Man-Kzin Wars volumes I-XI – Created by Larry Niven

A long running anthology series with stories set during the Man-Kzin Wars in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. Niven started this thing up because while the Wars were very significant in the history of Known Space, he himself was not adept at writing about conflict. Niven has written some of the stories but most are by other authors. The writing ranges from average to excellent. Recommended if you are a fan of Known Space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Casualty (Society of Humanity I) – Mike Moscoe

The Society of Humanity, more or less representing the “core” worlds, is at was with the “rim” worlds, where political power is wielded by a ruthless dictator. We follow protagonists from both sides of the conflict.

While it has some interesting battle scenes and good characterization, the plot is scattered and weak. As in the early Longknife books, I was left reeling by a rich backstory which wasn’t adequately fleshed out. I had to pay real attention to seemingly throwaway comments from minor characters to fill in the social and political background. The book did serve as a decent introduction to the next two installments, introducing the main players.

Note: Mike Moscoe is more well known under the pen name Mike Shepherd. The Society of Humanity series is set in the same universe as the Kris Longknife books, but several decades earlier.


Mike Moscoe is more well known writing as Mike Shepherd. The Society of Humanity series is set several decades before the Kris Longknife books.

Woken Furies – Richard Morgan

The third Takeshi Kovacs novel is just as violent and X-rated as the previous installments. Morgan has not lost his gift for film noir cool and deep cynicism. So far so good. However, while Altered Carbon was a tightly written masterpiece and Broken Angels had an intriguing plot device, Woken Furies is much less focused. Sometimes it seems like Morgan is just taking the reader on a guided tour of Kovacs’ old stomping grounds on our hero’s native Harlan’s World. Granted, the guided tour is very very good, and Morgan’s prose flows smoothly, but some plot elements deserved more attention and it all seems a bit contrived. For starters, more could have been done with the duplication of Kovacs.

Broken Angels – Richard Morgan

Takeshi Kovacs is back in a new sleeve. This sequel to the incredible Altered Carbon puts Takeshi in the middle of a little war. The plot is not as strong as the one in Altered Carbon. While the previous novel is a film noir/detective story, this one learns more towards a Clarke-esque sense of wonder story. Unlike Clarke, however, it is focused of the failures of humanity to leave its flawed past of violence and greed behind. The characters are very strong and the prose is top notch. Still, it left me with a feeling that Mr. Morgan tried to stick a story around a thought he had, and the revelations at the end are a bit too construed to add coolness to the plot.

Still, if you like action filled cyberpunk, you will enjoy it.

Engaging the Enemy (Vatta’s War III) – Elizabeth Moon

The third book in the Vatta’s War series suffers from a bit of “middle-book-itis”. There is no decisive action, just a skirmish tacked on at the end. Ky’s cousin Stella is angry with her. Then they reconcile. The possible romance with roguish Rafe goes nowhere. A least by the end Ky is set up as a privateer.

It’s not a bad novel. It’s just a bit more dull than it’s predecessors. Trading in Danger could stand on its own. Engaging the Enemy cannot.

End in Fire – Syne Mitchell

This is a rather neat and tidy near future thriller about the crew of a space station and how they survive a limited nuclear war. Left to fend for themselves, they must make their way back to Earth before their station fails around them.

The story has few characters but a lot of plot twists. It is certainly engaging although sometimes you have to squint hard in order not to see the gaping holes in the plot. For example, I had a hard time believing that all the spacecraft reconfigurations and trajectory calculations were as easy as described. Mitchell’s prose is a bit stilted (this is an early work by the author) but the novel does have a certain ability to keep the reader hooked. Vaguely enjoyable but definitely not memorable.

Mission of Honor (Honor Harrington XII) – David Weber

Book 12 in the “main” Honor Harrington series finds Manticore finally confronting the Solarian League. As Weber has been hinting at for years, Manticore (and to a lesser degree, Haven) have both achieved very significant technological superiority compared to the league with regards to military hardware. The Solarian League is huge and powerful, but also complacent, arrogant, and full of self-delusion. Added to the mix is the growing threat from Mesa/Manpower. The main action in this book is divided between Michelle Henke’s trouncing of a Solarian Navy task force, an attack on Manticore by Mesa, and most importantly Honor’s mission to Haven to broker peace. After the Battle of Manticore, Haven does not have much choice but to accept Manticore’s terms.

