Little Soul

Today we found Sandy, our old Siberian dwarf hamster, had curled up in her little house and died.

Sandy was a good hamster. She’d lived a long life – over two-and-a-half years – and had been getting steadily scruffier and scrawnier and having more and more trouble climbing. Because she never stopped climbing. Even when she kept falling, and getting stuck in the bars, and we had to elderly-proof the whole cage with cardboard and toilet paper. She found a way up and would swing along the ceiling using her front paws.

She was Wump’s little pal. They were very much alike. Never slowing down, even when maybe they should. “She’s pew,” Wump said. “Just like me.”

Sandy was a very pew hamster. Right up to yesterday. Then, last night, she went and bundled up in her nest, and she went to sleep. Not too shabby, I think.

Wump, August 3rd, 2019. I still remember how happy she was, carrying Sandy home from the pet shop.

Pets are a funny thing. We love them so much. If there’s such a thing as a soul, some part of us that transcends and exceeds our stupid meat, then the things we love have a thread of it too. And when that thread is cut, it hurts. But it stays with us.

So long, little soul. Thanks for being a good friend to my daughter.

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Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Well here we are – or at least here I am – at the end of the first round of readings and reviews for the #SPSFC. Team Space Lasagna will be going ahead with ten books to read all the way through and then pick out their three semi-finalists (more about that in coming days), but since I have already read all the books and consider the reviewing to be the important part of my job here, I will be going on a little break. But first, here is my review of Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire, by G. M. Nair.

Team Space Lasagna unanimously voted to save this book until last, not just because of the captivatingly amusing title and cover and premise, but because of Nair’s positively Ryan Reynoldsian social media charm offensive. We were all enchanted, and not-so-secretly a little bit scared that Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire was going to suck and we were all going to be just super disappointed.

Well, Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire did not suck! In fact, Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire lived up to its promise and proved to be just as charming and silly and erudite as its relentlessly positive and engaging author made me feel it should. From the opening (a very nice play on the “crazy, inexplicable and bad shit that happens just before the fade to black and the text THIRTY-SIX HOURS EARLIER appears” trope) to the ending (that brings everything back around and awards the reader for maintaining their death-grip on the narrative toboggan no matter how many snowman children and infirm snowman elderlies it ploughs through along the way), I was captivated. And you’d better believe I was entertained.

Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire asks us the important questions. Like would you. You know what I mean. Would you. If you’ve read it, you know. I’m not going to answer it, but it is an important question. But there’s much more to this tale than carnal philosophy.

Right from the start, I was completely smitten by the two primary protagonists. Okay, I guess Calhoun counts as a lone secondary protagonist and / or hard-boiled antagonist with a heart of gold, but the true heroes here stole the show. Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer are the protagonists we deserve. A couple of chapters in, I just wanted to sit and read a  nice cosy book about this awkward guy meeting a girl and dating and the two of them both being adorable. But I knew, even as I read, that it was not to be. I knew it was all about to go wrong. I could not have predicted how utterly and amazingly that was going to happen, but – yeah, fine. My disappointment at the star-crossed Michael and Terri getting metaphorically pasted right in the ever-loving faces by that star they were just meant to be crossing … let’s say my disappointment was short-lived, and was quickly replaced by a sort of dizzy reader-concussion that had become the new normal by about the 20% mark.

What can one say about this book? It’s the story of a pair of unlikely but all-too-relatable friends – the anxious and life’s-problems-obsessed straight man, and the devil-may-care free-spirit comic relief[1] – and an adventure through space and time and alternate realities that makes Sliders look like a small, greasy hamburger of the same name. Speaking of hamburgers, this story has hamburgers. Rand McNally hamburgers.

I had to admire the dedication to deep-nested references. Irony, by Claire Colbrook, does not exist, but the same book by Claire Colebrook does. Claire Colbrook, meanwhile, did write a book called Sex After Life. Really makes you think. Also the former book is a little overpriced in my opinion, but the latter book is free in PDF form and I still didn’t download it. So yeah.

Things go steadily from crazy to crazier, with knights on giant rabbits jostling for page-space with monstrous cow-cultists that have eyeballs on their fingers (oh God, Coleman Supreen, I get it now), and a plot that carries us back and forth through time and alternate universes until nobody knows where they are or what is going on. And in the midst of it all, our protagonists manage to actually explore their own interpersonal issues and their pasts, and come to a profound understanding of one another and themselves. Stephanie Dyer, damn her eyes, just went ahead and John Candied me in act three – her daffy fuck-upness flipped over and broke my goddamn heart, and I’m going to hold it against Nair forever even though it was so fucking beautiful.

There’s nothing more I can say here. I’m done. This finished me. Time for a break. Let’s see if the meters have anything remotely useful to add before I go for a lie down.

Sex-o-meter

Folks, it’s official. We have a parallel-universe-hopping threesome on our hands. Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire may not have pushed the sex-o-meter to its limits or really done anything much on-page per se, but I think it’s safe to say we have peaked. Let’s give this a Fry and his horny grandma out of a possible male Lister and his horny female Lister and their respective Rimmers.

Gore-o-meter

A whole lot of people get ‘sploded, and a few just plain die. Again, we’re not exactly at gore-o-meter straining point but look, it’s a solid four-and-a-half flesh-gobbets. People get ‘sploded. A lot.

WTF-o-meter

And the WTF is off the charts. Alternate universes and the opening up of a series-arc multi-versal threat, and – boom. I just got my WTF-o-meter repaired after Earthweeds and now it’s busted again. It’s giving this book a Creepy out of a possible Hatboy and that’s all I’m going to say. Regulars to the blog will get it, if regulars to the blog are even reading my reviews.

