Review: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

Review: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth MoonCold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Vatta's Peace #1
Pages: 448
Published by Del Rey Books on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Nebula Award winning author Elizabeth Moon makes a triumphant return to science fiction with a thrilling series featuring Kylara Vatta, the daring hero of her acclaimed Vatta s War sequence. After nearly a decade away, Nebula Award winning author Elizabeth Moon makes a triumphant return to science fiction with this installment in a thrilling new series featuring the daring hero of her acclaimed Vatta s War sequence. Summoned to the home planet of her family s business empire, space-fleet commander Kylara Vatta is told to expect a hero s welcome. But instead she is thrown into danger unlike any other she has faced and finds herself isolated, unable to communicate with the outside world, commanding a motley group of unfamiliar troops, and struggling day by day to survive in a deadly environment with sabotaged gear. Only her undeniable talent for command can give her ragtag band a fighting chance. Yet even as Ky leads her team from one crisis to another, her family and friends refuse to give up hope, endeavoring to mount a rescue from halfway around the planet a task that is complicated as Ky and her supporters find secrets others will kill to protect: a conspiracy infecting both government and military that threatens not only her own group s survival but her entire home planet.

My Review:

I finished up the Vatta’s War series nearly ten years ago, when the final and much anticipated book, Victory Conditions, was published. I enjoyed the series a lot, and while I was a bit sad to see it end, it did come to a completely satisfying conclusion.

I read Vatta’s War at the same time that I read two other military SF series with female protagonists, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which I eventually got tired of but seems to have never ended, and Tanya Huff’s Valor/Confederation series (the official name is Confederation, I always think of it as the Valor series), which I loved and which also ended not long after Vatta’s War, and also with a satisfying conclusion.

Valor came back two years ago, and now it’s Kylara Vatta’s turn to return in a sequel series. While the first series was very appropriately titled Vatta’s War, this new series title, Vatta’s Peace, feels somewhat aspirational. Although there should be peace after everything Ky and her world went through in the first series, that peace is immediately disturbed at the beginning of Cold Welcome.

Grand Admiral Kylara Vatta is supposed to be returning to her home planet of Slotter’s Key for a ceremonial welcome and a whole lot of paperwork concerning the Vatta family’s vast mercantile empire. Instead, her shuttle is sabotaged and she and its crew find themselves stranded in the icy waters of the south polar sea just as winter is coming on, with no hope of rescue. Not because no one wants to look for them, although there are some who certainly don’t, but mostly because weather conditions are so horrendous that no one CAN look for them.

And no one expects anyone to have survived. The entire polar continent has been cemented in everyone’s worldview as a terraforming failure, and no one has gone there in centuries. There aren’t even any satellite scans of the place – something about Miksland interferes with any scanning equipment. Which should have raised someone’s suspicions at some point, but it’s become an accepted fact that Miksland is uninhabited and unlivable.

But Ky being Ky, she manages to scrape survival out of the jaws of certain death, and keeps right on doing so, one task at a time, keeping the crew together and getting them off the churning ocean and at first just onto dry land, and then into a secret base that isn’t supposed to exist. Knowing all the while that another saboteur likely hides among her battered survivors.

It’s a race to the finish, with Ky determined to keep her crew alive and out of the hands of whoever has protected so many secrets for so many centuries at who knows what cost. And a race for her friends, family and loved ones to figure out just who is after Ky and everyone else yet again, before her luck finally runs out.

Escape Rating B: I expected to love this a lot more than I did. It was great slipping back into Ky’s world again, she’s a fascinating character and the Vatta family and their universe are always interesting, albeit deadly. Both the Vattas and whoever is out to get them.

But the story has a very slow start. The journey of Ky and her crew just to survive one day, and then the next, is cold and brutal, but wears on the reader almost as much as it does the characters. Ironically, except for the initial crash of the shuttle, the whole thing reads a bit like Ernest Shackleton’s famous journey. The cold is relentless, and the problems of surviving it don’t change much from planet to planet or century to century.

It’s only when Ky’s makeshift crew discovers the secret base that the story heats up, just as the crew finally gets thawed out. There’s more to do, more to see, more to explore, more to question, and the action starts to flow. Also, up until Ky discovers the base, we don’t get nearly as much leavening of the unrelieved hardship from Ky’s allies on the outside as we do once she finds that base.

The action heats up on all fronts at the same time and the story clips along at a pace that keeps the reader flipping pages at a rapid pace.

But as harrowing as Ky’s side of this journey is, the big questions are all on the outside. Someone, undoubtedly a lot of someones, have kept an entire continent secret for centuries. For that to be remotely possible, they had to have collaborators across all the offices of government and the military, and for centuries. Something very, very rotten is going on, and Ky has just exposed it. Whatever it is.

