Time to Play: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up on Team Space Leftovers’ SPSFC2 slate is Time to Play, Apocalypse Parenting Book 1, by Erin Ampersand. Another progression fantasy in what is rapidly becoming a pretty familiar sub-genre for me. And I like it!

Time to Play is a classic progression fantasy, with a clever twist. When the Earth is taken hostage and converted into a giant survivor-style reality show for the entertainment of mysterious and horrible aliens, the hapless humans are given skill trees and a points-and-synergies system and basically left to their own devices. In the case of our hero Meghan, this also involves looking after her three kids and an Alabama neighbourhood full of people so selfish and stupid they make the kids look like the fucking Vulcan Science Academy (so, you know, still kind of shitty but at least not actively throwing poo at each other?).

SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT! MAFFIYIR!
Had to be said.

The story had a slightly rocky start, the opening pages seeming a little clumsy and in need of an editorial polish that had me worried for a moment, but it quickly settled into its style and its premise was really excellent – interesting and fun. All in all, it was really enjoyable easy reading. I also appreciated the little neighbourhood map at the front of the book, letting the reader know going on that this was set to be an intimate and self-contained story in a fixed setting and with a controlled number of characters. And it delivered.

We’re immersed in the action and menace of ‘Maffiyir’ right from the start. Human technology is techno-magically cancelled out and the game begins. Meghan has to secure food and water, arms and armour as the alien monsters begin appearing in steady difficulty-progression. As the Maffiyir timer ticks away, Meghan and her family and the rest of humanity are encouraged to fight critters for points, power-up for advantage, and – just maybe – fight their fellow humans for a place on the gross alien leaderboard.

The story immediately and favourably reminded me of a Stephen King disaster, like Cell or The Mist – maybe the people of Meghan’s neighbourhood weren’t quite so grimy and awful, but their selfishness and fear was all too recognisable. A healthy dose of outsider judgementality on the whole parenting thing puts a perfect glaze on a sequence of events that will appeal to people with and without kids. Ampersand has clearly thought about this shit, and has turned “write what you know” into a brilliant, entertaining little story about carrying three ornery-arse independent-minded kids through an alien apocalypse, often kicking and screaming. It’s herding cats, only the cats are gradually granted superpowers as they level up. It’s really very cool.

I enjoyed the glimpses into human nature, as well as the nature of parenthood and responsibility, that we were given throughout this story – all without becoming preachy or smug. While, yes, it is pretty stressful and gut-churning to read while our hero attempts to encourage people not to be selfish pieces of shit the whole entire time, it is also absolutely spot-on. And depressing. But ultimately heart-warming. But also tragic! I don’t know where that leaves me, aside from damn impressed and a little bit giddy.

Gamers, a generation that are increasingly becoming the responsible parent-figures if not the elders of their families and communities, will get a kick out of this story (it’s probably why progression fantasy is such a growing sub-genre). Each demographic and subspecies within gamer culture, and each generation and their values, is nicely represented and portrayed. The mechanics of Maffiyir are brutal and clever, the human savagery and survival instinct the game taps into are all too real, and the cooperation – the true mark of human supremacy, or so I fondly like to dream on my good days – it accidentally forces to flourish in our characters is genuinely uplifting to see.

The aliens themselves, as antagonists and precipitating force behind the entire plot, are kept shadowy – but their technology, from the monsters to the interface to the climactic “mid-game” level-up event, mingle familiarity and alienness really well. The ‘Novelty’ mechanic, and all its implications, really gave me chills as it took shape. While this story was self-contained and very clearly about an extreme close-up of a specific and horrible event, it hints at the existence of a wider cosmos that has massive potential. Plus, of course, it’s not just this little community in Alabama that’s being hit – it’s the entire planet. Just to provide a mid-scale to the narrative too.

Sex-o-meter

Come on now, there are children present! Also there’s an alien apocalypse going on, so keep it in your pants. Still, we do get one (1) sexy time, off page. Frankly there are other things to worry about here and no time for ugly-bumping (unless other helpful parents help out by running interference). Two-and-a-half Benjamins Sisko out of a possible Jim Kirk on the sex-o-meter, and that’s mostly for the hysterically penile tail that immediately became my second-favourite character after Pointy.

Gore-o-meter

Like the sex-o-meter, we have nominal readings here. It’s an alien apocalypse game using killer monsters as its main contestant interface, so there was definitely potential for it to be a lot worse. The inevitable violence was tastefully handled but still grimy and real, giving a true sense of danger while still preserving the “levelled-up tank wading through low-level critters and saying LOL” feel that is such a quintessential part of the grinding-gamer experience. There’s also a bit of random small-animal hunting and prep. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Again, once you accept the concept of Maffiyir as a narrative device, our WTF levels here are truly minimal. The alien Culture (yeah I capitalised it, this is like the dark side of Banks up in here and we only see a tiny fraction of it) is mysterious and horrible, the teleport function is nicely weird (I was again reminded of some of Stephen King’s more surreal alien tech and settings, like the Tommyknockers and Buick 8 alien aesthetic), but no real WTF. And that’s good. The central premise is bugfuck crazy enough without adding in Dalí and Giger on acid. Time to Play is registering three kiloweirds on the WTF-o-meter, which for reference is enough to charge the Heart of Gold‘s tea maker … like, twice.