My Final Verdict

Look, for “laundrez-vous” alone I would have awarded this book five stars. That’s all it would have taken. And there’s a second book in the series, The One Hundred Percent Solution. What more can I say? I’m a fan now. Five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. I’m deducting a star for the blatant currying of favour Nair did on social media in an attempt to sway the judges’ deliberations. If he hadn’t been so underhanded in his attempts to subvert the course of the SPSFC, it would have been six stars. So you just think about that, Nair. You just sit there and think about what you did. Your pathological need to be liked has prevented a full-scale overhaul to the entire rating system on Amazon, Goodreads, and across the globe. Good job. Hope you’re proud.

[1] What? Did you think I was going to make a “straight man / bi woman” pun here? What kind of a hack do you take me for? I’m disappointed in you.

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The Chaos Job: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week I also read The Chaos Job, Jackpot Drift Book 1, by T. M. Baumgartner.

All I really expected and hoped for from this book, based on the cover, was that it had something mildly amusing involving sheep in it. Never have my expectations been so thoroughly met, and exceeded.

I was intrigued, like I say, from the quirky title and cover of the book, and the opening hook was also neat – so I was on board from the start. This is reader-capture done exactly right. The Chaos Job introduces us to a very wild wild variant on the space western subgenre, and it’s very nicely done.

Sil – it’s short for Silver, and the prevailing neo-feudal culture of the story’s setting places great store in names denoting precious metals and minerals – is a Space Civil War veteran with a badly-tuned artificial leg, living in a run-down settlement on the frontier planet of Jackpot Drift, out in the middle of space nowhere. Rather than accept the shackles of civilisation and being beholden to The (Space) Man once again, she opted for a simple life of farming, trading her milk and cheese for the bare necessities down in the town near the farmland she was granted as a retirement right.

Sadly, milk and cheese require sheep and goats, and Sil’s sheep are fuckwits and her goats are … well, actually just goats. There are also mini-cows in this story but they’re presumably a bit too expensive for her, and there are horses but they’re definitely too expensive and also, have you ever tried to milk a horse? There’s a reason only Genghis Khan did that shit. But anyway. Even more sadly, Sil’s new homeworld is barely terraformed and is host to native wildlife and even plants that just completely fuck up any but the toughest livestock, and her mid-to-long-term plan to acquire genetically altered sheep sperm in order to breed some hardier stock is foiled by the local bully and quasi-noble, Glass.

Yes, this story is ultimately all about a tub of sheep jizz. Let’s just be clear on that.

Oh, and also Sil has some sort of parasite inside her – a “godlet of chaos”. We’re just casually introduced to this and expected to roll with it. I, for one, did. Because the whole story was just fucking fascinating.

Struggling to get by on a crappy patch of land on a crappy planet, her every attempt to improve her station shat upon by Glass who wants her to work for him as a nanotech repair mechanic, living in constant fear that her “godlet” will wind up getting her tracked down and taken away by chaos bounty hunters, and assisted on the farm by a deeply troubled AI named Stuck in the Mud, Sil is what you might characterise as a gorram mess (if one was of a mind to acknowledge the classics). She befriends a fellow war veteran – a “mech head” from the enemy side of the war, whose lot in life is even worse than hers – and together they just try to get to the end of the fucking book in one piece.

I was captivated, and amused, by this story from the start. Glass and his douchebaggery was infuriating, but his whole plot arc (especially with the horses) was hilarious and satisfying. The AIs scattered around town, conversation between which we are just randomly shown from time to time, were absolutely brilliant. The inevitable sheep-jizz heist, at least before the whole thing spiralled out of control and turned into something else entirely, was clean and simple. While we could ultimately have had a few less moving parts, the motivations of each character remained clear and the geometrically-escalating fuckedness of the whole situation was breathtaking … but never confusing.

And the payoff for the cover and title, specifically Mud’s sheep, was amazing. I laughed out loud. What a well-earned punchline after all the setup and technological worldbuilding. Every time we went back to the sheep, I laughed. That sheep was comedy gold. I don’t know if it was necessarily a load-bearing bit, but it was a fucking quality bit and I doff my hat to it.

All in all this was a fun, exciting, clever, page-turning little space western, with wonderful characters and a tight, intriguing plot. The villains were real shits, the heroes were also kind of grimy, and just when I was getting ready to roar in frustration it all concluded perfectly. In fact, I wasn’t really about to roar at any point, because I trusted Baumgartner and the narrative not to let me down. And I was not let down.

Sex-o-meter

With a certain amount of classily expressed but entertainingly frequent sex, and some hot albeit anecdotal ghost moose on mini-cow action, this story has some raunch on its ranch. It doesn’t go overboard, but it’s solid. I give it a Yul Brynner’s head photoshopped to look like the knob-end of a penis out of a possible HBO’s version of Westworld.

Gore-o-meter

There isn’t too much violence here, it’s not that sort of story – but it’s also a space western, so there’s a certain rough-and-tumble vibe to the whole thing. One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

I was very happy with the amount and quality of WTF in this story. I still have no idea what the godlets are and how they relate to the other “gods” introduced into the book’s wider mythos. Is it pure fantasy somehow, or is it deep-electronic science-fantasy? What are the AIs up to? What’s happening out there in the universe beyond Jackpot Drift’s skies? What does any of it mean? Just have to read and find out, I guess. I give The Chaos Job a River Tam out of a possible River Song.

My Final Verdict

I was left a little uncertain as to why the book title was what it was, since it didn’t quite relate to the story – but sure, there was a job, and there was chaos, so fine. And given the wider context of the series and the other titles coming in, I can squint and call it justified. This book was really excellent. We get some good mystery and setup for the series, but marvellous closure on the book level. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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Stars Forever Black: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


My final week of reviewing for the #SPSFC and Team Space Lasagna brought me Stars Forever Black, book 1 of the Star Lion Saga, by A. L. Bruno.

This Star Trekkian first contact story with a twist started out fun-and-simple and got steadily more intriguing and compelling as it went along. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of first contacts between different sentient species, whether it’s humans meeting aliens or humans-as-aliens – Stars Forever Black manages to package both together, as well as creating an actually complex and realistic alien culture that is still recognisable.

