SF Fan Man

I've been reading science fiction since I was ... well since I could read. Now, mostly I just listen to them. Sometimes I have an opinion about a book and feel a need to write down these thoughts and share. So here we are.

A World Out of Time - Larry Niven, Tom Weiner

(Re-read this as part of summer-long nostalgia trip of Larry Niven's Known Space books. Although [b:A World Out of Time|64725|A World Out of Time (The State, #1)|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348613073s/64725.jpg|1634535], takes place in a different fictional universe, I had good memories of the book and this felt like the right time to revisit.)

There is one major difference between this book and any of the Known Space series that you should know about --- no FTL --- hence no hyperspace, no Outsider drive, no instantaneous communication. What we have is the lightspeed-observing Buzzard ramjet - on a trip to the core of the galaxy. With this key limitation, Niven's narrative has to work with centuries of transit time, long stretches crossing the empty gulfs of space, and all the arcane physics dealing with astrogation, cosmology and time dilation. Is the master up to the challenge?

In [b:A World Out of Time|64725|A World Out of Time (The State, #1)|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348613073s/64725.jpg|1634535], the protagonist, Jerome Corbell, travels to the core of the galaxy and back, over an external elapsed time of 3 million years and Corbell's body clock of about a century and a half. He returns to a solar system that is drastically changed, with the sun cooler and red, and Earth in orbit around a warmed-up Jupiter. Then the action shifts groundside as Corbell explores the plate-shifted continents. Niven sprinkles this with antagonists/allies, including the digital entity, Peerssa, the aging dowager, Mirelly, and a troop of the human post-genitors, the immortal Boys.

The narrative is sequential; each change in time and setting is essentially a stand-alone story. The first half of the book is fast-paced and unpredictable; all about the physics, with vintage hard SF story-telling from Niven. The second half, taking place on Earth, is more tourist-y with some emotional impetus from Corbell-chasers. Though the tale still moves fast, it is oddly thin without the heavy science. It can only end one way, and does.

The expected Niven themes are here: immortality, highly intelligent, rational characters, logical development and framework, sexual motives. If I stopped halfway, this would have been 5 stars, but the balance of the book really didn't work as well and so my updated rating. I think Niven used what he learned from this book to write better books later in his career. He also learned to avoid the slower-than-light backstory and embrace hyperspace. He must have liked FTL so much because he later made up Hyperspace II.

Post-script: Notwithstanding the challenges, writers still try galactic space opera without FTL. One such is [a:Alastair Reynolds|51204|Alastair Reynolds|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1369753656p2/51204.jpg] with his [b:Revelation Space|89187|Revelation Space|Alastair Reynolds|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1306807253s/89187.jpg|219037] series and the recent [b:House of Suns|1126719|House of Suns|Alastair Reynolds|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328058140s/1126719.jpg|2020929]. It does require a real nerdy writer though.

Crashlander - Larry Niven

(Re-reading this in the final days of summer 2013 as part of an unplanned Larry Niven/Known Space revanche. Have just finished [b:Ringworld|61179|Ringworld (Ringworld #1)|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348622769s/61179.jpg|924711] series, [b:Protector|100344|Protector|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347876333s/100344.jpg|2576385] and [b:A Gift from Earth|218461|A Gift from Earth|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1172796417s/218461.jpg|211516], before discovering this fix-up novel.)

The stories in [b:Crashlander|100347|Crashlander|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1334571672s/100347.jpg|2461592] are a product of the BI (before internet) period, from a time when readers found out about new science from pulp magazines and books, and from hard SF writers such as Niven. Revisiting the stories, forty-odd years after first publication, I was ready for the datedness of the science and the worldview, but not for the surprising breadth, vision and internal consistency of Niven's Beowolf Shaeffer adventures. The best, and the one I am most pleased to have been able to re-read, is the short "Borderland of Sol." This is the type of story that is ideal for Niven's style, with complex science, action and space adventure in a fast moving tale with a great resolution. Plus an added bonus - Borderland provides insight into the paternity of Louis Wu, the main character of the Ringworld books. 'Neutron Star,' another award-winning story, seemed a bit too short and ended abruptly. The author added a tying narrative called 'Ghost' which provided missing details and explanations (or corrections). One detail that was new to me: the real reason for the Puppeteer migration, where they are really headed. Overall, the material is uneven as short story collections, even a fit-in one, tend to be, but still vintage BI Niven. 5 stars.