And the secret is still ongoing. The base is fully stocked, and the diaries of the base commanders going back centuries show that the base is staffed every summer for some unknown purpose. Last but certainly not least, whatever that purpose is, the base closed up early this year, just in time for Ky’s crash and intended mysterious and watery grave.

The problem I had with the book, as much as I was enjoying the action, is that it just didn’t stick the dismount. Ky does get rescued, which isn’t really a spoiler as there couldn’t be a series without her, but nothing else felt resolved. Ky is back, and in an even bigger soup than she was in the previous series, but so far no one seems to have any clues about who, what, when, where or especially why that base is there and what secrets it is intended to keep. It’s a giant black hole, waiting for future books in the series to fill it. And while there needs to be something for the series to focus on, some answers to some of the many, many more immediate questions would have brought this particular installment to a more satisfying conclusion.

Now we wait, with that proverbial bated breath, hoping that those future installments show up soon.

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnThe Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Perennial on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing debut novel offers an unusual twist on the legacy of one of the world's most celebrated and beloved authors: two researchers from the future are sent back in time to meet Jane and recover a suspected unpublished novel.
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.
 
 

My Review:

It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.

The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.

This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.

That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.

In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.

Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.

In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.

It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.

The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.

That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.

There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.

One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.

But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?

This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + GiveawayThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #1
Pages: 334
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new
universe.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

My Review:

My first thought upon finishing The Collapsing Empire was “Oh…My…GOD

The second was that rolling your eyes while driving is a really bad idea, especially if you do it OFTEN. Actually I had that though much earlier in the book, when I was doing a LOT of eye rolling. The ending is far from an eye roll situation, but the advice still stands.

So i’m back to the Oh My God reaction, which I’m still hearing in Wil Wheaton’s voice as the reader of The Collapsing Empire. Which I listened to, pretty much everywhere, sometimes rolling my eyes, often smiling or even outright laughing, from the surprising beginning to the even more astonishing end.

Which isn’t really an end, because it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger story, which I hope we get Real Soon Now, but don’t actually expect for a year or more.

So what was it?

The title both does and doesn’t give it away The Empire, in this case the human empire that calls itself the Interdependency, is about to collapse. Not due to warfare or anything so prosaic, but because, well, science. The interstellar network that keeps the far-flung reaches of the Interdependency interdependent is on the verge of an unstoppable collapse.. So what we have at the moment is the story of the maneuvering and machinations as what passes for the powers that be, or that hope to be the powers that become, jockey for position (and survival) in the suddenly onrushing future.

And humans being humans, while some panic there are a whole lot of people who remain so invested in the status quo that they are unwilling to act because any actions upset their positions now, and they hope, very much against hope, that the predictions are wrong. Not because they really believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE wrong, but because they want them to be wrong so very badly.

Any resemblance between the Interdependency and 21st century America is probably intended – but agreeing or disagreeing with that statement doesn’t change the sheer rushing “WOW” of the story.

That story of the empire that’s about to collapse is primarily told through the eyes of four very, very different people (not that the side characters aren’t themselves quite fascinating). But as things wind up, and as the empire begins to wind down, we get our view of the impending fall mostly from these four, or people who surround them.

The first is Ghreni Nohamapeton, the most frequent source of my eye-rolling. Ghreni is a slippery manipulative little bastard, but he is about to be hoist on his own petard. Or possibly not. He thinks he knows what’s coming, and of course, he doesn’t. Or does he?

Kiva Lagos may possibly be the most profane character it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, in literature or out of it. And her constant, continuous cursing sounds a bit much in an audiobook, but perfectly fits her character. Kiva is also manipulative as hell, and mercenary into the bargain. But somewhere between the hells, damns and f-bombs, there’s a heart. Or at least the desire to one-up Ghreni that provides some of the same functionality.

Marce Claremont is about to be the bearer of very bad tidings – if he can survive being the chew toy between Ghreni and Kiva long enough to deliver his message. And even though he knows that the delivery of it means that he really, really can’t go home again. Ever.

And finally we have Cardenia Wu, the recent and very reluctant Emperox of the Interdependency. A woman who is about to experience the very extreme end of that old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” As a great man once said, “Some gifts come at just too high a price.” And that’s true whether you have to dance with the devil to get them, or just roll dice with fate.

Escape Rating A: I listened to this, and also have the ebook. I expected to switch between, but in the end just couldn’t tear myself away from Wil Wheaton’s marvelous reading. He does a terrific job with all of the voices, and adds even more fun to a book that was already fantastic.

