Posts Tagged milSF

First Strike — Good Story, but A Little Plain

First StrikeChristopher G. Nuttall has a fan in me, I’ll have to admit. After devouring his Ark Royal series (which was an homage to both Battlestar Galactica and David Weber’s Honor Harrington), he’s climbed into the “probably going to buy” ranks of writers I enjoy and will gladly spend money on. So I didn’t even hesitate when his publisher sent us First Strike, the first book in a brand new series.

From the very beginning of the book, humanity faces a crisis unlike one that has ever been seen. An alien has invited the major leaders of the world to a summit to assist them — and warn them that the barbarians are at the gate, and humans have very little time to prepare. Then Mentor disappears, and the book fast forwards to 15 years later, when a new member of Mentor’s species arrives to warn humans that a grave threat has emerged — the same one which Mentor warned them about years before. The Funks, as humans have taken to calling the neighborhood bullies on the intergalactic scene, have already conquered one human colony world (through nefarious legal means, proving that everybody in the universe is cursed with lawyers) and are quickly moving to take the rest of Earth’s space in the same manner. In order to prevent Earth from falling under the “benign” rule of oppressive aliens, the Federation decides that a first strike is necessary to warn the Funks that Humans will not go quietly into the night.

Enlisting the aid of billionaire merchant and former Navy Captain Joshua Wachter to harass the Funks trading lines in the rear (which, given the vastness of space, is something that the author never talks about how they triangulated such a thing in the first place, much to this reviewer’s annoyance), Admiral Tobias Sampson has come up with the plan that with either protect humanity for all time — or be its untimely doom.

Nuttall’s writing is clear and concise, staying away from the common every day tropes that usually litter the pages of new military science fiction. Minus a few name drops of Star Trek characters throughout (Beverly Troy was humorous, but I’m that kind of nerd…), that is. The action is well-timed and hard-hitting, and there is just enough boom to make me happy without turning it into a Michael Bay movie. He does his aliens well, creating one character (Lady Dalsha, a Funk) whose evolution on-page from enemy to villain is worth noting. The plot is well done, though the subplots could have been fleshed out a little more, but it did not leave me wanting. Some characters were done very well, while others were there and then simply gone, leaving no hole from their disappearance from the pages. All of these problems, however, are very minor ones, and really not worth the energy to worry about.

The problem worth worrying about with this book (and truthfully, the series as a whole moving forward) is, quite frankly, plain. It’s vanilla SF (which I can enjoy, if done properly). Everything in the book goes humanity’s way, save for one little hiccup. While I’m all for the nerdy kid punching the schoolyard bully in the mouth and standing up to him, I still want there to be some drama. That element is missing from the book, the uncertainty of what is to come, and the actual feeling of humanity’s desperation is not felt. Indeed, I continued to get the sense of Imperial British “Oh dear, old boy… we might just die. Hand me another crumpet, will you?” Regulars who were stuck in a air-conditioned office battling paperwork instead of a “do or die” scenario. It lacked a sense of urgency, in other words.

All in all, I enjoyed it. A little too plain, but I have high hopes for the rest of this series moving onward. Definitely would recommend.

–Reviewed by Jason

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The Fallen Race — A Tale of Two Novels

The Fallen RaceIf you were the son of a traitor and sent out into the border regions of your empire to languish and (hopefully to some) die, how much loyalty would you have if you found out that suddenly those who banished you desperately needed your help when the entire universe is on the line?

This question is just among the many confronted by Baron Lucius Giovanni, commander of the War Shrike in Kal Spriggs’ science fiction novel The Fallen Race. The alien Chxor have completely decimated the Roma Nova Empire and, with his back against the wall, Baron Giovanni is struggling to keep the remnants of its citizens — as well as his make-shift fleet — alive. Assuming his political masters back home allow him to even retain command of his ship, that is.

After keeping his ship alive just long enough to help a convoy escape an ambush of Chxor vessels, the War Shrike stumbled onto a barely-alive Ghornath dreadnought. Surprised, Baron Giovanni discovers that the alien captain is the same one who spared his life many years before. He rescues him and a few of his crew and bring them on board the War Shrike. It is then that Baron Giovanni finds out that there is a human world in the system, one that nobody had known was there. A small world, still loyal to the Imperium, called Faraday.

Part of the charm of this novel is the obvious homage to the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber. This book has it all — aliens, telepaths, pirates, staff meetings… all in direct correlation to a Weber novel. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a straight “filing off the ISBN numbers” book, far from it. The fall of the Roma Nova Empire is something that is fresh and different, and the turning of the main character from ostracized ship commander to military warlord (of sorts) is very reminiscent of a Mad Max in Space vibe (I don’t know why, that was just the feel I had while reading this book). It’s a fun joyride through space.

