Tag Archives: science fiction

Enemy by Kimberly Amato

There is an old Chinese saying (some say it’s a curse): May you live in interesting times. No doubt about it, we absolutely do; it all depends on how you define ‘interesting’. Putting aside the pandemic for the moment, global politics is at its nadir presently. We have national and international corruption and coups going on right now. We have countries firing missiles into the sea for the sheer hell of it. We have a major superpower preparing to invade one of its neighbours because it can. This happens while the rest of us watch on, not knowing (or caring) how or if any of this will affect our daily lives. To people like me, books can sometimes provide the answers to where our future lies. However, most of the answers I’ve been getting in recent times haven’t been, shall I say, optimistic. When I put Enemy, a dystopian thriller by author Kimberly Amato, down after finishing it, I became very distressed about humanity’s chances of ever surviving the choices it made in recent decades. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read it: you really should. But don’t expect easy answers.

The year is 2045. It’s New Year’s Day, and Jerrik Laskin, President of the United States of the Russian Federation celebrates the dawn of a new year by executing dissidents who planned to assassinate the British prime minister and reform the United Kngdom’s royal family. Former Multinational Security Council agent Ellie Goldman watches on and hatches a plan that she hopes will one day soon end with the death of the president and a restoration of normal order around the globe. It’s a tall, almost impossible order, seeing that Russia’s King Valkov practically rules the world, with Laskin merely one of his puppets. Ellie and what’s left of the resistance have to fight on many fronts, but they’re holed up beneath New York City, deep within its subway system, with only a handful of operatives able to travel above ground.

Meanwhile, another of the Russian king’s goons, Colonel General Gregor Macalov, oversees a plethora of human experiments on Riker’s Island. He’s assisted by Tim Flynt, a soldier whose brother Sam secretly works for Ellie. Macalov is a deeply unsavoury character, but there’s hope that Tim may see the light if Sam can somehow sway him. Ellie’s right hand man, Anton, wants to hit Riker’s Island with all they have; but Ellie has her sights set on a more global operation. There is disagreement in the resistance, and there maybe a spy or two feeding information further up the chain to Laskin and Macalov’s desks. But Ellie is so focused that she risks the entire resistance ultimate betrayal and destruction. Every chapter in Kimberly Amato‘s Enemy is full of danger, subterfuge, and, at times, extreme violence, some of which made me wince.

The book is written and reads at a manic pace and you will be finished before you know it. But you will be drained at the end and in need of a good hug. I know I had to read something more light-hearted once I’d finished Enemy. The Bible came to my mind, because if nothing else, we as humans need Divine help before we succumb to our greed and lust for power and end up blowing ourselves up.

Hermetica by Alan Lea

It’s possible I picked the wrong book to start 2022, but with the way the world is right now, it’s also possible I picked the most apt. Hermetica, a science fiction novella by Alan Lea, is remarkable in that it starts to tell one story and then, at the midway point, takes the reader in a completely different direction. You may think you know where it’s going, but trust me, once you’ve finished you will remember the main character Dase for some time to come. To tell you why would be to spoil the story, but this book, although a quick read, packs a lot into its short length.

Dase is a passenger on the generation ship Hermetica. Fleeing Earth along with millions of others like them, Dase leads a solitary existence where their every need and move is monitored by the artificial intelligence that runs the ship. Every passenger has a job to do, a “compartment” their assigned to, and Dase is a masseuse of sorts. They didn’t do well in aptitude tests taken when they were much younger so this is their lot until they die, which they will, long before Hermetica reaches its destination. Their only solace is Snookums, a stray cat that Dase befriends and lets stay in his room. This is where things change for Dase. Snookums scratches a hole in one of the walls, and upon investigation Dase sees a piece of paper (a product they’re unfamiliar with) which tells of a history that doesn’t match with what Dase knows as truth. So what really happened on Earth? What is Hermetica’s true purpose? Needless to say, other passengers, authorised by the AI, don’t want Dase to take their investigations much further than they already have.

Dase is a compelling character; they don’t define themselves as he or she: they’re simply they, as is everyone around them. When they’re confronted with the concept of gender later in the story, they make a profound argument about how unnecessary binary division actually is. This will no doubt rile a few readers, as it does with one of the supporting characters in Hermetica, but for me, as a reader, I engaged with Dase and their philosophy. The main thrust of the narrative is an enjoyable one, too, but it takes second place to the ideas Alan Lea wants his readers to come to grips with. He describes this quite well in a Q&A he did on the website From First Page To Last. Stuck as we are with the ongoing pandemic, we are all like Dase, compartmentalised, stuck in our rooms, looking at tablets or the like, and not seeing the big picture until it’s literally in front of our eyes, and even then it might be too late to do anything about it.