My Final Verdict

Damn if this didn’t start out kinda shaky, but got really good. I want to read more, and since Amazon is telling me there is no more (this only came out in June this year), I guess we’re going to be waiting for a while. Some legit apocalypse prep thought exercise and research went into this, and Ampersand is clearly a mum to be reckoned with. Hats off. Heck, I’m going to go ahead and give this one five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. Get busy on book 2!

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Lightblade: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Today’s review is for Lightblade, A Progression Fantasy Epic, Book 1 of the Lightblade Saga by Zamil Akhtar. There was some question as to whether this was a science-fiction book or a fantasy one, but I can assure you up front – it is definitely sci-fi. And fantasy. And – look, let’s just get to the review.

Having seen at least one progression fantasy before in my life, I sort of knew what I was getting into here. Your classic progression fantasy involves a protagonist who levels up through the story and faces off against the antagonists and … well, this is that. And then some. And then some more!

The story launches straight into action. Our hero, Jyosh, is languishing in a prison camp after the latest round of horrible wars of dominance across the nations of his world has gone badly for him. He and his fellow inmates are forced to run machines by … hold on, this gets wild. The machinists extract green light from the solar spectrum using crystals they install in their chests and then use the light to power the machines. That’s the magic techno system – different crystals enhance different light wavelengths, that can be used for different stuff. There’s also purple for healing, orange for dreams, and red for combat. Those are the main ones. Especially the dream one. I think I got the colours right.

I was immediately hooked by the premise, the characters, the tone. It really was like nothing I’d read before. The set-up was complete fantasy but the language was sci-fi. There was a psychedelic weirdness about it that I loved. With every page, it seemed like there was a new complexity, a new strangeness to the world, a new twist, and we’re dropped right into the middle of it.

Jyosh’s initially Spartacus-esque quest for vengeance results in him getting his dream crystal – cheap ones are given to all the inmates to keep them docile, as four hours of sleep equals four days of fun times with your basic sexy-dream – hacked to teach him how to become a warrior. This plan almost immediately begins crumbling into multi-layered wackiness as Jyosh, his training program, even the world itself is revealed to be nothing like what we initially assumed. And I initially assumed it was pretty fucking weird.

I can’t adequately describe the facets and levels to this story (and that’s not even meant to be a dream crystal pun, but it is one and I couldn’t be more pleased) without just going through the narrative event by event and describing each one, so I won’t do that. But if you like your science-fiction on the colourful and surreal side, and you got a kick out of Inception and the Matrix movies but thought they were just a bit too impressed with themselves and could have done even more with their premises, look no further.

I loved the idea of a world so utterly overshadowed by the aeons of dreams its inhabitants have been having that it is indistinguishable from them. I don’t think I’m giving away much when I say that once you have that kind of background condition in your worldbuilding, the nature of reality is going to be called into question and that becomes the central idea that the reader, and the characters, grapple with.

The progression element, the training and grinding and powering-up, is all done really well. I’m not a big one for training and fight sequences but these were good – and they were kind of the point. It worked. The references to the world’s state, the ever-dusk and the rest of it, are just peppered through the story in an extremely balanced and well-crafted way. Never an info-dump (not that I’d mind), never a gap into which confusion can form. Although don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of confusion. Of the best sort.

From the large scale, down to the individual and scene level, each element of the story is as finely crafted as if it were made by a crystal modder in the underworld of wherever. The glitching dream crystal and that perfect merging of consciousness, magic and technology, is so gloriously disorienting I would actually find myself blinking around at the room after I put the book down. And the confusion and fear of a warzone is so palpable and well done, the helplessness and chaos of it. Gut-churning and most impressive.

The whole dream-training and dream-life thing was interesting and baffling to me. Even before we get into the deep layers where billions of years are passing, it seemed to me like it would be a way more prevalent and understood part of the world, people would go to sleep and suddenly wake up good at stuff and hardly consider the real world to be real, but … okay, a lot of this can be assumed due to the deep-end start we get, and the rest … let’s just accept it and move on. Seems to me like there would be prison dream crystals too. But maybe I missed stuff. There is a lot going on in this story.

Sex-o-meter

A lot going on, maybe, but not much sex. We get some genteel sexy-times references, and obviously the prison camp wet dream crystals are a thing that cannot be overlooked. Kaur was amusingly squeamish about not wanting to feel Jyosh’s wing wang while spooning. Or, specifically, not saying it. Considering how crude she is, that was funny. I’ll give it a Jyosh’s make-believe mummy thing out of a possible Bad Boy Bubby.

