Review: “Leverage in Death,” J.D. Robb

Pros: The usual fun world and characters; an interesting mystery
Cons: So. Much. Talking.
Rating: 3 out of 5

J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts’s) Leverage in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 47) is not her best work. In this installment, a man wears a suicide vest to a very important meeting between two merging companies, and he ends up killing quite a few people, including himself. The thing is, he loved his work and was a devoted family man. Eve and the rest of the police quickly figure out that he was coerced into doing it through threats to the well-being and safety of his wife and daughter. The problem is, who stood to gain? Who had the knowledge and ability with explosives? Who figured out how to break the man’s frosty home security? These questions and more leave Eve, Roarke, and the police scratching their heads.

Too. Much. Talking. Seriously, there’s very little action in here. And while it’s true that Robb/Roberts is quite good at character-centric “talky” scenes, it just went on and on in this case. Most of the book seemed to be taken up by interviews of witnesses and suspects. The characters are quite well-drawn, but there are just too many of them. Every time a name of a witness or suspect came up again I had to stop and think for a moment to remember which person they were. It’s a shame, because when Robb does action it tends to be good. And when she does mystery it’s usually tight and taut. Unfortunately, not so much this time.

We do get to enjoy more of Eve and Roarke and their compatriots. The Academy Awards are coming up and Nadine’s book based on one of Eve’s cases, and the movie adaptation, are up for some awards. Eve is determined to give the whole mess a miss–she’s had it up to here with fancy dress–but Peabody would pretty much kill to be able to go. Also thanks to Nadine’s work Eve is becoming something of a household name, which is very much an aggravation to her. She’s such a fun curmudgeon to watch, especially when Peabody gets bubbly. (Or in one case, highly caffeinated!)

I just don’t have that much to say about this installment. It didn’t do it for me, even though I love the characters, I love dark mysteries, and I usually love Robb’s style.

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Review: “Renegade Star,” J.N. Chaney

Pros: Good action near the end; interesting premise
Cons: Pale retread of Firefly; unlikable main character
Rating: 3 out of 5

J.N. Chaney’s Renegade Star: An Intergalactic Space Opera Adventure is noted in its Amazon description as appealing to Firefly fans. Unfortunately, this seems to refer to the fact that Renegade Star is a pale retread of Firefly. It’s a space western with plenty of cussin’ and scrappy Renegades plying their (often) illegal trade while trying to avoid the monolithic Union. There’s even a young girl being smuggled aboard a ship, who turns out to be unusual and weird and who’s been experimented on by the Union, who are after her. Captain Jace Hughes, however, is no Malcolm Reynolds. Until the last quarter of the book he’s pretty unlikable, lacking Mal’s accidental charm and quick wit. I wouldn’t feel the need to belabor this point except that it’s impossible to avoid the comparison between the stories–Renegade Star is just too obviously based on Firefly.

None of the characters are all that interesting. Ten-year-old albino Lex is little more than a MacGuffin, there to move the plot forward and occasionally be cute while interacting with Jace. The most interesting character is a rather badass nun, but she shows so little personality that she completely fails to live up to her potential. The bad guy Jace owes money to is about as stereotypical as it gets.

The last quarter of the book is better than the rest. Jace becomes more likable as he’s forced to abandon his expectations for the future. Some of the characters he’s toting around with him display a little more personality. The amount of action goes up exponentially, and the author seems to be better at action scenes than quieter material.

The premise of archaeologists trying to find a map to the near-mythological Old Earth is interesting, but very little is done with that in this installment. The book is so busy trying to be Firefly that it hurries through anything having to do with the arc-plot. I wish the author had concentrated more on developing his own unique voice instead of trying so hard to match someone else. While it’s true that if you look far enough you’ll find that every plot has been done before, you still need to come up with your own, unique voice and window-dressing to make things new and interesting–and Renegade Star fails to do that.

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Review: “Magic Triumphs,” Ilona Andrews

Pros: So much goodness comes together!
Cons: Where do we go from here?!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Magic Triumphs is book 10 in the Kate Daniels series written by a husband-and-wife team writing as Ilona Andrews. The world-building is still fresh and original after all of this time. It’s an urban fantasy in which waves of magic have returned to the world and are breaking down anything technological. There are shape-shifters of every variety, mages, witches, a sort of vampire (although vampires are ravening beasts controlled by “navigators” rather than romantic quasi-humans)… and then there’s Kate. Kate is the only living child of Roland. Roland is a very ancient and powerful mage (and more) who is conquering the world piece by piece. She managed to magically “claim” Atlanta as hers, and he’s been testing her boundaries while she tries to learn what that claim means with the help of her ghostly Aunt Erra. She also married Curran, a very powerful wolf-shifter, in book nine. Magic Triumphs starts with the birth of their son Conlan and then quickly picks up just over a year later. The child has definitely inherited his mother’s magical bloodline, and it remains to be seen whether he has inherited his father’s shape-shifting.

