A Voyage Through Air (The Queen of Dreams III) – Peter F. Hamilton

Following immediately after The Hunting of the Princes, the final volume of the trilogy takes our protagonists to the realm of air, where rocky islands drift weightlessly in a vast ocean of air, and ships ply between the, dodging storms and monsters. Taggie, Jemima and the others are in a race with time to find Myrlin’s Gate in the hope it will end the looming conflict between dark universe peoples, and bring peace to the realms.

The last book is a breathless, almost relentless race against time. But Mr. Hamilton doesn’t lose track of character development. Taggie, Jemima, Lantic and Felix especially grow change during their adventures. There are several gems among secondary characters as well, especially the flamboyant Captain Rebecca. While the books have all the trappings of fantasy, Mr. Hamilton’s science fiction roots are showing, especially in this last book. The worldbuilding is imaginative, whimsical and awe-inspiring.

The Hunting of the Princes (The Queen of Dreams II) – Peter F. Hamilton

After the somewhat standalone narrative of The Secret Throne, Taggie and Jemima are back in England. After a series of assassination attempts against royals, they must face a threat not only to the First Realm, but to all the realms. The adventure takes them to the occupied Fourth Realm, where winter and evil reign.

The second book in the series is more complex and more exciting than the first, as if Mr. Hamilton is becoming more comfortable with the fantasy medium. The story is both engaging and thought provoking, as characters of supposed integrity find their beliefs and ethics challenged when confronted with adversity.

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse VII) – James S.A. Corey

Thirty years after Babylon’s Ashes, Earth has rebuilt, while humanity has spread across the thirteen hundred worlds beyond the gates. Comparative peace prevails. The Outer Planets Alliance has morphed into the Transport Union, which despite its own best efforts at trying not to be political, is effectively a governmental organisation. Led by Camina Drummer, Fred Johnson’s former chief of staff, the Union controls trade from Medina Station in the centre of the gate network. The crew of the Rocinante has spent decades together, carrying cargo, prisoners and messages for the Union.

One day, an old enemy re-emerges from Laconia system, where the renegade elements of the Martian fleet have spent thirty years in isolation, their doings unknown to an otherwise occupied human society. The now immensely powerful Laconians have been preparing for this moment, and they make a grand entrance.

The authors’ choice to move the narrative forward by three decades is jarring at first, but soon shows itself to be inspired. While there are no doubt plenty of stories to tell of the intervening period, having a new and powerful antagonist upset the apple cart is a more engaging story. (Nothing says the authors can’t return to the past in future novels and short stories, either.) This instalment is a real nail-biting page-turner, and one of the best books in an already excellent series. More good things should come along in the next book, as the end of this one leaves many things unresolved.

 

The Secret Throne (The Queen of Dreams I)

Taggie and Jemima are pre-teen sisters, sent off for the holidays to their apparently eccentric father who lives somewhat distant from modern society. Quite suddenly, he is kidnapped by dark forces. And the sisters discover that they are heirs to a dynasty in a very different realm.

Mr. Hamilton’s prose is as tight as ever, even when he is writing for tweens and young adults. The characters are engaging, complex and imperfect. The plot is fine, but unfortunately rather linear and predictable. A good read, but Mr. Hamilton’s efforts to make things more approachable for his expected audience have not quite worked out.

Side note: My ten-year-old daughter adored this book.

 

Artemis – Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara lives on Artemis, the only city on the Moon. She works odd jobs, but her main source of income is smuggling goods to Artemis.  It is a small town and Jazz has a deservedly poor reputation. One day, she is offered a chance to make a lot of money. Just one caper…

Following up the massive success of The Martian is a high bar. Mr. Weir seems to have completely ignored any real or implied expectations, and written Artemis much as he did his previous novel. He spent a long time meticulously researching the science behind his Moon city, and constructing a plausible, logical place to set the narrative. The world building is sometimes a bit intrusive, but for a hard science fiction fan, it remains interesting throughout.

Jazz is an interesting protagonist. She is a something of a loser. At the start of the novel, she hasn’t yet managed to lose the eyeroll attitude of a teenager who thinks the adults are out to get her. She does not always make the right choices, but her heart is in the right place. Her backstory is perhaps a bit too stereotypical, what with the hard-working, disappointed father, but it works.

