It’s always tough to review sequels. Especially a sequel to a sprawling book like Sunder of Time, that has a large cast of characters and multiple different timelines. Thus, there are not only a lot of characters, but different versions of the same character. (Probably this is one of those books where it’s helpful to keep notes, so you can remember who is who.) And when you add in that I don’t want to spoil what happens in the first book, it’s pretty hard to explain the plot of this one.

So, what’s a poor book reviewer to do? I could just say that if you liked the first book, you’ll probably like the second one, too. And that’s true. But, of course, probably not very helpful. Especially if you haven’t actually read the first book yet. (My review is here.) I highly recommend it.

But as to this book, it carries on the story of the first one, although in an interesting way. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that while the first book takes place mainly in the distant past, this one is largely in the far future. But still, the same kind of intrigues and political machinations are there, as is the brisk pace and intense action.

I think what I’ll focus on here, to avoid giving away major plot spoilers, is McTiernan’s keen grasp of psychology. Everything the characters do is informed by this, perhaps most notably in the way one character uses subtle psychological tricks to manipulate people into giving him loyalty he really doesn’t deserve. There are people like this in real life, and knowing how these kinds of mind games work is helpful in dealing with them.

This is an excellent sequel to a very good book, and I’ll be interested to see where the series goes from here.

This book is a neo-noir mystery. In terms of plot, it’s a fairly straightforward yarn about a detective who is tasked with tracking a mysterious femme fatale. Along the way, he delves into a depraved criminal underworld, is forced to flout the normal rules of police procedure at risk to his own career, and ultimately finds his own and his family’s lives threatened.

I guess this all sounds pretty standard for a detective mystery, doesn’t it? Well, I deliberately phrased it so. But I guarantee you, this is like no other detective story you’ve ever read.

It’s set in the distant future, when everything can be copied; the matter rearranged. This includes human beings. It’s not at all unusual for a person to die, and a new copy to be “instantiated” from the data stored in some central insurance system. Cosmetic alterations of all sorts can be performed instantaneously and at will.

This is in addition to the extreme nature of virtual reality programs, which can simulate anything anyone desires, creating a completely immersive experience.

In this world, the nature of reality itself starts to get fuzzy, and indeed, in the early part of the book it was hard for me to even conceptualize what was going on. Such a universe feels so bizarre it becomes difficult to ground oneself in anything relatable.

And yet… in a way it was relatable. At least to me, a terminally-online millennial, who grew up with the internet and video games. The logic of Demiurge is the logic of the 21st century media infotainment complex, carried to its natural conclusion. (It’s important to note here that the first edition was written in the year 2000.)

That was the really haunting thing about this book for me. There are sentences describing the most fantastic and mind-bindingly weird concepts, followed by sentences that feel like they could be describing the world we live in now. The overall effect is… disturbing.

Actually, many things about this book are disturbing. The femme fatale that our hero is tracking leads her admirers… clients… victims… whatever you want to call them… into a world of strange and unsettling perversity. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this book contains psychosexual horror elements.

The really chilling aspect of it is, for every unsavory thought and act referenced in the pages of Demiurge, the text seems to implicitly ask, “Could you imagine this would happen, if technology permitted?” And in every case, I could. This is no lurid penny-dreadful; making up horrible things for shock value. No, far more subtle than that… it is a window into the collective id of the age of Techno-Decadence.

Every chapter begins with epigraphs from various texts, some real, some fictional, and all related to the themes of identity, reality, and the nature of the human mind. The book would be worth reading for these passages alone, which contain brain-twisting ideas and downright eerie visions of the cyberpunk nightmare that waits for us in this imagined future.

As I approached the climax of the book, I was worried the story would, like so many noir tales, sink too deep into its own exquisitely thick atmosphere of nihilism. This can happen easily in this sort of story, when the sheer crushing weight of all the grimdark overwhelms everything else.

But no, thankfully that didn’t happen. Pacotti was able to stick the landing, and in the final chapters, he ties things up well, and in so doing, provides a character who is, I think, the perfect hero for the age of social media. It’s rare in modern storytelling to have the main character give a speech un-ironically defending his actions and his values. But then, noir detectives are rare in modern storytelling too; and that’s what makes the final chapters of Demiurge feel like coming home. After a mind-breaking, head-spinning dive into the darkest depths of humanity and technology, we come up for air and have something familiar, at last, to grab hold of.

Maddening, disturbing, terrifying, confusing, prophetic, and not without rays of hope and real emotion; Demiurge is a metaphysical magnum opus for our time.

