BOOK REVIEW: Anarch, by Dan Abnett

-This review contains spoilers for ALL previous Gaunt’s Ghosts novels. Proceed with caution-

Anarch.jpg

Publisher: Black Library

Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts (#15)

Genre: Military SF/Grimdark

Pages: 420

Publication Date: 24/01/2019

Verdict: 4/5

 

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.

Commisar Ibram Gaunt and his men have survived three decades of war in the Sabbat Worlds. A war predicted to last for over a century. Most recently, the Ghosts defended the world of Urdesh, and Gaunt was promoted to Lord Executor – second-in-command of the Crusade – after preventing a coup.

But now Anarch Sek is making his final push against Imperial forces. desperate to obtain the Eagle Stones, and with a personal score to settle against Saint Sabbat herself, he will stop at nothing to finally eradicate the assembled legions of humanity. And he will kill anyone he has to in order to win . . .

 

This is it, then. The big one. The fifteenth and potentially final Gaunt’s Ghosts novel. If this does prove to be the swan song of the men from Tanith, then it is a worthy one. A fitting conclusion to two decades of novels, short stories and spin-offs.

In spite of the stakes, the action takes place on a fairly small scale. The Ghosts are protecting a single, ruined city. Indeed, nearly a quarter of the book occurs in the same basement. But this acts as a pressure cooker. Secrets are spilled, tensions boil over, and allegiances shift like sand. There are times when the Ghosts are more at risk from their peers than from the lasguns and warp magic of the Archenemy, and that’s exactly how it should be.

The cast list of Gaunt’s Ghosts has sprawled since the early novels, and Abnett does a fine job of giving everyone their moment in the sun. Gol Kolea confronts the truth about his family troubles. Meryn and Blenner get the reckoning they’ve been headed for. Rawne’s loyalty is tested like never before. The rift between Van Voytz and Gaunt is exposed. Brin Milo’s fate is finally revealed. It’s almost impossible to discuss these without spoilers, so I won’t try.

One thing I’ve always admired about Abnett is that he’s not afraid to kill of his characters. Even favourites like Corbec and Bragg. There are no safe passes for long-serving team members, and that’s exactly how it should be. This is the bloodiest war the Galaxy has ever seen, and it’s only right that the price of victory should be a high one. With this being the grand finale, the death toll mounts dramatically. Each time a gun is fired, you have to ask yourself, ‘Who have we lost this time?’

The scale of the Sabbat Crusade, a century-long war, makes ending a series difficult. Obviously the Ghosts cannot win the whole war. But nor would they stop until either the Archenemy or they themselves were wiped out. Part of me wishes Abnett had gone for that darker endng, everyone dying. It would be only fitting for the endless conflict of the 40,000 universe. But, and here again i must avoid spoilers, Abnett takes another route, leaving us with that rarest of things in the grim dark future: Hope.

 

If you’ve been with the Ghosts from page 1, then this is a book you cannot afford to miss. If not, then find a copy of The Founding. It’s a long trip, and has it’s ups and downs, but the journey is most certainly worth making.

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: Phasma, by Delilah S. Dawson

-This review conatins a major spoiler for The Last Jedi. Proceed with caution-


Phasma.jpg

Publisher: Century

Series: Standalone

Genre: Military SF/Space Opera

Pages: 378

Publication Date: 01/09/2017

Verdict: 4/5

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .

Captain Phasma is the perfect stormtrooper. Efficient and utterly loyal to the First Order. A literal poster soldier, her reputation is without fault. yet her origins remain a mystery, even to those with whom she serves.

Resistance agent Vi Moradi has uncovered the truth or Phasma’s rise. Which is handy, because that knowledge is the only thing stopping her from being killed on the spot by the First Order. Because if there’s one thing Captain Cardinal hates more than a rebel, it’s Phasma . . .

Prior to Disney’s takeover, the Star Wars Expanded Universe contained hundreds of novels. Some were brilliant, others less so, but they wove a massive tapestry chronicling in detail almost a hundred years of history. As well as outlying books thousands of years apart. But with the EU now no longer canon, the narrative of Star Wars is being rewritten in a new direction.

