Review: “Irona 700,” Dave Duncan

Pros: Fascinating world and government
Cons: I don’t always find politics riveting
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Review book provided by publisher.

 

Dave Duncan’s Irona 700 takes place in his own fantasy world–magic exists, religion controls a lot of things, and evil is very very real. We find ourselves following Irona. She’s 16 this year (the year 700) and must participate in ‘the Choosing’. In a day-long event that sees people collapsing from heat exhaustion, she’s one of many, many people following a long line up to the statue of Caprice, taking a token from a box, tossing it to the statue… and each year, one person’s coin stays in Caprice’s hands, and that person is Chosen. The Chosen are collectively known at the Seventy, and they act as the government. The politicking is crazy, with Chosen helping and screwing each other over right and left. Irona, who has reason to think the Choosing is rigged, is less than thrilled at the prospect. Still, she settles in, discovers a knack for the crazy politics, and ends up leading a handful of war efforts that make her a celebrity.

 

Politics plots are rarely my favorites. Favor-trading and betrayals over votes don’t tend to do it for me. That said, I enjoyed Irona 700. Some of the politicking held my interest, and there was plenty more going on. Irona is a fascinating main character to follow. While it’s no longer entirely unusual for a book to have a not-so-likable main character, it does still seem unusual to see a woman playing that role. Especially when it takes time to really build up into an understanding of how she isn’t so much like the rest of us after all. Duncan builds that up so skillfully, particularly in comparison to some of the other characters.

I probably wouldn’t read a sequel–pure reader’s preference, as people who like politics plots would almost certainly get more out of Irona 700 than I did. However, if Duncan has books that are less politics-oriented I’d absolutely be interested in reading them. He has a decent hand at pacing and at twisted plotting. His world has some interesting aspects to it, such as how magic works, how hard it is to come by, and what happens when it’s messed with. I’d like to have seen a bit more of that, to have a better understanding of how it did and didn’t work before events went south. But overall, I think Duncan did a good job with this one.

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Review: “The Chimera Sequence,” Elliott Garber

Pros: Tense action and fascinating bio-terrorism plot
Cons: Dialogue is a little awkward; some stereotypes
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review book provided by author.

 

A brief aside: Bio-thrillers are one of my favorite fiction genres. Unfortunately, since I make that public on my list of the kinds of books I’m willing to review, I’ve found that a number of authors simply tell me “it’s a bio-thriller!” when there’s little thriller and even less bio-. They seem to think it’ll get me to review their book and then I’ll magically love it and give it high marks despite the bait-and-switch. However, like any reader I get really annoyed with a book if it isn’t what was advertised. So I’ve become wary of people offering me bio-thrillers to read. In the case of The Chimera Sequence by Elliott Garber, I actually got what I wanted!

Cole McBride is a veterinarian and in the US military. He’s studying infectious diseases in Africa, particularly looking at the silverback gorillas. He has a chopper pilot and a couple of park rangers working with him, and they discover something terrible: an entire group of gorillas that succumbed to an extremely virulent disease. Only one gorilla lived, a baby that they took in and attempted to nurse back to health. Unfortunately for them, the illness can pass from gorilla to human, although having received the smallpox vaccine seems to provide some immunity. As a result, Cole is forced to watch as Marna, the chopper pilot and his possible love interest, becomes more and more ill. Soon Cole discovers that the virus has started to spread to the local population–unfortunately he learns this after being captured by a militant group with a history of extreme violence. Soon whispers of a terrorist plot start, one that could bring a quick death to a large portion of the United States.

 

Disclaimer: I’m neither military nor a scientist, so I can’t judge how realistic (or ridiculous) those parts of this book are. (Although living in the DC area meant I occasionally got a kick out of the local parts. The only part of the book that grated on me at all was the too-convenient placing of Cole’s sister Anna in DC.) I can only say that most of it read right to me.

The dialogue could use a little polishing–it felt awkward or stilted in some places. However, this seemed to improve as the story moved on and Garber hit his stride.

Some of the characters are definite stereotypes. A few live long enough to take on additional dimension (in particular another doctor in Africa) while others die or move on before they could get past that first dimension. Some of those characters could have used a bit more complexity.