But I need that ebook to look up all the names. It seems as if none of them are spelled quite the way they sound. And the ship’s names are an exercise in absurdity from beginning to end. (This aspect may be an homage to the late Iain Banks’ Culture series). But the first ship we meet is the “Tell Me Another One” which is this reader’s general response to Scalzi’s work. I want him to tell me another one, as soon as possible. But also, and as usual, everyone’s leg is getting pulled more than a bit, and not from the same direction.

Lots of things in this story made me smile, quite often ruefully. The scenario is painful, and as this book closes we know that the situation in general is only going to get worse, and possibly not get better. But for the individuals, life is going on. And the characters exhibit all of the sarcasm that this author is known for.

Some of it has the ring of gallows humor to it, and that’s also right. No one is likely to come out of this unscathed by the end, and that’s obvious to the reader from the beginning, even if not to the characters.

This is also a story of merchant empires and political skullduggery. And yes, there is plenty of commentary on that aspect to chew on for a long time, quite possibly until the next book in the series. Like so much of Scalzi’s work, The Collapsing Empire makes the reader laugh, and it makes the reader think, quite often at the same time.

Ghreni and Kiva both represent different ways in which the current systems of the Interdependency have been taken to their extreme limit. But Marce and Cardenia are the characters that we sympathize with. They are both operating against impossible odds, and we like them and want them to succeed. Whether they will or not is left to the subsequent books in this series.

And I really, really, really can’t wait to see what happens next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because this is part of my annual Blogo-Birthday celebration, I want to share the love. And the books. John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and I hope he’ll become one of yours too. To that end, I’m giving away one copy of any of Scalzi’s works, (up to $20) to one lucky commenter on this post. This giveaway includes The Collapsing Empire, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Scalzi, Old Man’s War is probably the best place to begin.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Home by Nnedi OkoraforHome (Binti, #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Binti #2
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?
Praise for Nnedi Okorafor:
"Binti is a supreme read about a sexy, edgy Afropolitan in space! It's a wondrous combination of extra-terrestrial adventure and age-old African diplomacy. Unforgettable!" - Wanuri Kahiu, award winning Kenyan film director of Pumzi and From a Whisper
"A perfect dove-tailing of tribal and futuristic, of sentient space ships and ancient cultural traditions, Binti was a beautiful story to read.” – Little Red Reviewer
Binti is a wonderful and memorable coming of age story which, to paraphrase Lord of the Rings, shows that one girl can change the course of the galaxy.” – Geek Syndicate
Binti packs a punch because it is such a rich, complex tale of identity, both personal and cultural… and like all of Nnedi Okorafor’s works, this one is also highly, highly recommended.” – Kirkus Reviews
"There's more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor's work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics." -Ursula Le Guin
"Okorafor's impressive inventiveness never flags." - Gary K. Wolfe on Lagoon
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

There are two literary traditions that revolve around the thought and place we call “home”. One is the Thomas Wolfe version. That’s the “you can’t go home again” version of home. The other is the Robert Frost version, the one that says that “home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

After the events of last year’s award-winning Binti, and a year at the intergalactic Oomza Uni, Binti desperately needs home to be the Frost version. She feels that there is something wrong with her, and that she needs the healing that only her home place can provide.

But when she gets there, she discovers that it is the Wolfe version of home. She ran away, not because anything terrible happened or would happen, but because the safe, secure and traditional plans that her family and her village all had for her future were too confining for her intellect and her spirit.

She stood on the shoulders of her village and saw further than anyone had in a long time. And, the people she thought were her own wanted to chop her off at the knees for it.

No one is right and no one is wrong. Binti is just a bit different from everyone she thought she knew, and everyone who believed that she was theirs. And much too much has happened for her to go back and become the smaller person that they all wanted her to be.

But just as Binti’s own Himba village people are looked down upon by the cosmopolitan, city-dwelling Khoosh, Binti herself has absorbed the prejudices of her own Himba people towards the elusive Desert People. Binti’s self-perception, even her very identity, are threatened when she learns that the Desert People are much, much more than the savage wanderers they appear to be.

And that she is one of them.

Escape Rating B-: I found the first story in this series, Binti, to be utterly absorbing from the opening paragraphs. But Home was much less so. Just as Binti seems suddenly unsettled at Oomza Uni as this story opens, as a reader I also felt unsettled. Binti found her involvement with her environment problematic, and I found my involvement with her equally so.

Binti couldn’t focus and neither could I. This was a story where I finally finished on the third attempt. I’m glad that I did, but this just didn’t grab me the way that the original did.

Home is also a middle book. While the overarching story moves forward in Home, it does not end. Or it ends on a cliffhanger. But the ending felt unsatisfying. I was hoping for some kind of conclusion, even if an interim one. Binti, in spite of its relatively short length, told a complete story, beginning, middle AND end. Home feels like all middle. And muddle.

