Posts Tagged SF/romance

Cordelia Rides Again in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR!

And as everyone here knows, that means it’s time for a romance. So what could be better than the latest novel by Lois McMaster Bujold, featuring one of my favorite heroines ever, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan? (For those new to her, Cordelia was featured in SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR — later collected as CORDELIA’S HONOR — and had much to say in several other novels in Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan series, including MIRROR DANCE, MEMORY, and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.)

Close this windowGENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN starts three years after Cordelia’s famous husband Aral Vorkosigan’s death. She is now the sole Vicereine of Sergyar, a colony planet of the Barrayaran Imperium, and while incredibly busy with a variety of issues — scientific, political, and economic, she finds herself at loose ends, romantically.

This was not a place she ever expected to be. She’s in her mid-to-late seventies, which for a Galactic is closer to mid-forties in health, so she has plenty of life left to her. Yet her husband, to whom she was devoted, has died…and there are additional complications for her in finding a romantic partner, as both she and her husband are/were powerful personalities with difficult and time-consuming jobs.

Fortunately, there is one man who understands that. His name is Oliver Jole. He’s an Admiral in the Barrayaran Naval Fleet stationed in Sergyar orbit, and he’s well acquainted with both Cordelia and her husband, Aral. (For long-term readers of the Vorkosigan Saga, Jole was a Lieutenant we barely saw in THE VOR GAME; Cordelia and Aral’s son, Miles, comments that Lieutenant Jole is blond and almost too good-looking to be borne — my best paraphrase, as I don’t have the book in front of me.) Oliver is nearly fifty, he has a similar background to both Cordelia and Cordelia’s late husband, is intelligent and funny, and hasn’t dated anyone in many years. And he’s fallen for Cordelia…but he doesn’t know how to get past her formidable reserve.

And on Cordelia’s part, she sees Oliver as attractive, but doesn’t realize he could be a possibility for her. They’ve been friends a long time, but Aral knew Oliver far better — and besides, Cordelia thinks Oliver is gay.

But Oliver isn’t. He’s bisexual.

This shouldn’t throw Cordelia half as much as it does, mind, as her husband was bisexual as well. But because she’s older than Oliver, and because of the history she has with Oliver, it takes her a considerable amount of time to realize that Oliver is indeed a match for her.

Complicating things markedly is the whole issue of biology. You see, Cordelia and Aral were only able to have one son, Miles, during Aral’s lifetime. (Their other son, Mark, was cloned from Miles illegally by an intergalactic criminal; once the family realized Mark was alive, they welcomed him with open arms, but Mark was not raised with Miles or by Cordelia.) However, Aral’s sperm and Cordelia’s eggs were frozen, and now Cordelia has to decide if she wants to bring more children — daughters, she’s decided — into this world.

(Minor spoilers ahead. You have been warned.)

How does Oliver come into this issue? Well, Oliver also had a close relationship with Aral, that Cordelia condoned. (You can see why Cordelia never expected to find something with Oliver now, yes?) This is why Cordelia offers Oliver some genetic material from both herself and Aral, so Oliver might be able to have children as well. (Sons, he thinks.)

Anyway, just as Oliver and Cordelia attempt to make a match of it, Cordelia’s son Miles shows up with his family. Along with all of the expected complications (it’s not that easy to explain to your fully grown son that you’ve taken up with a new, much younger man), Cordelia also has to explain her decision to have more children…and the material she’s donated to Oliver as well, so he, too, can have children of his own.

How will Miles take all this?

(Further reviewer sayeth not.)

This is a phenomenal novel that has it all. Growth. Loss. Grief. New love, all unlooked for. Romance — dear Gods, yes, romance.

I loved GENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN, and think it is one of Bujold’s best novels — right up there with BARRAYAR, MIRROR DANCE, and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.

Bottom line: What are you waiting for? It’s Lois McMaster Bujold at top form, and it’s excellent.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Rysa Walker’s “Time’s Echo” and “Time’s Edge” are Smart, Interesting and Surprisingly Hopeful

Rysa Walker’s Chronos Files have quickly become one of the best-known young adult (YA) sagas around, and it’s easy to see why. With crisp dialogue, excellent characterization and an intriguing premise, the story of Kate Pierce-Keller and the people who surround her is engrossing and thought-provoking. I reviewed the first book of the Chronos Files, TIMEBOUND, here. (If you haven’t read that review, go do so now, or what I’m about to say will make little sense.)

smallTimesEchoCoverChronologically, TIME’S ECHO is a novella that explains just who Kiernan is — the mysterious, dark-haired stranger who seemingly popped up every time Kate was in trouble during TIMEBOUND has an interesting backstory of his own. Kiernan, you see, is from the early 20th Century, and like Kate, is able to use a Chronos device in order to travel through time. Not being limited to the world he grew up in, Kiernan has been to the 21st Century, 22nd Century, even the 23rd Century…but his heart belongs to Kate.

