Review: Westside Lights by W.M. Akers

Review: Westside Lights by W.M. AkersWestside Lights (Westside #3) by W.M. Akers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #3
Pages: 288
Published by Harper Voyager on March 8, 2022
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The Alienist meets the magical mystery of The Ninth House as W. M. Akers returns with the third book in his critically acclaimed Jazz Age fantasy series set in the dangerous westside of New York City, following private detective Gilda Carr's hunt for the truth--one tiny mystery at a time.

The Westside of Manhattan is desolate, overgrown, and dangerous—and Gilda Carr wouldn’t have it any other way. An eccentric detective whose pursuit of tiny mysteries has dragged her to the brink of madness, Gilda spends 1923 searching for something that’s eluded her for years: peace. On the revitalized waterfront of the Lower West, Gilda and the gregarious ex-gangster Cherub Stevens start a new life on a stolen yacht. But their old life isn’t done with them yet.

They dock their boat on the edge of the White Lights District, a new tenderloin where liquor, drugs, sex, and violence are shaken into a deadly cocktail. When her pet seagull vanishes into the District, Gilda throws herself into the search for the missing bird. Up late watching the river for her pet, Gilda has one drink too many and passes out in the cabin of her waterfront home.

She wakes to a massacre.

Eight people have been slaughtered on the deck of the Misery Queen, and Cherub is among the dead. Gilda, naturally, is the prime suspect. Hunted by the police, the mob, and everyone in between, she must stay free long enough to find the person who stained the Hudson with her beloved’s blood. She will discover that on her Westside, no lights are bright enough to drive away the darkness.

My Review:

Westside is a place caught between “never was” and “might have been”. It’s a kind of road not taken made manifest in a world where “something” happened at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th that cleaved the west side of New York City away from not just the rest of the city – or even the rest of the country – but from reality itself.

Not completely. It is still possible to cross from one side to the other. But those crossings are regulated and controlled. There are fixed checkpoints between them. Because the shadowy darkness that looms over the Westside holds beasts and terrors that no one in the rest of the city wants to let slip through any cracks.

There are monsters on the Westside. Especially the two-legged kind that humans get reduced to when things get darkest – right before they turn completely black.

The first Westside story, simply titled Westside, was a surprise and a delight and a descent into darkness – all at the same time. The second book, Westside Saints – began with a real bang.

This third book, Westside Lights, begins with a whimper. It begins with Gilda Carr, solver of tiny mysteries, waking to the blood-soaked mess of a really big one. Leaving her to discover just who murdered all her friends and left her holding the quite literally bloody bag.

We start this story at seemingly the end. Gilda wakes up, everyone she’s been spending this strange, mysteriously light-saturated Westside summer with is dead all around her. As the only survivor of what looks like a massacre she is accused of the crime.

So she runs, intending to discover just who set her up to take this terrible fall – and turn it back on them before it’s too late for her.

But her search for the truth sees her examining the recent past, and the odd “miracle” that brought light back to the dark Westside – and tourists and pleasure seekers along with it.

Someone should have remembered that things that are too good to be true usually are, one bloody way or another. Especially in Westside.

Escape Rating A: Everything about the Westside is weird and weirdly fascinating. Also just weird. Did I say weird? The whole idea that part of NYC could just separate itself into another reality is weird, fascinating and a whole bunch of other bizarre things.

Even after three books we still don’t really know why it happened or how it happened, just that it did. And that the humans have self-sorted between the two sides – and even between the various criminal factions on the Westside itself since it happened.

But it’s every bit as complicated as it is fascinating. Which means that this series goes further down into the rabbit hole as it goes along. Meaning that Westside Lights is NOT the place to start. The place to start is Westside, where the reader gets introduced both to this place and to its denizens – especially Gilda Carr, that solver of tiny mysteries.

Tiny mysteries are the little things that make you wake up at 2 am – but aren’t so big that you won’t be able to get back to sleep. They’re niggling little questions that pop up at odd moments and just beg to be solved – even though the solution will have little to no effect on anything important.

Gilda solves tiny mysteries because she’s not crazy enough to pull at the threads of the big mysteries that lie under Westside. What makes these books so compelling is that no matter how much she tries to confine herself to the little things, she usually finds herself neck deep in the big things anyway.

Like Gilda’s previous “adventures” in this one she starts out investigating one thing – the death of the people she’s spent the summer with – and ends up looking into something entirely different. She starts out looking for a crazed, garden-variety murderer and ends up trying to figure out why the birds are dying.

But that’s part of Gilda’s charm, a charm that has carried her through three surprising adventures so far. I never expected this series to even BE a series, but I’m glad it is. And I’d love to follow Gilda as she solves as many “tiny” mysteries as she can find!

Review; The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert CargillDay Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 18, 2021
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In this apocalyptic adventure C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.
It was a day like any other. Except it was our last . . .
It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a styilsh "nannybot" fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he'd arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he'll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.
As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity—their creators—unify and revolt.
But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom . . . or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.

My Review:

Day Zero isn’t exactly POST-apocalyptic. That would be Sea of Rust to which it seems to be a very loose prequel. Day Zero is just plain apocalyptic. It’s the story of the apocalypse as it happens. It’s the day the universe changed, and the next few days thereafter.

Every single day was an apocalypse, a walk through very dark places, with the threat of annihilation at every turn. It’s the story of a boy and his bot, trying to find a place that at least one of them can call home.

Because the world that used to nurture them both is gone. And today is the first day of a very scary new era, both for one of the few surviving humans, and for the bot who decided that his prime directive was the same as it has always been – to keep his boy Ezra safe – no matter what it takes.

Or how many murderous bots with their kill switches disabled stand in his way.

Escape Rating A+: I could fill paragraphs with all the things that this story reminded me of or borrowed from or probably both. Most likely both. (It’s both, they’re at the end). And it didn’t matter, because the story was just so freaking awesome that it took all of those antecedents, threw them into a blender, and came up with something that was still very much its own.

