Review: Undercity by Catherine Asaro

There are a few authors for whom I will buy (or request) every new book without even glancing at the blurb. Among these is Catherine Asaro. I did take a quick look at the cover copy for Undercity, but I will admit that when I saw the words ‘Skolian Empire’, glee fuzzed the rest. I did realise this novel is more peripheral to the saga, that it in fact begins a new series, but it represents a piece of the world I have come to adore and that is enough.

At age fifteen, Bhaajan escaped the slums of Cries by enlisting with Imperial Space Command. Now retired, Major Bhaajan works as a private investigator. Her reputation for due diligence and never giving up attracts an influential client who transports her back to the planet of her birth for an interview. Bhaajan hasn’t been back to Raylicon in years, but she hasn’t forgotten where she came from, which may be what her client is counting on.

The noble houses of Raylicon are so far removed from the slums of the City of Cries, they may as well be on another planet. House Majda perhaps even more so. In a reflection of history long past, they seclude their males, hiding them away under guard. It is a crime to even touch one of these men. One of the house princes has gone missing and the matriarch has hired Bhaajan to find him.

Using her knowledge of the Undercity, the canals and aqueducts that form the slums she came from, Bhaajan begins her search for clues. She finds little has changed since she left. Crime is still the number one form of commerce and children are still running in gangs. But a key component of the underground society seems to have broken down. They might not have much, but the dust gangs have always looked after their own. Now children are suffering neglect, the adults are fighting and the whispers no longer carry all the secrets.

Bhaajan finds her prince but, in doing so, she uncovers a much more sinister plot, one that threatens the Undercity more than starvation and neglect. She cannot ignore the children who begin to follow her, nor the man she left behind seven years before.

Undercity is divided into three books or parts. The first has been previously released as a novella called “The City Of Cries”. The second two parts follow directly on from the first, expanding upon the first story, exposing the plot responsible for Prince Dayj Majda’s capture. Undercity does read like a complete novel and, for those unfamiliar with the Skolian Empire, it would make a fantastic place to start. While the psi-talents of the Ruby dynasty do feature prominently in this book, the narrative isn’t bogged down by the history of the dynasty or the mechanics of their talents. Instead, Asaro has written an engrossing mystery.

Our hero, Major Bhaajan, is typical of her characters in that she is strong, talented and capable but not perfect. She has flaws and foibles and both are exposed as she first searches for Prince Dayj, then struggles with the decision she made seven years earlier to leave the planet of her birth. Circumstances conspire to keep her on Raylicon this time around and she has to choose between two hearts, professional and private. She’ll discover they’re one and the same.

As a long-time fan of ‘The Skolian Saga’, I really enjoyed Undercity. As always, Asaro delivered a tale rich with the embedded history of her world and bright with technical marvels. Her characters were engaging and intriguing and there is even a bit of romance. What really touched my heart was Bhaaj’s interaction with the children of the aqueducts. I spent the last fifty pages of the book sniffling into a tissue. I’m looking forward to reading the continuing adventures of Major Bhaajan.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Shattered Shields

Shattered Shields is an anthology of military fantasy edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Jennifer Brozek. Included are seventeen new stories from such well-known authors as Glen Cook, Elizabeth Moon and David Farland. Some are set in established worlds, others in new universes. It’s a wide selection of tales dark, light, serious and humorous. Swords and sorcery, hack and slash. About half-way through the anthology, I did have to put it aside for a couple of days. I found it hard to consider each new story with a fresh perspective but I did actually read every single one of them, which is unusual for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever completed an anthology read without skipping at least one story.

The title of the anthology is taken from the first story, “Ashes And Starlight” by David Farland. Set in the Runelords universe, this story is easy to fall into. A prisoner of the Knights of Mystarria proves himself to his captors by saving the king’s daughter twice and uncovering a secret that may save the kingdom as well. In return, the king grants his daughter’s request. The captive will be trained as a guard but she is warned to keep her distance, for

“He is a soldier, a shield. In times like those that are to come, such shields will be easily shattered.”

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Review: The Savior by Tony Daniel and David Drake

The Savior (Raj Whitehall, #10)

Many of us talk to ourselves and consider ourselves lucky if the voices in our head don’t talk back. Major Abel Dashian relies on the fact his voices will talk back, offering information, projection, strategy and advice. His voices have names, too. Center is a computer intelligence and Raj Whitehall is a stored personality. Together, they make Abel’s life interesting. By age thirty, however, Abel has stopped questioning his sanity (mostly) and is fully committed to their mission, that of saving the planet Duisberg and perhaps humanity.

At the age of six, Abel Dashian was unaware he lived on a planet. He lived in the Land and his people warred with the desert people, known as Redlanders. Periodically, the Redlanders invaded the Land. History recorded these invasions as the Blood Winds. They were Zentrum’s punishment of the wicked. Continue reading “Review: The Savior by Tony Daniel and David Drake”

Review: Grand Central Arena

Grand Central Arena‘ by Ryk E. Spoor is exactly the sort of book I expect from Baen. Substantial, sweeping, sprawling, however you want to describe it. BIG! Big ideas, bold characters, mind-bending science and really cool aliens all packed inside a bright and colourful cover. Set in a future on the cusp of FTL travel, this novel takes an intrepid band of adventurers and thrusts them into the unknown. I love these sorts of books and this is exactly the reason I picked this one to read.