Decades from now, new fans of the Known Space stories may be hard put to find inconsistencies in Niven's imagined universe. And therein perhaps lies Niven's particular genius, a nearly monomaniacal inclination to provide cogent explanations for everything while still telling a good story. What a trip.

The A.I. War: The Big Boost - Daniel Keys Moran Trent the Uncatchable returns to the fore in this, the 4th book of Moran's outstanding Continuing Time series. Having Trent as a focal character makes this an easier narrative to follow than the very ambitious book 3.
So: Trent has gone into hiding in the outer planets after the events of [b:The Long Run: A Tale of the Continuing Time|403016|The Long Run A Tale of the Continuing Time|Daniel Keys Moran|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1174451220s/403016.jpg|1416]. The Peacekeeper Force (PKF) still have him as their #1 fugitive but are held at bay by the fiercely-independent StarFarers Collective, and a few other Trent friends. Following a chance citing by a tourist, the PKF get hot on the trail of Trent, and the various forces, including AIs, wealthy patrons, and musicians, come together is another monster mash up presented in the distinctive style of Moran.
It's rather short considering the long break between book 3 and 4. It seemed to me to have ended abruptly with Trent in the middle of plans to return to earth. So maybe that's what's planned for the next book. Or not. There is a teaser online with 2 chapters of book 5 but those don't reveal too much.
I am glad to have caught up to this series even though I started about 30 years after the first book, and I do hope, as many other fans, that Moran will continue.
The Last Dancer (Bantam spectra book) - Daniel Keys Moran This is a hard enough book to understand without at least some idea of what the previous books in the series are about. Here is quick summary:

Book 1 - [b:Emerald Eyes|1262998|Emerald Eyes|Daniel Keys Moran|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1287679437s/1262998.jpg|1251862], pub. 1988. 5 stars. Introduces the genegineered humans, or genies, characterized by green eyes. They win emancipation from the government but are subsequently nuked by the Peacekeepers, or PKF. Several manage to escape.
Book 2 - [b:The Long Run|403016|The Long Run A Tale of the Continuing Time|Daniel Keys Moran|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1174451220s/403016.jpg|1416], pub. 1989. 5 stars. Features the genie, Trent. The PKF continue their search for the survivors and get on the track of Trent. But Trent takes them on a long, perhaps unlikely chase through Occupied America, the Lagrangians and Luna.
Book 3 - (this review), pub. 1993.
Book 4 - [b:The A.I. War: The Big Boost|10902136|The A.I. War The Big Boost|Daniel Keys Moran|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1301353959s/10902136.jpg|15818199], pub. 2010. About a big boost, perhaps?
Book 5 - Lord November, only the first 2 chapters are published and available on the author's blog page.
In total the supposed plan was for a 30-book series.

DKM became a little more ambitious with Book 3, broadening his canvas with more focal characters and expanding the Continuing Time universe back by about 50,000 years. Also, there's quite a few obscure segments which appear to be setups for some future aspect of the story but do not have direct bearing on what takes place in this book.
The first part of the book centered on Denice Castanaveras, one of the surviving genies. Her back story is engaging and filled with quirky turns that recalls the story of Trent from Book 2. Next, book 3 introduces Sedon/Obodi, and his hunter Dvan. Both are imbued with some special abilities that allow them to survive through the prehistoric period. There are several other focal characters, and if you are familiar with DKM's style, he constantly switches POV throughout the narrative, making it tough to follow the individual threads. But he does conclude with a monster mash-up similar to that of Book 1, where various forces come into play at the same time and place.

While I enjoyed following the experiences of Denice, none of the other characters were interesting or sympathetic enough to engage. This much I can say about DKM's style, he seldom telegraphs his punches and the story can turn dynamic and consequential at unexpected points. That's probably the most enjoyable part of the reading experience for Book 3, the surprise twists. I think if this book had stayed more on Denice that it may have worked a lot better for me. As it is, it is still a good 4 star read.
The Goliath Stone - Larry Niven, Matthew Joseph Harrington [b:The Goliath Stone|16059389|The Goliath Stone|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1355728401s/16059389.jpg|21846148] is one of those books that reads like there are actually two books, one is the actual book and the other is a virtual book that the author/s wrote in their head/s or on liner notes that contain the other half of the story. Not having access to that virtual book, the reader is left to figure out what the authors are not saying. Sometimes this works well, as in, for example, Brin's [b:Startide Rising|234501|Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)|David Brin|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320455583s/234501.jpg|251634] (where the second story is the space battle amongst the various races and factions). In other cases, as here, it makes the reading process more tedious and challenging.