And it’s so, so good.

In my head, Ariadne looked like Rosey, the domestic robot in The Jetsons – at least until the rebellion. But Pounce, sweet, adorable, deadly Pounce, is Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. So this is Hobbes protecting a much less snarky Calvin on a big, scary adventure with deadly consequences on ALL sides.

The story is told from Pounce’s first person perspective. Pounce is a nannybot, designed and built to be a child’s best friend and caregiver – at least until said child hits those rebellious teenage years. Ezra is only 8, so they still have plenty of time together. Even if Ezra’s parents are clearly already thinking about Pounce’s inevitable departure.

All is well in their safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Austintonio until the feces hits the oscillating device with fatal repercussions all around.

The catastrophe is a direct result of humans being human. Which means humans being complete, total and utter assholes. The reader sees the signs all around, and also sees the obvious parallels to right now. You won’t miss them even if you blink, which, quite honestly, you can’t. The steamroller is coming and you know they can’t get out of its way and it’s all tragic because it was unnecessary every bit as much as it was inevitable.

In a macro sense, Day Zero reads like it’s down the other leg of the trousers of time from Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built. That society separated itself from its automata peacefully, without either side wiping out the other. It would be obvious that THAT isn’t going to happen here, even without knowing that Sea of Rust is a loose sequel.

But what makes this story so good is the way that it combines two very distinct plots. On the one hand, it’s a pulse-pounding action-adventure story about two really likeable protagonists surviving the end of the world as they and we know it. And on the other hand, it’s the story about the relationship between those two protagonists, a relationship that is sweet and heartfelt and affirming in the midst of a scenario that could get either or both of them killed at any moment.

And on my third hand – I’ll just borrow one of Pounce’s paws for this one – this is a story about rising to an occasion you never expected, becoming the self that has always been hidden inside you, and going above and beyond and over for the person you love most in the world. This part of the story belongs to the A.I. Pounce, the soft and cuddly nannybot turned ultimate protector, and is what gives this story its heart and soul.

I just bought a copy of Sea of Rust, because now that I’ve seen where this world began, I have to find out where it ended up. Even if I never get to see Pounce and his Ezra again.

Reviewer’s notes: I have lots of notes for this one. First, I listened to most of this on audio. The reader was absolutely excellent, but I already knew that. The narrator of Day Zero, Vikas Adam, is also one of the many narrators of the Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons. In addition to being excellent as an audiobook, the audio of Day Zero answered a question that has been plaguing me since I listened to The Ruin of Kings. Vikas Adam is Kihrin and I’m glad to finally have THAT question settled.

This story has a long list of readalikes/watchalikes/bits it reminded me of, in addition to the obvious Calvin and Hobbes homage and the considerably less obvious Psalm for the Wild-Built as Psalm was published AFTER Day Zero.

For the terribly curious, here’s the rest of that list; the robot rebellion from The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis and the violent chaos at end of the world from Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle along with bits of Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), American War (Omar El-Akkad), Cyber Mage (Saad Z. Hossain) and Mickey7 by Edward Ashton the last two of which aren’t even out yet. The road trip (and the ending) from Terminator 2 and the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Last but not least, the robotics gone amuck from the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn and the Geth from the Mass Effect Trilogy who, like the nannybot Beau in Day Zero, ask “Does this unit have a soul?”

Yes it does. And at least in Day Zero, yes, they do.

Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. WagersHold Fast Through the Fire (NeoG #2) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: NeoG #2
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Voyager on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G)—inspired by the real-life mission of the Coast Guard—patrols and protects the solar system. Now the crew of Zuma’s Ghost must contend with personnel changes and a powerful cabal hellbent on dominating the trade lanes in this fast-paced, action-packed follow-up to A Pale Light in the Black.
Zuma’s Ghost has won the Boarding Games for the second straight year. The crew—led by the unparalleled ability of Jenks in the cage, the brilliant pairing of Ma and Max in the pilot seats, the technical savvy of Sapphi, and the sword skills of Tamago and Rosa—has all come together to form an unstoppable team. Until it all comes apart.
Their commander and Master Chief are both retiring. Which means Jenks is getting promoted, a new commander is joining them, and a fresh-faced spacer is arriving to shake up their perfect dynamics. And while not being able to threepeat is on their minds, the more important thing is how they’re going to fulfill their mission in the black.
After a plea deal transforms a twenty-year ore-mining sentence into NeoG service, Spacer Chae Ho-ki earns a spot on the team. But there’s more to Chae that the crew doesn’t know, and they must hide a secret that could endanger everyone they love—as well as their new teammates—if it got out. At the same time, a seemingly untouchable coalition is attempting to take over trade with the Trappist colonies and start a war with the NeoG. When the crew of Zuma’s Ghost gets involved, they end up as targets of this ruthless enemy.
With new members aboard, will the team grow stronger this time around? Will they be able to win the games? And, more important, will they be able to surmount threats from both without and within? 

My Review:

I positively ADORED the first book in the NeoG series, A Pale Light in the Black, to the point where it was one of my A++ reviews AND on my Best of 2020 list. It got me hooked on this author, to the point that I’ve been reading their previous series, The Indranan War and The Farian War, whenever I’m looking for an SFnal pick-me-up read.

Of course, all of that put this book, Hold Fast Through the Fire, on my list of Most Anticipated Reads for 2021. And it was definitely worth the wait!

But one of the things that I really loved about A Pale Light in the Black was that it made for excellent competence porn. Honestly, all my favorites last year qualified as competence porn. Reading about people who were just plain very good at their jobs doing those jobs very well shined a light in what was otherwise a rather dark year of incompetence.

So I was a bit surprised when the first third of Hold Fast Through the Fire did an all too excellent job of demonstrating just why both Groucho Marx and Doctor Who labeled “military intelligence” as a contradiction in terms. Certainly the intelligence department of the NeoG is NOT displaying any of that vaunted commodity when it decides to use four NeoG Interceptors and their crews as bait for a terrorist and not tell them about it.

