Colors of the DeadI picked this book up after Kevin Brennan blogged about it. I assumed it was about a planet of zombies or something. I don’t like zombie stories much, but I figured I’d give it a whirl.

My initial impression was kind of off. I was picturing explorers being chased by zombies on a remote planet, and that’s not exactly what happens. There are space explorers, and there are zombies, and there is a remote planet… but it all combines in a surprising and interesting way.

What really stands out to me about this book are the characters: the space explorer Derek Rain, leading an expedition to the distant world of Draconis IV. His girlfriend Lydia Torch back on Earth, trying to cope with the guilt she feels after surviving a horrific space exploration accident of her own. A young orphan boy named Kito being raised by nuns. Prisha, the sister of one of Rain’s expeditionary crew, stuck back on Earth caring for her elderly mother.

Each of these characters’ threads gradually draw together, beginning with Rain and his crew making an unsettling discovery on Draconis IV. Soon, apocalyptic events begin to erupt back on Earth. I wasn’t entirely off-base with my assumptions about this book, and there are some gory zombie apocalypse scenes. There are really two different styles of horror here: the undead-armageddon scenes on Earth and the Alien-esque sense of isolated dread on Draconis IV. There’s also another sequence in the desolate badlands of Earth that has a vaguely Mad Max feel to it. 

The plot is perfectly-paced, with tension escalating in every chapter, and the different strands of the story are expertly balanced. I could picture the action unfolding as I read, and I found myself feeling almost as though I were watching a movie. 

Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say the ending struck just the right note–a satisfying resolution that also leaves the reader pondering what comes next. And it even raises some existential and philosophical questions to think on, in the vein of classic Arthur C. Clarke-style sci-fi.

Now, as I said, I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre in general, and some of the violent and gory scenes I could have lived without. Not that they were bad; just not to my taste. But the story and characters were so good I could deal with it. And fans of that brand of horror will undoubtedly find this story a real treat. 

Simply put, this is a fantastic book. It has great characters and a magnificently constructed plot. Fans of horror, science-fiction and action-adventure alike can all find plenty to enjoy here. It deserves to be widely-read, and frankly, I’d love to see it adapted for the screen. In addition to Alien and Mad Max, it also had parts that evoked Predator, Jurassic Park, Annihilation and The Mummy. It’s an absolute masterpiece of sci-fi horror.

Bird of PreyReviewing a sequel is always difficult, because the deeper I get into a series, the more spoilers from previous books there are that I have to be careful not to reveal in summarizing the plot of the latest installment. I won’t dwell too much on plot elements here. Let it suffice to say that Capt. Robbin Nikalishin is sufficiently recovered from the trauma in his past that he embarks on a new chapter in his life, but one that brings with it new challenges.

Taylor’s world-building continues to be first-rate—I particularly enjoyed her depiction of the Martian colony and the delightful term she uses for the Red Planet’s settlers: “humartians.” The sprawling world is rich with plenty of detail and a huge cast of supporting characters.

There are more philosophical asides in this book than in earlier installments—commentary from the narrator on the protagonist’s highly questionable and emotional decision-making. This is more of a romance than the previous ones. Maybe “romance” isn’t quite the term—it’s a true biographical novel, as the subtitle implies. As I was reading it, I realized that in many ways it’s a throwback to an older style of novel: the long, winding sort of tale popular in the Victorian era. Except, of course, set in the 28th century.

There’s a hint of spirituality woven in, too—as in one scene where Nikalishin and a character by the name of Fedaylia High Feather speak with a priest—or “prayst,” as he is called in the Eirish dialect. It’s a powerful scene, and reveals a lot about the characters. I won’t say much about Fedaylia High Feather. How can you resist wanting to meet a character with a name like that for yourself, eh? But I will say this: I think it’s interesting that we are informed she was born on April 30, a date which followers of this blog may recognize as the semi-obscure holiday of Walpurgis night, a sort of Spring equivalent of Halloween. And Nikalishin, of course, was born on Halloween itself. Whether the author had this in mind when choosing these dates, I don’t know, but I thought it was interesting.

As previously, Nikalishin’s pathetic inability to form normal relationships with women continues to be a problem for him, and made me want to shout “Oh, grow up, man!” And to be clear, this is a criticism of the character, not of the writing.  Taylor succeeds quite well in crafting a careful portrait of Nikalishin’s extremely irregular psychology. 