I loved the choice of Cole as main character. His military experience combined with veterinary knowledge and study of diseases made him the perfect character for the plot. He isn’t perfect, and has his asshole moments as well as his hero moments, which is really nice. His profession worked interesting new angles into the plot. It’s fascinating to watch the variety of working dogs mixed up into the tale.

It was all too easy to see how terrorists might create a bio-weapon that can be used even in the heart of DC, where we expect to be held safe by all of the protections in place. Thus there was plenty of tension and suspense. The pace of the story worked well, and I found it difficult to put the book down for long.

I’d certainly be willing to read more by Garber if it came across my desk.

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Review: “Devoted in Death,” J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Suspense
Cons: “Meh” dialogue; didn’t really pull me in
Rating: 3 out of 5

Expected publication date: September 15, 2015
Review book provided by publisher.

 

J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts’s) Devoted in Death is not the best example of the series.

In Devoted in Death a young man and a young woman have developed a twisted taste for torturing and killing others, and it’s all wrapped up in their love for each other. People are dying horrible deaths and Eve, who gets the case, knows she’s working against the clock to find the latest kidnapped victim. She also has a hunch that the two have been killing for longer than anyone thinks, and this gets backed up by a Deputy Banner, who’s been tracing the line of victims much farther than she has.

 

Deputy Banner is a good new character–partly the slow-seeming country bumpkin cop, but in reality a dedicated, smart officer of the law. I hope we end up seeing him again sometime (you never know in this series!). The bad guys, Darryl and Ella-Loo, waver on the border between completely insane, and a little too silly. The darkness of their actions tips the balance away from laughter, thank goodness. Speaking of which, do not read this book unless you’re okay with reading about torture, rape, and other dark topics. I think most readers of the series know this by now, but I try to note when things get particularly dark. The dark stuff is handled well (IMO) and not done to be titillating.

It was nice for once to have a plot that didn’t directly touch on the personal lives of Eve, Roarke, or one of their friends, just because things tie back to them so often that it can be ridiculous. The book stands alone fairly well if you want to check out the series without hunting down the first book.

The bad part: I didn’t feel particularly pulled into this one, and I’m not entirely sure why. My best guess is because the dialogue was only okay. Normally Robb writes snappy, quotable dialogue; in the past I’ve found myself reading whole exchanges to my husband. I didn’t do that even once in this installment. The dialogue was just okay, which is weird and unfortunate.

This hardly prevents me from looking forward to the next book–in any series of this length there will be ups and downs. But this isn’t the best of Robb’s work.

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Review: “The Catch,” Taylor Stevens

Pros: Love watching Michael’s schemes take shape
Cons: Slow through one part
Rating: 4 out of 5

Vanessa Michael Munroe looks very androgynous, and she takes great advantage of that. She can be male or female depending on the temporary needs of whatever job she’s working. Normally she goes to strange and exotic places to collect information for companies looking to do business there–but almost nothing is that simple. In this case, as ‘Michael’ she’s been doing what for her would be considered a vacation–working in an African country with a handful of mercenaries. Unfortunately that group takes on an unusually dangerous assignment, on a ship that gets hijacked. Michael gets out alive, but personal attachments and obligations pull her back in. It’s obvious that this is not a ‘normal’ hijacking, so she has to dive deep and take a lot of chances in order to figure out what’s going on and how to save anyone on the ship who’s still alive.

 

Taylor Stevens’s The Catch: A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel centers around ‘Michael’, a fascinating character. I’ve now read the first book in the series (The Informationist), although I started with a later volume: The Mask. The books stand pretty well on their own, which is extremely helpful. That way you can grab the one you happen to find first and see what you think of the series before laying out for the whole thing. As for me, I plan to go back and gradually read the whole series because I just love it.

Michael has an unusual ability: she can pick up languages over surprisingly short periods of time, and she’s very good at assimilating herself into a variety of cultures. I love how this shapes the plots and her own machinations. She walks a razor’s edge as she sets up deal after deal in order to accomplish her goal: which, in this case, is to rescue some of the crew of a boat that’s been hijacked. In this book we see how she deals with injury, as well as the death of a person whom she sees as ‘hers’. I love living in her head–it’s a fascinating place to be.

