Toccata System:

By Kate Sheeran Swed

Rating: 4 stars

Part of a SFWA StoryBundle, I really bought the whole thing for this, and it was totally worth it. Starting with a space station AI that raises a daughter to be an assassin to kill a man who spurned her, it picks that up and runs with it.

Interstellar travel is mentioned in the series, but this story is all set in the Toccata star system, in the planets, moons and space stations that inhabit that system. Each of the three novellas that comprise this series take different PoV characters, the first being Astra and the AI SATIS who raises her. SATIS sends Astra to kill Conor, the son of the man who turned her programming, years before, but Astra discovers that Conor, a genius in his own right, has a device that can jam AIs – Astra could be free of her tyrannical ‘mother’.

The second and third books see the fallout of Astra’s attempts, but focus on different PoV characters. Something I wasn’t expecting from a space opera was a Phantom of the Opera story. The second novella in the series is a clear homage to that, with opera divas with masks (well, veils), secret passages behind mirrors and setpieces involving chandeliers. This one also deals with cyborgs and the prejudice they face. It’s never clear just why this prejudice evolved, and I guess there’s not much space to get into that in a short-ish story like this one, but it would have been interesting. Still, humans have never found it difficult to divide people into Us and Them.

I’ve had a lot of fun in the Toccata system. The bonus short story also in this omnibus edition deals with Fay and how she ends up with SATIS, deepening her character considerably. I’ve signed up to the author’s mailing list to get another short story in the same universe and while I was on her website, I found details about Swed’s other work. Both her superhero series and new space opera sound like something worth reading.

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The Privilege of Peace (Peacekeeper #3)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

First, and to get it out of the way, the cover (the one with Torin leaning over what appears to be a dying Alamber, and another di’Taykan slumped in the background) isn’t a reflection of any scene in the book. I don’t know where illustrator Paul Youll pulled that from, but we don’t have to suffer Torin having to watch Alamber die.

So what do they actually get up to, if not being shot? The first half of the book is spent mostly on setup, showcasing the widening of the Strike Team programme within the Justice Department and how the teams are integrating and working together, as well as the wider politics of the Confederation – now that the war is over, many people are clamouring for the Younger Races to be grounded (literally – at the bottom of gravity wells on planets) until they lose some of their violent tendencies. Alongside that, we get the continuing adventures of Humans First, as they pirate and pillage through a xenophobic strop that just points out the validity of locking them in their rooms until they grow up.

It’s only about half way through that the two big set pieces of the book kick in – an incident with the Silsviss, who Torin helped bring into the Confederation; and the return of Big Yellow. This is handled deftly, as they split the party and head to both situations at once. Huff is very good at interweaving the two stories, not spending too long with any one, and constantly shifting points of view to keep the action moving.

While I think that the final resolution to both the plot in this book and that of the wider series has a whiff of deus ex machina about it, and I’ve never been fond of the plastic aliens, I still enjoyed this a lot. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a series carefully built up over the previous seven books. We get to see different sides of Torin over that span and get to know the team around her in the last three. I’ve always had a soft spot for Alamber (hence my leading with him not dying) and I’m glad to see him getting a chance to develop and take a big step here as well.

It’s been a pleasure following Staff/Gunnery Sergeant/Warden Kerr over the course of her adventures and I’m pleased with how her story, her whole team’s story, has ended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785656699

A Peace Divided (Peacekeeper, #2)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 3 stars

Having given up freelancing and become Wardens of the Confederation (the space police, basically), Torin and her team are sent to a planet where a group of archaeologists are being held hostage by a group of extremists looking for an ancient weapon that they could use against the sentient plastic that started and maintained the war between the Confederation and the Primacy for centuries. And since the kidnappers are composed of both Confederation and Primacy species, Torin has to take a group of Primacy in her team as well.

I found this book quite annoying. The main plot driver just didn’t make sense to me – you find some plastic in a latrine of a pre-industrial civilisation and my first thought is not that they obviously found a weapon to use against the sentient plastic. This is a galaxy with many, many spacefaring civilisations, some of them very old indeed. How do you know one of them didn’t just stop off for a picnic or something? And then you’ve got Torin’s huge leap of logic right at the end of the book about what happened to the dead race under investigation. And the annoying thing is that I bet she’s right, but only because she’s being a spokesperson for the author, not because it makes any sense at all.

