A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles  by Malka OlderThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles (Mossa & Pleiti, #2) by Malka Ann Older
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera, steampunk
Series: Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Investigator Mossa and Scholar Pleiti reunite to solve a brand-new mystery in the follow-up to the fan-favorite cozy space opera detective mystery The Mimicking of Known Successes that Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders called “an utter triumph.”
Mossa has returned to Valdegeld on a missing person’s case, for which she’ll once again need Pleiti’s insight.
Seventeen students and staff members have disappeared from Valdegeld University—yet no one has noticed. The answers to this case could be found in the outer reaches of the Jovian system—Mossa’s home—and the history of Jupiter’s original settlements. But Pleiti’s faith in her life’s work as scholar of the past has grown precarious, and this new case threatens to further destabilize her dreams for humanity’s future, as well as her own.

My Review:

Like the opening of the first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, in this delightful steampunk-y, space opera-ish, not-exactly-dark academic mystery series, this second entry begins not with the discovery of a dead body as most mysteries do, but rather with the disappearance and presumed deaths of a whole bunch of bodies.

But presumption, like assumption, involves drawing conclusions that may or may not be born out by evidence. Evidence that the still mysterious Investigator Mossa is determined to collect. Possibly, she’s driven to go that extra bit as an excuse to visit with her now on-again lover Scholar Pleiti at the University at Valdegeld.

Entirely too many of those missing bodies are/were students at the University, and Mossa isn’t above using that connection as an excuse to visit Pleiti AND involve her in her work. Again. Just as she did in their first adventure.

A lot of people DO go missing on Giant – otherwise known as Jupiter. The architecture of the colony, which is made up by rings of platforms stationed around the gas giant, leaves a lot of room for both accidental and on-purpose plummets to death and destruction, whether self-induced or pushed. Searching for missing persons is consequently the raison d’être of the Investigators, of whom Mossa is a part.

But the number of missing has jumped to a degree that is statistically implausible, leading Mossa to an in-person search for those missing. Some of them will be found perfectly safe, because that happens all-too-frequently.

The question in Mossa’s inquisitive mind is whether those findings will bring the number down to something reasonable. She doesn’t believe so. And she’s right.

While Mossa is looking into missing bodies, Pleiti is dealing with a body that has been found. The mad scholar/scientist that Mossa and Pleiti pursued in that first book, the man who pointed out that all of the busy research of the university was merely the ‘mimicking of known successes’ and had little chance of ever coming to fruition, the once respected rector of the university who may have derailed the university’s entire reason for being for centuries, has been found. Or at least his corpse has been.

But the effects of that death, and the events that led up to it, still chase our intrepid investigators. And may have more to do with all those missing bodies than anyone imagined.

Escape Rating A+: There’s something supremely comforting about this series – and I’m oh-so-happy it IS a series because The Mimicking of Known Successes could easily have been a one-off.

I think it’s the combination of the outlandish and exotic with the comforting and familiar. At first it seems pretty far out there, literally as well as figuratively. Jupiter is far away and seemingly totally inhospitable. And it kind of is. But still, humanity has adapted – at least physically. We’ve made it work.

At the same time, the way it works is so very human. They are still close enough in both time and space, relatively speaking, to see their lost home as something they might return to while also romanticizing the past and the possible future.

And the university is so very much academe in a nutshell, to the point where both books’ titles absolutely ring with the sense of academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small, caught up so tightly in the petty grievances of scholars that are more invested in scoring off against each other and/or proving their superiority than they are about real problems and practical solutions.

Which comes right back around to the whole story of the first book AND the motivations that lead to all those missing persons that Mossa is hunting for in this second one. Hunting, in fact, all the way around the train tracks that ring the planet to a hidden platform as far away from the University as it can get – and back around again to the place where both stories began.

To the University, and ultimately to the Earth it claims it wants to return them to – even as it settles into its comforts and grievances in a way that makes the reader wonder if anyone really, truly does.

What carries the story along, what holds it up around those rings and over that gas giant, is the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. They live in different worlds, and approach those worlds from opposing perspectives. Mossa, the Investigator, the ultimate pragmatist, always on the hunt for a new mystery, and Pleiti, the scholar and dreamer ensconced within the comforts and comfortable stability of the university. Their relationship didn’t work the first time, because they couldn’t meet in the middle and let each other in.

This time around they’re a bit older, sometimes sadder, occasionally wiser. Or at least wise enough to know that they are better together than they are apart, even if that togetherness has and even requires more space that one or the other might desire.

Watching them try, following them as they attempt to join two worlds and two perspectives that aren’t intended to meet in any middle, adds something very special to this delightfully charming science fiction mystery that will keep readers coming back for more.

Particularly this reader, left desperately hoping for a third book in the series.

Review: Calamity by Constance Fay

Review: Calamity by Constance FayCalamity (Uncharted Hearts, #1) by Constance Fay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Uncharted Hearts #1
Pages: 320
Published by Bramble Romance on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Bramble's inaugural debut is equal parts steamy interstellar romance and sci-fi adventure, perfect for fans of Firefly and Ilona Andrews.
She’s got a ramshackle spaceship, a misfit crew, and a big problem with its sexy newest member…
Temperance Reed, banished from the wealthy and dangerous Fifteen Families, just wants to keep her crew together after their feckless captain ran off with the intern. But she’s drowning in debt and revolutionary new engine technology is about to make her beloved ship obsolete.
Enter Arcadio Escajeda. Second child of the terrifying Escajeda Family, he’s the thorn in Temper’s side as they’re sent off on a scouting mission on the backwater desert planet of Herschel 2. They throw sparks every time they meet but Temper’s suspicions of his ulterior motives only serve to fuel the flames between them.
Despite volcanic eruptions, secret cultists, and deadly galactic fighters, the greatest threat on this mission may be to Temper’s heart.

My Review:

They had me at Firefly. Seriously. I’m still a sucker for another trip on anything like the Serenity, and Calamity, both the ship and the person she’s named for, certainly flies a very similar trajectory out in the black.

But Temperance Reed, infamous as just ‘Temper’ for damn good reasons, isn’t really all that much like Mal Reynolds. Mal seems to have started life close to the bottom in his ‘verse, while Temperance Reed, once upon a time, was at the top of hers.

However, being a soldier imploded his life, being the younger sister of an entitled asshole blew up hers, and they both end up in the same place, as captains of scrappy, ramshackle ships they can barely manage to keep flying, with misfit crews, taking jobs they know they shouldn’t take but can’t afford to turn down, making the best of the bad hand that life has dealt them.

Once upon a time, Temper Reed was the child of one of the ‘Ten’, one of the mega-rich, mega-corp, mercantile families that control their galaxy. But the problem with Temper wasn’t so much her temper as it was her older brother’s. He was the heir, she was the spare, but she was their parents’ favorite.

