Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox I) – Rachel Bach

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIDeviana “Devi” Morris is a native of the planet Paradox, a high-tech feudal society known for its martial obsession. She is a decorated veteran and currently a mercenary, fighting in combat armour. Her career goal is to join the elite “Devastator” military unit; the best of the best. In order to further this goal, she hires on as a guard on a peculiar trading vessel run by an enigmatic captain. Apparently this captain is well connected, and the crew sees more action than seems logical.

Initially, I liked Devi. She makes no secrets about her ambition and goals, even to herself. She is blunt and straightforward to the point of rudeness, but nevertheless loyal and absolutely professional.

However, once the falling-in-love subplot kicks in, everything falls apart. The love interest has secrets (obviously) and this gets Devi into trouble. This could have been interesting, but I mostly found it tedious. It didn’t help that Devi’s behaviour once she fell for Rupert seemed very much at odds with her character as written in the first part of the book.

I get the feeling that Ms. Bach wants the ship and crew to be Firefly a bit too much, but this does not succeed. The dynamic between characters is wooden and most of them are cardboard cutouts. I could never see the logic behind their behaviour. I have a feeling that “all will be revealed” in future installments, but the author could at least have thrown the reader a bone on the overarching story of the trilogy.

One the plus side, the action scenes are a lot of fun.

2½Rosbochs

 

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe – Thomas Levenson

TheHuntforVulcanIn the centuries following Sir Isaac Newton’s publication of the Law of Gravity, scientists equipped with increasingly advanced telescopes tried worked to explain anomalies in the orbital paths of planets. “Wobbles” in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune. Mercury also wobbles, and it was long thought that it was under the influence of a small undiscovered planet named Vulcan. This book traces the history of the search for Vulcan, and how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity finally “killed” the need for the little planet.

As history of astronomy and science, this short book is interesting. However it is not page-turning material, failing to really grip the reader.

3Rosbochs

Castaway Planet (Boundary IV) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary4CastawayPlanetThe Kimei family is on a colony transport when an accident during a lifeboat drill leaves them stranded on an uninhabited planet. Through happenstance, the Bemmie “Whips” Harrater, best friend of second daughter Sakura, is with them. Deprived by an accident of most of their supplies, they have to survive on a hostile world.

While it is billed as the fourth volume in the Boundary Series, this novel has almost nothing to do with the preceding three, though they feature marginally as historical fact. While I did mildly enjoy the struggles of the Kimei family, I found the writing verging wildly into corny far too often. The story is predictable and bland. Certainly not on par with the fun in previous volumes.

2½Rosbochs

Insurgent (Divergent II) – Veronica Roth

Divergent2InsurgentImmediately following the events in Divergent, Tris and Four escape the city to the Amity compound. However they must soon return in order to deal with the Erudite threat. The faction system is broken beyond repair, but what will come after?

After the promising start with Divergent, this book was a serious disappointment. The conceptual simplicity that worked in the first book turns against itself as the story becomes more complex. The many twists and turns seem put in there to create events for their own sake, without a clear direction to the story. While the parts where Tris has to confront her own fate are still gripping, they are lost in the white noise of a confused plot. It felt as if I was reading a badly written action TV series episode. Just as in Divergent, there are interesting themes of social structure and change in this book, but they too are lost in the noise.

On a side note, I was continually irritated at the slapdash way in which guns and tactics are portrayed. I’m not expecting Ms. Roth to be an expert on weaponry, but a little research would have gone a long way. Even a beta reader with a modicum of knowledge could have polished those bits and explained what words like bullet, clip and chamber actually mean. I also felt that a faction like Dauntless could perhaps be expected to have better tactics than a bunch of eight-year-olds attacking a tree fort.

2½Rosbochs

Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

The Far Horizon – Patty Jansen

TheFarHorizonWhen Cory was eight, his mother died of cancer. Now two years later, his father is marrying an “extraterrestrial humanoid” or “Ethie”. Humans are in contact with a number of alien species, all of which are genetically related to humanity and each other. Cory and his family then leave for Midway Station, where his father takes up the post of director shortly before an important conference between the Union and the nations of Earth. But radical factions of humanity want to throw a wrench in the works.

This novel is squarely aimed at young adults. It uses a strict first person viewpoint in Cory, so everything is seen from a child’s eyes. The story is a bit slow at first and I almost gave up, but after the first third things pick up. The Ethie and human political systems add a lot of color. The themes are obvious. Tolerance and acceptance of difference. The book suffers from being a bit simplistic with its characters and character interactions, especially when adults are involved. Good enough for a few hours of distraction.

2½Rosbochs

Half Share (Trader’s Tales of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper II) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper2HalfShare

The second book in the series picks up exactly where Quarter Share left off. Ishmael transfers from the galley to environmental. He also starts to come to terms with women and relationships with such.

