BOOK REVIEW: Citadel, by Marko Kloos

-Hold up, this is a sequel! Find my reviews of Book 1: Aftershocks and Book 2: Ballistic, by clicking on the links.-

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Series: The Palladium Wars (#3)

Publisher: 47North

Genre: Space Opera/Military SF

Pages: 320

Publication Date: 10/08/2021

Verdict: 5/5

 

In the wake of the nuclear attack on Rhodian soil, the Alliance clamps down on the Gretians. It is all in the name of security, but are they playing directly into the hands of the Gretian radicals who call themselves Odin’s Wolves . . ?

Citadel marks my tenth Marko Kloos novel, and with these books he’s proven himself a consistently strong writer. Yes, his novels may be on the shorter side, but he releases them quickly (two this year), and they’re all of a high quality. Citadel might even be his strongest yet. An impressive feat from a man with two ongoing series that are both high up in my estimation.

One of the potential downsides of a short book, especially one that has four PoV characters, each with their own story-line, is that they can feel rushed. That’s not an issue here. If anything, the pacing is rather sedate for a military SF novel. Aden still feels like the main character, but with an equal number of chapters for each of the characters, it’s a feeling that’s less strong now than it was at the start of the series. he’s still the most directly involved in the most major events, but now the rest of the cast are muscling in on the action.

And that’s the weird thing about this series. Three books in, and I’m still not entirely sure what the main plot is. There’s no clear trajectory for the road ahead. But this doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it would. I’m very much a plot-driven reader, but The Palladium Wars is showing a new way to handle plotting. This doesn’t have traditional novel structures like most series. in fact, the best thing I can compare it to is a serialised TV show. Each book has a problem that is faced and resolved, but it all leads into the next one. There are no cliffhangers as such, but rather natural pauses in the story. Really, all it needs is some opening credits and this series would translate brilliantly to the screen.

Though I don’t know where this series is headed (partially the result of not knowing how many books are planned), Citadel does move things forward. Characters continue to cross over from one arc to another, and the situation both in space and on Gretia grows increasingly tense. Although there is a lot of action, it’s a nice change to have a military-themed story that isn’t wholly focused on fighting a war. The aftermath of the war is just as interesting, and that’s something a lot of books forget about. Kloos’ experience in the military clearly informs every scene, and that lends an edge of realism. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of conflict, but he doesn’t revel in it either. There are no glorious charges here. Only pain and paperwork.

When your only real complaint about a series is that you don’t know how long it will be, you know you’re onto a winner, and if Citadel is the new standard, then I hope this series has a long way to go yet.

BOOK REVIEW: Brinkmanship, by Una McCormack

click here for a full index of all my Star Trek reviews

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Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Typhon Pact (#7)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 334

Publication Date: 2012

Verdict: 4/5

 

The independent territory of the Venette Convention becomes the latest flash-point in the cold war between the Federation and the Typhon Pact. Yet while evidence mounts that the Pact intends to start open hostilities, the Federation is no less belligerent . . .

Brinkmanship brings the Typhon Pact series to an end with both a bang and a whimper. I have no problem in saying that this is my favourite book in the series. Una McCormack is one of the most consistently strong authors Star Trek has in its hands, and Brinkmanship is a fine display of her talent. As a standalone story, it’s magnificent. But as the conclusion of a long series,it does eave me less than satisfied.

Brinkmanship takes place over the course of three weeks and deals with the crews of both the Enterprise and the Aventine, as well as secret agents of both the Federation and Cardassia. Despite this, it’s paced like lightning. There are no lulls here as we’ve seen in previous novels. All the momentum is forwards, and even the slower sections are fraught with tension. It’s refreshing to have Picard taking to the negotiating table as the main story rather than the split between familiar crews and politics we’ve seen elsewhere. I was also pleasantly surprised by the central role taken by Beverly Crusher, who even if the novels has felt underused, though I have admittedly not read many of the Next Generation novels. The rest of the crew don’t get much of a look-in, but it helps keep a tighter focus on Picard and Crusher, emphasising how truly in the dark they are about the true goals of the negotiators.

But where this book really shines is on the Aventine. Captain Ezri Dax is one of the best ideas the Litverse ever had, taking one of my favourite characters and sending them on a completely new trajectory that nevertheless feels entirely natural for the character. It’s a shame that there was never an Aventine series, because every appearance of this ship and its crew has been great. No longer in the shadow of Jadzia, Ezri gets to stand out as a character in her own right. In Brinkmanship, she also gets the lion’s share of the action, getting involved in high stakes espionage on the front line of a potential war. McCormack deftly ties in Dax’s present as a captain and Ezri’s past as a counsellor in way that could only work for this character.

