Strands of Sorrow (Black Tide Rising IV) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising4StrandsofSorrowThe fourth and last book in Black Tide Rising sees the beginning of major zombie clearance on the US mainland, with the retaking of some large coastal bases, and planning for the re-establishment of proper civilization beyond survival. Given the clearance of the bases, more and more surviving higher officers start to appear, some of whom are unable to adapt to the “new military”.

Throughout the series, Ringo has approached the zombie problem from a logical perspective. Once the survivors have gotten through the initial collapse of society and achieved a modicum of organization, ridding the world of all those zombies becomes a logistical issue. While the discussions on said logistics are interesting per se, they do not an action novel make. Furthermore, given that what action is now relatively safe for our heroes, there is not a huge amount of tension. Mr. Ringo is as always a very funny author so the novel is still a page turner, but sadly the subject matter and the way it is treated makes this one less engaging than most of his works. The novel also verges further into “preachy” about the military and the right wing than even the author’s usual, and that part got old fast.

3Rosbochs

 

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

Divergent (Divergent I) – Veronica Roth

Divergent1DivergentIn a post-apocalyptic Chicago, humans are divided into five factions. Amity grows crops and pursues simple happiness and friendship. Candor resolves disputes and pursues honesty. Abnegation helps people, rules without seeking power, and pursues selflessness. Erudite pursues knowledge. Dauntless defends the city, keeps order and pursues bravery. Many have no faction, and are second class citizens. When a faction member turns sixteen he or she must choose a faction, with an aptitude test for guidance. Most stay with their own faction, but some transfer. Beatrice is a young Abnegation. After her test results show her to be Divergent, that is not showing aptitude for any faction and rather too independent-minded for her own good, she chooses Dauntless. Most of the book is about her initiation into Dauntless, on the surface a half-mad group of daredevils who believe in bravery before anything. But trouble is brewing among the factions. While the faction system has kept the peace for generations, tensions have inevitably grown, and are about to release.

Fair warning. This is young adult fiction and you have to squint quite a bit to see past the logic holes of the faction system (who keeps those trains running?) but Ms. Roth does not invite us to peer too deeply into the inner workings. In any case that would be missing the point, which is to delve into how humans cannot be so deeply constrained by a society. Who can say at sixteen what he will choose as a lifestyle and vocation for the rest of his life? The background of the factions, and especially of a new faction from the protagonist’s point of view, illustrate how difficult growing up can be if you don’t fit it.

Tris as a young protagonist is rather classic. A girl who finds her inner bravery. However the way she is written in the first person present is excellent, especially the moments of deep terror and fear. Ms. Roth has infused Beatrice with tangible and realistic personal growth.

While it rather light reading, I quite enjoyed this novel.

4Rosbochs

Dinosaurs & a Dirigible – David Drake

Dinosaurs&ADirigibleWhile this is a short story collection, but the first four stories can be thought of as four parts of an episodic novel. The fifth story is a singleton. All five have been published separately before, but I had never read them.  The four connected stories follow Henry Vickers, master hunter and game guide, who becomes hired by the state of Israel to work in their time travel initiative. So he becomes a game guide in the time or early man, and in the Cretaceous when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Wildlife adventure and annoying clients abound. The last story is about a dirigible on its way across America around the turn of the 20th Century.

Henry Vickers is not the most likable character, and that is on purpose. He is interesting, however. These hunting and survival stories with dinosaurs tickled my inner child, who like most boys would very much have wanted to see real dinosaurs. This collection is an easy read with lots of action.

4Rosbochs

Islands of Rage and Hope (Black Tide Rising III) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising3IslandsofRageandHopeAfter consolidating through the North Atlantic hurricane season, Wolf Squadron moves on to capture Guantanamo Bay and liberate the Marines trapped there. Our heroes then mow through a few Caribbean islands in search of vaccine production materials, a quest which eventually leads them to an unlikely place.

