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LAST UPDATE 6/27/09

The Human Disguise by James O’Neal, Tor, 2009, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2014-8 2331 

The picture of the near future in this novel is likely to depress you.  A nuclear device was set off in New York City, the government is floundering and remains bogged down in a conflict in the Mideast, and an aggressive Germany has begun to assert its power over the rest of Europe again.  The protagonist is a police officer in Miami, which has come to resemble a third world city with high crime and poverty rates and deteriorating neighborhoods.  All of this is just the set up for the aliens-are-among-us story that follows.  A chance encounter leads the policeman to the revelation that there are actually nonhuman races living secretly among us, and that they have been fighting a secret war for a long time.  He also discovers a plot against the city itself, a plot which he must foil virtually singlehanded.  I’m not sure I really believed the premise, but ignoring that pardonable implausibility, this wasn’t bad at all.  But it was depressing. 6/27/09

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty Sixth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, St Martins, 2009, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-312-55105-6 2379 

I always feel as though I’m being unfairly brief discussing this annual collection because it is almost inevitably the best anthology of the year, containing a very large selection of stories that provide a good look at what’s happening in the field even without the lengthy and informative summation essay.  The stories this year seem to be unusually heavily drawn from the major prozines and anthologies, which may well be a reflection of the decline of semi-pro markets.  Even online fiction is barely present and in fact this is the first time in years that I had already read considerably more than half of the stories included.  As always, there’s a mix of new and established writers.  Among my favorites this time around were the contributions by Geoff Ryman, Michael Swanwick, Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, Jay Lake, and Nancy Kress. There is also an extensive list of honorable mentions.  If you don’t have time to read all the short stories published each year to find the good ones, you can just wait and let editor Dozois screen them for you. Individual readers may not enjoy every story in the book, but they’re almost certainly going to like the great majority. 6/27/09

Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai, Del Rey, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-50881-2 

I have a problem with books that blur the distinction between SF and fantasy.  I think I have trouble wrapping my mind around a setting where rationality and science work, but where some kind of magic does as well.  Some of Anne McCaffrey’s books have this effect on me, and Lawrence Watt-Evans wrote a trilogy a while back that justified the juxtaposition, but I still didn’t like it.  This first novel is a case in point.  It’s set on an ice world where the protagonist is employed on a submarine.  Her two children are kidnapped by an obsessive scientist who wants to experiment on them because of their mother’s unusual mutation, about which I’ll talk in a minute.  She sets out to find them, crossing a world struggling with environmental and genetic damage.  Some of the prose is great and some of the scenes very evocative.  Now my problem.  The protagonist’s mutation allows her to shift back and forth from one gender to the other.  Okay, a bit of a stretch but not entirely implausible.  But the two are distinct, entire personalities and they don’t share any memories, so essentially we have one body with two characters, who can never meet.  This is, as far as I’m concerned, magic.  And it spills over into the world where mutations have turned people into animal forms and vice versa.  If you’re not troubled by this sort of thing, you’ll probably really enjoy this because it’s exceptionally well written otherwise, but hard science fiction it is not.  In fact, it’s not even very firm. 6/25/09

Omen by Christie Golden, Del Rey, 2009, $27, ISBN 978-0-345-50912-3 

I suspect the reason why the average Star Wars novel is so much better than the average Star Trek novel has less to do with the person writing it than the fact that the former universe is just so much more diverse and interesting.  This one is set years after the fall of the Empire.  There are two main plot elements.  The first involves one of the sons of Han Solo and Princess Leia who has turned to the dark side, but there’s another problem with an even greater potential for disaster.  A lost colony world has recently been discovered and the entire population has been raised in the tradition of the Sith.  Complicating matters is the fact that Luke Skywalker is currently under a cloud and can have limited influence on the course of events. This is part of a short series within the Star Wars umbrella, so the story isn’t complete, but it certainly raises a number of interesting questions. 6/24/09

Rise of the Terran Empire by Poul Anderson, Baen, 2009, $14, ISBN 978-1-4391-3275-3 

There are two novels and a handful of short stories in this new collection, set loosely in the early days of Anderson’s Terran Empire future history.  The novels were both published in the 1970s.  Mirkheim teams David Falkayn with Nicholas Van Rijn, two of Anderson’s recurring protagonists, in an interstellar conflict.  The People of the Wind is set on the planet Avalon, colonized by two different races which have lived in harmony for generations, but which are now undergoing considerable pressure.  The first is a very solid Anderson novel and the second is among his best.  One of the shorts, “Sargasso of Lost Spaceships”, is a rarity, and the only story here that I had never read.  I re-read most of Anderson's work a couple of years back and discovered that he was a much more subtle and entertaining writer than I had remembered.  None of the shorts are among his very best work but they’re all very solid and deserve to remain in print. 6/24/09

Of Berserkers, Swords, & Vampires by Fred Saberhagen, Baen, 2009, $23, ISBN 978-1-4391-3269-2 

The late Fred Saberhagen was one of a minority of writers who worked actively in all three fantastic genres, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  His most famous SF was his Berserker stories about obsessed sentient alien killing machines, his fantasy more varied, and his horror was dominated by his stories of Dracula, although most of these were more adventure than horror, and Dracula wasn’t even a bad guy most of the time.  This is a retrospective collection of all three types of stories and excerpts, including his first published short fiction, and bits and pieces from elsewhere in his career.  There wasn’t anything notable here that I hadn’t already read, and except for the Berserker tales, Saberhagen wasn’t really noted as a writer of short fiction.  A nice memorial but I’m not sure what it’s audience might be.  His fans will already have everything, and the contents are too varied and fragmented to attract new ones. 6/24/09

