Review: Hell Squad: Ash by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Ash by Anna HackettAsh (Hell Squad #14) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #14
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on October 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

In the middle of an alien invasion, will the bad boy berserker catch the geeky tech genius?

Computer genius Marin Mitchell is doing her part to help humanity survive the raptor invasion, working tirelessly to decrypt alien data. She spends her days working and drooling over a certain tattooed, biker berserker from Squad Three. But Marin knows the rules: geeks do not snag sexy bad boys. She spends her nights playing her favorite computer game where she is a kick-butt badass, and a match for her mysterious online fight partner, SuperSoldier3.

A member of the Squad Three berserkers, Ash Connors knows that whenever he reaches for something good, life slaps him back down. He gave up on his dreams a long time ago, and instead, focused on running his motorcycle club with his best friend. But after the alien invasion, he does what he does best, fight and take down the aliens. When cute, smart, and sweet Marin catches his eye, he tries to steer clear, but can't seem to stay away...online or in real life.

When Marin discovers information about a central alien data hub, her skills are needed to hack into the system. That means a deadly mission deep underground, right into the heart of alien territory. That throws her right into Ash's tattooed arms. As the sexy berserker fights to keep her safe, he also vows to show Marin that while she might follow the rules, he likes to break them.

My (Admittedly Squee-Filled) Review:

I’ve read the entire Hell Squad series so far, and pretty much loved every minute of it. But there’s something about this particular book that really, really worked for me. It took me a while to figure out exactly what made this one special.

It’s Marin, the heroine of the story. She’s a geek girl, and proud of it. She’s a valued member of Noah’s geek squad with a specialty in breaking Gizzida firewalls and hacking their tech. She’s also a girl gamer and one of the champions at the battle game that everyone in the Enclave is playing.

She knows who and what she is, and doesn’t apologize for any it, including the way she completely loses herself in a work the minute she has a new puzzle to solve, and doesn’t come up for air until the problem has been conquered.

She’s also a woman who knows how her world works, and one of the ways that the world works is that geek girls do not end up with hot bad boys. For any of us that grew up listening to Janis Ian’s incredible “At Seventeen”, Marin is a sister. She’s learned the truth that the rest of us have, that “love was meant for beauty queens” and that we aren’t among them.

Some of the heroines of some of the earlier Hell Squad books have been soldiers. While it’s fun to imagine being Claudia or Camryn, and it is fantastic to see them kick Gizzida ass, they are a couple of steps further into the fantasy of it all.

Geek girl Marin is a woman close to my heart. Claudia and Camryn read almost like Wonder Woman, where Marin is someone I could actually imagine wanting to be. It made her incredibly easy to identify with. I really wanted her to get her Happy For Now, but even more than that, I could see myself making some of her choices and also feeling many of her insecurities.

I hadn’t realized quite how much that would mean to my enjoyment of a story until I was in the thick of this one and just felt every step of her journey and loved it.

Escape Rating A-: I’m not going to do a traditional review for this one. If you even think that post-apocalyptic science fiction romance might be your jam, pick up the first book in this series, Marcus, and just dive in. Each individual story is a hot and sexy romance. And, there’s the overall arc of the series, all about the fight against the alien invaders and the need to kick them off Earth – with extreme prejudice to pay for all the death and destruction they’ve caused.

It’s a wild ride from the beginning to where we are now. And where we are now is that I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel, and I’m really hoping that it isn’t an oncoming train. It’s time for the Gizzida to go, hopefully with a stand up and cheer, kick their alien asses off our planet big scene just like the first Independence Day movie. Which the Hell Squad series will probably remind you of more than a bit.

I’ll stop squeeing now. Go forth and get ready to go to hell with the Hell Squad. Because the Gizzida devils really, really need an ass-kicking. And it’s all kinds of adventurous, sexy fun to watch the Hell Squad deliver it!

Review: Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2

Review: Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2 by S.E. Smith, Carol Van Natta, Jessica E. Subject, Alexis Glynn Latner, M.K. Eidem, Susan Grant, Michelle Howard, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Sabine Priestley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Pages: 826
on October 10th 2017
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

The pets are back! Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2, featuring twelve of today’s leading Science Fiction Romance authors brings you a dozen original stories written just for you! Join in the fun, from the Dragon Lords of Valdier to a trip aboard award-winning author, Veronica Scott’s Nebula Zephyr to journeying back to Luda where Grim is King, for stories that will take you out of this world! Join New York Times, USA TODAY, and Award-winning authors S.E. Smith, M.K. Eidem, Susan Grant, Michelle Howard, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Sabine Priestley, Jessica E. Subject, Carol Van Natta, and Alexis Glynn Latner as they share stories and help out Hero-Dogs.org, a charity that supports our veterans!

10% of the first month’s profits go to Hero-Dogs.org. Hero Dogs raises and trains service dogs and places them free of charge with US Veterans to improve quality of life and restore independence.

My Review:

I loved the first Pets in Space collection, as well as all the pets collected therein, so I was happy to sign up for Pets in Space 2. And I’m glad I did.

This is a collection to savor, and possibly also one to plan on reading over a long trip. This book is huge. Why? Because this is not a collection of short stories, it’s a collection of novellas. Novellas are longer, meatier and just have room for more story all the way around. So if you like SFR in general or stories where animals help the humans get their romantic act together, this one is a winner from beginning to end.

I have to confess that I haven’t read them all, yet. I want to have time to get into each story, and possibly see how many books in each author’s series I need to add to my towering TBR pile.

That being said, I really enjoyed the stories I did read. But because this is my “best beloved” genre, SFR, I have a few quibbles.

I read the first two stories, Pearl’s Dragon by SE Smith and A Grim Pet by MK Eidem straight out of the gate, before I realized I had to pace myself a bit. I liked both of them, but Pearl’s Dragon spoke to me a bit more. It was fantastic to see a “woman of a certain age” as the romantic lead. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough, even though in science fiction it is easy to posit more than enough medical advances to make it not merely plausible, but very, very possible. And it’s fun to see someone I can really identify with as the heroine!

