Review of Mightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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This is a historical fantasy novella, published June 30, 2017, by Subterranean Press and running 136 pages. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains spoilers.

The Emperor has been indisposed for some time, sort of on his death bed, and the Empress rules. The Empire has been plagued by barbarian raids of late, so she summons her nephew and puts him in charge of stopping the raids. Nephew is an Imperial legate, and a possible heir to the throne. The raids seem to have targeted monasteries fairly often, so he takes an expedition out into the hinterlands to investigate the monasteries for possible clues about who the barbarians are and what they want. The monasteries are repositories of history and learning, and are in charge of maintaining libraries and copying books. The Abbots turn out to be mostly old friends/relatives of the ruling family who have been banished from the capital, and everyone seems to have their own agenda. As Nephew unearths corruption and closes in on who might be behind the raids, word comes that the Emperor is dead and that he should stay where he is until the succession question is settled. What should he do?

This is an entertaining read, written in first person and presented as a translation of an ancient text. Nephew (unnamed, but possibly Emperor Ultor III) has a certain wit and a cynical viewpoint that lightens the narrative. As the Emperor’s nephew, he is completely comfortable in wielding wealth and power. He’s not the brightest, the handsomest, or the bravest, but he is likable and is well informed by study about military strategy. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Nephew is also a total realist and completely ruthless. He trusts (almost) no one, and does what he has to do to survive.

It’s hard to come up with any negatives in this. The only niggle I have is that Nephew seems to have a lot of trust in his staff, and no apparent suspicion of his sweetheart’s motives about suddenly agreeing to get married. Presumably he’s sure of these people because of his own personal charisma—plus, I guess you have to trust somebody. It’s a short book, but the length is about right. Once we’ve seen all the candidates for trouble, it moves right into the succession issue and finishes up without dragging its feet.

This goes back three years, but it very much addresses a couple of the recent popular themes in literary SFF. The first is the issue of erasing history. Nephew is totally on the side of preserving books, and in leaning on history for the path forward. “In the end,” he says, “books are all that matter…[they are] the past speaking to the future.” The second popular theme covered here is the assumption of wealth and power. Not only does this story provide a grand tour of the Empire’s corruption, but it also outlines the career path for the successful emperor candidate. Trained at ruthlessness from an early age, Nephew doesn’t waver. If they’re a challenge, they’re dead.

Recommended. Five stars.

Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Gaining and Using Personal Power

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Since I’ve reviewed a number of works in the last couple of years that seem to deal with the question of how to gain and use personal power, I’m going to devote a couple of blog post to it. Specifically, the most popular theme seems to be about killing someone and taking over their power, but other writers, like Holly Black for example, have taken a deeper look at why women, in particular, seem to have problems in gaining and using real authority. Power isn’t a dark mystery. It’s an important subject to anybody interested in leadership, and social scientists have studied how it’s done. Again, this is just the high points, and anyone interested in the topic should do more reading.

In 1959, French and Raven identified five bases of power: legitimate, reward, expert, referent and coercive. Later, they added informational as a sixth. Legitimate power is generally gained from a formal position of some kind, like a boss or a president, that everyone agrees has a right to give orders and expect compliance. Reward power has to do with what kind of rewards a person can provide for his or her followers. Bosses can hand out bonuses, for example; politicians provide a job in the administration and crime lords share their wealth and influence with followers. Expert power is based on high levels of skill or knowledge. A mentor has this kind of power, as does a medical expert or a military strategist. Referent power comes from a person’s particular personality or charisma. This kind of leader is highly respected and perceived as worthy by his or her followers. Coercive power comes from the ability of a particular person to hand out punishment for anyone who steps out of line. Police, the military and some businesses enforce this kind of power, as someone who fails to follow the rules can be subject to fines, imprisonment, or in the case of work, get demoted or fired. Informational power has to do with the ability to control the information someone receives. This includes influencing beliefs through fake news and web brigades to rig foreign elections.

It’s easy to see that highly effective leaders often employ several of these power bases. King Arthur, for example, was apparently a highly charismatic leader, seen as legitimate because of Excalibur. He also had the power to punish and reward his followers, and presumably he developed into an expert peacemaker and strategist in dealing with his enemies. Some leaders may have problems in combining power bases like this. For example, a boss may have positional authority, but lose the respect of employees because of negative and demeaning policies, overuse of punishment, corruption, unreasonable demands, failure in planning, etc. Some positional power is also undermined because this kind of leader doesn’t have the control of events followers expect. For example, company management sets policy that supervisors have to follow. Personal charisma is always the wild card.

So, why do women have problems with this? I can’t define this problem in just a few words, but I’ll review some literature. Again, studies have suggested causes. There is a huge snarl of traditional expectations at work that undermine women in power positions. Traditionally women have taken their positions of power and authority from their male relatives, husbands or boyfriends. You can still see this at work from the prominence of Ivanka Trump, for example, or the push to draft Michelle Obama as a presidential candidate. Women are often less interested in positions of power, possibly because of family responsibilities and other interests. Another big difference is that men traditionally mentor younger men, sharing methods for successfully wielding power, while women fail to establish appropriate support networks. Because of this women can miss the existence of unwritten rules in an organization that all the men know about. Once in positions of power, women also tend to behave differently, as studies show women are less inclined to use rewards like bribery, suggesting that they may employ fewer tools in building and maintaining a power base. Studies of alpha females found that their positions of power correlated with masculine traits, but women may have problems in presenting these without being identified as shrewish and strident. Consider the campaign to convince Oprah Winfrey to run for president, for example. Winfrey is highly charismatic and known for empathy and social consciousness. She has considerable influence in media, but why was she unwilling to move up to a run for president in 2020? How would she have had to alter her image to stand on a debate stage next to Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, for example, and attack the other candidates?

For further reading on female power, check the article here.

Review of The Lost Sisters by Holly Black

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This e-novella is a companion piece for the Folk of the Air trilogy, a look at The Cruel Prince’s story from Taryn’s viewpoint. The e-file also contains a one-chapter intro to The Wicked King. This was published by Little Brown in October of 2018, and runs 50 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This is basically a short recap of the first book, written in second person (you), and addressing Taryn’s twin sister Jude. It features Black’s lyrical style and flow, and investigates the cruel interpersonal relations that go on between the Folk of Faerie and the mortal Taryn and her sister. There is also some introductory commentary about traditional fairy tales and how they discriminate against women in the realms of power.

Clearly this was meant as a marketing tool for the next installment of the main series, but it may have also been meant to give life to Taryn’s character—the first person structure of the Folk of the Air trilogy means we always see others from Jude’s perspective, and the other characters remain a little flat. However, if this was the purpose, it didn’t work very well. This ends up sounding mostly like an apology from Taryn for bowing to circumstances and not being there for her sister when Jude tries to fight back. In this narrative, Taryn comes off like a whiny victim who never manages to take control of her own life, falls for a clearly duplicitous guy, makes a poor marriage, and then constantly apologizes for being what she is. Part of Black’s intent may be to set up Taryn as Jude’s foil just to illustrate the contrast between the fighter and the victim mentality. Neither of the two is particularly likable, and neither is completely successful in trying to deal with the system. However, the idea that the characters (twins) might be laying out two paths for the same person is interesting.

Besides this, I have to hand it to Black for taking on the issue of submission. A big chunk of media these days is pushing girls to take charge, but nobody is presenting the real-world challenges. We’re seeing some of it here. Jude fights her way to the top, but struggles because she hasn’t the skills to make alliances and wield power. Meanwhile, Taryn tries to blend and take a traditional role, but then turns out to be boring to a dismissive, two-faced husband.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

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The Queen of Nothing is the third novel in the Folk of the Air series, preceded by The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King to complete a three-novel set. The Queen of Nothing was published by Little Brown in November of 2019, and runs 320 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Jude had been banished by the High King to the mortal world for her murder of Prince Balekin. She is living with her sister Vivi, Vivi’s girlfriend Heather and her brother Oak in Heather’s apartment, and makes money to help with the rent by hiring out as an errand-girl for a local faery. She accepts a job and ends up fighting a duel with Grima Mog, Redcap general of the Court of Teeth, who then reveals a plot to dethrone the King of Elfhame. Soon after, Jude’s twin sister Taryn arrives. She reveals she has killed her husband Locke, and she wants Jude to stand in for her at the inquest so she can use her resistance to glamour in order to lie. Jude agrees, and disguised as Taryn, she re-enters Elfhame. The inquest seems to go well until Nicasea insists Taryn be searched for a charm, and King Carden offers to examine Taryn himself. Once they are alone, he reveals he knows who she is. Madoc attacks the palace, attempting to rescue Taryn, and captures Jude. She wakes in Madoc’s war camp, where she continues to pretend she is Taryn and learns about the plot to remove the High King. When Madoc’s forces arrive at the palace to capture the crown, Carden destroys it and then turns into a monstrous serpent that defiles anything it touches. Is there anything Jude can do to save the kingdom and claim her rights as Queen of Elfhame?

My first impulse that this is an allegory for high school turns out to be correct. Jude and Taryn are Average Kids trying to enter a clique of the Right People. Nicisea is the Mean Girl, Locke is the Gamer, and Carden is the abused child who grows up to be a monster that Jude tries to salvage. Jude continues to fight her way through everything, while her twin Taryn tries to blend. At the end, everybody ends up getting pizza together at the local shop. On top of this, author Black spins the surface story of Faerie and the scheming around succession to the throne. In general this works well, and the story manages to be entertaining on both levels. It continues the theme of fighting for power versus submission to the system, and Jude continues to fail in her struggle to deal with a powerful position. Black’s trademark style is fairly lyrical and this is strongly plotted, if a little abrupt sometimes and short on transitions.

On the less positive side, the surface story seems to be wearing a little thin toward the finale as the allegory starts pulling the strings. Jude constantly overestimates her abilities, takes on more than she can handle and then despairs—after a while, she ought to know better. Maybe the constant murders are an allegory for “cutting people dead,” but the high attrition rate continues to be worrisome. Also, it would be nice if Jude and Carden would just talk. A little bit of communication would go a long way in resolving the issues between them. Instead, Jude remains defensive and suspicious, refusing to recognize that it’s about anything but Jude. As far as I can tell, she never grows much as a person, always grandstanding solo rather than taking the reins of power and working within the structure that should be in place to defend the king and the kingdom. I’m wondering why so much space is used up by descriptions of women’s gowns, and also why everyone uses just swords and knives. Maybe there’s some magic in Faerie that prevents the use of firearms, but in the mortal world, why does Jude still show up for a fight with just a knife? There are other ways, dear.

This is a good story, regardless of the niggles. Highly recommended for young adult.

Four stars.

Review of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I reviewed The Wicked King, second in this Folk of the Air series, which won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019, but thought it would probably help if I’d read the first book in the series, too. The Queen of Nothing completes the three-novel set. This novel was published by Little Brown in 2018, and runs 385 pages. Apparently it was optioned for a film in 2017. This review contains spoilers.

Jude’s mother was a mortal married to Madoc, a general of the High King of Faerie. She had one daughter Vivienne with him, and then ran away with a human artisan to the human world, where they had two more daughters. Madoc followed them, killed Jude’s mortal parents and spirited the girls away to raise with his new wife and son Oak. At seventeen, Jude wants desperately to fit in, but she is tortured by the young fay of her social circle, especially the cruel Prince Cardan, youngest son of the High King. Although her twin sister Taryn yields to the abuse and finds a place, Jude remains defiant, determined to win some kind of power to make her tormentors sorry. She schemes and intrigues, allying with Prince Dain, who is expected to succeed the High King, but then the coronation goes wrong, leaving the kingdom on the verge of civil war. Can she come up with a plan to save her family and make peace in the kingdom?

This is a pretty awesome intrigue, strongly suggesting the author had a tough time in high school. The story starts off with a bullying episode and gets successively more gripping as it goes along. Nothing and no one is what they seem, and all the characters are gray, rather than black and white. The Faerie are all cruel and hungry, but they love each other, too, and they fear loss. The characters take on dimension slowly as the tale progresses, as Jude fights her way through the love, hate and ambition, trying at first to achieve something for herself, and then once things go wrong, to save the people she loves. The Faerie kingdom and its rules are well-laid out, and now and then Jude slips back into the mortal world with her fay sister Vivi to shop at Target.

It’s hard to find anything really wrong with this. Considering the setting, I did start to suspect the characters were two-sided early on, so it wasn’t really a surprise when they showed a different face. One questionable issue here is what Jude is turning into—maybe becoming just as cruel, evil and calculating as the fay? She’s been cursed, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.

Five stars.

I’m going on to review the Queen of Nothing. If you’d like to read my review of The Wicked King, here’s a link to it.

Statement from SFWA on Black Lives Matter and Protests

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The SFWA issued this statement after the recent protests. I thought it bears reblogging:

“We give lip service to acceptance, as though acceptance were enough.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

People ask how worlds like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower can exist. It happens through the slow creep of power aided by the complacency of those shielded by their position in society.

It is not enough to have an anti-harassment policy and call that good. We must work for equity and diversity to make sure that underrepresented voices are heard, to increase inclusion in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, in the larger ecosystem of publishing, in our writing community, and in life.

We support Black Lives Matter and the protesters who are seeking justice for centuries of white supremacy and police brutality.

We acknowledge that SFWA has historically ignored and, in too many instances, reinforced the injustices, systemic barriers, and unaddressed racism, particularly toward Black people, that have contributed to this moment. We have allowed those who spoke for change in SFWA to be drowned out by those who clung to the status quo. We have a responsibility to admit our failings and to continually commit to dismantling these oppressive and harmful systems, both within this organization and ourselves.

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

― N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became

These are the actions that SFWA is taking as first steps to clean our own house and work towards making our community safer for Black writers.

For the month of June, 100% of registrations for the Nebula Convention content will go directly to the Carl Brandon Society and the Black Speculative Fiction Society.

We are creating a matching program for the Nebula convention so that each registration purchased this month creates a seat for a Black writer.

For the next year, we are waiving fees for SFWA membership for Black writers.

We are waiving registration fees for next year’s Nebula conference attendance for Black writers.

We are creating a travel fund to help defer the costs of Black writers attending the Nebula conference

We are committing to reaching out to Black-led science fiction and fantasy organizations about applying for the additional grant money that we have available.

For those who wish to learn more about what you can do to help, here is a list of resources:

An Antiracist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi

We Need Diverse Books Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion

Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (from ALA’s Public Programming Office’s Great Stories Club)

List of Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners (books for children and young adults)

People of Color in Publishing

Many of us are feeling helpless in the face of racist terror, but there are ways for all of us to do our part with the time, money, and resources we have available. Our choices matter now more than ever. What we know from writing science fiction and fantasy is that the present we find ourselves in was avoidable but our nation chose not to avoid it. We can still choose a just and equal future, if we work together as a community to dismantle white supremacy.

If you wish to donate to organizations or causes, Black Lives Matter has curated a list of organizations that could use your support. In addition to those, these groups are part of the science fiction and fantasy community.

Black Science Fiction Society

FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

Carl Brandon Society

Black Tribbles

People of Color in Publishing

I Need Diverse Games

We Need Diverse Books

Let us know about additional resources that we can add to these lists.

Unanimously signed,

The Board of Directors of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Winners!

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The Nebula Conference was virtual this year, but here are the fiction awards announced on May 30:

Best Novel : A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Best Novella: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Best Novelette: Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

Best Short Story: “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

Additional awards:

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Riverland by Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing: The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Good Omens: “Hard Times” by Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award: Lois McMaster Bujold

Economic Analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries

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This won’t be anything scholarly, but I’ll try to hit the high points. I don’t mean to pick on Martha Wells, in particular. I love the Murderbot Diaries, and generally the economic system has been vague enough to get by. However, after a few installments, it’s now specific enough to get a grip on.

First, the Corporate Rim is a fairly standard instance of unregulated capitalism. It’s unclear where the government is that should be regulating it, or even if there is such a government—maybe there’s only a network of local administrations and a civil court system. If so, this is a case of imperialist might-makes-right, and it’s no wonder everybody has to hire muscle to carry out simple planetary surveys. The corporations indenture workers on labor contracts where they do get paid, but also have to pay the companies for board and health care, meaning they won’t have much at the end of the contract. In addition, the corporates buy and sell planets, kill off inconvenient competitors, ignore laws about interdicted areas, enslave human-machine hybrids, and are irresponsible with terraforming operations and seeding of colonists. Apparently there’s also a lot of damage from production like mining operations that the companies expect to abandon. This sounds very workable, but it’s also clear that it’s not the most optimal system.

Preservation is an independent freehold planet. The colonists were originally seeded on another planet where the terraforming was ineffective, so they were starving. They were rescued by a colony ship that stored them in the hold and brought them to Preservation. The colonists then rebuilt the ship into a wormhole port station. It’s unclear who operated the ship or how they got title to the planet, but the story suggests this was a rescue operation rather than a business deal–maybe someone looking for colonists to populate their private planet. According to Murderbot, the planet works on a barter system but the station works on hard currency cards in order to interface with systems that travelers come in from. Farms on the planet are operated by family groups, and everyone seems to be prosperous, though we have no information on how this works. (Does the government own the farms? Where are the farm workers? Do they use bots for the dirty work? Does everyone take a turn in the fields?) The government doesn’t seem to lack for funds. Commerce is low key and many things seem to be provided free of charge, including traveler lodging on the station. It appears that public servants volunteer their time, and are required to continue their normal occupations at the same time. This is why Mensah is the planetary leader and also working as lead on a planetary survey. Presumably she also has duties on the family farm, though we never see her working there, only on the survey and the station.

Okay, so I have some questions about how this system works. The main one is how family-operated farms and a barter system can generate enough wealth to build and maintain a wormhole station and operate a fleet of ships that is available for surveys and rescue missions. This sounds Bronze Age pastoral. The barter system means they will trade chickens for medical care, and it will take a lot of chickens and cows to buy a spaceship. Pin Lee is a lawyer and Ratthi is a biologist. Do they get paid with tomatoes and squash? Do they work on farms in addition to this? Does Preservation have manufacturing capabilities? How does that work on a barter system? They’ve bought an option on another planet and are considering further investment. What are they planning to do with it? Where did they get the funds? Plus Mensah has plenty of cash on hand to pay off the Company for bonds and to buy one of their SecUnits. Presumably this is government funds she’s using. Therefore Preservation must grow, mine or manufacture something of considerable trade value with the Corporation Rim in order to have this kind of budget. It can’t be generated from a farm and barter economy without a currency to store value. That just won’t work.

Review of Network Effect by Martha Wells

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This is the hugely hyped sequel to the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, a full-length novel at 346 pages. It was released by Tor/Macmillan on 5 May 2020 and immediately went to #3 on the NYT Bestseller list. It looks like another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6), is scheduled for release 27 April 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot has contracted with Dr. Arada to provide security for her planetary marine survey. Just as they’re finishing up, they’re attacked by raiders, but MB holds them off and the research module takes off safely and docks with the orbiting baseship. They return to Preservation space, but as soon as they exit the wormhole, they’re attacked by another ship that tries to dock with the module. The baseship jettisons the module and escapes, and Arada, Overse, Ratthi and Thiago launch in the safepod, but MB and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena are caught by the attacking ship. Once within scanning distance, MB realizes the ship is ART (a.k.a. Perihelion), a university research vessel which helped it change its configuration and deal with things at Ganaka Pit in Artificial Condition. Clearly something bad has happened. ART is missing in action and the ship is being run by highly divergent humans who have installed their own operating system. MB wipes them out and destroys the new system, then reinstalls ART from a hidden file. The safepod has attached to the outside of the ship and gone through the wormhole with them, so the survey crew comes on board. Also onboard are two Barish-Estranza corporates, Ras and Eletra, who have crude implants that seem to allow external control. The ship has emerged into a system Eletra recognizes. Barish-Estranza has recently bought the planet and means to indenture the colonists, but the place is contaminated by alien remnants so two Barish-Estranza ships and ART, on a mission to liberate the colonists, were contaminated and taken over by an expanding hive mind. ART needed help, so it made up a plan to kidnap MB in Preservation space. Ras suddenly goes crazy and then dies, but they contact the Barish-Stranza main ship and transfer Eletra. Then they all look at the issue of how to find and rescue ART’s crew. Can it be done?

This has a lot of great points. It’s strongly plotted. The main characters are already established and it moves right along, revealing somewhat more about the characters, the corporate culture of the Rim and the adversarial free-hold planets. The counter play between ART and MB is entertaining. There are a couple of personal glimpses that are memorable and strongly dramatic. The final solution for defeating the hive mind is also creative. From all early reviews, this will be well received by fans.

On the not so positive side, this is probably the result of contracting to write a novel within a certain time limit and then getting too much advice on how to write it. I notice one early reviewer complained about pacing issues, but there are also problems with uneven characterization and questionable plot directions. Plus, this has ventured into subversive politics that some people won’t like (see Anders recent take on that). One cause of the problems is that there is a novella’s worth of material that’s missing from between Exit Strategy and this novel. Wells has folded some of it into interludes within the novel, but some of it is still just missing. The next problem is that this is stuffed too full of action when it should have been spread out over more novels/novellas. We start at the end of Arada’s survey, and MB is already upset and angry, something that’s unusual for it, which continues throughout. Thiago is either an idiot grand-stander, or else he and Arada have had a conflict about leadership through the whole survey mission. This is not clarified, and Thiago remains erratic and undefined. From this early emergency state, we continue right on into more emergencies, which ups the action/tension ante, but prevents the excellent story development and interpersonal conflicts that were characteristic of the novellas. There’s also very little additional character development for Arada and Overse, and hardly any at all for ART’s crew, clearly its major priority.

The wonderful, subtle, emerging quality about MB and ART is gone for this novel, and both characters act more human than not, just another one of the crew, haha. In the end, MB ends up failing dismally to rescue anybody, and has to be rescued itself. And then the politics: ART turns out to be only disguised as a research vessel. Its crew is traveling to planets controlled by corporate interests and trying to liberate the colonists by falsifying documents and then fighting in court about it. Regardless of abuses, falsifying documents is illegal, unethical, lowlife and pretty certain to provoke retaliation. This is not discussed. Plus, given the corporate responses we’ve seen, any organization that did this would need heavy security, heavy backing and really deep pockets. Also, if they’re not doing astronomical research, then why do they need an expensive AI like ART to run the ship? MB’s friends immediately support this activity, also questionable, as they should have learned their lesson from recent brushes with GrayCris and its ally Palisade. I’m also still wondering about the economic base of the freehold planets like Preservation. Where are they getting all this money to burn? Mensah shows up in a ship to rescue everybody, but what gives her the authority if she’s supposedly resigned as planetary leader? Is she somehow wealthy enough to pay for her own ship? And last, the corporates are fighting over this planet, even though it’s clearly contaminated by alien remnants. Isn’t it interdicted because of that? What gives?

I’m especially concerned about the issue here of promoting illegal and unethical actions to young readers as something their beloved characters support. Or even older readers, for that matter. It’s easy to slip into moral relativism and assume anything is okay as long as it’s done with good intentions. That’s really not so.

Two and a half stars.

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