Reviews, September 2016

You’ve gotta get up and try, and try, and try

Louisa the Poisoner — Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee’s delightful 1995 modern-day Horatio Alger story Louisa the Poisoner is a standalone chapbook.

Pity poor Louisa, raised in March Mire, a swamp “so dangerous that none but fools would venture into it,” fostered by a mad, witchy aunt, then cast out into an uncaring world. Her aunt has tragically died in convulsions (after Louisa poisoned her). How is one sad orphan, all alone in the world, to fend for herself?

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Can you show me where it hurts?

Hospital Station — James White
Sector General, book 1

First published as short stories in New Worlds Magazine , James White’s Sector General was by far his most successful series. Of the twenty-one novels and nine collections White published, twelve were Sector General books. 1962’s Hospital Station was the very first Sector General fix-up, gathering short works first published in New Worlds.

Strategically located midway between the rim of the parent galaxy and the densely populated systems of the Greater Magellanic Cloud, Sector 12 General Hospital took the resources of hundreds of civilized worlds to create. Not a surprise, since its mission is to provide health care to all beings of all kinds. Even the radioactive ones. Even the ones unfamiliar to the Galactic Federation, races about which nothing is known.

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I’ve got a feeling you could use a little smile

Kozue Amano
Aqua, book 1

Now for a change of pace from scenery-porn science fiction manga about airplanes. Time for Kozue Amano’s scenery-porn science fiction manga about gondolas: Aqua! Specifically, 2001’s Volume One.

By the opening years of the 24 th century, humans had terraformed Mars. Owing to a slight miscalculation re the amount of ice present, 90% of Mars is ocean-covered. The colonists have renamed Mars “Aqua” and embraced the possibilities of a largely ocean-covered world.

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Let the Devil Take Tomorrow

Thomas the Rhymer — Ellen Kushner

Ellen Kushner’s 1990 Thomas the Rhymer is a standalone reinterpretation of the traditional ballad. It won both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award.

Gavin and wife Meg are odd friends for someone like Thomas. Gavin and Meg live quiet lives on their farm, while Thomas is a wandering minstrel who has, or so he claims, played at court. At first, Gavin and Meg offered the stranger shelter, as good people would. Later, he becomes something of an adopted son to the childless couple.

There are many reasons why the farm holds such an attraction for Thomas, not least of which is young Elspeth, who lives on a nearby farm.

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Without a limit, without a doubt!

Colonies in Space — T.A.Heppenheimer

T. A. Heppenheimer’s Colonies in Space is just one of the many Disco Era books and articles published proposing that the Next Big Step for humans in space would not be settlements on Mars or the Moon, but rather grand space stations. The idea was very popular, at least until reality ensued.

These days, Heppenheimer may be remembered as the spoilsport who pointed out that Bussard ramjets are far more effective at dissipating energy than they are at generating it (which is to say, they’re not propulsion systems but brakes). Yet he too was a space colony enthusiast. I remember his book fondly. What I cannot do is resolve the teeny-tiny font in the paperback edition,

So it was with great glee that I discovered that the National Space Society has made the work available online for free. I like free! It’s even better than cheap!

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We do the things you wanna see

Heroine Complex — Sarah Kuhn
Heroine Complex, book 1

Heroine Complex is Sarah Kuhn’s debut novel.

An army of demons invaded San Francisco, but turned out to be somewhat fragile; they all died almost as soon as they arrived in our dimension (shades of H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds ). Ever since the failed invasion, San Francisco has endured several small scale incursions … but those attacks are nothing that dedicated volunteers cannot handle.

Volunteers like San Francisco’s own leather-and-spandex clad superheroine, Aveda Jupiter. And voluntolds , like Aveda’s timid but loyal personal assistant, Evie Tanaka.

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You can fall for chains of silver, you can fall for chains of gold/You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold

A Bed of Earth — Tanith Lee
The Secret Books of Venus, book 3

2002’s A Bed of Earth is the third novel in Tanith Lee’s The Secret Books of Venus.

A few yards of dirt in a Venus graveyard is all it took to trigger the long-running feud between the powerful della Scorpia and Barbaron clans. To surrender that narrow patch of land would show weakness and betray the family honour. Better bloodshed and death than dishonour!

Betrothed to Lord Ciara, 14-year-old Merelda della Scorpia prefers the dashing musician Lorenzo. The betrothal serves her grasping family’s goals, but eloping with Lorenzo serves Meralda’s heart. There is no real question which option the naive teen will choose.

Alas for Merelda, intercepting the two lovers and handing them over to vindictive, malevolent Lord Ciara serves Andrea Barbaron’s sense of comic malice.

Lorenzo does not long survive Lord Ciara’s hospitality. Merelda does; Lord Ciara is unwilling to settle for simply killing her; he prefers a more perverse vengeance. Merelda is alive when Lord Ciara sends her away from Eel Island, but … nobody ever sees her again. Alive? Dead? Alive but writhing in torment? No living person knows.

