A clever blending of two genres: pulp sci-fi adventure and hardboiled detective mystery, this book tells the story of private investigator Travis Barrett, who is hired to solve the disappearance of a wealthy businessman’s son. His client is the businessman’s daughter, Tina “Trouble” Tate.
Together, the two of them head for Mercury, pursued by the businessman’s goons, Hammerhand and Slick. (Two classic henchmen who have a highly enjoyable dynamic, by the way.) In addition to these two thugs, Travis is also running from something else: his own troubled past. Isn’t every noir detective worth his salt haunted by something? I certainly would never engage the services of one who wasn’t.
Travis and Trouble, together with a host of colorful allies, and at least one person who might be called a “frenemy,” work to uncover the mystery of Tina’s brother and uncover the secrets of the Tate corporation.
The book is fast-paced, with lots of snappy banter and exciting action scenes. It was originally published on Vella, and that’s probably why it’s so pulse-pounding and punchy, with lots of drama and suspense.
If you’ve read Vogel’s other books, his familiar knack for harkening back to adventure yarns of yore is here in force. This book isn’t massively innovative, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to make you nostalgic for the Golden Age of pulp, and it does exactly that.
I didn’t get to write a proper review of the first book in this series, Mandate of Heaven, for reasons I explained in my not-quite-a-review post when it was published last month. But I was not a beta reader on Solomon’s Fortune, and that means I get to give it the full Ruined Chapel treatment.
Ethan Chase, and his fellow adventurers Frankie and Mei, once again find themselves on a globe-spanning hunt for a legendary treasure. This time they are seeking the Ark of the Covenant, and their journey takes them from the Middle East to Italy to a mysterious island in the Atlantic. At every step, they are forced to contend with rival treasure hunters, including a wealthy and relentless Russian arms dealer.
Of course, because they’re chasing the sacred Ark, one is tempted to compare the book with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indeed, much to Ethan Chase’s chagrin, several of the characters draw this parallel. And why not? In my earlier post, I compared the first book to Indiana Jones. Chase’s objections notwithstanding, there’s no question that this series captures that same spirit of adventure, of wise-cracking heroes racing to stay one step ahead of sadistic villains across many exotic and famous locations.
It’s important to remember that Indiana Jones was itself an homage to the pulp adventure serials of the 1930s. We are always nostalgic for a bygone era of adventure, it seems. I’m reminded of something that somebody (Michael Caine, maybe?) said of The Man Who Would Be King: “Even when it was made, people said, ‘they don’t make films like that anymore.'”
And indeed, in our modern world, when the whole surface of the earth is mapped by satellite imagery and everybody has a digital camera in their pocket, can we even keep alive the dreams of forgotten ruins and lost treasures, of ancient mysteries and supernatural secrets, and above all, of heroism and adventure?
I say we can, thanks to books like this. While I was reading it, I found myself instantly absorbed in Ethan Chase’s world. Its themes are timeless, and its characters are likable. Even the villains have some shreds of humanity left in them, which make them all the more interesting.
These books have a vibe to them, is what I’m saying; an ethos that feels familiar and at the same time refreshing. In fact, fittingly enough, I would go so far as to say they are a treasure. If you like good stories, you should read this book, and if you haven’t read the first book in the series yet, you should read them both, and join Ethan Chase on his thrilling expeditions.
This is a military action-thriller novella. It follows a young woman named Keira Frost who, after escaping from an abusive step-father and living homeless in Chicago, eventually joins the U.S. Army and applies to serve in an elite CIA unit.
Keira’s backstory is told gradually through flashbacks, interspersed with the main plot arc which follows her first mission with the unit and its overbearing leader, Ryan Drake, who seems to relish every opportunity to berate and belittle his team’s newest member.
The story itself is rather interesting, as the premise is that the team is on a mission into the Chernobyl site in Ukraine, in order to extract a spy planted among Ukrainian separatist forces, who is warning of a Russian plot to seize Eastern Ukraine. (This book was published in 2018.)
