River of Bones (Destroyermen XIII) – Taylor Anderson

After taking and holding Madagascar in Deadly Shores (IX) and Straits of Hell (X), and conclusively dealing with Kurokawa in Devil’s Due (XII) the Alliance is preparing to finally land in Africa. It is a race against time, as Grik leader Esshk has been able to breed, train and equip his “Final Swarm” in only a few years, and is planning a breakout along the Zambezi River. If the Final Swarm reaches the ocean and manages to scatter, the rapid breeding of the Grik will eventually create an almost insurmountable numerical advantage. Unfortunately, the Allied invasion force is not quite ready. Russ Chapelle takes the USS Santa Catalina at the head of tiny task force up the river, in order to block passage until reinforcements can arrive. It is a desperate race against time.

On the American Front, the story advances only slightly, as New United States forces prepare to join the fight and the League of Tripoli makes overtures towards the Dominion.

Mr. Anderson continues to focus on one front at a time, which works to the series advantage. Most of this installment is taken up by the events in and around the Zambezi. The battles are real nail-biters, in large part because the author has managed to convey the catastrophic consequences of defeat. Even after driving the Grik back all the way from Balkpan and across a vast ocean, our heroes still find themselves with their back agains the wall.

With the still unresolved Dominion War, and the looming threat of the League of Tripoli, the Destroyermen series doesn’t seem to be moving towards a conclusion any time soon. If the quality remains this high, that can only be a good thing.

 

 

Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete “Near Space” Stories, Expanded Edition – Allen Steele

This expanded edition contains all previously published Near Space short stories and novelettes. The stories range from action to reflection, from joy to melancholy. The stories are presented chronologically, starting from the beginning of the Near Space timeline, in more or less the present era, and ending with the advanced colonised solar system of Mr. Chicago.

As he mentions in the introduction, Mr. Steele has been labelled a “Space Romantic”, and this is rather accurate. His stories are infused with an infectious sense of wonder about space exploration in the near future. His focus on the working stiff rather than the movers and shakers gives rise to interesting reflections and themes. Having read all or some of the Near Space long fiction is not a pre-requisite for reading this collection, though it will fill in some of the background.

A Voyage Through Air (The Queen of Dreams III) – Peter F. Hamilton

Following immediately after The Hunting of the Princes, the final volume of the trilogy takes our protagonists to the realm of air, where rocky islands drift weightlessly in a vast ocean of air, and ships ply between the, dodging storms and monsters. Taggie, Jemima and the others are in a race with time to find Myrlin’s Gate in the hope it will end the looming conflict between dark universe peoples, and bring peace to the realms.

The last book is a breathless, almost relentless race against time. But Mr. Hamilton doesn’t lose track of character development. Taggie, Jemima, Lantic and Felix especially grow change during their adventures. There are several gems among secondary characters as well, especially the flamboyant Captain Rebecca. While the books have all the trappings of fantasy, Mr. Hamilton’s science fiction roots are showing, especially in this last book. The worldbuilding is imaginative, whimsical and awe-inspiring.

The Hunting of the Princes (The Queen of Dreams II) – Peter F. Hamilton

After the somewhat standalone narrative of The Secret Throne, Taggie and Jemima are back in England. After a series of assassination attempts against royals, they must face a threat not only to the First Realm, but to all the realms. The adventure takes them to the occupied Fourth Realm, where winter and evil reign.

The second book in the series is more complex and more exciting than the first, as if Mr. Hamilton is becoming more comfortable with the fantasy medium. The story is both engaging and thought provoking, as characters of supposed integrity find their beliefs and ethics challenged when confronted with adversity.

The Secret Throne (The Queen of Dreams I)

Taggie and Jemima are pre-teen sisters, sent off for the holidays to their apparently eccentric father who lives somewhat distant from modern society. Quite suddenly, he is kidnapped by dark forces. And the sisters discover that they are heirs to a dynasty in a very different realm.

Mr. Hamilton’s prose is as tight as ever, even when he is writing for tweens and young adults. The characters are engaging, complex and imperfect. The plot is fine, but unfortunately rather linear and predictable. A good read, but Mr. Hamilton’s efforts to make things more approachable for his expected audience have not quite worked out.

Side note: My ten-year-old daughter adored this book.

 

Castaway Odyssey (Boundary V) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.

This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting.  The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.

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.

Temple – Matthew Reilly

temple-cover-2William Race is a professor of linguistics in New York. Without warning, he is drafted to translate an ancient manuscript detailing events during the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. Specifically, he must assist a team of military and civilian operatives in determining the location of a mythical Incan idol. This idol holds the key to building a superweapon. The adventure soon takes our characters into the depths of the unexplored Amazonian rainforest, searching for an abandoned temple.

Full disclosure: I only got about a third of the way through this book. It reads like a Hollywood action-adventure movie. The action scenes are exciting but strain suspension of disbelief in the extreme. Hollywood physics are definitely in evidence. Additionally, Mr. Reilly is not very rigorous in his research on his props, such as aircraft and weapons, not to mention the material of the superweapon itself.  The characters are cardboard cutouts and I didn’t find myself engaging in their story. The one redeeming quality of the book was the somewhat interesting parallel story set in the 16th Century.

1½Rosbochs

Grand Central Arena (Grand Central Arena I) – Ryk E. Spoor

GrandCentralArenaPilot Ariane Austin joins the crew of the first manned ship to attempt to break the lightspeed barrier. The first “jump” takes them to a large enclosed space containing a model of the solar system.

The characters are bland and too quickly introduced. They are all great at their jobs except for the one who is blatantly foreshadowed to have a hidden agenda. The technobabble is grating.

I really tried but I couldn’t finish this one.