The Embers of War Trilogy by Gareth L. Powell

Many of the books that have given me the most pleasure this year have been in the genre of speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. Before 2021 is out, I will write a blog about some of my favourites. However, a series of books deserves a blog all to itself. Embers of War is a space-opera trilogy from British author Gareth L. Powell. Last year I read books one to eight of James S.A. Corey’s magnifent Expanse series. It was at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and I had little to do but withdraw from society as much as I could and read. (I binged the Netflix series Dark in and around the same time, so my mind was on worlds definitely unlike our own. I felt all the better for it.) With not long before final book in the Expanse due out (spoiler: Leviathan Falls is out now), I felt the need to delve into another interstellar world. Gareth L. Powell has always been on my radar, so I thought it was the perfect time to read his trilogy. And boy was I glad I did.

Powell’s trilogy begins with the eponymous novel Embers of War, first published in 2018. It follows for the most part the trials and tribulations of the crew of Trouble Dog, a sentient star ship that was once one of the most fierce and feared of a cohort of highly weaponized battleships whose actions against Pelpatarn, a planet covered by a sentient forest, led to the end of a war that devastated the Generality, the government that oversaw the galaxy. This action, a genocide in plain terms, led to a crisis of conscience for Trouble Dog, and the AI allowed herself to be decommissioned and disarmed. Rather than lie in stasis, she became part of the House of Reclamation, an apolitical organisation that foreswore citizenship in order to answer calls of distress across the galaxy and rescue crews stranded or in danger of losing their lives. Captained by Sally (Sal) Konstanz, a woman with her own past and demons she struggles to come to terms with, Trouble Dog set out to rescue the crew and passengers of the Geest of Amsterdam, a luxury cruiser that appears to have been shot down by forces unknown.

Within the Generality, there is the Conglomerate and the Outward. It was the war between them that recently ended with the destruction of Pelpatarn. Spies Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka are on either side of the political divide but together they need to find a way to get on board Trouble Dog and join the rescue mission. An apparent VIP was on board the stricken ship when it went down, the war poet Ona Sudak, and it’s imperative her whereabouts is discovered. Sudak is not who she appears to be, though. Embers of War is an intriguing and exciting beginning to the trilogy. Along the way Powell introduces us to a number of complex and exotic characters, most notably Konstanz’ right hand woman, Alva Clay: their relationship is one based on trust and enmity. There is also Nod, a Druff, a multi-limbed and many-faced alien who’s the ship’s mechanic. Over the course of the three books, this endearing creature becomes important to the overall arc. By the end of the first book, the galaxy has changed and a new military might, gone for millenia, has entered the fray. They are the Fleet of Knives and it is their presence that forms the basis for book two.

An uneasy truce has overtaken the Generality but when Ona Sudak is violently sprung from the prison where she awaits her sentence of death, this fragile peace is shattered when the Fleet of Knives launch and all-out attack on the Generality’s armed forces. New characters like Johnny Schultz, captain of the salvage ship Lucy’s Ghost, come into the narrative. He and his crew are navigating through higher dimension space, on the way to salvage an old generation ship called The Restless Itch for Foreign Soil which has been travelling the system for long, long time, it’s crew long dead because of an onboard rebellion. Johnny thinks the ship is fair game for salvage regardless of political insensibilities. On the way there Lucy’s Ghost is attacked and destroyed by a creature from the void. They barely escape with their lives and find themselves inside The Restless Itch. But they are not alone. Meanwhile a galactic war is kicking off once more. Powell leaves just enough breadcrumbs in his story, while still upping the stakes overall. The battle scenes are literally life or death, and there’s plenty of the latter, even some of the crew we’ve grown close to don’t all make it.

