TEThis is a departure from the kind of book I normally review. I mostly focus on reviewing modern indie books. This book was published in 1974, and while it isn’t exactly a famous book, it’s reasonably well-known. (375 ratings on Goodreads.)

So, why am I reviewing it? Well, I picked it up on a lark after seeing the cover and decided to give it a try. It’s sci-fi, which I like, and it follows a team of researchers exploring a distant planet.

The protagonist is researcher Ian Macauley, an introverted and extremely intelligent man who is part of the new rotation of scientists journeying to the world of Sigma Draconis. Supervising the team is General Ordoñez-Vico, an authoritarian martinet with little appreciation for science and a great deal of paranoia. Ordoñez-Vico is authorized to make a recommendation to the Earth authorities on whether the mission should continue, and all the science team walks on eggshells to avoid enraging him.

This makes their already difficult task more complicated, as they are facing the incredible challenge of reasoning out what befell the race of beings known as the Draconians, an intelligent race which went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a very short period of time–and then to extinction shortly thereafter.

The science team is an international coalition of researchers–brilliant people from various fields and all different backgrounds. And even so, they all find themselves turning to Ian for inspiration, as his brilliant, empathic mind–which he likens to a “haunted house”–tries to unravel the mystery.

The characters are well fleshed-out and believable. There’s a romantic subplot between Ian and Cathy, another member of the team, and it doesn’t feel tacked on at all; it seems completely believable and emotionally consistent.

There isn’t much “conflict” in the typical sense; it’s really a mystery. The main plot is centered on uncovering what happened to the Draconians. Some readers might find the middle section of the book a bit talky–it’s a fairly realistic depiction of scholars arguing over theories–but personally, I liked it. It made for a compelling intellectual exercise, and while it’s sometimes a bit verbose, it makes sense that scientists would have discussions like this.

Another terrific concept is the method Ian uses to try to get “in the minds” of the extinct race. I won’t spoil it, but it really is ingenious.

Something else I won’t spoil is the answer to how the Draconians went extinct. The ending of the book does explain that, in a way I found satisfying and logical. And there is a resolution for the human characters’ storylines as well. Though here I’ll risk a little bit of spoilage to note that readers should be warned: this isn’t an upbeat book. I won’t say too much, but don’t expect the sort of sci-fi story that ends with a victory parade and a medal ceremony, let’s just leave it at that.

There are a lot of elements of the horror genre in Total Eclipse. The premise of a team of scientists researching alien life in a remote and forbidding setting is a classic horror concept that runs from At The Mountains of Madness through Who Goes There? up to the Alien prequel Prometheus. Yet, this isn’t a horror novel, or at least not in a monster story kind of way. There is horror, but of a more subtle, realistic kind, and blended very closely with the wonder of exploring a new world, utterly different from our own.

The horror and the wonder mingle together to produce a profoundly weird and memorable mood. It’s something close to the feeling of sublime terror that the literary Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to evoke with Gothic fiction, and yet at no point does it suggest there are magical or supernatural elements at work. The “science” in “science fiction” is definitely emphasized throughout.

And now–even though I promised I would try to stop doing this–a word about the cover. Or rather the covers.

The cover for the Kindle edition that I have is just whatever. It fulfills the minimum requirement of having the author’s name and the title displayed clearly and legibly, but other than that, has no artistic merit whatsoever.

The cover for the paperback edition, pictured above, is a major reason I bought this book. I saw it on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and I fell in love at once. Look at it–it’s beautiful. Mysterious, evocative and intriguing. To me, the style of art that went on the covers of these classic sci-fi tales was something of a high point for cover design. Modern photo editing software allows cover designers to create wonderfully realistic images, but these often fail to capture that unique blend of star-gazing romanticism and gritty reality that these older covers do.

Hart for AdventureBack 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.]

fhI 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:

M and M

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.

ihuThis is a short science-fiction story. Like Hays’ short story Dual Void, it packs a lot of complex philosophical and scientific ideas into a few words. It begins with a professor of astronomy who specializes in Big Bang Cosmology lecturing to an Astronomy 101 class, and proceeds to take the reader on a whirlwind ride that leaves one questioning the nature of reality, the meaning of the universe, and other such deep questions. It reminded me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.” IHU is more surreal, but just as existential.

I can’t say a lot more about the book, given how short it is. Not that I’m concerned I’d “spoil” it, exactly; because that implies giving away some information that explains the whole story. This isn’t a story that can be explained; rather, it’s one of those fictional works that makes you ask questions, that teases your brain a little.  And I liked that a lot. One of the great things about science-fiction is how it can make you ponder deep questions like these.

