BOOK REVIEW: Heretics of Dune, by Frank Herbert

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Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Dune Chronicles (#5)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 508

Publication Date: 1984

Verdict: 2/5

Long after the death of the Tyrant Leto Atreides, the human race still follows his Golden Path. But now the ancient order of the Bene Gesserit face a new enemy who may throw all into chaos once more. An enemy that finds its roots shockingly close to home . . .

Heretics of Dune is an improvement on its predecessor for one simple reason. With this book, Frank Herbert has written a novel rather than an essay. We have characters! We have plot! Unfortunately, neither of these is enough to make up for how little I enjoyed this book. It’s a step in the right direction, granted, but a good book this is not.

As with the previous book, Heretics of Dune introduces an entirely new cast, with one notable exception. Duncan Idaho is still around, albeit in ghola form – and a child ghola at that. There’s a sense that things are coming full circle as the reborn Duncan is trained in the arts he once taught to young Paul Atreides. Indeed, at this point it seems that Duncan Idaho is the true protagonist of the Dune series. Even though he’s been killed off multiple times, and the current version is a copy of a copy, he is still the one constant thread running through the Frank Herbert’s books. What this means for the series is that we have yet another shift to a new protagonist, now following Duncan as he learns things we already know, and in some cases have known for several books.

This entire series has a well-deserved reputation for being full of weird. We saw that early on, when giant worms guarded a spice that could both render you immortal and enable you to travel through space. That particular thread reached its apex in God Emperor of Dune, but somehow Frank Herbert manages to make things even weirder with this fifth book in his series. How? I hear you ask. The answer is simple: evil dominatrix space nuns.

In theory, the idea of a malevolent version of the Bene Gesserit makes perfect sense. The wise women of Herbert’s future have been manipulating events behind the scenes for thousands of years. They are both awe-inspiring and terrible, and are rightly called witches by many. So of course it stands to reason that some could take those Bene Gesserit teachings and turn them towards more overtly sinister goals. That has the potential to be an interesting concept. The concept we actually end up with, however, is the Honoured Matres. Descended from Bene Gesserit who fled Leto II centuries earlier, I still don’t know what their end goal is. All we really see are their methods. Sex. Lots and lots of sex. All of it incredibly painful to read. I don’t exactly know how they destroy planets with sex, and quite frankly I don’t care. If Frank Herbert had never included sex in his writing, the world would be a better place. The Honoured Matres are so appallingly written, it’s difficult to see past them. The story of Duncan Idaho is an interesting one, but it’s drowned in some of the worst space opera I can think of.

If you can put up with the Honoured Matres, there is a little reward to be found in this book. If not, you’ll likely have a similar reaction to me.

BOOK REVIEW: Traitor Rock, by Justin D Hill

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Publisher: Black Library

Series: Cadia (#3)

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 341

Publication Date: 2021

Verdict: 5/5

 

Cadia has fallen, but the Cadians themselves live on. Throwing themselves into war after war in search of an identity, the Cadians now face a seemingly insurmountable task. To breach the walls of the formidable Traitor Rock, and they have only fifty days to do it . . .

In the grim, dark future there is only war. Not only is this a perfect summary of Warhammer 40,000 as a whole, it also cuts right to the heart of what makes Traitor Rock such a phenomenal novel. Obviously, most Black Library books have war front and centre, but few of them go so deep into the psychological aspects as Traitor Rock. Hill doesn’t just show us battle after battle. he examines the toll that takes on the human mind. And he asks a very important question: When there is only war, how are you supposed to maintain a cultural identity?

This is the third book in the Cadia series, and the second to focus on Sergeant Minka Lesk. Like the rest of her people, Lesk finds herself a soldier without a home. This is a tragedy for everyone, but the Cadians have based their entire society around their ability to hold out against any enemy. Every Cadian is a soldier in some capacity, and even in retirement they return home to teach the next generation. But now Cadia is rubble, and there are no more generations. The Cadians have not only been given a bloody nose by Chaos, they’ve lost their future. They have no home, they have no children, they have nothing. Nothing except war. Because in the grim, dark future, there will always be war.

There have been a lot of sieges in Black Library, perhaps most notably in the Gaunt’s Ghosts novel Necroplis. Traitor Rock blows that one clear out of the water. Most siege narrative focus on the plucky defenders fighting against insurmountable odds, using crumbling defences to ramp up the tension. Not this one. Hill shows us the other side of the battle. Traitor Rock, more properly known as Crannog Mons is an island fortress widely believed to be impregnable. The perfect mirror to Cadia’s own reputation. So who better to break its back than the Cadians themselves? It’s the perfect opportunity to show that they can give as good as they got.

