By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

A macguffin is discovered in space at just the right time: the world is increasingly united and peaceful. So with resources to spare, a convoy of nine ships, collectively known as Noumenon, is launched to investigate. Even with FTL, this mission will take several generations to complete, so the crew is carefully chosen and then cloned for the duration of the mission to preserve skills and abilities over the duration.

I really enjoyed this story. We start on Earth, after the discovery of the macguffin (a weird star) and the planning phase of the mission. From then on, we revisit the convoy at various points in its history, as the the society changes in ways both envisioned by its designers and ways that weren’t. Throughout, the Inter Convoy Computer (ICC) watches over the crew, and several of the segments in the book are from ICC’s point of view.

One thing that I think the book never fully addressed was the idea that we are defined by our genes. This is patently untrue: two identical twins can have very different personalities. The idea that a clone of a person will have their aptitudes and skills, even with education and training being bent in a specific direction, seems dodgy to me. And then we get to a point where several gene lines are discontinued entirely, because one of the clones of the line has done something that the convoy society disapproves of (whether that’s mental health issues or attempted mutiny). This seems an odd decision given that there’s a closed gene pool to start with, with specifically defined roles, and, as I say, an individual is more than their genes. I do wish the book had addressed this more.

But that’s one issue in an otherwise excellent book that spans many human lifespans but still spends enough time at each stop to make us care about each individual, as well as the society of the convoy as a whole.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223397
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 2017

Double Contact (Sector General, #12)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

Without necessarily meaning to be, this is the last Sector General novel. White was ill when he was writing it, and its publication ended up being posthumous. This novel sees Senior Physician Prilicla and the crew of the Rhabwar answering multiple distress calls from the same location and finding a botched first contact operation. Prilicla and his comrades have to not just save their patients, but undo the damage that’s been done.

Like the rest of the series, this is a peaceful, one might say pacifist, space opera (although there is a “misunderstanding” that leads to a siege at one point). White was passionate about non-violence and uses his characters to repeatedly make the point that peaceful contact and co-operation is best for everyone. There’s a wonderful quote towards the end of the book:

“War, he thought sadly as he looked down at the terrified casualty, was composed mostly of hatred and heroism, both of them misplaced.”

There’s a nod back to Star Surgeon as Prilicla deliberately puts hostile patients in the same ward as other patients to show that they mean them no harm, and the constant correction of the “Etlan war” to the “Etlan police action” amused me.

And Prilicla finally gets promoted to Diagnostician! As the last act of the last book in the series, it feels really fitting. And the last sentence in the book hammers home White’s philosophy one more time: “One does not give orders to a Sector General Diagnostician.” – spoken by a senior marshal of the Monitor Corps, again making the point that the military (sorry, police) is subservient to the healers.

Sector General itself, alas, only gets a cameo at the start of the book. Goodbye you “shining beacon in space”, you’ve been an inspiration to us all.

Book details

ISBN: 9780812568608
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 1999

The Goodall Mutiny

By Gretchen Rix

Rating: 1 star

I did not enjoy this book at all. It’s about an officer and a bunch of her subordinates abandoned as half their spaceship is jettisoned by the captain. We’re introduced to Lieutenant Joan Chikage as she’s searching for escaped beetles, and it never starts making more sense after that. Chikage is neurotic, completely out of her depth, unable to command her crew and undermines her own authority all the time. Her internal monologue doesn’t exactly help the reader sympathise with her either.

There’s a huge amount left unexplained here, and stuff that just doesn’t make any sense. This should have been an intriguing mystery, but it’s left completely open at the end, with no sense of closure or any questions answered. There’s a sequel, which may answer some questions, but I just don’t care. It was just bloody-mindedness that kept me going through this book and I have no desire to read more about Chikage or her universe.

Book details

Publisher: Rix Cafe Texican
Year of publication: 2016

The Truth of Valour (Confederation, #5)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Former Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr has now left the Marine Corp and is making a life in civvie street with her partner, Craig Ryder. Although the war with the Others Primacy is more or less over, space is still a dangerous place, as she discovers as their ship is attacked and Craig is taken by pirates, and she is left for dead. Unfortunately, the pirates made a big mistake in not making sure of it, as Torin gathers together some of her former colleagues and goes after them.

I think this is the first book not to be told exclusively from the point of view of either Torin or Craig, as we get into the head of Mackenzie Cho, the pirate captain who took Craig. And that’s not a pleasant place to be. Interestingly, Cho’s deep sense of entitlement and anger at supposed denial of his rights are reminiscent of the kind of man who frequents the worst areas of 4chan and the ‘manosphere’, coupled with ruthlessness and cruelty that make him an incredibly unpleasant person, and you look forward to him getting his due at Torin’s hands.