But both of these stories are in worlds that I am not familiar with, and that are several stories into their worldbuilding. As much as I enjoyed them, I always had the feeling that there was a whole bunch that I was missing because I hadn’t read the previous stories. Which look like a treat. As soon as I get a round tuit, I’ll be back to visit these worlds again.

I went hunting for a cat story, because, cats. I love cat stories, and cat’s stories, and that’s why I have two of my own. And I loved Rescued by the Cyborg by Cara Bristol, even though I have not read the series that it comes from, either. Little Mittzi added just the right touch of comfort and whimsy to a story that definitely had its dark and gritty moments. And Mittzi even saved the day!

Then I went looking for the stories in universes that was already familiar with, and explored two of those, Veronica Scott’s Star Cruise: Songbird and Pauline Baird Jones’ Time Trap.

Time Trap was a bit shorter than the rest, and just didn’t have quite enough time to deal with what feels like some very complex worldbuilding under the surface. And that’s ironic considering that this is a time travel story. I liked Briggs and Madison, but because I didn’t have a lot of background for them I found myself short-cutting what I did have and grafting it into universes I’m more familiar with. Something kept saying Stargate to me, but I’m not sure if that mental leap was remotely correct. Still, great characters, but the worldbuilding had clearly happened elsewhere. Sir Rupert, on my third hand, was an absolute hoot. Pun completely intended.

Of the stories that I read, I think that Star Cruise: Songbird was the best of the marvelous bunch. It probably helped that I have read several books in the Star Cruise series, and was relatively familiar with the worldbuilding. This story felt the most complete, in the sense that we had a chance to really see the relationship develop from its shaky start to its life-altering conclusion. The bond between Grant and his raptor was nicely done, and Karissa’s problems, while they were difficult, showed that she was dealing with her life and just needed a bit of help – not that Grant needed to rescue her at every turn. I also loved that they found a way to be together that melded both their worlds. A great story with a well deserved and interesting HEA.

Escape Rating A-: There are mostly hits in this collection, and plenty of temptation not just to immerse yourself in this book, but to go back and do a deep dive into every one of these authors’ worlds. I loved the first book, and this is a fitting continuation. I hope that there will be a Pets in Space 3 to look forward to next year, because this collection has become an annual treat.

Review: Barbarian by Anna Hackett

Review: Barbarian by Anna HackettBarbarian (Galactic Gladiators #6) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #6
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Abducted by alien slavers, experimented on, and left blind, the last thing doctor Winter Ashworth needs is a big barbarian gladiator in her life, especially an annoying one who thinks she's small and weak.

Rescued by gladiators on the desert world of Carthago, Winter is doggedly working to embrace her new life. But two of her friends are still missing and she'll do anything to help get them back...even if she has to work alongside Nero Krahn: hunter, barbarian, gladiator. The scowly, brooding man is too big, has too many muscles, and pushes all her buttons.

Nero is the House of Galen's best hunter and tracker. Raised on a barbarian world, where strength and might are prized, he was bred to hunt and fight. Now the arena is his home and his loyalty is to his imperator. He knows he can use his skills to find the two lost women, even if that means protecting a small blind woman who takes every chance to misjudge his words and lash him with her sharp tongue.

But as they follow a dangerous trail to save their friends, a new enemy emerges--one who wants Winter. The pair find themselves reluctantly attracted to each other, uncovering a scorching desire that shocks them both. As Nero fights to protect Winter, the barbarian gladiator will discover the true meaning of strength from the small Earth woman he wants to claim as his.

My Review:

I always have a good time with Anna Hackett’s series, and Barbarian was no exception. This was a perfect airplane book. The plane may have been flying over the American Heartland, but I was exploring the deserts of Kor Magna and loving every minute of it.

The Galactic Gladiators series is a kind of sun and sandals meet spaceships series. Kor Magna is basically Vegas on steroids, and the gladiatorial fights are just a part of the entertainment on offer. All of the galaxy’s sins, temptations and degradations seem to be available on Kor Magna – for a price.

But it isn’t all fun and games. Kor Magna may be where the rich come to play, but it has a seamy side. Someone has to be providing all the fun, all that tempting sin, and not all of the providers are willing.

There’s an unfortunately thriving slave trade that feeds the fleshpots of Kor Magna, and an ever expanding number of humans have found themselves under its thumb. Slavers exploited a temporary wormhole from Kor Magna to Jupiter, and kidnapped or killed an entire space station.

But that wormhole was a temporary fluke. Our solar system is too far away to get to, over 600 years away at the fastest sublight speeds currently available. So the humans that were captured are exotic and rare, therefore valuable in the wrong hands. And none of them can get home.

Over the course of the series, the captive humans have been rescued, one by one, by gladiators from the successful and honorable House of Galen. Galen and his gladiators have made it their mission to rescue slaves, especially those who just aren’t suited for the life of a gladiator.

And one by one, as each human is rescued, another gladiator falls into the arms of love. At this point, the remaining unmated gladiators are getting a bit sick of all the mushy stuff, and worried about when it will be their turn to fall. (This reader is really looking forward to Galen’s fall, but that’s probably a couple of books away at least. Damn)

The story in Barbarian is the romance between blind Winter and warrior Nero. Winter is a doctor who was blinded in an experiment after she was captured by the slavers. She has a lot of fears and insecurities about how she will make a life and a place for herself now that she is blind. A surgeon can’t operate if they can’t see what they are operating on.

The warrior Nero pushes all of Winter’s buttons, both the good ones and the insecure ones. A warrior from a savage planet, Nero was taught to believe that the weak were a drain on resources, and that protecting them only drains the tribe. He’s learned better in the House of Galen, but Winter’s presence makes him even more tongue-tied, and more blunt, than usual. And she takes all of his comments and runs with them, generally in the wrong direction.

