Review: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi
(TOR, July 2012. Hardcover, 317 pages)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Damn you, John Scalzi, for making me giggle helplessly at death. A quick, fun read.


The title of John Scalzi’s new novel, Redshirts’, is as irresistible as the premise. For those not familiar with the term ‘redshirt’ the first chapter serves as a quick introduction. On his first away mission, a young ensign is unprepared and overwhelmed. Trapped on a rock and surrounded by ‘landworms’, he fires into the dirt, driving the voracious predators into a frenzy and then decides to make a break for it. He is devoured before he reaches the tunnel entrance, of course. The captain utters a few words of commiseration but the reader gets the sense the situation is all too familiar. The loss of a low-ranked crew member, new and untried, barely mars the mission. A redshirt ensign is expendable.

In fact, every away mission led by certain crew members ends in disaster…for someone else. The captain always survives, as does his chief science officer. Lieutenant Kerensky is less fortunate, he is often injured. He always recovers, however. Any accompanying ensign is at risk and even the superstitions cobbled together by the terrified crew of the Universal Union Capitol Ship ‘Intrepid’ don’t always prove true. The death of one ensign does not necessarily provide protection for the others and the greenest crew member doesn’t always count as a reliable sacrifice.

A handful of new ensigns quickly pick up the fact something is amiss. The crew scatter when the captain approaches or an away mission is planned; closets suddenly need reorganising. When picked for a mission, they bid tearful goodbyes to friends and then bicker amongst themselves over laws of averages and then they die. The new ensigns, led by Andy Dahl – whom the captain repeatedly calls ‘dill’ – hunt for answers.

In Science Fiction, all is rarely as it seems. In ‘Redshirts’, it’s really twisted. The loss of low-ranked crew members is not entirely due to incompetence, nor is it merely coincidence. Some other factor is in play and once it is proposed, it makes a horrible kind of sense. Even the crew members who chose not to believe the explanation find it difficult not to be affected by it the very idea of it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise in my review, however, so I’ll leave it to the reader to discover just what is happening on board the Intrepid.

John Scalzi writes funny books. ‘Agent To The Stars’ is one of my favourites and I can remember laughing so much I was asked to read in another room. ‘Redshirts’ is written in a similar style. Despite the body count, I giggled my way through it, soft chuckles turning to outright laughter at one particularly senseless death. Yes, I laughed when someone died. I felt bad; I liked the character and had hoped he’d make it through to the end. The novel is a quick read, I finished it in about three hours and thoroughly enjoyed myself, even though I was not as entertained by the Codas at the end of the book.

Scalzi’s wit and humour works as well in his more serious novels, but reading ‘Redshirts’ felt a bit like taking a well deserved holiday. It’s a great book, one I’ll re-read and recommend to others.

Written for and originally published at SF Crowsnest.

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Review: No Going Back

No Going Back, by Mark L. Van Name
(Baen, June 2012. Hardcover, 336 pages)

I have been following the adventures of Jon Moore and his predator class assault vehicle (PCAV), Lobo, since the first novel, ‘ One Jump Ahead’. Jon is the first successful hybrid of human and nano-machine technology and Lobo is the only truly intelligent ‘ AI’. Together, they form a remarkable team. But they are keeping secrets from one another, out of habit and necessity.

At one hundred and fifty-seven years of age, Jon still resembles a man in his late twenties. Technology has advanced to the point where a man might actually linger into his sixteenth decade, but he would more resemble an octogenarian than someone flush with youth. The fact Jon does not age has been mentioned in previous novels, as well as his everlasting youth being the reason he does not form close relationships. It’s an important factor in ‘ No Going Back’, however, as Jon confronts his past of over a century ago and Lobo contemplates their future. Jon and has very few true friends, but has Lobo and his intelligent PCAV is a better friend than he realises.

Lobo is worried about Jon. The man’s quest to save every mistreated child in the galaxy has become more than a focus. It seems to be Jon’s entire reason for being and he has been taking an increasing number of risks. In Lobo’s opinion, his behaviour is or soon will be, self-destructive.

Every ‘ Jon And Lobo’ novel combines action and adventure with the revelation and resolution of an aspect of Jon’s or Lobo’s past. ‘ No Going Back’ moves one step further and, in keeping with the title, presents the pair with a series of events and a final choice from which neither of them can turn, or return. The action rolls off the first page with Jon surfing down a sand dune toward his assignment, the daring rescue of children who are being auctioned off to the highest bidder. From there, we follow the duo as they answer a call from Jon’s past, a call which could unravel one hundred and twenty years of hiding and comes from the same planet as his current, most powerful foe. Jon is then faced with his past and present combined and a lead he has been waiting nearly one hundred and thirty years for: evidence his sister might still be alive.

In this novel, the action is interspersed with chapters from Lobo, which is the first time the reader ‘ hears’ his voice. In these interludes, set out like journal entries, Lobo not only expresses his concerns regarding Jon’s behaviour but reveals the fact he knows who and what Jon is and what he is capable of. Jon’s secret is not so secret. Lobo also gives many facts about himself and his own capabilities as an exchange and a legacy, should Jon require it. These chapters are compelling, for Lobo’s voice and what he reveals.

As always, humour adds levity to the darker themes in the form of Jon’s conversation with appliances and machines and the sarcastic interplay between Jon and Lobo. Oh and there is a love interest in this one, too, the progress of which is quiet and contemplate and serves to properly highlight Jon’s hesitance to connect with other people.

