Review of Sleeping Giants

Review By Ty Black

When the U.S. government discovers a giant robot hand and forearm, buried halfway across the world from each other for thousands of years, it responds by sending in a shadowy figure who doesn’t like to give out his name. He assembles a team of soldiers and scientists to investigate what might be the greatest discovery in the history of the human race. The team members all come with their own baggage. What’s more, the robot could be more dangerous than they realize, and so could their leader.

Sleeping Giants is French-Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel’s debut. It’s written in epistolary format, and (despite my praise of The Martian last August) I’m not normally a fan of epistolary novels. That might have colored my reading of this: I found it took a few chapters for the action to find its legs, a fact which wasn’t helped by the way the anonymous main character refuses to use contractions. (I think that was supposed to signal that he enunciates all his words carefully.)

Once the action picks up, however, Neuvel uses interviews, transcripts, and news clippings to tell this story in a way that might make me re-evaluate my feelings about epistolary format. The action is mostly at an arm’s length distance, told through characters in debriefings. As the story approaches its climax there are a few sequences with more immediacy, but the distance from the action gives the story a cerebral feel that’s almost literary, a rare accomplishment for a novel about spies, helicopter pilots, experimental titanium legs, and a giant blue-glowing robot left by ancient aliens. Despite the fact that Sleeping Giants felt like a sci-fi political thriller, the thrills were never jarring.

The publisher compares Sleeping Giants to The Martian, and World War Z, but I think that’s based on the format alone. I found it far more reminiscent of Contact, by Carl Sagan. Neuvel hard sci-fi credentials-he’s got a Ph.D. in linguistics and a day job in software engineering. It was a fun, easy read for my summer afternoon.

Also, technically the robot’s not a robot, it’s a mech. (I still give Sleeping Giants four out of five stars.)

Sleeping Giants
Del-Ray. $26.00

Review of On Basilisk Station

Review By David Stegora

Originally published on his blog, Anomalous Monologue.

on-basilisk-station

I recently picked up the audio book for On Basilisk Station by David Weber. I’ve been interested in learning more about the Honorverse, since I see The Royal Manticoran Navy at most conventions here in Minnesota. I had previously tried to read House of Steel, but struggled through it and eventually stopped. The Honorverse Companion portion of the book was far more interesting to me, though I have yet to finish it. Because of that, audio book seemed like the way for me to approach this series.

I put off beginning the series on audio book, because the preview sounded terrible. It’s worth noting that I got the audio book from Audible, so I listened to the version they made. There have been others. The narrator does some bad voices and accents, but they serve their purpose of differentiating characters well, so it can be forgiven. However, the way she says “Manticoran” is likely to make you hate her a little. In the end, I got used to the narration pretty quickly.

While this book is science fiction, at its core, it’s really just a naval story in spaaaaaace. I find keeping that in mind makes it a little more enjoyable.

Of course, David Weber is known for lengthy dialogue and info dumps. They are in this book by the pound. Sometimes it feels like it’s never going to end. While it can be tedious, the info dumps do serve the purpose of creating a very detailed universe. It even gives details and numbers about types of ships and armaments and everything. Of course, it was later determined the numbers were off and they were adjusted.

The dialogue, on the other hand, can be excessive. I think often it’s just an attempt to explain things to the reader in unnecessary detail things which should be understood as the story unfolds. It’s like a textbook example of telling, not showing.

If you can get past these things, or if you like them, the story is enjoyable enough. It feels like it opens an elaborate new world for you to explore, which it really does. The series is getting quite lengthy and there are many related books outside of it. There’s even a comic book series.

I felt like I was struggling at points, but I enjoyed it overall and even bought the audio book for the next in the series (The Honor of the Queen) right when I finished it and I’m listening to that one now.

Review of Railhead

Review By Ty Black

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When small-time thief Zen Starling finds himself being pursued by a drone, he thinks it was sent by the owner of the necklace he just stole. However, soon Zen’s getting pursued by an entire trainload of soldiers which no necklace vendor could have sent for him, and he finds himself caught up in a high-stakes game of interplanetary politics.