There is more than one kind of strength, and more than one version of bravery. As the gladiators trek out into the harsh desert to rescue more humans from extremely inhumane conditions, Winter and Nero finally figure out that all of their arguments mask a whole lot of deeper emotions that neither of them is ready to deal with.

But life on Kor Magna, even under the best of circumstances (something the gladiators never seem to find) is too harsh to put off loving the person who makes your heart sing.

Escape Rating B+: I really liked Nero and Winter. In the end, they made a great team. And it was good to see Winter take her new life by the horns, in spite of her handicap. She’s scared, she’s uncertain, but she never retreats and she never gives up.

Not even when an evil robot is dragging her to its leader.

That leader is what keeps this book, for me at least, from rising into the A grades.

The slave traders, as awful as they are, make a bad kind of sense. They’re in it for the money. It’s a disgusting motive, and their tactics are brutal, but we understand why they do what they do, even as we abhor it.

The villain of this piece, the Catalyst, is just plain nuckin’ futz. Crazy as a loon. A few parsecs short of a quadrant. You get the picture. He’s doing what he’s doing just because he can, and because he believes he’s so intelligent that he’s entitled, and that no one will be able to stop him. He was terrible and awful and dangerous, but he just didn’t make enough sense. At least not for me.

The gladiators, on the other hand, are terrific. And they are all very much individuals, just as are the humans they fall for. So far, it’s been one male human and five females, but there is nothing in the structure of the series that says that couldn’t change. One of the things that I like about the series is that each of the humans, upon recognizing that they literally can’t go home again, buckles down and finds work and hope and purpose as well as love. And the work varies – only two so far have become gladiators. In addition to Winter finding a way to continue as a healer, one has become an engineer, another an inventor, and one has taken on the sometimes thankless task of business manager for the House of Galen.

One thing that makes this series so much fun is that the pattern can be stretched indefinitely without feeling too stretched. The Hell Squad series has hit that point for me, even though I still enjoy the individual entries in it. And you don’t have to read the entire series to get in on the action (but probably the first one (Gladiator) just to introduce the scene, setting and players) But the Galactic Gladiators only has to stop when the plausible number of captives from the Jupiter station has been reached, and that’s a LONG way off.

Thank goodness!

Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + Giveaway

Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + GiveawayCover Fire (Valiant Knox #3) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Valiant Knox #3
Pages: 333
Published by Entangled Publishing on June 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He'll protect her with his life...but who will protect his heart?
If the assignment is crazy, dangerous, or a little of both, Sub-Lieutenant Sebastian Rayne can’t help but take on the challenge. So when Command Intelligence tags him to fly one of their agents behind enemy lines, it seems like just another routine death-defying mission. Crash landing on the planet was a piece of cake, but the gorgeous agent he delivered safely to her meeting is now believed dead and he must return to retrieve her body.
After Agent Jenna Maxwell realizes her own people attempted to have her killed, she enlists the hot stick jockey’s help. His new mission? Sneak her back onto his ship to ferret out who wanted to get rid of her and why. But she fears her growing feelings for Seb have blinded her to his reckless insistence on helping her stay alive, and his rash behavior will cause them both to lose their lives.

My Review:

Cover Fire is the third book in the Valiant Knox series, and it both lives up to its predecessors and takes the action in several new directions. If you like science fiction romance, start with Escape Velocity and jet right on over to Damage Control before jumping into Cover Fire. You’ll be glad you did.

And if you have a friend who likes military romance but is hesitant about the whole SF thing, this series is a terrific gateway drug for those who are thinking about trying SFR. It definitely has the flavor of military romance, but in setting that easily evokes contemporary military romance.

Because that Valiant Knox that the series is named for? She’s a battleship. She just happens to be a space battleship.

She’s also a floating city in space, much like a considerably less battered Battlestar Galactica, or a Babylon 5 that does more than just orbit a planet.

While the previous two stories in this series have focused more on the military side of the military police action to embargo the planet Ilari and its fanatic CSS soldiers, Cover Fire is all about the truly dirty side of war. Not black ops, but much, much dirtier. Jenna Maxwell is a member of Command Intelligence. She’s a spy, an infiltrator, and on occasion, assassin.

And somebody on her own side wants her dead. The question in her mind is whether she did something wrong that CI thinks needs to be “cleaned up”, or whether someone in CI is a mole for the CSS. All too many CSS moles have been uncovered among the crew of the Valiant Knox, so there’s plenty of reasons to believe that CI might have some too, in spite of the extreme vetting its agents go through on their way in.

That’s where our story begins. Hot-shot pilot Sebastian Rayne is still reeling after the revelation that his best friend was a CSS mole all along. They were best buds for years, and Seb never noticed a thing. He’s still kicking himself, and questioning his own judgment at every turn.

And taking suicide missions, like the one he’s offered to drop Jenna behind enemy lines on Ilari, the enemy stronghold, in a top-secret mission using a POS stolen CSS space shuttle. Of course the whole thing goes FUBAR. There was a damn good reason that shuttle didn’t look spaceworthy. It wasn’t.

But in their enforced togetherness while running from the wreck and escaping the CSS soldiers sent to investigate, Jenna and Seb have a little too much time to spend together. Just enough for Seb to notice that the tough-as-nails exterior doesn’t always match the woman who begins to question, just a little, whether her lonely, dark place in the underbelly of this war is worth the price she has to pay for it.

And just when both their missions seem to be back on track, Jenna is betrayed by her own side, and Seb is sent to pick up the pieces – pieces that are supposed to include Jenna’s body. Instead, he finds a live, scared and pissed off Jenna who has been forced to expose her real appearance, because that’s the only face that CI doesn’t have on file.

Jenna needs Seb’s help to track the reasons for her would-be assassination. And she needs Seb to remind her that the lonely life of a field agent is no life at all. And Seb needs Jenna to help him find closure for the biggest betrayal of his life.

But there is someone gunning for them both. Whether that’s CI, a CSS mole, or a player to be named later is anyone’s guess. But running for their lives together is the best thing that’s ever happened to both of them.