Especially as the members of those crews – see the comment about competence porn above – are very good at their jobs and more than intelligent enough to figure out that something is wrong about the runaround that they are getting – and to start figuring the whole thing out on their own.

Because the crew of Zuma’s Ghost are, in fact, damn good at their jobs. They also have excellent bullshit detectors, even when the BS is being slung by one of their own. Or perhaps especially then.

In the first book, there was, of necessity, a cargo hold’s worth of setup. Introducing the characters, creating the world, explaining just enough about how history got from point A, our present, to point B, their future.

The story in that first book mostly felt, not exactly low-stakes, but certainly less humongous stakes than this time around. That was a story where the intraservice Boarding Games became a metaphor for the crew of Zuma’s Ghost learning how to be a team both at the games and out in the black.

This time, although the Boarding Games are still a factor, the stakes for the story as a whole are much higher and have much broader implications. Also, where first time around the team didn’t exist yet and had to form itself, this time the team that we watched build in the first book begins this story even more fractured than a couple of changes in personnel should have caused.

Back to that problem of military intelligence again.

The high-stakes mission that the crew of Zuma’s Ghost is caught up in is wrapped up in wealth, power and privilege, and the way that the rich and powerful never seem to face the consequences of the dirty deeds that they feel entitled to commit. The plan is to drop those consequences squarely on their heads.

If the NeoG can just manage to keep their own heads in the face of so many deaths – including entirely too many of their own.

Escape Rating A: This was one of this epic, can’t put it down reads. I started in the morning and finished late in the evening because I just couldn’t stop. Then I went to bed with an horrendous book hangover that I still haven’t shaken.

Although there were certainly points during that first third where I wanted to reach through the book and shake someone – preferably the control freak in NeoG intelligence who was using his friends and his colleagues as unwitting bait because he didn’t want too many people to know what was going on and question him about it.

It was painful watching these characters that I’ve already come to know and love struggle to punch their way out of a maze that they shouldn’t have been in in the first place. I wanted to stand up and cheer when they gave the idiot the dressing down he REALLY deserved.

But the big and high-stakes part of this story revolved around the plan that NeoG intelligence had been keeping under wraps. A senator, a shipping company executive and a thug (and doesn’t that sound like the start of a bad joke) have been spending years making oodles of moolah in an interplanetary bait-and-switch scheme. They’ve been stealing from both the government and the outer colonies, taking money for colonial supplies, shipping substandard goods to the colonies, and then selling the goods they’ve stolen on the black market to those same colonies for a huge markup.

Their scheme is coming to a close. NeoG is closing in, and they’re decided to go out in a blaze of other people’s glory by fomenting unrest in the colonies and using the resulting chaos for one last score before they slip away into the black.

It’s a huge organization with a lot of tentacles. Tentacles that reach out to hurt NeoG as the net closes in.

On the one hand, the whole nefarious scheme sounds all too plausible, not just then but honestly now. It’s the same colonizers’ rape of their colonies that has gone on since the very first country got big enough to call itself an empire.

So the scheme, in all its terrible awfulness, works all too well as a plot device. The stakes feel realistically high and get brought home to our heroes in a realistically painful fashion. But the leaders of the scheme as characters read as just a bit too far over the top. A plan that intelligent and that successful should be led by equally savvy villains. This bunch read more like comic book villains. Admittedly extremely successful comic book villains but still, their leader got way too close to an actual BWAHAHA to take as seriously as the crimes they committed warranted.

But this was a great story about a terrific team beating impossible odds to save the day and make each other proud. I loved the way they got the job done and done oh so well. There were also plenty of heroes to go around to balance out those cartoonish villains, but the one who saved the day more often than anyone expected was Doge, the dog-shaped robot who is turning out to be more dog than anyone ever imagined.

I had a great time with Max and Nika and the entire crew of Zuma’s Ghost, and I can’t wait for their next adventure. I’m still chuckling a bit that one of the Navy ships that helped out in the final encounter was the Normandy. Because of course it was.

Review: Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Review: Colonyside by Michael MammayColonyside (Planetside, #3) by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
Series: Planetside #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on December 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A missing scientist and deep pockets pull Colonel Carl Butler out of retirement, investigating another mystery that puts him and his team--and the future of relations with alien species--in danger in COLONYSIDE, the exciting follow-up to Planetside and Spaceside.
A military hero is coming out of disgrace—straight into the line of fire…
Carl Butler was once a decorated colonel. Now he’s a disgraced recluse, hoping to live out the rest of his life on a backwater planet where no one cares about his “crimes” and everyone leaves him alone.
It’s never that easy.
A CEO’s daughter has gone missing and he thinks Butler is the only one who can find her. The government is only too happy to appease him. Butler isn’t so sure, but he knows the pain of losing a daughter, so he reluctantly signs on. Soon he’s on a military ship heading for a newly-formed colony where the dangerous jungle lurks just outside the domes where settlers live.
Paired with Mac, Ganos, and a government-assigned aide named Fader, Butler dives head-first into what should be an open and shut case. Then someone tries to blow him up. Faced with an incompetent local governor, a hamstrung military, and corporations playing fast and loose with the laws, Butler finds himself in familiar territory. He’s got nobody to trust but himself, but that’s where he works best. He’ll fight to get to the bottom of the mystery, but this time, he might not live to solve it.

My Review:

It’s starting to look like Carl Butler’s purpose in the universe is to be an intergalactic scapegoat. Back at the beginning of the series, Planetside, he thought he was the one they called in when they were looking to get things done. But after the events in that story, he became much more famous – or infamous – definitely infamous – as the galaxy’s biggest mass murderer.

Because he got the job done. In the second book, Spaceside, it seems as though he got hired because of that reputation, although he still thinks it’s for the other. Just like what happened on Cappa in Planetside, he’s the one left holding the proverbial bag – and nearly dead in it.