However, Brinkmanship has a problem in common with the rest of the Typhon Pact series. When all is said and done, nothing much has changed after the end of this book. This series has been great at shining a light on some of Star Trek‘s greatest antagonistic species. But aside from Andor’s secession from the Federation, the whole series has been dedicated to maintaining the status quo. There’s no victory on either side, and one or two moments aside, seven books on we’re almost exactly where we started. I can’t help but feel this was a squandered opportunity to truly shake up the universe. Obviously, the Typhon Pact is still around, and will be around in future books, but within this series there’s very little real change.

Like the majority of this series, Brinkmanship is a strong novel that highlights both individual characters and the larger galactic political picture, but the Typhon Pact series has ended up being less than the sum of its parts. An impressive feat for the work of so many authors, but not what it could perhaps have been.

BOOK REVIEW: Chapter House Dune, by Frank Herbert

-Click here for a full index of my Dune Saga reviews-

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Publisher: Guild Publishing

Series: Dune Chronicles (#6)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 374

Publication Date: 1986

Verdict: 3/5

 

The Honored Martres have taken control of humanity, and the ancient order of the Bene Gesserit are forced into hiding. The choice before them is simple: Fight an unwinnable battle, or betray everything they have ever held sacred . . .

I genuinely don’t know what to think about Chapter House Dune. On the one hand, it’s the most enjoyable of Frank Herbert’s novels since Messiah. On the other, the series has been in decline since that point and this late resurgence can’t atone for the amount of madness that it builds on. I’m not sure if I like Chapter House more than the other books, or if I’m just more forgiving of its flaws because it’s shorter. The brevity certainly works in its favour, and even the hefty philosophical debates breeze by in a way they haven’t in previous volumes. It’s a tragedy that Frank Herbert died before he could write the final Dune novel, because Chapter House‘s prose and pacing are a massive step up from what has gone before. If it hadn’t been saddled with the consequences of previous volumes, this could even have equalled Messiah as my favourite book in the series.

But those consequences are there. And no matter how good this book could have been, it still has one massive problem: The Honored Martres We get a lot of insight to their worldview here, and it’s not a pretty picture. The Honored Martres are all about consumption, echoing the voracious appetite of the Baron Harkonnen all those centuries ago. The example given is a painting. The Bene Gesserit love the art because of its history. The Honored Martres crave it because if they own it, no one else can. Their entire society is based around possession. In this book we get dozens of pages of dialogue between Honored Martres and Bene Gesserit comparing their orders, and even though it’s all just talk, it’s some of the most gripping and interesting writing Herbert ever put to the page.

All this philosophy comes close to redeeming the Honored Martres as a concept, but as he so often does, Herbert shoots himself in the foot by making it all about sex. The Honored Martrs derive sexual pleasure from their conquests. they can brainwash you with sex. They can apparently be turned against their own if the sex is good enough. It’s all utterly nonsensical, and brings an otherwise interesting concept crashing down to earth. if I never have to read the phrases ‘orgasmic bang’ and ‘sexual collision’ again, it will still be too soon. Herbert’s fascination with sexual dominance ruins this book. It’s weird, it doesn’t make sense, and it’s off-putting. I can only be glad he didn’t go into too much biological detail.

It’s hard to talk about Chapter House without discussing the ending. It’s not a cliffhanger, but it does leave a lot unresolved. You could stop here if you chose, but it’s obvious a seventh book was planned. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the climax is the very final scene, which introduces two entirely new characters in the form of Daniel and Marty. there is no clues whatsoever who these people are supposed to be, or what their relevance to the book, or indeed the series, is. Cut of this final scene and you have an unsatisfying conclusion to a meandering series. leave it in, and you have one final enigma that gives a confusing saga one final head-scratching question. Thankfully, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson took it upon themselves to give a proper ending, which we’ll get into soon enough.

For now though, we bid a final farewell to Frank Herbert’s tenure at the helm of the Dune saga. It didn’t always make a lot of sense, but it was an interesting journey.

Faith of the Heart: Celebrating Twenty Years of Star Trek: Enterprise

On September 26th 2001, Star Trek went where it had never been before. To a prequel, chronicling the voyages of the first starship Enterprise in the middle of the twenty-second century. A hundred years before Kirk, and two hundred before the trio of shows that had just finished their epic fourteen year journey. The show ran for four seasons, the first simply as Enterprise before adopting the Star Trek prefix for the second half of its run.

Enterprise is not my favourite Star Trek (by virtue of quantity, Voyager narrowly betas it to the top spot). But it is my Star Trek. Back when I was nine or ten, it aired on weekend mornings on S4C (because in those days Wales didn’t automatically  get Channel 4). My first memory of Star Trek is Archer and his crew shooting blue lasers in a murky cave, a scene I think I’ve tracked down to Season 3’s opener ‘The Xindi.’ I remember seeing the controversial finale ‘These Are the Voyages…’ and wondering if this was Riker’s ship before he served under Picard. BBC2 at the time aired Next Generation, and the idea of linked shows thrilled me. My family soon moved onto Stargate, but when we looked for more box-sets to satisfy our science fiction craving, Enterprise was the first Star Trek we turned to. It was the first Trek show I watched one episode after another in order, start to finish without missing a single one. And I loved it. Everything else Star Trek in my life follows on from there.

What makes Enterprise so great? Well, pretty much everything. Generally speaking, I don’t like prequels. But Enterprise told a story that could only have been done as a prequel. The early days of human spaceflight, and the birth of the Federation. Things that Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway took for granted simply don’t exist in Archer’s day. The NX-01 Enterprise can only reach warp 5. It has no shields, no universal translators, no tractor beams. But it the best design of any Star Trek title ship. Others are a mix of warship and luxury hotel, but the NX-01 looks like a submarine. it’s all function, and that is exactly what makes it so majestic. Like it’s crew, it is here to a mission, and there’s no room for luxury. The quarters are cramped, the warp core primitive, and it feels like the sort of craft we may one day make in the real world. Artificial gravity notwithstanding.

The first two seasons of Enterprise follow a familiar pattern. The crew land on a planet, face a problem, and go home having discussed morality and science. But there’s a sense of enthusiasm that would be lost on the jaded crew of Voyager. Everything Archer sees, he is the first human to see. The wonder of space has never been more apparent than when he lands on a planet, takes pictures of his crew, and lets his dog go for a run. But with that enthusiasm comes a naivete. There are no established protocols for the situations in which Archer finds himself, and he must literally make the rules as he goes. Epsidoes such as ‘Cogenitor’ are a prime example of Archer judging aliens by standards that simply don’t apply. This goes for the whole crew. They don’t understand what they’re getting into. They have nothing but the best intentions, but they are prone to making mistakes. They are the most human crew (in more ways than one) that Star Trek has shown us. Picard is a role model, but Archer and his crew feel more real. We’ll probably never reach the golden days of Picard’s era, but Archer’s flawed optimism feels with reach.

In these first two seasons, Star Trek broke with the strictness of episodic formatting only occasionally. ‘Dead Stop’ occurs due to damage incurred in ‘Minefield,’ but you could easily watch one without knowledge of the other. This changed in season 3. For the first time, there was a set agenda for the entire season. One serialised story that took Enterprise down a dark path. The Xindi arc is notorious for the misery it inflicts on the crew. At one stage, Archer becomes a war criminal, and never faces the consequences. yet at the end of this foray in darkness, it’s by appealing to the better nature of others that humanity endures. Earth emerges from its darkest hour not by destroying its enemies, but by turning them into allies. Season 4 balances episodic and serialise storytelling better than any other show, breaking the season down into arcs of 2 or 3 episodes. Many relate to one another in ways not immediately obvious, and there are callbacks (or rather callforwards) to the rest of the franchise.

Any Star Trek show is made or broken by its crew, and Enterprise had a rougher time than some. Not because of casting, but because of the choice to have a central trio rather than a true ensemble as had happened before. This leads to some characters dominating, but when the rest of the regulars get a moment in the sun, they glow just as brightly.

Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) embodies the spirit of the show just as a captain should. he begins as a man who despises Vulcans and is content to rampage through space to prove himself worthy of his father’s legacy. But over the course of the run, it is Archer who must become the best of what humanity has to offer, reaching out to other species for mutual support. Yes, he makes mistakes, but how else are we supposed to learn?

