Archive for April, 2014

Vengeance From Ashes — Compelling New MilSF

vengeance from ashesVengeance From Ashes is the first military science fiction book from author Sam Schall in the Honor and Duty series. It’s a solid piece of storytelling, and a compelling work of fiction that will be enjoyed by any fan of MilSF.

Ashlyn Shaw was a former Marine captain now incarcerated on fabricated charges and shunted off to the deepest, darkest hole they could find: the Tarsus Penal Colony. Condemned to five years of solitary confinement and practically left for dead, Shaw is surprised when she is suddenly transferred out of the penal colony and back planet side. FleetCom (the military) wants her, though she does not know why, and until she does, she will not trust anybody.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear to the former marine that there has a been a change in the government which had locked her up and made her disappear. A former admiral who had supported her even though she had been on trial was elected on the promise of clearing the charges the captain was under, as well as reforming the government as a whole. But while Shaw is being informed of all the happenings in the two years she has been “in the dark”, an attack by unknown perpetrators occurs in the capitol. Shaw, along with members of her former unit, the “Devil Dogs”, must try and protect a senator and repel the mysterious attackers.

Sometimes when you read a story, you seem to find yourself in the middle of something grand. You get to reading, eagerly awaiting the back story to propel the novel (as a whole) forward. The only problem I had with this book is that it seems like this it is the middle section and I missed the beginning. It’s not bad, per se. It just feels like I had missed something very, very important. Once I was able to break through that sensation (about 20 pages in or so) it was smooth sailing from there.

There is plenty of suspense in the novel, and enough background action to lay down the authenticity of the Devil Dogs and what they do. In the end, however, the story is about a Marine captain doing everything in her power to protect those who love her, and those who are loyal to her.

A positive read. A–.

–Reviewed by Jason

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Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Without a Summer” — Another Excellent Alternate Regency, with Magic

Mary Robinette Kowal’s work is no stranger to Shiny Book Review. She writes Jane Austen-inspired Regency novels with a magical kick called glamour, and writes them quite well. Her characters Jane, Lady Vincent, and David, Lord Vincent (called Vincent), are the rarest of the rare in the Regency era — they are both professional glamourists who work best together, showcasing both the perils and the benefits such an arrangement between two working spouses can bring. (Note that books one and two of her Glamourist Histories were reviewed here.)

In book three of her Glamourist Histories, WITHOUT A SUMMER, Jane and her husband, Vincent, are still dealing with the fallout from the events of GLAMOUR IN GLASS. Jane’s actions in breaking her husband out of a French prison via the use of glamour caused her to suffer a miscarriage. She and Vincent are still mourning, but they’ve thrown their pain into new and better works of glamour; that they have the attention of the Prince Regent due to Vincent’s military heroism and their own talents has made Vincent’s estranged father, Lord Verbury, try to horn back into their lives.

Not that he’s likely to do so, as Jane and Vincent distrust Verbury for very good reasons . . . but I digress.

As you might expect if you have any knowledge of history dealing with the early 19th Century, WITHOUT A SUMMER takes place during 1816 — the year Europe and much of the world did not have a summer at all. There was hardship, famine, and many difficulties in our world; in Jane and Vincent’s world, the coldmongers — who have a type of magic that can only make things colder (quite valuable in summer, useless in the winter) — are being blamed for 1816’s terrible and unprecedentedly cold weather, which adds yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation.

Now, why are the coldmongers important? (Aside from their obvious fantasy value, that is.) Well, Jane’s much prettier (but talentless) sister Melody has finally found a good man — Alastar O’Brien, heir to Lord Stratton — but there are three problems with a potential match between them: One, Mr. O’Brien is Irish. Two, Mr. O’Brien is Roman Catholic. And three, Mr. O’Brien is well-known as one of the coldmongers’ strongest partisans . . . so when intrigue relating to the coldmongers causes him and the Vincents to be called into question later on, you can see where Melody’s marital aspirations might be impeded.

The Irish, back in 1816, were not well thought of at all. Even though many Irish lords had roots that dated back to England, and had family in England, that didn’t matter. The Irish were only just becoming a part of what was starting to be known as the United Kingdom, and as such, they were not well understood and prejudice against them was high.

And a big part of that prejudice was because most Irish were Roman Catholic. The Catholic religion was also not understood or appreciated, partly going back to what caused the Anglican church to split off in the first place: Henry VIII’s wish to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon not being granted by Pope Clement VII. (We tend to think of Henry VIII as “divorcing” his wives to remarry, but he actually had annulled many of his wives in order to marry the next.) The Catholic Church did not believe in Henry VIII’s sort of behavior, and as such, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church were at great odds with each other — at least in principle.