IHU is a good, quick read for anyone who enjoys stories that make you think about complex, abstract concepts.

Scout's HonorI love classic science fiction. It may seem corny to some, but there’s a wonderful charm to those vintage pulp stories of science fiction’s Golden Age.

Scout’s Honor is a flawlessly-executed homage to that era. Conventional wisdom about judging books notwithstanding, this is one case where the cover tells you exactly what this is: a love-letter to the space-faring, swashbuckling adventures of yore.

The protagonist is Terran Scout David Rice, who crash lands on the planet Aashla, and soon finds himself fighting to protect the beautiful Princess Callan  from raiders, kidnappers, and armies of rival kingdoms. The inhabitants of Aashla are primitive compared with the advanced technology Rice possesses, but even with his technological superiority, he finds himself needing all his strength and wits to survive.

Along with the princess and her guard, Rice sets out on a fast-paced adventure full of dangerous beasts, alien thugs, and court intrigue. There are airship battles and gladiatorial duels in sewer tunnels. And of course, despite the breakneck pace and the constant danger, Rice and Callan find themselves falling in love.

The story is told in bite-sized chapters, each of which ends with a cliffhanger. I loved this.   Just when one threat seems eliminated, a new one appears. It’s relentless, but in a fun way. I was always eager to see how Rice and company would escape each unpleasant surprise.

Description is minimal, but there is enough suggested through the action that I could picture the scenes effectively. There are a whole host of supporting characters who were quite entertaining in their own right. Martin Bane was a particular favorite of mine; I enjoyed the way his character developed.

There are times when I just feel like escaping into a fun imaginary world, and Scout’s Honor is the perfect way to do that. It’s easy to read, hard to put down, and an all-around delightful way to spend a few hours for fans of sci-fi and fantasy alike.

BBBinary Boy is a short story about a young boy named Devin, raised by two intelligent machines aboard a spaceship. All the rest of the ship’s crew, including Devin’s parents, have been killed by a virus sweeping the ship. Devin alone survived, thanks to his having been sealed away as part of his recovery from cancer.

The two machines that raise him, Ark and Rue, have vastly different personalities, but both in their way teach the young boy how to survive. He comes to view them as his parents, and to wish that he were an invincible machine, instead of a weak human.

Because of the largely disastrous outcome of the mission, Ark and Rue have opted to return the ship to earth—which Devin is dreading. When they finally near the planet, it becomes clear that Earth has fallen on… well, I’ll just say “hard times,” and leave it at that. To survive, Devin has to leave Ark and Rue behind and venture onto what is, to him, a threatening and alien world.

It’s a tight, well-written science fiction tale. All three major characters are efficiently described, and I really liked the contrast between Ark’s warm, soft personality and Rue’s pragmatic, engineering mindset.

If the book has a flaw, it’s that it ends too soon! I wanted to find out more about what Devin would do. And yes, this is book one of a series, but from reading the description of book two, I gather that it’s not a continuation of the same story. 

On the other hand, I sort of understand, because it would be challenging to continue the story given what happens to Devin in the last act. It’s full of intriguing possibilities that simultaneously beg to be explored but would be very difficult, if not downright impossible to write—at least, if it continued from Devin’s perspective.

This is a quick read that nevertheless manages to create an interesting world with strong characters. Fans of all types of sci-fi will certainly want to give it a read.

Small PrintSmall Print is a collection of four sci-fi short stories, all premised around the ways in which advanced technology can disrupt the lives of organic life forms.

In “Data,” a skilled hacker’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds out more about his employer’s use of data than he would have liked. In “Juliet,” the subject of an experimental space exploration mission struggles to cope with the loneliness of space. In “Small Print,” a technician on a lunar base encounters a clerical error with severe consequences, and in “Shelley,” a young woman grapples with a mysterious trauma from her childhood.

All the stories are well-written and interesting. I liked “Juliet” the best—it ends with a surprise twist that makes an already powerful story even more poignant. “Shelley” was the weakest in my opinion—which is not to say that it was bad—but I just felt the ending was too abrupt, and the main character’s mother didn’t react to certain developments the way I would have expected her to, based on her earlier behavior.

“Data” was particularly hard-hitting, given how many big governments, corporations, and other large faceless entities have recently become fascinated by “big data,” it’s easy to imagine them abusing it just as they do in this story.

“Small Print” was probably the most complex and layered story in the collection. There’s a lot going on here, much of which I liked. I won’t spoil it, but space ghosts are a thing in this story, and you know that’s going to be a winner with me. However, there were other aspects that were a bit confusing—I had to read the story twice before I fully “got” it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I felt like some more fleshing out would have made it better.

