Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah LotzThe Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Romance, science fiction
Pages: 483
Published by Ace Books on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This isn't a love story. This is Impossible.
***
Nick: Failed writer. Failed husband. Dog owner.
Bee: Serial dater. Dress maker. Pringles enthusiast.
One day, their paths cross over a misdirected email. The connection is instant, electric. They feel like they've known each other all their lives.
Nick buys a new suit, gets on a train. Bee steps away from her desk, sets off to meet him under the clock at Euston station.
Think you know how the rest of the story goes? They did too . . .
But this is a story with more twists than most. This is Impossible.

My Review:

Every once in a while, even in real life, someone will text or call a wrong number, and instead of getting a hang-up or a brush-off, a connection gets made. There’s that famous story about the Arizona grandma who texted a complete stranger to come for Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. He not only came for dinner that year, he and his now-wife are still invited and attending that Thanksgiving dinner every November.

But the connection between Bee and Nick, while it still begins with a text to a complete stranger, has much further to travel, even if they don’t realize it at first.

The hook into this story is the witty and emotionally honest banter between Nick and Bee. Both are well into adulthood if not necessarily adulting, they both have serious shit to deal with and both of them, frankly, are clinically depressed in one way or another.

Bee is avoiding relationships by playing spin the one-night-stand roulette wheel on Tinder. She’s self-supporting, her business of re-purposing used wedding dresses is going gangbusters, and she’s completely alone except for her lifelong friend Leila and her upstairs neighbor. It’s an OK life but she’s lonely.

Nick sees himself as a failure – only because he is. His marriage is dying if it isn’t already dead. His career as a novelist produced one self-absorbed book and nothing since. His only real friends turn out to be his dog, Rosie and his stepson Dylan – because his wife is cheating with his other best friend so that relationship is clearly over.

Bee and Nick find each other at a point where they each desperately need a lifeline – and they become that for each other in text after text after text, all day and sometimes all night long.

Until they agree to meet. Under the clock at Euston Station. They both say they’re there, but neither can see the other. And that’s when things go wildly pear-shaped.

Eventually, after railing at each other, cursing at each other, and obsessively reading over their correspondence, they come to the heartbreaking realization that the multiverse is real and that they are not living in the same version of it.

Each of their worlds is the other’s “road not taken”. The worlds aren’t SO different. The divergence isn’t all that far in the past. In Bee’s world Clinton’s two terms were followed by W.’s two terms, then Obama’s two and then, let’s call him The Former Guy.

Nick thought Bee’s reference to The Former Guy as president was a bad joke, because his world split off at the hanging chads in Florida in the 2000 election. Clinton was followed by Gore’s two terms, then Obama’s two terms. His world managed to skip both 9/11 and Brexit. Not that his world is unequivocally better, but it is different in ways that don’t seem too surprising if you remember anything about Al Gore’s political platform.

Accepting that they can’t meet in person, they also decide that the relative closeness of their parallel worlds means that they CAN meet their world’s equivalent of each other. As they discover, however, that just because they can, doesn’t mean they really should.

Escape Rating B: This book is bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is going to be strictly in the eye of the beholder, and honestly I’m still not sure. It’s a wild ride, but I’m not sure I liked where that ride ended up.

I’m also none too sanguine about labeling this as a romance. An emotional if not physical romance does occur, but there’s no HEA for Bee and Nick. There can’t be and that’s the point of the story. It really is impossible for the two of them to become an “us”.

This is more of a story about that “road not taken”, or an example of the quote from John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.”

Nick and Bee might have been something special, but once they meet their actual doppelgangers in each other’s realities, I’m not so sure. Or I’m not sure that Nick has it in him to find his own happy ending, Bee, who has better coping skills in the first place (admittedly that’s a REALLY low bar to get over) ends the story with at least the possibility of an HEA somewhere down the road.

(Nick reminded me a bit too much of an old quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Nick is firmly stuck in “can’t” to his own and the story’s detriment.)

But this is being marketed as a romance, which is going to lead entirely too many people to pick it up thinking there’s a happy ending, and those readers are going to be seriously disappointed. OTOH, while the SFnal elements are more than enough to push it to SF, the way the doomed romance is centered in the story is going to turn off many of those readers as well. And on my third hand in an alternate universe, although this is SFnal and does center a romance, it doesn’t gel in the right way to make it a science fiction romance, either.

For people who know what they are letting themselves in for, there is plenty of satisfaction to be had on this wild and crazy ride through the multiverse of other worlds, other selves and other lives. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

Review: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Review: Acadie by Dave HutchinsonAcadie by Dave Hutchinson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 5, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.
The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.
Earth has other plans.
The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.
Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review:

“I think, therefore I am,” or so goes the quote from French philosopher René Descartes. But Descartes lived in the 17th century, well before the popularity of science fiction. In Acadie, the quote needs to be a question, “I think, therefore I am, what?”

Duke Faraday thinks that he is the president of a renegade colony of genetic researchers and tinkerers who made him president because he wanted the job the least. And he knows he’s pissed off because his admin/majordomo/minder has just woken him up too damned early on his day off because there’s a crisis.

And his desk is where the buck stops. Even if his so-called desk is generally parked in a bar – and there are no bucks of any kind on The Colony. (Unless the scientists who really run things have genetically engineered something since he went to bed the night before.)

The Colony is filled with a bunch of renegade scientists who are still paranoid about the Earth that they escaped from five centuries before. They left with a ship full of kidnapped colonists, an overabundance of genius and a complete lack of willingness to stop experimenting with the human genome – and any other they can get their gloved hands on – no matter how many people, organizations, and even governments tell them “no”.

So when a trigger-happy pilot brings down what is obviously a probe from the Earth they left behind, it’s all-hands-on-deck to bug out before Earth returns to take whatever fancy tech their geniuses have invented and bring home any survivors from that original hijacking back for trial.

Everyone gets away except for Duke and his “Dirty Dozen” of advisors who are left to look after the last of the technology clean-up. They are sitting ducks for the next Earth probe that comes along, and come along it does.