Mr. Weir’s trademark dry humour and sarcasm are present throughout the prose, especially in the dialogue, making this a fun book that pulls the reader along easily.

Castaway Odyssey (Boundary V) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.

This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting.  The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.

Forged in Blood (Freehold) – Michael Z. Williamson (ed.)

This short story collection set in the Freehold Universe has an interesting twist. It follows the wanderings of a sword from prehistoric times to the far future, as she passes from owner to owner, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design. We also get to visit with Kendra Pacelli of Freehold and Ken Chinran of The Weapon and Rogue, taking up their stories years after the events in the original books. Neat.

The stories, some by Mr. Williamson himself, but by other authors, are all of high quality, with one glaring exception. The connecting device of the sentient sword, fleshed out with brief interludes by Mr. Williamson, works really well in connecting the stories and making the collection feel like whole.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss – Jason Fung

Dr. Jason Fung is a specialist in Type 2 Diabetes and obesity. The Obesity Code goes back to first principles in order to explain why people become obese, and what they can do about it.

I liked the fact that almost every bold statement in the book, of which there are many, was thoroughly researched and supported by actual data. This is not a pop-science guide with only vague foundations that “seem to make sense”. If the data doesn’t fit, Dr. Fung examines why it doesn’t, and which hypothesis would actually fit. This is tome of solid science targeted at the layman.

What I found most interesting was how complex the mechanisms controlling weight gain and loss are. I had for a long time believed strongly that input vs. output was the only answer. It seems I was wrong, or at least only partially correct. It turns out that most perceived wisdom about weight is, if not incorrect, then at least incomplete, especially if individual factors are taken in isolation. And that is perhaps the key message. You cannot take a single reaction and single it out. A holistic approach is needed.

Now to do some testing on myself.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is looking more and more like the real life Tony Stark, minus the super-powered metal suit. Self-made billionaire, innovating industrialist, visionary and working hard to save the future of the human race. Mr. Vance’s biography draws on thousands of hours of interviews with Musk, his family, his friends, his colleagues and his peers. It takes the reader from Mr. Musk’s beginnings as an awkward wunderkind to the not so distant past of early 2015. Since then, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph with ever increasing ambition, and Tesla seems on the verge of following.

The biography gets up close and personal with Musk, declining to gloss over the man’s less pleasant character traits. By all accounts he can lack empathy and is not overly concerned with coddling people. His goals are overarching and he has little patience with people who get in his way.

Even before reading this book, I had noticed a disconnect between how normal people in industry try to analyse Musk and how he actually behaves. Musk’s goals are far more long term than building successful companies. His business empire is a means to an end, not the vehicle of his chosen legacy. It is somewhat baffling that he has repeatedly and clearly stated his goals (most notably removing dependency on fossil fuels and colonising Mars to ensure humanity’s long term survival) but most people either don’t take him seriously (he’s dead serious) or try to judge him as if he were a normal person (he isn’t).

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Musk outlined his refined vision for Mars colonisation. What was interesting is that the competition is now starting to pay attention, coming up with (rather staid) ideas of its own. Ten or fifteen years ago, Musk was a weird guy with weird ideas whom the establishment could ignore. Today, his continued success at delivering on his spectacular promises has already engendered deep shifts in the areas of energy production, the automotive industry and the space launch industry. The competition is imitating and scrambling to catch up, but this was Musk’s goal all along. He always knew that Tesla wouldn’t kill all the other car manufacturers. His goal was to make all cars electric, not to have them all branded Tesla.

For the reader who wants to delve deeper into the thinking behind Musk’s ideas, I highly recommend Wait But Why’s series of excellent in depth articles.

Dark Matter (Star Carrier V) – Ian Douglas

Dark Matter continues the Star Carrier story some time after Deep Space. A new and massive alien artifact has been discovered, hinting at a population even more powerful than the Sch’daar. The conflict between the USNA and the Confederation continues. Now Admiral Grey gets a new mission.