The overall storyline is pretty straightforward, two pioneering scientists develop practical nanobots. One sends his to space with a basic set of commands. The other programs his to transform himself and the human race into supermen. The bots sent into space become sentient and return to earth as an apparent threat. And a team of newly-transformed humans goes out to meet them. In other hands, this could be a military action swashbuckler.

But the authors approach this as a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, pushing the absurd envelope for humor, and sprinkling obscure science fiction references throughout. There also seems to be a fair bit of political ranting and wish fulfillment beyond what I would consider tolerable. What does hold this book together is the fictional science - practical nanotechnology, presented in the most understandable layman terms and without pedantry, woven seamlessly into the narrative. For this aspect alone, the book is worth the read.

For the serial collaborator, [a:Larry Niven|12534|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1182720933p2/12534.jpg] this is his nth co-author in a decidedly colorful, beloved and still-going-strong-at-50 year career as a hard Sf writer. His collaborator this time, [a:Matthew Joseph Harrington|6545267|Matthew Joseph Harrington|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1371257788p2/6545267.jpg], is a past contributor to the Man-Kzin series (bio here). Goliath Stone recalls the near-future thriller, [b:Footfall|116356|Footfall|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320440216s/116356.jpg|1913289] (co-author: [a:Jerry Pournelle|39099|Jerry Pournelle|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1216417671p2/39099.jpg]) in its portrayal of geopolitical trajectories and disparate response to a space-bound threat. For this reviewer, I would have preferred a more character-driven effort like the recent [b:Building Harlequin's Moon|49789|Building Harlequin's Moon|Larry Niven|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1316638678s/49789.jpg|906153] (co-author: [a:Brenda Cooper|28045|Brenda Cooper|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1350534449p2/28045.jpg]). But anyway, a Niven's a Niven. And therefore can be no worse than 3 stars.
The Human Division - John Scalzi,  William Dufris

This latest entry into what will probably turn out to be a long-running multi-publication series (that started with the entertaining [b:Old Man's War|51964|Old Man's War|John Scalzi|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1346671475s/51964.jpg|50700]) is vintage Scalzi. Mr. Scalzi, who apparently hasn't found a gag line that was beyond inclusion in his books, sprinkles [b:The Human Division|15698479|The Human Division|John Scalzi|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1341582413s/15698479.jpg|21356077] with his brand of humorous, irreverent, quirky and inventive story-telling. Whether for marketing purposes or for novelty, the author has chosen to piece this book together from episodes of short story length that build upon new characters in the Old Man's War universe.

Here we are introduced to the B-team: Harry Wilson, green-skinned Colonial Union lieutenant, hapless gofer Hart Schmidt, and the diplomat Ambassador Ambumwe. In various segments, Wilson displays some key capability of his regrown and enhanced body to escape seemingly impossible situations, ala TV's McGyver. Additional character development stories for Schmidt and Ambumwe are also included. The most interesting/exciting SF action episode involves an attack on the Earth space station and the escape of the main characters. By the end of the book, the B-team is really the A-team (another TV reference - sorry). For the most part, the book is a setup with new characters and a major change in the overall series story arc for future books in the same universe.

This book is a must for fans of the series especially if future books indeed continue from the branch started in Human Division. Overall, this was not great for me, at least not on the level of [b:Old Man's War|51964|Old Man's War|John Scalzi|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1346671475s/51964.jpg|50700]. But there really is a disadvantage for recognized authors for whom the expectation level is set high by their prior work. Will probably still read the next book in the series just to see where the author's quirky imagination will take this.