Gore-o-meter

We’re treated to a good dose of gore here, with some brutal fight scenes and an ongoing terrible multi-sided war. Three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Now this is where the book really shines. Yes sir, we have hit a rich vein of WTF here. The Nightscape, the Dayworld, the dream layers and the Song. The entire cosmology and setting here is fascinating. I’m giving it an hour-in-layer-ten-duration game of Monopoly using psychedelia-causing playing pieces out of a possible hour-in-layer-one-duration game of Kimble with missing pieces.

My Final Verdict

What a fun read! This is another one that makes me happy to be a reviewer, and very glad I didn’t dismiss it as straight-up fantasy. I’m going to go ahead and give this weird-arse journey of mind-blowery and occasional dragons four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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RIP, Your Nibs

Maintain your rage, the time of Empires is over and the time of the orc has begun.

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Revolution: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Today I’m bringing you a review of Revolution, The Sol Saga Book 1, by James Fox. As the biggest book in Team Space Leftovers’ allocation for round one of this contest at about 160,000 words, I figured I might as well fill up right at the start.

Revolution is nothing less than an epic future history of the next leg of humanity’s journey, if we ever happen to move off his rock and get the fuck on with it. Debates on the settlement-viability of Mars aside, the Sol Saga series would seem to be just that – a tale of history repeating itself against greater and greater backdrops.

Set mostly on Earth and Mars, and specifically in a training academy and political arena on each planet respectively, with some detours for space dogfights that will probably turn out to be more of a thing in the next book, Revolution is action-packed and boasts some memorable and … I won’t call them sympathetic characters, but they have their moments. It also suffers a little from inevitable comparison to The Expanse, just without the ancient alien stuff and with a considerable amount of male gaze thrown in. Making male gaze occasionally come from a woman doesn’t make it better, either. It’s just a little unfortunate.

At first glance it seemed as though what we had going on was another of my favourite indie sci-fi tropes, the Well Over Six Foot Tall Protagonist, with the added bonus of him being genetically modified to have 0% body fat and being capable of processing oxygen and canapés into a small diamond once every six months. He couldn’t actually do that but I pretended he could and it got me through the rough times. Anyway, as I was saying, at first glance it seemed a bit like that but then it turned out General Keith Brennan was a lot more complex than that and had far better “saga” potential, as we see by the end of this first book.

So, what happens in this one? Mars, on the brink of independence from sovereign Earth, is embroiled in an interplanetary fuckarow when the President of Earth is assassinated on Martian soil. General Keith Brennan and Mars Governor Helena Chu are left in the middle of a political mess that is veering sharply massacrewards from minute one. Also Colt is involved, along with Colt’s giant fucking arsehole of a mother.

Colt’s mummy issues and the cool gang she wants to be a part of and / or beat is a mildly compelling B plot that left me wondering where and when it was going to join up with the Mars Will Rise Again plot going on over in the A thread. I actually thought Spalding and Brennan were the same guy for a bit, but I do tend to have difficulty with that sort of thing sometimes and you know what? I think they maybe could have been combined into one character, except for the fact that were on different planets for a lot of the story. That’s a very minor difficulty, and easy to fix. The story introduced a few too many characters, without much to distinguish them from one another (kind of like The Expanse!). It took a while to get into the flow of it – but once I did, it was great (kind of like The Expanse!).

Helena’s failure to shoot Bruce in the penis, and then in the face, and then keep shooting, is something I consider a major flaw in the narrative, and another one that would have been very easy to fix. I looked at my progress meter and let’s just say you have to be just extraordinarily patient until the 88% mark, and even then it’s a qualified pay-off. And when I say “qualified”, I mean “where’s my fucking spree, Fox? I’m not seeing a spree, and before you say anything no that doesn’t count as a spree.”

Helena and Gwen do, however, have a brief Bechdel-Test-passing conversation with a Frozen reference in it, and I was looking for a better place to congratulate the author for that, but I didn’t find one, so here it is. Pause for kudos.

The book had some minor but distracting editorial issues as well, but that’s fairly standard and was not at all a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned. Fox used compunction instead of compulsion at one point, and I’m also pretty sure he wrote piss at you like a feral cat instead of hiss at you like a feral cat but frankly I would call that an improvement on the idiom. The stuff about the terraforming and the overall appearance of Mars could have been talked about back when the glassed-over canyons were mentioned, not at the ~40% mark, but I am a known sucker for an info-dump and by no means a target reader here. Fox probably made the right call in scattering the minutiae around a bit.

That’s it, let’s go to the meters.

