Monster Hunter Fever – (Monster Hunter Memoirs IV) – Larry Correia & Jason Cordova

On the surface, Chloe Mendoza is a young and small Latina woman. But her father is a mythical Mesoamerican god and she harbours a fierce and vicious beast inside herself. Nevertheless, she works as a Monster Hunter. After a long time overseas, she returns to Monster Hunter International and is part of the first team to set up in the Los Angeles Area.

Set in the late 1970s, this novel is part of the Monster Hunter Memoirs spinoffs, but separate from the Chad Gardenier Trilogy that made up the first three Memoirs books. It is a fun outing in the Monster Hunter universe, with some familiar characters making cameos appearances. Chloe’s conflicted character and complicated heritage make for some intriguing storytelling, but overall it’s just good fun.

Escape Orbit (Eccentric Orbits II) – Patrick Chiles

At the end of Frozen Orbit, Jack Templeton went into hibernation on board the Magellan and launched himself towards the outer reaches of the solar system, in a quest to reach a mysterious object with a strong gravity well. Meanwhile, former crewmate Traci Keene is back on earth in bureaucratic hell. Eventually Jack reaches the object, which is much more mysterious than he suspected. And a rescue mission involving Traci is launched.

While a serviceable sequel to Frozen Orbit, the novel suffers from a less engaging setting. Frozen Orbit was real deep space adventure. Escape Orbit has too little deep space and too much bureaucratic machination. The real action doesn’t start until well into the second half of the book. The AI elements are interesting but not groundbreaking.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk and Robot II) – Becky Chambers

With Dex’s ostensible quest to the Hermitage in the wilderness completed, they and the robot Mosscap venture into human lands, where a robot has not been seen in generations. They are met everywhere with curiosity and wonder as Mosscap asks anyone he meets what they “need”. But the answers are not what it is expecting.

As in the first novella, the characters are on quests that lead them to unexpected places. The second book bookends the story neatly, with the robot as a stranger among humans, while the first book was about the human as a stranger in the wilderness. The story further explores how wonder at the nature of the Universe and existence seem universal regardless of what form consciousness takes. The reader is left feeling happy and full of ponderings.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot I) – Becky Chambers

On the moon Panga, human society is a well-ordered, pleasant, and supportive idyll. Part of a monastic order, Sibling Dex finds themselves yearning for something more, something wild. They obsess over cricket sounds. They abandon the order to become a “tea monk,” traveling around Panga, dispensing tea in return for listening to people’s concerns, fears, and thoughts. A sort of traveling therapist, shoulder to cry on, or friend-on-call. But the wild still calls to Dex, who decides to strike out into actual wilderness. Here he encounters a robot. But robots haven’t been seen in many generations, after they were freed and subsequently left human society entire to live in the wild.

This novella isn’t one of great action or momentous events, but instead an exploration of what it means to be human, and in a wider sense to be alive at all. The interactions between Dex and the robot Mosscap are sublime, as they traverse from awkward metting to awkward companionship to tentative friendship, all the while discussing and debating what it means to be natural versus manufactured, and the purpose of existence. A feel-good story that makes the reader sense a deeper meaning.

How It Unfolds (The Far Reaches I) – James S.A. Corey

Ray Court is part of an experimental programme, in which his mind, and those of the other programme members, will be scanned and sent out to candidate planets in the galaxy. Machines will construct habitats and then copies of Ray and the others, scattering humanity amongst the stars.

The concept of this novelette is simple, but the execution is both clever and thought-provoking. Complicating things, Roy’s ex-wife is also one on the programme, and he believes he may be able to win her back in “another life”. Multiple copies of Roy and the others end up in different circumstances, with different biomes, and their choices are sublty or greatly different. The story rapidly grows from small personal themes to awe-inspiring and humbling ones involving the deep future.

Onward, Drake! – Mark L. Van Name (Editor)

Short story collection celebrating the seventieth birthday of science fiction luminary David Drake, by many considered the father of modern military science fiction.

Somewhat in character, Mr. Drake provided the two longest stories for the collection himself. The rest vary from pure tribute, to tuckerization of Mr. Drake himself, to various forms connected thematically somehow. The afterwords provided by the various authors are charming, with insights into how Mr. Drake’s work and personality affected them personally and professionaly.

