Review of The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

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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.

Review of The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

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This is Kunsken’s debut novel, a hard science fiction tale with an adventure bent. It was published by Solaris in October of 2018 and runs 500 pages. Book II of the series, The Quantum Garden, will be released in October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Belarius Arjona is a transhuman homo quantus living in the 25th century. This means he is one of a genetically engineered race that can sense quantum states, and who can shift from normal to savant and fugue conditions for purposes of analysis. Arjona has problems controlling his fugue state, and as a result, he left the homo quantus research sanctuary at an early age to pursue life as con man. Because of his unique talents and highly successful reputation, Arjona is approached by the Union, a political entity that will pay a huge price to smuggle a fleet of warships through interstellar space in order to attack the Congregate. The Union ships are old, but refitted with a unique wormhole drive. Interested in the tech and the challenge both, Arjona takes the job, gets a talented crew together and sets a plan in motion. Will his team be successful? Or will they all die in the attempt?

Okay, so this is pretty amazing. First, the science, including the plan, the wormholes, the quantum perceptions and the projection of genetically engineered races, is all very well imagined, extensively described, and sounds completely plausible. Next, counter to the trend to totally plotless novels, this one is both complex and tightly plotted. (Yah!) Kunsken has set up Arjona’s plan in elaborate detail, including various fail-safe mechanisms, and then kicks the Rube Goldberg machine into motion so we can watch it all play out. This starts off slowly, as it takes Arjona half the book to analyze the job and assemble his team, but once the plan is underway, the story turns at least mildly gripping. We get a look at other engineered races besides homo quantus in this universe, a couple of which look pretty nightmarish. When things start to go wrong, of course Arjona has to leap into the breach, risking his own life to win the payoff.

On the not so positive side, there are some issues here with characterization, clarity and action line. Although some of the characters took on excellent color, Arjona and his love interest Cassie remain under-developed. They have almost no internal dialog. Arjona, especially, does not react to anything. We learn some about his background and personality from what the other characters say about him, but there’s really little to go by. Plus, Arjona doesn’t seem to pant, or sweat, or do anything, really, without a scientific analysis first. It’s like he stays in the savant stage—totally pristine and removed from any subjectivity. And Cassie is almost as bad–we don’t even know what they look like. Second, something about the way this is written makes is hard to follow. This may be related to the action line, but I ended up vague about the different political entities and about how the plot elements all fit together. Some of this may have to do with how I read the book—snippets at the car shop, more in the doctor’s office, etc., but somehow I doubt reading it again would bring these issues into better focus. The third problem is a flat action line. After the slow start, this book never really picks up much steam, and the climax, where there should have been a lot of suspense, turns out to be fairly sedate. This is somewhat saved by Arjona’s backup plan for the nightmarish-other-races thing, but I would have preferred more excitement in the plot execution instead. And last, I’m not sure “con man” is the best way to describe what Arjona does in this book. He seems more like an agent for hire to me.

Regardless, I’m hooked. I pre-ordered The Quantum Garden.

Four stars.

Review of Free Dive by C.F. Waller

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This novel is a science fiction thriller published by Cosby Media Productions that runs 336 pages. It has apparently made the Amazon #1 Best Seller list in the past and was nominated for a couple of awards. This review contains spoilers.

Dexter Knight and his partners Cam and Lydia have developed AI operated robots to steal salvage from the ocean floor, and are currently working on retrieving teacups from the Titanic which they can sell for a nice price. Eventually one of their sales goes wrong, and a mob with guns moves in to kidnap them and hijack their operation. Uncertain of who they’re working for, the team deploys their robots in the Marianas Trench, where an unknown object starts to look like an alien artifact. Knight is attracted to the research team’s scientist Ronny, a little put off by the tough Russian ramrod Katya, and struggles to deal with the project’s gun-toting management. The artifact starts to look more dangerous as they continue to investigate. Is this a threat to human civilization?

On the positive side, this is a well-written adventure story with entertaining characters and a nice, rising action line that develops considerable suspense. There’s plenty of space in it for the character interactions and a few plot twists to keep the story interesting. It didn’t turn out like I was expecting at all. The maritime details are sketchy but generally believable. Waller also has an interesting take on AI bots, and I thought their behavior here was a little unsettling. Hmm. Following up on that could actually produce another interesting novel.

On the not so positive side, I had some suspension of disbelief issues with the activities of the aliens and the tolerance of the technology the research team used in the Trench. Yeah, in an emergency, I can see stretching things a little, but (as little as I know about ocean exploration) I think working at the Trench depth went a little beyond that and wouldn’t really be possible. Also, I thought some of the characterizations were a bit over-the-top, which detracted some from the story.

Entertaining but not er, deep. Three and a half stars.

Review of Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs

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This novel is urban fantasy, and number 11 in Briggs’ highly successful Mercy Thompson series. It’s published by Ace and runs 368 pages. Briggs also writes the Alpha and Omega series which is set in the same universe and uses some of the same characters. Although Briggs works mainly with these two series now, early in her career she also wrote more traditional fantasy novels which remain good bets for fantasy fans. This review contains spoilers.

Mercy Thompson is a Native American car mechanic, a shapeshifter and Coyote’s daughter. She has fallen for and gotten married to Adam Hauptman, previously her neighbor and alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack. A few months back, Mercy made a public declaration that the pack would defend everybody within their territory. This made the Tri-cities seem like safe, neutral ground, and now there is a plan in work to set up meetings there so the government can negotiate with the dangerous Grey Lords of the fae, who have previously been sequestered on reservations. Adam’s security company is chosen to deal with preparations. Mercy gets a call from a local farmer and takes some of the pack out to deal with his goats that have turned zombie. After interviewing the farmer, she suspects the zombies were created by a black witch who first tried to lure the man’s son. Investigating, Mercy finds the witch is from the Hardesty family, a group who has also targeted the local witch Elizaveta, torturing and killing her family in an effort to create a coven. The investigation reveals that Elizaveta has also been practicing black magic. Can Mercy deal with the witches? The zombies? The government officials? And what is Coyote up to now?

Briggs is highly reliable, and this is more on the adventures of familiar characters her readers know and love. It’s warm, safe and inclusive. For all her tough exterior, Mercy has a lot of friends that are willing to step up and defend her, or even to help out when she gets into something over her head. Briggs creates strong characters, plus sticky relations and ongoing intrigues between the different factions, the werewolves, vampires, goblins, witches, Native American walkers, etc., etc. that inhabit the Tri-cities area. There’s always a strong element of romance, too, as Mercy and Adam are pretty taken with each other.

On the not so positive side, this was a little hard to get into. There’s no hook at all. It’s an ongoing narrative, and Briggs seems to pick up one novel where the last left off. But, for her readers, there’s a gap of a year or so where details of what happened in the last novel can get lost. Mercy eventually gets around to filling us in on recent events for her, but until we meet the goats, there’s only conversation to get us started on this story.

It’s another successful adventure for Mercy. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy.

Four stars.

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.

Review of City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s released by Harper Voyager and billed as The Daevabad Trilogy #1. It runs 569 pages. The next novel in the series, The Kingdom of Copper, should be available 22 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nahri is a con woman in 18th century Cairo who poses as a healer and palm reader to cover her real work as a thief. She sets up a zar to sooth a crazed girl, and while singing some old songs, accidently summons Dara, a magical djinn warrior. The girl turns out to be possessed by an ifrit, which attacks Nahri. Dara carries Nahri away from Cairo and takes her to Daevabad, the hidden City of Brass. He introduces her to the djinn King Ghassan as the last of the powerful Nahid family, and the court seems to welcome her. It turns out there are nasty undercurrents in the politics, simmering resentments between the six djinn tribes and the half-breed shafit. Nahri struggles to learn the healing arts they try to teach her, and Ghassan thinks she’s at most a half-breed human, but still plans a political union by marrying Nahri to his oldest son Muntadhir. He sends his youngest, the scholarly subversive Prince Ali, as a tutor to win her over to the plan. When Dara hears of it, he tries to carry Nahri away again, but Ali interferes and they are caught trying to cross the magical lake that guards Daevabad. Dara is killed, Ali possessed and banished, and Muntadhir’s companion Jamshid badly wounded. Ghassan is determined the marriage will go on as planned. Can Nahri turn any of this to her advantage?

So, counter to the depressive trend in the WFA finalists this year, this is a romance and an intrigue. All these people are lying to each other, and political groups are plotting right and left. Daevabad is exotic, the details of the city life, the temples and the palace very well assembled. I didn’t have any problems visualizing the people, the creatures or the scenery–the author has done a lot of research. She’s also done a great job in blending tradition with modern sensibilities. The characters are slightly flat, but the story is more focused on the action and intrigue than on revealing their deepest inner thoughts. The reader is left to deduce a lot of what’s going on from their actions.

In case you can’t tell from the synopsis, this is a cliffhanger, as everybody is at risk at the end, and the political tides are still rising. Nahri mostly lets people push her around in this book, but her political faction didn’t abandon her over the marriage, so she’s now well placed to be a power player in the next novel. Without Dara and Ali, she’ll have to find other protectors.

On the negative side, the magical world here was a little too complex for me to keep up with the way I read the book, which was a piece here and a piece there. Politics in the city was fairly clear by the time I was done, but a lot of other creatures seem to be circling Daevabad, just waiting for some chance to get in. I didn’t get a clear idea of the motives or alignments there. One other note: this seems to be an unfortunate choice of title, as it’s apparently shared with a successful video game. That means a search for the book turns up mostly the game info instead. However, I guess Chakraborty’s fans can tell the difference.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Third Flatiron Galileo’s Theme Park (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 23)

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This is Anthology #23, a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew and Alex Zalben. It was issued June 15, 2018, and is offered as both an ebook and a paperback. There are 20 stories that range from space opera to SF to fantasy to horror, and there’s a flash humor section at the end.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is a pretty reliable series for smooth, touch-of-wonder stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious. Because Galileo is the theme this time around, the volume includes stories including space exploration, adventure, religion, and cosmology.

The anthology starts off strong with Alex Zaiben’s “And Yet They Move,” where a star surveyor finds herself lost in an ancient model. Ginger Strivelli’s gives us a memorable turn of phrase when she describes quantum physics as “a brick wall of sciency stuff” in “For the Love of Money,” a tongue-in-cheek look at colonization. “Vincenzo, the Starry Messenger” takes us to Florence in 1633, when Vincenzo, Galileo’s assistant, has a otherworldly experience with the telescope his master called the “starry messenger.” In “Signals” by Erica Ruppert, a woman is haunted by elusive music. Justin Short gives us a surreal and horrific image of a family marooned on a distant world in “Dispatches from the Eye of the Clown.” “And the Universe Waited” by Jo Miles is a heart-warming vision of mentorship and waiting.

On the less positive side, there are no hugely important ideas here. There is a variety of stories included, but they’re pretty much low-key and meant for light reading rather than deep thought.

Three and a half stars.

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