Kris Longknife’s Bloodhound (Kris Longknife X½) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknifeX½KrisLongknifesBloodhoundThis  “companion novella” to the Kris Longknife saga is set at the same time as Furious and follows the efforts of Special Agent Foile to assist Kris Longknife in her efforts to stop her grandfather’s trade flotilla.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Fine reading assuming have read the Kris Longknife books up to this point.

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Welcome Home/Go Away (Kris Longknife IX½) – Mike Shepherd

This “companion novella” takes place between Kris Longknife – Daring and the upcoming Kris Longknife – Furious. It is not a fantastic piece but serves as a good way to bring readers up to date. The story focuses on General “Trouble” Tordon, one of Kris’s great-grandfathers, and his involvement in the events on her homecoming from the mission in Daring.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Singularity (Star Carrier III) – Ian Douglas

Book three seamlessly segues from the end of Center of Gravity. Admiral Koenig leads the battlegroup further into Sh’daar territory, towards the enigmatic center of the Sh’daar civilization. Meanwhile Lieutenant Grey’s personal odyssey continues.

I was disappointed with the last book in the trilogy. The action is still good, but it is upstaged by the exploration of the enigma that is the Sh’daar. Wormholes, discussions about transcendence and the evolution of civilizations abound. Douglas has thought the whole thing out quite well and the ending makes sense. Unfortunately it feels as if the more lofty macrostory and themes don’t mix well with the military science fiction setting. Long discussions on the deep future and the deep past of technological civilizations slow the pace down too much. Mind you, these discussions are interesting, but they just don’t fit in well in this book.

On the character side, the developments are not very original, and the dialogue is wooden at best. Grey is a metaphor for humanity itself. Koenig is the consummate military officer. The rest are cardboard cutouts.

Queen of Wands (Special Circumstances II) – John Ringo

The sequel to Princess of Wands sees “Soccermom-osaurus” Mrs. Barbara Everette as an experienced FLUF agent, defending America from evil supernatural and mystic creatures. As in the first book, this one also takes the form of three interlinked stories, the middle one of which is set (sort of) at Dragon*con.

Ringo always delivers thrills and page-turnability. But this time he fell short of the mark. The story is bland. The stakes are nominally high, certainly. but I never felt like I cared that much. The way the author has had to shoehorn belief into some sort of consistent reality makes for too many weird conversations. So a bit of a dud but still eminently readable.

The Thrawn Trilogy – Timothy Zahn

So what happened after The Return of the Jedi? This series answers the question. If you are a Star Wars fan, you will want to pick this up. The writing won’t win any literary awards, much in the same way that the movies were not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but who cares? It’s action with all those characters that we have come to know and love. The series consists of :

  • Heir to the Empire
  • Dark Force Rising
  • The Last Command

 

Demon (Gaea III) – John Varley

Demon jumps ahead another 20 years after Wizard. Robin has returned to her home in the coven habitat. Chris has remained on Gaea, and is slowly turning into a creature more and more like a Titanide (a centaur race native to Gaea). Cirocco is still around, but no longer does Wizard work. Gaby is dead, but keeps returning to Cirocco in dreams. Gaea has gone completely nuts, prancing about as a 15 meter Marilyn Monroe while making and screening movies in her own bloodthirsty fashion. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the final war has begun. Humaniy is destroying itself in nuclear fire. Not in one big conflagration, but in a staggered series of bursts. Refugees flock to Gaea, who has provided transportation but no regulation. Newcomers are robbed and enslaved by some of the humans already there. Amidst the chaos, Robin returns, together with her 19 year old daughter Nova and her newborn son Adam. She had to leave the women-only coven since she had a son, and both children seem to be Chris’, despite the two never having had relations. Gaea’s trickery again. It is soon clear that the final confrontation with Gaea is at hand, with Cirocco reluctantly at the helm of the forces arrayed against the mad habitat mind.

While better than Wizard, this one also left me unsatisfied. Varley simply isn’t that good at writing about military matters, and it shows. There are some surprising developments, but the surprise ending was too unexpected, and not supported very well by the story that went before it. I’m all for surprise endings, but this one felt as if it was hardly connected to the rest of the book. Decent Varley but only for the die-hard fan. It’s a shame that this series went downhill after Titan.

 

Conquistador – S.M. Stirling

John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, inadvertently opens a portal to an alternate timeline in his Oakland, California, basement. He and his old war buddies proceed to conquer this version of the Earth. In the other timeline, Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and the white man never arrived in America. The most advanced civilizations are still technologically in the middle ages. The “Gate” remains open, allowing Rolfe and his new nation to secretly smuggle precious metals to the original timeline (they know where to find it easily by using maps from our timeline) and manufactured goods to the other timeline. The “Gate Secret” is very tightly held.

But all is not well in paradise. A faction fight in the alternate timeline spills over into ours, and two Fish and Game Warden find themselves caught up in the middle, then exiled through the gate. They must now team up with the “good” alternate timeline faction (Rolfe’s granddaughter, for one) to defeat the evil faction.

I enjoyed “Conquistador”. It is adventure pure and simple. The action scenes are masterful. The setting, as well as the social, economic and ecological discussions are both entertaining and intriguing. However, I do think that Stirling could have delivered a better plot. The ending is rather abrupt, and some of the moral issues prominent in the first half of the book (is the whole idea of conquering a new world and setting yourselves up as a benevolent dictatorship really a good thing?) are conveniently dropped by the wayside at the end. And then there are the characters. Likeable as they may be, our heroes are a little too perfectly intelligent, likeable and generally extremely fit and good looking. While I am a sucker for happy endings, I still found it a little bit too happy and perfect and neatly tied up, even though the very last page does open the door for sequels.

Coyote Frontier (Coyote III) – Allen Steele

Book three in the Coyote series, this novel takes us once more to the colony planet Coyote. But there’s a new twist. Earth has developed a technology for instantaneous travel between stars, meaning close contact with Earth is possible once more. Coyote seems like paradise to inhabitants of Earth wracked with overcrowding and catastrophic climate change. Will the budding Coyote Federation be able to withstand the onslaught? The original colonists have grown middle aged and responsible, but now their children rebel. It is a classic dichotomy. The old and wise versus the young and energetic. Steele plays to his strength in character creation and development, making this perhaps the most enjoyable of the Coyote books.

Unlike the two previous books, this one is not a collection of previously written short stories with interlude pieces. However, Steele has still kept some of that feel. The narrative changes pace, viewpoint and even style between sections. But the episodes are less self contained than before. This effect still takes some getting used to, but it works well.

The epilogue, after the action proper has been concluded and loose ends tied up, is a bit surprising. We are left dangling after a momentous first contact. Said first contact is described in Steele’s novel Spindrift. Blatant plug? Perhaps. But it also reminds us that the story of the colony is still unfolding.

Chronospace – Allen Steele

In this novel, UFOs are actually time traveling craft from our future. A study group goes back in time to witness the crash of the Hindenburg. “Unfortunately”, the airship lands safely. They have altered the past.

As time-travel stories go, this is a pretty good one. Steele avoids getting stuck in the scientific debate and concentrates on delivering a good yarn instead.

Orbital Decay; Lunar Descent – Allen Steele

These two near future novels are about workers in Earth orbit and on the Moon respectively. Not spectacular, but solidly enjoyable, especially Lunar Descent. The authenticity of the characters is great. These are not “Roger Ramjet” astronaut heroes, but working class Joes trying to make it work.

Kris Longknife – Mutineer (Kris Longknife I) – Mike Shepherd

Ensign Longknife is the scion of a great family. Her father is the Prime Minister of an important world. Her grandparents and great grandparents are equally exalted. She tries to defy family tradition, only to find that she is following it in her own way. Most of the book sets up her character for the final part where she forestalls a serious crisis by becomeing the book’s titular mutineer. Longknife is definitely a rich girl, and she has had all the advantages and disadvantages of that heritage. She is not perfect, and therein lies much of her charm. Shepherd takes pains to explain how she has become who she is. And it is important since her character shapes the story greatly.

The backstory is very dense, but Shepherd only gives it to us from Longknife’s perspective. The volume of information about politics, family history and human history coming at the reader is at times almost overwhelming. I was half tempted to start taking notes. It is a fine line that Shepherd walks. On the one hand the backstory is important to the main action. On the other hand he risks alienating the reader. Still, it is refreshing to see an author avoid the dreaded datadumps that Weber and even Flint are using nowadays. Now those will bore a reader. At least here the action keeps moving forward as the author correctly assumes that the reader can handle the flood without needing his hand held through painstaking and tedious exposition of half a dozen arguments and counter-arguments. Kudos to Shepherd.

The technology is very space operatic with nothing very surprising. The quirks are really in service of the plot. Shepherd treads a fine line as deus ex machina threatens but he avoids breaking the rules of his own oniverse once he has set them.

While this isn’t exactly the beginning of the Honor series, it is quite an auspicious start. Kris Longknife is a fascinating and engaging character.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott

Historical novel about England around the Third Crusade. Scott is a bit less fixated on tactical and weaponry minutiae than modern historical novelists. The style is heavy at times but this book is thoroughly enjoyable. A great yarn of adventure, love, and heroism.

The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

This is the sequel to the excellent Old Man’s War. John Perry, our hero from that book, is absent though mentioned. This novel deals with the genetically engineer supersoldiers of the Ghost Brigades, which comprise the Special Forces of the Colonial Union. Jared Dirac is created to house the recorded consciousness of Charles Boutin, a traitor to the Colonial Union. But the consciousness doesn’t take. He becomes just another Special Forces soldier, until the traitor’s memories and personality start emerging.

While a good read, this book has a problem. The macro story of political intrigue is rather dull and stretches believability. The first half, where most of the action deals with Jared’s development as a soldier and person, is excellent. Scalzi is playing to his strengths here, just as he did in Old Man’s War. There is lots of humor and focus on character. The second half is less enticing. While Jared is still an interesting character to follow, the background story is both abstract and dull. There is a great message in the plotline involving Boutin’s daughter, but it gets bogged down in Boutin’s evil genius posturing. While crazy geniuses with convoluted plans work fine in a James Bond movie, the whole thing falls a bit flat here. A decent read, but not as good as its predecessor.

Calculating God – Robert J. Sawyer

An alien lands outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario and asks to see a paleontologist. This is the first alien contact. The alien says that on his world, and on the world of another alien race, the fossil record shows that five mass extinctions have occurred at the same time as they did on earth. The alien races see this as evidence that God exists, and is tampering with the development of intelligent beings. The human paleontologist, Tom Jericho, is skeptical at first, but the evidence is compelling.

I was prepared to hate this book because the premise seemed stupid at first, but Sawyer deftly weaves together known elements of paleontology, genetics, cosmology and other disciplines. There are a couple of small factual errors, such as the fact that Hubble could not immediately be trained on a supernova. And even if it was the optics would be burned out. But I’ll attribute those to dramatic license.

The message of the novel, if you will, is that if there is a supreme being, then he/she/it is not mystical, but encompassed by the scope of science. The interaction between the dying Jericho, as he struggles with his incumbent mortality, and the alien Hollus, is very well written. Sawyer shows their friendship during the events of the novel in a very poignant way. The climax of the novel is unexpected and massive, as the scope of the novel changes dramatically.

 

Princess of Wands (Special Circumstances I) – John Ringo

An ordinary Southern homemaker, Barbara “Barb” Everette has three kids and a full life. She is the epitome of the churchgoing soccer mom, with the only slight quirk her prowess at martial arts. But on a weekend off, she ends up foiling the attempt of a demon to take over a village in the Louisiana bayou. And then things get even weirder as she is recruited into a super secret organization that battles supernatural beings as they manifest on Earth.

Once again Ringo has managed to write a page turner. The prose and action are excellent as usual, and peppered with the author’s dry humor. Just like Ghost, the novel is episodic, although the characters could hardly be more different. Barb is a very unusual Fantasy heroine, being a deeply religious woman who deems men masters of the household, even her useless one. It is interesting to see how Ringo makes this trait her very strength in her battles against the forces of darkness. There is a also quite a bit of fanservice, as Ringo drops Barb into a typical SciFi convention replete with the requisite authors, geeks and role players. Making the villain a thinly disguised David Drake who hates and envies a thinly disguised Robert Jordan is a nice touch. Unfortunately the convention is also the novel’s weaker section. Too many characters are introduced at the event, and the plot does not flow very well at this point.

While it is not the best Ringo plot wise, the quality of the writing is high as usual. Very entertaining.

Ghost (Paladin of Shadows I) – John Ringo

Our hero, Mike Harmon AKA “Ghost”, is an ex-SEAL trying to get by. Through somewhat random circumstances, he ends up foiling a terrorist plot to kidnap and torture American college girls. Now rich with reward money, he moves to the Keys. And ends up foiling a plot to place a nuke on American soil. After that, he ends up in Russia, where he… You get the picture. The book is episodic, with three quite distinct parts. Constant are the visceral, brutal, violent action scenes as well as the explicit and kinky sex.

I came in expecting special forces action. And yes, there is a lot of that. Quite good too. What I didn’t expect was all the erotica. Which is also good if you’re into that sort of thing.

A fun read, but not for the liberal. The hero’s views are quite, ahem, “Republican” when it comes to terrorism and how to deal with it. There is in fact, and somewhat unexpectedly, quite a bit of deep thought between the lines.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days – Alastair Reynolds

This small format hardcover (almost as small as a paperback) contains two novellas: Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. Both are set in the Revelation Space universe. Diamond Dogs is much less epic than his novels, being more of an idea piece. Although Reynolds’ prose is tight and elegant as ever, some of the passages seem just a bit too stilted. I think the short length of each novella (only about 110 pages) may be cramping the author’s distinctive style.

Even so, Reynold’s universe is still a very cold, enigmatic and frightening place which cares not a jot for humanity. I expected him to solve the riddle of Diamond Dogs, but Reynolds has chosen to let the artifact therein serve a more sinister purpose. Very elegant and more than a little spooky. Turquoise Days is more of a vehicle to give interesting tidbits of information on the Pattern Jugglers (an alien life form). Although the main character is engaging, and the story well rounded, Diamond Dogs is definitely stronger the stronger of the two.

Taliban – Ahmed Rashid

Non-fiction about the history and present of Afghanistan. Written before 9/11, it gives a clear picture of why events turned out the way it did. At times heavy and gloomy reading, it is nevertheless very interesting. The author’s conclusions may be a biased, but it is hard to argue the fact that foreign influence (or lack of it) in Afghanistan served the purposes of the emerging Taliban regime. One could almost see this as a sort of manual in how not to perform foreign policy.

Mucho Caliente – Francesca Prescott

Not my usual fare, this ended up in my hands because it was written by my neighbor’s sister. It is a romantic comedy about a recently divorced woman who moves to Ibiza to get away from her boring ex-husband. On the flight, she happens to sit next to Emilio Caliente, latin pop superstar. The latter is running away from his annoying manager and her demands. Naturally, our heroine is a huge fan. Hilarity ensues as she keeps running into him, her ideal sex-god man.

I wasn’t expecting much, but this book is very funny. Very far from the bodice-bursting romance novel I thought I would have to slog through. In tone, it is like a good romantic comedy film. Light-hearted, with a neurotic protagonist and a whole host of misunderstandings, Freudian slips and missed connections. Prescott’s characters are well rounded and funny. They feel real and, just like real people, evoke love, loathing, annoyance and exasperation. The plot is perhaps a bit convoluted, and explicitly designed for maximum hilarity and heartbreak, but it works. Prescott manages not to stray beyond the line into “just plain silly”. A “light summer read”? Perhaps, but I still found myself rooting whole-heartedly for our heroine. And that doesn’t happen if I’m not engaged in a book.

Ringworld’s Children – Larry Niven

In the fourth Ringworld novel, Louis Wu is, as usual, conscripted to do a powerful being’s bidding. In this case it is the Protector Tunesmith.

Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers are some of the best hard SF books ever written. On the other hand, The Ringworld Throne was an enormous disappointment, and given that I expected to dislike this offering. I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are well defined as usual with Niven, and the story, while not too complex, runs along nicely.

The days of truly epic tales from Niven seem to be over. Nowadays, he writes little idea pieces like this one, or collaborates with other authors. If you enjoyed the first two Ringworld novels, you will like this one. However, I think it would be impossible to read without having first read the other ones, and probably some of the other Known Space stories.