However, the Kate he knew — a nineteen-year-old, rather feisty Kate who’d entered into something akin to a common-law marriage with him — is not the Kate we got to know in TIMEBOUND. You see, the same bad actors who were causing trouble in TIMEBOUND have already caused trouble for Kiernan and Kate…and the history and life experiences that created his version of Kate Pierce-Keller are so altered that the Kate who now stands is not only younger than the one he knew, but no longer recognizes him.

See, this is where I have to describe some of the doings of the bad actors (stuff I decided to gloss over in my previous review). They are known as Cyrists, and they’ve created a new religion that dates back to roughly the 15th Century. The founder of this religion, Saul, is actually Kate’s grandfather — and like Katherine, Kate’s grandmother, is from the 23rd Century. Saul and Katherine had a huge blow-up, because Katherine believed that timelines should be preserved — what she’d been taught all her life — while Saul believed that time-traveling historians (like himself and Katherine) should be able to alter time any way they wanted. (You can see where this would be a huge problem, yes?)

Anyway, Katherine didn’t know it, but she was already pregnant by Saul when she became marooned in the 20th Century. She married, had twins — one being Kate’s mother, the other being Kate’s long-missing and presumed dead aunt, Prudence — and settled into a new life as a historian and teacher. She no longer can time-travel due to the actions of Saul, and Saul cannot time-travel either — but their descendants can, at least some of them. (Prudence can, for example, while Kate’s mother cannot. And those who can’t time-travel mostly disbelieve those who can. Keep that in mind.)

So in TIME’S ECHO, we actually get to see a little bit of nineteen-year-old Kate. She’s deeply in love with Kiernan. They have built a life that’s unconventional in that they both time-travel at will, but it works for them. And so long as they both maintain their Chronos devices (an amulet that glows a different color for each time-traveler, but looks like a dull metal to non-time-travelers), they will continue to be in the same timeline and be able to stay together.

Then disaster strikes. The Cyrists decide that nineteen-year-old Kate is too meddlesome, so they figure out a way to remove her as a threat to them by some adroit shifting of the timeline. This also takes nineteen-year-old Kate away from Kiernan, who pretends he doesn’t know who she is when asked by Prudence, Kate’s aunt. But in reality, he is steamed, and vows to find out just what happened to Kate.

That’s why Kiernan shows up to protect Kate so often in TIMEBOUND. She’s not the Kate he knew, no. She’s younger, more innocent, hasn’t had the same experiences, and is in love with another young man, Trey. But she’s still Kate, and he still loves her.

TIME’S EDGE goes back to the Kate we know. She’s working with Kiernan and her aunt, Katherine, to retrieve as many Chronos devices as she can in order to keep them out of the hands of Saul and his Cyrists. Working with a man who’s in love with you when you’re in love with someone else is not easy…but Kiernan has vowed to help bring down the Cyrists, and Kate needs his help, so they’re doing the best they can.

As for Trey, he’s learning to love Kate all over again, but their relationship isn’t quite the same as before. (This is because the original relationship Kate built with Trey was wiped out by a time-shift. Note the parallels here between what happened to Kiernan’s Kate, and Kate’s Trey.) But they’re working at it, and Trey still does feel something for Kate…Kate has hopes that eventually, their love relationship will be as strong as it was before.

There are more time-traveling adventures, this time to the 1930s, the 1960s, and of course a bit back to the early 1900s (Kiernan’s original time). These are all well-written and engrossing, and show the problems of several other stranded time-travelers, including an interracial married couple who unfortunately got stranded in the Southern U.S. of the 1930s. (It was still illegal for white women and black men to be together, much less sleep with one another, at that time.)

Throughout TIME’S EDGE, there is a palpable sense of danger. Kate has already been targeted by the Cyrists before, and they’ve missed twice. How long can she keep going before they kill her and wipe away all memory of her from the timeline? And what will happen to the other time-traveling historians in the wake of the Cyrists’ new religion?

