Review: The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

Review: The Terraformers by Annalee NewitzThe Terraformers by Annalee Newitz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: hopepunk, science fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Tor Books on January 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Terraformers is an equally heart-warming and thought-provoking vision of the future for fans of Becky Chambers, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Martha Wells.
Destry is a top network analyst with the Environmental Rescue Team, an ancient organization devoted to preventing ecosystem collapse. On the planet Sask-E, her mission is to terraform an Earthlike world, with the help of her taciturn moose, Whistle. But then she discovers a city that isn't supposed to exist, hidden inside a massive volcano. Torn between loyalty to the ERT and the truth of the planet's history, Destry makes a decision that echoes down the generations.
Centuries later, Destry's protege, Misha, is building a planetwide transit system when his worldview is turned upside-down by Sulfur, a brilliant engineer from the volcano city. Together, they uncover a dark secret about the real estate company that's buying up huge swaths of the planet―a secret that could destroy the lives of everyone who isn't Homo sapiens. Working with a team of robots, naked mole rats, and a very angry cyborg cow, they quietly sow seeds of subversion. But when they're threatened with violent diaspora, Misha and Sulfur's very unusual child faces a stark choice: deploy a planet-altering weapon, or watch their people lose everything they've built on Sask-E.

My Review:

The Terraformers – the story – is a story about legacy, every bit as much as the planet Sask-E (elided over the centuries to Sasky) is the living, breathing legacy of the terraformers who helped to make it.

But terraforming as a process is long and expensive, so even though the action of the story takes place over centuries, that’s just a drop in the bucket of the planet’s own time. But more than long enough for the reader to fall in love with the place and its people.

Because of the length and expense of that terraforming process, along with what seems to be the tendency of governments everywhere and everywhen to believe – or at least pretend to believe – that private enterprises will do a better, more efficient or at least less obviously costly job of doing things that should be the province of government, Sask-E was developed, owned and operated by the Verdance Corporation.

And thereby, quite literally, hangs our tale. And eventually theirs.

The underlying ethos of terraforming is itself a legacy, the legacy of the Environmental Rescue Teams were created to clean up the vast ecological mess that Earth became during the anthropocene era – which is right now, BTW.

When we first visit Sask-E its terraforming phase is just about at an end, and its commercial exploitation phase is just about to begin. Network analyst Destry, one of the members of Sask-E’s corporate-owned Environmental Rescue Team – which is every bit the oxymoron one might think it would be – discovers that at least one of the things she’s always been taught isn’t remotely true.

There are already people living on Sask-E, the direct descendants of the early terraforming teams who were supposed to have all died off hundreds of years ago when the planetary atmosphere became too oxygen-rich for their engineered biology. They didn’t die, they adapted – as humans do.

Verdance wants to eliminate them. Destry wants to make sure they get to remain right where they are. The compromise she makes, the clandestine treaty she brokers between the warring factions, is definitely a case of lesser of evils – one for which Destry pays the highest price.

But in the end, that compromise – along with Destry’s adopted grandchild, an intergalactic reporter in the shape of a genetically engineered cat and a whole host of creatures great and small, mechanical and biological, humans both H. sapiens and H. diversus, reach out to grasp the freedom they should have had all along.

The corporate bigwigs would say that it’s still all Destry’s fault.

Escape Rating A+: This is going to be one of those “all the thoughts” kind of reviews because WOW this thing wrapped me up, took me away and made me think – all at the same time.

At first, there’s the adventure aspect of the whole thing. Destry and her friend Whistle (an intelligent, genetically engineered moose) have this whole planet to explore and they love every inch of it. And there’s a lot of hope to be had even in Destry’s early part of the story. For one thing, it seems that humanity did manage to rescue this planet before we killed it completely along with ourselves. That’s hope right there.

There’s also plenty to love in the way that her position and her work integrates the contributions of both humans and non-humans, and that anyone or anything can be considered a person and a citizen.

And that’s where the dark underbelly gets exposed. Not just that we exported megacorporations and their endless greed along with humanity, but rather that the whole nature of the work and the enterprise has brought back slavery on a galactic scale. Destry doesn’t just work for Verdance, it created her and it owns her. And everyone else working on Sask-E.

Just as Under Fortunate Stars recalls the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, The Terraformers brings to mind “The Measure of a Man” in all of its shining possibilities AND its potential horrors. Everyone on Sask-E is genetically engineered and created in a lab, just as Data was – whether they are biological like Destry, mechanical like the many bots or a mixture of the two.

And the horror of all of that is a dubious gift that keeps on giving throughout the story. The underlying tension of the whole thing is that humanity has a future that has so many wonderful possibilities in it. At the same time, it’s more than a bit of a “we have met the enemy and he is us” story because we bring all our shit with us into the future.

(Or drag it back into the past. Verdance’s advertised goals for Sask-E were to recreate the ecology of Earth’s supposedly pristine Pleistocene era. The disconnect between the propaganda and the company’s actual intentions brought back to mind Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile which had not dissimilar goals leading to surprisingly similar results. In other words, a world, whether past, present or future, is only pristine until you introduce humanity into the situation and then, well, shit literally happens.)

The Terraformers moves forward from Destry’s discovery that both her past and the past on Sask-E are both a lie. But it doesn’t end there. We move to a new era of exploration and exploitation when we follow Destry’s adopted son as he becomes the recipient of all the corporate ire that can no longer be visited on Destry because she’s dead and gone. And through his eyes we see just how far those rapacious corporations are willing to go in order to create the kind of thoughtless consumers of both goods and propaganda that will serve them best.

But the story ends in hope with a story of revolution and courage that may remind more than a few readers of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, as what the corporations want is very much not what they get when people – no matter how broadly “people” is defined – manage to reach for their own destinies in spite of all the roadblocks dropped in their way.

If you’re looking for the kind of hopepunk SF featured in The Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers – traveling down a different road but with equally compelling characters – mixed with more than a touch of the corporate skullduggery of Martha Wells’ Murderbot, The Terraformers is a thought-provoking delight from beginning to end.

Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John MandelSea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, time travel
Pages: 255
Published by Knopf on May 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal--an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She's traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive's best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.'

My Review:

The thing about wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey bits is that the bits do wobble in erratic patterns that result in equally wobbly results.

The story begins with a man who thinks he might be going insane, and ends with one who realizes that everything that has happened, everything that we’ve read and experienced, is all his fault. And that there’s nothing he can do about it except see events through to their conclusion – a conclusion which is also their beginning.

Sea of Tranquility jumps through time and space, from Victoria BC just before the First World War to the Lunar Colony One in 2401 and several points in between, all linked by a weird glitch under an old maple tree on Vancouver Island where, if a person is standing in just the right place and walking in just the right direction they are temporarily, and temporally, transported to an airship terminal in Oklahoma City hearing an old man play a few notes of a lullaby on a violin. Right around the turn of the 20th century into the 21st. No matter when in time the “time traveler” is really standing.

Some people at the Time Institute on Lunar Colony One believe that this repeating “glitch” is evidence that life isn’t real, that we’re all part of some higher-order being’s simulation of life. Others think it’s been faked or a mass hallucination or some other less fantastical explanation. Rookie Time Agent Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate all of the people who have experienced the glitch, whenever and wherever they happen to be, to see if he can bring back enough evidence for the Time Institute to make a final determination.

Which, in the end, they think they do. Of him. Or so they believe. But in the end, those timey-wimey bits turn out to have one wobble left in them. And it’s a doozy.

Escape Rating B: If Eversion and Under Fortunate Stars had a book baby, it would be Sea of Tranquility. In spite of Sea having been published first.

I picked this up because I loved Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility has won all sorts of awards, including Goodreads Best Science Fiction book for 2022. It’s interesting, it’s terribly terribly interesting, but now that I’ve read it I have to admit that it was good but not as great as all the reviews have made it out to be.

Let me, as I always try to do, explain.

One of the interesting and excellent things about Sea of Tranquility is that the author managed to write a book about the pandemic without it being truly about the recent pandemic. And yet it still managed to address the issues around all the human behavior and human reactions to the pandemic just sideways enough to make that part of the story just distant enough to let the reader see things clearly rather than being a drumbeat about everything that specifically went wrong.

Authors seem to be dealing with the pandemic in plenty of different ways, but this was particularly good because it set it in the context of pandemics in general and human responses to them more generally while still letting the pandemic that happens in 2203 – or at least one character’s reaction to it – pull at our heartstrings rather than inducing rage at what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened instead.

That this particular part of the story is framed around an author on a Book Tour made it even more appealing and comprehensible – particularly for those of us even tangentially related to the book world.

(Speaking of which, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati that the author in the book visits on her book tour is not only a real place but it really does have a 10,000 year renewable lease for its building. What the Director’s office actually looks like may or may not match the description, but considering the pictures on the interwebs of the rest of the building I would not be at all surprised. I would be equally unsurprised to learn that the author of Sea of Tranquility had visited the Merc while on tour for either Station Eleven or The Glass Hotel.)

But my initial reaction to Sea of Tranquility was very similar to the way I felt at the beginning of Eversion. Because both books tell multiple stories seemingly dropped in different eras, and because both start out seeming to focus on one character who we get sucked into caring about. Then we discover that it isn’t his story, and it isn’t the next character’s story or even the next and it’s not until near the end that we and the protagonist finally learn who that protagonist really is.

It’s also a bit like Under Fortunate Stars in that the story is about causality and closing a time loop that no one knew was there. In Under Fortunate Stars events were being manipulated by a benevolent universe, or luck, or fate, depending on what one thinks of any of those agencies in an SFnal context. But in Sea of Tranquility there’s a self-interested Time Institute who believes that they are in control of any and all temporal meddling. Which they really, really aren’t.

In the end, the story in Sea of Tranquility is more than a bit meta, in that it comments on itself within itself – disguised as reader commentary to the author on that book tour – and seems to be telling fragments of stories that only connect up at the end, and that only loosely. It’s an interesting enough read – helped by the book being short – but it doesn’t quite gel into a compelling whole.

Which is really too bad because some parts of it, particularly the book tour, were terrific. But the whole is disjointed. We don’t have enough time to get invested in the characters, particularly the actual protagonist of the whole thing. And I have to say that while the story has SFnal aspects – because time travel – it’s not SF enough to make me think of it as a top pick for specifically SF awards.  (Putting it another way I don’t think it is nearly SF enough to place it among my Hugo nominations.)

One final note, some of the time travel aspects did give me warm fuzzies of Jack Finney’s time travel classic, Time and Again, including the author’s visit to the Dakota. Not that the stories go to the same times or places, but the process of approaching time travel and immersion in the period – as well as the punishments for messing up the supposedly sacred timeline, were very familiar.

I recently learned that The Glass Hotel provides backstory for several of the 21st century characters who have secondary roles in Sea of Tranquility. The Glass Hotel has been on my TBR pile for a while now, but it has just moved considerably up the pile!

Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings

Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren HutchingsUnder Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 480
Published by Solaris on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven's freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.
The Gallion's chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five's legendary ship—and the Five's famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.
But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.

My Review:

When we first encounter the crew of the corporate-owned research ship, The Gallion, they are in the midst of the kind of dilemma that featured on just about every iteration of Star Trek. They’ve lost propulsion and communication, not flying blind because they’re not flying at all, all alone in the black of space.

The ship’s engineers, led by their chief Uma Ozakka, are desperately searching for the cause of their engines’ refusal to restart, reset or just re-anything. Something is suppressing their core power and the ship doesn’t have the equivalent of impulse engines – although their shuttles do.

But they are not alone. They pick up a distress signal from another, much smaller ship. And that’s where the adventure really begins.

The battered cargo ship they rescue, along with its motley-at-best crew, is a legend. But the legendary ship does not seem to contain its legendary crew. It’s also 152 years past its date with destiny. Or the Gallion is the same amount of time early for its normal anything.

