Thursday, December 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Age of Empyre by Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Empyre is the culmination of a six-book epic fantasy series written by Michael J. Sullivan. It's been a long journey from the first book, Age of Myth which was released in 2016. (I didn't start reading the series until 2017, but have enjoyed every entry since then. The other books in the series are Age of Swords, Age of War, Age of Legend and Age of Death

The series is officially known as Legends of the First Empire. It is set a few thousand years before the events of the Riyria stories featuring Royce and Hadrian that are told in Theft of Swords, Rise of EmpireHeir of Novron. Those books are some of the most enjoyable epic fantasy books I have ever read, and has permanently affixed the name Michael Sullivan to my list of must-read authors.

So, I was very excited to hear about and read the Age of books and quite anxious as the end of series approached in Age of Empyre. Another interesting aspect of Sullivan's books is that he basically writes all the books in a series before he self-publishes them, so there really wasn't any doubt that the entire six-book series was going to be available to be read. (Take that, George R.R. Martin!)

The main characters in the series have been Persephone, Brin, Raithe, Suri, Arion, Nyphron, Mawyndule  and Malcolm. The primary story is about relations between the various inhabitants on the world (which they call Elan). Those species are humans (called Rhune), elves (called Fhrey) and dwarves (called Dherg or Belgriclungreians). Basically, the Fhrey are the most powerful, because they have access to magic, which they call The Art. The Art uses the energy of the world to can re-channel it to do incredible things: move heavy objects, change the weather, set things on fire or make things very cold, etc). There are different "tribes" of Fhrey, and only one of the tribes, the Miralyith have the power to do the Art, but all Fhrey are extremely long-lived. In fact, some of the Fhrey from this series are still very much alive in the Riyria Revelations series and part of the fun in reading these books is seeing how events and people depicted in the ancient past in one series are similar/different than how they are portrayed in real time. 

And by relations between the species, I really mean "war." The Rhunes basically thought that the Fhrey were gods, and the Fhrey thought that the Rhunes were basically dirty animals. The Rhunes vastly outnumber the Fhrey and their lives are a fratction of a Fhrey's. However, in Age of Myth a Rhune kills a Fhrey (mostly by accident) and when that information gets back to the main group of humans where Persephone, Suri and Brin live it changes everything. 

The main tension in the series is between the Fhrey and the Rhunes. The first surprise is that the Rhunes actually have a chance to survive. In the earlier books, the Rhunes' ingenuity (invention of the wheel and steel) are able to balance out the Fhrey's magical powers such that for a very long time the wars that they fight against each other result in stalemates.

In Age of Empyre the tension between the humans and the elves are resolved in various ways that are surprising. It's hard to say which side "won" the war. What happens is that the relationship between humans and elves is resolved in such a way that the future existence of humans is assured, and there is "regime change" at the head of the elves so that the policy of Rhune extermination is rescinded. The borders of where each of the species (humans, dwarves and elves) should live are clarified and agreed to. I don't want to say more than that or else I will be including too many spoilers.

I do want to remark on another aspect of the books, which is its mythology. In the 5th book, Age of Death, there are several characters that "die"--by this I mean that they go into the afterlife. It turns out that there are three afterlives and our characters have to make it through all three in order to find a macguffin. Not all the characters make it through all three afterlives, and there is a  great deal of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) rumination on the nature of life and death and teleology (fancy word for purpose and the meaning of life). That Sullivan can include these elements successfully in the middle of a rip-roaring, action-packed epic fantasy is a testament to his skills as a writer. Even a jaded atheist as myself was willing to go along with the worldview the author promulgated in the last two books.

Overall, I felt that Age of Empyre was a suitable and well-done conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire series of sux books, with multiple, satisfying payoffs for readers who had made it through all six books (and even more for readers who have also read the other six books of the Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles). Interestingly, Sullivan has announced a new epic trilogy called The Rise and Fall which will bridge the thousands of years between the events of the Legends of the First Empire series just concluded and the Riyria stories which were published first but are far in the future. I am definitely looking forward to reading those!