But, things are not quite what they seem. (They never are in thrillers, though, are they?) And what seemed to be a straightforward mission turns out to be anything but.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a quick read and a pretty good story, although I suspect the ending will prove to be divisive. Some readers might not be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept the dénouement. Others may find it ingenious. I can see arguments for both.
All told, it’s nothing ground-breaking, but if you enjoy fast-paced military thrillers, this one will certainly fit the bill.
This is the third book in the “His Name Was Zach” series. Be warned, I can’t really talk about what happens in it without spoiling aspects of the first two books.
After helping to inspire a revolution against a tyrannical government, Abby, our protagonist, has retreated into the desert, living alone with only her guilt and trauma. But when the new President summons her back on a mission to scout out the zombie-ravaged American midwest, she takes it, as a chance to finally confront many of her demons.
So Abby, along with her boyfriend Hiamovi and a squad of marines, head out into The Wild, and Abby retraces the steps she took in the previous books in the series, confronting old adversaries and painful memories.
The story is structured explicitly as a quest, and that’s really what it feels like; a band of modern-day knights on an epic journey. Eventually, Abby and the others reach their objective: Chicago, which is doing surprisingly well considering it was the epicenter of the zombie outbreak, and even more when it turns out to be managed by none other than Edmund, a murderous gangster from the first book.
Edmund really is a fascinating character. Read what I said about him in my review of the first book, now imagine such a personality in charge of a whole city. He’s basically a Caesar; and not a good one. He’s much more of a Commodus than a Marcus Aurelius, right down to the gladiatorial matches.
There’s a lot more I could say about Edmund, but it would fall into spoiler territory. Maybe someday, after this series has become a best-seller and everyone has read it, I’ll come back and write a whole essay about this character and what I think he represents. (This is another strange feeling for me; I never think characters represent things. And yet, while I was reading the story, the thought came to me, unbidden, that… well, never mind!)
As noted above, the real core of the book is Abby confronting her demons, including both things that were done to her and things that she did. In that regard, the book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction: Knights of the Old Republic II. C’mon, it’s been a while since I brought that up; did you think I could hold off forever? As you’ve probably heard me say a thousand times, it’s a story about a veteran soldier confronting all the horrors of their past. (Or maybe you haven’t heard me say it, in which case you can do so here if you’re so inclined.) It’s a powerful theme for any epic story, and Their Names Were Many is a marvelous take on it.
Abby faces a number of terrifying enemies during her journey. Besides Edmund, you’ve got the mad preacher Isaiah, who has only gotten crazier since we last saw him. Not to mention the zombie hordes that still roam The Wild.
But none of them are the primary antagonist; not even Edmund. No, that role is played by someone else; a truly terrifying being, and Abby’s final confrontation with this… entity… is the most intense scene in the whole series. Not least because of where it takes place.
Taken as a whole, the series went in a very different direction than I expected when I first picked up His Name Was Zach, and I was really impressed by how it evolved. I thought it would be a fairly ho-hum zombie apocalypse tale, but what it became was something much bigger, much more unique, and altogether more memorable. When I first discovered the author’s blog, I remember seeing he was influenced by Tolkien. Which surprised me at first. Why would a fan of a High Fantasy epic be writing a Military Zombie-Apocalypse Dystopia? But in the end, I saw a lot of Tolkien-esque ideas throughout the series, from the smallest things to some of the major themes. Another essay, perhaps, for after these books get famous.
Although the series goes to some dark, dark places, its theme is ultimately an uplifting one, and I’m really glad I read it. I’m sure I’ll remember it for a long, long time.
I ended my review of the previous book in this series with the words, “Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.” Zombie apocalypse books aren’t a genre I normally read, but the characters and writing in His Name Was Zach were strong enough to hold my attention and make me pick up the sequel.
