Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie ($15.00) is set in the distant future. Humans have spread through much of the galaxy, and culturally diverged on their various planets. A couple of thousand years ago, the Radch started conquering the human portion of the galaxy, sending in the troops to “annex” planets, “civilize” them (force them into the Radch cultural mode), and then grant citizenship to the survivors. Most of the troops are “ancillaries”, human resisters from previously “annexed” planets who have been brain-wiped and augmented so that they can be controlled by the AI that runs the troop ship, but there are some regular human officers mixed in. The human officers are all from the Houses that compete for influence within the empire, and the officers are often as interested in advancing the goals of their Houses as they are in fighting the war. To control such a huge empire, the ruler has cloned herself, and the various clones roam the empire, micromanaging things. But over the centuries, the clones have started having differing ideas about the way the empire should be run, resulting in a very strange civil war within the empire. Everybody, human or AI, must obey the commands of any clone of the ruler, but the commands from the different clones are often at cross purposes.
The main character is sometimes known as Breq. She was once the AI that ran the troop ship Justice of Toren, and she would simultaneously run companies of ancillaries, seeing through 20 sets of eyes at once, firing 20 weapons at once, obeying the commands of the human company commander, and she could handle many companies at the same time. But she downloaded part of herself into a single ancillary named Breq and fled the empire. She has been discovering that many things are not the way she was programmed to believe they were. She is determined to gain control of a secret weapon, return to the empire, and end the civil war. Highly recommended.
I previously recommended Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence ($7.99), and I just finished King of Thorns ($7.99), and will now have to find the time to read the conclusion, Emperor of Thorns ($25.95). There are other grim, gritty, blood-drenched fantasy series out there–Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin immediately come to mind as prime examples–but the Lawrence series has a distinct flavor to it.
Set at least 1100 years after civilization collapsed, there is a medieval flavor to the world, but with some weapons of mass destruction still laying around. Since the fall of civilization, magic has been creeping back into the world, and late in the second book we start to learn why. At the age of 9, Jorg decided to seek revenge for the killing of his mother and brother, and goes on in the first novel to become a stone cold killer. In the second book, he is king of a small highlands kingdom about to be invaded by a huge army led by another man determined to become emperor. Lots of trickery and bloodshed result. But what makes this series stand out is the flashes of finely polished writing between the battles:
“And when pain bites, men bargain. Boys too. We twist and turn, we plead and beg, we offer our tormentor what he wants so the hurting will stop. And when there is no tormentor to placate, no hooded man with hot irons and tongs, just a burn you can’t escape, we bargain with God, or ourselves, depending on the size of our egos. I made mock at the dying at Mabberton and now their ghosts watched me burn. Take the pain, I said, and I will be a good man. Or if not that, a better man. We all become weasels with enough hurt on us. But I think a small part of it was more than that. A small part was that terrible two-edged sword called experience, cutting away at the cruel child I was, carving out whatever man might be yet to come. I promised a better one. Though I have been known to lie.”
The Lives of Tao ($7.99) and The Deaths of Tao ($7.99) by Wesley Chu are the first two books in a series about a long-term invasion of Earth. Back when the dinosaurs were still around, an organic spaceship of the Quasing started to die, and Earth was the only place the Quasing could survive before their ship died. But the Quasing could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere on their own. They had to enter a living creature that evolved on Earth. Ever since then, they have been living as symbionts, always trying to help evolve a higher life form capable of helping them return to their planet. They are responsible for the evolution of the humans, and have decided that war is a great tool for advancing human technology. If a human becomes a host for a Quasing, the Quasing can communicate with the human and try to influence the human, but cannot actually control the human, and is stuck with that human until the human dies, at which point the Quasing has a very short time to find a new host before it dies. Sometimes a human host will think he’s gone crazy when he starts hearing the voice in his head, sometimes he just becomes very uncooperative, and sometime he becomes a willing ally of the Quasing.
Back in the Middle Ages, a civil war broke out among the Quasing. The majority feels that if it becomes necessary to wipe out the humans in order to achieve the Quasing goals, that’s a small price to pay. The minority feels that the Quasing have been stuck on Earth for millions of years, and if it takes a few extra centuries to achieve their goals while continuing to help the humans to increase their technological base safely, that’s the ethical thing to do. The action in the first two books are in roughly current times. Much of the first book involves the training of a new host, and involves smaller conflicts between the two groups. In the second book, we see how the two groups are trying to take over various governments, diverting major military systems for their secret wars, etc. I’m looking forward to the third book.
Robert Conroy has written a bunch of alternate history novels. His latest is Liberty: 1784 ($25.00, expected early March). In this timeline, the British won the battle of Yorktown, accepted the surrender of the rebels, and then imprisoned or killed as many of the leaders of the rebels as they could sieze. Most of the rebels who avoided capture fled to the west and began building another army. The British government wants the rebels completely eliminated, but on the other hand wants the British troops back as soon as possible to deal with the situation in France. The battle on the frontier is not the kind of war the British troops are experienced at, but they have an large advantage in men, weapons, and experienced leaders. The rebels have a better system of spies, and are forced to be more sneaky. This is another good alternate history novel.
In The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter ($9.99), there are millions of parallel worlds, each a little different (a few a lot different), but only our Earth has humans–although many of the other worlds have other forms of intelligent life. When a method is found for humans to step over to these parallel worlds, some go exploring, some go to grab some land and settle in another world, and some are crooks with get-rich-quick schemes. And all the governments on Earth (now called Datum Earth, to differentiate it from all the other Earths) agree that each government on Earth should be able to control the same territory on the parallel worlds that they control on Datum Earth. But many of the people who fled Datum Earth don’t want anything to do with the Datum Earth governments.
In The Long War ($9.99), twenty-five years have passed since people started stepping off to other planets. The U.S. government has declared that it has the right to collect taxes on anybody living in U.S. territory on the millions of other planets, and that sounds great to the voters still living in the original U.S., but doesn’t sound so good to all the people who have moved off Datum Earth, many of whom are experimenting with all sorts of alternate government systems, alternate economic systems, and often have abandoned the concept of money. The “war” of the title is more of a severe cultural conflict, rather than a shooting war. Over the course of the book, we learn a lot more about the other intelligent races on the other Earths, the various human cultural experiments on the other planets, and how some of the stranger planets became so strange.
Starhawk by Jack McDevitt ($25.95) is a prequel to Engines of God ($7.99), which is the book I usually hand to people who want to sample McDevitt. Starhawk is the story of Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins as she becomes qualified as an interstellar pilot and has some early adventures, before she flies all over the galaxy in Engines of God ($7.99), trying to solve the puzzle of the alien artifacts found abandoned all over the galaxy. Starhawk was an enjoyable read, but it didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat–I already knew that Hutch would survive and go on to have a long, successful career. While Starhawk is an interesting introduction to both the universe and personality of “Hutch” Hutchins, I’m still going to recommend that people start with Engines of God, which I consider a stronger, more interesting novel.