The Last Watch (The Divide, #1)

By J.S. Dewes

Rating: 4 stars

A group of soldiers are stationed at the literal edge of the universe (“the Divide”) watching out for an ancient enemy who nearly wiped out humanity, and did wipe out several other alien species. Now the Viators are thought to be extinct but the Sentinals still keep watch (although I’m not entirely sure how keeping a watch at the edge of the universe is supposed to help them detect enemies). Anyway, the Divide is now starting to contract – ie the universe is starting to shrink – and Adequin Rake, commander of the Argus, one of the Sentinal ships, has to protect her crew from this threat, and the indifference of her chain of command, while dealing with a new recruit with an Attitude and a Past.

There’s a lot of fun ideas here, from the soldiers isolated from their chain of command, to the insolent new recruit, to the commander out of her league. The story is told from the PoV of commander Rake and new recruit Cavalon, who we learn at the very start is actually a member of the royal family, who’s been exiled here for causing mischief at home. I never really bought Rake as this super-competent commander, who inspires loyalty in everyone around her (including, very quickly, Cavalon). She’s, no doubt, an ultra-competent solider, a member of the elite Titans, but she doesn’t really seem to be very good at being in charge of people. I’m enough of a hippie that I hate the whole idea of chain of command (even line management!) and even I can tell that. She sort of falls apart when her love interest is in danger and has trouble dealing with the reality of the situation.

The characters seem to settle down as the book goes on, although it seems a little tidy that Cavalon just happens to be a multi-degreed polymath who is able to help with all the technobabble that is required later on (although, not gonna lie, some of it is pretty damned awesome, and definitely triggers the old “sensawonda” that science fiction, at its best, does so well).

In terms of world building, the military of this society is based on the Roman army, and it’s possible that the rest of the society is as well (the most powerful man in the government is called Augustus, for goodness sake). I didn’t particularly understand the Viator threat. It was never really explained why this species seemed determined to wipe out all other sentient life in the universe, nor how humanity, which seems technologically vastly inferior to their enemy (much of their own advanced technology is based on that of the Viators) won the war against them.

Hopefully some of this will be explained in future volumes. There was some pretty exciting stuff towards the tail end of the book, and I’m intrigued to see where Dawes takes the story. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250236340

The Misfit Soldier

By Michael Mammay

Rating: 4 stars

Sergeant Gastovsky (universally known as Gas) ended up in the army after getting into even worse trouble. Half way through his contract, he’s found his place as someone with a reputation for being able to connect people with things they want. But now things have gone pear-shaped, and one of his squad got left behind after a mission. Gas might be a conman, but he knows you don’t leave your people behind. Except that his chain of command won’t let him go back, so he has to put together a team to go anyway.

This was a light and easy to read military SF story. It’s told in first person and it definitely helps that Gas is a likeable protagonist. He might say that he’s a dick or a conman, but from what we see, he’s always trying to do the right thing, but if can make a little money on the side, well, everyone wins.

I don’t think the book is as tight as it could be – there’s a few plot threads that seem to be important but end up being left dangling. Not in a “sequel hook” way, but more in an “author sort of forgot about them” way. Like Gas is obsessed early on with finding out who dobbed him in during his first attempt to rescue his comrade, and then that just fizzles out, once he accepts that his primary suspect didn’t do it. We also never really see Gas being the conman that the story tells us that he is. Something to show us that he’s as good as he says he is, that he has his finger in as many pies, would have been nice, before the contaminant hits the air filtration unit.

But the meat of the book is a heist. And for a heist, you need a gang. Gas pulls together his gang, with all the archetypes of the modern heist: the tech wizard, the mechanic, the heavy, the mastermind; and because this is the military, there’s a few extra twists: medic, sniper and comms. Other than Putty, the heavy, most of the rest don’t get much in the way of characterisation. And even Putty is mostly just a quip machine. But it’s Gas’s story and it’s fun hanging around him as he charges around, making and remaking plans on the fly to deal with how the situation is changing.

