Friday, April 28, 2017

The Course of Blades By Davuan Sanders

The Course of Blades
By Davuan Sanders

It's been a long time since I've covered any of Mr. Sanders' work in this review series. I'm glad I was able to get back to it. Let me course provide my disclaimer here, I know Mr. Sanders, we've worked together and we still work for the same company. I've known him since 2014 and I found about these books by talking to him at work. With that out of the way…

Mr. Sanders has lived in Phoenix since 2002, where he moved after earning a degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He started writing novels after the 2008 great recession forced him to step away from architecture. He has since then written 3 novels, a variety of short stories and scripts and found time to start a family. He is currently the proud father of twins, who hopefully will not drive him mad in the near future with games of “why” in stereo. All of this done while avoiding the relentless Phoenix summer and also working at a day job. Before I go any further, while I will not spoil the events of the 3rd books, there will be spoilers for the 1st and 2nd novel. You have been warned.

The Course of Blades is the third novel of the Seedbearer Prince series. In the last two books, we met Dayn, a young man growing up on the world of Shard. Shard is a farm world that provides food to many other worlds in the Belt. Dayn doesn't dream of being a farmer however, he dreams of being a courser. Coursers are people who travel the belt using grappling line, near magical life support technology and a special suit. To be blunt about it, these guys spider-man their way from world to world, to bring news and carry small but time sensitive goods and messages. Frankly this might be the most metal occupation I've ever seen in science fiction or fantasy. Dayn has been training for this in secret and in his secret training that comes into contact with the Voidwalkers, the soldiers of Thar'Kur, a world far away from the belt shrouded in mystery and terror. In his battle to prevent the Voidwalkers from destroying his world, he came into contact and became the bearer of an ancient artifact known as a Seed. A Seed has the power to create life, bringing forth plants from barren soil, creating water where there was none... It also the power to destroy life utterly. It all depends on the user of the artifact, who is known as the Seedbearer. This thrusts Dayn into great events and entangles him with the Ring, a great fortress satellite that carries the inter world orders of the Defenders, military fighters who seek to maintain peace in the Belt and fight the Voidwalkers, the Preceptors, who serve as the scholars and scientists of the Ring and the Consorts who serve as diplomats, trying to keep the people of the Belt from killing each other resources. It also forces him to learn the awful truth of the Belt, that it's actually the remains of a single world, cracked apart in an attack by Thar'Kur and only capable of maintaining life through the use of powerful technology that over half the population doesn't even remember exists. Even bountiful Shard, his home is nothing more than a crumbling fragment of what once was.

This isn't even the worse of it, Dayn is taken prisoner in the 2nd book and tortured and tormented by the Voidwalkers, especially by their mental ability known as the Thrall. While he is able to free himself and through alliances and his connection to the Seed inflict a powerful military defeat on the Voidwalkers, protecting one of the last ships able to take a large group of people to a new world beyond the shattered remains of his own. Dayn is still suffering the mental and emotional fall out of his captivity and abuse. Worse, his trauma is infecting the Seed itself and making more and more prone to destruction and poisoning as opposed to being a source of Life and Protection. To pile error upon ill fortune, the powers that be within the Ring are incredibly disinclined to give Dayn the space and independence needed to heal and find his center again. This is one of the biggest mistakes the characters in the novel are making, speaking from experience, finding the space and time to heal after an ordeal is incredibly important and if you don't get that... Well then you don't heal and in fact get worse. The novel doesn't shy from this or from showing us the consequences of those mistakes, in fact I would say consequences are kind of the theme of the novel here.

The forces seeking to use Dayn are shown to us mostly in the character of the Lord Ascendant, the ruler of the Ring from the Veiled Throne.. The Lord Ascendant is an driven, intelligent woman, determined to use Dayn and the Seed as an instrument to unite the Belt under her direction and is incredibly unwilling to give Dayn any input into that bluntly. This becomes a problem as Dayn is drawn into the murky politics of The Ring and finds him disapproving of a lot of their decisions. To the point of having an incredibly dramatic confrontation with the lady in her own throne, which if nothing else shows us how brave she is and how committed Dayn is to holding to his own sense of Justice. It was interesting in that I could see both sides point but in the same time, the Ring is not very trusted by the people it protects and the reasons for the confrontation really help display why the Ring is not trusted.

