Category Archives: Uncategorized

Review: The Tattered Banner

The Tattered Banner
The Tattered Banner by Duncan M. Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars, rounding to 4, because there’s something in here that stays with you for a while.

It feels very much like the bastard love-child of Dave Duncan’s [b:Paragon Lost|57692|Paragon Lost (King’s Blades, #4)|Dave Duncan||1894792] and Modesitt’s [b:Scion of Cyador|618245|Scion of Cyador (The Saga of Recluce, #11)|L.E. Modesitt Jr.||749415], complete with special-swordsmen and border-raids-by-barbarians.

Still, I enjoyed the writing. Took too damn long to start, but I’m very much a give me the conflict now, please, I can figure out the backstory on my own type of reader, so there’s that.

Like Duncan and Modesitt’s work, it’ll linger.

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Review: The Countess Conspiracy

The Countess Conspiracy
The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Regency Romance? Me, Aldous Mercer, anti-romance crusader for Science and Magic?

Yup. Regency Romance.

Blame Heyer – in my younger army-mad phase, my Father-the-Brigadier-General said Heyer used to be required reading for his Military History class. I picked it up, and lo, it was good.

Goddamn Commonwealth.

But I enjoyed the first one in this series – Duchess War – because of how very different it was from every other Regency-type storyline out there.

But I fear Ms. Milan has gone a bit too far: A cascade of Horrific Events in backstory-reveals is not entirely an adequate substitute for character development.

Also, Bitterness is not the path to progress for women in STEM fields. I applaud Milan’s social and mindset-shifting agenda, but ramming it down throats…swallowing bitter pills requires either more seriousness than the romantic aims of the book, or much more sugar, given the setting.

And yet…and yet, it’s a very powerful might-have-been. Everything in the story screams anger, and rightfully so. But there isn’t enough coherence within Violet for the whole thing to work, at least for me.

The writing, as always, is brilliant. And if I ever pick up a Historical again, I’ll give Milan’s other works a try.

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Review: Fledgling

Fledgling by Nicole Conway
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ll read most things with dragons in ’em, YA or otherwise. As advertised, the book has dragons, so +1 star. That’s…about it.

In terms of the Dragons, Fledgling tries to be a cross between [b:The Dragonriders of Pern|61942|The Dragonriders of Pern (Dragonriders of Pern, #1-3)|Anne McCaffrey||6614581] and [b:Heart’s Blood|270641|Heart’s Blood (The Pit Dragon Chronicles, #2)|Jane Yolen||3225146], but it has neither the charm of the one or the heartfelt intensity of the other.

In terms of Sword and Sorcery, it’s like a fleshed-out version of a half-assed backstory you come up with for your D&D character to justify “elvish” and “draconic” under the Languages tab.

It would have earned another star if the plot elements – especially the true conflict w.r.t the kidnapping, etc. were developed with proper attention to craft. Either the book ended too early, or it took too damn long to start…

However, Dragons. Dragons make everything better :) and the descriptions of the dragonriding-experience are fantastic. There’s a lot of potential there, and I could be persuaded to pick up the next one in the series if the price-point is right.

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Review: Incursion

Incursion by Aleksandr Voinov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, Lena, for suggesting this, because it’s exactly what I was looking for. A good Gay SciFi Military/Adventure.

Many people have said this, and I will reiterate: a book is made on the strength of its characters. And Kyle Juenger is a strong, strong character. Suffering builds depth, and more than that, transcendence of suffering builds a hero. Voinov does both beautifully.

And the sex. This, dear readers, is how sex should be done – as part of the novel’s plot, as part of the deepest truth that characters hold in them. Vindication, and release, and reluctance and helplessness and strength and an echo of the theme that underlies the entire novel’s motif.

Needless to say, this is one of the few – very few! – sex scenes I’ve ever read that I didn’t skip.

Everything in the first 4/5ths of Incursion is pitch perfect. My problem, at the last star that I can’t give, revolves around the end.

The resolution comes too close to the most tense, fraught and plot-edifying scene in the book. Kyle Juenger-the character we’ve followed with bated breath and respect from page 1-deserves better. The end, pacing/plot-wise, feels like the “calm before a storm”, when the hero regroups and finds his balance with the new truths of his world, and then…the end.

If this was a series (or, more appropriately, a serial), it would get 5 stars, and I’d buy the next one. As it is, I’m missing a true denouement…

That said, as I and other readers sift through bullshit-writing and cliche plots and Ukes and Semes without any sense of their own identities, on Amazon and Smashwords and wattpad, reading Incursion feels like finding that Renoir in a rummage-sale. A little faded, and nobody’s going to give you more than a 100k for it at Christie’s, but damn if it isn’t awesome.