All of these questions will be answered, but in turn will raise even more questions — which is the main reason why I can’t wait to read TIME’S DIVIDE (book three in the Chronos Files)…but I digress.

These are excellent stories, full of action, great characterization, witty dialogue, and fine romance. Despite the apocalyptic nature of the Cyrists and all of their menacing power, there’s somehow a sense that Kate, Trey, Kiernan, and Katherine can prevail. This hopefulness suffuses the entirety of the Chronos Files series, and is the main reason I find these stories to be so addictive.

Bottom line: Read Rysa Walker’s Chronos Files, or you’re missing something extraordinary.

Grades: TIME’S ECHO — A

TIME’S EDGE — A-plus

–reviewed by Barb

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Michael Z. Williamson’s “Freehold” — The Story that Started it All…

Long-time readers of Shiny Book Review are most likely aware of Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold series, particularly because of Jason’s reviews of ROGUEDO UNTO OTHERS and WHEN DIPLOMACY FAILS. But what about the novel that actually started this whole series in the first place, FREEHOLD? The one that’s spawned several sequels and prequels and has been wildly popular has never been reviewed at SBR . . .

Until now.

You might be asking, “So, Barb. Why are you reviewing this instead of Jason?”

Well, it’s simple. I asked Jason if I could do it. He said, “Sure. Why not?” So here we are.

 FREEHOLD is the story of Sergeant Kendra Pacelli, an honest soldier in the armed forces of the United Nations. But her higher-ups have implicated her in an embezzlement scheme, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll be able to prove her innocence to anyone.

As Kendra is no fool, she quickly decides that she’s not going to stick around to be framed for anything. After a few harrowing adventures, she decides to flee to the only place that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UN — the Freehold of Grainne. And the way she gets the Freeholders’ attention is by forcing her way into their Embassy on Earth to ask for asylum.

Fortunately for her, the Freeholders appreciate good soldiers and decide to grant her request. But the Freehold of Grainne is much different from Earth, Kendra is warned; for one, she will have to start off life in the Freehold as an indentured servant of sorts as the Freehold does not grant free passage even to political refugees. (Perhaps especially not to political refugees.)

Over time, Kendra gets slowly acclimated to the Freehold and its culture. She pays off her debt and meets two interesting people, Rob McKay, a pilot and reserve officer in the Freehold Military Forces, and Marta Hernandez, a high-end escort (a respectable profession, in the Freehold) and also a reserve soldier, and forms a tripartite relationship with the pair of them. And eventually, she, too, becomes a soldier for the FMF . . . just in time for the war with Earth to break out.

Because of course there has to be a war with Earth, doesn’t there? Earth’s society, in Williamson’s conception, has gone so far toward socialism and its society overall has become so debased and corrupt that a war with the Freeholders — capitalists who believe in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and nothing else — must be inevitable.

Williamson skillfully renders all of the military planning that’s going on in the FMF to try to avoid the worst of it, then when those actions fail, the actions of the individual soldiers in the FMF to rally the countryside and fight an insurgency against the UN.

And Kendra, as an honest soldier for the FMF, is in the thick of the fighting every step of the way. Because she is in a unique position, the reader gets to see many different sides of this conflict. As an immigrant, she loves the Freehold and doesn’t want to give it up, but knows that there are many good soldiers fighting on behalf of the UN despite the stupidity and moral vapidity of the UN’s titular leadership (she should; she used to be one of them). But some of what she does while fighting for the FMF during the insurgency is deeply disturbing, including psychological warfare and worst of all, torture.

Kendra doesn’t like doing this, mind. It appalls her. But the Freehold has been invaded, and she has to do her part to throw the invaders — the UN — back out again. So she’ll do anything it takes, anything at all, to get rid of them.

I’ve deliberately skipped over much of the plot, partly because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading pleasure, partly because I’d rather talk about something else. Namely, the structure of this novel.

Most debut novels are not as well-structured as FREEHOLD. Everything Williamson does at the beginning is mirrored at the end, and there are references throughout that seem like throwaway lines that will reward the patient reader down the line.

That said, I also have one main criticism of FREEHOLD. I didn’t see anywhere near enough internal monologue from Kendra. Most of the time, I had no idea what she was feeling until I’d read the whole section, gone back to read it again several times, and then grasped that Williamson was showing Kendra’s reactions through other people (usually Rob or Marta). I’d much rather have seen a 60/40 mix of internal monologue/showing reactions through others as it would’ve strengthened the overall emotional impact.