And what a sequel it is! The foundation Martuneac laid in the first book really pays off in a number of ways in this sprawling epic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the details, lest I spoil both books. But, I’ll do my best to give you the flavor of it.
Our protagonist is, naturally, Abby, the teenaged girl from the first book, who is struggling to survive in the harsh wilds of the Midwest, infested by zombies and small gangs of people struggling for self-preservation with varying degrees of brutality.
For reasons which I can’t say without spoiling the previous installment, but which will be obvious if you have read it, Abby can no longer rely on Zach, the man who raised her, and has to fend for herself. Her Name Was Abby picks up right where the first book left off, with an unrelenting post-apocalyptic world, full of violence, betrayal, and in general a reversion to the anarchic condition of life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
This nightmarish world, in which no one can be fully trusted and the worst survive while the best perish, takes a major psychological toll on Abby, whose own hands are far from clean at the end of the first part of the book.
But then, she finds her way to something approaching civilization. And this is where the book takes a turn. For a long time, I’ve wondered why this series is categorized as “dystopian.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t consider zombie apocalypse books dystopian. (I’m not really sure why. They’re certainly not utopian!) But once Abby reaches the West, she finds an area where the government remains in control.
And when I say “in control,” I mean police-state level control. This is where the book starts to resemble what I think of as a dystopia, as the reconstituted government under President Cyrus Arthur uses patrols of an elite military unit, the DAS, to terrorize the civilian population.
Abby quickly joins a resistance movement, where she meets a young man close to her own age named Hiamovi, the grandson of the movement’s leader. Abby is, understandably, slow to trust, but eventually she and Hiamovi fall in love.
Unfortunately, nothing good ever seems to last for Abby, and she soon finds herself infiltrating the DAS on an undercover mission that takes her into the very highest levels of the government, and into a relationship with President Arthur’s own son, Derrick.
And that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling things. It’s too bad, because what I’ve summarized so far is just the setup for a thrilling final act, full of suspense, action, and even a remarkable love triangle. It’s really well-done, and pieces that have been hinted at going back to the first book start to fall satisfyingly into place.
For instance: if, like me, you were wondering how the government was managing to keep firm control of the Western half of the country while the East collapses into zombie-barbarism; that question is answered quite clearly in the later parts of this book.
To recap: the first quarter of the book is pure survival-horror, brimming with relentless violence and a constant sense that Abby is living on a razor’s edge, kept alive by a combination of sheer luck and an ever-increasing willingness to betray her own moral code for the chance to see another sunrise.
Then the book transforms, fairly smoothly, from a zombie-horror book to more of a spy thriller. Spy thrillers are more my usual fare, so for me, this was a pleasant surprise.
So, would I say the book is a zombie book with some spy thriller elements, or a spy thriller with some zombie elements?
Answer: it’s neither.
Her Name Was Abby has another facet to it beyond the zombies and the cool high-tech espionage. It’s actually a surprisingly deep psychological portrait of Abby. More specifically, of how Abby tries to cope with all the horrific trauma she’s experienced from a young age.
Now, I get it: almost all thrillers have a Protagonist With A Dark Past™. Many, many books have a flawed anti-hero who is running from some kind of horrible event that has left a scar on their psyche. And it almost always feels forced and fake to me.
But Abby’s feels genuine. I can’t really explain it. Somehow, though, Martuneac conveys her mental state in a way that seems real. Her PTSD flashbacks are vivid, and the way she struggles with feelings of depression, rage, doubt, and guilt are all viscerally powerful.
Abby’s journey is a moving one, and whereas in the previous book she relied heavily on Zach to save her, in this one, she has no one else to turn to. As one character, one of my favorites in the book, says, “If your life is going to be saved, it must be you who does the saving.”
The book has many good lines, but I can’t quote most of them because they would also spoil important plot developments. In general, let me just say that Martuneac’s style of writing is very interesting to me. I do think most modern fiction critics would argue it relies too much on “telling” rather than “showing” and we all know the standard rule about that.