While Philip Reeve is known as a children’s author, and Railhead is being marketed as YA, it’s engaging enough for an adult to read, too. It’s also a book so unique it’s hard to classify: It’s a kind of space-opera-cum-science-fantasy with humans, god-like artificial intelligences, androids, and sentient piles of bugs all living together on a landscape defined by an interstellar railroad system powered by sentient locomotives (at least one of which is criminally insane), and it’s got a rare kind of out-of-left-field creative spark.

The one thing I found that felt slightly off was that I didn’t connect well with the protagonist, Zen Starling. There were many supporting characters with enough depth that I felt a lot of sympathy for them, from humans to robots to sentient locomotives to piles of bugs. Despite that, Zen Starling still struck me as shallow, and it made the book difficult to get into for the first few chapters, before we got to know the others. Still, Railhead’s worth a read, and I give it four out of five stars.

Philip Reeve is an author from Brighton, England. His novel Mortal Engines won the Smarties Gold Award, the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award and the Blue Peter ‘Book I Couldn’t Put Down’ Award. His novel A Darkling Plain won both the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and his novel Here Lies Arthur won the Carnegie Medal 2008.

Railhead
353 pp. Capstone. $16.95

Review of Poseidon’s Wake

Review By Ty Black

The race is on after a mysterious deep-space signal from Gliese 163 cuts through the Solar System on its way to the planet Crucible with a rogue human, a race of evolved machines, a race of alien machines, and the colonial government all sending delegations to investigate.

Space opera Poseidon’s Wake, by Alastair Reynolds, is the third and final book of the Poseidon’s Children series, after Blue Remembered Earth (2012), and On the Steel Breeze (2013). I’ll be more honest than reviewers usually are and say the Poseidon’s Children series has been on my to-be-read list for a while, but I haven’t gotten to it (yet). I debated whether or not to request this one, but I did so because the book’s U.K. publisher said in its marketing materials that Poseidon’s Wake could be read as a stand-alone novel.

As it turned out that was a bit optimistic. I had to read the first third of the book before I felt oriented as to who was who and what was going on. Throughout the entire thing I felt like I’d been dragged along to someone else’s office party, and I was standing around awkwardly near groups I wasn’t a part of, smiling at conversations I didn’t have any context for. The author seemed to spend a lot of time wrapping up loose ends from somewhere else in the series, and that might have been exciting if I’d read the first two books and wanted to know how all the various characters fared, but as it was it seemed to clutter up the novel and make it the pacing seem tedious.

I’m not going to give Poseidon’s Wake a star rating, as that wouldn’t be fair: I can’t really rate it without reading the first two. Suffice it to say it’s probably not worth checking out if you haven’t read Blue Remembered Earth or On the Steel Breeze. (If you’ve read the first two, you’ve likely got a good idea of what to expect from Poseidon’s Wake, and you don’t need me to make a recommendation.)

Alastair Reynolds is an astronomer and noted science fiction author known for his blend of hard science fiction and space opera. His novels have been nominated multiple times for the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke award. His second novel, Chasm City, won the BSFA for Best Novel.

Poseidon’s Wake
608pp. Berkley Publishing Group/Ace. $27.00

Review of Open Source

Review by Ty Black

Ryker Morris has been living on the streets of Dallas since he lost his job for refusing to be implanted with an ID chip. His free will is soon at stake after he finds an old friend’s corpse in an alleyway and witnesses a mysterious white van appear to steal his friend’s a brain implant.

Cyberpunk thriller Open Source, by Anna L. Davis, takes place in a future where implantable chips are common and a subset of the population has chosen to augment their brains with net-connected NeuroChips, which (not incidentally) leave a bit to be desired in terms of security. The story follows a would-be reporter through the streets of Dallas as he gets sucked into a cult-leader’s conspiracy to hack into the brains of NeuroChip-implanted citizens in order to control their minds and give them a form of digital immortality.