And it might just turn the tide of the war.

Escape Rating B+: I always have a great time aboard the Valiant Knox – or flying around it. But as much as I like the stories and the setting, I’m still not totally clear on the motivations of the CSS. They come off as “standard evil repressive fundamentalist cult” which is a common trope but doesn’t give me enough.

It also, as this story discovers, isn’t enough for some of its adherents. The CSS claims they want independence to go about their evil, repressive ways, but they may not be the only dog in this fight. We’ll see. That possibility gives me very high hopes for subsequent books in this series.

But about Cover Fire. All the stories in this series, so far, have dealt with forbidden romances in one way or another, and this one is no exception. Unlike the standard trope of the fighter pilot jock, Seb is not out to notch his bedpost. He is much more interested in a real relationship, or at least trying for one. And as much as he comes to want Jenna, as long as she believes that she has to run, he’s not after just a one-night-stand, no matter how he wants her.

He’s also going through a lot of self-doubt after the exposure of his friend as a CSS mole. He’s not sure what he feels, or with Jenna, who he feels it for. She turns her CI mask on and off like flipping a switch. Meanwhile, Jenna isn’t sure not just what she feels, but who she really is and whether she has a life expectancy longer than a few hours. She thinks her own organization is out to get her, and they are very, very effective at tying up loose ends.

Any relationship between them is the ultimate distraction from the effort to find out who ordered the hits and to keep them both alive long enough to expose the rot. There are plenty of times when that effort seems doomed, and often by their own mistakes.

I’ll admit that I did figure out whodunnit quite a bit before the end. I had the motives wrong, but the perpetrator seemed obvious, and was. Which didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the story and the series one iota.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. In the somewhat ominously titled War Games, coming out later this year.

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Review: Hell Squad: Hemi by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Hemi by Anna HackettHemi (Hell Squad #13) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #13
Pages: 201
Published by Anna Hackett on May 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

In the middle of an alien invasion, a big, tough, tattooed former mercenary is finally going to chase down his woman.

Camryn McNab knows love is a lie. Okay, maybe not for everybody--her fellow soldiers on Squad Nine have managed to fall in love in the middle of a vicious alien attack. But it's not for her. She comes from two people incapable of love. For now, her life is about survival, fighting to protect others, and kicking some alien raptor butt. What she doesn't need is a certain wild, bearded, tattoo-covered soldier always underfoot, messing with her things, and driving her crazy. But no matter how hard she tries to outrun Hemi Rahia, she can't seem to shake him, and a terrified part of doesn't even want to...

A member of the Squad Three berserkers, Hemi knows his squad has a reputation for not following the rules and being a little wild. Former bikers, mercenaries, and...other less savory things, they fight hard and party harder. But Hemi has known for a while now that there is only one woman for him. One courageous, sexy, attitude-filled woman he wants to claim as his own. But he has to catch her first.

Tasked with a top-secret mission deep in alien creeper territory, Hemi and Cam will fight side-by-side to achieve their dangerous goal. Their chemistry is off the charts, but persistent Hemi wants more than Cam's body...he wants her heart and soul as well. As their battle with the aliens turns deadly, they will have to fight not only for their love, but for their very survival.

My Review:

Science Fiction Romance (SFR) has to walk a tightrope. It has to have convincing and consistent SF worldbuilding, AND it has to have a romance at its heart. For the most part I absolutely love this author’s SFR and her action/adventure romance, but this particular entry didn’t quite work for me.

While on that one hand Hemi feels like it is intended as the reverse of Theron, the two stories may just have come out too close together for me. Both romances feature members of the Squads that protect the Enclave from the nasty, reptilian, invading Gizzida. So these are both stories where the romance is between two members of the military defense force.

In Theron, it was Sienna who was ready to rock her teammate’s world, and Theron who was the initially reluctant partner. In Hemi, the roles are reversed, with Hemi already all in and Cam putting up walls. The circumstances that this little remnant of the human race is currently stuck in creates all kinds of baggage for absolutely everyone. But in addition to the usual standard heaping helping of survivor’s guilt, Cam’s miserable childhood and toxic parents left her convinced that while love may be possible for other people, she’s not capable of believing in it for herself.

Especially with someone like Hemi, who in spite of being very big and badass, came from a loving home filled with siblings and cousins and parents who loved each other deeply. He believes in forever, and while their current situation keeps forever firmly on hold, she doesn’t think she has it in her to care that deeply for anyone, because she’s seen just how wrong it can go.

It takes nearly losing Hemi twice for Cam to finally see that love is real, and that they need to grab every minute of it they can, because there might not be a tomorrow.

Escape Rating B-: The stories in Hemi and Theron are much too similar, and came much too close together for this reader. While Shaw also explores this same theme, two Squad members who fall for each other, it still stands out, both because it was the first of the theme and because Shaw and Frost are both so completely blindsided by what they feel for each other.

Also, although Hemi may be intended to be the engine driving this book (I can’t resist the pun) something about the way he pursued Cam didn’t quite work for me. It very much had that flavor of “man knows best”, and that particular flavor never tastes good to me.

Even though Hemi turns out to be right, they really do belong together, that particular trope has a nasty aftertaste of the man ignoring the woman’s thoughts, feelings and desires. It so often, as it does in this case, becomes a story of “even though she said no she really means yes” and using seduction to change the woman’s mind. Everyone is wrong sometimes, but not having a woman’s stated wishes respected, even if the other character thinks they are off-base, is not something I enjoy reading.

It also feels as if not enough progress is made towards kicking the Gizzida off Earth. I’m still holding out for an Independence Day ending (the original, not the bleeping sequel) where we all stand up and cheer while the aliens get their asses kicked back into space. While the new alien creepers we see in Hemi are particularly creepy (the scene where Hemi hacks his way out from the inside is gruesome and awesome at the same time), and the swath of destruction that the Squads wreck in their base is spectacularly explosive, it still feels like a guerrilla action and not major movement forward.