So once they were gone, his insecurities and megalomania combined to take her family’s development in a direction she knew her parents would never have condoned. Instead of continuing to create cutting-edge tech utilizing AI and language processing, her brother Frederick turned them into a ruthless slice and dice operation that just killed off competition – literally – and then swooped in to buy out the remainders.

They stopped creating. And Temper stopped believing, to the point where she rebelled and he officially disowned and banished her to the unregulated black. There’s more to that story, and it’s all awful. Awfully well told and revealed, but still awful.

Temper and her crew are on borrowed time, and the ship is in hock up to Temper’s eyebrows. So when one of the really big conglomerate families offers them a job with premium pay, Temper knows she has to take it, even though she also knows that they’re concealing a whole lot of the details about what’s really going on,  AND that she and her crew are expendable in the first place and they don’t plan to pay them even if they survive.

What she doesn’t expect is a corporate minder in the much too handsome and appealing person of one of the family’s younger sons, Arcadio Escajeda. She’s sure she can ignore her hormones in favor of the common sense that’s telling her that family scions in good standing absolutely do not take up with banished and reviled traitors to their own families.

While Temper may be swimming up the River DeNial, wherever that might be located in her ‘verse, it’s not Arcadio’s perfectly sculpted hotness that throws her good sense over its shoulder and takes it along for the ride – it’s his willingness to truly BE a part of her crew no matter how boring or dangerous the duty might be. Along with just how damn good he is at helping her save them all.

Temper, apparently, is a sucker for competence. While Arcadio turns out to be a sucker for Calamity.

Escape Rating A+: Damn this is fun. Or should I say shiny. Fun, absolutely, utterly fun. I had a terrific time reading this. It’s a wild thrill ride of a science fiction adventure with a (dare I say it?) core of molten lava in multiple senses of all those words.

But a big chunk of the reason I loved it was because of just how well it fits into the science fiction romance tradition – which has never gotten near as much love as it deserves. So I have hopes that Tor Books’ creation of the Bramble imprint, specifically for the purpose of publishing science fiction romance, will do a lot to turn that tide.

The thing about SFR as a genre is that it has to sit on the fence between SF and romance and not get too many splinters up its ass from either side – unless it turns out that the romantic partners are into that sort of thing. Which means that the worldbuilding and plotting has to tell a credible SF story while putting a romance with at least a HFN (that’s Happy For Now), at its heart.

It’s not that it hasn’t been done, because it most definitely has. While Firefly hinted at it – frequently and often – that wasn’t the heart of that story. And the blurb’s mention of Ilona Andrews isn’t quite right as most of her work has been urban fantasy. Compelling with wonderful storytelling and world creation, but not SFR except for her short but marvelous Kinsmen series.

Instead, the comparisons are to Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, Valerie Valdes’ more recent Chilling Effect series, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War, and even going back to Nina Croft’s Dark Desires series and further back to Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan Saga.

I can’t leave that list without mentioning the marvelous – and marvelously prolific – Anna Hackett, who has created some truly terrific universes, terribly rapacious villains, and steam-up-the spaceship windows SFR series for anyone who loves a rollicking good SF adventure with a steamy heart. (If you like the sound of Calamity, or if you loved any of the above mentioned, check out Hackett’s Eon Warriors series and its sequels for some excellent SFR!)

Between its background of mercantile, family-run empires, unhinged heirs and abusive siblings, battered smugglers and their ships along with its story of a star-crossed romance with a change, Calamity is a worthwhile successor to any and all of the above. And if Tor Books’ creation of Bramble makes readers re-evaluate just how great a taste it can be to add a bit of romance to their SF, that’s all to the good.

Because Calamity manages to straddle that fence very, very well. The world is solidly built, the heroes are just the right level of ragtag, Temper is most definitely interestingly flawed but still striving, and the mission is exciting and FUBAR’d at the same time – just as it should be.

The romance between Temper and Arcadio has the deliciousness of being oh-so-right, oh-so-wrong and oh-so-big-a-mistake wrapped up in a dangerous package that hits all the right places, with all the intrusive wink-wink, nod-nod poking from the crew needed to make it both sweet and spectacle at the same time. While the save-the-mission-and-maybe-die-trying ending was just the kind of wild ride that SF readers love.

Which I most certainly did.

Calamity is both the author’s debut novel AND the book that marks the kickoff for Bramble, and it’s a grand book to carry both of those banners. I can’t wait to see what else they have in store for SFR lovers in the months to come. And Temper will be back next June in Fiasco, which, if Calamity is anything to go by, will probably be filled with oodles of fiascos for Temper and her crew while delivering another kickass science fiction adventure wrapped around a fantastic romance!

Review: System Collapse by Martha Wells

Review: System Collapse by Martha WellsSystem Collapse (The Murderbot Diaries, #7) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Murderbot Diaries #7
Pages: 256
Published by Tordotcom on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Am I making it worse? I think I'm making it worse.
Everyone's favorite lethal SecUnit is back.
Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly-colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits. But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free workforce is a decent runner-up prize.
But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranza’s SecUnit-heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast!
Yeah, this plan is... not going to work.

My Review:

The system that is collapsing in Murderbot’s seventh outing is Murderbot’s own – and it’s angsting about it in ways that are not remotely leading to optimal performance. Which in turn is leading to even less optimal performance.

In other words, as we check back into Murderbot’s usually snarkastic consciousness, Murderbot is a mess and doing its best to hide the full depth of its mess from itself. Every time its narrative bumps up against the incident that is causing it all the angst, it retreats into “[redacted]” and tries to work around the dysfunction.

The problem is that Murderbot is NOT truly working around whatever is eating away at it. As much as Murderbot likes to believe it is superior to humans – and it often is in the situations in which it finds itself – when it comes to dealing with its own shit it doesn’t function any better than the rest of us.

Which is reassuring IN a character the reader identifies and follows along with – but not so reassuring TO a character from its own internal perspective – as Murderbot learns to its own increasing dismay. And further degradation of its performance.

It seems like Murderbot is suffering from the SecUnit version of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ – and it’s just as uncomfortable for it as it is for us. Also every bit as panic inducing.

Meanwhile, Murderbot, its fellow snarkastic AI ART – or at least ART’s physically smaller drone as ART itself is a spaceship – and their collective humans are in the process of organizing a recently discovered ‘lost’ colony to resist the political, corporate, disinformation campaign of propaganda and eventual virtual enslavement being propagated by the Barish-Estranza corporation.

But the humans that Murderbot’s humans are attempting to help seem to be far, far from ready to BE helped. There’s a schism. In fact, there are multiple schisms among the human population as a result of alien contamination and mind control. And the resulting desire among the humans to get revenge on each other for what happened when they were being mind controlled.

