Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

Throwback Thursday: Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry

Dogs of War Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 April 2017)

Series: Joe Ledger – Book Nine

Length: 17 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry, the 9th novel in the action-packed, over-the-top Joe Ledger series.

People familiar with my blog will be aware that over the last year or so I have been making my way through Maberry’s Joe Ledger science fiction thriller novels.  I have been a little obsessed with these books ever since I first checked out the 10th novel in the series, Deep Silence, and then went all the way back to book one, Patient Zero, to see how the series started.  Ever since then I have worked my way through the rest of the Joe Ledger novels, each of which has proven to be a pretty top notch read.  I absolutely love the clever writing style, unique stories and distinctive characters that Maberry features in these novels, and I usually power through them in extremely short order.  Dogs of War is no exception, as I was able to get through this in less than a week and it did not take long for me to get addicted to its intriguing and exciting plot.

Following the disastrous events of Kill Switch, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a secret American counterterrorist unit that focuses on dangerous and unusual technology and science, is damaged and discredited.  However, they are still determined to do good throughout the world, and their main field agent, the legendary Joe Ledger, is always keen for a new case.  So when his brother calls him out of the blue with an unusual mystery, Ledger does not hesitate to head back to Baltimore in order to investigate.

Arriving in his former hometown, Ledger discovers a curious set of circumstances.  A young street worker went on a rampage, killing several people before dying herself.  The cause of her madness appears to be a new strain of rabies, which was apparently triggered by nanobots in her brain.  Attempting to investigate more into the case, Ledger finds himself and his family targeted by ruthless killers with advanced technology, determined to ward him off the case.  It soon becomes apparent that the death of the young girl in Baltimore is just the tip of the iceberg, as other mysterious events and attacks occur across America, many of them targeting members of the DMS.  A new enemy has risen from the ashes of the DMS’s old foes, and she is determined to bring about a new world order.  Worse, the DMS’s most dangerous enemy has returned, ready to rain chaos and destruction down on the entire world.  Can Ledger and his team defeat this ruthless team of villains before it is too late, or will Ledger face the greatest tragedy of his life?

So, after reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels (as well as the spinoff novel, Rage), I have come to the conclusion that is actually impossible for Maberry to write a bad Joe Ledger novel.  I was once again blown away while reading this ninth book as Dogs of War contained an epic and addictive story that I could not stop listening to.  Maberry continues to utilise his distinctive writing style in this book, setting up a captivating and clever story that is loaded with intense action, likeable characters, memorable antagonists and a devious plot to end the world.  This results in a very captivating read and Dogs of War gets an easy five stars from me.  This is actually one of my favourite novels in the series and is probably the best one I have read this year (by a very small margin; Predator One and Kill Switch are both really good).  Also he briefly mentions my Alma mater, ANU, so yay for that!

Dogs of War contains an absolutely fantastic story that sees the fun and complicated protagonist, Joe Ledger, face off against another world ending threat.  Just like in the rest of the series, Dogs of War’s narrative is cleverly constructed with about half the novel is told from the point of view of Ledger, as he encounters the antagonist’s plot in real time.  However, the rest of the novel features a large array of alternate perspectives and preceding time periods that expands the range of the story and helps to create a complex and captivating narrative which really grabs the reader’s attention and interest.  Maberry backs up this great storytelling with a thrilling and action-packed narrative that is fast-paced and delightfully over-the-top.  I really love the unique science fiction thriller storylines that Maberry features within Dogs of War and I appreciated all the cool connections that it has to previous novels in the series.  This cool story will appeal to a wide range of different readers and it is extremely accessible to people who are unfamiliar with the Joe Ledger series as Maberry goes to great lengths to explain all the various story elements and characters featured within the book.  That being said, I really need to emphasise just how truly over-the-top this story could be, as there are a number of scenes that some readers may find uncomfortable or hard to read.  This includes some very graphic fight sequences and some rather disturbing sexual content, some of which, if I am being honest, is way too excessive (one flashback scene features the underage antagonist getting deflowered by a literal demon right after her mother’s funeral, which happened to coincide with 9/11).  Still I have a lot of love for the way in which Maberry constructs a Joe Ledger story, and Dogs of War is a truly fun and thrilling story as a result.

