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.

 

Strange Dogs (The Expanse VI½) – James S.A. Corey

In this short story set on the colony world of Laconia, a young girl tries to bring her dead little brother back to life. Things get weird.

While it is well written and a quick read, I wasn’t particularly captivated with the story in this slice-of-life from a colony world in the Expanse Universe.

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.

Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse VI) – James S.A. Corey

theexpanse6babylonsashesNemesis Games saw Earth attacked and crippled. Billions are dead after Marco Inaros and the Belter Free Navy landed an unimaginably cruel and perhaps fatal blow on the Inner Planets. Medina Station, the key to the colonies opened in Abaddon’s Gate, is also locked down by the Free Navy. Babylon’s Ashes is about the aftermath. Earth led by the incomparable Avasarala, The Mars Congressional Republic and those factions of the Outer Planets Alliance unwilling to accept Inaros’s guidance must now pick up the pieces and strike back before human civilization passes a point of no return towards a new dark age.

Well written as always, Nemesis Games is a pretty depressing read for the most part, but how else could it be with humanity shattered and billions dying of starvation and exposure? The glimpses of light from the efforts of James Holden and the others on the “good” side are heartbreaking and poignant and at the same time encouraging and heartening, as the authors probably intended. The inner doubts and struggles of the characters, in particular Michio Pa, show the reader how politics writ large is still made up of the decisions of individual actors. And as usual any scene with Avasarala involves her stealing the show. How awesome is this character?

4Rosbochs

Blood in the Water (Destroyermen XI) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen11BloodintheWaterFollowing the taking of “Grik City” in Straits of Hell, the Alliance is attempting to both consolidate its foothold on Madagascar and set up for a strike on the Grik heartland. The powerful League of Tripoli is meddling, howerver. On the other front, the Dominion is refusing engagement, but the Allies may be able to bring a new player in to the war on their s
ide.

Despite the fact that this series is now on its eleventh book, it still moves along nicely. Mr. Anderson had not let it bog down into clean-up operations with obvious outcome, and the challenges facing our heroes are as great as ever. This book, like some of the previous installments, is more about setting the stage for future developments and thus doesn’t contain any decisive action, but for fans of the series will still bring satisfaction.

4Rosbochs

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García & Linda Antonsson

TheWorldofIceandFireThis is a companion volume to A Song of Ice & Fire, basis for the Game of Thrones TV series. It serves as a history and geography text for the world and is written from the viewpoint of a maester in the Citadel. Interestingly, it leaves a lot of ambiguity, which feels realistic because most historical “facts”, especially remote ones, are distorted by the passing of time, just as many geographical “facts” are distorted by distance. The “author” refers to this many times.

For any fan of the books or the TV series, this is an interesting read and an excellent reference. The maps and illustrations are gorgeous and greatly help set the scene not only for this book but for the other works in the Song of Ice & Fire universe. Reading on a Kindle doesn’t give the reader the full effect, but Amazon Cloud Reader can be referenced as needed.

4Rosbochs

 

The Vital Abyss (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheVitalAbyssThis short story set in the The Expanse universe features one of the protomolecule research team scientists as the protagonist. It details how the protomolecule was initially investigated, then unleashed on Eros, and the aftermath.

The protagonist shows a bleakly callous worldview. He is certainly not a sympathetic person. However, while reading his view is shown to be insidiously seductive.

4Rosbochs

Nemesis Games (The Expanse V) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse5NemesisGamesThe new worlds discovered in Abaddon’s Gate and opened in Cibola Burn are the new frontier of human expansion. By consequence, there is no longer a need to settle minor bodies like asteroids and live “on the float” like the Belters. This group was already emarginated and seen as exploited by the powerful planetary hegemonies of Earth and Mars. Now their entire raison d’etre as a culture is being threatened. Even Mars is feeling the pressure, as people leave its underground warrens for the opportunity to live in the open air on a new colony planet.

With this as a backdrop, our heroes of the Rocinante is on hiatus on Tycho Station while the ship is being repaired. On cue Amos, Alex and Naomi are called away to handle matters originating in their past. For most of the story, the crew is split up, which makes for an interesting exploration of the individual characters.

And then the big boom happens. An extremist Belter faction attacks Earth. Our heroes must survive alone, and find some way to reunite.

The wider political situation continues to develop, ensuring that the protagonists are not just living out adventures in a static world. The backstories of the characters are interesting in themselves. The exploration of Naomi’s past, delving into some rather dark territory, is especially gripping. Another very enjoyable installment.

4½Rosbochs

Straits of Hell (Destroyermen X) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen10StraitsofHellBattle is joined on both of the Alliance’s fronts. In South America, Shinya must hold against the full force of the Dominion counterattack. In Madagascar, Reddy is subject to an avalanche of Grik forces in the newly taken “Grik City”. After the leadership issues in Deadly Shores having now been sorted out, what remains is the daunting task of defeating two numerically superior enemies on their respective home soil.