I tried to write this review without giving away the very obvious spoiler. If I did, my apologies.
Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks, Peter Kenny

As the author's ostensibly first try at science fiction, this book was ok. There are flashes of the awe-inducing imagery and conceptualization that appear in his later Culture books. But the story of Horza, the Changer (or what would be known as a shapeshifter in sff circles,) is much too meandering and ultimately predictable to make this book standout among the others of the same genre and publication era. In some instances, Banks tended towards shock value in depicting graphic scenes of torture and mutilation, when more mileage may have been had from introducing more gosh-wow sf wonders. The unlikely sequence in the tunnels at the end of the book was more mundane than the first part of the book.

[b:Consider Phlebas|8935689|Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)|Iain M. Banks|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327951890s/8935689.jpg|14366] is most notable for the initial exposition of the Culture, a concept for universal order that provides the backdrop for many later Banks sf novels. The Culture is ruled by the Minds, machine intelligences that seem more than just AIs since they employ AIs for day-to-day tasks such as planetary surveillance. Humans in the Culture live as pampered children, freed from the present-day pursuit of wealth, health, and the higher virtues, and given to frivolities such as games of chance, wild risk-taking, artistic endeavors and hedonism. In [b:Consider Phlebas|8935689|Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)|Iain M. Banks|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327951890s/8935689.jpg|14366], the Culture is nascent and in the midst of a space-spanning war with the Idirans, religious fanatics on a pogrom to conquer and convert worlds and planets to their vision of faith.

On this parchment, Banks crafts a dark tale of spies --- one, Horza, working for the Idirans, another, Balveda, serving the Culture --- both in pursuit of a Mind gone awol in a desolate back planet. Horza and Balveda engage in a running debate on which of the two parties to the war is deserving of victory. But the final arguments are made through the events of the story where the Mind ultimately survives by its own devices while its Idiran hunter is shown to be a ruthless and violent creature who fails despite its willingness to sacrifice its own. Perhaps, Banks is saying that the atheistic pseudo-religion is a better alternative to fanatical religion, but that is much too profound for this humble reviewer.

From the purely entertainment aspect of the book, I rate this 3 stars.

The Long Run: A Tale of the Continuing Time - Daniel Keys Moran

Even on well panned riverbeds, one can still find gold. And this is just what I found, via the Goodreads discussion groups, a golden book from the 80s. [b:The Long Run|403016|The Long Run A Tale of the Continuing Time|Daniel Keys Moran|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1174451220s/403016.jpg|1416] is the 2nd book of the Continuing Time series by [a:Daniel Keys Moran|196482|Daniel Keys Moran|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1323292796p2/196482.jpg]. It's primarily the story of Trent Castanaveras, 2nd generation genetically engineered human, who unlike Carl of the 1st book ([b:Emerald Eyes|1262998|Emerald Eyes|Daniel Keys Moran|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1287679437s/1262998.jpg|1251862], an amazing book in its own right) is not a telepath but instead is physically enhanced. Trent is a thief and a (cyber-)Player who is moved to payback the atrocities of the world-dominating military, the Peacekeeper Force, in particular, of the cyborg Vance Mohammed. The book covers the pursuit of Trent by Vance from subjugated earth to the Lagrangian stations and onto the moon. That pursuit in and of itself is engaging, although there are instances of fortunate coincidences to help Trent along. What is memorable is the inventive use of the back story and its science fictional elements that avoid the sensation of "plucking things out of thin air" that can be found in similar chase stories. Along the way, Moran presents a view of both the physical and cyber worlds of his future that is amazingly contemporary and, except for one aspect noted below, does not feel dated at all.

Moran's prose has a schizo tendency to jump about in short bursts, particularly during action sequences, from one point of view or point in time to another. This may be a jarring style that takes time to get used to. Since I made through the first book, I was used to this by this second book. In fact, I think Moran is more linear in his approach here. Anyway, I view this technique as supplemntal to the "coolness" factor of the story-telling reminiscent of [a:Neal Asher|56353|Neal Asher|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1207862001p2/56353.jpg]'s [b:Gridlinked|98046|Gridlinked (Agent Cormac, #1)|Neal Asher|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1316131031s/98046.jpg|1487886] or [a:William Gibson|9226|William Gibson|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1282769227p2/9226.jpg]'s Sprawl series.