 If Phasma is anything to go by, then the furture looks bright for the new canon. Dawson expertly weaves together threads from the The Force Awakens, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, and elements from across the history of Star Wars. There are enough knowing winks (a conversation about sand, for example) to keep long-time fans happy, and the central narrative is as gripping as anything put out by the likes of Stackpole or Denning.

This is an unashamed origin story, largely set around a decade prior to The Force Awakens. The problem with prequels is that we tend to know where they’re going, but that’s not an issue here. A cynic might suggest that Phasma’s popularity is the result of deliberate engineering by Disney to sell merchandise. But as ways to sell things go, it’s one I’m more than happy to fall for. But while Phasma is already attaining cult popularity, we know almost nothing about her.

At least until now. Given such free rein, Dawson has given Phasma a fascinating and often brutal background. Born into a dying tribe on an also-dying planet, Phasma is a warrior from the outset. Tough choices are a daily occurrence, so it’s no wonder she goes on to become a feared and respected leader. Even if it is only a chance encounter with a stranded Brendol Hux that gives her a chance at reaching the stars.

The origin story itself, essentially a death march (Think Fury Road with more stormtroopers and fewer flame-thrower guitars), is told in flashback. The framing narrative with Cardinal interrogating Vi gives us a glimpse of daily life in the First Order. Cardinal is a character just as fascinating as Phasma, giving the First Order a much-needed human face. Despite the propaganda and brainwashing, he is a decent human being. He even makes some valid arguments as to why the First Order is needed. I’d say there’s more nuance in Cardinal than in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi combined.

There is only one real issue with Phasma, and it’s not the fault of the book at all. There is a revelation toward the end concerning Phasma’s motivation. It’s an interesting idea, but sadly nothing is likely to come of it, what with Phasma being killed off. Again, this is not the fault of the book – I expect Dawson was as unaware of Phasma’s fate as everyone else – but it takes away from what is otherwise a strong novel. Read as a standalone, it’s hard to fault Phasma. But read as ‘Journey to The Last Jedi’, it sets up a false lead. Of course, there’s more than enough set-up here for further novels set between Phasma and her on-screen demise.

Phasma is a book that stands alongside Thrawn as the best of the new canon, and I hope that there’s plenty more to come.

BOOK REVIEW: Pariah, by Jamie Sawyer

Pariah.jpg

Publisher: Orbit

Series: The Eternity War (#1)

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 439

Publication Date: 28/09/2017

Verdict: 5/5

 

The Krell war is over, but that doesn’t mean the Alliance is at peace.

A terrorist group calling themselves the Black Spiral are spreading anarchy through human space. Their leadership and end goals remain a mystery, but their attacks are growing more brazen, and the death toll is mounting.

In the wake of a devastating attack, Lieutenant Keira Jenkins and her squad of Jackals are relegated to a long-term mission near Krell space. Here they find that not everyone is happy with the terms of peace, and that the Black Spiral has agents everywhere . . .

 

Jamie Sawyer’s debut trilogy The Lazarus War is easily one of the top military sf series of the past few years. Action-packed, suspenseful, and with a great squad dynamic, it ticked all my boxes. So a sequel trilogy was a no-brainer.

Keira Jenkins was a supporting character in the original trilogy, and takes centre stage here. More human than her former commanding officer Conrad Harris, perhaps even more flawed, her story grabs you from the first page. The Jackals too are a more ragtag band than the Lazarus Legion. A politician’s daughter, a criminal serving his life sentence, and a clone are just some of the fascinating characters Jenkins has to work with.

Like so much great SF, Sawyer’s work has one great, stand-out idea: Simulant Ops. Think of them as biological drones. Enhanced clone bodies remotely controlled by human operators. The value attributed to a human life is a recurring theme in these books, shown here through Novak. Serving a life sentence, he has time knocked off for each time he ‘dies’ on a mission. it’s a fascinating concept, and Sawyer exploits it for all it’s worth.

While the focus in Pariah is on humans fighting humans, the Krell get more development too. Too say too much would be a spoiler, but if you were left wondering about the aliens after The Lazarus War, you’ll get some answers here. One thing I think is safe to mention, is the organic nature of the Krell ships. reminiscent of Wraith Hiveships from Stargate: Atlantis, but somehow even more repulsive.