The usual supporting cast are all present and correct, but the new Primacy group added to the team don’t really get a lot of characterisation and I struggled to remember who each of them were and what their important relationships were, and also what they looked like a lot of the time (although this last point is true of the main cast too).

In this one, the human extremist group Humans First (they’ve dropped the apostrophe by now) are still driving events, which is wearying, but the point bears repeating – concepts of “us” and “them” are entirely malleable and prone to changing. In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, this shouldn’t need reinforcing, but it constantly does.

So not the best of the series, but I’ve already got the next, and last, book lined up. The cover illustration of my edition better not be a spoiler…

Book details

ISBN: 9781785656675
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2019

An Ancient Peace

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Out of the military, Torin Kerr now leads a small band of ex-marines and others in a freelance capacity, doing the work that the Justice department can’t be seen to be doing. And now Military Intelligence wants them to find the long-lost homeworld of the H’San, now a peaceful race and one of the founders of the Confederation, but then a warlike race, who left large caches of weapons behind, and stop grave robbers from starting a new war.

This is a fun book that keeps up a good pace. I love a bit of competency porn, and no-longer-Gunnery-Sergeant Kerr is a great example as she charges through every obstacle with a combination of careful, intelligent thought and brute force. I’d hoped that now that she’s out of the military, we’d get some characterisation for the group around her, as usually characterisation was a surefire indication that they were going to die. But other than Alamber, who they rescued at the end of the last book, there’s not much of that around. Still, this is military SF and there’s a satisfying amount of explosions and punches to make up for it.

As the war ramps down in the series, the politics of the situation is starting to take its place, to some degree. There was a little of that here, with the Human’s [sic] First nationalist organisation appearing (and yes, that misplaced apostrophe gets snarked on a lot) and a coda at the end connecting some dots that hadn’t been before. There’s tension between the elder races who have “evolved beyond violence” and the younger races that they recruited to do their fighting for them. I’m looking forward to seeing how the situation plays out over the course of the rest of the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169766
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2015

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, 2)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

The empire of Teixcalaan is at war with an alien species. Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, Mahit Dzmare, has returned home to her station not quite in disgrace, but still finds herself under threat. When Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus sends back home for someone to try to communicate with the enemy, former attaché Three Seagrass jumps at the opportunity, and she brings Mahit with her, jumping from one frying pan to another as she swaps the politics of her home for that of the fleet.

I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I did its predecessor, but there was still a lot to like here. While not musing so much on the siren call of a dominant culture, it looks more at communication, mirroring the way that Mahit and Three Seagrass communicate (or fail to) with the attempts to communicate with the aliens. As well as these two main protagonists, we also have the PoV of Eight Antidote, the heir to the Empire, as he learns about war and politics, back on the homeworld, and what it means to be the future emperor. He’s also an eleven year old child, but he has to grow up a lot and very quickly if he’s going to prevent the war from expanding to fill all the space it can.

The big themes in this book involve not being able to go back home (although more because Mahit wants to avoid having her skull carved up, than for any metaphorical reasons). I think the idea that she has changed enough that she’s rejected by her home would have been a strong strand on its own, without needing the element of physical threat, but maybe that’s just me.

I think maybe the different plots were wrapped up a little too neatly, and too easily by the end of the book, but that’s not something that bothered me as much as it might have done. There’s a solid ending, but also lots of space left open to tell more stories, both about Mahit and Three Seagrass, and also in the wider universe that Martine has created. I’d read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001648

Far from the Light of Heaven

By Tade Thompson

Rating: 3 stars

Michelle “Shell” Campion is first mate to the AI captain of the colony ship Ragtime. When Shell wakes up from suspended animation at the end of the journey, she finds the AI incapacitated and several passengers not just dead, but mutilated and dismembered. Investigator Rasheed Fin is sent by the colony world to solve the crime,

I love a good locked room mystery, so it’s just a shame that this otherwise intriguing book isn’t really one. I sort of feel that in a good mystery/whodunnit, the reader needs clues and to be able to play along with the detective, and I fear we didn’t get that here, where the solution to the locked room mystery is dropped into our laps with the introduction of a brand new character about three quarters the way through the book. The book also changes from locked room mystery to space survival horror part way through, which isn’t really my cup of tea.

