Review: Planetside by Michael Mammay

Review: Planetside by Michael MammayPlanetside by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
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--“PLANETSIDE is a smart and fast-paced blend of mystery and boots-in-the-dirt military SF that reads like a high-speed collision between Courage Under Fire and Heart of Darkness.” – Marko Kloos, bestselling author of the Frontline series

--“Not just for military SF fans—although military SF fans will love it—Planetside is an amazing debut novel, and I’m looking forward to what Mammay writes next.” – Tanya Huff, author of the Confederation and Peacekeeper series

--“A tough, authentic-feeling story that starts out fast and accelerates from there.” – Jack Campbell, author of Ascendant

--“Definitely the best military sci-fi debut I’ve come across in a while.” – Gavin Smith, author of Bastard Legion and Age of Scorpio

A seasoned military officer uncovers a deadly conspiracy on a distant, war-torn planet…

War heroes aren't usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it's something big—and he's not being told the whole story. A high councilor's son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there's no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command.

The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won't come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…

 

My Review:

If Cold Welcome and Old Man’s War had a love child you might get something like Planetside. And it would be, and is, pretty damn awesome. I would say it’s awesome for a debut novel, but that isn’t nearly praise enough. It’s just plain awesome. Period. Exclamation point.

The story is a combination of military SF with a bit of detective work. Because there’s something wrong on Cappa, and it’s up to Colonel Carl Butler to figure out what. And to contain the problem – no matter the cost.

It begins simply enough – except it isn’t simple at all.

Butler is an old soldier, less than a year away from retirement. He’s been stationed somewhere really, really safe and far from the front lines to serve out his remaining time. But his best friend is the current overall military commander of SPACECOM, and needs the help of a friend that he can trust – not just to keep his secrets – but to make the hard choices and do the right thing without caring how bad it might look. Or be.

A High Councillor’s son is missing on a planet where SPACECOM is engaged in a hot war with the natives over natural resources. All the human settlements need silver, and Cappa is rich in it. Some of the native Cappans, who are an intelligent humanoid but not human species, are fighting with SPACECOM, and some are fighting against it.

In military terms, Cappa is a SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up). It’s just a much bigger and nastier SNAFU than anyone is willing to admit. Butler comes in and kicks over the local anthill, and all hell breaks loose.

The investigation has been stalled for months, mostly in red tape. There are three commands on Cappa, SPACECOM, MEDCOM and SPECOPS, and the right hand and the left hand don’t know, don’t care, and don’t have to cooperate with each other or the hand in the middle.

Butler can easily see that there’s a coverup going on – he just can’t make any headway on figuring out who is covering up what.

It’s only when he goes planetside and the situation goes completely pear-shaped that he’s finally able to see the forest for the trees. It’s not just that one thing is wrong – it’s that everything is. And has been. And will be.

Unless Butler contains the whole sad, sorry mess – once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I just finished and I’m still in shock. This one is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

I used Old Man’s War and Cold Comfort as antecedents because Planetside has strong elements of both of them, and they were themselves both absolute standouts.

The voice of Colonel Carl Butler in Planetside sounds very much like the voice of John Perry in Old Man’s War. They are both, after all, old men still at war. The difference is that Perry has taken his long experience into a new, young body, where Butler’s has all the mileage, artificial parts, aches and pains, of a life lived mostly in battle. Perry’s scars are on the inside, Butler’s are on the outside. But their first-person perspectives sound remarkably similar. They both do what needs to be done, but they both think it through, a lot. And they’ve both been around long enough to recognize bullshit when they hear it and hate it every single time.

There is also an element to both Planetside and the Old Man’s War series that what you think you know, what you’ve been told is true, mostly isn’t.

From Cold Harbor there’s the betrayal from within aspect of the story. Just as Butler learns that an awful lot of people in Cappa Base and on Cappa are getting in the way of his investigation for reasons that he has to figure out, so too does Kylara Vatta have to conduct an investigation under extremely adverse circumstances while fighting against an enemy within, facing betrayal at every turn while the situation goes from bad to awful to completely FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition).

So in Planetside we have the story of a man who has been deliberately placed in a terrible situation by a friend who seems to be exploiting the fact that he has nothing left to lose. Butler is trusted to, not sweep something under the rug, but discover all the awful secrets there are to be discovered and make sure that none of them get out.

We’re inside his head. We feel his frustration, we understand his confusion, and we empathize with his hatred of the obfuscation and the bullshit that is keeping him from getting the job done for no good reason whatsoever. In the end, we ache for his choices but we understand his reasons.

At the end, I’m left with two sets of competing quotes running through my head. In one ear, I’m hearing Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” In my other ear, it’s Edmund Burke, paraphrased by Simon Wiesenthal, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” And there’s quite a lot of irony that the second quote is from Wiesenthal, a noted Nazi hunter.

I have extremely high hopes for more from this author. Soon, please! I already know that Planetside will be on my Hugo Ballot next year.

Review: The Seas of Distant Stars by Francesca G. Varela

Review: The Seas of Distant Stars by Francesca G. VarelaThe Seas of Distant Stars by Francesca G. Varela
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: coming of age, science fiction, young adult
Pages: 240
Published by Owl House Books on August 7, 2018
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Agapanthus was kidnapped when she was only two years old, but she doesn’t remember it. In fact, she doesn’t remember her home planet at all. All she knows is Deeyae, the land of two suns; the land of great, red waters. Her foster-family cares for her, and at first that’s enough. But, as she grows older, Agapanthus is bothered by the differences between them. As an Exchanger, she’s frail and tall, not short and strong. And, even though she was raised Deeyan, she certainly isn’t treated like one. One day, an Exchanger boy completes the Deeyan rite-of-passage, and Agapanthus is inspired to try the same. But, when she teams up with him, her quest to become Deeyan transforms into her quest to find the truth―of who she is, and of which star she belongs to.

My Review:

What if all, or at least some, of the alien abduction stories that regularly show up in some of the more, lurid tabloids were really true?

That’s just a small part of the premise of The Seas of Distant Stars, which combines that alien abduction scenario with a coming of age narrative and a search for identity in some interesting ways.

Agapanthus (born Aria on Earth) doesn’t really remember her home. After all, she was only two years old when she was taken.

