Review: Trial by Fire (Tales of the Terran Republic #2) by Charles E. Gannon

Trial by Fire (Tales of the Terran Republic, #2)

Trial By Fire is a big book. Six hundred and forty pages big. It’s chewy and complicated. Somewhere near the end, I decided the plot was something like a game of chess. Every page and every point of view represented a move and might hide a clue to next six moves planned by that player. The vast battle for Earth certainly reads that way and when that sixth move is finally played, it’s the sort that has mediocre players like me thumping their head against the edge of the board. I’m not much of a strategist, you see, but luckily, Charles Gannon is.

I mentioned a vast battle for Earth. That’s the bulk of Trial By Fire and wonderfully demonstrates the aptness of the title.

Recently returned from a convocation of exosapien species where humanity’s entry to an interspecies accord was hotly debated, Caine Riordan would be right in expecting a short vacation. He has been formally discharged from military service and currently occupies no role greater than ‘one of the dudes who went to meet all the aliens’. Unfortunately for him, that role will continue to define him throughout the course of the next four months and beyond. The opening sequence is fantastic. It’s a fast-paced and coherent way to both show the pressure Caine is under and to remind the reader of the events of the last book. With as much as I read, I sure appreciate the effort, even if Fire with Fire is quite memorable.

The action quickly escalates. Allied exosapien forces launch an attack on Barnard’s Star, apparently devastating the human forces. Caine is caught in the crossfire, of course, and with his ‘pal’ Trevor Corcoran, pulls of a daring self-rescue. They meet up with an Arat Kur diplomat and form a relationship of a sort that will remain important throughout the course of the book.

With a hole punched in the line of humanity’s defence, the exosapien fleet advances to Earth and quickly establishes a ground base in Indonesia, a target which is chosen for very specific and strategic purposes. What follows is pure military Science Fiction. If you love it, you’re going to love this book. If you don’t, you might have a hard time pushing through. Every battle is nailed down and examined from several angles and points of view. There are a lot of characters and voices to follow and a lot of strategy to absorb.

Thankfully, Gannon likes rewarding his readers, meaning the bulk of his teasers are followed up very quickly. More significant, however, is my chess analogy. Yep. On the surface of it, you think you know what is going on. But there is another game being played, one that drives the war between the Arat Kur and Hkh’Rkh (no, I can’t pronounce it neither, just grunt inside your head) and the humans. Overseeing proceedings are the Ktor and Dornaani and they are both inscrutable and ruthless in their methods.

Caine is the ultimate pawn. The reader should be prepared for this as he was used and abused in the first book. There is no better tool, however, than one willing to work. He weaves through the war, adopting one role after another until he is perfectly placed to strike, only to become ensnared in his own trap. The convergence of Caine and his companions, Trevor, Opal and Elena, is another thread of strategy that interlaces the story of the war and the greater plot.

The conclusion of the war might feel ‘foregone’. No one wants to read a book where humanity loses, right? Not many of us, anyway. We’d rather celebrate our ingenuity and uniqueness on the galactic stage. The conclusion of the war is not the conclusion of the story, however. It’s merely the end of a single match, and the revelations contained therein… WOW! They make the journey through every one of the previous six hundred pages more than worthwhile. I highlighted several revelations just so I could annotate my copy of the book with: aha! And later: AHA! A little later on: EEE!

As an aside, I highlighted many wonderful passages throughout the book, snippets of dialogue that I felt told the story ‘in a nutshell’, until I came across the next and amusing turns of phrase like: ‘warbling phlegm’, which described the voice of one of the exosapiens. I’ll take another second here to note how well Gannon writes his aliens. They’re separate and consistent with marvellously contrived speech and behaviour patterns.

The best part, though? The story isn’t done. Not by a long shot. There are so many new plotlines to follow, in fact, that I can imagine Mr. Gannon has several thick journals of notes, each tucked away under a gleeful smile. Really, my only complaint is that I’ll likely have to wait a year for the next book.