Sex-o-meter

There’s not much actual sex in this one, just some ogling of taut bodies in crisp dress whites and some mildly distressing changing-room nudity. And … was that “snuggle” as a synonym for “fuck” I just saw? Aw. On the heels of that, whatever is happening here with Spalding and Aldis and Colt and Colt’s mum who is also Colt, all of that needs to stop. Reversal of the roles doesn’t make this any less gross, but I see what Fox was doing. Interesting plot device, and certainly well written. Just – ick. The sex-o-meter gives this a balloon dachshund quarter-filled with congealed porridge out of a possible balloon Eiffel Tower fully-filled with bubble tea.

Gore-o-meter

There isn’t the spree I found myself shaking the book and demanding by about the halfway point, but we get some murder and mayhem, and we get an oof-worthy massacre of innocents. They earn Revolution three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

So like I said, this was a hard military sci-fi political thriller with no aliens, only human drama and hard military sci-fi political stuff. Not exactly my bag, but that’s okay. This is a lot of people’s bag. There’s a world here, a universe, and a definite sense of something epic (nay, sagaesque) unfolding, but no WTF. I’m barely registering a completely normal mirror with zero pickles or Hitlers reflected in it out of a possible Scary Door here. And the WTF-o-meter might just be picking up residual WTF from my lunch.

My Final Verdict

Revolution ended on a cliffhanger and that’s okay. I’ll give this action-packed space thriller three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, but if Maureen Colt doesn’t get her face spree’d off in the next book I’m coming back.

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SPSFC2: Our first round reads!

Right!

Lots going on, but right now we’re launching into year two of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, and Team Space Leftovers has its thirty books for round one.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

First up, by Aidan Pilkington-Burrows, we have God’s Tear: Project Tigershark.

Al Davidson brings us Zero-Day, book 1 of The Sommerfeld Experiment.

By Arshad Ahsanuddin, Zenith:

Next up, B.D. Booker’s Da Vinci on the Lam.

Benoit Goudreault-Emond has given us I, Cunningham.

What’s next? From C. Litka, The Secret of the Tzaritsa Moon.

Then there’s Eliot Peper’s Reap3r:

And from Erin Ampersand, the intriguing Time to Play, book 1 of Apocalypse Parenting.

Esteban Corio’s Journey to the Past is next on the list:

Geoff Nelder’s dynamically shouted ALIEN EXIT is next.

Graham Austin-King’s The Lore of Prometheus is on our roster:

Then, from Halo Scot, Edge of the Breach:

J Lynn Hicks brings us Clarity, “A Young Adult Dystopian Thriller” and book 1 of the Clarity Chronicles.

And from James Fox, Revolution, book 1 of the Sol Saga.

Jeffrey A. Ballard’s The Solid-State Shuffle is up next:

And then we have John B. Cheek’s Bragg For Hire.

Team Space Leftovers also has J P McDonald’s The Invisible Tether:

And we have L J Cohen’s Derelict.

What else, what else … Marcus Alexander Hart has submitted Galaxy Cruise: The Maiden Voyage.

And Matthew Cesca has entered The Miranda Project.

O. R. Lea brings us Riebeckite: A near-future story of one woman’s race to expose a sinister new threat to humanity. Book 1 of the Bruised Moon Sequence.

and from R.A. Nargi, Quantum Dark: The Classic Sci-fi Adventure (The Star Rim Empire Adventures Book 1):

R.M. Olson has entered Redshift: a space opera adventure, book 1 of the Singularity series.

And R.Z. Held’s Idyllian is along for the ride:

A cover and concept that immediately fascinated me was Rich Simmons’s Magic Carpet Ride:

We also have Ryan Matthews’s Release Day.

S.J. Higbee brings us Mantivore Dreams, book 1 of the Arcadian Chronicles.

And from Shami Stovall, Star Marque Rising:

Our team also has W.O. Torres’s Tomorrow Lives Today

And finally, from Zamil Akhtar, the most definitely and assuredly sci-fi and not at all fantasy Lightblade, which is going to be very interesting indeed:

So, that’s it. Nothing left for us but to get reading!

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SPSFC2: Here we SPSFC again

So, the SPSFC (the Self Published Science Fiction Competition, for those of you not following along) has launched into its second year and I’m judging again. My old crew, Team Space Lasagna, went off to form something called the No Edpools Club (apparently it is very ancient and they already have one Edpool, but it’s called No EdpoolS, see), so I made my own judging team.

No, Bender!

I kid of course. My dear crew were a bit burned out and decided to channel their energies elsewhere, and so my new team is Team Space Leftovers and that is my final answer.

On Team Space Leftovers, we have:

Well, me, obviously. Your old pal Edpool, Hatboy, Chucky, Andrew, you know.

Then we have the inestimable Starr K, of the Pages and Procrastination blog. You can also catch her on Twitter, and what the heck, she has a Linktree so check that out. There’s nothing we like more than a bit of procrastination here at the Hatstand, that’s why Team Space Leftovers hasn’t made a proper post about this year’s books or covers or basically anything yet.

Who else have we got?