So the fact that Jane, who’s a kind-hearted woman, says ridiculously slanted things to Melody at first about her love, Alastar O’Brien, and only later learns how biased and prejudiced these things are is true to the spirit of the times. It shows just how much intolerance there was toward the Irish, even the Irish lords. And it shows just how difficult a “mixed” marriage between a Catholic Irish lordling and an Anglican well-bred miss could be, without preachiness or undue sentimentality.

I enjoyed all of the romantic elements, the historical elements, and especially the fantasy elements of WITHOUT A SUMMER. But the standout moments here were the quietest, and had to do with the ongoing marriage between Jane and Vincent. These two love each other unreservedly, and with an understated but very real passion . . . that they both live and work together and enjoy it thoroughly is both a very modern touch, yet a very traditional one at the same time.

And it’s also very, very hard to pull off, but Ms. Kowal does so with the greatest of aplomb.

Ms. Kowal takes on some huge themes (prejudice, the problems of incorporating technology in a previously agriculturally based society, and needless and unrelenting cruelty coming from people who should love you, but just don’t for whatever reason) along with some more “minor” themes dealing with family relations, the problems a married couple faces when both of them work, and many more. But WITHOUT A SUMMER does not suffer for all of that — instead, it thrives.

Bottom line? Don’t miss WITHOUT A SUMMER, as it mixes the best of romance with the best of alternate history, and comes out a major, major winner.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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“Open Wounds” by Brandon Ford — Dark, Twisted Fiction

CoverBF01It’s not very often that I get to compare classic books to their modern brethren (and enjoy them, I guess I should add), so when I received Open Wounds by Brandon Ford, I wasn’t expecting what I got. What I’d been promised was “horror” but what I got instead was something dark, twisted, without any sort of supernatural beings in it and seemed absolutely true.

Let me reiterate: it’s billed as horror, but it could be any teenage girl’s everyday life.

That’s scary. Really, really scary.

Kate Montgomery was your ordinary 14 year old girl when her parents divorced. Her father, who started drinking, became violent one day and hit his wife, Kate’s mother. Soon afterwards, Kate is forced to move cross-country with her mother, away from the only life she has ever known, and into the old haunts and streets of her mother’s childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Jobless and without any sort of training, Kate’s mother is forced to find work at a dive bar. Meanwhile, Kate struggles at school and tries to fit in. But a dark specter looms over the family past as Kate becomes very nervous and uncomfortable around her grandfather, a sullen and quiet man. This all is depressing, true, but this is all nothing compared to the Hell that awaits her when her mother brings home a new boyfriend.

Without giving too much away, I can say that Kate’s mom’s new boyfriend is a very evil man. He drags Kate and her mom down into a dark, hellish pit of despair and hopelessness, one that Kate sees but cannot escape. Her life continues to get worse and worse as every imaginable horror is heaped upon her, crushing her spirit and her psyche. She becomes a “cutter” and begins to leaves angry scars on her legs and thighs.

When I read this, I was instantly reminded of the 1971 classic Go Ask Alice. However, Open Wounds leaves little to the imagination as the reader is assaulted with the pure agony of Kate’s life, her struggle to remain human, and her loss of faith and family. It’s gritty, realistic and terribly frightening… and, quite frankly, perfect. I mean, it’s a horrifying story, but I think that’s what makes it so damned good. I don’t know from what dark, personal hell Brandon Ford dug this from, but he needs to tap into this reservoir more often. This is, by far, the best thing of his I’ve ever read.

The pacing is rock solid, not too fast, and builds steadily towards a satisfying climax. The character of Kate is empathetic, endearing, and achingly sad, and it pains the reader to see her go through all that she has to. The secondary characters are complex and chilling, even Kate’s best friend. The setting (late 70s’-early 80’s Philadelphia) seems to straddle the fence between gritty reality and a product of the author’s mind.

In the end, the story triumphs over all else, and leaves the reader thoroughly satisfied with Kate and her story. This book is a definite must-buy for any fan of the teen genre, or anyone else who likes a chilling, dark novel.

How good is it, one asks? Well, I sat down to read just one chapter before I went to bed, and ended up reading the entire book in just one setting.

Buy it. Read it. See what I’m talking about.

Grade: A

–Review by Jason


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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” and “Insurgent” Make One Good Novel Between Them (and It’s Not The One You Think)

Long-time readers of Shiny Book Review are probably aware that I have a liking for dystopian fiction, most particularly of the young adult variety. Yet for whatever reason, until tonight, I hadn’t touched Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, the first two books of which are DIVERGENT and INSURGENT.

Divergent coverWhy is this, you might be asking? Am I tired of dystopias? (Um, no. Not if done well, anyway.) Has the genre simply played itself out? (Perhaps.) Or — and this one’s for the big money, folks — could it be that these novels simply seemed too much of a copycat to Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular trilogy starting with THE HUNGER GAMES? (By the way, Jason reviewed both THE HUNGER GAMES and book two of that trilogy, CATCHING FIRE, here at SBR. But I digress.)

