child’s Pendergast series for several of the first ten books, Nora Kelly was granted her own spinoff, and given her own co-star, Corrie Swanson, who played second fiddle to Pendergast in several more. The premier, Old Bones, was pretty good, but far from captivating, falling especially flat in its last third. A few leaps in logic really ruined what could have been a great debut.

Three-quarters of the followup, Scorpion’s Tail, wowed me. But again, the final hundred or so pages were quite a letdown. It makes some rather large leaps of faith with little or no evidence or justification beyond gut-feeling behind them. It was still an interesting read—just not a great one.

Which brings us to Diablo Mesa.

This one started out interesting. An excavation of the Roswell crash site? A possible government conspiracy? A bit of danger, adventure, and romance thrown in? Yeah, sounds like a pretty great read!

Which it very much was—for the first 75%.

Then it crashed and burned. Much like the alien spacecraft—I mean, “weather balloon”. And also like the rest of the series before it; all failing at the same point in each book.

So what can I really say about it? As it turns out, not a whole lot. Until that three-quarters mark, I was pretty much captivated. It was a great read; despite the obvious government conspiracy, despite the alien buildup, despite the kinda ridiculous romance(s), despite all the technical terms and archaeological process (take it from a former archaeologist: it ain’t interesting. Archaeology is a bit like war—99% of it is incredibly boring).

And so when it failed—at the 75% mark, like I KNEW it would—it was a disappointment. And so much of one that that’s most of what I remember about it, nearly two weeks later. Not the plot, not the thrill, not the conclusion (that really tried to turn that failure around)—but the failure itself. This one collapsed for the same reasons as those before it: gut-instincts and ridiculous leaps of faith. The resulting chaos was a mixture of bad plans and terrible logic, and the resulting fallout almost unbelievable chance working up to a happy ending. Happy, so long as your favorite character wasn’t any of the bit parts. In other reviews I might clock these as spoilers, but they’ve been done time and again in this series (and the Pendergast before it, at that), so I’ve pretty much come to expect them. So when I say that Diablo Mesa is a solid 3 to 3.5 star book, believe me that no one is more disappointed by this than I am.

TL;DR

75% of Diablo Mesa was gripping, thrilling, and a middle-finger to those two books before it. Or to most of the last half-dozen of Preston & Child thrillers. It was going to succeed where they could not. Not make the same mistakes, not falter in the final stretch, turn the entire series around and finish out an amazing story. But then. A leap of faith. Impossible logic. Another ridiculous, underdog story and a plan that would never work on paper but somehow ends up doing just that.

I mean… it’s really frustrating. This one fails in the exact same spot as the two before it. And even though the ending is actually, legitimately good—it’s not chilling in the way it should have been. Upon finishing Diablo Mesa I had the same reaction that I have writing this review nearly two weeks later: disappointment. Because it could have been great. But it was ruined for the same reasons, at the same time as those before it.

Mickey7 – by Edward Ashton (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Cloning, Aliens

St. Martin’s Press; February 15, 2022 (US)
Solaris; February 17, 2022 (UK)

304 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
Author Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press, Solaris, and Rebellion for providing me with an ARC! This in no way affects my review. All opinions are my own.

Mickey7 is an Expendable, as was Mickey6 before him. And Mickey5 before them. All the way back to Mickey Barnes, a historian from Midgard with no options, no useful skills, and no other choice but to volunteer for his position on the expedition to colonize the ice world Niflheim. For Expendable was the only position he qualified for, the only one the expedition had trouble filling. For one would have to be insane to to volunteer for it. Insane, or desperate.

While an Expendable is the least desirable gig on a colonyship, it’s also a vital position. They can go where robots cannot—into the active core of a fusion engine. The can work systems meant for human hands—such as outside the radiation shielding on a spaceship. They can scout the deepest tunnels or highest mountains where a machine might otherwise be destroyed by acclimate weather or disaster. Not that an Expendable can’t be destroyed. They certainly can; it’s an integral part of the job. But while machines have advanced quite far by this point, an Expendable holds one key advantage over them: they’re cheaper.

