Binge-worthy series for the holidays

Winter (in the northern hemisphere) holidays are coming up: whatever you do or don’t celebrate, you may get some time off to relax. When I have a chunk of time, I love to binge-read a series. Here are some romance and science fiction series I recommend for this holiday season if you haven’t already read them. All of them are complete.

The Brothers Sinister by Courtney Milan

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Historical romance series set in Victorian England. Features intelligent, complicated characters I can’t forget. Favorite character: Violet Waterfield in The Countess Conspiracy. Some would call her difficult. I find her amazing.

You can buy the whole darn thing as a bundle, too.

The Phoenix Adventures by Anna Hackett

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I’ve made it clear that I adore Anna Hackett’s books. Lots of action, monsters, treasures, and other discoveries make the lives of the protagonists very interesting. Favorite character: Nera Darc from Return to Dark Earth. Quiet, deadly, and kinder than she lets on.

Hackett also made a small box set to start you off on the series.

Darkest London by Kristen Callihan

Paranormal historical romance. Callihan presents non-traditional supernatural creatures in a way that always kept me guessing. Watching the characters fall in love was mesmerizing. Favorite character: Hollis Evernight of, well, Evernight. I sympathized with her specific communication struggles.

Paradox series by Rachel Bach

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Feel like some action-packed science fiction with romantic elements that will remind you of Mass Effect? Go read the Paradox trilogy by Rachel Bach. Since there’s only one protagonist, I won’t pick a favorite character, but Devi’s voice is engrossing and I was always rooting for her.

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

Book Review: Jumper’s Hope by Carol Van Natta

Jumper's Hope cover art

The time and place

About a thousand years from now. Action takes place on fairly backwater planet Branimir, on the passenger-freighter Faraon Azul, and in the city of Ridderth on planet Mabingion, the site of a brutal city riot several years before the book begins.

The suspension of disbelief

Humans have colonized many planets and developed space travel. Some humans have psychic powers, referred to as “minder talents.” These talents include mind control, healing, telekinetics, detection of other powers, and plenty more. Those who have them are often pressed into the Minder Corps of Citizen Protection Services: essentially the galactic police.

The quick summary

Retired pilot Kerzanna crashes on the planet Jess has retired to. It’s no simple accident—someone wants her dead. Jess finds and rescues her, to both their confusion, as they were each convinced the other died several years ago. The two try to lay low and make their escape, but somebody has a tempting offer for them that could give them a chance of a future together. All they need to do is deliver some information. Easier said than done when the baddies are still after Kerzanna.

My squees

Kerzanna is one of the most interesting cyborgs I’ve read about in SFR. Cybernetics aren’t all sunshine and roses while we still have flesh. Like prosthetics now, they cause stress on other systems and need constant tweaking. I like how the CPS deactivated some of her capabilities and there was a side market for restoring them, it felt very punk. Kerzanna and Jess are mature adults who use their experience wisely during the course of the story. Though he’s retired, he has problems due to some mismanagement by his workplace. There’s a bit of upside to that oversight, but of course there is also a price for taking advantage of that. It makes me think hard about how organizations treat their employees.

The villainous troupe is entertaining. Davidro is an easy fellow to understand, and watching the way he tries to handle his underlings keeps making me snicker. I felt sympathy for Vahan, who may be cold-blooded and callous, but has to deal with a difficult job. Renner the electric talent has gotten more interesting through the series, and Georgie the forecaster and the others are memorable. Those who slip Davidro’s leash still have parts to play, even if they pay vividly terrible prices.

There’s a battle in space, and it’s exciting. Keeping track of the minor characters involved there is easy. Van Natta is good at making them distinctive and choosing interesting names.

My grumbles

I had a lot of trouble visualizing the layout of the passenger-freighter ship. That could just be my own spatial reasoning problems. What’s a nav pod, and why can it do what it does in the story?

There are several time jumps near the end of the book. Sometimes it felt like events were skipped over a bit abruptly, which made keeping track of them a little difficult for me.

Read if you

  • Enjoy a tale of reunited lovers
  • Like an interesting stable of villains
  • Are really into competent cyborg heroines

Skip if you

  • Want your heat level higher than sweet
  • Shy away from violence
  • Prefer a primary focus on the love story

Disclosure and final thoughts

I received an advance reader copy for review purposes.

Don’t read this book on its own. Earlier books introduced these villains and their motives, and that makes the experience much richer. The leads get their happy ending, but there’s a twist for some characters which makes me very excited to read the next book. The way the characters have been built over time makes me curious about where some of them will end up.