Just like with the previous novels in this series, Maberry has anchored his amazing story on a fantastic collection of characters who really help to enhance the narrative and turn this into a first-class read.  The main character is the series’ titular protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Ledger is an extremely complex character due to his fractured personalities and intense emotional range, and it is always incredible to see the story through his eyes, whether he is feeling each and every emotional blow that comes as way as a result of the case, or he is dishing out severe and brutal vengeance to those who have wronged him.  Ledger is also the cause of most of the book’s enjoyable humour, as he has an extremely flippant outer personality, including a hilarious and sarcastic inner monologue, which becomes especially funny when he encounters the various strange and over-the-top elements that this series is known for.

In addition to Ledger, Maberry also does an amazing job reintroducing and utilising the various recurring characters who have been featured in the previous entries in the series.  All of the side characters have their own distinctive and enjoyable personalities, and fans of the series will really appreciate seeing many of these characters return and continue their various individual storylines.  This includes the two surviving members of Ledger’s personal strike team, Top and Bunny, who serve as a great backup throughout the novel and get into some dangerous scrapes of their own.  I particularly appreciated the way in which the author examined and showcased the emotional damage that these two characters have been dealing with since the traumatic events of Kill Switch, and it added an amazing sense of realism to the story.  I also absolutely loved seeing more of Ledger’s attack dog, Ghost, the best and most lovable canine killing machine in all of fiction.  It is an absolute testament to Maberry’s writing ability that he is able to install such a fun and memorable personality into a fictional dog, and you can’t help but love it when Ghost is on the page doing his thing.  That being said, one of the best characters in the novel has to be the mysterious head of the DMS, Mr Church.  Church is a calm and measured figure throughout the novel, grounding the various main characters and providing stable leadership to them.  However, the main appeal of Church lies around his enigmatic nature and past.  Maberry has built up such an amazing amount of mystique around this character that anytime a little hint or mention of his past is presented the reader absolutely laps it up as they try to figure out who or what he is (is he an alien, an angel, some form of immortal hero from history? You just don’t know).  Dogs of War features several more tantalising hints and clues about this, and you get some very interesting glances into his past, although there is still so much mystery.  I really loved seeing all these great characters again, and it was fantastic to see how the story unwinds around them.

No Joe Ledger novel would be complete with a sensationally evil villain with a complicated past and an elaborate master plan, and Dogs of War features both in spades.  The main antagonist of this novel, Zephyr Bane, is a rather intriguing character with a unique view on the world and a range of connection to some of the villains previously featured in the series.  Maberry does an outstanding job building up this antagonist throughout the course of Dogs of War, including through a series of interludes that show key moments in Zephyr’s life, such as how she came up with her plans and how she was tutored in the art of villainy.  While Zephyr is a great antagonist, Maberry doubles down on the villainy in the novel by introducing another sinister opponent for the DMS to face.  This second antagonist is someone who has appeared in several of the past Joe Ledger novels, although his identity is hidden for a good part of the book (although fans of the series will work out who they are rather quickly).  This character is another particularly mysterious being, who spends most of the book manipulating events from the shadows, giving the reader hints at who they are and what they are capable of.  A major highlight of this novel is this villain’s long-awaited showdown with a major Joe Ledger character, and this fated interaction does not disappoint, even if it leaves the readers with more questions than answers.  Overall, these are some fantastic antagonists, and I absolutely love seeing the outrageously evil opponents that Maberry comes up with for these books.