I have to admit these are two strong points to the book, Mr. Sanders does not shy away from examining the consequences of the various character's decisions, alliances are frayed here, friendships ruptured and loyalties strained. On the flip side, we also begin to see a lot of the why's of the setting, why is it so hard to unite the worlds of the Belt, why is the Ring distrusted, we get a good chunk of the answer right here in this book and I enjoy that a great deal. I am going to toss out that trying to be a trusted authority when you sit behind a Veiled Throne is going to be a problem, as most folks are going to see nothing good in a ruler who hides his or her face. While there are reasons for veiling the throne (one idea given was to try and prevent people from having too much personal loyalty to the person sitting on the throne), they honestly kind of ring hollow to me, but that may be my dislike of the Lord Ascendant talking honestly. As she simply will not stop trying to pressure or control Dayn in one fashion or another. Dayn in turn cannot help but resist this as he has his own ideas about what is right and how to help the Belt and I can't blame him for holding to that.

All of this, is incredibly unhelpful to Dayn's mental state, even as he struggles to pull himself together and help the people of the Belt in his own way. The question of Dayn's mental health. Which even he can't answer with any authority at this point is the main question of the book, one that his friends, allies and enemies will be attempting to answer. Because while Dayn has inflicted a major injury on their efforts to subvert and damage the belt, they're still in the fight and they have plans to hit back just as hard if not harder. If Dayn is to broken to defend himself or worse, so mixed up that he ends up being an asset to the Voidwalkers, then the entire Belt may be doomed. On the flip side, even if Dayn can keep it together and fight back against the Voidwalkers, he may end up doing more damage to himself and corrupting his connection to the Seed beyond redemption.

It's not just the struggle against Thar’Kur that drives the plot however, as Dayn gets a shot at living his dream in the midst of all this. Dayn not only gets to course in the torrent (the fragmented parts of the Belt between livable fragments) but he gets to do in the Course of Blades, the competitive coursing event that takes place as part of the Belt's version of the Olympics. People from all the Belt come to compete in a variety of events and sports and to watch others do the same. There Dayn meets a colorful assortment of characters from across the Belt and gets to see the problems of the Belt in miniature. No one really trusts each other, everyone has stuff that other people need but for various reasons trades are difficult to do at best. The met and greet between the various Coursers, men and women who throw themselves into space to travel to other fragments of a shattered world, is really interesting. Between the Course of Blades itself, where Dayn races across a small asteroid field against over a dozen professionals and the battles against the Void Walkers we get a lot of action here mixed in a fair amount of political intrigue and even moral considerations that despite the character's insistence, do actually have a fair amount of gray in there. Problems such as it is a wise thing to delve to deeply into the technology and tactics of a morally unsound people? How far can you go using those same weapons and tactics without becoming the thing you're fighting? Mr. Sanders approaches these questions without getting lost his own navel and avoids giving us any hard or fast answers.

The worlds of the Seedbearing Prince are incredibly fantastical and exotic but Mr. Sanders populates those worlds with characters that are very real and solid. Dayn is person under a lot stress who isn't allowed to heal and we see real consequences and reactions from that. The Defender Nassir and the Preceptor Lucas are constantly finding themselves trapped between their individual sense of right and wrong and their responsibilities to both the Belt at large and the Ring as an organization. This book is darker and full of more uncertainty than the past two books but it's a logical change of tone in the story as events start to catch up to the characters and their actions come back to haunt them. I will note that you need to read the past two books for any of this story to make sense to you and that does impact my grade a bit. That said, the book itself does tell a complete story and bring us to a satisfying conclusion, which can be hard to do a continuing series. I love this setting, I like Dayn as a main character and I enjoy most of the supporting characters (even the ones I dislike) and I look forward to seeing book 4 hit the presses. Because of this I am giving The Course of Blades by Davaun Sanders a B+. Read the first two books but have no fear that this book will let you down, it's a worthy continuation of a good series.   

