Archive for January, 2014

Nocturnal Interlude — The Pride Lives On

Nocturnal InterludeOne of the things I love about books with shape shifters in it is that once you get past their “origin” book, the subsequent books are simply awesome. Nocturnal Interlude, book 3 of the Nocturnal Lives series, tried to live up to the reputation. Granted, Amanda S. Green’s debut novel in the series, Nocturnal Origins was rock-solid (and previously reviewed here at SBR). But the subsequent books are almost always better.

Detective Mackenzie Santos (our heroine, and all-around bad-ass… oh, and enforcer) has just returned back from vacation when she is suddenly taken into custody by the FBI. Denied a phone call or any way to contact anyone, she is whisked away and placed in a windowless room and guarded by two annoyed FBI agents. Mackenzie, needless to say, is pissed off by the treatment. No sooner has she arrived, however, when she is pulled from their clutches by her cousin, Marine Captain Mateo Santos (we met him in Nocturnal Serenade, book 2 of the series, previously reviewed here). She is immediately moved into protective custody as she receives horrifying news: her police partner, Pat (who is also Mackenzie’s pride leader’s girlfriend/mate), has gone missing and Internal Affairs at the Dallas PD has informed everyone to not tell her for reasons unknown.

Now, to be fair and honest, this part of the book nearly threw me out of the story (indeed, I spent the rest of the book asking “What?” It became sort of a running joke between myself and the other secondary characters). Mateo informs Mackenzie that, in order to have her be able to work outside the Dallas PD jurisdiction to discover what was going on with Pat and others of their kind who have gone missing, she is going to be reactivated to her Marine Reserve officer status and work with him as part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, in the books leading up to this point even remotely suggested that Mackenzie was a Marine. Nothing in her casual comments, nothing in her behavior or attitude ever hinted at the possibility. I about threw a fit (indeed, I went to the author and asked her was was going on) because that was something that appeared to have been pulled from her ass. Even my math couldn’t figure out how she found time to be a Marine reservist while in the Police Academy and nobody knowing about it. Even now, I can’t figure it out. Four years of college, six years of reserve duty (even though she went straight from college to the academy. I recall this from the first or second book), and… argh. It still bothers me. Okay, back to the rest of the review.

Much to everyone’s surprise in her division at the police department, she shows up as Marine Captain Mackenzie Santos and they try to get a grasp on the fact that she just found out about her missing partner (and her being a Marine). There is some internal squabbling between Mackenzie and the detective from Internal Affairs who ordered her not to be told, to which Mackenzie stomps on his toes and just about threatens his career in front of their respective bosses.  Turf war averted (for now), Mackenzie gets the rest of the detectives on her team prepped for a renewed investigation into the disappearance of her partner, Pat.

There is a shadowy group of individuals out to hurt pures and weres, though their reason is obscure, their goal is to break them and kill them. Their motive was never really explored, but it’s creepy enough on its own. Still, a little more depth into the “why” part of their kidnapping and murders would have been welcome, as well as the reasoning why their financier and backer wanted them to specifically avoid Mackenzie Santos (and why the two men doing the kidnapping who were supposed to be so smart completely botched that one).

One of my favorite things about this series is the pretty strict adherence to proper police procedure while balancing the urban fantasy side of the shape shifters and their place in society (hidden in plain sight, but still). Unlike other well-known police procedural novels, this one actually doesn’t feature the “lone wolf, do what I want” detective and show the importance of working with others as a team. It is smart, well-paced novel that has its ups and downs, but plants some very interesting seeds for the remainder of the series. A pretty solid little book, I would have liked a little more “I AM SANTOS!” and a little less “frustrated and impotent heroine”, but other than that, a good enough addition to your library.

I’d give it a recommended read, though don’t blame me when you reach the end.

Reviewed by Jason

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Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” Is Complex, Thoughtful milSF

Ann Leckie’s debut novel ANCILLARY JUSTICE is an exceptional novel of military science fiction. It features Breq, who was once both the Justice of Toren — a starship — and One Esk, an ancillary soldier who was part and parcel of Justice of Toren. While both the starship and One Esk had consciousness and could think, neither was truly a person. However, Breq must now function as a person in her own right due to a traumatic event. Her ship gone, her placement gone, Breq must now learn to live as a solitary . . . and she doesn’t precisely like it.

Note that I said “she.” Breq is really without gender in many ways; she comes from the Radch, an Empire that only uses one pronoun, she, for everything. Breq may be in a female body — the evidence strongly points that way, at any rate — but she doesn’t understand why gender should matter whatsoever. And when she deals with a world like chilly, isolated Nilt, where they still use gender-ridden pronouns, Breq is often beside herself with worry because she cannot guess right more often than half the time.

Breq, as a person, is only a few years old. But her memories go back a thousand years or more. And it’s because of these memories that she rescues Seivarden Vendaai, a dissolute noble who served as a Lieutenant on the Justice of Toren a thousand years ago. Seivarden has become addicted to drugs and is completely alienated from contemporary Radch society precisely because he is out of his own time and place; that he’s on Nilt at this time, when Breq’s involved in tracking down one of her enemies, is only part of the story.