But this isn’t the usual kind of alien experimentation story either. Agapanthus is being raised on Deeyae, among an offshoot of the human race who seem to have been seeded on a heavy gravity world with two suns.

She’s the foster child of a typical Deeyae family, loves her foster parents, and wants to follow in their footsteps – but she knows she can’t. She’s an Exchanger. It is believed that the parents of Exchangers willingly give them up for an unpredictable number of years in order to reap the benefits that will accrue to their less well-developed world.

Of course it’s all a lie, but we see this story from Agapanthus’ perspective, and at age four, six, eight, even twelve she’s not aware of the contradictions inherent in the story. Even her foster parents seem to believe a good bit of it.

And Agapanthus does get experimented upon, but it seems to be fairly benign. Exchangers are used to test new drugs, new treatments and new procedures, but Agapanthus is never harmed by the process.

Of course, she’s also very lucky. She is far from the only Exchanger on Deeyae, and not all Exchangers are fortunate to be placed with foster-families that care for them.

But as Agapanthus nears adulthood, the contradictions that restrict her life chafe and scrape. She can never become fully adult on Deeyae, but she can’t leave unless the “Gods” allow her to. She is looked down upon by most people, considered weak and ugly and childish. She cannot have a career – she will always be dependent on someone else.

She can’t make her own choices, and she is all too aware that she will always be a second-class citizen. And yet, becoming an adult on Deeyae, in spite of her limitations and restrictions, is what she strives for.

When she succeeds against all the odds, it is all taken away from her. Or is it?

Escape Rating B: While The Seas of Distant Stars is unquestionably science fiction, with its point of view character so very young for much of the narrative, it also feels like more of a young adult book than an adult book.

The story revolves around Agapanthus’ and later Aria’s search for identity. On Deeyae she is an Exchanger, and can never be more than she is. But when she is returned to Earth, she is equally out of place. She remembers her childhood and adolescence on Deeyae, even though she is not supposed to. She has to learn all over again how to function in this society that she does not feel part of.

Her Earth family, with their lost member now returned to them, is just as broken as it was when she was gone, but in completely different ways. The road back is difficult for all of them, and when the story ends they are still on that road.

This is a slow-building, slow-burning kind of story, as we see both worlds entirely through Aria’s eyes. On Deeyae, we learn and understand as she does, following her through the years of her childhood. On Earth, her reintegration into her birth world is equally slow, and in some ways more painful, as she is now aware of what she left behind.

But in the end, she is finally able to choose where and how she belongs.

Review: The Privilege of Peace by Tanya Huff

Review: The Privilege of Peace by Tanya HuffThe Privilege of Peace (Peacekeepers, #3) by Tanya Huff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
Series: Peacekeeper #3, Confederation #8
Pages: 336
Published by DAW Books on June 19, 2018
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Former space marine Torin Kerr returns for one final adventure to save the Confederation in the last book in the military science fiction Peacekeeper trilogy.

Warden Torin Kerr has put her past behind her and built a life away from the war and everything that meant. From the good, from the bad. From the heroics, from the betrayal. She's created a place and purpose for others like her, a way to use their training for the good of the Confederation. She has friends, family, purpose.

Unfortunately, her past refuses to grant her the same absolution. Big Yellow, the ship form of the plastic aliens responsible for the war, returns. The Silsviss test the strength of the Confederation. Torin has to be Gunnery Sergeant Kerr once again and find a way to keep the peace.

My Review:

If this is truly the end of ex-Gunnery Sergeant now Warden Torin Kerr’s story, I’m going to be very, very sad to see it end. Torin’s story, from its beginning all the way back in Valor’s Choice (nearly 20 years ago, OMG) has been absolutely marvelous.

I began the Valor/Confederation series and the Vatta’s War series at about the same time, so they are both inextricably linked in my memory. They also both finished at the same time, and then revived at about the same time. Wonderful synchronicity.

And they both feature kick-ass, strong, idiosyncratic heroines in vast interstellar space operas. The biggest difference is that Vatta’s War and its sequel series Vatta’s Peace are mercantile space opera, while Confederation/Peacekeeper is strictly military SF.

Torin Kerr begins the series as a Sergeant in the Confederation Marines, and even though at the end of the Confederation series she does manage to retire the sergeant from the Marine Corps, as we, she and her crew discover in An Ancient Peace, the first book in the Peacekeeper sequel series, it is impossible to take the Marine out of the sergeant.

Even in what passes for peacetime, she’s still the Gunny. Mostly. When it counts.

The Privilege of Peace picks up almost immediately after A Peace Divided leaves off. Which means that this is not the place to start. And as much as I loved An Ancient Peace, the first book in the Peacekeeper series, I don’t think that’s the place to start, either. Because this peace, and the characters’ reactions to it, all depend on who and what they were during the late war, and what their relationships to Torin Kerr were during that war. If you enjoy military SF with great characters, terrific world-building and absolutely fantastic heroines, start at the beginning with Valor’s Choice.

And I envy anyone who does a binge-read to “earn” The Privilege of Peace. I’ve read the entire series, but as it was published. Which means that the details of Torin’s history happened even longer ago for me than they do for her. It took awhile for me to get back up to speed on all the names, faces, races, and reasons behind each character’s inclusion in this conclusion.

Because of that “ramp-up” time, the story seemed a bit choppy at points. Lots of characters have similar names, the reader is expected to remember all of their backstory, and the action jumps around a bit. It takes a while to set up the big showdown with “Big Yellow” and the Humans First pukes.

And that’s a hint that there are effectively two different enemies in this book, at least for certain definitions of enemy. Possibly also for certain definitions of factions.

“Big Yellow” turned out to be the enemy of the entire Confederation series. And while the threat of them returning has hung over all of the Peacekeeper series, in Privilege they really are back, and no one is happy about it. But at least now everyone knows that Big Yellow is the big enemy, even if they can’t always recognize its “minions” when they appear. Or disappear. Or hide in plain sight.

That second enemy is the home-grown variety. Humans First will sound familiar in entirely too many contemporary 21st Century ways. They believe that Humans are better than every other race in the galaxy and that the Confederation is holding them back from their greatness. They also believe that violence – along with infiltration and blackmail and other nastinesses – are the way to take their rightful place in the galaxy.