The final book, Light of Impossible Stars is the brilliant conclusion to the trilogy. Without wanting to give too much away, we meet Cordelia Pa, a citizen of the Plate, a system of odd-shaped planets that sit near the Intrusion, a portal to a new dimension, a wormhole. She escapes her home Plate on the Gigolo Aunt, ostensibly to meet her estranged father, who has a mission in mind for his daughter. In the Generality, the Fleet of Knives have laid waste to much of the galaxy, but Reclamation Vessel Trouble Dog with her much changed crew and AI brother Adalwolf by her side still have a job to do. The creatures from within the void of higher dimensional space are lurching in the Intrusion, ready to attack all living creatures in the Generality. Konstanz must find a way to pressure the Fleet of Knives into joining forces with her and push the Scourers back. This is a tremendously exciting and fitting conclusion to the Embers of War trilogy. It has surprises and twists by the bucketload. If James S.A. Corey manage to end the Expanse in a similar fashion (and I suspect they will), I will be a very happy reader. Hats off to Gareth L. Powell for pulling out all the stops with his trilogy. I eagerly anticipate reading his new book, Stars and Bones, due out next year. I will review this before publication. It’s a great time to be a fan of space opera and science fiction.

Author Gareth L. Powell

Heliopause by J.Dianne Dotson

There’s something about space stations that turn me on, in a literal sense of course. For me, some of the best science fiction shows have been set on space stations. Deep Space 9 stands out, of course, but in my opinion the Daddy of them all is Babylon 5, an amazing and for its time, ahead of the posse when it came to CGI, boasting an interstellar cast which told a complex and human and alien story over five seasons. The recent news that B5 will be rebooted in the near future excites and terrifies me in equal measure, but with J.Michael Straczynski at the helm, at least the vision will be somewhat similar. As long as he includes the classic John Sheridan line, “Get the hell out of our galaxy,” I’ll be happy.

At a time in my lead when my ‘read list’ on Goodreads is heavily comprised of many degrees of science fiction, my current reads have been primarily space operas. I’m coming to the end of Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War trilogy, and soon will start the final novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Falls. It’s an exciting time for me. But a writer I’ve recently discovered, thanks to following Powell’s Twitter account, is American author J. Dianne Dotson. Heliopause is the first book in her Questrison Saga quartet. It’s set mainly on a space station, so you know I was all over it like a bad suit.

Forster works on the research space station Mandira, near the outermost limit of our solar system, known as the Heliopause, that part of the solar system which is exposed to particles and ions of deep space (thanks, Google). He pals around with Gibbons and Efron, and together they the station operational and each other sane. Forster reminisces over his lost love Auna, but struggles on anyway. At the beginning of the book, he sees lights where lights should not occur. It’s not a hallucination because others see them, too. It’s a transmission of sorts, in Morse Code of all things, as discovered by Gibbons’ AI assistant Veronica. There is a sense of excitement on Mandira, as one of their colleagues, Captain Spears, is on the way with a ship-load of much-needed replenishments and goodies. However, when contact is lost with Spears’ ship, and Forster and Efron realise that the mysterious transmission may be behind it, they come up with a plan to locate the source. The station’s matriarch, Meredith, suspects the transmission may be the key to locating her daughter Ariel, a telepath who went missing on a mission many years back.

Heliopause is classic Golden Age science fiction, taking me back to Star Trek in all its glory and, of course Babylon 5. It’s closer to B5 because of the looming presence of forces deep outside the Border Wall that spell certain doom and devastation to Mandira and ultimately humanity. One of Forster’s friends, Efron, knows more than he lets on, and he urges Forster to use his own latent telepathic powers to aid the mission and save Ariel. And that, dear reader, is only the start of the book. What happens from then on is a rip-roaring read that had me gasping at some of the plot twists. J. Dianne Dotson self-published Heliopause and did a wonderful job at keeping the different plot strands together. As it is the first book of four, some questions will be answered, but many more will be left dangling. And that’s as it should be. By the end of the book, certain characters will have met their destiny and we may or may not see them again in future books. But others will remain, and their story will continue. I will read the next book, Ephemeris, with glee and purpose. I loved this book and I’m so happy I found out about it.

Author J. Diane Dotson

Ark Of The Apocalypse by Tobin Marks

I think the best thing about being part of Blackstone Book Tours is the knowledge that among the books I’ve signed up to read and review, there will be among them a book so devilishly clever and unique that all I can do is read on and giggle with amazement at the author’s audacity. Tobin MarksArk of the Apocalypse is one such book.