Open Source starts out strong, I got through the first fifty pages or so in less than an hour, but after that I found the story sagged a bit. There were also a lot of unfulfilled promises. For example, the author spent a lot of time making zombies of her characters, and talking about zombies via a Vodouist character (whose dialogue reminded me strongly of Jar Jar Binks), and she referenced both 28 Days Later and Word War Z, but despite having a cult full of cyborg zombies handy she never unleashes a cyborg zombie apocalypse upon the unsuspecting citizens of Dallas. The ending we get wasn’t bad, mind you, but it wasn’t what we were set up for and I found it felt out-of-the-blue. I give Open Source two out of five stars.

Anna L. Davis is an associate editor at Henery Press, a publisher of mysteries and women’s fiction. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, and was a technical editor of Biological Psychiatry from 2001-2002. She was recently interviewed here for NaNoWriMo. Open Source is Davis’ debut novel.

Open Source.
330 pp. Anna L. Davis. $15.95

Review of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

This review is reprinted from the reviewer’s blog, No Wasted Ink.

Review By Wendy Van Camp

Book Name: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
Author:
Jules Verne
First Published:
1870

Jules Verne was born the son of an French attorney in Nantes, France. As a boy, Verne developed a great love for travel and exploration, which was reflected in his science fiction writings. His interest in storytelling often cost him progress in other school subjects. It is rumored that the child Verne was so enthralled with adventure that he stowed away on a vessel going to the West Indies, but his voyage of discovery was cut short when he found his father waiting for him at the next port of call.

As Verne grew to adulthood, he began to write libretti for operettas even as he was studying in law school. When his father discovered that he was not attending to his law studies, his educational funds were cut off. Jules Verne turned to being a stockbroker to make his living, a profession that he hated. Around this time, he met and married Honorine de Viane Morel, a widow with two daughters. Honorine encouraged her husband to do what he loved, to write.

Verne’s writing career improved when he met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an important French publisher, after being rejected by many other publishers. Verne and Hetzel formed a successful writer-publisher team until Hetzel’s death. Verne was prone to be overly scientific and melancholy in his writing, Hetzel forced the author to be more upbeat and to add in more adventure and less science. The combination proved to be gold. Verne began publishing his novels two years after the birth of his son and generally published two books a year after that point. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of his more famous works and one of the earlier novels that he published.

The novel begins in 1866 when a mysterious sea monster is sighted by ships of several countries. In New York City, an expedition to track down and kill the menace is formed by the US government. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a renoun french marine biologist, is invited to join the expedition at the last minute. Aronnax, his assistant Conseil and harpoon master Ned Land set sail from Brooklyn aboard the naval ship Abraham Lincoln and travel around Cape Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean.

The monster is discovered and the ship enters into battle. During the fight, the three men are thrown overboard and find themselves stranded on the “hide” of the monster. Much to their surprise, they find that the animal is a metal ship. The men are captured and brought on board the strange vessel where they meet its creator and commander, Captain Nemo. The vessel is an electrically powered submarine known as the Nautilus which roams the oceans to carry out marine biology research and to serve as an instrument of revenge for her captain. Nemo and Aronnax form a friendship as Aronnax is enthralled by the undersea views, despite the fact that Nemo has forbidden the three passengers to leave the vessel. Only Ned Land continues to plan their escape.

The title of 20,000 leagues under the sea does not refer to the depth that the electrical submarine dives, but rather the distance that the vessel travels in the ocean during the story. The passengers of the Nautilus see the coral reefs of the Red Sea, the shipwrecks of the battle of Vigo Bay, the Antarctic ice shelves and the fictional sunken nation of Atlantis. The crew does battle with sharks and other marine life and the ship itself is attacked by a giant octopus.

In the end, Nemo’s vessel is attacked by a ship from Nemo’s home nation. The battle pushes Nemo into an emotional depression and in his grief, he allows the Nautilus to enter a whirlpool off the coast of Norway. During this distraction, Aronnax, Conseil and Land manage to escape the submarine and return to land. However, the fate of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus remains a mystery.