T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) is initially sent to supervise Archer by her fellow Vulcans, and at first the distrust is mutual. Again, time breaks down these barriers, and her growing respect for Archer is what paves the way for the Federation’s origins. T’Pol is often poorly served by sexist tropes (not to mention bizarre pyjama choice) by Blalock rises above it to create a compelling character.

Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker III (Connor Trinneer) is perhaps the most iconic character in the show. The living embodiment of the Florida Man mentality, he is a man who says yes to everything. The others may be curious, but Trip is downright enthusiastic about everything, right up until it gets him pregnant. In many ways, Trip is the warm heart of the show, a warmth that is not tempered by the tragedy of later seasons.

Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) is the stiff-lipped British security officer, who only seems to smile when he gets to blow something up. It’s his caution that holds back the recklessness of the rest of the crew, and though he may be reserved. Keating’s performance is my favourite in a crowded field of contenders, and his dry delivery brings a humorous counterpoint to the seriousness of his role.

Phlox (John Billingsley) is the second alien in the crew, a Denobulan and the ship’s doctor. His affable, happy-go-lucky nature is played to perfection. Imagine Neelix in a labcoat and you won’t be far wrong. Phlox is the compassionate core of the crew, all while being an outsider as endlessly fascinated by humanity as we are by the alien. Excellent prosthetics and the occasional use of CGI also make the Denobulan one of Star Trek‘s most recognisable species.

Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) is the least well-used member of the crew, but he has a unique place. The helmsman is the only human in the crew who has spent any length of time in space. Having grown up on merchant ships, he marks the transition from private exploration and trade to a more organised, and more importantly unified, approach to space travel. he may represent the past, but he’s also a key part of the future.

Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) also plays a key role. In a time before universal translators, the communications officer is more important than ever. As with Travis, Hoshi was often neglected by the writers, but she remains my favourite member of crew. There is often a sense that she is uncomfortable on the ship, perhaps even suffering from anxiety, but her passion for language proves invaluable time and time again. Hoshi is, for me, the soul of Star Trek. Not only meeting aliens, but trying to understand them.

Enterprise never had the popularity of the other shows, and was often unfairly maligned. yes it has flaws (the less said about the decontamination chamber the better) but what show doesn’t? Enterprise is perhaps the most realistic show in the franchise. It’s inspirational, it’s optimistic, it’s charming. It has the best theme tune of any Star Trek show. It may have been cancelled too soon, but the story continued in novel form, and two decades later, it’s finally earning the love and respect it rightly deserves.

If you’re a fan, there’s never been a better time to celebrate the fact. And if you’re not a fan yet, then you’ve got a long road ahead, but it will be worth every step . . .

BOOK REVIEW: Raise the Dawn, by David R. George III

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Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Typhon Pact (#6)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 394

Publication Date: 2012

Verdict: 3/5

 

Deep Space Nine is no more. Destroyed by agents of the Typhon Pact, the venerable station’s final legacy may be nothing less than outright war. But even as fleets gather along the border, there are still those who would pursue the path of peace . . .

Everything I said in my review of Plagues of Night remains true of this follow-up. The writing and pacing are a mess, but the overarching story remains good. If anything, the story is even better in this one. It just takes far too long to get going.

Plagues of Night ended on the ultimate cliffhanger: The destruction of Deep Space Nine. This has to be one of the most significant moments of the post-Nemesis canon. It’s a game changer, both in and out of universe. In universe, it throws the Bajoran system into crisis and brings the Alpha Quadrant to the brink of open warfare. out of universe, the station is one of the most enduring locations in the franchise. it’s a structure we saw explored over the course of seven seasons. Throughout occupations, wars, and weekly disasters, it remained a constant presence. And now it’s gone. Short of killing off a main character, there are few better ways to show that no one and nothing is safe.

And yet, much of that cliffhanger falls short. Within a lengthy prologue to Raise the Dawn, we discover that all the main characters are still safe, and that the tragedy and trauma delivered at the end of the previous book is quickly stripped away. Sisko’s separation from his family should be meaningful, but ultimately it’s glossed over, and if it weren’t for the fact that George keeps reminding us how sad Sisko feels about his choices, it wouldn’t feel any different to any other mission he’s been on. even the loss of Deep Space Nine loses impact when it is almost immediately agreed that there will be a replacement station built.