For this reader, it is just plain time for the Gizzida to GO!

Review: Hell Squad: Theron by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Theron by Anna HackettTheron (Hell Squad #12) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #12
Pages: 223
Published by Anna Hackett on April 30th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Squad mates, best friends, and fighting to survive in the middle of an alien invasion. Can she make one stubborn alpha male soldier see her as something else?

Sienna Rossi has always been a mix of contradictions. She loves ice cream, likes cooking, and is skilled at taking down aliens with her squad. Sweet and tough, soldier and woman, most people can't seem to make sense of her...even the loving family she lost in the invasion and especially men. One man accepts her as she is, her best friend Theron. But the big, silent, muscled soldier has her firmly in the 'friends' zone...except that Sienna knows he wants her, and she's determined to claim the stubborn man as hers.

Theron Wade lives to fight aliens. They killed his parents, his foster siblings, and his fellow Rangers. Now he has a new team--the tough, mostly-female Squad Nine. But one certain female haunts his dreams and stars in his darkest fantasies. Sienna is his sunshine in the darkness. He wants to her to be happy...and he knows that would never be with a man like him. A man with darker, rougher tastes that would shock her.

As Squad Nine works to track and destroy a dangerous alien device, best friends collide. Theron introduces Sienna to a world of rough, edgy passion that she craves. But as a mission goes off track, the two of them will risk everything for love, for their lives, and to save the world.

My Review:

I absolutely adore this series. I open each entry with the sure and certain knowledge that I’m in for a good time. But I think it’s time for the series to end.

Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a rip-roaring good time with Theron and Sienna, because I most certainly did.

The Hell Squad series, which begins with a roar and a bang and a whole lot of gunfire in Marcus, is post-apocalyptic science fiction romance. The apocalypse that these events are post of is the invasion of the alien Gizzida and their ongoing attempt to bomb Earth back to the Stone Age while capturing and converting as many humans as possible into Gizzida.

Think Borg, but with more individual free will. Which often translates to even more cruelty and ambition, and even less conscience. And I never thought I’d say that anything had less conscience than the Borg. But individual Borg aren’t aware of the horror of their actions, and individual Gizzida are.

Each story in this series pushes the human agenda of getting the Gizzida off our planet just a tiny bit further, while featuring a romance between two of the many characters who are fighting back against the invaders with everything they have.

In Theron, the alien invasion part of the story revolves around a daring raid on the Australian Gizzida headquarters, with the first order of business to destroy the alien mind control device they are building, and the second order to investigate the rumored superweapon that the Gizzida are developing. The scary thing is that the giant mind control weapon is not the superweapon.

The romance is between Theron and Sienna, two members of Squad Nine. The Squads are the military arm of the resistance, and Theron and Sienna are two of their best. They are also partners in the squad, best friends, and always have each other’s backs in a fight.

And they not-so-secretly want to bang each other’s brains out. I’d say they were also secretly in love with each other, but part of the secret is that neither of them is willing to explore those feelings. They are both suffering from a whole lot of survivor’s’ guilt like pretty much everyone in the Enclave, and they are rightfully afraid that attempting to be anything more to each other will mess up their friendship.

There’s a betting pool on whether and when they will finally give in to each other. Can someone manage to win the pot before it’s too late for them all?

Escape Rating B+: I enjoy each outing in this series, but I can kind of see the patterns coming. Theron and Sienna’s story is a combination of the romances in Marcus and Shaw. Marcus thinks he’s too big and bad-assed for former society princess Elle, and Shaw and Frost are squad partners and friends who are afraid to mess up what they already have for something that might not work out.

Theron is sure he’s too rough for Sienna, and they are both afraid of messing up their partnership for a relationship that might not work out. While I’ve enjoyed each individual relationship, the predictability of the patterns is getting to me. I’m glad there was a few months break between Devlin and Theron.

So it’s the science fiction aspects of this SFR series that keep me going. I really, really, really want to see the Gizzida get kicked off of Earth. And I read each book in the series for the clues about how that longed-for event is finally going to happen.

But there’s something about the Gizzida that made me think. I compared them to the Borg, because that’s who they initially reminded me of. Both species conquer planets purely so they can mine those planets’ resources, and in both species those resources include any desirable DNA characteristics they can add to their own species to upgrade it. In both cases their process is to turn the conquered people into themselves. Borg make more Borg by turning other species into Borg, and Gizzida do the same thing.

Science fiction has managed to discover what feels like a literal “fate worse than death”. Not to be killed, or to suffer a terrible trauma that changes you forever, but to have your entire selfhood erased and converted to the enemy. I’m playing Mass Effect Andromeda right now, and it also explores this same theme, as did the original Mass Effect Trilogy. The worst fate in the universe is not to die, but to be permanently and irrevocably converted into the enemy.

The Gizzida are part of a fine and frightening trend in SF, and I want them kicked off Earth ASAP. But I suspect that our heroes are going to have to suffer through even more awful revelations before that glorious day.

Review: Champion by Anna Hackett

Review: Champion by Anna HackettChampion (Galactic Gladiators #5) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #5
Pages: 175
Published by Anna Hackett on March 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Fighting for love, honor, and freedom on the galaxy’s lawless outer rim…

Space marine Blaine Strong enjoyed being a composed, controlled member of space station security…until he was abducted by alien slavers. Forced into underground fight rings and pumped full of drugs, he’s now seething with anger and out for revenge.

Rescued by gladiators and fellow humans on the desert world of Carthago, Blaine is fighting to be the man he once was. But when the House of Galen is attacked, he must focus on joining the gladiators to fight back. That means teaming up with a tough, competitive female gladiator who not only challenges him at every turn, awakens a fierce desire he’s never felt before, but a woman who can sense the churning emotions inside him.