Unfortunately, just as in Deep Space, the infodumps have taken over the asylum. The characters can’t seem to have three lines of consecutive dialogue, barring over-the-top and overlong combat communications chatter, without being interrupted by the author with a long and typically pointless exposition on physics, politics or futurism… Even more irritating is how Mr. Douglas repeats the same explanation of background, or even earlier plot points, with astounding regularity. I got about two thirds of the way through by skimming through the infodumps. Then there was a passage explaining who Stephen Hawking was and I had enough. What happened to the Ian Douglas who wrote really quite engaging military scifi? Even the first three books in this very series were pretty good.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

Monster Hunter Siege (Monster Hunter International VI) – Larry Correia

In this sixth installment of Monster Hunter International, Owen and the others have a chance to take the fight to the enemy in the Nightmare Realm, as well as attempt to rescue some of the hunters missing in action from the previous book. A major operation follows, but the story retreats from the grander scale of Monster Hunter Nemesis to a more personal struggle for Owen.

The self-deprecating humour and sarcasm from the first books is back with a vengeance and I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. Good fun.

 

S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

S.P.Q.R. charts the development of the Ancient Rome from the murkiest depths of its origin mythos to the grant of citizenship to all free men by the Emperor Caracalla in the year 212CE. Dr. Beard carefully parses fact from fiction, while deconstructing the Ancient Roman mythos still very much alive to this day.

Where this book shines is in its meticulous attention to evidence. While stories of what various Roman emperors and military heroes did are in wide circulation today, many are based on later writings which did not have access to primary sources. Certainly many historians from the Classical Era, whom are now viewed as reliable sources, seem to have tainted their writings to make a benefactor, or themselves, look better. Dr. Beard lays bare where there is only incomplete evidence, hints or plain myth. It is a fascinating book for the history buff, though I felt that the author’s style was perhaps a little too ironically British.

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

Red Vengeance (Dark Victory II) – Brendan Dubois

The second book picks up directly after Dark Victory. After the surprising events at the end of the first book, Randy is seconded to a regular army unit. And it seems that the Creepers are hunting him specifically.

While not quite as good as Dark Victory, this is a fine continuation of the story. It does raise more questions about the motivation of the Creepers, but there are clearly more books coming.

Dark Victory (Dark Victory I) – Brendan Dubois

Ten years after the Creepers attacked Earth and decimated the population, the United States is reduced to a nineteenth century existence. Any significant use of power or radio results in an orbital strike. Creepers roam the landscape in almost impregnable exoskeletons, burning and killing. Randy Knox is a sixteen year old Sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard. He has been in the service four years. A veteran soldier with several kills under his belt, but also a teenager who attends school and thinks about girls a lot. One day, Randy receives orders to escort a government emissary to the capital.

While flirting with the Young Adult genre, this feels like a more mature tale. Mr. Dubois has woven an intense story full of action, courage and desperate choices. Randy is a hero, but an imperfect one, prone to brusque outbursts and impatience. A young man hardened by years of bitter warfare. This makes him much more realistic than the more typical young adult protagonist. A great read.

Tau Zero – Poul Anderson

The sublight colony starship Leonora Christine, powered by a Bussard Ramjet, is damaged while passing through a small nebula.  The decelerator mechanism is disabled and cannot be repaired unless a region of empty space is reached. The crew elects to continue accelerating in order to find a refuge. Due to the effects time dilation as the ship claws ever closer to the speed of light, ship time and outside time become increasingly disconnected. As the months and years pass on board, eons pass outside.

Tau Zero is an acknowledged science fiction classic. Some parts have not aged too well, in particular the 1960s social mores and optimistic view of the human races’ collective rationality. Some of the content also feels a bit like padding, most likely because it started out as a short story. However it remains a well executed hard science fiction story which manages to bring home the insignificance of individuals, and even of humanity itself, when confronted with the almost unimaginable vastness of time and space.

Devil’s Due (Destroyermen XII) – Taylor Anderson

The Destroyermen series continues. This installment focuses on the African front, as the Alliance, with new friends, prepares to assault the Grik heartland. Kurokawa still remains on Zanzibar, however, and must be dealt with.

The scope of the series is becoming worryingly broad, but Mr. Anderson seems to have decided to focus on one war at a time, as it were. This allows the reader to focus on one campaign without constant and jarring flipping back and forth. The series shows no signs of slowing down, with the stakes remaining high and the action tense and exciting. A page turner.