Duke thinks he’s holding the line against a rapacious colonization agency that likes to cut corners and doesn’t care how much collateral damage it does along the way. After all, that’s how he ended up in the Colony in the first place.

But the pilot of the probe has a different idea about his mission, and Duke’s, altogether. An idea that just might turn Duke’s entire universe on its head – or bust his wide open.

Escape Rating A-: At first, the tone of Acadie and its protagonist reminded me more than a bit of Heinlein by way of Scalzi. The way that the entire Colony pulled itself together to escape the threat had some of the feel of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although I should have been thinking more of The Man Who Sold the Moon, which is as much of a hint as I’m giving.

I also can’t help but think that Duke Faraday and John Perry (Old Man’s War) would have had a lot to talk about in that bar, possibly along with Fergus Fergusson from Finder.

The Colony as a form of government, a working utopia, an escape hatch, all of the above, seems like a fascinating place. The idea that the person elected president is the one who wants it the least honestly seems like an idea that might have merit and broader application. (And also adds to that Heinlein-like feeling. I keep thinking that sounds like something he would have said, but I can’t find a citation so maybe not.)

That the real powers-that-be are the scientists, possibly even the mad scientists, who escaped from Earth’s laws and proceeded to write their own and the human genome at the same time certainly does make the story interesting. And picturesque, as the scientists, called ‘The Writers’ because they rewrite the genome seemingly at a whim, often mine popular culture through the ages for their material and their whimsy.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the habitats that the Colony uses are one of the very few, if not the ONLY, beneficial uses of that plague of the South, kudzu, that has ever appeared in fiction.

So the story hums along, seemingly about a plucky band of scientists and other colonists doing their best to stay out of the clutches of the evil – or at least benighted – bureaucrats from Earth. We’re rooting for them and we’re sure they’ve found the right answers.

They are too.

But at the end, the whole story turns itself upside down, twists itself inside out, and spits the reader out of the book kicking and screaming, wondering what the hell went wrong. And it’s upsetting and glorious all at the same time.

(Reviewer’s Note: I’m on the horns of a dilemma here because of the brevity of the story versus the price of the book. On the one hand, this is only 112 pages. It’s a novella. On the other hand, the kindle version is $7.99 which is a bit much for the length. And on the third hand, because of that kick in the pants ending, I’m not sure this actually should have been longer. If Amazon is still selling used copies of the paperback at $1.50 that might be a better bet or at least a better cost/benefit ratio. YMMV)

Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Ogres by Adrian TchaikovskyOgres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A bleak glimpse of a world of savage tyrants, from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky in a beautiful signed, limited-edition hardcover.
Ogres are bigger than you.Ogres are stronger than you.Ogres rule the world.
It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.
Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.
But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

My Review:

When I first saw the cover for Ogres, the image reminded me an awful lot of Mr. Hyde – as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So I went looking for popular images and the resemblance is a bit uncanny – except for that helicopter in the background of the book’s cover.

Now that I’ve read Ogres, I’ve come to the conclusion that the image is kind of a tease – or a spoiler. Perhaps a bit of both. Because Ogres is very much a “we have met the enemy and he is us” kind of story, complete with that same AHA! moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, that the monster perceived as being “the other” is really the self within. Or in this case a possible self that can be released under the right – or wrong circumstances.

As we experience this tale through the eyes of Torquell, the spoiled son of the village headman who both envies and resents the wealthy and all-powerful ogres, this seems like a rather typical hero’s journey. Torquell manages to kill one of the supposedly unbeatable ogres who rule his world and everyone is punished for it.

Evil overlords are the same all over.

But that’s when the story starts turning a corner into “Come to the dark side, we have cookies.” Literally. The ogre who “owns” Torquell starts feeding him the same food that the ogres eat – and he becomes bigger, stronger and more aggressive – just like they are.

Those cookies are baked – not just with ingredients that are forbidden to the downtrodden serfs – but with fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. An evil that Torquell recognizes when he tastes it – even as he plots to steal the knowledge of the ogres for himself.

That could have been the end of the story. But it’s not – and that’s what made it so much more fascinating than the all-too-typical hero’s journey it set out to be.

Escape Rating A-: That’s where this story, which up until this point has read as a fantasy, flips one of its switches and turns into science fiction. Because the ogres are Mr. Hyde, who once hid inside the more mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll. All it takes is a bit of genetic engineering – and a whole lot of generations to bake the system in place.

Then, just as the reader thinks they know where the story is finally going – a second switch is flipped. A switch that makes you rethink everything that came before. Because this IS a hero’s journey after all – just not the hero the reader thought it was. Not at all.

What made this story so compelling is that as much as I totally saw the first twist coming a mile away – I didn’t see the second one at all until it happened. Torquell is led very carefully along the path to discover the truth about the ogres, so once he starts learning about the history of his world that truth becomes obvious fairly quickly.

But that’s where things get interesting. Because then it starts to look a lot like a power corrupts tale, as Torquell is seduced by the equivalent of the dark side of the force that governs his world. Torquell rises – and then Torquell falls – but the story still manages to have a triumphant ending. Just not the one the reader thought they were going to get.

I usually say that books like this walk like a duck and quack like a duck because they read like fantasy right up until the point where we learn that they were science fiction all along. In the end, this one walked like a duck and quacked like a duck but somehow managed to be a platypus. It wasn’t what I expected, then it wasn’t what I expected again, and at the very end managed to surprise me yet one more time. That’s a lot of surprising plot twists to pack into one novella!

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John ScalziThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Tor Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi's first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.
When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls "an animal rights organization." Tom's team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.
What Tom doesn't tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They're the universe's largest and most dangerous panda and they're in trouble.
It's not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that's found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too--and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

My Review:

It feels like this is the first thing I’ve read that actually deals head-on with life during the COVID pandemic. Plenty of things talk around it, and often those were written about the plague before it ACTUALLY happened, but The Kaiju Preservation Society just slams right into it.