Even after all the successes in previous books, the Alliance is still in dire straits. This may be the tipping point in the war against the Grik, but just as the Grik may be close to breaking, the Alliance is strained to the extreme, with overstretched supply lines and a shortage of personnel. Mr. Anderson conveys the precariousness of both the tactical situations and the overall strategic picture to great effect. Another solid installment in the series.

4Rosbochs

Deadly Shores (Destroyermen IX) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen9DeadlyShoresAfter the successful relief of the Pete Alden’s Allied Expeditionary Force in India and the start of offensive operations against the Dominion detailed in Storm Surge, the Alliance uses its current strategic momentum to mount a daring raid against the Grik capital on Madagascar. However, muddled leadership and unclear priorities quickly turn what should have been a raid in force into a potential disaster. On the eastern front, Shinya leads the first confrontation with the “home” forces of the Dominion. As the Alliance continues to grow rapidly, cracks are showing in the leadership, which makes the story all the more interesting.

Mr. Anderson commendably avoids projecting the rest of the series into a big roll-up of the Grik. New and surprising elements are introduced, and for certain our heroes continue to suffer greatly. On a side note, the author always leaves room for chaotic and unexpected events that show the randomness of the world, as well as colourful touches like the little pet lizard-bird Petey. These elements make the world seem as vast as a real one.

While this is firmly an alternate history and war series, the strong elements of adventure fiction truly make it shine.

4½Rosbochs

 

Storm Surge (Destroyermen VIII) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen8StormSurgeFollowing almost two books of plot fragmentation and scope expansion, Storm Surge brings things to a head. The Alliance industrial machine has hit its stride, supporting a gargantuan war effort across three continents. Following the near disastrous invasion of India in Iron Gray Sea, the Allies are ready to strike back in force. Abel Cook and Dennis Silva go looking for the native population of Borno. Finally, the eastern front is properly opened with the first landings on the Dominion home soil.

It took almost the entirety of the two previous books in the series to build up to the events in Storm  Surge, but the payoff was well worth it. While the epic battle to finally conquer Eastern India and rescue Pete Alden’s embattled Allied Expeditionary Force dominates the proceedings, several less significant actions also vie for the spotlight, in particular Cook and Silva’s unexpected encounter.

Mr. Anderson skillfully weaves the complex story, keeping the pace up without bogging down in minutiae. He also continues to throw large wrenches in the works, not fearing to kill off key characters or serving up tragic setbacks. Many series have run out of steam after this many installments, but Destroyermen seems set to continue being captivating.

4½Rosbochs

Iron Gray Sea (Destroyermen VII) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen7IronGraySeaThe Allied First Fleet attacks Grik-held India, while Captain Reddy and Walker go after a powerful Japanese warship.

Certainly the action in India is riveting stuff, but most of the novel felt more like a setup for future installments. Still a fun read but no grand events. The addition of a new player at the very end will hopefully throw a new wrench in the works. Tipping things off balance just when they seem to be working out is something that Mr. Anderson continues to do well in the series.

4Rosbochs

Firestorm (Destroyermen VI) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen6FirestormThe main story threads continue to multiply. Silva, Princess Becky and Sandra Tucker are shipwrecked and presumed lost. The invasion of Ceylon begins. The invasion of the British Empire held Hawaiian isles by the Dominion is in full swing. On the home front in Baalkpaan, the industrial buildup is really hitting its stride.

The pacing could well have suffered due to the more fragmented story, but Mr. Anderson makes it work. The actions on Ceylon and New Ireland especially are well written. Our heroes also suffer some major setbacks that feel like gut-punches. This is especially gratifying as the a common trap in these series is for things to become just a long but unsurprising slog to victory when the tide seems to be turning. It was nice to get more of secondary characters, especially Silva. They certainly add color.

Mr. Anderson has also finally dispensed with the embedded summary of previous installments. This was weighing heavily on the first few chapters in the last few books and I was glad to see it replaced with brief sections designed to jog the memory of returning readers.

4Rosbochs

Rising Tides (Destroyermen V) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen5RisingTidesThe slower pace of Distant Thunders continues in the first half of Rising Tides. The story itself is divided between the Allied mission to the Empire of New Britain, salvage efforts on the S-19 submarine and a cargo ship full of fighter planes, the Allied offensive against Rangoon, and finally the adventures of the castaway Silva, Princess Rebecca and Sandra Tucker. This makes for a somewhat scattered narrative. However the action soon picks up in the second half with a harrowing climax in the heart of the Empire.

The scope of the overall story arc continues to expand and I was somewhat worried that the whole thing would become too large to retain the focus and excitement of earlier installments. However Mr. Anderson returns as soon as he can to the tight pacing of books one through three. The opening of a second front will also likely keep the story from devolving into a long mop-up ahead of the final victory.

4Rosbochs

Distant Thunders (Destroyermen IV) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen4DistantThundersAfter the epic events of Maelstrom, the series slows down and goes on a slight sidetrack due to the actions of a certain faction of New Britannic Empire.