What with the two spin-off series (Saganami and Wages of Sin) and the increasingly complex macro plot, the series is spinning out of control a bit, in the sense that it is becoming almost too intricate for the action to shine through. Like most people, I started reading the series because it combined strong action with strong characters and an interesting but not too complicated macro story. While I do enjoy the additional facets to the Honorverse that are being uncovered, the whole thing does make for rather ponderous novels at this point. Long gone are the days of “On Basilisk Station” or “Honor Among Enemies”, where the mission was relatively simple and there was only one main plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I can live with the complications. Unfortunately Weber’s writing style has also become almost insufferably ponderous. There’s internal dialog after internal dialog, and endless conference scenes. The first third of the book is pretty much one meeting after another, with long breaks for internal dialog. To add insult to injury, about two thirds could have been cut. Every character seems to exhaust every option of every single train of thought or statement. “Oh I know this is not a perfect plan, but on the other hand this and that.” Ad nauseam. Mr. Weber, your readers are smart enough to draw those conclusions without needing them spelled out. There’s also endless summarizing of events from previous books. I did a lot of skimming at this point.

And don’t get me started on the conference scenes that start by introducing ten or twelve new characters with a paragraph or two each. How are we, as readers, supposed to keep track of all those? And why should we, given that most are never seen again?

The middle of the book mostly gets back to old form, with some nice action scenes. Weber really is a master of these. It’s a shame he still feels the need to pause the action for a page or two of internal dialog every so often.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book is back to conferences, though it is not as bad as the first third since by now the characters have something to actually talk about.

The real shame here is that the story and characters are really great. A good editor could have cut the fat and made this book half as long, at the same time transforming it into a gripping page turner like the early books in the series. Nevertheless, I suppose I shall have to continue reading. After twelve books I am pretty invested in this epic story.

Diamonds are Forever – Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

This novelette from the anthology “Mountain Magic” deals with a young man from Kentucky taking his fiancee, a New Yorker, home to meet the parents. Little does she know that the Slade family hides a secret centuries old, about strange beings who live underground.

While not stellar, this story is entertaining enough to while away a few hours. Flint and Spoor have an easy style and a lovely wit.

Counting Heads – David Marusek

Marusek’s debut novel is set in a futuristic Earth of nanotechnology and cloning. Society is divided up roughly into four groups. Affs are the very rich, practically immortal beings who seem to spend their time spinning webs of power. Free Rangers are the middle class, living often in Charters, a sort of communes. The lower class is made up of clones, everything from Russes to Evangelines to Jennys, bred for their dominant traits. Jennys are nurturing and often work in healthcare, Russes are loyal and work as security and bodyguards, and so forth. These are real human beings, not robots, with feelings and aspirations, albeit somewhat restricted by their genetic heritage. Finally, Mentars are cybernetic beings. The story, such as it is, revolves around the death of a very powerful Aff, and the fallout from that. The journey takes us from the lofty Aff life to the day to day work of clones.

Marusek’s world is a masterpiece of imagination. Detailed and cleverly internally consistent, it sucks the reader in. Most of the characters are three dimensional and interesting, their flaws and motivations laid out in fascinating expositions.

Unfortunately, the novel has three big flaws, beginning with the rather weak first section. It serves as a very long introduction and is jarringly different in style and content from the rest of the book. The two main characters are unlikeable, and while that’s fine, they are also a bit dull after a while, like inhabitants of a bad reality show. The second flaw is the paper thin plot. The whole book feels a bit like a documentary. And while it is a very good documentary, the lack of a concrete thrust to the story made me almost give up after eighty pages or so. The third flaw is the author’s often excessive attempts at cleverness. A character may be introduced and go about its business without any explanation about how he or she fits in the grand scheme of things for another thirty or a hundred pages. While this is fine in itself, it is somewhat annoying to see it used as a plot device. Yes, Mr. Marusek, I did understand that all these characters are related, and you did explain it in the end, but complexity is not a means unto itself.