The idea that humans will carry their xenophobia into the stars is more than a bit depressing, but feels all too possible.

Torin and her friends are, as usual, stuck in the middle, caught between the manipulations of Big Yellow, the violence of Humans First, the mind-numbing insanity of Confederation bureaucracy and the secret dreams of the Confederation military.

Peace is a privilege that has to be earned. And as usual, Torin Kerr and her companions are paying for that privilege with their own blood, sweat and hopefully not too many tears.

Escape Rating B: I loved traveling with Torin and Company one more time. Not having just finished a binge of the entire series, it did take a while for me to catch back up, and the longer it has been since the beginning and the more that has happened since that beginning, the longer it seems to take with each book.

The multiple perspectives in The Privilege of Peace made the story seem a bit disjointed at times, but I still liked the journey and felt that the ending was earned. Which means I can only recommend this book to fans of the series. And I still think it is well worth reading the entire series.

The blurbs claim that this is the conclusion of Torin’s journey. If so, I’m sorry to see her go and I’ll miss traveling with her, but she has certainly earned her happy ending. And it is a happy ending – or at least as happy as Torin can manage.

At the same time, there are enough loose, or at least loose-ish, ends that it would be possible for the adventures to continue. And if that occurs, I’ll be glad to watch the Gunny kick more ass and take more names. Anytime. Anyplace. Any galaxy.

Review: I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie Willis

Review: I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie WillisI Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: books and reading, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 88
Published by Subterranean Press on April 30, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Jim is in New York City at Christmastime shopping a book based on his blog—Gone for Good—premised on the fact that “being nostalgic for things that have disappeared is ridiculous.” Progress decides for people what they need and what’s obsolete. It’s that simple. Of course, not everyone agrees. After Jim bombs a contentious interview with a radio host who defends the sacred technology of the printed, tangible book, he gets caught in a rainstorm only to find himself with no place to take refuge other than a quaint, old-fashioned bookshop.

Ozymandias Books is not just any store. Jim wanders intrigued through stacks of tomes he doesn’t quite recognize the titles of, none with prices. Here he discovers a mysteriously pristine, seemingly endless wonderland of books—where even he gets nostalgic for his childhood favorite. And, yes, the overwhelmed and busy clerk showing him around says they have a copy. But it’s only after Jim leaves that he understands the true nature of Ozymandias and how tragic it is that some things may be gone forever…

From beloved, multiple-award-winning, New York Times best-selling author Connie Willis comes I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, a novella about the irreplaceable magic of books.

My Review:

If you love books, this is a terrific story.

Although the blurbs say it’s all about the magic of books, and it is about that, it feels as if it is also, and possibly first and foremost, a book about obsession. And nostalgia. And obsolescence. And definitely books.

I say that it is about obsession because of the main characters reaction to his discovery of and at the strange and mysterious Ozymandias Books.

The name of the bookstore, Ozymandias, probably sounds familiar, but you probably couldn’t place it unless you googled it, as I did. Ozymandias is the title of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which begins with the line, “I met a traveller from an antique land”.

Ironically, the theme of the poem is hubris, overweening pride, that comes before an inevitable fall. In the case of the poem, it references the inevitable fall of once great empire. One Ozymandias’ other famous lines references that directly, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

But our protagonist Jim is not mighty. His work, his blog Gone for Good, is all about the inevitable obsolescence of pretty much everything, including printed books, and the way that societies routinely toss things they no longer find needful into the scrapheap of history. And that the things being tossed should not be mourned in their passing, because if they were truly needed they wouldn’t be tossed in the first place.

People, however, have an emotional attachment to those things being tossed, as well as the times they represent. People particularly have an emotional attachment to books, because they represent both the escape of reading their contents and the times and places where we read them. For those of us who are readers, those memories are indelible.

When Jim sneaks his peek into the depths of Ozymandias Books, he finds himself re-captured by that love of books and his own particular memories of the books of his childhood. In other words, he finds the magic and wonder of books and reading all over again, and realizes that their passing away is something to be mourned, and if possible prevented.

But he is ejected from this book lovers paradise, and in the end sacrifices everything to find his way back.

Can we blame him?

Escape Rating B+: I’m pretty sure that most librarians and book lovers are going to love this story. Particularly the people who love books as objects, and not just those who love books for the stories they contain but don’t care as much about the container.

Ozymandias Books, the store, reminds me of two of the libraries in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. As Jim plumbs the depths of Ozymandias, its neverending row upon row and floor upon floor of bookstacks, it is clear to the reader that he is in a magical space that is not limited by the constraints of geography, geology, logic or common sense. Like a TARDIS, Ozymandias Books is infinitely bigger on the inside. Or, and more likely, it connects to the L-space created in the Discworld, where all great libraries flow into one another by magic.

But the nature of the collection at Ozymandias Books, and the way it is acquired, seem more like Death’s two libraries. One is the library of all the books that were ever written, whether or not those works were lost to the mists of time, fate, or mold. The other, and infinitely larger library, is the collection of all the books that were never written. (I probably have a couple of volumes in there myself)

Unlike many of this author’s other short works, I Met a Traveller is not a funny story. It is ultimately sad. It is a story about the death of books as objects. It is also the story of Jim’s growing obsession with finding this place where it seems like books go to die. As the story ends, it looks like he’s going to devote his life to the search, without leaving the reader feeling as if he has a chance at success.

This is a story that asks questions, and does not provide answers. It will make you think. And leave you with more than a bit of nostalgia for those good old days when books were objects that readers carried around proudly, and that carried readers away.

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn BennisBy Fire Above (Signal Airship, #2) by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #2
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up the nation's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum―only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

My Review:

By Fire Above is the direct sequel to last year’s absolutely awesome The Guns Above. If you enjoy your SF with a hint of steampunk, really snappy dialog and fantastic kick-ass heroines, The Guns Above might just be your jam. It certainly was mine.

That this is a direct sequel to the first book is a zeppelin-sized hint that this book makes no sense whatsoever without having read the first book first. Not only is that where the situation is setup, but it’s also the foundation of all of the important relationships that power this particular series.

By that I mean the all-important frenemy relationship between Captain Josette Dupre and the foppish spy/supernumerary Lord Bernat Hinkal. If you don’t know how they began, you can’t really understand what happens between them here.