While I was initially hesitant about the story decision, I found it ultimately to be a good thing. Adding the wrinkle of both the New Britannic Empire and the power struggles therein makes for a more interesting arc. Meanwhile, the humor and action are still present, making this book yet another worthwhile installment.

4Rosbochs

Crusade (Destroyermen II) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen2CrusadeAfter the events of Into the Storm, the humans of Walker and their Lemurian allies prepare their defenses for the inevitable Grik onslaught. Initial optimism is tempered by the realization that the threat is much greater than they initially thought.

While Into the Storm was somewhat tentative, the series hits its stride in this book. A real page turner. Mr. Anderson also gives freer rein to the often comical idiosyncrasies of his characters, adding a note of absurdist humor to the narrative.

4Rosbochs

Into the Storm (Destroyermen I) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen1IntotheStormIn March of 1942, during the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the obsolete American destroyer U.S.S. Walker is taking a beating. While attempting to escape into a squall, she and her crew are transported to a parallel Earth. In this world, there are no humans. Sentient lemurs and raptors are locked in an age-old struggle.

The premise is interesting, and the execution competent, if not tremendously original.  The story is well told and enjoyable, but I did sometimes find myself wanting more of the World War II action. One thing that disappointed me was that things were a bit too neat and easy. Two alien races meeting for the first time and quickly ally without more than trifling misunderstandings is stretching things a bit too far.

3½Rosbochs

Cibola Burn (The Expanse IV) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse4CibolaBurnFollowing the events in Abaddon’s Gate, humanity has access to a thousand worlds connected by The Hub left behind by the protomolecule builders. The Outer Planets Alliance holds The Hub as a sort of way station. On the planet Ilus, Belter refugees have set up a lithium mining operation. However the UN has given the exploration charter for the world to Royal Charter Energy, a large corporation. While the Belters have been building a hardscrabble life, an RCE expedition to claim and explore the world has slowly been making its way to Ilus. The name itself is the first political issue of many, as RCE calls the world New Terra. Some of the Belter colonists take direct action against the perceived thread, destroying the first RCE shuttle to attempt a landing; killing several RCE staff and scientists. The UN and OPA send Holden and the crew of the Rocinante in to mediate. And from there, things go rapidly downhill.

In trademark The Expanse style, things start calmly and slowly, only to accelerate into a furious page-turning crescendo of action by the end of the novel. The world of Ilus/New Terra is not what it seems, and humans are messing with forces they can only barely comprehend. The crew of the Rocinante have matured into a closely knit team, and I can’t help comparing them to the crew of the Firefly. I even kept seeing Amos as Jayne. They trust each other to get the job done, without any doubts or hesitation. While not quite as strong as the previous installment, and somewhat ponderous in the first half, this yet another great read in the series.

4½Rosbochs

The Churn (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheChurnThe Churn tells the early backstory of Amos Burton, one of our heroes on the Rocinante in Leviathan Wakes and onwards. It is set in the criminal substrate of future Baltimore. Large parts of the city have been submerged by rising sea levels, and it is in general a crappy place to live; a backwater that no one cares very much.

The apathetic attitude of the denizens of Baltimore, and by implication much of Earth, is well portrayed. Most are living on Basic, a sort of dole where they get free (bland) food and basic services but do not have to work. Many are unregistered and have no real identity in the eyes of the authorities. They live their lives without purpose or hope for a better future. And they look upwards at Mars and the Outer Planets with a dreamlike wonder, knowing that they are very unlikely to have a chance at a better tomorrow up there.

3½Rosbochs

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse III) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanseIIIAbaddonsGateFollowing the events in Caliban’s War, the protomolecule shoots itself off into the far reaches of the Solar System, well beyond the orbit of Neptune. It forms a large ring. As it turns out, the ring is a gate to another place far away from the Sun. Mars, Earth and the Outer Planets organize expeditions to study the gate. Meanwhile, the sister of Julie Mao, the mysterious woman from Leviathan Wakes, has decided to disgrace James Holden, who along with the crew of the Rocinante, is also on his way to the gate. Needless to say, things rapidly go south, with the large multinational fleet of research and warships trapped beyond the gate in a mysterious “slow zone” which limits the speed of ships. And then things go south some more as internal fighting breaks out between various factions.

Just as in the previous books, the story is told via viewpoint characters, with excellent characterization. There is deep examination of motivation and personality without it getting in the way of the action. In some ways, the book, just like its prequels, reads like an action blockbuster, especially the last third of it. But it is deeper than that, showing the authors’ insight into human nature, society and politics. The world is granular and consistent, with little things like how Belters and Earthers think alike fully developed and really affecting the actions of the characters. The stakes are high and the situations often desperate. I couldn’t stop reading because the authors kept putting our heroes in situations that seemed impossible while the fate of humanity was on the line; a real skill.

5Rosbochs