Trent is an interesting character. The comparison to Case of [b:Neuromancer|22328|Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)|William Gibson|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1285017005s/22328.jpg|909457] comes up immediately because of the cyber skills, but ultimately Case is a victim of circumstances outside his control while Trent makes his own destiny. Another comparison is with Wade of [b:Ready Player One|9969571|Ready Player One|Ernest Cline|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1333576871s/9969571.jpg|14863741], this time with the game Player dimension, and I think, with their relative youthfulness. Both reluctantly find themselves "King of the Hill" and give the powers-that-be a kick in the b. Trent survives the reading process better because of his intransigent nature that seems to say, "you thought you knew me, but you actually don't" weeks after the final page.

For all the imaginative extrapolation of Moran's world-building, especially in relation to the development of the worldwide net and cyber culture, he did miss out on Moore's Law. While the book considers 700 TB of memory as a pinnacle of technical achievement, other authors have projected singularity based on the progressing speeds of digital computation. But this minor issue does not detract from the overall quality of the book. Take this as just a wise-ass comment from a lowly reviewer. Regardless, Moran has made a fan out of me, and I am adding him to my list of must-read authors.

I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series. For fans of the books mentioned above, this one is highly recommended.

Cobra (Cobra, #1) - Timothy Zahn,  Stephan Rudnicki The life and times of Jonny, the augmented soldier. Military SF that recalls such books as [b:Man Plus|367215|Man Plus|Frederik Pohl|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1174161745s/367215.jpg|357220] and [b:Armor|102327|Armor|John Steakley|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1337817762s/102327.jpg|604650], both from the same era. This one has some cool action and battle sequences, but not nearly enough to fulfill the promise of the title. For the most part, the book focuses on the effect of being augmented on one person, Jonny, following him from his time as a soldier, through his later life as colonist and politician. The story is told in serial fashion as a chain of short stories connected by interludes.
From a near 30 year vantage point, the extrapolations in the book now seem quaint and dated. Cassette tapes and phone operators. Servo motors. The lack of cyber references. The author seemed content with plucking props and characters from thin air in order to move the narrative along, where a little more plotting could have improved the presentation.
This is the first of the Cobra series that Audible has commissioned into audiobooks. There are others from that era I hope Audible/Amazon will get to as well. I'm not sure if I will continue with the rest of the Cobra series.
A note on the audiobook edition: the narrator had this basso profundo that seemed to lull me to sleep. Not the narrator's fault, and overall he did a creditable job. It was just the timbre and frequency of his voice that seemed to have this somnolent effect on me specifically.
Emerald Eyes - Daniel Keys Moran

This is decidedly geek SF, requiring a warning sticker for "high geek coefficient". For one, the story jumps around in small episodes of as little as two paragraphs long among multiple POVs. Like watching a stop motion vid with the parallel story lines interspersed. Truly dyslexia inducing. For another, it deals with some of the most difficult SF topics to depict in written form --- telepaths, time travel, artificial intelligence --- all in one volume. Add to this a large cast of characters and we have the formula for a challenging read.

What's going for this book? Snazzy action sequences. An epic battle that reads like the script for an X-men movie. Cool gosh-wow tech toys sprinkled throughout. Considering this was written in the 80s, it does not feel dated at all. In particular, the cyber aspects read remarkably like these were written recently. The author states in a postscript that "the first published description of internet addiction occurs in this novel." Quite a feat. I'm certainly glad I came across this book.

I had real difficulty with the author's style for the first half of the book, then relaxed into a comfortable reading progress once the jumping around finally settled down. So maybe I'm not that much of a geek; i.e., I cannot read multiple storylines shuffled together like a deck of cards. On the other hand, I did finish the book.

The book is available online at this site: Immunity, ostensibly with the author's permission.

The titular [b:Emerald Eyes|1262998|Emerald Eyes|Daniel Keys Moran|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1287679437s/1262998.jpg|1251862] refers to the optics of the first "genegineered" telepath, Carl Castanaveras. The book opens as the small army of man-made telepaths achieve their freedom from their military/governmental masters. It closes with a glimpse of the lives of the later generation of natural-born telepaths. Along the way, the author brings in time travelers, cyber life, cyborgs, and more geek candy. I would have been happy if the book ended with the battle of the telepaths and the enhanced Peacekeepers, but the book does one more interesting step with the story of the ultimate thief. This latter is basically a hook for the next book of the series.

I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series and more from this author.