The first thing I looked at was the book cover. The image portrays a blond haired young woman with a baby dragon on her shoulder. Immediately this brings to mind Daenerys Targaryen from the book and TV series Game of Thrones. Another cash-in, you might think. But Ark of the Apocalypse is its own beast, and it’s story is both contemporary and fantastical. Yes, there is such a woman in the story, as well as a dragon (which comes much later in the narrative), but from the very first chapter, there is a lot of foreshadowing, shocking moments, and so many twists and turns that in my mind, Marks has kind of outdone George RR Martin in high-stakes character-driven storytelling–and this book, the first in a series called The Magellan II Chronicles, will see its conclusion long before Martin gets around to concluding his.

Ark of the Apocalypse is a genre-bending mixture of science fact, science fiction, and a healthy dollop of paranormal fantasy. If that’s your bag, then you’re going to enjoy the hell out of this book. If you like to read books that make you utter “What the flaming hell?” after every chapter, before diving into the next one, then yes, this book is for you.

I’ve avoided so far trying to summarise the plot. The blurb available on all platforms goes some way to explaining what AotA is all about; but it doesn’t do it full justice. But like all good sagas, this book revolves around a family from Russia called Yanbeyev. This dynasty evolves through decades of genetic engineering and psychic manipulation to become the veritable saviours of humanity, while at the same time ensuring that even as the Earth dies, the Yanbeyev lineage with survive to lead humanity on not one but two planets (at least). What the blurb doesn’t tell you is that along the way, there is political assassinations, multiple US presidents, and a Russian premiere that sees them all off via help from the Yanbeyev matriarchs (though he’s completely unaware he’s being manipulated). Climate change has ravaged our planet. Governments ignore the scientists until its too late, and the only way to save humanity is to build a generation ship that will take 10,000 humans to a planet that will be called Aqueous. What the planners don’t know is that there is an indigenous species of reptile-like creatures and an advanced alien race already well settled there. But the Yanbeyevs are aware of these races and have factored them into their millenia-long plan for human domination. They are happy to let the world go to war and burn, if only for their ancestors to survive and grow into an interplanetary power.

Like I said, there’s a lot going on in AofA, but it’s a supremely fun and thought-provoking read. I loved it and I wait in glorious anticipation for what Tobin Marks will conjure up in the next instalment. This is space opera and high fantasy at its very finest. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much this year as this one.

Author Tobin Marks

Scorpion by Christian Cantrell

We know what we are, but not yet what we may be. (Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Act 4, scene 5.)

Ophelia is going through a crisis in Shakespeare’s play. Her husband Hamlet has killed her father and she is cracking up. She knows only what she knows and is reacting to that, but she doesn’t know what the future holds for either of them. This is an entirely human feeling. Each of us reacts to events in the here and now; we can’t help it. But we also wonder where these events will eventually take us. This quote from Ophelia forms the basis for the prologue of Scorpion, a mind-bending, jargon-heavy, but superbly entertaining and well written science fiction thriller from Christian Cantrell, a software engineer who lives near Washington, D.C.

Quinn Mitchell is an analyst for the CIA, a desk jockey with little to no experience in the field. She has suffered a profound loss in her past, with the accidental drowning of her young daughter Molly, which resulted in the protracted separation and eventual divorce from her husband James. She is happy enough to stay out of the limelight and is very good at her job. However, her so-called easy life comes to a disturbing end when she is sent out into the field to track down and stop a man dubbed the Elite Assassin. All around the world, bodies are turning up — more than 20 of them, in fact — and there appears to be no apparent motive except that they are almost perfect killings. There is no rhyme to reason, but Al Moretti, Quinn’s boss, knows there’s more to these assassinations so Quinn must follow the trail of bodies that hopefully will lead to an arrest.

Christian Cantrell identifies our assassin almost straight away. He is Ranveer, an Iranian national, with limitless resources and finance, and a steady supply of eccentric individuals who supply him with the knowledge and know-how to complete his killings. He travels first-class and stays at the most luxurious of hotels and resorts. He is a man with a mission, however horrendous it may first appear. He’s also on the clock. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs only Quinn can find, there is method to his sociopathy. Quinn doesn’t know it yet, but there is a connection between the pair of them. In the mix is Henrietta Yi, a diminutive woman, originally from Korea, where terrorists set off a nuclear bomb that destroyed Seoul and killed millions of people including her parents. She has a visual impairment that causes her to wear special glasses, otherwise she sees afterimages, which she calls ‘ghosts’, all the time. This comes in handy later in the book. She is working on a top-secret project for Moretti based on data from something called The Epoch Index.

