Kris Longknife’s Bloodhound (Kris Longknife X½) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknifeX½KrisLongknifesBloodhoundThis  “companion novella” to the Kris Longknife saga is set at the same time as Furious and follows the efforts of Special Agent Foile to assist Kris Longknife in her efforts to stop her grandfather’s trade flotilla.

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

Fine reading assuming have read the Kris Longknife books up to this point.

3Rosbochs

Kris Longknife – Furious (Kris Longknife X) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknife10FuriousFollowing the events in Daring and Welcome Home/Go Away, Kris Longknife has been sent to metaphorical Siberia, nominally commanding a squadron of fast attack boats but in reality having to stay out of the way. She has fallen off the wagon and spends her nights consuming large quantities of whiskey. The details of the Voyage of Exploration have been swept under the rug.

Kris’s grandfather, billionaire magnate Alex, has decided to put together a trade fleet to make contact with the enemy at the other side of the galaxy. Oddly, the first half of the book is a caper story with Kris trying to get a face to face with grandpa. The second half is courtroom drama as she must answer for her actions.

I found the story itself to be very disjointed. The whole caper was absurd, though it had its moments of fun. Things picked up considerably in the second half, and I now once again look forward to the next installment. If nothing else, the ending of Furious is a bit cliffhanger.

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

3½Rosbochs

Apollo’s Outcasts – Allen Steele

ApolllosOutcastsJamey Barlowe is a teenager with such weak bone structure that he cannot walk unsupported. This is because he was born on the Moon. He is roused from sleep and hurriedly taken to a space launch facility along with his sisters. The Vice President of the United States has come to power due to the mysterious death of the President. As becomes apparent, she is a bit of a nut and, among other things, wants to imprison Jamey’s space scientist father due to his signing a petition regarding the space program. Jamey and one of his sisters are sent to safety on the massive Moon base Apollo, established to mine Helium-3 for power generation. And so begins Jamey’s adventure, with a looming confrontation with the United States on the horizon.

It dawned on me after a few pages that this was Young Adult fiction. After a few more pages I noticed that it was clearly inspired by Heinlein’s “juveniles”. Not a bad place to start.  The story is a not too complex bildungsroman. Jamey meets girl. Jamey’s best friend meets girl. They have to acclimatize to life on the Moon. They have military training on the Moon. The base is attacked.

It is a lightweight read even for a Young Adult novel, and despite the elaborate Moonbase setting some things kept nagging at me. Despite Steele’s effort to introduce at least some modern trappings, it seemed as if these kids were stuck with current technology and the social mores of the 1980s. Given that the novel takes place in 2097, I think it is safe to assume that there would be more advances than a Moonbase and some cell phone technology that could come on the market in 2014. I also wondered why people still listen to the radio in cars (which at least drive themselves) the way they do today, or why they have landlines. Another point was that Steele confused weight and mass in zero gravity. He might just have been trying to simplify but even Young Adult science fiction should get it right.

2½Rosbochs

Portal (Boundary III) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

PortalAfter the debacle at the end of Threshold, our heroes plus the few survivors of the EU ship Odin are marooned on Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a liquid ocean underneath a globe-spanning icecap. The first half of the book focuses mainly on survival, while the second deals with the exploration of the Europan icecap and the obligatory thrilling cliffhanger.

This book is almost a throwback to old school “explore the solar system” science fiction. The struggle for survival itself becomes the subject of examination and discussion, but without becoming boring. The Universe is light and cheery and full of wonder despite its many dangers. The fleshed out characters make things come alive. The dialogue may sometimes be cheesy, but it always feels authentic. Real people don’t always spout cool one-liners, and some real people love horrid puns. The physics are real and well researched; I have learned more about ice behavior in low pressure and temperature than I thought I needed to know, but it was interesting. As with the previous installment, the story was on the light side, especially the conspiracy subplot. Also as with the previous installment, I liked this book more than it probably deserved simply because it is a joy to be with the characters on their fantastic adventures.

4Rosbochs

The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara

TheKillerAngelsIn this Pulitzer winning classic, Michael Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War from both Union and Confederate sides. This is not a history text however, since Shaara has written it as a novel. Mainly focusing on Union Colonel Chamberlain and Confederate General Longstreet, the pivotal battle and its players come alive on the page.