It also feels like this is going to be one of the archetypes for how it gets dealt with in fiction, because this book is just plain damn funny. Even if, or especially because, much of the humor is gallows humor because there was an actual gallows looming over everything as lives, careers, hopes and dreams died with abandon – and sometimes abandonment – during those strange, unreal years.

So it’s entirely fitting that this is a story about giving not just the pandemic but the whole, entire Earth the middle finger and sloping off to a place that no one ever imagined existed. No matter how much we were ALL looking for a complete escape just like this at the time.

With or without Godzilla. Because that’s what a kaiju is, a Godzilla-type monster that occasionally slips between the cracks of the multiverse to terrorize our version of Earth.

But Jamie Gray, who gets fired from his fairly cushy job as an executive for a meal delivery service start up JUST as the country in locking down, then becomes a desperate “deliverator” for the company that fired him, lucks into the experience of a lifetime when his very last customer offers him a job at the mysterious “KPS” because the person on their crew who does heavy lifting is unavailable at the absolutely last minute.

Jamie’s in. He’s been down and out for six months, running through his savings, keeping his best friends from becoming homeless because their jobs have dried up too, and he’s at the end of all his ropes. KPS, whatever and wherever it is, has to be better than what he’s doing now. And the money is fantastic.

So, it turns out, is the experience.

Escape Rating A-: The Kaiju Preservation Society reads like vintage Scalzi of the Old Man’s War and Redshirts variety. The message sneaks up on the reader, much as it does in Old Man’s War, but it’s not quite as deep, while the snark-o-matic is dialed all the way up as it is in Redshirts.

So it’s light if not fluffy and not so much a laugh riot as filled with nerdy jokes, rueful chuckles and occasional outright guffaws from beginning to end. And not dissimilar to the author’s actual voice if one has ever seen him in person. (Scalzi read a bit of KPS on the recent JoCo Cruise and let’s just say that the man doesn’t have to act AT ALL to be the voice of Jamie Gray.)

While the pandemic provides the perfect excuse for Jamie Gray to sign up for a 6 month tour with KPS, as it turns out on Kaiju Earth, it’s his experiences once he steps through the portal in remote, chilly Labrador to the steamy jungle of an alternate Earth where one of the big extinction events just didn’t happen and kaiju evolved to be the apex predator that give the story its heart, its snark and its lesson.

It doesn’t matter how much bigger and more badass the monsters actually are, humans are always the most truly monstrous thing we ever encounter.

But first we get the joy and camaraderie of a whole bunch of very smart, very savvy, very geeky and extremely nerdy people having the absolute time of their lives doing really cool science in this most alien of places that is surprisingly close to home.

The feel of this part of the story, the sheer joy of doing stuff that literally no one has ever done before surrounded by people who are just as into it as you are reminds me a lot of Dan Koboldt’s Domesticating Dragons – and not just for the dragon/kaiju connection. But the love of doing science and breaking new ground and having great colleagues all in it together is very similar, so if you’re looking for another taste of this kind of SF try that.

Yes, there’s a bit of Jurassic Park in this. That’s kind of a “well, duh” comment after all. But the story is a lot more like The Rogue Retrieval (also by Koboldt) and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador, in that someone with more power than sense, ethics or morals finds a gateway or portal to a place that already exists – and then invades with the hope of conquering it with as much firepower as they can muster.

In all of these portal stories the central problem is kind of the same, in that whenever we humans find someplace new we bring ourselves – which is about the worst thing we could do anywhere to anything. That the author manages to circle that all the way back to the very beginning of this story – all the way back to that start up and the very asshole who fired him was just plain epic. With a heaping helping of utterly marvelous schadenfreude and revenge slathered on top.

And that was just delicious.

Review: The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong

Review: The Circus Infinite by Khan WongThe Circus Infinite by Khan Wong
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 400
Published by Angry Robot Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Hunted by those who want to study his gravity powers, Jes makes his way to the best place for a mixed-species fugitive to blend in: the pleasure moon. Here, everyone just wants to be lost in the party. It doesn’t take long for him to catch the attention of the crime boss who owns the resort-casino where he lands a circus job. When the boss gets wind of the bounty on Jes’ head, he makes an offer: do anything and everything asked of him, or face vivisection.
With no other options, Jes fulfills the requests: espionage, torture, demolition. But when the boss sets the circus up to take the fall for his about-to-get-busted narcotics operation, Jes and his friends decide to bring the mobster down together. And if Jes can also avoid going back to being the prize subject of a scientist who can’t wait to dissect him? Even better.

My Review:

The Circus Infinite gets off to a running start and goes at a compelling pace from that tension-filled beginning to its surprising, and very satisfying, end.

Jes Tiqualo – whose last name we don’t even know when we first meet him – is on the run while trying not to actually run through the spaceport terminal of his home planet. Not that Rijala has ever been much of a home to mixed-race Jes.

Jes is running from, well, pretty much everyone. His parents sold him to the mysterious and very shady Paragenetic Institute of the 9-Stars as a lab rat. Jes has escaped from their imprisoning Institute and is looking for a place to hide.

He picks the pleasure moon of Persephone-9, because it’s pretty much the last place he figures that anyone will think he would go. One of Jes’ paragenetic talents is empathy, he susses out the emotional state of everyone around him. That’s not his most dangerous talent, but it’s the one that will give him the most trouble in a place where every being’s desires will be on overt display. Jes is asexual, and being essentially forced to experience other people’s sexual desires upsets his emotional equilibrium to the point of nausea and panic.

But as a half-human, half Rijalan, Jes is a highly unusual and easily recognizable figure among the rigid and xenophobic Rijalans. Among the mixed, mingling and mind-bogglingly attired vacationers and pleasure seekers on Persephone-9, Jes hopes to blend in as one of the glittering crowd. Howsomever, he’s broke and has only the clothes on his back. Jes needs a safe place to hide and a circumspect way to make enough money to support himself and save a little towards the next time he has to flee.

So he joins the circus and hides in plain sight among the performers. Compared to the burly four-armed Hydraxians and the insectoid Mantodeans, Jes isn’t all that exotic. But his talents, not just his empathy but his potentially destructive ability to manipulate gravity fields have the potential to make him stand out in a crowd.

Enough potential to save several of the circus performers from catastrophe during his interview. And enough to make him a useful and potentially lucrative asset for the sadistic criminal boss of the pleasure moon. A man who likes playing with his toys even more than the doctor at the Institute that Jes ran away from.

Jes is the mouse in a deadly cat and mouse game. Niko Dax, that sadistic criminal mastermind, knows Jes’ secret and is holding it over his head in return for Jes’ assistance with more soul destroying crimes at every turn. Jes finds himself getting in deeper in order to protect himself, his friends, and his new home. Until he reaches the point where he can’t continue along the path he’s tightrope walking – and his best friend pays the price of his defiance.

And Jes doesn’t merely get by, he gets downright even with more than a little help from ALL his friends – including the ones he doesn’t actually know he has.

Escape Rating A+: The story of The Circus Infinite is Jes’ journey from beginning to end – and what a journey it is!

The foundation of the story feels like it’s Jes’ coming of age story. He’s an adult – although just barely – when we first meet him. He’s on the run from the Institute and certainly has a grasp on what he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to be a lab rat anymore. And no matter what he had to do to get out – which we don’t even know at this point – the reader is with him every step of the way in his desire to be free.

We’re able to feel his fear right along with him. That we later experience bits and pieces of Jes’ life in the Institute during the course of the story only adds to the reader’s empathy. It may also remind anyone who remembers Firefly more than a bit of River Tam’s story. The Institute that Jes escaped from and the Academy that Simon Tam rescued his sister from in the opening episode of the series may not be the exact same place, but let’s say that comparisons could certainly be drawn.

In addition to that nod to Firefly, Jes’ integration into and adaptation to the Circus Kozmiqa reads similarly to the way that Lady Everleigh in Jennifer Estep’s Kill the Queen manages to both hide and train herself among a circus-like gladiator troop.

But the heart of The Circus Infinite follows Jes as he becomes an integral part of the Circus Kozmiqa as it becomes his first real home and the circus performers his first real family, found or otherwise. As he gets to know them, and as he explores the world of the pleasure moon and the wider world that he’s never been allowed to be a part of before, we see Jes bloom and grow.

And we’re right there with him as he’s forced to work for the strange, evil, acquisitive sadist Niko Dax. Niko attempts to turn Jes to his own personal Dark Side, while Jes precariously does his best to keep Dax off his back while defending both the circus and himself. Dax is creepy in ways that Jes can see but not completely articulate – but we still feel them and it’s even creepier for not being completely explained.

In the end, in addition to all the fun, all the danger, and all the joy and trepidation of following along with Jes, there’s an extremely satisfying conclusion that still manages to ask some fascinating questions about fate, luck, prophecy and karma. Are the courses of our lives predetermined by fate, or do our choices create our chances?

Jes’ story leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and yet still leaves all the loose ends of Jes’ journey tied up with a beautiful bow of hope and fulfillment.

Speaking of hope, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this world, and certainly hope to see more work from this author!

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph Adams

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph AdamsLost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms by John Joseph Adams, James L. Cambias, Becky Chambers, Kate Elliott, C.C. Finlay, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Darcie Little Badger, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, An Owomoyela, Dexter Palmer, Cadwell Turnbull, Genevieve Valentine, Carrie Vaughn, Charles Yu, E. Lily Yu, Tobias S. Buckell
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Grim Oak Press on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado, and Shangri-La to classic novels such as King Solomon’s Mine, The Land That Time Forgot, and The Lost World, readers have long been fascinated by the idea of lost worlds and mythical kingdoms.
Read short stories featuring the discovery of such worlds or kingdoms―stories where scientists explore unknown places, stories where the discovery of such turns the world on its head, stories where we’re struck with the sense of wonder at realizing that we don’t know our world quite as well as we’d thought.
Featuring new tales by today's masters of SF&F:
Tobias S. BuckellJames L. CambiasBecky ChambersKate ElliottC.C. FinlayJeffrey FordTheodora GossDarcie Little BadgerJonathan MaberrySeanan McGuireAn OwomoyelaDexter PalmerCadwell TurnbullGenevieve ValentineCarrie VaughnCharles YuE. Lily Yu

My Review:

Here there be dragons – or so say the old maps. Or so they say the old maps say – although not so much as people think they did.

Just the same, once upon a time the map of the ‘real’ world used to have more blank spaces in it. Long distance travel was difficult and time-consuming, long distance communication was an impossible dream, life was short and the road was too long to even be imagined. But speaking of imagining, I imagine that every place’s known and unknown stretches were different – but in the way back each city, country, people or location only had so much reach and stretch.

And then there was the era of European exploration and eventually industrialization. For good or ill, and quite frequently ill, those blank places on the map got smaller and were filled in. Which didn’t stop and probably downright inspired a whole library’s worth of stories about imaginary places that might exist whether on – or in – this planet or those nearby.

But as the terra become increasingly cognita, the well of those stories dried up. Which does not mean that the urge to explore what might be beyond the farthest horizon has in any way faded.

This is a collection intended to feed that human impulse to go where no one has gone before – and report back about it before we invade it with, well, ourselves. Some of the stories that explore that next frontier are fantasy, some are science fiction, and a few trip over that line from fantasy into horror.

And they’re all here, vividly described to make the reader want to be there. Or be extremely grateful that they are NOT.

Escape Rating B: Like nearly all such collections, Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms has some hits, some misses and one or two WTF did I just read? in a convenient package for exploration.

Let’s get the WTF’ery out of the way so we can move on to the good stuff. The two stories that were set in strange hotels, Comfort Lodge, Enigma Valley and Hotel Motel Holiday Inn just did not land for me at all. The second made a bit more sense than the first but neither worked for me. Of course, YMMV on both or either of those particular trips.