Thus Mickey is scanned and reconstructed every time his predecessor dies—over and over til the expedition runs out of material to clone him or dangerous jobs for him to do. And it’s not likely they’ll ever run out of danger on Niflheim, where if the temperature doesn’t kill you, the insect-like natives probably will. But when Mickey7 falls down a hole into one of the deepest tunnels on Niflheim, he does the one thing his crew had never expected.

He survives.

And upon returning to base, Mickey7 comes across Mickey8—something no Expendable should ever see. For not even serial killers or child-rapists are loathed as much as duplicates, and if Mickey is discovered, then both of them can kiss their existence goodbye—something neither want, but what Mickey7 has gradually come to fear. For now he’s pretty sure that when his life ends, it won’t restart again when he’s Mickey9. After all, he can’t very well be Mickey8, can he?

But when the native species begins snatching humans from Niflheim, it’s up to the Mickeys to save the day by doing the one thing all Expendables are good for: dying.

He runs both hands back through his hair.

“I don’t know… I don’t know… they didn’t cover this situation in training.”

That’s the truth, anyway. Training was one hundred percent about dying. I don’t remember them dedicating much time at all to staying alive.

When I started Mickey7, I figured it’d be a nice diversion from all the fantasy that came in January, a quick read to start of the hectic month of releases February promises to be. But while I certainly got through it quick, Mickey7 left a lasting impression. In fact, it’s not only the best book I’ve read thus far in 2022, and one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in some time, it’s also probably the best clone-themed book I’ve read, well, ever.

We follow Mickey’s POV throughout; he’s the one and only lead (told in third person). But which Mickey? That’s the trouble when dealing with clones. Which is the real one? Or are any “real” at all? Well, the book actually addresses this (and more) all while following one (or more!) Mickeys through their adventures within.

When talking about a science fiction thriller that specializes in cloning, the characters are really where you want to start. How are the clones as characters? Do they feel real, do they feel human? Now there’s almost always a sect in any given story that is against the idea of cloning. Usually religious or moral or philosophical. This is no different. The “Natalists” in this view clones as abominations, empty shells pretending to be human, and a mockery of all that God intended. For his part, while Mickey Barnes was never a natalist, by the point he reaches Mickey7, he’s not sure what to believe. And while most of the characters in this are quite strong, it’s Mickey7’s examination of his past and future states that make him so compelling.

Is he real? Well, certainly he can feel and die, so probably. But is HE Mickey Barnes? He can remember Mickey Barnes, along with all of his experiences as Mickeys 2 through 6, but only the parts that he uploaded to the cloning device. Otherwise, watching through his supposed memories from that time might as well be viewing the visions of a madman. An Expendable’s main duty is to die, and by the point that the text starts, Mickey7 has come to fear death. Over the course of the text, Mickey7 will share his current situation with memories of “his” past (via typically alternating chapters). While some of these did feel a bit like info dumps, the only time I was really bothered by this was toward the end, where I felt them sapping from the pace of the story. Otherwise they’re short or relevant enough that I didn’t think they detracted from the plot. In fact most often they added to it, and I actually came to look forward to them—be it either discovering what had happened as Mickey4 or 5 and how they died, or understanding just a little bit more of the lore surrounding the universe. One of my personal favorites is further on, when we discover just what makes duplicates so universally despised.

The supporting cast is also quite good. In a colony of 200ish, Mickey knows pretty much everyone’s names. But he’s not on great terms with them all. Especially given his job as an Expendable and all. Which makes total sense. If some dude dies all the time, you’re probably not going to be thrilled to spend a lot of time around him. But he’s got a girlfriend, a best friend, some acquaintances, and a whole lot of people who hate him. While not all the named faces get fulfilling roles, the named characters that Mickey does get on with (or very much doesn’t) have backstories, motivations, and ambitions all their own. Everyone has a different motive; which works well together in a story all about survival.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. Okay, so… there are two of us. Step 1) Don’t tell anyone. Check. No one knows—probably. 2) Keep anyone from finding out. Also check. One of us will probably die soon; Expendable and all. But with a crew of only a couple hundred and a small colony, there are only so many places to hide. 3) Don’t make it worse. No problem. In these science fiction thriller nobody ever makes any bad decisions. It’ll be fine.