Friday, April 21, 2017

Colony by Max Florschutz

By Max Florschutz

This review actually has a bit of story. A reader of this series who goes by StellarSeeker recommended it to me and I put it on what is frankly a long and staggering list. To be honest at that point I had forgotten about it and it likely wouldn't have popped up on the rotation anytime soon, but Mr. Florschutz then contacted me and offered me a review copy. Which leads to the disclaimer, Mr. Florschutz did generously provide me a free review copy of this book, for which I thank him. All I can say is I hope you don't take the criticism to hard, fellow viking.

Let me speak a bit about our brave author here, Mr. Florschutz was born in 1986 in the wilds of Alaska and would spend his childhood there. He would attend Brigham Young University Provo and BYU Hawaii taking a break for a two year mission for the Mormon church. He would graduate in 2011, afterward he spent a brief amount of time in the world of video games before returning to his first joy of writing. His first story was One Drink, a modern fantasy story about a private detective who deals in odd events. Colony is his latest work and what we'll be going over today.

Colony takes place in a somewhat grim future. The world is divided between the UN and a collection of Mega-corporations. The UN is corrupt, full of bureaucrats who answer to no one, and uncaring about the plight of the average citizen as it pursues its goals of federalizing the entire world and off planet colonies under a single authority. The MegaCorps aren't any better, being ruthless organizations who chase profit at all cost and constantly work to undermine and outright buy out the few remaining independent nations so as to better exploit their populations and resources without pesky things like laws or civil liberties getting in the way. The history isn't outlined in this book, because well.. the characters have better things to do then sit through history lessons, but we're given enough information to hash out that most of the powerful nation-states like the US, the PRC, etc have either fallen, been co-opted or otherwise rendered irrelevant (Which you kinda need to do to make a setting like this work). The only real hope of living a free life without either a corps or the UN over you is catching a trip off world to the colonies. However, tickets off world are expensive and while you can take your chances by basically taking a free trip, you'll have no control where you'll end up or how you'll be treated at the end of your ride.  There are colony planets worse than Earth out there, which makes this sort of trip a hell of a gamble.

While this is a very Cyberpunk setting Mr. Florschutz has decided to step away a bit from the orthodox setting and experiment a bit, by adding a competing authority in the UN and off world colonies. The majority of the book is set on Pisces, an alien world that was colonized decades ago despite having no land masses, no life, and being completely underwater. Additionally because of the complete lack of anything to break up the weather patterns, massive storms and waves routinely sweep the surface of the planet, so you can forget about living on an artificially created island paradise sipping drinks made with cane sugar and eating vat grown sealife (no native life to fish, sorry). Nope, you get to live in a dome! On the ocean floor! Where you wear power armor style dive suits if you want to go outside! Or drive in badass sci-fi submarines! Wait... That doesn't sound all that bad really... except strangely enough the UN has a massive presence on the world, with a massive submarine fleet and a city-fortress base squatting on the north pole, that is also the only real landing pad on the planet. Having a science fiction setting on another planet and having most of the book take place completely under water isn't done very often and Mr. Florschutz places a decent amount of time and effort into the technology and weapons of this brave new undersea world without diving (har har) into technoporn or technobabble.

I'll admit that while I enjoy a lot of Cyberpunk stories, I often find myself thinking that the conceits that underlie the setting may be getting a bit stale. Like a lot of genre's Cyberpunk often finds itself locked into certain themes, characters, and settings. This is a dangerous thing that can limit a genre and possibly kill it. In a lot of ways this may be because of how influential the people who started the genre back in the 1980s were. A lot of writers who turn to Cyberpunk in my experience work very hard to create the next Neuromancer, which was a great book, and if you ask me a classic, but much like how fantasy needed to step out of Tolkien's shadow (and did so decades ago, even if the general public is only now noticing), Cyberpunk needs to step out of the shadow of Dicken's “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” and Gibson's “Sprawl” Trilogy. Thankfully, there are also a lot of writers doing just that. Mr. Florshutlz does use a lot of the themes and ideas of the Cyberpunk genre but plays around a lot with the setting and that helps. Now let me address our characters and our plot.