So no one seems to be telling anyone anything like the information really needed to resolve this mess in a peaceful fashion. Then again, that doesn’t seem all that atypical of the history of the planet in contention – all the way back to the original settlement.

Among all the misinformation and disinformation being bandied about, one of the locals finally admits that there’s another colony on the planet that needs to weigh in on their narrowing options. If that breakaway group can be contacted. If they’re still alive.

And if the Barish-Estranza corporate goons haven’t gotten their hooks in first.

But of course they have, because Murderbot’s luck never runs any other way. But it will have to run as fast as it can to catch up and outwit those corporate operatives any way it can all the while wondering if it’s still capable of doing so at all.

Escape Rating A-: As I’ve said in pretty much every review of an entry in The Murderbot Diaries except that first joint review of the first three books in the series (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol), this seventh entry in the series is not the place to become acquainted with Murderbot’s brand of snarkasm. Start with All Systems Red. and buckle up for a wild ride.

For those of us who have been following Murderbot’s (mis)adventures from the beginning, this one feels like it starts a bit in the middle – perhaps even more than usual. And the somewhat dystopian, corporate controlled universe that Murderbot inhabits has become complex enough that I felt a bit lost at the beginning.

Which is also somewhat fitting, as Murderbot is definitely kind of lost at the beginning of the story. So a whole lot of this one is Murderbot being uncertain about itself and its competence, dealing with that uncertainty badly – as it deals with all the emotions it claims it doesn’t have. All the while, the situation in which it and its humans are currently endangered is every bit as FUBAR’d as usual.

Murderbot’s only good days are the ones where it gets to watch its space operas in peace – and those days are generally rare. And none of the days since its humans arrived at this colony have been anywhere near that good.

While the foreground story is of Murderbot’s crisis of confidence and its rise to that challenge, the situation in which it takes place is a combination of humans behaving both badly and humanly, and of the desperation of humans on all sides as the verities of their worldview – however terribly and skewed, begin to erode.

Therefore, in the background of the story, it’s clear that Murderbot’s system is not the only one that is collapsing. Its personal collapse is something that can be fixed – or at least dealt with. But the system of corporate hegemony/control/tyranny of this universe is showing signs of its inevitable collapse – a situation that I hope to see come to the foreground in future installments of this series, especially in the two untitled entries yet to come.

Review: Generation Ship by Michael Mammay

Review: Generation Ship by Michael MammayGeneration Ship by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 608
Published by Harper Voyager on October 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In this riveting, stand-alone novel from Michael Mammay, author of  Planetside,  the beginning of a new human colony must face tyrannical leaders, revolution, crippling instability, and an unknown alien planet that could easily destroy them all. In 2108, Colony Ship  Voyager  departed Earth for the planet of Promissa with 18,000 of the world’s best and brightest on board. 250 years and 27 light years later, an arrival is imminent. But all is not well. The probes that they’ve sent ahead to gather the data needed to establish any kind of settlement aren’t responding, and the information they have received has presented more questions than answers. It’s a time when the entire crew should be coming together to solve the problem, but science officer Sheila Jackson can’t get people to listen. With the finish line in sight, a group of crewmembers want an end to the draconian rules that their forebearers put in place generations before. However, security force officer Mark Rector and his department have different plans. As alliances form and fall, Governor Jared Pantel sees only one way to bring  Voyager ’s citizens together and secure his own a full-scale colonization effort. Yet, he may have underestimated the passion of those working for the other side... Meanwhile, a harsh alien planet awaits that might have its own ideas about being colonized. A battle for control brews, and victory for one group could mean death for them all. 

My Review:

“Space, the final frontier”…has an awful lot of, well, space, in it. But Star Trek promised that we’d navigate all that space at faster-than-light speed, better known as ‘warp’. Which is probably what FTL will be named if we ever figure out how to do it. Trek history said (says? will say?) that we’ll have it all figured out by 2063 – at least according to Star Trek: First Contact.

But reality is likely otherwise. At least so far as we know now, and seemingly as far as the engineers, designers and builders of the Colony Ship Voyager knew by the time it launched in 2108 – less than a century from our now.

(Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity implies that FTL travel is impossible for anything that has mass. Meaning humans. And spaceships. Even light is implied to be incapable of traveling faster than the speed of light.)

None of the above prevents humans from either wanting or needing to leave Earth and putting down roots – so to speak – among the stars. Even though the nearest planet we know of, at least so far – is Proxima Centauri b, four light-years away. The nearest likely habitable planet, again, that we know of so far, is Kepler-452b and it would take 1,400 years to get there.

Without FTL travel, space is big and vast and even potential ‘Class-M planets’ (again to use Star Trek terminology because Trek named everything) is too far away from Earth for conventional space travel to work.

The two most often used science fictional methods of interplanetary travel for colonization that work – often badly in fiction – with this dilemma are sleeper ships and colony ships. Generation Ship, as one can tell by the title, is a colony ship.

Colony ship stories have all sorts of dramatic possibilities because, while space may be vast and infinite, the world of the colony ship is relatively small and even claustrophobic – especially over a vast, generations-long, journey to a new home.

Also, humans are gonna human, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in.

Which leads us, by a bit of a roundabout, to the Colony Ship Voyager (Trek again!) on its 250 year journey from Earth to Promissa. A planet which may or may not live up to its promise even as it hoves into sight and reach.

While there’s a philosophical cliché that “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”, in colony ship stories it’s not the journey, it’s the destination where all the dramatic tension comes into play. The journey, at least after the drama of the launch and the early years of settling in for the long haul, is mostly about keeping on keeping on as everyone adjusts to the new normal.

But the destination, or at least the increasing stress as the destination becomes all too real, represents a time of great change, as the life and routine that the ship has settled into is about to be overset by planetfall. Which may or may not be everything everyone hoped and dreamed way back when the first crew set off on their journey.

And will certainly upset the status quo. Life is going to be vastly different after the ship’s crew become planetary settlers. Whoever it is who has knowledge and power aboard ship may or may not have the skills it takes to be a leader on the ground. Which does not mean that the shipboard leaders aren’t going to do their level and even skullduggery best to remain powerful and privileged.

The story of Generation Ship is all about the jockeying and politicking and outright underhanded dealing that goes on as the Voyager’s probes are able to finally reach the ‘promised land’ and the end of the long journey is about to begin.

Unless, of course, Promissa itself has other ideas.

Escape Rating A++: In spite of the relatively small size of the Colony Ship Voyager, the final months of its long journey to Promissa contain a utterly riveting, terrifically complex and downright huge story that isn’t about the science of colony ships a quarter so much as it is about the political shenanigans of the humans aboard them.