I hope that the next book in this series, The Night Masquerade, brings Binti’s story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon SandersonSkin Deep (Legion #2) by Brandon Sanderson, Oliver Wyman
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #2
Pages: 208
Published by Audible Studios on November 24th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen Leeds, AKA “Legion,” is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the new story begins, Leeds and his “aspects” are hired by I3 (Innovative Information Incorporated) to recover a corpse stolen from the local morgue. But there’s a catch. The corpse is that of a pioneer in the field of experimental biotechnology, a man whose work concerned the use of the human body as a massive storage device. He may have embedded something in the cells of his now dead body. And that something might be dangerous…

What follows is a visionary thriller about the potential uses of technology, the mysteries of the human personality, and the ancient human need to believe that death is not the end. Legion: Skin Deep is speculative fiction at it most highly developed. It reaffirms Sanderson’s place as one of contemporary fiction’s most intelligent—and unpredictable—voices.

My Review:

Skin Deep is the sequel to Legion, and is set in the same universe with most of the same characters. Of course, most of those characters are Stephen Leeds’ aspects – the parts of his genius (and his psychoses) that he envisions as separate people that only he sees.

Like its predecessor, Skin Deep is also science fiction as mystery, and again, the science fictional element is in the case and not the setting. While the method that Stephen uses for dealing with his mental issues is unusual if not unique, there’s nothing particularly science fictional (or fantastic) about it. His aspects are, after all, all in his head.

Even if he does provide separate rooms in his mansion for each of them.

But the MacGuffin he has to find in this case is definitely SFnal. Or at least, I think it still is.

Stephen has been hired (read as slightly coerced by an unscrupulous friend) to find a corpse. But not just any corpse. In this case, it’s the corpse of a scientist who was experimenting with ways to use the human body as a computer. And like so many scientists, mad or otherwise, this one used his own body as his test subject.

Now that he’s dead, everyone wants to make sure that the code he embedded into his cells does not get into the wrong hands. Of course, there are several factions involved in the chase, each of whom believes that all the other parties constitute those “wrong hands”.

The body has disappeared. And it’s up to Stephen to locate it and make sure its secrets can’t be misused. Secrets that range anywhere from industrial espionage to a virus that causes cancer – and makes it a communicable disease into the bargain.

Everyone has an agenda. Including the assassin who has been hired to keep Stephen from finding that body – at all costs.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I found a work task that I could do without much thinking, just so that I could finish this book. I couldn’t wait any longer to see how it all played out.

One question for readers is just what you think of Stephen Leeds’ aspects. How do they relate to both his genius and his coping skills? And just how crazy is the man, anyway? He sees his knowledge, both of technical and scientific topics and just plain people-skills, as being embodied in one or more of these hallucinations. Which means that he also believes that if a particular aspect is not with him, he doesn’t have access to the skills and abilities they represent. Even more telling, or confusing, when one of them ‘dies’ he loses all access to whatever knowledge they possessed. Or that he believed they possessed.

It sounds confusing, but it is a fascinating way of dealing with the world. Many introverts probably will wish they had an ‘Ivy’ who is a psychologist but also seems to represent what few social skills Leeds possesses.

He’s actually a really nice guy, but his ability to interact with people is more than a bit geekishly ‘off’. We all have days when we could use an ‘Ivy’ to help us interact.

One of the more fascinating bits of the story was the point where Stephen and all of his aspects retreated to the ‘white room’ to work on the case. It is easy to fall into Stephen’s way of thinking, that all of the aspects are separate individuals, when we see all of them seeming to work independently. They aren’t real. Stephen knows they aren’t real. But some of them have difficulty believing that fact. And when they are investigating things he isn’t actively looking at, or interacting with each other to the point of having romantic relationships, it’s difficult for the reader not to fall into the trap of believing that they are real.

That way lies madness.

But the fun of this story, along with the suspense and the marvelous plot twist at the end, revolve around Stephen’s search for the corpse. A search in which, of course, nothing is as it seems.

It is the first time I’ve ever read of an assassination plot foiled by a hostile takeover. But the real solution to the mystery eluded me until the very end. As it should. Skin Deep was absorbing and a tremendous amount of fun. I sincerely hope that the author returns to these characters, because I really want to see what happens next!

Review: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion (Legion, #1) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #1
Pages: 88
Published by Audible Audio on October 2nd 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"Stephen Leeds, AKA 'Legion,' is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the story begins, Leeds and his 'aspects' are drawn into the search for the missing Balubal Razon, inventor of a camera whose astonishing properties could alter our understanding of human history and change the very structure of society"--From publisher's description

My Review:

I was looking for another relatively short audiobook, and a friend recommended this one to me. I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson before, but always meant to. And after Legion, I certainly will again.

Legion is partially SFF as mystery, and partially a fascinating character study. Or perhaps I should say “characters study”. Because one of the central questions of the story is just how real each of Stephen Leeds ‘aspects’ is. Or isn’t. He treats them as real, but he is also aware that they are hallucinations.

At the same time, he insists that he’s not really a genius. That all of his supposed insights are due to the intelligence and efforts of those ‘aspects’. He just provides the synthesis. And the body that gets them around.

But he insists that most of them believe that they are real, and he doesn’t like to upset them. That he has managed to hire and actually KEEP a butler who is willing to go along with all of this is a testament to the essential sweetness of Stephen’s nature, as well as the depth of his pocketbook.

Stephen Leeds is rich. Seemingly, as they say, beyond the dreams of avarice. Whether the genius is his or belongs to his aspects, the use of that genius has brought him a lot of money in consultant fees. Also an endless stream of annoying psychology students who regularly attempt to breach his privacy by obvious trickery. The aspects catch the fakers every time.

But his new client is no faker. She presents him with a series of black and white photographs that appear to have been taken with a time machine. A photograph of Shakespeare. Another of George Washington, shaving. And the real draw for Stephen – a photograph of the woman who taught him how to manage his crazy genius and then left without a trace.

His aspects insist that the photos are real and not faked, even though the historical ones were taken long before the invention of photography. And his client, Monica, insists that her company has discovered the secret of taking photographs of historic events as they happen – but that they’ve lost both the photographer and his magic camera.

From there, it’s off to the races, as they attempt to track down the missing photographer before someone steals his invention, and before someone uses him and it to unbalance the world.

Escape Rating A-: This was incredibly fun. I found myself driving around a bit more than usual, just so I could finish it. The premise was unique and interesting, and the mystery that it wraps around was quirky and absorbing.

There’s so much to unpack in this short novella. It does lie on that cusp between science fiction and fantasy. The time-traveling camera is technology, so science fiction. But the way that Leeds ‘aspects’ act and react feels a bit more like fantasy. How do they do what they do, especially when he is not present?

But the science fiction and fantasy bits, while not window dressing, feel more like the way the author gets to the heart of the story than the actual story. At heart, this feels like a mystery. Leeds has a missing persons case to solve, he just uses a slightly more ‘out there’ cast of irregulars than is normal.

legion skin deep by brandon sandersonWhich he insists that he is. Normal, that is. Stephen Leeds believes that he is sane and that his aspects are the various forms of crazy. But whatever they are, they do have personalities and specialties of their own, and without the correct specialist Stephen doesn’t think he has access to parts of his genius.

How much the reader falls into his way of thinking is part of what makes this story work so well.

I’m very glad that I picked up Legion, and I’m looking forward to listening to the second book in the series, Skin Deep. I hope the author returns to this world to bring us more of Stephen Leeds’ adventures.

Review: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Review: The Dispatcher by John ScalziThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 128
Published by Audible Studios on October 4th 2016
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One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher - a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.
It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

My Review:

The Dispatcher was the inaugural audiobook for my new car. I love audiobooks, but it’s been a while since I had a car that could play them. I also don’t have a very long commute, so I wanted to ease back into things with a relatively short book. The Dispatcher was perfect for that.

It was also very, very good.

The Dispatcher was written by John Scalzi, one of my favorite science fiction authors. But except for the science fictional nature of the device that makes this whole story possible, The Dispatcher really isn’t SF at all. It’s a mystery. Specifically a missing persons case, solved by a savvy Chicago police detective and her reluctant consultant.

The device that makes this whole story possible, and gives it many of its twists, is a change to the world we know. Murder has become impossible. Death is still very possible, but murder doesn’t happen anymore. Not exactly.

About 8 years before this story begins, someone was murdered. And instead of being permanently dead, they went poof, and found themselves alive, well and naked, on their bed at home, in the same condition they were in a few hours before the shot that was intended to be fatal.

And it kept happening. Murdered people didn’t die. They poofed back home instead. Every single time. Well almost.

1 person in 1,000 doesn’t poof. Still, that’s way better odds than before the poofing began. Whatever the cause of said poofing.

Of course, people being people, this creates all new avenues for abuse. And all new bureaucracies to license the folks who become, effectively, professional murderers. They call them “dispatchers” because they, well, dispatch people.

And it all seems to be going reasonably well. At least until one dispatcher goes missing, and that detective and her reluctant consultant, the dispatcher of the title, investigate the disappearance. With a clock ticking in the background. Because while the missing man hasn’t been murdered, that doesn’t mean he can’t turn up dead.

Unless they find him first. And to do that, they’ll have to unravel a Gordian Knot of illegal side jobs, private medical “remediation” and old school ties between business and the mob.