Title: Age of Empyre (Legends of the First Empire, #6).
Michael J. Sullivan.
Paperback: 395 pages.
 Riyria Enterprises.
Date Published: May 5, 2020.
Date Read: August 10, 2020.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Chaos Vector (The Protectorate, #2) by Megan O'Keefe

Chaos Vector is the second book in the space opera series called The Protectorate written by Megan O’Keefe; it is the sequel to Velocity Weapon. The world-building in Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector is impeccable; these books are set in the Thirty-Fourth Century where humans have inhabited multiple star systems due to the existence of Casimir Gates that allow faster-than-light travel. The biggest secret in the inhabited universe is the technology that is used in the gates, which are created and controlled by Prime government. One of the interesting features of the first book was the inclusion of multiple time lines, one of which described how Alexandra Hallston, the founder of Prime Technologies back in the Twenty-First century, came to discover gate technology. The inclusion of vignettes following Hallston's story continues in the second book and is clearly going to be a source of major surprises about the foundations of Prime society as the series goes forward.

The main characters in The Protectorate books are Sanda Greeve and her brother Biran. When we meet Sanda she is in the Prime military, on active duty in an ongoing war between Ada Prime and Icarian, a neighboring system. In the first book, Sanda was captured by enemy forces and injured; she wakes up from a medically induced coma and she’s had her left leg amputated below the left knee. It turns out that her captor was actually an Icarion super-weapon, an AI-enabled warship named The Light of Berossus that has speed and weapon capabilities far exceeding anything Prime possesses. Sanda eventually bonds with the intelligence in control (which she calls Bero) and at the end of Velocity Weapon  she has been reunited with Biran safely at home while Bero disappears into the void to try and learn more about his creators.

Biran is Speaker of the Keepers of Ada Prime. A Keeper is someone who has been granted with the near-sacred responsibility of keeping a portion of the knowledge of how Casimir Gates work securely in a microchip embedded in their brain. Keepers are the elite of the elite in Prime society. They go through a number of aptitude tests in order to be admitted to an academy from which future Keepers are selected. Access to any information/knowledge about specific technologies that could conceivably be used to discover how gates work is harshly regulated and only Keepers can access it. As Speaker, Biran is the mouthpiece for the Protectorate, which is the small group of Keepers who are tasked with making executive decisions for the Prime government. (One small quibble with the books is that they really do not make it clear how the government of Prime works—are there terms for the Speakers on the Protectorate? How exactly are they selected? Mundane but important details like this are necessary to give the reader a sense of the politics of Prime and are generally missing, or not repeated frequently enough that I can’t remember them.)

The plot(s) of both books are extremely complex, and the stories are filled with multiple jaw-dropping reveals and twists. I don’t want to reveal or spoil any of these so instead I will discuss some other highlights of the books which may help explain why I am so enamored with them.

First, the characters of Sanda and Biran are presented with exquisite nuance and well-defined clarity. Sanda is a kick-ass older sister who finds herself in a bewildering series of deathly dangerous situations and constantly makes the right choice. Biran is in a similarly bewildering thicket of political alliances which he has to successfully navigate. Sadly, he doesn’t always make the right choice. But by giving the reader access to their inner thoughts we are always right there with Sanda and Biran as they wend their way through the treacherous plot. That makes for a tremendously exciting reading experience.

Second, the prominence of diversity in both books is extremely attractive and rewarding to me. Biran and Sanda were raised by a gay male couple and clearly they both love both their dads. With one leg Sanda is disabled (or the better term would probably “differently abled”) and having a hero in an action-packed military sci-fi story who also needs a wheelchair sometimes to get around and regular worries about her prosthesis is definitely unusual, but O’Keefe makes it work, because Sanda is awesome! She is clearly heterosexual, and we thought Biran was too, until the later chapters of Chaos Vector make it clear he’s also attracted to guys. (Yay!) Although there's no sexual scenes in the books, remember we do have constant access to Sanda's and Biran's inner thoughts, so.... In addition to the diverse main characters there is a major supporting character named Mx. Arden Wyke who has near-legendary computer hacking skills and is ‘enby’ (non-binary) and referred to by the pronouns them/they/theirs seamlessly. Another major supporting character is revealed to be an ex-boyfriend of one of Sanda’s dads. The author also makes it clear that many/most of the characters would not be racialized as White in our contemporary social context. The author goes out of her way to mention that the ancestors of most of the inhabitants of Ada Prime are from Ecuador, which is apparently where the first space elevator was constructed on Earth a millennium before, which explains why most people on Ada have brown skin and very dark hair. The diversity of the characters is an integral, impressive and important aspect of these books.

Third, the technological details of the Prime universe are believable and very cool. One incredibly important feature of science fiction to me is the realistic presentation of technological advancements. They should be incredible but also somewhat plausible. (Yes I know faster than light travel is not possible but gates/wormholes are at least theorized.) O’Keefe does a good job of presenting the technology of the 34th century in a way that seems realistic. The society has aspects which seem like magic to us, but there are still disparities in status, wealth and power among different sets of people. Those divides do not seem to be based on race or gender but they do seem to be related to one’s birth circumstances.

Overall, Chaos Vector is an impressively strong sequel to Velocity Weapon and one of the best space opera books I have read in several years. If you like the work of Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and Arkady Martine, I’m very confident that Megan O’Keefe’s Protectorate series will put a smile on your face and a gleam in your eye, it did for me!

Title: Chaos Vector.
Megan O'Keefe .
Page Length: 416 pages.
Format: Kindle.
Date Published: July 28, 2020.
Date Read: December 25, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Thursday, December 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Lucifer's Hammer

Lucifer’s Hammer is one of the classic works of science fiction; it was nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards for Best Novel. Written by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven and published in 1977, Lucifer’s Hammer is one of the most prominent examples of the post-apocalyptic trope of modern science fiction. Set primarily in California, the story follows a large cast of characters as they are affected by the discovery of the Hamner-Brown comet, its rapid approach to Earth, catastrophic collision and immediate aftermath.

The story is set in the late 1970s and the cultural assumptions and depictions are somewhat jarring as one views them from the perspective of a gay, Black man living in the 21st century. This is not a new experience I (and am sure many other readers who are not in the expected target audience of straight, white, males) have had reading alleged classics of science fiction. Honestly, I would say that Lucifer’s Hammer has fewer “ugh!” moments than others I have read. For example, the N-word does appear in the text, unexpurgated.

The primary way the disconnect between the modern reader and the somewhat dated text manifests is in a lack of empathy for the primary characters. I was never that invested in whether a particular character that we’ve been given a first-person perspective of would survive or not. To me, the narrative tension in the book that kept me reading to the end was the recognizable plausibility of the depiction of the rapid deterioration of civilization after the cataclysmic comet collision and whether human civilization would still be viable at the end of the book. 

Pournelle & Niven use 3-4 main characters as vehicles through which they tell the bulk of the story. The first is Tim Hamner, a rich astronomical dilettante who happens to discover the comet and then escapes with a woman-who-is-not-his-wife to Northern California after devastating tidal waves basically inundate and decimate Southern California where he lives. Another is Harvey Randall, a producer of television documentaries who does a series of stories on Hamner and the comet. The third most prominent character is Maureen Jellison, daughter of U.S. Senator Arthur Clay Jellison. When the comet strikes, Jellison becomes the de facto leader of a group of survivors in Northern California, due to his thforesightedness to stockpile useful supplies on his ranch in the area. There are many other characters who also get first-person accounts, from the murderer-rapist who takes advantage of the turmoil and confusion to commit crimes, to the policeman who punishes him and maintains law and order despite the uncertainty of whether humanity itself will persist and lastly, the Black criminal Alim Nassor who (unsuccessfully) attempts to use the abandonment of white folks their homes to enrich and empower himself and his “brothers.” Some of these characters are simply bad people so that’s one reason why it’s difficult to connect with them or care about their survival. However, some of the characters are simply not that relatable to me (perhaps because I’m not in the expected target audience). And some of the depictions of the characters (especially their attitudes and beliefs) are borderline offensive.

However, in the end I would say that overall Lucifer’s Hammer is an effective, if flawed, entry in the genre of speculative fictional depiction of apocalyptic events. It would have been improved by providing a more diverse set of perspectives on the cataclysmic events by the inclusion of different characters.

Title: Lucifer's Hammer.
Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 642 pages.
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services.
Date Published: September 22, 2010. (First Published: July 1, 1977)
Date Read: November 29, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/B (3.16/4.0).


Thursday, December 17, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Dancing with the Virgins (Cooper & Fry, #2) by Stephen Booth

Dancing with the Virgins is the second book in the Cooper & Fry police-procedural murder-mystery series written by Stephen Booth featuring DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry, set in the Peak District of Northern England. About three-quarters through reading the first book in the series, Black Dog, I decided I wanted to spend more time with Cooper & Fry and found the kindle version of book 2 at the Los Angeles Public Library (my local library),

The central feature of the Cooper & Fry books is the relationship between the two main characters, which (somewhat surprisingly) is based on mutual animosity, professional distrust and ambiguous attraction. I had half-expected romantic tension to play some part in the series by now but that is most definitely not the case. In my opinion, this is an excellent choice made by their creator, Stephen Booth, and one that definitely whets my appetite to read what happens next with them as the series progresses.

In Dancing with the Virgins the titular virgins are stones at the top of the moors where a woman has been expertly stabbed through the heart (via the back), just a few weeks after another woman was horribly maimed in the face as a result of another knife attack. DS Diane Fry is working on the first attack, trying to figure out a way to get the amnesiac victim to remember any aspect of the incident to help the police catch the culprit. Meanwhile, DC Ben Cooper has been paired with a new partner, the large and obtuse DC Weenink, who clearly doesn’t take his oath “to serve and protect” the community as seriously or energetically as Ben does. The reader spends a lot of time in Ben’s head, and he’s clearly a nice guy. We spend a fair amount of time Diane’s head as well, and it’s pretty clear she’s not as “nice” as Ben is. Which approach to policing (Ben’s or Diane’s) is actually more effective at solving crime is a key conflict in the books, as well as the question of which approach makes for a happier (or more fulfilling) life. Both Ben and Diane have complicated back stories. Ben is the son of a well-known police officer who was a local hero who died in the line of duty two years before the events in Dancing with the Virgins and he still lives at home on the family farm with his brother’s family and mentally-ill mother. Diane grew up in foster care with an older sister who became a drug addict and disappeared as a young teenager. Recently she suffered a sexual assault (before the events of the first book Black Dog) and her ongoing search for her missing sister and that traumatic event are the reason for this city girl transferring to the very rural area in which the books are set. The other officers (both supervisory and collegial) are supporting characters in the series, and after two books they are becoming more familiar even if they aren’t becoming more interesting or important features of the story.

Overall, I would say Dancing with the Virgins is a strong second entry in this British police procedural series. We learn more about the protagonists, in the context of an intriguing set of mysteries, murders and misdemeanors. One of the weaknesses in this particular entry is its slightly unsatisfying conclusion. There are three primary crimes being investigated in Dancing with the Virgins and by the end the reader is only given definitive answers about the perpetrators of two of the three crimes. In fact, the conclusion of the book seems somewhat rushed and inconclusive, because some of the important issues in Fry’s and Cooper’s lives remain unresolved. Happily, this leaves room for more character development in the following books, which I am definitely looking forward to. However, I would have preferred more clarity and closure on "whodunnit" for some of the other mysteries in the book. Other readers who have enjoyed books in this genre by Peter Robinson, Peter James or Ian Rankin, will likely enjoy Stephen Booth's Cooper & Fry mysteries as well.

Title: Dancing with the Virgins.
Stephen Booth.
Page Length: 432 pages.
Format: Kindle.
 Witness Impulse.
Date Published: November 5, 2013.
Date Read: November 9 2014.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, December 10, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Black Dog (Ben Cooper & Diane Fry, #1) by Stephen Booth

Black Dog is the first book in a series of British police procedural, crime thrillers written by Stephen Booth starring Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, set in the Peak District of Northern England near Manchester. Generally referred to as the Cooper & Fry series, I discovered the book as it was recommended to me by the website FantasticFiction, for readers who also like Stuart MacBride and Val McDermid (which I definitely do).

The British police procedural, crime thriller is a (very) well-populated genre I am discovering. So my tastes have become more discerning as I read more of them. I have read all of Ian Rankin's work, as well as the mysteries written by Peter Robinson, Tana French, and Agatha Christie. I've come to realize that, generally, I prefer books that feature at least one female protagonist (or are written by a female author). I think it’s probably as a gay Black male I don’t really connect with seeing toxic masculinity in my fiction and I prefer to read stories featuring characters that share experiences similar to mine, i.e. trying to succeed professionally in settings where you’re under-represented.

I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging Black Dog, the first book in the Cooper & Fry series, is. The main mystery is built around the disappearance and (inevitable) demise of a 15-year-old girl who is the daughter of the nouveau riche couple who own the biggest house in the Edendale area. However, as with all good books in the mystery genre, it’s not the central case that’s important but it's the people working on the case who are. Ben Cooper is a young, handsome, local “golden boy” who is a Detective Constable with a bright future and apparent rapid promotion ahead of him, despite his police father having been killed in the line of duty a mere 2 years before, leading to the psychological breakdown of his mother. Diane Fry is also a young Detective Constable who has recently transferred to the E-division police force after a traumatic event which she’s determined not to let slow her progress on the fast track to professional success in the police. They are polar opposites; Cooper is instinctive, well-liked by his colleagues and generally attuned to the sensibilities and sensitivities of the locals. Fry, on the other hand, is an outsider, perceived as a nervy, ambitious woman seeking to rise in the ranks by taking advantage of any situation to get noticed and advance her career. Somehow the two are paired together and sparks fly. There is definitely NOT sexual tension between the two, but there is professional rivalry (and perhaps personal antipathy), especially when Cooper realizes that Fry is much more likely to get the next Detective Sergeant promotion after his family problems start to negatively impact his job performance.

The details of the mystery in Black Dog are quite interesting, with a surplus of suspects and a large number of red herrings thrown at the reader. Even when the perpetrator was basically reduced to a cast of 3, I didn’t pick the correct person responsible for the crimes. The book is quite suspenseful and does a good job of slowly revealing different aspects of the personality traits of both Cooper and Fry which make me very interested to see how their interactions develop in future books. The series is quite substantial (almost 18 books at this writing) and I’m a bit surprised it doesn’t appear to have the same level of popularity and renown as similar books in this genre such as the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series by Val McDermid or the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie. I think the reason may be because it doesn’t appear as if there’s a romantic relationship between the two lead characters (at least so far). The setting of the books is also somewhat unusual, a rural, sparsely populated, mountainous area (called the Peak Pike District) that is an actual tourist attraction. The supporting characters are not particularly diverse, but when there are two main characters who are both nuanced and well-drawn, that can sustain and fuel my interest in reading more books in the series, which I definitely intend to do.

Title: Black Dog.
Stephen Booth.
Pages: 480 pages (paperback).
Date Published: October 30, 2001.
Date Read: November 6, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, December 03, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is the first book in the Chief Kate Burkholder series by Linda Castillo. This book was brought to my attention by FantasyFaction’s recommendation service by connecting it to other books I had previously read (I think it was to one of the Karin Slaughter books). The Kate Burkholder books are set in Northern Ohio, in Amish country, and the eponymous character is a former member of the local Amish community of Painter’s Creek, a town of under 5,000 inhabitants. Kate speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and is the small town’s chief of police. However Painter’s Creek’s chief law enforcement officer is hiding a pretty dramatic secret in her past involving the (probably !?) justified killing of a guy who raped her as a teenager. The fact that a series of gruesome murders ended soon after those events is even more important to the plot of Sworn to Silence than Kate’s secret because now the murders have resumed after a 15-year hiatus and Kate is perplexed to figure out how the events of her tormented past and the bloody present are linked.

It’s a great premise and Kate is an interesting combination of discrepancies. A female police chief of a small town, a former member of a local religious community who has been formally excommunicated from interacting with her own family members who live nearby. The primary strengths of this book are Kate and the impressively rapid pace of the plot. After no activity for 15 years, three horribly mutilated bodies are discovered in less than a week. Another minor strength is the inclusion of a Black male sidekick (called “Glock) who has a good professional relationship with Kate. One of my qualms about even starting the Burkholder series was my belief that the lack of diversity due to the setting would make it hard for me to connect with the characters and Glock helped assuage those concerns.

The primary weakness of the book is the excessively gory nature of the crimes and the inclusion of a romantic element for Kate both of which seems problematic and gratuitous. In fact, Kate herself is not without issues. She displays bad judgment multiple times and its hard to be sympathetic to her “might makes right” policing philosophy combined with a penchant for expediency over compliance. I’m not completely convinced I’ll continue reading other books in the series, despite the fact that it features a female protagonist and strong, diverse set of supporting characters (these are usually strong sources of my interest in a series). The placing of Kate herself in extreme danger towards the end of the book as a tool to increase the level of suspense is not a good sign, in my opinion. I prefer authors (like Val McDermid) who use other devices to successfully enthrall the reader of suspense thriller mysteries.

Overall I’d say Sworn to Silence is a strong first entry in a series that other aficionados of the genre may enjoy if they do not have as many particular preferences and atypical aversions as I do to some of the book’s elements.

Title: Sworn to Silence (Kate Burkholder, #1)
Linda Castillo.
Pages: 384.
Date Published: April 1, 2010.
Date Read: July 1, 2014.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★☆  (4.0/5.0).OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).



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