Bottom line: FREEHOLD’s military action and “fish out of water” storyline with Kendra acclimatizing to the very different society of Grainne was enjoyable, and I appreciated the strength of Williamson’s world building and how he structured his novel. But I wanted much more of an emotional reaction from Kendra, and didn’t get it.

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Redux: Stephanie Osborn’s “A Case of Spontaneous Combustion”

It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review! So what could be better than another romantic science fiction/mystery offering from Stephanie Osborn?

DDSpontaneous_CombustionTonight’s subject is book 5 in her long-running, popular Displaced Detective series featuring Sherlock Holmes and his wife, Skye Chadwick-Holmes, A CASE OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION. (Books one and two of the series were reviewed here; book three was reviewed here; and book four was reviewed here.) This time, Sherlock Holmes is summoned to merry old England without his wife, Skye, to consult on a perplexing case: the village of Stonegrange has died all at once, apparently of spontaneous combustion, and no one knows how or why. And for reasons of national security, Sherlock isn’t even allowed to wake her up to tell her what’s going on.

This is a problem, as Sherlock and Skye haven’t been married all that long (maybe a year, tops), and have just had a huge fight (as newlyweds the world over tend to do). The fight was over something minor, and if Sherlock had been able to tell Skye that he’d been summoned to England, it’s possible the two would’ve made up right then and there — but he wasn’t, and they’re both about to be in a world of hurt.

While Sherlock tries desperately to figure out what’s happened that’s caused Stonegrange to spontaneously combust, Skye is left at home in Colorado. Both are miserable, both try to write each other letters, but as their letters are considered classified on both ends, there are intermediaries between them and their letters to one another.

And their letters are not getting through, which adds immensely to their overall “frustration factor.”

Making matters even more dicey, the mystery of Stonegrange has a strong scientific component, so Sherlock needs Skye. And she’s not there, so solving the mystery is made that much slower and more complex, too.

Mind, Sherlock doesn’t know why Skye wasn’t sent for along with him. Neither do the people who guard Sherlock and Skye on a regular basis. And as the National Security Act has been invoked, it’s keeping them from talking with their counterparts as they normally would.

So that, too, is a mystery that both need to solve . . . but as they’re both extremely upset (Skye has fallen into a severe depression), it takes a bit more time than usual to get to the bottom of this problem.

Regarding Stonegrange, Sherlock goes undercover to find out who did this and why. He uncovers a few leads, but again realizes he needs Skye’s scientific expertise.

After quite some time, romantic and domestic matters are resolved and Skye’s back where she belonged. (So for romance readers, there is a “happily ever after” ending.) And a good thing, too, as Skye’s knowledge of physics is absolutely essential to the solving of this particular mystery.

As always with the work of Stephanie Osborn, her command of language is strong, while her knowledge of physics, England, and Sherlock Holmes trivia is excellent. Her pacing is good, the romance is outstanding, and the hard SF component (the physics involved) is explained well enough that I had no trouble figuring out what was going on.

The one quibble I had here is that the ending was a bit too gentle for my tastes. After all the sturm und drang Sherlock and Skye went through to get back into contact with one another, and then back to each other, I would’ve liked to see some retribution handed out to the person who kept them apart.

But everything else worked quite well.

Bottom line? It’s not everyone who can make cutting-edge physics comprehensible to the intelligent layman and write a kick-butt romance along with an absorbing mystery all at the same time, but Stephanie Osborn did just that in A CASE OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.

One, final thought: If you love Sherlock Holmes as brought to the modern-day and haven’t tried Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective novels yet, what’s stopping you?

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective Series, Book 4

It’s Romance Saturday! And considering it’s been a while since we last checked in with Stephanie Osborn’s inestimable Displaced Detective Series, which features the great detective Sherlock Holmes as brought to the modern-day by hyperspatial physicist (and love interest) Skye Chadwick, what could be better than to discuss book four, THE CASE OF THE COSMOLOGICAL KILLER: ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS? (Note that books one and two of this series were reviewed here, while book three was reviewed here.)

