Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.
The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.
The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.
Some time after the events in The Prefect/Aurora Rising, a new crisis is brewing in the Glitter Band. Random citizens are having their brains “fried” by their electronic implants. As Dreyfus and the other Panoply operatives investigate the links between victims, they find links to an old and very distinguished Yellowstone family.
While a solid and enjoyable novel, this one lacks the panache of “The Prefect”. The mystery feels contrived and doesn’t lead to any sort of even half-epic conclusion. That being said, Mr. Reynolds’s prose is a pleasure to read as usual, and the characters are interesting and engaging.
The Prefect was republished as Aurora Rising in order to identify it more as the beginning of its own series than as tied to the Revelation Space series. The series do share the same Universe, though this book is set in a much earlier era.
The setting is the Glitter Band, a swarm of thousands of orbital habitats around the planet Yellowstone. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect for Panoply, a police force tasked with ensuring voting rights are respected, including investigating and punishing voting fraud. The habitats of the Glitter Band are as varied as they are many, from tyrannies to utopias to all manner of strange types of government. An investigation into voting fraud leads Dreyfus and his small team to a flaw in the voting system, and then all hell breaks loose.
While the setting is hard science fiction, the plot is in large part police procedural, and the characters could have been picked from any group of archetypal police investigators and functionaries. Dreyfus himself is the stereotypical dedicated detective with a tragic past. His assistants Thalia and Sparver are, respectively, the spunky and energetic young tech whiz and the stoic, solid sidekick. His boss Aumonier is the classic experienced police chief. The trope works very well for the novel, allowing the reader to immediately grasp relationships while navigating a completely new and strange world. The plot starts as a relatively simple police mystery, but as events unfold, the magnitude of the crisis becomes vast, encompassing the entire system. The ghosts from Dreyfus’s past, and indeed society’s past, come back to haunt the present, with some clever twists.
In a post-climate disaster future, the superpowers have begun mining the Moon in large scale. Life on the frontier is rough and fraught with danger. However, old rivalries have not disappeared. Disillusioned American mining chief and veteran Dechert is confronted with the mysterious murder of a miner, while the powers that be seem dead set to go to war with the Chinese.
Dechert’s outlook is bleak. He has seen the elephant and exiled himself to the Moon in order to escape the ghosts of his comrades from his military days. But war is coming to the Moon and Dechert cannot escape it. He is a beautifully written protagonist, wavering between abject fatalism at the inevitability of repeating history and self-aware naive idealism about this new frontier being a new beginning for mankind. He is firm on one thing: doing his utmost to protect his people, something which he was unable to do during in the past despite his best efforts.
The novel plays out like a good thriller, showing a small slice of larger events, but it is the personal aspect that really shines.
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.
In the second half of the 21st Century, American astronomers detect what can only be an alien starship making rendezvous with an object hidden among the rings of Saturn. The starship then departs the Solar System. This sparks a race to Saturn between the US and China in order to secure any alien technology which can be found.
The tone of the story is more thriller than sense-of-wonder science fiction, showing Mr. Sandford’s crime write roots. And it is indeed a good thriller of a story. The characters are imperfect and well fleshed out, if perhaps rather stereotypical, especially the Chinese ones. The “games people play” are intricate and interesting. An unfortunate aspect of the novel is that it expounds rather too much at length on the science and technology involved in the missions. While it is certainly neat content for the scientifically interested reader, the infodumps have a tendency to interrupt the otherwise fine pacing.
Jazz Bashara lives on Artemis, the only city on the Moon. She works odd jobs, but her main source of income is smuggling goods to Artemis. It is a small town and Jazz has a deservedly poor reputation. One day, she is offered a chance to make a lot of money. Just one caper…
Following up the massive success of The Martian is a high bar. Mr. Weir seems to have completely ignored any real or implied expectations, and written Artemis much as he did his previous novel. He spent a long time meticulously researching the science behind his Moon city, and constructing a plausible, logical place to set the narrative. The world building is sometimes a bit intrusive, but for a hard science fiction fan, it remains interesting throughout.