The plot goes like this, the MegaCorp SoulComp is one of the most powerful software creators in the known galaxy. Everyone uses their products, including the UN, which uses one of their programs named LockOut to track every piece of gear and every person sent off world and ensure it's arrival across interstellar distances. In the next best thing to real time. It's a piece of software that requires constant updating and maintenance to keep running. As you can imagine, this means a constant stream of tasty tasty contracts loaded with UN money for SoulComp. So when a large chunk of junk code is found that no one understands and no one knows where it came from, the CEO of SoulComp knows he needs to find the guy who was in charge of creating LockOut in the first place, Carlos Rodriguez. There's a problem with that: five years prior Carlos Rodriguez took a ticket on a colony ship for Pisces and fell right off the map. So in the name of profit and sustainable revenue streams he'll gather three special people with the right skills and look out to make a great team of shadowru... I mean edgeru... Troublesho... Wait, *ahem* Independent Consultants, yes that’s it. Their job? Find Carlos Rodriguez and get him or the information needed to solve the puzzle back to SoulComp and keep it quiet. Let's meet them.

Jake Tames is a freelance corporate investigator, if you suspect a manger of fraud or worse embezzlement, you hire him to figure it out. Jake specializes in investigative work and gathering evidence. He’s worked on every continent and sometimes even used his real name. He prefers to work alone however, and rarely trusts his employer, which is a good thing in his line of work. Jake has a lot of character moments in this story which focus a lot on his backstory and dealing with a deep phobia of water... while working on an ocean world where everything is under water. That said, I kinda feel he doesn't get as many awesome moments in this story compared to our next characters but he gets enough that you never ask yourself why he's here.

Anna Nares on the flip side is a professional mercenary from South America, often specializing in bodyguard work. She enlisted in a mercenary company and became an augment: someone's whose strength and speed has been enhanced, allowing them to use the neural skinsuits to the gear's full capability as well has plugging into power armor. While Anna started out as a mercenary, she quit the company after paying back the cost of her augmentation and went freelance, also preferring to work alone. Anna is death running in this story as she tears through all manner of opponents with all manner of weapons. Mr. Florshutz does a good job showcasing how augmentation with training can put someone into a whole new class as Anna is practically a superhero here.

Ray Candy, aka Sweets, is a whitehat hacker. He goes boldly forth into the internet to find security holes in the systems of governments and corporations and shows them where those holes are in exchange for a modest fee. Of course if they won't pay, he'll post that information publically and force them to plug the hole in their security, but for some reason Sweets refuses to consider that blackmail. I mean it's one thing if someone hires you to do this but Sweets and others like him often take it upon themselves to break into systems uninvited, often just to see if they can. Since most of the time they're doing it to power hungry governments and somewhat sinister Megacorps, I'm not really weeping into my coke zero for these people but still, call a spade a spade here. Sweets is the nicest guy on the team and strangely naive for someone who knows that getting caught breaking into the wrong system could get him killed.

Which kinda leads me into my main complaint, our main characters inhabit a decidedly gray moral universe in this setting, every major political and economic power is corrupt and authoritarian. Normal people often find their rights and liberties ignored as being inconvenient and for that matter our main characters make their living in rather shady if not outright illegal ways. Despite this, they often come across as maybe a little too clean. This could be me and my own bias coming into play honestly, as mostly I focus on Anna on this. There are scenes where Anna gets upset at the conduct of other soldiers such as firing into crowds and what not, but to be blunt, Anna... you're a damn mercenary. I was in Iraq and I know perfectly well what modern mercenaries are like. I'm not saying that the US military that I was a part of was a band of perfectly blameless angels but I found private “contractors” to be way looser in their behavior and less caring of the consequences. So Anna's sneering often fell flat, as I find it hard to believe that her mercenary company never performed any equivalent actions. For that matter Jake conducts investigations that often run right up to the edge of the law if not over and doesn't trust his employers over much but still acts surprised when he witnesses their callous if not outright brutal behavior. On the one hand it's nice that they're not burnt out jaded cynics with nothing left for their fellow men, on the other... it seemed a little overdone for me. I also felt that splitting the team so often really hurt the dynamic before it really had a chance to form. I would hope that in any future outings that Sweets would get the chance to spend more time with Anna and Jake.