So the story is all about mitigating and dealing with what follows, when things don’t go exactly to plan. Because when has anything ever worked out 100% like you thought it would—in real life, or a fictional dystopian world inhabited by ice monsters? As expected, Mickey7 blends excitement with humor. Very well, actually. It’s often dark humor, which I found paired quite well with the somewhat ominous tone of the story. Niflheim—as you might guess from the name (especially if you’re at least somewhat familiar with Norse mythos)—ain’t exactly a cheery place. So what follows is a tale of disaster mitigation that’s part comedy, mystery, thriller, adventure set on a scifi hellscape with hostile aliens and the constant threat of death—that’s also being deconstructed as part of a clone’s philosophical crisis. With… himself.

If nothing else I’ve said convinces you to try this book, I guess let it be the age-old question: will we get to see a Mickey9?

TL;DR

My average reading rate for a 300-odd book is about a week. It usually takes me time to warm up to the lead, the characters, the story, and really get into the swing of things. I finished Mickey7 in just over a day. That alone should tell you something. If not, maybe the clone questioning his humanity while trying to avoid actually, physically strangling himself trope will do it. Or that it has really very good ratings thus far. Or that it’s a story of damage mitigation set on an frozen world with hostile aliens where the entire environment is out to kill the colonists, but a multiple is the one thing that they can’t stand. Or that—in spite of how all of that sounds—it actually comes off as damn well realistic …should hopefully be enough to get you to give this a try. I loved it. I hope you do, too.

Discordia – by Kristyn Merbeth (Review)

Nova Vita Protocol #3

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; December 7, 2021

464 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the Nova Vita Protocol Books 1 & 2.

Review of Fortuna (NV#1)

Review of Memoria (NV#2)

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

While I usually try to abstain from language in my reviews, some of the quotes below may contain some. If you foul language is a deal-breaker for you, maybe don’t read this book.

All I had to do was… absolutely nothing. But I couldn’t even get that right. It seems I’m always finding new and improved ways to fuck everything up.

The Kaisers return to space, after the events of Memoria leave them homeless. But while they are together as a family, they are not all together as a crew. Following his betrayal during the war on Nibiru, Orion is back, where he is more or less welcomed with open arms. Daniil, on the other hand, is less so. The former Titan Sergeant may be a war criminal, but his motives are not trusted—even by Corvus, who knows him better than anyone.

Likewise, the crew of the Memoria are not universally trusted or welcomed among the planets of Nova Vita. On Nibiru, the IA has declared them all fugitives and war criminals, despite their hero-status among most of the populace. On Pax, their documents are not accepted, and are still waiting for permission to land on the largely desert world. On Deva, they are… tolerated, so long as they have something to offer: mostly consisting of goods scavenged from Gaia and Titan—the two worlds where they are most welcome. But even that is about to change.

As the system readies for war once again, the Kaisers go from simple war criminals to something more, and are almost universally hunted. Only Pax (which still won’t let them land) isn’t actively trying to capture or kill them. All for the forbidden intel they’ve gathered on the Primus—knowledge that is worth far more than just their lives. But while this information may finally do them in, it may yet save them, and the entire system of Nova Vita as well.

I was more afraid to fight than I ever have been before, because I have never wanted to live more than I do today.

Discordia concludes the Nova Vita Protocol, wrapping up all major storylines with a nice bow and flourish, while leaving a return to the universe possible, if not evident. The story is definitely the reason to read this one, especially if you’ve been following it from Fortuna. I certainly had some issues with the book, but really none with the story itself. If nothing else, Kristyn Merbeth knows how to tell a story, and does her best not to leave anything out when wrapping it all up.

But while I’ve enjoyed the Nova Vita protocol thus far, it hasn’t exactly been perfect. In fact, one of my main complaints thus far has been that the planets don’t really feel like planets. As the Kaisers fly through the system, they visit each world, every time landing in the same city or port, and at no time really exploring anywhere else. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule—in Fortuna, we did visit two whole locations on Titan, but then were quickly removed from the planet entirely; in Memoria, there was a bit of roving around Nibiru, but it was mostly just the ocean, and there wasn’t any further description of anything else—but coming into Discordia, it seemed that there was but one city on every planet, and nothing else worth caring about. I am happy to say that this is not the case for the third book …to a point. When landing on Gaia and Deva and Nibiru, we still only land in the same city, but manage to explore a little more of the worlds themselves. But… just the area surrounding the capitals. A little. Pax actually features more than one city, though little description is given to either, so they might as well be the same. There hasn’t been any real effort made to make the planets seem like, well, planets. It more feels like we’re moving between three or four cities, while nothing outside their limits matters.