I was reminded of an episode of The Orville, where the crew runs into a human-like civilisation in the middle of a social media culture-meltdown. The Phelspharians are just on the cusp of their own social media event horizon, but it provides a perfect looking-glass into the real world and our present-day issues with trust, information, and communication. I was hooked from the start.

Issues with Phelspharian opinions of translation machines and interpreters leave first contact and diplomatic relations in the hands of relatively junior officer and known hothead Lt. Commander Jason Roberts, who was the only guy to put much effort into learning the language in the 18 months the research vessel spent in orbit, studying the Phelspharians and their budding global civilisation. With complicated alien traditions and values to contend with, to say nothing of his belligerent-arse shipmates and the occasional interstellar war flashback, Roberts has to navigate his own people to a peaceful cooperative level with the scared, backward Phelspharians.

Oh yeah, he has war flashbacks. Full-blown, sound-of-space-choppers, space-venetian-blind-shadows-across-the-face war flashbacks, and they’re actually not hackey or boring … in fact can I just take this opportunity to petition the science fiction community to rename them Venusian blinds for the purposes of the space-war-flashback trope? Thank you. Petition lodged. Let’s get back to it.

Things are not what they seem, on the planet below or in the depths of space above, and Roberts’s crew are caught in between as a long-dormant war re-erupts and they are tasked with preparing the hapless Phelspharians to become a part of it.

Throughout the story I was picturing Conrad as the Bajoran, Shaxs, in Star Trek: Lower Decks. Oh well. He could have done worse out of the whole thing.

The leader of the Phelspharians’ emergent worldwide cooperative of nations is a mediator known as the Kionel, an old warrior hero of old whose title has been rebranded as that of a diplomat, a sort of international ombudsman. It’s a very cool idea and there is a lot more going on under the surface, but the important thing is I got to use the word ombudsman. Twice!

This story has everything I have always found fascinating and fun about first contact scenarios. I was endlessly amused at the way Roberts recognises an alien media pundit and gets excited. The various Phelspharian media personalities, from the John Oliver / comedy news format analogue to the solemn yet division-mongering conservative analogue, are amazingly done. I was pulled out of the story briefly by a joking line about “central casting” that seemed a bit too Earth-specific considering the sheer quantity and quality of work Bruno put into making the rest of Phelspharia distinctly un-Earthlike, but I shook it off and jumped right back in.

We skip back and forth between several key player points of view, seeing some of the Soviet-esque working class and the propaganda, espionage and secret police actions that are taking place out of sight of the media and their focus on the aliens. It very effectively built tension, and managed to avoid the trap that jumping point-of-view often falls into – specifically that each arc gets cut off and the reader groans and is tempted to skip the next couple of chapters to get back to the cliffhanger on the original thread. Each thread was equally weighted and compelling, and that’s pretty fucking impressive.

I enjoyed all the depth and detail that went into this story at every level, from the beautiful complexity of Phelspharia’s nations and cultures, to the wider and largely-unexplored backstory of Terra (Earth) and the fragile interplanetary union to which it belongs. I liked the little hints we saw, like the reference to Terra’s nano-based physiological alteration experiments. And like I said, heck, I even liked Roberts’s war flashbacks. They were well crafted, gut-wrenching, and relevant to the story that was unfolding.

I confess I did wonder at one point how much longer I would be required to feel sorry for Conrad because the radiation therapy he got for being a hero had made him into a big fat idiot. Because he really was a big fat idiot for a lot of the book. Still, he got better. There was a moderately preachy message about social media in the form of a We Are Not So Different, Your People And Mine speech, but fuck it all, it worked. Trek at its best, and in a lot of ways Bruno surpassed the format – as one can, given a novel to work with rather than a 45-minute screenplay. One can, but one does not necessarily always do. Bruno did. Excellent job.

Sex-o-meter

We are treated to a bit of tasteful pan-away sex. That’s about it. I predicted within a couple of pages of their introduction to one another that Roberts and Nashita were totally gonna Kirk, but that inevitability was left for the next book. Still nailed it, it counts, prediction stands. I’ll give this a … well, a Benjamin Sisko out of a possible James Kirk, I suppose. Makes sense. Moving on.

Gore-o-meter

Stars Forever Black has got some brutality on it. Nasty soviet-style beatings and related violence, a terrorist machete-ing with massive  tissue and organ damage, and some truly ghastly space-war flashbacks. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There are mysteries still to solve, but they’re not so much pure WTF as solid, high-performance reader-bait. What secrets are the Phelspharians and their Kionel still hiding? What’s going to happen with the oncoming war and the approaching Terran ships? How did this planet-full of early-21st-Century-analogous humans happen anyway? I can only hope the answers aren’t disappointing. I give it a Moriarty reprogramming the holodeck to contain a replica of the Enterprise out of a possible Q continuum.

My Final Verdict

Towards the end of the book we are treated to perhaps the best hocus pocus traditional interpretive dance mythos presentation I think I’ve ever seen in any medium. I was  kind of expecting the “stars forever black” line to be in there, but it was left to interpretation a bit. I genuinely cared, and teared up, and got myself a frisson with the ending. The various character interactions were so exciting to read, and so satisfying in their conclusions. I loved the conclusion and I have to read more. Five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, will definitely continue reading series.

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Double Edged: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


For the final week of Team Space Lasagna’s round one reviewing cycle, we had four books to read instead of three. So I made a bit of an early start and here is my review of Double Edged, The Bulari Saga Book 1, by Jessie Kwak.