That said I enjoyed the book, it was good departure from a lot of the stock setting and tropes of Cyberpunk and explored the idea of high tech underwater technology and living which I haven't read a lot of. Mr. Florschutz is also very good at seeding the novel with clues and moderate touches of foreshadowing so that when surprises arise, they feel organic and not out of nowhere. Some of those surprises are foreshadowed a little to heavily, as I found myself figuring out a number of them well before the characters did. There's more I could discuss but I really can't do so without spoilers, so let me just say I liked the reveals quite a bit and I'm very sure I would enjoy any sequels that come out. So all together Colony by Max Florschutz gets a solid B. It's a good book by an author who shows promise I think.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Warp World Vol III: Ghost World By Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson

Warp World Vol III: Ghost World
By Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson

Independent, that's what I call her,” Shan said. And then, smiling, “Named her after you”
Shan, page 622

Let me start with my traditional disclaimer. Josh is a friend of mine, we met online shortly after I got back from Iraq and we've been friends for years. It has been a long time since I wrote about this series, waaaay back in 2015. So let me go over the basics. Ms. Perron is a Canadian writer who currently lives in Nelson, British Columbia with her husband. Before this she was professional stunt performer for television and film, she wrote a number of short stories and in 2010 won the Surrey International Writers Conference Storyteller Award. Joshua Simpson is a Texas native who has worked in everything from trucking to safety to pain relief therapy and has been all over the United States. Warp World is a series about Seg Eranranat, combat anthropologist, and warlord; as well as Captain Ama Kalder, ship captain, adventurer, and manic.  It details their struggle to hack out a life together across cultural divides, a slowly dying world full of bloodthirsty lunatics, and a pair of writers who delight in their pain. Let me talk about them both here.

Seg Eranranat is a raging asshole on his good days. This is due to the fact that he's a full blown genius surrounded not just by immoral idiots (who call themselves The People, because they're uncreative slaving racists), but immoral idiots who all sharpening their knives to plunge them into his back and kill him if he's lucky. Frankly if you placed me under the stress and the crowd that is normal for Seg, I would running naked through streets eating people's faces in a week. I'd also gladly leave the people of his native culture to die slow, but I'll come back to this. Seg isn't going to do that, despite the faults of his people, he's going to save them and breath life back into their dying culture... even if he has to do on top of a heap of bodies. In the first book, alone and cut off on an alien world, Seg not only engineered a massive raid but created an alliance that let him topple the ruling class of that world and walk away with his own private army. In the second book, we found out he was in more danger at home then he ever was in alien territory (which explains why he was so happy in the first book I suppose). Despite this, Seg trains his illegal army of aliens who are all considered property on his home world and leads them on a lightning assault on a rogue fortress to create his own holding in direct contravention of all the traditions and beliefs of his people. Of course, he loses Ama in the assault and believes her dead. In this the 3rd book, Seg learns a truth I had beaten into my head as a young Cpl. It ain't what you can take that matters, it's what you can hold. His fortress is free and independent, the single place in the nation of The People where there are no slaves, only free men and women. However, Seg is surrounded by enemies within and without who are jealous of his successes and not only want to topple him from power but clap a cybernetic slave implant to his neck. As his own Guild of Anthropologist suspend him and traditional allies turn their backs on him, Seg has to master challenges he never trained for on a whole new scope with the cold and sure knowledge in the back of his mind that if he fails, it means slavery or death not just for him but for the thousands of people who have decided to follow him. Alongside him are the men and women who swore allegiance in the last book, be it the eternally cranky pilot Shan, the Kenda rogue Viren (who remains a favorite of mine) and the increasingly unstable Force Commander Fismar as well as others.

Before I switch over to Ama I do want to talk a bit about the setting, the world of the People. The People live in increasingly cramped and decaying cities under shields powered by what is frankly a magic power source called Vita. Vita is created by people investing a place or object with intense cultural or religious value, like a certain stone in Mecca, or a statue in New York. It can't be something that was special to a single person but has to have been special to a group over a period of generations from what I can tell. The People don't generate Vita anymore. Their culture and society is too sterile and empty with all their energies turned to looting slaves and Vita from other societies on other worlds. The reason for this is the Storm. The storm isn't some dinky weather system with delusions of grander, this is a world ending monstrous... thing that devours all life it touches. The People have survived for generations in the face of this which is an amazing feat of engineering and stubbornness but in doing so have become stuck up parasites. Their biggest acts are creating interdimensional portals to other worlds sneaking in combat anthropologists to scope out the lay of the land and then ambush the people of those worlds and their sacred places, carrying off people to a life of wretched utter slavery and debasement in the process. They've also started turning on each like rats in a cage, life among the People is a constant struggle to watch out for people looking to fuck you over and take everything you have so they can crawl a rung higher up the ladder. It's a world where even the vast majority of the People are treated as expendable labor, given just enough to encourage them to knife each other for more while a shrinking upper class plunges into decadence and madness to avoid realizing how empty and hollow their lives and culture are. To be short, I still can't see why Seg wants to save them.