Written for SFCrownest.

Review: Defenders by Will McIntosh

Defenders

A few of my reviewing friends had very good things to say about Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh. So when Orbit dropped the price of McIntosh’s newest release, ‘Defenders’, to $1.99 (ebook only, courtesy of the Orbital Drop newsletter), I figured it was a good time to take the author for a test drive. It was an exhilarating ride.

Defenders is a near-future, near-apocalypse science fiction novel. The aliens have landed and they look like big, killer starfish. They call themselves Luyten. Employing weapons of gruesome destruction, they run rampant across our planet, melting ground troops into horrific lumps of gore and searing air support from the sky. If the Luyten seem to always be one step ahead of the allied forces of humanity, that’s because they are. They can read minds, which proves to be their most insidious weapon of all.

How does one fight an enemy who knows the plan in advance, who can sense the hidden and hidden agendas and can trounce any ambush? One creates a soldier with a mind that cannot be read, of course.

It is determined that the lack of serotonin in a human mind would render our thoughts inscrutable to the Luyten and so the Defenders are created. Seventeen feet tall, with three legs and detachable limbs bristling with armaments, the Defenders are engineered for one purpose: to kill. They are highly intelligent, but lack human emotional response. Apparently, that’s the cost of no serotonin. No one considers the implications of a soldier without emotions until after the Defenders win the war…and teach humanity an extreme lesson in humility.

The novel follows a handful of interrelated characters over the course of twenty years, from the depths of the Human-Luyten war forward. Scientists and soldiers, both, all caught in the tumble of events. It is the experience of each of these characters that tells the story. Lila Easterlin’s affinity and affection for the Defenders actually shows more clearly than any other perspective just how monstrous are these creations. Being the first to engage in two-way telepathic communication with the Luyten, Kai Zhou has a unique understanding of their purpose and motivations. Oliver Bowen is one of those characters who is plucked from obscurity and thrust through heroics. Dominique Wiewall created the Defenders.

Like most apocalyptic novels, Defenders is a cautionary tale and it’s not subtle in the telling, but it is extremely enjoyable in its exploration of an interesting set of ‘what ifs’. There are some obvious messages, such as a two-time examination of humanity’s tendency to shoot first and ask questions later (kill them all and let God sort them out!) and a more disturbing suggestion that even while we might ally against a superior (alien) force, we’re still a bunch of racists. The Defenders and the Luyten are both given (exiled) to Australia. Out of sight, out of mind?

As a native Australian, I did take humorous exception to the use of my country as place to put undesirables. But, as my husband pointed out, it’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. I would like to note that the displaced Australians would NOT be happy in North Dakota, however. That would be like putting a lizard in Antarctica. Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t revolt. Then again, we can be a lazy bunch.

Then there is the examination of the Defenders, themselves, who are ultimately more alien than even the race from beyond the stars. Yet, we designed and built them. This is the heart of the story and at times shockingly brutal. I liked that McIntosh pulled no punches when it came to demonstrating our folly. At times, he managed to draw an extremely thin line between absurdity and horror and I wasn’t sure which side of the line I was on.

Defenders isn’t really an ‘All’s well that ends well’ novel, neither. By the end, the tally of losses is significant. But I don’t think the story could have been told any other way, not with the same impact. My only complaint would be that while McIntosh managed to pack a lot of story into the novel, he did skim of the more human aspects, such as the relationships between Lila and Kai and other pairings. Considering his subject, that might have been on purpose. Either way, he certainly managed to convey the fact the Defenders were not at all human. Highly recommended for fans of Science Fiction – military, near-future and otherwise and readers with a super-soldier fetish and those who enjoy a good apocalypse.

The version I reviewed had an excerpt of Love Minus Eighty at the end, which has only whet my appetite for more Will McIntosh. I’ve already bought it and plan to read it over the summer. Consider that review pending.

Written for SFCrowsnest.