New Marines means Shewolf has to convince new people that her way is the correct way. Unsurprisingly, taking orders from a thirteen year old Second Lieutenant is hard for those who have not seen her in action. Unfortunately, interpersonal issues, and the organizational tangles stemming from them, take up too large a portion of the book. There are some very interesting discussions on leadership but they too often take the form of infodumps from senior officers, who always seem to have more knowledge than any average person. Having said that, this is Ringo and as usual with him the novel is a page turner, especially the last third where the action really picks up. The humor, also as usual with Ringo, is dry and hilarious.

3½Rosbochs

 

A Darkling Sea – James L. Cambias

ADarklingSeaUnder the thick ice crust of the moon Ilmatar, there is a world-spanning cold ocean filled with strange alien creatures, some of them intelligent with primitive technology. A human expeditionary base studies this dark and submerged world under strict non-contact rules. Inevitably, one of the academics tries to get a bit too close. At the same time, a ship from the advanced Sholen race arrives at Ilmatar. The Sholen with to contain human contamination of pristine worlds, and due to internal Sholen politics they attempt to force the humans to leave.

The sub-ice ocean of Ilmatar is richly described through the diverse viewpoints of Ilmatarans, humans and Sholen. Mr. Cambias has managed to make the aliens quite alien in their thinking, especially the Ilmatarans with their immediate sense of experience, tricky relationship with memory and sudden narcolepsy. An adventure novel at heart, this book manages to ride above mere action into more intellectual territory by exploring the relationships between three races with different motivations in an unusual environment. It is also a good first contact novel. I was strongly reminded of the film The Abyss, with its mix of dark underwater milieus and dank submerged base.

4Rosbochs

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

When Diplomacy Fails… (Ripple Creek III) – Michael Z. Williamson

RippleCreek3WhenDiplomacyFailsIn the third installment of the Ripple Creek series, the crack team of Ripple Creek bodyguards is tasked to protect a government official and election candidate while she tours a backwater planet riddled with factional violence.

While a solid entry in the series, I found this one to be slower moving than the others, at least for the first two thirds before the crap hits the fan. Williamson competently moves the action forward with plenty of battlescenes, weaponry details and tactical minutiae. The more interesting parts of the novel are about handling a distasteful protectee who detests her detail, and of the personal struggles of one team member. Unfortunately, the rest of the team are by now far too polished and perfect, leaving the ending not very much in doubt.

3½Rosbochs

 

All You Need Is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka

AllYouNeedIsKillKeiji Kiriya is a draftee in the ongoing war against the alien Mimics. In his first battle, he is killed after only the first few minutes. He finds himself back in his bunk, seemingly transported back in time to the morning before. As the story continues, and no matter what he does, he keeps getting killed about thirty hours into the time loop, and then being returned to his bunk. Stuck in the cycle but with memories of each loop intact, he decides to become a better fighter so he can win the battle.

The first-person perspective lends itself well to the story, as the reader feels empathy for Keiji’s ordeal, both initially as a draftee in a seemingly hopeless war, and later as a victim of the time loops. He does not want to fight at all, almost a stereotypical apathetic young man with “no goals in life”, and he must transform himself from victim to pro-active initiative taker. While the action is excellent, and the story well crafted, the timey-wimey bits unfortunately become ponderous and over-complex as the novel progresses. A somewhat simplified view of the time loops would have kept the pace up.

The novel is the basis for the movie Edge of Tomorrow.

4Rosbochs

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

Work Done for Hire – Joe Haldeman

WorkDoneforHireA veteran and struggling writer receives a dream contract for a movie novelization. Soon after, a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he is blackmailed into accepting a contract to murder a still unnamed victim. He goes on the run with his girlfriend.

I was sorely disappointed by this book. While it is competently written, the story is just a bland chase. The ending is anticlimactic and the “twist”, well, isn’t. The interleaved chapters with the novel the protagonist is writing are vaguely interesting but mostly seem like filler without ulterior purpose.