Torin is outwith her comfort zone here, with no chain of command, and without the resources of the Marine Corp at her back, and we see the strain that this puts on her, and her colleagues see it as well. Perhaps not burdened with a direct involvement and also still delegating to her, they see the situation more clearly than she does at times. No longer soldiers, but not fitting into a civilian life, they jump at the chance to be doing something as a unit again.

The ending is somewhat intriguing, as the Confederation acknowledges that their current structures aren’t suitable for post-war civilisation and Torin is asked to pull together such a fast-response team. That leads into a new trilogy which I look forward to investigating in due course (and I’m sure those plastic aliens will be back as well…).

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169742
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2010

Valour’s Trial (Confederation #4)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr is involved in a major battle and is thought killed in action. However, unknown to everyone, she ends up in a prisoner-of-war camp. Which is interesting, since, as far as everyone knows, the enemy don’t take prisoners. First she has to sort out problems in what is nominally her own side before she can pull a team together and get on with the serious business of escaping. What she finds may change the course of the war.

This is a fun, fast-paced novel that doesn’t let go once it’s started. As usual, there’s a mostly new set of faces around as Torin is dropped into a new situation without (most of) her crew but a few familiar faces are present. And the old spot-the-ones-about-to-die game is present and correct (although I guessed completely wrongly).

I’ve come to like Torin an awful lot over the course of these books, even if I haven’t fallen quite so far into her cult of personality as Darlys. She very obviously cares about the people under her care and does her damnedest to get them out alive, even in circumstances well beyond her control.

I’m looking forward to reading the last in the series now.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169728
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2008

Drive: Act Two (Drive, #2)

By Dave Kellett

Rating: 4 stars

Act 2 of the Drive webcomic picks up where Act 1 left off: the crew of the Machito has rescued the gentle (but Vinn-ified) Nosh and have taken him to the headquarters of the dreaded Jinwiwei, the Empire’s secret police, in the hopes that they can cure him. What follows is a breakneck adventure, with the crew of the Machito continuing their mission to try and find Skitter’s people, as the Vinn march on, invading both the human empire and the Continuum of Makers with whom the humans are at war.

We get to meet new alien races and find out more about exiled Maker called Ahmis, whose crashed ship helped Conrado Cruz build his own FTL drive. Of the alien races, the Sill are possibly my favourite, a species who had conquered half the galaxy, before finding something between religious fervour and a psychic drug that was so good that they stopped conquering, and reproducing and, well much of anything, really.

I’m very much enjoying the story here, but am looking forward to the end, so that I can go back and read the whole thing in one go to keep the whole story in my head at once (this is a problem with long-running serial stories that are drip-fed, one page at at time, Girl Genius being the worst offender, given how long it’s been running for).

Book details

ISBN: 9780984419081
Publisher: Small Fish Studios, Inc

A Matter of Oaths

By Helen S. Wright

Rating: 4 stars

Rafe is an oath-breaker. As such, he’s had his identity wiped, and is mostly shunned by his colleagues in the Guild of Webbers. But Commander Rallya takes a chance on him, and is rewarded with a fine officer, and Rafe finds respect, admiration and, eventually, love on her ship. But Rafe’s past won’t stay dead, and it comes after him, and those he loves.

The first two thirds of this book is really enjoyable. We come to know and admire Rafe the same pace as his shipmates and enjoy the love he finds with Joshim, a colleague on his ship. I must say that I’m still confused as to why a faction was after him in the first place. I thought I’d read it carefully, but didn’t get that at all. The whole thing goes a bit wonky in the last third or so, as Rafe is captured and the previously prominent Rallya seems to be sidelined a bit. The world-building was interesting and I would definitely like to find out more about the history of the Twin Empires and how the emperors became immortal.

In fact, there’s a huge amount of scope for a sequel. I was surprised to find that Wright doesn’t seem to have written anything else since this. Although it’s a little disappointing towards the end, there’s a lot to enjoy and, as I say, a lot of scope for a sequel, not least the bombshell thrown in the last page. And as well as this what’s with the F’sair trying to steal Guild secrets and what was the web room in Julur’s palace? Who built it? It seems pretty advanced and has control over bits of the palace. That seems out of place for an emperor as paranoid as Julur is portrayed.

