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.

The Outside – Ada Hoffmann

Dr. Yasira Shien works as a scientist on a revolutionary reactor, emplaced on a space station in orbit around the planet Jai. Something goes horribly wrong and many people die as “The Outside” encoraches on reality, destroying the station. An Angel of Nemesis, a vindictive AI goddess, forces Yasira to go on a mission to investigate. It would appear that Yasira’s mentor, Dr. Talirr, has been tampering with reality. And she must be stopped.

What starts as an interesting story with a fascinating setting unfortunately far too quickly turns into a slog. Yasira is an interesting character. Autisic, self-doubting, immensely intelligent, and initially very much unaware of what she has unleashed. Akavi, an “Angel”, agent of one of the AIs who have anointed themselves as gods, is less intricate, with simpler motivations, but often more entertaining to read about than Yasira, whose seemingly endless internal monologue is ineffective at holding the reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the interesting setup, with The Outside and the contention that reality is lie, never leads to a real payoff and the reader is left wondering what exactly happened. The Outside and its interactions with reality might as well be magic, however much they are portrayed in technological terms. What is left of the central premise is meandering ramblings that, while well written, are, in the end, both unsatisfying and seemingly lacking in real meaning or explanation.

Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse VIII)

Laconia’s hegemony seems insurmountable, and yet the scattered remnants of the Rocinante’s crew fight on. Holden is a prisoner on Laconia itself. Amos is missing in action after leaving for a secret mission on Laconia. Naomi lives in a tiny transport container, smuggled from ship to ship and system to system, aboard larger vessels as she coordinates the efforts of the Underground. Alex and Bobbie fight a guerrilla war on a captured warship.

The sense of despair is palpable when the book begins. Is the struggle futile because it seems unwinnable? Or is it worth fighting for a just cause even if it just means eventual defeat? Whilst the greater struggle continues, the authors cleverly make it about the family of the Rocinante, and how their underground war has brought them sorrow because they cannot be together. The familiarity and closeness of family have been replaced with isolation and brooding.

There are shades of The Empire Strikes Back about this novel. Our heroes are on the run and must persevere, while the enemy seems almost invincible. The family of the Roci is destined to reunite, but they will not be the same people as when they separated.

Ark Royal (Ark Royal I) – Christopher G. Nuttall

The Ark Royal is the oldest starship in the Royal Navy. A relic of the past, still ostensibly on active duty but in reality parked with most of her systems shut down with a caretaker crew. Her captain is a drunk and most of the crew consists of those whose careers took a wrong turn. After a surprise attack by previously unknown aliens, however, Ark Royal is reactivated, rearmed and re-equipped with starfighters for a desperate delaying action.

While the premise is decent, the telling is not. The characters are cardboard cutouts, lacking any traits that might make them interesting. The story is littered with boring infodumps. A lot of telling and not enough doing as the logic of conflict with the armaments at hand is explained, and any uncertainties expounded on at length, as if to ensure that the reader will be able to judge the arduousness of any subsequent action.

I didn’t even make it a third of the way through before I gave up.

Without Mercy (Siobhan Dunmore V) – Eric Thomson

Captain Dunmoore and the crew of the Q-Ship Iolanthe intercept a distress signal. An abandoned cargo ship, which turns out to house a single survivor. What follows is a chase to find the perpetrators and disentangle their complex scheme.

While Dunmoore and her merry band of naval personnel are still good fun to hang out with, the quality of the narrative is lower than in previous installments. There seems to be no real risk that any of the characters will be killed or even seriously injured. Much of the text consists of the main characters spouting literary and military history quotes in extended banters sessions, showing off how clever they are while their enemies are continually confounded.

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.

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.

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.

The Flowers of Vashnoi – Lois McMaster Bujold

While investigating inconsistencies with a test site where gene-engineered bugs decontaminate the nuked Vorkosigan Vashnoi zone, Ekaterin Vorkosigan stumbles across some strange inhabitants.