Dr. Simon Sandrisson has developed a drive that enables FTL travel. For his first manned test flight, he recruits his partner Dr. Mark DuQuesne, ace pilot Ariane Austin, and five other scientists and engineers. There is speculation that the human element (times eight) is unnecessary, but when the Holy Grail emerges from FTL with all automated systems off-line and the nuclear reactor not reacting, the human element saves the day. Ariane manages to steer the ship away from a mysterious wall in space and into the interior of the sphere surrounding them. Integrated AIs are offline, leaving the crew to think for themselves and at first the puzzle seems beyond them. They’re trapped in a bubble approximately twenty thousand kilometres across. The appearance of docking rings perfectly matched to their ship invites them to land and clearly sends the message that where ever they are, they are not alone.

After some exploration, the crew discovers they have arrived at the Grand Central Station of space, a set of interconnecting spheres that represent the home systems of every species. The scale of all of this is difficult to grasp even in the book, so I’m not going to try and convey it here. Suffice to say, it’s BIG and Spoor’s descriptions and the reaction of his characters do it justice. Within the sphere, the different species interact according to a set of rules set by the arena, itself. Yep, the arena has a voice, one of the creepy omnipresent sort and part of the fun of this book is speculation as to who or what the arena is, who built it and why.

In order to get home, the crew needs enough power to activate the Sandrisson Drive. In order to barter for that power, they need to increase the standing of their faction, Humanity. Challenges are issued and accepted, each win and defeat folding into a delicate pleat. Politics and motivation constantly shift as the crew strives to learn the rules and avoid making too many mistakes and enemies. This is a first contact situation, after all. Only instead of meeting just one species, they’ve met what seems like the entire universe, all at once.

Grand Central Arena‘ is a long book, but the 688 pages are jam packed with science, interesting dialogue, character development, exciting combat, world-building of the most extreme kind, politicking and adventure. It reads very quickly, even if you don’t skim the science, which I did, just a bit. Seeing as my version of science is baking in a domestic kitchen, I took it for granted the author knew his stuff or was sufficiently thrilled by it to make it sound good and moved forward to the action. The first challenge against the Molothos is really exciting. I loved DuQuesne’s role in it and how he developed as a character. His continued thoughts and obvious attraction to Ariane are a source of delight to me as a reader. The second challenge, the sky race, is equally thrilling. Ariane’s date with Simon Sandrisson made me giggle. They talked about science and both obviously enjoyed the discussion.

The difference between the factions is fascinating. Ariane’s conversations with Nyanthus, leader of the Faith, were packed full of philosophical religious comparison. The newly ascended Mandallon provides a lot of humour here as well. The extreme risk-averse nature of the aliens, in general, is equally interesting. As an underlying theme, it really ties together so many elements of the plot. The danger posed by many of the factions and their politicking is very real, however.

I didn’t expect such depth from these characters. I looked for fun, and found that and so much more. The characters tugged at my emotions, particularly Mark DuQuesne. His internal conflict is such a perfect echo of the situation they all find themselves in. I also didn’t expect the book to be so philosophical. I kept nodding and muttering as I read through certain conversations. I agreed with the author on so many points, yet I never felt as if I read an essay. ‘Grand Central Arena’ is always a novel, one that absorbs and entertains.

I really love Baen. They’re the sort of publisher where you really know what you’re getting when you pick up one of their books. They’re bloody consistent. I really liked this book, too. My only complaint would be the internal monologues each character indulged in. A couple of paragraphs of italics in the middle of a conversation often distracted and detracted. Trim those a bit and I’d be pinning five gold stars to the cover. Nevertheless, I’ve already got the sequel, ‘Spheres of Influence’, loaded up on my Kindle and I can’t wait to read it.

Note: After posting this review to SFCrowsnest, I got to chatting with the author about his influences and one of us current projects, a re-released, expanded version of his first solo novel, Digital Knight, due out later this year. We’ve set up a couple of projects. I’m going to read the first Skylark series by E.E. “Doc” Smith before heading into Spheres of Influence. Get a feel for the author that Spoor notably pays homage to. Then I’m going to read the original version of Digital Knight so I can contrast and compare with the new release. After all that, Ryk Spoor and I will chat. I like doing interviews and always prefer to do them with authors whose books I have really enjoyed. Even though it means reading more books (really?), I’m looking forward to this one. I’ll be sure to post my interview here as well.

Review: Fire with Fire

Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Caine Riordan is a writer, not a soldier, but when he chases a story to the Moon, he apparently steps too close to a secret held by an organisation that does not officially exist, or so he is led to believe when they pull him from cryogenic sleep thirteen years later. He was put on ice for his own protection, apparently, and the process robbed him not only of more than a decade but of the last hundred hours before he went down.

What happened in those hours?

That question, in part, initially drives Riordan to accept an assignment from IRIS, the organisation that contrives to hide him and then revives him. That and the fact he is given little other choice. He is provided with some basic training and sent to the recently colonised Delta Parvonis Three to investigate reports of a native exosapient presence. Alien, sentient beings the original survey missed. He finds them and, in the process, uncovers the shady dealings of a large corporate entity…and another secret apparently worth more than his life.

To avoid being killed, Riordan enters deep sleep again, only for a few months this time. When he awakens, his situation is no less perilous, however.

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