Book review: Crash and Burn by Cynthia Sax

The time and place

Unknown time, presumably the future. As in Breathing Vapor, the story takes place aboard various ships and on the planet Tau Ceti, a world colonized by the Humanoid Alliance.

The suspension of disbelief

Space travel exists and humans have colonized it. You can stick chips in your head for communication (at a cost). People built cyborgs as war machines: soldiers with machine frames, wifi links in their heads, and nanomachines.

The quick summary

Safyre, a crack pilot, is on a suicide mission to save her friend. A rogue cyborg who’ve been receiving her transmissions gets in her way, because he knows the place she’s going is at risk and he’s grown to care for her through their voice communications. Can he let her fulfill her promise and still keep her alive?

My squees

I adore Safyre. She’s loyal, stubborn, clever, and skilled, willing to put people ahead of herself. Her friendship is an amazing valuable, and she cares fiercely for people. She’s into being restrained during sex, and I like how it’s presented and integrated into the love scenes. There’s nothing fussy about it, and sometimes one partner has a kink that the other doesn’t have themselves but is cool with going along with. That feels authentic.

Crash is a sweetheart, and the way he treasures Safyre and respects her abilities, letting her take part in her most important mission, is well-navigated. It’s also nice to see a war machine who questions his own purposes and makes his own life. He chooses not to kill, and when he has to look at that resolution and reevaluate it, his dilemma is compelling. I like a bit of existential angst in characters.

My grumbles

Terminology: use of the term being instead of human or person. Sometimes instead of “anyone”, Sax writes “any being”. That felt a bit jarring. Similarly, the almost exclusive use of “my female” and “my male” as terms of endearment. I don’t think being female is Safyre’s most important or prominent characteristic, but others may disagree. It feels primitive in a way that may appeal to some.

The genetic compatibility (fated mate) trope. I’ve never been a fan of it, and I think Safyre and Crash would work just fine without it.

Read if you

  • Can’t get enough of fellows with Brain Computer Interfaces
  • Would risk your life for your best friend
  • Think people with black sclera are hot, too

Skip if you

  • Prefer fluffy happy books where nobody cool has horrible things happen to them
  • Want detailed engineering explanations of how all the cybernetics, space travel, and weaponry work
  • Dislike crude language with your explicit sex

Final Thoughts

Something very dark happens late in the story to people you’ve grown to care for. It’s a haymaker and I thought it gave the story extra emotional depth and resonance, but if you want a light or optimistic book you won’t get that. This is a story that takes place during military struggle, and it’s got some gritty parts.

I look forward to reading Defying Death.

Author site: A Taste of Cyn

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / Kobo / ARe

Book Review: Nobody’s Hero by Bec McMaster

Nobody's Hero cover

The time and place

The American southwest (inferring by the mention of Gila monsters), 2147 CE.

The suspension of disbelief

An asteroid hit Earth and darkened the sky back in 2083. This bore several alien viruses humans fell prey to, becoming revenants. The wargs (werebeasts) came from the US government mucking around with human test subjects, so it seems the world had already gone to pot. Sixty years later, reivers (raiders) and shadow-cats have joined the dangers prowling the Burned Lands. Humans live in fortified settlements, trying to weather whatever the world throws at them.

The quick summary

Lucius Wade, motivated by vengeance, kidnaps a damsel in the Wasteland. He believes taking someone from a settlement near Adam McClain’s will draw his old rival out. Not-really-a-damsel Riley Kincaid wants to keep her village safe from reivers and wargs, and is out a little too late getting rocs for food. Wade takes Riley to an abandoned testing facility for temporary holding. While he’s out, reivers attack. Seems Wade’s made some dangerous enemies, so Riley strikes a deal with him: if he helps her recover the boy the reivers have taken hostage, she’ll get McClain to come to him. McClain has long wanted Riley to shack up with him. Plans go awry, though, and Riley and Lucius become involved. Do they have a future together, and can they save one of the most important people in his life from his biggest nightmare?

My squees

I love the Mad Max-like setting. McMaster sets the story in America when her native Australia would have also provided plenty of excellent beasties, but the Southwest desert can be pretty breathtaking in a barren sort of way. It’s got some sufficiently-advanced technology that reminds me of paranormal elements, but the jeeps and bikes appeal to my SFR tastes. Gene testing creates fantastic creatures, and the reivers add an outlaw element to show us that it’s not just obvious monsters out for innocent blood.

Riley has both a soft heart and a strong will. She’s resourceful and caring. She’s very lonely, though, and that intertwines with her attraction to Wade. Wade was a bit harder to like, but he has complex and believable experiences, motivations, and feelings. When he finds that some the beliefs that kept him going aren’t true, he understandably loses his cool and complicates an already delicate situation at McClain’s settlement. Once he opens himself up, it’s easy to see why Riley thinks he’s worth spending her future with.

