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

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

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

Marque and Reprisal (Vatta’s War II) – Elizabeth Moon

The second book in the “Vatta’s War” series starts off exactly where Trading in Danger ends. After the initial tentative volley, the war on the interstellar status quo begins in earnest. Ansibles, used to communicate instantly between stars, are sabotaged and destroyed in a successful attempt to destabilize and weaken trade. Vatta Transport becomes the target of a concerted attack, and most of Ky’s family is killed. Ky herself encounters the black sheep of the family, and (as borne out in the title) becomes a privateer.

The tone of this novel is quite similar to the first. In fact, the books feel not so much like a series as volumes of the same narrative. The characters, especially Ky, continue to develop in both expected and unexpected ways, as Moon builds an intricate web of relationships backed by skillfully described internal thought processes. The action contained in this installment ensures it doesn’t really feel like an interim book.

Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War I) – Elizabeth Moon

This is the first book in the “Vatta’s War” series. Kylara Vatta is a scion of the Vatta shipping dynasty. Despite this, she decides to make a career in the military. The book sstarts with her being thrown out of the academy after ill-advisedly helping a fellow cadet with a personal matter. Her father and uncle then send her off as Captain of an old ship on its last journey, to the scrapheap. But of course she can’t just do that. She decides to prove that she can be a successful trader. Exciting adventures ensue.

This is pure space opera. While the the fictional physics are mostly adhered to, they are there purely to support the story. Thankfully, Kylara Vatta is a very engaging and intriguing character. She is very young but very capable; her father’s girl but with a mind of her own; a trader needing to prove herself but also a captain for a great shipping line. While not quite a page turner, the book does keep serving up surprises until the end. However without Kylara the book would be nothing. She makes the story. Moon has been writing this stuff for a while now so it’s all nicely polished. I recommend this if you are into adventure SciFi with complex protagonists.

End in Fire – Syne Mitchell

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

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

Perdido Street Station РChina Mi̩ville

This critically acclaimed steampunk novel about is a man and his forbidden love, and lots and lots and lots of other things. A very big novel, in many senses. Apart from its heft, it carries a heavy baggage of stylized themes and has a lovely style to its prose. It was definitely worth a read, but I still felt that by the end I just wanted to get it over with. In other words, good stuff but it a bit too long.

 

Space – James A. Michener

The king of the one word title (Mexico! Hawaii! Centennial! Iberia!) tries his hand at the space program, and does it well. This dramatization of the (mainly US) space program from its origins in Peenemunde in 1944 to post Apollo era, with some fictional tangents, is extremely well researched. If you are even vaguely interested in the space program, you will enjoy it.

The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The story starts small, with an enigmatic wanderer, namely our hero Cazaril, making his way to a former employer’s household. It turns out that Cazaril is actually a nobleman, who through betrayal from his own side became a galley slave. His former employer, grandmother of the heir and heiress to the throne, tasks him with the education of said heiress, Iselle. Soon, the heirs and Cazaril must make their way to the royal capital, there to attend on the king, ostensibly for him to officially name his successor. But intrigue, dark magics and old enemies abound in the cut-throat enviroment of courtiers and politicians. A curse hangs over the kingdom of Chalion.

I love McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. This book  has a very different subject matter and setting, but Ms. McMaster Bujold’s supreme skills at characterization and dialogue remain. The plot is intriguing but the pacing is somewhat weak. Most of the book is set at the royal palace, The Zangre. While the story moves on, often with fascinating twists and turns, it feels a bit as if the first three quarters of the book merely set up the last quarter, in which the action truly picks up. Reading a slow paced story written by McMaster Bujold is still a pleasure, but I did spend a large part of the book waiting for something to actually happen.

Tendeléo’s Story – Ian McDonald

Novelette about how biological packages from outer space infest the Earth. The story is told through the eyes of Tendeléo and her lover. Tendeléo is a Kenyan girl who grows up under the shadow of the alien threat, and manages to build her life despite all the odds stacked against her. I was initially a bit put off by the naif tone, but the story grew quickly on me. Good stuff.

This book has a double cover and is paired with Watching Trees Grow by Peter F. Hamilton.

Never Enough – Joe McGinnis

This is the true story of the famous “milkshake murder” in Hong Kong in 2003. A rich, bitchy and spoiled expat wife kills her rich and boorish expat husband. The book tells the story all the way back to their parents, but mainly focuses on their life in Hong Kong. The whole thing is quite disturbing, and truly shows that money can’t buy happiness. Most of the characters seem mostly interested in money and power, and will do anything to have them.

As an expat in Hong Kong myself, I found it very interesting. Unfortunately, some things are written for dramatic effect. For example, Hong Kong International School, while a good school, is not “the most prestigious private school in Hong Kong”. And Parkview is certainly not “the most exclusive Hong Kong housing estate”. Still, a riveting read about some rather disturbed people, and the shocking events surrounding this notorious murder.

A Talent for War – Jack McDevitt

One of the earliest McDevitt novels, about investigating the truth behind a historical legend. The premise is interesting. A chance death leaves behind an inheritance and clues to a mystery.

Unfortunately it is really really boring. The characters and the locales are forgettable, and the thrust of the story is dull. I gave up after about a hundred pages.

The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt

Humanity has achieved starflight. Expeditions have found mysterious monuments from several civilizations. Most intriguing is the evidence of extinction events which have occured repeatedly and independently on various worlds. We follow pilot Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins and various archeologists and linguists as they try to solve the puzzle.

The plot is certainly engaging, and well laid out. The characters are well described, although some felt two dimensional. McDevitt takes a good stab at sense of wonder, but falls a bit short. I enjoyed Engines of God, and wanted to find out what happened, but I kept feeling as if it was lacking a certain something. The pivotal events were toned down to the level of the individual protagonists. This seemed to be intentional, but it detracted from the sense of awe that should have been engendered. The ambiance is also flawed. The book is set in a 2202 that seems awfully similar to 2002. Starships are flying, but everything else is either pretty much unchanged, science fiction boilerplate, or just plain undescribed. And could someone please explain why there just happen to be a couple of bottles of Chablis on board the shuttle at the end? Deux ex Pantry…

As a whole, this book disappoints because it is so frustratingly close to greatness. I shall perhaps look for McDevitt again, but not with any frantic sense of urgency.

The Collapsium – Will McCarthy

Humanity has discovered Collapsium and Wellstone, substances that have made possible immensely powerful computers, teleportation and even immortality. “Faxes” allow the creation of any conceivable thing, from food to servitor robots to spaceship components. “Fax gates” allow teleportation and even duplication of people. The inventor of said substances, Bruno de Tovaji, is now living in self-imposed exile on his own asteroid in the Oort Cloud. Here he conducts experiments aimed at “seeing” the end of time. One day he receives a visitor, the Queen of the Solar System, who is also his former lover. Apparently there is trouble in paradise. A grandiose ring around the sun, aimed at reducing communication lag among disparate locations, is under construction. But it is slowly falling into the sun. This starts a long series of adventures aimed at putting an end to what turns out to be the scheming of a mad saboteur.

I had high hopes for this book after the first fifty or a hundred pages. Interesting universe, grand designs, all the stuff you could find in a good Larry Niven yarn. Unfortunately it all became very tedious as the story went on. And on. And on. I kept waiting for the really interesting stuff to start but it was all a bit petty and small. Yawn.

This is hard science fiction. Very hard. The science content is all in there. And yet I often felt as if the author was plucking solutions to his problems out of thin air. One of the basic principles of science fiction is that and author must stay within constraints that he creates within his universe. Unfortunately, McCarthy keeps coming up with new ideas that neatly solved the posed problems. McCarthy also completely misses the opportunity to explain his society or give a decent guided tour of something apart from deep space structures. What is London like nowadays anyway? Surely a page or two exploring these things would have served the story well, and made it a bit less sterile. And that’s the main gripe I have with this book. It is all a bit sterile and bland. Mankind’s achievements are falling apart around him and de Towaji is pondering his love life. Seriously…

The Ship who Sang – Anne McCaffrey

Why this book was such a huge success is quite beyond me. Actually a mildly serialized collection of short stories, it is about a living ship. The brain of a woman was implanted in it. Sappy feelings… Space opera at its worst, blech… Yawn… Spare me… The utter boredom…

Time Future, Time Past – Maxine McArthur

Mildly entertaining novels about a space station under siege in the boondocks of space. Narrated in the first person and somewhat confusing in their plots (or lack of plots), I nevertheless found them a decent read because the main character is so well portrayed.