An all too brief visit with the Vorkosigan family. Even with something as brief and uncomplex as this novella, Ms. McMaster Bujold nails it as usual.

 

The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System – Eric Klein

BJ is an IT troubleshooter in New York City. After a job well done, he receives a raffle ticket and wins the grand prize of a cruise through the solar system. On board, he soon meets the captain’s daughter Faye and the pair take a liking to each other. They are inseparable through adventures and misadventures on various planets and moons.

Most of this novel reads like a combination of travelogue and brochure. There is not much action beyond the tours that the protagonist and his inconceivably compatible-at-first-sight girlfriend take. Not-so-subtle hints of conspiracy are dropped and near the end of the story, an unlikely plot is hatched by nefarious elements. The whole thing is cute, the characters likeable, but it is altogether too banal; the homage to Heinlein, in particular, The Number of the Beast, and the 1933 version of King Kong too contrived.

After the predictable conclusion, one-fifth of the text is dedicated to appendices, including (seemingly) every bit of background the author researched or created about the cruise ship, the science, the political topology, and various other bits. This section detracts greatly from the text itself and gives a self-serving impression, as if the author felt the need to show off his own cleverness instead of letting the story speak for itself.

The Gods of Sagittarius – Eric Flint & Mike Resnick

In the future, humanity is part of an interstellar society. A security expert is tasked to escort a scientist as he investigates a murder with seemingly paranormal aspects. Meanwhile, an alien seeks vengeance for the extermination of her religious sect. Unlike the science-rooted humans, the alien knows that magic is real.

The novel is space opera with a large degree of comedy. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the overwrought dialogue and interactions very funny. The story isn’t very entertaining either.

 

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse VII) – James S.A. Corey

Thirty years after Babylon’s Ashes, Earth has rebuilt, while humanity has spread across the thirteen hundred worlds beyond the gates. Comparative peace prevails. The Outer Planets Alliance has morphed into the Transport Union, which despite its own best efforts at trying not to be political, is effectively a governmental organisation. Led by Camina Drummer, Fred Johnson’s former chief of staff, the Union controls trade from Medina Station in the centre of the gate network. The crew of the Rocinante has spent decades together, carrying cargo, prisoners and messages for the Union.

One day, an old enemy re-emerges from Laconia system, where the renegade elements of the Martian fleet have spent thirty years in isolation, their doings unknown to an otherwise occupied human society. The now immensely powerful Laconians have been preparing for this moment, and they make a grand entrance.

The authors’ choice to move the narrative forward by three decades is jarring at first, but soon shows itself to be inspired. While there are no doubt plenty of stories to tell of the intervening period, having a new and powerful antagonist upset the apple cart is a more engaging story. (Nothing says the authors can’t return to the past in future novels and short stories, either.) This instalment is a real nail-biting page-turner, and one of the best books in an already excellent series. More good things should come along in the next book, as the end of this one leaves many things unresolved.

 

Strange Dogs (The Expanse VI½) – James S.A. Corey

In this short story set on the colony world of Laconia, a young girl tries to bring her dead little brother back to life. Things get weird.

While it is well written and a quick read, I wasn’t particularly captivated with the story in this slice-of-life from a colony world in the Expanse Universe.

Milk Run (Smuggler’s Tales From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

On her graduation day at the merchant marine academy in Port Newmar, Natalya Regyri is framed for murder. Along with her friend Zoya, she escapes to “Toehold Space”, a clandestine network of stations not regulated by the central authorities.

This book starts a new series in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper universe. As in the other books, there is no dramatic action. In his afterword, Mr. Lowell takes almost condescending pride in pointing out that he tells stories of ordinary working men and women. This installment starts off well, but the second half is bogged down in overlong, tedious discussions on inventory management. On the bright side, the dialogue is snappily written, and keeps things going even when during the umpteenth crew meeting to dissect the fine points of shipboard logistics software.