There’s a lot of good worldbuilding, with an Afrofuturist vibe to it and some interestingly weird aliens. The Lagos system is trying to do things differently from Earth, working in conjunction with nature rather than wantonly tearing it apart. That sits somewhat uncomfortably with themes about what you’ll do to protect your own and what that means for the future.

I think the characters are really interesting – Campion is a model astronaut, uber-competent and stuffs her own panic down deep while there’s a job that needs doing (sort of reminds me of Granny Weatherwax not having time to bleed). Rasheed is a little bit of an Investigator-With-A-Hidden-Past, and Lawrence, the former test-pilot and somewhat washed-up governor of the system is probably my favourite. He knows his work and is happy to take orders to try and get everyone out safely.

Ultimately, while I think there’s a lot packed in here, it’s not the book I was expecting, and that disappointment tinges my view of the book, as well as the fact that it went into tropes that I don’t particularly like. A book with strong characters and well-written, but it didn’t entirely satisfy me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514321
Publisher: Orbit UK
Year of publication: 2021

The Z Team

By Chris DeSantis

Rating: 3 stars

To be honest, this book wasn’t quite what I was expecting – I was expecting a found family story where the whole crew pulls together against external threats, but captain Dash Anderton’s biggest threat is his own crew. It’s not a spoiler to say that they mutiny – we start the book in media res in the middle of the mutiny, before jumping back to show the events that led up to it, which takes about half the book, and then the consequences.

I liked DeSantis’s world-building, in which he drops in details about how his galactic community (the Commonwealth) works, mostly without resorting to infodumps. There were a few biggies in there too, which weren’t expanded upon, but may be in future volumes – such as the idea that Earth has been cut off from the rest of the interstellar community after the “channel” that led to it collapsed; and that there are now subspecies of humanity.

Something else that was interesting here and which I’ve not really seen elsewhere, other than in MilSF, is the distinction between flight and ops crews – here it’s the ops crew that mutinies, while the flight crew stick together.

Dash, his pilot Gaius and medic Wesley form the flight crew and the book mostly follows them as characters, with Dash as our main PoV, while Wesley has his own secrets as he’s on the run, followed by a trio of bounty hunters.

It was a decent story, but I don’t know if I’ll look out for any sequels.

Book details

Publisher: TriWorld Publishing LLC
Year of publication: 2021

Drive: Act 3

By Dave Kellett

Rating: 4 stars

Act three of the very fun Drive webcomic is right back into the thick of it. The Second Spanish Empire is now at war with two alien species: the Continuum of Makers and the Vinn. And it’s losing both. The scout ship Machito is tasked with finding more of of Skeeter’s alien species – he’s able to navigate a spaceship like nobody else – but they’re running out of clues, and Humanity is running out of time.

I actually had to go back and read the whole previous volume to bring me back up to speed before I started into this one. The characters are still as immensely fun as before – Nosh, in particular, is so loveable. The plot is pretty twisty, as different factions have different agendas, most of which aren’t compatible with each other. The Fillipods are a brilliant species – very intelligent, but more concerned with turning that intelligence to poetry slams than weapons or technology. And the Astronomer Royal in particular is brilliant, in his inability to sensibly compliment the emperor.

It’s not a long volume, the main story is only about 160 pages long, but it is very pretty. The comic pages are well-produced with lots of detail. There are also a number of short stories set in the universe at the end, although given that these aren’t written by Kellett, it’s not clear how canonical they are. But notwithstanding that, the story Motherbear by Beth Reidmiller is marvellous, and quite heart-breaking.

I don’t know how many acts the story as a whole is envisaged to cover, but it feels like we must be past the mid-point now. We’ve had many revelations about the universe, and we’ve finally found out who Skitter’s people are. It sort of feels like it should start to wind up a bit fairly soon. Although mind you, at the pace that the webcomic is released, that could still take several years to come to completion.