It’s a roiling stew of “we have met the enemy and he is us” coming to a full boil in an atmosphere of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, especially over time and covered by the slowly eroding illusion of “we’re all in this together” mixed with a heaping helping of “the greater good”.

At the center of the drama are a series of first-person perspectives from all over the ship, from the all-powerful but absolutely not all-knowing governor who is desperate to hang onto his power while cementing his legacy, to the over-ambitious security guard who is just so sure he’s smarter than everyone around him, to the reluctant leader of the not-so-loyal opposition to the scientist whose beloved science is telling her that they are not ready to make planetfall – no matter what the governor has manipulated people into believing. While behind the scenes an ace hacker/engineer sees a truth about their ship that no one is ready to believe or understand.

By seeing the situation from so many sides we’re able to get inside the life of the ship, AND the life on the ship, which are not nearly as much the same things as everyone believes. We’re watching a world come apart – even if that’s what was always supposed to happen. And it’s utterly fascinating as the players negotiate and maneuver themselves into a situation that is nothing like the first crew expected.

And it’s absolutely riveting every step of the way, even as it recalls several previous colony ship stories that wrestle with the same issues but take them down to the mat or to the planet in entirely different ways. If Generation Ship sounds fascinating to you, and I sincerely hope it does, you might want to also check out Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji, Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport, Mickey7 by Edward Ashton and, last but absolutely not least, the Pixar film WALL-E.

Review: Forgotten History by Christopher L. Bennett

Review: Forgotten History by Christopher L. BennettForgotten History (Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations, #2) by Christopher L. Bennett
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, Star Trek, time travel
Series: Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations #2
Pages: 350
Published by Pocket Books on May 1, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The agents of the Department of Temporal Investigations are assigned to look into an anomaly that has appeared deep in Federation territory. It's difficult to get clear readings, but a mysterious inactive vessel lies at the heart of the anomaly, one outfitted with some sort of temporal drive disrupting space-time and subspace. To the agents' shock, the ship bears a striking resemblance to a Constitution-class starship, and its warp signature matches that of the original Federation starship Enterprise NCC-1701--the ship of James T. Kirk, that infamous bogeyman of temporal investigators, whose record of violations is held up by DTI agents as a cautionary tale for Starfleet recklessness toward history. But the vessel's hull markings identify it as Timeship Two, belonging to none other than the DTI itself. At first, Agents Lucsly and Dulmur assume the ship is from some other timeline . . . but its quantum signature confirms that it came from their own past, despite the fact that the DTI never possessed such a timeship. While the anomaly is closely monitored, Lucsly and Dulmur must search for answers in the history of Kirk's Enterprise and its many encounters with time travel--a series of events with direct ties to the origins of the DTI itself. . . .

My Review:

Today is Star Trek Day. Why? Because, once upon a time in a galaxy not far away at all, on this day in 1966, the very first episode of Star Trek, now referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series, because it WAS, premiered on television thanks in no small part to the efforts of Gene Roddenberry AND Lucille Ball.

Today is also, and coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Those combined anniversaries make this the perfect day to review the second book in the Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations series, Forgotten History. Because, as you might have guessed from the cover, this pseudo-history takes a deep, deep dive into the many, many times that Captain James T. Kirk either created or was caught up in a temporal disturbance.

From the perspective of DTI Agent Gariff Lucsly, the ENTIRE purpose of the DTI was to prevent anyone else, particularly any other starship captain, from messing about with time as much or as often as Kirk did.

Because Kirk had so damn many up close and personal encounters with time travel that it could be said they had a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship. Or, considering the events involving the Guardian of Forever, perhaps that relationship might be better referred to as ‘frenemies with benefits’.

There certainly WERE benefits – as even the DTI generally considers saving the planet to have been a benefit. They just wish that they didn’t owe it to their departmental nemesis so many damn times.

The story in Forgotten History begins with what seems to be incontrovertible evidence that Kirk played fast and loose with the stability of the Federation’s timeline on at least one more occasion, and a much bigger occasion at that, than the SEVENTEEN times that the DTI was previously aware of.

But Kirk, for all of his temporal escapades, and in spite of the way that DTI investigates the ways and means in which time looks back on itself, is more than a century in their rear view mirror. So to speak. And as DTI Agents Lucsly and Dulmur discovered in the first book in the DTI series, Watching the Clock, the events that make it into the history books – or the official records – may have only the barest resemblance to what really happened.

So the story that we, and the DTI Agents, begin with is a tale about a captain who ran roughshod through history and established procedure and was allowed to get away with it. (Which he very often did and was.)

But perhaps not in this case. Only time will tell.

Escape Rating B: The story of Forgotten History, and the history that was deliberately forgotten, is wrapped around the creation of not one but two legends, and the purpose the creations of those legends was intended to serve.

Which means that this is a story that goes back in time to show just the events which shaped both of those legends.

One, of course, is the legendary career of Captain (later Admiral, later Captain again) James Tiberius Kirk and the successful completion of the USS Enterprise’s five-year mission under his command. A five-year mission where even in its first year the ship had three encounters with time travel – at least by the DTI’s count.

They’d already set the record – and they hadn’t even gotten started.

Which is where the other legend came in. Because the Enterprise and her crew were playing with things that no one understood, Starfleet needed to get a handle on time travel before it got a handle on them. Leading, eventually and in a more roundabout and bureaucratic way than anyone imagined, to the formation of the Department of Temporal Investigations under the direction of its Founder and first Director, Dr. Meijan Grey.

How those two legends, and their legacies, impacted each other AND Starfleet is what lies at the heart of this book.

In order to reach the point in the ‘present’ that gives that impact its full weight, the book puts itself and the reader through a LOT of the history of Kirk, Grey and the DTI. In the process of putting that history into the hands and minds of the readers, there’s a heaping helping of infodumping to cover every temporal infraction Kirk and the Enterprise ever committed, every DTI response, and every bit of political and bureaucratic shenanigans going on behind the scenes and under the table to serve agendas that Kirk turns out not to be nearly as on board with as legend would have it.

Unfortunately, that necessary infodump really drags the pace of the story for the first half. It was a terrific bit of nostalgia, and I enjoyed a fair bit of it, but it takes the action and adventure out of a series that has always been blissfully full to the brim with both – even when the plot of the episode was humorous, thought-provoking, or both.

Which means that, while I did like Forgotten History quite a bit, a good bit of that is due to the high nostalgia factor in going back to the era of The Original Series, both in the stories and characters themselves and that I watched the final season as it was broadcast in 1968-69 with my dad.