The Catch has plenty of tension, suspense, and heart-stopping moments. My only negative in this one is that the back-and-forth between Michael and a person she’s trying to get information out of goes on for long enough to be repetitive and boring. I realize it’s probably more realistic that way, but it does derail the pacing of the book for a bit.

There’s blood and violence, and when Michael’s temper is pushed too far she can quite easily start killing–although she tries to keep that side of herself bottled up.

I heartily recommend not just The Catch, but also the series as a whole.

 

NOTE: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Review: “H.G. Wells, Secret Agent,” Alex Shvartsman

Pros: Fun, silly light reading material
Cons: Fairly reader-dependent
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Alex Shvartsman’s H. G. Wells, Secret Agent, it’s an alternate history spy-vs-spy world, where all the truly brilliant inventors work for one government or another. Over the course of three short mysteries we meet a handful of recognizable named characters (Verne, for example), hear rumors of alien technology, see the Eiffel Tower made to hide a transmitter, and even see Freud round up a bunch of children to experiment on.

It’s a short, flighty sort of read that would be perfect when you’re on a bus or train and need to stay occupied for an hour or two. Here’s where I make the ‘personality-dependent’ argument: it didn’t really pull me in, and the humor, while good, wasn’t enough to offset that. However, there’ll be plenty of people for whom a little light steampunk spy humor would be perfect. Now that you know that, you should have a better idea of whether you’ll like the book or not. At the moment it seems to be inexpensive on Amazon, so I’d say the price is right. There’s nothing deep and the characters don’t have a lot to them, but again that’ll be just what some readers want.

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Review: “Girl from Above: Betrayal,” Pippa DaCosta

Pros: Wonderful characters
Cons: Could have been taken a bit further in some quarters
Rating: 4 out of 5

Girl From Above: Betrayal (The 1000 Revolution), by Pippa DaCosta, includes some fascinating ideas. There is a corporation that has figured out how to dump brains into synthetic bodies. They’re only allowed to make 1000 at a time, with years in between, and they’re auctioned off to the richest people as a way of continuing to live on after death. 1001 is an anomaly. There should be no number 1001, and instead of living some privileged life with her family, she’s been sent to kill a man. She stowes away in a ragged ship owned by smuggler Caleb Shepperd, and as she stays with him, her programming breaks down further and further. Who was she originally? Who or what is she now? And why is everyone tracking her down?

 

Cale (Caleb) is a great character. Sure, he’s got the rough edges of a smuggler, but he used to be something more. There’s a whole year that was expunged from his records, a time when he was an up-and-coming fleet captain, and he dated the daughter–Haley–of a famous businessman. Somehow in there Haley vanished, Cale was tossed out of the fleet, and he became a smuggler. Although he’ll take almost anything to sell, he cares most about delivering weapons caches to dissidents and revolutionaries. There are some details that come later in the book that really made me like Cale as a character, and that gave him a lot more depth. He’s more than the typical ragged smuggler with a heart of gold; he’s also been a selfish coward who has a lot to make up for. He’s imperfect in ways that really matter.

1001 is a surprisingly interesting character. She starts out rather robotic, and then as the faults and errors add up, she becomes something more than she was. She has orders to carry out, but you’ll have to read the story to find out what they are and whether she’ll do it.

The only character that didn’t really do it for me was Cale’s brother Brendan, who is still playing the part of the perfect fleet commander. Interesting things happened to him, but his effect on the plot was largely passive.

As Cale falls farther and farther down the rabbit-hole, losing one ally and bolthole at a time, things become very tense. He isn’t sure he can trust his brother, his fellow smuggler Fran, or, of course, 1001. Events got quite tense, I shed a tear or two (shh! Don’t tell), and I said “nooooooooo!” when I got to the end and realized I’d need to read the sequel to find out what happens next.

NOTE: Book provided free for review by publisher

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Review: “14,” Peter Clines

Pros: My favorite blend: SF, horror, and adventure
Cons: Some slow spots
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Peter Clines’s 14 Nate finds himself moving into a suspiciously cheap apartment in LA. The neighbors are quite the group: the artist who likes to sun herself on the roof deck in the nude (Xela); the hacker who arranges free wi-fi for the building (Veek); the mysterious ‘book publisher’ who displays unusual skills (Tim), and more. The building holds secrets; more than one door is locked with a series of deadbolts and/or padlocks. There’s a room no one rents because people have died there. The hacker’s room is always 69 F, no matter the time of year or anything she tries to do to alter it. There are no power lines coming to the building, yet it has no power problems. Nate and the others gradually become obsessed with finding out what’s going on, and that obsession may kill them–and take the rest of the world with them.