However, I’ve never been completely onboard with this rule. (Yeah, yeah; if you watch the Writers Supporting Writers videos, I’m sure you’re just shocked by this.) I know what people mean when they say it, but at best, it’s badly phrased. Because all fiction is actually telling, never showing. The art is in making people feel like you’re showing them something.
Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Martuneac tends to use what I think of as an older style of narration that is often detached from the immediate thoughts of the characters. Some people might not like this approach, but personally, I found it kind of refreshing. There is such a thing as too much immediacy, and I feel like a lot of modern fiction has it. Probably because most writers have had the “show, don’t tell” rule drilled into them.
This is a really good story, and one that should have broad appeal. While I do think it’s better to read the series in order, I will say that if you like thrillers but are positively allergic to the zombie genre, you could start by reading this book without reading His Name Was Zach. That’s what H.R.R. Gorman did, and if it’s good enough for Gorman, it’s good enough for me.
And one more thing about Zach. Despite the fact he’s not in this one, his presence still can be felt throughout this book. Like Abby, I often found myself wondering what Zach would think of this or that. I’m always impressed when a character looms large even when not actually “in” the story as such.
I’d like to say a lot more about this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check it out, and after you’ve read it, you can come back here and discuss it in detail.
This is a science fiction adventure story, but not the sort that Vogel usually writes. Most of his books, such as his Scout series, feature upstanding, chivalrous heroes on noble adventures. Fortune’s Fool is different. It’s darker and grittier, and less romantic. (In the literary sense.) Whereas most of Vogel’s protagonists are honorable, duty-bound types, Mark Fortune is more of an anti-hero. Think James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or Han Solo early on, before his mercenary heart softens.
Actually, the first Star Wars is a good comparison for this book in more ways than one. In addition to a ragtag band including a scoundrel, his powerful, lumbering sidekick, and a beautiful woman with an acerbic wit, there’s a huge floating fortress they need to destroy.
The book is fast-paced and violent. There’s a lot of banter in combat, which is not necessarily something I’m a fan of, although I will admit some of the lines made me chuckle. Sometimes the action moves so fast, it was hard to keep track of where it was all taking place. But it was certainly intense and exciting. I especially enjoyed Fortune’s reliance on an archaic firearm instead of an energy blaster.
In broad outlines, it’s not too different from a Scout book: hero finds himself on a strange world, and must fight to survive and save a beautiful woman. But the devil is in the details. One can’t imagine the hero of a Scout book speaking to a princess the way Fortune speaks to Alis. Moreover, Fortune is quite ruthless and definitely not one to fight fair, although there are signs that he’s not quite as brutal as he would like people to believe.
Then of course there are the villains, who are an altogether nasty bunch of folks. The main antagonist, Maelon, definitely deserves to have someone like Fortune opposing him.
All told, it’s a fast-paced and exciting story. I enjoyed it for the most part, although there’s no denying some parts were quite dark. Vogel was well aware this book is a departure from his usual style, so much so that it was initially published under a pen name. I can understand this, as it would be a shock for fans of his lighter works to find themselves in this world of cruelty, cynicism, and a good many four-letter words. But as long as you’re prepared for that, Fortune’s Fool is a good read.
Anyway, the story itself is very short. It’s about a ten-minute read. But Turpeinen packs a lot into those ten minutes. It begins with the title character transporting a captured killer. The killer tries to flee, causing their small plane to crash in the middle of the desert. They make their way to a ghost town, where the criminal begins having strange visions.
I won’t spoil the rest, but as it’s so short, and you don’t have to pay for it, there’s no reason not to give this book a try. I love weird westerns, and I love sci-fi, and this story contains a blend of both. It makes for a wonderful setting.