Going back to the TV series that started this journey, ‘Far Beyond the Stars’ is rightly regarded as one of Star Trek‘s greatest episodes. Sisko’s Orb experience showing him an alternative past in which he is a golden age SF writer fighting racism, makes for powerful viewing. Deep Space Nine revisited that latter on, but that visit lacks the same impact. So too is the Eaton and Cassie section of this book a pale reflection of that classic episode. As with much of Trek mysticism, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and does little more than pull me out of the narrative. Repeatedly. Benny Russell is an important part of Trek‘s story, but each time we revisit him, it detracts from what made him so memorable the first time around.

Where this book shines is with the Romulans. George is at his best when writing the Star Empire, and that’s never been more true than here. Having the notoriously aggressive Romulans be the side seeking peace makes for a refreshing change, and the internal politics of the Star Empire are again done very well. Tomalak is so well written I can almost hear Andreas Katsulas growling each line. The broader story of Federation/Typhon Pact cold war brinkmanship is easily the best part of this book, and the title of the next book tells you that the best is yet to come in this regard. It’s only with the Romulans here that we get any sense of change.

Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn mark something of a missed opportunity for the Typhon Pact series. there are so many moments that should have been turning points, but at the end, it just feels like the status quo has been restored.

BOOK REVIEW: Plagues of Night, by David R. George III

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Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Typhon Pact (#5)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 385

Publication Date: 2012

Verdict: 3/5

 

Deep Space Nine has weathered many troubles, not least the Dominion War, but now it once again becomes a flashpoint of galactic politics. The Typhon Pact is ready to make peace with the Federation, but not all is as it seems . . .

Plagues of Night marks both the fifth book in the Typhon Pact series, and the first of a duology within that series chronicling events in the Bajoran system. This book takes place over the course of a year and a half, picking up where Rough Beasts of Empire left off and running concurrent to the other Typhon Pact novels. In particular, the events of Zero Sum Game and Paths of Disharmony are crucial to this book. If you haven’t read the rest of the Typhon Pact books, this is not a good place to start. While the others were largely standalone, this one relies on a lot of assumed knowledge.

Once again we have David R. George III at the helm, and this is the book where he started to lose me as a writer. I’ll get into the story itself in a minute, but the writing is difficult to get into. For a start, extended dream sequences are never going to please me. What appears to be a tense interrogation scene is revealed after several pages to be a nightmare, and has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Furthermore, George has a habit of recapping previous events. This was useful when recapping books I haven’t read, but recapping previous books in this series? That soon becomes annoying. there are even moments when he recaps earlier chapters of this very book. A lot of Plagues of Night feels like it’s doing little more than treading water. I don’t really want to sit through several pages reliving Sisko’s marital strife when there are far more interesting things happening.

Those other events are, however, interesting enough to give the book merit. Firstly we get to see the fallout, political and personal, of the previous books in this series. It’s a welcome return for Julian Bashir, and a more active Sisko than we saw in his last appearance. We also get a crossover between the crews of Deep Space Nine and the Enterprise as Picard and company arrive on the scene. I don’t think George did a very good job of capturing Worf’s voice, but otherwise this is a wonderful uniting of two classic crews, even if both are now largely populated by new faces. George brings the ongoing Typhon Pact storylines together neatly, and the ongoing Andorian situation shows just what Star Trek can do with a little sense of continuity.

Moving ahead with the story, we get a closer examination of the rivalries within the Typhon Pact. There are a lot of factions at play here, and even though the focus is once again on the Romulans, the Tzenkethi and the Breen also have their time in the spotlight. These ongoing feuds and diplomatic squabbles are something I would have liked to see more of throughout this series, especially with each faction openly seeking to advance their own agenda. The Tholians, for example, are already distrusted by the others for their actions aiding the Andorians. I would have loved more details on how the other factions reacted to this. Page counts, alas, must be kept within reason, and so much of the political angle is painted in broad strokes, with the narrative favouring the personal arcs of the characters involved.

With a cliffhanger ending to rival any other, Plagues of Night is very much only one half of a larger story, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to dive right into the second act.

BOOK REVIEW: Night Lords: The Omnibus, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

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Publisher: Black Library

Series: Night Lords(#1-3)

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 942

Publication Date: 2020

Verdict: 3/5

The Night Lords, once under the leadership of Konrad Curze but now turned to the path of Chaos, roam the dark places of the Galaxy. Plagued by visions, their prophet Talos now leads them into the Imperium, and into danger . . .

This is a book that’s been sitting in my TBR stack for most of the year, and likely would have remained there for a while yet. However, I decided to revise my planned reading list for this month, and get through some of the longer books in my TBR. This was the longest. Few can deny how physically imposing Black Library’s omnibuses are, and the Night Lords omnibus is one of the biggest. It’s also likely to be the last one I read for a little while, for reasons I’m about to get into.