As in the first book, there is no imminent danger and there are no action scenes. Mr. Lowell has a knack for making ordinary pursuits interesting, but his dialogue flirts with cheesiness rather too often. The second half of the book is a departure. In no time flat, Ishmael goes from normal uncertain eighteen-year old to hunk with perfect pick-up lines. The transformation is too fast and well over the top. To compound the problem, our teenage hero is seemingly the perfect man. He has no flaws and everyone likes him, especially women. Having said that, the characters, cheesy and somewhat unrealistic as they often are, certainly come alive on the page. I did feel a strong bond with the denizens of the SC Lois McKendrick, and I do want to find out what happens to them next.

2½Rosbochs

The Tuloriad – John Ringo & Tom Kratman

TheTuloriadAfter the Posleen War ends, a small band of Posleen is smuggled off Earth in secret to start their civilization anew. They start on a sort of quest to find a home. At the same time, elements of humanity led by the Catholic Church aim to bring religion to these Posleen, saving their souls and making allies of them.

If you liked the other Posleen books, you will probably enjoy read this one. It doesn’t have much value if you haven’t read them, especially Yellow Eyes. It is reasonably good fun but there are no massive stakes. In some ways it is a setup for the Hedren War. The discussions on the role of religion are reasonably interesting, and superficially contrarian for a science fiction book.

2½Rosbochs

Pyramid Power (Pyramid II) – Eric Flint & David Freer

PyramidPowerThe sequel to Pyramid Scheme takes place shortly after the first book. Our heroes are adapting to life on Earth, or back on Earth as the case may be, when agents from the newly constituted Pyramid Security Agency (PSA) decide to start operations in the mythworlds. Needless to say, things quickly go awry. The PSA embodies all the worst about hastily created government agencies, and is a clear reference to the Homeland Security Agency as a kneejerk reaction to 9/11. Our heroes find themselves not back in mythical Greece or Egypt, but in the Norse world of myth, populated by such classics as Thor, Odin and Loki.

Just like the previous book, this one is written with tongue quite firmly in cheek. Awful puns and funny situations are de rigueur. Sadly the story itself is somewhat muddled, and I had a hard time following the twists and turns, many of which took place off-screen and were then presented as faits accomplis.

2½Rosbochs

Apollo’s Outcasts – Allen Steele

ApolllosOutcastsJamey Barlowe is a teenager with such weak bone structure that he cannot walk unsupported. This is because he was born on the Moon. He is roused from sleep and hurriedly taken to a space launch facility along with his sisters. The Vice President of the United States has come to power due to the mysterious death of the President. As becomes apparent, she is a bit of a nut and, among other things, wants to imprison Jamey’s space scientist father due to his signing a petition regarding the space program. Jamey and one of his sisters are sent to safety on the massive Moon base Apollo, established to mine Helium-3 for power generation. And so begins Jamey’s adventure, with a looming confrontation with the United States on the horizon.

It dawned on me after a few pages that this was Young Adult fiction. After a few more pages I noticed that it was clearly inspired by Heinlein’s “juveniles”. Not a bad place to start.  The story is a not too complex bildungsroman. Jamey meets girl. Jamey’s best friend meets girl. They have to acclimatize to life on the Moon. They have military training on the Moon. The base is attacked.

It is a lightweight read even for a Young Adult novel, and despite the elaborate Moonbase setting some things kept nagging at me. Despite Steele’s effort to introduce at least some modern trappings, it seemed as if these kids were stuck with current technology and the social mores of the 1980s. Given that the novel takes place in 2097, I think it is safe to assume that there would be more advances than a Moonbase and some cell phone technology that could come on the market in 2014. I also wondered why people still listen to the radio in cars (which at least drive themselves) the way they do today, or why they have landlines. Another point was that Steele confused weight and mass in zero gravity. He might just have been trying to simplify but even Young Adult science fiction should get it right.

2½Rosbochs

Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.

2½Rosbochs

Jack of Shadows – Roger Zelazny

Fantasy/Science Fiction hybrid set on a world where one side always faces the sun and the other is always dark. The light side features science while the dark side is the realm of magic. Our hero Jack is a sort of spy/mythic hero and these are his adventures. Zelazny weirdness is all over the writing of this rather lighthearted tale.

Confirmed Kill (Target: Terror III) – Michael Z. Williamson

The second sequel to The Scope of Justice finds our two snipers, Monroe and Wade, dropped into the jungles of Indonesia, where they become involved in a power struggle between diverse anti-government factions, consisting both of terrorists and Indonesian Army. In a clever twist to the story, their new commanding officer, a born and bred bureaucrat Colonel, comes with them. Our heroes are Sergeants, but they have vastly superior skills and experience. This poses many challenges as the team attempts to complete its mission in a shifting local political environment.