I also have to highlight the extremely complex and intricate evil plot that these antagonists came up with for Dogs of War.  This was a great, high-stakes plan that contained a lot of different elements that are slowly revealed to the reader throughout the course of the book.  Not only does Maberry make great use of flashbacks and interludes to show how this plan came to pass and the various planning stages but he also spends time examining how the antagonists attempt to counter the inevitable interference from the DMS.  Both of the main antagonists have had interactions with the DMS before, and they know that any plan they implement will gain the attention of the DMS at some point.  As a result, they come up with a number of counters and tactics designed to directly target key elements of the DMS in order to take them off the board.  This was a really clever part of the story, as not only does it add an extra level of drama to the narrative, especially when Ledger is emotionally targeted, but it also represents a clever bit of continuity with the rest of the series.  A lot of the weaknesses that the antagonists attempt to exploit were previously introduced or discussed in some of the previous Joe Ledger novels.  The antagonists subsequently try to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors when they utilise these weaknesses, resulting in a lot of tension as some of the characters you are invested in are personally targeted.  I think this was one of the more inventive master plots that Maberry has come up with for the Joe Ledger series.

One of the most fascinating parts of Dogs of War was the author’s examination of certain real-world technologies.  Throughout the course of the book, the author examines all manner of technological marvels in great detail, including nanobots, advanced robots, drones, computer technology and artificial intelligence.  This results in a number of intriguing discussions as the various characters consider all the applications and impacts that such technology has on the world, these technologies are then cleverly worked into the plot of the book as the antagonists utilise them for their evil plans.  Not only is this immensely interesting and highlights the research that the author has obviously done, but all this technology adds a certain amount of real-world menace to the book.  As Maberry takes pains to explain at the very front of the book, all of the technologies that he features within Dogs of War is either in development, currently being tested or already exist in the real world.  As a result, the reader gets a little bit of dread at the thought that a lot of the terrible things that Maberry features within Dogs of War could happen in real life.  This of course helps to ratchet up the tension and suspense within the novel, and I really appreciated how the author used this to make the story even better.  Also, you get to see the protagonist go up against a bunch of robotic dogs, which is just awesome on so many levels.

In order to enjoy Dogs of War I checked out the audiobook format of the novel, which has a decent run time just short of 18 hours.  I absolutely love the Joe Ledger audiobooks and they are by far my preferred way to enjoy these fantastic novels.  The main reason for this is the awesome narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his talent to every novel in the Joe Ledger series, including Dogs of War, and whose voice really enhances these books.  Porter, who is probably my favourite audiobook narrator at the moment, does an amazing job bringing the characters and the story to life, thanks to his memorable voices and the impressive way that he loads each word with so much emotion and personality.  You always get an incredible sense of the character’s emotions, as the anger, rage, fear or grief that they go through always comes through so clearly.  I particularly love the way that Porter brings the series’ main character, Joe Ledger, to life, as he perfectly captures Ledger’s diverse emotive range, including his boundless anger and his outrageous and sarcastic humour.  I also love the incredible voices he utilises for some other characters, such as the mysterious Mr Church, and his depiction of him contains all the necessary gravitas and power to match the character described in the text.  I also liked the way in which Porter loads one of the antagonist’s voices up with such pure menace and hatred, turning them into a very threatening figure in this format.  All of this made listening to Dogs of War an absolute treat, and I cannot recommend the Joe Ledger audiobooks enough.

Dogs of War was another excellent and addictive entry in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, and I had an amazing time listening to it.  Featuring an outstanding story, awesome characters and so many other fantastic elements, this was an incredible read and I am extremely glad that I checked it out.  I have to admit that I am actually a little sad to have finished off Dogs of War, as that was the last Joe Ledger novel that I had to read.  I have really enjoyed going back and checking out all of the wonderful novels in this superb series, and I will have to get my science fiction thriller fix somewhere else in the future.  Luckily, Maberry actually references several other great series in Dogs of War that could be worth checking out, including the Sigma Force, Seal Team 666 and Chess Team thriller novels, all of which apparently exist in a shared universe with the Joe Ledger books.  I will have to have a think about look at some of these in the future, especially as I wait for Maberry to write another entry in his spin-off Rogue Team International series.  In the meantime, Dogs of War is really worth reading and it comes very highly recommended from me.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight Cover 2.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

Quick Review – Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson

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Publisher: Orion Publishing (Audiobook Format – 18 October 2018)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, is a complex piece of science fiction that I listened to on audiobook earlier in the year, and which I’ve been needing to review for a while. Rejoice is an enjoyable book which contains quite a fascinating story concept of aliens intervening on Earth to stop humanity’s destruction of the planet as a viable biome.