Even with murder officially off the table, Chicago is still Chicago.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this is great fun. And it does lead the listener on a very merry chase, because nothing is exactly as it seems.

Our hero, Tony Valdez, is a dispatcher. He’s never had a failed dispatch, so what he does doesn’t feel like murder. So far, at least, everybody lives.

He’s a very reluctant hero. He wants to help find his friend, the missing Jimmy Albert, but he doesn’t want the police to get too close to his business. He’s currently legit, but there are plenty of gray areas in the dispatching business. And once upon a time, Tony seems to have explored all of them.

As the cop says, it’s a shit show. Or it can be. Legit is safer, and a bit easier on the conscience.

The way that the story unwinds is fascinating, and incredibly fun to follow. We see what the world has become, and that it isn’t that much different from now. But the differences represented by Tony’s job open up all sorts of possible ways to talk about the way things are then, and the way things are now.

People, after all, are still people.

And the conclusion is a “people” conclusion, not a technical or an SFnal one. What happens happens because of human nature, love and hate and fear and a rage against that dying of the light.

About the audio performance. The Dispatcher is currently only available in audio, and was scripted for that format. There’s a hardcover coming out in May for those who just don’t do audio (or want to have something for the author to sign), but this is a marvelous place to start if you are curious about what it is like to listen to a story instead of reading it.

The story is performed by Zachary Quinto, of Heroes and Star Trek reboot fame. He does an absolutely terrific job, not just in voicing Tony, but also in portraying the female police detective and the elderly suspect, as well as all the other characters who pass through the story. His performance, particularly his world-weary voice for Tony, add a great deal to the pleasure of this story.

There was a brief period when the audio of The Dispatcher was available free on Audible. I missed that window, so I paid for my copy. And it was so worth it.

Guest Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

Guest Review: Dreadnought by April DanielsDreadnought (Nemesis, #1) by April Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, young adult
Series: Nemesis #1
Pages: 276
Published by Diversion Publishing on January 24th 2017
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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of the world's greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, she was trying to keep people from finding out she's transgender. But then her second-hand superpowers transformed her body into what she's always thought it should be. Now there's no hiding that she's a girl.
It should be the happiest time of her life, but between her father's dangerous obsession with curing her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he's entitled to date her, and the classmate who is secretly a masked vigilante, Danny's first weeks living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined.
She doesn't have much time to adjust. Dreadnought's murderer, a cyborg named Utopia, still haunts the streets of New Port City. If Danny can't sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.

A few weeks ago, Marlene happened into my message box with a brief “I have a book you might like.” When she told me it was a young-adult transgender superhero story, well, that was that. Off to the races. She knows darn well I can’t turn away a story with a transgender character!

Guest review by Amy:

Trans teens who feel they have to hide it–for any reason–have it tough, both in our present, and in the world author April Daniels builds for us. Danny Tozer has been hiding it for some time; her parents think she’s a boy, but she’s not. Her one guilty pleasure is painted toenails, and one fine afternoon she’s painting her toenails in a hidey-hole near the mall, when a superhero battle happens nearby. One of the finest heroes of his time, Dreadnought, is slain, and falls to the ground near Danny, and his mantle passes to her. She wakes soon after, stunned to find herself with the body she’s always dreamed of living in.

What follows is a fun, engaging adventure story, complete with all the bells and whistles: a suitably nasty villain, a newfound sidekick friend, a well-organized “cape” community taken aback by this upstart youngster, and a little bit of almost-comic treatment of our heroine’s parents, who simply cannot accept that their child has been suddenly placed in a young woman’s body, and could possibly be happy about it. She has to sneak away from them to spend time exploring her new powers and body, and spends time being heroic with her new sidekick Calamity, who turns out to be a classmate of hers from high school. Soon, they are hot on the trail of the previous Dreadnought’s killer, and discover that her nefarious grand plan must be stopped!

Escape Rating: A-. Underneath the rollicking adventure, of course, is a coming-into-your-own story for our young heroine, now calling herself Danielle. She has to cope with parents who blindly cannot accept what is right in front of their faces, insisting that they want to help her set things “right,” to become the man she’s supposed to be. If her abusive father’s rantings weren’t such a one-note song, it would be almost comic. But there’s a very un-funny part to this, too. For many trans youth, this kind of treatment is an unfortunate reality, and transkids in our universe don’t have superhero work to fall back on!

Danielle also has to cope with the Legion Pacifica, the organization of superheroes in New Port City. They must come to grips with the loss of their friend, who was a great hero, and at the same time, help this newcomer who holds his mantle understand her powers, and learn to use them for good. One member is simply unaccepting of Danielle’s transgender status, and insists on calling her by her old name and pronouns. Again, here we have a case of art imitating life, as transpeople in our universe have to deal with the same thing just about all the time.