Everyone aboard the Gallion believes it’s all a hoax. Buuuut engineer Uma knows all the history – along with most of the conspiracy theories – about the cargo ship Jonah and its crew. Because her dad was fascinated, and as a little girl she followed him everywhere.

And because the Jonah’s story was larger than life. After all, the Jonah and her crew, the Fortunate Five, came out of nowhere and negotiated a lasting peace between the human-centric Union and the alien Felen. A peace that came just in the nick of time to save both races.

Uma is fairly sure that the ship the Gallion has rescued is the real, historical Jonah. Which does not explain why the crew of the Jonah is only about half right at best. Nor does it even begin to explain the series of extremely fortunate coincidences that put the right people in the right place at the right time to save history.

It’s a story that proves that the heroes whose stories can NEVER be told are every bit as necessary as those whom history literally sings about.

Escape Rating A+: I loved Under Fortunate Stars, but then again, I also loved all the TV shows it pays homage to. OTOH, opinion in general seems to be a bit mixed depending on how the reader feels about what seems like an extremely long string of coincidences lining up perfectly to achieve the necessary outcome.

It does seem like an awful lot of surprisingly good luck after both ships have had the awfully bad luck to end up in this situation in the first place. But this is a story about causality and fulfilling the destiny that has been yours all along, and in the end turns into a Möbius strip of a story.

A lot of readers have compared the story to the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, where a ship comes out of a temporal rift in front of Picard’s Enterprise and time suddenly slips sideways. The story of the episode is putting the correct timeline back into place – and it’s a great story.

But it didn’t have to be the Enterprise-D that met the mysterious ship from the temporal rift. A purist is going to come back at me about Tasha Yar, but she didn’t HAVE to go back. The only thing that HAD to happen to restore the timeline was for the Enterprise-C (because of course it was another Enterprise – it’s ALWAYS the Enterprise) to return to its own time to sacrifice itself for a Klingon colony to prevent the war that would otherwise have happened and that the Federation was about to lose.

Under Fortunate Stars is much more about what history records, what it hides, and how the sausage gets made to create heroes out of some very real and extremely flawed people. It’s also a deterministic story as everything that happens has to happen because it’s already happened, ad infinitum if very much not ad nauseum. The closing of this 152-year time loop also contains its opening.

What makes the story so much fun to read are not the ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey’ bits, but, of course, the characters. Uma Ozakka, the one who knows the history best, is expecting to meet bright, shiny heroes just like the images of the Fortunate Five that seem to be everywhere – including in multiple places aboard the Gallion. Who she meets, however, are people with some very dark pasts and some very big regrets, coming from a time when the aliens that have since made peace with humanity are a bitter enemy. They don’t want to become the ‘Fortunate Five’. Initially they want to take back any future technology they can pick up and destroy the hated, dreaded Felen.

The central characters of the whole thing turn out to be Jereth Keeven, the captain of the Jonah, who first of all isn’t the captain that history recorded and secondly is a con man on an epic scale. But he’s also Han Solo, complete with Han’s marshmallow heart under that tough, mercenary exterior. Eldric Leesongronski, the man who should be captain – at least according to history – is a mathematical genius filled with angst and far from the shining example of pretty much everything that Uma expects. Then there’s Uma herself, overqualified for her job, battling corporate bureaucracy as much as the temporal anomaly they have found themselves in, watching in real-time as her lifelong heroes display feet of clay up to their knees.

The way that the story bounces around in both time and point of view lets the reader see just how all the pieces get put together, leading to a finish that should be in the history books – and kinda is but also very much kinda isn’t. Just as it was. Just as it should be.

Under Fortunate Stars is the author’s debut novel, and it’s a surprise and a delight. I’m so very glad I read it, and I expect great things from her in her future work.

Reviewer’s Note: The popular comparison is between Under Fortunate Stars and ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, but IMHO the true comparison is between Under Fortunate Stars and the first three seasons of Babylon 5. There’s something set up in the PILOT of B5 that picks up weight and intention in the middle of the first season, at the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, and then finally pays off in the middle of the third season showing that all the history of the universe that we’ve seen so far was set up a millennia ago by someone who travels back in time with a stolen space station and a device that lets him change from a human into the founding leader and philosopher of another race entirely. Now that’s causality and a really BIG time loop!)

Review: Eversion by Alastair Reynolds

Review: Eversion by Alastair ReynoldsEversion by Alastair Reynolds
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Orbit on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the master of the space opera, Alastair Reynolds, comes a dark, mind-bending SF adventure spread across time and space, Doctor Silas Coade has been tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact, but as things keep going wrong, Silas soon realizes that something more sinister is at work, and this may not even be the first time it's happened.
In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it's up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.

My Review:

Humans process ideas, events and catastrophes through stories, whether by telling them, making them or being swept away by them. It’s why things like Aesop’s Fables and the Arthurian legends, the Greek tragedies and Pride and Prejudice have all lasted so very long yet still change in interpretations and retellings as society changes. Those stories still have universal things to say about the human condition, so we keep telling them.

This is a story about processing a tragedy by telling stories around and about it until it can be approached directly. So the reason the story is told, and re-told, very nearly ad infinitum, is to give the protagonist enough time and distance to process something that he can’t bring himself to face.

No matter how much he needs to.

The way he does it is to put himself inside a story. It’s the story of a doomed exploratory ship, at the edges of the known world, searching for a possibly mythical ice fissure that will lead to an epic, world-shaking, discovery.

First, it’s a sailing ship in the Arctic. Our hero is the ship’s surgeon, who is also writing a fictional tale of adventure in the vein of Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson. And when the doctor’s tale went awry, and he effectively rebooted his story, moving it forward to the age of steam and erasing the disaster that killed all his passengers, I was lulled into thinking this was about the story he was writing.

And it sort of is, but it really isn’t.

As the doctor successively retells the tale, it moves forward in time, from the age of sail to the age of steam to outright steampunk and into the stars. Always with the same crew, always relating the same events, getting just a little further and going just a little deeper each time.