The Matrioshka Divide is a throwback to the Golden Age of science fiction, in the tradition of Heinlein and Asimov, where advanced spacefaring technology is used to explore political and philosophical ideas.

The main character is Samir Singh, a retired starship captain known as “the Butcher of Three Systems” for his actions during war. He is persuaded to come out of retirement to serve as captain on a vessel tracking down a signal from a derelict ship on the edge of galaxy. Captain Singh reluctantly accepts the mission, seeing it as a chance to redeem himself for his past.

As it happens, the old war veteran on a quest for redemption is one of my favorite sci-fi tropes, mostly because it is the main theme of my beloved KotOR II, and so I immediately became interested in Singh.

Then there is Erika Terese, the arrogant scientist convinced that her models tell her everything about how the universe works, and how to respond even to encountering new forms of intelligence. She believes everything can be measured, quantified, and understood with mathematical precision. She and the religious Captain Singh clash frequently.

Then there is Miles Kieth, the cynical pilot, who couldn’t care less about politics or religion, and is just out for his own sake. Or is he? Naturally, there ends up being more to the man than meets the eye.

And then we have Amos Singh, a descendant of Captain Singh (prolonged lifetimes allow for more distant relatives to survive contemporaneously with their ancestors), who wants to succeed to clear the family name and right the wrongs committed by the man who commands him.

Finally, there is Glen Tannis, the Machiavellian operative of the Free Exchange, the powerful shadow government that controls and manipulates all of human society. I love sinister organizations like this, reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit in Dune or the Timermen in Fitzpatrick’s War.

The book takes this cast of characters and throws them into an extreme situation, encountering incomprehensible aliens on the edge of the galaxy. But the aliens are really just there as a catalyst for the different characters to spar over their philosophical differences.

The concept of a crew on an isolated ship, in high-pressure situations and all distrustful of one another, is another trope that I love. It reminded me of Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea.  The characters clash repeatedly over their moral and philosophical beliefs, with allegiances changing frequently as their circumstances become more dire.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest the conflicts are purely philosophical. This is sci-fi after all, so there are plenty of space battles and shootouts too. The balance of spacefaring adventure and intellectual exercise that is one of the hallmarks of classic sci-fi is here.

The simplest way I can put it is, if you enjoyed my book The Directorate, with its blend of space battles and political machinations, you’ll probably enjoy this one as well. I could say more about the plot and the ending, but given that this book is relatively new, I don’t want to spoil anything for those encountering it for the first time. Sci-fi fans should definitely give it a try.

This is a military sci-fi novel that follows a combat programmer named Kerry Sevvers. Sevvers is an elite technical specialist, who controls multiple AIs at once, including one that is illegally modified to remove normal safety restrictions. This one he keeps secret from his superiors, since revealing it would result in his discharge.

In order to keep his secret, Sevvers volunteers for a high-risk mission with a Marine unit fighting “raiders”; which are alien beings that attack human colonies. Although he is a master of AI drones, Sevvers has not faced front-line combat before; though he does have personal trauma from his childhood that drives him to hate the aliens they are fighting.

Sevvers struggles to get along with some members of the unit, and also to keep his unrestricted AI secret. As the mission grows increasingly dire, he is forced to take more and more risks, putting both his job and his life in jeopardy.

The book is well-written and fast-paced. At times, I struggled to conceptualize clearly how Sevvers’ AIs work. This, though, is probably an accurate depiction of how such a strange mixture of man and machine would feel. It’s more than a little creepy, but I think it’s supposed to be.

The book made me think of Halo, Mass Effect, and the Star Wars: Republic Commando series. Anyone who enjoys military sci-fi should check it out.

You have to know something before we start this review: Andrew Crowther is probably the greatest living W.S. Gilbert scholar, and has written numerous biographical and literary analyses of the great Victorian dramatist.

I, having become a Gilbert fan at a young age, have been reading Crowther’s writings since I was about 14 years old. And since then, I’ve come to realize that besides being a great critic and Gilbert biographer, Crowther is also a fine writer in his own right. And Down to Earth is a good example of why.

This book is a satire, but not so much in the Gilbertian vein as it is in the tradition of another favorite author of Crowther’s (and mine): George Orwell. It takes an initially utopian science fiction concept, a lunar colony, and gradually uses it to examine concepts like governmental power, freedom of expression, and racial prejudice.

The book addresses these issues in a number of clever ways, especially through my favorite character, Mr. Thark, a bitter and often deliberately offensive literary critic who nonetheless has some essential core of kindness which he tries his best to conceal.