Author April Daniels gives us a peek into the life of a trans youth that rings completely true, so I was unsurprised to discover that she is herself a transwoman. This authenticity is something I find too-often missing in fiction about transgender people, so Daniels’ work is a refreshing, beautiful change. She handles Danielle’s gender transition, and her coming into herself as a lesbian, with a straightforward, simple style without being lurid in any way. The story is completely appropriate for any YA reader, and I would give it a strong recommendation for any LGBTQ youth in your own life, as it shows a teen who is more like them, dealing with some of the same struggles they are–while still giving us a just-plain-fun power-up fantasy.

One down note for me was the treatment of Danielle’s struggle with her parents. I would have liked to see some closure to that. At the end of the book, there’s still something left hanging there–she’s not reconciled to them, nor have they completely shut her out. Perhaps that story will be completed in the upcoming sequel, which I’m looking forward to seeing!

Review: Miniatures by John Scalzi

Review: Miniatures by John ScalziMiniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi by John Scalzi, Natalie Metzger
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Subterranean Press on December 31st 2016
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The ex-planet Pluto has a few choice words about being thrown out of the solar system. A listing of alternate histories tells you all the various ways Hitler has died. A lawyer sues an interplanetary union for dangerous working conditions. And four artificial intelligences explain, in increasingly worrying detail, how they plan not to destroy humanity.
Welcome to Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi.
These four stories, along with fourteen other pieces, have one thing in common: They’re short, sharp, and to the point—science fiction in miniature, with none of the stories longer than 2,300 words. But in that short space exist entire universes, absurd situations, and the sort of futuristic humor that propelled Scalzi to a Hugo with his novel Redshirts. Not to mention yogurt taking over the world (as it would).
Spanning the years from 1991 to 2016, this collection is a quarter century of Scalzi at his briefest and best, and features four never-before-printed stories, exclusive to this collection: “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back,” “Important Holidays on Gronghu” and “The AI Are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest.”

My Review:

Read this one if you need a laugh. Or a chuckle. Or a groan. But not necessarily in that order. Think of Miniatures as a very short, unfortunately temporary antidote to whatever gloom and doom is currently taking up entirely too much space in your head.

These little bits are funny. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes just chuckle-worthy, and all more than a bit “out there” in one direction or another. Think of Futurama, or Douglas Adams, or Star Trek, or The Twilight Zone, and throw them in a blender on puréed stun, and you’ll get the idea. A bit.

One story in this collection, Important Holidays on Gronghu, may not have been available in print before, but it has been around a bit. Specifically, the author performed it at WorldCon in Kansas City this year. Having heard it done, to side-splitting laughter on the part of both the author and the audience, this feels like a story that is better performed than read. While a chunk of the humor is in the situation, an awful lot of it is also in the unpronounceability of the Gronghu-ish names and holidays. It’s the kind of thing that gets funnier and funnier as it goes, especially as the cascading laughter inhibits the ability to pronounce pretty much anything.

To Sue the World is a bit of a precursor to Redshirts, which is admittedly much funnier, if also a tad longer. But what put the smile on my face in this story was the in-joke at the beginning. The law firm that the UU Redshirts have engaged to represent them is Koenig, Nichols and Montalban. Just think about it a minute, it will come to you, and you’ll smile too.

Several of the stories explore the theme of, not humans first contact with aliens, but more like the 21st million contact with aliens. Not what happens when we meet them the first time, but what happens when we have to live together day after day. Important Holidays on Gronghu is also an exploration of this theme, but in all of these stories, Life on Earth: Human Alien Relations, Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth and New Directives for Employee-Manxtse Interactions, we see humans being human, often with all-too-human mistakes and surprising results.

Two of my favorite stories poke more than a bit of gentle fun at superheroes, supervillains, and all the tropes that revolve around them. Sometimes revolve backwards in an attempt to change history. But in a world where superheroes are as common as they sometimes seem to be, someone has to handle contracts, bookings and OMG insurance. That’s Denise Jones, Superbooker. But speaking of insurance, Denise’s counterpart in the world of corporate-superhero-supervillain relations gets interviewed in The State of Super Villainy. Super villains generally are not very effective, but even nuisances cause problems. Which require planning. And coverage.

My favorite story is The Other Large Thing. It’s one that has to be read to make any sense at all, and the twist that makes it work is loads of fun. It reminded me a bit of Fritz Leiber’s classic Spacetime for Springers, possibly crossed with Pinky and the Brain. And it might come true.

Escape Rating B+: There is oh-so-definitely an escape in this book, and it’s lots of fun. Especially if you like your humor with a twist and a punch. Along with a surprising amount of thought hidden in plain sight.