Books like this live or die on their action scenes, and this is where Sawyer really shines. You can feel every injury, sense each bullet fly. While the characters are safely ensconced in their pods, you never know which Simulant is going to get bumped off next. That, together with the strategic use of flipped tables and cargo crates, gives Pariah an almost videogame-like feel to the combat scenes. Only fitting when so many people are using Jenkins’ Jackals as pawns in a larger game.

 

All in all, Pariah is a brilliant follow-up to The Lazarus War. I already have the sequel on my tbr stack, and the final volume is set for release this year. If you haven’t read anything by Jamie Sawyer yet, you need to correct that oversight. Quickly.

BOOK REVIEW: Doomsday Morning, by C. L. Moore

Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Standalone

Genre: Dystopian SF

Pages: 248

Publication Date: 10/01/2019 (originally 1957)

Verdict: 3/5

In the wake of a nuclear war, the United States have been reborn under Comus.

Once a communications service, now a tyrannical police state, Comus is held together by a single man: Its creator, Andrew Raleigh. Life under Comus is hard, but peaceful. Only in california is there open resisitance to the new order of things.

But Raleigh is dying, and fears Comus will die with him. Seeking to root out the rebels in California, Comus recruits retired actor Howard Rohan to its cause, sending him deep into enemy territory on a mission of espionage. But Rohan is nobody’s fool, and his allegiances are his own . . .

 

Doomsday Morning does a lot of things very well. Moore doesn’t spend too much time in the Comus-controlled regions before sending Rohan on his journey, but the impression left by those early chapters is a lasting one. Comus’s influence and presence are evident everywhere, from the red-suited police to the Prowlers and Hedgehopper machines. One of the most memorable scenes involves the theft of a hedgehopper, and it’s as action-fuelled and explosive as anything Michael Bay could dream up, and far more tense besides.

Comus itself is wonderfully presented. While there is no doubt that humans are suffering under its influence, there is a perfectly valid argument in favour of keeping it around. After all, isn’t a little individual suffering a reasonable price for national peace? This isn’t a black-and-white dystopia like so many modern YA offers. No, Moore has crafted something more nuanced. Better in every sense. It s not the system itself that is at fault, but the abuses of those who would control it.

Where Doomsday Morning left me cold was in the actual plotting. For such a short novel, there is an awful lot of Rohan and his troupe wandering around the Californian ruins, putting on plays and getting into scrapes. Perhaps as an artefact of serialisation, it’s almost episodic, and the individual parts don’t quite line up as neatly as perhaps they should.

Despite this, the climax is a rousing one. Like all rebellions, there are losses. Both personnel and moral high ground sacrificed for the benefit of the cause. While he is far from heroic, it’s hard not to root for Rohan as he finally stops dithering and chooses a side.

 

All told, a strong novel. if you can look past the disjointed middle act, you’ll find a dystopia that, six decades later, looks more plausible than ever.

BOOK REVIEW: Fury, by Henry Kuttner

Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Standalone

Genre: Dystopian SF

Pages: 212

Publication Date: 10/01/2019 (originally 1950)

Verdict: 4/5

Earth is gone, and the remnants of the human race have retreated to Venus.

Confined to domed cities beneath the Venusian oceans and ruled over by genetically enhanced Immortals, humanity is trapped in a state of decline. Stagnation.

Sam Reed was born an Immortal, though he doesn’t know it. But when he finds out the truth, he decides to walk a dark path of vengeance against his misbegotten family. The choices he make will determine the fate not only of the Immortals, but of humanity itself . . .

Fury is the first in a new series of Golden Age Masterworks, with almost a dozen set for release in the first half of 2019. If Fury is anything to go by, we’re all in for a treat.

First I’d like to make a small disclaimer: The science in this book is wrong. Like, really wrong. But it’s almost seventy years’ old, so what can you expect? This is an unavoidable problem with reading the classics, so t has no bearing on my enjoyment of what is, frankly, a stunning book. But it’s something to bear in mind when people walk around Venus without protection.