Earlier in Breq’s life, when she was still both One Esk and the Justice of Toren, Breq served with Lieutenant Awn. Awn was a good person and an excellent Lieutenant who did his best, and One Esk idolized him, but without sentimentality.

Or, at any rate, without overt sentimentality.

Note that everything beyond this mark contains spoilers. You have been warned.

* * * Ready? * * *

* * * Set . . . * * *

. . . read on at your own risk.

* * * * *

When Awn dies, suddenly and violently, at the hands of someone who should’ve appreciated and admired Awn’s service, One Esk is beside herself. Yet it’s at this very same time that the Justice of Toren comes under attack, so One Esk has no time to process Awn’s death. The ship sends One Esk to do various things, and one part of One Esk ends up in a shuttlecraft.

This one part of One Esk ends up becoming Breq, who takes a name because people have names; not to have one would make her stand out. Breq has an entire false profile, one that says she’s never been part of the Radch, which clues in the reader that the last thing Breq wants to do is call attention to herself. This is because ancillary soldiers becoming self-aware and attaining identities is supposed to be anathema.

Even though Breq didn’t set out to be an individual, it doesn’t matter to the Radch. If they find her, they will kill her. And Breq knows this. Which is why rescuing Seivarden surprises Breq so much.

But it shouldn’t surprise the reader, because it’s part of who Breq is.

Breq is loyal, you see. She will not forget those who served her well, whether they saw One Esk as a person or not, whether they understood that the Justice of Toren was an AI or not. And whether Breq realizes it or not, she’s standing up for the rights of individuals to be remembered and respected whenever she does something to further her joint goals — those being, of course, to find out why the Justice of Toren was betrayed while doing her best to kill the person (or people) behind the death of Lieutenant Awn.

There’s a lot going on in ANCILLARY JUSTICE, both at the macro and micro levels. But Breq, herself, is always comprehensible, whether she’s speaking as her newfound self, as One Esk, or even as the Justice of Toren. This is a considerable accomplishment, and it’s one for which Ms. Leckie should be applauded.

There’s an argument to be made about the tripartite structure of Breq’s life/past lives as One Esk and the Justice of Toren as a study of posthumanism. It’s obvious that becoming more than human has aided the Radch; their ruler has many cloned bodies of disparate genders, while Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren has served for over a thousand years, with distinction, without fully being either separate or human in most of our traditional senses.

But I think there’s a stronger argument to be made by how Breq reacts, once she’s separate and must sort out how it feels to be a solo consciousness again, that human thoughts and feelings still matter — and matter very much — regardless of what time period you’re living in. Breq’s journey spanning over a thousand years is not an idle one; she learns, grows, and changes, but her essential personality and persona is unchanged until the death of Lieutenant Awn. It’s at this point that the Justice of Toren dies, that One Esk’s disparate parts are split, and Breq becomes herself.

Life, supposedly, is what you make of it. If that’s the case, what Breq does with her life is not only extraordinary, it’s exceptional.

Bottom line? ANCILLARY JUSTICE is phenomenal novel about life, death, postmodernism and its limits, and oh, so much more. It’s one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read in any genre, and it’s perhaps the best and most original novel of military science fiction I’ve read in the last twenty years.

Take it as read that I’ll be standing in line waiting to read the sequel. (Figuratively, at any rate.) Write fast, Ms. Leckie!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s “Kindred Rites” is Fantastic Frontier Fiction

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s KINDRED RITES is the second book in a series about young Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson, a magic practitioner from an alternate, frontier version of Michigan. (The first book, NIGHT CALLS, was reviewed here).**

Because Allie is quite far out of the common way when it comes to magic due to her enormous power, she’s been apprenticed to her Aunt Marta and sent off to learn magic. However, she’s still close to her family and visits often — which is one of the reasons KINDRED RITES starts off with Allie back home, dealing with a poltergeist and wondering why she can’t seem to catch a break.

Even Allie, you see, sometimes wants to be normal. And normality, for 19th Century Michigan, whether it contains magic or not, means getting to know your neighbors as they may make the difference between life and death on the frontier. (It’s not all about politeness; it’s more about practicality.) So when an intriguing young man named Erik Hudson talks with her at a local dance, she takes notice . . . even though it’s not necessarily for the way she thinks at first.

See, Allie is way too young to date or court. And she knows it. But because she’s tall for her age, and accomplished, too, young men have started to sniff around her. Providing they’re polite about it — and Erik is oh, so achingly polite — all she can do is grit her teeth and bear it.

Allie’s aware that she’s different in this regard from her frivolous, yet fun friend Idelia, a girl who’s looking forward to marriage already, and enjoys pitting one pubescent boy after another against each other. Being different from her normal, non-magical friend makes Allie feel sad.

