Swan Song – Robert R. McCammon

It is the nineteen-eighties and the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Various crises have combined to push the United States and the Soviet Union over the edge. It is the long dreaded nuclear holocaust. Survivors include an over-the-hill professional wrestler, a mysterious girl known as Swan, a homeless woman known as Sister Creep, and a band of survivalists. Death (or is it the devil?) also makes an appearance.

If this had been a straight post-apocalyptic thriller I probably would have liked it more. Unfortunately, just like The Stand, it quickly becomes filled with predictable supernatural elements. I’m not against supernatural stuff per se. in fact, it can very much enhance a story. But in this case the holocaust seems almost like an excuse to create the backdrop for the supernatural struggle. The decision to make this a horror story was, at least for this reader, not a good one.

The characters are cookie-cutter and the dialogue is not very good. The inner tribulations of the characters are predictable and long-winded. The holocaust itself is described in horrific detail, and actually very well.

I gave up about a fifth of the way in.

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

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

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

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire III) – George R. R. Martin

The third book in A Song of Ice and Fire flows seamlessly from A Clash of Kings. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are in chaos due to the “War of Five Kings”. While a lot of the “issues” are resolved, new and bigger issues crop up. And an even greater threat is looming. This has been foreshadowed since the very start of the series, but is very concrete now.

While still a great read, this one was a bit more of a slog in the first half. The seconds half is where everything really goes to hell in a handcart, and is much faster paced.

The characters are more and more scattered, and the stories often do not intertwine. For example, where the heck are Arya and Bran going to end up? They certainly have no interaction with any of the other point of view characters. Even though things are quieter than after book two, many questions remain unanswered.

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire II) – George R. R. Martin

The sequel to A Game of Thrones picks up right where the previous book left off. Westeros has been plunged into civil war, with five kings clashing for the Iron Throne and for the North. Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen continues her quest to find supporters in her bid to return her dynasty to the Iron Throne.

While A Game of Thrones perforce had to spend quite some time detailing background, A Clash of Kings dives straight into the action. Without giving away the story, suffice it to say there are many clever and unexpected twists and turns.

Martin is certainly not afraid of taking characters in a bad situation and making their fate even worse. This is in fact an integral part of what makes the series so good. No one is safe and nothing is holy.

Another interesting aspect is how some characters that seem like “bad guys” in the first installment, most notably Tyrion, now seem quite reasonable. Certainly the reader can root for them. Conversely, “good guys” have very dark sides. Martin, through his clever use of point of view characters in the narrative, allows the reader to “back” opposing sides in the conflict.

Certainly nothing much is resolved in this volume, and so it is on to book three.

Kris Longknife – Daring (Kris Longknife IX) – Mike Shepherd

United Sentients, led by Wardhaven, takes action to find the cause for the Iteeche ships that are disappearing, a topic introduced in Undaunted. Kris, as commander of a patrol squadron, is ordered to lead an exploration into very deep space. Various other states, prominently including the Greenfeld Empire, decide they need to go along. Kris finds herself in the lead of a rather large fleet of exploration, though not in command. The political machinations make her life complicated. The main action starts when the fleet actually finds a race of aliens who devastate and plunder other civilizations. Any attempt at contact is met by immediate aggression. Kris must now save a race that is not even aware of humanity’s existence, and survive in order to report her findings.

This is the first time since Defiant that the series has set our heroes with their backs to the wall in a real win or die situation with immense stakes. Kris must battle the demons of her past to do the right thing, even if her actions will likely lead to condemnation on her return to base. Shepherd skillfully continues developing Kris as a heroine who deserves happiness but whose background and sense of duty prevent it. Unlike many other long series, Shepherd dares to reinvent this one and kill off key characters, keeping the whole thing fresh and exciting.

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

Kris Longknife – Training Daze (Kris Longknife III½) – Mike Shepherd

This novella fills in some of the events following Kris Longknife – Defiant. Kris and her cohorts are tasked to set up a training command for foreign navies buying Wardhaven’s fast attack boats.

It’s a cute little piece with plenty of banter between the now familiar main characters, in particular Kris and Jack. How the latter was drafted into the Marines is explained in humorous detail.

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

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

The book is subtitled “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen.” Part journey of self-discovery, part chronicle, part medical exposé, this extraordinary book starts with a quest by the author to figure out why it hurts when he runs. Thus begins a tale so incredible it seems like fiction, populated by weird and wonderful characters like La Brujita (The Little Witch), El Lobo Joven (the Young Wolf) and the incomparable Caballo Blanco (White Horse).