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

Fura Ness and her sister are adolescents on a little planetoid, growing up under an overprotective widowed father whose business fortunes are poor at best. They escape from home to make money crewing on a ship plying the spaceways for treasure left over from fallen civilizations. But on their first journey, things go horribly wrong. Fura vows revenge on the pirate captain who destroyed her life.

The style of this novel verges on Young  Adult, and the story itself, while enjoyable, is nothing that stands out. The setting, however, is fascinating and inventive. The star system is full of wordlets and space habitats, having been “occupied” at least thirteen times over millions of years by various empires and polities. The current civilization sustains itself partly on picking up loot from asteroids protected by periodically inactive force fields. The loot can be anything from decorative items to ancient and powerful weapons. I was somewhat disappointed that more aspects of this setting were not explored, especially the mysterious origin of the “cuoins” used as currency.

Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse VI) – James S.A. Corey

theexpanse6babylonsashesNemesis Games saw Earth attacked and crippled. Billions are dead after Marco Inaros and the Belter Free Navy landed an unimaginably cruel and perhaps fatal blow on the Inner Planets. Medina Station, the key to the colonies opened in Abaddon’s Gate, is also locked down by the Free Navy. Babylon’s Ashes is about the aftermath. Earth led by the incomparable Avasarala, The Mars Congressional Republic and those factions of the Outer Planets Alliance unwilling to accept Inaros’s guidance must now pick up the pieces and strike back before human civilization passes a point of no return towards a new dark age.

Well written as always, Nemesis Games is a pretty depressing read for the most part, but how else could it be with humanity shattered and billions dying of starvation and exposure? The glimpses of light from the efforts of James Holden and the others on the “good” side are heartbreaking and poignant and at the same time encouraging and heartening, as the authors probably intended. The inner doubts and struggles of the characters, in particular Michio Pa, show the reader how politics writ large is still made up of the decisions of individual actors. And as usual any scene with Avasarala involves her stealing the show. How awesome is this character?

4Rosbochs

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers II) – Becky Chambers

wayfarers2aclosedandcommonorbitThis novel is set just after the enchanting The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but none of the main characters have carried through. The story is about Sidra, the newly minted AI from Wayfarer, who has been illegally housed in a human looking “body kit”. In parallel, it is about Pepper, the tech who helped Sidra “escape”, and the peculiar way in which Pepper grew up.

At it’s core, this is a story about what it means to be a person. What sets humans apart from a sentient artificial intelligence, if anything? There is also a strong theme of family and its meaning. It is written with the same charm and wit as the first book, leaving the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling at the end.

4½Rosbochs

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers II) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers2anightwithoutstarsTwo hundred and fifty years after the events in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Bienvenido society has been profoundly changed. The planet has been exiled from the Void to a star system outside any galaxy, perhaps because the inhabitants “misbehaved”. It orbits the lonely star together with a scattering of other planets with a similar fate, some with extant species, others sterile. After Slvasta’s revolution, society follows an oppressive model similar to Stalinism. The state rules and the secret police is its enforcer, feared by all, but mostly by “Eliters”, those who have working macrocellular clusters, stemming from certain genetic traits inherited from the Commonwealth thousands of years previously. The Eliters are downtrodden but defiant. Bienvenido is still under attack by the Faller trees, now slowly being chipped away at by regular space missions to destroy them one by one with nuclear bombs.

Several characters from the first book remain, still working towards a solution to the Faller incursions, which are getting worse despite claims to the contrary by the regime. Nigel may be gone but another famous Commonwealth character steps onto the scene in these desperate times.

While the first book had a definite ending, and this one introduces new protagonists with new character arcs, it is also very much a continuation and conclusion to the series. Mr. Hamilton uses his customary skill in weaving all the threads together into a rousing and satisfying finale, as well as an epilogue that will have long time fans smiling beatifically.