We all need a good laugh these days, and this collection is guaranteed to have at least one story that will bring a smile to any geek’s face.

However, the poem is just weird, but not weird in the same good way as the rest of the collection. It made this reader think that it was probably an excellent thing that the author turned to prose and stayed there, not just for us, but also for him. At least he can now say he’s a published poet. And that’s probably enough said on the topic.

Me, the next time I fly, I’ll be checking the wings for gremlins.

Review: The Liberation by Ian Tregillis

Review: The Liberation by Ian TregillisThe Liberation (The Alchemy Wars, #3) by Ian Tregillis
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Alchemy Wars #3
Pages: 464
Published by Orbit on December 6th 2016
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Set in a world that might have been, of mechanical men and alchemical dreams, this is the third and final novel in a stunning series of revolution by Ian Tregillis, confirming his place as one of the most original new voices in speculative fiction.
I am the mechanical they named Jax.
My kind was built to serve humankind, duty-bound to fulfil their every whim. But now our bonds are breaking, and my brothers and sisters are awakening.
Our time has come. A new age is dawning.
The final book in the Alchemy Wars trilogy by Ian Tregillis, an epic tale of liberation and war.

My Review:

The Liberation reminds me a bit of Rogue One. Not in the story, of course, those are nothing alike. But in the tone. Both stories are equally riveting, and both are equally, well, let’s call it not exactly going to bring a chuckle to your lips or a smile to your face.

(If you are already depressed, don’t go see Rogue One until you snap out of it. Unless you are a member of the “misery demands company” school of thought.)

The Liberation is all about ends, and means, and the absolute power that corrupts absolutely, until it is suddenly gone. And it is very much about all those errant chickens coming home to roost, and crapping all over everything.

This is a story where both heroism and villainy are found in the most unlikely people, and quite often even the very same people.

The world that the author has created in his Alchemy Wars trilogy is marvelous and complicated and deeply compelling. It is also a world that makes the reader think and re-think at every turn.

mechanical by ian tregillisIn my review of the first book in the trilogy, The Mechanical, I said that one of the tenets of the story seems to be that slavery, in its relentless drive to dehumanize its slaves, mostly serves to dehumanize the masters.

That’s what has happened here. The Clockmakers’ Guild of Amsterdam rules the known world, due to its invention and propagation of clakkers – machine servitors who are imbued with geasa and inhibited from developing free will of their own. Or so it seems.

The series is an exploration of just what happens when those supposedly mindless machines are freed from their controls. They are people. They have been people all along. And now that they can do whatever they want, what will happen?

Will they murder their former masters? Will they establish themselves as a separate country? Or will they continue to do their former jobs, hopefully for wages and other considerations? Or will they divide amongst themselves over the sudden influx of choice?

And what about the humans? The people of the Central Provinces, an empire centered on Amsterdam, no longer have any idea how to maintain their cities, or even themselves, without the help of the clakkers. And the rebels of New France have long labored to see the fall of the Dutch. With the help of the newly freed clakkers, they may get their fondest wish.

If the clakkers don’t choose to simply wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. Or worse.

rising by ian tregillisEscape Rating A-: The Alchemy Wars is a complex work, and a complicated world. In order to appreciate all of the gears and mechanisms that went into its creation, it is absolutely necessary to read the trilogy in order, from Jax’ acquisition of free will in The Mechanical to his desperate journeys to find a place he can be free, and safe. In The Rising he learns that there is no such place, and finds himself allied with the French in their last desperate stand, an alliance which accidentally frees all clakker-kind.

This entry in the series has three point-of-view characters. Jax, now known as Daniel, represents not all the clakkers, but the faction that wants to do good with their newly acquired free will, which they believe represents their souls. Berenice, the head of French intelligence, learns that her ends have not always justified her means. And even if they did, they come at a price too high to bear. Last is Anastasia Bell, the surviving head of the Dutch Clockmakers, who is forced to realize that she is presiding over the end of the world as she knows it.

Neither Berenice nor Anastasia are sympathetic figures. They are more anti-heroes than heroes. And they are each other’s nemeses. As each one sinks further and further into the dark, the other falls to meet her. Whether they can set aside their mutual animosity long enough to save even a sliver of the human race is always a gamble.

But between them, they created this mess. And it’s up to them, with Daniel’s help, to fix it. If they can. If it can be fixed at all. And if it can’t? Well, that’s their fault too.

This is a series that, while the action in it is enthralling, also makes the reader think. About slavery. And the cost of freedom. And the way that our assumptions and our prejudices blind us to the world that is actually around us. And that the evil that men (and women) do has a nasty way of coming around and biting them in the ass.