But as a story, Forgotten History wasn’t nearly as much fun as Watching the Clock, which just plain moved a whole lot faster and enjoyed a tighter focus on its central mystery in spite of its greater length. Still, I liked them both more than enough that I just picked up the rest of the DTI series, and will probably dive into the next book, The Collectors, whenever I’m next in the mood for a bit of Trek.

Review: Devil’s Gun by Cat Rambo

Review: Devil’s Gun by Cat RamboDevil's Gun (Disco Space Opera #2) by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Disco Space Opera #2
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on August 29, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

No one escapes their past as the crew of the You Sexy Thing attempts to navigate the hazards of opening a pop-up restaurant and the dangers of a wrathful pirate-king seeking vengeance in Cat Rambo's Devil's Gun .
Life’s hard when you’re on the run from a vengeful pirate-king…
When Niko and her crew find that the intergalactic Gate they're planning on escaping through is out of commission, they make the most of things, creating a pop-up restaurant to serve the dozens of other stranded ships.
But when an archaeologist shows up claiming to be able to fix the problem, Niko smells something suspicious cooking. Nonetheless, they allow Farren to take them to an ancient site where they may be able to find the weapon that could stop Tubal Last before he can take his revenge.
There, in one of the most dangerous places in the Known Universe, each of them will face ghosts from their Thorn attempts something desperate and highly illegal to regain his lost twin, Atlanta will have to cast aside her old role and find her new one, Dabry must confront memories of his lost daughter, and Niko is forced to find Petalia again, despite a promise not to seek them out.
Meanwhile, You Sexy Thing continues to figure out what it wants from life―which may not be the same desire as Niko and the rest of the crew.

My Review:

Devil’s Gun picks up the story of You Sexy Thing and its crew just after the moment at the end of the first book in the Disco Space Opera series, named after the ship and the damnable earworm of the song that the title comes from.

It’s the point where they’ve just learned that the evil space pirate they hoped they’d killed as they escaped his imploding, exploding ship/space station. Which, to be totally fair, was entirely deserved as he had already murdered one of their number and spent years brainwashing Captain Niko Larson’s former lover against her.

Pirate King Jubal Last is a bad, bad man, and the universe wasn’t going to miss him if he was gone. The only problem is that he isn’t. Meaning that Larson and her crew are on the run, away from Last and towards someone who they hope will help them figure out a way to take him out. Again.

If only they can find her. And if only she’ll give them the time of day. Because it’s that same brainwashed ex-lover that Larson still hasn’t gotten over. Just as the rest of the crew hasn’t gotten over the damage that Last did in their recent encounter.

And in the midst of Larson chasing down what once was, and one of her crew members trying to breathe life back into someone who has lost theirs, a new member of the crew searches for purpose while the sentient, sapient bioship that Larson is nominally – sometimes very nominally – in command of pursues its own interests for its own purposes. Specifically, for the purpose of creating drama and not getting bored.

It’s a recipe for disaster – but that’s not the problem it would be for most ship’s crews. Because if there is one thing that this crew is good at, it’s making a tasty dish out of a completely mismatched and even downright dangerous list of ingredients!

Escape Rating B: I picked this up because I enjoyed the first book in the series, You Sexy Thing, very much in spite of its unfortunate case of villain fail. The crew is as motley as you’d expect, but their bone-deep respect and reliance on each other – and the way they deal with their life and their livelihood through bantering away the stress made it an overall fun read with a heaping helping of heartbreak at the end.

But thank goodness that there’s a “when last we left our heroes” summary of that first book in the beginning of this second one, because it’s been over a year since I read it and almost two years since it came out.

I liked Devil’s Gun but didn’t love it nearly as much as I did You Sexy Thing in spite of that villain fail. Jubal Last was just a bit too over-the-top bwahaha to make sense as a character. But I loved the crew and got invested in their situation more than enough to feel for them as things went down.

Devil’s Gun reads like a middle book. It also reads as a chase for a macguffin that no one, least of all Niko Larson herself, is ever sure isn’t a scam. And it felt like a collection of separate plot threads that don’t quite braid together into a whole, as several members of the crew have their own problems to pursue and keep themselves to themselves more than a bit.

With the ship in pursuit of its own goals – to the detriment of everyone and everything else – as the story goes along. Admittedly, that part is fascinating. It’s as though Moya in Farscape took the ship where she wanted to go instead of where the crew wanted to go ALL THE TIME.

Which would have been cool – even as the crew would have been infuriated. As Larson often is in this story.

The sentient ship You Sexy Thing will certainly make readers think of Farscape and its sentient ship, Moya, although You Sexy Thing has considerably more personality. I’m not sure about the regular comparisons between this series and the Great British Bake Off as there’s no food competition going on – although there is plenty of cooking and baking. There’s also more than a bit of a resemblance between this universe and its intergalactic ‘gates’ left behind by an ancient race of Forerunners and Mass Effect and its mass relay travel gates left behind by the ancient Prothean race.

In other words, there are elements of Devil’s Gun and the Disco Space Opera series that will ring a lot of bells and bring back a lot of memories for SF readers, (I’m sure I’ve seen the Devil’s Gun itself, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in Simon R. Green’s intertwined universes) blended into a story that’s a whole lot of fun and rides or dies on the interpersonal relationships among the crew. Which is also not an uncommon element of SF and space opera in general.

So if that’s your jam as it is for this reader, take a trip on the You Sexy Thing with Devil’s Gun. And the fun – for certainly deadly and sometimes insane definitions of fun – isn’t over yet. Devil’s Gun, like You Sexy Thing before it, ends on a mic drop. There is clearly more to come for this crew, and I’m looking forward to it!

Review: Knighthunter by Anna Hackett

Review: Knighthunter by Anna HackettKnighthunter by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Oronis Knights #1
Pages: 258
Published by Anna Hackett on July 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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She vows to bring her abducted queen home…even if she has to work with the man she hates.Knightmaster Nea Laurier is tough, dedicated, and lives to be the best Oronis knight she can be. All her life, she’s worked hard to live up to her prestigious family name. She will do whatever it takes to rescue Knightqueen Carys from their enemy, the vicious Gek’Dragar…she just wishes it didn’t involve the most cunning and dangerous man she knows. A man she detested when they were at the Academy, and a man she still detests—Knighthunter Kaden Galath.Now she’s headed deep into enemy space, and the only person guarding her back is a man she’ll never trust.Knighthunter Kaden Galath was born in the darkness and came from nothing. Being a knighthunter—a spy for his people—is the perfect job for him. He uses all his unique and deadly abilities to keep the Oronis safe, even the beautiful, perfect, do-gooder Knightmaster Nea. He’s vowed to always stay alone in the shadows…but Nea might be the weakness he never expected.As Kaden and Nea embark on a mission to some of the deadliest enemy planets, they fight side by side, and uncover each other’s darkest secrets. Following the trail leading to their captive queen, Nea and Kaden will face their most dangerous battle yet, and a fiery passion that will engulf them both.