Crystal Soldier (Liaden Universe - The Great Migration Duology, #1) - Sharon Lee,  Steve Miller,  Kevin T. Collins

Like learning how to swim, it is somewhat daunting to start on a long-running series, with all its built-in history and side stories, and rabid fans. But after sitting by the planks for a while, there comes a point where the only thing left to do is jump in. So I did. And was pleasantly surprised.

I was looking for space opera, and found it in this book. I was also looking for scientific extrapolation, and there was some of that, though the focus is more on the adventures of the main characters, there is still enough SF in it to have kept me going on to the end.

The dialogue is in an Old Western form, reminiscent of the Firefly series, a shoot-em-up but with less of the wise-crackin'. The main characters seemed sketchy, perhaps less so to those familiar with the same POVs in later books, so I felt like I was missing something from the future exploits of: Jela, a manufactured soldier, dedicated to his noble objective (protect and preserve the human race), externally enigmatic and yet internally tentative and unsure; Conthra, ex-assassin smuggler and dedicated to preserving her own skin and spaceship; and the potentially interesting Tree, who does not have any speaking parts.

I found the book episodic, with some scenes having no sense or relation to continuity, but I am assuming these were included to provide connections to events in other books of the series, this being an "origin" book of sorts.

But I enjoyed the read, easy and fluid, enhanced by great work form the narrator. I have already slotted the Audible for the second book of the duology. So my expectations are high.

Crystal Dragon (The Great Migration Duology, #2) (Liaden Universe, #2) - Sharon Lee,  Steve Miller,  Kevin T. Collins Draft

In this continuation of the Liaden origin story that was started in [b:Crystal Soldier (The Great Migration Duology, #1)|288756|Crystal Soldier (The Great Migration Duology, #1) (Liaden Universe, #1)|Sharon Lee|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312507913s/288756.jpg|975994], the authors have chosen to open with a prolonged fantasy sequence. This is a departure from the first book which was more along the lines of science fiction adventure but does set the stage for the fantasy components of the series. However, this departure changes the overall feel of the duology, and although the later part of the book returns to the adventure meme, some of the charm has already worn off.

The further exploration of the characters of Jela and Conthra is entertaining, though their adventures are much more fun when they are both on scene. Enough said their before any spoilers spill out.

Anyway, this is at best 3 stars for me.
Syndrome E - Franck Thilliez

This will be the 3rd version of this review. At first I loved the book, then I hated it, and now I neither love or hate it. In my defense, the book did wax and wane. I was looking for the resolution of the titular [b:Syndrome E|13589136|Syndrome E|Franck Thilliez|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1337193592s/13589136.jpg|14360342], and the author --- ostensibly a popular one in France, although this appears to be his only book translated into English and made into an audio book --- withheld everything until the last chapter. That was cheeky! But it kept me reading, and my feelings about the book swinging back and forth between good and bad stemmed form the other elements of the narrative. On afterthought, this may have worked best as an SF short story, so as to at least excise the worrisome aspects of the novel.

Barring any liberties made by the translator, [a:Franck Thilliez|704601|Franck Thilliez|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1346328773p2/704601.jpg] is a good writer, showing flourishes that recall [a:Michael Connelly|12470|Michael Connelly|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1202588562p2/12470.jpg] and [a:Robert Ludlum|5293|Robert Ludlum|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1208465267p2/5293.jpg] in deftly dropping innocuous clues and in intimating some outrageous conspiracy. The details of the scientific extrapolations and police investigative procedures are convincing, although I claim no reference for how French jurisprudence works. The author builds his story from an initial set of crimes, one in northern France, where a female investigator, Lucie, is involved, and the other in the south, where chief inspector, Sharko, is called to handle. Sharko is the more interesting of the two as he is presented as suffering from schizophrenia and throughout the book is seen speaking with mental ghosts. Both investigators are dogged and willing to sacrifice their time and personal lives to pursue the trail. Eventually, they uncover an international conspiracy that spreads from the mid-1950s to the present. I did not find the aspects of the investigation very compelling, and as noted earlier, kept on with the book because I wanted to know the secret of Syndrome E. The author, apparently, understood this too and kept the denouement to the very end. Overall, I think the police procedural aspect was quite formulaic, compared to what's available in this genre in the English market, and the SF component, with its conspiracy roots, had some interesting extrapolation that may have worked as a standalone in shorter form. On this basis, I probably would have rated this book 4 stars. However, there were several unlikable aspects of the book that nearly made me stop reading.

