Book Review: Without a Front – The Warrior’s Challenge by Fletcher DeLancey

The time and place

This book picks up right where Without a Front: The Producer’s Challenge ends. Read that book first.

The suspension of disbelief

See Without a Front: The Producer’s Challenge.

The quick summary

Andira Tal is recovering from an attempt on her life with her new love by her side when the machinations against her finally bear fruit. Her resources are depleted, and she has very little time to counter the threat. Can she get out of this mess with her job, her family, and her life intact?

My squees

DeLancey has given a ton of attention to detail in the world and plot. I felt Alsea as very real and cohesive, and the plot is complex but not difficult to understand. The action scenes are easy to follow, and so are the foreign-to-me celebrations and traditions we see.

The love story has some credible conflict and two incredible women, and the familial and friendship relationships are rich and believable. Andira’s lady shows incredible resolve and strength while remaining human. She grows to assert herself even more in this book, and that makes Andira grow and change for the better in response.

My grumbles

The idea of someone (divine or technological) selecting soul mates for each other doesn’t grab me. As TV Tropes says, your mileage may vary.

Some of the issues highlighted in the first book felt like a distant memory here. I wanted to know the status of the named asylum seekers and troubled veterans, since I’d grown to care about them and I thought they were situations that still needed more addressing. Perhaps that will come up in further books.

Read if you

  • Can handle many twisty plot threads
  • Want many strong characters to sigh over

Skip if you

  • Can’t deal with a little nonhuman biology (think Star Trek aliens)
  • Need a quick, light read
  • Are creeped out by empaths

Final thoughts

I received a review copy, but also borrowed this book from the library for the time it took me to read it. Almost everything gets wrapped up in this novel, after three long books! The couple and memorable secondary characters each get their deserved resolution or at least a break after so many exhausting trials. I’m curious to know what will be next for the world of Alsea- I look forward to reading about the further adventures of several intriguing characters. I’m no television buff, but I believe that these books would translate well to a miniseries. Someone pick up that option!

Resources: Author siteGoodreads / Amazon / Kobo / Ylva Publishing

Series spotlight and giveaway: Hell Squad by Anna Hackett

Welcome to my first series spotlight, where I recommend an entire series you can binge on! It’s Anna Hackett’s Hell Squad.

This series is ten books long so far:

 

Spotlight

In our near future, aliens invade and lay waste to Earth. What’s left of civilization must organize, survive, and fight back against the continued onslaught. The heroes and heroines of the Hell Squad series are among those trying to give humanity a future. Follow them through their perilous journey through post-apocalyptic Australia as they learn what it means to live for each other.

The short novels have tight plotting, fast-paced action, and scorching encounters. Some of the characters are especially memorable: my favorites are Noah Kim of the book that bears his name, Claudia Black of Shaw, and Adam Holmes and his heroine Liberty. The friendships between non-romantic characters and the squad relationships are solid. The romances feature couples who complement each other well and have excellent chemistry. These books celebrate life and love amidst fear and loss.

I enjoy the stunts that appear in the action scenes. I don’t lose track of where anybody is or what they are doing, which is difficult to convey with multiple characters and enemies. Trucks explode, lasers fly, fighter planes bombard, one of the heroines pit-fights some devil doggies…the action doesn’t stop. Even the metaphors used about feelings include percussive words! Speaking of devil doggies, the world has a fascinating bestiary. Fans of alien invasion/monster movies will enjoy the horrible person-sized dragonflies, exploding acidic devil doggies, giant sauropods, pterodon-like creatures, and the biped lizards who appear to be masterminding the invasion. It’s not quite kaiju movie, but I do want to see it in theaters.

I recommend starting with Marcus, which is free, and I recommend reading the series sequentially. There are several big arcs that span multiple books, even if each book stars one couple. You’ll enjoy these more if you’re comfortable with gritty violence. We don’t get any gory details of alien torture, but bad things do happen to various people during these stories.

Giveaway!

Anna herself has generously supplied a signed copy of Marcus that I’m giving away. I’ll attempt to ship anywhere on planet Earth. I’m also giving away a Hell Squad ebook of their choice (via Amazon) to two other readers.

How to enter: Comment on this blog post with your favorite movie monster! Mine’s either the Alien queen from the Alien series or Pyramid Head from Silent Hill. Contest runs until 17 September at midnight PDT.

Disclosure: I have received some of these books free for review purposes. I have bought copies of the rest. The ebooks will be gifts from me.

I have my own grumbles about ebook retailer exclusivity, but you can get Hell Squad in print from Amazon/CreateSpace and The Book Depository.

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: Stranded with the Cyborg by Cara Bristol

The time and place

Our future, post 23rd century. There’s action on a space port, spaceship, and a wild planet with breathable atmosphere.

The suspension of disbelief

Space travel exists! Also, the government has a secret cyborg program where they outfit people with BCIs and nanomachines and such. The other civilizations have Near-Humans and Not-Very-Near-Humans.

The quick summary

Cyber Operations Agent Brock Mann is pulled from his well-deserved R&R to act as bodyguard for a diplomat. He and said diplomat have a history: she was a pain in his rear when he guarded her years ago, and got him fired by doing something pretty heinous, indirectly causing him career problems. She feels bad about it now, and is trying to get meaningful work done. Their journey goes awry, and they get stranded on a strange planet. Can Brock keep his computer parts a secret from Penelope on the planet together? Can she stop herself from jumping his bones? Does she even want to stop herself?