Christian Cantrell (imagec/o crowdcast.io)

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. But there is a connection between all three characters that doesn’t become apparent until the last third of Scorpion, the first two-thirds of which is taken up by a captivating and off-the-wall cat-and-mouse chase between Quinn and Ranveer. The setting is near-futurish, the technology is unique but not far-fetched, and I got particular delight from the author’s description of The Grid, an area of Qatar that is closed off to anyone without influence, money, or a really good reason to hide from the authorities. The climax is straight out of genre favourites like Looper and Minority Report, and while some of the techinical jargon may go over your head from time to time, the characters make the story relatable. You may know what you are, but not yet what you may be.

My thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers of Scorpion for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Twin Paradox by Charles Wachter

There comes a point in some works of science fiction when you’re better off not trying to understand the physics behind a particular concept, and just run with whatever point the author is making. It’s enough to know that they know what’s going on. It’s at this juncture that we decide to sit back and be entertained. In Jurassic Park, we were there for the dinosaurs; not so much for the science behind their creation or whether or not it is ethical to recreate them for the modern audience, as interesting as these debates undoubtedly are.

The Twin Paradox by Emmy Award-winning TV executive producer Charles Wachter is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. At its heart, it’s a hugely entertaining book set in the very near future where brilliant minds from the past live among us in the form of clones. By snatching body parts from such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Leonarda da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King, and Catherine the Great, scientific minds from the United States have been able to use this DNA to create cloned copies. These children are nurtured and schooled by Gen-E Corp, run by the billioniare and slightly megalomaniciacal Teigen Ralls (a villain James Bond would be proud to know). They are clueless to their origins until the day they are put on a plane that’s taking them to a location on the coast of Texas. Alastair is Einstein, Milk is MLK, Kat is Catherine the Great, Zach is one of two Newtons in the book, Leo is, obviously, the Italian da Vinci. Together they are brought to Cornerstone, where they must solve the greatest problems humanity has ever faced.

Charles Wachter

Wikipedia describes: In physics, the twin paradox is a thought experiment in special relativity involving identical twins, one of whom makes a journey into space in a high-speed rocket and returns home to find that the twin who remained on Earth has aged more. You can follow the link and go down the rabbit hole as deep as you wish. All you need to know for the story at hand is that the children are taken to an ecosytem that exists in a time and space continuum of its own. For every three minutes that passes in our world, ten years passes inside Cornerstone. Therefore, millennia can pass in mere days and weeks. Living within this system are creatures not meant for this world, including a race of humanoid cannibals, related through time to a group of immigrants who were crossing the US-Mexico border at a time when the system was created.

The clones are given free rein to research for themselves and Gen-E, but the world is in grave danger. The Russians and Chinese are conducting their own experiments within the ecosystem, and when Isaac Prime betrays the new kids on the block, it becomes a race against time to learn the truth behind Cornerstone and escape the jaws and claws of monsters and men. The scope is breath-taking and the chapters fly by, as long as you don’t think too hard on the physics. I’m sure it all makes sense, but I like my brain where it is, not coming out of my ears.

The Twin Paradox is the first in a projected series, with a sequel, The Divine Paradox, due for publication early next year. I will certainly read it, for I found this book fun and engaging. I was happy to review it for the publishers, author, and NetGalley.

Reality Testing by Grant Price

Over the course of recent months and years, I have come to the firm belief that whatever is in store for humanity, it’s not going to be good. Too many countries have elected indiduals to positions of power who have no right to be there. They have little experience or worse, they couldn’t care less what happens to the people they were elected by and the world around them. To them it’s all about power and how to maintain it. They pay lip service to climate change, and brush the refugee crisis under the carpet. To them, such catastrophes are always someone else’s problem. Very few novels published today focus on what happens when things go well for humanity, instead dydtopian fiction forms the bedrock of a lot of speculative fiction you see in bookstores or online, especially since 2016. In short, bad news sells books.