The Sins of Our Fathers (The Expanse IX½) – James S.A. Corey

After the collapse of the gate network, humanity’s worlds are isolated. On a backwater planet, Filip Inaros must deal with a bully who is trying to bend a small settlement to his will, even if it comes with a high personal price.

In a fitting coda to The Expanse, Filip must come to terms with what he did in the name of his father. His act may be small on the cosmic scale, but for him it is significant.

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse IX) – James S.A. Corey

The Laconian Empire is in disarray as its leader, Winston Duarte, has disappeared. Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a particularly cold, and coldly effective, servant of the Empire, is tasked to find him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante races to stay ahead of Laconian forces. The fabric of reality is tearing as intruders from outside the Universe try to reassert control.

The final instalment of The Expanse is in many ways a fond farewell to the crew of the Rocinante and their associates. Even those no longer alive, like Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, are mentioned and celebrated. While Leviathan Wakes was about a family, a crew, coming together, this book is about how all good things must end, and the family, the crew, eventually sees its members going their separate ways. A solid ending to the series.

The Great Santini – Pat Conroy

Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Bull” Meecham, AKA The Great Santini, is a stereotypical Marine and fighter pilot. Loud, brash, driven to excel, and with a gigantic ego. On the family side, however, he is a bullying parent who tries to handle his kids like raw recruits. He teases and cajoles them constantly; sometimes he beats them. His Southern wife keeps up appearances. As the family moves to the town or Ravenel, South Carolina, tensions brew after Meecham has been away on assignment for a year.

While it is a somewhat interesting exploration into extreme family dynamics in the shadow of a truly gigantic ego, I could not bring myself to finish more than about a third of the novel. Not much really happens and I had little empathy for even the bullied protagonists. Mr. Conroy revels in admittedly lovely, but long, descriptions of family life and life in the South. His characters are deep and rich. And yet, this one failed to maintain my interest.

Monster Hunter Bloodlines (Monster Hunter International VIII)

During a mission in Atlanta to recover a protective ward built by Sir Isaac Newton, Owen and the team encounter an unexpected host of organisations vying for the same artefact. As the dust settles, it becomes clear that a greater threat is emerging than Monster Hunter International was aware of. Stricken is back, with his own agenda, and now they must work together. An unexpected player, with a link to the Monster Hunter Sinners trilogy, is also introduced.

This instalment brings us back to Owen’s narrative point of view, and that is a good thing. The signature self-deprecating humour and snide comments make for a fun read. The action scenes are of typical intensity. The new character of Sonya, while immensely annoying, is rather funny and makes for a fine foil to Owen’s straight man. Note that this is the first part of a new storyline and it does end in a cliffhanger.

Frontier – Patrick Chiles

Humanity’s presence in space is expanding, and with it come geopolitical interests. The United States spaceship Borman is dispatched to assist two billionaire explorers with whom contact has been lost. Meanwhile, a vast conspiracy to disable space assets is unfolding. As the Borman herself runs into trouble, the People’s Republic of China enters the fray.

As in the earlier Farside set in the same universe, Mr. Chiles expands the scope of the story beyond a mere rescue mission into a technothriller set in space. The protagonists are easy to root for, though they fall into stereotypes rather too readily. The Chinese crew members are almost laughable cardboard cutouts. The story is well crafted, with a good pace apart from an excess of expository dialogue in the first half, and the political tensions eminently plausible.

Artifact Space (Arcana Imperii I) – Miles Cameron

Patrician family scion Marca Nbaro is on the run from “The Orphanage”, a cruel school for those without protectors in The City. She is not only running away from the Orphanage, which she betrayed for good reason, but also towards the merchant marine of the mercantile society of the Directorate of Human Operations (DHC). She is indeed trained as a Midshipper, hurrying to join the company of the greatship Athens before she is caught. The ship is ready to depart on a four-year voyage of trade, culminating in contact with the enigmatic aliens dubbed Starfish. It takes Nbaro some time to adapt to the fact that her crewmates on the Athens aren’t sadistic predators or victims, but mostly courteous and helpful professionals. As she slowly integrates and drops her guard along the voyage, vast conspiracies aimed at destabilising the very DHC begin to unfold.