I can’t remember a time when I did not know of and love the stories of Jules Verne. So many of his stories have been adapted into movies, his characters have been adopted into other novels, and there was once a ride in Disneyland based on the book. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first of his novels that I read, prompted by seeing the Disney movie by the same name starring Kirk Douglas (who sings!) produced in 1954. This movie is likely the most famous of numerous films based upon this book. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is considered one of his “Voyages Extraordinaires” novels which also include Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Mysterious Island, and From the Earth to the Moon. Many of the inventions that Verne wrote about are now real technology that we see everyday. Verne paid attention to the state of the art scientific information of his time and embellished upon it with his vivid imagination to create his fantastic worlds of the future. If you have not read Jules Verne, I urge you to look into his novels. You’ll see long ago dreams that now have become the shape of life as we know it.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is considered in the public domain and is available for free download at Project Gutenberg or at your local public library.

Review of Falcon’s Egg

Review By Ty Black

When the generation ship Mayflower II arrived in the Peregrine system ten years ago, it was nearly the end of tens of thousands of lives aboard the ship, and tens of millions on the planet below. Lorn Kymbal was only a teenager then, but he nearly died saving the man who was the best hope of both ship and planet. Now he nearly gets blown up after a reclusive acquaintance of his mother gives him an unlabeled netlink device, and Lorn finds himself caught up in another mystery where the fate of his world might hang in the balance. This time, it’s Lorn who is Peregrine’s best hope.

Falcon’s Egg by Edward Willet is space opera/action-adventure novel in the grand tradition, full of interplanetary intrigue, chases through the abandoned bowels of giant spaceships, and shootouts with everything from shotgun shells to beam weapons. Oh, and there’s an army of evil robot spiders. This book is a fun, easy read, and I got through it in two nights.

Falcon’s Egg is the sequel to Willet’s first title with Bundoran Press, Right to Know, but unlike a lot of sci-fi sequels Falcon’s Egg doesn’t depend heavily on the preceding book. Readers should be able to pick this one up and not feel like they’re missing something, even if they didn’t read Right to Know. (That said, I’ve read both, and Right to Know is also definitely worth a look.)

Canadian author Edward Willet has written 50-odd books in a number of genres, including Lost in Translation, Terra Insegura, and 2009 Prix Aurora Award-winner Marseguro, all from DAW. Under the pen name E.C. Blake he’s written the The Masks of Aygrima series, also published by DAW. He’s also an award-winning author of non-fiction on topics from Ebola to the mutiny on the Bounty, and a regionally-known playwright/actor/director in Western Canada.

Falcon’s Egg is escapism at its best, and I give it four out of five stars.

Falcon’s Egg
210 pp. Bundoran. $17.95 CAD
Sample Here

Review of Lightless

Review By Ty Black

In a future dominated by surveillance, a totalitarian government will stop at nothing to stifle dissent, even if that means depopulating entire worlds. When a known criminal and possible terrorist is captured breaking in to top-secret experimental spaceship Anake, the government sends intelligence agent Ida Stays to interrogate him. Meanwhile, his partner made the Anake’s computer go haywire before evading capture, and ship’s mechanic, Dr. Althea Bastet, doesn’t know how to fix it.

Space opera Lightless is author C.A. Higgins’ debut. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, stories live and die on the strength of their villains, and while there are plenty of bad guys to choose from in Lightless, Ida Stays is one of the best villains I’ve seen in a while. She’s ruthless, self-assured, and most importantly she believes in the horrible things she does.

I found the beginning quarter of Lightless hard to get into: Althea spends a while being stumped about how to fix the ship and Ida’s interrogation spends a while going nowhere, and it felt like that action was stalled. That said, Higgins was setting up some surprises for later which made it worthwhile. There was also just a bit more purple prose than the story could sustain, and the narration felt stilted in places.