Three stories were misses – at least from my perspective. They weren’t bad, they just didn’t quite live up to their premise. Or something like that. The Light Long Lost at Sea was a bit too in medias res. There’s a world there with lots of interesting backstory but what we got was more of a teaser than a story with a satisfying ending. The Expedition Stops for the Evening at the Foot of the Mountain Pass had some of that same feel, like there was huge setup for the story somewhere else and we weren’t getting it. But we needed it. The Return of Grace Malfrey is one that had a fascinating premise that kind of fizzled out.

One story in the collection hit my real-o-meter a bit too sharply. That was Those Who Have Gone. It does get itself into the “did I find a hidden civilization or was I dreaming?” thing very, very well, but the way it got there was through a young woman on a scary desert trip with her 30something boyfriend who she is rightfully extremely afraid of. That part was so real it overwhelmed the fantasy place she fell into.

There were a bunch of stories that I liked as I was reading them, but just didn’t hit the top of my scale. They are still good, still enjoyable, and hit the right note between teasing their premise and satisfying it. In no particular order, these were Down in the Dim Kingdoms, An Account, by Dr. Inge Kuhn, of the Summer Expedition and Its Discoveries, Endosymbiosis and There, She Didn’t Need Air to Fill Her Lungs.

Last, but very much not least, the stories I plan to put on my Hugo Ballot next year, because they were utterly awesome. The Cleft of Bones by Kate Elliott, a story about slavery, revolution and rebirth as seen through the eyes of an absolutely fascinating character. The Voyage of Brenya by Carrie Vaughn, which is a story about gods and heroes and the way that stories turn into myths and legends. Out of the Dark by James L. Cambias, one of two space opera stories, this time about a corporate hegemonies, a salvage crew consisting of lifelong rivals, and a pre/post spacefaring civilization in which Doctor Who’s Leela would have been right at home.

Three stories were utter gems from start to finish. Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss, which consists entirely of a letter written to the afore-mentioned journal by three high school students who took the founding principles of the journal – that imaginary anthropology could create real countries – and ran with it all the way into Wikipedia, the nightly news, and a civil war that has captured one of their fathers somewhere that never should have existed in the first place.

The Orpheus Gate by Jonathan Maberry reaches back to the Golden Age of lost kingdom stories by taking the utterly science driven great granddaughter of Professor George Edward Challenger (hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) and putting her on a collision course with a friend of her great grandmother’s – a woman who challenges the scientist’s belief in everything rational and provable in order to force the young woman to finally open her mind to a truth she does not even want to imagine, let alone believe.

And finally, The Tomb Ship by Becky Chambers, which is a story about a loophole, about the evil that humans do in the name of a so-called ‘Greater Good’, and just how easy it is to fall into the trap and how hard it is to even think of a better way. Or even just a way that lets the protagonist sleep at night with a somewhat clear conscience. That it also feels like a tiny bit of an Easter Egg for The Outer Wilds was just the right icing on this gold-plated cake of a story.

Review; The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay

Review; The Misfit Soldier by Michael MammayThe Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Harper Voyager on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ocean's Eleven meets John Scalzi in this funny, action-filled, stand-alone sci-fi adventure from the author of Planetside, in which a small team of misfit soldiers takes on a mission that could change the entire galaxy.
Sergeant Gastovsky--Gas to everyone but his superior officers--never wanted to be a soldier. Far from it. But when a con goes wrong and he needs a place to lay low for a while, he finds himself wearing the power armor of the augmented infantry.
After three years on a six-year contract, Gas has found his groove running low-level cons and various illegal activities that make him good money on the side. He's the guy who can get you what you need. But he's always had his eye out for a big score--the one that might set him up for life after the military.
When one of his soldiers is left behind after a seemingly pointless battle, Gas sees his chance. He assembles a team of misfit soldiers that would push the term "ragtag" to its limits for a big con that leads them on a daring behind-the-lines mission, pitting him not only against enemy soldiers but against the top brass of his own organization.
If he pulls this off, not only will he save his squadmate, he might just become the legend he's always considered himself. He might also change the way the entire galaxy looks at this war. But for any of that to happen, he has to live through this insane plan.
And charm rarely stops bullets.

My Review:

The “misfit soldier” of this book’s title is just the kind of well-connected NCO who appears in lots of military stories, whether those stories are science fiction or not. Gas is an “operator” in his little fiefdom. He knows EVERYONE, and they ALL owe him favors. When we first get to know him, it seems like Gas is WAY more interested in his side hustles than he is in being a soldier.

(If you remember MAS*H, which was also an anti-war story told as a war story, Radar and Klinger were both operators of this type, as was the character of Sgt. Bilko from the 1996 movie and the 1950s TV show. The difference between Gas and Radar as The Misfit Soldier opens is that Gas (and Bilko) seemed to be out for themselves while Radar (and usually Klinger) were out to help their entire unit even if their methods were generally an end run around the snarl of official red tape.)

But as much as Gas seems to mostly have his eye on the main chance, that it appears that he’s more invested in adding to his post-military nest egg than he is carrying out his current military duties, he’s every bit as much invested in being a good sergeant. Maybe not “good” in the way that his superior officers would appreciate, but good in a way that the soldiers in his squad can count on.

In other words, he’s just as invested in taking care of his squad as he is in taking care of himself.

When one of his men gets left behind after yet another pointless battle on the shithole planet they are currently both orbiting and squabbling over, Gas is just as invested in going down to rescue the man as he is in his latest scheme.

Unless, of course, they are one and the same.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up with grabby hands long before the book came out because this is an author that I absolutely love and couldn’t wait to read his latest book. And I have to say that Sgt. Gas Gastovsky took me on a much wilder ride – with a much twistier ending – than I initially expected.

I also have to say, however, that I also felt a little bit of niggling disappointment. Not that The Misfit Soldier wasn’t an excellent military SF read – because it absolutely was – but because I discovered that I very much missed the universe-weary voice of Carl Butler, the protagonist of Mammay’s first three books, Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside.

Butler is kind of a blunt object, and I liked his self-awareness as well as his unwillingness to take any shit or put up with any bullshit. From anyone. It helps that Butler has enough rank to get away with that attitude at least some of the time.

Because Gas is more of a bullshitter, I didn’t enjoy his internal voice nearly as much. I still liked his story, but, unlike Butler, I wouldn’t want to have a drink with the man. If I shook his hand I’d be much too worried about getting all my fingers back afterwards. And I’d need to go in KNOWING that I’d be picking up the tab whether I intended to or not.

Howsomever, because Gas is such an operator, this ends up being a wheels-within-wheels type of story that spins along at a breakneck pace – even if the reader is so mesmerized by the spin that they aren’t able to figure out where Gas is going until the end. But that’s the whole point, after all.

A lot of this story is wrapped around following Gas’ as he, well, operates. He always has a plan inside a plan inside a plan, and a scheme inside a scheme, and the only true thing about Gas’ clandestine mission to save his soldier is that said soldier is stuck behind enemy lines. Everything else, Gas is making up as he goes along. Just like always. Or so it seems.

As much trouble as Gas gets himself – and his squad – into, and as much trouble as he has – and makes – getting them all out again, his scheming, wheeling and dealing conceals a keen mind and a much bigger plan than anyone, including the reader, ever expected. Watching that plan unfold is a lot of the fun of this book.

Which winds all the way back to that comparison to MASH early on. There’s a MASH meme going around right now that makes the point that war is worse than hell – because there are no innocents in hell. Gas Gastovsky’s plan, the scheme he’s been all in on under the radar and behind the backs of absolutely everyone – including the reader – is going to rub that exact same point in the face of everyone who has been selling all the justifications for the unjust and unnecessary war that Gas, his squad, and all the troops orbiting this dirtball planet have been fighting for no good reason whatsoever.

If he can manage to pull the insane thing off without getting himself – and his squad – killed.

That means that any reader of military SF who loves stories where just as it seems the grunts are utterly FUBAR’d they manage to pull yet one more half-baked plan out of their asses, screw the brass AND save the day is going to want to get in on the ground floor of Gas Gastovsky’s operation.

Review: Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

Review: Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina RatherSisters of the Forsaken Stars (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2) by Lina Rather
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita navigate the far reaches of space and challenges of faith in Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, the follow-up to Lina Rather's Sisters of the Vast Black, winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society Award.
“We lit the spark, maybe we should be here for the flames.”
Not long ago, Earth’s colonies and space stations threw off the yoke of planet Earth’s tyrannical rule. Decades later, trouble is brewing in the Four Systems, and Old Earth is flexing its power in a bid to regain control over its lost territories.
The Order of Saint Rita—whose mission is to provide aid and mercy to those in need—bore witness to and defied Central Governance’s atrocities on the remote planet Phyosonga III. The sisters have been running ever since, staying under the radar while still trying to honor their calling.
Despite the sisters’ secrecy, the story of their defiance is spreading like wildfire, spearheaded by a growing anti-Earth religious movement calling for revolution. Faced with staying silent or speaking up, the Order of Saint Rita must decide the role they will play—and what hand they will have—in reshaping the galaxy.

My Review:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

The quote is from W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. I went looking for the source of the line “the center cannot hold” and found this glorious thing and was absolutely gobsmacked. In a rather poetic nutshell, this is the story of Sisters of the Forsaken Stars writ even more gloriously than the book itself – which was pretty damn good indeed.

The overarching story of this duology (at least so far) that begin with the wonderful Sisters of the Vast Black, is the widening gyre that turns around the center of this Earth-based hegemony turned empire is that that very center that wants to be a control nexus for an entire galaxy, is not going to be able to hold. No matter how hard it tries and how much damage – both direct and collateral – it causes along its way.

The remaining sisters of the Order of Saint Rita have spent the past several months hiding on a series of backwater planets, hoping to put the tumultuous events of their rescue mission at Phoyongsa III behind them. That story is told in Sisters of the Vast Black. They are desperately hoping that Earth Central Governance has lost interest in finding them.

Even though they know that hope is in vain, because the secret they are keeping is just too big to hide.

On Phoyongsa III the sisters discovered that the ringeye plague that is the scourge of the colonial planets is not a naturally occurring disease. Instead, ringeye is the actual blood-dimmed tide from the poem, and Earth Central Governance releases it deliberately on colony planets that have become either desirable or rebellious to the central authority they are intent on re-establishing.

It’s a secret that carries within it the seeds for rebellion. A rebellion that will be planted on fertile ground, as the remote colony planets have zero desire to submit to Earth Central Governance again after decades of relative freedom and independence.

It’s a rebellion that the sisters of St. Rita have neither the desire nor the conviction to become a part of. But there are plenty of others, full of passionate intensity, eager to fan the flames of war.

Escape Rating A-: What is making this series so special is a bit more in the implications than in what is actually on the page, which may not quite make sense but nevertheless feels true. On the surface, this is still OMG nuns in space, but not done for laughs any more than last year’s We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep took the idea of a monastery on a submarine for laughs. There be kraken hidden in both stories.

The crisis of faith among the nuns, especially the new Abbess of their little breakaway order sometimes take away from the action and yet feel necessary to the development of the story. At the same time, the mundanities of keeping a ship on the run from authority will remind readers of Firefly while the liveship feels like a taste of Farscape.

And the scenario of the central governance reasserting control and the colony planets’ reluctance manages to take a page from A Memory Called Empire while also reading very much like every real world scenario of a central organization with branches. Because the thoughts and opinions in that familiar set up ring very true. People at the center think they are superior by virtue of being at the center; people in the colonies are certain that the central authority is irrelevant at best, tyrannical at worst, and utterly clueless about what life outside the center is like. (If this sounds like it echoes recent political discourse about “flyover states” that’s probably not accidental.

Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, and its predecessor Sisters of the Vast Black, are stories that fascinated me in all the ways they take the surprising set up and project it out into a far flung star empire while the individual characters didn’t get quite enough development for me to be hooked into them as individuals – only into the story they told as a whole.

But that hook into the story as a whole set deep. This story ends much as the first one did, the immediate crisis has been dealt with – mostly by being escaped from – but with their long term course and consequences still very much in doubt.

I hope there’s a next book, because I want to see where those consequences lead.