It’s only then that he, and we, discover what looks like the truth. And that it’s even worse than anything he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A: The author of Eversion is best known for his epic, space opera type science fiction, but if that’s what you’re looking for you’re not going to find it in Eversion. Very much on the other hand, if you enjoyed the small-scale, small-cast, intimate story of his Permafrost, which I most definitely did, there’s a LOT to love in Eversion.

In the first iteration, the reader, or at least this reader, gets caught up in the story of the sailing ship Demeter’s expedition to the Arctic fjords of Scandinavia to find a mysterious ruin, or artifact, or both, referred to as the edifice. There was more than enough creeping dread, combined with the hunt for treasure and the details of sailing ship life to make me think this was a very strange but compelling combination of The Route of Ice and Salt, the Aubrey and Maturin series (Master and Commander) with Dr. Silas Coade as Maturin, and something like Indiana Jones and the Edifice of Doom. At least until Coade is forced to rewrite his story after a catastrophe kills off all the characters.

And that’s the first inkling that they might be HIS characters, part of the adventure story he’s writing.

At least until it happens again. And then again. At which point I thought I’d wandered into Groundhog Day. or to use more genre-appropriate references, the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity or the Star Trek Next Gen episode Cause and Effect.

Along with one fascinating variation on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

As I said at the beginning, stories are one of the ways that humans process, and Eversion reminded me of more and more stories, also more and more SFnal stories, as it went through its iterations, or versions.

Until we finally get to the point of “eversions” and discover that everything we thought we might be reading isn’t quite right at all. Although in a very peculiar way it is at the heart of all of the stories.

And that even though the heart they have isn’t quite the one we thought it was, it still manages to break ours. If you’re looking for the kind of SF that will blow your mind and break your expectations, Eversion is a gem.

Review: Sweep of the Heart by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sweep of the Heart by Ilona AndrewsSweep of the Heart (Innkeeper Chronicles, #6) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance, paranormal romance, science fiction, science fiction romance, urban fantasy
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #6
Pages: 454
Published by NYLA on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the New York Times #1 bestselling author, Ilona Andrews, comes a fun and action-packed new adventure in the Innkeeper Chronicles! We invite you to relax, enjoy yourself, and above all, remember the one rule all visitors must obey: the humans must never know.

Life is busier than ever for Innkeeper, Dina DeMille and Sean Evans. But it’s about to get even more chaotic when Sean's werewolf mentor is kidnapped. To find him, they must host an intergalactic spouse-search for one of the most powerful rulers in the Galaxy. Dina is never one to back down from a challenge. That is, if she can manage her temperamental Red Cleaver chef; the consequences of her favorite Galactic ex-tyrant's dark history; the tangled politics of an interstellar nation, and oh, yes, keep the wedding candidates from a dozen alien species from killing each other. Not to mention the Costco lady.

They say love is a battlefield; but Dina and Sean are determined to limit the casualties!

My Review: 

Dina Demille is not exactly a typical innkeeper, and Gertrude Hunt is far from an ordinary inn of any stripe whatsoever. And that’s not just because Dina’s lover, partner and fellow innkeeper, Sean Evans, is an alpha strain werewolf.

The inn that Dina and Sean keep is both a portal and a crossroads, a place where worlds literally collide – and sometimes come for tea. Or sanctuary. No matter what species they are or what world they might have come from.

Inns like Gertrude Hunt are special in that their existence and their services keep Earth safe from all the many, many powers in the big, bad galaxy that would otherwise roll right over us – possibly even with the equivalent of hyperspace bypass à la The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The network of inns, and the Innkeeper Assembly exist to provide neutral ground for contentious groups that need a place to negotiate. And by their existence they cement Earth’s position in that wider galaxy as a protected planet not to be messed with, or conquered, or eradicated for interstellar highway construction.

But there is a great big galaxy out there which people on Earth are kept from being aware of. A galaxy that Dina, Sean and Gertrude Hunt are very much a part of. A galaxy that hosts at least one entity that is gobbling up inns and innkeepers, and seems to have a special hate on for Dina, her family, and her inn.

A vendetta that seems to have extended to anyone who has helped them, meaning that one of Sean’s friends and mentors out in that wider galaxy has been kidnapped and dragged to an utterly inhospitable planet as bait to lure them into a trap.

A trap that they know they’ll need to walk into with eyes wide open, once they manage to jump through all the hoops that will give them what they need to get there.

Not that those hoops don’t constitute an entirely different kind of trap. In order to go after their friend, first Dina, Sean and Gertrude Hunt will need to host an intergalactic edition of The Bachelor, so that Kosandrion, the Sovereign of the Seven Star Dominion, can find a spouse to become the other parent of the Heir (yes, you can hear the caps) to the Dominion. The game is rigged, the contestants all hate each other and everyone knows that Kosandrion is the quarry of multiple assassins.

All Dina and Sean have to do is keep the Sovereign and all of the various factions, contestants, security contingents and observers alive until the end of the ‘show’ even though each and every group has deadly plans to eliminate one or more of their rivals, the Sovereign and/or every single being on hand to watch the proceedings.

This is a job that absolutely nobody wanted, but Dina and her crew are the ones who have to complete it. Flawlessly. ALL their lives hang in the balance – or on the point of more than one very sharp knife.

Escape Rating A: The Innkeeper Chronicles, the series that began with Clean Sweep and is now six books and hopefully counting, sits on that border between science fiction and fantasy. On the one hand, the inns are magical and give their keepers a whole array of magical powers. And on the other, part of their magic is to host beings from other worlds who may very well arrive at the inn via spaceship – whether they are supposed to or not.

Spaceships, after all, can be hard to hide, and the first rule of the inns is that the humans must not know about the wider galaxy.

In addition to sitting on that science vs. magic divide, this particular entry in the series is caught between two plotlines that only relate to each other at the messy points. As in, Dina and Sean have to get through this mess to get what they really need out of the whole thing. But this isn’t part of their own whole thing – which is even messier in it’s own way.

So the framing story is their need to save their friend, which is part of the overarching plot of the series that Dina’s parents, also innkeepers, disappeared without a trace and that in the process of searching for them someone has started hunting her, Sean, anyone who helps them in general and other inns and innkeepers in particular. And all of that is fascinating but none of it is exactly lighthearted. It’s the complete opposite of fun and lighthearted.