In this world where airships are not merely blimps but actual weapons of war not dissimilar to naval ships, Josette Dupre is an anomaly. Women are barely tolerated in the Garnian Signal Corps. She’s not supposed to be a “real” officer, and she’s certainly not supposed to command either ships or men. That she has turned out to be the best captain in the Signal Corps provides no end of embarrassment, consternation, annoyance and downright obstructionism at every turn.

Josette has no idea how the game is played, and she’s no good at playing it. She just wants her ship back in the air and back in the fight. But most of the first half of By Fire Above is tangled up in all the ways that the powers that be try to prevent that from happening.

So Josette spends the first half of the story on the ground playing politics badly and dealing with personal relationships she has no clue about. What makes this part of the situation so incredibly messy is that her hometown of Durum was captured by the enemy Vinz at the end of The Guns Above, with her mother trapped inside. She is desperate to persuade someone, anyone, that Durum can and should be retaken.

To make matters more confusing, Lord Bernat, usually called Bernie, seems to be in love with her mother. While on the ground, Bernie’s older brother Roland begins courting Josette. The relationship between Bernie and Josette was messy enough before their romantic lives became so weirdly intertwined.

The part of this story that focuses on the neverending war between the Garnians and the Vinz is way more compelling, and once the ship lifts, the story moves into high gear. And then it really flies, headlong into danger, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and keeps pouring on more power until the absolutely wild conclusion.

And we’ll be back, and that’s the best thing of all.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored The Guns Above. It was my first A+ review of 2017, and definitely made my Hugo ballot for the year – even if it wasn’t nominated.

So I had high hopes for By Fire Above. And those hopes turn out to have been a bit higher than the Mistral can actually fly. Which does not mean that I did not enjoy By Fire Above, or that it is not a good book and a great continuation to a marvelous story.

It just didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

This story flies highest when the ship is off the ground, even when Josette isn’t actually aboard her. The first part of By Fire Above is all on the ground. The Mistral is in tatters, Josette has to battle the quartermaster to scrounge parts, and she has to spend a lot of time biting her tongue.

Her side is losing the war. It is obvious to all of those fighting it, but to none of the aristocrats and fops back in the capital. It is axiomatic that generals fight the last war, not the current one. Garnia has not lost a war in over 3 centuries. None of the ruling class are able to wrap their tiny minds around the idea that just because it hasn’t happened before does not mean it can’t happen now – especially if that reputation is not backed up by well-trained boots on the ground and strong ships and crews in both the air and the sea. Garnia has been resting on its laurels for far too long, while the Vinz have lost too many times and are determined to win this time – and have the trained soldiers and top-notch equipment to make it not just possible, but downright likely.

A lot of what makes this book interesting is the relationship between Bernie and Josette, and so far at least, that relationship is not a romance and is not veering into “will they, won’t they” territory. Bernie is in love with Josette’s mother, and Josette is falling for Bernie’s brother. Whether those relationships are at least partially about dealing with their feelings for people they can’t have is anyone’s guess.

But Josette’s romantic life is certainly a distraction from her true calling as an airship captain, and her continuing battles against the bureaucracy to retain her rank, ship and crew. I found those battles in The Guns Above much more riveting than any digressions into Josette’s love life in By Fire Above.

However, Bernie’s character arc continues to fascinate. He began as a self-absorbed and self-confessed spy for the government, determined to bring Josette down by fair means or foul. But by the end of this book, he has both changed and not changed. He is still a fop, and he is still self-absorbed, although it feels like some of that is an act. He has also discovered that he has found a place where he belongs, whether because or in spite of the violence it requires. Underneath that overdressed exterior lurks the heart of a warrior, and Bernie is just as surprised as anyone to discover it.

One of the things that ties Josette and Bernie together, particularly in By Fire Above, is the way that both of their identities are shaken, and in completely different directions. On the one hand, Josette discovers that everything she knows about herself has been a lie. Whether those revelations will shake her in the present or the future are yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Bernie has spent his life, at least until he first boarded the Mistral, as an example of the dangers of being a second son. He had no purpose, no ambition, and nothing to spend his time on except wasteful frivolity. He was in danger of dying of boredom. Now he isn’t certain of who he is or what he is becoming, not to mention whether he’ll live to see the next morning – but he’s alive for every second of it. It may be the making of him. We’ll see.

The twists and turns of the battle to retake Durum kept me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t just about war and fighting – so much of that story had a surprising amount of depth and resonance, and definitely set the stage for book 3. This series is clearly not over.

Amazingly, By Fire Above ends on both a bang and a whimper – even if that whimper is coming from the reader. I can’t wait for the next chapter in this saga, hopefully this time next year!

Review: Obscura by Joe Hart

Review: Obscura by Joe HartObscura by Joe Hart
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 340
Published by Thomas & Mercer on May 8, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

She’s felt it before…the fear of losing control. And it’s happening again.

In the near future, an aggressive and terrifying new form of dementia is affecting victims of all ages. The cause is unknown, and the symptoms are disturbing. Dr. Gillian Ryan is on the cutting edge of research and desperately determined to find a cure. She’s already lost her husband to the disease, and now her young daughter is slowly succumbing as well. After losing her funding, she is given the unique opportunity to expand her research. She will travel with a NASA team to a space station where the crew has been stricken with symptoms of a similar inexplicable psychosis—memory loss, trances, and violent, uncontrollable impulses.

Crippled by a secret addiction and suffering from creeping paranoia, Gillian finds her journey becoming a nightmare as unexplainable and violent events plague the mission. With her grip weakening on reality, she starts to doubt her own innocence. And she’s beginning to question so much more—like the true nature of the mission, the motivations of the crew, and every deadly new secret space has to offer.

Merging thrilling science-fiction adventure with mind-bending psychological suspense, Wall Street Journal bestselling author Joe Hart explores both the vast mysteries of outer space and the even darker unknown that lies within ourselves.

My Review:

Obscura was, in the end, unexpectedly marvelous.

At first, the book reminded me of Lock In by John Scalzi. There’s a disease that seems to have come out of nowhere, but is rising in incidence throughout the population, and so far, there’s no cure. Losian’s Syndrome in its way is even scarier than Hadens – because Hadens preserves the person while leaving the body behind (sorta/kinda) while Losian’s resembles Alzheimer’s in that it preserves the body while stealing away the person by separating them from the memories that make them who they are.