Jazz is an interesting protagonist. She is a something of a loser. At the start of the novel, she hasn’t yet managed to lose the eyeroll attitude of a teenager who thinks the adults are out to get her. She does not always make the right choices, but her heart is in the right place. Her backstory is perhaps a bit too stereotypical, what with the hard-working, disappointed father, but it works.
Mr. Weir’s trademark dry humour and sarcasm are present throughout the prose, especially in the dialogue, making this a fun book that pulls the reader along easily.
Polaris Airlines runs the first fleet of suborbital passenger transports, brainchild of industrialist and owner Walt Hammond. Flight 501 is a private charter from Denver to Singapore. Due to a malfunction it becomes stranded in orbit.
This is good clean fun if you like aerospace and a thrilling story. The characters ring true, especially the pilots, engineers and operations staff at the airline. I did sometimes have a hard time telling minor characters apart, since Mr. Chiles’s world is almost exclusively populated by “ordinary white people” straight from Central Casting.
It falls over a bit on the technical details, which is unfortunate since in a technothriller like this the technical details are essential. The explanations are often lacking in the clarity needed for mainstream prose. There are also inconsistencies in the text which should have been caught in editing. For example, one paragraph will mention thin cirrus clouds and afternoon sun, then the next will speak of an aircraft “breaking out of the overcast.”
William Race is a professor of linguistics in New York. Without warning, he is drafted to translate an ancient manuscript detailing events during the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. Specifically, he must assist a team of military and civilian operatives in determining the location of a mythical Incan idol. This idol holds the key to building a superweapon. The adventure soon takes our characters into the depths of the unexplored Amazonian rainforest, searching for an abandoned temple.
Full disclosure: I only got about a third of the way through this book. It reads like a Hollywood action-adventure movie. The action scenes are exciting but strain suspension of disbelief in the extreme. Hollywood physics are definitely in evidence. Additionally, Mr. Reilly is not very rigorous in his research on his props, such as aircraft and weapons, not to mention the material of the superweapon itself. The characters are cardboard cutouts and I didn’t find myself engaging in their story. The one redeeming quality of the book was the somewhat interesting parallel story set in the 16th Century.
Scott Murdoch is the most secret of secret agents for the US government, until he exits the “business” and writes the ultimate book about investigative techniques; under a pseudonym of course. Then, while trying to lead a “normal” life, he is consulting the New York police on a murder investigation when his past life comes back to grab him. There is a massive threat to the United States and he is the man to deal with it.
There is a lot to like about this novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner in the early Tom Clancy class. Despite the significant heft of the book, the narrative runs off with the reader. The first third is full of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, fleshing out our hero’s backstory and legend (both literally and figuratively). Murdoch tells his own story while the antagonist, a modern day, more intelligent, creepier Bin Laden, moves in parallel to enact his sinister strike on the soft underbelly of the United States.
I was on tenterhooks until the end, but the novel falls over in its overuse of action and spy movie tropes. Writing about computers straining and operators pounding on keyboards is silly in a screenplay and laughable in a novel. Action set pieces, while quite good, are always a flirting with Mission Impossible.
And yet, there is something deeper which this novel does well. Murdoch’s background as a loner and his shadow life as an agent resonate with the hidden world where protecting the innocent means setting aside conventional rules of morality. While these themes are by no means original, the manner in which they are written is at least thought provoking. Our hero is no white knight by any means. His motives are admirable, but he himself readily admits that his methods are not pretty. Perhaps I am reaching, but this may be the author’s attempt to explain why the world can only be safe if there are brutal men willing to do violence on behalf of the citizenry.
The author’s seeming desire to tie things up in a neat little bow at the end also bugged me. Things are just a bit too tidy, at odds with the theme of the book which is that no one ever leaves the secret agent world.
In this alternate history novel, Nazi Germany is building Silbervogel, Eugen Sänger‘s proposed “antipodal bomber”, in an attempt to firebomb New York during WWII. Learning about the work from spy efforts, a US team led by Robert Goddard builds a counter-weapon, an American suborbital interceptor.
For a fan of the history of astronautics, this novel is a treat. While in reality Nazi Germany focused its rocketry efforts on the A-4 rocket, better known as the V-2 ballistic missile, it is not a big stretch to imagine how efforts could have gone towards Silbervogel instead. Steele mixes real people and fictional events in a very plausible “what if?” of history.