As he digs deeper into the ultra-marathon world, McDougall finally finds his answers in the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico, where a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara have honed the art of running on rocky, mountainous trails to perfection. In sandals.

The insights into running from an evolutionary and physiological standpoint are fascinating. Human beings are built to run, and they are not meant to do it in running shoes. Running should be fun and natural, not a slog or a chore. Children know this, so why do we forget as adults?

As my fortieth approaches, I have incidentally started to understand what the author is talking about. About a year ago, I started doing serious exercise including lots of running. A few months later, I chucked my running shoes in favor of a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, which have no cushioning at all. My aches and pains are gone and I run faster and better than I have ever done.

The author’s easy style and unobtrusive humor make this fascinating story a pleasure to read. If you’ve ever run or wanted to run more than a few metres, you should read this book. It may well change your life.

 

Kris Longknife – Undaunted (Kris Longknife VII) – Mike Shepherd

The seventh book in the Kris Longknife series has Kris still in charge of the exploratory ship Wasp. She blunders into an encounter with an Iteechee vessel. The Iteechee are a race with which humanity had a war 80 years previously. They are so mysterious that the causes of the war are still essentially unknown. Naturally, Kris’ great-grandparents Raymond Longknife and “Trouble” were involved at the time.

This is one of the better installments. Good strong plot even though it does take a massive detour in the middle. Lots of conversation, as per usual, but it doesn’t seem forced. Shepherd has collected an enjoyable cast of characters to play foil to Kris.

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

Kris Longknife – Intrepid (Kris Longknife VI) – Mike Shepherd

In Intrepid, Kris finally has her own ship command. She is on a mission to explore the outer rim and show the flag of Wardhaven/United Sentients. She discovers a plot against her arch enemies, the Peterwalds, and also a plundering expedition launched on an agrarian colony. Lots of ground pounding action anchors this book, with the Marines picked up in Audacious playing a starring role.

This may be my favorite thus far. Any hint of the tentative beginning of the series is gone. The characters are well fleshed out and the plot is interesting. Shepherd has also managed to round out the political background and it is no longer quite as vague. The “we are so clever” conversations are toned down in favor of action; a good development. This one is a real page turner.

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

Kris Longknife – Audacious (Kris Longknife V) – Mike Shepherd

In Audacious, Kris is sent to Eden, an old and conservative colony world where her native and cosmopolitan Wardhaven is thought of as very much a backwater. The plot seems absent at the start, apart from the by now de rigeur repeated attempts on Kris’ life. As usual, the Peterwalds are trying to take over. As usual, Kris Longknife is in the way.

While the series cannot live forever on repetitive plots somewhat varied, the characters do carry this book along like they did the others. The added wrinkle of a glimpse into Abby’s past is a nice bonus. The sometimes strained praise of Marines is oddly both fun and tiresome. After five books, I would happily read more. But just as I did after Resolute, I can’t help but wonder where it is all going in the end.

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

Kris Longknife – Resolute (Kris Longknife IV) – Mike Shepherd

In Resolute, Kris is put in charge of an out of the way naval district assignment on the frontier. In a sub-plot, she finds ancient alien ruins. But the real action is a “fleet visit” from the Greenfeld navy commanded by her old nemesis Hank Smythe Peterwald. In short, the Greenfeld fleet is trying to engender a crisis on the planet as an pretext to take over.

While not quite as good as Defiant, Resolute continues the development of Kris and her cohorts as characters. One wonders where it is all going in the end, but the ride is entertaining.

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

Kris Longknife – Defiant (Kris Longknife III) – Mike Shepherd

In Defiant, Kris must face an imminent threat to her planet. Betrayed by incompetent politicians, she skirts the law to organize the archetypal rag-tag flotilla in defense of Wardhaven as a massive force of hostile warships approaches.

Defiant is a further improvement over the first two books. From the viewpoint of Defiant the first two books, while perfectly capable of standing on their own, seem almost like a prologue. Kris comes into her own as she finally commands a large force. Themes of destiny and sacrifice are neatly explored in Shepherd’s quirky, humorous prose. With this installment, Kris Longknife has gone from merely entertaining to page-turning.

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

Kris Longknife – Deserter (Kris Longknife II) – Mike Shepherd

A marked improvement over Mutineer, Deserter has Kris Longknife run to the rescue of her best friend Tom. The story is a bit hazy, with an “evil dude” trying to kill Kris. Mayhem ensues. As a little side note, the title is only vaguely descriptive. I guess they had to come up with something in one word.