In conclusion, this is a very promising debut, but the style and world are presented too blatantly. The author seems to be saying “look at this cool thing I made” all the time. Contrast this with the rawness Gibson’s Neuromancer, where the world is just “there”, and fascinating concepts are barely touched upon unless the characters themselves explore them more deeply. I really wanted to like this book, but the flaws annoyed almost to the point of disgust. Having said that, I would still recommend it if you like futuristic world building.

High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

I love the movie based on this novel, so I figured I had to read the book eventually. Hornby has a great writing style, very self-deprecating and funny in the way of understated comedians. The book is much darker than I imagined, but is a very good illustration of how most men (as far as I know) think of their lives, at least when they are young. The insecurity, the “leaving your options open” bit, the belief that relationships can stay forever in that first few dates mode. Our hero, Rob Fleming, is a bit older that most guys who ask themselves this question, which only adds to his plight.

So if you are a guy who wants a girl to understand how men think, give her this book and ask her to believe every word. Because it’s all true.

Against All Enemies – John G. Hemry

The last installment in the JAG in Space series is not as strong as previous ones but does resolve some loose threads in Sinclair’s private life. Apparently he has been making enemies in all the court martials despite his stellar performance in all aspects of his service. And so his career and life doesn’t quite turn out the way he would have wanted.

The case in this book, dealing with espionage, is not as good as the others. The the focus is on Sinclair’s personal journey. Not bad, but I wish Hemry had ended the series on a stronger note. I also wish he had written more books.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Burden of Proof – John G. Hemry

The second installment in the JAG is Space series is structured much like its predecessor, A Just Determination. Paul Sinclair is now a Lieutenant JG, still serving on the U.S.S. Michaelson. A deadly accident in forward engineering isn’t investigated as it should. An officer attempts to cover up the truth. Sinclair is in the middle. To mix things up, his girlfriend Jen’s father is a Navy Captain. Major trial in the second half.

This story is a bit weaker than A Just Determination, but still quite good. If you liked the first book, you will undoubtedly like this one. Hemry does well in advancing Paul and Jen’s stories and the changes in their characters.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

The Stainless Steel Rat Series – Harry Harrison

SciFi humor. I quite enjoyed the first five books or so, but in the end the laughter starts wearing thin. I gave up after “The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell”. Those I have read are:

  • The Stainless Steel Rat
  • The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You
  • The Stainless Steel Rat for President
  • A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell

 

The Truth of Valor (Confederation V) – Tanya Huff

The fifth Confederation novel sees Torin retired from the Marine Corps and starting to make a living as a salvage operator together with her boyfriend Craig Ryder. All seems to be going fine until pirates grab Craig and she must rescue him.

The characterization is as good as ever in this series. Unfortunately the plot is a not very entertaining compared to past installments. The cool military bits are missing. This is more or less a spy novel, and not a very good one at that. I would love to see Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr back in uniform for the next installment, but I fear it will not happen. Also, Ms. Huff has all this great backstory going on with the plastic aliens, but hardly uses it for more than character development.

 

The Hornblower Series – C.S. Forester

Set during the peak of the Age of Sail in the Napoleonic era, the books detail the exploits of Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral. Full of action and adventure, they manage to include shiphandling minutiae without bogging down the story. Page turners for young and old alike. I would recommend starting with Beat to Quarters (AKA The Happy Return) since the earlier books by internal chronology (yet written later) tend to be of a slightly lesser quality.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower – This short story collection covers the early career of our young hero, from his first onboard ship experience to his two and a half years of captivity in Spain. By the end, Hornblower is promoted to Lieutenant. Even though it is a short story collection, it flows quite nicely and is more of an episodic novel.

 

Lieutenant Hornblower – The still very young Hornblower has to deal with a tyrannous and insane Captain. He then distinguishes himself by helping in the destruction of a Spanish fortress and taking prizes.

