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Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #120 December, 2017 February, 2018

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        When I started hearing good things about The Martian by Andy Weir ($15.00), back before the movie came out, I was reluctant to try it because it was getting such good reviews outside the science fiction field, and the standards for what is “good” are often different outside the field versus inside the field. But eventually, I tried it, and I loved it, and it stayed on our Recommended Science Fiction display until the publisher killed off the mass market edition. I still recommend it often to people who are interested in engineering science fiction.
        Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis ($27.00, due mid-November), is even better. Set on the only city on the moon, it is told from the point of view of Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, who was brought to the moon from Saudi Arabia at the age of 6. Her father is a master welder, and she is very bright and could probably succeed at anything she set her mind to. But at 16 she went into a fierce state of teen rebellion and moved out, and that’s still her attitude 10 years later. Officially, she picks up shipments at the port and delivers them to the people or companies that they are addressed to. Unofficially, she went into business with an former school pen pal on Earth. He got a job as a load specialist at the spaceport in Kenya, and together the two of them handle all the smuggling to the moon. A very rich smuggling customer (a case of expensive cigars per month, among other things) offers her a huge amount of money if she can figure out how to sabotage a moon company that he wants to buy out. She puts her engineering skills to work, along with her knowledge of the various safety systems in Artemis, and her friendships with various other residents with high-tech skills, and plans how she’s going to sabotage the company. But she wasn’t aware that the company was secretly owned by a Brazilian mob, and things become dangerously complicated. Publishers Weekly gave Artemis a starred review, but in the mystery/thriller category rather than the science fiction category, and it works very well in both categories.

        I’ve enjoyed Walter Jon Walters novels for decades, but he is primarily known for his science fiction novels. Quillifer ($27.99) is the first of a fantasy series. Set in a fantasy world at about the level of the early Renaissance, the story is told from the point of view of Quillifer, the well-educated and highly ambitious son of a butcher. He is often the brightest person in any given room, and he uses his smart mouth to point this out to everybody, which is not looked upon with favor by the aristocracy. He is quite a womanizer, and he’d rather use clever schemes than hard work to achieve his goals. And he has an angry goddess plotting revenge against him. The book is enormous fun, and I particularly enjoyed Walters’ use of language in this book. Walters says he has the first six books plotted, and has a contract for the first three books, and I’m looking forward to reading many more of Quillifer’s adventures. After all the grimness of George R. R. Martin’s series and all of Joe Abercrombie’s books (which I also enjoy), it’s a pleasure to read such a humorous fantasy.

        A customer complained that he thought Grand Central Arena by Ryk E. Spoor ($7.99) should be on our recommended science fiction display. I tried it, and now that book plus the sequel, Spheres of Influence ($7.99), are on the recommended sf display. I haven’t yet read the third book of the trilogy, Challenges of the Deeps ($16.00), but it’s high on my list to read.
        At the beginning of Grand Central Arena, humans have settled most of the Solar system, have wiped out most physical wants, and most humans have an artificial intelligence installed in their brain to help them get information quickly and process it. But lack of a faster than light drive has kept them stuck in the Solar system–until Dr. Simon Sandrisson invents a FTL drive. He has sent out some probes, and some have returned with interesting data and some have not returned. He assembles a crew for the first human ship, and he chooses Ariane Austin, a top spaceship racing pilot, to pilot the new ship. When the drive is turned on, every AI system on the ship crashes and Ariane’s reflexes and training barely save them from disaster.
        It seems that in the far distant past (perhaps a billion years ago) some race arranged things so that any race that discovers a FTL drive would end up in this artificial universe, thus keeping them from invading other star systems. There are now 5000 alien races living in the Arena, and they all have to play by the rules created by the mysterious creator of this universe. The humans are the first new race to enter the Arena in thousands of years, and they gradually learn the rules, make allies and enemies, and do fairly well. The Arena decides that Ariane is the Leader of the Faction of Humanity because she led the small crew of her ship to the success they have enjoyed so far. She eventually realizes that the Arena considers her to be the leader on all of humanity, not just the small crew in the Arena.
        At the end of the first book, she leads part of the crew back to the Solar system to brief the government on what has happened and to lead more humans to the Arena. The politicians don’t understand how the Arena works, but they are not happy with a racing pilot as the leader of all of humanity, and some plan to change that. Spheres of Influence has lots of fast-paced action as Ariane and her crew deal with plots against the humans and among the humans, both in the Arena and in the Solar system. Very enjoyable space opera.

        Because I enjoyed Spoor’s space operas so much, I also tried Phoenix Rising ($7.99), the beginning of a fantasy series. It was also very good. In a world with humans, elves (by a different name), dwarves (by a different name), an intelligent saurian race that lives thousands of years, active gods of light and demons of darkness, and lots of other interesting critters good and bad, my favorite character was Poplock Duckweed, an adventurous little toad that plays a major role in the book, while the other toads are too lazy to play a role in such dangerous events.
        Every couple of thousand years another chaoswar breaks out, with civilizations being crushed as the forces of good and evil battle for control of the world, and at the beginning of the book it is almost time for the next chaoswar to break out. The forces of evil have been plotting for a long time to win it all this time. But there are also forces of good that have been recruiting and training agents of good (including five from our world) and trying to get them into place to thwart the bad guys.
        The series continues with Phoenix in Shadow (not currently in print) and Phoenix Ascendant ($16.00).
        Spoor has also co-written several science fiction books with Eric Flint, none of which I’ve read yet: Boundary ($7.99), Portal ($7.990, Threshold ($7.99), Castaway Planet ($7.99), and Castaway Odyssey ($7.99). I’ve heard particularly good things about the Castaway novels and will try to find time to read those soon.

