Review: “Singularity,” Bill DeSmedt

Pros: Fascinating premise that goes to even more fascinating places
Cons: Very talky; didn’t convince me to read the next book
Rating: 4 out of 5

Bill DeSmedt’s Singularity (The Archon Sequence Book 1) starts with the Tunguska event–a seeming meteor that exploded above Siberia and left no crater. Scientist Jack Adler, however, believes it was something else–a particularly tiny black hole that then became trapped inside the Earth. He has set out for Siberia with specialized equipment in the attempt to pick up a trace of the singularity beneath the Earth’s crust. Meanwhile, Jonathon, a consultant, is being targeted by a covert government agency that wants him to renew a college friendship with an old Russian comrade of his, Sasha, in an attempt to get close to Sasha’s boss. Marianna, who works for this government agency, goes along with John to sell the story and spy on the Russians on a yacht trip to London. Her group believes they’re smuggling some Russian scientists who might be capable of working on weapons of mass destruction. As you can well imagine, at some point these two plotlines collide.

This is a long book, and there’s a lot of talking and explanation going on. A lot. If you find sciency explanations in your fiction to be interesting, this should be fine. If you prefer action… well there’s definitely some of that too, just not nearly as much. At least the action is good, including assassinations and rooftop extractions among other things. There’s even a touch of mysticism to liven things up.

The characters aren’t bad. I’m a little annoyed at the stereotype of a female lead who has to consider her own… assets… in the mirror. Given that Jonathon certainly notices those assets, it wouldn’t have been hard to just show that through his point of view. Also, sex scenes that involve comparisons to vacuum cleaners Are Not Sexy, and I don’t think the author was going for silly/ridiculous, which is how things ended up. I never felt emotionally invested in any of the characters, which is probably why I don’t have any urge to go out and read the two sequels. They just didn’t pull me in at all. Sasha was probably the most interesting character and he wasn’t even one of the leads.

It’s hard to say much about where they go with this black hole theory without spoiling parts of the end of the book, so I’ll just say I thought it was good. It’s one of those things where you think you aren’t sure how it’s going to get where it’s going, then suddenly you’re left thinking, oh yeah, it really couldn’t have gone any other way, could it? Also, there’s at least one really cool revelation that sets the story apart a bit from others of its kind, even if it’s something that isn’t really made a big deal of.

It’s a good book with a neat premise, but like I said, it didn’t make me want to read more.

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Review: “A Country of Ghosts,” Margaret Killjoy

Pros: Excellent work on characters and setting
Cons: Pacing; unrealistically idealistic for me
Rating: 3 out of 5

Margaret Killjoy’s A Country of Ghosts follows a journalist named Dimos Horacki as he’s embedded at the front of a war. The kingdom he lives in is trying to take over a neighboring country, and he’s been assigned to follow and profile famed war hero Dolan Wilder. Only Dimos has a tendency to say what he thinks, and after Dolan gets his hands on Dimos’s first dispatch to his newspaper, Dimos is sent on a deadly little raid that doesn’t stand a chance. Captured by the enemy, realizing he’s been set up to die, he decides he’d rather learn about his country’s enemies. Their odd anarchistic “free” society perplexes him, but he comes to love the people he’s with, and settles in to help them defend themselves.

The overall pacing of the book just did not work for me. The action of the war was good, but I wish Killjoy had interspersed more action with the talking parts of the novel. Instead, it’s action/talking and society-building/action. It’s very clunky and results in some tediously boring chapters, especially when compared with earlier, faster-paced material. The characters spend a great deal of the narrative on convincing various villages to contribute to the defense of their homeland, and on introducing Dimos to the unique character of the new world he’s in.

Now for that world-building. The setting is extremely well-detailed, and it’s easy to see the countryside and towns as Dimos and his new companions ride through them. That utopian anarchistic society, though… I just can’t buy into it, no matter how detailed and carefully thought-out it is. I guess I just can’t believe there’s that much generosity across the board in humanity any more, that they could all support each other like one big happy family with no economy and no bartering. We’re literally told there’s no poverty. At least Killjoy doesn’t try to depict everyone as lovey-dovey–in fact as a whole the society seems a bit grumpy–but I suppose recent politics have left me with too little faith in humanity at this point. I just can’t buy into it at the level it’s shown here.