Hachette Australia Synopsis:

From the bestselling author of the epic Malazan Book of the Fallen, comes a story of mankind’s first contact and a warning about our future.

An alien AI has been sent to the solar system as representative of three advanced species. Its mission is to save the Earth’s ecosystem – and the biggest threat to that is humanity. But we are also part of the system, so the AI must make a choice. Should it save mankind or wipe it out? Are we worth it?

The AI is all-powerful, and might as well be a god. So it sets up some conditions. Violence is now impossible. Large-scale destruction of natural resources is impossible. Food and water will be provided for those who really, truly need them. You can’t even bully someone on the internet any more. The old way of doing things is gone. But a certain thin-skinned US president, among others, is still wedded to late-stage capitalism. Can we adapt? Can we prove ourselves worthy? And are we prepared to give up free will for a world without violence?

And above it all, on a hidden spaceship, one woman watches. A science fiction writer, she was abducted from the middle of the street in broad daylight. She is the only person the AI will talk to. And she must make a decision.

I had fun with Rejoice, which is a very high-concept science fiction novel and which dives deep into the heart of current world issues. The main plot focus of this book, the intervention by aliens, is a really interesting idea, which Erikson explores to its full potential. The various ways the aliens intervene in an attempt to make humanity better are really intriguing, ranging from force fields to stop violence and destruction of natural resources to providing humans with advanced technology and ending economics as we know it. It is also really cool to see the various ways Erikson imagines humanity would change if we were no longer able to commit violence or act on our hate. Obviously, there are some political undertones to this story which some readers may not be the biggest fans of, but I thought there were some quite salient points, and it was fascinating to view these current issues from a science fiction perspective.

One of the main reasons the focus on the alien intervention worked so well was because Erikon tells this story from a huge number of different perspectives. While the main character can probably considered to be Samantha August, the woman the aliens choose to be their main contact on Earth due in part to her status as a science fiction author (they are so intelligent, don’t you know), a ton of other perspectives are shown. Not only does the reader get to see the reactions of world leaders but they also get a view of events shown from the eyes of a huge range of other people directly or indirectly impacted by the alien intervention. This includes seeing the events through the eyes of farmers, tech companies, child soldiers in Africa, a family suffering domestic violence, astronauts, fighters in Israel and Palestine, an arms dealer, reporters and conspiracy theorists. In addition, there are facsimiles of several real-world people, including a certain media mogul and a rich pair of brothers, although neither of these portrayals are particularly flattering. There are also good representations of the current regimes in countries such as America, Russia or China, although I did think some of them were a tad less critical then they could have been. Overall, all these different perspectives allowed for an extremely powerful and compelling view of world events, and it was extremely fascinating to see how the author imagines these different sorts of people would react to an alien intervention.

I ended up listening to Rejoice in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Laurence Bouvard and runs for nearly 16 hours. I felt personally that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this novel, as it allowed me to absorb a lot more of the clever science fiction concepts featured in the story. Bouvard’s narration was also really good, especially considering she had to produce a huge number of accents from a range of different nations and peoples.

I found that Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart was an extremely clever and well-thought-out piece of science fiction that offered a unique and intriguing story. While the complex science fiction commentary on modern issues may not be for everyone, I really liked them and would recommend this book to those readers looking for a thought-provoking science fiction story.

Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel Jose Older

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Publisher: Century

Australian Publication Date – 30 April 2018

World Publication Date – 17 April 2018

 

Han and Lando return in Last Shot, the latest Star Wars novel, released just ahead of the characters’ upcoming prequel movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The Phylanx Transmitter is one of the most secretive and dangerous weapons in the galaxy.  Built by the psychotic Fyzen Gor, over the years it has been sought by some of the most nefarious people in the galaxy, from criminal gangs to bounty hunters and even the Empire.  Two captains of the Millennium Falcon have gone up against Gor in an attempt to claim the Phylanx Transmitter.  In the early days of his career, the dangerously charismatic Lando Calrissian and his pilot droid, L3-37, encountered a prototype of the transmitter and barely survived.  Years later, a young Han Solo and the Wookiee Chewbacca raced through the criminal underworld to reach the transmitter before it disappeared into the stars.