As the title suggests, this omnibus gathers the three novels of Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Night Lords novels, as well as a trio of short stories featuring the same characters. It’s a complete story collected in a single volume, which is always nice to see. For those who don’t already know, the Night Lords are one of Warhammer 40,000’s Chaos Space Marine factions. Super soldiers in service to evil. They’re a faction I don’t have all that much interest in, in all honesty, but a friend much more versed in 40K lore than myself speaks very highly of these books, so I added it to my splurge of omnibuses earlier in the year.

I will say this for Dembski-Bowden, he avoids most of the pitfalls that I associate with both Chaos and Space Marines. In the former, the Night Lords are a nice break from the frothing-at-the-mouth murder machines I generally expect from Chaos worshippers. I’m not even sure if the Night Lords truly worship Chaos at all. They’re definitely aligned (and serve Abaddon the Despoiler), but they reject the taint of Chaos, even going so far as to cast out or kill those so afflicted. Make no mistakes though, they are an evil bunch. They murder their way across space, killing innocents in the thousands, all while laughing about their victories.

It’s this humour that hit me by surprise. A lot of Space Marine lore paints them as rather grim and humourless individuals. Little more than killing machines made of meat. Dembski-Bowden’s Night Lords come across as strikingly human. They have personalities, rivalries, and even friendships. It’s unexpected, and it’s great. This omnibus also makes a wise choice to showcase characters outside of the Astartes. The human slaves who dwell in their ship have just as much page time, and Septimus and Octavia are great characters in their own right. The demigods may be the focus, but the mortals could easily support a trilogy of their own.

But I still have a lot of issues with this omnibus. Not so much because of the story itself, but because of larger issues. After nearly a thousand pages, things do grow repetitive. There’s a plot-line in the second book that is very similar to one in book two. This wouldn’t be an issue if I read the books further apart, but one right after the other is not the best way to experience this story. I don’t have a problem with Dembski-Bowden’s writing – indeed, he’s one of the better authors Black Library have for Space Marine stories – but the sheer size of this book makes it tiring. Though I enjoyed the Night Lords omnibus, it was an exhausting experience, and I’m in no rush to repeat it. This is likely my last omnibus for a while. Aside from ongoing series, it’ll probably be the last Space Marine book i pick up for a while too. I need a break to refresh myself, and want to come back with renewed enthusiasm.

Taken on its own, however, this is one of Black Library’s stronger trilogies, and a must-read for anyone interested in the openly evil side of the grim, dark future.

WRITING UPDATE: The Start of Something Good

At 80,047 words, An Empire For Yesterday is complete, and I have another draft novel under my belt. As has become tradition, I’ve sat on it for a few days to reflect on what I learned from writing it. I’m to going to break the novel down into its base elements, and have a look at what worked and what didn’t. Feel free to stick around while I do so.

Setting

As usual, I started with a setting. The idea I keep coming back to is a galactic empire growing stagnant. I’m still very much inspired by Foundation, and the collapse of civilisation remains my most prominent theme. This time I limited myself to one ship and one planet. The problem I ran into was an inability to balance the desire for freshly founded colonies and a space-exploration undercurrent, with my enthusiasm for rich future histories. I want to portray worlds where discovery and exploration are the driving force, but near future stories hold little interest for me. The lesson I take away from this is that Star Trek and Dune are very different wells from which to draw. It’s hard to get that deep fictional history while also keeping a sense of wonder when the characters experience something new. With this book, I also broke away from the harder side of science fiction and introduced some time travel elements. Hard SF is still something I love, but playing it a little looser has opened my mind to a few ideas that i think have a lot of potential.

Characters

I am getting better and better at writing characters. Not really bragging, because I started off pretty low on the ladder. An Empire For Yesterday has my most diverse (in every sense of the word) cast yet, and writing the character dynamics was the easiest part of the book. I started this draft with a series of introductory scenes for each character, which helped nail their behaviour early on. I also had fun pairing them up for different scenes. However, I had six points of view (plus a one-off extra character), and this was probably too much for a book this short. I tried to show everything that was happening by having so many PoV characters, but realistically I could easily cut two of them without losing anything. My brief nods towards romance I doubt I’ll ever be happy with, but they are a step in the right direction, even if it didn’t quite come through the way I wanted it to.