The action scenes flow well and are believable given the characters’ skills and wits. McMaster’s writing is crisp and evocative. I felt uncertainty, sorrow, and longing along with the protagonists.

My grumbles

The original kidnapping plot didn’t feel the strongest to me. Wade kidnaps Riley to use as bait for Adam McClain. What exactly was Riley’s value? Wade had hoped for a person from McClain’s settlement and thought to appeal to his honor? The deal they strike later makes more sense.

Several of the side characters seemed important, but didn’t get much attention, and are probably introduced for later books. Sometimes the pacing felt a bit uneven, but I can’t put my finger on why.

I’ve a little quibble with the timeline and technology offered: I’d put the darkening further in the future to make McClain’s old-fashioned ideas about society (and the technology available) be easier to believe.

Read if you

  • are an action romance fan
  • like your characters a little bit bad
  • enjoy zombies and other post-apocalyptic stories

Skip if you

  • are burnt out on post-apocalyptic stories
  • don’t like paranormal elements
  • are in the mood for something sweet and light

Final thoughts

I’m a long time fan of McMaster’s London Steampunk stories, and am so happy she has started two new series this year. The Burned Lands is a very original setting, and her further books will be auto-buys for me. I hope this somehow gets picked up by libraries.

Author site: Bec McMaster

Resources: GoodreadsAmazon / Kobo / iBooks

Book Review: The Caphenon by Fletcher Delancey

The time and place

The far future, on a world called Alsea.

The suspension of disbelief

Faster than light space travel exists across the galaxy, but Alsea doesn’t have it. Also, the Alseans have scientific and other capabilities that we do not today.

The quick summary

A space firefight happens above Alsea, a technologically advanced world without very fast spaceships and no proof there are aliens until some aliens crash down to the planet. The aliens, a humanoid and friendly bunch, inform Lancer Andira Tal (government head) that the less friendly aliens they fought in space want to come invade and enslave Alsea. With their ship beached, the aliens want to help Alsea as much as they can, but they are limited by the orders of their government. Tal must do whatever’s necessary and make uncomfortable choices to try to save her world. Will it be enough?

 

My squees

The Caphenon, titled for the crashed ship the friendly aliens were on, boasts tons of memorable and intriguing characters with complex interactions. Lancer Tal must bear the weight of society, marshal the world’s troops, and play politics at the same time, and those have shaped her into a fascinating woman, tough and empathetic. Her foil, Ekatya Serrado, has a similar personality and burden, but differing life circumstances and loyalties molded by her society’s customs. The most major non-main character (deuteragonist?), anthropologist Lhyn Rivers, is richly detailed: curious, loyal, brilliant, and drives the actions of many with her ingenuity and compassion.

The female characters in The Caphenon all take actions, take responsibility for their actions, and have all kinds of different jobs, capabilities, and personalities. You know, like people! That they are people is not a gimmick or remarked upon. This is what I look for in stories: fully realized characters of all shapes, sizes, genders, sexualities, and more.

Alsea is a fascinating world with a complicated society and history. The caste system makes meritocracy an even more problematic concept, with people of certain aptitudes (inborn) being shoehorned into the higher castes. Alsean society knows this is an issue but has not divested of it, and the tensions between the less prestigious castes and the warriors and scholars come up in several discussions.

Delancey explores an interesting concept I wish I saw in more military fiction: the soldiers die, but they have traditions and ceremony to commemorate that, and they’re trained for war. Civilians still have to cope with war and often bear the scars of conflict as well. In The Caphenon, some academics have to get into combat zones and do violent things unfamiliar to them, the trauma of which will follow them beyond the story.

 

My grumbles

The villainous aliens, the Voloth, are just villainous aliens. They believe they’re better than the Alseans, and the individual ones we get glimpses of are very simple in that. They aren’t named or physically described beyond having humanoid bodies, and they just seem to be evil because that’s their role. I find it a stretch to believe that such a huge army isn’t at all conflicted about what they’re doing in the least with their truly horrifying tactics. I prefer when I get a little more insight into the villains’ more human motivations and when they are presented in a morally gray manner.

Both Tal and Serrado are presented with some awful choices. They are prepared to go through with horrible things for decent reasons and self-flagellate indefinitely for them, but the story doesn’t pull those triggers. They don’t end up doing or having to do anything truly problematic, and having been led through some of those struggles and then finding no questionable means were required for the ends felt a bit of a letdown for me. There are characters who have to do problematic things for survival, but the moral choices of the main characters end up with their hands pretty clean when I thought dirtiness would have been interesting.