Since then, the Empire has fallen and the New Republic has taken its place.  Lando has become a successful business owner and the respected administrator of Cloud City, while Han has settled down with Princess Leia and is now trying to be a good father to young Ben Solo.  While Lando and Han both believe they have put their former lives as thieves and smugglers behind them, the past has a way of catching up with everyone.

Having escaped custody, Gor is holding Cloud City hostage and demands that Han and Lando find and reclaim the Phylanx Transmitter.  Forced to fly under the radar, the two scoundrels must find the transmitter and prevent Gor from using it to rain down untold destruction across the galaxy.  In order to succeed, they recruit a brand new team, including a young hotshot pilot, a brilliant Ewok slicer, a woman who may be the love of Lando’s life, and, of course, the best and fluffiest co-pilot around, Chewbacca.  However, even their new team may not be able to withstand Gor and his twisted droid creations.

Last Shot is the latest book from the acclaimed Daniel Jose Older, author of the young adult fantasy sensation Shadowshaper.  This represents his first venture into Star Wars fiction.

Ever since the original Star Wars movies, vast amounts of books, comics, video games and a television series have been created, resulting in a massive extended universe.  Since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, the vast majority of this extended universe has been expunged, with only the movies and a few products, such as The Clone Wars, now considered canon.  Some elements of the original extended universe have resurfaced over the years, such as fan favourite character Grand Admiral Thrawn, who recently appeared as an antagonist in Rebels and was the subject of last year’s Thrawn by Timothy Zahn.  Last Shot is the latest book in the smaller Star Wars canon extended universe which has been cultivated in the Disney years.  This stand-alone book has been released as a companion piece to the upcoming movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and features four of the characters who are going to appear in it.

Last Shot contains a clever combination of four separate storylines set in different points in time throughout the franchise’s history.  The main story is set a couple of years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and features the characters forced to return to their lives of crime.  Two of the side storylines follow the main characters on a separate mission in their past, and these subplots are set on either side of the upcoming Solo movie.  The final storyline is set over a period of years and follows the rise of Fyzen Gor.  Older does a skilful job of switching between the various storylines to reveal certain clues and show the reader the hidden history the two main characters have with the protagonist.

This book will strongly appeal to fans of Star Wars, particularly those who like to dive deeper into the lore and storylines of the extended universe.  However, even dedicated fans may feel a little overwhelmed by the constant references to other elements of canon and the inclusion of nearly every alien race in the galaxy.  Even the addition of The Force Awakens fan favourite character Maz Kanata seems a bit forced and unnecessary.  Despite this, casual fans will easily be able to follow the story and enjoy the funny and action-packed adventure within.

Last Shot sets itself apart from many of the other Star Wars stories by avoiding the Jedi-saturated and force-fixated storylines that define most of the movies and books.  This book doesn’t even feature a single Jedi, but instead focuses on the criminal underworld of the galaxy as the main characters fight, cheat and steal their way to victory.  This is a refreshing story which seems to mirror the crime-orientated plot of the upcoming Solo movie.

In addition to the crime-centric story and the multitude of action-packed scenes, the readers will really enjoy the substantial humour that Older has included within book.  In particular, most readers will appreciate the number of self-deprecating jokes and references towards elements of the Star Wars universe.  For example, one particularly enjoyable sequence involves a Gungan who is annoyed with how his species is perceived by the galaxy thanks to the actions of a certain individual.  Despite there being a 40-year gap between the events of this book and those of The Phantom Menace, some shade is still thrown over the infamous Jar Jar Binks.  Not only does the book come across as more humorous and less serious than other Star Wars stories, the book has also been written in a much more adult way, as there are a number of jokes and allusions that would never get included in the family friendly movies.  As a result, Last Shot is an incredibly entertaining story that stands apart from previous works of Star Wars fiction.

