Review of The Warrior Within by Angus McIntyre

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This work is McIntyre’s debut as a writer of longer works. It’s a novella published by Tor that runs 178 pages. This review includes spoilers.

The world is ruled by the Muljaddy, a religious autocracy that’s in business to buy salvage from the various ruins of an older civilization and provides food handouts in return for prayer. Years ago, Karsman worked for one of the Muljaddy who outfitted him with multiple personalities in order to cut back on staff. He left her employment and is now living in a desolate, backwater town on this desolate, backwater home planet, where he is recognized as the unofficial “mayor” of the town. A group of commandos arrives from the wastelands, three transhumans who announce they are on a mission to assassinate a particular woman. They don’t find her in the town right away, so they increase pressure on the residents, interviewing all the women and pushing people to inform. Karsman has just met the woman Mira at a recent festival and she’s left town, but he’s concerned they are after her. Violence escalates to a coup against the temple, and finally Karsman needs to do something about the commandos. Can he save the Muljaddy? Rescue Mira? And what are all those old ruins, anyway?

On the positive side, this is excellent world-building, and the writing style is evocative, In other words, it’s a great little adventure that suggests a complex history and hidden depths. Karsman is a very engaging character, generally laid-back, but apparently quite effective once he gets his various personalities sorted out. Mira is a sensible and effective person, too, and Karsman’s various friends and acquaintances, though not hugely memorable, come across like real people. There’s also a surprise twist ending that I didn’t predict.

On the negative side, I was disappointed that this is so short, as I really liked the characters, and I’d loved to have followed them through a much longer and more complex novel. McIntyre was probably right to cut it off here, though, and continue with further plotting in another installment. I’ll have to watch for more episodes.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of Transmission by Morgan Rice

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This novella is young adult science fiction and is listed as Book 1 of the Invasion Chronicles. It is self-published and runs 187 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Kevin and his mom get the news that he’s been diagnosed with a rare brain disease and only has about six months to live. Symptoms of his disease include fainting spells and hallucinations including visions of alien landscapes and strings of numbers. All the adults tell Kevin he should ignore this and that treatment might help, but his friend Luna thinks the number strings might be important. A quick Google indicates these are the coordinates for the Trappist star system. Should Kevin notify SETI that he’s receiving alien transmissions? What if they don’t believe him?

This book is billed as young adult, but my estimation is that it’s more middle grade level. It’s seems a bit simplistic for young adult, which often includes fairly adult themes these days. This a quick, easy read and the story flows along well, including a slightly humorous take on the adult characters and the various government organizations that blunder through the alien contact. The theme seems to be cooperation. The tone is fairly low key, even when things start to go wrong, and Kevin’s mom is always there to stand between him and anything bad coming his way. Plus, Luna remains his faithful friend.

On the not so positive side, it’s nice but not really believable that Kevin successfully mediates the adult arguments going on between all the different agencies and governments that get involved in this. The build-up is different and refreshing, but the resulting alien invasion scheme was old in 1950 and, of course, nothing at all gets solved in this book, which likely just serves as the intro to Book II of the Invasion Chronicles. There are a couple of plot holes, which may or may not be explained later. And also, the fact that everybody is lurching around like a zombie at the end of this sort of undermines Kevin’s “I told you so” moment.

Three stars.

Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Static Ruin by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #3. It’s science fiction, was released November 6, 2018, by Tor.com and runs 218 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This novella starts slightly after the events of Void Black Shadow. Mars is on Joon-ho Station, having left Squid and Mookie on Aylett Station, and now on the run from the Emperor’s Guard. She visits Dr. Ahlam’s clinic, hoping to get help for Pale, who is having seizures. Ahlam recommends that Mars contact her father Marius Teo to get help for the boy. Mars has a lot of residual anger against her father, who cloned her from her mother’s cells and then sold her and her sister to MEPHISTO. Betrayed, Mars has to fight her way off the station, but successfully arrives at Sanderak where she finds a conclave that worships a statue of her mother and a hologram of her father. Her dad has actually been kidnapped by a businessman named Rafael Hurtt, who wants to use his cloning technology. Can Mars rescue her father? Get help for Pale? Can she get the Emperor’s Guard off her backtrail?

By the finish of this series, it’s taken on quite a bit more depth—a real theme developed somewhere along the line. It looks like the imperial government is using MEPHISTO and its corporate cronies to enslave anybody unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches with the aid of transhuman and uplift technology. This includes kids, adults and whatever other living creature that might look attractive or useful to the evil scientists and their overlords. We’ve met a bunch of miserable victims along the line, as people and animals all suffer through the misery of surgical experimentation and deployment as a weapon.

Because of its broad sweep and action-orientation, this doesn’t have the impact that a more character-oriented story would have—the carnage here seems the main point. Still, you have to give it credit for a viable projection and a strong warning message about a possible future. That moves it up some on the Ideation Scale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Void Black Shadow by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #2. It seems to be space opera, was released March 27, 2018, by Tor.com and runs 224 pages. The sequel Static Ruin was released November 6, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This installment picks up at the end of Voidwitch. Mars has taken in the boy Pale that she rescued from MEPHISTO’s weapons system and is trying to help him learn to use his psychic powers. Mookie, a member of the Nova crew, has been arrested and imprisoned because he’s AWOL from an imperial military unit. Mars investigates and gets a tip to check records on the planet Miyuki. She, Pale, Squid and Trix encounter military forces there and Mars wins the battle against space frigates and ground-force hive-mind cyborgs called the Legion. In data storage they find Mookie has been sent to a MEPHISTO black-site prison on Homan Sphere. Mars holds off more troops to allow the Nova to escape, but allows herself to be arrested and taken to Homon. At the prison, Mars’ presence makes things worse, as management identifies Mookie as her friend and accelerates his conversion into a Legion cyborg. Can she rescue him and rejoin the Nova?

Like the first installment of the story, this moves right along, including space battles and now opposition from ground forces, too. At Miyuki, we find out more about MEPHISTO’s research that creates cyborgs and makes slaves of transhumans.
The story has something of the same drawbacks as in the first volume. The space opera plot seems mostly aimed at creating action sequences, and the characters feel engineered to fit certain roles. That means they’re sympathetic but don’t have a lot of depth. I’m also a little suspicious of the way people get around in these little ships. Getting one seems like buying a car, and going through a wormhole is as easy as driving to the grocery store.

Three stars.

Review of Killing Gravity by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #1. It’s science fiction (mostly), was released May 9, 2017, by Tor.com and runs 176 pages. The sequel Void Black Shadow was released March 27, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Mariam Xi, a.k.a. Mars, is a telekinetic voidwitch, genetically engineered as a weapon by a group called MEPHISTO. With the help of her sister Sera, she escaped their clutches and went on the run with a furry experiment called Seven. After an encounter with a bounty hunter, Mars is left helpless in a dying ship, but is rescued by kind strangers. Safely back to civilization, she tries to track down who sold her out, and finds that Sera, who she thought died, is still alive. MEPHISTO is back on her trail, and she has endangered the Nova crew who rescued her: Squid, Trix and Mookie. She picks up a new ship, sets out on a rescue mission. Can she use her abilities to make things right?

This is fairly creative space opera, with a definite dark side in the way MEPHISTO enslaves children to make weapons. The setting feels pretty gritty and hard-edged, with various AIs, augmented humans and transhumans as characters. The universe is well developed, assuming spaceflight and wormholes. The stakes are high, leading to huge space battles and consecutive migraines for Mars. For all her psychic abilities, she makes some pretty bad mistakes and by the end of the book, she’s only won a temporary victory and nothing is really settled, leading to the sequel, of course. As Mars’ only real friend, Seven provides the usual furry relief from unpleasant circumstances.

On the not so great side, this story doesn’t have much theme or depth. It seems action-driven and the characters aren’t as well developed as they could be. The crew of the Nova feel a bit like pawns the author uses to set up the battles, and Sera is supplied as the heart-breaker. I couldn’t get really attached to any of them. Also, if Mars is as powerful as she comes off in the final battle, how did that bounty hunter almost get the best of her?

Three stars.

Review of “Compulsory” by Martha Wells

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This is a great find. It’s a Murderbot short story published by Wired magazine in January 2019 as part of the The Future of Work series, which should make it eligible for the next awards cycle. I imagine this could also be a teaser for Wells upcoming new Murderbot novel, Network Effect, which is scheduled for release in May of 2020. Her website suggests there might be a few more short stories upcoming. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot is working a mining contract where it’s obvious all the humans hate each other. At the moment, 98% of MB’s attention is on episode #44 of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, while the remaining 2% is monitoring ambient audio to keep track of what the humans are doing. Elane, Sekai and Asa are humans arguing on the observation platform. Sekai accidently falls into the mining pit, and MB sends an alert to HubSystem. MB’s current job is: 1) to keep the workers from stealing company property, 2) to keep the workers from killing management and 3) to keep the workers from reducing productivity. Because rescuing the worker falls outside these parameters, HubSystem orders MB to stay at its duty station. MB estimates incoming safety bots will be too late to rescue Sekai, so it steps off the observation platform, kicks off the stabilizer wall into a lower gravity well and lands on the housing above Sekai. She reaches up and catches its hand just as the blade she landed on cycles and drops ore into the smelter. HubSystem tries to fry MB’s circuits for disobeying, but ha, that governor module died a long time ago. MB climbs out of the pit, carrying its rescued human, meanwhile hacking HubSystem to make it think it gave the orders for rescue. MB checks the management feed to make sure this has gone undetected and finds company management is puzzled but unsuspicious. More terrifying: Sekai has gotten a glimpse of the real Murderbot.

This is a compact wrap-up of the MB state of affairs, well presented in a mere 1000 words. MB narrates, and its personality and humor come through in the usual way. You get an idea of its physical capabilities and hacking ability—which is what makes it so dangerous without the governor module—and the way it wants to watch media shows and sort of enjoys actually being of use once in a while. That’s a great touch at the end, too, where it thinks Sekai can almost see through the armor to the real, complex person underneath.

On the not so positive side, why didn’t that observation platform have some pretty sturdy guardrails in place? Surely a lot of workers falling off the edge would clog the machinery below. And how did MB climb out of the pit? Is there an access ladder or not? Inquiring minds want to know. Actually, the only serious complaint I have about this is that it needs to be longer. It could easily be the intro to another novella.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

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