Explicitly inspired by mercantile Venice of the Middle Ages, and European voyages along the Silk Road, the great adventure of the Athens and her crew paint a gorgeous backdrop for the characters and story. Trade stops are lavishly described in generous tangents without removing the reader from the story. The development of Nbaro’s character is profound and interesting, with the Athens populated by an eclectic and entertaining cast of supporting characters.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins

Michael Collins was Command Module Pilot during Apollo XI, the NASA mission that included the first Moon landing. He did not himself land, but kept lonely vigil in Lunar orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous landing. As is common with astronaut biographies concerning the early NASA era, this one also begins with an early career in the military. Mr. Collins was an accomplished test pilot, who was accepted by NASA on his second attempt, joining the third group of astronauts. He also flew on Gemini X, performing a spacewalk and perfecting docking manoeuvres.

Mr. Collins’s book stands out from other similar autobiographies I have read, in that it is written in the author’s own voice, as he explicitly states. His love for the English language, perhaps a product of rather a classical education, shines through in poetic passages, and even some poetry. This is not the voice of a clinical and technical test pilot, even though there is a fair amount of technical detail. This is the voice of a poet who lays bare his troubles, annoyances, fears and tribulations like no other astronaut I have read, elevating the text from documentary to something that seeks a deeper significance. We see the inner Collins, or at least more of the inner Collins that I really expected. Other astronauts are treated candidly, and sometimes with a brutal honesty about what the author sees as their character weaknesses. There is no bitterness in these passages, merely observations from a man who long since has gotten over the time when such concerns perhaps seemed all-encompassing.

The epilogue is particularly interesting to read today, almost fifty years after publication. Without rancour and with a great deal of patience, Mr. Collins laments the myopia of politicians, the ongoing damage to our fragile planet, and the general short-sightedness of humanity. He also takes issue with the perceived, but fictitious, conflict between resources devoted to space exploration, and spending on “problems at home”. With only a few detail changes, this chapter could have been written today, as humanity seems to have progressed no further, and such debates continue.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers IV) – Becky Chambers

In the fourth and final Wayfarers book, three travellers from different species are temporarily stuck at a quaint waystation along with the owner/operator and her son. There has been an accident and no ships can arrive or depart, nor is outside communication possible, for a few days while the situation is resolved. Each individual has his or her own backstory and ethnic peculiarities, slowly being uncovered as they become acquainted. Those lasting friendships of a disparate group sharing an ordeal are formed, along with the inevitable friction.

Though there isn’t much actual action, the novel is charming and the characters are endearing. Interestingly, there are no humans amongst the protagonist, and only a brief cameo to show the flag. The mother-son relationship of Ouloo and teenage Tupo feels resoundingly authentic, with its rapid swings between hilarity, love, frustration, and exasperation. This book leaves the reader with a faint smile and a sense that even if the world has problems, these can be solved with some politeness, understanding, humour, and plenty of cake.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

Ariadne and her three crewmates wake at a distant star system after years of transit in slumber aboard the starship Merian. Their multi-year exploration and survey mission takes them to different worlds in the system, each with its individual features and biome. They have dedicated their lives to this mission, for when they return to Earth they will be decades older, and over seventy years will have passed back home. They are a family of sorts, with intermeshing sexual relationships and a strong bond in their motivations. Some time into their mission, news updates from Earth stop arriving. As they are left in limbo, Ariadne and the others must more carefully examine the ethics and significance of not only the mission itself, but also of humanity’s place in the Universe.

Written in Ms. Chambers’s by now trademark gorgeous contemplative prose, the plot is acted out as much in Ariadne’s inner dialogue as in actual action. The drama is intimate, personal, and thoughtful, making the ending that much more poignant. The characters are likeable, pleasant, and very human in their different ways. The lack of interpersonal strife is an interesting narrative challenge, which the author handles with seeming ease. A delightful read.