I would love to talk at length about all these peculiarities of Nikalishin’s, as well many other things, but the fact is, more people need to read these books first, and I won’t risk spoiling them for others by discussing details here, when there is a very real chance this may be the first time some readers learn of their existence. The world of The Man Who Found Birds Among The Stars is one that more science fiction lovers need to discover for themselves.


HuralonI hardly know where to begin with this review. There’s so much I love about this book, from its well thought-out and detailed futuristic world-building, to its treatment of how the history of present-day Earth is reconstructed in the distant future, to the way it blends political intrigue, action, romance and just a dash of humor into an effective story.

The novel follows the crew of ESS Springbok, a powerful military spaceship. The Springbok becomes entangled in an battle precipitated by a powerful politician’s son. From there, the crew takes on a group of rough but honorable space marines, and sees more than their share of ground and space combat as they fight through more conflicts created by the political machinations of scheming politicians and bureaucrats.

The characters are great. There’s the honorable Captain Evander McCray of the Springbok and his lover, the lethal super-spy Aja Coopersmith. The villains are eminently hate-able, and there are other characters who are neither all good nor all bad. Captain Chahine, who commands a huge ship that battles the Springbok, was a particular favorite of mine.

There are also some great references to history sprinkled throughout. Captain McCray’s interest in piecing together Earth’s history starts out as just an amusing bit of comic relief, but it ultimately becomes key to the climactic battle sequence when, inspired by Hannibal’s use of elephants, he…

Ah, no; I can’t spoil it. Because it’s brilliant. An ingenious bit of world-building that becomes important to the plot, that’s all I’ll say.

I do quibble with the number of times that secondary female characters are forced to suffer at the hands of the villains. Female characters who exist just to let baddies prove their badness is a bit of a pet peeve of mine; although I can hardly argue with its effectiveness in making readers hate the villains.

Apart from that, this is basically a perfect book for me. It came recommended by Audrey Driscoll, and as with Lorinda Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars series, I’m so grateful to her for bringing it to my attention. It’s another wonderful example of how to do sci-fi, using an imaginary futuristic world both as a vehicle for exploring deep ideas about society and human nature as well as envisioning new technologies. And it does all that while still telling a gripping story with memorable characters.

If you like sci-fi, especially military sci-fi—and I know many people who read this blog do—you have to read this book. It’s a gem of the genre, pure and simple.

Now, I have a question only an economist would ask. And the fact that I’m even asking this question is a testament to the world-building here.

The citizens of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium use the barter system. Supposedly, this makes them more advanced than the primitive Madkhal, who use fiat currency. We’re to believe that nanites and additive manufacturing eliminate the need for currency in such a developed civilization.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I have trouble buying this. (No pun intended.) If their manufacturing capabilities are really so good as that, then they haven’t made fiat currency obsolete, they’ve made trade obsolete. Either people have items of different worth for trading, or they don’t. If they do, than they need a reliable medium of exchange and store of value to express it. If they don’t, then they don’t need to trade. If you and I both have the ability to produce for ourselves everything that we need, we have no reason to trade with each other. Tell me if I’m wrong about this.

Again, it’s a credit to how invested I became in this universe that I was even thinking about this issue. So don’t let it stop you from buying—or, for that matter, bartering for—this fantastic book.

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.

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.

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.

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.

SechaThe Secha is an ambiguous and somewhat disturbing short science fiction story. The Secha are a race enslaved by another species known as the Bakkens. Although initially the female Secha narrating the story seems resigned to the Bakkens’ treatment of her and her species, gradually it becomes apparent that the order of things she seemingly takes for granted is anything but pleasant.

There isn’t much detailed description of the Secha, which makes their exact physiology a mystery. I liked this; it left it to the reader to imagine their characteristics. The Bakkens are described in a bit more detail, as are another species known as the Ediks.

The disturbing part comes as the Secha describes the things to which the Bakkens subject her and others of her species. It is both interesting and unsettling; and all the more so because of the ambiguity regarding just what the Secha are. 

Like some other science fiction I’ve reviewed lately, it’s short, but raises a lot of interesting questions for readers to ponder.