Friday, October 13, 2017

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Keeping It Real
by Justina Robson

Say you're a Shadowrun fan and you'll get two reactions: ‘what the hell is Shadowrun?’ is the most common, and ‘you should try this it's like Shadowrun, but…’ is the other. For those of you asking the first question, Shadowrun is a fantasy cyberpunk RPG game, which basically means you can play a Cyborg Elf trying to kill Corporate Wizards while your Troll Hacker buddy breaks the internet to steal the paydata. When done right, it's as awesome as it sounds, when done wrong... Well, at least these days you have smartphones while waiting for your turn kids (Manaball! Wait I am editing instead of playing my angry mercenary rabbi-wizard in Shadowun. You are talking about Shadowrun in your book review.  Focus on the task at hand Frigid!)

Right, let's start with our author; Justina Robson was born in Leeds England in the year 1968 AD. She studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of York. In her own words it took seven years of working as a secretary and over 2 million words before she finally published her first novel. Her first published work was in the small press magazine The Alternative in 1994, with her first novel, Silver Screen following in 1999. It was well received and nominated for the Arthur C Clarke award and the BSFA award in 2000. Since then she has published a number of novels and short stories. When she started the Quantum Gravity series, she had 3 novels under her belt and a number of short stories. The first book Keeping it Real was published in 2006, it is the first in a 5 book series. The Quantum Gravity was recommended to me as 'you should try this it's like Shadowrun but...' so let's dive in, shall we?
The background to the Quantum Gravity series goes as such. In the year 2015 AD, there was an explosion in the superconducting supercollider in Texas (if you're saying to yourself. wait there's no such thing in Texas, you're right! In our world it was canceled in 1993 because we are not allowed nice things{An eternal pox be upon congress and all their vile works}). This explosion caused a hole in space-time because quantum. This hole in spacetime caused a number of things to happen backwards and forwards in time (Are there angels what weep? Is Steven Weinberg’s office a TARDIS now?) and odd things resulted. Fast forward to the present year of our story and people refer to Earth as Otopia for some reason (It means ‘local’ in greek) and are aware of five other “realms” of existence and in contact with 4 of them. The first one is Zoomenon, the realm of elementals, where every element on the periodic table is present in abundance but the place is incredibly hostile to human life. The Elementals appear to humans as personifications of Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Wood (Wait wait… it is both the periodic table of elements Elemental Chaos and D&D style Elemental Chaos?  Is there a Fluorine Chemistry elemental whose special ability to is steal ALL the electrons and then violently explode?). The second is Alfheim, which many of you will have likely guess means elves and the snobbiest elves of course. While Alfheim has diplomatic relations with Otopia, it has otherwise closed its borders firmly shut and tried to keep its people in and everyone else out. It's a Eden like place otherwise, since human technology for the most part doesn't work there's been no industrialization. Instead of technology the elves have magic, which I'll get to a bit. The 3rd realm is Demonia, which is the home of the Demons. Demons are of course much more welcoming of humans than Elves but you do travel at your own risk. That said Demon scientists have been very eager to share information (*sings to tune of Flash Gordon* FAUST!  WOOAAAAAH!  He’s doomed ev’ry of us!) Next up is Faery, home to well... Faeries. Faery has been extremely welcoming and even adopted human bureaucracy, issuing tourist visas and passports and what have you. The last realm is one no human can really discuss, Thanatopia is the realm of the dead and with the exception of necromancers, you have to die to get there. No one comes from Thanatopia and only necromancers visit and come back.

Magic of course exists and is used by, well everyone except humans from what I can tell (have we just not figured it out yet?). Granted Elementals are to alien for any real relationships between the two groups but when a being shows up as nothing but fire, I think it safe to say some magic is being used. That said the most dominant magic users are Demons and Elves, using what they call the aetherstream (or Ispace as humans insist on calling it for some reason) to cast spells and conduct rituals. Another type of magic is that of games, games are magical contests between two people. They have rules with dictate the behavior of those people until the victory conditions of the game are met. Every game has a prize and a forfeit, which can be anything from a song to a life. As you might have guessed this has caused a fair bit of upheaval in human society as humans who can't sense or interact with magic (but can be acted on by magic) are at a harsh disadvantage when it comes to games. However, whenever anti-games laws are enforced, the cops, lawyers, and judges find themselves locked into a game with the accused person and it usually goes poorly from there. I'm honestly impressed by this because it gives people who are leery of contact with non-humans a pretty good reason for their fear. If you're not careful around these people you could end up under a magical compulsion to give them everything you've ever had for a literal song and there's nothing anyone can do about it. So as you can guess relationships between the different peoples of the multi-verse are somewhat fractious and hazardous. Enter our main characters.

Lila Black is a special agent with the NSA, due to injuries she suffered in the field, she is officially dead and has been remade into a top of the line cyborg (Aren’t the NSA basically just SIGNIT spooks, not field spooks?{Yes, but this is a universe where Texas had a supercollider, clearly things are different}). The kind of cyborg that makes Robocop look like the ultra cheap basement bargain model. She has on-board internet connections and AI, weapons, armor, and an internal nuclear reactor to keep her going forever. Lila could only be turned into the kind of weapon that could face off an armored company due to the fact that she was practically killed by Elvish Magic and turning her into this was the only way to keep her alive. The price is that she is left a wreck of a person with a horde of mental and emotional injuries and a body that is still adapting to it's new metal extensions when she is sent off into the field. Which is a problem for me honestly. At this point Lila is a one of a kind agent, no one else in the entire multiverse is like her. So what you do for her first solo mission and as far as I can tell her first mission in the field? Toss her into a massively complex situation (to be fair her commanders couldn't have known how complex) with loads of Elves involved! I mean I figured out by chapter 3, that Lila shouldn't be on this mission and given how much time and resources have been devoted to turn her into an agent and weapon at the cutting edge of technology... An agency, with a limited budget and personal would frankly be more careful. I wouldn't have risked her breaking down on her first mission and wrecking herself over a bloody rock star even if he is an Elf with secrets.