Actually, I could say a great deal about this book, and the way it handles thorny concepts. Like freedom of expression, for instance. Should people have it? They should, right? But what about for things that are really, really offensive? Specifically things that come under the now nearly-forgotten doctrine of “fighting words”? And this leads to another question, which is who gets to define what constitutes fighting words? It all puts me in mind of a certain Frank Herbert quote.

But I can’t go into too much detail about these things, for to do so would be to spoil the book. And it really is a good story, with a likable protagonist whose goodhearted naïveté makes your root for her from the beginning, and creates an interesting dynamic between her and Mr. Thark.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book. It’s a thought-provoking Orwellian satire that explores many current issues. And, Crowther is a fantastic writer who deserves to be widely read.

This is a science-fiction novel primarily set in the 25th century. It is framed as the memoir of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a soldier in the inner circle of Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, a charismatic and ambitious man with designs on becoming a modern Alexander.

A great deal has changed by the 2400s, including the dissolution of the United States we know today. In its stead is the rigidly theocratic and highly disciplined Yukon Confederacy, which has its origins in the 2040s, when the Brain Lords were destroyed. (The Brain Lords being, in Bruce’s words, “a small sect of self-proclaimed superior humans who controlled the large corporations and the government through the use of thinking machines called computers.” Little else is remembered about them by Bruce’s time.)

This led to a period called “the Storm Times,” when an organization of engineers and scientists founded at Purdue University known as “The Timermen” used great “storm machines” (powerful satellites) to disrupt electrical equipment, and brought an end to the Age of Electricity.

(Aside: living as I do in the heart of Big Ten country, I’ve met many Boilermakers in my time, and it would not shock me if there really is a secret society of Purdue grads running the world. Every one that I’ve ever met is exceptional in some way.)

All this world-building is done efficiently and elegantly. The way the info is passed to the reader is really clever, and I actually feel bad for telling it to you in my clumsy way, but I had to in order to go on with explaining the plot, wherein the Yukon Civilization is a rising power looking to assert itself. And Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, who early on befriends the narrator and shepherds him high into the military ranks, seems just the man to lead them.

Fitzpatrick is an archetypal Carlylean “Great Man” of history. He wields authority through his bewitching personality and his brilliant ability to understand and manipulate the psychology of those around him. He evokes not just Alexander, but also Caesar and Napoleon, right down to his ability to carefully manage seemingly spontaneous incidents to bend people to his will.

Bruce is one such person and, at least as a young man, is easily convinced to do all sorts of things for the aspiring emperor, despite the reservations of Bruce’s wife, Charlotte, one of the few people who distrusts the Confederacy’s benevolent ruler.

Bruce is sent to India to build airbases in preparation for Fitzpatrick’s planned conquest of China, and later serves in the Great War that results. Bit by bit, as Bruce witnesses firsthand the horror of war and the machinations of his own government, he begins to question his child-like faith in the wisdom of Fitzpatrick.

Remember I said at the outset that the book is “framed” as Bruce’s memoir? Part of that framing device is that it’s presented as a discovered manuscript prepared for academic purposes by Doctor Professor Roland Modesty Van Buren, a scholar writing in 2591. Throughout the text by Bruce, there are annotations from Dr. Prof. Van Buren. And these notes mostly say that Bruce is lying.

You know that the unreliable narrator is one of my favorite tropes in fiction. Naturally, I fell in love with this framing device at once. Throughout the book, the Bruce text will say something about his experience, only to have an annotation by Van Buren state that this is categorically impossible, and cite some academic source as proof.

The great fun of the book is in figuring out who the unreliable narrator is at any given time. There are certainly some facts that the Bruce character misstates and the Van Buren character corrects, like when Bruce speaks of a long-gone statue on the Eastern coast of America as “The Mother of Liberty,” and Van Buren gives the proper historical name. There are other cases where it is not so clear who is right and who is wrong.

This book is many things, but above all, it’s a love letter to Clio, the muse of history. It is not just a fictional future-history; it is an instruction manual for how to read all histories, of any period. Again and again, the book reminds us that we can’t trust those who write either the first-hand accounts or those historians who follow them, eager to present a record that suits their own agendas. Hence why all histories must be subjected to meticulous analysis.

A couple months ago, over at Writers Supporting Writers, I wrote that my dream is to write a book with layers and depth to it. My example of the kind of book I meant was Dune, by Frank Herbert. Fitzpatrick’s War is another such book. Many times, I found myself comparing Fitzpatrick’s War to Dune. There are some similar plot elements, including:

  • A messianic nobleman consumed by visions of empire. (Paul in Dune, Fitzpatrick here.)
  • A secret society manipulating world-historical events. (The Bene Gesserit in Dune, The Timermen here.)
  • A purposeful destruction and limitation of artificial computing technology. (The Butlerian Jihad in Dune, the aforementioned defeat of the Brain Lords here.)

But the last thing I want you to think is that Fitzpatrick’s War is a Dune knock-off. It’s not that at all. I enjoyed it more than Dune, in fact. I attribute this partially to it being told from the perspective of Bruce, who, by his own admission, is just a common, unexceptional, stolid soldier-type, instead of Herbert’s focus on the hallucinating demigod at the center of a personality cult.

This is Judson’s special genius in constructing Fitzpatrick’s War: although the book deals with the grand sweep of history and the place of humanity in the universe, the author never loses sight of his characters. Bruce, Fitzpatrick, Charlotte, and others (especially Bruce’s friend Pularski, my personal favorite) never become mere puppets for the author’s philosophizing. They are well-defined, believable people, swept up in momentous and often horrifying events, and you feel like you’re experiencing all of it right there with them.

I could go on, and on, and on. There are so many things I adore about this book. But no amount of my praise can convey it properly. I’ll just say it’s the sort of book I wish I could write, and it deserves to be widely read.

But that, I’m afraid, is where we come to the sticky wicket.

Unlike nearly all books I review, this one’s not on Kindle. You used to be able to get a paperback on Amazon for twelve bucks. I say “used to” because apparently I bought the last one. As I write these words, the hardcover is going for about $25.

On the one hand, I’d gladly pay that price for this book, if I could experience it all over again for the first time. But I recognize that it’s a steep price to pay for a book, and not everyone will react to it the same way I did.

My suggestion: see if you can get it from the library. Also unlike most books I review, this one isn’t indie, at least not in the sense we normally use the term. It was published in 2004 by DAW Books, which is a reasonably well-known publisher of science-fiction. As a result, there may be more physical copies in existence than of most books I review, and a greater chance that libraries might possess some of them.

About those copies… being the nosy little sneak that I am, I tried to find some way to contact Judson. I failed, but I did find his blog, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. There, I found a post of his where he says that Fitzpatrick’s War:

…may be the least read book ever printed by a major house. I think in hard-cover and paperback editions put together it sold less than two hundred copies world-wide.

I recommend reading Judson’s entire post, and bookmarking it to refer to whenever someone asserts that traditional publishers help with marketing.

No, the fact is, book publishers and reviewers would much rather focus their efforts on promoting reliably salable titles by internationally famous writers. So, if we non-famous people want books promoted, we’ve just got to do the job ourselves. Judson may have written off Fitzpatrick’s War as having “died an ignoble death,” but I think he’s a bit of a crapehanger. (Which is understandable in anyone who has studied history as extensively as he obviously has.) Many now-classic works of literature were lost and forgotten for decades or even centuries before they took their place in the Canons of Literary Art.

If you can somehow get yourself a copy, you must read Fitzpatrick’s War. It’s weird, I know, to have to go to some trouble to enjoy a piece of media in this era of instant content delivery, but perhaps this is fitting given some of the book’s themes.

As for me, I plan to read it again to check for subtleties I may have missed. Then I’ll probably lend it to one or two family members who I think would like it. After that’s done, I’ll certainly consider sending my copy to friends of the blog who may wish to read it and can’t get hold of it otherwise. This book is too good, and people need to read it, and decide for themselves if Robert Mayfair Bruce is a hero or a traitor.

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.

The story of why I read this book begins with a tweet. The author asked what people thought of the cover.

I have to say, I don’t love the cover. Not that it’s bad; because it isn’t. Rather, it just looks like every other cover out there. I feel like a lot of books have faces on the cover, and small wonder, because the eye is instinctively drawn to human faces. The problem is, book marketers have learned this.

But I was impressed that the author was even asking about this. And so I decided, why not pick the book up and give it a try?

I didn’t expect to like it. Early on, it felt like the sort of book I’d put aside and not re-open, as it begins by introducing us to the rather irritating Isabella Jaramillo, a rich, famous, and altogether spoiled professional time traveler. She has the world at her fingertips, and yet she’s rude, angry, and greedy.

But something made me keep going. I got interested as Isabella’s equally unlikable husband decided to strand her in the past as an act of revenge. Isabella started having to make her own way in a world totally alien to her.

The characters of the medieval town to which she is exiled all felt extremely real, too. The characters were well-written and nuanced, and none of them felt flat or clichéd. I felt like I could understand and sympathize with them, even the antagonists. They are a different people, shaped by the harshness of the time and place they were born into, but still complicated and human. And slowly, Isabella starts to be shaped by it, too.

