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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Review: The Heretic

The Heretic by David Drake

Shortly after the death of his mother, six year-old Abel Dashian wanders into a locked storage shed. He has a fair idea what he’ll find in there: nishterlaub. Forbidden articles of old and broken technology packed away behind lock and key. Abel is a precocious young lad; he turns the key, ducks into the room and begins exploring. The priests know it’s there, right? They collected it and put it away. So long as he doesn’t actually try to use any of it (lock aside), he won’t be acting against Stasis. Six year-old logic, right? When a pair of voices begin to speak to him, Abel assumes it’s the nishterlaub, which it is, in a way. He’s actually being spoken to by a computer and the reconstructed intelligence of a famous general.The General, Raj Whitehall. They take Abel on a tour of the shed, explaining this item and that based on his reactions, decide he is the one they have been waiting for, the boy who will become the man who will change the course of history.

It’s a lot for a young boy to take in. Convinced he’s gone mad, Abel attempts to bash himself over the head with a stone. Center, the computer, repairs the damage and Abel leaves the shed with a terrible headache and two permanent guests.

A handful of years at a time, the story skips forward, showing us glimpses of Abel’s rise within the ranks of the Scouts, a militia unit attached to the military. It’s not the career his father, Joab Dashian, Military Commander of the district, wanted for him, but there is no doubt Abel has found his niche. Along with his own natural pluck, Center and Raj ensure Abel is an exemplary scout. He is brave and resourceful.

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Review: Hawk Quest

Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am bereft. The journey is over and I am alone with myself once again. I can hear echoes of voices in my head, but the sound is dwindling. I suppose I feel somewhat like Wayland watching Vallon, Hero and Caitlin retreat into the west.

Putting aside a good book is always hard, particularly one detailing an epic adventure. After finishing Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon, I actually felt directionless, hence the opening paragraph of my review.

Hawk Quest is, first and foremost, an adventure story. It begins with a knight and a quest. There is a hostage and a ransom, but the tale is not so straight forward. The hostage, Sir Walter, knows the location of a great treasure, something worth more than his own life, and the ransom is something that proves the demise of many: two casts of pure white falcons. Gyrfalcons. They are only available in the arctic and the uncompromising lands of the far north are only accessible in the summer. Oh, and there is a deadline on delivery. It will not be a profitable venture for anyone but the Turkish emir holding Walter hostage unless they make the delivery on time.

Vallon is a disgraced knight looking for penance. When he stumbles across Hero, whose former master is all but dead, he undertakes the quest even though it will lead him in the opposite direction. It will not be the first time they are misdirected. Along the way he and Hero collect allies and enemies and rarely do they move on without leaving their mark. They fight and escape from Normans, fight and ally with Vikings, treat with Russians and elude savages, battle with nomads and finally bargain with the emir. In between, they battle against nature. Their journey takes about twelve months and all of them emerge more than a year older and wiser.

The revelation at the end is surprising at first, but it works well with the underlying theme of the book—the power of mortal men who can be extraordinary when they believe in themselves and one another.

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Review: Jagannath

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath is a collection of thirteen short stories by Swedish author, Karin Tidbeck. The stories are written in English, but maintain a Nordic flavour. Not all the tales in this slim volume appealed. Though I found myself amused by the number of organic creatures populating the pages, I did get the sense I might have appreciated more of the stories if I had a more broad understanding of folklore. Jagannath has collected some outstanding reviews, however, and a couple of the stories easily illustrate why.

The last story, for which the anthology is named, is one of those odd adventures in literature where the reader constantly grasps for meaning. Rak is born into what appears to be the inside of a being known as Mother. Once she is grown enough, she is put to work massaging food through the intestines. Scraping sustenance from the interior walls and sleeping in a fleshy alcove, Rak expects to work there until she dies, at which point she will be massaged through those intestines by her replacement. Mother roams the world outside looking for food. Inside, the workers thrive and starve according to her diet. After a particularly lean period, Rak visits the nursery for a replacement worker and discovers there are no more babies. By the end of the story, I had little more idea who or what Mother was than Rak did, but I had plenty of theories—my favourite of which involved a post-apocalyptic scenario and alien centipedes. Either way, as Tidbeck’s story draws to a close, Rak’s begins again as she is birthed into the outside world. I found the imagery and imagination of ‘Jagannath ‘ extraordinary. I wanted to know more, but enough clues were provided for me to devise my own conclusions.

Another story that captured my attention was ‘Augusta Prima’. Augusta is a member of court in a world that exists out of time. Days are filled with activities that amuse the courtiers. Nights with revel. Servants are gruesomely treated and the bodies piling up across the pages were treated with less than idle curiosity until Augusta finds a trinket on one. She discovers it’s a watch and that it is used to measure time—a concept she is unfamiliar with. Once made aware of its passage, however, she finds she is unable to ignore it. She starts measuring her world and as a result, becomes bound by what she describes. A nice and simple allegory for the modern condition.

Many of the other stories lost me a couple of pages in as I either failed to find a speculative element or identify with the subject. Not so say the stories were badly written or boring, more not to my taste. I would like to mention one last tale, however. ‘Cloudberry Jam’ was simultaneously disturbing and sweet. As a mother, I felt the bittersweet pain at the end as the narrator of the story lets her baby go and that parting, mothers and children, seemed a theme throughout the collection.

While I did not understand or get ‘something’ from every story, reading Jagannath was still a worthwhile experience. I chose it on the strength of those outstanding reviews and, for me, the highlights outshone the low points.

Written for and originally posted at SFcrowsnest.

Review: Homeland

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Older does not necessarily mean wiser, not for Marcus Yallow, hero of Cory Doctorow’s bestselling and award winning novel, Little Brother. The sequel, Homeland, is set a couple of years later and opens with Marcus and his girlfriend, Ange, living it up at the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. There, in the middle of nowhere, Marcus’ demons come to haunt him.

First is Masha, who used to be on the wrong side, but might now be on the right side. She hands Marcus her insurance policy: a USB drive with access to dirty documents she’s been collecting about the dirty dealings of private enterprise, government departments and a certain former employee. She urges him to publicise the documents should she disappear. Enter Marcus’ worst nightmare, the woman who oversaw his capture and torture in Little Brother, Carrie Johnstone. She’s at Burning Man, too and she’s not there to celebrate what seems to be the largest gathering of unplugged nerds in history.

Masha is kidnapped and Marcus is injured in the explosion triggered to cover the retreat. He returns to San Francisco with a broken nose, the USB and a job offer. The broken nose is annoying, but Masha’s insurance policy and his new job–webmaster for a charismatic political candidate–are at direct odds. To do one justice, he has to all but fail at the other. Having a job is a Big Deal; he’s been out of work for the better part of a year and, as a result of his shenanigans in Little Brother, his parents’ careers have hit the skids. But, this is Marcus. He’s a nineteen year-old guy, he’s smart and curious. He downloads the treasure trove of data accessed by the key on the USB. It’s incendiary stuff.

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