The story flows more smoothly in this second installment. There is a lot (and I do mean a LOT) or banter between the main characters. Many other books would have sagged under the weight of all that conversation, but Shepherd is skilled at conversations between intelligent, witty people. Real people probably don’t talk that way, but strangely that doesn’t detract from the fun.

Some aspects of Mutineer still hold true. This is very much space opera and all about the characters. Mostly fun action with engaging characters who have real flaws.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Granite – Stuart MacBride

A serial killer is on the loose in Aberdeen (the one in Scotland), and our hero Detective Sergeant Logan McRae is on the case. He is just back from leave after being badly stabbed in the belly. He is working for the constantly candy eating Detective Inspector Insch.

The afterword ends with “Aberdeen’s really not as bas as it sounds. Trust me.” I certainly hope so. It sounds like a grey, wet, frozen hellhole full of criminals and never-have-beens with no future in the book. The views into people’s seemingly hopeless, prospectless, grey lives don’t help.

This is a very competent police procedural. The characters are excellently fleshed out, colourful and quirky. Logan McRae himself is by no means perfect and does not always do the right thing. In fact he is full of insecurities. MacBride’s prose is packed with sarcastic and colorful understatement that made this reader chuckle. The one gripe I have is that there are perhaps a few too many twists. Certainly the portrayal of police work as tedious and repetitive seems much closer to the truth than the streamlined view of anything on small or big screen. Our hero’s life is dullness and mind numbing tedium, punctuated by moments of action and terror. Not to mention an amazingly unhealthy lifestyle of broken sleep and terrible eating habits.

They Also Serve (Society of Humanity III) – Mike Moscoe

The third and final book in the Society of Humanity series sees Ray Longknife leading a exploratory expedition, and getting lost. The expedition finds the descendants of a ship’s crew thought lost three hundred years ago. But all is not as it seems. The planet is literally alive with remnants of an ancient civilization. And it’s not happy.

Unlike the somewhat flawed predecessor volumes, this is a very respectable story. The “planet as supercomputer” elements are interesting, as well as the evolution of the individual characters components of that computer. The contrast between the arriving expedition and the locals is also well done, with a good grasp of factional politics. All in all, a great conclusion to the series.

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.

The Price of Peace (Society of Humanity II) – Mike Moscoe

After the war, Izzy Umboto (a minor character from the first book) is given independent command and a mandate to keep the peace on the rim. She and her crew uncover a slavery plot.

Compared to the first book, this one is far more focused. There is a clear feeling of moving forward instead of flying about all over the place.

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.

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.

Stupid White Men… and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation – Michael Moore

Written by the director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, it is a very funny series of essays pretending to be a complete book. If you don’t feel much sympathy for President George W. Bush (denominated “son-of-a-Bush” in this book) and the American political/societal system in general, you will probably enjoy this. It takes some tragically fun true facts about America and just plain tells it the way it is. I found myself nodding a lot, and being sad a lot. Despite the humorous language, the subject matter is deadly serious. America is in bad shape, tells us Michael Moore.

The book has a big left-wing bias, but it is thought-provoking and a fun read. Satire becomes Mr. Moore.

Victory Conditions (Vatta’s War V) – Elizabeth Moon

This book concludes the Vatta’s War series. Moon rather predictably ties up the loose threads and (not really a spoiler) the good guys win.

I enjoyed reading it, but nothing really surprising jumped up at me. While the series is worthwhile entertainment, it will never be remembered as groundbreaking or fantastic. The universe Moon has crafted is a bit too cute, a bit too orderly. The idiosyncrasies of the various cultures are a bit too manufactured and corny and the series suffers from it. There is little real societal tension. All of a sudden the great big enemy pops up, seemingly out of nowhere without any real reason for doing so (apart from stereotypical lust for power) and bam! Big fight. Good guys win. The crowd goes wild. It’s a fun adventure series, but it is lacking in depth.

Command Decision (Vatta’s War IV) – Elizabeth Moon

In the fourth book of Vatta’s War, Ky proves her worth as a commander, defeating a pirate flotilla with the helper of newly developed tactics made possible by shipboard ansibles. As a consequence, the Slotter Key government decides to put its large fleet of privateers under her direct command. Cousin Stella successfully gets the Vatta trading concern back up on its feet, and is able to start producing hardware vital to the war effort

After the somewhat disappointing “Engaging the Enemy“, this book sees a resurgence in action. The story starts moving decisively forward at a decent pace, leading up towards the conclusion.