Unlike the scenario in Lock In, however, Losian’s is not yet widespread enough to force governments to inject massive amounts of research funding. Dr. Gillian Ryan is all alone, with only her lab assistant for company, as she studies the disease that took her husband and is now taking her daughter. As the story begins, she feels as if she is on the threshold of a breakthrough, but her funding has been eliminated.

She feels like she has nowhere to turn, except to the opioids that she is addicted to, when an old frenemy contacts her seemingly out of the blue. NASA needs her help, and they are willing to give her unlimited funding to study Losian’s – in exchange for six months of her life aboard the space station.

This is not, of course, out of the goodness of their hearts. If they have any. NASA has a problem, and Gillian is the only researcher who is working on anything that might possibly offer a solution.

Of course, all is not as it seems. The disease may be, but nothing that surrounds NASA’s offer to Gillian bears a whole lot of resemblance to the truth – or even has a nodding acquaintance with it.

In the end, this is a story about secrets. NASA lies to Gillian, Gillian lies to NASA, and everyone is lying to everyone else. And while Gillian’s research into the cure for Losian’s bears fruit, it is not remotely related to the problem that NASA hired her to solve.

Not because she’s not a good scientist, but because NASA doesn’t know what the problem really is. Once Gillian finally sees the truth for herself, she realizes that she is, after all, NASA’s best hope of solving it – not because of her scientific strengths, but because of her human weaknesses.

Escape Rating A-: The beginning of the story moves a bit slowly. There is a lot of set-up involved before the story gets off the ground, both literally and figuratively.

This is one of the other points where the story reminds me of Lock In, as in Obscura the author needs to take some time and a fair number of pages to introduce the world as it is in this near-future, as well as the issue of Losian’s and Gillian’s reasons for attempting to cure it as well as her setbacks in working on that cure.

Lock In solved this problem by introducing Hadens in the prequel, Unlocked. It meant that Lock In could start rolling immediately, but that readers who had not picked up Unlocked first could be, and often were, lost.

Part of what kept me going at the beginning of Obscura was just how many stories it reminded me of. When we finally hear a truth about what has gone wrong at the space station, it sounded a lot like two interlinked Star Trek episodes, the Original Series episode The Naked Time, and the Next Generation episode The Naked Now. In those stories a virus runs rampant through the crew, causing people to lose all their inhibitions, expose their innermost selves, and, if left unchecked, eventually results in death by extreme stupidity.

That resemblance turns out to be a red herring, but it kept me going for quite a while. And it may be a pink herring. The results are very similar to the virus in Trek, but the cause turns out to be something different all together.

There are also elements of both The Martian and The Retrieval Artist series. Just as in The Martian, Gillian spends an incredible amount of time completely isolated. The circumstances are not dissimilar in a number of ways. She is, in the end, equally as productive as the hero of Andy Weir’s book – but her reaction also feels more human in that she keeps focus in some directions but loses it in others – going more than a bit crazy and hitting absolute bottom – while still continuing to work.

The Retrieval Artist series is a detective series set on in a lunar colony, and in the end, Gillian is accused of a crime she did not commit and is forced to become a detective in order to set herself free.

But in spite of, or in some cases, because of the resemblances, the second half of this book kept me on the edge of my seat. I had to see what happened next, and whether Gillian managed to get herself out of the huge mess she found herself in. The actual ending contained both a surprise and a delight as well as a dose of reality.

One final thought – as a Star Trek fan, I couldn’t help but be struck by one revelation of the story – Bones was right.

Review: Head On by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: Head On by John Scalzi + GiveawayHead On (Lock In, #2) by John Scalzi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Lock In #2
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on April 17th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

My Review:

Head On is the sequel to 2014’s utterly marvelous Lock In, and is part of the near-future post-Hadens world that is first introduced in the the novella Unlocked. And that’s a hint that if you are interested in Head On you really need to start with Unlocked, which introduces the worldbuilding and then read Lock In which introduces the main characters of Head On and the scenario in which they find themselves.

It’s also more than a hint that while this review of Head On will attempt to be spoiler-free for Head On, there will certainly be spoilers for Lock In.

It has been said that science fiction is a kind of universal recipient when it comes to genres, and that mystery is a universal donor. In the sense that SF is a setting that can contain any genre, while mystery as the “donor” can be injected into any setting.

That’s certainly the case here. Head On is not merely a mystery, but bears a significant resemblance to a specific kind of mystery, the police procedural. Our protagonists in this series, veteran Leslie Vann and her junior partner Chris Sloane are FBI agents investigating a series of deaths that at first appear to be mostly coincidental, but in are all fairly quickly discovered to be murders.

What makes Head On (and its predecessor Lock In) science fiction is the setting. These stories take place in a near-future, near enough that it is recognizable from here. But it is a near-future that is 25 years after the world-wide Hadens pandemic. Hadens Syndrome manifested mostly like a cross between the flu and meningitis. Nasty and serious, but generally not lethal. However, 1% of the world’s population developed a long-term side effect known as “lock in”, where their brains were still very much alive and reacting to stimuli, but had absolutely no way to communicate with the bodies that they were now locked into.

While 1% of the world’s population sounds small, using today’s population numbers (7.6 billion) that would mean that 76 million people were locked in. For a comparison, that’s more than the populations of California and Texas combined. In other words, it’s a LOT of people.

And that’s a lot of people to provide services for, which means there’s a lot of money involved. And a lot of government grants and tax breaks, and a lot of businesses that have grown up around providing for those needs and taking advantage of those government grants. There are lots and lots of lots and LOTS.

So while Head On is a murder mystery, it takes place in a world that could only exist in science fiction, the near-future post-Hadens world.

Chris and Leslie find themselves investigating a crime that could also only exist in this world. A player of the new “Hadens-only” sport, Hilketa, dies during an exhibition match that Chris is attending. It’s the very first player death in Hilketa, but initially it seems not dissimilar to player injuries and player deaths in any contact sport – even though in Hilketa the only contact is between the players’ threeps and not the players’ actual bodies. Still, the adrenaline spikes and emotional tolls of playing a big-money spectator sport are experienced by Hadens players, so it’s not completely surprising that one might suffer a stroke or a seizure while playing.