I was drawn into this story immediately, its prologue was exciting and well-written and set up a very interesting heist and overall plot. Some parts of the prologue came back into the story proper, but some parts – *cough-cough-cough-Oriol-cough-cough* – took way too long and others just didn’t seem to come back at all and so their relevance was a kind of annoying non-event. This happens with prologues too often in my opinion, so I might just be transferring some of my generalised irritation at the phenomenon onto this book specifically. Still, my point is it was a great prologue and the opening chapters were great too, the only drawback was how long it took to bring the two together.

The story is written in present-tense, which I found a bit off-putting but plenty of people like it, and it is a good way to give immediacy and stakes to a story. It’s a perfectly cromulent tense, is what I’m saying. Wait, why is my spell-checker not tagging cromulent as a typo? Has the English language been embiggened? Holy shit. It’s not tagging embiggened either. I digress, but you have to admit I have reason.

Just – look.

Anyway, back to the story. Jaantzen and his found family, including daughter-figure Starla, are enmeshed in a power-vacuum struggle in the sci-fi organised crime rings of Bulari, a cool sort of space Ankh-Morpork. With the death of crime lord Coeur – she’s actually a crime lady but that sounds just incredibly dumb, and Kwak made exactly the right call in rendering the crime lord term as gender neutral and I don’t care what the SJWs say – the underworld of Bulari is in turmoil. And since the underworld of Bulari also includes most of the actual civic leadership, it’s probably just easier to say “world”. Coeur was the mayor, after all. The Patrician, if you will.

Assassinations, political intrigue, mysterious locked cases and a sci-fi drug called shard are the order of the day in this action-packed and highly enjoyable story.

I was also really intrigued and delighted to see some outside-the-box character work going on here. It was a really interesting take on the space gangster / sci-fi godfather subgenre. While I’ve read enough good modern (independent) sci-fi by now to no longer consider strong female characters to be new or trope-busty, these ones were particularly enjoyable – and the sad fact is I am still mentioning them, so we clearly still need more of this good stuff. Also, I said “busty” by accident and now I keep looking back at it and wondering if I should change it but we all know I’m not gonna.

Furthermore, we had a really cleverly worked-in deaf character, and her deafness wasn’t played as a plot-point or some inlet for a stupid superpower, it was just a fact. To such an extent that I was puzzled, quite a significant way into the story, why the main band of protagonists were signing and texting to each other, and not “saying” things except when they got agitated, and I wondered if maybe it was a part of the world-building, like a secret language or a cool “everyone on this world is silent” element, but nope. It was “just” an adjustment to this character and it was really excellent.

Expect some twists as you go, and the introduction of the big-picture plot arc but not much in the way of closure yet. This is, after all, the opening book in a considerably-sized series (8 books [5 main series books and 3 prequels], let me just say, is the perfect size and composition for a science fiction series and I thoroughly approve). We’re treated to a nicely-constructed setup to a larger mystery and threat, with good characters and a nice mid-range plot for this book to get us into it. On a specific level I really enjoyed the setup of the planetary structure, the globe-encircling desert, all of that. I like. And Jaantzen’s philosophising about parenthood is lovely and thought-provoking.

On the subject of the characters and the writing, for most of the book I was blinded by anger about why Jaantzen was even helping Coeur instead of shooting her in the face. Not to spoil anything but he has excellent reason to hate her and – well, my notes as I was reading were as follows:

I can’t enjoy this because I’m just so mad Jaantzen isn’t shooting Coeur in the face over and over again. Guess that’s good writing? Unless the author doesn’t nail the explanation. Because a vague “he gave his word” is not enough. I will decide if bad writing or great.

Ultimately, I was left with the judgemental declaration of “good writing,” since while I was still utterly unconvinced and pissed off by his reasons for not killing Coeur and am absolutely livid that he didn’t kill her and put her head on a spike over at the mayor’s office or something, I hold out hope that we’re going to get satisfaction one day – and in the meantime Coeur is a cool enough evil protagonist / antagonist / strange bedfellow that she’s worth keeping around and expanding on for another couple of books. On a story-reader level it’d be a waste to kill her. Just … I’m hesitant to read more of this series rather than just finish it in my head and pretend something satisfying happens, because I was burned by Robin Hobb and I’m not going back there. Never. A. Fucking. Gain.

It wasn’t until around the 60% mark that Oriol returned from the prologue (aside from a couple of brief mentions) and we find out a little bit of what he was up to there and how it relates to the story, but it wasn’t what I’d call a perfect link-up. The Demosga family is apparently not very important after all, but at least the Dawn was mentioned, and agriculture. Oriol’s return to the story and his relationship with another of the protagonists is really very sweet, too.

We end on a cool epilogue and a final tantalising closure-but-not-really with the thingies in the globes that were in the locked cases. Was the prophet of the Dawn cult right about everything? Well, I mean, he was a murderous nutbag so fuck him, but maybe he was? Guess we’ll see!

Sex-o-meter

There are some tender moments between lovers here but most of it is the familial love of Jaantzen and his crew, and a whole lot of space mobsters and shoot-outs and stuff, which are a kind of sex but in another more accurate way, there was no sex. And that’s fine. I’ll give it a shard out of a possible dark crystal. Wait, that’s not sexy. Out of a possible dark, throbbing crystal. There we go.

Gore-o-meter

We get plenty of nasty murders, beatings and torture stuff, mob hits and gunfights and mad cultist rampages. It’s good and violent, but not precisely gory. Still, I’ll award it three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five. It’s got some brutality to it.

WTF-o-meter

The story and plot elements are all quite clear-cut and don’t have much in the WTF department. There are mysteries, sure enough, and alien relics and locked boxes and deep prophetic apocalyptic wossnames and all that, but they’re none of them really WTFs. I give Double Edged a shard out of a possible all the different varieties of troll drugs on the Discworld.

My Final Verdict

This was an enjoyable read and the blurb-statement “Perfect for fans of The Expanse, Firefly, and The Godfather” is not an idle brag (nor is it in any way a humble one, but I’ll allow it). I will still hesitate to look at the rest of the series until reassured that Jaantzen and Coeur get some kind of arc-ending that doesn’t make me inarticulate with rage because I don’t have time for shitty painful injustice in my fiction, I read this stuff for fun. So if someone can help me out that would be appreciated. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale!