Ready Player 2 (Ready Player One II) – Ernest Cline

Some years have passed since the events of Ready Player One. Wade is the richest man in the world, but he is not doing well. After the High Five gained control of Gregarious Simulation Systems, Wade found a new message from Halliday, revealing the existence of a neural interface system allowing the user to experience the Oasis simulation “directly” in the brain, without the need for visual, aural, and haptic devices. This changed the world, again, but also led to Samantha breaking up with Wade. She thought it was a terrible idea to implement. He is now a recluse, spending all his time in his enormous mansion, and twelve hours a day logged into the Oasis via his neural interface rig.

At this point, Wade’s problems amount to no more than the self-inflicted emotional suffering of a billionaire who made poor personal life choices. However, a new threat looms. An AI left behind by Halliday appears, threatening the Oasis and everyone logged in to it.

I must confess to being ready for disappointment with this book. How could Mr. Cline possible put the protagonist in straits that felt authentically dire when all his dreams were fulfilled at the end of the first book? I should not have worried. It all comes crashing down, and just when you think matters can’t get worse, they do. What follows is another treasure hunt with high stakes, but the emotional underpinnings are quite different from the egg hunt in the first book. It also reveals some dark secrets from the past.

The Span of Empire (Jao III) – Eric Flint & David Carrico

Caitlin Kralik leads an exploration fleet looking for new allies against the Ekhat. In a bold move, they travel to another galactic arm, finding a civilisation xenophobic and isolationist to the extreme. Making peaceful contact proves tricky. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are plotting the final destruction of the Jao.

Just like in the earlier books, the characterisations of varied races that have found a way to work together is excellent. The various mannerisms of the Jao, the Lleix, and now the Khûrûsh, are fascinating and intricate. While this is clearly military science fiction, the characters are at the forefront at all times. The poetic nature of the Khûrûsh is mentioned as an analogue to Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration. They Khûrûsh also reminded me of Klingons, but of course many aspects of Klingon culture are modeled after Japanese stereotypes.

The extensive parts of the novel that dealt with the Ekhat, while well written, were not nearly as good a read, and the resultant actions did not seem to affect the protagonists beyond the basic outline. The fundamental “unsanity” of the Ekhat was clearly on display, however.

Sadly, K.D. Wentworth died of cancer after writing a few chapters of this book. Mr. Carrico ably took on the task.

Frozen Orbit (Eccentric Orbits I) – Patrick Chiles

The unexpected firing of Russian missile defence systems at what turns out to be a spacecraft returning from the outer solar system sets off alarms at NASA. Two years later, the Magellan II mission to Pluto sets off to unravel the mystery.

The story is ambitious, casting threads back in history to the end of the Cold War, with a top secret Soviet space project as bonkers as it seems weirdly plausible, making it a fantastic hook for the story. The protagonists are the four crewmembers on the spacecraft Magellan, finely crafted and believable, down to their intelligent and meandering debates on (and with) AI, and regarding the meaning of life. The technical aspects are nicely lacking in logic holes, a must for a novel of this kind.

I very much enjoyed this near-future space adventure. Like any good technothriller, it was hard to put down. Unfortunately, some plot points, such as the expanded use of the hydroponic garden, went from seemingly very important to unresolved later in the book. This left the reader with some disjointedness, though to clear the overall story was paced very well, with an unexpected but logical ending.

Plus I’ve never heard a pilot call the control column a “joystick”, but now I am nitpicking.

The Brightest Fell – Nupur Chowdhury

After yet another terrorist bombing in the capital of a fictional country, the prime minister urges young maverick scientist Jehan Fasih to speed up trials of a truth drug. The country is in an uneasy peace after a long civil war, and is also under veiled threat from a larger neighbour. The drug which might give the country a tool to stop the violence and stabilise the situation, but this raises some serious ethical issues, not least of which is the fact that it is untested. Faced with this moral dilemma, Jehan reluctantly engineers the removal of the prime minister.

I did not get very far in this book, as the story or characters singularly failed to hold my interest. Meeting after meeting, with constant infodumps to slog through in order to bring the reader up to speed on the backstory. The character of Jehan was rather interesting, but that was about it.