That Elf is Zal, lead vocalist of the No Shows, the hottest new band tearing up North America. Now traditionally Elves do not rock, nor do they run around hobnobbing with humans and demons, getting drunk and more. As you can imagine this has the various purity factions on all sides of all the divides in a snit. Because of this Zal has gotten a vast number of threatening letters and snarling death threats in all manner of media. Including some from the Elvish Covert Service and this is what caught the NSA's interest. Zal himself is a bit of mystery as he seems to have a rather deep relationship with the demons (who are suppose to be forbidden to elves) and able to break a large number of Elvish taboos, which are suppose to be magically enforced. Lila's job is to keep Zal alive and find out just why the Elvish version of the KGB wants him dead. While dealing with all the past trauma that dealing with the same group of people that burnt her limbs off invokes, and finding herself pulled deep into a game with Zal and Elvish royal politics. She may have been thrown into the deep end of sink or swim territory but at least they gave her rocket boots.

Now I found Lila interesting even if I thought she shouldn't be here, Zal I found less so for most of the book. When his motivations were revealed, I found myself rolling my eyes as I don't think his actions match his words. To be fair, that's actually realistic as most of us will say we want one thing or to accomplish one goal while doing everything we can to take ourselves the other way. So I don't count this against the story but do consider it as another reason as to why I find Zal a bit annoying. That said his goals are interesting and the story does explore them a bit. Which is a good thing because it's Zal's goals and the goals of his family that make the main conflict of the story. Here, Lila is the protagonist but her goals are largely on the sidelines (beyond the usual of don't die and win) as she gets pulled into Zal's and other people's problems. What Lila brings to the table is her emotional/mental tangle that she has to work through because Zal's family unknown to her or to him are very much a part of her near death and it's their goals and the means they're willing to use to get to those goals that are causing the conflict here.

The novel is fairly short at about 330 pages with most of the plot happening in the last 200 pages or so. Once the plot gets moving and we start meeting the antagonists the book is rather interesting and a good read, however the first third of the book is rather rough and a good part of it feels disconnected from the last 2/3rds. This is a book that takes some time to actually get going but unfortunately the slow start doesn't give us any additional insight into the characters other than to show us repeatedly that Lila is very damaged. We do get a bit of a look into Elvish society and how games between elves help uphold that society for better or worse and how it drives some of the differences between Elves and Humans and I found that interesting. The Elves have a Caste Society and like most Caste societies, it's held up with a mixture of political ideology, religious belief, power, and the pushing of a crisis that can only be overcome by maintaining purity at all cost. I kind of wish that some of the 100 pages spent on the setup had instead be given over to looking at Elvish culture instead. I'm giving Keeping It Real by Justina Robson a C. It's certainly good once it gets going but the rough start holds it back.

Next week, I veer off into fantasy for a bit with The Shadow of What was Lost. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Log Horizon 7: Gold of the Kunie by Mamare Touno

Log Horizon 7: Gold of the Kunie
by Mamare Touno

A brief note, Vol 6 has not yet been reviewed for various reasons I won't bore you with. I will review that volume but decided to go ahead with vol 7. The good news is that the storyline of book 6 takes place at the same time as book 7 but in a different place. Apologies for any confusion.
Here we are in the world of Elder Tales again! Now just in case you've skipped the last 5 or so reviews... I will briefly explain. Once upon a time in 21st century Earth there was a super popular MMO called Elder Tales that had a massive player base across the entire planet. Upon the release of a new expansion, people found themselves trapped in the game, and the game world became more and more real. NPCs, who called themselves People of the Earth, were now real people with real emotions, hopes, and goals. Monsters now display tactical planning and react to situations like living, thinking beings who don't want to die to provide you experience points and gold. The players found themselves inhabiting the bodies of their game characters and able to use their abilities. However combat became terrifyingly real and while you would come back when you died (unlike the natives) dying still hurt and costs you memories. In the city of Akihba the player base fell into disarray and apathy. Hither came Shiroe: enchanter, master plotter, and strategist who decided to pull the whole city and the players within kicking and screaming into a working society whether they liked it or not. We have seen him so far establish city governments out of whole cloth, revitalize an economy and engineer a peaceful and productive relationship with the local native state. Of course he was utterly unable to do this alone and it was only with Shiroe working with the people around him and often just explaining his objectives and letting them determine the best use of their own talents and gifts to achieve those objectives that he was able to pull off such dizzying achievements. A lot of people would be content to call it a day and put their feet up, maybe have a nice drink after all that. Not our boy in glasses though, in this book, Shiroe goes raiding.

Now some of you may be asking what a raid is. In the context of a MMO game, a raid is an adventure where a group of players will combine forces to achieve a goal. This is typically an attack by a large group of players into a dungeon to clear it, kill the dungeon boss (usually a boss monster with a frightening amount of hit points and enough special abilities to make you sick) and gain the loot. These boss monsters often take several tries to defeat because you need to learn their combat routine and abilities along with their weaknesses before you'll have a real shot at victory. Raid players are usually happy to take these tries however as these types of raids are well known for the special items that can only be gained by defeating the raid adventure. Most groups will have a system worked out to determine who gets what gear and believe me, this can be hotly contested. The raid in this book is no different, as Shiroe is here to get the kind of epic loot that would make anyone jealous.  You see, there is a primitive banking system in the world of Elder Tales, run by a group of people known as the Kunie clan.  Now the Kunie clan will hold your cash and store items for you but they don’t do loans.  Which is strange for a bank.  When Shiroe meets them to talk about a loan, he’s told to take a walk.  His response?  Sure, he’ll take a walk, right to the dungeon where the source of all money is, but he'll have to overcome some personale difficulties first.