The book was originally published in 1988, and I guess it must have been a hard sell at that time, given that the protagonists are a black, queer man, and a grumpy, and very strong, older woman. One thing I like about the book is that not only are men and women completely equal in the Guild, but there are people from all over the LGBT spectrum, and sexuality is embraced, not hidden away.

Off the back of this book, Wright obviously has talent, and I’d like to see more by her. This interview following the re-publication of the novel suggests that she’s writing again and maybe we’ll see the fruits of that soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9781448216970
Publisher: Bloomsbury Caravel
Year of publication: 1988

Beholder’s Eye (Web Shifters, #1)

By Julie E. Czerneda

Rating: 3 stars

Esen-alit-Quar is the youngest member of the Web of Ersh, a shapeshifter who will live for eons, and whose goal is to remember the civilisations and species that will intersect her path in that time. She’s sent on her first solo mission which goes wrong, and she finds herself on the run, yet also drawn into another Web, one of friendship.

I did enjoy this book, but I’m afraid it didn’t grip me enough to make me want to seek out the sequels. I can’t quite pin down what made me go ‘meh’ about it, though. Esen is a likeable protagonist, and Paul also a decent person and fleshed out well enough to be a good character. They get into a number of scrapes and Esen’s shapeshifting abilities are well-defined, as is the mystery behind the Web. Perhaps it’s the antagonist, which, because of its very nature, could never really be much of a character, but I’d have liked to have seen more about it, and perhaps from its point of view. On the other hand, maybe I should just chalk this one down to not being in the right mood when I read it.

The universe is definitely wide in scope and is worthy of exploring further. The human Confederation, the Fringe, not to mention Paul’s old crew are all interesting in their own right. Hmm, maybe I’ve just talked myself into looking out for the sequels after all?

Book details

ISBN: 9780886778187
Publisher: DAW Books
Year of publication: 1998

Space Opera

By Catherynne M. Valente

Rating: 4 stars

I have very definite feelings about this book. I feel that I need to read it again before I come to any solid conclusions. This book was sold to me as a lightweight Eurovision-in-space. Instead, it starts as slightly poor Douglas Adams pastiche, settles into something very readable but occasionally not just punches you in the feels, but gives them wedgies and steals their lunch money.

Okay, so, yes, it is Space-Eurovision, with an annual galactic song contest to relieve tensions in the galactic community, with the added twist that to avoid recurrence of the sentience wars (in which we, who are People, want to kill you and take your stuff because we think that you are Meat) any newly discovered apparently sentient species has to prove their sentience by not coming last in the Galactic Grand Prix. That in itself is a fascinating idea, giving species the chance to prove themselves by moving the watching fans enough to not come last: to prove that you have and can create empathy.

I nearly didn’t get that far though. The first couple of chapters nearly put me right off. On a first read, they felt like the book was trying (and trying too hard) to be Hitchhikers, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The tone settled down after Decibel Jones, former Brit-pop glamgrinder and the one chosen, along with his band, to be the Last Best Hope for Earth, was introduced and I started to enjoy it a lot more. I get the feeling though, that upon rereading, those first chapters would probably resonate a lot more.

Neither Decibel, nor his bandmate, Oort St Ultraviolet, are particular likeable, but that’s sort of the point. They’ve been through the system, have been chewed up and spat out the other end. They’re damaged goods, struggling to cope without the third member of of the band, Mira Wonderful Star. They make the sort of mistakes and arguments that two people who love/hate each other would do and try their best not to get killed before the main event starts (Rule 20, it’s all about Rule 20).

And between all the glam, and the silliness and really weird alien species, Valante has a lot to say about us. About whether we deserve that last shot at all, about the sort of people we can be at our best, and at our worst.

So, what did I think? I think I need to read the book again. But until then, it left me with a lot to think about and a whole bunch of slightly bruised feels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472115072
Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2018

Saga, Vol. 9 (Saga, #9)

By Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

Rating: 4 stars

Aww, bloody hell, Vaughan, really? Really?! Did you have to do that to us and then just leave for a year? This volume of Hazel’s story is more sedate and familial than of late, as the Family and their companions just try to adapt to life together. The Will and his captor, however, are very close behind them and it won’t end well if they catch up.

Vaughn and Staples are still fantastic storytellers, although I don’t know if I can take much more of this emotional roller-coaster. The highs are magnificent, as the creative pair make us revel in such small things that a family should be able to enjoy together – building sandcastles, bickering and loving each other. The lows, on the other hand, come thick and fast towards the end of the volume and I both am dreading and can’t wait for the next volume (whenever it does come).

Book details

ISBN: 9781534308374
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2018

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