Now, obviously, the nature of the story precludes any major character development. The author openly admits that this was written as an experiment, and the book ends with a request to readers for feedback on whether it should be expanded into a longer story. My answer: yes, it absolutely should. There’s so much potential here; it is just crying out to be made into a fully-fleshed out world.
Read it for yourself. It won’t take long, and it’s a fun story.
My three pieces of feedback for the author are these: first, I see from his bio that he is a pilot. Very cool! Given that, it would be nice to have a longer scene with the bounty hunter and the criminal on the plane. I’m sure Turpeinen knows all sorts of details about flying that could make that into a really gripping part of the story.
Second… and this is a pet peeve of mine, but I see it all the time, including in books by big name authors and Hollywood movies. I may have even made this mistake myself, early in my writing career. But, when talking about firearms:
clip ≠ magazine
Now, I know–sometimes you want a short, one-syllable word, not a mouthful like magazine. In that case, I suggest “mag.”
That’s a super nit-pick, of course, but it’s something that always jumps out at me.
And finally, my last piece of feedback is simply “MORE!” I want to read more about these characters and this world. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating: this could be built upon in all sorts of ways, and there are a ton of interesting concepts teased here. I would be thrilled to read a novel or short story collection in this setting.
Back in May, I wrote about Vogel’s Scout’s Honor, the first in his sword-and-planet Scout series. Hart for Adventure is a prequel to that series, and it fits in well. It follows Terran scout Gavin Hart, who crash lands on a world that appears deserted, finding only the overgrown ruins of an alien city.
Hart soon finds his way to a mysterious chamber where he is knocked unconscious and reawakens to find the planet around him teeming with life—not all of it friendly, as he soon discovers when he clashes with a marauding warlord and his hordes.
Hart, with his superior technology, quickly gains some allies, who see him as almost God-like. However, even these advantages, survival is no sure thing, especially once Hart uncovers the mind-bending and (not to give away too much) time-bending nature of the peril he faces.
The prose is crisp and the plot is fast-paced. There isn’t too much description—I would have liked a bit more—but there was enough to get an idea of the world where Hart’s swashbuckling adventures take place.
If you’ve already read some of Vogel’s other Scout books, you’ll have a feel for this: daring good guys, evil bad guys, lots of sword fights and other Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque escapades. Like the other books in the series, it’s an unashamed throwback to that style of fun-loving old-fashioned adventure story. Don’t go in expecting deep, intricate world-building or characters—this is light, breezy reading that makes for perfect sci-fi/fantasy escapism.
This book was shorter than Scout’s Honor—more a sketch than the fully-realized world—but it works well as a prequel to the main series. If you haven’t read the other Scout books, this is a fine introduction to the series. And if you have read them and want more sword-and-planet adventures, this is a perfect way to get your fix.
[NOTE: This review is based on ARC of the book, received from the author.]
I recently reviewed Henry Vogel’s Sword & Planet book Scout’s Honor. While browsing his other works, this book caught my eye because it appeared to be more traditional spacefaring sci-fi, which is one of my favorite genres. And it features a pair of likable characters going on adventures, another premise that I like.
Matt Connaught is the heir to the GenCo fortune–except that while everyone else believes his parents are dead, his psychic abilities tell him they are still alive. Matt sets off to find them, accompanied by his bodyguard, Michelle. Michelle, the daughter of Matt’s primary security chief, Jonas, has been guarding Matt for years, in the guise of being merely his classmate.
As it turns out, the two have been in love with one another from afar for years, and when they set off on the galaxy-trotting adventure to find Matt’s parents, their romance blooms. The middle section of the book is almost a rom-com in space. I typically don’t read romance, unless it’s blended with some other genre, and that’s exactly what Vogel does here: a romantic road comedy, but in space!
And it’s not all romance–there are plenty of chases, shootouts, and even a few space battles. It’s first and foremost a sci-fi romp, with elements of a techno-thriller sprinkled in. Matt and Michelle are a good couple, and some of the supporting characters are really fun. Flight Commander Nancy Martin is great, and Jonas, with his extreme competence and formal style, is also highly enjoyable. I don’t know that this was the author’s intention, but his manner of speaking made me automatically hear his lines in the voice of Stephen Fry as Reginald Jeeves, which was another plus.