Beyond the very basics, I didn’t know much about the Civil War before I read this book. Certainly I had little awareness of how people thought at the time, or the deeper underlying motivations leading to  war. Certainly slavery was a big part of it, but it is made quite clear in the novel that the South and the North are societies that work in different ways. Roughly speaking, the North is “modern”, urban, industrialized and with a firm egalitarian ethic, while the South is more “old-fashioned”. The men are “gentlemen”, with notable class differences. The Southerners also believe in much stronger state independence. The North, victorious, strengthened the federal government, a development which is clearly seen in the United States of today. But they all see themselves as Americans. In fact the officers all have many friends on “the other side” (they were in the same army before after all) and there are many thoughts given to the sadness of having had to part, and then to meet on the battlefield as enemies. Are they fighting for loyalty, or for idealism, or just because they are soldiers?

Shaara went back to letters and first hand accounts for his research, and it shows. Sometimes overlong, but quite interesting internal monologues reveal the though processes of the characters. These are not our contemporaries. They are romantic and in our eyes often naive. They cry openly for lost friendship, they revel in life and companionship. They do not hide their emotions in public like we do today.

The battle scenes are excellent, and frightening. The comparative inefficiency of the rifles of the day is shown by the very short ranges and the fact that soldiers often sustain multiple wounds without notably impaired performance. It is combat up close and personal, with regimental commanders right there among their men. Logistics plays a big part, as does morale. A good commander knows not to throw troops who have marched all day straight into battle, in particular without food.

The undoing of the Confederates in this battle was an absence of strategic and tactical vision. As Longstreet remarks to himself, their tactics consist of “we find the enemy, and then we attack.” Longstreet himself is a master strategist, and strongly urges more refined tactics, making the Union army come at them instead of the other way around. It is not until the end of WWI, over fifty years later, that his defensive warfare ideas become mainstream. Lee orders a massed assault on a fortified position partly because of fear that the men will see it as weak to withdraw and attack on another flank. One romantic, glorious, useless, stupid charge that accomplished nothing but break his own army. And thus the tide of the war turned.

4Rosbochs

Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.

2½Rosbochs

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.

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.

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.

The Quantum Connection (Warp Speed II) – Travis S. Taylor

Computer geek Steven Montana was left alone in the world after the secret war in Warp Speed. Life is looking up as he gets a job for the government working on top secret stuff. Then it all goes to hell as he is abducted by aliens (again, as it turns out). At that point, the story changes scope significantly, as Steven hooks up with the protagonists of Warp Speed and they fight a war for the survival of humanity in a hostile galaxy.

This format of this novel is Heinleinian romp straight out of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. But there are differences. All the science is cutting edge, with quantum entanglement, computer agents and nanomachines to name but a few things. The generally positive outlook on humanity and charming naif tone from the prequel remain. Steven is an archetypal good guy who gets the intelligent and pretty girl (how the latter happens is a bit unusual, but still). It is also a novel of how opportunity for personal growth and turning yourself around can lurk behind the most unlikely corner.

Just like it’s predecessor, this one was immensely enjoyable. It is pure, shameless fun. The characters are perhaps a bit over the top but it feels as if the author does this very much on purpose, with a glint of mischief in his eye. All the Golden Age clichés are treated with respect and irreverence both, as this book harkens back to a simpler time, reminding us that goold old fashioned heroes can help us navigate today’s more complex moral landscape.

Singularity Sky – Charles Stross

It is hard to tell what this one is about from the blurb. Between the covers is postmodern science fiction well grounded in current physics. A mysterious entity known as “The Festival” arrives on the backwater colony of a neo-Victorian Empire, quite literally showering manna from heaven on the populace in return for “entertainment” in the form of information. The Empire attempts to retaliate, and all the while a pair of agents, one for the UN, hover and observe. These agents work a pair of mysterious powers that seek to ensure that humanity is not destroyed by the mysterious Eschaton, an powerful entity that brutally punishes causality violations. Technology now allows time travel as a biproduct of (apparent) faster than light travel, and the Eschaton is merciless on those who violate its causality edicts.