Book details

ISBN: 9781733126632
Publisher: Small Fish Studios
Year of publication: 2021

Triplanetary (Lensman, #1)

By E.E. "Doc" Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I picked this up because I saw it on Project Gutenberg for free, and I needed something to pad out my e-reader for a holiday. It’s been about twenty years since I last read any Doc Smith, and, good grief, I should have left it that way. I was only just out of my teens when I read the Skylark series and I quite enjoyed that at the time. But since then I’ve developed a taste for things like plot, character development and moral consideration.

The writing here is fast-paced and breathless in its descriptions, edging on purple – with everything being “indescribable”, and “unbelievable”. There are lots of rays as well, for everything except, well, light. Relativity would be quite new at this point, but still fairly well known, but there’s no mention of the speed of light or any indication that there’s a problem in travelling between star systems (which happens at, of course, “indescribable speed…”).

The book has an odd structure, with the first three short sections describing the fall of Atlantis, Rome and our civilisation, according to the plan of the powerful Arisians, as they try to create a race that can face the evil Eddorians in a battle across time and space. The main body of the book is a space opera set in a future civilisation when the inner planets of the solar system are united under a single “Triplanetary” government. It’s full of the sort of lantern-jawed super super-scientists that Heinlein would go on to make famous. Surprisingly, there is a female character, and although she’s mostly there to provide motivation to one of the aforementioned lantern-jawed scientist secret service men, she does actually get to fight at one point.

The story was pretty slight, with lots of cycles of fighting, being captured, escaping, rinse and repeat, and there were a few casual city-wide slaughters that were casually swept under the rug at the end. I might have enjoyed this more as a teenager, but I think I’ll skip the rest of the books and just look up the plot summary on Wikipedia.

Book details

ISBN: 9781882968091

Light of Impossible Stars

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 3 stars

The final book in the Embers of War trilogy sees the sentient former warship Trouble Dog battle-scarred and on the run from the Fleet of Knives. Along with her last remaining sibling, her brother Adalwolf, she and her crew make for the area of space known as the Intrusion, where our universe intersects with another, which the Fleet seems to avoid, as do the dragons which, it turns out, are real and haunt the hypervoid.

This book introduces another new PoV character, Cordelia Pa, who lives on the flat plates that hover near the Intrusion, inexplicable artefacts left behind by the Hearthers, the same species that created the Fleet of Knives and which disappeared over five thousand years ago. Cordelia should be an interesting character, but I didn’t really get much of a feel for her. She was plucked from her home as a teenager, four years ago by the crew of her father’s ship – a father she didn’t know she had at that point. We pick up with her four years later, after being put through flight school and then she’s thrust into a leadership position on her father’s spaceship when he disappears unexpectedly, so there’s a lot going on for her, but that doesn’t really come through for me in the writing. If she’d been introduced more slowly, maybe in the previous book, with more time to get to know her and what’s strange about her, then it might have worked better.

We don’t see as much of Ona Sudak in this book, but what do see of leaves me sort of puzzled. She’s someone who seemed to be growing as a person in the first book, but when given the opportunity in the second book, fell back into old patterns, repeating her previous mistake on a potentially much bigger scale. Here, Captain Konstanz gives her several opportunities to reflect on what she’s done but she just doubles down, and tragedy follows. I’m not really sure what to make of her, other than to wish that the firing squad had had their way with her at the start of the previous book.

It’s lovely to see the bond between Trouble Dog and Konstanz deepen in this book, even if it is through shared loss. At the start of the story, Trouble Dog was conditioned to not be more than mildly sorry by death and loss. She’s overcome that and is coming into full-scale grief here, growing in a way that Sudak never did.

[spoilers removed]

I didn’t think that the conflict with the dragons was hugely satisfying. You’ve got Cordelia moving from a position of “we can fight” to “run awayyyyyy” within the space of a chapter with little explanation; the Scourers retreating with no explanation; and then there’s the throwaway line about them being intelligent, but no attempt at dialogue or negotiation ever being attempted.

There’s a lot of big ideas here, and I loved the found family. Lots of little niggles though mean that although the series started well, there were issues as it went on.

I’ve been pretty negative in this review, but I enjoyed spending time with Trouble Dog, Sal and the others. I just wonder if it could have done with more attention from the editor.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785655241

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