5Rosbochs

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers I) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers1theabyssbeyonddreamsLaura Brandt is in stasis as her dynasty is journeying outside the Commonwealth to set up a new society. The Commonwealth is thriving, but the enigmatic and sinister Void casts its shadow as it continues to expand, devouring the galaxy sun by sun. Through happenstance, the Brandt fleet is caught in the Void, trapped in proximity to a planet surrounded by what look like huge orbiting trees, but which house a terrifying alien race.

Thousands of years later, on the planet, now known as Bienvenido, a young soldier called Slvasta is patrolling after a Faller incursion, as yet again “eggs” from the orbiting Trees have fallen. Many generations after colonization by the crippled Brandt fleet, society is at a low industrial level. The eggs are biological weapons which attract and consume humans. Slvasta survives an encounter but loses an arm, leading to his reassignment to the capital. Here, he and his girlfriend Bethaneve set in motion events that will transform Bienvenido society, with more than a little nudging from Nigel Sheldon, who entered the void on a mission to the planet Querencia (from the Void trilogy) but was waylaid to Bienvenido.

This book is the first of two in the series. The larger story of the Void and the Commonwealth is continued from Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, but the story on Bienvenido is relatively self-contained. Unsurprisingly for a Hamilton book, the hundreds of pages fly by, populated by vivid characters and settings. While some might find it disappointing that Mr. Hamilton is focusing on stories set in societies that are not representative of the super-high-tech Commonwealth, I find that he could write any story and I would still read it. Bienvenido is a fascinating setting, and its detachment from greater human society makes the story all the more poignant.

4½Rosbochs

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

Culture2ThePlayerofGamesJernau Gurgeh is the best game player the Culture has ever seen. (For clarity, these games are analogous to the board games of today. He writes scholarly papers on them. He takes parts in tournaments. He lives and breathes games. However, he is somewhat bored. The Culture is a post-scarcity society, with no want, death, suffering or exploitation. Winning at games is a purely intellectual pleasure. However there are civilizations outside the Culture. Gurgeh is contacted by Special Circumstances, a branch of “Contact”, the Culture’s organizations for dealing with newly contacted civilizations. It seems that in the barbaric Empire of Azad, a monumentally complex game is used to control appointments to government offices, even so far as to decide who becomes emperor.

Writing about a post-scarcity utopia is difficult. There is no real struggle. The interesting stories come about when there are encounters with the world outside the utopia’s borders. In fact the novel is slow and ponderous until the action reaches the Empire of Azad. The protagonist suffers from ennui but the reader is not left with a strong impression of him. He comes alive once the stakes are real, going through a transformation from happy but docile citizen of the culture to vibrant player, both literally and figuratively, with the means to affect society in very significant ways. The metaphor may be in-your-face but it is still well written.

4Rosbochs

In Ashes Born (Seeker’s Tales From The Golden Age of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

SeekersTales1InAshesBornWhile billed as the start of a new series, this book is a direct sequel to the Trader’s Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series. The break has its logic in the new direction for the life of our protagonis. At the end of the previous book, Ishmael Wang had achieved his goal of becoming a captain. He is a independently wealthy and does not need to work ever again. This leaves him feeling at loose ends, so he returns to the academy for some soul searching and perhaps the discovery of a new purpose. His very old friend Pip shows up to drag him along in a new venture, and maybe find some closure regarding the events in Owner’s Share.

For fans of the series, this book will feel familiar. Ishmael and Pip may be older and wiser but they remain an entertaining pair. Mr. Lowell has developed a high skill in writing dialogue. The events in this book, as in previous ones, are far from epic, but they are as ever quietly entertaining. And while certainly one could criticize the author for creating a future where culture everywhere is a ludicrously homogeneous American idyll, or for ignoring quite a few logical fallacies in the economic model of society, that would just take away from the fun.

4Rosbochs

Shooting the Rift – Alex Stewart

ShootingTheRiftSimon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.

It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.

2Rosbochs