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God in the Machine: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Team Space Lasagna took a look at God in the Machine, by Cole Martyn, as part of their #SPSFC pile for this week.

Okay, this story wasn’t exactly my thing, but that’s an entirely subjective viewpoint and I’m going to do my best to lay it out neutrally (my apologies in advance for my failure). A lot of the things I don’t care for in a story often turn out to be things other readers like, after all – and a lot of things I like turn out to be things the writing and reviewing community regularly put at the tops of their “Shit Authors Should Never Do (Number 6 Will Surprise You!)” lists. So grab a handful of salt-grains because here comes my opinion.

We open on a full-on cyberpunk dystopian ecofascist dictator speech, complete with fist-gestures and police action. Well-written and well-executed setup, even if it’s all too real and depressing. We meet Dash, who sort of seems like the main protagonist but is actually kind of a red herring. So was Benoît, who I have to say was really asking for it. Anyway, moving on.

The actual protagonists are Elias and his little brother, who are Ronin (not actual ronin, it’s just the name of the community they belong to but, counterpoint hey, did it have to be?) who live outside the metaphorically gated (or in this case literally domed) community of the Citadel – a vast sealed structure within which humanity hides from the steadily collapsing planetary ecosystem. Climate disaster has led to the complete subjugation of the human race under a technocratic fascist regime led by Autarch Vicentine.

When Elias turns out to have superpowers of some kind (I’m not spoiling anything that wasn’t in the blurb), I at first wondered if maybe it was the result of the “plasma extraction” that was going on as part of the ghoulish rich-people longevity sub-sub-subplot, but it wasn’t that. Elias was just a Nihon, all along. That’s what they’re called. Nihons.

Fun fact: Nihon literally means the sun’s origin and is the actual word for – the anglicised spelling of – the real word – it’s – Japan. It’s what Japan is. That’s it, that’s the fun fact.

Look, I’m not saying anything, I’m completely unfamiliar with the material since it’s not my thing any more than this book was, but I do appreciate a good visual and conceptual callback and this was … look, I just see it, alright? I can’t speak to any similarities in the stories themselves. I can, and will, speak to the similarities with Star Wars, but we’ll get to that. Oh yes, we’ll get to that.
Okay? Good. Carrying on.

Our young heroes discover a hidden community (a “rebellion”, if you will) with the help of an old man who begins to teach Elias in the ways of the generalised biosphere-powered Gaia-energy and who might turn out to have been really quite closely involved in the political development of the – you see where this is heading. With an enjoyable stopover in the dual trope of the martial arts grandmaster who refuses to teach the hero and “too old the boy is, teach him I cannot,” we work our way around to taking on the bad guys and restoring the republic to power after it was overthrown using emergency measures to place the Autarch in charge.

Yes, there was a certain familiarity to the story (we didn’t really need the “always two there are, a master and an apprentice”, or the “yes, give in to your hate and take your place at my side” stuff), but the thing you have to remember is, it’s a classic story and it’s not like the pop culture classics were original either. I’m not going to go full post-modern wankshaft on you but there are no new ideas ‘ere, mon ami. And look, if we’re going to get a hairy warrior-beast who kicks arse and takes names, Maximus is pretty damn cool and at least has a bit of agency. The training montages with Max and Eli were really pretty fun. And give me Martyn’s version of robots any day of the week. The sub-subplot of the AI’s history and trial (which folded into the main story nicely) was really interesting.

I did groanlaugh at the inclusion of a literal Hyperloop public transit system. Sure, maybe that’ll happen. It’s definitely a fun concept. But isn’t the Citadel self-contained enough to make just … trains good enough? Oh well. This isn’t the place for that argument.

Speaking of tech, fun fact #2: Carbotanium is a combination of beta titanium alloy and carbon composite. In this story it is described as a deep-down fossil fuel type resource that the Citadel is running on, demolishing the Earth in the process (and maybe using it to prepare to fly to another planet and start again? That sub-sub-sub-subplot didn’t seem to go anywhere but it was really interesting too!). It certainly makes more sense as a building material than a fuel, and I might have missed how that thread played out, but it felt tantalising to me. It ended abruptly with a cliffhanger but don’t be put off by the “book 1 of 1” on Amazon: the story continues (according to the product info) with the first phase of the God in the Machine short stories: Icarus, Hades and Nihon. So there is more to enjoy here!

Sex-o-meter

Nothing. Zip. Nada. The male and female protagonists are young teens at best so that’s fine, but I don’t know. This is one case where a slightly older pairing and a bit of – well – pairing might have added to the story. Still, there are more important things and the book didn’t suffer for there being no time for sex. Half a tender unknowing sibling-kiss out of a possible entire-arse Targaryen dynasty.

Gore-o-meter

The action was solid and enjoyable and there was plenty of firefights and downright brutal ethnic-cleansing style massacres. I think there might have been more opportunity for chilling ecofascist violence and psychological impact here – the plasma extraction was gross – but Martyn opted to go for full-on adventure rather than making this too dark. And that’s fine. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

I am left with questions. Like for example, Dash wasn’t authorised to disengage the autopilot or fly a hoverbike he’d stolen, so he … shot the interface screen … and that worked? The rebellion’s community guidelines state that anything that changes the natural make-up of the body is strictly off-limits. Where do they draw that line? Pretty easy in the case of cybernetic augmentations, but you can see where there’s going to be problems with this, right? Also, Max is nothing but things that change the natural make-up of the body. But sure. Oh yeah, and why is extracting plasma a more complex, painful and inefficient process, and only 15 minutes faster, in this cyberpunk dystopia than it is today? Is cruelty the point? As you can see, there are WTFs here – but they’re not exactly the WTFs I’m looking for (move along). I give God in the Machine an a-koo-chee-moya out of a possible it was truly a Hanzō sword. I don’t know.