My other comments

I usually review SFR, which this isn’t, although there are some romantic elements. There is a f/f couple early in their relationship, and they have to navigate some perils. They have sex, and it is fade-to-black.

This is space opera. It’s big. We get explanations of matter printers, religious myths, and military funerals. Cultural exchange takes many pages, and the reader will need to have some patience for that. There are dozens of side characters, which can be difficult to keep track of. Several of them are named and die in the same scene. Almost all of the conflict is large scale. Even the personal matters mostly come up because of world conflict, not budgeting badly for the month or keeping residence poorly.

Read if you

  • Enjoy Star Trek and first contact stories
  • Want to hear about competent female characters in many walks of life
  • Can sit back for an epic yarn

 

Skip if you

  • Aren’t a space opera fan
  • Don’t care about the cultural or broad technical details of different societies
  • Require morally ambiguous villains

 

Disclosure and final thoughts

I received a free copy for review purposes. This book is available at my local library, and may be at yours too. It’s a finalist for a Lambda award (LGBT SF/F/Horror) to be finally judged in June. Thank you to Gill McKnight to introducing me! Tal’s adventures continue in more books (The Chronicles of Alsea).

Series site with plenty of world info: Chronicles of Alsea

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / Kobo / Ylva

 

Book Review: Breathing Vapor by Cynthia Sax

The time and place

Unknown time, presumably the future. The story takes place aboard various transport ships and on the planet Tau Ceti, a world colonized by the Humanoid Alliance. As per usual, the native people are second-class on their own land.

The suspension of disbelief

Humans have colonized space. They’ve also created cyborgs, biological constructs fused of human, machine frame, and nanomachines, as supersoldiers. They’re created as babies in vats, and then aged with acceleration so they grow to adulthood in only a few years.

The quick summary

Mira “the Merciless” Breazeal is a cold, cruel, capricious socialite and the daughter of a scientist known as the Designer (a higher-up in the Humanoid Alliance who deploys and dissects cyborgs). The cyborgs serving the Designer have decided to kill someone to make an example, and Mira makes a good target. Vapor, the would-be executioner, suspects Mira’s not all she seems. Or perhaps he just wants her for himself. Conflict of interest, much? Mira may want what’s best for Vapor (and also to do super fun things with his body), but she can’t trust anyone, as it will mean her doom. Can the two of them see eye to eye and earn Vapor’s freedom?

My squees

Mira makes this book for me. She’s brave and vulnerable, with a big heart she has to hide at all costs. Her best talent is bluffing, and she uses it well. She tries the best she can to do compassionate things while keeping her cover so she can do more good later. It’s a tough balancing act and she’s willing to have people believe the worst of her and hate her when she only wants to help them. Vapor, for his part, recognizes Mira’s specialties and lets her shine. He also understands what she is giving up by choosing a future with him. She may be the only woman he’s ever met until the start of the story, but he convinces her and the reader that his obsession isn’t due to that. Good on him.

The action is well-paced and the story’s tight: there’s no flab on it.

Sax does not pull punches: Mira goes through some terrible loss during the story and has to make sacrifices to do what she thinks is right and be with her love. This is my candy: high emotional stakes and sometimes getting curb-stomped in the emotional department.

My grumbles

What on earth kind of scientist gives subordinate people an unmonitored communication channel?! The cyborgs can all talk to each other without any of their supervisors even noticing that they are communicating. That snapped my disbelief right there: all of us using electronic communication today are under surveillance. I noticed a lack of different types of men in the story: the ones we meet are all virile cyborgs, weak and stupid guards, or cackling villains. Maybe that’s related.

There’s an exhibitionism scene near the end that made me blink several times and crook an eyebrow. Somehow it lacked the punch the earlier intimate scenes did for me. There are D/s elements, but they seem to be there for spice instead of lifestyle.

Read if you

  • Want the crushing lows of emotion along with soaring highs
  • Enjoy a high heat level in your romance
  • Need a heroine you can root for and believe in
  • Are a cyborg junkie

Skip if you

  • Don’t want to read about bad things happening to good people
  • Are turned off by violence or eff-bombs and other crude language
  • Think gray is not an acceptable skin color

Final thoughts

I’m not very interested in alpha males or D/s sexual encounters. I usually find them pretty boring, so if that’s all there is I can say well, this book went completely over my head and it’s better judged by someone who likes those. I bought this book on a sale (I thought Kobo, but the truth is ARe) because I’m a cybernetics fan and figured it was worth a try given the sample I’d read. I haven’t read Releasing Rage yet, and don’t think I missed anything because of that. I bought Crash and Burn a few weeks ago, and should get on reading that.