 

Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur’ – Although the action is fast and furious, this one is a mite tedious. Hornblower spends a couple of years on blockade duty off the coast of France. This sort of duty was demanding and harsh, but also monotonous and performed in cold, dreary weather for much of the year.

 

Hornblower during the Crisis – The chronologically fourth novel is unfinished due to Forester’s death. Nothing much happens since only the first 100 pages or so are written. Hornblower is about to become a spy. Also included are a two short stories, the latter showing our hero in old age.

 

Hornblower and the ‘Atropos’ – This one is very episodic in a singularly annoying way. Apart from the one ship commanded throughout, there is no single thread to pull the reader along. Disappointing.

 

Beat to Quarters (known as The Happy Return in the UK edition) – The first novel to be written, this one is a masterpiece of plotting and action. Hornblower, in command of the frigate Lydia, heads to the Pacific coast of Central America in order to make life difficult for the Spanish colonies there. He also has his first encounter with Lady Barbara. The sailing and combat action is excellent, but one should not forget the evolution of the relationship with Lady Barbara. In the beginning, Hornblower strongly dislikes her, but in the end he loves her. And we see the process every step of the way.

 

Ship of the Line – Hornblower takes command of the two-decker Sutherland. He carries out five daring raids against the French, but ends up a prisoner after defeat against overwhelming odds. This one ends in a cliffhanger of sorts as our hero is imprisoned in French oppupied Catalonia. Great action, perhaps even better than in Beat to Quarters.

 

Flying Colours – This picks up immediately where Ship of the Line left off. Hornblower is on his way to Paris to be tried for purported war crimes. Napoleon is trying to score some propaganda points. However he manages to escape and makes his way back to England, where he finds a hero’s welcome. This one is quite introspective in some sections, with Hornblower’s cynicism and doubts coming to the fore. He hates himself in certain ways, not daring to realize how much he means to people. He is afraid of failure despite great success. And finally he cynically realizes how the British use him for propaganda as much as the French meant to. At the end of the book, we find Hornblower widowed with a young son. But Lady Barbara is also widowed. Opportunity awaits, perhaps.

Commodore Hornblower – Our hero is now married to Barbara, and in the landed gentry. He is sent on a mission to the Baltic to ensure that the Swedes and the Russians don’t join the war on the side of Napoleon. Action as usual but not a whole lot of character development.

 

Lord Hornblower – The action moves to the English Channel as the Napoleonic era draws to a close and the French mainland can now be invaded (ahem… liberated). The last part is pretty boring as Hornblower, together with his friends from Flying Colours, fights a guerrilla action against the new Napoleonic regime during the “hundred days” following the Emperor’s escape from Elba.

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies – A short story collection in all but name. While mildly entertaining, Forester is basically treading water here. A disappointing ending after such great novels as Beat to Quarters and Ship of the Line.

The Riftwar Saga – Raymond E. Feist

Consisting of:

  • Magician: Apprentice
  • Magician: Master
  • Silverthorn
  • A Darkness at Sethanon

This straightforward fantasy saga is very well plotted and written by Dungeons and Dragons aficionado Feist. I am not much into fantasy, but if you want a truly epic tale with kingdoms, magic and so forth, you won’t go wrong with this.

Some Golden Harbor (RCN V) – David Drake

Lt. Leary, sans ship, is sent to Ganpat’s Reach as an advisor. His mission is to untangle a messy inter-system invasion that threatens the interests of a Cinnabar ally. Conveniently, he can hire his own former ship, the Princess Cecile, and most of the Sissies, to convey him. On arrival, he finds a complex web of intrigue and machinations.

I was rather disappointed by this installment. While it was entertaining enough to keep me going, the plot felt haphazard and overcomplex. The three system polities involved weren’t sufficiently fleshed out, and I was often confused about who did what and to whom. Individual scenes were top notch as usual, but the arc of the plot was muddled.

Airframe – Michael Crichton

An aircraft encounters severe turbulence and one person dies. At least, that’s what people think happened. The novel follows the investigation by the manufacturer. A “bad” result could mean death for the company

If you are interested in aviation, you should definitely pick this one up. And even if you are not, it is good reading.As usual, Crichton shows how well he can describe corporate environments.