A research team based based in Switzerland has discovered a way to disconnect the mind from the body and project it to other places and times, even into the future. They call it an “ascent”, and it allows access to secret information hidden away in vaults, as well as knowledge of future events. Clandestine elements of the US government have gotten their hands on this research, and are working to subvert it for their own purposes. Meanwhile, a graduate student named Trent Major is seemingly visited by his future self in vivid dreams. The future self gives him information allowing him to perform research breakthroughs.
Mr. Locke has written a tightly plotted thriller, in style reminding me more than a little of Michael Crichton. It does unfortunately leave the reader in the dark about the nature of the ascent for what seems a frustratingly long time. Once revealed, the ascent process, which is central to the plot, is always frustratingly close to pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. The parameters of the process are never clearly defined and it is difficult to establish what is or is not possible in terms of plot.
Many characters are introduced at the start, but I found it difficult to keep track of them until about halfway through the book. Certainly there is some confusion as to which characters are actually the protagonists. Some of these characters are secretive in their profession and this trait seems to spill over into their descriptions. Others are cookie-cutter caricatures of their professional personas. I had a hard time feeling empathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Shane and Trent. Character development and description is rather forced. And how many times do we need to be reminded that Charlie Hazard is a combat veteran and security specialist?
A final nitpick is that objects are frequently prefixed with “the” on the first description. For example, “the trio of electric carts” suddenly appears but it has never been discussed before.
While it has imperfections, and was somewhat confusing at the start, the story certainly sped up in the second half, even into page-turner territory.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell in exchange for my honest review.
Alex Lomax is a private investigator in New Klondike, a frontier town on Mars. The place is a bit of a dump, existing only due to the rush on ancient Martian fossils, and Lomax is its stereotypical gumshoe. One day, a beautiful woman walks into his office. She is a “transfer”, a human who has transferred her consciousness into a cyborg body.
The story and setting are a deliberate homage to classic noir detective films and novels. The world-building is solid, and it is a enjoyable and almost wistful reading about New Klondike’s dome and the business of “transfers”. Mr. Sawyer takes the idea of the noir detective to the limits of its stereotype, skirting deadpan satire. Naturally the protagonist is broke and has an overdue tab at a seedy bar that he frequents. Naturally the local police department is corrupt and lazy. The first half of the book is good fun. Unfortunately the second half degenerates into a confusing mess of myriad double-crosses and plot twists, taking the novel from a pleasant pastime to an often irritating morass.
Early on during the third mission to Mars, the crew has to leave prematurely during a storm. Mark Watney is hit by flying debris, specifically an antenna, and carried away from the others. The rest of the crew have no choice but to leave him behind. He is presumed dead due to his bio-monitor being disabled by the impact. But he’s not dead. And now he has to survive on Mars with no communications and limited resources until, somehow, he can be rescued.
From the very first page, I could not put this book down. It grabs the reader instantly and leads him on a long and arduous journey with Watney. Most of the book is written as log entries by Watney himself, and that’s what really makes it shine. “Watney’s” entries reflect his character, which is that of a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, profane, laugh-out-loud funny smartass who is forced to become MacGyver on a planet that, as he puts it, is constantly trying to kill him. Even chemistry becomes funny when written like this, and the almost flow of consciousness style allows frequent and often hilarious tangents. After a log entry about how he will need to use his botany skills and experiment supplies to grow food, the next day’s entry simply reads, “I wonder how the Cubs are doing”. This personal voice makes Watney feel like a real person, not a superhuman hero, and it makes the reader connect with him viscerally. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so often while reading a book, which is not bad considering that it is a story about a man who is an inch away from dying from the first page to the last.
A veteran and struggling writer receives a dream contract for a movie novelization. Soon after, a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he is blackmailed into accepting a contract to murder a still unnamed victim. He goes on the run with his girlfriend.
I was sorely disappointed by this book. While it is competently written, the story is just a bland chase. The ending is anticlimactic and the “twist”, well, isn’t. The interleaved chapters with the novel the protagonist is writing are vaguely interesting but mostly seem like filler without ulterior purpose.