Each entry in the Central Galactic Concordance is a bit different in tone. This one felt most like Overload Flux, with some spaceboard and plenty of hand-to-hand action. If you’re curious about other books in the series, I also reviewed Minder Rising and Pico’s Crush.

Author site: http://author.carolvannatta.com/

Resources: Kobo / Goodreads / Amazon / Google Play / iBooks / aRE

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: Rebellion by Sabine Priestley

The time and place

Present day, present time. Mostly on the planet of Mitah, which is nominally ruled by the Salvator family as a client of Sandaria. Chancellor Mortog runs most things, though. Earth makes some brief appearances.

The suspension of disbelief

Faster-than-light space travel exists. Portals, space gates held open by the Portal Masters, facilitate aliens coming and going all over space. Humanoid aliens have discovered Earth and currently protect it from incursions without our knowledge.

Some alien races have psi, which seems to be a sort of sixth psychic sense or talent. The Portal Masters have a particular kind of psi that makes them coveted by their guild. Additionally, people with psi have a single psi-mate: someone whose psionics can complement and bond to theirs. It’s a romantic/sexual type of bond.

The quick summary

Ria Montori, an Earth Protector and ex-Sandarian soldier, goes to planet Mitah for some well-deserved leave. While there, she has a fling with a young man named Ty. Ty is a Curzan, the planet’s native and oppressed/enslaved people, and he hates all things Sandarian. Good thing they don’t know that at first, right? The Curzan resistance gets Ty involved with a crime at a ball, and in the aftermath he absconds with Ria. He hates what she stands for, she thinks he’s a horrible dangerous criminal, and the Mitan government is now going to escalate its persecution of Curzans. She is his psi-mate, though, and may be able to call in outside help for his cause.

My squees

The plot is intricate, and my hunch that re-reading it would give me more treasures proved to be correct. There are several factions in play with different stakes in what happens in planetary politics. Events set in motion before the start of the story will have consequences later in the series. At the end it’s illustrated that the events on Mitah are not anomalous and similar things are happening all over.

The protagonists have interesting character flaws. They’re both hotheads, and Ty’s righteous anger gets him in a pickle. He’s not much for planning, it seems. He is young and oppressed and he’s not going to take it anymore. I like how his character develops during the story, we see what drives him to his actions and the fallout from them as matters spiral out of his control. He has a little reckoning where he has to weigh a moral issue, but Priestley stops short of giving him the total weight of the decision.

Ria also grows up a bit during the story. She’s already had her preconceptions about galactic politics smashed before the story, and she has more to question and figure out for herself as the story unfolds. She struggles against bonding to a man who may well be an uncivilized seething ball of rage, and rightly questions how to deal with and escape a homicidal maniac. She does adapt well to the political situation and battle tactics during the story, and she’s not ashamed of saying when she’s made a mistake.

My grumbles

In contrast to Ty’s moral questions and dilemmas, the villains are almost all two-dimensional, cackling, and just being horrible people for the sake of it. Now, there are plenty of malicious power-hungry jerks out there, but I would have also liked to see a more nuanced take on the politics of the bad guys, like some of them being pro-stability not for the sake of power, but because chaos and anarchy get lots of people killed. Speaking of the jerks, I had some trouble keeping track of them. There’s a huge cast of characters, and some of the minor ones, especially government officials or lackeys, got confusing unless I took notes. I also couldn’t keep the different Earth Protectors sorted out unless I concentrated.

I’m not one for the fated mate trope, and Dani, Ria’s friend, is utterly schmaltzy about hers, which I rolled my eyes at. Ria and Ty’s relationship requires compatible psi, though, and it felt integral to the story, driving some early actions so that it wasn’t sappy. They go fast from being unsure about each other to declaring their love, and I’ll attribute it to the natures of psi-mating. I’m still not sold on the trope as a whole, and I knew up front that would color my thoughts on the story. If you like the fated mates concept, you will probably enjoy Ria and Ty’s romantic interactions more.

Read if you

  • Enjoy factional politics
  • Like compelling character development
  • Want to feel part of a big universe

Skip if you

  • Need complicated and compelling villains
  • Don’t like keeping track of a big cast
  • Require romantic heroes to be medium height to tall

Disclosure and final thoughts

I received a free copy for review purposes. Priestley has built a rich world with many moving parts, and I look forward to finding out what happens with the Portals and people scrambling around the ruins of the Sandarian Empire.