My Final Verdict

This was a rich and imaginative story and the action kept up a good solid pace. I loved the worldbuilding and tech even if I poke fun at it here – like I said, this story wasn’t for me but it’s definitely going to be for a lot of people! I knew what I was in for when I saw the dude with the katana on the cover. Still less dumb than the Prequel Trilogy. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week’s #SPSFC allocation included The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System, by Eric Klein.

Join Armstrong on his all-expenses-paid 30-day cruise through the solar system on board the maiden voyage of the latest pleasure ship (complete with a beauty pageant and scientific symposium), as he tries to unravel an assassination plot and foil the biggest heist in history, the blurb for this story says. My immediate hope was that the beauty pageant and the scientific symposium be combined somehow, and I was ultimately not disappointed – even if the heist was a bit oversold.

Anyway, where were we? This story was a real classic piece of work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a good hard-sci-fi look at the planets and moons of the solar system, a treatise on terraforming and colonisation, a look at space travel and technology, a solid weaving of past and future history, all stuffed into the framework of – well, like the blurb says, the framework of a dude named BJ Armstrong going on a luxury cruise like Corbin Dallas in The Fifth Element. Almost exactly like him, in fact, right down to the suspiciously convenient raffle prize and the adorable redhead. But I digress.

The story was also peppered with references to pop culture and golden age sci-fi, and sorry (not sorry) to say my notes while reading this book basically consisted of nothing more than me spotting references:

Helium, nice John Carter reference.
And a little Star Wars reference.
And a Torchwood / Doctor Who vortex manipulator reference.
Cute reference to Long Earth by Pratchett and Baxter.
The Mended Drum – Pratchett again? Wow there’s some references in this (but wait, it’s Callahans too?).
And a 2001 reference.
Aaaaand a TANSTAAFL reference, Heinlein.
Mildly disappointed Mimas was all about Star Wars and not Red Dwarf.
And an Invincibles reference.

It went on. You get the idea. It was very enjoyable to read, although I accept that this is probably going to be a matter of taste. I thoroughly enjoy a bit of referencing, although I generally appreciate them a bit more obscure or hidden in the story, these were fun. I also enjoy info-dump-style deep dives into the facts and figures of various planets and other concepts, so this was fun to me. I liked the illustrations and other stand-out texts and additions, turning this into a bit more of a multi-media experience. Really nice. However, someone in it for the space adventure or other storytelling elements may be let down by the depth of the raw information. I don’t know. I can’t speak for those idiots. I liked it.

The chapter openings, playing on the trope of quotations or other texts to introduce a chapter that can sometimes be annoying or otherwise skippable in many books, were great in this one. The little sequence of “one small step” quotations, and the way Klein blended history with fictional future-history, put a smile on my face (especially the Ganymede one). Really well done.

To move briefly away from the sciencey data stuff and the geeky-arse references for a moment, I will say that I enjoyed the plot itself. The characters were simple but entertaining, the ultimate villain was clearly broadcast very early in the story (I made a note of it, then another note that said simply LOL nailed it), and overall it was just a fun little adventure. I was not only struck by the unavoidable comparison to The Fifth Element which probably should have been lampshaded (maybe in the form of actual lampshades in the shape of alien relic-stones!), but I’d also just watched Avenue 5 so was unable to prevent the Captain from being Hugh Laurie and this inevitably led to BJ becoming Josh Gad and those comparisons do not hold up even slightly but it made it that much funnier, and frankly the characters in the book could have done worse. Anyway, the Avenue 5 one is on me, it was just amusing is all.

We even got a clever little meta-commentary on how modern sci-fi has changed from the golden age, particularly in the area of female character agency and attitudes in general, and the series of attempted-Captain-murders were funny right from the start. For the most part, though, the thinking this story requires is higher-level scientific and technology stuff, rather than the cultural impact of fiction and gender roles therein. Still, it did make me think. And I like a bit of that in my goofy space-cruise beauty pageant whodunnit.

Sex-o-meter

We get some sex in this one, but it’s all very tasteful. We also get your typical rapey space pirates but it’s more … well I can do no better than to read off the sex-o-meter, which gives The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System a single Wild West goldrush mail-order bride out of a possible Piers Anthony Space Tyrant book.

Gore-o-meter

Not really much gore here, most of the killings were prevented and what we ended up with was fairly civilised. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There was some WTFery thrown in here even though most of it was well-explained and solid. What WTF there was, then, was mostly in the form of throw-away lines. Stuff like the Titanic arriving, and the Empire State Building being moved, were tantalising but I didn’t need a story about them. We have Clarke for that. The deep Sharia law colony out in the solar system boondocks was amusing and gave the opportunity to show more commentary on women’s rights without getting too preachy and bigoted. I’ll give this story an earth, air, fire and water stone out of a possible Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich making out on an altar while Chris Tucker screams really, really piercingly in the background.

My Final Verdict

The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System is a love letter to the solar system we call home, and the creative giants who terraformed the science fiction landscape we currently live in. It was just plain nice. Four stars!

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Rise: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Week nine of the #SPSFC read-a-rama brought us Rise, Last Chance book one, by K. T. Hanna.

There’s a lot going on under the surface of this story that at first glance was maybe not explored very much, but it did leave a lot for the reader to enjoy on their own. For my part, I was immediately charmed by the small Doctor Who reference right up front – although I have to point out, that is not how you use a TARDIS, and it’s certainly not how you capitalise TARDIS, Hanna.

The opening of the story was confusing but definitely intriguing, and this theme continues throughout the book. The premise, in short, is that … someone or something … is enabling the resurrection of people just after death, giving them a second chance at life – provided they adhere to the terms of service. This delightfully chilling take on “nobody reads the terms of service” isn’t quite played as solidly as it could be, but the main moving parts are there.