Now back to Ama, who isn't dead. Instead she wakes in a strange new society of escaped slaves who have fled the shielded and decaying cities of the People to make their own homes in the wastelands. Being escaped slaves on a planet full of technologically advanced monsters in human form who will kill you if you're lucky and living in a scarce environment where almost everything is a predator and even the food can kill you has led to a society that is constantly on the edge of extinction and as such they're a hard untrusting lot. It doesn't help that they're actually several groups from different worlds with little in common but a need to work together or die. Ama has to prove she can be a contributing member of this society and has to do it fast, additionally she has to do it while having lost her memories. This storyline introduces a bunch of new characters, such as Gelsh, the leader of the pond workers. The pond workers harvest fungus from underground ponds for food and provide one of the main food sources of the tribe. We also have T'Cri, hunter and priest who finds Ama in the wilderness and spares her upon receiving a vision. There's Chotke, a human with a shell growing out of his head and a very good climber, as well as leader of his own group of people. They all live under the domination of Mother, a woman who has taken control of the tribe and rules it with an iron fist, backed up with a group of warriors who call themselves the As Dead. The As Dead frankly could fit in with the People, referring to everyone outside of their group as animals and delighting in torture and murder. I'm not sure where they're from but I'm pretty sure I don't want to go there.

Out of the two story lines I prefered Seg's by a country mile. Ama's story-line feels repetitive compared to the last two books and is only saved by the combination of the new characters and the payoff at the end (which I'll admit is a hell of a pay off). Seg's on the other hand is new and interesting and sees him dealing with new challenges that force him to react and grow. Such as making peace with Jarrin his mentor and learning to work together with him or to do things for the sake of politics so he can make and keep allies. It's enriched with characters I've gotten know over three books so I care more about the struggle between for example Fismar and Cerd. Cerd wants to spend more time policing the keep and enforcing fair treatment between citizens. Fismar rightfully points out that you can't use an army to police people without eventually killing a fair amount of them. Meanwhile Ama's is... Oh look she's lost in a world full of people who don't like and mistrust her and must win them over with her ability and willingness to help, which will eventually get her the wrong type of attention from those in authority. I'm also frustrated by the memory loss plot point as well, the only time it works for me is if it's a mystery for me to. As it is I'm sitting there waiting for the character to learn things I already know. My last complaint is that I really would like to see what Seg and Ama can pull off together. There are a number of authors out there who seem to delight in setting up couples or groups with all sorts of possibilities if they work together and then never let it happen, instead making me meander through entire series of the group/couple being split up having to work through things alone and coming together for 5 minutes at the end. My big hope is book 4 will let me have Seg and Ama working together, which will be a new dynamic and interesting. Not to mention let them tackle whole new problems.

I like this book, but honestly it's my least favorite book of the series so far. Ama's storyline is only saved by the supporting characters like Gelsh (I'm really sad I can't see Gelsh, Viren and Fismar slamming across the multi-verse together, it would be awesome!) and the juicy, juicy payout which reveals new facts about the storm and the world. Seg's story line on the other is great to read, but I also feel a number of characters were wasted, for example we have Trinh, a high level member of another house who gets wrapped up in Seg's story line but... her character isn't given much to do and she's gone before we can really get a feel for her. So I'm left wondering what was the point of her character and her storyline? It's possible it will pay off in future books, but it kinda just sits here in this one. Additionally we're ending in a with not just one but two cliffhangers, which as always I do not approve of. All that said, I did enjoy the book, it was interesting to read and I'm left wanting to grab the next book. Warp World Vol III: Ghost World by Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson gets a B, a good fun book but I wasn't a fan of some of the decisions made here