But that doesn’t mean these books are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of them are really good. Allow me to introduce you to Reality Testing, by Berlin-based author Grant Price. You’re probably familiar with the cyberpunk genre, made famous by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which combines a hi-tech futuristic setting with general societal degradation: basically the rich get richer and have access to all the mod cons in technology, and the poor are so far down the bottom of the ladder they have no chance of improving their lot in life. The Berlin of Grant Price’s novel is a perfect example of a society gone worng. It’s the aftermath of the Second Water War, and the Big Five conglomerates have taken control of the city and its citizens, advertising their products and services in very obtrusive ways. They say their technology and policies are in aid of the failing environment, whereas in fact they’re outbidding and out-manoeuvering each other to get a bigger slice of the pie. Automatons known as bulls patrol the streets, dishing out instant justice for even the most petty of crimes. Citizens make ends meet how they can, working enough jobs to ensure they get cheap food and entertainment. Mara Hinzig gets a lot more than she bargains for when she signs up for a gig which will allow her to be paid while she undergoes a few months of sleep in a programme called LINK, run by Ahe+d, and overseen by the mysterious Klaus Koje.

Grant Price

Mara wakes up next to a dead body. She’s got blood on her hands and she has no idea what happened. She runs for it and ends up at the door of her ex-partner Jema. The only problem is, the body Mara how inhabits isn’t her own. Not only is she wanted for a murder she doesn’t remember committing, but she now has a face she doesn’t recognise and a voice inside her head is giving her instructions and at times taking control over her body. This is not a good time to be Mara. When tragedy ensues, Mara is driven literally underground, where she meets a cohort of individuals who either want to kill her, turn her over to the authorities for a reward. Price creates a beautifully realised subterranean world with characters that are unique and off-the-wall crazy. I loved Mantis and Prestone, both augmented and damaged human beings, victims of circumstance and hubris. With their help, Mara is led to another part of Germany where the mythical Vanguard await. There she finds a group of people, mainly women, who live off-grid, and with the aid of the Abbot, the group’s leader, she tries to understand what’s happening to her and how she can get revenge on Koje. Her right-hand man is Daniel Van Morden, a veteran with a secret of his own. Along with Abbadine, Xi Yang, and Theo, Mara plots a way to get back control of her life and identity.

Reality Testing is a fast-paced and action-packed novel that I raced through in a couple of sittings. It brought back memories of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner. The aesthetics are similar but Price tells his own story. This is a world that is terrifying, where life has little value, and where the stakes are so high, it’s obvious that not everyone is going to come through unscathed. I especially enjoyed the author’s depiction of a society where, despite everything else going on, people are allowed to be whatever they prefer to be: gender is fluid, and non-binary characters are front and centre of this fascinating future. Grant Price makes us think about how the next step in human evolution might look, and we wonder whether or not it would be best for the planet and ourselves if we just die off as a species and let the Earth start again. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of adventures to have in the meantime.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I found Firebreak purely by chance. I was scrolling through NetGalley recommendations, not really sure what genre I was looking to read, but basically I wanted something to jump out at me. Literally grab me by the scruff of my neck and say, “Read me, you fool!” I couldn’t see anything immediately, but soon after I got an email from NetGalley, singing “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” There, slap bang in the body of email was indeed the book I was looking for.

You don’t have to be much of a political commentator to know that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. Authoritarian, nationalist and populist governments are the norm rather than the exception in practically every economy on the planet. These are scary times, and there doesn’t seem to be a way through the gloom right now. But as bad as it all appears to be, you cannot discount the indomitable nature of humanity. Author Nicole Kornher-Stace‘s first novel for adults is full of this spirit, and it’s badly needed.

It is 2134 and what’s left of the United States of America after ecological and economic disaster is divided up between two super-corporations, Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis controls the water supply, while Greenleaf controls all elements of agriculture. The two are permantly at war with each other but have reached a stalemate with New Liberty City. Mal and her friends live on the outside, in the old town, copped up together in a hotel room. Their water is rationed; power goes off in the evenings; and they work as many jobs as they can to ensure they can pay for the things we take for granted. They have barely enough to get by, but there’s always the chance they might find themselves in a dehydration clinic if they don’t get enough water. A visit there would cost them more than they could pay. To make ends meet, and to keep themselves entertained, Mal and her friends livestream themselves as they game away on SecOps on BestLife, Stellaxis’s wargame. The more successful they are at the game, the more sponsorship they get, coming in the form of cash, weaponry for the game, and credit for water. A chance meeting with one of Stellaxis’s Non-Player Characters (NPC), known as 22, brings Mal and her best friend Jessa in contact with B, a mysterious new sponsor who tells them the true origins of the NPCs.