Unfortunately Kate has a mysterious problem: an entire neighborhood’s worth of people went missing and all that remains of them is a soup made of their flesh (no bones). She can find no trace of the killers apart from the fact that they killed every dog in the area with bows and arrows. Next she gets a mysterious delivery of a box of ash along with a red rose and a knife, and some bizarre creepy dudes come asking after her “answer” to whatever message that was supposed to convey. After she’s forced to kill them–not an easy task–she sends bodies off to pretty much every group that has a stake in Atlanta’s freedom. When she visits one of those people to find out what they learned, an assassin belonging to her father tries to kill her and her son. Now it’s on–nobody messes with her loved ones!

Mr. Tucker was right. We were living in the Apocalypse. Slowly, with each magic wave, a little more of the old technological world died, and the new world and its powers and monsters grew a little stronger. Being one of the monsters, I supposed I shouldn’t complain.

There are some utterly fantastic fight scenes in here that I desperately want to see done on film, although it probably isn’t worth the risk of seeing them done poorly, because dear lord would this require a huge special effects budget! My favorite fight is between Kate and some assassins sent after her son, although the single assassin fight ends really powerfully as well. There’s an immense battle that conveys the chaos of war so beautifully. The authors are absolutely brilliant with action.

The characters are wonderful. It seems like pretty much everyone shows up in this installment, including Hugh, who’s trying to be a good guy. The characters are gorgeously three-dimensional and we get to see them put through their paces as nearly every major plot and character thread that’s ongoing comes to a head in one form or another. The only character I wasn’t entirely fond of was Hugh’s wife, and it’s possible that’s because I was seeing her through Kate’s eyes and the two of them are really different–in which case, good job on the authors’ part for conveying Kate’s viewpoint so well! Kate’s even trying her hand at a bit of politicking and manipulation, which are not her strong points. (She “doesn’t do” subtle.)

There are plenty of critters in here, including several new ones (dragons!). Conlan is a fascinating child even though he’s so young–I was pretty surprised by how much personality they managed to fit into a 13-month-old kid. There’s lots of high-octane magic getting thrown around as well. It’s an intense ride that really made me wish there was a sequel out!

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Review: “Magic Binds,” Ilona Andrews

Pros: Fantastic arc-plot progression; vivid characters; wonderful action scenes
Rating: 5 out of 5

Ilona Andrews’s Magic Binds is book 9 in her “Kate Daniels” urban fantasy series. Make sure you read the rest of the series first–this world is way too complicated for you to jump in at this point. In this installment, Kate and Curran are getting married. There are just a few problems with this. One, they haven’t done any of the planning yet. And two, the witches have foreseen that Kate’s father Roland will either kill Curran shortly after the wedding, or kill Kate and Curran’s son after he’s born. Kate takes care of point number one by turning over wedding planning to Roman, the priest of an evil god that she and Curran have chosen to perform the ceremony. Luckily he’s thrilled to do it–no one ever asks a priest of his order to do weddings–and he jumps in with both feet. Keeping Kate’s father in line, however, will be a lot more difficult. He’s parked outside of Kate’s border and is needling at her, never quite breaking his word while continually pushing her to retaliate so that he’ll have an excuse to go to war. He’s even kidnapped one of her associates, and is trying to co-opt her adopted daughter Julie.

I hadn’t crossed the line. I’d ridden an elephant up to it and run back and forth along its edge while a mariachi band played in the background, but I hadn’t crossed it.

There’s a ton of wonderful character interaction going on. Jim, the current Beast Lord, is no longer quite so friendly with our main characters, and things get worse when they unintentionally bring trouble to the Pack’s doorstep. Kate’s ultra-powerful father is maneuvering to destroy her control over Atlanta faster than she can figure out how to use it. The characters are larger than life, and I absolutely love reading about their ups and downs. Kate takes in yet another ‘stray,’ this time an assassin brainwashed to kill her. There’s also plenty of snark and verbal jousting to enjoy. Kate must deal with the rather not-so-nice urges that are rising up in her as she explores her vast new powers, and Curran isn’t happy about where it’s all going.