My squees

I’ve always been a bit confused by the idea of engineered cyborgs that grew in a vat. My thinking is that drones are making fighter pilots obsolete already- if we need a mix of human ingenuity and processing power, why not outfit volunteers (and give them command posts) rather than grow slaves? Brock’s cyborg nature fits in with we are making cyborgs today: something doesn’t work, so we’ll integrate machinery in for functionality (he gets upgrades, though). Cochlear implants and Deep Brain Stimulation have improved quality of life for many, and people are developing cybernetics to help paralyzed people walk. Brock’s situation was a bit more acute, but it seems like a viable step in the direction we’re going with cybernetics.

Bristol also pulled a fast one on me: it’s mentioned that Penelope is the former President’s daughter in promotional material. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say said President is Penelope’s mother. I fell into a trap, assuming the President was a fellow. Laura Roslin of Battlestar Galactica should have helped cure me of that! It’s such a small thing, but I applaud the author for putting another chink into my unconscious gendering of professions.

The planet’s secret is pretty cool, and the way it’s used in the final conflict is well done.

My grumbles

Brock decides that nobody would want a cyborg, so keeps Penelope in the dark about it and pushes her away. It may be a state secret, but he also doesn’t tell her for his own personal reasons. I feel like she can make her own decisions on that, and that any man who pulled that with me would never hear the end of how that was not cool.

Although some of Penelope’s attitudes and actions make sense for a civilian with her sense of the diplomatic situation and little survival training, she has to be saved enough times that I filed her under ‘distressed damsel’. It’s not a trope that jives with me.

Read if you

  • Like alpha male cyborg heroes (are there more manly names than Brock Mann?)
  • Enjoy second chances, or couples needing to grow up before they’re ready for each other
  • Value beauty in nature, and especially rocks

Skip if you

  • Roll your eyes at big manly men with many muscles
  • Think the girl should always save herself
  • Have had a scarring accident in chem lab

Disclosure and final thoughts

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. I found it a fun and sexy romp, but I wasn’t too attached to our leads. Alpha males usually aren’t my type, so I think that colors my review. If you do like such heroes, you’ll enjoy this story more.

Author site: carabristol.com

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon US / Amazon UK / Amazon AU /  Amazon CA / All Romance / Barnes & Noble

Book Review: Doubleblind by Ann Aguirre

Review a mid-series book? Am I mad? Often the first book gets the most reviews, but I think it’s worth commenting on later ones so people know whether they want to stay along for the ride.

The time and place

Most of the book takes place on planet Ithiss-Tor, the homeworld of the insectoid Ithtorians, who can disguise themselves as anyone. I assume the setting is far future or parallel universe.

The suspension of disbelief

There are all kinds of aliens, mostly bipedal. There’s AI and pretty high technology. Space navigation is done by a pilot and Jumper, a person who can access grimspace, the woobly hyperspace that ships go through to get to different stars and planets. I believe it’s what makes FTL possible. Jumpers tend to burn out and die with little or no warning.

The quick summary

This is book three in the Sirantha Jax series. Sirantha Jax, a Jumper, is sent to Ithiss-Tor to broker an alliance between the Ithtorians and a human Conglomerate. The people-eating Morgut are attacking human outposts, and the Conglomerate thinks the Ithtorians can intimidate the Morgut out of attacking. However, not all Ithtorian leadership is on board. Meanwhile, the criminal Syndicate and the disgraced megacorp Farwan are trying to take advantage of the political situation. Jax also needs to win back her lover, March, who has detached himself from feeling anything.

My squees

Character development! Jax, March, Constance, and especially Vel have come a long way since the first book. They have suffered and laughed together, and their trials have made their relationships deeper. Jax continues to process her grief regarding her lost love, Kai, and it’s good to see her less tangled up about it, even if she has to go through a lot of pain to do so. She also struggles to process her new responsibilities without going crazy or becoming someone she can’t bear to be around. She has to make some choices she feels awful about in which she would have decided differently one book ago or at the beginning of the saga.

There’s action with the politics, for those who would worry about a book about diplomacy dragging. We learn lots about the Ithtorian world, which feels richer than any other place we’ve been. The culture is sufficiently alien that I had to think about the customs, but civilized so I could keep track of secondary characters easily.

My grumbles

For such vivid characters in earlier books, Doc Saul and Hit are given small roles that left me wondering if there could be more involvement with them.

I wasn’t super stoked by the interludes from the press. Since we’re cooped up on the planet, it’s nice to know what’s going on out there, but the articles felt a bit scattered to me. There’s a theme going through them, but I admit I breezed through them. The end felt a bit cliffhanger and unexpected, but luckily for me, the fourth book’s published and I can buy it or pick it up at the library.

Read if you

  • Enjoyed Grimspace
  • Like watching characters grow as they fumble around their lives
  • Dig space opera politics and trying to get others to cooperate a la Mass Effect 3

Skip if you

  • Haven’t read any previous books in the Sirantha Jax series. Okay, this is not a skip, but a delay- I recommend Grimspace
  • Don’t want to deal with politics or cultural shaming of the rebel
  • Watched praying mantises mate violently and had problems with that (not shown, but implied)

Final thoughts

I loved Grimspace. I thought Wanderlust slowed a bit down and less happened compared to the first book, but Doubleblind picks the action and story up again. This is not a standalone book. Reading the previous books gave me a richer experience with the characters, not just the plot background. I’m going to take a break sideways and read Aguirre’s Perdition, which is a spin-off three-book series. The new book, Breakout, came out this week.

Author site: www.annaguirre.com

Resources: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N / BAM / Indiebound / Vroman’s / Book Depository / Powell’s / iBooks