Gladiator Saff Essikani is the best net fighter in the Kor Magna Arena. Raised from young to fight, she bows to no man and uses her empathic abilities to win at whatever cost. With her House targeted and people under their care threatened, she’ll stop at nothing to find those responsible. But then she finds herself face to face with a big, tortured man from Earth who affects her like no man before. As Saff and Blaine head into the desert to uncover a conspiracy, their incendiary desire flares hotter than the desert suns. But as Blaine’s angry emotions rage out of control, Saff knows that unless he learns to embrace the man he is now, he has no chance of survival.

My Review:

There was a bit more sand than usual in this entry in Hackett’s sand, swords, and spaceships saga of gladiators on an intergalactic pleasure planet far, far, far from Earth’s corner of the Milky Way galaxy. If you like your science fiction romance with a lot of strong, sexy heroes, very evil bad guys and more than a bit of “can’t go home again” angst, this series is a winner. But you really need to at least read the first book in the series, Gladiator, to see how it all fits so marvelously together.

And it’s such a fun ride that if you like either SFR or gladiator romance, the whole thing is a winner.

But about Champion in particular, this entry in the series breaks the pattern a bit, and I enjoyed it all the more for that. Up til now, all of the heroines have been the human women who were kidnapped from Jupiter Station and dragged through a temporary wormhole as slaves of the very evil Thraxians.

And the heroes have all been gladiators of the House of Galen, a house that is dedicated not just to fighting the good fight, but also to rescuing those, like many of the women from Earth, who are simply not meant to be gladiators.

This entry in the series still features one of the gladiators from the House of Galen, but this time it’s the heroine. Saff Essikani is the team’s net fighter, and she’s damn good. She’s also someone who overcame a childhood of being property, and understands all too well how those enslaved women feel.

The hero, on the other hand, the Champion of the title, is the first human male we’ve encountered who was also part of that kidnapping. Blaine has spent his several months of captivity in the underground fight rings, where his alternatives had been reduced to death or survival. He was rescued, along with three human women, at the end of Protector, but while his body may be free, his mind is still partially locked back in those cages.

He’s lost the iron control he used to be famous for, due to the rage amplifying drugs the slave masters injected him with to keep him in the fights. The withdrawal is beyond painful.

But just as he’s getting himself back together, the House of Galen is attacked, and every gladiator is needed to discover who is responsible, and finally put down their enemies, once and for all. And just as Saff and Blaine have finally discovered each other, they are both forced to relive their greatest nightmares, hoping that someone can free them, or that this time, they can save each other.

Escape Rating A-:For this reader, it had felt as if the series were descending into just a bit of a rut. A rut that was still plenty of fun to pull up a chair in and read, but not as fresh and new as at the beginning.

This book was a welcome change. Not just because of the gender reversal, where the woman is the gladiator and the man is the human, but also because the stakes got higher. One of the running threads in the series as a whole is that the House of Galen are the good guys, and the Thraxians and their allies the Srinar are very definitely the bad guys.

For admittedly loose definitions of good, bad and especially guys.

Up until Champion, the House of Galen has won every encounter. Those wins have meant increasing numbers of slaves freed from their captivity and either given good jobs or returned to the families from which they were stolen.

In this story, evil fights back. And it scores some really disgusting wins. But it’s necessary. Evil never just curls up into the fetal position and slinks away – at least not without seriously trying to reassert its evil ways and getting cut to ribbons by the forces of good. This is that attempt. And as so often happens, it succeeds, at least at first, because no one sees it coming. As it so often does, evil attacks through the noncombatants, and scores a big surprise victory.

As part of fighting back from that attack, the House of Galen not only has to begin rally its allies for a hopefully final assault on the evil, but it also has to finally dig down and determine the depths of that evil so that they can cut it out by the root.

And that’s where this story gets its heart. Saff and Blaine have to face and conquer their own very, very serious demons both to save the day and to be worthy of each other. While it is nail-bitingly scary in the doing of it, when they finally win through its absolutely awesome.

Review: The Rescue by Diana Palmer

Review: The Rescue by Diana PalmerThe Rescue (The Morcai Battalion #4) by Diana Palmer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardvoer, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Morcai Battalion #4
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


New York Times
bestselling author Diana Palmer returns with the next edge-of-your-seat installment of The Morcai Battalion series.
Rhemun, commander of the Cehn-Tahr Holconcom, has worked tirelessly to get where he is and he's not going to let any human drag him back down. Especially not Lt. Commander Edris Mallory, whose very presence aboard the Morcai serves as a too-painful reminder of a past tragedy he can neither forgive nor forget.
But Mallory has secrets of her own, ones she can't afford to see come to light. Frantic to protect herself, she flees, abandoning her position. When Rhemun learns of her devastating situation, he realizes the all-consuming feelings he's harbored for her may not be hatred. But in a vast universe rife with peril, is it already too late?

My Review:

I read the first book in this series, The Morcai Battalion, back in 2007 when the expanded edition was republished by Harlequin Luna. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of outright science fiction romance being published, and The Morcai Battalion filled a need I don’t even think I knew I had.

(Luna was a terrific imprint. I discovered several marvelous authors through their line of SFR and fantasy romance, not just this series but also Michelle Sagara’s Elantra series and Gail Dayton’s Compass Rose, among others, and I wish they were still around.)

Back to The Morcai Battalion. I loved the setting, and the characters, in the original book. Not just the space opera aspects of the intergalactic war, but the relationships between the characters, the culture clash of melding two species into a single crew, and the heart stopping action of the prison planet and eventual breakout. It was a winner and I kept looking for more.

There were a couple of sequels over the years, The Recruit and Invictus. And then nothing from 2010 until now, with The Rescue.

The first three books in the series followed the human doctor, Madeline Ruszel and the alien Cehn-Tahr Dtimun, who begins as her commander and eventually becomes her husband, in spite of all the taboos and restrictions that surround the Cehn-Tahr and any possible relationship between Cehn-Tahr and humans. But the story built their relationship up over time, and it worked. It worked so well that they finally won their HEA at the end of Invictus.

Which leaves either a hole or an opportunity for the series. After reading The Rescue, I’m not quite sure which we got.