My Review: 

Knighthunter is a story about not one but two concurrent chases – one of which is definitely more successful than the other.

The Knightqueen of Oron was kidnapped by the Gek’Dragar in the first book in the Oronis Knights series, Knightmaster, which was all wrapped up in the investigation into that catastrophe as well as the romance between Knightmaster Ashtin Caydor and xenoanthropologist Kennedy Black from Earth. In Knighthunter, Knightmaster Nea Laurier and Knighthunter Kaden Galath have been tasked with hunting down the Knightqueen and her dedicated and bonded Knightguard Sten before the Gek’Dragar complete whatever dastardly plans they have for Knightqueen Carys in specific and most likely the Oronis in general.

It’s not like the Oronis and Gek’Dragar haven’t been bitter enemies since pretty much forever. And as the Oronis are allies of the bands of heroes in both the Galactic Guardians series AND the Eon Warriors series, they are the ones on the side of the angels.

The Gek’Dragar, on the other hand, are in league with (probably loosely and with intent to betray at some point) and certainly in the league of the rapacious Kantos, the dastardly enemies of the Eon Warriors.

So we all know where we stand – or fly – in not just this heinous act but also in the war that this is clearly a prelude for.

But, there are also enemies, of the much closer and more intimate kind, closer to home. Nea Laurier and Kaden Galath attended the Academy together. Well, not really together-together, but at the same time.

Each was the thorn in the other’s side for all the years of their schooling, and can’t seem to stand to be in the same room, let alone stuck with each other in a series of cramped two-person ships on the hunt for their kidnapped Knightqueen.

But appearances can be deceiving, and, in the spirit of the best defense being a good offense, Nea and Kaden have been defending so hard against their feelings for each other that it’s looked like a whole lot of being offensive. For nearly a decade of bristling hostility.

Howsomever, the longer they spend together in the here and now, the more occasions when they just miss their quarry, the more they realize that the masks they have been wearing with each mostly serve to hide their true feelings from themselves.

In the heat of that race, even as they chase down a ship that hides from them at every turn, they stop hiding from themselves. And each other.

Escape Rating A-: In terms of the overarching story of the Oronis vs. the ‘Big Bad’, in this instance the Gek’Dragar, Nea and Kaden’s pursuit of a series of fleeing Gek’Dragar ships through Gek’Dragar space gives the reader a tour of the galaxy and a whole host of reasons to understand why the Oronis have such a huge and justified hate-on for their scaly enemy.

Meanwhile, the sheer volume of true enemies that Nea and Kaden have to wade through in their hunt for their missing Knightqueen puts their personal enmity into sharp relief. They’ve never really hated each other, particularly not in comparison to what true hatefulness looks like.

But the heat of their enemies into lovers relationship burns away any misunderstandings between the two of them – and are there ever plenty! Many of which can be laid at the feet of Nea’s snobby, relentlessly demanding douchecanoe of a father. He may have had his reasons, or his own griefs, that created the mess of a relationship he has with his only remaining child, but his treatment of Kaden even all the way back in the younger man’s Academy days has no excuse.

It was also a whole lot of painful fun to watch Nea whack dear-old-dad with a big clue-by-four, but he clearly needed more applications of that  device before he gets the point. I hope we get to see those whacks delivered in a later book.

But seriously, the way that Nea and Kaden keep JUST missing Carys and her kidnappers ratchets up the dramatic tension in this one from the first page to the very last, as the hope that keeps getting snatched away comes back into view yet again.

This was great fun both as an adventure and as a romance, and I really loved being along for both rides. It also makes an excellent setup for the next book in the series, Knightqueen, coming early next year. In romances, I tend to find the chase much more interesting than the catch. And this one really kept me going through one ultimately successful chase – and one I hope to see turn successful soon!

Review: Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell

Review: Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. PowellLight Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 173
Published by Tordotcom on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell's action-packed sci-fi adventure Light Chaser, a love powerful enough to transcend death can bring down an entire empire.
Amahle is a Light Chaser - one of a number of explorers, who travel the universe alone (except for their onboard AI), trading trinkets for life stories.
But when she listens to the stories sent down through the ages she hears the same voice talking directly to her from different times and on different worlds. She comes to understand that something terrible is happening, and only she is in a position to do anything about it.
And it will cost everything to put it right.

My Review:

How to reboot the galaxy in 10 (or so) not so easy lessons. Because that first lesson includes the really heavy lifting of getting you to believe that the cushy, if a bit lonely, life you’ve been leading for millennia NEEDS to be rebooted in the worst way.

And that you’re the only one who can possibly do the job. If you can be convinced to deal with the heartbreak of both a completely epic betrayal on a galactic scale AND the heartbreak of un-forgetting the loss of the love of your artificially long life. Over and over again.

Amahle is the Light Chaser of the title. She, and all of her ilk, travel in endless repeating circuits of their little corner of the galaxy, distributing trinkets, treasures and carefully curated technology to dozens – or perhaps hundreds – of stagnant little planets in return for recordings of memories and experiences faithfully preserved in high-tech collars in the centuries since their previous visits.

There’s nothing sinister about the recordings themselves. In fact, the reverse. The Light Chasers are treated pretty much like deities, and the tech and the treasure that they bring is a boon to both the individual economies and the local planetary government. The collars keep records only, they don’t take anything from their wearers.

But the conditions of the planets. That’s where things get sinister. Because each planet is locked in whatever era of development it was created – whether their situation is bloody, medieval horror or post-scarcity techno-pampered ennui.

There’s no growth. There’s no change. There’s no evolution. Golden ages last forever – but so do Dark ones. To the point where Amahle, no matter how many times her memory has been wiped, is starting to notice.

Which is where Carloman comes in. Over and over again. Seemingly reborn on multiple planets in multiple eras, seeking out one of her collar-wearers so that he can deliver a message. Knowing that she will inevitably see that message in the long (at least relatively) journeys between the stars.

If he doesn’t manage to get the whole message across in one circuit, he’ll simply have to try again. Until he gets it right. Or she does.

Escape Rating B: As much as I LOVED yesterday’s Red Team Blues, I did go into it thinking I was going to get something SFnal – so I had still had a taste for that in my mind. (And I had another book just fail.) So I went looking for something short and SFnal that I already had – which is where Light Chaser comes in.

There are two threads to this story. The first one is hidden – at first. Because from one perspective, Light Chaser is the ultimate star-crossed, crosstime, long-distance romance. It’s so long distance and so far across time that initially Amahle doesn’t even remember that once upon a time, it happened. (And yes, there are hints of This is How You Lose the Time War if you squint a bit.)