The action scenes are crazy-good. Kate’s still hell on wheels, and she’s learning to add her magic into what she does. Between vampires, the Pack, and Kate’s eclectic friends there’s a wide variety of tactics and fighting styles on display.

I absolutely love this series, and can’t wait to read the next installment!

“You’re like a crazy cat lady, but you collect killers instead of fluffy cats.”

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Review: “Selected Stories: Science Fiction, Volume 1,” Kevin J. Anderson

Pros: Fun, enjoyable stories
Cons: A few stories are a little dated
Rating: 5 out of 5

Kevin J. Anderson’s Selected Stories Science Fiction (Volume 1) contains a nice collection of sci-fi stories in a variety of styles and settings. Some of my favorites are military sci-fi offerings, one about a General kept alive by a military determined to keep using his unusual ability to figure out an alien enemy, and one about an Admiral who has the ability to transfer his consciousness to a volunteer if his life is threatened (again, during a difficult war with aliens). The two have very different feels. They aren’t high-octane adventures, but Anderson’s writing serves as a good reminder that military sci-fi can be good even when it isn’t action-based. Because both sets of aliens are hive-mind types, I’d expect a feeling of sameness here, but they’re quite different from each other. There’s also a story about a mining base being controlled by the disembodied brain of a Colonel who has started sliding into dementia–and experiencing flashbacks from the war. It’s interesting to see what the colonists decide to do about this when people start dying because of his actions, and this story is genuinely creepy. There’s a fascinating story set in the Dune universe, about a group of soldiers who get trapped during the Harkonnen bombardment of Atreides. It taps heavily into the mysticism side of the world. I also enjoyed a tale of two soldiers bred solely for an eternal war who suddenly find themselves trapped in a moment of peace.

There are two stories about the use of avatars–robots used to experience things and perform actions at a distance. Each one is much more about the people involved than it is about the technology. These stories made me tear up a bit, which is always impressive. Another story that wrung a few tears from me involved a company that brings extinct animal species back from the dead, including mammoths, dodos, and moas. Unfortunately, some protesters take a very dim view of what they’re doing.

In a rather dystopian tale, a candidate for the highest office on Earth uses clones in a most unusual manner in order to become the ideal candidate. Anderson demonstrates just how creative he is, here–he comes up with a wide variety of ideas for his stories and many of them are things I just never would have thought of.

A few of these tales feel a little ‘off’ as science fiction, just because they weren’t written entirely recently. So, for example, a tale involving people traveling to alternate universes mentions music cassettes. Some of the tales are slightly dated, but they’re still enjoyable to read. Overall I really enjoyed this collection, and it reminded me of what an anthology can be at its best.

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Review: “Ironhand,” Rabia Gale

Pros: Fascinating army; interesting plot; good characters
Cons: Ends a little quickly
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ironhand (Taurin’s Chosen Book 2) is the sequel to Mourning Cloak, which I very much enjoyed due to its highly imaginative and vivid world and story. Ironhand picks up where Mourning Cloak left off. Kato is still outside of the city that he had to protect from his own wife’s attack, having come to the realization that the city is sealed to keep the bad guys in, not to keep the good guys out. He finds himself in charge of the remnants of Sera’s ragtag army of monsters–they were just footsoldiers, and many of them were transformed against their will, so despite their identities he resolves to see them to safety. Unfortunately they’re in the middle of a desert with little water and no easy way home, and Sera’s higher-ups haven’t finished with their plans despite the current setback.

Again the tale is vivid and the language is lovely. It is perhaps slightly less clear in some descriptive areas, but more in others (I found it easier to figure out who was working for whom and how the cities and populations related to each other). The characters are drawn well, and most of them fit a great amount of personality into a small space. In comparison one bad guy seems a bit shallow, but when I think about him separately I realize he was actually kind of interesting in his own way. The ending seems a little quick, but there’s enough build-up to it that the story still felt satisfying.

My favorite part of the story is Kato’s rag-tag, evil little army. Some of the creatures come to respect him and look up to him, while others look for opportunities to screw him over. The mourning cloaks are particularly interesting, and turn out to have more individual personality than it originally seemed. There’s also more steampunk in this installment, although there’s still a nice layer of dark fantasy.

Kato ends up having to face his destiny as Taurin’s Chosen despite his flagging faith, and it’s a fascinating struggle to watch. Gale’s style is a little brief–I feel like Ironhand could have been longer (in a good way), but it’s still intense and interesting, well worth keeping up with.

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Anarchy StoryBundle!