Well, we have Lloyd “Grumpylo” Lowe, who doesn’t have a blog or social medias to speak of (and yet, is somehow still grumpy!), but once said, “I am fair at reading and have loved science fiction for six decades,” so added to the grumpy thing would seem to be overqualified for this, frankly.

Finally, there’s Rick “Pax” Sloane, who … I don’t know much about him but he told me, “I love Sci Fi and would be happy to help,” so that’s something? We are scrappy underdogs and the contestants who landed with us don’t know how lucky they are!

Pax did send a picture of himself so that gives us something to work with. He seems nice. Looks to be a science officer.

I’ll get to our contestants later. In the meantime, better get reading!

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Ghosts of Tomorrow: A Review

This review is not exactly part of my judging effort for the SPSFC, but it’s kinda-sorta related. For an intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, you may continue to check out this practice review if you haven’t already.


Today I’m here to talk to you about Ghosts of Tomorrow, by Michael R. Fletcher. This book is competing in SPSFC2 now so I may be getting in ahead of the action if it gets through the first brutal rounds. It didn’t get past the judges for the first iteration of the contest last year, but let’s see. Team Space Lasagna didn’t get a chance to look at it before it was cut anyway, and the SPSFC decided to give early-cut or pre-cut books another shot with different judges this time around, just because. Me, though, I had decided to read this book right back at the start of SPSFC1, based purely on the coolness of the cover. It didn’t win the cover contest, which to this day I consider a travesty and I continue to judge everybody who disagreed with me.

Now there is a brief lull between SPSFC1 and SPSFC2, so here it is. I’ve got just oodles of spare time for a review. So, anyway.

I decided I needed to read this book purely because of the cover, yes. Not generally speaking the most academically sound reasoning, but in this case I have no regrets. I got some fast-paced and brutal Robocop-style dystopian corporate sci-fi into me, and the most hilarious outcome? You see that gloriously badass sword-packin’ Wild West steampunk Goro there on the cover?

This one. You see him. Don’t pretend you don’t see him, he’s right there.

Yeah, that guy? His actual character in the story is a fucking teenage weeb pretending to be a samurai cowboy. His every scene is lovingly dedicated to how badass he thinks he looks, how every wardrobe and weapon choice revolves around how cool he is, and his work ethic is lifted directly from seven hundred individual movies and animes made by white people about Japanese culture. It’s absolute fucking platinum and I adore it. I chortled every time.

What else can I say about Ghosts of Tomorrow? It’s rough and violent and action-packed, and downright harrowing in places. If piles of dead kids require a content warning for you – and no judgement if it does – then consider this a content warning.

It’s the future, a hundred or so years from now. The world is pretty darn fucked, and  just to make things even better humans have discovered a way to scan brains into computers and use them as a more efficient means of performing high-speed processing tasks. I’m not entirely sure how it works, as the brain-meat itself seems to be discarded and the consciousnesses are somehow mapped onto a synthetic CPU so I’m not sure how that doesn’t lower the overall capacity and efficiency of the system, but it does. Brain make computer faster. That’s the premise. So in the words of Ryan George I’m gonna ask you to go ahead and get all the way off my back about it.

These electronic brains get put into chassis, different kinds of machines, for assorted reasons, or just continue to live in “the virtuality”, essentially cyberspace. Poor person forced into the military? When you die you can continue to serve and pay off your debts. Rich person who wants to live forever? That’s probably a thing, it happens here at least once. Kidnapped child? Oh, you’re going to have a bad time. I don’t know how long this technology has been around for as of the start of the book (which takes place over the course of little over one week), but I’m going to assume it was discovered and implemented a matter of hours before the first chapter, considering how fast and hard the narrative events turn shit-shaped and how inconceivable it is that things had been fine for any length of time prior to this, only to fall apart now.

I kid, but man. How did this technology ever remain stable long enough to become a thing?

Into this perfect disaster waiting to happen, our heroes and villains amble with understandable hesitancy.

Griff (apparently a rookie just out of school, but his story arc and probably just the fact that he is named Griffin led me to read him as quite a lot more grizzled than that) is trying to take down the organisations responsible for the creches of stolen kids who are being farmed and used as formatted-for-use computer components. Abdul is a poor military dude who died and was put in a combat chassis to serve out an afterlife sentence. Nadia is also there, working the kidnapped-kids case alongside Griff, and is actually pretty badass.

Meanwhile the crazy posthuman Lokner, Lokner 1.0 and Lokner 2.0 is / are intriguing and chilling as Stephen King-esque, classic corporate villain archetypes – like I said, this is something of a loving homage to Robocop and Lokner would absolutely not have been out of place at the helm of OCP. Along with Lokner comes a whole range of despicable predators and scavengers and opportunists, and their bloodthirsty victims-turned-weapons. Including the magnificent weeb assassin, Archaeidae.

