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!

Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Elder Race by Adrian TchaikovskyElder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Adrian Tchaikovsky's Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.
Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.
But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).
But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

My Review:

No one believes there really is a demon attacking the borders of her mother’s kingdom, except for the Queen’s frequently ignored fourth daughter. Because Lynesse, the disrespected and disregarded Fourth Daughter of the Queen, believes in the old hero tales of her ancestors. So when a demon attacks the borders of the kingdom, Lynesse goes to the tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the great sorcerer who helped her great-grandmother defeat a demon over a century ago.

Because Nyrgoth, rather foolishly in his own opinion, promised Astresse that if she, or any descendants of her line, called upon him in his remote tower and requested his aid, he would answer. Even though he knows he shouldn’t.

Even though he secretly hoped that she would come herself, and soon, to rescue him from his profound loneliness. Just before he went back into the deepest of sleeps for another century, only to be awakened by the great-granddaughter of the woman he loved to face a promise he should never have made.

If this sounds like fantasy, it is. But it’s also science fiction, part of a long and storied list of works where Earth seeded other planets by sending out colony ships to far distant worlds – and then forgot about them, one way or another.

And those colony worlds, either deliberately or through the fullness of time, distance and absence, forgot that once upon a time their ancestors traveled the stars.

Like Pern, and Darkover, and Harmony and Celta, among many others, the descendants of those colonists lost the knowledge of how to use the high-tech that brought them, or deliberately buried that aspect of their history, until something happens to remind them. Either by discovering the wreck of the original ship, as occurred in both Pern and Celta, by rediscovering the documentation, a la Harmony, or by Earth ships returning to reclaim their lost colony – only to learn that their supposedly lost colony wants little or nothing to do with them, as was the case in Darkover.

Elder Race represents an entirely different possibility, one that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Who Watches the Watchers”, where a Federation science outpost is observing a proto-Vulcan culture as an anthropological study. The planetary inhabitants are not supposed to know they’re being watched, but technology glitches and damage control ensues in an attempt to minimize the cultural contamination that was never supposed to have happened in the first place.

Nyrgoth, actually Anthropologist Second Class Nyr Illim Tevitch, takes the place of the Federation in Elder Race. Earth sent a team of sociologists and anthropologists to Sophos 4 to observe the progress of the colony that had been implanted centuries before, had no knowledge of their high-tech origins, and had returned to a much lower level of technology than the one they came from.

But his team returned to Earth centuries ago. As often happens in lost colony stories, Earth was in a crisis and sent a recall. Nyr was left behind, in the belief that his teammates would return in the not too distant future. Which hasn’t happened yet and Nyr no longer has any expectation that it ever will.

He’s done his best to maintain his mission. Except that one time when Astresse banged on the door of his tower, dragged him out of said tower to fix something that was a direct result of the high-tech left behind by the original colonization, and pretty much broke his heart when she went to rule her now-safe kingdom and he took himself back to his lonely tower because that was what he was supposed to do.

Now one of Astresse’s descendants has banged on his door, intending to remind him of his promise but inadvertently reminding him that he’s all alone on this world and that his choices are limited to putting himself out of his own misery, going mad with loneliness, or admitting that his mission is over and it’s time to join the world he has instead of mourning for the one that has forgotten him.

If he can just find a way to get rid of this pesky bit of hybrid technology that is masquerading as a demon, before the situation gets more FUBAR’d than it already is..

Escape Rating A+: The story in   alternates from fantasy to SF and back again as it switches its point of view from Lynesse to Nyr and we see from inside their heads how vastly different their worldviews are.

But no matter whose eyes we’re using to see the world, their emotional landscape is surprisingly similar while being not just miles but actually lightyears apart at the same time. There’s a point in the story where Nyr attempts to tell Lynesse the unvarnished truth about her world and his place in it, but the chasm between their respective understandings is so huge that no matter what he says, she still hears his story in the terms that she understands, terms of myth and legend, tales of heroes and demons, and magic capable of changing or destroying her world.

While Nyr is constantly aware that the only magic he is capable of is of the Clarke variety, the kind that “all technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from.”