Howsomever, the other – and the larger part of this entry in the series IS frequently lighthearted, even though it is not all fun and games. At all.

Instead, this intergalactic episode of The Bachelor embodies the whole “SF is the romance of political agency” concept in a way that is even more entertaining than the TV series could ever possibly be – as well as potentially more deadly.

Because the contest to become the spouse of the Sovereign isn’t only what it appears to be and that’s what gives the whole thing it’s sometimes gallows humor as well as the kind of wheels within wheels political machinations that I always love.

That it also manages to include an actual romance as part of its many plots and counterplots is just icing on a bittersweet cake that gives fans of the series the answers to questions they’ve been asking since the series began.

I had an absolute blast with Sweep of the Heart. For those who have been following the series, it’s a delight. The Bachelor plot has pretty much all the plots, counterplots and wry humor that any reader could ask for, while still pushing the overall story forward AND giving out a few more hints on what all that awfulness is truly about.

I think that a lot of readers will enjoy the intergalactic Bachelor game even if they are new to the series, but that overarching plot forms the beginning AND the end and may keep those readers from getting to what they would consider the juicy middle. On the other hand, series readers are going to eat the whole thing up with a spoon. Or at least this reader did.

Also be advised that, as much as I loved this book, it is not the novella that some of the blurbs make it out to be. It’s more like FOUR times that length. Not that its nearly 500 pages don’t go absorbingly fast, but it’s not a quick lunchtime read – more like an all afternoon binge. Although an absolutely glorious one.

It’s clear from the way that Sweep of the Heart ends that Dina and Sean’s adventures, trials and tribulations are far from over. It’s probably going to be a year or more likely two before we get to find out what happens next. And that’s going to be a damn long wait.

Review: Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji

Review: Braking Day by Adam OyebanjiBraking Day by Adam Oyebanji
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, space opera, thriller
Pages: 359
Published by DAW Books on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

On a generation ship bound for a distant star, one engineer-in-training must discover the secrets at the heart of the voyage in this new sci-fi novel.
It's been over a century since three generation ships escaped an Earth dominated by artificial intelligence in pursuit of a life on a distant planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Now, it's nearly Braking Day, when the ships will begin their long-awaited descent to their new home.
Born on the lower decks of the Archimedes, Ravi Macleod is an engineer-in-training, set to be the first of his family to become an officer in the stratified hierarchy aboard the ship. While on a routine inspection, Ravi sees the impossible: a young woman floating, helmetless, out in space. And he's the only one who can see her.
As his visions of the girl grow more frequent, Ravi is faced with a choice: secure his family's place among the elite members of Archimedes' crew or risk it all by pursuing the mystery of the floating girl. With the help of his cousin, Boz, and her illegally constructed AI, Ravi must investigate the source of these strange visions and uncovers the truth of the Archimedes' departure from Earth before Braking Day arrives and changes everything about life as they know it.

My Review: 

This debut science fiction thriller combines both “We have met the enemy and he is us” with “No matter where you go, there you are” into a story about the baggage that we literally carry with us as we attempt to make a seemingly fresh, new start.

Three colony ships, the Archimedes, the Bohr, and the Chandrasekhar, have been traveling through the black of interstellar space for 132 years. That’s seven generations of shipboard life, all in service of a single goal – reaching Destination World and disembarking for a return to planet bound life that is otherwise so far in the past that no one alive remembers any sense of gravity other than that generated by the gigantic revolving rings that make up their ships.

But all of that is about to change when we first meet Midshipman Ravi MacLeod aboard the Archimedes. Because Braking Day is only weeks away. On that day, the ship will fire up its main engines to start their final push for their new home.

When everything that has become familiar over so many decades of shipboard life will finally change.

But there are always plenty of people who prefer the status quo, and that’s just as true aboard the Archie and her sister ships as it is in any other gathering of humans. Some are just afraid. Some don’t want to take the chance of screwing up a pristine new world the same way that their ancestors – meaning us, now – made a mess of Earth.

And some, the privileged few of the officer class in particular, are not looking forward to the loss of their purpose or especially those much vaunted privileges. After all, a planetary colony won’t need an officer class to run things anymore. At least it won’t need the same people and skills in that officer class that it has needed while aboard.

First, however, Archie and her sister ships have to get there. The crew has always been told that there’s no one out there to stop them – except their own internal squabbles. And not that they don’t have plenty of those to be going on with.

But as operations gear up for Braking Day, engineer-in-training Ravi and his hacker-extraordinaire cousin Boz hack their way into secrets that no one was ever supposed to find.

Archie, Bohr and Chandrasekhar are not alone – and never have been. The officers have a plan for dealing with the threat that they’ve never officially acknowledged. The problem is that the so-called enemy has a plan to deal with them, too.

And Ravi and Boz are caught right in the middle of it.

Escape Rating A+: This was another reread for me, from another STARRED Library Journal review. So I went back to this after several months and, like The Bruising of Qilwa yesterday, it was every bit as good the second time around. I don’t have the opportunity to reread terribly often these days, so this was kind of a treat!

I got caught up in this right away, both times, because this complex story in this large, artificial ecosystem is anchored in one, multi-faceted character, Ravi MacLeod. From one perspective, Braking Day can be seen as Ravi’s coming-of-age story. When we first meet him, he’s a cadet in engineering, but that’s just the tip of a ship-sized iceberg. And from another, it’s a gigantic mystery with potentially deadly consequences. Certainly for Ravi, and quite possibly for everyone else as well.

After 132 years, the social stratification of shipboard life has reached the level of downright ossification. Children of officers become privileged officers in their turn. Children of crew become crew. Children of criminal lowlifes eventually get recycled (literally) as “Dead Weight”, just like their parents.

Ravi is a maverick who gets punished at pretty much every turn because he comes from a criminal family. He doesn’t “belong” to the officer class and few people on either side of that divide ever let him forget it. (If this part of the story sounds interesting, take a look at Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport, which shows what happens after century upon century of such ossification. It’s not pretty but it is compelling.)