Once the book reaches its climax, the body count spikes sharply and the pieces Higgins set in place so carefully come together in rapid-fire in a series of surprising ways. I won’t give any spoilers, but the book’s last lines were intriguing enough to ensure that I’ll read any sequel.

You know there’s actually going to be some “sci” in “sci-fi,” when a book uses the laws of thermodynamics for its epigraphs, and Higgins, who was a runner-up to the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing for her short story, The Changeling, holds a bachelor’s degree in physics. That (naturally) led her to a job in theater, and this is an author I look forward to seeing more from. I give Lightless three of five stars.

Lightless
304 pp. Del-Ray. $25

Review of Javenny

Review By Ty Black

Javenny Pink, a former model, left her former life behind and became spokesman for The Church of His Message after being rescued from the chaos which engulfed Boulder, Colorado in the aftermath of a mega-earthquake. Now intrusive dreams have begun to effect large portions of Earth’s population, and Javenny feels a new purpose for her life. Elder Reide, her savior in Boulder, has other plans, however, and the fate of the human race could be at stake as the source of the dreams approaches Earth.

Javenny is Canadian author Al Onia’s debut novel, but his short fiction been featured in such online venues as Ares Magazine, and Perihelion Science Fiction, and earned two Aurora Award nominations for it. Onia’s first novel, published by well-respected Canadian small press Bundoran, has now garnered high praises from Hugo Award winner Robert Sawyer, who called it “One of the best first novels I’ve read in years.”

Onia is a geophysicist in Western Canada’s oil and gas industry, and his background shows throughout the book. The future state of western North American water resources plays in one of the book’s plot points, as do the intricacies of diamond exploration and mining rights. Even though Onia explores religious and social themes in Javenny, the world builds for those themes to play out in is one which is mostly within the realm of the possible from the standpoint of contemporary physics. Thus, Javenny is a hard sci-fi novel with a soft sci-fi feel.

In the beginning chapters, Javenny has a proliferation of characters which I found hard to keep track of, and that was exacerbated by the way none of the characters have noticeably distinct voices. (I found the dialogue throughout the work stilted, probably because few of the characters use contractions.) Also, the tension sagged for a while in the third quarter, and there was a moment where one of the main characters, Coye Archeron, had a sudden and poorly-explored change in character, from mercenary capitalist to self-sacrificing disciple.

That said, the book’s climax makes up for for the soft spots. Once the pieces are in place, Javenny explodes into a tense reckoning as the threads Onia’s laid out collide. There was a feeling of inevitability about Javenny herself going up against the approaching threat to humanity, but when things started to collide I honestly didn’t know how the author was going to get her there. I give Javenny three of five stars.

Javenny
248 pp. Bundoran Press. $16.95

Review of The Martian

Review By Ty Black

When a sandstorm struck the crew of the Ares 3 mission to Mars, Mark Watney was struck by flying debris, dragged away, and apparently killed by a breech in his space suit. His crewmates took off without him. He has no way to communicate with NASA or his crewmates, and nobody knows he’s alive.

From there, author Andy Weir takes us on a wild ride across a hostile alien landscape in his debut novel, The Martian. Marooned spacefarers have been a common trope throughout science fiction, but Weir’s novel is unique in that it has the same air of realism as Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity, or James Michner’s Space. When Weir throws his humorous, deeply human protagonist into a desperate situation the result is a story which can suck even a reader who’s not science-minded into the particulars of how to manufacture water from hydrazine rocket fuel and the Matrian atmosphere, or how much arable soil is required to grow a crop of potatoes inside a tent on Mars.

Weir, a computer programmer by training, originally self-published The Martian on his website as a serial, but fans convinced him to put in on Amazon for $0.99 a copy. He quickly sold 35,000 books. Now bought and re-released in 2014 by Random House, The Martian has sold 180,000 copies and has a film adaptation coming out later this year, and it’s easy to see why. This review is short and sounds like a cover blurb, I know, but there’s not much to say about The Martian beyond that it’s brilliant. I give it five of five stars.

The Martian
400 pp. Random House. $24
Excerpt here.