In the end, this felt like a story about opposing beliefs and perceptions. She believes he’s a great wizard. He believes he’s a second-class and second-rate anthropologist. She believes he’s a hero out of legend. He believes that she’s the hero and that he’s a faker, a failure, or both. She believes that he can save her people, because she’s not capable of doing it herself. He believes that she’s every bit the hero that her great-grandmother was, and that he’s just along for the ride.

They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. They are also both, in spite of appearances, very, very human.

One of the best things about this story is the way that they manage to save the day, fight their own demons, and ultimately develop a strong and sustaining friendship that never trips over the line into the possibility of romance. Because it really, really shouldn’t. They’re too far apart and too unequal in too many ways for that to work. Instead, they hesitantly reach towards a friendship that is strong and true and forged in fire – and looks to be the saving of each of them.

And it’s a terrific read that manages to be both perfect in its relatively short length while still leaving the reader wishing there were more.

Review: Insurrection by Nina Croft

Review: Insurrection by Nina CroftInsurrection by Nina Croft
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera, vampires
Series: Dark Desires Origins #3
Pages: 384
Published by Entangled: Amara on October 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Malpheas is one of the most powerful demons from Earth, but when he wakes up from cryo on the other side of the galaxy, he notices something is wrong—he’s human. Oh, hell no. In order to get his powers back, he must remove the sigil on his arm by carrying out three good deeds. But acts of kindness aren’t exactly his strong suit. Working undercover as a security officer investigating a suspicious death, he’s assigned to work with Hope, the most softhearted woman he’s ever met. If she can’t teach him how to be good, no one can.
Hope is in a pot of trouble, and if anyone finds out what she did, that pot would quickly boil over. She just needs to lay low until she can figure out a way to fix this mess. But when she’s ordered to show Mal the ropes and introduce him to everyone, sorting out her problems becomes impossible. Mal is sexy as sin, broody as hell, and believes she can help him change his bad-boy ways. Fine. If that keeps him from discovering her ties to the rebellion, she’ll teach him how to be a perfect angel.
As they work together, though, it becomes clear that Hope isn’t the only one with a hidden agenda, and their irresistible attraction to each other just adds fuel to the fire. When secrets are exposed, they must make the impossible choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary.
Light meets dark, good meets evil…and love can hurt like Hell.

My Review:

At the end of Insurrection, it feels a bit like the circle just got squared. Or it feels like the series has either come to a conclusion or is headed for one. It kind of depends on whether you boarded the ship on the way to the Trakis system at the beginning of the Dark Desires Origins series in Malfunction, or whether you’ve been aboard for the whole wild ride starting at the very beginning in Break Out.

Because at the end of Insurrection, while we aren’t exactly where we were at the opening of Break Out, we can certainly see that beginning from here. The pieces that we picked up then are just about in place now, which makes a certain kind of sense as the Dark Desires Origins series, which began with Malfunction and was followed by Deception, seems to be heading towards its conclusion here in Insurrection.

Break Out, the first book of the Dark Desires series, takes place several centuries after the events in Insurrection. Events that are so far back in the rearview mirror that they’ve taken on the patina of myths and legends – even though Rico Sanchez lived through it all, as we’ve seen in this prequel series.

But then Rico has lived through a LOT of human history – even though he is no longer exactly human himself, and hasn’t been since the Spanish Inquisition. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition in the first place, even less do they expect to meet a vampire who began hunting the night at that same time.

The premise behind the entire Dark Desires and Dark Desires Origins series is that Earth was well on its way to becoming uninhabitable, so a fleet of sleeper ships left the dying planet for what would hopefully be greener pastures.

Or at least pastures less fucked up by humans. At least not yet.

In the series that seems to conclude with Insurrection (I could be wrong about this being the conclusion but it feels close) we watched the maneuvering and the finagling, the bribery and the theft, as the places that should have been assigned by lottery were instead filled with the rich and the powerful. While Rico Sanchez bought, bribed or murdered his way into filling half of one ship with his own people. Not just vampires, but also shapeshifters and other things that go bump in the night, including one warlock (his story is in Deception) and one of the seven lords of the Abyss, more colloquially called Hell.