During the previous book, THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT, our Sherlock and Skye got married, went to England for their honeymoon, and did their best to figure out whether or not a UFO was truly involved in a perplexing incident. But they also were contacted by an alternate universe’s version of Sherlock and Skye, who have a rather difficult problem of their own to solve. Simply put: the cosmos appears to be falling apart at the seams, and because other-Skye lost most of her original team due to sabotage, only the other-Sherlock is left to assist her. And while other-Skye and other-Sherlock do have feelings for one another, they are currently not lovers — instead, their relationship is that of rather strained good friends, albeit with a whole lot of sexual tension between them.

Anyway, other-Sherlock and other-Skye need our Sherlock and Skye’s help to figure out whether or not other-Skye’s equations are correct. Because of a twist of physics (crudely put, you can see any time that’s in the past from your own, and universes don’t always match anyway, time-wise), other-Sherlock and other-Skye are actually four chronological years older than our versions of the same. Because of that time differential, they are able to give our versions of Skye and Sherlock some space to get up to speed on the equations.

During book four, ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS, our Sherlock solves what’s going on in the English countryside while Skye works with other-Skye and other-Sherlock to save the cosmos from complete and utter destruction. Which would make you think there’s no time left for romance . . . but actually, there is.

You see, our Sherlock and Skye are worried about other-Sherlock and other-Skye. The latter pair has been overworked and underslept for quite some time; further, neither of them is able to derive any comfort, physical or otherwise, due to all of the emotional baggage they both have picked up due to the disastrous events that took out nearly every member of other-Skye’s Project Tesseract team.

As our Sherlock and Skye just got married and are on their honeymoon, they obviously want to rectify this. But how can they do so without intruding on other-Sherlock’s legendary privacy and other-Skye’s tragic calm?

Anyway, even though it’s never fully stated in the text, the subtext is clear: our Sherlock and Skye do not want to see their other selves floundering like this.

So we have a triple-stranded plot going on. The first plotline deals with the wrap-up of the Rendelsham case. The second plotline deals with Skye’s efforts to check other-Skye and other-Sherlock’s physics equations (what I like to think of as “their homework,” in short). And the third, which overarches both of the other plotlines, is this: How can two extremely intelligent people like other-Skye and other-Sherlock, who’ve gotten off on the wrong foot romantically, make their relationship work?

One of the delights of ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS is in seeing these two strong characters be vulnerable in both sets of incarnations. Our Skye admits things to other-Skye she’s never said to anyone; ditto for our Sherlock and other-Sherlock. And because of this vulnerability, which is a direct outgrowth of their overall intelligence and strength, it’s possible for other-Skye and other-Sherlock to repair their relationship at the same time as they do their best to repair the cosmos itself.

And that, my friends, is exactly why ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS is such a delightful book from beginning to end.

There is only one quibble I had, though, and I needs must mention it: We don’t actually see what other-Skye and other-Sherlock do to fix the cosmos. We see all the preparation beforehand, yes. But we don’t see the actual events.

Mind you, it’s possible that it wouldn’t have made any sense to do so from an action-adventure perspective. (Which is why this is but a minor quibble.) Still, I would’ve liked to see a little bit more physics and a whole lot more of the sense of menace and danger while other-Skye and other-Sherlock actually fixed everything . . . and I didn’t get it.**

That being said, this is the best SF/mystery/romance I’ve read thus far in 2014. It has everything you’d want, and then some . . . and the romance between the two sets of incredibly intelligent people is to die for.

Bottom line? Anyone with a brain and a pulse who loves SF, loves mysteries, loves Sherlock Holmes and/or loves it when intelligent people find their true soul mates should adore this book.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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**This, for the record, is the only reason ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS did not receive an A-plus.

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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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“Fire Sanctuary” — Another Excellent Novel of Nuala by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

FIRE SANCTUARY, technically, is the third book in the Chronicles of Nuala by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel.  (The first book in the series, THE FIRES OF NUALA, was reviewed here.)  But it was the first released, and as it contains different characters and situations than THE FIRES OF NUALA or HIDDEN FIRES (to be reviewed soon), it can be read alone.

If you’ve read THE FIRES OF NUALA, you already know how important the Atare are to the people of Nuala.  The Atare are aristocrats of the first water, and are a fertile family made up of “20s” (the infertile, or people with borderline fertility, are called “80s”).  Their leadership has been essential to the survival of Nuala.

The main storyline of FIRE SANCTUARY deals with the interplay of five characters — Moran and Lyte, officers from the Axis worlds, Braan and Ronuviel (“Roe”) Atare, siblings and an important part of the Nualan aristocracy, and Teloa, a planter from Caprica.  Perhaps Teloa’s story is the simplest, as she lands on Nuala and immediately claims sanctuary.  As Nuala has been known for millenia as a planet that will welcome anyone, providing you are willing to be honest about who you are and who you’ve been, she is accepted with relative ease — especially as planters are valued highly on Nuala.