The relationship in The Rescue is between Dtimun’s successor as head of the unit, and Madeline’s successor as alien-species medic. But Rhemun is not Dtimun and Edris Mallory is not Madeline. While some of those changes make for good dramatic tension, some of them just fall a bit short.

Because Rhemun hates humans, and Edris frequently acts like a scared rabbit, or perhaps a better description would be a scared schoolgirl with a crush on a strict teacher. And it doesn’t quite work.

Dtimun, Madeline and their crew went through a bonding experience on that prison planet that transcended species or pretty much anything else. They became family in the process of saving each other, and it erased any interspecies prejudices they might have started with.

Rhemun, on the other hand, feels like all of the losses that he has experienced in his life are some human’s fault, and he has an unreasoning prejudice against the entire species. His strict disciplinary style alienates the human members of his crew, which is his intention. He also cuts Edris down at every turn, because she looks just like the woman who accidentally killed his son.

And unfortunately for Edris, his species has a highly enhanced sense of smell, so she is unable to hide her really, really unfortunate attraction for him. And he resents her for that, too.

The situation is a mess, and just gets messier, until Rhemun finally drives Edris off the ship, and very nearly drives every other human out the airlock along with her. It’s when the message finally gets through his very thick skull that he has put her in deadly danger because he can’t help but be attracted to her that their relationship moves from hate to love.

And then he drives her away again.

Escape Rating C+: I enjoyed the first part of the book. While Edris is on the ship, we see her working, we see her continuously fighting with Rhemun, we see her doing her duty as best she can under circumstances that become increasingly more unbearable by the minute. But the action clips along, and we get to see how the ship and crew both work together and don’t. It’s sad but interesting to watch Rhemun tear down a stellar unit that Dtimun spent years building up, and even sadder just how much easier it is to break than it was to build.

But through it all, Edris stands up for herself at every turn, and does her best to do her job, keep her career, and try to keep her life her own and on track. When she flees, while her reasons make sense, the story goes off the rails.

She’s in terrible danger, and it is very real. In the end, Rhemun and the crew have to rescue her to save her life from multiple dangers. And there’s a big portion of the book where she completely loses her agency, going from independent woman to beating victim to worshipful wife in a few too many steps.

And then lets herself be driven away again. Just when she finally has her new life on track, Rhemun swoops back in and tears it all apart again, even if unintentionally. The second half of the book doesn’t quite hang together. As far as the romance is concerned, his side of their relationship isn’t fully fleshed out. It’s easy to see that he wants her and wants to possess her, but we don’t see the build up of his emotions. It feels like that piece is missing.

There’s also a running theme that he omits much of the truth that Edris really needs to know. Lies of omission are still lies, and Rhemun keeps much too much from Edris that ends up biting them both in the ass – but always hers much more than his. And she’s so worshipful that she never calls him to account for any of it. She’s also much too gullible.

So I enjoyed the first half of this book, but found the second half disappointing, and sincerely hope that if the series continues, we get more heroines like Madeline Ruszel who are always part of the action and don’t let anyone steamroller them.

If you like SFR the first three books of this series are a good read, but this one feels skippable. Dammit. And they need to go back to the original cover designs, which at least hinted that this was SFR and not contemporary romance. The new covers make the series look way more like a motorcycle club romance than SFR, which is bound to disappoint people on all sides of the equation. Color me disappointed, too.

Review: Protector by Anna Hackett

Review: Protector by Anna HackettProtector (Galactic Gladiators #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #4
Pages: 218
Published by Anna Hackett on February 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Fighting for love, honor, and freedom on the galaxy’s lawless outer rim…

Cool and driven Madeline Cochran made a successful career for herself as civilian commander of a space station orbiting Jupiter…until the day it was attacked and she was abducted by alien slavers.

Her organized existence shattered, Madeline suffered during her captivity, but since her rescue by the tough gladiators of the House of Galen, she’s struggling to assimilate to her new life. As she navigates the desert world of Carthago and the gladiator city of Kor Magna, she desperately misses her teenage son back on Earth and throws herself into finding another human, space marine Blaine, still kept captive by the slavers. She also finds herself working harder than ever to avoid a certain charming showman gladiator who is far too attractive and far too tempting.

Gladiator Lore Uma-Xilene is a protector at heart and a sucker for a damsel in distress…although he’s well aware that the hard-shelled and sad-eyed Madeline wouldn’t appreciate the title. He knows what it feels like to be ripped from the family you love and have your life destroyed, and he wants to help Madeline heal. As the two of them go undercover into the dangerous world of underground gambling, Lore knows he’ll need all his patience, passion, and a whole lot of stubbornness to not only keep Madeline safe but to melt the icy shell around her heart.

My Review:

Protector is the fourth book in the author’s sun, sandals and stars series, Galactic Gladiators. The series begins with Gladiator, and the story there sets the stage. A temporary wormhole opens in the vicinity of the Jupiter Research Station in a near-future version of our solar system. A shipload of intergalactic slave traders takes advantage of the wormhole and the relatively low-tech Terrans to capture as many humans as possible, whipping back through the wormhole before it closes. It’s a one-way trip.

The slave-traders have unfortunately found out that human slaves are profitable, if only because they are rare. But once the surprisingly noble gladiatorial House of Galen buys the contract of the first human available to them, one after another the stranded humans have been rescued – even if they can’t return home.

Protector is Madeline Cochran’s story. On the Jupiter Station, she was the commander. Now on Kor Magna, her life has been reduced to one purpose – rescue the other human that she saw in the slave pits, Blaine. Not because there’s any relationship there, but because she can’t bear to leave anyone in the clutches of the slave trade.

And she’s so focused on that mission because her other reason for living was left behind back on Earth. Unlike the other heroines so far, Madeline left someone dear to her back home. Her teenaged son. That she knows she can never see him again eats at her like acid. She’s closed herself off to feeling anything else.