From the opening act – the mutilation of  a newborn child – Fury is an unrelentingly brutal book. To live under the rule of the Immortals is to live without hope, unless you can get your hands on Dream-Dust that is. Even when things get better for Sam in the third act, everyone around him suffers for his benefit. Here is a man willing to sacrifice hundreds of lives it will get him what he wants.

Hardly a relatable protagonist, Sam is nevertheless a captivating character. From downtrodden scam artist to nascent despot, there is no point where you don’t want to know what happens to him next. His underdog spirit gives way to a lust for power, but he always stays just the right side of the line between anti-hero and villain.

Like so many books from the period, Fury is a short read, but crams plenty of worldbuilding and story into its meagre page count. There are mysteries, certainly. The exact fate of the earth is not explicit, though strongly hinted to have died in an atomic haze. But everything you need to know to understand Sam Reed and his plans is right there. Waiting to be read.

It may have aged, but Fury has done so like cheese. or a fine wine. You could do a lot worse than setting aside a day to read it.

THE FIRST DRAFT: Endings and Beginnings

123,401 words

8 months

1 first draft

 

As some of you may be aware, I am a writer as well as reader and reviewer. Sadly not a professional at either, but today marks an important step in changing some of that.

As of today, I have a finished novel sitting in the digital trunk. Though to be honest ‘finished’ is a generous term. It’s a first draft, and a troubled one at that. But it does tell a complete story, from beginning to middle to end. And that’s worth celebrating. Even though I fully intend to leave this work aside, it marks an important step. I can finish a long project. I will finish more.

Eight months is a long time to spend in a fictional universe, and it has felt like even longer. Run Red the Stars was the first project I’d committed to since getting my Master’s Degree, and it’s miles better than anything I’d attempted before.

But I know I can do better. If I’m ever to be serious about writing, I have to do better. As a wise woman once said, ‘The only way is up.’

RRtS will sit happily on my hard drive for a while now, gathering digital dust. For now, there are other projects I want to work on. Ones that might actually be worth sharing with the world.

BOOK REVIEW: Star Destroyers

Publisher: Baen

Editors: Tony Daniel & Christopher Ruocchio

Genre: Military SF/Space Opera

Pages: 328

Publication Date: 2018

Verdict: 3.5/5

‘Big Ships. Blowing Things Up’

The thing with Baen is that you always know what you’re getting. They’ve really cornered the market in action-filled Space Opera and Military SF, almost always wrapped up in a mind-boggling retro cover.

In Star Destroyers we find a dozen of authors writing about, well. About big ships blowing things up. There’s always a risk in gathering authors of similar novels for an anthology based around a theme, that the stories will become repetitious. Fortunately that’s not an issue here, as there are enough approaches to warships for a variety of stories.

It can be hard to review an anthology. Do you review the individual stories? or the product as a whole? I’ve chosen the former, at least for this particular anthology. There is, unfortunately, a reason for this.

There are no weak stories in Star Destroyers. But nor are there any real stand outs. David Drake’s ‘Superweapon’, Ruocchio’s own ‘Not Made For Us’ and Dave Bara’s ‘Icebreaker’ are three personal highlights, but they are stronger than the average, rather than spectacular works in their own right. perhaps not coincidentally, they are also the only stories by authors with whom I am familiar. ‘Not Made for Us’ in particular is a fascinating glimpse into the wider world of the Sun Eater series (and the reason I purchased this book).

The real joy of the anthology though is not encountering old friends, but finding new authors with worlds to explore, and that’s where Star Destroyers failed me. the stories are good, but none create enough of an impression for me to hunt down others of their kind.

At the end of the day, there are far worse ways to spend an afternoon than with a copy of this. You may even find a few gems. Alas, I did not.

TV REVIEW: Travelers, Season 3

-This article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 & 2-

Seasons: 3

Broadcaster: Netflix

Genre: Time Travel

Verdict: 3.5/5

In the 25th century, humanity is on the brink of extinction. War, disease and climate change have taken their toll, and the future looks bleak.