When it comes to the action, Hill does not pull any punches. Limiting the conflict to the siege of a single fortress does nothing to dim the immensity of the challenge. There are beach landings to rival D-Day, and the writing conveys every coarse grain of sand underfoot as the bodies pile ever higher. This is a book filled to the brim with the smoke and blood of battle. It is utterly immersive, and Hill writes military tactics like no one else I’ve read. Most of the book follows the characters fairly closely, but every so often Hill pulls the curtains aside to show the broader theatre of war in a way that feels like a history textbook. And that is meant as a compliment, because it drives home just what the stakes are here.

Yes, there is only war. For both humanity and the Cadians. But the Cadians are the finest soldier ever raised by the Imperium, and with no home to call their own, they make a new one in the heart of battle. The Cadia series feels fairly open ended, and I can easily see this rivalling and even toppling the famous Ghosts as the epitome of the Astra Militarum. Minka Lesk is a fascinating embodiment of the Cadian psyche, and the supporting cast each brings a unique perspective. Cadia may be gone, but while there are stories to be told, I hope the battle cry of ‘Cadia Stands!’ rings out for many books to come.

In short, I have nothing but praise for Traitor Rock, as Justin D Hill has crafted my new favourite Warhammer 40,000 novel.

AUDIO REVIEW: Killing Time, by James Goss & Lou Morgan

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Series: The War Master (#6)

Genre: Time Travel

Publisher: Big Finish

Runtime: 5hrs 14m

Release Date: 31/08/2021

Cast: Derek Jacobi, Alexandria Riley, Katy Manning, Sarah Sutton

Verdict: 4/5

 

The Stagnant Protocol. A time-locked region of space in which no one is ever born, and no one ever dies. Until now. Because the Master has come to the Protocol, and where he goes, death is sure to follow . . .

Back once again with his unique mix of grandfatherly charm and soulless evil, Derek Jacobi single-handedly proves why The War Master range is my favourite Big Finish series. Right from the very first scene, in which he converse with a mute prisoner in a  dank cell, through everything that follows, Jacobi is on top form. Honestly, I could listen to the man talk about pretty much anything. But as the Master, he brings a uniquely calculated evil that no other actor can equal. One moment he’s a friendly uncle who you’d trust with your life. The next he’s sneering and cackling maniacally as the world burns around him. Jacobi’s delighted ‘Wheeee!’ as an angry mob closes in is worth the price of admission alone. This is a Master in full control, who knows exactly what he is doing and intends to have fun doing it.

The four stories in this series can be split neatly into two pairs. The first and last (both written by James Goss) are the supports around which the main story hangs. Here we see the Stagnant protocol in all its dubious glory. The time-locked nature of the Protocol is a uniquely Doctor Who creation, and a brilliant examination of the effects of the Time War on the surrounding universe. The protocol may not have chosen a side, but they are still swallowed by the enormity of the conflict. Bonus points also have to be given for creating a story centred on the Time War that does not feature Nicholas Briggs as the Daleks. Interesting though the setting is, the strongest part of these two acts is the character of Calantha (Alexandria Riley), a woman as devious as the master. And she has the home advantage. The constant hopping between scheming and polite dinner scenes can be a bit hard to follow, but the political manoeuvring and double-speak make it worthwhile.

The middle two volumes (written by Lou Morgan) don’t quite reach the same sense of grandeur. As the Master gathers resources, these two stories are far more intimate. Both also bring back a companion of the Doctor’s who have fought a different master. First we have Jo Jones (nee Grant), in a story that borders on the genuinely horrible. Trapped with the Master in a house that obeys the laws of neither space nor time, this is where Jacobi’s Master is at his most manipulative. The Master is effectively gaslighting Jo for the majority of this story, pretending to be her uncle, and leaving her a broken woman. There are some big implications for Jo’s backstory too that I’m not sure if we’re supposed to believe or not. Jo isn’t the only one left a mess after this one.

The third story features Nyssa, and this is one that fell flat for me. Nyssa (and indeed the Fifth Doctor) is a large gap in my Who knowledge, and without that knowledge Nyssa’s manipulation at the hands of the Master lacks the impact that familiarity would bring. That said, the acting is strong throughout, and makes up for some of the missing information. This particular story, set aboard a remote hospital ship, also feels the most claustrophobic. Recorded in 2019, the team could not have known how the world would have changed since then, a fact remarked upon in the interviews that follow the main story. Listening to the Master manipulating a deadly pandemic to his own ends certainly hits a lot harder in the present climate.

There might be an odd rough patch in this sixth volume of The War Master, but Killing Time is another excellent entry in the series, and I’m happy to see that Jacobi’s tenure as one of science fiction’s greatest villains is continuing beyond this point.

BOOK REVIEW: Fallen Gods, by Michael A. Martin

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Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Titan (#7)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 345

Publication Date: 2012

Verdict: 5/5

 

Following his mind-meld with a terraforming device, Tuvok is plagued by the knowledge of planetary creation and destruction. But as Titan searches for answers, the greatest threat may be a divisive new Starfleet policy . . .

Fallen Gods is easily my favourite Titan novel so far. Not only is it an excellent story in its own right, it also provides much-needed follow-up to both Seize the Fire and Paths of Disharmony. This is not a Typhon Pact novel, but it slots into the gaps of that series very neatly, showing that the effects of those events are not limited to the direct chain of seven books alone. The events of the Typhon Pact series, Paths of Disharmony in particular, should have a lasting impact on the series, and here is where we first see it.

With Andor having left the Federation, Andorian personnel are recalled to their homeworld. Even those who do not wish to go are reassigned by Starfleet. It’s a Cold War level paranoia that Martin writes incredibly well, especially with the Titan‘s seven Andorian crewmembers. Putting Riker in the position of choosing between oaths to Starfleet and loyalty to his crew is bound to create tension, and the fact that Titan is famed for its diverse crew makes the choice hit all the harder. Star Trek has always been very good at showing the individual fallout of wide-ranging political decisions, and Fallen Gods is no different. The Andorian plotline is by no means resolved during this book, but it does take several interesting turns, making brilliant use of Trek‘s rich history.

While the Andorian crisis is bubbling away in the background, we also have a straighter science fiction mystery to be investigated. Martin’s acknowledgements show how much research went into this, which is always nice to see in a science fiction book, and it follows on nicely from the ecosculpting seen in Seize the Fire. Tuvok of course plays a prominent role, but Fallen Gods also marks a triumphant return for SecondGen White-Blue. It’s always interesting to see how one author uses the creation of another, and between James Swallow and Michael A. Martin, White-Blue has a strong and clear arc of development. Character arcs and plot points converge perfectly throughout this book, and there’s never a lull.

Perhaps most impressive of all are the aliens original to this book. And I mean original. They’re the sort of truly alien aliens that would be incredibly hard to pull off on screen even with today’s mega budgets. The beings who dwell in the ruins of the Whetu’irawaru are completely nonhuman, and beautifully written. Cephalopods with few recognisable features, they appear to be a race of gender-neutral beings. The only pronouns given are hir and s/he. In this they echo the four-gendered Andorians in showing the diversity Trek can offer. They too are a species on the brink of extinction, though in this case it’s a pulsar rather than genetic issues that are to blame. Regardless, the anti-science and regressive Trasher movement are a great parable for so much of what is wrong with the world, and Eid’dyl is a wonderful point of view for it all.

Fallen Gods is not only the best Titan novel yet, it’s up there with some of my very favourite Star Trek experiences.An absolute masterclass in science fiction storytelling.

BOOK REVIEW: The Infinite and the Divine, by Robert Rath

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Publisher: Black Library

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 440

Publication Date: 2020

Verdict: 3/5

 

Tazyn the Infinite is a collector of history, roaming the Galaxy in search of new acquisitions for his collection. But as the Necrontyr prepare to rise from their millennia of slumber, he must work with Orikan, his greatest rival. Will they bring about the salvation of their people, or will treachery see them both returned to the grave . . ?

Robert Rath’s debut Black Library novel made a big splash when it hit shelves last year, for both the story itself and the fact it focused on xenos rather than Imperial characters. I missed out on the hardback (as I so often do) but the paperback release has been among my most anticipated books of 2021. A year on from that initial release, I’ve finally got my hands on The Infinite and the Divine. Maybe I built it up too much in my mind, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped to. I suppose that’s the problem with hype. We get carried away, convincing ourselves that the new thing is the very best thing ever. And when it’s merely good rather than great, we can’t help but feel let down.