Granted, Ms. Roth’s milieu is near-future Chicago rather than a downtrodden future Appalachia. Her version of Chicago has somehow divided itself into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless people who must take care of everyone whether they like it or not), Amity (the friendly peaceniks), Candor (the relentless truth-tellers; they would not make good lovers), Erudite (the incredibly brainy; these are the rocket scientists and entrepreneurs who think up stuff you just have to have, even if you never knew you needed it before) — and last but not least, Dauntless.

Now, why am I not talking much about Dauntless? It’s simple, really. Dauntless seems to be where everyone else goes — the thrill-seekers, the rampant sociopaths, the police and firemen, and the military, not necessarily in that order.

Mind, if you are unable to be placed in any of these five factions, you end up at the bottom of the totem pole. Everyone must be placed in these five factions, or you’re homeless, friendless, and alone — no ifs, ands or buts — even though it seems obvious that there’s some gaping holes in what the factions actually do and how they’d actually try to run a city as big as Chicago.

All of that implausibility aside — and it’s a pretty big implausibility to swallow — the actual story of Beatrice Prior and what faction she ends up choosing is pretty good. She grows up in Abnegation, which despises vanity, mostly wears gray and maybe a bit of brown now and again, and despises people who refuse to work, yet also is one of the two factions (Amity being the other) who will actually help the homeless and downtrodden.

But Beatrice does not feel like this faction is for her, even though she’s grown up with them.

That being said, she doesn’t necessarily have to stay there, as a placement test (a type of psychological simulation) that’s given at her high school at the age of sixteen will decide her fate. Whatever the test says, she’ll have to do — so if it says, say, Amity, she’ll have to go there — even though she has no friends and no family in that faction.

Fortunately for her, she proves to be divergent: she has aptitudes for more than one faction, in this case, for Dauntless, Abnegation, and, oddly enough, Erudite. And as Beatrice grew up in a solid Abnegation household (her father is a politician, while her mother seems to be a do-gooder of epic proportions, and proud of it, besides — think “volunteerism run amok” and you’re not far wrong, excepting that volunteerism on that scale would be vanity, and oh, no, the Abnegation must abhor that, jeepers!), she didn’t exactly expect this.

Her society does not officially believe in anyone being divergent, but the test givers know it’s possible. One of them, a kindly sort, tells Beatrice that she must pick one and do the simulation again so the readings will all match properly. (Does this make sense? Not really. But let’s go with it.)

And of course, that’s exactly what Beatrice does. But she does not pick Abnegation.


Instead, she picks Dauntless, even though, like my Amity example above, Beatrice knows absolutely no one in that faction.

So, off Beatrice goes to Dauntless, renaming herself the shorter “Tris” to save steps (and, perhaps, to give the reader some idea of Beatrice’s internal transformation, going along with the book’s tagline of “One choice will transform you”). But, as you might expect, the Dauntless initiation is no picnic; she has to prove she’s brave, fearless, and skilled (along with being thrifty and reverent, too, no doubt), or she’ll not make it through the initiation.

Then something weird happens. Tris is warned by her mother, who turns out to be a former member of Dauntless, of all things (she actually chose to go to Abnegation, which seems mighty odd), not to call attention to herself.

But what does Tris do?

You guessed it: She immediately calls attention to herself.

Along the way, Tris has a rather understated romance with her Dauntless “trainer,” Four, who also turns out to have been raised as a member of Abnegation. So they have much in common; better yet, they’re actually able to hold a conversation!

(Applause, applause.)

Down the line, Tris will learn exactly why her mother decided to leave Dauntless for Abnegation, will learn the value of sacrifice . . . and will learn that her family has been hiding a huge secret. And in the meantime, she’ll be the biggest, kick-butt action hero the world has ever seen . . . at least since Katniss Everdeen. (Apologies for the unintended rhyme there.)

Which, of course, means it’s time for book two, INSURGENT.

Tris now has to figure out what, exactly, her family was hiding from her. As both of her parents are unavailable, the only person she has left to ask is her brother, who’s now a member of Erudite. But he’s not entirely trustworthy, and worse, Erudite as a faction wants to take over all of Chicago — and, eventually, the world.

You see, there’s now a major war going on between the factions. Only Amity is trying to stay out of it, and Dauntless, being what they are, is in the thick of it — but rather than being one faction, they’ve split roughly down the middle. Some have followed Four, now known by his birth name of Tobias, and Tris; others have thrown their support to Erudite, as that particular faction seems to hold all the cards.