In this book we have the reappearance of the Silver Swords, led by William aka Mithral Eyes. Now the Silver Swords were a powerful raid group that Shiroe invited to join the Round Table government in Akihba but they turned him down (the only guild to do so). Afterward they moved to Susukino, took over the town from the misbehaving adventurers there and started raiding, but then they found themselves falling on hard times. According to William this was because while you still come back from death, you are forced to... well kinda confront yourself and see the flaws within you. Realizing that you're not that great a person is never fun and violently dying and then having your face rubbed in all your flaws sounds like the kind of thing that would get real old, real fast. Especially since not only is dying still really painful but you get to pay for this wonderful privilege by losing some of your memories. Which honestly leaves me wondering: under such a system would it be possible to die so often that you come out the other side a completely different person? I mean who we are if often fundamentally shaped by our experiences and our environment. If you take away those experiences aren't you left with a completely different person? Now the memory loses told to us in the story are fairly minor, Shiroe forgets the name of a ramen restaurant in his home town. Krusty in an earlier book mentioned that he couldn't remember the name of his pet cat from his childhood but this sounds like it would add up. Sure Krusty can still remember having a cat but how long before he loses that? Or the name of his mother? Or if he had any siblings? How much would this change him? The story elects not to answer this question and leave it to the reader to consider.

Another return is the mad monk Demikas, who used to be the bandit king of Susukino, until Shiroe wrecked him in public and William moved in and started enforcing decent behavior. The conflict between Demikas and Shiroe is a petty one in scope but is still interesting as it's two people who hate each other having to learn to acknowledge the other person's humanity and work together. Honestly, Demikas is a horrible person who in my mind wasn't punished enough for his crimes of tormenting and even enslaving the People of the Earth in his area before being stopped. Shiroe's willingness to try and be empathic to Demikas is more than I think I could pull here. I honestly liked the fact that the writer did reform Demikas' behavior but left his basic personality as a violent thug intact and instead of trying to dramatically alter it, just showed us how in specific circumstance even violent thugs can do the right thing and maybe even learn to be a little less thuggish.

This book gives us a look at the consequences of Elder Tales becoming a real place and at the same time shows us how resurrection from death might not be that big a favor. It also lets us see the heroes placed in despair and deciding if they can keep going. I like how it's actually William here who stands up and gets everyone to find their backbone here. The series continues to allow other characters to be awesome instead of only letting it's main character do anything cool. This is a good, self contained story that still touches larger issues and brings up more things to consider in the series.  Not to mention a look at the bigger world in the series itself. That said, I kinda feel like the past actions of characters like Demikas are excused to easily.  He doesn’t have to pay a price for his misbehavior nor does he acknowledge that was bad behavior. That doesn’t quite sit right with me.  That said I enjoyed it and I'm giving Log Horizon 7 by Mamare Touno a B. It's a good interesting entry into the series and I'm really interested in seeing how it plays out. I can't say much more than that without venturing into spoilers territory though.

Next week, we're Keeping it Real with the Quantum Series. Keep Reading!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Forests of the Night By S Andrew Swann

Forests of the Night
By S Andrew Swann

Mr. Swann was actually born Mr. Steven Swiniarski; he adopted the moniker S Andrew Swann as a pen name. He spent all of his adult life in the Greater Cleveland Area (which explains to me why his first book is set in a barely working dystopia {It could be worse.  It could be Detroit!}) where he lives with his wife and works a day job as a Database manager. He’s written 25 novels with the first being the work we are reviewing today! Forests of the Night was published in 1993 and is a fine example of Bio Punk. Now a good number of you may rightly be asking ‘just what in the name of all that's Holy is Bio Punk, you manic genius?’. Well Biopunk is an outgrowth of Cyberpunk, for those of you are new (Welcome! Glad to have you!{Hi!}) Cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction that is usually set in the near future and is focused on an examination of new technologies like the internet, virtual reality, and the the increasing digitization of our society(*sniffs*I smell the 1980s and early 1990s. Oh no.  I caught a whiff of the cocaine.). It pairs this with a society that is breaking down and falling into a dystopian nightmare where the super rich and their servants live in luxury with their whims catered to by that technology and everyone lives in their trash. Most Cyberpunks aren't that extreme but the idea is to examine how technology doesn't necessarily make everyone's life easier or improve society. Bio punk takes many of the themes and stories of Cyberpunk but instead of examining information technology likes to examine biological technology. Things like cloning, genetic engineering and so on.

Mr. Swann's book was released close enough to the 80s to be affected by the common ideas of fiction at the time and his efforts at subverting them leads to a book that... Strangely echoes modern anxieties. The Pan Asian War ripped across Asia in the biggest bloodbath in history and our side lost. Japan and India were subjected to nuclear bombardment by the People's Republic of China, who went on to occupy them. The United States remains a great power by the skin of it's collective teeth but whether or not we'll keep that status is open to question. It is not helped by the fact that reactionary political party has risen to power demanding that the federal government be cut back to the mythical ‘drown in a bathtub’ size (this last part seems odd to me, we have lost a war and our allies are in chains and your reaction is to demand tax cuts for corporations and cuts to government services?). However those forces haven't won yet and the US federal government is still able and in many cases willing to enforce its will on the corporations that operate in it's borders. The corporations however wield influence through campaign contributions and lobbying, just like today. Meanwhile, new minorities have arisen due to government's turning to genetic engineering for super soldiers. Franks, genetically created humans and Moreau's, people who were created by blending together the genetic traits of animals and humans. While due to a Constitutional Amendment, Moreau's have all the legal rights and standings of natural born humans, in fact they are heavily discriminated against. Forced to live in ghettos and systematically denied education and employment and subjected to a police force that acts more like a hostile occupying army then a police force (why does this sound familiar? {If this description is accurate, the author is A) not being subtle, and B) is...well not prescient because what is true now was true in 1993 but no one cared}). Not that long ago the situation exploded into a series of riots that were put down with military action and now as the United States stands with largest population of free Moreau's in the world, it also stands on the knife edge of social violence.

Into this comes our nudist detective (hey clothes are a pain when you have fur), who is also an 8ft tiger, with a pair of thumbs, a troubled past and a bad attitude, Nohar Rajasthan. He's got a couple of rules: always finish the job, get paid, stay away from murder cases, and never take a job from a human (or pink as Moreau's refer to us). As far as Nohar is concerned nothing good comes from messing around in human business, but like all private eyes in their first story, he's dead broke and the client a genetically engineered Frank from abroad (or is he?) who offers him more money than he's ever had at once... His better judgment is drowned out by not only a strong desire to be able to pay all his bills at once but his curiosity . Nohar has been hired to investigate the murder of a human, Daryl Johnson the campaign manager of the 12th district Congressmen Joseph Binder, a member of the reactionary party who is now running for Senate. The good Congressmen is pressuring the police to sweep the investigation under the rug and Nohar's employer, a major contributor to the campaign, would like to know why and is willing to pay for the knowledge.

This investigation pulls Nohar into the deep end real fast as he finds himself targeted by both the local and federal police for his investigation but also by the Moreau Rat gang the Zipperheads, or Zipheads as most call them. Nohar finds himself pulled into a political conspiracy and into racial street violence at the same time. As the connections between the company paying for the investigation and the Binder campaign are found to be more numerous, deeper, and stretching out into places that seem nonsensical, Nohar becomes a target for people that want him to just walk away. He has to connect the dots and and figure out just what is going on before the body counts gets too high or he ends up as part of it. That said Nohar isn't completely without allies or weapons of his own. His foster father, Manny the Mongoose works with the police as a morgue assistant (At least he’s not a vulture or hyena…) and the guy they call in to handle Moreau bodies. I gotta be honest I really like the relationship here. Mr. Swann does a good example of showing us a relationship between two people who honestly care about each other but also have a lot of history between the two of them, not all of it good history either. This is complicated by the fact that much of the bad in that history isn't either of their fault but is the result of actions by Nohar's biological father and Nohar's own efforts to understand his biological father. Manny clearly wants to keep Nohar safe and whole, while Nohar is struggling to prove that he can be his own man and finish the path he's chosen for himself. Speaking of Nohar let's talk about him.

Nohar is as befits a private detective in a punk setting, an intelligent and cynical person with a complicated past that has left him an outsider in Moreau society while his genetic heritage has made him an outsider in human society. Nohar isn't just distrustful of human authorities figures, he's often borderline contemptuous of his fellow Moreau's. He doesn't hesitate to point out their self destructive tendencies or how those tendencies are egged on by human authorities to justify their bigotry. Despite his distrust of human government, he is able to have human friends (Wow, we have seen this before.  Do the other Moreaus call him him an Uncle Tomcat?). For example the human hacker Bobby that he works with, who also happens to be a childhood friend. He is also able to connect with Stephanie Weir, an assistant to the murdered Mr. Johnson who is either the witness that will help him figure everything out or the target that gets him killed protecting her. While Nohar may be cynical and has problem making friends, he isn't dismissive of other people's lives and we see this as he rescues Angel, a rabbit Moreau, the last survivor of a gang wiped out by the Zipperheads. I can't talk too much about Angel without unleashing spoilers but suffice to say, what she brings to the table is an interesting piece of the puzzle. Nohar's isolation stems more from him not being to confront his personal problems but preferring to focus on... Anything else. I can't get to down on Nohar for that. It's a very human personality flaw shared by a lot of people.

I enjoyed this book as you might have guessed. Nohar is a flawed but good protagonist who retains a moral compass and a desire to at least try and make the world slightly better. Although like most of us he would like to get paid while doing so. The mystery is an interesting one that is gradually revealed through Nohar doing the classic detective work of talking to people, tracking down witnesses and leads and at times engaging in good, old fashioned violence. The action in this book is well presented, while Nohar is allowed to be the kind of terrifying force that an 8 foot tall tiger man with fangs and claws capable of tearing people apart (human senator:”I just see weapons in our schools”) should be; he’s not an untouchable avatar of war here, his injuries and mistakes mount up and take a toll on him. This gives the action a sense of realism and helps ground it a bit. Which is a good thing when a lot of your book is battles between rat gangsters and tiger private detectives. The villains, mostly personified in an Afghan hound assassin named Hassan who manages to be terrifying despite my mental picture of him being utterly ridiculous, have an interesting motivation that makes sense. It's also one that you will not guess in the first chapter of the book but is well enough foreshadowed that it doesn't feel like it comes out of left field, which is always appreciated. The rats on the other hand don't really feel that menacing until the last part of the book, but I think that's because for 2/3rds of the book we're literally reading about small groups of rats trying to threaten and intimidate a bloody Tiger! I mean... Thing's that just aren't happening (Criminals are often dumb?  Do they breed like rats?  That might explain why they are so blaize about their casualties.{Well, Nohar says that the Latin American governments went with rats specifically because of their fast breeding times so, yes.}).

