Book Review: Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

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I bought this book, sight unseen, after hearing some Twitter buzz that it was being criticized for having too many strong female characters. This, of course, pissed me off enough that I immediately ordered one for myself and one to give my brother for his upcoming birthday (if you’re reading this, dear brother…um, surprise??).

It wasn’t as much of a risk as it sounds since the buzz was generated by John Scalzi and I figured if he liked it, chances are I would too. Nonetheless, I was prepared to feel a bit foolish and chalk it up to a learning experience if the book turned out to suck.

I finished it in a day and a half. Suck it did not. This book was a ride. It was almost exhausting at times, but more like vigorous-round-of-sex-exhausting, not slogging-up-a-mountain-exhausting…and that’s always a good thing.

The near-future story follows Andrew Grayson – a young, intelligent, self-described welfare rat who enlists in the military to escape his hopeless and seriously shitty life in Boston public housing. He says goodbye to his sad mother and cancer-riddled, abusive father hoping to get a ticket off of Earth and a chance for a new life. We follow him through basic training, where the abundant food alone is enough to make him stay through the hardships of the program.

He makes friends, discovers his skills, and even strikes up a romantic relationship with a fellow (yep, strong female) soldier. All great stuff, but fairly relaxed until Andrew graduates and gets his first assignment. I don’t want to inject spoilers here, so I’ll just say he gets an assignment and many, many explodey things happen. It’s running and shooting and battle tactics and grenade launchers and wanton destruction followed by skin-of-the-teeth survival. It’s basically one damned thing after another for this guy and his unit and we are happy to be along for the ride.

Afterward, Kloos lets us up for a breath of air and then plunges us back into the shit for some seriously surprising space-alien adventure. Awesome stuff, full of both male and female bad-ass characters, great dialogue and quality storytelling. I see that it has a sequel, which I’ll be buying ASAP. Maybe I’ll even get two!

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Book Review: Downfall by Rob Thurman

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God damn, I am a sucker for these books!

I discovered the first of the Cal Leandros series a few years ago while wandering the oh-so-familiar Sci Fi/Fantasy section of a bookstore, just looking around for something new. I don’t know why I picked out Nightlife, the first book in the series. Eye-catching cover, maybe? But then I opened it up, read the first two pages, said a quiet “Oh hell yeah!” and I’ve been buying Rob Thurman books ever since.

The Leandros series is about two half-brothers – Niko, who is human and Cal, who is half-human-half-Auphe (the Auphe being your worst nightmare, bad acid trip version of elves). The series follows the harrowing adventures life brings to them in a world full of monsters, gods, angels, paien, and assholes…oh and a few true friends.

Each book (nine in the series so far) centers around Cal’s struggle not to allow his monster-DNA to take him over and Niko’s struggle to keep his brother alive and intact as they’re hunted, first by the Auphe, and later by creature after creature that the brothers stand against in an effort to do what’s right or at least to make ends meet by taking contract work from the supernatural community.

While the guns, swords, wisecracks, and mega-violent adventuring is a huge draw for me, it’s the relationship between the brothers that really hits the spot. Completely loyal to one another, either would tear apart the world to save the other. Thurman has a great way of capturing the savage toughness of both brothers and dovetailing it beautifully with the painful vulnerability that is their love and devotion for each other.

Downfall, the latest in the series, does not disappoint and may in fact be one of the best. So many, many spoilers…it’s hard to get too specific, but let’s just say that she (Thurman is a woman, in case you didn’t know) had me very worried for a while that this was going to be the last book in the series, or at least the last one in which either brother would be recognizable. I won’t tell you how it ends…but quite a lot changes. If you’re a reader of the series and find that some of the loose ends she left in other books are bugging you…read this one because many things are explained and wrapped up. If you’re not a reader of the series, what are you doing still sitting there?? Go buy the first book, or go to the library, or borrow it from a friend…but do yourself a favor and read it.

Book Review: Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk

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For many years, getting a new McDevitt was kind of like getting a pile of gold. “Gasp! For me? Thank you!” His stories were gripping. His characters were brave, intelligent, competent – damned likeable.

A typical McDevitt had characters embarking on some sort of mission or project only to have something go terribly wrong or to discover something world-changingly significant or both at the same time, like finding evidence of intelligent life on a planet that was about to explode…on which the unfortunate characters had somehow become trapped. The characters would have to figure out an ingenious way of getting out of whatever mess they were in that took every ounce of ingenuity and courage they had. These books were can’t-put-it-down, turn-the-page-faster, action sci-fi brilliance.