It probably won’t stick with me, but it’s a fun, easy read. Just what I was looking for. 3 1/2 stars, rounded up.

Book details

ISBN: 9780062981004

Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter

By W.E. Johns

Rating: 3 stars

This was an enjoyable enough collection of short stories featuring Captain James “Biggles” Bigglesworth, a fighter pilot in the First World War. The stories are all short, plainly told and exciting. There are dogfights, rookies, spies, and even a love interest. It’s all very gung-ho, although there’s a lot of respect for the fighters of the opposition, but still feels too close to propaganda for my tastes.

I read it mostly because I’ve never read any, and because my brother-in-law has been enthusing about them recently, so I borrowed this one to have a go. It was a fun, and quick read, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read any more.

Book details

ISBN: 9780603034053
Publisher: Dean & Son
Year of publication: 1977

Virgin Land (Luna Novella)

By Chloe Smith

Rating: 4 stars

This little novella tells a story with frontier colonialism at its heart. In what feels like a very American story, a group of people have settled on a recently opened planet, rejecting the “taker” civilisation that they come from, and reverting to a “simpler” way of life “in harmony” with their surroundings. Of course, they have a very particular idea of what “in harmony” means.

The couple at the heart of the story come from a very traditional, conservative background, with Gerald doing the “manly” things around the farm while his wife, Shayla, is expected to keep house, and not question Gerald. All this is upturned when Gerald is injured and needs to go for medical treatment, leaving Shayla alone with a group of off-world labourers.

The message of the story is, when it comes down to it, one of ecology and what it means to live somewhere and that change will occur whether you want it to or not. That’s wrapped in a fairly conventional corporate dystopia, with large corporations ruling the spaceways, and being in charge of planets and colonisation.

I enjoyed the story, especially seeing Shayla, who was already struggling against the limitations placed on her, start to have her horizons broadened and to start to blossom through interactions with people other than her husband.

Book details

ISBN: 9781915556035

Light from Uncommon Stars

By Ryka Aoki

Rating: 5 stars

Seven times seven years ago, Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil. This has resulted in her needing to find seven souls to send to hell so that she can escape. She’s trained up six prodigious violin students and sent them all packing. Katrina Nguyen is to be the seventh. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as Shizuka ends up taking Katrina to live with her, as she’s trans and has escaped an abusive parental home. Shizuka finds herself beginning to care more for her student than she should. And that’s not the only relationship she’s starting – she starts to fall for Lan Tran, who runs Starrgate Donuts, who is the captain of a starship and an interstellar refugee, along with her family.

I honestly don’t know how this book works. It mixes demons and curses with interstellar empires and stargates, but somehow, like one of Aunty Floresta’s doughnuts, it’s perfect. I never really questioned the the way that the two things intermingled, and neither, really, did the characters. That’s not really what the book is about – it’s about love, and all the different forms that can take. Falling in love with a new partner, the love of family, the love of food and of music. Those last two play a huge role in the book as well. Obviously, the plot is about a student learning to play the violin, but even for someone like me with a tin ear and no knowledge of classical (or any other sort of) music, it evoked a kind of awe.

And the food! Well, the sweet stuff was great, but there’s a lot of different kinds of East Asian cooking here, and it’s quite strongly meat-based, so for a vegetarian like me, it could sometimes be a bit much, but it’s all very lovingly described, even if I had to skim some of it.

My heart broke constantly as we followed Katrina’s story, dealing with an abusive dad, sex work and trying not to be noticed, because she’s afraid of what will happen when she’s noticed. I honestly just wanted to hug her. Katrina’s story is hard to read, but I suspect it’s not uncommon, in her world or in ours. Most people just want to be people. They want to play their music; go out dancing; talk about the things that bring them joy; and sometimes just use the loo. And the folks who want to do a close up examination of their genitals before letting them pee need to take a long, hard look at their own lives.