I do want to talk about the Moreau's before I give my grade on the book though. I have to be honest and say I really don't see humanity using genetic engineering to create sapient races of laborers and soldiers. Robots are cheaper and don't have to be sapient, which means they can't rebel, can't unionize, or start thinking they deserve things like paid vacations, coffee breaks, civil rights... You know all the little things that some employers dream of not having to give to their labor force. Frankly if I found out we were, I would be willing to go really far in stopping it from happening. We shouldn't create another species or 50 just to foist off our wars on. For that matter we shouldn't create a sapient race--biological or mechanical--until we know damn well what we want to accomplish from such a feat, how we're going to provide for such a race, and that we can behave in a manner that won't end up shaming our descendants when they read about it in the history books. When it comes to triumphs of science like this, we should asks ourselves not just if we can do something but if we should do something and if we're ready for the responsibility that it entails. That said Mr. Swann does a good job of showing us some of the consequences of not thinking ahead on things like this and holding up a mirror to our society to consider in some ways. I find myself giving S Andrew Swann's Forests of Night a B+. It definitely left me wanting to see more of that world and you should give it a look as well.

Next time, we hit some lighter fare with yes... Another Log Horizon novel! Keep reading!  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen, whose comments how up in the red.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Star Justice: Eye of the Tiger Michael-Scott Earle

Star Justice: Eye of the Tiger
Michael-Scott Earle

Michael Scott Earle was first introduced to fantasy and science fiction in the late 1980s, claiming the Palladium RPG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other strangeness as his first influence.  He would branch out to a variety of other tabletop games when he reached high school and found other table top gamers.  Afterward he headed to college and while he was originally aiming at a degree in the performance arts, he switched over to finance and got an MBA.  Getting a job in accounting, he worked his way up the corporate ranks until he was director of sales. He liked the job but was away from his family, traveling on average 40 hours a week.  Upon reading Name of the Wind, he decided he could write a novel just as good but in his own words “it would be for adults, with lots of bad ass violence and detailed sex.”  I include the quote because, I admit,  I find it puzzling because if there's one thing the fantasy and science fiction genre aren't lacking, it's violence.  I mean even authors who prefer to write for younger readers include a heap of it in their stories, C.S. Lewis had a bunch of violence in his stories for Pete's sake.  As for sex, well, I'll admit that fantasy had a bit of a prudish phase, which is famously blamed on J.R.R Tolkien but... Seriously have you seen A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones?  Even that series is not as groundbreaking as you might think as you'll find that sex scenes and rather detailed one's are all over the place and have been for awhile.  Sex was firmly brought back into fantasy at least a decade before I was born (not sure it ever left science fiction) but I should move on before I devolve into slapping someone with a copy of “Kushiel's Dart” or something.  Mr. Earle started publishing in February of 2016 and has since published over 22 books (keep this in mind I'm coming back to this) and founded his own publishing company.  His first book The Destroyer, a dark fantasy is free on Amazon, I'm reviewing his science fiction work instead.

Star Justice EoT, set in the far future where humanity has settled at least part of the galaxy, is the escape attempt of Adam a former Jupitian Marine (Can’t even get Jovian right), Yakuza enforcer, and genetic experiment; and Eve the telepathic, telekinetic, immortal vampire who spent 3 generations in a tube waiting for Adam to come along and break her out (a telepath who is telekinetic cannot escape the damn tube?  Really?).  Together they must escape the corporation dominated planet they are stuck on by stealing the super top secret prototype starship that Eve knows about because she can read minds.  This is somewhat complicated by the fact that the corporation knows who they are, is offering a massive bounty for their heads, and is pretty sure they have to go through corporate holdings to escape.  All Adam and Eve have going for them are their superpowers, willingness to mow down any mook who gets in their way and the help of super hacker Z, who they picked up on the way.  Let me take a bit to discuss each the characters individually.

Adam (who has no last name given because... Reasons) was a super badass Marine in the Jupiter Marine Corps until he deserted to join the Yakuza, but wait!  He only joined the Yaks because the heartless commanding officers of the JMC wouldn't let him resign to care for his little sister who was stricken with cancer! I gotta note that I am dissatisfied with this, because it looks like Mr. Earle couldn’t  commit to what kind of character Adam was.  So we get “Yes, he joined a group known for selling drugs and people but only because of a sick little sister!”  Adam is captured and jailed for crimes he totally did commit and thrown into a privately owned prison, who sells him off to a mysterious secret outfit who subjects him to brutal, sadistic (because there no other kind in this book) genetic experiments turning him into an even more super bad ass weretiger with the regenerative powers of Wolverine and super senses that are honestly kinda par for the course for these situations.  Outside of his origin and his powers... There's really not much more to Adam.  He's super stoic and justifiably angry but at the same time I'm really left questioning his origin.  Even in the bad old days of the late 1800s and 1900s there were options for troops with sick family members who needed medical bills paid (never mind that in an increasingly long list of modern nations that wouldn't even come up), today there are more options and you can even make your parents military dependents if they meet the qualifications, which gives them access to government subsidized medical care.  Since Adam volunteered for military service, that means that there's a certain level of care and treatment that has to go into enlisted personnel to keep the military life attractive enough to keep troops in.  Because frankly if you treat them like shit, they can just leave after their contract is up and often find money elsewhere.  Especially if corporations are looking for triggermen to police entire planets and overthrow governments!    Moving on, Adam is kinda two dimensional in other ways, he has no hobbies or other interests besides murder, bragging that even in the Marines instead of enjoying his liberty time, he was constantly practicing his killing skills.  I've complained about this before especially in my review of Master Sergeant by Mel Odom.  We don't act this way guys.  We're people, not meat killing machines.  The blunt fact is that if we don't blow off steam in our down time and have outside interests, the vast overwhelming majority of us go insane.  Plus there's only so much training you can do in a stretch before you actually just start hurting yourself, diminishing returns is a thing. For the Love of God, please, please give your uber badass of doom some outside interests and hobbies!  Music!  Art! Dance!  Stamps! I don't care! (Get back to the book Frigid.  I am the only one allowed to indulge in off-topic ramblings.)

Right moving on, Adam also suffers from not displaying a lot of character traits beyond being a badass and being stoic.  We're told he's honorable (because honorable people always join organized crime!) repeatedly but we never see him in a position where breaking his word would be all that beneficial (Technically he violated his oath to the Jovian military/government when he deserted… so not that honorable.  Oh wait, sick little sister the Jovian military wouldn’t let him care for… eh, they broke their obligations first.  Carry on.).  I mean sure he could double cross the telepathic blood drinking immortal who freed him but why trust the corporation he would have to turn her into not to enslave him?  Not to mention he doesn't speak the local language anyways.  He dislikes feeling feelings but he struggles with feeling possessive and jealous of anyone Eve pays attention to.  Now to Adam's credit, he realizes these feelings aren't good ones or justified and tries his best to keep a handle on them.  Also I do have to give points for Adam and Eve actually talking out this problem like adults!  There's no fake drama from silly relationship stuff here; of course the book only takes place over a couple of days or so, so there's not a lot of time for a relationship to organically develop.  Adam also tends to speak in a pseudo military speech that grates on me a bit because it doesn't feel real just forced.  For example Adam never says yes, or yeah, or you bet.  He always, always says confirmed even when it just makes things awkward and leaves me wondering if the extra mass for his weretiger form comes from a giant stick rammed up his rear but now I'm just being picky.

Eve isn't much better, she states that she was in the tube long enough that the grandson of the man who caught her had grown up to adulthood and taken over studying her.  During that whole time she read everyone's mind and when they brought by people who were important harvested a legion of secrets from them.  Yet somehow she was not able to use the fact that she can read minds and communicate telepathically to escape a tube!  I mean the security system is impressive and full of guns and robots of death but... Look loyal readers, I'm pretty sure if I stuck any of y'all into such a situation and gave you 3 whole lifetimes to figure out an escape plan, you could do better then “I will wait for a passing stoic, tormented weretiger to sweep me off my feet and do my bidding.”.  Eve's escape was sheer luck; she had no way of knowing that Adam would be sent by the mysterious organization that ruthlessly altered him and that she could destroy the means they were using to keep him prisoner (I mean what if instead of a collar they had injected him with something?).  That said, she swiftly becomes the driving force of the plot as it's her decision to escape with Adam when he shows up, she directs him every step of the way and it's her plan they use to make their escape from the planet.  Despite this Eve keeps insisting that Adam is in charge, which is honestly strange to me but maybe she just wants to be sure Adam will keep throwing himself between her and all the bullets (I mean, if I were a strangely inept vampire psionicist, who suddenly finds a stoic tormented weretiger who is unaccountably obsessed with me, I might well use that obsession to make my escape...oh wait.  If I were that calculating I wouldn’t be inept and would have escaped decades ago.  Maybe she just doesn’t know what she wants out of the relationship?).  Beyond her powers, beauty and immortality we really don't know much else about her.  Which is less of a problem since this story is suppose to be about Adam... Although there are points where I'm wondering why isn't it about Eve?  

The last character present in this story is Z.  Z is a pretty, blonde, super hacker (because ugly girls aren't allowed in this story!), who is hired by Adam to hack the corporation's personal files so they can find someone to kidnap.  When she’s inevitable double crossed by the non-Adam people she foolishly trusted she is forced to throw in with Adam and Eve and pray to her heathen gods that they can actually get her off the planet.  Z is the one person in the story with a bit of a personality even if it is expressed mostly in her howling in terror when she realizes she's stuck with a weretiger and a vampire and being hunted by an army or complaining at a number of super dangerous or just degrading things she has to do to make this plan work.  Normally she would be annoying but at this point I was glad to have someone who reacted like a human being.  Plus she was plotting to use the money Adam was paying her to buy a pet cat so she can't be completely terrible.  Another bit of realism in this story that I actually liked is that Z used a lot of social hacking as opposed to muttering about double encrypted firewalls.  There's one scene where she literally calls up a member of the enemy tech support scene and sweet talks him into giving her a password into the system.  Which is kind of how this stuff works and why you should always force your callers to follow security procedures.  

The action in this book is rather predictable and honestly gets a bit samey as you reach the end of the book.  Adam mows down wave after wave of faceless enemy soldiers who honestly aren't very good at their jobs nor seemingly possessed of a strong desire to live.  For that matter despite this being in the far flung future, technology doesn't seem to have changed much outside of a very specific areas like FTL spaceships and the ability to turn people into magic were-tigers.  Beyond that people are still using rifles, shotguns and grenades against men with body armor. There are more advanced weapons but they're not very present in the plot.  Although remote pilot drones do show up for a couple of action scenes to provide an enemy that actually gives Adam trouble.   The book moves quickly and cleanly but without any time to pause and take a breath we're not left a lot to give us any attachment to the characters; nor did I feel any suspense or investment in the stakes.  That said there are realistic moments in the book and parts that are handled well enough that I feel like Mr. Earle was honestly trying to tell a good story but was either to rushed to give it the time it needed to be told (which is very possible since he's pumped out something like 2 books a month) or wrote it many years ago (sitting on a pile of rejected books is fairly normal for a lot of writers and when you get big enough, people will often pay you for those books, so choose your own adventure here).  That said, there's not enough work done to develop the characters and the conflict is rather devoid of tension so I feel like I read someone's first draft instead of a finished book.  This is reinforced by the ending in which the book just kinda stops.  So I find myself giving Star Justice Eye of the Tiger by Michael-Scott Earle D+.  I didn't expect to give this book an A grade by any means but I do wish I could grade it higher.  That said I am hopeful that Mr. Earle will improve with time.  