Review: Mickey7 by Edward Ashton

Review: Mickey7 by Edward AshtonMickey7 by Edward Ashton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Mickey7, an "expendable," refuses to let his replacement clone Mickey8 take his place.
Dying isn’t any fun…but at least it’s a living.
Mickey7 is an Expendable: a disposable employee on a human expedition sent to colonize the ice world Niflheim. Whenever there’s a mission that’s too dangerous—even suicidal—the crew turns to Mickey. After one iteration dies, a new body is regenerated with most of his memories intact. After six deaths, Mickey7 understands the terms of his deal…and why it was the only colonial position unfilled when he took it.
On a fairly routine scouting mission, Mickey7 goes missing and is presumed dead. By the time he returns to the colony base, surprisingly helped back by native life, Mickey7’s fate has been sealed. There’s a new clone, Mickey8, reporting for Expendable duties. The idea of duplicate Expendables is universally loathed, and if caught, they will likely be thrown into the recycler for protein.
Mickey7 must keep his double a secret from the rest of the colony. Meanwhile, life on Niflheim is getting worse. The atmosphere is unsuitable for humans, food is in short supply, and terraforming is going poorly. The native species are growing curious about their new neighbors, and that curiosity has Commander Marshall very afraid. Ultimately, the survival of both lifeforms will come down to Mickey7.
That is, if he can just keep from dying for good.

My Review:

At first, Mickey7 feels like it’s being played for the laughs. And it is. But it also isn’t. And thereby, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.

When we first meet Mickey, he’s in his seventh iteration as his colony’s one and only “Expendable.” It’s Mickey’s job to go out and die, and he’s about to do it again. Hence his designation as “Mickey7”.

Mickey Barnes contracted with the colony ship out of desperation, to leave his home planet. The problem with being as desperate as Mickey was is that when you’re all out of options you’re left with damn few choices. In this case, only one. He can either stay on Earth and die at the hands of the gangsters who are chasing him – or he can join the crew headed off to Niflheim to die over and over but rise, not out of his own ashes but out of a combination of advanced 3D printing and memory uploading in a new body while still feeling more or less like his old self.

But Mickey7, after several previous “rebirths”, doesn’t hold his own life nearly as cheaply as his crewmates do. He has learned that coming back from the dead is no fun at all and he’d rather avoid it if at all possible.

His current mission looks like an unrecoverable failure to his supposed “best friend” who just plain does not want to go to the trouble of searching for Mickey7 on this hellish iceball of a planet. In spite of the odds, Mickey7 gets himself out of the frozen pickle he’s been dropped into, but when he returns to base he learns that his so-called friend has already reported him dead.

Mickey8 has already been created in a struggling colony that literally isn’t big enough for the both of them. There’s not enough rations to feed two Mickeys. One of them will have to go.

But neither of them wants to.

And that’s where things get both comedic and interesting. In the sense of the old SFnal movie Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton clones himself and all the clones are a bit different. Mickey8 is a bit of a user and a slacker, especially in comparison to Mickey7. His clone is his own worst enemy – and too many people are starting to notice.

One or both of them are going to end up in the recycler if this keeps up. Unless they put their heads together and find another way.

Escape Rating A-: While the opening leads the reader to take the story as a bit of a joke, once it gets going it’s clear that it’s not. At all. Not that there aren’t some funny bits – especially when the Mickeys are arguing with each other – but the story overall pokes at a whole bunch of serious issues. It’s just that the “spoonful of sugar” of the humor makes the lessons go down a bit more easily.

The issues that the story raises call back to a lot of things that are often glossed over in SF, so when they hit they hit with a bit of a punch. Mickey, all the Mickeys, raise questions about what it means to be, not necessarily to be human but to be a person. A self-aware, sentient, sapient being.

Mickey’s issues are the same ones dealt with in Day Zero, where the robots grapple with their personhood vs. their programming, wondering “if this unit has a soul”. Both Mickey7 and Day Zero reference the famous problem in the metaphysics of identity known as the “Ship of Theseus”. The question of whether an object that has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object – or not.

At the same time Mickey7 is wrapped around the central issue of the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” which premiered OMG 33 years ago this week. It’s the one where Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he an object to be owned because he was constructed rather than born? Is he a slave to be exploited? Or is he a person in his own right – with his own rights? Those same questions apply to the Mickeys every bit as much as they do to Data.

But this is a colony story, and it deals a bit, although not in as much depth, with the questions that colony stories often gloss over. It’s not fictionally possible – and it’s not likely possible in reality when we get there – that all the “golden worlds” that colony ships set out for are actually going to be golden. And that it’s not going to be half as simple and easy to fix what’s wrong as it turns out to be in Mass Effect Andromeda – for certain very dangerous and strenuous definitions of “easy”. Niflheim is one of those worlds that may not ever be truly viable. And it’s not going to be a quick and easy solution – or even a quick and painful massacre – for that situation to be resolved one way or another. The terrible slog of trying to make it work is more painfully evident here than we usually see in colonization SF.

As heartbreaking as the colony’s inevitable failure might be, the situation they are in also addresses an issue that usually gets swept away by “manifest destiny” and/or scenarios where planets were seeded with humans by a divine or omnipotent or extremely technologically advanced species so that questions of adaptation and cultural repression can get swept under the carpet.

Instead, we have a situation that, oddly enough, resembles the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Home Soil”, where there is life on Niflheim, it looks nothing like us, acts nothing like us and communicates nothing like us. (In that episode, the silicon based life referred to humans as “ugly bags of mostly water”. Which is technically true in all its parts.

It’s the ugly that gets displayed in Mickey7, as the commander of the colony plans to pretend the discovery never happened – and commit genocide if necessary to ensure that no evidence is left behind. That the Mickeys come up with an ingenious solution to the problem that relies on their dual nature is what redeems this story from farce to something a whole lot more thoughtful and interesting.

And yet never negates the fact that the thing is a whole lot of hair-raising fun to read!