In between the good and the bad is Miles, a hapless enabler in IT who I only found out had red dreadlocks at the very end of the book and for a really embarrassing length of time I actually thought was the same person as Griff and I don’t know why, because their names and plots were completely different but there you go. Look, full disclosure, I’m bad at this. If I’d registered the red dreadlocks, I definitely would have been able to distinguish them better from the get-go. Anyway Miles is in control of Lokner’s computer systems, essentially making him a God to the entire converted-to-data posthuman subspecies. He does just hysterically little with this fact.

Then there’s 88, an autistic kid who’s been scanned into the system and set to manage a mafia syndicate’s bank accounts, and who immediately infiltrates cyberspace and demolishes the planet. Which made me actually laugh out loud, it’s so great.

What does it all mean?

Nothing, really. Things are meaningless, non-sequential, utterly chaotic, and end in a spectacular explosive clusterfuck. And that’s okay.

Sex-o-meter

Two of our characters have one (1) sex. There’s a bit too much of everything else going on for there to be much time for it, but they make the time and I can’t but admire them for that. Resource management at its finest. Still, I give Ghosts of Tomorrow a Robocop reboot movie out of a possible Bob Morton cocaine party with a side-order of that dude who gets covered in toxic waste and explodes into gooey paste when he gets run over.

Gore-o-meter

They might come gorier than this, but you’d have to really be trying. Fletcher is something of a known butcher in indie grimdark, so it was without much surprise that I found this one suitably violent. Four-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five. With a side-order of that dude who gets covered in toxic waste and explodes into gooey paste when he gets run over.

WTF-o-meter

I remain confused as to how this world order even came to pass, and how it managed to last even as long as it did without the precise cataclysm that happened in this book happening. I’m also baffled, but also greatly entertained, by the fact that what I would have thought was the actual point of the story – the absolute and total demolition of the planet’s data and communications infrastructure and humanity’s plunge back into the early industrial age – was really just a by-the-way sideline going on while Archaeidae was changing clothes and checking himself out. This book gets an Archaeidae, out of a possible character that figure on the cover could have been, on the WTF-o-meter. No dude who gets covered in toxic waste and explodes into gooey paste when he gets run over on this one.

Final Verdict

Very fun, and with some interesting and depressing things to say about human nature, consciousness and mortality tucked away cunningly amidst the decapitations and high-speed gunfights. At the risk of this review becoming dated let me just wish Fletcher and his hilarious fourteen-year-old cosplay-goals cyber-lad well in SPSFC2! Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale for Ghosts of Tomorrow.

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Where are we at, August 2022

Hey folks.

Well, things have been pretty busy so this is just a random scrambling catch-up effort before I see what lovely content I lay on you next.

Heads up: it’s probably going to be more crazy indie sci-fi book reviews. Edpool is taking over and things have gotten out of hand.

First, I guess I should make it official and tell you that S. Tholin’s Iron Truth won the first ever SPSFC. Here’s Edpool’s review of it.

So, SPSFC #1 is behind us, and SPSFC2 is just kicking off because these bastards are year-long commitments and we launch straight from one to the next.

I have a whole additional post maybe on its way about the SPSFC and my experiences and the experiences of Team Space Lasagna, but for now I will just say my teammates have opted to take a break and focus on their own projects for now. I, however, am not quite right in the head and although I still hope to do some writing of my own as well, it’s going really slowly right now and so I signed on to judge again.

I was intending to be a solo judge, not part of a team. However, since the SPSFC Powers are concerned about single judges having too much influence (this concern is mostly being pushed by judges who … ahhh, let’s leave it for the Behind The Rayguns SPSFC Special), I was asked to make a team. So now I am collecting members for Team Space Leftovers. I have one intrepid taker this year. So far.

So aside from reading another huge mass of books and reviewing them, and trying to write a book of my own (the third ‘short story’ in my latest collection is sitting at 42,944 words and is already technically big enough to enter the SPSFC as a novel), I started a new day job a week and a half ago. And I have been furiously ramping up and onboarding and learning stuff ever since.

It seems like a really nice place – a couple of familiar faces, and I’m doing the work I love and am particularly good at, even if it is a new and baffling subject matter – and I mean nice. It’s a fast-growing and very enthusiastic (and very international!) sort of place, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s not leaving me a whole heck of a lot of time and energy for anything else right now, but that will settle down once I find my feet. I’ve done enough subcontracting work to know how the first few weeks on a new project go.

We’re watching Peaky Blinders, The Sandman, are currently looking forward to watching the new Predator movie Prey, and are also re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Wump and Toop. I also watched Don’t Look Up and Alien Covenant recently.

I don’t know if I will have a chance to review any of the above, but let me know your thoughts? Probably something will shake loose about at least one of them.

How are you all doing?

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Mouse Cage: A Review

You want another book review? Okay, you asked for it. Fine, you didn’t, but here’s one for Mouse Cage, of the Stories from San Iadras series, by Malcolm F. Cross. It’s also on Goodreads.

