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 Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

Review of Hidden Histories edited by Juliana Rew

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This is Juliana Rew’s 25th themed anthology of short stories, a collection of alternate secret histories that range from fantasy to science fiction and various slipstream combinations in between. There are 28 stories in this collection, all original, and written by international crew of authors, followed by a little clutch of flash fiction stories. This collection runs 276 pages and is published by Third Flatiron, which publishes digital science fiction and fantasy anthologies and other projects, with print editions also available.

It’s always hard to review a collection of short stories, as it’s not something you can summarize in one easy paragraph. Let me say that Juliana Rew is reliable to find good quality stories without the heavily political messages that often run through SFF and fantasy these days. These stories are quick reads, interesting and often touching in the way they express the theme. Each author has taken an event from history and imagined how it might have happened and what might have gone on behind the scenes. Standouts for me this time include the following: Jimi Hendrix meets an alien that influences his music; a commander flies a secret shuttle mission as part of the Cold War; a Native American researcher gets strange results when she extracts DNA from an ancient bone; the patriot John Wilkes Booth writes letters to his mother; ancient sentinels try to save humanity from itself; a Nazi wonderwaffen project continues on long after the death of its authors; and from the flash fiction at the end–strange tourists try to order pizza in Eugene, Oregon

On the not so positive side, the story length here means the stories are less well developed than they could be. Many of these could have benefited from a longer treatment.

Authors include: Bruce Golden, Matthew Reardon, Brenda Kezar, Kai Hudson, Brian Trent, Jonathan Shipley, Dantzel Cherry, Edwina Shaw, Dennis Maulsby, Michael Robertson, Mike Barretta, Ricardo Maia, J.D. Blackrose, John A. Frochio, Arthur Carey, Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, Elizabeth Beechwood, Robert Dawson, James Chmura, Tony Genova, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Simon Lee-Price, Shannon McDermott, Jennifer Lee Rossman, H. J. Monroe, Evan A. Davis, Tyler Paterson, and A. Humphrey Lanham.

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.

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