Amahle’s been made to forget, repeatedly and often over the very long years, but her once and future love, Carloman, loves her so damn much that he’s managed to get around a veritable empire of AIs that are keeping them apart.

We never do find out how he does that, we only know that he has. And does. And possibly will again if it doesn’t work this time around.

The truly SFnal part of the story is the story of Amahle’s life in her here and now, as Carloman’s intrusions into the collars she has collected and viewed slowly but surely strips away her somewhat bored complaisance and wakes her up to a truth that seemingly only he can see. But once she’s seen it, she can’t unsee it, to the point where she tears her whole world apart to get it back.

It starts at the end and ends at the beginning, but along the way it portrays a far future world that isn’t what it ought to be – and tells the story of the painful stripping away of both illusion and self needed to get it back on track.

I finished Light Chaser wanting just a bit more of pretty much everything, as there is a LOT of handwavium involved in making the whole thing work. But within the constraints of a novella, it does a terrific job of making the reader think right along with Amahle. Digging this one out of the depths of the virtually towering TBR pile was absolutely the right thing to do!

Review: Watching the Clock by Christopher L. Bennett

Review: Watching the Clock by Christopher L. BennettWatching the Clock (Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations #1) by Christopher L. Bennett
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, Star Trek, time travel
Series: Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations #1
Pages: 496
Published by Pocket Books on May 1, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
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There’s likely no more of a thankless job in the Federation than temporal investigation. While starship explorers get to live the human adventure of traveling to other times and realities, it’s up to the dedicated agents of the Federation Department of Temporal Investigations to deal with the consequences to the timestream that the rest of the Galaxy has to live with day by day. But when history as we know it could be wiped out at any moment by time warriors from the future, misused relics of ancient races, or accident-prone starships, only the most disciplined, obsessive, and unimaginative government employees have what it takes to face the existential uncertainty of it all on a daily basis . . . and still stay sane enough to complete their assignments.
That’s where Agents Lucsly and Dulmur come in—stalwart and unflappable, these men are the Federation’s unsung anchors in a chaotic universe. Together with their colleagues in the DTI—and with the help and sometimes hindrance of Starfleet’s finest—they do what they can to keep the timestream, or at least the paperwork, as neat and orderly as they are. But when a series of escalating temporal incursions threatens to open a new front of the history-spanning Temporal Cold War in the twenty-fourth century, Agents Lucsly and Dulmur will need all their investigative skill and unbending determination to stop those who wish to rewrite the past for their own advantage, and to keep the present and the future from devolving into the kind of chaos they really, really hate.

My Review:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.” At least according to Doctor Who.

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I spotted their TARDIS, or at least a TARDIS, somewhere (or somewhen) in the mass of confiscated time travel detritus stored in the Department of Temporal Investigations’ Vault on Eris. But I could be wrong. Or it might not be there now. Or then.

The thing about time travel, is that it messes up any sense of past, present and future, in the grammatical sense as well as every other way, more than enough to give anyone trying to talk about it – or write about it – a terrible and unending headache.

Just ask the folks at the Federation’s Department of Temporal Investigations, whose entire existence, across space and time, owes itself to Starfleet’s pressing need to clean up after Jim Kirk’s all too frequent messing about with time.

I really want to make a Law and Order reference to “these are their stories” because it does kind of work, even if DTI Agent Gariff Lucsly’s affect and mannerisms owe a lot more to Joe Friday in Dragnet.

The story in Watching the Clock combines two elements and both go back and forth in time more than a bit. Time which always seems to wibble just when it’s expected to wobble – and very much vice-versa. Seemingly ad infinitum and always ad nauseam.

The biggest variable often seems to wrap around who is getting the nauseam this time around.

As this is the first book in the Department of Temporal Investigations series, and that’s an agency that appears – often in rueful commentary – in several episodes across the Star Trek timeline without being the center of any incident – after all, DTI are more of a cleanup crew than an instigating force – a part of this book is to set up the agency, its primary officers, and its place within Starfleet.

Which results in more than a bit of that wibble and wobble, as the case that Agents Lucsly and Dulmur find themselves in the middle of is also in the middle of both the actual case (even if they’re not aware of it) and the Trek timeline, so the story needs to establish who they are, how they got to be where (and when) they are, and who they have to work with and against.

But the case they have before them – also behind them (time travel again) – is rooted in the Temporal Cold War, which seems to be heating up again. Assuming concepts like “again” have meaning in the context of time travel. Someone is operating from the shadows, manipulating the past in order to keep the Federation from defeating their aims in the future.

Which sounds a lot like what the Borg were attempting in First Contact. As it should. When it comes to time travel, this has all happened before, and it will all, most certainly, happen again. And again. And AGAIN.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because last week ended with some really frustrating reads. I was looking for something that I was guaranteed to be swept away by – no matter what. (I started the next St. Cyr book, What Darkness Brings, but it was too soon after the previous. I love the series, but like most series reads, I need a bit of space between each book so that the tropes don’t become over-familiar.)

It’s been a while since I read one of the Star Trek books, but I have a lot of them on my Kindle because they are one of the things Galen picks up when he’s looking for a comfort read. So there they were, and I hadn’t read this series. Although now I will when I’m looking for a reading pick-me-up.

There’s always plenty of Trek nostalgia to go around, and I’m certainly there for that, especially in the mood I was in. Howsomever, as a series set in the ‘verse but not part of one of the TV series, this one needed a bit more to carry this reader through all 500ish pages. Because that’s a lot, even for me. Especially when I’m flailing around for a read.

Watching the Clock combined the kind of buddy cop/partnership story that works so well in mystery – and this is a mystery – with that lovely bit of Trek nostalgia with a whole lot of thoughtful exploration of just what kind of a mess time travel would cause if it really worked.

Because the idea that going back in time would “fix” history, for certain definitions of both “fix” and history, sounds fine and dandy in fantasy but in SF just makes a complete mess out of causality and pretty much everything else.

(If you’re curious about other visions of just how badly it can go, take a look at One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Tchaikovsky story, published a decade AFTER Watching the Clock, looks back on their version of a time war from the perspective of a battle-scarred, PTSD-ridden survivor and it’s not a pretty sight. But it is a fascinating story – also a lot shorter exploration of the same concepts as Watching the Clock.)

So, if you’re looking to get immersed in a familiar world while reading a completely original story set in that world, Watching the Clock is a fun read and Lucsly and Dulmur and all the members of the Department of Temporal Investigations are interesting people to explore it with. I had a ball, and if you’re a Trek fan you probably will tool.

If the concepts interest you but Trek isn’t your jam, check out One Day All This Will Be Yours.