I think that’s true of every story in this collection, except maybe “Juliet,” which felt quite complete. They all are promising concepts, but left me wanting more. Which is a very good thing—it’s much better to have a good concept in need of more detail than a weak concept that you try to drag out. I look forward to reading more of Scobie’s work in the future.

Twisted Tales 2These stories are ideal for when you just want something quick and light. After reading some long, emotionally-charged novels, I find it’s a perfect change of pace to read one of Drayden’s weird tales. My mother told me once that in ancient Greek drama, after the heavy tragedies were over, they would close the evening out with a slapstick comedy.* That’s kind of what this is, and it works beautifully as a break after reading a serious novel.

If you read my review of Volume One in this series, all you need to know is that this is more of the same. If there’s a difference, it’s that the first volume was more sci-fi in tone, and this one is more fantasy/horror. But that’s the only difference–otherwise, these stories exhibit the same twisted sense of humor and the same bite-sized length.

Again, these stories are very short, so I won’t review them in-depth. Half the fun is realizing what the concept of the story is, as they each usually involve combining some mundane, familiar concept with something from the world of mythology or fantasy. The stylistic parallel to the comic strip The Far Side that I noted in my review of Volume One still holds.

If you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll notice some people complain about the brevity of these tales. This, in my opinion, just speaks to how tough the book market is. It may not seem like much to readers, but it takes a non-trivial amount of effort to come up with four funny stories, write them all down, proofread them, and get them published. The thing only costs 99 cents, for heaven’s sakes! 99 cents for a few good chuckles is a bargain, in my opinion.

With that said, you can get a set containing Volumes One through Six of this series, also for 99 cents, if you’re really serious about maximizing the quantity of stories you get for your money. Drayden’s stories are the perfect little treat for when you want to read something to tickle your imagination, but don’t want to commit to a whole novel.

(*My mom is a classicist. I didn’t want you thinking she was actually around in Ancient Greece. 🙂 )

VokhtahI’ve known about this book for a few years, but I kept putting off reading it because the premise seemed so forbidding. It’s set on another planet—Vokhtah—and the characters are all aliens. Well, alien to us, I mean–they are the creatures that evolved on Vokhtah. Not a human to be found, is my point. It’s intimidatingly exotic and strange, and that’s why I didn’t read it for so long, even though I enjoyed Flory’s other, unrelated sci-fi novel Miira. 

And for sure, Vokhtah is strange. The most intelligent creatures that inhabit the eponymous planet are a species—or really two closely-related species—with characteristics suggestive of birds, bats and perhaps insects. To make things even tougher, they don’t have names; only titles and ranks. There are traders, plodders, apprentices, healers, and a range of characters referred to only as numbers. Not only that, they are hermaphroditic—so, before mating, they have no defined genders.

Technology on Vokhtah is primitive—it appears to be largely what we would consider Stone or maybe early Bronze Age, although some references are made to machinery of some sort, but it’s not clear exactly how it works. There are different seasons that dictate the tribes’ customs, and time is kept according to the planet’s two suns.

And then there is the language. Obviously, the book is written in English, but the characters speak their dialogue with a different grammar. For example, instead of saying, “Are you hungry,” they would say, “Being hungry?” I don’t think the word “is” occurs once in this book. It gives you the feeling that you’re genuinely reading something spoken in a different language and translated into the closest approximation possible in our own tongue.

I’m telling you all this to prepare you up front: Vokhtah is not a typical or familiar book. The first half or so, you have to get acclimated to the alien planet and its population, their customs, and their ways of life. 

Flory does a great job crafting a profoundly different world. Even though I will admit that in the first half I found the story hard to follow, it really didn’t matter because I was just enjoying experiencing the atmosphere. Although it was sometimes hard for me to tell who characters were and how they related to the larger thread of the plot, it didn’t bother me, because I was just enjoying reading these fascinating little vignettes of life on this world.

My favorite of these is the dramatic performance of an old piece of Vokh lore—the story of the Great Nine and the Rogue. We learn that there are actually two versions of this story, and finding out the differences between the two versions and why they exist is just a fantastic concept. I loved this part.

Over the second half of the book, things coalesce, characterizations take shape, and I found myself sympathizing with members of this bird/bat/bug species more than I ever would have believed possible. The journey of the Messenger and the Apprentice along the Spine of the World (great name) was riveting. There’s even a little bit of a mystery element to it as well, which I won’t spoil here.