The Rampart Worlds Trilogy

While the Exiles Saga and the Galactic Milieu Trilogy are among my favorites, May has for a far less grandiose approach here. The characters are well rounded and her elegant prose flows smoothly. Unfortunately, the story is not very engaging. Still worth a read, especially as the third book is qualitatively above the first two. My main problem with the novels is that May is just a bit too in love with the main character, and he seems to be good at everything. There’s never any big question that things are going to be all right. Fun though.

  • Perseus Spur
  • Orion Arm
  • Sagittarius Whorl

On a side note, the covers are simply magnificent, especially on the UK edition.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut – Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane flew on three shuttle missions as a Mission Specialist. His autobiography is a frank portrayal of NASA and the Shuttle program through his eyes. It starts with a hilarious and eye-opening description of the astronaut selection process (I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes) and then takes the reader from Mullane’s childhood through his NASA career.

The book is not written for laughs, but there is a lot of humor involved in Mullane self-deprecating style. (Of course there are  serious moments as well, such as when dealing with the Challenger disaster.) The narrative reflects one man’s singularly obsessive passion for spaceflight, and what happened once he made his dreams come true. Mullane is open about his fears, but also about what drives men and women to crave spaceflight and torture themselves in order to achieve it. The book focuses in detailed fashion on many of the less glamorous, and less well-publicized, aspects of spaceflight, chief among them visits to the toilet but also what it is like to lie uncomfortably on your back for hours waiting for launch.

This book is a real treat and highly recommended even if you aren’t that interested in space travel.

 

Counting Heads – David Marusek

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

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

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

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

Cosmonaut Keep – Ken MacLeod

Book one of Engines of Light. This post-singularity novel has received quite some critical acclaim. While I can appreciate the good prose, I was not drawn in by either the characters or the story. MacLeod has some cool ideas but I gave up after about one hundred pages.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire I) – George R.R. Martin

This fantasy novel is the first book of a projected seven in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and a long one in its own right. It follows the byzantine machinations of the lords of the “Seven Kingdoms” and related realms. The main action is in three parts. At The Wall (capital T, capital W), the largest structure ever built and the line of defense manned by the Nights’s Watch against the wild lands to the far north. In the capital of King’s Landing and in threads branching out from that location. Finally, on the plains of the lands beyond the Narrow Sea, where the scion of an overthrown king finds her path among the Dothraki horselords.

The setting is fantasy with swords, castles and fair maidens. But this is not fantasy with elves and dwarves and halflings and all those other tropes. The world is firmly human. While supernatural events do occur, they are not the main thrust of the story. The world is gritty and uncaring, without the majesty often found in this genre. There is incest, murder, torture, sex, prostitution and adultery, even more so than in the real world. Noble lords are not so noble and double standards are the norm. Personally I found the whole thing very refreshing as I’m not a huge fan of typical fantasy fare. An interesting and important wrinkle is the fact that seasons are not regular. Summers and winters can last for years. The novel is set late in a long summer as “winter is coming”. This adds a sense of impending doom to the proceedings.

The plot is very complex, especially if you include the rich history that serves as a backdrop. Many of the main characters participated in the rebellion that overthrew the old king, with effects of those events still lingering.

To clarify things, Martin very cleverly uses multiple point of view characters to tell the story, with each chapter taking up the thread seen from that character’s eyes. All the chapters are in the third person but the only what the viewpoint character experiences is related. While a great lord like Eddard Stark sees the world through an honorable warrior’s eyes, his daughter Sansa sees it as an ingenue. Aided by this device and the excellent characterizations, I was never confused about the main characters or what their relationships were.

Needless to say, while there is some conclusion at the end of the novel, the story is left very much unfinished.

Note: A Song of Ice and Fire has been made into a TV series entitled “Game of Thrones“.

Ministry of Space – Warren Ellis, Chris Weston & Laura Martin

This graphic novel assumes that the British gained rocketry knowledge after WWII instead of the Americans and Soviets. The British Empire prevails and establishes a substantial space presence. The art is crisp and brings to mind of 1950s space visions. The plot and characters are caricatures of the British. Lots of daring and stiff upper lip. Plenty of fun but it felt a little short.

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

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

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

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