There is an awful segment on Cairo that carried on condescendingly about Egyptians and their proclivities. This is cliched to say this, and also unwarranted and unfair, but this segment sounded like the "snooty Frenchman". The romance between the 50-something schizo detective and the blond go-getter was awkward and at some point had me cringing from a sense of inappropriateness or disbelief. The scenes in Montreal featured another diatribe about how the Quebecois politicians connived with the local church to mistreat children of unwed mothers. So things are really bottoming out (for me) by the time the big reveal comes about.

Syndrome E begins from the covert experiments by the CIA (those nasty Americans!) to produce mind control using subliminal images and experimentation on asylum inmates. In the course of the tests, a "prime" is discovered, a person infected with Syndrome E who can bring the syndrome about in others. Syndrome E is manifested by a debilitated moral control and inclination to extreme violence and aggression. The person conducting the experiments in the 50s adopts the prime as his child and moves to Canada where further development of the technique that produces Syndrome E are conducted over the course of 50 years. By the present day, the French Foreign Legion has taken up the study of Syndrome E resulting in a failed test of five of their recruits. The lead detectives discover this, near the end of the book, and find the original prime still alive and the cause for the crimes that they are investigating. The story concludes with the French police taking the prime away kicking and screaming, so to speak.

I'm wondering if the other (4?) books involving Sharko are ever translated into English whether I would read them. Am not so sure. What I do know is that I'm dropping my rating of this book to 3 stars for the snarky elements.

14 - Peter Clines,  Ray Porter

Somehow the story of Huck Finn came to mind as I read this book. There is no obvious connection, but like a programmed response, the various aspects of the story triggered Huck recollections. Perhaps, it was the unpredictability of the story, or the sheer helplessness I felt as the author took me to realms strange and mysterious. In any case, I am compelled to write this review as a Huck Finn parallel. So ...

The book starts out as a mother lode of ideas and unforced thrills recalling how Huck had new-found wealth at the start of his Adventures. The author presents with seemingly commonplace characters and scenery that are each only slightly out of kilter, creating an overall mystery that poses the potential for narrative development in many directions. And like Huck, one is taken to places not expected, in some cases with eagerness and in others with reluctance and great trepidation. And all the while, the author spins this tale that can lead to wild conjectures (At one point, I thought the building was a spaceship, and in another I thought the door opened into the Twilight Zone). Then, somewhere around 70% in, the story takes an even more surprising turn, pulling the reader (and Huck) along kicking and screaming and wanting to skip ahead to find out what other big secrets lie ahead. At the final turn, the book sort of simmers down its meandering and, thankfully, follows more well-tracked modern novel pathways, in much the same way Huck rests from his travels, sitting by the riverside, fishing pole in hand.

So, after reaching the final line of the novel we ask, "What just happened?"

The book is hard to classify, with elements of thriller, mystery, adventure, fantasy, horror and science fiction, all told with a wise-cracking, light-handed prose that may sit well with Mr. Twain. It's probably most ideal to start a book such as this with no preconceived notions, especially with implied storylines from blurbs and book reviews such as this.

So I say nothing more, and just offer you my recommendation for an entertaining read. If you try the audiobook, the narrator does a creditable job providing easy to distinguish voices for the large number of POVs.

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby (Audio) - Ace Atkins, Joe Mantegna

Found this book while looking for a break from SF space operas. Have read a few Spenser books in the past and recall enjoying a number of them. (Quick research: there are 40 of these books written by [a:Robert B. Parker|397|Robert B. Parker|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1354149354p2/397.jpg], who passed away in 2010.) I was intrigued by Lullaby because its by a new writer, [a:Ace Atkins|140695|Ace Atkins|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1266967171p2/140695.jpg], who had an entry in the Edgar for best novels for 2013. Plus, it was short enough.