All in all, ‘ No Going Back’ is a very satisfying novel and the conclusion will guarantee fans of the series will be watching for any mention of the next instalment. Stay well, Mr. Van Name, we need to know what happens next!

(Written for and published at SFCrowsnest)

Review: The Princess of Dhagabad

The Princess of Dhagabad, by Anna Kashina
(Dragonwell, June 2012. Ebook)

Reminiscent of ‘ Tales From The Arabian Nights’, ‘ The Princess Of Dhagabad’ tells the story of the friendship between a princess and a djin. On her twelfth birthday, the princess, whose name we do not learn until the very end of the book because of the tradition of her people, is finally allowed to un-stopper the brass bottle bequeathed to her by her grandmother and discovers she has inherited a very unusual slave. His name is Hasan and he is one of the mysterious djin, a being both feared and prized. He can be anything or do anything, but only at the command of his mistress.

Hasan seems a reserved and aloof being, as one might imagine an all-powerful djin to be, but as his story unfolds, it becomes apparent Hasan was very human before he became trapped in a brass bottle. The princess craves knowledge outside of the limited sphere of the palace and the lessons she is required to take in preparation for succeeding her father as ruler of the kingdom. Hasan is happy to expand her horizons and, through his stories and their adventures together, we learn how he came to be a confined in a brass bottle and what it means to be a djin. Hasan is all powerful, but his knowledge has come at a terrible price.

One by one, the princess and the djin overcome obstacles to their friendship, which deepens throughout the years. Hasan wins the trust of the princess’ mother early by saving the young girl’s life. Proving himself valuable to the sultan, the princess’ father, is more complicated. The sultan feels slighted by fate because none of his sons have survived birth or infancy. He has only daughters, the princess being the oldest and the only child of his wife. Sensibly, the sultan listens to Hasan’s advice and the djin’s place in the palace becomes more assured.

Though the friendship between the princess and the djin maintains an innocent aspect, it becomes clear their bond is more than simple and when the princess attains her majority and a husband is chosen for her, that bond is tested. The princess will have to make a choice between respecting her father’s wishes, what is best for her kingdom and her heart.

Anna Kashina has created a full and vibrant world for her story. Her characters are richly drawn. I was excited to read a story set in a different world and enjoyed absorbing new lore as set out by the author. The friendship between the princess and the djin is especially touching and grows at a wonderfully slow and real pace. This is a love story, but it does not read like a romance novel. Rather, it is an adventure story filled with realistic relationships, from friendship to love. I look forward to reading the next novel in the trilogy, to be published in September 2012.

(Review written for and originally published at

Review: Man and Boy

Man and Boy, by Tony Parsons
(Touchstone, May 2001. Paperback, 368 pages)

Man and Boy by Tony Parsons is the story of how a man becomes a father to his son, and a son to a father. The affection Harry feels for his family, all of it, is obvious from the first page. As evident is Harry’s sense of self. He comes to realise that what he feels isn’t always enough, though.  Approaching his thirtieth birthday, Harry is lost in between. He is no longer a child, but does not feel properly mature. He is married, but is unsure what that means. He loves his family, but isn’t quite sure why.

But, Harry knows himself, even if ‘himself’ baffles him, and that thread is what makes this story so brilliant: Harry’s utter honesty. He makes mistakes and owns up to them. He feels and is ready to share that fact. He loves unconditionally, which is both uplifting and heartbreaking all at once.

A month before his birthday, full of BIG questions and doubts, Harry makes a mistake. Then, within the course of thirty days, he loses everything he considered important. Over the next six months, he gains it all back, but not necessarily in the same form. Harry learns to be a father, not just a man with a young boy. He begins to understand his own father. He figures out what is important, and who, and he learns what love is.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Harry’s voice was so real. At times, his observations were funny, at others, wrenching. I forgave him his mistake. I hated his wife. I cheered Harry’s successes and secretly plotted Gina’s failure. I loved that none of the characters were heroes (except for the possible exception of Harry’s dad). They were all ordinary people and could be wholly uncompromising. Not a one of them changed their mind for the sake of the plot or story; they were all themselves to the end. Even Harry—though he grew. At the end of the book, he was still Harry, still ‘himself’, but a much more content version.

There is a sequel, Man and Wife. I am not sure if I want to continue the story, however, as I was satisfied with who Harry was at the end of this chapter.

Story: Blessed Are the Peacekeepers

Written for BioWare’s Dragon Age Asunder Writing Challenge.

Benedict liked his name. It meant ‘blessed’ and, though some might consider him more ‘cursed’, he thought his name represented optimism on the part of his parents. In a way, the day of his birth, they had given him three gifts, life, a name and hope. As he grew into a child they gave him love and faith.

Shortly after his eighth birthday, as Benedict sat and waited for the templars with as much patience as a small boy could muster, he pondered his newest gift with fright and awe. The villagers were afraid of him, and secretly, Benedict was afraid of himself.

“It is a great gift,” his father said. “But you must learn to use it wisely.”

A small book appeared in his father’s hand, one Benedict recognised. A thumb perpetually stained with grime moved across dog-eared pages and selected one seemingly at random. Benedict knew, however, that his father’s choice was never random. Though barely educated, he could read and tally the number of turnips he dug from his lord’s fields, Benedict’s father knew every page in that book by feel and he always seemed to know the appropriate Verse.

“All men are the Work of our Maker’s Hands,” he read.


Continue reading “Story: Blessed Are the Peacekeepers”