The characters have depth and interest. It’s easy to tell them apart, and they have plenty of personality. There are a few names that are a little too similar, but it’s a minor problem.

All in all, the pacing and the super-idealism don’t work for me. If you think those things wouldn’t bother you, then you’ll probably enjoy this tale–I know an audience exists for these things, it just isn’t me this time.

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Review: “The Soul Eater,” Mike Resnick

Pros: Fascinating, lyrical tale
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Mike Resnick’s The Soul Eater is elegantly over-the-top in its depiction of future society, both the grimy, gritty outer worlds and the high-styling inner worlds. Nicobar Lane is a killer–of animals, that is. When people want stuffed-and-mounted exotic beasts from far-flung planets for their museums, they come to him. He’ll take any commission save one: he won’t go after the Dreamwish Beast. After all, it isn’t real! It’s a myth, a creature made of energy that lives in the vastness of space and subsists on dust clouds. Then he runs into something inexplicable while on a hunt, and he starts to ask questions about the beast. He finds someone who claims to have seen it, and before long he’s off searching for the beast. Something about it shocks him to the very core, and he becomes determined to destroy it, going so far as to hunt down a member of a dying alien race that knows how to kill it. But killing a telepathic beast who can make him feel its fear and pain isn’t going to be easy.

There are definite shades of Captain Ahab in Nicobar Lane. He becomes obsessed, a mere shell of himself, liquidating all of his resources and then stealing more in order to pay for his food, water, and fuel. All he can think about is destroying this unusual beast, even though he doesn’t understand it at all. Is it a monster? Is it searching him out because it wants something from him? The relationship between these two is fascinating, and well worth exploring.

There are few characters in this story, but the ones there are have been well-drawn. My favorite is a colleague of Lane’s who runs a bar, brothel, and other dubious emporiums.

There isn’t much more I can say without spoiling the story. It’s one of those tales that’s less about the events and more about the character’s inner journey. It isn’t an action-fest. I really enjoyed it, and I’m happy with where it went.

Please note that there is a short story in this book AFTER the “Author’s Note” at the end. Be sure to catch it–it’s easy to miss!

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Dark Fantasy Storybundle

There’s a new Dark Fantasy Storybundle up for grabs. I just can’t keep up with these things!

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Review: “The Application of Hope,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Pros: Characterization, plotting, ability to stand alone
Cons: Check your expectations; still-unidentified bad guys
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Application of Hope is a part of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Diving Universe. I’ve only read one other book set in that series, which was also something of a standalone, so I loved the fact that this novella stood alone. I’ve seen two major complaints regarding this book. One is that it’s too short, and it is a novella, so be sure whatever price you’re paying is what you think that’s worth. The other is that the book doesn’t contribute to the ongoing storyline of the series. Which, seeing as it stands so well alone, might be true. But I understand this story provides some background on other character(s), and as a reader I often appreciate that. So go into it with the right expectations and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Captain Tory Sabin has her off-hours interrupted by a call for help from another ship of the Fleet. It’s from Coop, her lover and friend, and she realizes that despite his apparent calm, he’s definitely worried. He was supposed to be on a diplomatic mission, so what went wrong? As her ship, the Geneva, makes its way toward him, she watches a bunch of unidentified little ships firing on Coop’s vessel, the Ivoire. Then he goes into foldspace to buy himself some time, and he doesn’t return. Sabin already lost her father to foldspace, and she certainly doesn’t want to lose her friend to it as well. She sets out with a bunch of other front-line Fleet ships to find the missing ship.

The characterizations are well-drawn. Coop has been questioning the mission of the Fleet, wondering if they’re really doing good by interfering with all of the civilizations they come across. Sabin has always been too focused on her career and her missing father to think about things like that. Sabin’s history–her missing father, her exploration into both engineering and command–make for a compelling backstory. Even General Zeller, who is something of a bad guy, displays a more complex side to his personality.

Both of the stories I’ve read by Rusch have featured the odd anacapa drive and the fact that no one fully understands how it works. All of Sabin’s life has been about finding her father in foldspace, and now she gets to put that experience to use finding Coop. I find the situation fascinating and well worth the read.

I think the only real problem I had with the story is that the thread of identifying the bad guys gets dropped like a hot potato. As soon as they fly away they vanish from the story, and that left the tale with an unfinished feeling.

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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
Cons:
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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