I was afraid that this third book would be a mere re-hash or the first two in a new locale, but Williamson has managed to make it unique. The overall structure of a covert mission remains in all three books, but the missions themselves vary widely. Williamson also captures well, especially in this last installment, the good and the bad of the military. How some personnel is helpful, how some is annoyingly by the book, how some goes above and beyond. Most military fiction does not go very deeply into these interesting subjects. Overall, a satisfying read.

Targets of Opportunity (Target: Terror II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to The Scope of Justice, the two snipers Monroe and Wade, have a new mission: Take out terrorists smuggling explosives through Romania for use in Western Europe. Once in place, they find themselves doing a lot of straight spy work, typically with little or no backup. To further complicate things, they are in place clandestinely, and must also hide from Romanian authorities.

The second book in the series is an improvement over the first. The prose is less stilted and the story flows better overall. The two main action scenes are very good. Williamson describes well how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land, needing to blend in but having a hard time doing so. I found myself caring more for the protagonists as Williamson explored their motivations in more depth. The technical parts about sniping are detailed and fascinating (at least to this reader). An enjoyable read if you have some interest in the subject matter.

Wizard (Gaea II) – John Varley

Wizard picks up about 80 years after the events in Titan. Cirocco is now a Wizard for Gaea, meaning she’s a troubleshooter. Gaby is sometimes her sidekick, and sometimes just does freelance work. They are both paid with extended lifespans. Since Titan, plenty of humans have emigrated to Gaea. There is a limited quota for free trips, and through this program, two new travelers, both prone to periodic seizures, arrive in Gaea. One is Chris, a rather shy and geeky young man from Earth. The other is Robin, who comes from an ultra-radical sect of witches (in the Wiccan sense) living in a habitat on the far side of the Moon. The sect is made up entirely of women, and holds men to be evil. Robin has never met a man, and has some strange conceptions about them. As they arrive, Gaea tells them that she can cure their ailments, as long as they do something heroic. They join up with Cirocco and Gaby on a circumnavigation of the habitat wheel. The wizard and her sidekick have a hidden agenda, though. Gaea is becoming ever more senile and crazy, and the two are looking for allies in a coming war against her.

The adventures of Chris and Robin make for a coming of age tale of sorts. The scenery is still wondrous, and Varley has added much to the richness of his world. The prose is excellent and the characters are rich and alive. Despite all that, I was still somewhat disappointed. The story sets up the next and final book (Demon), and develops the characters, but the plot isn’t that interesting. There seems to be little sense of where the story is headed. While this is often the case in long sections of many Varley books, in this one there weren’t any other really stellar bits to compensate. Varley is never bad, but it was an ultimately unsatisfying read.

Millennium – John Varley

The premise behind this book is, ahem, simple. Fifty thousand years from now, humanity is dying off as the result of plagues, toxic chemicals and radiation. However, time travel has been discovered and the “Gate Project” is kidnapping people who were going to die anyway in the past. For example passengers from the Titanic, victims of air crashes and so forth. These abductees, who are far more healthy than their short lived and sickly descendants, are put in storage for a future repopulation of the Earth. The story initially revolves around an impending mid-air collision between a 747 and a DC-10 over California. The two protagonists tell their stories in first person format more or less alternately. Bill Smith is the head of the crash investigation in the 20th century, and Louise Baltimore is the head of the “Snatch Team” from the Gate Project in the future.

So far so good. The characters are, as is typical for Varley, deeply flawed and authentic. The story is laid out as logically as possible, although the mechanics of time travel make this tricky. Once Varley has established the premise, the plot is about a developing temporal paradox that threatens the already bleak future with complete annihilation.

The first four fifths of the novel are quite enjoyable. It is clearly laid out where it could easily have been confusing and Varley skillfully ensures that the doomed humanity theme carries over into the characters and the story. The references to old fashioned computers don’t distract since Varley is always about the people, not the technology. The ending did annoy me a bit, since I dislike deus ex machina. But I must admit Varley pulled it off very well, especially by inserting a quite literal meaning in the whole thing.

The Guns of the South – Harry Turtledove

Time-traveling South African white supremacists go back to the American Civil War and equip the confederates with AK-47’s. Well, it’s a cool idea. Unfortunately, Turtledove gets lost in the details, so to speak. Too many protagonists, and not enough focus. This is a fun little book, but it could have been so much more.

One Day on Mars (Tau Ceti Agenda I) – Travis S. Taylor

The entire plot is set, not entirely unexpectedly, during one day on Mars. The United States is now a Solar System wide government that even extends to a few extrasolar colonies. However, a nation of separatists exists in a “reservation” on Mars. On this day, the separatists attack the United States. The book follows the military actions, and the unexpected plan of the separatists.