I was provided with a free review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Auberon (The Expanse VII½) – James S.A. Corey

After the events of Persepolis Rising, humanity is subject to Laconian rule. On a prosperous colony planet, the new Laconian governor arrives. Laconians seem themselves as descendants of Sparta. Principle and virtue above all. But the new governor’s steadfast principles are about to collide with the reality of life outside Laconia.

An excellent novella. Instead of being constrictive, the limited length of the work is used to great advantage, focusing on a particular time and place, whilst illustrating a wider issue.

A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke IV) – Arthur C. Clarke

A collection of stories from the late great Arthur C. Clarke. It is difficult to write a consistent review since the variation in tone, content and length is so large. Some are whimsical, some are epic. Some are short and some are long. Almost all showcase Mr. Clarke’s skill in instilling a sense of wonder. The collaboration with Stephen Baxter, about a world where teleportation is commonplace, was particularly thought-provoking.

Monster Hunter Guardian (Monster Hunter International VII) – Larry Correia & Sarah A. Hoyt

While Owen, Earl and most of the rest of the hunters are on their mission on Severny Island, as told in Monster Hunter Siege, Julie Shackleford is taking care of her and Owen’s toddler son Ray. An evil mythical creature known as Brother Death has taken an interest in Ray, since his ancestry on both sides imbues him with powerful magic. Through deception and violence, Brother Death kidnaps Ray, and Julie must set off to retrieve him safely.

The novel is an enjoyable diversion from the main stories of the series. Julie Shackleford certainly deserved a story told from her perspective, giving a rather different perspective to that of Owen, or even Earl, who had his own story in Monster Hunter Alpha. The action is, as usual, fantastic. Fully Mission-Impossible-worthy, extended set pieces dominate the book. On the flip side, Julie is a much more serious character compared to Owen, so the trademark humour is rather toned down. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an excess of Europe-bashing and stereotyping. It’s all well and good to make fun of other cultures, but the thinly veiled tone of superiority by an American visitor is almost cringeworthy at times.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers III) – Becky Chambers

In the first two Wayfarers books, the Exodan fleet is an mentioned as background, but now Ms. Chambers takes us on a deep dive into Exodan culture. The great generation ships of the fleet launched centuries prior, as humanity fled a dying Earth. They eventually made contact with the Galactic Commons, and collectively make up a very different human society compared to the Martian one which remained in Sol System and eventually colonised other star systems. The novel follows a few Exodans in what are almost separate short novelettes loosely intertwined.

As with the two previous books, there is no strong plot. Rather, an exploration of interpersonal relationships and a deep dive into a very particular society. Nevertheless, the reader is drawn in, and how! Starting with the often mundane everyday activities of the protagonists, Ms. Chambers weaves a sublime web exploring the nature of existence, meaning and emotional attachment. The funeral scene in particular is a powerful piece of writing which left this reader in tears of both joy and sadness. Key to the stories is how the characters develop and move forward, pushed by both their environment and their own internal motivations.

Saints (Monster Hunter Memoirs III) – Larry Correia & John Ringo

In the third and final (?) Monster Hunter Memoirs book, Chad finds a great evil lurking under New Orleans, which might explain the unusual density of supernatural events in the city. He suspects this might be why Saint Peter sent him back to Earth after his death. A showdown approaches.

Saints wraps up the series, but the teasing final sentence opens up to more adventures in perhaps not a direct sequel but another spin-off. While there are some rambling tangents, Ringo’s prose is as always filled with great action scenes and bone-dry humour.

Farside – Patrick Chiles

In the sequel to Perigee, Polaris Spacelines has started to establish tour service around the Moon. On one such flight, an incident occurs, leaving the spacecraft missing. The situation soon escalates dramatically.

Unlike the more neatly contained story of Perigee, Farside takes a more dramatic and ambitious turn. The prose and characterisations also feel more confident and engaging, as the novel escalates from a relatively low key science fiction accident story to a competent geopolitical thriller.

Also compared to Perigee, the technical accuracy has much improved. I will permit myself a tiny nitpick: “Taxi into position and hold” is outdated air traffic radio phraseology and no longer used.