Now, the main reason we have so many differing and important characters involved is this: there’s a war brewing, and Nuala may not be able to stay out of it.  The Axis has been at war with the Fewha Empire for many years, and in this conflict, it’s possibly easiest to see the Fewhas as classic xenophobes, while the Axis is the old, corrupt empire that no one particularly wants to belong to, but everyone (save the Fewhas) has been forced to deal with anyway.  Moran and Lyte have long been considered essential to the Axis, yet because times are changing — and because Moran has fallen in love with Roe — both Moran and Lyte have been ordered to Nuala.

This is much more important than it seems, and not just because Moran and Lyte have major roles to play in FIRE SANCTUARY.  You see, the Fewhas quickly attack Nuala and drive the Axis off.  Nuala sustains a great deal of damage, with many people killed, even more crops destroyed and no real way of getting back at the Fewhas save by surviving long enough to outwait them.  And because of the immediate attack, Braan, formerly a third son, and his sister Roe must assume power as the ruling Atare (Braan) and the Ragäree (Roe).  This is no light thing, as what they actually now are happens to be the most important political leader and the most important, living symbol of fertility the Nualans have.

Obviously, Braan and Roe will need all the help they can get.  And Moran and Lyte’s help will be considerable.  But don’t underestimate Teloa — she’s not only a planter, but has also been a “hustler” (what might be considered as a particularly high-end prostitute).  She’s been forced to live by her wits due to a planetary disaster at Caprica, and because of that, she’s become an extremely quick study.

Which is a good thing, because as Teloa finds out, Nuala is a tough place to live.

As previously seen, Nuala is an extremely fragile planetary ecosystem.  The radiation is what’s damaged so many people’s fertility over time, and it still needs to be accounted for in every facet of daily life.  Planters like Teloa are valued because they must deal with the fact of the radiation along with everything else, and every available method — including sophisticated solutions from the Axis-aligned worlds and much easier, yet more intensive, methods such as crop rotation — must be applied or Nuala cannot feed its people.

And it’s because Nuala is so fragile that a most unusual system of marriage has cropped up.  The Atare have been bound by law to marry only off-worlders for years due to Nuala’s radiation and the need for off-world genes to add to the mix, and because of this, the Atare may take only one spouse as the people of Nuala have found, over time, that off-worlders do not take too well to polygamy or polygyny.  Plus, there are extensive rules, lightly sketched by Ms. Kimbriel yet real, dealing with how the 20s may not take multiple spouses unless they do so from the 80s . . . and the upshot of all these rules is that the people of Nuala (Ms. Kimbriel never calls them “Nualans”) are both moral and flexible when it comes to dealing with human sexuality.

The good part of this is that there literally are no illegitimate children.  Like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, children are known by their mother’s name the vast majority of the time (only the aristocrats take a surname, it seems).  And even when a father is acknowledged, his contact with the child he’s fathered seems largely up to the individual — something Ms. Kimbriel denotes by the attitudes of both Moran and Lyte as they acclimate to the society of Nuala.

Most of FIRE SANCTUARY deals with how Nuala must adapt and survive now that the Axis has withdrawn from actively helping them keep the Fewhas off.  Yet all of this action is underscored by the human relationships we see between Roe and her husband Moran, Braan’s growing attachment to Teloa, and Lyte’s various adventures.

And that doesn’t even get into the important minor characters, including the remaining family of Roe and Braan, the high priest and priestess of Nuala, the other healers (Roe’s contemporaries), and the movers and shakers among both the Sinis (the radioactive people) and the Ciedärlien (nomadic tribes that live in what was once an inhospitable waste).

Overall, FIRE SANCTUARY is an excellent novel, full of believable characters, interesting challenges, cross-cultural romance, and a goodly amount of action. As it was Ms. Kimbriel’s first-ever published novel, it’s not quite as good as her later FIRES OF NUALA — but that’s like saying an orange isn’t quite as good as an orange with chocolate sauce on it.

Really, the only bad thing about FIRE SANCTUARY is this — it needs a sequel.  Because I really want to find out how Braan, Roe, and the rest manage to keep the Fewhas off while staying alive to appreciate another day (or three).

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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