There’s also a gigantic secret hidden in the history of the Archie’s expedition – as there was in David Ramirez’ The Forever Watch. It’s a secret that was born out of the same kind of fear and that results in the same deadly consequences.

There is also an enemy within Archie, in a place and position that all the powers that be refuse to even look at. It’s an issue that has more resonance to today than I originally saw. The privileged classes, the officers, don’t want to lose their power and privilege, and fear the changes that landfall will bring. Some of them don’t care that if they don’t land that eventually the ship’s recycling will fail and they’ll end up drifting in space. After all, it won’t happen in their generation. But the officers who are investigating the increasing incidents of sabotage never look among “their own” for the perpetrators.

Add in an actual, living, breathing enemy that has been raised for generations to hate everything about the Archie and her sister ships, that wants nothing more than revenge for past wrongs, and you have multiple recipes for disaster all playing out at the same time – a disaster that just keeps on getting bigger and having more facets every minute.

The question of whether the fleet will cripple itself, whether they and their old enemy will wipe each other out, or whether the cybernetic space dragons will decide that they are all collectively too stupid to live creates the kind of non-stop adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats even after the big, explosive climax.

Braking Day was the author’s debut novel, and it was wild and marvelous and thoughtful all at the same time. I literally gobbled it up not once but twice and still wished there were more. His next book is a complete surprise as it’s a contemporary mystery thriller. A Quiet Teacher is coming out next week, and I’m terribly curious to see where the author takes me next.

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Naylor

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray NaylorThe Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Narrator: Eunice Wong
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 464
Length: 11 hours and 5 minutes
Published by MCD on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.
Rumors begin to spread of a species of hyperintelligent, dangerous octopus that may have developed its own language and culture. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life researching cephalopod intelligence, will do anything for the chance to study them.
The transnational tech corporation DIANIMA has sealed the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses were discovered, off from the world. Dr. Nguyen joins DIANIMA’s team on the islands: a battle-scarred security agent and the world’s first android.
The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence. The stakes are high: there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of the octopuses’ advancements, and as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.
But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
A near-future thriller about the nature of consciousness, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling literary debut and a mind-blowing dive into the treasure and wreckage of humankind’s legacy.

My Review:

This turned out to be an utterly lovely book. It is very much in the vein of the science fiction of ideas and making them come to life and it just completely sucked me in as though one of the octopuses had just wrapped me in its tentacles and pulled. Hard.

I loved this one a lot more than I expected, which means I’ll probably squee a bit. You have been warned.

It’s clear from the beginning that this takes place on a near-future Earth. The setting isn’t quite dystopian, and it isn’t quite not either. Whether it seems dystopian or not at any given point in the story depends on which of the three point of view characters the story is following at that moment.

Eiko’s perspective is definitely dystopian. He was kidnapped from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and is a slave on an automated fishing trawler, hunting the world’s depleted oceans for any source of protein that can still be processed into food. His story is tragic and his situation is bleak and getting bleaker by the minute.

Whether Rustem’s situation is dystopian or not depends on whether one thinks that the mostly terrible and generally criminal clients he works with are representative of the way his world works or whether he’s bottom-fishing because he’s an infamous black-hat hacker who conducts assassinations by AI proxy. His current clients do seem to be worse than most, but they’ve given him a more complex and intriguing puzzle than average – and threatened his life if he doesn’t deliver.

If one wonders how those two characters intersect – and this reader certainly did – the glue that holds this story together is the perspective of Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been whisked away to the remote Con Dao Archipelago by a transnational tech company to fulfill the dream of her life’s work.

In the waters off Con Dau, DIANIMA Corporation has discovered a pod of octopuses that might, just possibly, have achieved not just a similar level of intelligence to humans, but have also independently developed the skills that vaulted humans to the top of the food chain. DIANIMA has brought Dr. Ha Nguyen to Con Dau because she quite literally wrote the book on the possibility of intelligent, communicating life developing in the world’s oceans.

If she determines that the pod of octopuses is just a pod of ordinary octopuses – who are plenty intelligent but have no way to pass it on – well, probably not much happens to her and there wouldn’t have been much of a book, either.

But if she finds enough evidence that the octopuses off Con Dau can do what we do, if they have developed language that conveys abstract concepts and have methods of speaking and especially writing that language, then they may hold the key to humans learning to communicate with other species. Or it may be possible to weaponize their abilities through threats, intimidation and superior firepower – assuming that humans actually have superior firepower.

Or they could be a threat. If humans threaten them, they will likely become a threat regardless. So the human sharks and vultures are gathering around Con Dau, whether to protect, to save – or to kill.

Escape Rating A+: If Remarkably Bright Creatures and Three Miles Down had a book baby, it would be The Mountain in the Sea. Which is a fairly strange thought because as much as I loved both those books, they really shouldn’t have any relationship to each other.

But here they do. And it’s surprising and awesome.

As I said at the top, this book is an example, a stellar example in fact, of science fiction of ideas. This is a near-future world, there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials here. It could be said to be a climatological disaster, but if so it’s one that we can see from here.

The heart of that mountain in the sea is the idea of just how damn difficult communication is. It’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough play in space opera type SF, and it should. Other species who don’t share our frames of reference probably don’t communicate the way we do – at all.

So what this story does, and does well, is to convey just the smallest sliver of how difficult it will be to find common ground with a species that doesn’t communicate the way we do, doesn’t have the same species imperatives, doesn’t move through its world the way we do, doesn’t use any body language we recognize. There’s not going to be the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It’s Dr. Ha Nguyen’s job to create one from scratch, while never being certain that her interpretation is anywhere near the correct target – let alone hitting a ‘bull’s eye’. If her base assumptions are off base, everything that follows after will be gibberish – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

That the author manages to make what could have been a fairly dry story about communication difficulties into a compelling story of relationships between people, octopuses and artificial intelligences turned the whole thing into an utter delight with a surprising ending that mixed more sweet than I expected into a situation that could have turned out so very bitter. That the story managed to bring those three extremely disparate and seemingly disconnected perspectives into a connected whole that brought the whole story full circle made for delicious icing on top of a very yummy story-cake.