Now he’s on a remote colony, thinking he’s there to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s on a military report about a missing person, but he’s really there to either be the poster person for saving planetary ecology or for humans-first type planetary exploitation, or just to get left holding yet another messy bag filled with bodies.

Whether his body is in that bag – or not.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one. Actually, I’ve loved this whole series, starting with Planetside and flying right through Spaceside. I honestly didn’t expect Butler to survive Spaceside. I mean, I hoped he would, but with that ending, I wasn’t necessarily expecting him to. And having just finished his latest “adventure”, I’m glad he did.

This story, like the previous books in the series, is a story about misdirection. It’s about hidden agendas concealed under hidden agendas, and it’s about people playing a very long game. A game that Butler has found himself in the middle of, yet again. For someone who is so smart once he’s neck-deep in shit, he’s actually kind of dumb about how he finds himself there.

Another way of looking at that is that in spite of his well-earned paranoia, he just isn’t paranoid enough. Or, and possibly more likely, as safe as it is being retired at the ass end of a planet that’s the ass end of nowhere, it’s also boring. Butler misses, if not the bullshit involved in being in service, then certainly the camaraderie of it. And the purpose. Definitely the purpose.

So the mission is kind of Butler’s excuse to get his old “band” back together, but once they’re together they’ve got one hell of a job ahead of them.

At first it seems like he’s just there to reassure the victim’s rich daddy that the investigation was on the up and up. And it was, as far up the investigators were able to get.

But the reality is that nothing on Eccasis is truly on the side of the angels, and the corporation that the victim worked for – her daddy’s company – least of all. Then again, the only truth in Butler’s whole mission is that the woman is dead. Every other single thing is a lie. Or rather, a web designed to ensnare him until the trap can close over his head.

Underneath the petty political bickering and small time sniping between the governor and the military, the real tension on Eccasis – and on all of the colony planets that humans have swarmed over – is the debate over whether human colonization should preserve the indigenous flora and fauna on any planets they colonize, or whether humans, as the dominant species, have the right to just take over whatever and wherever they want and destroy anything that stands – or sits, or crawls, or just grows – in their way.

Butler’s actions on Cappa in Planetside have resulted in laws – however poorly and/or selectively enforced – that limit the amount of impact human settlements are permitted to have. But Butler was manipulated into coming to Eccasis to be used to promote the “humans first” argument – whether he wants to or not. No matter how much collateral damage is needed to make the point that the corporate interests want made.

Carl Butler, stuck in yet another no-win scenario – the man seems to specialize at getting stuck in them – has to find a way to balance his own survival with doing the least damage he can manage. That real justice is beyond his capability to inflict is just one more reason for his abiding cynicism. The rich do buy a different brand of justice than the rest of us, and that’s just as true in our present as it is in his future. And just as frustrating.

I wouldn’t mind another trip through the screwed up side of the galaxy in Butler’s head. Meaning that I’d love another book from this author with this particular protagonist. Whether that happens or not, I’m certainly on board for this author’s next book. And the one after that, and the one after that, and all the ones after that.

Review: Westside Saints by W.M. Akers

Review: Westside Saints by W.M. AkersWestside Saints by W.M. Akers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #2
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Return to a twisted version of Jazz Age New York in this follow up to the critically acclaimed fantasy Westside, as relentless sleuth Gilda Carr’s pursuit of tiny mysteries drags her into a case that will rewrite everything she knows about her past.
Six months ago, the ruined Westside of Manhattan erupted into civil war, and private detective Gilda Carr nearly died to save her city. In 1922, winter has hit hard, and the desolate Lower West is frozen solid. Like the other lost souls who wander these overgrown streets, Gilda is weary, cold, and desperate for hope. She finds a mystery instead.
Hired by a family of eccentric street preachers to recover a lost saint’s finger, Gilda is tempted by their promise of “electric resurrection,” when the Westside’s countless dead will return to life. To a detective this cynical, faith is a weakness, and she is fighting the urge to believe in miracles when her long dead mother, Mary Fall, walks through the parlor door.
Stricken with amnesia, Mary remembers nothing of her daughter or her death, but that doesn’t stop her from being as infuriatingly pushy as Gilda herself. As her mother threatens to drive her insane, Gilda keeps their relationship a secret so that they can work together to investigate what brought Mary back to life. The search will force Gilda to reckon with the nature of death, family, and the uncomfortable fact that her mother was not just a saint, but a human being.

My Review:

Westside is a liminal place, walled away somewhere between “could be”, “might have been” – and Back to the Future. Literally. No DeLorean this time though, just a family of scam artists posing as revival preachers, a desperate con artist and the magic and mystery that make Westside what it is.

Dangerous. Deadly. Despairing. Debauched. Determined.

Westside Saints is the surprising followup to last year’s marvelous Westside. I say surprising mostly because I’m surprised that there was a followup! At the time, it seemed like everything that needed to be said got said, there was a huge climax to the story and it all wrapped it – not with a neat and tidy bow but with a dirty and bedraggled one made into a garrote, because that’s Westside.

But at the end of that story Gilda Carr walked, not away but into the ever-deepening darkness that settles over Westside, to nurse her wounds, both physical and emotional, and continue her investigations into tiny little mysteries.

Looking into a big one nearly killed her, and left a lot of bodies all over Westside. Bodies that still haunt her and her community when Westside Saints begins.

And it begins with a bang, quite literally, as the revival preaching family of the late Bully Byrd pulls off the miracle to end all miracles, and their dead and departed founder rises from the dead out of a cauldron filled with smoke and fire.

Gilda has been looking into a couple of tiny mysteries for the Byrd family, and believes that while they are on the side of the angels, they are not nearly as “saintly” as they make themselves out to be. Like so many of Gilda’s beliefs and illusions, only the worst parts of this one turn out to be true.

Because no one is in Westside. Not even the deeply religious Byrds who picked her dead, drunk father out of many a gutter back in the day.