Firebreak begins in the middle of a livestream and once you settle in and get comfortable with the pace and environment, Nicole throws in a conspiracy that changes the nature of the story and characters. Mal isn’t what you may call a sociable person; she leaves the talking to Jessa, who’s like the manager of their partnership. They’re a duo, with each bringing their special qualities to the table. Jessa narrates their adventures online while Mal racks up the points with kills and bravado. But all this changes when they come to the attention of Stellaxis, and that’s when their lives and the lives of their friends are put in danger.

Nicole Kornher-Stace (image: Fantasy Book Critic)

A good novel, whatever the genre, lives or dies by its characters and character development. Mal and Jessa are introduced as fully-formed individuals and over the course of Firebreak grow in ways they probably thought not possible. All they want to do is live to game another day, but they’re not selfish people. Everything they have, they share with their friends, and this becomes important as the book nears its climax. This selflessness has its rewards. All throughout, Nicole Kornher-Stace treats us to action scenes that don’t hold back on violence or consequence. Our heroes are bloodied but unbowed. Nicole has created a frightening world, one which should serve as a lesson to us all: we are one major disaster away from everything we hold dear and take for granted crashing to the ground around us.

Firebreak is an exhilerating and exciting read, replete with vibrant and conflicted characters, in a world that is both real and unreal. It could be our future. Pray it’s not.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers of Firebreak for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel is on sale now.

The Year Before The End by Vidar Hokstad

All through last spring and into early summer, I read books two to eight of James S.A. Corey’s epic space opera series The Expanse, one after the other. Once I reached the end of book eight I knew I had a long wait ahead of me before the series was concluded. Now we have a date: Leviathan Falls will be published on November 16, 2021. I for one cannot wait. Until then, though, I was on the look out for something similar to read. I love edgy science-fiction. By this I mean, I like my futuristic universe to be both realistic and gritty. Just because humanity can reach for the starts, it doesn’t mean that the future would look glorious and hopeful. If we know anything about being human it’s that wherever we go, we bring our mess with us: we leave very little behind. Science fiction, if it’s written and presented well, can give us very perceptive insights into what it means to be human. We look to the stars and see a bright future ahead of us, and then we let our collective egos get in our way. The Year Before The End, by Norwegian writer and techie Vidar Hokstad, is a great example of what I’m talking about.

First contact has been made, and visitors from the nearby Alpha Centauri system are eager to being trading with our solar system. But they won’t be able to travel to us unless we build a gate that will allow two-way traffic between the two systems. Plans are in place and much building has been done, to such an extent that when the book begins we’re a year away from the project’s completion–The End of the title. But not everyone is pleased with meeting and greeting our new extraterrestrial trading partners. Member of Sovereign Earth, an alliance against any form of non-human pacts, are planning system-wide acts of sabotage, pitting Earth against Mars especially.

In the midst of all this we meet Captain Zara Ortega and the crew of the freighter Black Rain. Zo, as she is called in the book, is hired by a shady individual to raid a space station called Vanguard and rob from its vault information that will prove to everyone that the Centauris are in league with Mars separatists and plan to carve up the solar system between them, leaving Earth very much in the lurch and out of the picture. Of course no reasonable person would want this kind of action to take place, so Zo, in return for a big payday, agrees to take the job on. And that’s where the problems begin, because we’re left wondering who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

Vidar Hokstad

Those of us who have seen Rogue One will be familiar with the premise of a ragtag group of people attempting to achieve the impossible. Getting into the place is an issue in and of itself, but retrieving the information and getting out alive is quite another. When there’s a surprise attack on the station by persons unknown, Zo and her crew end up fighting battles on all sides. Plus there may be a traitor among the crew. The action flits from one set-piece to another, literally jumping between asteroid belts and space stations, with a very intriguing series villain introduced on a station called Nautilus. Mayhem ensues, and death and destruction around every corner.

Vidar Hokstad knows what he’s talking about when it comes to world-building, concepts, and technology. He starts his series well, and while his supporting characters could use a bit more fleshing out, my favourite has to be Clarice with her augmented eyes and introspective personality. Hokstad peppers his series debut with a lot of technological details that does at times slow the story down unnecessarily. But I found the same thing happened with the first book in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, and look how that series turned out. Vidar Hokstad is on to something here, and if he can iron out some of these issues for the next book in the series, Galaxy Bound, then I think he has a winner. I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes.