Victory’s Bright Dawn (Siobhan Dunmore IV) – Eric Thomson

Siobhan Dunmoore is now in command of Iolanthe, a massive Q-Ship charged with anti-piracy patrol. While returning for resupply, they find the Naval base on the planet Toboso, and the colonial administration facilities, destroyed by orbital bombardment. Many critical supplies have also been pilfered by the raiders. The crew of the Iolanthe sets off on a complex chase to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr. Thomson continues to keep the series fresh by, once again, telling a very different story. While lacking in the high stakes of Like Stars in Heaven, there is still plenty of action and banter to keep fans of the series happy. The introduction of many new characters, including the colourful Army contingent, also injects fresh energy. The plot does get rather convoluted at times, requiring overlong and somewhat forced dialogue infodumps.

I must gripe again that, just as in the previous instalment, there is an out of context jibe at leftist thinking for no plot-related reason.

Like Stars in Heaven (Siobhan Dunmore III) – Eric Thomson

Dunmoore and the crew of the Stingray are sent on a long range mission to investigate a possible lost colony of mankind. When they arrive, they find a society that has developed in a rather radical direction.

While I have previously compared the Siobhan Dunmoore series to Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington, this instalment felt very much like an extended episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation, in all the good ways. The crew are sent on a mission. Things are not as they seem. Tensions arise. Dramatic conclusion. The structural elements of the story are not necessarily original, but the narrative structure is excellently assembled. The tension in the second half of the book is palpable; the stakes feel very real, and the pages almost turn themselves. Mr. Thomson has found a way to tell a different kind of story in each of the three books so far, and again avoided the temptation to expand the scope of the novel towards the wider universe, confining the action to the crew of the Stingray. The dialogue and pacing are excellent. My one gripe was the rather random snipe at liberal/leftist thinking, which felt like a jarring and misplaced attempt at political lecturing rather than an integral part of the narrative.

The Path of Duty (Siobhan Dunmore II) – Eric Thomson

Commander Dunmoore and the Stingray are dispatched to the arse end of space and get stuck with convoy duty. There is mystery afoot as a freighter is found abandoned, and other ships from the same company seem involved in shady operations. While seeking answers, Stingray stumbles on a top-secret Navy operation at a backwater planet, and the Admiral in charge is a real character.

While the first book in the series was a rather conventional beginning, the story in this one is more “out there”, and there are strong hints regarding a wider arc to the series. Not quite as punchy as the first book, but the action and dialogue remain top notch.

No Honor in Death (Siobhan Dunmore I) – Eric Thomson

Commander Siobhan Dunmoore has recently had a battleship shot out from under her. Her daring successes in previous engagements have not endeared her to the establishment, which sees her as hotheaded and impulsive. Her mentor assigns her to Stingray, an obsolete frigate rumoured to be jinxed. Her predecessor was dismissed under mysterious circumstances, and the crew is none too welcoming. Dunmoore must both resolve the situation with a hostile and cowed crew, and also engage the enemy while on patrol.

While the enemies are humanoid aliens and the action is set in space, the setting shows clear signs of inspiration from the naval conflicts of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, and perhaps also from fictional heroes like Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington (the latter books themselves inspired by the former). While there is clearly a wider universe, the action is tightly focused on Commander Dunmoore, giving the feel of a submarine story. The allusion to the submariner tradition of a indicatingclean sweep with a broom makes this connection clear. The players are isolated while on patrol, and must resolve the internal conflicts on the ship while fighting their external enemies. These external enemies are not only the alien Shrehari, but the powers within the navy and society that would have them fail, and the figurative ghost of their former sociopathic captain.

While the setting and story are perhaps somewhat unoriginal compared to what has come before, Mr. Thomson is skilled at dialogue and interpersonal relationships, making this an engaging novel with excellent pacing.

The Singularity Trap – Dennis E. Taylor

Asteroid mining newbie Ivan Pritchard and the crew of the Mad Astra seem to have made the strike of a lifetime. But there is a mysterious artifact close by. When the crew investigates, Ivan triggers an ancient alien booby trap, and is changed into… something else.