Then the book shifted back to the future and the time-traveler organization, where Isabella’s father Alfredo is frantically trying to find out what’s become of his daughter. But he too has a murky past, and slowly it becomes clear that there are many conflicting agendas at play. The past, or perhaps I should say the pasts, begin to catch up with the powerful men who play at being Gods.

McTiernan displays a wonderful skill at knowing just when to switch from what plot thread to another, keeping the reader hooked on every development, waiting to see what happened next. In other words, by the time I was a third of the way in, the book had totally won me over, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

In last week’s book review, I mentioned the harshness of life as a medieval peasant, contrasted with the ease of our modern age. Well, this book demonstrates exactly that, as Isabella is forced to cast aside all the privileges and luxuries she once enjoyed and survive in brutal and unforgiving circumstances.

So often, when I read books about the past, they make one of two errors: either they make the past just like the present, only with the thinnest veneer of Middle Ages clichés ill-concealing a modern sensibility, or else they paint the past as miserable and unenlightened, a world of nothing but ignorant stock-characters.

I’m happy to report this book avoids both pitfalls. The people of the past feel real; both in terms of being different from ourselves in terms of values and beliefs, while at the same time having a core of humanity that makes them relatable.

The book is both science-fiction and historical fiction; both an alternate future with some dystopian elements as well a good old-fashioned adventure/romance. It’s also brimming with interesting religious themes, though I’m probably the wrong person to analyze those.

I started off thinking I’d hate this book and wouldn’t finish it, and by the end, I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what happens next. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so you should know that not all the questions it raises will be answered in this volume, but it’s still a fantastic story.

This is a cybercrime techno-thriller about a hacker who finds himself entrapped in an elaborate blackmail scheme. He’s forced to recruit old friends from his past in an effort to save himself.

What I liked most about the book was the setting. It’s a classic cyber-dystopia, with omnipresent surveillance and ongoing threats of pandemics. The atmosphere was creepy and disturbing, without being distracting.

Also, the technical details of all the hacking and counter-hacking were well done. I could follow what was going on without getting bogged down in the details.

I did struggle with some of the characters, in particular the protagonist. Let’s just say that, while he is the victim of a crime, he is far from innocent of wrongdoing himself. This made it hard for me to feel much sympathy for him.

However, if you can get past that, the book certainly makes for a fast-paced and exciting page-turner. Also, that cover is spectacular, isn’t it? Makes me think of Ghost in the Shell a little.

This is a fascinating, and at times challenging, sci-fi book. It tells the story of Beryl, a post-human entity–effectively, a god, or at least a titan–sentenced to be trapped on Earth in a sickly human body as punishment for his crimes against the post-human order.  The nature of these crimes is not apparent until later in the book, but it’s clear they strike against everything their culture values.

Wandering the nearly-desolated planet, Beryl eventually comes into contact with a woman named Fife, who has been happily living in a virtual reality pod for what amounts to innumerable “in-game” lifespans, honing her skills in all manner of simulations. When they finally meet “IRL” Fife is everything Beryl is not: plucky, optimistic, and competent. Beryl regards her as an “airhead gamer,” but reluctantly joins her “party,” seeing it as his best bet for escaping a planet he loathes.

Gathering two more lost individuals and one spaceship, they manage to depart the Earth, but doing so quickly draws the attention of the psst-humans who exiled Beryl in the first place. Unable to escape their godlike powers, he is forced to confront his past and try to find a way to atone for many mistakes.

It’s an interesting book about humanity and mortality. The most relatable and likable character is Fife, who never stops working to bring out the best in everyone she meets. I have to admit; I’d have preferred she be the protagonist over the often-morose Beryl. Still, she plays a pivotal part in the story all the same.

Now, I know this will sound a bit rich coming from me, the man who hates description and has been repeatedly and justifiably knocked for not including enough of it. But, I felt the book needed more description. Not a lot more, as that would bog things down, but just a little more to ground the reader in the world. Beryl and the other post-humans’ perceptions of reality are so alien as to be hard to comprehend. (It reminded me a bit of the visions of Paul Atreides in Dune.)

Still, I am the last guy to put down a book because it doesn’t have much description, so this isn’t a major criticism. If you like trippy, challenging sci-fi that encourages you to think about the nature of humanity, this is a good book to read. And especially if you are a gamer, as many of Fife’s observations from the world of simulations will feel familiar to veteran players of RPGs. Gamers and sci-fi fans should definitely give this one a try.