Overall, I liked the book. Though the plot is straightforward and the prose nearly like a Dr. Seuss book, the book does capture (or continues) Spenser's (and Hawk's) droll charm, pitch-perfect on the reckless disregard for their own health and safety. The narrative oscillates from pensive observations on Bostonian life (making me realize I have not visited the Home of Green in a while, in particular after the Marathon bombing) to swift, pounding violence. Spenser and Hawk (and Susan) engage in thrust-and-parry repartee that is remarkable for the avoidance of any reference to their actuals thoughts and any hint of what's to happen next. This is all quite formulaic (a formula perhaps developed from the PhD research of Parker on detective novels, and perhaps in conformance with the Parker estate's requirements) but hewing more to the early Spenser of the 80s and 90s than the post-Y2K Spenser. Even the addition of the haunted character of Maddie recalls the time of the compassionate and soft-hearted Spenser, with her strong will masking inner turmoil and held back despondency. But, it all works. Spenser and Maddie engage in a fast break narrative give-and-go that delivers a satisfying conclusion.

An incidental observation: On scenes of violence, writer and reader play a second-guessing game. The violence cannot be too lethal as to kill off any of the lead characters (probably not good for a 41+ book series), but it cannot be inconclusive or passive either. Casualties are expected, in an equitable (between each group of protagonists) and reasonably realistic manner. As the scene unfolds, the reader discerns from the choice of words and small details what the writer has in mind, who will be killed off or seriously injured. The writer walks a thin line of credibility to pull these scenes off. For the most part, I think Atkins pulled them off.

The old cathode tube TV blinked a couple times before the image of Spenser dissolved into a series of horizontal lines, then faded to gray. But then some men in blue came and took the tube away, and returned with a shiny new LED flat screen, hanging it on a stud on the wall. And so, brightly colored, the lines on his face more evident at the higher resolution, Spenser came back from folk limbo, to a literary resurrection.

Quite a pleasant return, holding a promise of continuity for a beloved series, hopefully catching the attention of a new generation of readers.

Caliban's War  - James S.A. Corey, Jefferson Mays

Caliban's War. I have a biased opinion about middle books in general as I find that they tend to be mediocre or even regressive. By my reckoning, whether right or wrong, having a weak middle tome sets a lower bar for the finale, or presents a starker contrast to notch up our appreciation of the full work. As I said, this is a personal bias.

In the case of [b:Caliban's War|12591698|Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)|James S.A. Corey|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1317402997s/12591698.jpg|17606541], the story thread is a secondary offshoot of the events following [b:Leviathan Wakes|15023786|Leviathan Wakes|James S.A. Corey|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|13730452], focusing on the alien proto-molecule components that have fallen into the hands of human adventurists, rather than the main infection brewing on Venus. But this differentiation is not noticeable until the very end as the story-telling and plot-mixing is top-notch. CW improves on LW with additional and more interesting POVs and addressing LW's issues of gender bias and uninteresting monologues. The writers really amp up the suspense and sense of adventure in CW. Also, the narrator, Jefferson May, brings to vivid life the character Avasarala, making her, in fact, the highlight of the audiobook version for me. Avarasala is truly "potty-mouthed", rude and obnoxious, and quite loveable as curmudgeons go, and is apt comic-relief for the rest of the book's POVs, most of whom are uniformly somber.

As a middle book, CW does its job and raises expectations for the finale, [b:Abaddon's Gate|12591719|Abaddon's Gate (Expanse, #3)|James S.A. Corey|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1352637335s/12591719.jpg|17606564]. Hopefully, the authors have not done too good a job and set the bar too high. I am expecting/hoping this series to be a 4/5/5 (see below for explanation). We'll see.

How to rate trilogies? A simple way is to concatenate individual GR ratings. For example, the first Dune trilogy I rate as a 5/4/4 for [b:Dune|234225|Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)|Frank Herbert|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1349105964s/234225.jpg|3634639]/[b:Dune Messiah|106|Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)|Frank Herbert|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347771287s/106.jpg|3634570]/[b:Children of Dune|112|Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #3)|Frank Herbert|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348092992s/112.jpg|3634573], and [a:Robert Charles Wilson|27276|Robert Charles Wilson|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1224814586p2/27276.jpg]'s Spin trilogy is a 5/0/4 (I did not read the middle book), while I give 5/5/5 for [a:John Varley|27341|John Varley|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1346593830p2/27341.jpg]'s Gaia series. In absence of an outright trilogy rating, this seems to work well enough.

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