However, there are some major issues in the first half of the book, enough so that I had a heck of a time just getting through it. There are some minor issues like the changing of the Roma Nova Empire (it goes from Nova Roma to Nova Roman to Roma Nova in about three pages), as well as a very tedious “staff meeting” where the author hits us with an info dump that is oddly placed and ill-timed. There is also mention of the main character’s father being a traitor, but without any context outside of the title “Baron” that the main character has, you really don’t get a feel for just how deep the word really goes (until about midway through the book, when suddenly everything has a much deeper feel to it, and just how poorly the word “traitor” has been used throughout thus far). There is also nothing really setting anything up as the author tries to counter world-building with random action, which unfortunately doesn’t work well initially because there hasn’t been enough time to create any sort of relationship with the main character.

All that said, this is not a bad book, not in any sense. Because while the first half of the book is problematic, the second half of it is simply stellar, and that can be laid at the feet of Kandergain, the psychic pirate captain (yeah, that combination is just as awesome as it sounds). The book, quite frankly, could have been written from her perspective and been an amazing novel. The author handles her much better than he does the main character, and she is a likable, mysterious individual who dominates every single scene that she’s in. It’s almost as if the entire first half was added just to delay her arrival, because once she does, the pacing and action flow smoothly, the dialogue is crisp and fits the characters well, and it changes from being a run-of-the-mill SF novel to being something special.

I’ll give this one 4 stars. I can forgive some of the editing mistakes (as this is an indie novel), and when you have such an amazing character as Kandergain, that can cover and hide a lot of other, smaller mistakes that would normally derail you. Solid story here. I’d definitely buy this one on Kindle.

Reviewed by Jason

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SBR 2-for-1 Romance Saturday SF Special: Grant Hallman’s “Upfall” and “IronStar”

Sometimes here at Shiny Book Review, we’re fortunate enough to be able to review stories that the mainstream science fiction community may not have noticed. Such is the case with this week’s “2-for-1 special” featuring writer Grant Hallman’s novella UPFALL and novel IRONSTAR. They are both set in the same universe, but many years separate the two stories.

Product DetailsThe first, UPFALL, is set in the not-so-distant future. While Europe appears to be a bit more unified than they are at present, and the space program as a whole seems far better developed as well, we’re essentially dealing with a world we know.

The essential plotline of UPFALL is this — what would you do if the space elevator you were going up suddenly became untethered? Especially if you’d just met the woman of your dreams?

That’s the situation Matthew “Matt” Dunning finds himself in. He’s works for Skyhook Unlimited, and is escorting a science client to Topside Station, while the woman he meets, Ginny Piersall, is there to do a failure analysis study. And of course, the Skyhook space elevator should not have anything go wrong, being based on “next-generation nanowire” . . . but of course, it does.

There’s only a certain amount of air available on the Skyhook, too, while the G-forces are causing many previously unforeseen problems, and there’s no help coming from the surface of the Earth because this was completely unanticipated. (Not to mention that most forms of two-way communication are cut off for completely understandable reasons.)

So it’s up to Matt, Ginny, and the other scientists on the Skyhook (or already in space) to try to figure this whole mess out. Will they be able to do it, or won’t they?

While the drama at UPFALL‘s heart is both believable and compelling, it’s the sweet romance between two smart people — Matt Dunning and Ginny Piersall — that is completely captivating. He’s a clueless nerd of a certain age, and she’s a beautiful, brainy woman who’s mostly met a bunch of men who aren’t up to her intellectual weight . . . so as you might expect, many sparks fly between them while they try to figure out just how to keep everyone on the Skyhook from dying needlessly.

As I’m a sucker for sweet romances, especially between two smart people who must solve an incredibly challenging problem by pooling their resources, I enjoyed UPFALL very, very much.

IronStarApproximately 200 years later, the events of IRONSTAR take place. Lieutenant Kirrah Roehl of the Regnum Security Service is the navigator of the Arvida-Yee, a very small survey ship. She enjoys her job, especially when she and her shipmates discover “hablets” (that is, habitable worlds suitable for colonization). And she enjoys being part of such a small crew because it’s like a family.

However, when the Arvida-Yee discovers a habitable planet they weren’t expecting, they encounter hostile fire from aliens called the Kruss — who are traders, but who definitely aren’t kindly and don’t have thought processes most humans can understand. The only thing Kirrah’s Captain is able to do before the ship blows apart is to order all of his crew into their survival suits and get a “mail tube” off to inform his superiors that something hinky is going on.