The demon Malpheas just so happens to be the warlock’s father. True to his demonic nature, Malpheas is used to getting his own way, reigning from the top of the heap, and killing anyone who gets in his way. In other words, he’s an entitled alphahole with the power to back it up.

Power he has been cut off from by the time Rico wakes him from cryosleep at the beginning of Insurrection. Malpheas has to commit three “good deeds”, definition rather nebulous, before he’ll have access to all his powers again. The curse he has to labor under is one last “present” from his old frenemy Lucifer.

All Mal has to do is figure out what “good” means, keep the humans on the other ships from discovering just what Rico has been hiding aboard his own ship, and plot and scheme to take over everything once he’s managed to beat the curse.

Unless Mal learns the lesson that his curse is trying to teach him, first.

Escape Rating A-: Now that I’ve finished Insurrection I have the strongest urge to go back and reread the expanded version of Break Out again. It feels so much like this story puts all the pieces in place for that one, and I want to check just how well it did.

This also feels like a great place to end the Dark Desires Origins prequel series, as we’ve seen in detail just how much the humans of the Trakis expedition brought humanity with them, very much warts and all. Readers who began this journey with Malfunction will leave Insurrection primed and ready to see where things have ended up by the time of Break Out, while readers who boarded this flight there will be sorely tempted to see how well the ends meet.

I’m not sure that readers who start here will be completely satisfied. On the other hand, their appetites may be whetted well enough to tempt them to read the entire series from start to finish!

In addition to all of the historical and human – or human-ish – pieces being put in place for the story to continue in that already explored future, one of the reasons that this story read like so much a part of the original book was that both deal explicitly with the problems not of mortality but of immortality.

The process that is discovered on Trakis Seven makes people practically immortal, just as Rico’s vampirism does. People who have gone through the process CAN be killed – decapitation is always an option – but don’t die from disease or accidents or even extreme old age.

The problem with immortality is that the human lifespan is meant to be finite. Psychologically, we need purpose and surprise and a whole bunch of other things that stop being important if one knows one literally has all the time in the universe. Time enough to have been there and done that for every possible thing one could be or do. It gets boring.

In Break Out, Rico may be a bit bored, but the people who have gone through the Trakis immortality treatment are getting really, really bored. And jaded. Just as the immortal demon, Malpheas has gotten bored and jaded with his already extremely long life.

So the romance in this story is wrapped around Malpheas experiencing the old curse of “may you live in interesting times.” As an immortal demon with all his powers, he can make whatever and whoever he wants happen. Nothing is interesting. With his powers locked away, he’s just human. A big, strong, and very sexy human, but human nonetheless. Everything is frustrating. Everything is weird. Everything is fascinating. His times are suddenly very interesting indeed in a way that he hasn’t experienced for a very long time. For Malpheas, the curse has become a blessing.

And the biggest part of the blessing is Hope Featherstone. Not just because she’s nice and she’s pretty, but because she’s real and so are all her emotions. She may want the big, sexy beast, but she doesn’t actually like him all that much. She also finds him surprisingly resistible, and that’s something Mal has never experienced in his life. He has to become a better person to have a chance with her.

That he discovers that she’s not nearly as good as she appears makes them perfect for each other. Now they just have to survive the mess that both their secrets have gotten them into. And get themselves as far away as possible from the brave new world being established – because it’s already every bit as FUBAR’d as the old world they left behind.

Because of the situation on Trakis Four at the end of this book, this feels like the end of the Dark Desires Origins series. But it may not actually be the end. It was great fun to go back to the beginning, to see how the situation we saw in Break Out came to be, with paranormal beings from Earth flying spaceships in a far-flung corner of the galaxy. I never expected to read about vampires in space but I’m certainly glad I did.

This was a fitting sendoff for the whole thing, as not only do we see how things got to be the way they were, but the ending puts a fair amount of focus back on the character most of us fell for at the beginning, vampire and captain Rico Sanchez. It’s been an exciting ride from beginning to end, and I’m glad I took the trip.

If the author ever chooses to return to this universe I’ll be right there.