But the league’s actions after the death move the incident from tragic to highly suspicious in the beat of a heart. And that’s where Chris, and eventually Chris’ partner Leslie, step in. Pulling all the data on the dead player while the match is going on is highly questionable. When the league official who ordered that data pulled commits suicide immediately afterwards, it’s pretty obvious that something is up, even if Chris and Leslie don’t yet know what.

The rules of investigation in the near-future are surprisingly similar to those of the present-day. Or even the historic past. When all else fails – FOLLOW THE MONEY.

Escape Rating A: I read this on a plane ride from DC to Atlanta. And I read it early relative to its publication date, because I just couldn’t resist the treat any longer. No pun intended, it made the trip absolutely fly by. I’m just sorry that I can’t read it again for the first time – it was just that good.

Because Chris is a Haden, and his physical presence in the world is represented by a threep (really any threep as Chris borrows and wrecks several) his gender is actually indeterminate. Although he has a physical body, whether that body is male or female doesn’t really matter. What matters is how Chris sees himself and how he presents himself to the world, and not his threep, but his mental presence in the Hadens online universe, the Agora.

And I keep saying “him” and “his” even though Chris never does and it is deliberately kept ambiguous in the story. To the point where there were two audio recordings of Lock In and there will be two of Head On, one read by a female narrator, and one by a male narrator.

I finally figured out that my mental image of Chris is male because he/she/they does not have to think about or deal with any of the baggage that someone physically presenting in the meat-space world as female has to deal with. That Chris does not have all that baggage that women can’t help but pick him made Chris a “him” to me, even if Chris isn’t. (Chris is also mixed race, and as a Haden Chris doesn’t have to deal with any of THAT baggage either.)

The baggage that Chris does have to deal with are the prejudices that people have against threeps. Because they generally see them as robots or droids, and not as presentations for actual human beings. And it does cause problems, but a different set of problems than living/working while either black, female or both.

Part of what makes these books so good is that while this is recognizably a future and not the present, it is also recognizable as human space and human beings and human reactions. Whether meat or threeps, people are still people, for all the good and bad definitions of “people”. Human nature does not change based on the carrier it’s in. As a species we still clearly have a lot of work to do.

The case that Chris and Leslie have to solve could only happen in this SFnal universe. At the same time, it very much follows the pattern of a police procedural mystery, even if some of those procedures have necessarily been altered.

The mystery is relatively easy to solve for the reader. It is considerably more difficult for Chris and Leslie to prove, but the villain is fairly obvious pretty early on. Which does not make the story one scintilla less fascinating to follow.

I had an absolute blast. If you like science fiction, or mysteries, or John Scalzi’s writing, or especially all of the above, you will too.

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

As the final act in my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week, I’m doing the same thing I did last year – taking this opportunity to share one of my favorite authors with one lucky commenter. The winner of this giveaway will receive a copy of any book by John Scalzi, up to $20 in value, anywhere that the Book Depository ships. This will allow the winner to choose the hardcover of Head On if that’s what they want – the book comes out on 4/17, so the giveaway closes just in time to get a pre-order in. But the winner can choose ANY title they want, from his first book, the marvelous Old Man’s War, to the hilarious (and Hugo-Award-winning) Redshirts or anything between then and now. If the winner wants an ebook, and can get ebooks from Amazon (or audiobooks from Audible) that’s OK too.

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Review: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi OkoraforThe Night Masquerade (Binti, #3) by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Afrofuturism, science fiction
Series: Binti #3
Pages: 208
Published by Tor.com on January 16th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The concluding part of the highly-acclaimed science fiction trilogy that began with Nnedi Okorafor's Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning BINTI.

Binti has returned to her home planet, believing that the violence of the Meduse has been left behind. Unfortunately, although her people are peaceful on the whole, the same cannot be said for the Khoush, who fan the flames of their ancient rivalry with the Meduse.

Far from her village when the conflicts start, Binti hurries home, but anger and resentment has already claimed the lives of many close to her.

Once again it is up to Binti, and her intriguing new friend Mwinyi, to intervene--though the elders of her people do not entirely trust her motives--and try to prevent a war that could wipe out her people, once and for all.

Don't miss this essential concluding volume in the Binti trilogy.

My Review:

I picked up The Night Masquerade because we saw the absolutely, totally, completely marvelous Black Panther over the weekend, and I was looking for more Afrofuturism. Then I remembered that the final book in the Binti Trilogy was already out, and why hadn’t I read it already?.

So here we are.

Admittedly, one reason why I hadn’t read The Night Masquerade already was because as much as I adored the first book, Binti, the second book, Home left me with a much more mixed reaction. Binti herself spent much of Home feeling fairly muddled, and as I read it I was muddled right along with her.

Although now that I have finished The Night Masquerade I am highly tempted to go back and reread Home. Now that I see where things were headed, the journey feels as though it had a lot more depth.

In Home, it seemed as if Binti, desperate for home, had gone back and discovered that, as the classic title goes, “you can’t go home again.”. In The Night Masquerade, the situation seems even worse. She discovers that while home may be the place that when you have to go there, they have to let you in, once they’ve opened the door there is nothing to stop them from stabbing you in the back as you walk past.

Binti may be physically home, but the people that she thought were hers reject her and everything about her that makes her what they perceive as anathema. Binti is different. Binti has left the Himba. Because the Himba don’t leave that turns Binti from “one of us” into a dangerous outsider.

She has also discovered that she is more than just Himba. Her father was one of the Desert People. While the Himba perceive the Desert People as barbarian savages, the truth is otherwise. As it usually is.

And the use of her talents as “harmonizer” aboard the sentient ship Third Fish (the events of Binti) have both grown her talent and made her a part of the non-human Meduse as well. She has become more, but her people (her own immediate family excepted) perceive her as being less.

The neighboring Khoosh people, on the other hand, see Binti’s Meduse friend Okwu as a enemy, and rain war and destruction on the Himba in frustration that Okwu and Binti are nowhere to be found.

Bintu gives her life in an effort to make peace, only to be struck down at the moment of her greatest achievement.

But just as on her first journey, the one where she should have died the first time, it’s not merely that what does not kill her makes her stronger, but that what kills her does too.