The story is cleverly constructed and moves along briskly. I couldn’t put it down. While rather tightly focused on a small cast of characters, the scope quickly expands, encompassing broad themes of existence, self and societal viability. Fundamental questions about the Drake Equation and the Great Filter are asked, but without detracting from the enjoyable nature of the narrative. Unlike many authors who dabble in mysterious alien artifacts and “what do they want with us?”, Mr. Taylor manages to pull off a plausible and logical conclusion that does not smell of Deus ex Machina. The signs of ecological catastrophe on Earth, initially giving the impression of being just window dressing, also contribute to the urgency of the situation presented.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

All These Worlds (Bobiverse III) – Dennis Taylor

In the last book of the trilogy, things are coming to a head in the conflict with the Others. At the same time, Bob continues to live in android form among the Deltans, something of a hermit from his own kind.

Mr. Taylor does not lose steam at the end; rather the opposite. This volume brings things to a satisfying conclusion while continuing the thematic exploration of humanity, mortality and the nature of loss. There is also significant discussion on the duty of an individual to society. Is a Bob, or any other individual for that matter, honour bound to serve humanity just because he or she has the ability?

We Are Many (Bobiverse II) – Dennis E. Taylor

By now a well-established presence, the Bobs tackle issues large and small. The human race has all but annihilated itself in Sol system, and the Bobs must help. At the same time, the looming threat of the powerful others must be prepared for. The group continues to grow and diversify, in interesting ways.

The Others are the large, looming threat, but the story really shines in Original Bob’s interaction with the stone age Deltans. Mr. Taylor has hit his stride with the story, as each of the short chapters brings interesting developments. Interactions with humans, which some of the new Bobs have started calling ephemerals, bring challenges and solid exploration of themes. Is immortality something to wish for, or does it just involve “spending immortality doing chores”, to quote one character?

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse I) – Dennis Taylor

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and signed up for cryopreservation when he gets run over by a car and is killed. Over a hundred years later, his mind is resurrected in an electronic matrix by the theocratic government of North America. A very volatile cold war is on between the handful of superpowers on Earth. Bob is tasked with crewing a ship which will colonise other star systems. As his departure date approaches, the war heats up, and things start diverging from the plan rapidly.

This novel took me by surprise. It starts in fairly conventional fashion, but some way through the originality of the premise becomes apparent. Bob is not only a cryopreserved human resurrected into an unexpected situation, he is capable of cloning his mind into other “Bobs”. The personality differences and interactions between the Bobs is used to good effect in order to conjure interesting themes of existence, soul and uniqueness. The complex relationship that the Bobs develop with humanity are equally well explored. What does an original intelligence really owe its creators?

The fact that Bob is endowed with a geek’s personality and a dry sense of humour helps the accessibility of the narrative. Good fun.

 

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A planet orbiting a distant star is seeded with life in a grand experiment. Soon after, back in our solar system, the “Old Empire” collapses in civil war, and human civilisation falls, almost to extinction. Thousands of years later, the ark ship Gilgamesh, carrying hibernating refugees from the poisoned and dying Earth, arrives at the seeded planet. Lacking supervision from those who started the experiment, a race of spiders has risen to sentience, and built its own grand civilisation on the one speck of lush green that humans could use as a new beginning.

Mr. Tchaikovsky’s opus divides its time between the desperate humans on the Gilgamesh, trying to find a place to settle before their ship gives up the ghost, and the evolving spider society on the planet. A story about sentient spiders might seem silly, but the author skillfully makes the arachnids come to life. Their society and technology is nothing like that of humans, but the primal struggle for survival is still very much in evidence. In fact, after only a brief while I started enjoying the spider chapters more than the human chapters, though this may be due to the humans acting in general as selfish and somewhat irrational refugees in a desperate situation.

Themes of loss and revival are strong, as well as the not so subtle lesson of history repeating itself by those who do not study history. The historian protagonist lives the tragedy strongest, given that in these dying days of humanity the very reasons for the race’s near-extinction are ignored, with decision makers blithely trundling towards their own doom, almost seeming afraid to take a step back and look at the big picture. A marvellous novel.