In the middle of this dangerous universe, the two secret agents develop a strong personal relationship. Stross skillfully manages to focus on their story and it’s pertinence while the worlds around them spirals towards an uncertain future. At the same time, he does not forget to show the humorous side of those who refuse to accept self-evident realities. Innovative and deeply insightful, but ultimately pretty boring. My big gripe is that I didn’t feel any empathy whatsoever for the characters.

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (The Lords of Creation II) – S.M. Stirling

In the somewhat free-standing sequel to The Sky People, Stirling takes us to a Mars inspired by the work of Burroughs and the “science” of Percival Lowell. The arid and cold planet is nevertheless inhabited by close relatives of humans. Our hero, one of the U.S. team based on Mars, travels to a lost city on an archeological expedition. But the Martian head of the expedition team is more than she seems. Soon people are out for their heads as they are embroiled in the thick of Martian politics.

Stirling is masterful at characterizing alien cultures. Even minor dialogue lines are steeped in a deep imagined tradition. It is a pleasure to read, especially as Stirling’s unobtrusive understated humor pervades the prose. This tale of a Mars that never was but that dreamers really wished for is a great adventure yarn.

The Sky People (The Lords of Creation I) – S.M. Stirling

This series is set in an alternate history where Mars and Venus were found teeming with life by spaceprobes in the 1960s. A space race ensued to set up bases on the planets. Interestingly, the superpowers spent so much on space that no major wars were fought on Earth after the Korean War. The action starts on Venus in 1988. Marc Vitrac is one of the researchers living there. It is very much a frontier life among the lush and extremely varied flora and fauna. After some initial setup, Marc and a few others set off on a long journey of adventure. They find answers as to why Venus’ life forms seem so similar to Earth ones, and those answers are unsettling. Along the way, they befriend some natives and, in that inevitable manner of colonization, they are assimilated into their adopted land.

Diehard “outdoor Stirling” fans need not worry. There is plenty of camping, hunting and bowmaking. The characters are. as usual with Stirling, engaging and “real”, as is the backdrop. It is easy to see that Stirling had a lot of fun writing this. It’s as if he woke up one morning and decided to throw a whole bunch of elements (dinosaurs, giant mammals, modern humans, neanderthals, giant bugs and on and on) into a pot just to see what would come out. The result is a fun read but not Stirling’s best. The setting is very rich and complex and more could have been fleshed out, if only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. An appendix discussing background history and societal aspects would have been very welcome.

A Meeting at Corvallis (Emberverse III) – S.M. Stirling

Stirling concludes the Emberverse trilogy in grand style, but doesn’t really tie up all the loose threads. As with the earlier two books, Stirling loses himself in long descriptions of nature, down to the names of flowers and whatnot. With most authors, such long winded prattling would have led to me discarding the book well before the first hundred pages. But Stirling makes it work. His memorable characters play out their destinies against a rich backdrop of modernity turned medieval after the Change.

The trilogy is a pleasure to read and Stirling’s prose is so delightful I would gladly have read another few hundred pages. If nothing else, several characters are worth longer backstories than they get.

The Protector’s War (Emberverse II) – S.M. Stirling

The Protector’s war continues the Emberverse series begun with Dies the Fire. Eight years on from the events of the previous book, the world has somewhat settled after the change. The Protector, the Bearkillers and Clan Mackenzie have all consolidated their positions, and past adventures are turning into legend and myth. A showdown with the Protector must come, but not in this book. That is reserved for the final novel, A Meeting at Corvallis.

I enjoyed this installment very much, but it does suffer from middle of the trilogy syndrome. Just like The Empire Strikes Back, it introduces concepts and characters, setting the stage for the final showdown. If Stirling weren’t so engaging regardless of what he is writing about, the story itself would be a bit boring. But even the sometimes very long descriptions of locales and nature paint rich and gorgeous pictures that are a sheer pleasure to read.

Dies the Fire (Emberverse I) – S.M. Stirling

S.M. Stirling stole the island of Nantucket from the present time in the Nantucket series. In Dies the Fire, he postulates that when that event happened, all modern appliances (electronics, engines, etc) stopped working in “our” world. Also, all explosives (yes including gunpowder) burn much more slowly. To top it off, steam engines are vastly less efficient. This leads the characters involved to feel it must have been an outside influence (such as “Alien Space Bats) that created what comes to be called “The Change”. The story does not go into The Change itself more than that however, rather focusing on a group of people having to live in the world post-Change.