When Kirrah regains consciousness, she realizes she’s on the surface of the planet. (Hallman deftly accounts for this by the survival suit having its own drop bubble with a gel interior. Apparently the technology is now so good, it was able to “go to ground” on its own, without any information from Kirrah herself.) And while the planet is beautiful to look at, everything seems poisonous . . . worse yet, she believes everyone on her ship except her died instantly.

Then she discovers a young boy wandering in the middle of the forest. (Or, as I thought of it, a “forest-swamp,” as it appeared to have characteristics of both.) The boy, Akaray, warns Kirrah of an imminent attack by some of the local wildlife, and rouses all of her latent maternal instincts.

She quickly realizes that something is badly wrong. Akaray is crying, and between her own knowledge and her suit’s translator (which isn’t perfect, but gets the gist of things fairly quickly), she figures out that he’s lost his parents and everyone he knows due to his village being destroyed.

You see, there’s a war going on between two factions on this planet — the more or less peaceful people (who don’t seem to have a clan name; they do follow a King, but he’s elected rather than hereditary) and the rather obnoxious Wrth. The peaceful people have priest-healers who use something akin to Reiki healing with perhaps a bit of touch-empathy or even low levels of touch-telepathy, and just want to be left alone, while the Wrth are raiders who don’t seem to either have the priest-healers at all, or at minimum do not value them.

And the Wrth have allied themselves somehow with the Kruss, even though they don’t fully understand this . . . but Kirrah, of course, figures it out fairly quickly. This is the primary reason she’s made Warmaster, and is chosen to lead the fight the Wrth.

Kirrah also finds love in a most unlikely place — with Ro’tachk Irshe, a senior enlisted man. Irshe is old enough to respect Kirrah’s intelligence while young enough to appreciate the pleasures of the flesh . . . and as the peaceful people Kirrah’s helping don’t seem to have the same hang-ups regarding sex that Regnum-trained humans do (perhaps because of the priest-healers and their Reiki-like skills), they become lovers.

Down the line, Kirrah will have to decide: Does she want to stay on this world with Irshe and his people, the ones she’s been leading in order to throw off the Kruss’s noxious influence? Or will she go back to the Regnum? (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

So there’s action-adventure here, in spades. There’s a more-or-less traditional romantic science fiction plotline as well, and a coming of age story for Kirrah, and there’s all that interesting stuff from the priests . . . not to mention some dreams and visions that may or may not have a psychic component to them. And the new world is compelling, the science makes sense (hallelujah!), the military acts in comprehensible ways, both in the Regnum and on this new world . . . all good.

But there is one teensy-weensy drawback here, and that’s how quickly Kirrah adapts to everything.

Look. IRONSTAR has a lot going for it. It’s intelligent and interesting, the characterization is good, I believed in the romance between Kirrah and Irshe, and even the “fish out of water” element was carried off with aplomb.

But Kirrah doesn’t have many weaknesses. She’s impetuous, sure. But she’s young. And she’s very smart, and she’s very adaptable, and she’s adopted a kid despite her youth . . . really, in some ways, Kirrah seems almost too good to be true, excepting that darkness within her that, as the priest-healers keep pointing out, makes her the exceptional military commander she is.

But that makes me wonder why Kirrah was on the Arvida-Yee at all. Is the Regnum so stocked with good military commanders that they were willing to turn Kirrah away? Or did they just flat miss the fact that Kirrah could be exceptionally good if she was pushed to her limits?

Regardless, Kirrah is here, the world is here, and what Kirrah does is worth reading about. I just wish she would’ve had some obvious personal weaknesses aside from being young and impetuous, that’s all. (Mostly because I wanted to give IRONSTAR an A-plus, but just can’t under the circumstances.)

Bottom line? I enjoyed UPFALL and IRONSTAR quite a bit. This is excellent fiction with some solid science and some good, believable romances in the bargain . . . and I look forward to seeing more of Hallman’s writing in the future.

Grades:

UPFALL – A-plus.

IRONSTAR – A.

— reviewed by Barb

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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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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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Leo Champion’s “Legion” is Solid, Entertaining Military Science Fiction

We at Shiny Book Review receive many review requests, so when a request came in from Leo Champion — who once wrote a review for SBR — we discussed it and decided to accept it as it has been two whole years since Mr. Champion’s review and he has not been actively involved in the running of SBR in all that time.

Now, on to the review!