Alternate Generals – Harry Turtledove (Editor)

Alternate military history anthology. The quality is mixed, and it requires at least a passing knowledge of the incidents the stories are based on in order to extract full appreciation. A passable light read if you’re into military science fiction.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies – Harry Turtledove

In this alternate history novel, the year is circa 2001. The Nazis won the Second World War, then conquered America a generation later. Jews are hiding in the midst of the Third Reich.

So, what’s the book actually about? As far as I could figure out, not very much. I kept wondering when something would actually happen. Unfortunately I reached the end and nothing had, unless you count interminable games of bridge while the characters wonder who is having unfaithful thoughts.

Turtledove had a great idea for the premise, but this novel is mind numbingly dull. The portrayal of everyday life under the shadow of the Germanic Empire is fascinating for about ten pages, and the hints of change intriguing, but the rest is one long yawner.

The Guns of the South – Harry Turtledove

Time-traveling South African white supremacists go back to the American Civil War and equip the confederates with AK-47’s. Well, it’s a cool idea. Unfortunately, Turtledove gets lost in the details, so to speak. Too many protagonists, and not enough focus. This is a fun little book, but it could have been so much more.

The Articulate Executive – Granville N. Toogood

This non fiction book is about how to speak in public and visual aids to that end. The author’s name is a bit worrying and in fact Toogood comes across much as he describes himself: “a fairly facile, somewhat sophisticated Eastern Ivy League City Slicker”.

Don’t let that faze you! This book (or most of it, at least) is a real gem if you ever need to speak in public, or even in a small group in a corporate setting. The tips and tricks, techniques and anecdotes are excellent. Anyone in working life can benefit from this quick read, and I highly recommend it.

There are unfortunately some small factual errors in the examples, but that doesn’t detract from the usefulness of the book. Toogood is undoubtedly a good speaker, but he sometimes gets carried away with his examples to the point of making errors.

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher set about compiling all the notes and stories he had left behind about Middle Earth. The Silmarillion is the most well know result of this work, and chronicles the story of the elves in times long before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It takes the form more of a historical chronicle than a novel, and so feels rather removed from the action. Only for the dedicated Tolkien fan.

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

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

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

One Day on Mars (Tau Ceti Agenda I) – Travis S. Taylor

The entire plot is set, not entirely unexpectedly, during one day on Mars. The United States is now a Solar System wide government that even extends to a few extrasolar colonies. However, a nation of separatists exists in a “reservation” on Mars. On this day, the separatists attack the United States. The book follows the military actions, and the unexpected plan of the separatists.

As a military science fiction action book, this is a pretty good one. Stuffed with action scenes involving futuristic weapons like shape-shifting robots (think Transformers that can become fighter plane, robot, tank), the book drags you along at a furious pace. So far so good. The backstory, filled in over the course of the novel, is interesting, telling how the United States has become ever more detached from its original ideals of true democracy and representation. The president runs instant polls to figure out how to deal with crises instead of making decisions on his own. The separatists don’t shy away from atrocities. They also decry the current United States, and see themselves as defenders of the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. One thing that bugged me was the sub-par editing, especially in the first half of the book. There is an excess of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as some poor style. This is especially irritating given Baen Books’ typically high standards in that department.

Warp Speed (Warp Speed I) – Travis S. Taylor

Our hero, Anson Clemens, invents a warp drive, falls in love with a shuttle pilot, goes to space to try the warp drive and starts World War III, just to name a few things. There certainly is a lot of action, both up close and personal and on the macro scale.

At least in the beginning, the plot of this novel is somewhat similar to The Getaway Special. It also has similarities to The Trigger in that a revolutionary new technology has consequences unforeseen in both type and magnitude. The main character has much in common with the main character of Ringo’s Into the Looking Glass, for which Taylor and Ringo co-wrote the sequels. And then there are the quite overt Heinleinian nods. Taylor should not be thought of as a copycat, however. He simply took his inspiration from some very good places. I was pleased to see the connections, even if I don’t think that all of them were intentional.