 

This is the second of Clines’s books that I’ve read; 14 takes place in the same world as The Fold but tells a different story. I really enjoy these books; in part that’s because they scratch a very particular itch. I love a certain blend of science fiction, horror, and adventure, and Clines gets that mix just right.

Things start a little slowly as we get to know the inhabitants of the apartment building. I enjoyed this part–the characters are fun and interesting. One of the things I really like is that although Nate is the driving force, or trigger, that gets all of these people exploring their building’s secrets, the others end up jumping in too. It isn’t the standard thing where two people try to investigate something and everyone else is too scared or in denial to join in; this is a nice ensemble cast piece.

Soon the residents are exploring mysterious tunnels beneath the building, discovering writing on the walls hidden by layer after layer of paint, and opening doors that definitely should not be opened! There’s a touch of steampunk to the book, a twist of Lovecraftian horror, and a really interesting group of determined people. I particularly like the fact that there are some relationships that develop that aren’t the seemingly obvious ones. The characters are fun; they each have their own breaking points, their own actions and reactions, to what’s going on.

While I found 14 easier to put down than The Fold, it’s still pretty riveting in places, and it too made me want to read more by Clines. It seems I’ve found an author who likes just the sort of stories I do!

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Review: “The Fold,” Peter Clines

Pros: Fantastic tale with great characters
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

The Fold: A Novel, by Peter Clines, is a fantastic read. A bunch of scientists started out trying to figure out how to teleport people and failed. Instead they found a new path: creating folds in space. They’ve gone past animal trials and have been passing people back and forth for a while now. However, they keep insisting to their government keepers that they need to do more testing. They’ve become extremely secretive, and are hostile toward Leland “Mike” Erikson, who was sent in to figure out what’s really going on. In one sense, Mike is just an English teacher. However, he has a unique ability to store, retain, and analyse facts. Reggie, the government guy, has been trying to hire Mike for years, but this is the first time he’s come to Mike with something so unusual–and Mike finally gives in.

 

I like the way Clines handles Mike’s abilities. They aren’t used as a deus ex machina. The last time I saw a character with a similar set of abilities–who was also believed to be one of the smartest people on the planet–nearly the whole story was an extended deus ex machina (Elixir). Mike’s mental faculties are amazing, but not a cure-all. They have some significant downsides that explain very well why he ‘hides out’ as a simple school teacher. Clines came up with a great way of depicting Mike’s abilities that keeps things interesting. And in a world where people are learning to fold space for travel, his abilities don’t feel out-of-place. Clines also managed to give him genuine social difficulties that didn’t fit the usual stereotype, and they felt very ‘real’.

The dialogue was snappy, interesting, and fun. When I find myself quoting tidbits of dialogue to my husband, I know it’s good. (Speaking of which, I am absolutely going to make him read this book, because he’ll love it.) The characters have interesting things to say. They also have differing reasons why they warm up to, don’t warm up to, gradually come to trust, or continue to mistrust Mike. Each one has depth and layers of personality.

Apropos of nothing, I want to see a movie made out of this book. A lot of it would lend itself well to a visual medium, in my opinion. Well, okay, maybe not Mike’s abilities, although I’d like to see someone try to depict that visually.

At first I had certain suspicions regarding the machine and the people who worked with and used it. In particular, at first it looked like run-of-the-mill paranoia might be the problem. I hoped not, because that would have been overly simplistic and much less interesting than what’s really going on. I will say that I did not see the answer coming, and it’s fantastic. I think I muttered “holy shit” at least once, and I had serious trouble putting the book down to do other things. There was only one detail that I felt the characters should have given more weight to, and it was a comparatively minor issue.

In addition to the snappy dialogue, there are some great very up-to-date pop culture references (“hail Hydra” being my favorite).

I so want to read a sequel. Or any other book with Mike as a main character. Or… well, mostly I’m going to have to hunt down Clines’ other novels. I had so much fun with this one!