The Director, the AI that guides humanity, has a plan to save the species. Send agents back in time to avert crises before they can spiral out of control. These agents, known as Travelers, overwrite the minds of people in the 21st century and work covertly for a better future. Their actions restricted by a set of rigid Protocols, and unable to return to the future, the Travelers must balance their mandate with maintaining the facade of their hosts’ lives.

Season 3 sees the government made aware of the Traveler programme, and the emergence of deadly new foes. . .

Travelers is very much a show of two halves. The better half is a gripping, conspiracy-laden time travel thriller. In some ways the natural successor to Quantum Leap, there are few shows that have handled time travel as innovatively as travelers. Season 2 had a particularly brilliant not-quite-time loop episode, a favourite trope of mine.

The second half is a character-led drama, and this is where the show loses me. Every piece of casting is spot on, but character beats soon become repetitive, and drawn out. There are stand-out moments. Episode 8 is a stellar performance from Jared Abrahamson’s Trevor, Patrick Gilmore finally gets material worthy of his David later on, and Jennifer Spence steals every scene she appears in as Grace. But the rest of the cast is less well served.

Plotwise, season 3 continues the trend to swap plotlines around and has the same tendency to abandon story arcs for long periods at a time. Anyone expecting to see Traveler 001 as the new big bad will likely be disappointed. The Faction remains present, and some of their motivations are explained here, but they never materialise as a real threat until later on in the series.

It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, but suffice to say it invoked one of my least favourite time travel tropes, though does cleverly employ the rules set out in season 1. The final scene, however, redeems everything that has gone before, and season 3 becomes that rarest of beasts: a finale that could serve for the entire series, or as the springboard for season 4 equally effectively.

All told, Travelers is definitely worth catching. Frustrating at times, brilliant at others, there’s no other show quite like it.

BOOK REVIEW: Thin Air, by Richard Morgan

Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Standalone

Genre: SF Noir/Political Thriller

Pages: 528

Publication Date: 25/10/2018

Verdict: 3/5

 

In the not-too-distant future, Earth has colonised Mars. But not all is well between these two neighbours.

Hakan Veil is a genetically engineered human weapon, stuck on Mars and short on funds. Coerced into helping an Earth audit of the Martian colonies, he is tasked with protecting person-of-interest Madison Madekwe. But when he fails and Madekwe is abducted, Hakan must hunt down her kidnappers across the Red Planet.

As the search goes on, Veil discovers that he has not been told the whole truth, and there may just be more to the audit than a financial investigation . . .

 

Like many, I first became aware of Richard Morgan through the Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon. So when I saw he had a new release out, I thought it was worth trying.

Unfortunately, Thin Air is a very frustrating book. There’s a lot to like about it, but it never quite seems to come together. Since this is largely a character-driven story, we’ll start with Veil.

I imagine (and hope) it would be hard for most readers to relate to Veil, being as he is a one man murderous horde. That’s not inherently a problem, but he does come off as one-dimensional, and lacking agency. Far too many of his discoveries during the infiltration come from other characters simply telling him things without any real motivation to do so. And his, admittedly unique method of interrogation – ask questions, have wild sex with witness/suspect, ask some more questions – leaves a lot to be desired.

The plotting works fine, for the most part, though i do prefer my crime to be a little leaner and a lot tighter, but the divergences here by and large come together in the end. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the hardboiled Bradbury city scenes and the later, almost pulpy encounter with a religious sect out in the Martian wilds. The suspense and intrigue are both well-maintained, even if the eventual reveal is a little tired.

The scene that sticks in my mind most is from around the middle act, where Veil sneaks through an (obligatory) warehouse district, and reflects on various horrors and misbegotten experiments that are said to be trapped within. I can’t help but feel any one of those rumours would have made a novel more to my taste than the one I got.

Ultimately, Thin Air is stronger in its opening, noir-ish act, than once the plot really gets going. It is by no means a bad story, just not the one I wanted to read.

HOW ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?: Evil Characters and the Group Dynamic

-This article contains spoilers for Knights of the Old Republic and Dark Matter

One of my chief hobbies outside of reading and watching TV is role-playing games. In particular, I enjoy running them for other people. One discussion that recently came up in my regular group regarded the nature of evil characters, and why I do not allow them in my games. Naturally, this got me thinking.