The elements I was meh about were there, but they didn’t get much in the way of the emotional payoffs of the story. The story addresses families, friendship, and the price a person can pay for their beliefs. This may be an erotic romance with lust riding the characters hard at the beginning (heh heh), but the love they express by the end feels real.

Author site: A Taste of Cyn

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon US / Amazon UK / Barnes and Noble / Kobo / ARe

 

Book Review: The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight

The time and place

We start on the research spaceship Amoebas in 1954, alternate history. Then we’re yanked to Victorian England. Several other times and places make an appearance in the story.

The suspension of disbelief

Somebody invents a time machine in 1862. Once that happens, things start getting pretty bonkers.

The quick summary

Millicent Aberly accidentally activates her genius brother Hubert’s new time machine, which throws her into a future where the Roman Empire did not fall, but expanded, even colonizing space. The Romans now fight the space squid for control of…space. Millicent is saved from death-by-space-squid by the dashing lady centurion Sangfroid, who she develops a crush on. As they make their way through the ship, Sangfroid dies, and Millicent returns to her original time and place. Intrigued by Sangfroid and wracked with guilt, Millicent uses the time machine again to try to prevent Sangfroid’s death. Many tries later, Sangfroid accidentally comes back to London and Millicent’s time. Then other strange phenomena begin, starting with giant squid and another Roman soldier from Sangfroid’s time showing up in the Aberly house. Matters get further muddled when there’s another time machine accident; and Millicent has to decide whether to save the version of London she knows, or keep her beloved Sangfroid in existence.

My squees

I have long found the work of HP Lovecraft interesting and hysterical: I went to the university that is Miskatonic’s closest analog (we have a library with books bound in human skin!), and while there I connected with many science fiction fans who loved the Victorian era and all things steampunk. Some of them impressed upon me that linear time is inherently straight and that subversion of it would be queer. This was before same-sex marriage was legalized anywhere in the US, and my friends bitterly joked that their so-called gay marriage agenda was to destroy linear time. So this book tied together some of my fondest memories of my college friends together: a bunch more of them were Classics geeks who could name the five worst Roman emperors. I’ll be recommending this book or loaning it out to as many of them as I can.

The story blends steampunk, science fiction, alternate history, romance, and a tea cult. I love McKnight’s imagination: strange creatures and technology are everywhere, causing mayhem. I wasn’t sure where the plot would go and got surprised several times. Nothing seemed out of place, though. Most of the “hey what about…” questions I had got resolved, although I think some mysteries are still there to explore in further books.

The characters and dialogue are strong, somehow remaining grounded as their reality gets wackier. Watching proper Victorians deal with the fantastical made me smile: they rationalize and hold on to their realities in believable fashion. Millicent worries about her ruined dress when there are far more dire concerns because it’s what she’s used to caring about. Hubert and his fiancée Sophia are gloriously neurotic. If you enjoy witty British banter, this is your cup of tea. Oh, that was awful, but I stand by my words. The romance between Millicent and Sangfroid is very sweet, and there is a hilarious secondary love story and yet another serious crush. There’s a happy-for-now at the end of The Tea Machine that asks more questions than it answers, so their story shall continue.

My grumbles

I’m not surprised that the Victorian ladies misgender Sangfroid, but I did raise a brow at the Romans who do so, when they recognize that centurion Gallo is female. Perhaps there’s a reason for that I missed. Sangfroid says she’s obviously female, but her idea of obvious may not be in line with the others she meets.

The narrative is very twisty: there are several timelines to keep track of, and we’re dumped in the middle of the action. I liked how we start with Sangfroid’s getting the background information after the fact, but the flashbacks and explanations later in the story felt less potent in how they were conveyed.

In the copy I got, there were enough typos that I felt it needed another proofreading pass from the editor(s) at Ylva.

Read if you

  • Enjoy Dr. Who-style time travel and British banter
  • Thought the Roman coliseums seriously needed mechanized beasts
  • Enjoy a sweet slow burn during frantic adventure

Skip if you

  • Can’t handle lots of gore, especially of squid and large animals
  • Don’t want to keep track of different timelines and causalities
  • Are looking for erotic tentacle romance- you’ll be disappointed

Disclosure and final thoughts

I received a free copy for review, but bought one to use as a loaner once I finished it. If you’re not sure if it’s for you, use Amazon’s sample chapters to see if you like the humor and vivid setting. It’s an original screwball premise with unpredictable twists, and I look forward to the sequel.

Author site: Gill McKnight

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon US / Ylva Publishing / Kobo