1½Rosbochs

To Sail a Darkling Sea (Black Tide Rising II) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIIToSailaDarklingSeaBook two of Black Tide Rising picks up shortly after Under a Graveyard Sky. Wolf Squadron is now well on its way to being a reasonably organized naval military force. Faith “Shewolf” Smith is a legend after initial difficult zombie clearance actions, and her sister Sophia “Seawolf” Smith is not far behind as a boat captain. The story is fairly straight forward and mainly deals with the growing pains of squadron, the formalization of military command over it, and the introduction of new characters.

Unlike the first book, there is no backs-to-the-wall-with-everything-on-the-line combat, nor is the survival of most of the characters really in question. A setup book necessary for the continuation of the series. Having said that, Mr. Ringo’s trademark humor, his lively characters and his knack for snappy dialogue make it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I also loved the emerging anti-zombie mechanical devices.

4Rosbochs

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

Caliban’s War (The Expanse II) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse2CalibansWarCaliban’s War is set one year after the events of Leviathan Wakes. The crew of the Rocinante is on contract from the Outer Planets Alliance to hunt pirates. Meanwhile, on Ganymede, the daughter of research botanist Praxidike Meng is abducted just prior to an unexplained assault by both Mars and Earth fleets. Turns out that the deadly protomolecule is loose again. But who set it loose? The Solar System is on the verge of war. Once again, the Rocinante finds itself in the center of things.

This book was fully as good as the first; perhaps even a touch better. The action is excellent and the prose beautiful. The attention to detail regarding the effects of living in the Asteroid Belt or on a moon of Jupiter are wonderfully thought out. For example, Belters nod with one hand since a head nod is not often visible when wearing a helmet. Both the old characters and the new ones stand out in their characterizations, with well-written arcs propelling them forward in the story.

4½Rosbochs

Under a Graveyard Sky (Black Tide Rising I) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIUnderAGraveyardSkySteve Smith is not a survivalist in the “nutter” sense of the word. He is a former special forces soldier who takes what most would consider excessive precautions against various “end of the world” scenarios. His teenage daughters are well versed in weapons usage and know how to pack for the apocalypse. When Steve’s brother Tom sends him a coded message that the zombie apocalypse is coming (yes really!), he sets in motion a well-prepared plan to get his family out of harm’s way. Zombie apocalypse wasn’t one of the more likely scenarios, but he can deal. His thirteen year old daughter Faith is reasonably happy though. She has always dreamed of a chance to kill zombies.

This is an unusual zombie novel since Mr. Ringo has actually taken the time to make the zombie trope somewhat, and I use the word loosely, realistic. Your classic zombie might as well be a magical being. No matter how much zombie-ism is made out as a disease, zombies would still need to get energy from somewhere, and evacuate waste. “Normal” zombies don’t poop. Mr. Ringo neatly solves the evacuation issue by having the tailored zombie virus induce a very strong itching feeling when it strikes, giving the afflicted an uncontrollable urge to strip just before they go on the more traditional murdering cannibalistic rampage.

As usual with Mr. Ringo, the novel oozes dry humor. Some of the one liners felled in the middle of zombie killing action are laugh out loud funny, and the whole thing is extremely entertaining despite the subject matter. The “Last Concert in New York” scene is particularly quirky and absurd. I look forward to coming installments.

4Rosbochs

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse I) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse1LeviathanWakesA few hundred years from now, humanity has colonized the Solar System. Mars and Earth (the “Inner Planets”) are the developed juggernauts of society, with Earth crowded by a population of thirty billion. The rest of humanity lives on various moons and asteroids (the “Outer Planets”), hollowed out or domed for habitation. Tension between the Inner Planets and the fringe has been constant for centuries, with the fringe being gouged on taxes and kept cowed by the massively powerful Mars-Earth combined navies.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two characters, freighter officer Holden, born on Earth, and Ceres police officer Miller, born and raised on Ceres itself. Holden’s ship is attacked for (initially) undetermined reasons and along with a few other survivors he is now a fugitive from powerful interests. Miller is asked to investigate the disappearance of one Juliette Andromeda Mao, scion of a rich family who left the fold to hang with the semi-terrorist Outer Planets Alliance, a group dedicated to independence from the Inner Planets. Miller’s search soon leads him to an encounter with Holden, as they both try to figure out who is inciting a shooting war between the Outer Planets and the Inner Planets. More importantly, what is the terrible plague that found Julie Mao; who is trying to use it and for what purpose?