Yes, this book is different and weird and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. But that’s the point!  If intelligent life exists on other planets, it’s going to be bizarre and foreign and at least semi-incomprehensible to human intellects. Reading this book really did feel like being transported to an alien world, and that was fantastic. I wish I’d read it sooner, because it really is a master-class in world-building. Vokhtah is a haunting, vividly-constructed depiction of a fascinating world—one I’d happily revisit.

FPThe First Protectors is a fast-paced military sci-fi novel. One night in the New Mexico desert, Navy SEAL Ben Shepherd encounters a crash-landed extraterrestrial being, which endows him with nanomachine augmentations to turn him into a nearly-invincible super-soldier. 

The alien also imparts the history of its species, the brin, a race that fought a brave but ultimately doomed war against another alien species, the mrill, that eventually conquered the brin’s planet. Indeed, the brin who provides this information is killed by a pursuing mrill shortly afterward.

And, Ben learns, the mrills’ next target is Earth. A scout force is already on the way. Ben races to inform his superiors in the military of what he has learned, and provide them with the schematics the brin have given him for how to build weaponry that just might give humanity a fighting chance against the coming invasion.

Earth is plunged into chaos, as the governments of the world scramble to prepare. Ben and some of his SEAL buddies ready themselves to lead the way with their technological enhancements, while politicians, generals and scientists throw all their resources at building technologies they scarcely understand. Of course, not everyone on earth believes the alien invasion story, and soon there are rebel groups trying to seize the moment for their own ends.

All too soon, the mrill arrive, and Ben and company are thrust into massive space, air and ground battles against a terrifying, implacable enemy.

It’s a fast-paced novel, with major battle sequences that unfold at breakneck speed. Godinez’s prose reminds me of Carrie Rubin’s knack for writing easy-to-visualize, thrill-a-minute action scenes. What limited description there is focuses on the military hardware that humanity and the aliens put into the field—from A-10 warthogs to M1 Abrams tanks to futuristic starfighters. Think Tom Clancy meets Robert Heinlein.

It’s a classic alien invasion story, evoking everything from “War of the Worlds” to Mass Effect and Halo. (There’s even an explicit reference to the latter.) The basic concept might not be anything new, but it’s so well-done you can’t help but enjoy it. There might not be a lot of depth or nuance, but that’s okay. It’s not that kind of book. It’s a thrilling adventure story with tons of explosions, big guns, and wise-cracking heroes. 

I sometimes hear people say it’s hard to get young boys to read, but I bet they would read this. Godinez tells the story so well you can practically see it unfolding like a movie or video game in your mind’s eye. Though admittedly, the language may not be suitable for kids—the Navy SEALs talk pretty much like one would expect Navy SEALs to.

It was interesting to read this shortly after one of Lorinda J. Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds among the Stars books. Both are sci-fi, and I enjoyed both a great deal, but they present a tremendous contrast in styles. Taylor’s books are deep character studies, with a heavy focus on world-building and characterization. About the only chance anyone has for introspection in The First Protectors are during brief lulls in battle, or tense minutes of reflection before cataclysmic decisions must be made. (Not to spoil too much, but if anyone remembers back to when I reviewed the non-fiction book Raven Rock well, let’s just say there are some scenes that take place deep within US government bunkers that feel quite nerve-wracking and eerily plausible, quite apart from any alien threat.)

My complaints about the book are quite minor: a few phrases that are re-used (e.g. the construction “If not a sitting duck, then at least a [something else] duck” is used more than once.) But for the most part, the writing is crisp, with some clever turns of phrase. I found only one actual typo—which is extremely good for an indie book.

Also, the ending felt just a tad abrupt, although it’s quite clear that it’s setting up a sequel. You can be sure I’ll read that whenever it comes out.

Finally, some readers might be turned off by the relatively high price of The First Protectors. It’s currently going for $9.27 on Kindle. This is definitely expensive for an eBook, but personally, I don’t mind paying this price. It’s almost exactly the same as the average cost of a movie ticket, and it takes about 5-6 hours to read the book, whereas the typical movie is over in about two hours. I’m not saying that time-per-dollar is the final determinant of quality, but it’s not a bad measure. Especially in this case, when the book feels like the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster. 

Frankly, I’m glad to see someone charging this kind of price for a book, because there’s no doubt that most indie authors feel pressure to sell fantastic work at bottom-of-the-barrel prices. That said, everyone has their own budget constraints for entertainment, so it feels only right to mention this. But speaking for myself, I got more enjoyment for my $9.27 spent on The First Protectors than I have from some films. If you like military sci-fi, this is for you.