I listened to The Mountain in the Sea, and the reader did an excellent job to the point where I found myself hunting for things to occupy my hands so I could listen longer to the story. Much of Dr. Ha Nguyen’s side of the story is a dialog between her written work and that of DIANIMA’s creator, Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan. The reader did a particularly good job of distinguishing these two strong, intelligent women’s writings from their personal perspectives and their frequently contentious dialog once they finally do meet in person.

In short, a wonderful performance of an excellent book. I’m looking forward to finding more work by this author. Considering that this is his debut novel, I have high hopes for his next book. And if it’s read by the same reader, that will make it even more of a treat!

Review: Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

Review: Station Eternity by Mur LaffertyStation Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1) by Mur Lafferty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Midsolar Murders #1
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From idyllic small towns to claustrophobic urban landscapes, Mallory Viridian is constantly embroiled in murder cases that only she has the insight to solve. But outside of a classic mystery novel, being surrounded by death doesn’t make you a charming amateur detective, it makes you a suspect and a social pariah. So when Mallory gets the opportunity to take refuge on a sentient space station, she thinks she has the solution. Surely the murders will stop if her only company is alien beings. At first her new existence is peacefully quiet…and markedly devoid of homicide.
But when the station agrees to allow additional human guests, Mallory knows the break from her peculiar reality is over. After the first Earth shuttle arrives, and aliens and humans alike begin to die, the station is thrown into peril. Stuck smack-dab in the middle of an extraterrestrial whodunit, and wondering how in the world this keeps happening to her anyway, Mallory has to solve the crime—and fast—or the list of victims could grow to include everyone on board….

My Review:

Mallory Viridian is a murder magnet. Wherever she goes, whenever she is in a group long enough, big enough, or both, somebody ends up dead. She’s never been the intended victim, and she’s never been the perpetrator, either. No matter how many times any number of different law enforcement agencies have tried to pin the murder on her. Because she nearly always solves the case. In fact, she has a downright preternatural ability to solve crimes. She’d be perfect as a cop or a private investigator, but law enforcement is so perturbed by her ability to be in the room where it happens AND figure out whodunnit when they can’t that she’s been blackballed from any possibility of using her weird talent where it will do some good.

She’s also tired of being in the midst of all the carnage as well as the suspicion that goes along with it.

Which has led her to Station Eternity, one of only three humans permitted on the alien, self-aware, sentient station. In the hopes that, with only three humans aboard her gift – or curse – won’t kick in. As long as she doesn’t let herself get too close to either of her fellow exiles.

So when she learns that an entire shuttle full of humans is already on its way to the station, she starts to panic. A panic she manages to pass along to her fellow exiles; an AWOL US Army soldier with a whole lot of military secrets, along with the human ambassador who is sure the shuttle contains his replacement. The soldier is sure that someone is coming to get him, while Mallory is dead certain that when the shuttle arrives, somebody is going to end up dead.

They’re all equally correct. And equally screwed.

When the shuttle approaches the station, chaos erupts. Mallory expected a murder – but not on the scale she is forced to confront. Or the people she’s forced to confront along with it.

The station lashes out at the shuttle, killing half the humans aboard, along with all of the non-human crew. Why? Because someone attacked the station’s very own symbiotic partner, setting off a chain of catastrophes, evolutions, and revelations that no one aboard is prepared to deal with.

Especially Mallory.

Escape Rating A-: This delightfully bonkers story combines a locked-room – or at least locked station – mystery with a fascinating premise and a species-diverse post-First Contact setting to create a puzzle that will drive its readers every single bit as panic-stricken as its protagonists.

The world of Station Eternity isn’t all that hard to fathom – from a certain point of view. The concept that someday – possibly even someday soon as in this story – beings from the galaxy at large will visit Earth. And most likely decide that we aren’t nearly as impressive as we think we are.

We don’t impress the rest of the galaxy because we’re so…singular. Isolated. Unable to form symbiotic bonds with other species, which those other species believe are required for higher development.

While humans – at least those of certain mindsets – see threats to our existence in what are most likely just threats to their own sense of self-importance and manifest destiny.

So what begins as a seemingly simple crash turns into a life-threatening crisis that places Mallory and her uncanny talent for solving murders at its center. And very nearly out its airlock.

What holds the story together is the way that everyone involved, including the non-humans, is linked to Mallory. In spite of her fear of becoming linked to much of anyone. The station has permitted her sanctuary, one species of insect-type aliens is studying human biology through her, several of the rock-type aliens are her friends, the camouflage-type aliens respect her ability to help solve problems, and the officious administrative-type (both human and alien) want her off the station.

Even what seems like a grab-bag of assorted humans aboard the shuttle are all connected to her – or connected to the other human-granted-sanctuary aboard, that AWOL soldier Xan. Who is also connected to Mallory – not just because of their time on the station but as a result of all the times they interacted on Earth.

It’s the connections to Mallory, those things she has avoided much of her life, that glue both the reader and Mallory into the story. Some of that holding together peeks back at how they all got there, and occasionally that peering into the past puts a bit of a hitch in the narrative – but that always manages to stutter back around.

So it’s bonkers. And weird. And fascinating. And a bit too on the nose at some points. It’s also perfect that in the end Mallory finally has the three things she’s been looking for. A purpose she can really sink her teeth into. A place where she can have friends and a real life for herself. Best of all, she finally has answers to all the puzzles of her life – and a way to move forward. With hope.

It’s not surprising that Station Eternity is the first book in a series. The premise of the uncanny detective on the alien station just seems perfect for continuing. And it will be, sometime next year.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to tide you over, I can recommend two recent books that are also wrapped around solving mysteries on spaceships or colonies which have put different but still fascinating spins of their own onto their SFnal mystery. So if you like the sound of Station Eternity, or are looking for more after you finish it, check out The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal and the upcoming To Each This World by Julie Czerneda. They are both excellent and will make the wait for the (so far untitled) next book in The Midsolar Murders series go just a little bit faster.

Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike JohnsonNo Man's Land (Star Trek: Picard) by Kirsten Beyer, Mike Johnson
Narrator: Michelle Hurd, Jeri Ryan
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, Star Trek
Length: 1 hour and 39 minutes
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Discover what happens to Raffi and Seven of Nine following the stunning conclusion to season one of Star Trek: Picard with this audio exclusive, fully dramatized Star Trek adventure featuring the beloved stars of the hit TV series Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land picks up right after the action-packed season one conclusion of Star Trek: Picard. While Raffi and Seven of Nine are enjoying some much-needed R&R in Raffi’s remote hideaway, their downtime is interrupted by an urgent cry for help: a distant, beleaguered planet has enlisted the Fenris Rangers to save an embattled evacuation effort. As Raffi and Seven team up to rescue a mysteriously ageless professor whose infinity-shaped talisman has placed him in the deadly sights of a vicious Romulan warlord, they take tentative steps to explore the attraction depicted in the final moments of Picard season one.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land is a rich, fully dramatized Star Trek: Picard adventure as Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan pick up their respective characters once more. Written for audio by Kirsten Beyer, a cocreator, writer, and producer on the hit Paramount+ series Star Trek: Picard, and Mike Johnson, a veteran contributor to the Star Trek comic books publishing program, this audio original offers consummate Star Trek storytelling brilliantly reimagined for the audio medium.
In addition to riveting performances from Hurd and Ryan exploring new layers of Raffi and Seven’s relationship, Star Trek: No Man’s Land features a full cast of actors playing all-new characters in the Star Trek: Picard universe, including Fred Tatasciore, Jack Cutmore-Scott, John Kassir, Chris Andrew Ciulla, Lisa Flanagan, Gibson Frazier, Lameece Issaq, Natalie Naudus, Xe Sands, and Emily Woo Zeller, and is presented in a soundscape crackling with exclusive Star Trek sound effects. Drawing listeners into a dramatic, immersive narrative experience that is at once both instantly familiar and spectacularly new, Star Trek: No Man’s Land goes boldly where no audio has gone before as fans new and old clamor to discover what happens next.

My Review:

I picked this up in one of those “Audible Daily Deal” things for $1.99. And it was certainly worth way more than I paid for it. Because this was not quite two hours of Star Trek fun in a week where I seriously needed to go to my happy place – and Star Trek is still very much that place.

Like so many Star Trek: Next Gen episodes – and this certainly does seem a lot like an episode of Picard so that fits – No Man’s Land has an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot. The A storyline is an action adventure story, with Seven of Nine and the Fenris Rangers racing off to save a hidden Romulan cultural archive from the depredations of one of the mad warlords who rose up after the fall of the Empire.

The B plot, as it so often was in Next Gen, is a character-driven story wrapped around the possible romance that was hinted at between Raffi and Seven of Nine in the closing moments of the final episode of Picard’s first season. The possibility of that relationship is echoed in the A plot by the bitter sweetness of the lifelong love between Seven’s old friend, Professor Gillin and Hellena, the wife he was separated from during the Romulan evacuations so many years ago.

Like so many Trek episodes from ALL of the series, it all begins with an emergency distress call from a far-flung outpost. In this particular case, a far-flung outpost filled with nothing but scholars, historians, scientists and relics – some of which are also among the first three groups. It’s a repository of Romulan culture, desperately saved from the destruction of the Romulan homeworld by the Fenris Rangers, with the cooperation – sometimes – of the original owners and the assistance of the librarians and archivists who gathered the material. It has been protected mostly by its obscurity, but that cloak has been torn away and one of the more implacable Romulan warlords is on his way to either capture or destroy it.

Except, that’s not exactly what happens.

But the distress call interrupted a tender moment between Raffi and Seven, as duty calls one of them, in this case Seven, and drags a bored, unemployed Raffi along in her wake. And that’s where the real fun begins – as it so often does in Trek – with a mission, a barely workable plan, and a character going it on their own without any plan but possibly a death wish.

And underneath it all, an adventure that might blow up in everyone’s faces leading to an ending that no one quite expects.

In other words, a typical day on the bridge of a Federation starship – even if someone has to steal one first!

Escape Rating B: I went into this hoping for a bit of fun, and I certainly got that so I left this story pretty happy with the whole thing. But it listens very much like a cross between an episode of the Star Trek universe as a whole and one of the media tie-in novels that Star Trek birthed in vast quantities.

By that I mean that I was expecting fun but not anything that would seriously affect the main storyline of the show – in this case – Picard. So I was expecting the hints of a romance between Seven and Raffi to be bittersweet at best because even if it does happen eventually it can’t happen here.

And yes, the Romulan warlord is a bit of a screaming cliché – but then most Romulan warlords were screaming clichés. The actual emperors could be very interesting, but the warlord wannabes – not so much.

On the other hand, the exploration of the Fenris Rangers and how they work together and mostly don’t was fascinating. The banter between Starfleet-trained Raffi, over-the-top, walking malaprop Hyro and jack-of-all-trades Deet was frequently hilarious. That trio act provided most of the comic relief in a story that was otherwise pretty damn serious.

Of course I loved the whole idea of the hidden repository. That’s always cool.

But it was the story of Professor Gillin and his lost love that tugged at my heartstrings, and I really liked the way it held up a mirror to the relationship that Raffi and Seven are tentatively reaching towards – and backing off from at the same time.

Because Seven and Raffi just aren’t in the same place. They’re both damaged and grieving and more than a bit lost – but Raffi is at a place where she’s willing to try again and Seven just isn’t there and may never be. Watching them recognize that was sad but also heartfelt.

And it rang so very, very true that Raffi’s love for the Federation was the relationship that she felt the most regret over, that it was the most difficult love of her life for her to completely give it up. Because in a way that’s true for all of us who have been fans over the years and never quite let that love go.

So if Trek is your happy place, or if you just want to dip a bit into that world, or if you’re looking for a bit of distraction from whatever that won’t hurt too much or pull too hard or tax too dearly on your world-weariness of the moment, No Man’s Land is actually a great place to go for a couple of hours.