That’s where Lore comes in. One of the premier gladiators of the House of Galen, Lore can’t stop what Madeline makes him feel. And he doesn’t want to. What he wants is to give her a reason to keep living, and a reason to open her heart.

If she’s not too scared, and too guilt-ridden, to reach for it.

Escape Rating B: I enjoyed this story a lot, but there wasn’t anything that made it rise to the level of Hero. Maybe every story needs a robotic pet? (Just kidding)

But Protector felt a bit formulaic. There’s a pattern to this series, and that pattern was on full display here, along with a whole lot of muscled flesh. At the very end of the previous book, Madeline is rescued, and Lore is the one that she briefly clings to during that rescue. Neither of them can forget those moments, and thus this book becomes their story.

In case you’re wondering, the pattern repeats at the end of Protector. Blaine and three more human women are rescued, and they are all set to fall in love with their rescuers.

As part of Madeline’s story, we see even more of the dark underbelly of Kor Magna. And it is very dark indeed. The remaining unrescued humans (that we know about) have been swallowed up by the illegal pit fighting underworld. That the illegal pits are entered by way of the sewers is a perfect metaphor for what is going on there.

The humans are expected to die in that underworld. That Blaine has managed to survive and even become a sort of champion is a surprise to everyone. It’s a surprise that brings the organizers even more money than they expected, and they don’t want to lose their source of revenue.

And some of them are just plain evil.

We also learn more about the above-board (ish) side of Kor Magna, particularly the information broker Zhim. He’s an interesting character I’d like to see more of. And he’s the creator of an event that changes the tenor of the series. It’s an event that reminds me of the Pathfinder Project in Star Trek Voyager, and I’m still not sure if it is a good plot device in this case or not. Time (and more books) will undoubtedly tell.

This series is great fun if you like science fiction romance, action-adventure romance, human/non-human romance, or just a good story with Big Damn Heroes. I can’t wait to see if my guesses turn out to be true in the next book, Champion.

Review: Diffraction by Jess Anastasi + Giveaway

Review: Diffraction by Jess Anastasi + GiveawayDiffraction (Atrophy, #3) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Atrophy #3
Pages: 352
Published by Entangled: Select Otherworld on January 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

After his unusual reaction to a weapon, Commando Varean Donnelly is accused of being a shape-shifting alien and imprisoned onboard the Imojenna. Sure, he has abilities he keeps hidden from everyone--including the gorgeous doc examining him--because the government makes sure people as different as him disappear. For good.
Imojenna doctor Kira Sasaki knows there's something different about the handsome commando the captain's thrown in their brig. She doesn't think he's Reidar, although he might have been a victim of their cruel experiments. But when Kira learns the stubborn commando's racial make-up, she finds herself torn between defending him to Captain Rian Sherron and his crew or urging Varean to escape while he still can.

My Review:

atrophy series by jess anastasiThe Atrophy series is still hitting my “I miss Firefly” button, but as the series goes on the linkages both get more obvious and more tenuous at the same time.

Let me explain.

The universe of the Atrophy series, along with its protagonists, feel very much like the crew of the Serenity, but with some significant differences.

Rian Sherron at first seemed like a ringer for Mal Reynolds, but a Reynolds who had gone way, way further into the Dark Side than even the gloomy and driven Reynolds seemed to have reached. As the series has continued, we learn a whole lot more about why, and the why is where things diverge.

The evil forces in Atrophy are not the mindless Reavers, but the sound-alike but not really do-alike Reidar in the Atrophy universe. The Reidar are shapeshifting aliens, and they have spent the last several decades, if not far longer, placing shapeshifted Reidar into positions of power and authority all over the human Alliance.

For several years, Rian Sherron, Alliance military hero, was a brainwashed captive of the Reidar, forced to act as one of their elite assassins. He escaped, with the help of Arynian priestess Ella (yes, think Inarra Sera, it’s close enough). Rian managed to claw some of himself back from the brink, and now the Reidar and all their operatives are hunting Rian and Ella across the galaxy.

In Diffraction, the Reidar manage to capture Rian’s ship Imojenna, and his crew is scattered as they attempt to continue their mission to expose and eliminate the Reidar. Meanwhile, Kira Sasaki, the Imojenna’s ship’s doctor, has managed to find her own version of River Tam, but she certainly doesn’t see Commando Varean Donnelly as a sibling.

She also doesn’t see him as someone she can keep in her life, no matter how much she wants to.

Escape Rating B: This is a solid entry in the series, but it doesn’t rise to the level of the first two books, Atrophy and Quantum. It mostly feels like a middle book, as in between all of the chases and captures, the arc of the story-as-a-whole is trending downwards.

The crew of the Imojenna have found a weapon against the Reidar, but no way to mass produce it, or even ship it. They’ve lost some of their own, and currently have more questions than answers to the mess they find themselves (and their galaxy) in.

In the middle of all the action is the romance between Kira and Varean. Varean is a mystery to the Imojenna crew. He reacts to the Reidar weapon, not exactly like a Reidar, but definitely not like a human. He’s something other, and they don’t know what. Under the circumstances, that they don’t trust what they don’t know is hardly surprising.

What is surprising is the doctor’s reaction. Kira is incensed at the way Varean is being treated, and it leads to an emotional involvement that springs just a bit out of nowhere, even in these desperate circumstances. There’s been a lot of insta-love in this series, and in this particular case it’s on a hair trigger. At the same time, there is absolutely no time for these two to fall in love. They just do. I hope the romance in the next book in the series takes just a bit longer to build.

This is a series that almost requires being read in order. While the romances in each book are separate, the overall story builds from one book to the next. Also, the relationship between Rian and Ella is something that we see glimpses of in each book, but is nowhere near any resolution – at least not yet. The long arc of the series is fascinating. How do you manage to defeat an enemy who could be anyone, anywhere, and can command all the resources of your own people against you at every turn? I definitely want to know what happens next.

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~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Jess is giving away one copy each of the first two books in the series, Atrophy and Quantum, to lucky winners on this tour.

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