Role-playing games operate around a group dynamic, like a lot of TV shows, and it’s a delicate art to make sure that every character has their moment in the sun, but also has something to do at all times. Key to striking this balance is maintaining party cohesion, and that’s where the issue of evil comes into play.

For those unfamiliar with the world of role-playing, most gaming systems have a way of tracking one’s moral inclination, generally referred to as ‘alignment’. This can take take many forms, but essentially boils down to a spectrum from ‘Good’ to ‘neutral’ to ‘Evil’. Good characters go out their way to help others. Neutral characters are generally ambivalent, perhaps even selfish. And Evil characters cause harm to others for their own benefit. Star Wars is an excellent example of this, with an ongoing battle between the Lights and the Dark Side of the Force. Most games assume that the players will be Good. After all, they are the heroes of their story, but the system allows for Evil characters to accommodate the inevitable player who wishes to play a dark and mysterious loner.

It’s these characters who so often cause problems for Games Masters, and indeed the party as a whole. Let us take, as an example, a group of four characters. Three of them are of Good morality, the fourth is Evil. The task these characters have been set by their Games Master is to rescue some hostages from an enemy encampment. They concoct a plan to sneak in after dark and rescue the hostages. The three Good characters enact this plan, leaving their Evil friend to stand watch, and soon free the prisoners. But then, in a shocking twist, they are surrounded by enemy soldiers. To their horror, they discover that their Evil accomplice has sold them out. The original prisoners can now go free, but the Good characters are now prisoners themselves. This is, technically, a win for the party. After all, they have rescued the prisoners. However, as you can imagine, there is no way that they are ever going to trust that Evil character again.

Obviously this is an extreme example. But even if the act is less Evil – what if he deliberately sacrificed one of the prisoners to save the others? – the result is similar: the party no longer trusts that character, and so they must leave the campaign. This is no fun for anyone involved, not the players and not the Games Master. The standard defence is ‘I just did what my character would do’, but this approach forgets that the character was problematic to start with. The fact remains, an Evil character will very rarely work well with a Good-aligned party. It’s simply not worth the ninety-nine failures to reach the one time it could potentially work.

The computer-based rpg Knights of the Old Republic has an excellent example of this. Near the end of the game, you are faced with a choice between Light and Dark. To join the Jedi or the Sith.The player’s decisions determines which character as they are able to take into the final confrontation with the game’s antagonist. Now, the party is generally Good in nature. If you choose the Light Side then wahey! Group hug, and let’s go fight Darth Malak. But if you choose to be Evil, to take the Dark Side path, things turn sour very quickly. You will have to kill multiple former friends as they try and stop your fall from grace. (As an aside, this is the only time I’ve ever felt truly guilty in a game) These are relationships you’ve been fostering for a long time, from the start of the game. But being Evil breaks that friendship instantly.

Star Wars takes a very binary look at alignment, so let’s look at something more morally grey.

The tragically short-lived SF TV show Dark Matter featured a group of criminals who have their memories erased and, by and large, decide to redeem themselves. As time goes on, they start to see themselves as a family rather than a crew. Trouble arises when one member of their family, Four, decides to regain his memories. Following the procedure, he becomes – essentially – Evil, murdering dozens of innocents as he looks to reclaim what he views as his. The rest of the crew do not try to stop him, but they do turn their backs on him. Through Evil actions, he has broken their ties with him. And even though he offers to continue helping them, they want no part in his life. He may not see himself as having done anything wrong, but the more morally good characters disagree. Quite simply, there is no reason for them to trust or consort with him anymore.

Is there a point to all this? Well, maybe. Maybe I am just justifying a personal dislike of dark and edgy lone wolves who lurk at the fringes of role-playing. (Trust me players, every Games Master has seen this, and we are not impressed by it). But it’s quite obvious to me that there is a real issue with integrating an Evil character into a group dynamic. It doesn’t matter what form that Evil takes, whether it’s butchering innocents or just spitting on the waiter, there comes a time when characters have to ask themselves: ‘How are we still friends?’ and then walk away.