In recent years, it seems to me that McDevitt’s books have become…tamer. Still a good read, still books I was interested in buying…but they seemed to have lost something. With the switch from main character Captain Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins to antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his sidekick Chase Kolpath, there was far more talking and going out to dinner than figuring out how to get five people off a planet that was about to explode. Alex and Chase generally had a mystery on their hands and there was often some kind of peril. But it was never anything as harrowing or edge-of-your-seat gripping like the Hutch books or his early non-Hutch books like Moonfall, Eternity Road, and Ancient Shores.

With Starhawk…Hutch…and McDevitt are back. Not perhaps all the way back…but we’re getting close. Starhawk tells an early Hutch story. Before she got her nickname, before she had any of her adventures, before she was even taken seriously by the people who would later count on her for their most difficult missions.

Hutch is a brand new pilot. In fact, she’s on her final testing run to get certified, when something goes wrong. She and her mentor are called upon to divert from their testing flight to rescue a ship full of young girls on a space school trip. This gives us a delicious taste of the old Hutch books with problems that seem to have no solution. The pain and suffering that ensues give an interesting background for what we know from other books are Hutch’s later refusals to give up or sacrifice anyone, even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Once this first experience is under her belt, the book sadly tames up as Hutch looks for a job and experiences her first professional disappointments. While we do learn a lot about Hutch’s early life, we don’t get a lot of adventure. This is not to say that we don’t want to know these things. In fact, McDevitt does a great job of describing what it can be like for a newbie, particularly a female one, making her way through the old-boys network in the dick-swinging world of space pilots. The fact that she’s pretty gets remarked upon with annoying frequency by those (male and female) who she encounters in her job. When young Hutch sticks her neck out to try to do what’s right, she gets labeled as “emotional” by her superior. All too familiar for professional women everywhere and it’s refreshing to see a male author with the ability to describe these things in a way that feels genuine.

While I initially despaired that the rest of the book would remain tame, it turns out that McDevitt was setting us up for a final adventure and we’re treated to another McDevitt nail-biter before the book ends. This was a well-written surprise, but it left me wanting more. It made me long anew for the old McDevitts, full of Hutch in her prime. Her career as a pilot must have held more adventures that we can enjoy. I doubt McDevitt will ever write a bad book, but we know there is so much more to be had. I can only hope that we get more stories like the old ones. Until then I will, of course, buy anything the man writes…but c’mon Jack! We know you’ve got the goods!  Bring us on another adventure!

Reading What I Never Read

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Weird experience today…reading the kind of book I never read. Seriously — never.

I am very much a sci-fi, urban fantasy reader. I like it gritty. The grittier the better. I like it science-y. I like weapons and explosions and fighting. Neal Asher, Iain M. Banks, absolutely! Jack McDevitt, yep! Richard K. Morgan, yes please! Rob Thurman, Jim Butcher, Richard Kadrey…keep it comin’! But today I went with Pride and Prejudice meets Faerie Magic. I’m talking about Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey.

Confession time…this all started with porn. Okay, not really porn, but erotica. I started following Ms. Kowal on Twitter when she supplied John Scalzi with a dress to wear for a picture (yep, you read that right). She recently posted a link to some erotica she had written involving her characters from SoMaH. So, of course, I clicked on it. Oh shut up! Don’t judge me… I’m human!

Let me just say that her erotic vignette was quite well written –it was a scene from a wedding night. It was so well written with such engaging characters that I wanted to read more, so I called my local indie bookstore and ordered a copy of SoMaH. Me, the girl who avoids squishy, love-story crap like the plague I think it is.

I picked it up this afternoon…and I just finished it a few minutes ago. Yeah, she got me. It had enough fantasy and magic in it to keep it from being a mundane story and there was even a moment where I got to say “Hey, guns! Cool!” The book is a lot like Pride and Prejudice, but the world it’s set in has glamour and magic alongside country dances and proper English society in the Napoleonic era.  Weird…but good! And save any tsk tsks you’re tempted to send my way because there is no erotica of any kind in the actual book…so it wasn’t a sex thing. It was the characters. I liked them. I cared what happened to them.

Hmmm, where have I heard that before? Oh right, that’s the way to make people want to read what I write! Yeah, okay, not that I didn’t know this before…but it’s somewhat astonishing to find it to be so true that it can pry me out of my sci-fi/fantasy corner and make me read something entirely different. Maybe this means I can add an actual female writer to my list of Unwitting Author Mentors.

But the question now is…will the clerk at my bookstore laugh at me tomorrow when I call to order the next book in the series?