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Beyond This Horizon

Hitoshi Ashinano
Kabu no Isaki, book 2

Onwards to volume two of Hitoshi Ashinano’s Kabu no Isaki , first published in 2009. The world is big, the planes are small, and Kajika may have lost her shot at Isaki.

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Get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me

Cyteen — C. J. Cherryh
Cyteen, book 1

Grandmaster C. J. Cherryh’s 1988 Cyteen is arguably the magnum opus of her Alliance-Union novels. Together with its 2009 sequel Regenesis, Cyteen gives fans their most detailed look at Union, the first system-spanning nation independent of Earth.

Ariane Emory is a Special, one of a handful of geniuses who stand out even in a polity established by the brightest of Earth’s star-faring bright. She is one of the people who have made Union what it is: a dystopic state run by interlocking self-selected oligarchies to whom the phrase “checks and balances” is a joke. It is a galactic power utterly dependent on mass-produced, mind-controlled slaves. For Emory, secure in her power as head of the research facility Reseune, life is sweet.

As her frozen corpse proves, even a sweet life can come to an unexpected, abrupt end.

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The Hunter and the Bear

The Mercenary — Jerry Pournelle

1977’s The Mercenary is a fix-up. It comprises three Jerry Pournelle stories: Peace with Honor (1971), The Mercenary (1972), and Sword and Scepter (1973). These are among the earliest of Pournelle’s stories1. They must have impressed readers because The Mercenary was nominated for Best Novella (losing to Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest ) while Pournelle himself won the very first John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

The Second Cold War ended with the formation of the CoDominium in the 1990s. The Soviet and American forces dominate the Earth. Thanks to the timely development of the Alderson Drive, those who object too loudly or who are simply surplus to needs can be shipped out to the interstellar colonies.

It’s not a just system but it works. Or rather, it worked. Now nationalists across the planet want to bring it down and with it, civilization on Earth.

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How the Light Gets In

Saint Fire — Tanith Lee
The Secret Books of Venus, book 2

1999’s Saint Fire is the second novel in Tanith Lee’s The Secret Books of Venus.

If it were not for the Council of the Lamb, the masses who call Ve Nara home might waste their lives on love and pleasure. Ever vigilant, the Council diligently guides their charges towards self-denial and suffering, God’s chosen path for mortal humans. The Council’s grip on Ve Nara seems unbreakable, save for two minor details:

  • The looming war with Jurneia, a country of heretics too blind to see their false god is but a mockery of the one true God, fools who think it’s the Christian God who is false. Whatever the truth or falsity of Jurneia’s theology, their vast fleet is all too real.
  • The girl with fire in her hair.

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A Thief in the Night

Going Dark — Linda Nagata
Red, book 3

2015’s Going Dark is the third and final volume in Linda Nagata’s Red Trilogy.

As far as the world is concerned, James Shelly died when his space plane was blown out of the sky. But he isn’t dead; he’s just gone undercover. He’s a member of ETM Strike Squad 7-1, an elite strike force formed to combat existential threats.

7-1 is beyond covert, not listed in any official records, staffed by the officially dead, funded with a fortune stolen from a mad billionaire. Missions are selected by the enigmatic Red. In theory, all of them involve crises that could end human civilization. But there is a catch:

The Red is not infallible. It is not all powerful. It is not even human.

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Fever in the morning/Fever all through the night

Transferral — Kate Blair

2016’s Transferral is a debut novel from Canadian-by-choice author Kate Blair. It is not listed as such on her ISFDB entry because she does not have an ISFDB entry—someone should get on that—but her website confirms the info.

The weed of crime may bear bitter fruit in our world but in sixteen-year-old Talia’s world, crime produces endless snotty hankies. Once science provided the means to move diseases from one human to another, it didn’t take long for lawmakers to see that this could be a perfect tool to reward decent citizens while punishing lawbreakers. Break a minor law and receive some law-abiding citizen’s cold. Break a major crime and say hello to necrotising fasciitis.

Talia, herself a survivor of a brutal crime that left her sister and mother dead, has no doubts about the morality of the transferral system of punishment. What could possibly be wrong with making sure good things happen to good people by ensuring that bad things happen to bad people?

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Party at Ground Zero

Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship — George Dyson

George Dyson’s 2003 Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship is the biography of an atomic rocket that never was. Strike that, the atomic rocket that never was. Atomic rockets like NERVA or DUMBO may have used the power of the atom, but their approach was not so very different from conventional chemical rockets and their performance not so much better. Orion promised delta vees more than an order of magnitude better than NERVA at its best.

All it asked in return for its astounding performance was a studied tolerance for proximity to nuclear explosions. Repeated explosions.

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For One Single Yesterday

Dying of the Light — George R.R. Martin

1977’s Dying of the Light was George R. R. Martin’s first novel. While this novel is set in the same Manrealm as a number of Martin’s other stories1, this is a standalone. You don’t need to have read the other works to understand this one. This isn’t volume five of some interminable fantasy series.