In fact, while Discordia does try to correct the issues I had with its previous installments, the attempts never seemed all that comprehensive. In fact, it tries to do some many new things, that it kinda gets in its own way. The exploration is one; there is an attempt to expand the worlds, but not all that much. There’re more glimpses into the history of expansion into Nova Vita, but not many. The non-romantic, non-familial relationships do take center stage early in the text, but then are never really revisited. All in all, there is an attempt at expanding the scope of the universe—but it’s a bit of a half-assed attempt.

The romance is another thing I’d like to address. Though Memoria may’ve cleared up Scorpia’s love-triangle, Discordia comes back with its own in the form of Corvus. Now, I’m not a big fan of love-triangles (or romance (as a genre), really), but Corvus’ was done extremely well. Whereas the continuing romance between Shey and Scorpia begins to feel a bit forced, the one involving Corvus is just the opposite. It is subtle and enigmatic, blossoming in the background over all the books, before really becoming something tangible in the latter half of the third. Just as Scorpia’s caused me to lose interest, Corvus’ reinvigorated it. (That said, I did appreciate the effort the author made to illustrate that the Scorpia-Shey thing was far from a storybook romance—that it took time and effort, went thing bad spells and indifference and anger and strife. At the end it did feel more real, though still a bit forced).

TL;DR

Overall… Discordia was quite the mixed bag. It’s certainly a must-read for anyone who’s reached this point of the series, though if you didn’t like the content of the books thus far, you’re not going to be any happier with the conclusion. While the final book in the Nova Vita Protocol did try to address some of my major issues with the preceding entries, it didn’t really try too hard. There’s a bit more exploration of the planets outside their one hub, but not too much and not too far. There’s a bit more detail and lore, but nothing important, and not all that much. The romance replaces one love-triangle with another—although this one is entirely more well done. It’s… urrrgh. Frustrating to describe. I’d recommend Discordia for fans of the series, or those who’ve gotten through Book #2 and want to see where it all ends. For those who’ve yet to start the series… while the story of Nova Vita is strong, it’s really the only thing that is. The rest isn’t bad, exactly… just maybe don’t expect too much.

Inhibitor Phase – by Alastair Reynolds (Review)

Revelation Space Universe
Inhibitor Sequence #4

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; October 12, 2021 (US)
Gollancz; August 26, 2021 (UK)

454 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Gollancz and many, many thanks to Orbit Books for providing me with a lovely, physical ARC! This in no way affects my partiality, or my cynicism. All opinions are my own.

Please Beware Minor Spoilers for the Revelation Space Universe.

224 years after the reappearance of the Inhibitors, humanity has become an endangered species, hiding in the galaxy’s darkest corners. Miguel de Ruyter lives on the airless world of Michaelmas—a godforsaken, pockmarked world at the edge of known space. Here, hidden in caves deep below the surface, humanity ekes out an existence. Three thousand people call Sun Hollow home, making it the largest known human settlement in space. Though for de Ruyter, it’s the only known human settlement.

But things are about to change.

When de Ruyter heads topside to destroy a colony ship—worried that the Wolves (the Inhibitors) will detect the presence of so many humans, the people of Sun Holloware prepared to destroy the newcomers before the they bring the Wolves down on Michaelmas—he comes away from the ship with a startling discovery. A lone sleeper casket, fortunate to survive the explosion. More fortunate still, the occupant, a woman known only as Glass, seems in good health if rattled by the experience. But when de Ruyter returns her to Sun Hollow all that changes.

It appears that Glass was not the desperate refugee that de Ruyter had taken her for. Within days of landing on Michaelmas, she has the colony on its knees, defenseless before her. They can refuse her nothing, but Glass only wants one thing from Sun Hollow: Miguel de Ruyter.