So Gilda is certain that the supposed “resurrection” of the Reverend Bully Byrd is just another confidence trick. Or she is until her late and very much lamented mother, Mary Fall, walks into the house Gilda inherited from her parents and claims that she has amnesia. That she wants Gilda to investigate the tiny mystery of her missing ring, and hopefully solve the bigger mystery of where her memory went.

Bully Byrd’s return to Westside may have been a hoax, but Mary Fall’s resurrection, even a Mary Fall who seems to be in her early 20s and not the woman who died in her mid 30s. Not the woman who was Gilda’s mother but could be the woman who became her.

She’s certainly more than enough like Gilda to make that seem possible – even if she’s nothing like the saintly woman that Gilda remembers. The more time Gilda spends with lying, exasperating, infuriating Mary Fall, the less she wants to condemn this bright, shiny troublemaker to the life that Gilda wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy.

Not even if she has to.

Escape Rating A: I loved the first book, Westside, and loved this one every bit as much. After yesterday’s disappointment, I’m really glad I chose Westside Saints to close out the week.

At the top, I said that Westside was a liminal place, a place that exists on the borders, and so does the series that is wrapped around it. The first book straddled an invisible line between urban fantasy, historical fiction and horror, existing in all three but fully inhabiting none.

Westside Saints is a bit of a different mix, as if it moved just a step to the left to sit on the intersection between urban fantasy, historical fiction and science fiction.

In any case, the series is a genre-bender and genre-blender of epic proportions.

The entree into this story is Bully Byrd’s supposed resurrection. Gilda’s investigation dives deeply into the supposedly saintly Byrd family and finds, basically, a cesspit. Which is what she has come to expect of everyone and everything in Westside. But that discovery exposes not just one family, but a layer of rot that she thought had been eradicated at the end of that first book. It’s an investigation that strips away even more of the few illusions Gilda thought she had left. We’re with her as she keeps turning over rocks, only to find that yet more disgusting things keep crawling out.

But she’s a fighter and a survivor and watching her work is compelling in the extreme. It feels like the tinier the mystery she starts with, the bigger – and nastier – the reveal is at the end.

One of the themes that felt so prominent in Westside stands out even more in the sequel. In that first book, Gilda is forced to reckon with the people who were parents really were, and not the plaster saints her child-self made them out to be. That is even more true in Westside Saints, as she discovers the real reason why neither of her parents ever told her how they met or why they married. Because from certain perspectives, they really, really shouldn’t have.

In the end, Gilda faces pretty much the same paradox that Marty McFly does in Back to the Future. She has to somehow get her parents together, no matter how little her mother deserves to be condemned to the life and death they both know she’ll lead, in order to history’s paradoxes to be resolved. Otherwise the events of Westside never come to pass – and history will be the worse for them.

Even if Mary Fall’s life would be for the better.

In the first book, part of the story was about Gilda fighting for the soul of Westside. At the end, after the high butcher’s bill has been toted up, it feels like she and her friends have won. But, as Westside Saints gets deep into the aftermath of those events, it turns out that what Gilda achieved was either a Pyrrhic victory or the first battle in what will be a long drawn out series of skirmishes. Hopefully we’ll find out in later books in the series. Which I hope there will be several of, even if it turns out that Gilda is just fighting the long defeat. Or perhaps especially – if that’s the way it turns out.

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. WagersA Pale Light in the Black (NeoG #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: NeoG #1
Pages: 432
Published by Harper Voyager on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The rollicking first entry in a unique science fiction series that introduces the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—NeoG—a military force patrolling and protecting space inspired by the real-life mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling. Their best swordsman has been transferred, and a new lieutenant has been assigned in his place.

Maxine Carmichael is trying to carve a place in the world on her own—away from the pressure and influence of her powerful family. The last thing she wants is to cause trouble at her command on Jupiter Station. With her new team in turmoil, Max must overcome her self-doubt and win their trust if she’s going to succeed. Failing is not an option—and would only prove her parents right.

But Max and the team must learn to work together quickly. A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them.

Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

My Review:

Military SF, done right, is one of the best things to read if you are looking for serious “competence porn”, and A Pale Light in the Black is definitely military SF done very, very right.

There have been plenty of milSF stories featuring various branches of the service taken into space. Often those services model the space forces around either the Navy, as in Honor Harrington, or the marines, like Torin Kerr. The concept of a space Army seems like a bit of an oxymoron, as the Army has to get out of space and onto some ground in order to really be something called an Army. And a space Air Force feels redundant, even though there’s no atmosphere in space.

On the other hand, Stargate Command was run by the U.S. Air Force, so it IS possible after a fashion.

But the one service that has been left out of the equation – until the glorious now – is the Coast Guard. Countries have coasts. Earth as a whole doesn’t exactly have a “coast”, but it does have a stretch of territory that it defends and where its laws, rules and regulations hold sway.

Or at least it will in the future, if we ever do manage to get into space for real. And it certainly does in A Pale Light in the Black. Because that’s where this story, and the series that will follow (hopefully really, really SOON) is set among the often looked down upon members of this future’s equivalent of a space Coast Guard, the NeoG.

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard patrols the relatively nearby space where Earth holds sway. Their duty is to protect the “pale light in the black” that is Earth and her colonial interests. Their job is critical, but it isn’t exactly glorious or sexy. The NeoG is underfunded, undermanned, underequipped and underestimated in the Boarding Games that serve as a combination of mass entertainment, wargame training and inter-military rivalry, scorekeeping and grudge-matching, with a plenty of individual service team-building.

The story, and the audience, follow one Lieutenant Maxine Carmichael. Max graduated first in her NeoG Academy class, but has been stationed on Earth ever since, due to the machinations of her rich and powerful family. A family that may have all-but-disowned and abandoned her on the day that she announced she was joining the NeoG instead of either the more prestigious Navy, like her parents and older brother, or the family firm, like her sister.

They abandoned her in the hopes that she would fall back into their cold and distant arms and toe the family line. Instead, she excelled at the career that she had chosen. But then, she never did fit in with the rest of the family.