As a military science fiction action book, this is a pretty good one. Stuffed with action scenes involving futuristic weapons like shape-shifting robots (think Transformers that can become fighter plane, robot, tank), the book drags you along at a furious pace. So far so good. The backstory, filled in over the course of the novel, is interesting, telling how the United States has become ever more detached from its original ideals of true democracy and representation. The president runs instant polls to figure out how to deal with crises instead of making decisions on his own. The separatists don’t shy away from atrocities. They also decry the current United States, and see themselves as defenders of the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. One thing that bugged me was the sub-par editing, especially in the first half of the book. There is an excess of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as some poor style. This is especially irritating given Baen Books’ typically high standards in that department.

In the Beginning… Was the Command Line – Neal Stephenson

Non-fiction from Stephenson. This is the story of the PC as written by a cyberpunk author. Stephenson, not unexpectedly, turns out to be a Linux fanatic. He comes at the events from unexpected angles, making the book quite a bit of fun for the enthusiast. However if you are not a “computer person” this probably won’t interest you.

Coyote Rising (Coyote II) – Allen Steele

The sequel to Coyote, picks up where the previous one left off, thus mitigating some of my annoyance with the ending of the previous book. Coyote has been invaded by the Western Hemisphere Union, a major power on Earth, and the original colonists have to fight a guerilla war against an increasingly despotic post-socialist regime. As before, the story is episodic in nature, with the whole derived from eight short stories. This has both advantages and disadvantages. While the thing feels cobbled together, the shifting viewpoints keep things interesting, and Steele is certainly a master of the short story.

Even more than before, though, Coyote feels like Steele’s “Big Caucasian Sandbox”. I don’t think the author has given it conscious thought, but everyone seems to be Caucasian and with a North American outlook on life. It’s really quite comical. And while Steele will sometimes make a token effort at exploring cultural differences between the the older generation of original colonists and the new one, he is mainly concerned with differences in political outlook. In the end, it’s not so bad, since the theme of the story is revolution.

Coyote (Coyote I) – Allen Steele

This novel goes beyond Steele’s typical near-future, near-Earth fare and describes the creation of the first interstellar colony.

The novel has previously been published in the form of a series of short stories, and suffers from it, feeling cobbled together.

The characters are interesting and I was drawn in by the narrative. Steele readily manages to convey the sense of wonder inherent in traveling for almost two hundred and fifty years, and then arriving at an alien world.

I was disappointed with three things. The first is the apparent lack of proof reading and sloppy science. For example, on one page a pilot is gripping a stick, and on the facing page this changes into a yoke. The second is the less than perfect orbital mechanics and the lack of biological diversity on the new world, In Steele’s defense, it is clear that he is more focused on interpersonal interaction, and he pulls off this part very well. The third and last thing is the ending. I don’t have a problem with endings that leave a lot to the imagination, but this simply left you hanging. I don’t want to give it away here, but the whole last part of the book was simply too implausible and just plain annoying. With just a very little change, Steele could have written a classic.

A King of Infinite Space – Allen Steele

A rich young man wakes up from cryogenic suspension. He has to work for a living now, by mopping floors.

This novel has it’s bright points, and is a pleasant read, but it doesn’t really grab the imagination. And the twist at the end left me a little annoyed.

 

Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh

The story set in a small village in Northwestern India in 1947, during the division of India into India and Pakistan. The village is on the border with Pakistan, with both Sikh and Muslim inhabitants. The two ethnic groups have been living together in the village for centuries, but events in the wider world around them are forcing separation.

The book is rather short. More a snapshot of life during a troubled time than a story, since there is no clear beginning or end to the narrative itself. Various characters influence events in the village, such as the social worker from the big city, the chief of police, and the well-known criminal (almost a caricature of “the usual suspect”). The behavior of the characters is often absurd, and governed more by temporary feelings than by rational behavior. Many of the situations would be comical if not for their utter human tragedy. I think that Singh is trying to convey to the reader the absurdity of dividing people who have lived together for centuries in peace based on the thoughts of the rulers. In the village of Mano Majra, there is no conflict between Sikhs/Hindus and Muslims. The conflict comes to the village from the outside, forcing neighbors against each other, and resulting in displacement, despair, and finally massacre. The final sacrifice of the Sikh criminal Juggut to save his muslim lover Nooran is noble, but in the end only a drop in the ocean. Singh also shows how, despite a long history of being peaceful, a place can become the theater of bloodshed all too easily if the rulers (a purposefully vague concept in the novel) do not take care in their exercise of power.

The novel is touted as a portrait of what was actually happening during those troubled times on the Indian subcontinent. But it is not a history of rulers and armies in the traditional sense. The story revolves around simple villagers in a simple village. Villagers who, before the troubles, wanted nothing more than to live their lives in peace.

While the naif style of the prose sometimes grated on my nerves, I found that reading the novel sent a profound message about the responsibility of leadership, and the frailty of our heterogenous human society.