The Stories from San Iadras series is a 22 Short Films About Springfield-style collection that also includes SPSFC alum Dog Country, which sadly I haven’t read (but I fully intend to rectify that). Let’s call Mouse Cage the “Steamed Hams” part of the collection, for want of a better way to boot this distressing comparison onwards.

Never having read much furry-based fiction, or even actually knowing it existed, or even knowing anything much about furries except that they’re the most dedicated and usually the most heavily overdressed cosplayers at any convention I have ever attended (and I say that as a husky gentleman[1] in spandex) and that they definitely don’t crap in litter boxes at USian high schools … given all that, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a speculative fiction premise like this. Essentially, Cross has created a universe in which furries actually happened. In the not-too-distant future, human experimentation has resulted in the cloned production of large sibling-batches of hybridised animals capable of speech, drug habits, and wearing people clothes. They’re used for all sorts of things (the furries, not the clothes), none of them particularly nice, until the Emancipation that begins their integration into society. The main centre of which, for furries, is the subtitular city of San Iadras.

But having used the phrase “furry-based fiction,” I will have scared away a lot of people for absolutely no logical reason. This book, and I’m going to assume this series, is so much more than that. Think The Island of Doctor Moreau. Cross sure did (and lampshaded it perfectly, might I add). What he does with this premise is bleak, and gut-wrenching, and wonderful, and asks us what it means to be human in a way only the best stories do. And its exploration of sibling dynamics and the weight of family responsibility is matched only by its examination of trauma.

There’s also a fair bit of –

Troy is the ‘eldest’ of a large (albeit not as large as it once was) family of cloned mouse / human hybrids, a batch of brothers all named after various cities and all suffering various forms of trauma from the obscene experiments and assorted cruelties visited upon them at Lake North, the facility where they were raised. Although furries of all kinds are now free, and the Salcedo family are out in the world making their own way in a wide range of lofty fields of endeavour, the past is always there. And always threatening to drag them back.

They’re out … and they never will be.

This endlessly complex and emotionally charged story follows Troy as he attempts to succeed with his life’s work against the impetus of entrenched and jealous human peers; keep his family safe and happy and in line even when it’s him who needs the most help; carry out a complicated relationship with Jenny, another deeply damaged furry from a different gene batch; and deal with the multitude of horrible things that happened to him and his brothers in Lake North. The narrative leads us through nightmare country, with an extended stopover in drug addiction international airport, and the in-flight service of raunchy furry uglies-bumping is at once copious and pitifully inadequate, at once raw and hopelessly, irretrievably burned.

Yes, this is one of the more spectacularly fucked-up lives I have seen committed to paper, and I can only imagine the dog-based soldier furries of the other Cross book (which we see tantalisingly woven into this tale, giving us an eye-widening glimpse of scope and the incredible love with which Cross has created his tragically flawed world) are just as heartbreaking.

Just fucking read this book.

Sex-o-meter

Furries be horny, there’s not much more I can say on the subject. Okay, that’s not fair – the majority of the sex scenes take place between two characters, open relationship or not – I’d expect the same in ‘most any romance novel possessed of a healthy amount of rumpy pumpy. Humans be horny. It’s not the furries’ fault, whether on the page or out here in real life. I give it two sexy, sexy animal people cavorting under an actual kitchen-based aurora borealis while being watched by a grumpy school superintendent, out of a possible burning house with a virgin school principal doing isometric exercise against the window frame. I don’t get it but we started this journey with a Simpsons reference and by God we’re going to see it through.

Gore-o-meter

You want body horror? Look no further than a book where the main character and his entire family are sentient goddamn lab mice. What Mouse Cage lacks in out-and-out explosions and brutality, it more than makes up for with vivisection, organ removal, amputation trauma, compulsive self-harm, gross sadistic nurses, you name it. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

This book was well outside my comfort zone and I’m thoroughly glad I read it. There are unanswered questions aplenty here, about the world of San Iadras and its origins and its ultimate fate. I wouldn’t call these questions WTFs as such, though. Once you’ve come to terms with the (frankly pretty classic sci-fi) premise of human / animal hybrids, there’s not really much pure crazy in this one. And that’s okay. That’s not what this story is for. The familiar, not the surreal, is what makes Mouse Cage so powerful. I’m going to be honest here, I think the WTF-o-meter had sex with the sex-o-meter, because I’m getting the same reading about the aurora borealis here. Except the window frame is made of furry body parts and burned children. Jesus, maybe it was a three-way with the gore-o-meter. This book made my meters fuck each other in an attempt to escape the reality of – ohhh I see what this is.