 

NOTE: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Review: “When They Shine Brightest,” Yordan Zhelyazkov

Pros: Interesting world-building
Cons: Awkward, and it was hard to like anyone
Rating: 3 out of 5

Korsak is a Wayfarer soldier, but he was nursed back to health after an injury–by one of the peoples his nation makes war against. He ended up taking a young girl, Arty, back home with him, pretty much as his adopted daughter. Now he’s a temple guard, but he’s starting to realize that things are being hidden from him. He has a lot of anger to burn inside of him (having his wife and sons disliking him really doesn’t help). When one of his sons ends up in grave danger, and his adopted daughter might be killed, he hast to do things he’d normally never consider in order to help them–and he’ll end up learning a lot more about his own people (including his small family) in the process.

 

Yordan Zhelyazkov’s When They Shine Brightest has been translated into English, so I expect that most of the little weird word choices and such are an artifact of that process. The same with phrases like “…heard the door of his room silently open”–‘heard’ and ‘silently’ are mutually exclusive. Also some phrases that if taken literally can make you grimace or laugh out loud:

[H]e opened his eyes, set them on his soiled palm first, and then on the bloody one.

It gives me nightmares of someone holding their eyes in a bloody hand, presumably after ripping them out of his head. Those are the most egregious examples that I’ve found. It’s one of those things that people who get tripped up by bad grammar will get caught on, but I recommend cutting the author some slack since the book had to be translated. Anyway, not every reader is bothered by grammar issues, so decide for yourself whether they’d bother you.

Most characters are shallow in nature. The bully is a bully in standard ways. The overly domineering wife, the same. Arty is one of the few characters I could really feel something for. Korsak certainly didn’t appeal to me even though it’s largely his story. I understand making anti-heroes, but to my mind he was too unlikable.

The world building, however, is quite interesting. The secrets the temple keeps, the ‘Gods’ that live under the mountain, what eventually ends the story–those are fascinating things. I felt as though the true story here really gets underway at the end, and I expect there’ll be a sequel for just that reason. Also, the chapters jumped around in time enough to confuse me. I’d rather have had most of the information in order.

Ultimately, I’m of mixed mind with regard to When They Shine Brightest. I leave it to you to decide whether grammar problems, an unlikable protagonist, and a lot of harsh, unlikable people would bother you or not. Those are, after all, largely reader-dependent issues.

NOTE: This book was provided by the author for this review

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Review: “The Informationist,” Taylor Stevens

Pros: Fantastic characters
Cons: Gets a bit dark
Rating: 5 out of 5

Vanessa Michael Munroe (she goes by Michael most often, and is androgynous enough to pass for either gender as she wishes) has a skill for learning the ins and outs of a country, and she gets paid to compile information for businesses, typically. This time someone has a very different mission for her: to track down what happened to a girl who went missing four years earlier. Everyone believes Emily is dead, but her father wants to be sure. Munroe isn’t interested, but the money on offer is too good to pass up. It seems that someone, however, definitely does not want Munroe to succeed. She also has an unwanted tag-along: her client insists on sending Miles Bradford with her.

 

I received a later book for review in Taylor Stevens’s series, The Mask, not long ago and absolutely loved it. It prompted me to track down book one, The Informationist, which if anything is even better. The major backdrop for this tale is Africa, particularly places like Cameroon. As it turns out, Munroe has a lot of experience with the local cultures already–maybe too much, because she has her own enemies as well as possible allies there. Unfortunately, by the time she realizes that someone is setting them up, there are an awful lot of suspects.

Following all of the deep connections between characters was fascinating. I loved watching Munroe–who is a pro at manipulating people–run into troubles from her past. We get a great look at what molded her into the person that she is today. This is where the material gets pretty dark, so if that will bother you, best to go read another book. All of the people Munroe encounters have a surprising amount of depth and detail put into them. It’s a mind-bogglingly rich panoply of locations, characters, history, danger, and more. There’s a great deal of tension in this book. It pulled me right in and swept me along, and I’m going to have to go looking for the books that go in-between The Informationist and The Mask.

The plot involves some very impressive strategizing, a whiff of betrayal, an incredibly strong portrayal of place, and, well, part of it caused me to shed a few tears. That’s a great way to tell that something is emotionally tense! I was glued to the pages.

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