Anathem – Neal Stephenson

On the world of Arbre, which is very much like our own, Fraa Erasmas is an Avout, a young member of the Edharian order at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Avout like him retreat for years, decades and longer into Concents, which are somewhat similar to medieval convents, but instead of being focused on religion they are focused on science. The Avout stay in the Concents in order to study and understand the physical world, unaffected by what happens in the Saecular world outside, and also because of historical events that make the Saecular world uncomfortable with giving the Avout too much power. The story begins at Apert, a regular opening of the gates. In Erasmas’s case Apert occurs every ten years since he is in the Decenarian part of the Concent. Soon after apert, Erasmas and his colleagues discover a mysterious object in orbit, and the efforts by the power that be to hide this knowledge from the Avout. What follows is a meandering quest to find the truth.

Anathem is a difficult book to describe because there is so much going on. While the story itself is not very complex, it takes us on myriad tangents and discussions. The nature of the Concents, places where Avout can concentrate on finding the truth in a rational scientific manner, means that the Avout are encouraged to engage in Dialog, structured debates. These are recounted at length in the book and the reader must pay attention to what are in essence intellectual discussions on the nature of truth, while at the same time absorbing the extensive fictional mythology and history of the world of Arbre, not to mention dozens of words in a made up vocabulary. The first third of the story is fairly narrow in its scope, but then suddenly events instigate major changes in the lives of Erasmas and his colleagues. The conclusion involves some very strange happenings indeed.

Anathem is an exploration of many themes and concepts, most notably deep time and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is also the story of a young man who wants to do the right thing by his mentor, a motivation that leads him down many unexpected roads. Erasmas’s fate is further complicated by the fact that, perhaps inevitably for a young man of his age, he is hopelessly in love with a girl. This last facet in particular helps the reader connect to the protagonist, even as the young Fraa has to explore things which will strain even his strong grasp on analysis of the natural world.

My Autobiography – Guy Martin

Guy Martin sees his profession as being a truck mechanic. On the side, he is a world-famous motorcycle racer, and a sometime TV presenter.  He is definitely something of a refreshing character among the divas of today’s media world.

This is his story, in his words.  Mr. Martin is almost brutally frank in his praise and criticism of people, including himself. he book makes you feel as if you’re having a cup of tea with the author while he is yammering away, stream of consciousness style. The man is seemingly not bothered by fame or by following a certain path in life. He simply wants to fix trucks, race motorbikes and take on any other project that tickles his fancy. The publicity around him seems to mostly make him uncomfortable. He comes from a humble background and has no interest in becoming more than a person who works hard and does things “proper”.

Dust (Silo III) – Hugh Howey

Dust picks up where Shift left off. It is now clear that the status quo cannot be maintained, at least in Silo 18. Solo and Juliette are re-united as tragedy unfolds around them. The path to sustainable survival is uncertain. Meanwhile in Silo 1, Charlotte and Donny wrestle with trying to help Juliette over sporadic radio links and under constant threat.

Despite having some issues with pacing, this is a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is nowhere near as ponderous as Shift since there is more actually happening to replace the overlong internal monologues. The narrative moves towards a conclusion that, if not a happy ending for all, at least gives hope for the future.

Shift (Silo II) – Hugh Howey

Like Wool, the second volume in the Silo series started as a set of linked novelettes. The narrative begins hundreds of years before the events in Wool, with Donald, a newly elected US Representative, being brought onto the Silo project. This is before the apocalyptic events leading to the occupation of the silos, and gives background on how it all came to be. Donald is an unwilling accomplice in the control of the subsidiary silos as he slowly realizes how he, and the entire complex, has been manipulated, with conspiracy nested inside conspiracy aimed at a mysterious goal. Another section deals with how Solo from Wool came to be alone in his dying silo for decades.

While Wool was, despite its dark setting, a story of hope and searching for a better future, Shift contains very few bright points. The parts about Solo and his solitary descent into quasi-madness are especially bleak. Donald struggles with his conscience, his desire for revenge, his realization that even knowing the truth is not going to make things better. While the mental battles were well written, I felt that this book could have been trimmed to make it a bit less of a slog at times.