My biggest complaint is that the villains of the story are so nebulous that I was barely even aware they existed. There is some foreshadowing, but when Matt uncovers who is behind the whole thing, it felt a bit out of the blue. (Or is that out of the black, since this is space, after all?)
But in the scheme of things, that isn’t really a problem, because what makes this story enjoyable is the feeling of romance and adventure. The resolution of the plot isn’t as important as the thrill of following Matt and Michelle from one daring escape to the next. It’s an unashamedly fun book. It’s much like Scout’s Honor in that regard: a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and invites the reader to come along on an exciting space operatic joyride.
Now, lately in my reviews, I’ve found myself talking more and more about covers. I haven’t meant to do this, and we all know the ancient wisdom “not to judge a book…” etc. This are just my opinions on aesthetics, and independent of my take on the books themselves. I’ll try to cut down on this sort of thing, but I just have to talk about it here.
The cover above is on the Kindle edition that I have. And it’s fine. It maybe makes the book seem a bit more cartoonish than it really is, but it’s distinctive enough.
But, over on Goodreads, I saw this cover:
I love this cover. The font might be a little plain, but that artwork just screams “classic space opera adventure.” There are a couple different scenes in the book this could be depicting, and I feel like seeing it helps me imagine the whole universe of the story. It perfectly captures that throwback, Golden Age of sci-fi vibe that Vogel’s books evoke.
This is listed as a children’s book, which is not something I’d normally read, but this bit of the description caught my eye: “rural sci-fi thriller full of spies, mad scientists, 1980s nostalgia, alternate dimensions, strange new friends, suspense, and mystery.”
Well, that sounded like something I would like. And I was not disappointed. Yes, the protagonist is indeed a kid–13 year-old Sarah Lewis–and the prose does avoid complicated structures and (for the most part) big words, but it’s a book anyone can enjoy. It doesn’t condescend to the reader in telling the story.
Sarah is living with her grandfather after her mother has died and her father has moved away to take a job in another country. She is lonely, and trying to acclimate to a new town and new school in rural Texas, when her curiosity leads her to exploring in the hills near her grandfather’s property.
Long story short, she stumbles into a web of ancient conspiracies, secret societies, aliens, talking animals, magic, and threats of cosmic annihilation from malevolent demonic entities. Imagine The Chronicles of Narnia crossed with The X-Files and maybe a bit of Dan Brown thrown in. It uses a number of the classic YA tropes–a child with no parents discovering her family’s secrets and having to reevaluate her place in the world. Sarah isn’t quite “the Chosen One,” thankfully, but she does turn out to be rather special for reasons which I won’t reveal here. Still, it was quite a fun read for me; and never became boring or predictable.
Before I read the book, I wondered whether it would be too childish for an adult to read. Having read the book, I wonder if it’s too adult-ish for a child to read. It’s touted as “clean,” meaning there’s no swearing or sex, but there is plenty of fighting, references to cancer and dying from it, and strong implications that the villains torture and ritualistically sacrifice people to appease an evil deity. Also, several characters die, including some rather sympathetic ones.
Of course, there are plenty of examples throughout children’s literature of things just as or more disturbing than that. (The classic fairy tales are pretty unsettling, when you think about them.) But everyone has their own ideas of what kids should and shouldn’t read, so it’s important to note that this book was darker than I expected. Not that I minded, and thinking back, I suspect my 10-12 year-old self wouldn’t have minded, either.
While the major conflict of the story is resolved, the book ends on a major cliffhanger to set up the sequel. A sequel which, as far as I can tell, has not been published yet. Certainly, I am eager to see how this story develops–there is a lot of potential in the world that the author has created.