1½Rosbochs

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

SevenevesIn a very near future, the Moon is destroyed, suddenly and without warning. Within a few days, scientists figure out that the seven pieces will impact each other again and again, breaking into ever smaller pieces until after two years the process reaches a sort of critical mass. Then, so many large meteors will impact the Earth’s atmosphere that it will broil, annihilating all life on Earth in an event named the “Hard Rain”. Desperate measure are implemented to launch as many people as possible into space before the end. It is estimated that it will take 5000 years until the Hard Rain abates and Earth can be made inhabitable again.

Seveneves is a very long novel divided into three parts. Part one details events from the destruction of the Moon to the Hard Rain. Part two chronicles the struggle for survival after the Hard Rain and the nadir of human population, as well as the momentous decisions at this point. Part three jumps five thousand years into the future, with Earth being repopulated and the human race split into seven races. It is an epic story focusing on themes of resilience, survival and most of all what it is that makes us human. What are the traits that make us who we are? What drives us to conflict, cooperation, competition and rationality? Seveneves asks the question: Can such traits be altered in the human race through genetic tinkering, and what would happen if they were?

In the beginning of part three, there is a feeling of disjointedness with the rest of the story, but after a while this somewhat separate story with entirely new characters starts feeling like an appropriate bookend to parts one and two, with a perspective on ancient events down the long lens of history, and with the results of the experiment at hand.

The text is littered with info-dumps, mostly about space technology. Detailed explanations about orbital mechanics and the physics of free-falling chains abound. I personally found this content very interesting, but I can understand that not all would. The prose flows easily from page to page, filling the reader with a real desire to find out what will happen on this great odyssey. For it is truly an odyssey, an epic of monumental proportions drawing the entire human race, with all its history and heritage, down to a single point, literally a single room, and then chronicling its resurgence.

4½Rosbochs

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

Analfabeten som kunde räkna (The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden) – Jonas Jonasson

AnalfabetenSomKundeRäknaNombeko Mayeko is born into poverty in Soweto during the Apartheid era. From childhood, she has worked as a latrine emptier. Despite a lack of formal education, she is a maths prodigy and possesses considerable street smarts. Through a series of unlikely events, she ends up in Sweden in possession of an atomic bomb. Here her life continues together with Holger 2, the non-existent (at least as far as the authorities are concerned) twin of Holger 1, a radical republican who wants to bring down the monarchy.

Because of its nature as a sequence of very unlikely, but nevertheless often humorous events, the story requires a complete suspension of disbelief, and is perhaps best read as a naif satire combined with situational comedy. The book is written in a very dry humor that turns what would normally be sad or infuriating situations into laugh-out-loud farces.

The characters are quirky, interesting and, while most are just as unlikely as the story, deeply charming. Even “The Idiot” and his girlfriend “The Angry One” engage the reader in their adventures.

On a deeper level, the story can be seen as a triumph of human ingenuity over adversity, with themes touching on how people will continue to seek a normal existence and happiness no matter what is thrown at them.

4Rosbochs

Shooting the Rift – Alex Stewart

ShootingTheRiftSimon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.

It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.

2Rosbochs

Black Powder War (Temeraire #3) – by Naomi Novik

Temeraire3BlackPowderWarAfter their adventures in China in Throne of Jade, Temeraire, Laurence and the rest of the crew receive orders to travel to Istambul in the Ottoman Empire. Here, they must retrieve three Turkish dragon eggs for further transport to England. Pressed for time, Laurence opts for the overland route through Asia, a long and arduous journey. Needless to say, once in Istambul circumstances have changed. And that is just the beginning of the troubles for our heroes.

While still not quite reaching the level of the first book, Black Powder War is still eminently readable and fun. At this point it seems the macropolitical developments in Europe starts to diverge more markedly from our history, with Temeraire and Laurence acting as agents for a change in social status of dragons in the West.

4Rosbochs

Throne of Jade (Temeraire II) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire2ThroneofJadeThe second book picks up immediately after the events of His Majesty’s Dragon. As it turns out, Temeraire’s egg, which Laurence and his crew captured on a French warship, was meant as a gift from China to Napoleon. Temeraire is a very rare Chinese breed, and now the Chinese want him back. Thus starts a long and arduous journey to Peking on a diplomatic mission to resolve the situation.

While not quite as good as the first book, the second installment keeps up the spirit of high adventure. Temeraire is fleshed out some more as a character, with some interesting influence from a Chinese society where Dragons are treated very differently compared to their situation in Europe.

4Rosbochs

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire1HisMajestysDragonThe year is 1804. Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy and his crew capture a French warship. On board they find a dragon egg; a prize worth a princely sum to the British war effort. The egg hatches and the dragon, whom Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him as his handler. Laurence must leave the Royal Navy to join the Flying Corps, and entirely foreign environment for him.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a delightful novel, full of whooping-out-loud-inducing adventure set in a period of gentlemen, honour and heroic deeds. There’s a Horatio Hornblower vibe over the story, which dares to be high adventure without dwelling too much over the fact that dragons do exist and are simply part of the world. A somewhat storied and mystical part, to be sure, but there is no further explanation required or necessary. Ms. Novik doesn’t bend over backwards to make the existence of these beasts plausible, but simply integrates them into history as we know it, making for some striking images. For example, dragon formations crewed with gunners and boarders striking at convoys in the English channel. The entire organization of dragons in battle as couriers, support aircraft or heavy strike beasts depending on size and ability rapidly starts to seem entirely plausible given the historical background. And so, even though it is full of dragons, the novel doesn’t feel very much like fantasy at all, keeping its thematic roots firmly in the historical novel and alternate history camps.

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

Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

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