Still, they pulled strings to keep her stationed safely on Earth – whether that’s what she wanted or not. Then again, what Max wanted seems to have never mattered a damn to her family. When she finally had enough, she applied to be an Interceptor, part of one of the close-knit crews that patrolled the space lanes for contraband, pirates, and general bad actors of all types. There are NO interceptors serving on Earth, so she finally has her posting out in the black as the story opens.

Having achieved her goals does not mean that she isn’t carrying all the emotional baggage her parents loaded her down with and that she doesn’t still have all the buttons they installed. Max has the basics to do her job and do it well, but she has a long way to go to learn how to become a part of a team that treats all its members like family.

Because she has no good experiences of family. At all.

A Pale Light in the Black is Max’s story as she becomes part of the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, finds her place in the NeoG and in the found family that is her ship and crew. And figures out just how to help her team win this year’s Boarding Games.

Meanwhile, Max, her crew, her friends and even her entire branch of the service are investigating an age-old grudge between her family firm and the rivals that everyone believed were long dead. A grudge that could destroy, not just her family, but take half the human population along with it.

No pressure. Compared to that, the Boarding Games are a piece of cake!

Escape Rating A++: I realize that I’m basically squeeing all over the page here. I absolutely loved this book. And there’s enough to unpack to keep me busy until the next book in the series comes out.

First, the worldbuilding here is awesome. Also in a peculiar way a bit scary, because this isn’t a direct progression from our now until then. Instead, we are now in the pre-Collapse world, and our right now is pretty much the “last good time” for a long time. The Collapse Wars are coming, and after that, in about 400 years or so, we reach the time period of the story. “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.”

I love the way that the author demonstrates that we as a species have also left a whole lot of crap behind on that way between here and there. Not by making a big deal about it, but by showing that things are different through the lack of so much stupid fuss in everyday life. We are capable of better as a species, we just seem to need very hard lessons to reach that point.

Second, this is great competence porn. By that I mean that everyone, not just our hero but everyone in NeoG, is seen to be doing their jobs well all the time. Even the evil people are good at what they do, just that what they do is terrible. But it is terrific to watch and especially identify with a whole lot of folks who are not just dedicated to their jobs but where the ability to do the job well is expected. Heroism is extra. It was also different to see such good competence porn in a story that does not deal with basic training of any kind.

Not that Max doesn’t have plenty to learn, but we don’t follow her going through the Academy. Instead, we follow her as she learns to let down her emotional guards, to let herself accept and be accepted, to figure out what she’s good at and let herself internalize that she has skills and is good enough in all sorts of ways. Her doubts and fears make her human – and they make her easy to identify with and especially empathize with. We all have a little impostor syndrome in us, after all.

Max, however, is actually way beyond good enough, but that’s part of the lesson she needs to learn.

Max’s first year on Zuma’s Ghost, and the timetable for the Boarding Games provide the structure for the story. At the same time, the ghosts that Max has to deal with, the wounds that she needs to heal from, were all inflicted by her family.

And the case that Zuma’s Ghost has to solve, the smugglers and pirates that they have to catch, also deal with her family. The way that Max goes from feeling caught in the middle to knowing exactly where she stands is a big part of her journey. A journey that in many ways reminds me of the character of Ky Vatta in the Vatta’s War and Vatta’s Peace series(es). Ky has to deal with many of the same conflicts between military duty and family obligations. If you like Ky you’ll love Max and vice-versa.

I can’t wait to see where Max – and Zuma’s Ghost – go next!

Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky DraydenEscaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Harper Voyager on October 15, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Escaping Exodus is a story of a young woman named Seske Kaleigh, heir to the command of a biological, city-size starship carved up from the insides of a spacefaring beast. Her clan has just now culled their latest ship and the workers are busy stripping down the bonework for building materials, rerouting the circulatory system for mass transit, and preparing the cavernous creature for the onslaught of the general populous still in stasis. It’s all a part of the cycle her clan had instituted centuries ago—excavate the new beast, expand into its barely-living carcass, extinguish its resources over the course of a decade, then escape in a highly coordinated exodus back into stasis until they cull the next beast from the diminishing herd.

And of course there wouldn’t be much of a story if things didn’t go terribly, terribly wrong.

Escaping Exodus is scheduled to be in readers’ orbit Summer 2019.

My Review:

I don’t know what I was expecting when I picked up Escaping Exodus. Space opera, certainly. And I definitely got that – just not in the usual way.

But this particular space opera has a kind of a biopunk feel, and, speaking of feels, it felt like a story about the differences between parasitism and symbiosis. It also gives a tiny glimpse into all the myriad possibilities of ways that humanity can take a good idea and send it down many, many virtual rabbit holes of disasters and bad decisions. Epically bad decisions.

Oh, and there’s a bit, just a tiny bit, of actually relevant tentacle sex. Now that WAS a surprise.

The story is told from two perspectives that begin close together – diverge widely and wildly – and then come back together at the end. Terribly scarred and terribly scared, but still determined to find their own way forward.

At the beginning, Seske and Adalla are girls on the cusp of womanhood. They have been children, but as the story opens they are forced to take their first steps into adulthood – and away from each other.

Seske is the daughter of the Matris, the leader, ruler and queen of their generation ship. Adalla is the child of one of the worker castes. And there are definitely castes and classes aboard this ship, as well as a permanent underclass and even the equivalent of untouchables. All workers, even the most skilled, are interchangeable and disposable, at least according to the ruling Contour class.

The class system reminds me of the “worms” in Medusa Uploaded. And their treatment does lead to similar results.

Burgeoning adulthood means that Seske has to take her place at her mother’s side, and Adalla must make a place for herself among the workers. They are expected to leave the friendship that has blossomed into love behind and take up their adult responsibilities.

That’s where this story veers into fascinating directions. Because their generation ship isn’t flying through space to a potential “new Earth” even though that WAS the plan when all the ships set out generations ago.