Forever Peace – Joe Haldeman

In the bleak future depicted in this novel, the USA and nations allied to it fight a seemingly endless low grade war against a loose coalition of other countries and organizations. Sound familiar? Terror and lies are the norm on both sides. The US uses “Soldierboys”, robots under remote control by soldiers that are “jacked in” (neurally connected) to them from a remote location. The concept of neural jacking is central to the novel, with its effects and side effects explored at length. The USA controls “nanoforge” technology, which allows very cheap manufacture of goods and food. This has created an economic divide not only towards non-allies, but towards the people of the USA. A quasi-socialist system where the populace need not work but then only gets the bare minimum has been instated. On the other hand, the draft is in place, and pretty much everyone has to do five years. The story itself follows one Soldierboy operator, starting with the battlefields of Central America. It quickly moves on from there, to the issues with his girlfriend, who does not have a neural jack. In the second half, however, the protagonist and others attempt to stage a coup in order to end war for good.

This is a follow-up, but not a sequel, to the more famous The Forever War. The Vietnam reaction present in that novel is clear here as well. However, instead of exploring the soldier himself, Forever Peace looks at the social construct of a state that has become an end unto itself. The military-industrial complex is all powerful, and religious and other organizations fight for control of the state, and thus the nanoforges and the people.

Unlike The Forever War and Forever Free, this novel was not nearly as well plotted. The first half is excellent, with a clear direction and a good evolution of the characters. The second half introduces a host of new characters and is too much chase when contrasted to the excellent first half. It is unfortunate, since the degeneration into action thriller does not serve well the excellent and intriguing concepts Haldeman uses to shape his world. A decent read, but I was disappointed with the second half. I was especially annoyed at the whole “saving the Universe” part, which was a cool concept to begin with, but by the end felt contrived and unnecessary.

The Ten Thousand – Harold Coyle

Even though the premise is a bit unrealistic, I really enjoyed this. A German Chancellor who is something of an anti-nuclear weapon fanatic forbids an American division transporting nuclear arms to go through Germany. Said division has to fight their way to the sea. The military stuff is well done, and the characters are truly three dimensional. The title and story are based on Xenophon’s account of the “Ten Thousand” and their march back to Greece in 401-399 BC.

Kris Longknife – Redoubtable (Kris Longknife VIII) – Mike Shepherd

In this, the 8th book of the series, Kris Longknife is still aboard the scoutship Wasp, now in command of a squadron of scoutships with a vague exploratory and anti-pirating mission “beyond the rim”. They come across a planet taken over by thugs, then move on to more serious problems.

While it does move the macrostory of Kris, Vicky and the Iteechee connection forward ever so slightly, this book doesn’t really have much more than some half-decent action stories. Still fun if, like me, you are by now into Kris Longknife, but not unforgettable by any means.

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

 

Time’s Eye – Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Like 2001 and it’s sequels, “Time’s Eye” is driven by the intervention in human affairs by unknowable and very powerful alien beings. In a flash, the Earth is divided up in chunks from different times. A UN helicopter crew from 2037, a British Colonial detachment in Afghanistan, the armies of Alexander the great and Genghis Khan are all shoved together onto the same Earth, in the same general area. Overlooking these humans and their reactions to the discontinuity are reflecting spheres hovering above the ground, inscrutable and silent.

While there is some focus on attempting to solve the mystery of the events which have brought the protagonists to this, the main thrust of the story is rather typical alternate history fare, much like 1632 or Island in the Sea of Time. Frankly this aspect has been done better. I did find, however, that Clarke and Baxter manage to infuse the characters with a sense of their place in time and space. Unlike many other alternate history stories, this one does not revel in, or lose itself in, the practicalities of the events. Sure, the “modern” humans introduce the stirrup and steam engines, but unlike with Stirling (who, to be fair, I much enjoy reading) the alternate history angle does not seem to be the actual point.

Time’s eye shows hints of what the superhuman beings behind the “Eyes” are actually doing. It is cruel indeed, but seen as necessary. So do the means really justify the ends?