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Review: Captive Prince: Volume One

Captive Prince: Volume One
Captive Prince: Volume One by C.S. Pacat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eating Crow

So I dropped this book after reading the kindle preview in my browser, even though I’d bought it. Then Lena’s review came by, and I was all like “yes, exactly that”.

And then somebody else said, “give it a chance”.

So I did.

And you know what? My earlier issues still stand – the slavery, the beatings…NOT FOR ME.

But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I have mild OCD; not finishing a book feels like an itch I can’t scratch…so I kept on reading.

Verdict: Captive Prince grows past its almost fanfiction-like beginnings. The writing becomes smooth, a white chocolate mocha from Second Cup (gods I miss Canada sometimes), and it flows past.

The writing is excellent. The characterization – written from a ESFJ Damianos’s POV, looking at the INTJ Laurant, the enigma – rings true. I usually write from the opposite perspective, INTJ looking out, so it’s fascinating to see the other side of the coin. It will not satisfy many NT or some NF type readers – the intuitive understanding of the world is baffled when it has to live inside a sensate mind.

The sexual overtones and undertones were perhaps too much for a mainstream Fantasy reader, and too little for an Erotica reader. Nevertheless, the nonsexual tension between the characters was taut, a harp-string can could be plucked at will to make serious music.

In terms of a wider theme…I get the feeling the plot, the world, the characters’ moral compass – the author was figuring this out as they went (an artifact of the chapter-by-chapter posting?), and the book doesn’t really *know* what it is. Descriptions are excellent – pictures made in mind’s eye, well done, author.

In the end, if this had been something I picked up on a bookshelf somewhere, I’d end up giving it 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 here. But the extra star comes from the fact that there is so much crap in this genre that Captive Prince shows up like the Riders of Rohan, pennants fluttering in a cleansing breeze…

I moved on to Book 2.

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Review: Rapture at Midnight

Rapture at Midnight
Rapture at Midnight by Isobelle Cate
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I have never been so amused by written descriptions of sex before. This is me, paraphrasing the book:

Juliet: Verliy, for I am brought forth from Isobelle Cate’s mind like Athena from Zeus’s brow, for I am a new Juliet, a warrior, a hacker-of-hacks, who shall best evildoers with mine own intellect and a telescoping baton!

The Houses: Let us rape you!

Romeo: Juliet! Woe be the day that I cannot feast my eyes upon you, wretched be the night where the heady scent of your Mound of Venus doth not toucheth my rod.

Juliet: Hackety-hack. Also, my Mound of Venus doth groweth much in humidity.

Romeo: Pray, let me kiss you, for lips to nether lips do touch in holy were-vampire’s true mate’s kiss…

Juliet: Will thou giveth my cervix bruises?

Romeo: Verily, I shall!

The Plot: Screw you guys, I’m going home.

Juliet: Harder, Romeo! Deeper!

Romeo: The moon grows jealous of the luminescence of thine skin, my love. Also, take my cock, babe, take it!

I am far, far away from the intended audience for this book, and I knew that before I started it.

But we should all read outside our genre from time to time. And good writing is good writing, after all, to wit, another novel (also categorized as erotica) I’m about to review got 4 stars, grudgingly, because while the subject matter, the characters, the plot and the themes had periodic nails-on-a-chalkboard effect on me, the writing was good.

Other times, I’ve found myself giving books 4 and 5 stars when they clearly had massive flaws. Because some development – the world, the plot, a single throwaway character – was so well-conceived-of that it was incandescent.

Unfortunately, this particular offering’s only grace is that it made me chortle.

So, at first, I wasn’t going to review this at all, because giving a 1-star to a work that someone has poured their heart and soul into? Cruelty is not really my norm. But then I thought: If I feel free to criticize authors I respect, authors I’m friends with in some cases, secure in the knowledge that they’re adults and can handle it, and that they know my critique is no statement about them as people, then the only thing keeping me from eviscerating a stranger is cowardice.

Portions of cowardice still remains – the four paragraphs of justification before the review even starts. So.

The plot has so many holes in it, not even Donald Trump would donate it to Goodwill. The primary story device – a man is searching for his daughter kidnapped by his ex-wife, and our heroine is helping him. She’s helping him by “hacking” into various corporations. One of these corporations is shady and strange, and she hacks into them and their programs contain “symbols”, and they suddenly become her clients….wait, what? The thought-process for the MC’s job/money process seems to be:

Step 1: “Hack” an organization
Step 2: ????
Step 3: organization becomes client, PROFIT!