New StoryBundle up! Anarchy is the theme this time, genre: sci-fi. Anarchy Bundle. I’m way too addicted to these things…

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Review: “Mourning Cloak,” Rabia Gale

Pros: Beautiful descriptions; fascinating characters; intense imagery
Cons: The cities/peoples got a little confusing
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Rabia Gale’s Mourning Cloak (Taurin’s Chosen Book 1) is a short but intense read. Kato Vorsok, who works simply mixing drinks, guards his home and business with an unusually expensive array of magics. That precaution seems sensible when a dark creature, a mourning cloak, comes looking for him. But unlike others of her kind, she knows his name and speaks with him as though she has individual memory and identity. He senses a link between her and his dead wife, Sera, and when she escapes from him he feels compelled to follow despite the dangers that lurk in the night. His hunch regarding her seems justified when she protects him from another mourning cloak who tries to kill him, and he takes her to a temple of his people despite the fact that he’s been disgraced in the eyes of his religion. Years earlier he’d led an army against the mysterious creatures that have a history of hunting and killing his people, only to fail and run. Now he’s going to need to stop running–to confront that failure and face his grief over the loss of his wife.

The writing style is vivid and intense. I have strong visual images of the world in which Mourning Cloak is set, and that’s always impressive. The characters had a great deal of personality, and fit quite a bit of history into the small strokes that were outlined as the story went along. I love the dark, intense building up of a world in which danger lurks around every turn and horrible creatures prowl the night. There’s a whole ecosystem of critters and specters built up. If anything I would have liked to see more of the day-to-day as the story began.

The only real difficulty I had was that there wasn’t much information on the peoples/cities, and I had to cobble together the scraps that were there. Again, a little more day-to-day information might have cleared that up. It’s intense when a story concentrates only on danger and upheaval, but it’s a risk. Sometimes the reader ends up missing useful context.

I really enjoyed this novel, and look forward to reading the follow-on next!

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Review: “Lucky Forever,” Joshua James

Pros: Fantastic, intense action scenes
Cons: I feel like I’m missing something
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Since my third class of the term (physics) hasn’t started yet, I decided I could afford to take a few hours to read the new installment in Joshua James’s saga: Lucky Forever: Lucky’s Marines | Book Four. I’m glad I did! This episode of Lucky’s adventures is somewhat more standalone than the others (less arc-plot advancement), but you’ll still want to read the rest of the series first to have the necessary background. Lucky has been promoted and put in charge of a team of marines–the LAST thing he wants! April, the new Emperor, has a special job for Lucky, one that requires him and his marines to go follow some members of the Cardinal Order–with whom they have a temporary truce due to the threat of external alien invasion–into a mysterious nebula. As usual, Lucky hasn’t been given all the details. All he knows is that something very important to the Empire and the burgeoning Coalition is in there, and he needs to retrieve it. Preferably without starting a war. Because of this, the Empire loads him and his people up into something totally un-threatening–a rustbucket of a ship with no weapons. But of course everything goes to hell the moment they get close to the Reds.

James keeps up his remarkable ability to flood the pages with action. His marines have implanted nanobots that can repair cellular damage, even regrowing missing parts, allowing him to put his characters through a remarkable amount of abuse. That rebuilding takes time, though, so injury still affects the fights and becomes a new challenge for the marines to fight around. It really lets him amp up the danger, often sticking his characters into situations that it seems they couldn’t possibly survive. Don’t worry though–he doesn’t rely solely on his characters’ indestructibility. While it’s true that Lucky is well known for having all of his plans go wrong right out of the gate, there’s plenty of cleverness and wild shenanigans keeping things interesting.

As always the characters are fun. Malby is still being… well, Malby. Jiang is gone, but not forgotten. I did feel like I was missing something–maybe there’s a short story in-between books three and four?–because suddenly there was a romantic history between Jiang and Lucky that I didn’t remember from before. Maybe I forgot a brief mention or something. The Hate doesn’t pop up as much in this installment, and Lucky’s definitely not doing so well with the promotion. While the alien Da’hune do show up, they aren’t the main antagonist this time. Instead there’s a new kind of alien who might be the key to defeating the Da’hune–if they can be convinced not to take out humanity, too. They have their own abilities and issues, and both the Empire and the Reds want to court them.

I definitely enjoyed this installment in Lucky’s saga. I really enjoy good military SF, particularly when there’s plenty of action involved, and Joshua James delivers.

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New Sci-Fi Adventure Story Bundle!

I admit, I’ve gotten addicted to storybundles, and some of the books I’ve been reviewing lately have been from those. Now there’s a sci-fi adventure story bundle up for the next few weeks!

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Stuff for Gamers

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