Plot/Pacing

This was the biggest issue for me. The introductory scenes helped with characterisation, but after that there’s a reboot as the real plot starts. Really, it’s hard to see those introductions as part of the same book, however useful they may have been for me personally. For the majority of the book, the characters are split across two storylines. I’m definitely better than I was at making sure everyone has something to do, but the timelines don’t quite line up. The space combat is good, though ironically not stellar, while the material on the planet tended to be cyclical. Capture-escape-capture-escape. I’m also not fully happy with how I introduced the time travel elements. This was the idea that I had from the very start, but when it came to adding it in, I found it hard to do so in a way that felt organic. All of that said, the climax is probably the best I’ve yet written. For all the problems I had writing it, everything came together at the end and I’m very happy with how it ended.

Themes

I didn’t intend to have a theme when I started, but fairly soon I realised that all of the arcs I’d planned had one thing in common. They all revolved around duty. Once I settled on that as a theme, I really leaned into it. As always, I found writing epigrams for each chapter greatly beneficial to the theme. There’s a chance I may have been a bit heavy-handed at times, but I  think that by including the theme as a through-line, I made the book stronger overall.

Takeaways

As always, I have a few main takeaways from writing this draft. The first is that my method of roughly sketching the outline but being willing to change is generally a good one. It led to a bit of rambling in the middle act, but overall having that road-map was a huge help. I think I also need to cut down on my number of PoV characters, or else massively increase the wordcount. For the 80-100k word range, I thing 3-4 characters would probably work better than my 7. Both of these thoughts are ones I’ve had for a while, but An Empire For Yesterday has really driven the point home.

More generally, I think having a solid theme will be really helpful in future. I don’t want to be one of those authors who becomes all about the message, but a theme will be something to give the book structure, and that is probably my biggest weakness right now. Being more open to a little bit of looser science also opens new avenues that I’m interested in exploring.

What Next?

Next I’m going to do something I haven’t done before: Write a sequel. I have a good setting and some strong characters, and I want to write more of both. I don’t know how in-canon the books will be with each other, but I plan to dive right into it. With luck, I’ll have it finished by the end of the year. But the way this year is going, who can tell?

BOOK REVIEW: Fallen Dragon, by Peter F. Hamilton

fallen.jpg

Publisher: Pan MacMillan

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 808

Publication Date: 2001

Verdict: 3/5

Lawrence Newton has given everything to the Zantiu-Braun company, and has received nothing in return. Finally growing tired, he sets off on a rogue mission to make himself the richest man in the galaxy . . .

Peter F. Hamilton is one of the biggest names in British science fiction. He has a lot of books to his name, and one thing they all have in common is length. Most of these books take place in sprawling space opera universes, but Fallen Dragon is a standalone. And with eight hundred pages, there is plenty of room for a massive story. Room, it turns out, that isn’t really used. Honestly. The plot mentioned on the back cover doesn’t become apparent until around the two-thirds mark of this novel. What we get for the first sixty percent is a rambling mass of flashbacks and tangents.

Now, Peter F. Hamilton is the master of tangents. He will take a dozen pages to describe the terraforming history of a planet in rich scientific detail. These are the parts of the books that I adore. I could read this sort of infodump for days on end. Hamilton is great at the harder edge of science fiction. But not all of these tangents are as interesting. I don’t want to sit through two pages of a taxi driver talking about Manchester United football club ever again. Fallen Dragon is the textbook definition of bloated, but a lot of this bloat is more interesting than the actual story. How much you enjoy this book depends on how willing you are to let Hamilton indulge himself on various topics.

The life story of Lawrence Newton is what makes up the majority of this book. He’s the main character, after all, but most of his scenes take place in flashbacks. The flashbacks and present day sections roughly alternate (and the chapters are as long as you’d expect in a book of this size) and that’s my main problem with this book. Newton’s background is not very interesting. The earliest scenes are the best, with a young Newton learning about the history of his planet. My love of terraforming as a concept definitely plays in here, but it is a real highlight. Unfortunately, Newton soon meets Roselyn, and it’s all downhill from there.

From the moment Roselyn turns up in the text, everything in Newton’s life comes down to one of two things: anger and sex, often at the same time. Chapter after chapter shows Newton’s sexual conquests and dalliances in far too much detail. The pages of endless sex become tedious the moment they start, and the book never recovers. Every female character in this book is in some way sexually linked to Newton, and I hated it. Then there’s the chapter where Newton moves to Scotland, only to have a mental breakdown when he unknowingly eats real meat and vegetables. I don’t know who we are supposed to sympathise with in this scene, but the militant vegan future Hamilton portrays in Fallen Dragon strikes me as incredibly dystopian.