Escape Rating A: While The Night Masquerade is not as fresh as the first book, Binti, quite possibly because Binti herself is not as fresh and new as she was at the start of her journey, it still marks a return to the page-turning fascination of that first book.

In Binti, we saw her first, sometimes tentative steps into the wider universe, not in spite of but because of the tragedy that she survives aboard Third Fish. In Home, Binti is searching for who she is now, trying to harmonize all of the various parts of herself that she has discovered or that she has absorbed. And she flails around a bit. (Don’t we all at 17?)

But in The Night Masquerade Binti is finally on the road to who she is meant to be. Her journey is far from complete, even though it is nearly cut short. In this final book in the trilogy, she ultimately manages to reach past her own doubts and fears and take control of her future, by embracing all the disparate aspects of her identity.

A significant part of the story is Binti’s internal journey, as she sees the limitations of her own people’s worldview and chooses to deliberately move beyond it, in spite of her doubts and fears. And in spite of the cost.

It’s a difficult and dangerous journey, made even more so by the shortsightedness of entirely too many people on all sides. But watching Binti come into her own is absolutely fantastic. If you like coming-of-age stories, especially when combined with a heroine’s journey, I think (and hope) you will love Binti’s story as much as I did.

Reviewer’s Note: NoveList has just released beautiful posters featuring Afrofuturism and Afrofantasy in honor of the fantastic movie Black Panther. The posters are gorgeous, but of course not remotely comprehensive of either genre. However, Nnedi Okorafor is the only author featured on both posters. Look for the posters AND the books at your local library.

Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon

Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth MoonInto the Fire (Vatta's Peace, #2) by Elizabeth Moon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Vatta's Peace #2
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this new military sci-fi thriller from the author of Cold Welcome, space fleet commander Kylara Vatta uncovers deadly secrets on her latest mission--shedding light on her own family's past.

As Admiral Kylara Vatta learned after she and a shipfull of strangers were marooned on an inhospitable arctic island, the secrets she and her makeshift crew uncovered were ones someone was ready to kill to keep hidden. Now, the existence of the mysterious arctic base has been uncovered, but much of the organization behind it still lurks in the shadows. And it is up to the intrepid Ky to force the perpetrators into the light, and finally uncover decades worth of secrets--some of which lie at the very heart of her biggest family tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a saying about war being the continuation of diplomacy by other means. So, also, is politics, particularly the politics of Slotters Key in this second book in the Vatta’s Peace series. And in the case of this series, it’s that politics are the continuation of diplomacy by other means, diplomacy is the continuation of politics by other means, and even, finally, that war is the continuation of politics by other means, which was not what von Clausewitz originally meant.

But it all makes for compelling reading.

Into the Fire is the second volume in the series, after last year’s marvelous Cold Welcome. And it is a direct sequel to the first. All of the action in Into the Fire is a result of the mess that was uncovered in Cold Welcome, as well as the culmination of strikes against the Vatta family that have been going on since all the way back in the first book in the Vatta’s War series, Trading in Danger. And it turns out that some of that mess relates to events far, far back in the past of the Vatta family, particularly back into the past of Ky’s Great-Aunt Grace, currently the Rector for Defense (think Secretary of Defense in the US Cabinet). The skeletons in Graciela Vatta’s closet have burst out of hiding, and with a vengeance. Or certainly with vengeance in mind.

The first half of Into the Fire is almost completely political. There are forces moving against Grace, Ky, Ky’s fiance Rafe Dunbarger, and all of the soldiers that she found herself in command of in the snafu that occurred in Cold Welcome. In that first book, Ky and her shipmates crashed on what was supposed to be the barren continent of Miksland on Slotter Key, only to discover that Miksland was far from barren, rich in mineral wealth, and that someone had been conducting military exercises on its supposedly empty landscape. And that whatever may be happening on Miksland now, someone, or rather a whole succession of someones, has been successfully hiding the truth about Miksland not just for years, but for centuries.

There’s a lot rotten somewhere in the military, and its up to Ky to ferret it out. Particularly after whoever is rotten systematically whisks all of the soldiers who were part of Ky’s discovery into quarantine, where they can be abused, drugged and eventually murdered without ever being able to reveal what they saw.

At first, Ky is both kept hopping and stuck in her own version of purgatory. At the same time that she discovers that her crew is imprisoned, she finds herself under house arrest and Grace is poisoned. Someone very high up in the government is questioning Ky’s Slotter Key citizenship, with an eye to having her arrested by Customs and Immigration, and then whisked away to the same drugged confinement as her crewmates.

But Ky is wilier than that, and she has the vast resources of Vatta Enterprises behind her, even if she is no longer a shareholder in the company. She’s still a Vatta. And someone is clearly out to get the Vattas. Still. Again.

And someone has upped their timetable on whatever it was they were planning and plotting out in desolate Miksland. Whether those are the same someones, and what Ky can manage to do about them, take the story from politics straight into war.

But if there’s one thing that Admiral Kylara Vatta is good at, it’s war. She and her allies just have to hope that she is better at it than her well-entrenched enemies. And that the butcher’s bill won’t be too high.

Escape Rating A: This was a “just sit there and read” kind of book. It sucked me in from the very first page, and didn’t let go until the end. Actually, I’m not sure it’s let go even yet.

That being said, this is a book that will make no sense to someone who has not read Cold Welcome. I think that the background from the further past is explained enough that you don’t have to read all of Vatta’s War to get into Vatta’s Peace or at least you certainly don’t have to have read it recently. But if you like mercantile/military SF I highly recommend it.

I initially read Vatta’s War in roughly the same time period that I read the Honor Harrington series and Tanya Huff’s Valor (Confederation) series. All three series feature kick-ass military heroines who we meet roughly at the beginning of their careers and who face bigger enemies and greater dangers as they advance. They also pick up great friends, a cohort of companions, and soldiers that will do sacrifice anything for them, and sometimes pay the ultimate price. In the end I gave up on Honor as she seemed to become her very own deus ex machina, but I’ve stuck with both Ky Vatta and Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr of the Valor series, and still enjoy their adventures. All of this to say if you like one, you’ll probably like the other. And I’d love to be a fly on the wall if Ky and Torin ever go out for drinks together.