One man in exchange for the colony. And if de Ruyter agrees to go quietly, they’ll undertake the mystery that Glass came to Michaelmas to solve. The enigma of the Knights of Cydonia, a way to defeat the Inhibitors, a lost world known only as Charybdis, and the long-dead Nevil Clavain.

“Why’d you shoot it?”
I glared at him. “Would you rather I
hadn’t shot it?”
“I’d rather those other ones weren’t suddenly taking an interest in us.”

On the whole, Inhibitor Phase was an excellent read, just what I was hoping for for my return to the Revelation Space universe. I’ve only read the opening novel, Revelation Space, which only just hints at the wolves’ existence—but I still found this a satisfying continuation of the universe. Additionally, I think that new readers won’t have to hard of time of things. Inhibitor Phase doesn’t throw you in the deep end; instead building the universe from the ground up from the safety of an isolated haven before introducing the universe and history at large. If you’re a fan of the series you’ll probably know all these things already, but shouldn’t be too put off by the amount of hand-holding it does in the opening Part One.

Inhibitor Phase is written in first-person POV, and told over seven distinct Parts, which take place over a total of about 60 years. There’s a helpful glossary and timeline at the end, as well as a list of key characters and note on chronology. I used these all the time to square what I remembered with what I was being told—and it’s an incredibly helpful detail to have along. The events within are set after most of what happens in Absolution Gap (which I’ve heard is depressing), and while the tone isn’t completely positive, it’s certainly more so than not at all.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Inhibitor Phase! The story flows along really nicely after it departs Sun Hollow, and I had absolutely no problem getting along with the story. It reads quick and to the point, with a bit of flair, a bit of drama, and a bit of pace. In all honesty, I think it could get away with being 50% longer. I actually kinda felt that it glossed over some things in the interest of time; things that could’ve really become an adventure all in their own right instead of a footnote in another. But I know why it was done this way, and it’s really quite a good read the way it was written. But the best stories always leave you wanting more, and that’s what Reynolds does here. The plot flows quite nicely, with barely an issue—until the events of Part 6 (which will remain nameless in anticipation of spoilers). Then it takes some interesting license. And the story loses some of its cohesion. And don’t get me started on the ending. So… I know what they were trying to do. It all makes sense, in general, generally, on the whole. But explicitly… I have no idea what was going on. Everything just starts leaping all over the place.

While Inhibitor Phase is somewhat of a serious book—I mean, it has to do with the possible extinction or survival of humanity—it’s not without its fair share of humor. Which I found… good, I guess? Funny. Entertaining. Reynolds doesn’t do humor like Andy Weir. Or like Peter F. Hamilton. Or like Becky Chambers. Like so many other authors out there, he has his own peculiar brand of humor which you’ll either like or hate, either have to get used to or won’t.

“It isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
“You’re not stupid, and I’m reasonably sure you’re not suicidal. Explain how this helps us.”
“Good—at least you’re being open-minded. The fact is, we’re only considering a brief dip into the photosphere of the star: barely different to skimming the atmosphere of a planet.”
“Except it’s a star.”
“Don’t get too hung up on that. The photosphere is merely a transitional zone where the mean free paths for photon collisions undergo a large change. From
Scythe’s point of view, it will be no different to moving from plasma environment to a somewhat denser, more excited environment containing the same plasma.”
“Except it’s a
star,” I repeated.

TL;DR

Inhibitor Phase continues the Revelation Space Universe and Inhibitor Sequence Arcs in a very different way than the previous de facto concluding Absolution Gap (which, to be fair, I haven’t read but I’ve heard many things about—mostly that it’s depressing). Inhibitor Phase is a serious book, but there’s humor in it too. In fact, if the survival of humanity wasn’t at stake, I’d class it as a story about adventure, or a mystery to to solved. And solve it it does—to a quite satisfying degree over the course of its 7 separate Parts, 34 chapters and 450-odd pages. While a little artistic and scientific license is taken at the end, on the whole this is an immensely entertaining, satisfying read that I have no issue recommending to both old-timers and those new to Revelation Space. And I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here!