Step 1: “Hack” an organization
Step 2: ????
Step 5: Kidnapped daughter is found!

Note that I’ve refrained from critiquing specific instances that make me think “this person doesn’t know how ‘hacking’, software or, indeed, corporations work”. I let James Bond slide, I’m letting this slide. People that know me know what a valiant effort this is ๐Ÿ˜‰

The Immortal Werewolf/Vampire part of this seems mildly more thought-out. Ancient feud, a few bones thrown to various mythological constructs, hunky men looking for their mates. To, you know, mate with.

That’s OK, I knew what I was getting into before I started. It’s a linear variant of the “find the bad guy, confront, flee, repeat” plot. No demerits for this, can’t go wrong with linear.

Okay, on to characters.

There aren’t any.

There’s a filled-in character sheet from those writerly self-help books, complete with “hobbies” and “pet peeves” and “favourite color”, attached to a functional penis and vagina.

And the Big Bad?

Nothing says it better than this book itself:

In all his immortal life no one had bested him…He had the best evil geniuses in his pockets and they took the fall for him.

Evil geniuses. Used in all sincerity and seriousness. I still don’t let myself dwell on that too much, for fear of guffawing so hard the neighbors call an ambulance.

Also, on the same page:

He had imprisoned many Christians in those cells before feeding them to forcibly starved and voraciously hungry beasts for the entertainment of the Romans.

Also, he sells little kids into prostitution.

The author might have had better luck just rolling an appropriate D20 system’s Neutral-Evil lizardman-half-orc? (still don’t really know what these guys look like, beyond “muscular” and “they’re smelly” and glowing eyes)…Only reason I hesitate to declare him chaotic-evil is because he’s been running a corporation for a while.

Recommendation: Everyone I know, personally, should read this book because it’s prime drinking-game material. Everyone is invited to Hamburg for a party where I will blatantly copy a friend’s drink-a-thon for 50-Shades, and provide the vodka. Because I have found something more unintentionally funny, more repetitive, and more i-need-whiskey-now-please than…than Twilight!

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Review: West of January

West of January
West of January by Dave Duncan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has stayed with me for years. It’s one of my favorites, and and the same time I dreaded reviewing it because everything about it depresses me.

As I’ve said before, Duncan has a gift for creating planets, orbital elements down to culture. The reason for this is that function *must* follow structure; people are shaped by their environment, their language, culture and lives must fit into their world.

My depression is caused by two things. First, the MC’s life, which is just plain…tragic, threaded through with pain he cannot escape. With grief – normal grief, and emotional pain, we see at least the promise of respite…and none of it his his fault. Life sucks, and then the sun stops shining, and would you like a silk scarf with that?

Secondly, the human mind *must* have some lingering attachment to normative Earth-rhythms, circadian and otherwise, because the very vividness with which Duncan creates his planet means I experience the odd disconnect, almost horror, regarding the planet’s “days”–solar movement, its consequences…West of January. It’s like having Seasonal Affective Disorder via proxy.

The blurb up there doesn’t do this book justice.

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Review: Wildcatter

Wildcatter by Dave Duncan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

TL;DR version: It’s a fantastic adventure story – new worlds to discover, fame and glory and risk and death, unknown pathogens…greedy corporations, sex…

Dave Duncan has a gift for creating planets. He starts with the orbital parameters, and ends with the smell of the place: correct, plausible, yet creative.

Corporate politics, gender politics, biology and pathology – again, plausible, well-constructed. He doesn’t *need* to write chapters on backstory, a few well-written sentences do the trick.

The problem with this book, in my opinion, lies in its handling of social commentary. Oh, the characters are well-done, even if a couple of them are a bit 2-dimensional, but that is *not* a writing problem – we’re in Seth’s head, and we see the world filtered through his eyes, and he can see the world as 2D from time to time.

So, the social commentary:

Firstly, I have to give Duncan props for his courage and his internal ethics-compass. I was not expecting this, and when I found it, it was a surprise, and a good one.

Most mainstream SciFi writers, especially straight men, will not handle some of the social issues brought up here – gender politics, fluid sexuality, cis and trans identities. It’s done with some mild amounts of clumsiness, but the *message* is strong and clear. Heart’s in the right place, at least.