Into the Fire is a densely political book. The entire first half is primarily the set up, as Ky and company find themselves stuck in various places, trying to find ways around the corrupt and/or clueless branches of officialdom that are trying to keep the truth about Miksland under wraps for as long as possible.

This part of the story reads very much like a spy thriller, with the villains trying to flush out the heroes and the heroes trying to get information without tipping off the villains. Meanwhile the disinformation campaign fomented by the villains just confuses the civilians and makes the job of the heroes that much harder. A lot goes wrong in the first half of the book, leaving Ky, Grace and the reader all frustrated at just how difficult it is to fix this mess.

The second half of the book is all action. Once Ky and company find enough trustworthy people to work with on both the military and the civilian sides, the official logjam gets broken and Ky and her friends are on the move – rooting out the corruption, investigating the conspiracy and most importantly, rescuing Ky’s people before they can be wiped out. It’s a wild and compelling rollercoaster ride from that point on. The reader just can’t turn the pages fast enough. Or at least this reader certainly couldn’t.

This isn’t a story that delves a lot into personalities. It’s all about the action. And that’s non-stop from the moment Ky gets out of house arrest until the book’s breath-stealing conclusion.

The comment at the end of the book is absolutely marvelous, and so completely true. “Vatta’s peace may not be perfect, but it could have been worse.” The book, on the other hand, could not have been better.

Into the Fire does end in a proper closure, as Cold Welcome did not. However, there are enough small loose ends that the series could continue if the author wished. This reader certain wishes very, very hard.

Review: Celta Cats by Robin D. Owens

Review: Celta Cats by Robin D. OwensCelta Cats by Robin D. Owens
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Celta's Heartmates
Pages: 144
Published by Amazon Digital Services on December 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Smart Cats know what they want. And on the world of Celta, they are very smart. They can be Familiar Animal companions, bonded with a person.
These stories are seen from the cat’s very own eyes, and are six never before published Cat Stories, including the first Top Cat of Celta, Peaches; as well as a trio of stories about that favorite Fam, Zanth.
Peaches Arrives on Celta, Plenty of problems for Peaches to fix: challenges to his status; people lying about Peaches’ human companion and Peaches himself; Grandma’s acting mean...and there’s that very real concern that the Ship just might not land safely, fear he must overcome…
Zanth Gets His Boy, Zanth’s meeting with a noble boy running from evil people changes both their lives in ways he couldn’t imagine
Pinky Becomes A Fam, Pinky is a smart enough cat to know that there is a difference from being a regular cat and a Familiar Companion Cat, and bonding better with his boy. He’s determined to make the leap from cat to Fam, but didn’t realize exactly what that meant…
Zanth Claims Treasure, Yes, the southern estate smells great, even better smelling is the glass orb full of magic that he finds, and will fight to keep…
Baccat Chooses His Person, Life on the streets in the winter isn’t what Baccat deserves, and he’s determined to find a good person to take care of him. After all, he has so much to offer…but does he really deserve what he gets?
Zanth Saves The Day, A FamCat on a beach just can’t sleep with all that odd hatching and squeaking going on. Zanth finds new friends and defends them against bullies…

My Review:

I’m still looking for comfort reading. When I heard the FamCats of Celta meowing my name, I decided to answer.

This is likely to be what a blogging friend refers to as a “short and sweet” review. This is not a big book, the stories do not have big messages, but they are a whole lot of fun, particularly if you like the Celta’s Heartmates series. The stories in Celta Cats illustrate bits of backstory or side story of events that are referred to in the main series, but are told from the point of view of the FamCats, the Familiar Companion animals of Celta who happen to be cats.

It seems that any animal can become a Fam, if they have enough Flair (psi power) and enough intelligence. Fams are intelligent at what we would think of as a human level, but do not think human thoughts. They understand human speech and thought, but as the stories illustrate, they do not change their essential nature. The FamCats, in particular, are always very cat. Particularly in the “dogs have owners, cats have staff” sense. FamCats expect rewards for their service, and are not remotely shy about demanding those rewards. It’s part of what makes them so much fun.

Although this collection features FamCats, in the main series we meet many other animals who have become Fams, including foxes, dogs, birds, and even housefluffs, which seem like a less predatory version of the dustbunnies in Jayne Castle’s Harmony series.

Heart Mate by Robin D. Owens new cover

Several of the stories in this collection feature Xanth, the FamCat who owns and protects Rand T’Ash, the hero of the first book in the series, Heart Mate. From Xanth’s perspective, he is the dominant partner. Rand’s perspective may be otherwise. But one of the most interesting stories in the collection is the first meeting between Xanth and Rand, told from Xanth’s perspective. At that point, Rand was a scared and very young man, who had just watched evil men burn out his family home, killing his parents and siblings., while Xanth was a full-grown and battle-toughened street cat. Those same men are hunting Rand, and it is Xanth’s knowledge of Druida City’s back alleys that keeps them both alive until Rand matures enough to come into his full power and exact his revenge.

Escape Rating A-: For adult readers, Celta Cats is a book for fans. The joy in the stories is filling in missing pieces of Celtan history, and especially viewing that history through the eyes of the Fams, who are so often the best part, or at least the funniest part, of many of the stories.

As a short story collection, Celta Cats is being marketed as a children’s book. I have my doubts about that. It’s true that there is no “adult” content per se. These stories are not romances, while the regular books of the Celta’s Heartmates series most definitely are. But what makes these stories special is their connection to Celta. The Xanth stories are particularly fun because they connect to Xanth (and Rand) as we already know them. Whether young readers will find them interesting without knowing anything about the background of Celta is something I’m just not sure about.

But for those of us who love the series, and can’t wait until next year for our next visit to Celta, these stories are utterly charming.

Reviewer’s Note: I read Celta Cats in the wake of Ursula K. LeGuin’s death. If you like the Celta Cats, you will love her Catwings series, which begins with, of course, Catwings. The Catwings stories, are, not surprisingly considering the title, about a family of winged cats. The wings seem to be a mutation, as the stories are set in the contemporary world and everyone, both cats and humans, are aware that the Catwings family needs to be protected from people who will want to study them. The stories are marvelous, the illustrations are lovely, and just like Celta Cats, the stories will be enjoyed by adults who love any intersection between cats and either science fiction or fantasy.