        I made the mistake of picking up Children of the Divide by Patrick S. Tomlinson ($7.99) without realizing that it was the third book of a series, and I had not read the previous books, Ark ($7.99) and Trident’s Forge ($7.99).
        Ark tells the story of a generation ship of 30,000 people fleeing a dying earth, and a murder mystery that takes place on the ship.
        Trident’s Forge tells the story of the generation ship finding a habitable planet, but it already has an intelligent race, and the struggle to get the two cultures to work together.
        Children of the Divide starts 18 years after the generation ship reached the colony planet Gaia, and the new generation of both the humans and the aliens are coming of age. There is a lot of trust between some of the humans and some of the aliens, but not by all of either race. When a very advanced alien installation (far too advanced to have been left there by the natives of Gaia) is found on the moon (which is worshiped as a god by the natives), all sorts of fractures appear in the understandings between the races. Add in a terrorist attack (launched by a conspiracy of both humans and natives) and the kidnapping of the human chief of police’s daughter (actually an alien child raised as a human, while elsewhere a human child was raised as an alien), and I was too hooked on this story to go back to the earlier books–and it worked just fine that way. But I suggest that others read the books in the proper order.

        Kevin Hearne is primarily known for his Iron Druid series, beginning with Hounded ($7.99). This delightful series of humorous contemorary fantasies is up to eight paperbacks, one hardcover from a major publisher, and a couple of short hardcovers from a small press, featuring Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2000 year old druid, and his Irish wolf hound Oberon (with whom he has a telepathic link).
        Kevin decided that he wanted to try his hand at big, fat, heroic fantasy novels, with A Plague of Giants ($28.99) being the first of the series. This series has many more characters to keep track of, many more subplots to follow, and is much darker than the Iron Druid series. The continent where the story takes place (at least for the first book) has six nations, each with a distinctive culture and its own kind of magic-users. Then the continent is invaded by armies of Bone Giants, who slaughter everybody in their path, and nobody can figure out where they came from or what their motivation is.
        Much of the story is told by a magic-using bard, who has been sent (for reasons that are not clear by the end of the first book) to share the story of the war with another nation and the many refugees that have fled there. He uses his magic to have his voice reach all the people gathered for his daily story sessions, and he makes himself appear to be the person whose story he is telling. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plots I was supposed to keep track of, and didn’t see how they all fit together, but around the halfway point in the book I started to enjoy it (in spite of the fact that it had only one funny scene in the entire book). By the end of the book, I had fit all the pieces together and was eager for the next book.
        For years I’ve been hearing good things about the urban fantasies of Justin Gustainis, and I finally found time to read some. I started with Occult Crimes Unit series, Hard Spell, Evil Spell, and Known Devil, about a police unit in Scranton, Pennsylvania that deals with supernatural crimes. The series is very good, and it’s also out of print, so you’ll have to look for it used. We don’t see them come in used very often, and they disappear very quickly when they do come in.
        I then read his earlier Morris and Chastain Supernatural Investigations series, Black Magic Woman ($7.99), Evil Ways ($7.99), and Sympathy for the Devil ($7.99). Quincey Morris is a “consultant” from Texas (because it would involve too much red tape from the state to be able to call himself a private investigator) who helps people with supernatural problems. He has a network of contacts all over the country who help him with various cases. One of the people he calls on most often is Libby Chastain, a white witch from New York City. Lot of fast action, interesting plot twists, and fun character interactions. Each book comes to a satisfactory ending, but some plot elements carry over from book to book, and the character relationships advance from book to book, so this series should be read in order.

        I enjoyed Wesley Chu’s Tao series, The Lives of Tao ($7.99), The Deaths of Tao ($7.99), and The Rebirths of Tao ($7.99). Many millions of years ago, an alien starship was passing through the Solar system developed a problem and the only place the aliens could go was Earth. But they can’t survive in Earth’s atmosphere on their own, so they established a symbiotic relationship with Earth life forms and have been working ever since to force Earth life to evolve to the point that they can build a new starship and continue their journey. They almost have humans to the point where construction could begin when a civil war breaks out among the aliens. One group wants to just convert Earth’s atmosphere to something they can breath (which will wipe out all other life on Earth), while the other group figures that after millions of years of forcing evolution, a few more centuries isn’t much time to wait to make the original plan work. In the first trilogy, the brilliant alien Tao is stuck with a rather mediocre human as a symbiote, which isn’t helping much with the war. The first trilogy ends with a bit of a cliff hanger.
        The Rise of Io ($7.99) is the first book of a second trilogy, taking place a few years after the end of the first trilogy. Io is a very low-ranking alien who has been involved in some of the worst decisions in human history, and suddenly Io becomes a symbiote of a very bright and stubborn young human refugee in Asia who has survived by being a thief, con-artist, and smugler. The civil war is still going on, and Io isn’t sure which side to be on. The early part of the book was a little slow as the author feeds information to the reader, who might not have already read the Tao series, but eventually the story gets up to speed and becomes an enjoyable addition to the series.

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