In many ways, INSURGENT is a better novel than DIVERGENT. The romance between Tris and Tobias (formerly Four) is plausible; they’re in major trouble, they’re bickering a lot, and they’re both trying to sort out their hormones, which seems realistic. Neither of them expected to be leading their splinter of Dauntless, and both of them are way too young to be doing so and they know it . . . but there simply is no one else.

More to the point, since the whole five-faction system didn’t make any sense in DIVERGENT, showing it coming apart in INSURGENT made a ton of sense. And showing two good people who are trying their best to avoid unnecessary killing while trying to figure out Tris’s parents’ cryptic hints from the first book was, to my mind, a major strength.

However, because the action in DIVERGENT was nearly constant, and because INSURGENT is a quieter and more reflective tale (this being in relative terms, of course, as there’s still plenty of death and dismemberment to go around), many reviewers have disliked INSURGENT for the reasons I liked it — it’s quieter. It is more plausible. There’s a lot of arguing. And these two young people — Tris is still only sixteen, while Tobias is, at most, nineteen — have to scramble to figure out how to save themselves along with the people following them, not to mention figuring out just who’s left that they can possibly trust.

Put bluntly, DIVERGENT felt like it was a paint-by-numbers dystopia. It has a good protagonist that you can’t help liking in Beatrice/Tris, and a ton of action — but the plot made no sense. And it definitely had many, many things in common with THE HUNGER GAMES — too many to suit me.

However, INSURGENT is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The plot made sense, providing you buy into the whole five-faction system coming apart (which, considering it never should’ve worked at all, is no great stretch). The characters behave in a realistic manner. And there’s still plenty of action and suspense to go around, but this time, they’re fighting for something rather than against it — and they know exactly who they’re fighting for, and why.

Bottom line? While DIVERGENT definitely didn’t do it for me — too much implausibility, and way too much derivative storytelling despite some nice writing flourishes by Ms. Roth — INSURGENT was much, much better, to the point that I will be reading and reviewing the third book of this trilogy,  ALLEGIANT, shortly.

That’s why my grades are as follows:



–reviewed by Barb

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The Six-Gun Tarot — An Amazing and Insightful Debut Novel

The Six-Gun TarotVery rarely does a debut novel make a lasting impression upon the reader. Usually, the first novel is the author looking for their voice and haven’t mastered the delicate art of building up the suspense. R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, destroys those preconceived notions.

The book starts with the young Jim Negrey leading his horse Promise across a barren wasteland of desert in 1869. Near death and with little water, Jim is on the run from the law for a terrible crime. However, before the law can hang him, Jim has to survive the desert known as the 40-Mile. His hopes were to find a railroad job in a new city under a new name. But a shadow, something more than a crime he committed, lingers over the boy. Between dangerous animals stalking him and the desert, he is doubtful he will survive.

Before the desert takes him, though, Jim is found by a strange Indian named Mutt and an even stranger man named Clay. The two men hail from the town of Golgotha, which is the closest town to where Jim wants to go. He accepts their ride into town when they are attacked by the coyotes which had been stalking Jim. Clay kills two, though the coyotes seem to be mildly nervous around Mutt. Jim is taken into town and, for the time being, will live another day.

Or perhaps not. As he’s getting off the wagon, Mutt (who is the deputy sheriff in the town) gets a call for help. A deranged and drunken man has taken hostages inside the general store, and Mutt needs to stop him before he hurts anyone. He deputizes Jim, and they prepare to try and figure out how to stop the man from hurting anyone inside. Before they can do anything which might end up with some bodies, though, the town sheriff gets back to town. Jon defuses the situation with Mutt managing to save an innocent woman’s life, and the town settles down. Jim, uncertain what to do next, is officially deputized by Jon and taken to get some food and some rest. For the first time in a long time, Jim feels like he’s somewhere he belongs.

Intertwined in the story about the crazy town of Golgotha is a deeper story about an angel who, while not exactly defying the Host, begins to doubt nonetheless. Because of this, he is tasked to stand guard over the sleeping darkness. Biqa, annoyed and angry, obeys, though it is evident that he is not happy with his punishment. After a time, though, his watch begins to take on a deeper meaning. Biqa begins to understand the little beings who exist around him, and begins to feel for humanity.

This book… wow. Just wow. There is a blend of religion and folklore in the book that drags you in and makes the reader really think without lecturing. The pacing is fantastic (as evidenced by reading it, for the second time, in less that five hours) and the characters are all very well thought-out and believable. The setting of the town itself is magnificent, and seems to be a character all its own, a breath of life in what would normally be merely a static piece of scenery in any other work. The darker undercurrent of the book, which both drives the plot and lends a creepiness factor to some characters, is wonderfully done. The overall story arc is absolutely rock-solid.

This book is a must-buy. I’d give this to someone asking me if I had read anything good and new lately. The author has done a tremendous job, and I for one can’t wait for the next round.

–Reviewed by Jason

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