In a small town in Maine, High School teacher Jake Epping is asked by his acquaintance, diner owner Al, to come to the diner. When he arrives, Al has aged years and has gone from healthy to terminally ill in cancer. It turns out that Al has found a sort of time portal in his pantry. The portal leads to 1958. Al’s plan was to live in the past until 1963, and then kill Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Al believes this would change history in important ways, preventing the Vietnam war and other horrors. Unfortunately Al contracts cancer and cannot complete his mission. Is the past pushing back against those who try to change history? Al returns back to 2011. Things have changed, but not enough, and when the portal is used again, the past resets to how things were. Before dying, Al dragoons Jake into completing the mission. He cannot just kill Oswald a few years before the assassination attempt, however. He must be sure that the man is acting alone, and not part of one of the many purported conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Thus starts Jake’s adventure in the past, where many things are different, yet many things are the same.
Mr. King’s research into the late fifties and early sixties is extensive and meticulous. The fact that people smoked constantly and everywhere is an obvious factoid, but the differences go much deeper. From food prices to idioms to the fact that bathrooms in the American south were still segregated, it is fascinating to discover how very unfamiliar current Americans would be with society and its mores in “The Land of Ago”. Jake’s quest takes him on many side tracks as he must become an inhabitant of the era. He makes friends and even falls in love, but he cannot reveal his true purpose. He must be careful lest his use of modern idiom mark him as strange. He must also keep his focus on the objective through five years of “ordinary” life peppered with research and the intermittent stalking of Oswald.
King’s mastery of style, pacing and character building shines in the prose. Despite its considerable length (eight hundred and forty-nine pages for those who still read on paper) it is not a slog to read through. Even trivial adventures become interesting when written so well. I did feel, however, that the book had perhaps been unnecessarily padded, or more accurately insufficiently cut to size. While many events serve to build the character of Jake, they might have been excised without hurting the story, and perhaps things would have moved forward a bit faster. Having said that, the many vignettes of life in the past are fascinating, often funny and as often horrifying to more modern sensibilities.
Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed that King chose to reveal some part of the “inner workings” of the time travel mechanism. While as a science fiction fan, I typically want to find out about such things, perhaps in this case it would have been better if it had simply stayed a magical mystery without explanation. I did not feel that it really added to the story, and the point made through the reveal had already been made.
The year is 2044. Human civilization is hanging on by a thread. Recession, energy crisis, disillusionment, unemployment, starvation and poverty have reigned for decades. The only escape most people have is in a massive interactive simulation, the OASIS. The OASIS is also where most people work, a virtual universe with everything from shopping malls to space monsters. Thirteen year old Wade has grown up in a slum and has nothing to show for himself but being a geeky kid with some computer skills when OASIS co-founder and creator James Halliday dies, leaving his entire multi-billion dollar fortune and control of his company to the winner of an elaborate and mysterious quest throughout the OASIS. During the next five years, Wade becomes one of millions of “gunters”, short for “egg hunters”, trying to crack the quest and win the prize, fittingly an “Easter Egg”. This mostly involves ridiculously extensive research into the pop culture of the nineteen-eighties, Halliday’s favorite decade, to the point that Wade can recite every line of dialogue of every popular movie of the day, sing along to every hit song, and win at every old arcade game. He also knows the most obscure details of Halliday’s life. Then one day, Wade makes a breakthrough.
Ready Player One is a fast-paced, exciting, page-turning thrill-ride which proudly displays its early Cyberpunk roots. As Wade progresses on his quest, he encounters both allies and rivals. In particular, a large and ruthless multinational corporation is aiming to take control of the OASIS by running an entire division of gunters and battling for the prize. The majority of the action takes places in the OASIS, providing a stark contrast to the bleak and impoverished world outside. In the real world, people are jobless and homeless, and even debt slavery is often a better option than freedom since at least it provides room and board. In the virtual world, the poor but skilled can be wizards and warriors, paladins for justice or evil villains. The virtual world affects the real one in worrying ways, however, and domination of the real one is very much tied to winning the battle for the virtual one. For our recluse hero, this is a shocking and painful realization. He is mighty in the OASIS, but really only a geeky and powerless kid in the real world. The transformation of Wade’s real self to match the heroism of his avatar is the true underlying quest in the book.
It is clear Mr. Cline did a lot of research on eighties pop culture himself. The entire novel is one big orgy of fanservice, specifically aimed at those fans who grew up in the eighties. As an avid consumer myself of John Hughes movies, old computer games and era music, it pushed all the right buttons. The question this: can a person who is not at least casually versed in eighties pop culture truly appreciate it? I would say yes. Even without understanding the myriad pop culture references, it is a great adventure novel, and an excellent metaphor for our despondent times. Just be prepared for the massive geek-outs.
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.
The second sequel to The Scope of Justice finds our two snipers, Monroe and Wade, dropped into the jungles of Indonesia, where they become involved in a power struggle between diverse anti-government factions, consisting both of terrorists and Indonesian Army. In a clever twist to the story, their new commanding officer, a born and bred bureaucrat Colonel, comes with them. Our heroes are Sergeants, but they have vastly superior skills and experience. This poses many challenges as the team attempts to complete its mission in a shifting local political environment.
I was afraid that this third book would be a mere re-hash or the first two in a new locale, but Williamson has managed to make it unique. The overall structure of a covert mission remains in all three books, but the missions themselves vary widely. Williamson also captures well, especially in this last installment, the good and the bad of the military. How some personnel is helpful, how some is annoyingly by the book, how some goes above and beyond. Most military fiction does not go very deeply into these interesting subjects. Overall, a satisfying read.
In the sequel to The Scope of Justice, the two snipers Monroe and Wade, have a new mission: Take out terrorists smuggling explosives through Romania for use in Western Europe. Once in place, they find themselves doing a lot of straight spy work, typically with little or no backup. To further complicate things, they are in place clandestinely, and must also hide from Romanian authorities.
The second book in the series is an improvement over the first. The prose is less stilted and the story flows better overall. The two main action scenes are very good. Williamson describes well how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land, needing to blend in but having a hard time doing so. I found myself caring more for the protagonists as Williamson explored their motivations in more depth. The technical parts about sniping are detailed and fascinating (at least to this reader). An enjoyable read if you have some interest in the subject matter.
This rather short novel follows a US sniper and spotter team on an assassination mission in Afghanistan. It is set after the Afghan war of 2001 and the target is a terrorist leader. Needless to say, the initial attempt goes to hell in more ways than one. The two Americans then have to use their own ingenuity and local resources to both survive and to complete their mission.
This is competent but not great military fiction. A rather straightforward story, exciting but without any really unexpected wrinkles. Interesting reading if you want to learn something about modern snipers and how they operate. The dialogue is pretty awful at times though.
Harry Dresden is a private investigator of sorts. He is actually a wizard living in modern Chicago. In this novel, a mysterious woman hires him to find her husband. At the same time, in his capacity as police consultant on “unusual” cases, he is called in to assist in investigating a mysterious murder and soon finds himself implicated. To make matters worse, the White Council, a governing body of sorts for wizards, thinks he is guilty of crimes against the laws of magic.
The novel reads like a noir detective story, down to the lack of funds and burning of bridges with the police. The wizard and magic aspect makes for an interesting wrinkle. Unfortunately, however, it does not make the book interesting enough. Dresden is a interesting character and well crafted, but after a while the book became a bit predictable. The whole thing is too deeply steeped in noir thriller cliché. Shame really, as the whole thing is based on a cool concept.
The Silence of the Lambs is as good a crime thriller as you are ever likely to read. A masterpiece, just like the movie. Hannibal is also quite good, but without the back story provided by its famous prequel it would not have been as good a read.
Although this novel of British code breaking during World War II received good reviews, and I have no doubt of it’s historical accuracy, it thoroughly failed to captivate me and I gave up on it after only about a hundred pages.
Michael Flynn‘s first novel, in which he presupposes that the difference engine proposed by Charles Babbage in the early 1800’s (a sort of mechanical computer) was actually built, and used by a secretive society to calculate the future, then influence the history of the world. It is a half-decent thriller that unfortunately gets bogged down towards the middle in an overcomplicated web of conspiracies.