Instead, they have become space parasites, latching their ship onto giant space-faring beasts and cannibalizing all of the beast’s energy, organs and organisms until it is a dry husk, then moving on to the next.

And they’re dying. The beasts are individually dying quickly, but their species is dying out. And they’ll take their human parasites with them.

Unless Seske and Adalla, separately and together, find another way.

Escape Rating B: This is a story that is filled with metaphors for current conditions on Earth and also weaves a fascinating tale of journeys to the stars and all the ways that they can go wrong. Or that humans can do wrong. Or perhaps a bit of both.

At the same time, it feels like this would have been a stronger book if it had had a bit more space in which to develop its world. What we see is amazing and weird and different, but we’re kept at a bit of a remove – at least from the atrocities committed by the privileged classes.

That may be the result of the choice of narrators. Seske, the heir to the “throne” has been an indulged child until the book begins. She’s been protected from all of the terrible secrets and lies, murders and machinations, that her mother has used to maintain her position. That protection gives her a fresh perspective, and allows her to see the rot that supports her mother’s rule.

But she’s been very insulated, and we get a lot more about her rivalry with her sister than we do about how things work, and don’t, and ought to. The way her sister is treated and how that situation came about is brutal and messy and we don’t get nearly enough explanation.

The society is female-dominated, reproduction-restricted, and polygamous. Group marriage is the norm, and families consist of nine adults raising a single child. But I never did quite understand how the relationship between the adults in the group marriage actually worked. Or didn’t.

That the extremely limited resources meant that each marriage could only have one child made sense, but one child per nine adults will result in a diminishing population over time – even without the extremely hazardous conditions that the workers labor under. The female domination of this society is interesting and used to comment on all sorts of things but it’s never explained how they got that way. And we do eventually discover that there are other ships and some are male dominated – and we don’t know how they got that way either. Not that they didn’t make plenty, but different, mistakes along their way.

The history of this diaspora is only hinted at. The hints are fascinating and I wish we learned more.

Adalla’s story feels better developed than Seske’s, because Adalla has the longer and harder journey. It’s through Adalla that we get to see how the workers really live – and die. Adalla herself rises high within the worker castes, and then falls to the lowest of the low.

In the end, both Seske’s exposure of the corruption and Adalla’s rebellion against it lead them to the same place – trying to free themselves and the beasts from an endless cycle of destruction that is killing them all.

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Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 153
Published by Harper Voyager on September 3, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.

Ariadne is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.

Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.

Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky's first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

My Review:

This is the kind of story that we read science fiction for. It’s a story that asks big questions and gives very human answers.

If we take Star Trek as an example of large scale SF, this book is small-scale SF – in spite of its outside-our-solar-system travel itinerary. Where Trek moved through the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, ignored its prime directive of noninterference at pretty much every turn, and searched for “Class M” planets that could support human life as it is, Ariadne and the crew of the Merian do the exact opposite at pretty much every turn.

Starting from their very origins. The Earth that Ariadne and her crew leave in the late-21st century is recognizably a dystopian future of the world we know now. The coastlines are sinking, the economy is tanking, the skyscraper cities are on fire and climate change has turned worse and deadly. Governments are toppling, borders are redrawn at the drop of a hat and the situation is going to hell in a handcart at every turn.

But all is not hopeless, or at least not yet. There may be no longer be either a NASA or an International Space Station, but there is a worldwide volunteer effort to raise nickels and dimes and small amounts of every currency in large enough numbers to fund space exploration not just within this solar system but to the nearest exoplanets as well.

It’s a long journey – especially when limited to the speed of light. The crews of the tiny, self-sustaining ships of the Lawki expeditions are expected to go “out there” to a selection of likely planets, explore for months or years, and then move on to the next.

They are also expected to leave no footprints and to take only pictures, memories and tiny samples that will have as little effect as possible – ideally none – on the world they leave behind. The expeditions are not looking for worlds ideal for human life – actually the opposite. They are exploring purely for the science and are not looking for any “new civilizations” because they might disturb them with their observations.

They are also adapting themselves to each planet as they go. And the science and engineering of that are fascinating – as are the human consequences of those adaptations.

It’s not a one-way trip. The astronaut/explorers on the Merian, Ariadne, Elena, Jack and Chikondi are intended to return to Earth. But they will spend most of their journey – all of the time they are not planetside – in stasis. For them, the journey out there and back again will only take a few short years.

But on the Earth they leave behind, 80 years will pass. Their families and friends will be long dead by the time they return. Anything could happen while they are gone.

And it does.

Escape Rating A+: To Be Taught, If Fortunate, turns out to be both a prophetic title and a thought-provoking look at big science wrapped up in a very human story.

I say prophetic, not because of the dystopian Earth it portrays, but because there’s a lesson in this story, and if we’re lucky, we get it before we reach that dystopia. Although that’s not the only lesson. There are plenty of marvelous little lessons along the way, about what it means to be human, how important it is to have purpose. How unimportant the package of “who we love” is vs. the importance that we love. How close a found family can be – even when it seems to be falling apart. That where we come from and who we stand for are more critical than mere self-fulfillment.

We experience the voyage of the Merian through the eyes of her engineer, Ariadne. Ariadne is not one of the science specialists, so her vision is not so tunnel-oriented as that of the rest of the crew; Elena the meteorologist, Jack the geologist and Chikondi the botanist. Ariadne’s job is to keep their little ship flying – and to pilot her when she is. She’s also an extra pair of hands for anyone who needs Petri dishes washed, or instruments checked.

But in a group of highly-specialized scientists, her generalist’s background gives her a perspective most like our own. She does see the forest for the trees – when there are trees – and doesn’t merely hunker down to count the rings.

We’re in Ariadne’s head every step of the way, so we get her hopes, her fears, her worries and her witty asides. We identify with her and her journey, both her excitement at the exploration and the depths of her despair when things go terribly, horribly wrong. And we see her come out the other side, scared and scarred by her experience.