The beginning of the book was unauspicious. I felt a vague dislike for the main character and his almost cliché existence (supersmart physicist, mountain biker, karate champion, quirky sense of humor, distracted scientist persona) but that soon passed. Taylor has even been accused of fanservice with Anson Clemens. I will agree with his rebuttal that there are quite a few amazing people out there and that heroes do not tend to be average and that there is a indeed place for real heroes. Anson Clemens and the astronaut Tabitha Ames are definitely such exceptional people. The people surrounding them are equally pretty amazing. This may seem like a bit too much of a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Really smart people will surround themselves with other smart people. If they can work as a team, fantastic things tend to pop out the other end. Just look at the Apollo Program. Was there ever such a large collection of supersmart geeks anywhere? Besides, it’s fiction, and in this case good fiction to boot.

I really liked this book. I stayed up until three in the morning reading it. It is lighthearted and the main character is unpretentious. It is a definite page turner. Finally, it takes off in unexpected directions without feeling random, just like the best John Varley books. After finishing it, I had a big grin on my face.

This is the debut novel by Taylor, a guy who really is a rocket scientist. He has no less than five science degrees in various denominations and flavors.

Von Neumann’s War – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

In the beginning of this book, various professional and amateur astronomers notice that Mars is changing color. It is becoming slowly less red and more grey. Eventually, they figure out that it is being consumed by Von Neumann machines. For those who aren’t familiar, these are machines capable of replicating themselves. A team of Very Smart People in Huntsville, Alabama ends up developing the concepts for and leading the defense. If the location sounds familiar, it is the site of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Redstone Arsenal, some of the premier rocket design locations in the United States. The book starts fast, and gets faster, as a reconnaissance probe is sent to find out more about the Von Neumann “probes” and then these attack Earth. The “motivation” of the probes is interesting. They only kill as a side effect. Mostly they just grab anything metal, including dental braces, cars, metal eyelets out of shoes, dog tags and rebar out of buildings, to make more of themselves. The story focuses on the Very Smart People, and they are quite a fun bunch of rocket scientists.

This is what happens when you combine Ringo, known for fast moving prose and a twisted sense of humor, with Taylor, who can write one heck of a fast moving plot. Hold on tight! Just like in his other works, Taylor’s story creeps up on you. It starts very small and by the end the fate of the world is at stake and the action scenes crowd each other out on the page. The initial alien attack conveniently lands near Paris. I say conveniently because the US can act as the Last Citadel. I suspect it also gave our authors a chance to destroy France. This book is great fun, the science is fascinating and the main characters sound like a group of people I’d like to have a beer with.

Claws That Catch (Looking Glass IV) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

The third mission of the Vorpal Blade, now actually Vorpal Blade Two, has the crew looking for an ancient artifact. Far from stagnating, the plot thickens as a new commanding officer and various crew members enter the mix. The just don’t “get” the Blade and its odd denizens. The ensuing conflicts and madcap hijinks are central to character development.

After finishing this one, I find myself wanting more. As mentioned in the Manxome Foe review, these books are just plain fun. The characters are likeable, the humor is dry and the pages just want to be turned.

Manxome Foe (Looking Glass III) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

During the second mission of the A.S.S. Vorpal Blade, the crew is tasked with a long duration journey in order to investigate what happened to a far-flung research outpost with which contact has been lost. Big space battles with the Dreen ensue, as well as an encounter with an ally.

Just as in Vorpal Blade, the tone is light hearted, with a lot of dry humor pervading the text. No plot development is too hyperbolic for the authors, and therein, in my opinion, lies the charm of the series. It is almost a guilty pleasure. While the physics and logic are unassailable, the attitude is pure sass.

Vorpal Blade (Looking Glass II) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

The sequel to Into the Looking Glass takes up the story more than ten years later. The US is launching its first starship, based on a nuclear submarine and and alien propulsion system. The novel follows the mission. It is an escalation of encounters from very mild to extremely deadly, with quantum physics sprinkled throughout.

Unlike Into the Looking Glass, which I was somewhat disappointed with, I thoroughly enjoyed Vorpal Blade. It is a fun romp with the right doses of humor and action. The characters are engaging, fun and well-written. You really get a sense of being with them on the starship. Fun!