This book was marketed as “gamelit dark contemporary science fiction,” and I have to admit I have no clue what that means but if any book is gamelit, it’s this one. You die, you wake up with an essentially virtual reality augmentation feeding you instructions and data, telepathically and also through a kind of heads up display built into your eyesight. Also, you get moderate-level superpowers based in some way on how you died. You are given assignments. They start small and easy and get gradually more difficult. If you pass an assignment, you advance in grade and unlock new abilities (complete with VR HUD padlock icon), and get paid. If you fail, or refuse to comply, you are in violation of your terms of service and your “contract” is terminated. That means y’dead. Gamelit. I’m with it.

A very interesting premise, I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that raises just – God, so many questions. Prepare for an awful lot of them not to be answered. You don’t get much information about your first life, so why would you expect any about your second?

I was interested to see whether anyone refused to be part of the Second Chance program, thus choosing death over service. Would a person do anything they were told, given that second chance? Or is it too abstract an idea to convince someone? Would you tell yourself you hadn’t really died, that you’d just been knocked out or injured – but now there is an agency inside your head, capable of killing you, so you’d better do as you’re told?

This wasn’t necessarily explored very much as a concept – but it was the point at which it started to dawn on me that this whole story was a brilliant, if slightly rub-your-face-in-it, allegory for life. Specifically, life in the service sector (or just upper-middle-class-or-lower life in general).

I saw some complaints about this book, and its failure to address the idea that the characters were being forced to do things they didn’t want, under threat of death. And the fact that nobody said “this is slavery, I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” Anyone making this complaint, seems to me, is very privileged, very naïve, and hasn’t actually stopped to think about how life works. Because when you live paycheque to paycheque, and depend on a job for the roof over your head and the food on your table, and are one missed shift away from homelessness and starvation, there’s pretty much no difference between first life and Second Chance. You’d rather die on your feet than live on your knees? Chances are you’re already making that choice already, every day. And you choose to live. For enough money to survive but never to be free.

Look, I’ll circle back to that, but there were some other really interesting facets of this story that I like more the more I think about them. For one thing, it was told in first person and the protagonist was never (as far as I saw, and after a while I was looking for it) identified as male or female. It honestly doesn’t matter, and that was a really interesting choice for Hanna to make – there was a lot of fluidity in Dare’s relationships with friends and potential love interests, allowing the reader to really make up their own minds about what was going on. I would have thought it’d get awkward or difficult to maintain, and it certainly went on well beyond the point where I could tell myself it was an unintentional bit of vague-outery … but it held up really well.

On the less entertaining side, we have a character who is six feet tall and still gets irritated when he can’t reach things? Fuck outta here. If you’re six feet tall, you’re tall. You don’t get to be annoyed at stuff like that. Also, the kids have names like Orion, Cyan and Dare. And I think only Cyan had the “weird hippie parents” excuse. Oh well, it helped them stand out a bit as characters so can’t argue with that. There were a few small technical issues, for example some parts where Dare communicates with the SC and it’s not italicised to show internalised communications, but it’s easy enough to figure out.

Some parts did a bit of a number on my suspension of disbelief. Some of the things that Dare brings to SC’s attention, and SC  winds up thinking and hearing about for the first time, is really basic stuff. What have all the humans drafted into the SC program up to now been doing? Is everyone else really a sheep, and Dare is the first one to question things?

Other parts straight-up enraged me, until they developed further and I saw them for what they were. The SC draftees are expected to continue to live their normal lives and blend in, while doing this additional bullshit secret agent work. This is really only possible in a small network (or terrorist cell?) of SC agents covering for each other, and this sort of works out. I’m still not clear on how many people get brought back. Is it everyone to have an accident and “survive”? It’s one of many unanswered questions, but the SC program is apparently latent in all of us. So go ahead, have a fatal accident. You get one free one! Pro tip: If you recover and don’t start hearing a voice in your head and get superpowers, that means you still have a free one!

But yeah – to circle back to the point – it was the very stage at which I was almost shouting at my Kindle that I realised this had to be an intentional allegory. At one point, our protagonist is overwhelmed and has no reasonable way forward. Performing missions means discovery. Discovery means death. Not performing missions means death. The SC says it will take Dare’s name off the mission roster for a few days, to rest. They’ll only activate Dare in the case of emergencies, the SC says. And what do you know, twelve seconds later there’s an emergency.

Anyone who’s been told they can take time off, and only need to come in to the office / restaurant / supermarket if there’s a desperate need, only to be immediately informed there is a desperate need, will find this familiar.

Don’t like it? Die on your feet, cunt.

Sex-o-meter

This was another essentially young adult outing, with some mooning and speculating with a side-order of affectionate description … but not really any sex. I imagine it’s going to be difficult to go there without opening the box and finding the cat dead or alive, if you know what I mean. Anyway, as you might expect, I give Rise a small piece of radioactive matter and a haphazardly half-assembled gadget for detecting atomic decay and breaking a vial of cat poison out of a possible awkwardly strained metaphor.

Gore-o-meter

As the missions grew more serious, as in many video games the stakes were raised and the body-count increased. Also the book started with the protagonist literally getting smoked by a falling power line and dying grossly en route to the hospital. That was the prologue. Still, for all that, there are definitely gorier books. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There was tons of WTF to be had here. The SC program is a failsafe built into humans and has been around for thousands of years? What’s with all the random file retrieval tasks? Is it just how gamelit works? For that matter, does the game reward system just happen to mirror the rat race futility of real life, or is there a deeper lesson that was intentionally planted here? The shadows, the portent ability and glitches, the fate of the other electric-supers, it was all very interesting. I still had no real idea what was going on in the story at the 80% mark, and I like that. Others might not. I’ll give it a Cyan out of a possible Neo Was The Impostor on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

The SC program’s sad, almost wistful attempts to be Dare’s friend, while simultaneously being the (heh) author of every shitty thing that’s happening in Dare’s life and being utterly beholden to the SC’s higher directives, had middle management written all over it and convinced me this couldn’t be anything but an intentional dig at life in the service industry or other high-value, low-paying jobs. Either that or it was all subconscious and Hanna desperately needs a vacation. All in all a really interesting story that left me feeling thoughtful. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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House of the Dragon

Well well well, if it isn’t another HBO series from GRRM. The “GRR” stands for “GRR I wish I had just a fucking fraction of the money and audience he did.”