I’ve seen it done better – by Bujold, McCaffrey. Mostly women writers. Because to write about it, you must sympathize, if not empathize. And sympathizing means truly *seeing* it. Many men don’t, you know, especially in the Aerospace industry, STEM fields – the sexism, the requirements for conformity. I’ve seen colleagues sit down at lunch and just *watch* the subtle harassment of one of our own, and when confronted, the response is often “well *I* didn’t see it as harassment”, with the unspoken addendum of “Man up, Aldous, it wasn’t a big deal, *she’s* not making a fuss, why should you?”

So kudos, Mr. Duncan, for seeing it.

The problem in this case is that the sensitivity and intelligence of our MC, Seth, is at war with his testosterone-driven fight-or-fuck Wildcatter nature. Throw in a few dashes of post-adolescent young-man-fantasy-fulfillment, and you get a book with rampant contractions. Seth sympathizes, but doesn’t empathize. He’s fearless, but prone to falling into the same cultural tropes as any other action hero.

Then he marries a Herm, with a full-femme thrown in there to keep the balance, because Duncan sympathizes, and is creative, both socially and scientifically, but he still cannot internalize the world he writes about.

And that’s quite OK, because it is leagues and leagues better than his competitors.

Oh, and the prions. +1 star for the prions.

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Review: This Alien Shore

This Alien Shore
This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TL;DR version: The bastard love-child of Dune and Neuromancer, but the awesome kind of bastard-child, the one that ends up forging his own destiny and writing his name in the stars.

Longer version:

I read this book as a teenager, and was deeply affected by it. Later, I read it as an adult, as was not-quite-so impressed anymore, but C.S. Friedman’s world had sunk its claws into my mind, deep: the idea of Code as poetry, as art, became a bit of an obsession with me. I sought perfection with an iru-like determination, turning the entire text of my first published novel into a computer program that could be compiled…

If this review is vague and lacking in some specific details, it’s mostly because I think other reviewers have discussed the plot and the characters — book’s been out for a while, after all — and I think my contribution needs to be centered around my personal experience. For everything else, there’s google.

I read this again today. And the critiques of it–from my early twenties–withered and died till only one of them was left.

This Alien Shore is one of the most beautiful implementations of starfairing humanity I’ve seen. The Guild is a beautiful hybrid of the Bene Gesserit and the Navigator’s Guild of Dune, with politics and powerplays and complexity, but ultimately an entirely *ethical* worldview and objective. It’s Dune without the soul-twisting. And the treatment of FTL…the anniq, the dragons…it will leave readers breathless. Without ever truly *talking* about it, the entire novel expresses and uplifts the hunger for starflight, the hunger to extend the threshold of our reach as individuals and as a species.

The plot has two threads–one follows a young girl, a repository of great and unknown secrets, on the run from Earth and its corporations. The other is Lucifer: a virus that is wrecking havoc on the Guild’s navigators, threatening the foundations of mankind’s salvation–FTL travel through the rifts of space that bind all the worlds together.

The computer/bioware aspects of this have many neuromancer-like components, but without the dystopian grit.

The characters are true–true to themselves, if not to our expectations of them–they are individuals, deeply meaningful, their lives and hopes and dreams and fears sketched out in vibrant 3D. Relationships-professional, romantic, adversarial-all are true to their function and form, and heartbreaking in some cases, liberating in others.

The complaints of my early-twenties were plot-related – that the pacing was off, certain scenes went on too long, others were not in the right places. This remains a mild criticism, tempered by the realization that back then I was young and impatient, and wanted to get to the “good bits”. As a writer, I slowed down, appreciated the prose, the development, the subtle-but-necessary touches that made everything more. The one criticism that remains is that while the two plot-threads deepened and strengthened each others’ themes, ultimately their intersection was not one of mutual resolution but of mutual understanding. That is…not a bad thing. But it doesn’t bring the story full-circle in terms of action. The fear-and-threat felt so viscerally by the MC is not vindicated in a quite-satisfying way. Minus one star. But since this is getting graded on a 6-star scale, specially-made by me for the works that have influenced me so deeply, a full set of five stars remain.

This is a beautiful novel, full of hope for the future. Humanity’s discarded children rise above the pettiness-of-soul that characterizes so much of mankind’s history. Deeply flawed individuals display nobility of spirit, and the diverse, the mad, the broken, make their way to where they truly belong–the stars.

Read it. You’ll be happy you did. And when you’re done, perhaps you’ll come to the same conclusion I did: We are all Variants, and Guera is our home.

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