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.

This book would make a great movie! It would be like Jurassic Park meets Aliens, with a bit of Predator thrown in. Instead of making endless sequels and prequels and reboots, the movie people ought to try adapting a lesser-known story like this one.

“Okay, Berthold; slow down,” you say. “What’s this book even about?”

Well, it’s set in the 23rd century, and tells the story of Nick Dekker, owner of the reigning champion women’s soccer team, the Los Angeles Hawks. Dekker sees an ad for an interplanetary safari, and decides it would be an excellent off-season activity for his team. Although Britt Jewel, the team’s coach and also Dekker’s girlfriend, is not excited about big-game hunting, he convinces her to go, and the rest of the team soon signs up as well.

Things start off well. The Regulus, the spaceship which transports them across the galaxy, is full of top-tier amenities, including a gym where Dekker spends most of his time fulfilling a promise to Jewel that he’ll get back in shape. It’s almost like a luxury cruise.

Except, not quite. Dekker is troubled early on by the presence of military personnel, most notably Capt. Luke Webb, a veteran of the Deep Space Infantry, who commands a unit of extremely lethal experimental combat robots. Dekker, a former space marine himself, begins to suspect this is something more than just a vacation.

His suspicions prove justified. Not long after landing on the first planet, they encounter a hostile species of intelligent aliens, soon dubbed the “Gorgon.” In response to the threat, Capt. Webb conscripts all the Hawks players into military service under his command.

What follows is textbook military sci-fi: plasma rifles, high-tech combat suits and the aforementioned combat robots get thrown into action against an alien army.  Of course, I loved it.

Moreover, though they’re both fighting the aliens, there’s some real tension between Dekker and Webb. Dekker distrusts the dictatorial officer’s motives, given his repeated withholding of important military intelligence from the rest of the group, while at the same time treating them as his own fighting force.

I do have some criticisms of the book. First, there’s a little too much exposition at the front. Now, I don’t mind a book that slowly builds up a world, and I hate the modern trend of having to start every story off with a bang. So, I don’t mind this too much, but some readers might find it slow going.

Second, I have a few problems with how the dialogue is written. It feels very stilted at times, like a bit too much explanatory matter for the reader has been included. Also, Dekker has this habit of telling everyone to call him by his first name, to the point that with every person he talks to, he seems to have a conversation like this:

“Hi, I’m Nick Dekker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dekker.”

“Please, call me Nick.”

“Okay, Nick.”

This got a bit repetitive after a while.

But, I enjoyed the story so much that I could readily overlook these issues. Like I said, I can easily imagine this being a movie, and it would be a really good movie. The problems with exposition would disappear, as that sort of material can be conveyed much faster with film. And, this book is the first entry in a series, so the movie folks can rest assured they have plenty of sequel material lined up already.

If you enjoy military sci-fi adventures, give this one a try.

I saw this book in Lydia Schoch’s weekly thread of free books a couple weeks ago, and it looked interesting. You all know the famous warning about judging and covers, but what can I say? This one caught my eye. I advise you to study it for a moment, and think about what kind of book you expect it to be.

The character on the cover is Philippa Roy, a successful politician who serves as U.S. Secretary of State from 2041 to 2045. The book is presented as her memoir of her time in office, which starts off fairly ordinarily enough, recounting her early political career, in which she makes combating climate change a major priority.

Her early successes raise her national profile, which leads to her appointment to the State Department. However, she soon learns a disturbing truth: the U.S. government has been concealing the existence of extraterrestrials, with whom they have been in contact ever since the famed Roswell Incident.

The President reveals this to her because alien technology is humanity’s last hope of reversing the effects of climate change. And so, Secretary Roy enters into tense negotiations with beings from another world, attempting to convince them to share their advanced technology.

Of course, she also still has to juggle various Earthly political rivalries, both in the form of domestic and global opponents. My favorite was her relationship with the Russian President, who, despite being a villain, was perhaps the most entertaining character in the story.

Also, as most of you know, I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, and Roswell / Area 51 is fertile ground for same. As an aficionado of classic Coast to Coast AM, back when Art Bell was the host, the parts of the story that concerned the government covering up their dealings with “our friends upstairs” gave me a warm, nostalgic glow. I loved every minute of Secretary Roy’s gradual uncovering of the clandestine operations of the “dark state”. (How cool of a term is that, by the way? I bet Mike Lofgren wishes he thought of it.)

This brings me at last to the “political” angle of the story. Just last week, I was tweeting about how much I prefer reviewing indie books to blogging about politics. But I guess I have to say a word or two about it here.

Some readers might disagree with Secretary Roy’s policies. Some may find them too left-wing. Others may find them not left-wing enough. Such are the joys of politics! My advice: don’t get hung up on details like this. Obviously, for the plot of the book to work, the main character needed to be a high-ranking official in the U.S. government, and to make that make sense, the author needed to give her a plausible political background and corresponding set of policies.

I myself did not agree with every one of Roy’s policies. But that did not detract from my enjoyment of the book one bit. While the author obviously put a lot of thought into making the political aspect of the book believable, it’s a science-fiction story in the tradition of Childhood’s End and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and should be treated as such. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a sci-fi horror novella. The setting is a ship on a deep space voyage, which is temporarily knocked off course by a collision with an asteroid.

I can’t say too much more about the plot, because this is a short book, and if I say much, I’ll spoil everything. All I’ll say is if you enjoy stories like Who Goes There? or Alien, you’ll enjoy this one.