But Allie doesn’t have time for sadness. Despite her extreme youth, she’s already quite competent at midwifery and other healing skills, and is sometimes sent to deal with problems when Aunt Marta is not available. Note that Marta is not being negligent — it’s just that if there’s two births at once, it’s obvious that Marta must attend one while Allie must attend the other. As this is how apprenticeships of all sorts worked in the 19th Century, as teenagers were expected to be responsible (even as young as thirteen) while learning a saleable craft, this detail adds an additional level of verisimilitude.

But getting sent out by herself means Allie’s exposed to far more dangers . . . including kidnapping, which happens at the moment she least expects it. And even though she’s already known to Azrael, the Angel of Death, something that’s unheard of for a thirteen-year-old magic user, Azrael can only advise her if asked.

Will Allie be able to defeat the kidnappers and return home? Or won’t she? And what will she learn about herself along the way? All of those questions, plus many more besides, will be answered. But as usual in the books of Ms. Kimbriel, they’ll raise even more, intriguing questions.

Allie is a compelling character, who does what farm girls from that time period did (card wool, quilt, gather herbs, cook) along with her study of magic. Her world feels real, her studies feel real, and her exasperation at Idelia over Idelia’s mooning over boys feels real, too.

Furthermore, Allie’s world contains many dangers. Her talents aren’t so prodigious that she can’t be endangered — it’s precisely because she’s so talented that she is endangered. And because she’s more self-aware than most thirteen-year-olds, she’s aware of this, too . . . which heightens the tension of Allie’s efforts to survive after being kidnapped.

Bottom line? This is one of the best historical dark fantasies I’ve ever read. I deeply enjoyed Allie’s second tale, and plan to re-read it many, many times over the years to come.

One final thought: If you’ve not read any of Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s books yet, what’s stopping you?

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Liberty 1784 — Excellent Alternate History

1784With the execution of George Washington in the Tower of London, the American rebellion has seemingly faded to nothing more than a few leftover stragglers. The Loyalists and British troops have control of nearly all of the Atlantic seaboard and the rebels have scattered westward, been imprisoned in Jamaica, or dead.

All hope is lost.

Or is it?

The spirit of rebellion and liberty lives on in Robert Conroy’s latest alternate history venture, Liberty: 1784. With a strong cast of characters from American history melded in with fictional leads, the novel sweeps you off your feet as you are uprooted from the traditional sense and slapped back into the harsh reality of a land of failed freedom.

Will Drake is a prisoner of war on board a derelict ship, the Suffolk, and is certain that he is to die soon. Half-starved, he and the few survivors on the grounded ship have been forced to hide the bodies of their deceased fellow prisoners in order to have enough food to simply survive. Will is the beneficiary for one thing, however. The British, while knowing that he was an officer in the Continental Army, do not realize that he was a spy. For that he is fortunate. He couldn’t even begin to imagine just how mush harsher his treatment would be if anyone knew the truth.

Just as he has given up all hope, however, the Suffolk begins to break apart and sink. Will is lucky and manages to grab a piece of driftwood as he makes his escape, managing to hide from any pursuers as he is swept away from the doomed derelict and further along the coast. He gets wind of a place where the spirit of the revolution lives on, a town called Liberty, and, with the help of a free man named Homer, begins to make his escape.

Meanwhile, our second intrepid hero (heroine, actually), Sarah Benton, is awaiting punishment for daring to say something negative about King George III. Locked in a jail cell with her cousin Faith, she is awaiting her punishment: a day in the stocks. However, the disgusting Sheriff Braxton (a man who would play a more villainous role in the book later) offers her a way out: pleasure him, and not be forced to spend the day in stocks. Sarah is horrified by the prospect, so Braxton taunts her more by showing her that her younger cousin is doing so in the other room with his three deputies. Sarah, a widow from the rebellion, says no again, so Braxton locks her in the stocks. Her uncle and aunt, with whom she lives with, decide that it is high-time to get out of Massachusetts and that they all need to escape to the land of the free: a mythical place called Liberty.

The pacing of the book is excellent, and the historical notes all hit perfectly. I’d read other works of the author and have generally been left wanting, but this time Conroy absolutely knocks it out of the park. I can’t recall any time when an alternate history author actually executes George Washington and forces the others of the American Revolution to the forefront. Conroy mixes a tremendous historical event and a fantastic fictional novel into one, and plays to his strengths, which are the relations between the characters. He hits hard with combat scenes, something that I was personally pleased by. Too often do I find that alt-history writers gloss over the horrors of combat so that they can write more about the potential “What If?”. Conroy tells the “What If?”, and also forces the reader to look at the ugly underbelly of the Revolution, and the other reasons which drove a bunch of colonial farmers into open rebellion against the greatest nation in the world.

I loved this book. I can’t really say anything more than that. This one hit all the right buttons for me, and I didn’t even find myself nit-picking historical details that the author missed (and I didn’t find any glaring mistakes). The writing was tight and concise, and there were very few scenes which seemed to drag. The book is available for pre-order now, with it officially going on sale March 4, 2014. If you like the works of Eric Flint or Harry Turtledove, then you will definitely enjoy Robert Conroy’s Liberty:1784.

A must buy.

Reviewed by Jason

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