Final Verdict

Wow. I mean, wow. Okay, I would have liked a bit more of a plot arc and resolution for five stars, to say nothing of the fact that I have no doubt even better stories are on their way from this author and I want somewhere to expand upwards. I also get that this was a snapshot, a thread in a tapestry, and wasn’t really about half of the stuff it looked like it was about. This was the story of Troy, unwilling and unwitting head of a family so dysfunctional it’d make Jango Fett stare. And Troy’s story, like real life stories, doesn’t really have a plot so much as a pinballesque series of events and challenges and setbacks. Still, given that, I found the abrupt ending strangely uplifting rather than surprising or upsetting. What a story! Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

 


[1] A husky gentleman, not a husky gentleman. No, I mean not – okay fine. Fat, I meant fat.

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Titan Hoppers: A Review

Hi all. Today I’m dropping a quick ARC review for Titan Hoppers, by Rob Hayes. Here it is at Goodreads too.

Now like I say, I got this book as an advanced reader copy although now it is available for public consumption, so that was cool. The copy I read may have had some minor differences and the final edition will have been edited a bit more. I’m new to the ARC reviewing thing, so I’m not 100% on how it goes. It was a pleasure and a privilege, and I did pass on a few comments and questions to the author that won’t be a part of this review. This review is just going to be about the book.

And an excellent book it was! Having read some of Hayes’ fantasy and finding it enjoyable in a dark sort of way, I was keen to see his take on sci-fi. So let me get right to it by saying this is a hearty recommendation from your old pal Edpool. Titan Hoppers is a “progression fantasy”, a subgenre I hadn’t heard of before but I assure you is a thing. A thing like a video game power-up sequence, where the character gets in situations and then unlocks different skills and power levels as they go. Fascinating stuff.

Humanity has faced a mysterious calamity and the survivors are tooling around out in space. Their only source of resources – food and water and fuel – is the Titan: a huge alien vehicle crammed with weird tech, trap-filled labyrinths, massive facilities and just a fucking country ton of monsters. So that’s the premise. They fly their clapped-out ships up to the giant haunted space house, and loot it.

That’s not all the Titan provides, though – it also gives the human intruders powers. Some of them, anyway. Society is divided into the techs (who weren’t granted powers), the Hoppers (who were), and the officers (who are generally former or failed Hoppers … I think). But there is a lot more to fleet society than meets the eye – and a lot of human history that has been forgotten … or erased.

So. The Hoppers go aboard the Titan in pods to collect stuff and fight the monsters that swarm to any human intrusion or expression of magic. The Hoppers, and the fleet in general, are divided into different types – Paladins and Corsairs are the main ones here – as well as being divided between the lower, mid and upper ships, in terms of economies and resources and political power. The upper ships and the quasi-noble legacy families rule the fleet in a sort of double-axis of class disparity that makes for a volatile mixture of injustice, inequality and simmering resentment.

Into this bubbling mixture we sprinkle a generous seasoning of Iro, a wannabe Paladin on one of the poorest ships. Having lost his big sister, a heroic bay leaf of – look, I’m just going to abandon the culinary metaphor at this point. When the Titan explodes, taking Iro’s sister and many more fine Hoppers with it, the fleet limps off into space looking for … another Titan, maybe, or just some other source of materials. Aren’t there planets in space? It doesn’t seem like that’s how space works in this story. Not this part of space anyway.

Still, Iro has more or less given up on his dreams of levelling up, and the fleet is running on fumes when they arrive at another Titan. A whole new Titan, and a whole lot of new humans in a whole separate fleet. They don’t have the energy or capacity to contact them, which is a bit weird, but they settle down to attempting to harvest the massive alien derelict for parts. And that’s when things really start to get exciting!

This is a page-turnin’, space-adventurin’, science-magickin’ bit of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hayes has done it again.

Sex-o-meter

With mainly teenage or otherwise young adult protagonists, there’s some Drama and Feelings™ here but not really any sex. We’re probably heading that way but for now our young heroes are just getting themselves set up. There’s too much salvaging and monster fighting and magic training to do, really, to worry about all that. A Nice Guy passport with a single stamp in it out of a possible One Sex.

Gore-o-meter

Plenty of gore! We have a big old alien behemoth filled with vicious and weird traps, and masses of horrible bloodthirsty monsters. The gore levels could actually be higher than it ended up, given the setting. Room for improvement, but I was well satisfied with the three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one.

WTF-o-meter

It’s left tantalisingly unclear how the first Titan was found, how they knew there’d be another one, and lots of other things. The stalling question, and the un-stalling question, don’t even get me started. There’s so much lovely WTF to play with here. Things go from weird to weirder as the denizens of the new Titan reveal themselves, and we’re left with a cliffhanger and a whole lot of unanswered questions. And now we have to wait for Hayes to write the next one! Gaaaaah… anyway, according to the WTF-o-meter, Titan Hoppers gets a Diablo 2 skill tree with a partridge in it out of a possible Skyrim skill tree with a couple of Odins in it.

Final Verdict

Amazing setting and premise, and great characters make this story well worth picking up. Okay, Emil is just a little bit too much of a shitbird to be sympathetic, but I guess you have to make allowances for a rough upbringing. And Alfvin is just weapons-grade crazy. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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