The plot moves along quickly, with kick-ass action scenes worthy of a blockbuster movie. Miller’s slow descent into madness is contrasted with Holden’s transformation from naive boy scout to cynical player. The divergence of Inner Planet and Outer Planet society is finely described with tidbits sprinkled throughout the book; a story of frontier society trying to define itself. The supporting cast is wonderfully fleshed out, avoiding stereotypes and developing relationships realistically. The story itself twists in unexpected directions, with a grandiose “couldn’t see that coming” ending. Great space opera!

4½Rosbochs

Reamde – Neal Stephenson

A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.

This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.

The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family,  is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.

While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.

Better to Beg Forgiveness (Ripple Creek I) – Michael Z. Williamson

Set in the same universe as Freehold but preceding it chronologically, this novel follows a group of bodyguards tasked with protecting the president of a nation wracked by civil war. The setting is very much inspired by present day Afghanistan and Iraq. Clan warfare and a lacking sense of national identity make the task of unification and pacification very difficult. To make it worse, the bureaucrats and military organizations of the UN (now a world and multiplanetary government) don’t care one way or another. They simply want their own agendas pushed. When it all hits the fan, the bureaucrats choose to simply “remove” the president, but the bodyguards have other ideas.

From the excellent action scenes to the realistic character studies, Williamson displays his impressive knowledge of military matters. The plot is a bit slow and perhaps even unfocused in the first half, but then picks up speed to end in a huge climax. If you are a fan of Williamson’s other work, you’ll like this one, but it is only really for the hardcore military fiction buff. That’s right, I didn’t say science fiction. In fact, this book could have been set in the present day Middle East with very few changes.

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.

The Scope of Justice (Target: Terror I) – Michael Z. Williamson

This rather short novel follows a US sniper and spotter team on an assassination mission in Afghanistan. It is set after the Afghan war of 2001 and the target is a terrorist leader. Needless to say, the initial attempt goes to hell in more ways than one. The two Americans then have to use their own ingenuity and local resources to both survive and to complete their mission.

This is competent but not great military fiction. A rather straightforward story, exciting but without any really unexpected wrinkles. Interesting reading if you want to learn something about modern snipers and how they operate. The dialogue is pretty awful at times though.

The Tau Ceti Agenda (Tau Ceti Agenda II) – Travis S. Taylor

The sequel to One Day on Mars takes place a few years after the events of that book. We are rather disconcertingly thrown straight into the action of a new “24“-like tale taking place within a short time span. United States forces are attacking a separatist base in the Oort Cloud. At the same time, the president (Senator Alexander Moore from the previous book) and his family are being attacked by every automaton at Disneyland (no, really). Finally, a secret agent emplaced at the separatist home planet in the Tau Ceti system gets into trouble.

The action (and there is a LOT of action) is fast, furious and for the most part well written. It annoyed me, though, that there was little or no introduction to events. It was all rather confusing at first. The story, once it is revealed, is in fact quite engaging. So it was annoying that there was so much action in the way in the first part. The other thing about this book that bothered me was that far too much space was given to confusing mecha/fighter battlescenes. The abundance of characters and the sheer overdescription of so many aspects soon made me skim through these scenes. They are supposed to be “cool” and “kick-ass” I suppose, and in many respects they are, but I could have done with a few less descriptions of hair raising maneuvers and how many gees the pilots are pulling. Conclusion: mixed bag. Nice action book, not great. Very intriguing macrostory unfortunately muddled by a great many less than relevant action sequences.