Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

31 Comments

This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of House of Assassins by Larry Correia

11 Comments

This novel is epic fantasy published by Baen in February of 2019, and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It’s listed as Book 2 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, preceded by Book 1, Son of the Black Sword, and soon to be followed by Book 3, Destroyer of Worlds, projected for release in 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Ashok Vadal has lost his position as a Protector of the Law, and his magical ancestral blade Angruvadal has self-destructed, leaving only a shard of Black Steel in Vadal’s chest. He has learned that he is actually from the casteless, and that he’s been used all his life as a pawn in a political game by the powerful rulers in Lok. He’s responded by leading a rebellion, but now he has lost Thera, a member of the high-ranking Warrior Caste, who has been kidnapped by a powerful wizard and hidden away in the House of Assassins. Ashok sets out to rescue her, and to fulfil his vow to protect the Prophet. This looks to be a difficult task, so he divides his forces, sending part with Keta to hide out in the South, while he leads a force against the wizard assassins. Meanwhile, Thera’s captor is trying to force her to learn magic so she will either be killed in the Trial, or become one of the House. Fighting his way into the House to rescue her, Ashok begins to realize that they are all embroiled in an deeper intrigue they don’t understand. Is there any way out of it? Or are they destined to play out the game?

This is pretty much first class as far as epic fantasy goes. The world building, the plotting and the characters are all downright awesome. The plot is full of intrigue, political maneuverings and gaming on different levels. At this point, we’re getting glimpses of the greater picture, where Ashok has possibly become the tool of the Forgotten Gods, a hero meant to rescue the casteless and restore Lok to a kinder, gentler place without that restrictive caste system and those awful demons that fill the oceans. Of course, a lot of people are going to have to die before we get there—some of them maybe a couple or three times. Corriea has an entertaining writing style, and his characters tend to be smartass, all with endearing little tics that keep them from falling into stereotypes. Thera, for example, tends to collect weapons that she hides under her clothing, and she has absolutely no control of the Prophet Voice. Gutch, the greedy fat merchant, turns out to be actually quite effective in the carnage. Corriea is pretty good at imagery, too, providing us with some highly visual, cinematic scenes.

The only negative I can point out here is the amount of cruelty and violence. And Ashok is, of course, way over the top as a hero, but Corriea justifies it well. Highly recommended for epic fantasy fans.

Five stars.

Review of Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

Leave a comment

This novel is a dark fantasy/psychological thriller and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. Golding is a UK based author, and this looks to be her first novel. I also notice it’s soon to be a major motion picture. It was published by Crooked Lane Books in April, 2019, and runs 315 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After a difficult delivery, Lauren Tranter is the new mother of twin boys, Morgan and Riley. A crazy woman in the hospital ward tries to take Lauren’s babies and substitute her own. Lauren hides in the bathroom and calls the emergency number for help, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of anyone there. The doctors suspect mental health issues. The Tranters take the boys home to the Peak District, and after his brief paternity leave is over, Lauren’s unsupportive husband Patrick moves into the guest room, leaving her to care for the boys both day and night. Lauren struggles with exhaustion, but with encouragement from her friends and a shove from Patrick, she finally gets it together and takes the boys out for a walk along the river. The babies are kidnapped–quickly found in the brush. But, the creatures now looking out of their eyes aren’t Lauren’s babies any longer. What does she need to do?

This is the classic changeling story, placed into a modern setting. Best points are the depth of the characterizations, the details of Lauren’s postpartum struggle, and the uncertainty throughout the whole thing about whether Lauren is suffering from postpartum psychosis or whether the crazy woman who wants the babies really is fay. There are some other themes here, too, including how women struggle with the heavy responsibilities of motherhood and how bonding can so easily turn to an unhealthy anxiety. Police investigator Joanna Harper follows up with research on historical events that suggest the problem is a recurring issue in this locale, and the narrative dips into some real horror as Lauren falls into the clutches of the mental health establishment.

It’s hard to find something to say on the less positive side of this. Maybe Joanna’s background seems slightly contrived. The author is trying to give us reasons why she’s so obsessed by the case, but she comes off more rebellious than conscientious, and not always a clear thinker. Patrick is something of a stereotype, too, put through some unflattering motions.

Regardless of little niggles, this story really delivers the goods. It’s no surprise it’s won the Dragon and been picked up for a film.

Five stars.

Review of A Star Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen

14 Comments

This novel is traditional adventure science fiction and won the 2019 Best Science Fiction Novel Dragon Award. It was published in December 2018 by Baen and runs 382 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Earth is lost in the distant past. Fleeing a terrible war, humanity launched arks that took them to the stars, where they discovered a network of Waypoints operated by Keys that give access to Othespace, and through it to different star systems. However, the number of Waypoint nodes and keys is limited. Humanity has divided into Starstates that operate on different political systems and contend for control of the available systems. In particular, the democratic Constellar system competes with the authoritarian Nautilus system, but is slowly losing ground. Then a new Waypoint opens to a system including a habitable planet. Both Starstates rush to stake a claim. Nautilus sends a military fleet and Constellar drafts civilian spacecraft to beef up their military flotilla, sweeping up Wyo Antagean, son of a shipping magnate, Garsinia Oswight, daughter of a First Family, and infotainer Zoam Kalbi. Can they secure the system for Constellar, or is something else going on that they need to deal with instead?

On the positive side, this is solid traditional SF. It’s strongly plotted, a strategy game between the two fleets that projects how established spaceflight technology and techniques could be used implement travel and set up the space battles. Torgersen goes into detail about the technology. There are a couple of major twists that raise the stakes on this and lead into what I expect will be a series of novels as the issues play out.

On the not so positive side, there are some serious problems here. First, this is mired solidly in mid-20th century technology. The author states that humanity has lost a lot in their years in space, but that doesn’t really excuse this, and I ended up with a lot of questions about how these people are doing things. In an age where I have a link to high-functioning AIs right in my pocket, these characters wonder if thinking machines are really possible. Hey Google tells me where I parked my car in a completely normal voice, so why are these people thousands of years in the future still using a keyboard to type at their onboard computers? Plus, I’m unsure how their fusion systems and weapons work. We don’t currently use fusion because of the high energy requirements and the associated high temperatures—so how did they solve these problems? Why is Constellar launching starships from the ground without shuttles to get back and forth? And Nautilus has only one shuttle? Why are they even using their starships to fight battles? Star Wars pretty much set the standard for smaller, more maneuverable fighters all the way back in 1977. And last, where did these people get the Waypoint Keys and how did they learn to work them? Etc. Lots of questions here.

The second issue I have is with the characters. These people must all be suicidal. They’re throwing the starships at each other like there’s no major cost in resources and human lives, the commanders willing to sacrifice their entire crews without really much promise that they’ll influence the outcome of the battle. Only the recovery of the lost Keys seems really important to them. I can see why humanity is not doing well in space. In particular, Wyo is conscripted and has little choice in the matter, but Garsinia and Zoam come across as really stupid. Oblivious to the fact this is a military operation and that Nautilus forces will be shooting nukes at them, both characters stick their lips out and insist on their right to go along with the expedition. Then, when things get scary, they panic and go off in all directions. They are represented as inconsistent, childish and immature, and this kind of character manipulation is a major eye-roller.

Still, it’s a great plot. Three and a half stars.

Review of Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard

6 Comments

This book is fantasy and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Young Adult Novel. It is billed as #3 in the Witchland series, which I gather is fairly popular. It was published by Tor Teen in February of 2019 and runs 459 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Threadwitch Iseult (half the Cahr Awen), bloodwitch Aeduan and the child earthwitch Dirdra/Owl are traveling together, along with Owl’s giant bat Blueberry. They find a lot of dead people, and Aeduan is struck by arrows carrying a curse that saps his magic. They go to the city Tirla, hoping to find a healer. Aeduan visits the monastery and finds his father, the Raider King, now has a price on his head. Iseult encounters Prince Leopold, and Aeduan sends her and Owl with Leopold to the monastery, then goes to find his father, who is seeking the Cahr Awen. Unfortunately, the monastery is under siege from rebel insurgents. Iseult is taken prisoner, but escapes with Leopold and Owl as Aeduan is mortally wounded in the conflict. She rescues him and they escape into magical underground passageways. He stays behind to cover her escape and then finds he’s lost her. Iseult’s sister, truthwitch Safiya (the other half of the Cahr Awen), is a prisoner of Marstok Empress Vaness, who is trying to use her to uncover plots against the crown. She is guarded by Adders and asked to pronounce whether various officials are lying. When they are, they’re immediately slaughtered by the Empress. Habim comes to the court, and Safi thinks he’s come for her so doesn’t reveal his deceit, but he seems to have another plot afoot. Vivia’s brother, the missing Prince Malik, is taken prisoner by Esme. She tortures him and makes him collect threadstones that will allow her to build a better loom to weave lifethreads. He confronts Kullen and sacrifices himself to trap the Fury. Vivia is currently Queen-in-Waiting to the Nubrevnan throne, and she’s trying to develop the underground city so residents can move into it. Her father, the former king, is taking over the reins of government again as he recuperates, taking credit for her efforts and pushing her aside. Her favorite Captain Stacia disappears and Vivia is concerned. She travels to Marstok to meet with Empress Vaness, who gives her a magical scroll they can use to communicate with. When an attack seems to be coming to the city from the underground, Vivia makes an effort to rescue her people. Habim’s plot seems to be assassination of the Empress. A glamour covers a simultaneous naval assault, but Safi manages to rescue Vaness. They escape in a boat and go to the Origin Well where they enter into the underground and find Vivia and Iseult.

There are also some other characters I haven’t mentioned. If this sounds complex, that’s because it is. Part of the problem here is that I’ve dropped into the series pretty far into it, and I’m missing the background on the characters and situations that was developed in previous novels. On the positive side, these are all attractive people, and the world building seems pretty solid. The Witchlands map resembles Europe with the various kingdoms laid out around an inland sea, and the political and magical systems seem well defined. There’s a reasonable amount of text devoted to description, so readers can visualize what the world looks like and how the scenes take place.

On the not so positive side, there’s a reason you don’t see summaries in most of the reviews of this. It’s messy and feels hugely padded, with very little in the way of action lines or plot advancement. There’s no glossary or summary of what’s gone before, so some things just go unexplained. The narrative skips from character to character, and the internal dialog for the characters comes across like ADHD, skipping from childhood events to what they’re doing now to what they’re planning to do next, to what people are doing to them, to all the pain they’re suffering, to what they think might be happening, et cetra. About half way through, all this started to feel unpleasant to read.

Two and a half stars.

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

2 Comments

This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

3 Comments

This novel is hard SF/adventure and was published by Solaris on October 15, 2019. It is #2 in the series, following The Quantum Magician, and runs 300 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

The Scarecrow shares the information he’s gathered on Belarius Arjona and his involvement in the recent Sub-Saharan Union’s rebellion and attack on the Congregate. In response, the Congregate defies the Banks and the Plutocracy and nukes the Garret, asteroid home of 4000 bioengineered Homo quantus. Arjona and Cassie Mejia are doing research on the wormhole system from their new inflation racer The Calculated Risk. The AI St. Matthew interrupts to let them know about the problem, and Arjona and Mejia make a plan to use the stolen time gates in the hold of The Calculated Risk to go back in time and rescue the population from the Garret. They lease and refit freighters, take them back in time and rescue everyone in the Garret that will leave with them. Homo quantus has been considered a failed genetic experiment, but suddenly their military potential is apparent, and the Scarecrow reclassifies them as bioweapons. Arjona and Mejia decide they need to hide the Homo quantus somewhere in their expanded wormhole system where they won’t be found. But their research on it isn’t complete—they need historical data in order to calibrate their model and plot courses. Arjona approaches Lieutenant-General Rudo and Colonel Ayen Iekanjika of the Union with a plan to go back in time and collect data from the planetoid Nyanga, offering the location of unknown wormholes in the Union’s Bachwezi system in trade. Rudo and Iekanjika are angry that Arjona stole their time gates, but Rudo agrees anyway. The Scarecrow is hot on their trail. Can Arjona, St. Matthew and Iekanjika obtain the data they need and successfully return without creating a paradox and changing the timeline of history?

This summary is a massive over-simplification, of course. As in The Quantum Magician, Künsken’s strong suit here is the science, all projected and highly plausible. The author comes up with entertaining applications; for example, where Cassie leads the Scarecrow on a chase through the multiple dimensions of a wormhole, and then doubles back for an inspired and unconventional attack. The entertaining Homo eridanus Stills is back for this installment, cursing in several languages as he brokers Arjona’s deal and then serves as the pilot to Nyanga-in-the-past. Most of the drama in the story falls on Iekanjika, who has to figure out the politics of the Union in its early days and decide what to do about causality in the timeline, while Arjona wanders off, stressing about a quantum intelligence on the planetoid that’s fated for extinction. Nobody is especially happy with each other by the end of this, so I’m expecting the story will continue as they work out their issues.

I had a few complaints about The Quantum Magician, but Künsken has fixed most of those issues here. There’s no real hook for the story, just an argument at the beginning, but the action line goes up sharply when the Congregate ship fires on the Garret, and it remains pretty gripping the rest of the way through. This is strongly plotted, the characters are fairly well-rounded and it’s strongly diverse. Künsken presents the ever-interesting Stills to fill the mid-novel slump some authors experience, and things get pretty intense as Iekanjika realizes the truth about the people she’s dealing with on Nyanga. I also have a fair idea what Bel and Cassie look like at this point, though I still didn’t get a good description. They’re bioengineered from Afro-Columbian stock, so have dark skin, hair and eyes. Arjona isn’t black enough to pass for the Shona stock of the Union, though, and has to darken his skin to pass. Besides that, Stills calls him “fancypants,” from which everyone will have to draw their own conclusions.

Highly recommended, especially for science geeks.

Five stars.

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: