Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji

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

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

My Review: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

Except, that’s not exactly what happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboYou Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Farscape meets The Great British Bake Off in this fantastic space opera You Sexy Thing from former SFWA President, Cat Rambo.
Just when they thought they were out...
TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that's just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it.
Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance.
But, some wars can't ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren't content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive.

My Review:

This one gave me an earworm. And as a song from just two years later proclaimed, “It’s my own damn fault.” (I’m also experiencing one of those terrible moments when it slaps you upside the head that the 1970s weren’t 20 or 30 years ago but 40 going on 50 years ago.)

“I believe in miracles” is the first line from a 1975 hit by the British band Hot Chocolate. The title of the song is, you guessed it, “You Sexy Thing”. In this particular story, it’s also the name of a self-aware, sentient, sapient bioship.

A ship that thinks it’s being stolen because of that “I believe in miracles” password, given to retired Admiral Niko Larson by the ship’s once-and-future owner. A man who will hopefully be a bit less of a douchecanoe in his next incarnation.

No, he’s not King Arthur, or any kind of hero whatsoever. He’s just a rich, self-indulgent asshat who has paid for the kind of quasi immortality you can buy in an SFnal universe where cloning and downloading one’s consciousness is a thing. Not a sexy thing, but an expensive thing. The kind of thing that is very do-able with enough money.

Niko and her crew are on the run. Not because they’re criminals, but because TwiceFar Station, where they have been operating The Last Chance Restaurant since they managed to leave the military service of the Holy Hive Mind, has just been destroyed as collateral damage in the neverending game played by a race called the Arranti.

It’s what the Arranti do. And it has set Niko’s plans back by years if not decades as the crew scrambles to grab what they can and get off the station while they can. Along with everyone else who isn’t dead yet.

Once aboard the Thing, things start happening. Or rather, things are revealed. The ship is taking them to a prison planet, where their stories will be officially judged. They’re not actually worried, because they’re telling the truth about how they acquired the ship. Not that they don’t have plenty of secrets – just that THAT isn’t one of them.

But there are plenty of secrets aboard just the same. Secrets that are about to bite Niko and her crew in the ass. Because the hijacked ship is being hijacked again, this time for real. And it’s taking Niko and her crew back to the site of her greatest failure, in the domain of her greatest enemy.

A man with a long reach, and an obsessive desire to make Niko pay for even attempting to “steal” something that he had declared was his. Even if he had to twist it beyond almost all recognition to make it so.

Escape Rating A-: There are two stories aboard the Thing. One is an adrenaline-inducing tale of torture and death with little chance of escape, and the other is a sort of Great British Bake Off in space where everyone aboard has the opportunity to learn to cook – including the ship! – while they all figure out who they want to be – and who they want to be with – when they “grow up”.

Not that they are not all adults – more or less – but as a group of people who have spent most of their adult lives either in military service or on the run or both there haven’t been many opportunities for any of them to figure out what they want in life when they’re not either chasing an impossible goal or running from an enemy.

Or both, all too frequently, both.

The heartwarming parts of this story, the bits about figuring out their places in the universe and with each other, are lovely and sweet and a whole lot of fun. One of the best parts is the way that they all treat the ship as another member of their crew and the Thing gets to experience quite a bit of self-actualization along with everyone else. The ship’s perspectives on events – including their thoughts about their own journey, are terrific. I could have been immersed in those parts of the story forever.

The other part of the narrative is what happens after their arrival in the den of that sadistic pirate. The circumstances were obviously terrible. The reason for all that terribleness was even more terrible. What happens there is yet more terrible again.

The danger there is ramped up to 11 and the torment of envisioning how much worse it’s going to get is even, well, worse. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as the parts of the story about all of them cooking together is heartwarming.

I have to say that something about the villainy of the villain didn’t quite work for me. Not in the sense that I didn’t feel their danger, not even in the sense that I didn’t get his motivations – or not exactly. After all, even villains believe that they are the heroes of their own stories.

He just didn’t feel like a person. He was more of a cartoon villain, a supervillain who was consumed with his revenge obsession. He tipped over the top of the villain scale into bwahaha territory. It’s not that he wasn’t a real threat – because he most definitely was – but that he didn’t feel like a real character.

The ship read as more of a real character than the villain did. Also as more of a real character than the ship Moya does in Farscape, I think because we hear the Thing’s comments directly and not through an interpreter.

In the end, as much as the two parts of this story didn’t quite gel, I did enjoy reading about Niko and her crew and I’m terribly curious about what happens next as they jump out of the frying pan and into the fire yet again. So I’ll be back next summer when their (mis)adventures continue in Devil’s Gun. I have a feeling that’s just what they’re going to find – and that it will probably be aimed straight at them.

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: 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: 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!

Review: Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

Review: Strange Love by Ann AguirreStrange Love (Galactic Love #1) 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 #1
Pages: 304
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 20, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

He's awkward. He's adorable. He's alien as hell.Zylar of Kith Balak is a four-time loser in the annual Choosing. If he fails to find a nest guardian this time, he'll lose his chance to have a mate for all time. Desperation drives him to try a matching service but due to a freak solar flare and a severely malfunctioning ship AI, things go way off course. This 'human being' is not the Tiralan match he was looking for.
She's frazzled. She's fierce. She's from St. Louis.Beryl Bowman's mother always said she'd never get married. She should have added a rider about the husband being human. Who would have ever thought that working at the Sunshine Angel daycare center would offer such interstellar prestige? She doesn't know what the hell's going on, but a new life awaits on Barath Colony, where she can have any alien bachelor she wants.
They agree to join the Choosing together, but love is about to get seriously strange.

My Review:

“We like someone because. We love someone although.” Or so goes the quote. Another way of putting it as far as Strange Love is concerned, wraps around the question about where does love spring from? Does it come from the heart, from the brain, or from somewhere below the waist?

Is it possible for Beryl Bowman and Zylar of Kith Balak to fall in love with each other and make a strong partnership, although they are not from the same planet, they don’t breathe the same air, and their anatomical parts do not line up AT ALL?

Their people even took different evolutionary paths. Humans evolved from mammals and share common ancestors with the great apes, way, way, way back when. Zylar’s people seem to have evolved from something insectoid, also way, way, way back when. And on the other hand, or grabber, or limb, or whatever other species call it, Zylar’s people managed planetary unity and intergalactic space flight quite some time ago, while we’re definitely not there yet.

Garrus Vakarian from Mass Effect

I went into this story because I wanted to see that happy ever after in spite of all the factors that would argue against it even being possible. That predisposition to see them make it work can be laid at the door of the Mass Effect trilogy and the possible romance (if you chose it) of a female Commander Shepard and the Turian Garrus Vakarian. Whose people also evolved from their planet’s insectoids, and who may give great voice (he really does) but otherwise isn’t anatomically compatible with the human Shepard.

And yet, it’s the sweetest romance in the game (IMHO) and I wish they’d gotten their HEA (There is no HEA no matter which romance you choose because reasons.) So I went into Strange Love hoping for a vicarious happy ending for that epic tragic romance.

I got EXACTLY what I was hoping for. With bells on!

Escape Rating A: The romance in Strange Love combines a “meet cute” – for intergalactic definitions of that phrase – with a version of the TV shows The Bachelor AND The Bachelorette combined into a multi-day gladiatorial contest. A contest which it is possible to “win” but still lose at the same time.

To mix SFnal metaphors even further, it’s as if the Vulcan mating ceremony from the Star Trek Original Series episode Amok Time or the Next Generation episode Code of Honor involved multiple potential couples in a competition for both parties rather than only one side of the potential partnership being decided by a fight to the death.

The Strange Love that arises between Beryl and Zylar is also a romance between a “beta” male who has been told all of his life by his family that he is just not good enough in any possible way – especially in comparison to his alphahole sibling Ryzven. Zylar has HUGE confidence issues – and understandably so.

Beryl, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels the fear and does it anyway. She leaps and hopes the net will appear, but even if it doesn’t, she’ll survive. Not that life hasn’t also beaten her down, but her reaction to that metaphorical beating has been to pick herself up, dust herself off, and survive. She fakes it till she makes it, and if she doesn’t really think she’s made it no one else has to know.

It’s a confidence she can pass to Zylar – if he’ll let her. If his family will let them try. And that’s the story – the two of them trying to survive the Choosing, together, and win his family’s grudging acceptance if not approval. If they can.

That they manage to give his alphahole sibling the comeuppance he so richly deserved is the icing on the cake. Bittersweet icing, as the douchecanoe manages to do a LOT of damage along his selfish, self-centered, spoiled and self-indulgent way.

That Zylar and Beryl learn that love can be found in the strangest places with the strangest people makes Strange Love a strange and wonderful story. That Beryl’s “bestest boy” dog Snaps learns to talk and becomes part of their strange little family made the story, which was already lovely and exactly what I was hoping it would be – just that much better.

Strange Love is the first book in what looks to be a marvelous series. I bought the whole thing, and now I can’t wait to start reading the next book, Love Code, the minute I get the chance!