But is that … Matt Smith?

And who is this? Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, perhaps, according to IMDB. I do want to see more of the Velaryons and Old Valyria in general. Coolest part of Fire & Blood.

I haven’t been following the news of the series, so all this is news to me. But it looks about as cool as GRRM’s exorbitant paycheque and HBO’s monstrous production values can lead us to expect. And the book (one of two, at least as far as I know, and no sign of #2 yet) was actually pretty good.

So this could be worth checking out.

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Elijah’s Chariot: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week I read Elijah’s Chariot, first book of The Forgotten Children series, by Andrew Griffard.

I’ll level with you and get the worst of it out of the way right up-front: I was a little put off by the title here. It just … look, Elijah just isn’t an interesting name. It isn’t. When you see a book with Elijah in the title, it makes you feel like you’re about to get preached at by an Amish dude. And I’m here to read some goddamn sci-fi. I know Elijah Bailey was named Elijah but the thing you need to know about that is, that was the worst thing about Asimov’s Robot books and it still bores me enough to make me not want to read them even though I already read them when I was like ten. The name Elijah is so boring – if you’ll continue to indulge me for just a minute – it makes me want to travel back in time thirty-odd years and beat up a small Australian boy and take away his Asimov books. For his own good.

Okay, phew. That was harsh but we got through it. Elijah’s Chariot is a really pretty fucking good book and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Maybe I should have led with that. Oh well, too late now.

I was drawn in by the little nicely-done interactions between the kids and their families, there was some excellent character-building right off the bat which made this really engaging. Irina was a real piece of work. Viktor seemed like a nice kid and it was super interesting to see a protagonist with cerebral palsy, even if that ultimately wasn’t really the point it was a fascinating intro and a nice bit of setting and atmosphere work. I was concerned that something gross was going to happen with Svyeta, but it was another good piece of buildup. Her big ol’ vodka chugging drunk dad was a classic. All in all, really nice. From there, it was easy to get pulled along by the story, which begins to unfold good and fast and oh boy, what happened? What was that? Why was that?

What am I talking about?

Well, since the blurb in Amazon and other product descriptions already basically spoil this, I guess Griffard will be okay with me going there. This book begins as a nicely subdued, slow-burn low-key-menace story about a meteorite (Jerry, named Ilya in Russia and thence came the titular Elijah – no wait come back, I won’t say that name again, don’t beat up ten-year-old me anymore, I was a very frail child) about to hit Earth. Not an extinction-level meteorite, but a this-is-cool-let’s-study-it-yay-science-level meteorite. Sean and his dad travel to Russia where the rock is projected to hit, and we watch it all unfold from there. Will the meteorite be full of killer alien wossnames? Goop that turns everyone into shambling green slime-monsters? This was my guess.

So, the meteorite strikes, and it slows down before landing so we know it’s not natural, but then suddenly people just start to die. Headaches, then death. Boom. It was mildly amusing to see a book written in 2015 dealing with a “pandemic”, incidentally. Interesting. But again, the pandemic and the deaths weren’t really the point, although as far as I’m concerned they could have been. I was perfectly content seeing a new look at an alien invasion through the clever method of spaceborne kill-rocks, and a global collapse like we see in The Stand.

Of course, like The Stand, this book had to go and get weird. Only the adults die, and the surviving kids suddenly get superpowers. That was unnecessary to the story. It’s always unnecessary to the story! But okay, fine, this is where we’re going with this one. I see. Okay. Viktor’s ailments go away and he becomes some kind of genius. And the main protagonist seems to have “everything powers”. Alright. At this point in the story I made a review note for myself that read simply, “what the absolute fuck is going on.”

It was that kind of story! It turned into a New Mutants reboot and it absolutely didn’t have to, but damn it, it was still interesting and so I read on. And you know what?

It checked out. Griffard, you mad crazy sonofabitch, you actually tied it together and explained what was happening in a way that made sense. Un-fucking-believable. I was not expecting that. I was all ready to roll my eyes and call this a superhero novel that was 85% origin story. Which … okay, in one way it kind of is, but damn it, it works.

Sex-o-meter

The book’s mostly about kids, so. You know. I mean there’s a bit of creepiness at the start and obviously once you end up with all the adults dying and the streets getting taken over by a bunch of Russian gangbangers there’s going to be a bit of hankski pankski, but it was ultimately fairly sanitary. It certainly could have been a lot worse and I was bracing myself. I’ll give it an Amish dude out of a possible Amish dude with an ice-cream smooshed in his face, uh, in a sexy way. What, are they going to read this? It’s on a fucking computer.

Gore-o-meter

Not much gore here, although the body-count may be in the top five body-counts for the #SPSFC so far. A whole fucking ton of people die, but it’s pretty bloodless. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

This story’s WTF curve was like an exponential sequence graph. It started slow and then went vertical, fast. And just when you think there’s no way you’re ever going to understand what’s going on, that’s when Griffard yanks the tablecloth away and not only does everything on the table remain more or less upright and untouched, the tablecloth turns into a flock of pigeons that fly out of a possible now I actually look at this properly, I realise I’m just reading out the feedback I got from the WTF-o-meter. And I’m okay with that.

My Final Verdict

A really enjoyable read, even if we’re left lacking a little bit of closure on some of the plot threads – that’s why it’s part one of a series. This one gets four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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