Centuries after the collapse of the Federal Empire, the human worlds are still recovering. Fourteen of the more isolated, backward worlds collaborated on an ambitious project: terraforming the rogue world Worlorn as it passes by the giant star Fat Satan.

By the time Dirk t’Larien arrives on Worlorn, hoping to help a former lover, Gwen Delvano, Worlorn’s Festival is over. Its path will take it past Fat Satan and back into the lightless interstellar depths. All life on the world is doomed.

As is Dirk, if he sticks around.

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Plane Speaking

Hitoshi Ashinano
Kabu no Isaki, book 1

Hitoshi Ashinano’s Kabu no Isaki—Isaki of the Cub— was serialized between 2007 and 2013 and subsequently collected into six volumes. I am unaware of a North American edition. Which minor fact did not deter the intrepid reviewer.

At first glance, not much has changed in the (unspecified number of) years between our era and young Isaki’s. People still need to work, which means they need some means to get to work. For Isaki, work and transportation are one and the same. Neighbor Shiro allows Isaki the use of her aged but still reliable Piper Cub airplane. In return, Isaki uses the plane to run errands for Shiro.

First glance is, of course, misleading.

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No people, no problem!

Red Unicorn — Tanith Lee
Unicorn, book 3

1997’s Red Unicorn is the third and final volume in Tanith Lee’s Unicorn series.

Poor Tanaquil! In the previous volume, she fell in love with Honj. Because he is the paramour of Tanaquil’s half-sister Lizra, he is forever out of reach. Heartbroken, she returns to her mother Jaive’s isolated home, only to discover that an unexpected romance has ruined life there as well.

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You see the signs, but you can’t read

No Rest for the Wicked — Kate Ashwin
Widdershins, book 2

Widdershins: No Rest for the Wicked is the second arc in Kate Ashwin’s ongoing webcomic. No Rest for the Wicked was published in 82 installments from March 12, 2012 to October 5, 2012.

Detained by police after a friendly altercation at a local pub, Jack O’Malley and his amiable German chum Wolfe face either prison term or—this being a fantasy England with its own Bloody Code—execution. Jack has a very special talent and that makes him potentially valuable to Councilwoman Fairbairn. Valuable enough to buy both Jack and Wolfe out of prison.

Of course, a contract with the councilwoman is involved but if contracts ever said anything important, O’Malley would have learned to read.

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An old classic new to me

Children of the Atom — Wilmar H. Shiras

Tell me if you’ve heard this story before: a well-meaning man founds a school for gifted youngsters. The gifted youngsters are mutants, children of the atom, each with their own gifts. They are mutants to whom the world will react with fear and anger when their existence is revealed.

Like most well-read SFF fans, I’d heard of Wilmar H. Shiras’ 1953 classic Children of the Atom . I had a vague idea what later works plagiarized … were inspired by Shiras’ collection. I had never actually read Children until I discovered that an ebook edition had been published. Knowing when the original text was written, where it was published, and the works it inspired, I thought I had a pretty good idea how the plot had to play out.

I was wrong.

There will be spoilers.

By 1973, the 1959 accident that left the staff of an atomic reactor dying of radiation poisoning is long forgotten. When child psychologist Peter Welles is asked to examine fourteen-year-old Tim, the accident seems to have no relevance to his patient. At a first glance, Tim seems like a perfectly normal young boy. At second glance, it becomes clear that Tim is concealing a great secret. He believes that if anyone were to learn his secret, he would become a pariah.

He’s not wrong.

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Through the Looking Glass

The Universe Between — Alan E. Nourse

Alan E. Nourse’s 1965 The Universe Between is a fix-up of two novelettes published in 1951: High Threshold and The Universe Between.

Ambitious cryogenics research has created an incomprehensible thing in the middle of the lab. Attempts to understand it have killed three men and put two more in the madhouse. Determined to unravel the mystery, Dr. John McEvoy has turned to the Hoffman Center. Perhaps the Center can provide a volunteer resilient enough to survive the thing (which may be a hypercube).

Much to McEvoy’s surprise, the best man for the job is a girl.

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The language of love has left me stony grey

Faces Under Water — Tanith Lee
The Secret Books of Venus, book 1

1998’s Faces Under Water is the first volume in Tanith Lee’s Secret Books of Venus series.

Having ragequit his former life as a pampered aristocrat, Furian makes a scanty living by running errands for alchemist Schaachen. A hunt for salvageable bodies in Venus’ canals turns up something unexpected: a mask of unparalleled quality.

A mask that Furian should have left in the canal.

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If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountain should crumble to the sea

Patema Inverted — Yasuhiro Yoshiura

I stumbled across Yasuhiro Yoshiura 2013’s animated film Patema Inverted by accident. An image search for something else turned up Patema Inverted ’s eyecatching cover. As has been well-established, I am a sucker for a pretty cover.

Patema yearns to find a world beyond the tunnels and corridors she grew up in. One careless step later, and she plummets down into an endless abyss. Luckily for Patema, high school student Age is in the right place at the right time to prevent Patema from falling up into the endless sky.

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