As so often with Stirling, I found myself unable to put the book down. He does have a way to make characters pop. The two protagonists, Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel, are uncommonly well equipped to handle the change, and draw to them people who also have survivor traits. They seem to have more than their fair share of luck, a theme which crops up here and there. This has led to criticism from some readers, who have said it simply isn’t possible for the protagonists to make out quite so well. I would say that if they hadn’t been so lucky and skillful, they would have died along with 90% of humanity in the year after the Change.

As usual, Stirling has done meticulous research into everything from archery to Wicca. It is a pleasure to watch his characters develop through the story.

Conquistador – S.M. Stirling

John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, inadvertently opens a portal to an alternate timeline in his Oakland, California, basement. He and his old war buddies proceed to conquer this version of the Earth. In the other timeline, Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and the white man never arrived in America. The most advanced civilizations are still technologically in the middle ages. The “Gate” remains open, allowing Rolfe and his new nation to secretly smuggle precious metals to the original timeline (they know where to find it easily by using maps from our timeline) and manufactured goods to the other timeline. The “Gate Secret” is very tightly held.

But all is not well in paradise. A faction fight in the alternate timeline spills over into ours, and two Fish and Game Warden find themselves caught up in the middle, then exiled through the gate. They must now team up with the “good” alternate timeline faction (Rolfe’s granddaughter, for one) to defeat the evil faction.

I enjoyed “Conquistador”. It is adventure pure and simple. The action scenes are masterful. The setting, as well as the social, economic and ecological discussions are both entertaining and intriguing. However, I do think that Stirling could have delivered a better plot. The ending is rather abrupt, and some of the moral issues prominent in the first half of the book (is the whole idea of conquering a new world and setting yourselves up as a benevolent dictatorship really a good thing?) are conveniently dropped by the wayside at the end. And then there are the characters. Likeable as they may be, our heroes are a little too perfectly intelligent, likeable and generally extremely fit and good looking. While I am a sucker for happy endings, I still found it a little bit too happy and perfect and neatly tied up, even though the very last page does open the door for sequels.

The Peshawar Lancers – S.M. Stirling

This singleton is set in the year 2025, but not in our future. The premise is that a shower of comets hit Earth in the 1860’s, pushing civilization to the brink of extinction both by the impacts themselves and related general cooling. The British Empire relocated its seat to Delhi, and the story takes place in what is India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in our timeline. The Empire is ruled by the Angrezi Raj, or King-Emperor.

This is classic swords and horses adventure. Very gripping, with some great characters. The middle of the book was a little “unfocused”, and Stirling could have added dates to the section headings, since there is a bit of jumping backwards and forwards. The end is one long drawn-out cliffhanger after another. As usual, Stirling proves that he knows his history, weapons and tactics. A real page turner and recommended for for high adventure buffs

The Nantucket Series – S.M. Stirling

This alternate history series consists of:

  • Island in the Sea of Time
  • Against the Tide of Years
  • On the Oceans of Eternity

The island of Nantucket and the Coast Guard barque Eagle are mysteriously sent back in time to around 1000 BC. Being too small a society for self-sufficience, the inhabitants (including many seasonal visitors) must go out in the world and survive using technology and cunning. Epic adventure, well researched and well written.

Note: Stirling’s Emberverse series is connected to the Nantucket series since the event that sends Nantucket back in time also triggers the “Change” in Emberverse.

Interface – Neal Stephenson & Frederick George

This novel is about a presidential candidate with a chip in his head connecting him to a computerized polling system. There’s much more to the story than that of course, and it was a bit of fun, with some really great characters. If you love everything that Stephenson has written, you might enjoy this too.

The copyright for this one is from 1994 in the name of Stephen Bury (Frederick George is Mr. Bury’s pseudonym). My theory is that Stephenson rewrote some of the book. You can pretty much tell where Stephenson has had a hand in the writing, and this makes it uneven in quality.