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, April 7, 2017

State Machine By KB Spangler

State Machine
By KB Spangler

Wouldn't life be easier if the psychopaths didn't blend in?”
Agent Peng page 236

So we are kicking off Independent Writer Month here on the review series by going back to a world created by KB Spangler. It's a world much like our own, except that right after 9/11 a government cybernetics program was launched. This program created a group of men and women who would be linked to each other and able to access databases without any equipment except what was in their heads. The program worked, but unfortunately it was sabotaged by its creators. The implants were designed to break down the will and personalityof the agents and render them mentally broken meat puppets for use. Fortunately these immoral men were thwarted by one of their very agents when he met a young lady named Hope... but that's not the plot of this novel.

This novel takes place after that story. In this one we follow Agent Rachel Peng.  She is a former member of the CID, differently sighted, and a cyborg of Texan-Chinese ancestry attached to the Washington DC Metro Police Department. She is joined by her partner Raul Santino, a police officer with more degrees than a teacher’s lounge, an army veteran detective Mark Hill, and hard-boiled homicide investigator Zockinski.  Together, they fight crime!  Weird Crime!  When they get called in on a robbery gone wrong, it is not the crime itself that is weird, but everything surrounding it.  Who breaks into the White House and kills a secret service member in order to steal an old lumpy piece of half-corroded metal?  How does this tie back to the oh-so-handsome and wealthy Senator Hanlon?  The aforementioned Senator is the owner of the company that developed the implant and brainwashing process the agents suffered through, and the greatest political enemy they have domestically.  Most importantly, how does Agent Peng’s investigation turn into a trap that might destroy the OACET and spell the ruin of all 350 remaining cyborgs?

Also showing up again is Agent Jason Atran; computer genius, pretty boy, and asshole trying to reform. I say “trying to reform” because after making a very bad impression in the first book Agent Atran has been trying to change his behavior, especially with Agent Peng. This is more front-and-center in this book as the two agents are finding themselves repeatedly working together and Agent Peng is forced to turn to Agent Atran for help. You see, Agent Atran is pretty awesome with computers and Agent Peng is...well... she can find puppies on her tablet. This makes her the best-worst cyborg ever if you ask me. Another interesting note is that we have Agent Phil from the bomb squad returning along with Bell, a young lady who was introduced in Maker Space. In fact all of three of them are brought back together as a unit because they're in a polyamorous relationship. Ms. Spangler has a very good history of writing inclusively (I mean look at our main character) and she continues that tradition. We don't spend a lot of time on the trio's relationship because it's not important to the story and Agent Peng states pretty firmly that she doesn't get it.  That said it is treated respectfully as a real adult relationship, not as a phase or sign of decadence. It is not turned into some freak show exhibit for the reader’s pleasure; it's noted and it's part of the characters but isn't turned into a drum to bang on. While I'm personally monogamous, I like that treatment. On the flip side we also see more of Agent Peng's girlfriend Becca who was also introduced in the second book. There isn't a lot of time spent on their relationship either but... well it's not really part of the story so why would you?

This is Senator Hanlon's first appearance in the book series and I like how he's done. He's a man in full control of himself. He is publicly charming and considerate enough to make friends with secret service agents and the staff members of lobbyists that he does business with.  He's also a cold, calculating, amoral monster who doesn't hesitate to murder people when they become liabilities and try to take that murder and use it against his political enemies without a single tinge of hesitation or mercy. He's up against a cabal of cyborgs who can command any electronic device, penetrate any encryption, and many of them were trained government military or intelligence operatives before they got super powers. He is still able to force them to fight a grinding slow war of political attrition to unseat him and make him face some consequences for his actions. Part of that is the fact that the cyborgs are forcing themselves to follow the rules (think of it as part of the same reason why Superman just doesn't heat laser Lex Luther to death and be done with it), but a lot of it comes down to Hanlon's cunning and cold blooded savagery. Ms. Spangler is wise enough to use Hanlon sparingly, making his presence felt by the actions of his minions and allies both directly and indirectly. This turns the whole thing from a battle of super powered cyborg soldier and cop vs middle aged man with a title to one of a single woman with a few pieces of a puzzle vs vast, faceless, machine operating in the dark. It also interjects a high degree of uncertainty (which is good for a book like this!) into everyone's actions. Are those gunmen working for Senator Hanlon or for someone else? The lobbyist approaching from the telecom companies (I'll come back to this), is he moving on his own, or did someone put him up to this as a sting operation? With Agent Peng having to constantly guess (even with her superpower of being able to view your emotional state through her cybernetics) at what's really behind the actions of others, she finds herself having to second guess her every move. I hate Senator Hanlon's guts as a character but he is well used here.