Review: Love Code by Ann Aguirre

Review: Love Code by Ann AguirreLove Code (Galactic Love #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Galactic Love #2
Pages: 324
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

He's cute. He's cranky. His code is sleek as hell.What's an amnesiac AI doing in a place like this? Helix has no idea. He knows he planned to build a life for himself on Gravas Station, but he has no clue what he's been doing for the last half cycle. Nor does he understand why his ship crashed. A genius Tiralan scientist saved him by copying his code into an organic host, and after meeting her meddling mothers, it seems like his problems have only just begun...
She's clever. She's creative. She claims that he's her mate.Qalu has no interest in relationships. She'd much rather be working in her lab, innovating instead of socializing. Problem is, the Tiralan believe that one cannot be happy alone. When a solution literally falls from the sky, she leaps at the opportunity to advance her research and teach Helix how to be Tiralan while calming her mothers' fears. It might be unconventional, but she's ready to break all the rules for a little peace.
They agree to pose as each other's mates for the most logical reasons, but love always finds a way.

My Review:

Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Data wanted to experience what it meant to be human. Howsomever, Helix, the self-aware, self-willed and occasionally downright deceptive AI of Strange Love had no desire to experience “meat space”.

So of course he gets what he absolutely did not wish for. The chance to experience “life” in a mostly organic body. And in a case of karma being a bitch galaxy-wide, his program has been deposited into an organic construct on Tiralan. He knows plenty about Tiralan history, customs and behavior because he fabricated a Tiralan identity in order to lure his friend Zylar off of Baranth, through an equally fabricated data glitch so that he could get the shy, self-effacing Baranthi to Earth where his friend had the best chance of meeting someone who would be willing to go through his planet’s Mating Trials with him.

That was the story in the first book in this series, Strange Love. And it’s absolutely marvelous, so if you like science fiction romance or alien romance at all – read it before picking up Love Code.

By the end of Strange Love, Helix the rather conniving AI had become self-aware, sentient and even sapient – making him too much AI to get around the laws of Baranth. So Zylar set Helix free and on his way to a place where he might be safe to explore his own destiny, while untethering the AI from the shit that is just about to hit Zylar’s personal fan.

The best laid plans and all that meant that Helix crash landed on Tiralan instead, to be rescued by Qalu, a femme Tiralan cybernetic engineer who was experimenting with placing AI consciousness into mostly organic constructed bodies. Who just so happens to have the perfect body all ready for her to transplant Helix’ code into.

Well, it’s perfect from her perspective. The body she designed is ready in an engineering sense, as well as fully functional and perfectly designed to trip every single one of her triggers. After all, even in the ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, that long ago sculptor didn’t design nor fall in love with an ugly statue.

When Helix recovers from the surgery/transplant/metamorphosis, he has a difficult time adjusting to his new circumstances. He’s never experienced ANYTHING to do with having a meat space body made of real meat. The scene where Qalu has to explain hunger, eating, and the inevitable result of the latter is a marvel of cringing hilarity.

The story here is initially about the dovetailing – you might almost call it fated – of Qalu’s needs with Helix’. Helix needs a safe place to learn and recover – both his newly physical self and the puzzling gaps in his memory. Qalu needs to evaluate the results of her experiment – which is after all her life’s work.

More immediately, she also needs a fake potential mate to fend off the well-meaning interference of her four mothers, all of whom want Qalu to find a nice partner or two or three (love groups are the usual form of family on Tiralan), stop spending so much time alone in her laboratory or with her pet Pherzul Aevi (think intelligent, talking cat – which may not be strictly correct but works anyway).

So Helix and Qalu – with Aevi’s agreement – choose to tell a bit of a white lie. But just as their fake relationship tilts towards a actual one, reality rears its ugly head. A bounty hunter has come to Tiralan, chasing Helix. Possibly just for existing as a self-aware AI, but more likely for something Helix did before he crashed on Qalu’s doorstep.

It’s time for them to run, in the hopes of escaping whatever is dogging Helix’ heels. It’s already too late for them to run from each other – no matter how much Helix believes that they should.

Escape Rating B+: While Love Code wasn’t quite as much fun as the first book in the trilogy, Strange Love, it was still an awful lot of fun. Which is exactly what I was looking for as yesterday’s book wasn’t quite up to its series and the book I planned to review today just wasn’t working for me. It happens.

I loved Strange Love so much that I was reasonably sure that I’d have a good reading time with Qalu and Helix – and I was NOT disappointed.

Howsomever, the planet Tiralan turned out to be a surprising place for a meet-cute and a fake relationship type of romance – especially with the fascinating issues of power dynamics and informed vs. forced consent in all their permutations.

Helix is very much in the experimental stage with his new and initially unwelcome body and all of its many sensations – not all of which are pleasurable or even seemly from his perspective. He’s learning, he’s trying, he’s adapting and he’s confused more often than not. He also doesn’t know what either attraction or love feel like. So he doesn’t recognize those feelings when they start happening to him.

Qalu knows what she wants, and also knows that it would be unethical for her to reach for it. Or rather, reach for Helix, the way that she wants to. She recognizes that he’s dependent on her on Tiralan.

But when they go on the run, the situation changes. Helix has traveled the stars. He may be in a meat space body now, but he knows how to act and react and has lots of information to help them on their clandestine journey.

Now Qalu is lost. She’s always stuck close to home, not just the planet but her own homespaces. She’s scared, she feels inadequate and useless, and she’s homesick. So is Aevi. Qalu doesn’t know how to help and fears she’s an actual hindrance that Helix will eventually leave behind. (She kind of regrets that she made him so very handsome for their species!)

What makes this story work so well is the way that their power dynamics shift, and the way that they both adapt in spite of so many things standing – sometimes literally – in their way.

The story in Love Code ended up being a bit more of a straightforward romance than Strange Love, which is probably why I liked Strange Love a bit more. I enjoyed the journey of exploration of this new universe as much as I did the romance. But I definitely had a good reading time with Helix and Qalu so I’m glad I was able to follow up with this series so quickly.

The final book in the series, Renegade Love, is set up in this book, just as this one turned out to be set up in the first book. And I am so looking forward to reading it!