Review: The Stars Undying by Emery Robin

Review: The Stars Undying by Emery RobinThe Stars Undying (Empire Without End, #1) by Emery Robin
Narrator: Esther Wane, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Empire Without End #1
Pages: 518
Length: 16 hours and 32 minutes
Published by Orbit on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In this spectacular space opera inspired by the lives and loves of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, a princess stripped of her power finds control through an affair that could help regain her reign—perfect for readers of Ann Leckie and Arkady Martine.
Princess Altagracia has lost everything. After a bloody civil war, her twin sister has claimed not just the crown of their planet Szayet but the Pearl of its prophecy, a computer that contains the immortal soul of Szayet's god. Stripped of her birthright, Gracia flees the planet—just as Matheus Ceirran, Commander of the interstellar Empire of Ceiao, arrives in deadly pursuit with his volatile lieutenant, Anita. When Gracia and Ceirran's paths collide, Gracia sees an opportunity to win back her planet, her god, and her throne…if she can win the Commander and his right-hand officer over first.
But talking her way into Ceirran’s good graces, and his bed, is only the beginning. Dealing with the most powerful man in the galaxy is almost as dangerous as war, and Gracia is quickly torn between an alliance that fast becomes more than political and the wishes of the god—or machine—that whispers in her ear. For Szayet's sake, and her own, Gracia will need to become more than a princess with a silver tongue. She will have to become a queen as history has never seen before—even if it breaks an empire.

My Review:

The queen. The carpet. The conqueror. It’s an indelible image, even if it was fixed in the collective unconscious by a mistranslation of Plutarch combined with a desire for a salacious story rather than anything that might have happened in history. Several sumptuous movies cemented that image.

So it’s not exactly a surprise that this science fictionalized reimagining of the romance of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, while it doesn’t start with that scene, features it prominently. And makes it every bit as captivating and unforgettable in this story of two towering giants at the center of the rise and fall of an intergalactic empire as it was in the same circumstances of the world-spanning empire.

At first, and on the surface, The Stars Undying reads as a grand romance. And it definitely is that – even if neither of the protagonists begin their relationship thinking that’s where they are heading and what it’s all going to be about.

Altagracia is a disgraced princess leading a rebellion against her twin sister – who has just become the Queen of Szayet and the Oracle of their god, Alekso the Undying. We experience her side of this space opera from her first-person perspective so we begin the story thinking that we’re inside her head – even as she admits that she’s lying both to us and to herself as she sets out to overthrow her sister’s divine rule and take the crown for herself.

Which is where Matheus Cierran, the Commander of all the fleets and armies of the vast Empire of Ceiao, enters the picture. And Gracia enters his quarters rolled into a rug. Gracia conquers the conqueror – not so much with her beauty as with her wit and charisma – and he conquers her sister on her behalf.

As their romance spans the galaxy between Szayet and Ceiao, we see their universe from their alternating, first-person viewpoints, never quite sure who truly conquered whom, who is lying to whom, and whose intentions are the most righteous. While we watch them fall deeper in love with each other, and while both fail to recognize who their true enemies are – and fatally underestimate those enemies and each other.

Cleopatra and Caesar, (1866) painted by Jean-Leon Gerome
Cleopatra and Caesar, painted by
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1866)

Escape Rating A++: Because The Stars Undying is, most definitely, a reimagining of the relationship, both personal and absolutely political, between Cleopatra of Egypt and Julius Caesar, we do go into this story thinking that we know how it ends and even a bit of how it gets there. And just like Friday’s book, The Cleaving, that bit of foreknowledge does not keep the reader from frantically turning pages to see how it gets there.

In addition to the epic romance, and more important than that romance in the long run, The Stars Undying is also the story of the decline and fall of empire. As it begins, as it began, when Cleopatra rolled out of that rug – or more likely rose out of a sack – Rome was at the peak of its power. Just as Ceiao is when Gracia emerges from her carpet at Ceirran’s feet.

The thing about being at the peak of something is that from that highest point there is only one direction to go. Down. So this story is not about the crest of the peak but about the tip over it and into the decline that will inevitably follow – even if the principals can’t see it. Not yet anyway.

So the romance is how we get into this story, but that beginning takes us deeply into what one writer called “the romance of political agency” as we watch Gracia and Cierran jockey for power within their relationship and attempt to maneuver their way through and around the pitfalls of the densely factional political climate of Ceiao. An empire where the backstabbing never seems to end and Ceirran is always the target whether he recognizes it or not.

One of the fascinating things about the way that this story unfolds is just how tightly it gets wrapped around religion. Not any particular religion as we know it today, but religion and its seeming antithesis nevertheless. The Empire of Ceiao was founded on the basis of the disestablishment of ALL religions, which is carried to the point of being a religion unto itself.

Szayet, very much on the other hand, is not just a religiously backed monarchy but their religion is based on the idea that their god, Alekso Undying, lives on in an oracular artifact that is worn by each of his descendants as a symbol of their holiness and his godhood. It’s not even a myth. Gracia wears the Pearl and the spirit of Alekso within it does communicate with her frequently, often and always with disappointment in her and her actions. The only question in both the reader’s mind and Ceirran’s is whether the being she is communicating with is truly Alekso’s soul or merely his mind locked in a sophisticated machine.

That question, and both Ceirran’s and Ceiao’s reaction to any and all possible answers to it, turns out to hold the key both to his downfall and Gracia’s future in a way that surprises the reader and manages to seem inevitable at the same time. But then, all great leaders sow the seeds of their own destruction – at least in fiction.

The story in The Stars Undying reads like an unlikely amalgam of the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough, The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Elizabeth George, Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine and Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford. As a stew it shouldn’t work but most definitely does, combining the first-person perspective of the Memoirs with the deep dive into Roman history and politics of the McCullough series with the variations of the great empire not able to see or admit that it is past its prime in all three of the space opera series.

It’s not the stew that anyone would have expected but it’s absolutely glorious in its execution and now that I’ve read it I can’t help but wonder why no one got quite all the way here sooner. That the audiobook version that I listened to gave the two central figures, Gracia and Ceirran, their own separate, distinct and extremely well-acted voices was just icing on a very tasty cake.

(I had to switch to text near the end because I couldn’t bear to hear Gracia’s perspective on learning that Ceirran was gone in “her” voice, told from her internal, intimate, point of view. It would have been just too painful.)

That ending was so inevitable, based on the source material, that saying it happened does not feel like a spoiler. Howsomever, speaking of that source material, it is equally clear that the ending of The Stars Undying cannot possibly be the ending of the entire saga. This book, unbelievably the author’s debut novel, is listed as the first book in the Empire Without End duology. The second book in the duology is tentatively titled The Sea Unbounded and I can’t wait to read it whenever it appears. I might, maybe, possibly, have gotten over the book hangover from this book by then!