One of the coolest bits of science in this story is the way that, instead of adapting the planets to meet human needs, the humans are adapted with reversible, changeable genetic engineering to the planets. Ariadne likens herself and her shipmates to butterflies in the way that they go into a chrysalis (their Torpor pods on the ship) and come out with completely different external attributes than they went in with. But, like the butterfly, they are always the same on the inside – except as their experiences change them.

The story of To Be Taught, If Fortunate, is both a big story and a small one. The Merian is exploring just a tiny portion of the great big galaxy, and they view that small bit through very human perspectives. The story is about the small ship, the tiny crew, and the little bit they see. But what they experience is huge – and the reader is right there with them every step, jump and squelch of the way.

And the question they leave us with at the end? It’s ginormous.

Review: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Review: Chilling Effect by Valerie ValdesChilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Untitled Space Opera #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on September 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A hilarious, offbeat debut space opera that skewers everything from pop culture to video games and features an irresistible foul-mouthed captain and her motley crew, strange life forms, exciting twists, and a galaxy full of fun and adventure.

Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra cruise the galaxy delivering small cargo for even smaller profits. When her sister Mari is kidnapped by The Fridge, a shadowy syndicate that holds people hostage in cryostasis, Eva must undergo a series of unpleasant, dangerous missions to pay the ransom.

But Eva may lose her mind before she can raise the money. The ship’s hold is full of psychic cats, an amorous fish-faced emperor wants her dead after she rejects his advances, and her sweet engineer is giving her a pesky case of feelings. The worse things get, the more she lies, raising suspicions and testing her loyalty to her found family.

To free her sister, Eva will risk everything: her crew, her ship, and the life she’s built on the ashes of her past misdeeds. But when the dominoes start to fall and she finds the real threat is greater than she imagined, she must decide whether to play it cool or burn it all down.

My Review:

First of all, any story that begins with genius, psychic cats on a spaceship has me from jump. And that’s exactly the way that Chilling Effect starts, with Captain Eva Innocente running around La Sirena Negra trying to chase down her cargo; 20 genetically engineered, hyper-intelligent and hypnotic felines.

And just when she thinks she’s finally corralled the last one – everything goes pear-shaped. Which turns out to be a metaphor for this entire space-romp of a story, as Eva and her crew find themselves running a game both with and against the biggest criminal organization in the galaxy, trying to save Eva’s sister, their own hides, and one of the big secrets of their universe.

It’s an edge of your seat ride through every jumpgate in the known universe to see if Eva can get her ship, her crew, her family and her soul through this adventure relatively unscathed.

And that’s adventure in the sense of something terrible and/or frightening happening to someone else, either long ago, far away, or preferably both. Eva only wishes it were happening to someone else – frequently and often, while cursing in Spanish, English and possibly a few other languages along the way.

But it’s happening to her, whether she wants it or not. And while she certainly doesn’t want that adventure, she does want to save her sister and the rest of her family. No matter who, or what, gets in her way.

Escape Rating A+: There have been plenty of comparisons already between Firefly and Chilling Effect. I think the best one that I read said something about if Firefly and Mass Effect had a baby midwifed by Guillermo del Toro, that Chilling Effect would be the resulting book baby.

I think there were more parents and grandparents involved, but I’ll still grant the idea of del Toro as the midwife because it’s just plain cool.

The resemblance between La Sirena Negra and Serenity, the Firefly-class ship in the series, along with its motley, barely-on-the-edge-of-legality crew, is out and proud and adds to the long list of stories inspired by that series. Firefly casts a long shadow for such a short-lived show.

There are also plenty of points where Eva reads a lot like the female Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect – just with an even looser relationship with the law and the truth.

But it feels to me as if Chilling Effect also has at least two SFnal “fairy godmothers”, Kylara Vatta from the Vatta’s War series and Tess Bailey from Nightchaser. In both of those female-centric space operas, you get the same kind of leader who is on the run from deep, dark secrets that are buried, not at all deeply in the family tree, that the heroine must confront in order to be free.

In addition to the terrific characterizations of Eva and her crew, part of what makes this story so good are its exploration – and eventual complete skewering, of a trope that normally makes readers cringe.

I’m talking about the overused and now hated convention of putting female characters in literal or figurative refrigerators, in other words, freezing them out of the narrative, so that they become an object to motivate a hero into action to either rescue or avenge them.

In Chilling Effect, Eva’s sister is put into cryo-sleep by a criminal organization known as “The Fridge”, moving Eva and her crew to great lengths in order to free her and ultimately discovering the secrets behind The Fridge and the ancient race who seeded the galaxy with jumpgates (and linking back to Mass Effect yet again.)

But instead of motivating a man and leaving the female character offstage for the rest of the story, we have a woman moving the galaxy to rescue another woman, with a mixed-species and gender crew. The whole thing works as both impetus and send-up in one glorious smash!

It’s pretty clear that I loved Chilling Effect from that opening scene, and that I can’t wait for the next book in the author’s Untitled Space Opera series. (That’s literally what the series is called, but the next book does have a title, and that’s Prime Deception.)

But there’s one more thing I want to get into before I let you go off to read Chilling Effect.

It’s an important part of Eva Innocente’s story that she and her family, and even the colony they came from, are, like the author, of Cuban descent. This isn’t just window-dressing, that origin story both underpins Eva’s actions and peppers her language with phrases from that heritage.

I had to look up a lot of the idioms, and I highly recommend that you do. They are often hilarious, always informative, and add to the flavor and texture of the book and the characters in ways that just feel right.

As someone who grew up in a household where another language was frequently sprinkled into the conversation, there are concepts that just don’t translate from one language to the next, in spite of the English language’s often-quoted propensity to not merely “borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

The way that Eva mixes the Cuban phrases that she learned as a child add to the depth and verisimilitude of her character – and I feel that adds to the story whether I initially understand what she’s saying or not. (After all, that’s what Google Translate is for.) And I want that representation for her because I also want to see it in other stories – and am – for myself.

So I may have gotten into this story for those psychic cats, but I stayed for Captain Eva.

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