Quick Recs – Sci-fi and Comics

A couple of quick recommendations for readers of science fiction and comic books on a cold February’s day…

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, his first book,  is a military-themed Heinlein-ian story with heart and humor.  The basic premise:  when earth-dwellers reach the age of 75, they have the option go sever all ties with their home and enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces to help protect and advance humanity’s outposts in interstellar space.  Not much is known about what happens when you enlist on Earth, but most agree it involves a significant physical modifications.  You also get the opportunity to settle in one of the colonies once your enlistment is up.

John Perry, a widower from Ohio, signs up, and we follow him on his journey.  Scalzi does a fine job of narrating from the perspective of a man whose lived a full life, confronted by some pretty fantastic dangers and situations.

This is the third book I’ve read in recent years by Scalzi.  The last one, Redshirtscomes with our highest recommendations, and I’m looking forward to picking up his most recent offering, The Human Division, soon.

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Books: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s second book in his Shadow Ops series continues the story of a contemporary Earth in which magic has suddenly reappeared, to be wielded by a small, seemingly random number of people.  In the US, the military has consolidated power and influence over these new mages, training them as elite soldiers and sending them into the parallel world called the Source, to establish a base.  Fortress Frontier follows the renegade Oscar Britton and a new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, as they deal with the consequences of this base being cut off from Earth.

Pros:  Cole brings the knowledge and sense of realism of military and special forces veteran (which he is).  His writing is descriptive and effective, and his sense of the various genres – sci-fi, fantasy, military thrillers, comic books – meld together well.  Col. Bookbinder as a lead character will grow on you.

Cons:  The initial decision to move away from Oscar (lead character in the first book) was a little frustrating, and the first few chapters with Bookbinder could have moved quicker.

Review:  The second book in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, picks up in the immediate aftermath of Control Point (reviewed here) and actually moves back in time slightly to introduce Colonel Alan Bookbinder.  Bookbinder is a career officer and logistics expert in the Pentagon.  He’s no ground-pounder, as we quickly realize, but one of those competent professionals who keep the tanks fueled, the laptops charged, and the ammo tallied.  But Bookbinder’s life changes rapidly when he comes up latent as a potential magic-user.

Cole weaves in the background and sets up the magic system established previously, with less than 1% of humanity (in a very X-Men mutant-like scenario) discovering they can manipulate other-worldly forces:  magic.  These abilities are organized along basic schools, like elemental (fire, water, earth, air), animal control, shape-shifting, and *other.  Bookbinder doesn’t seem to have a school; he only exhibits an ability to tap and channel magical energy, but because of this the military quickly reads him into its Top Secret magical program and sets him up for training.

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Books: The Buntline Special

In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings.  That’s a lot of genre-melding.  Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.

Pros:  Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West.  The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.

Cons:  The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times.  The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.

Review:  The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out).  We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg  on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world.  So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author…  We’re in.

Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly.  Mostly, it works.  Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona.  The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers.  Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.  Sound like any one of many familiar movies?  Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.

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Books: House of Suns

In Brief:  Alastair Reynolds’ epoch-spanning, pan-galactic novel features very intelligent, very human characters questing after universal mysteries while confronting the seeds of violence and intrigue sowed from within their own neo-utopian society.

Pros:   Reynolds, who worked for years as an astrophysicist with the EU Space Agency, has an unwavering command of the scale and breadth of his galaxies.  His ideas can be eye-popping and wondrous, and yet they come across as grounded in scientific reality.  The plot is fairly tight, the lead characters approachable (for post-human clones).

Cons:  Reynolds sometimes writes with the detached sterility of an astrophysicist.  The front-loading required to get the plot moving in the first 50-75 pages may require some patience.

Review:  Alastair Reynolds has received good pub on his science fiction novels for more than a decade.  He’s an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile, having started but put down one of his earlier books.  I picked up House of Suns after seeing several good reviews elsewhere; I’m glad I did.

As with any new sci-fi novel or series, the first points the author needs to establish, in addition to the characters, are how the technology works and its relative level of advancement.  We get an early glimpse in HoS with lead characters Pursulane and Campion building and deploying a star-dam for a grateful civilization.  The star-dam is a series of interlocking fields designed to keep the star in place, regulating its energy dispersal as it goes nova, thus giving any nearby inhabitants millions more years to live in the region.  Cool concept, expertly described here.

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Books: Last Argument of Kings

In Brief:  The final book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy brings main characters Logen, Jezal, Glotka, Ferro, and Bayaz full circle amidst grim warfare, invasions, political machinations, and ancient magic.

Pros:  This is Joe Abercrombie, who has the knack for great characterization, realistic action, effective plotting, and occasional dark humor.  Many of the showdowns hinted at in the first two books (internal and external) come to pass.

Cons:  To quote the overused coach-speak cliche:  “They are who we thought they are.”  And in the end, this may not be enough.

Review: Last Argument of Kings begins with the lead-up to the election among the nobles of the Union to choose a new king.  Inspector Glotka and the Inquisition, attempting to secure votes for the candidate of their choosing, proceed along a course of threats, bribes, and blackmail as they vie for power.

The scenario is familiar, having been setup towards the end of Before They Are Hanged, the previous book. So too we follow the splitting of the wizard Bayaz’s ‘anti-fellowship’, who, having failed in their quest to recover the powerful artifact called the Seed, now find themselves sucked into plot arcs the author has skillfully molded throughout the series. Continue reading

Books: Redshrits

In Brief: In Redshirts, John Scalzi cleverly riffs on the Star Trek universe and its many imitators from the point-of-view of the junior crewmen.  You know, the guys with short life expectancies wearing the red shirts.

Pros:  The book has some laugh-out-loud funny parts, and Scalzi’s economy of language and ability to set up characters and scenes makes for smooth reading.  The story also toys with ideas of creativity and the overused sci-fi paradigm of alternate universes in a smart and entertaining way.

Cons:  If you don’t like Star Trek or have some familiarity with some of the tv series, you won’t get the full extent of some of the humor and scenarios.  Conversely, if you’re an overly sensitive Trekkie who takes umbrage at any implied criticism of the Enterprise and its continuing missions, you may want to duck and cover.

Review:  Last summer we heard John Scalzi plugging Redshirts on a radio interview and the book immediately went into the reading queue.  Here’s the premise, straight from the novel’s back copy:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that 1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, 2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and 3) sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs.

Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Having read and enjoyed some other Scalzi books, it didn’t take much to get me on board.  What I recall from the radio interview was how much fun he obviously had writing this project and describing, as well as how much fun the interviewer obviously had reading it.  Throw in the fact that Scalzi worked as a writer/creative consultant on the Stargate: Universe tv show, so know his mass market and media sci-fi.

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Books: Dawnthief

In Brief:  James Barclay’s Dawnthief features a band of mercenaries in sword-and-sorcery style adventure.  The characters are hard men (and women), loyal to each other first, who find themselves drawn into a great conflict with darker forces in the land.

Pros:  Barclay has a good command of military history, and his system of magic is consistent.  A good sense of history, solid characters, and an eye for avoiding cliches make this a an effective first effort.

Cons:  The beginning chapters are messy – perhaps due to a switching p.o.v. style that is somewhat troublesome.  The logic behind the penultimate spell at the heart of the story is a little sketchy.

Review:  Dawnthief introduces a band of mercenary soldiers known as the Raven.  A small but intensely loyal group who earns their money fighting the small wars between the nobles of Balaia.  Their code is simple:  they don’t do assassinations and they always put the members of the Raven first.

We meet them marshaling the defense of a small castle outpost – a simple enough mission that goes sideways when a mage from the College of Xetesk called Denser appears.  The mercenaries follow him in an attempt to stop him, losing one of their number in the process.  They find themselves in an alternate dimension, where Hirad, one of their leaders, confronts an ancient guardian and inadvertently helps Denser steal an important magic talisman – one of the key components for the spell, Dawnthief. Continue reading

Books: Leviathan Wakes

In Brief:  Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is good science fiction/space opera set in our solar system.  The first in a trilogy (naturally), this book provides strong characterization and a mix of detective fiction and military sci-fi.

Pros:  Corey’s two main characters are interesting dudes with problems who also give us a solid foundation of the book’s universe.  The belters vs. inner planet politics and conflict is very well done, and the pacing and basic writing are effective.  We also dig the old-school cover art.

Cons:  A couple of overly familiar themes lie at the heart of this book:  a first contact scenario (albeit a different take on it) and the evil and greedy military-industrial corporate antagonist.  However, these are relatively minor issues.

Review:  A reasonably plausible future setting with space travel, inter-planetary politics, ship-to-ship battles…  Add elements of mystery and possible extra-terrestrial contact.  Sounds like space opera, which is where Leviathan Wakes firmly plants it flag.  Along with time travel stuff, space opera is the subset of science fiction I enjoy most, but man, oh, man is this a subset that can be (and often is) done poorly.  Fortunately that doesn’t happen with this book.  James S.A. Corey (pen-name for the collaborative duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) knows the pitfalls of the genre better than most.

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Books: The Hammer and the Blade

In Brief:  Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade is old-school Sword and Sorcery with contemporary sensibilities.  Kemp pays homage to Leiber and Gygax, and sets up a pair of of likable characters for serial-style adventures.

Pros:  The lead characters, Egil and Nix, are familiar tomb-raiding adventurers straight out of the AD&D Player’s Handbook.  They are also fleshed out pretty well as the author introduces his magical world and keeps the plot moving.  Kemp obviously knows his Sword and Sorcery, and you feel as if you might bump into The Gray Mouser or Conan or Kull at any moment.

Cons:  The Hammer and the Blade is a self-contained adventure focused squarely on Egil and Nix.  It’s not an epic continent and kingdom spanning tale.  Some may prefer a grander scope.  The setting and styling are also very familiar fantasy staples, a potential drawback for those seeking less familiar worlds.

Review:  The book opens with Egil and Nix in the final stages of a dungeon crawl.  They are professional tomb raiders who’ve been at it for awhile, as quickly established by the author’s rapid quip-filled dialogue.  This is Riggs and Murtagh with swords and warhammers.  In the tomb of an ancient wizard king, they avoid traps and finally face off with a hellspawn guardian.

The author sets the scene and handles the introductions with smooth efficiency and we almost immediately like these two characters.  Egil is a warrior-priest of Ebenor – a deity who was only a god for a brief moment before being destroyed.  Egil is also apparently the only priest of Ebenor (not much use worshiping a dead god who can’t answer your devotion after all), with a philosophy tied to recognizing and venerating the moment.  Nix Fall, aka Nix the Quick, is a thief with a bit of magical training (he takes pride in the fact that he was expelled from the Magician’s Academy), who pulled himself out of the slums with his wits and skill.   Continue reading

Books: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

In Brief: Steampunk meets historical fiction in Victorian London, with time travel paradox and some mysticism thrown in for good measure.  Author Mark Hodder hits the ground running.

Pros:  Fast-paced and fun for readers familiar with the history of the British Empire at its apex, the book quickly introduces its sci-fi conventions, stamps them in the plot and moves onwards.  And also – werewolves.

Cons:  Readers with no grounding in history may still enjoy much of this book, but won’t be in on some of the most creative turns with historical figures and famous events.  This book has more of a pulp feel, so some of the characters come off a little flat (or would if you didn’t have the historical versions of them to fill in space).

Review:  At the library, saw the cover, and read the back  copy (which was written in the style of a 19th century newspaper advertisement).  I immediately noticed that one of the main characters was none other than a fictionalized Sir Richard Francis Burton, famous explorer and Victorian writer and a person I’ve read about before.  OK, Mr. Mark Hodder – well played, I told myself.  I have to give this a look.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack immediately plunges us into an alternate England – one in which familiar historical events have changed, not occurred, or happened out of sequence.  Beginning with Burton’s feud with fellow explorer, John Speke, over the location of the source of the Nile.  As history tells us, Speke shot himself (either on purpose or accidentally) as he and Burton were about to debate their specific expeditions.  But in this novel, Speke does not perish almost immediately but instead disappears.  And Burton has himself a mystery to solve. Continue reading