Ms. Spangler also reminds us in this book that she's very good at writing politics, as another thread is the said lobbyist. The telecommunications companies have supported Senator Harlon to the hilt as a matter of survival. After all, if everyone gets the implant and can access the internet at the speed of thought, what the hell do we need comcast for? Our favorite cyborgs in OACET however are willing to cut our modern day robber barons a piece of the pie if they'll drop the Senator like a hot rock in a Pheonix summer (look it gets up to a 120 degress down here alright?). To be fair, the first generation implant is too much power to hand out to just anyone, with it you can just walk right through any digital security and communicate what you find through a channel no one can jam or block. There is no privacy from an OACET cyborg save what they grant you. Then there's the hive mind issues, since you're in constant communication that is the next best thing to telepathy, there's a lot of bleed through. You can experience emotions, memories, all sorts of things through the link. That's something that could bring it's own set of problems. I certainly would prefer to keep my own head private and I dare say that most people would also feel that way. We do get to see some interesting debates on these subjects in the book and I do like that Ms. Spangler isn't shying away from just how much social upheaval and chaos could spring from this, while also pointing out the vast array of benefits mostly by just letting us see those benefits in actions. For example, Mako Hill, an agent who married another agent and fathered a child shows us an array of cyborg keyed technology that makes parenting a toddler so much easier. There's also a bit of a look at the efforts someone with superpowers would have to go through to raise a semi-normal child, like posting signs to remind everyone to vocalize so their kid can learn to speak English. I'll be honest, I would read a book that was made up of just the OACET agent's interactions with each other and outsiders. If Ms. Spangler ever wants to write Tuesday at OACET, I'll be there though that might be the Anthropologist in me talking. Anyway, the political intrigue in this book is done very interestingly and kept to a level that an average person can understand.

We also see more of Agent Peng's boss Patrick Mulchay and his wife Hope. They're the main characters of the webcomic that started this universe, A Girl and Her Fed. I'm a fan of the webcomic so I did enjoy seeing them but they don't steal the show in this story, letting Agent Peng and her crew have center stage while getting some character development and fun of their own. So the good news is that if after reading the Agent Peng books you want more, there's more waiting for you, but you don't need to read it to understand what's going on in the books. While part of a shared world, the books are all self-contained stories that tell you everything you need to know to follow the story within the pages of the novel itself. I approve of this deeply. In fact Mulchay is in this story mainly to give Peng someone to report to and remind us that she's not barreling about alone here. Hope is in here to remind us that Agent Peng can fight and that Hope is walking murder on two legs.

There is also plenty of action in this book, we’ve got gun fights, fist fights, a boxing match, foot and car chases through downtown Washington DC! We have robbery, murder, resisting arrest, and possibly even tax evasion! Through it all Agent Peng displays a level of human competence and entertaining slip ups that makes for tense sequences and moments where you're snickering at her pain. We also get to meet the cuddly hippos, a group of government assassins turned cyborg and they play an interesting role in the action scenes while also providing another example of OACET restraint. Again we could see that they could simply kill Senator Hanlon at any time but that wouldn't fulfill their goals, so they keep playing by the rules and slowly but surely grind Hanlon down. This is alternated with the action to keep the reader on their toes and invested in the result. I had a blast reading this book, in fact I read it twice in the last month. So while there were a number of characters I wish Spangler would give more time to, I have to praise her ability to keep the story going and not let herself get dragged along on pointless side stories. For good action, interesting political intrigue and characters I actually like going through all of it, State Machine by KB Spangler gets an A-. Seriously pick up this series on Amazon or at the girlandherfed web site. You'll thank me for it.