What I want to talk about instead are the setting and the characters. Especially one character, Sage, a scientist whose knowledge of chemistry becomes very important in the second half of the story. Despite her brilliance, she’s rather prickly and a little paranoid. (The latter quality ultimately serves her well.)

Nor can I blame her, because there are aspects of the society on the ship that are somewhat creepy. There is an A.I. that is designed to keep the peace among the crew members. One of the ways it does this is by deploying drones that fine people for displays of anger, including even very mild profanity.

I expected this would play a bigger part in the story, although it sort of disappears (for logical reasons) about halfway through. But I would be curious to see this aspect of society on the ship explored in more detail.

All in all, this is a good scary story that blends the science-fiction and the horror elements well and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

There I was, thinking to myself, wouldn’t it be nice to read a cyberpunk book right about now? And then, thanks to a timely retweet from the incomparable Carrie Rubin, this book came to my attention. It was like it was meant to be.

The Copernicus Coercion is a cyber thriller about two hackers, Brock and Kathryn K, who quickly find themselves drawn into an intricate conspiracy. This book hits all the cyberpunk notes: we have hackers with embedded implants that provide continuous network access, shady back-alley surgeons providing illegal cybernetic augmentation, super-powerful artificial intelligences that become eerily human, a group of gray hat hackers operating out of an old church, and most importantly, sinister plots by shadowy elites.

Naturally, I ate it up. If you like cyberpunk stories, you’re probably going to like this. And despite the requisite tech-heavy aspects of the plot, Scobie was careful to make the characters strong, too. From the interaction between the two protagonists, to minor characters like the hacker-priest at the church or even an amateur carjacker, most of the characters in the book are interesting and memorable.

If I have any complaints about the book, it’s that the ending felt a bit rushed, and the character who functions as the final antagonist isn’t as well fleshed-out as the rest of the cast. It’s not a major problem, and generally, I’m of the opinion that if the journey is enjoyable, I can forgive a flawed ending. And The Copernicus Coercion is certainly an enjoyable journey.

In another serendipitous occurrence, I happened to be reading this book at the same time as I was reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The issues Kurzweil examines in that work of ’90s futurism are explored in an entertaining way in this novel, so it makes a perfect complement. If you want a fun story that also poses some interesting questions about humanity’s relationship to technology, pick this one up.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a deeply strange book. It is set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire still exists, and has evolved into a starfaring civilization. There is also a strong mystical element involving something called the Godstream, which is evidently some powerful, magical energy which grants great power.

And of course, as in the original Roman Empire, there are political machinations aplenty as various noblemen and women scheme for power. There are betrayals heaped upon betrayals, and ever-shifting alliances.

The first half of the book I admit was pretty dense, with lots of world-building I found hard to understand. It may just be my own literal mindedness; but I initially struggled to form a clear picture of what was happening. I did get strong Dune vibes, though, which is on balance a good thing. (Maybe with the exception of imitating Frank Herbert’s technique of frequent italicized thoughts to deliver exposition. But hey, if it worked for Herbert, it can’t be all bad.)

The second half of the book turned into more of a classic adventure type story. If not for the occasional references to philosophy and mysticism, I practically would have thought I was reading a Henry Vogel novel. There is a brave hero fleeing from two competing groups of villains, a beautiful slave woman he rescues in the process, and a wild battle in a gladiatorial arena.

This gladiator scene was the highlight of the book for me. The star is the gladiator Deimos. It’s the only chapter he’s in out of the entire book, but he has a complete story arc in that one chapter.

After that, there’s more mysticism, although it seems less esoteric this time, and more intrigue, back-stabbing, and a final battle. The ending feels satisfying, even though there were still some things I didn’t fully grok.

What to make of this book? Well, at times it was heavy-going. Partly, that’s because of all the Latin terms the author uses to create the setting. I liked this, but at the same time, it made it hard to keep track of who was who. Those more familiar with Roman naming customs may not find this to be a problem.

Then there’s also the mysticism element. I think the author was trying to make a point about philosophy, or maybe even about the nature of divinity, but I admit I couldn’t tell what it was. Again, that might be indicative of my own lack of understanding rather than a problem with the book.

Overall, I found it a tough but ultimately rewarding read. If you like deep sci-fi, with some adventure elements thrown in, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a classic space-opera style adventure. The protagonist, a starfarer or “starfer” named Riel Dunbar finds himself with a night of leave on his homeworld of Isvalar, a world home to an active nightlife. He meets up with another starfer, an adventurous soul named Cera Marn, and is quickly swept up with the roguish Marn into one wild escapade after another.

Basically, if you’ve enjoyed the other Litka books I’ve reviewed, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this one. There are fights with gangs of thugs reminiscent of Keiree, and Marn herself reminded me more than a little of Ren Loh, the daring, often inconsiderate and rebellious noblewoman from Beneath the Lanterns. She even uses Loh’s signature line, “Pff!” when dismissing our more risk-averse protagonist’s concerns. And of course, against his better judgment, he goes along with her. I can’t blame him; I’d do the same.

At times, I found the action a little hard to follow. There are so many new worlds, characters, and technologies packed into such a short book that it made my head spin a bit. But, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the overall tale. I liked Marn a lot, and she’s really what makes this story flow. Even if she turns out to be not quite what she appeared at first, I found her an entertaining character.

This is a novella, originally published on Kindle Vella, and the ending leaves room for plenty more adventures. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the world Litka has created here, with its inter-gang turf wars and neuro-blade fights. It’s just a good old fashioned throwback to Golden Age sci-fi.

[Audio version of this post available here.]