One of the great joys of the book is seeing Katrina start to blossom when she comes under Shizuka’s care (and that of her housekeeper, Astrid). But it’s still a joy mingled with sadness, and a lot of anger. Katrina is just being given what any of us should get by default: respect and kindness. That she feels she doesn’t deserve it, and keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, is heartbreaking. But her new family doesn’t give up on her, and that, too, is a source of joy.

And then we have the Tran family. Interstellar refugees, with their captain and matriarch, Lan, at the helm. They have their own problems, not least with angry teenage son Markus, but they pull together as a family, and as their lives intertwine with Shizuka and her family, something new, and beautiful, is created.

All that is a lot of waffling to try to get under the skin of this amazing book. The characters are a joy to spend time with; Aoki creates such presence around the music and the food; and her writing has such a light touch. I was welling up constantly, and sometimes punching the air. I don’t know why this hasn’t won every damned (pun intended) award this side of Ganymede! Read it, you won’t be sorry (unless you’re a bigot, in which you can fall into the sun).

Book details

ISBN: 9781250789082

Just Add Water

By John Dodd

Rating: 4 stars

Chief engineer Mara Logonova has been woken up early as her colonisation ship has developed faults that the automated systems can’t resolve. But something is clearly wrong with the AI and they seem to be in orbit of a planet. Mara has to revive some trusted crew to help her figure out what’s wrong, while avoiding the ever-present watchful AI.

The premise here of the human crew being “deconstituted” to dust and being revived by, as the title says, just adding water (it’s more complex than this, but that’s it in a nutshell) is pretty absurd, but I sort of love it. Neater than cryo-freezing or generation ships, and without the need to raise a whole generation if fertilised embryos are used. It’s very silly, but has a lovely internal logic.

This is a tightly paced novella, with few wasted words, and a sting in the tail, which I didn’t see coming. It’s fast-paced and doesn’t outstay its welcome. The characters are likeable (especially the perfectly tailored quartermaster in the three-piece suit!) and the plot keeps you engaged. Good fun.

Book details

ISBN: 9781913387457
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries (Emily Wilde #1)

By Heather Fawcett

Rating: 3 stars

I picked up this book because I was writing a review of The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches and in the “you may also enjoy” box were two other books that I had very much enjoyed, as well as this one. And, conveniently, it was on sale on Amazon, so I thought I’d take the chance.

I should have enjoyed the book more than I did. It’s got everything I love – an academic protagonist, an interesting fantasy world, a slow-burning romance, but, for some reason, it just didn’t quite gel for me. Maybe it was the Cambridge background, where terms not used in British academia kept cropping up (we don’t have tenure, and Professor means something very different here than it does in North America. That bothered me much more than magic or a woman happily accepted in academia in what feels like the early 20th century.

I did quite like our protagonist, Dr Emily Wilde, though. She’s a bit monomanical, focused on her career and learning about the faeries of her world. She’s read widely and would be considered the foremost expert in the field, if it wasn’t for her youth, and the sexism (although this is downplayed in the book). The book sees Emily head to what seems like their version of Iceland to investigate their fae, known as the Hidden People, which haven’t really be documented. She’s quite disgruntled when her colleague, the suave and handsome Wendell Bambleby turns up, with a pair of postgrad students in tow.

I’d probably consider Emily to be somewhere on the spectrum, since she’s very intelligent, but not really good with people, and she manages to offend her hosts on her very first evening, without really realising what she’s done.

Something I like about the book is that it not only makes it clear that Emily is both very intelligent, but that people around her, including fellow academic, Wendell, acknowledge and respect that intelligence. There’s no dismissing and sneering just because she’s a woman. I’m also a sucker for found family, and after the misunderstanding in the village is sorted out, this plays out quite strongly.

I think I should maybe read the book again at some point, since I may just not have been in the right mood the first time around.

Book details

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