All in all, Fallen Dragon is a book that stumbles along for far too long. There are moments that I really enjoyed, but those moments are too rare for me. I’m not saying I won’t read Hamilton again, but I’m certainly in no rush to do so.

AN ABC OF SF

(Idea shamelessly stolen from Peat at Peat Long’s Blog, who in turn stoleit from Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub)

The idea for this one is simple. Go through the letters of the alphabet and choose an author for each one. For this one, I’m going by surname. because what normal person shelves by first name? If I can’t think of an author by that initial, I’ve left it blank.

A: Isaac Asimov. Starting off with an easy one. Foundation is one of my all-time favourite books, but all of Asimov’s SF output is worth a look. He’s one of few authors who merits a bookcase all of his own.

B: Ben Bova. I’ve only read one of his books, but New Earth was a strong enough story that he’s earned his place on this list. Definitely an author I need to read more of.

C: Jack Campbell. A pseudonym for John G. Hemry, Jack Campbell is the author of the Lost Fleet universe. Hands-down my favourite military SF author, and one that more people should read.

D: David Drake. Drake is one of the founding fathers of modern military SF, and it’s his RCN series, with a classic mix of space adventure of dastardly politics that earns him a space on this list.

E: Kate Elliott. If you’re after bulky, historically-inspired space opera, Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun is a good place to start.

F: (blank)

G: Scott G. Gier. I have never met another person who knows the Genellan books, and that is a travesty. A great first contact/military SF series that lies sadly uncompleted, it’s one people should definitely look into.

H: Brian Herbert. A potentially controversial one this. I’ve always preferred the junior Herbert’s work to that of his more famous father Frank. His expansion of the Dune universe is some of my favourite space opera.

I: (blank)

J: (blank)

K: Eyal Kless. The two-part Tarakan Chronicles are a unique science-fantasy series, and pretty much the only example of that genre I enjoy. A departure from the normal post-apocalyptic wasteland.

L: Cixin Liu. Author of the Three-Body Problem and many others, Liu opened my eyes to the world of translated SF, and I haven’t looked back since. His writing has a truly special sense of wonder that I haven’t found anywhere else.

M: Arkady Martine. One of my favourite authors to emerge in the past few years, Martine’s Teixcalaan duology is so good it resulted in a rare case of me agreeing with the Hugo Awards.

N: Emma Newman. One of the unsung greats of modern British SF, Newman is one of the few authors writing heavily character-focused stories that I truly enjoy. Her Planetfall saga is absolutely worth your time.

O: (blank)

P: H. Beam Piper. A Golden Age author who has pretty much vanished from the public conscience, Piper’s gung-ho, violent stories are a precursor to the darker stories preferred today. Space Viking was one of the books that got me into SF, and it still holds up today.

Q: (blank)

R: Christopher Ruocchio. Hands down my favourite ongoing series, the Sun Eater series secures Ruocchio’s place on this list. If you enjoy big sweeping space opera, tragic epics, or magnificent writing, then this is the story for you.

S: Jamie Sawyer. Another military SF writer, Sawyer’s joined trilogies The Lazarus War and The Eternity War, portray a gripping potential advancement of drone technologies, as humans reincarnate in artificial bodies to run endless suicide missions.

T: Adrian Tchaikovsky. Well it had to be him, didn’t it? I don’t think there’s an author working today who can match Tchaikovsky for either the range of the depth of his output. If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d recommend Children of Time or Cage of Souls.

U: (blank)

V: A.E. van Vogt. Without a doubt, the craziest writing I have ever experienced, there is no one who can hold a candle to van Vogt. When spaceships use bows and arrows to bomb planets, you know you’re onto something special. I’m still not convinced that Empire of the Atom is a good book, but it’s certainly a memorable one.

W: Drew Williams. Scrappy underdog crew, big explosions, and action full of heart. William’s space opera novels have everything you could ask for and more.

X: (blank)

Y: (blank)

Z: Rob Ziegler. Though I haven’t read any of his solo works, the novella Ziegler wrote with Bradley P. Beaulieu (Burning Light) is a phenomenal example of short-length SF, and one of the highlights of Tor.com’s fiction line.