Star Wars: Last Shot is an outrageously fun new novel that will greatly appeal to all fans of the Star Wars franchise.  Filled with innumerable references and jokes about the wider Star Wars universe, readers will love to see Han Solo and Lando Calrissian being the very best scoundrels they can be.  This is amazing and addictive new adventure in a galaxy, far, far away.

My Rating:

Four stars

Scales of Empire by Kylie Chan

Scales of Empire Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 19 February 2018

 

Can humanity survive the arrival of an alien dragon with an offer of love?  Find out in this curious novel about first contact with aliens from bestselling Australian author Kylie Chan.

In the near future, Earth’s ecosystem is failing and humanity’s only hope for survival lies in escaping our solar system and finding viable new planets to colonise.  Corporal Jian Choumali has been chosen to accompany one of the huge generation ships that is preparing to journey to a distant planet.  However, the launch is interrupted by the arrival of a giant alien spaceship above Earth that will change humanity forever.

The ship is piloted by an alien known as a dragon, which bears a striking resemblance to the beasts of legend.  Dragons are the ruling members of a vast technologically and culturally advanced empire made up of numerous alien races.  The Dragon emissary, Shiumo, brings offers of peace, love and advanced technology to humanity as she introduces Earth to a wider universe.

Jian and her commander, Richard Alto, are chosen to be the first delegates to meet with Shiumo, and they soon become her guides to Earth.  Shiumo becomes a sensation overnight, providing humanity with longer lives, faster-than-light travel and a solution to Earth’s failing ecosystem.

However, the more Jian gets to know Shiumo, the more it becomes apparent that the Dragons may not be as benevolent as they seem.  What price will humanity really have to pay to join the Empire, and what role will the Dragons’ cat-like enemies play in the future of Earth?

Scales of Empire is the first book in the intriguing Dragon Empire trilogy, written by Australian author Kylie Chan.  This is Chan’s first voyage into science fiction, having previously written the Chinese mythology inspired Xuan Wu series.

Scales of Empire has a number of cool features that make it an amusing and thought-provoking science fiction novel.  Chan has constructed a first contact story that explores how humanity could potentially interact with an advanced alien race.  Chan provides a series of fascinating postulations about what human products would prove desirable to an alien species, what humanity could use in our defence against potential alien threats, and what our place would be among a vast interstellar empire.  The Dragons are the stars of this book, as Chan has imbued them with several distinctive abilities and personality quirks.  There is also a fun origin story to explain the similarities between the alien Dragons and the Earth dragons of myth and legend.  Having the other main alien race also resemble an Earth species, in this case cats, is a little over the top very unrealistic.  However, the behaviour of this other species acts as a good foil to the apparently benevolent and socially advanced Dragons.

Science fiction aficionados will also appreciate Chan’s descriptions and theories about what would be required for humans to reach and colonise other inhabitable planets in the galaxy.  Chan spends some of the early parts of the book highlighting her theories about how humans in the near future would achieve this.  Her descriptions of large ships that would require ten generations of its crew to live in space before they even reached the planet is fascinating, as are her suggestions about the ideal initial crewmembers; not a lot of other writers would suggest that colonisation ships should have large crews mostly made up of bisexual women with good genetic diversity.  In addition, there is also some intriguing discussion about the colonisation of other planets, and several chapters are dedicated to the training and initial colonisation of a planet, which many readers will find enticing.

While these science fiction aspects of the book are good reasons to try Scales of Empire, one of the most compelling and memorable aspect of this book is the constant examination of whether the Dragons are as benevolent as they seem, or if they have their own secret agenda.  This becomes a central focus of the story as the human characters analyse all of the Dragons’ actions while coming up with countermoves and their own attempts at manipulation.  There are many twists and turns, and at points it becomes hard to tell whether the Dragons or the humans come off as the worst species during these interactions.  This results in a really compelling narrative which serves as a superb central focus for the book and will keep you hooked until the final reveal.

The new book from Kylie Chan is an intriguing start to a promising science fiction trilogy.  Examining humanity’s potential first contact with an alien species, Chan asks the question: between an alien species with its own agenda and mistrustful and calculating humans, who is the greater evil?  This is a brilliant bit of fiction that provides a distinctive and in-depth discussion and is definitely worth exploring.