The Infinite and the Divine takes place over the course of ten thousand years, starting at the time of the Horus Heresy, and culminating in the current Warhammer 40,000 time frame. Despite this, you don’t need to be an expert in the lore to follow what happens. I caught a few of the more obvious references (the destruction of Cadia, for example), but I’m sure there are more to go around if you are more familiar with the game’s rich history. The main body of the story is less concerned with sweeping galactic politics than it is with a single planet. The bulk of the action occurs on the world of serenade, and this is where the epic time frame works best. We spend well over a thousand years with this planet, seeing it change hands and struggle against the odds.

For a book that opens with necrons fighting dinosaurs, I found the first half of The Infinite and the Divine a struggle to get into. I can see why Black Library have been low on the xenos content until recently, as the necron mindset is hard to get into. How much of this is intentional, and how much of this is Rath’s writing, I can’t say. I’ll have to read more of his work before making a final judgement. The other reason I struggled up until the second half is the involvement of the orks. 40k’s orks are the polar opposite of the necrons. They are moronic and comedic while the necrons have a tragic weight to their existence. I’m yet to find an ork book that I haven’t had issues with, and that is the case here. The factions are so different, both in narrative terms and stylistically, that they don’t feel as though they should exist in the same book.

The second half is an improvement. perhaps because of familiarity, but also because we get forward momentum with the plot. In this section, Trazyn and Orikan share a lot of page time, and it’s their interactions that carry the novel. Equal partnerships are sorely lacking in a lot of SF, and Rath balances the backstabbing with a healthy dose of banter. The jokes here land far better than the orkish shenanigans of earlier chapters. The interplay between these two immortals is something I’d happily see much more of, and the novel suffers whenever they are separated. I think this is a standalone, but there is definitely life in these characters yet.

Even though it doesn’t live up to expectations, The Infinite and the Divine has its share of moments, and hopefully signals a lot more xenos material in Black Library’s future.

SPSFC At Boundary’s Edge: The First Cuts

Welcome back to the SPSFC! As we read through our thirty allotted books in search of three to send through to the next round, we sadly must bid farewell to the majority. At this stage in the competition, we are making initial judgements based on the first 20% of each book. It is entirely possible that our complaints are addressed in the following 80%. If a book strikes your fancy, we encourage you to pick it up and judge for yourself. For now though, we can reveal the first four books that will be removed from the competition.

 

 

Beneath 5th City, by Jesse Sprague

Beneath 5th City- Jesse Sprague

The Premise: Aliens have already taken over Earth. Billions are dead, and the survivors aren’t even allowed to grieve – emotions are punished and memories repressed.

The Verdict: While we liked the premise of this one, the occasionally gratuitous sexualisation of the characters seemed at odds with the setting Sprague had set up. The tone never quite matched the premise, and the rough prose failed to hold our interest.

 

Bragg for Hire, by John B. Cheek

Bragg for Hire -John B. Cheek

The Premise: A tough, somewhat infamous mercenary gets hired for an easy job to keep a new rich officer safe and away for danger. Things do not go according to plan.

The Verdict: This was the first book to split our judges, and one judge did vote to keep reading this. Unfortunately, the other two judges aren’t fans of military science fiction, and this didn’t have enough to set it apart from other military SF. In addition, the protagonist could be hard to root for. Fans of traditional military SF and bug-eyed monsters are likely to get a kick out of this one.

 

Company Daughter, by Callan Primer

Company Daughter-Callan Primer

The Premise: A teenage daughter of a mercenary captain is tired of feeling trapped in her father’s military life and decides to run away and stow on a ship. She’s found, but the ship she’s on is under attack before they can take her back home.

The Verdict: There was a general consensus among our team that this was one of the better-written books in the first batch. Unfortunately, it is clearly intended for a younger audience than us, and we found it rather light. People looking for  YA science fiction are likely to enjoy it far more than we did.

 

Crystal Deception, by Doug J. Cooper

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The Premise: A strong new A.I has been devised, and may want self-determination. A race of hostile aliens wants the A.I as well. The A.I’s creator and a special agent need to work together to keep Earth and the A.I. safe.

The Verdict: We all felt this one had potential, but the writing occasionally felt clunky or prone to info-dumping. We never got a great sense of setting either, as much of the story takes place in similar labs or corporate offices. There is great potential for the ideas here, but the execution didn’t quite make the grade.

 

Commiserations to those who didn’t make it, and we hope you find readers better suited to your books than us. We’ll be back to announce the next round of cuts very soon, but for now, you can find the full list of At Boundary’s Edge’s books by clicking this link.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Paths of Disharmony, by Dayton Ward

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Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Typhon Pact (#4)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 455

Publication Date: 2011

Verdict: 3/5

 

For generations, the Andorian people have faced a population crisis. In the wake of the Borg invasion, low birth rates could spell the end of their civilisation. As scientists and politicians meet to discuss the crisis, Picard and the Enterprise are sent to ensure all goes well . . .

The middle book of the Typhon Pact series breaks with the pattern established by the previous three. Rather than showcasing one of the Typhon Pact’s members, Paths of Disharmony focuses on one of the Federation’s founding members. Ever since I first saw Shran step into the monastery at P’Jem, I have adored the Andorians, and to this day they’re one of my favourite Star Trek aliens (although the Orions stand on the brink of eclipsing them). Aside from Enterprise, however, I haven’t come across them much in the tie-in fiction. So news that they’ve been battling low birth rates for two centuries came as something of a surprise.

Just as we’ve had Typhon Pact novels from the perspective of the Deep Space Nine and Titan crews, Paths of Disharmony is carried by faces from The Next Generation. Iconic though they are, the Enterprise-E crew are a group I’ve never been that invested in. In fact, it’s the newer faces on the ship such as T’Ryssa Chen and Jasminder Choudhury that hooked me. The ‘lower decks’ view they offer as the chief officers do their work. I will say, however, that Worf’s tenure as commanding officer of the Enterprise is a treasure to behold, and I hope we get more of this at some point, whatever form it may take.

Paths of Disharmony is one of the slower books in this readthrough, for both better and worse. On the positive side, this book deals with a lot of heavy politicking and moral issues, so it absolutely deserves its page count and the time taken. This book provides a truly momentous moment for not only this series, but also the larger Star Trek universe as a whole. The decisions made here have ramifications that will be felt for years and volumes to come. But while it deserves its weighty presence, Paths of Disharmony can and does grind to a halt, much like politics itself. There’s only so many political round-tables I can read, and even the riots and assassinations follow a cycle that only narrowly avoids repetition as the book goes on. With Picard and company taking a theoretically observational role, much of the plot progresses while they are elsewhere. In Worf’s case, this is for the better, as his encounters with terrorists are largely isolated from the issues on the ground, and are great reading in their own right. For those sucked into the sticky mire of Andorian politics, I have far less interest.

Though the Andorians are the focus, the Typhon Pact is represented here by the Tholians, a species the Litverse has a strong track record with. In fact, Paths of Disharmony has very strong ties to the previous Tholian outing, the Vanguard series. It’s impressive how well the two stories, set a century apart, are tied together. I suppose it helps that Ward is the author of both. nevertheless, this is a prime example of the Litverse using its interconnections to great effect. More impressive still when it appears the Vanguard series was unfinished at the time Paths of Disharmony was being written. It all brings the universe into a more cohesive whole, without shrinking the setting down to the same group of characters again and again.

Paths of Disharmony is a classic example of a slumping middle volume, but it is far from a bad book. Really, it’s better for what it does to the overarching Star Trek narrative than for how it stands on its own.

SPOILER ALERT! It’s Okay To Know Things

This week, Star Trek announced via their official channels that Annie Wershing would be appearing in upcoming episodes as the Borg Queen. This excites me for two reasons. One: any mention of the Borg and I get excited. They’re one of Star Trek’s greatest inventions. Two, Wershing will be the third actress to portray the role, solidifying the idea that a Queen is made as a spokesperson for the Collective rather than being a true individual. One reaction that took me by surprise, however, was when I saw people rolling their eyes and saying ‘spoilers. You’ve ruined the surprise.’ This got me thinking about the nature of spoilers, and whether or not they actually spoil anything.

In the case of the Wershing announcement, I don’t see any spoiler at all. And there’s one simple reason for this: This is something that Star Trek has told us, on purpose, before we can possibly see the show. We as an audience are expected to go into season two of Picard knowing that he will encounter the Borg Queen in some form. We don’t know if it’s a flashback, a return for the Queen, or some alternate timeline dream sequence. This is the same argument we’ve had since Q was announced to be making a return, and indeed going back to all the announcements for season one. The thing about modern Star Trek is that they expect die-hard fans to dissect the minutiae of every trailer. Nothing is put into the marketing that they don’t want potential viewers to know. Some of it is even likely to be misdirection.

The problem is that a lot of modern storytelling relies on misdirection and twists. Think of Lost, where mystery was the entire premise of the show. For a more modern example, we have The Walking Dead. The best thing about this show is that anyone might be killed off, and not knowing who will die is most of the fun. If you know who gets bumped off in any given episode, a lot of the enjoyment is gone. The Walking Dead is a show where going in blind is the best thing you can do. The shock and surprise is a massive part of its success. But it’s a double-edged sword. Because the surprises are so shocking (particularly in the earlier years of the show) they get talked about a lot by fans. Not a season went by that I didn’t have something spoiled for me. I still enjoyed the episodes, but they were robbed of that anyone-can-die tension.

Let’s take a look at Star Wars. We live in a world where everyone knows that Darth Vader is Luke Sykwalker’s father. But it was intended as a shocking reveal. You weren’t supposed to know about it beforehand. There is an alleged story that the novelisation bears the famous line on the rear cover, and this book was publicly available before the film came out, but that’s nether here nor there. Going into the film with this knowledge fundamentally changes how you view the film. See also, the unintentionally incestuous romance between Luke and Leia in rewatches of A New Hope. Watching  The Empire Strikes Back for the first time, you are not supposed to know of this connection. When you watch the prequel trilogy, however, this knowledge is assumed. We see Anakin fall to the dark side knowing how it will end. His rise as Darth Vader is not a shocking turn, it’s a tragic inevitability.

None of this is to say that spoilers are not out there. If I say ‘Daniel Jackson dies in this episode of Stargate‘ then that’s going to be a spoiler for people who haven’t seen it. the problem with the massive fandoms we now connect with online is that not everyone consumes media at the same rate. Especially when Netflix drops an entire series overnight. Some people may watch it all in one go, while others ration it out. It’s almost impossible to talk about the things we love without letting slip a detail that some would consider a spoiler. Here At Boundary’s Edge, I try and avoid discussing big reveals, but when you’re reviewing a book or a show, you have to find something to talk about, or the review boils down to a thumbs up or down.

Personally, I don’t find that spoilers reduce my enjoyment of a book. I’ll happily read a review that gives everything away. For the same reason I’ll rewatch Enterprise some day despite the lacklustre ending. Because how something occurs is just as interesting as what occurs. A fully believe that the ending of a story is its defining feature, but even knowing that, the journey can be just as rewarding.

That is why the Wershing casting announcement doesn’t bother me. The producers want me to know the Borg Queen is in the show. Now i can sit back and enjoy whatever role she plays in the story.

BOOK REVIEW: The Recollection, by Gareth L. Powell

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Publisher: Solaris

Genre: Space Opera/Time Travel

Pages: 420

Publication Date: 2011

Verdict: 4/5

 

When Ed’s brother disappears into a mysterious portal, he and his brother’s wife Alice embark on a trip to find their missing relative. Four hundred years later, spacefarer Kat Abdulov embarks on her own race against time . . .

As a quick note, I read the tenth anniversary edition of this book, just released in 2021. Aside from an introduction by the author, I am unaware of any differences between the two versions. My assumption is that the text of the story is identical, but I am willing to be proven wrong.

In a lot of ways, The Recollection stands as a foundation for the rest of Powell’s work. Though I’ve only read his Embers of War trilogy, many elements are familiar. Ancient civilisations, mismatched crews, ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations. group dynamics with a splash of family drama on the side. But the most obvious connection is the sentient spacecraft. This is a trope I’m personally quite fond of, and one that turns up a lot in science fiction. Powell strikes me as a man who is equally fond of the idea, seen here in the form of AmelineAmeline isn’t quite in the same league as Trouble Dog, but it’s easy to draw the lines between the two. Ameline is more of a supporting character in this book than its successor, and lacks the sarcasm of Trouble Dog. It’s natural that ideas will develop and grow over time, but coming to The Recollection after Embers of War does make this book suffer in comparison. So much of this book feels like a prototype for the richer stories still to come.

Despite that criticism, the actual storytelling of The Recollection feels fresh. Even ten years ago, Powell had his trademark, digestible style. This is a book where the pages simply fly by. Compulsive readability is a trait that a lot of books lack, but I read The Recollection in just two sittings. There’s nothing confusing or unnecessarily obtuse about Powell’s writing, which is an impressive feat when writing about the effects of relativity. The prose is clean and concise, and very moreish.

On a worldbuilding level, the arches used as transportation are a neat concept that I wish more stories employed. If Stargate taught us anything, it’s that you can have space opera without massive fleets. (Although Stargate had its cake and ate in in that regard.) Powell is hardly writing hard SF, but there’s a definite crunch to his interstellar network, taking into account both time and space. There’s a strange moment later on in the novel involving destiny and chosen ones that comes slightly out of the left field, but generally I enjoyed the balance between narrative necessity and the rigour given to technological limitations.

The twin story-lines, though they do eventually converge, are the book’s only real weakness. I’m much more interested in the spaceship side of things, and am therefore glad Powell chose to focus on these stories in the future. Watching Ed and Alice hope through one arch after another, rambling across various planets does grow repetitive after awhile. There’s a sense that they’re just wandering around until the plot finds them. It probably doesn’t help that was never that interested in the love triangle that binds Ed, Alice, and Verne. Though the rest of the book kept me guessing until the end, the relationships between the leads were fairly predictable. In a way, I’m glad they didn’t take up more of my time, but this is definitely an area in which Powell has improved over the years.

The Recollection is a perfectly entertaining story in its own right, but together with Powell’s more recent work, it is a fascinating insight into the evolving work of one of Britain’s best active SF authors.

BOOK REVIEW: Seize the Fire, by Michael A. Martin

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Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Typhon Pact (#2)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 488

Publication Date: 2010

Verdict: 4/5

Hit by a devastating natural disaster, the Gorn Hegemony stands on the brink of extinction. The warrior caste, for so long the defenders of the Hegemony, must find a new world on which to settle. Or, with the help of a terraforming device, rebuild an inhabited world for themselves . . .

From the moment a tiger-print clad lizard-man threw a boulder at James Kirk, the Gorn have been one of science fiction’s most iconic alien species. Yet their only other appearance on screens was a brief encounter in the excellent Enterprise two-parter ‘In A Mirror, Darkly.’ The acknowledgements of Seize the Fire show that they have been used more in the tie-in fiction, but off the top of my head, this is the first book I’ve read that features them. certainly it’s the first that puts them front and centre. Just as Zero Sum Game developed the culture of the Breen, so too does this book elaborate on the Federation’s reptilian neighbours.

Here we see how the Gorn are divided into a rigid caste system. Yes, it’s a social division, but the various castes are biologically distinct too. Kirk’s legendary foe, for example, was a warrior-caster, much like the chief antagonist of this novel. But we also see a tech-caste, with hints that there are more castes that we are not being made fully aware of. Not only does this clear up discrepancies in Gorn portrayals throughout history, it also takes them a step away from the ‘alien warrior species’ trope that pops up so much in science fiction. of course, most military encounters will be with the warriors, but even lizard aliens have people back home. The innate Gorn revulsion felt when dealing with mammals is a nice touch to explain their antagonism, and the Gornification of names (Riker being written as Rry’kurr, for example)really helps put you in the head-space of these aliens.

Seize the Fire also features one of my favourite SF ideas: Terraforming. Or more properly: ecosculpting, because it’s not Terra the Gorn hope to replicate. Seize the Fire acknowledges the ethical problems posed by terraforming. Not only can a terraformer turn a desert into a forest, it can also do the opposite. Creation and destruction going hand in hand In a universe where life and sentience aren’t always obvious, Martin provides a neat moral problem about how and where the terraformer ought to be used. Or if it should be used at all. Yes, it can be used to heal worlds, but in the wrong hands, it could also be a devastating weapon.

Though it falls under the Typhon Pact banner, Seize the Fire is a Titan novel through and through. It uses the diverse cast to its full advantage, particularly Titan‘s own reptilian crewmembers. Interesting to note that the Cardassian Dakal is largely elsewhere for the duration of this novel, but Dr Ree and a handful of others play a key role in convincing the Gorn that the Federation is not, in fact, overrun with mammals. Recent addition to the team SecondGen White-Blue also gets to prove their usefulness, and I look forward to seeing how the AI construct is used in future books. This far into Titan‘s journey, it;’s hard to remember that we never saw this crew on screen, for they feel as real and fully realised as any crew of the main shows.

With moral dilemmas, advanced technology, and intriguing aliens, Seize the Fire offers pretty much everything you could want from a Star Trek novel.