Leo Champion’s LEGION is about Paul Mullins, a bright, well-educated American citizen living in the year 2215.  Mullins, an advertising exec, gets drunk after finally receiving word that he was about to be promoted into the position of his dreams . . . then wakes up the next morning to find himself the newest member of the United States Foreign Legion, a branch of the U.S. military formed to deal with what’s euphemistically termed “colonial conflicts” — in other words, extraplanetary colonies that would much rather be independent instead of paying tribute to the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Mullins quickly finds out that there’s no escape from his drunken pledge; instead, he’ll have to spend five full years in the USFL before his enlistment is up.  And, much like the French Foreign Legion and other fabled groups made up of a bunch of roughnecks and misfits, most of the people Mullins serves with are radically not to his taste.

But as he goes through training, then serves in combat, Mullins finds a number of kindred souls, including his company commander, Lieutenant James Croft IV.  Croft, you see, has a similar background in many ways to Mullins, excepting that Croft opted for West Point instead of Boston University, then opted for the USFL rather than the Army because he wanted to see actual combat rather than push a bunch of meaningless papers.

Wisely, author Champion avoids throwing Mullins and Croft together too quickly.  Instead, they develop on separate paths that end up putting them in the same place at the same time on the colony world of New Virginia, just as the Second Insurrection is about to break out.

Lives will change, blood will spill . . . and the only question remaining is this: Will Mullins and Croft get out alive?  And if so, how?

Everything else — and I do mean everything — is for you to discover.  But if you enjoy military science fiction, LEGION will definitely keep you up long past your bedtime.

The pluses of LEGION are many.  Champion’s writing is crisp, clean, and rings with authority.  His grasp of military behavior, tactics, and training is stellar.  The characterization is outstanding — Mullins goes from a rather naïve Yuppie hotshot to a competent soldier, while Croft quickly discovers that officers often carry the heaviest burdens on their souls and that second-guessing is just part of the territory.  And Champion’s conception of twenty-second century America — complete with corrupt politicians, unthinking regular Americans who blindly put their faith and trust into these same corrupt politicians, and citizens of other countries desperate to become American citizens (perhaps hoping that the American “Shining City on the Hill” somehow exists somewhere outside of myth and legend) enlisting in the USFL as that’s the only way through toward American citizenship — is also plausible.

In addition, Champion’s tale could be seen as allegory.  We have corrupt politicians now.  We have blind, unthinking American citizens now.  And assuredly we already have citizens of other countries enlisted in the various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces in order to eventually become American citizens now.

So the conceit of having Mullins, an average, unthinking American forced into waking up and taking charge of his life (albeit because he was shanghaied into the US Foreign Legion), rings true on both levels.  And I liked that very much.

However — and I really wish I did not have to say this — there are two drawbacks here to LEGION that I must point out.

First, the year is 2215.  Yet the men in the USFL are issued M-16s.  Still.  And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even if the USFL is considered the most expendable force in the entirety of the American military.

Granted, there is an internally consistent reason that Champion gave that works for his story, and because of that, I was willing to suspend disbelief while reading LEGION.  But every time I came up for air, I thought again about this . . . and it still did not make sense.  (Sorry.)

Second — and this is much bigger sticking point — there was only one female soldier in the entirety of LEGION.

You read that right.  There was only one female soldier — that being a Naval Commander who blows up an extraterrestrial stronghold — in the entirety of LEGION.  And that completely blew any suspension of disbelief out of the water.

Look.  I can believe that Mullins would never see a female USFL soldier during his training.  Segregated training is the norm in the American military, and it has been since women became an important part of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But I cannot believe there are no women in the USFL.  Because that is absurd.

Here’s the deal — if men are given the option after stealing, lying, cheating, blowing things up, and even murdering people of going into the USFL rather than to jail, why aren’t the women?

Surely there are female prisoners out there who’d much rather go deal with Chauncy, the USFL’s intimidating stronghold, than rot in jail for years on end.  So where are they, and why wasn’t any mention made of them in this book?

But worse even than that, there’s an insurrection in New Virginia that’s causing massive unrest.  We see man after man in the colonial militia, and we’re told that these men start shooting guns at around age five or so, which is why they’re so difficult to kill.

Yet with all those fervent men who are willing to blow things up and run the American military off the planet (including the USFL), wouldn’t you expect to see at least a few fervent women soldiers here and there, too?

And yet, there weren’t any.  Which again is absurd.

And finally — and this was the most problematic point of all — I didn’t even see a female doctor or nurse, not in the USFL, not among the colonials.  And that’s just wrong.

Bottom line?  Leo Champion is a writer to watch.  He’s got boatloads of talent.  LEGION is entertaining, solid, has moments of humor and got nearly everything right.  In fact, I kept getting absorbed in LEGION to the point I didn’t want to put it down . . .

. . . but every time I did so, I wondered where the Hell the women were.

Because of that complete and utter implausibility, the final grade for Champion’s otherwise sparkling debut is a B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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