My Rating:
Three and a half stars

to

Four stars

 

Barbary Station by R. E. Seams

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Publisher: Saga Press

Publication Date – 31 October 2017

Space pirates take on rogue artificial intelligences in this electrifying young adult science fiction debut from R. E. Stearns.

In the distant future, humanity is recovering from a devastating civil war between Earth and its colonies.  Life is hard for all, especially for newly graduated engineers Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir, who can only look forward to a lifetime of paying off their loans on a minimum wage.  So when Adda’s brother, Pel, contacts her with an opportunity, Adda and Iridian decide on a future as pirates.  Hijacking a massive colony ship, the girls make for Barbary Station, the base of operations for the infamous Captain Sloan, whose adventures and riches have been romanticised across the system.

Hoping to impress the pirates with their stolen ship, Adda and Iridian are shocked when, instead of bold adventurers living in luxurious conditions, they find a mismatched crew barely surviving in a hidden makeshift base welded to the hull of Barbary Station.

The station’s AI, AegiSKADA, has gone haywire and has taken to targeting all life forms on the station, bearing a particular grudge against the pirates.  Armed drones hunt people through the interior of the station, and the station’s gun batteries shoot down any ship that gets too close.  On top of that, a colony of refugees are hiding in the station, a team of crazed doctors are making life difficult for everyone and three mysterious ships swoop around the station, killing or saving as they see fit.

Now wanted criminals, Adda and Iridian have to destroy the AI to become members of the pirate crew.  The last team that tried to shut down AegiSKADA died a fiery death, and the pirates have already taken bets on how long the newcomers will survive.  Luckily, Adda is an expert on artificial intelligences and Iridian is a former solider with a big combat shield and superior survival skills.

However, AegiSKADA is the most is one of the most advanced AIs in the galaxy and is surrounded by lethal defences.  AegiSKADA is learning and is determined to kill every invader on Barbary Station.  And, as malevolent as the AI is, it is not the only danger facing Adda and Iridian.

Barbary Station is a great debut from R. E. Stearns, a thrilling new voice in science fiction.  This young adult book takes an exhilarating look into a future of artificial intelligences while introducing some exciting characters and fast-paced action.

Stearns does a great job of exploring the concepts of artificial intelligences, as well as examining the theories and debates about whether they are truly alive.  Among the highlights of the book are the multiple scenes in which Adda interfaces with the station’s systems, including some especially tense scenes in which she interfaces directly with AegiSKADA in order to determine what actions it is taking against the humans.  Stearns masterfully handles the complex matter of AI sentience, creating a narrative which is engaging and thought provoking without oversimplifying the underlying concepts.

Narration for the novel is split between the two main characters, Adda and Iridian, allowing for a well-balanced breakup of the book’s various scenes.  Iridian’s scenes are usually filled with action and exploration, while Adda’s scenes tend to involve the technical exposition and theoretical debate.  The dual perspectives help enhance certain scenes while also adding a dash of realism and tension to those moments when Adda and Iridian are unaware of how the other is faring in their respective missions.  Our heroes, with their varied experiences and character traits, are great foils for each other and can meet the challenges within Stearns’ universe.  It is great to see a same-sex couple so well portrayed in a young adult novel.

Stearns has also populated the book with a range of other interesting characters.  The majority of inhabitants within the station are a typical group of mismatched misfit pirates, led by the revered and enigmatic Captain Sloan, enduring and reflecting the chaotic nature of life within Barbary Station.  Stearns does take the time to introduce a few key characters for the reader to get attached to, and uses them for full emotional effect.  Perhaps the most interesting is Pel, a flakey, skittish character who manipulates his sister into a dangerous environment in order to save himself.  He undergoes some great character development within the story.  Readers will be intrigued as elements of his history and his motivations are revealed, especially regarding his unique connection to events within the space station.

Overall, Stearns has produced a charming and engrossing first book, bringing together several individually great science fiction elements and combining them into one kickass novel.  Barbary Station is a fantastic choice for science fiction fans no matter their age.

My Rating:

Four stars