Next week, we're going to review another book with a Tiger main character, join us for Forests of Night!  Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Man Without a Face by Marcus Wolf

The Man Without a Face
by Marcus Wolf

The propaganda battles of the Cold War were conducted in a moral vocabulary that hid the real technological and military substance of the conflict.” Man Without a Face page 266

The Cold War was a period from 1947 to 1991 when the United States with it's clients and allies faced off against the Soviet Union and its clients and allies in a series of conflicts meant to determine not only which nation would become the single most powerful nation in the world but which ideology the emerging global system be founded on. My first hand experiences are from childhood, I wasn't even 12 years old when the USSR fell. My earliest most enduring memory is being about 6 or 7 years old, walking into the living room and seeing my Father watch a news report of a Summit, where Gorbachev made a joke about the US being the great naval power not the USSR. It was at that point that due to my unceasing prodding my poor Father had to explain the Cold War and the concept of nuclear exchange. At first I saw it as an episode of my GI Joe cartoons writ large; dastardly Soviets lurking to ambush valiant Americans who stood tall and ready behind their defenses. My Father was quick to explain that the Soviets had no desire for a war either. That paradox bothered me; how can you be in danger of a war if no one wants to fight, I asked. With no good answers, I didn't sleep well that night. My second memory is of the wall falling down and my Father letting me stay up late to watch it on the news. I was older at the time, but not yet out of grade school but I was excited. As far I was concerned this was the fall of an evil empire and a victory for freedom. Markus Wolf, a man who had devoted his whole life to the communist party and to socialism saw it differently.

The book is an autobiography and as such covers Mr. Wolf's early life as well. Ethnically a Jew, Mr. Wolf was born in Hechingen, Germany in 1923. His parents were Friederich and Else Wolf, both were open and vocal members of the local communist party. So when Hitler swept into power in 1933, the writing was on the wall. The family soon fled to the Soviet Union where Mr. Wolf would grow to adulthood. His father was a doctor and was often away on business,  or conducting affairs that resulted in a small brood of half brothers and sisters. It's here that I notice something that becomes a theme in Mr. Wolf's work. While he admits to his father's behavior, he seeks within the book to soften it, painting his father as a great romantic adventurer who simply could not help himself. It's a behavior that is repeated not just for his father but for the communist party, for the Soviet Union, and the German Democratic Republic. He will admit to the faults and ill behaviors but at the same time try to paint it all in the best light possible attempting to convince the writers that yes, these things happened and they were bad but they were done with the best of intentions. There are two major exceptions to this pattern of defense and they're Stalin and himself. Mr. Wolf grew to adulthood in the Soviet Union in the very midst of the Stalinist purges and admits to the fact that being a teenager he didn't grasp the full implications of what was going on around him. He does show that it had a terrible effect on his parents, with both of them jumping in terror anytime a knock on the door came in the evening hours and his father finding excuses not to be in Russia to avoid being swept up. Soon however came a peril that he could understand and could not ignore: the Nazi Army invading Russia.

Mr. Wolf would spend the war serving in the radio arm of the Soviet Union, while his brother Konrad (who would later become a celebrated movie director in the USSR and Warsaw Pact) fought in the infantry. Mr. Wolf was clearly very proud of his brother and treasured his own efforts in World War II and had hopes of being allowed to become an aeronautical engineer. Instead he was ordered to become a spy for the Communist Party and did so without question. It's here that I encounter one of my major disconnects with Mr. Wolf. I understand obeying orders, I was in the Marines after all, but I cannot for the life of me grasp allowing a bureaucracy to so completely order my life. (Editors note: I kinda get it.  He was raised as a communist from the cradle.) For Markus Wolf it was as simple as the fact that's what the Party wanted so that was what he was gonna do. While he does briefly discuss some regret that he never got to design airplanes like he wanted, he also seems to think he did the right thing in submitting to the dictates of far away men in far away places.

After the war, he and other German exiles were installed as the new elite class of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, which would become the German Democratic Republic. The GDR (Editors note: in German it would be die Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR.  Make all the dance party jokes you want, but I speak german and will insist on the proper name at least once.  I’ll just be over here singing some of the East German children’s songs I learned in university like Der Volkspolizist.{I would like to remind everyone I am not responsible for my editor}) was the front line state between the NATO powers and the Warsaw Pact and as such Markus Wolf was expected to build a functioning spy system within the Federal Republic of Germany (Editors note: That would be the FRG as abbreviated in English, in German it would be the Bundesrepublik Deutschland or BRD) while preventing NATO from doing the same in his own nation. He has to do this while many of the Germans he finds himself set over resent him and the Red Army.  Despite not having desired to be a spy, he threw himself into the work, focusing on Western Germany with a laser like intensity. Such a focus did give him a number of advantages, despite their divisions Germans remained well... German. It is much easier to slip an agent into a nation that speaks the same language as he does and in the 1950s at least the culture of the two nations had not diverged much. One method was to use the names of Germans who had died but whose deaths weren't reported to Federal authorities to slip in East Germans as long term moles, a work that had mixed results honestly. Mr. Wolf admits that his greatest successes came from two groups: western defectors who agreed to feed him information out of ideological idealism (Editors note:After the war there were plenty of communists in the BRD.  The German Social Democratic Party managed to politically outmaneuver them with the assistance of the western allies.  As a result it was pretty easy to recruit disillusioned West German communists.  Social Democrats are also, well, another socialist offshoot, and thus pretty easy for Communists to penetrate or convert.  I say that being one myself.  We obviously did the same thing with non-communists in the East.) and people who were for lack of a better term seduced into the cause. The first group were often men who believed that in sharing information they were either ensuring peace or serving the cause of a united Germany. I have to admit from my own point of view that seems naive, feeding information to governments that are militarily opposed to yours is as likely to get your fellow citizens killed as protect them. Of course the people you're giving information to won't say that, they say whatever is needed to keep you giving them information! At the same time, I have to admit that I have repeatedly stated my belief that it was both sides possessing nuclear weapons that prevented world war III from happening. Without that, I still do firmly believe as soon as one side or the other believed they could win, they would have attacked and then we would have burnt down the European continent for a 3rd time in a single century and I don't believe the Europeans (on either side) or us Americans would have benefited.

As for the second group, there appears to have been a number of false starts. Mr. Wolf details how at the urging of his Soviet superiors he began to use sex and romance as a weapon against the west. First in clumsy attempts in setting up honeypot brothels to blackmail visiting westerners (he very firmly states that this was direct idea from a KGB agent, to me it's almost funny how prissy he is on this) which were very hit or miss. Then progressing to to his much more successful tactic, the one that made him famous. The Romeo Spies. Mr. Wolf realized during his efforts to infiltrate the west that there was a demographic that he could tap. At the time (1960s) secretary work was done entirely by women, the hours were long, the perks were crap and the pay was meh. With a lack of free time these women also found themselves suffering from lackluster social lives and as a result lacking in romance. Mr. Wolf recruited men who deeply believed in the communist party and the gospel of the coming socialist utopia, trained them in field work and set them forth to find, meet, and seduce these women into the service of the GDR. While he didn't invent the tactic, he did get some good use out of it and was able to reap a bounty of secrets. What's interesting to me is his repeated insistence that the romantic feelings kindled between spies and secretaries was in fact genuine and he points to more than a few of them becoming long lasting marriages. It's interesting to note that while he was wildly successful in many of his operations in West Germany, he was less so in operations to penetrate the United States. In fact when attempting the same Romeo tactics on American girls in the 1980s (again under Soviet pressure) the operations failed due to cultural differences between the States and Germany at the time. This seems to tie back to a fact that I run into repeatedly, for all the long decades that we contested each other across continents and ocean... The Communist world never really understood American society or it's culture. Mr Wolf was not without his own losses which he covers very candidly and bluntly, fully admitting fault in areas where he could have done better. Additionally while he does discuss different agents, he only names agents who are already known. Other sources and agents who were never discovered by the west he stubbornly refuses to name. I have to admit I respect that.

Which brings us to the elephant in the review. As the 2nd highest officer in the Stasi, Mr. Wolf was a member of an elite group of people leading a state that was often harshly repressive of it's own citizens. Mr. Wolf is consistent in this book in trying to avoid any personal responsibility for the excesses of the GDR specifically and the Warsaw Pact in general and makes it clear that he still believes in the cause of his youth. Which is where he loses me. I find it next to impossible to believe that a man that high up the chain was as unaware of the abuses going on as he portrays himself to be. There's also the manner of his complaints about GDR agents being tried by Western courts, but I would have to ask if anyone seriously believes for a moment if the shoe had been on the other foot if any mercy would have been shown? Mr. Wolf also portrays himself as increasingly aware of the problems within his government and society but refusing to do anything about it besides sit at his desk and secretly hope for a reformer to come forth from the aether to solve socialism's problems. This honestly makes the book something of an object lesson as well, because Mr. Wolf and others allowed themselves to be cowed by their leaders and not push for reforms... Their nations and governments rotted out from under them. It may be an unpopular position in Russia and other nations from what I'm told but in the end the US and NATO won, not because of our technological superiority, not because of superiority of arms or spies, or media lies, or because of any inherent greater virtue in the western peoples but because we had the better economic and political system. Our system was not only more efficient and gave more freedom to it's inhabitants but was better at reforming itself and adapting to changing times. That's something we need to remember however, that it was our ability to reform our governments and societies that gave us a critical advantage. If we seek to hold those same governments and societies in unchanging and unadapting forms then we commit the same mistakes that Moscow committed.

My frustrations with Mr. Wolf aside this is very informative book if on a very narrow subject matter. If you have no interest in the spy game or in Cold War politics, you'll find it boring. Mr. Wolf is adapt in weaving his personal life among his stories of running spies, and plotting the shadowy battles for influence and information that shaped the Cold War. It can also serve as a very telling lesson on what chasing utopia can lead to. Mr. Wolf and his generation began with the the best of intentions and at every step because they knew they were creating a utopia, they refused to consider any protest or opposing viewpoint. Their refusal led to them instead of creating a utopia creating a prison of a nation and a society that collapsed because it's own people decided they didn't want anything to do with it anymore. Still I would only recommend this book to people who have general idea of what happened in the Cold War and why, otherwise they'll quickly find themselves lost in the events of the book and unable to grasp the context. As Mr. Wolf tends to assume that his readers have at least the basics of German politics and Cold War history down. I give Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf a B+.

Next time, can a book about Full Grown Mutant Army Tigers promising sex and violence be any good? Join me as I find out next week as we review STAR JUSTICE! Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.