Better Late Than Never by Marilyn Kaye, Kingfisher, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7534-6300-0

Out of Sight, Out of Mind by Marilyn Kaye, Kingfisher, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7534-6283-6 

Marilyn Kaye, who brought us the original Roswell books and the Replica series, has a new one starting with these two titles, which can be read independently and in any order.  You can read these as either fantasy or science fiction, depending on your take about unusual mental powers.  The stories are set at a high school nine of whose students have extraordinary abilities.  In the first, a rebellious young girl with telepathic powers is reunited with her long lost father after her mother is confined to a treatment facility.  Oddly, she cannot read his mind, a problem that puzzles her, then alarms her as things become distinctly unsettling and he asks her to use her power in questionable ways.  In the second, an unpleasant but popular girl finds her personality transferred into the body of an unattractive girl.  The enlightening consequences are perhaps a bit predictable, but Kaye writes an entertaining story and both of these are well above average for YA fiction.  Since there are nine girls, I assume seven more volumes are on their way. 6/22/09

Goats: Infinite Typewriters by Jonathan Rosenberg, Del Rey, 2009, $14, ISBN 978-0-345-51092-1 

I gather this comic originated on the internet, although it’s existence is new to me.  A slew of characters set off on an epic comic quest.  There are aliens, flying saucers, the secret of God, and other goodies sprinkled through.  The artwork is fairly primitive, but the words are quite sophisticated.  This is full color throughout and it’s a rather hefty book.  I think I would have liked it better in smaller doses, but it was amusing enough that I read it to the end.  I strongly suspect that I don't have the mindset to enjoy this sort of thing and prefer my satire a bit more subtle, but that doesn't mean it isn't fine for its target audience. 6/19/09

A Grey Moon Over China by Thomas A. Day, Tor, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2142-8 

There have been a handful of novels over the years in which one stubborn man forces the human race to expand into outer space.  Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Poul Anderson’s Star Fox, Dean McLaughlin’s The Man Who Wanted Stars, and Fredric Brown’s The Lights in the Sky Are Stars come immediately to mind.  Although these are sometimes good stories, the author stacks the odds for obvious reasons.  The hero is going to get his way despite the opposition, and generally speaking the opposition’s arguments are going to be simplified, distorted, or just ignored.  In this new take, an army engineer stumbles across a revolutionary design that will make energy problems virtually a thing of the past, but he finagles things so that the world governments are compelled to colonize another star system.  Unfortunately they also discover that we’re not alone, and that the neighbors aren’t friendly.   A bit of nostalgia, modernized a bit, and pretty good once the premise is established and the pieces are in place for the rest of the story. 6/18/09

This Mortal Mountain by Roger Zelazny, NESFA, 2009, $29, ISBN 978-1-886778-78-8

Last Exit to Babylon by Roger Zelazny, NESFA, 2009, $29, ISBN 978-1-886778-79-5 

I can think of very few SF writers who deserve a comprehensive multi-volume collection of their short fiction as much as does Roger Zelazny.  His prose was distinctive enough to make an impression independent of the plots, without distracting the reader from the story itself.  It is difficult to explain to people who weren't reading SF at the time how dramatic an impact was made when Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany and Harlan Ellison and a few others began transforming the field during the late 1960s.  There would be lengthy debates in the fan press over the individual stories. We went to the news stand every time new magazines were due just to see if there were new stories by any of them. These are volumes three and four of a projected six volume compendium from NESFA Press, arranged in rough chronological order.  In addition to the stories, each volume contains a handful of articles and a few other items relevant to the author.  1100 pages of Roger Zelazny is a bounty by any standards.  There are numerous classic stories here including “Home Is the Hangman,” “ This Mortal Mountain,” “The Man Who Loved the Faioli,” the original shorter version of “Damnation Alley,” “The Last Defender of Camelot,” and many others.  There are also several stories I’d never seen before, none of them world breakers but all of them well written.  There are brief story notes and the overall production qualities – including the Michael Whelan cover art – is exceptional.  6/17/09

Revenge of the Fallen by Alan Dean Foster, Del Rey, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-51593-3

The Veiled Threat by Alan Dean Foster, Del Rey, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-51592-6 

I have to admit that while I thought the first Transformer movie was interesting (and haven’t seen the new one), I probably would not have read these two tie in novels if they hadn’t been by a writer I normally enjoy and it hadn’t been raining so heavily that I wanted something light to read as a balance.  The first is a novelization of the screenplay and the second is an original work.  The Transformer series deals with two varieties of shape changing robots – the good Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the Decepticons led by Megatron.  For reasons of their own, the latter want to dominate the Earth and the former wish to protect us.  The movie story concerns the discovery that the defeated Decepticons were not destroyed after all, which is pretty obvious when they start attacking all over the Earth.  In the latter, the battle is still underway, and a group of dedicated humans seeks to discover the motives of the bad robots as part of the effort to defeat them.  Not surprisingly, it’s a better story than the screenplay adaptation.  Both, however, are very lightweight compared to Foster’s other fiction.  6/17/09

Science Fiction Classics 17 edited by Tom Pomplum, Eureka, 2009, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-9787919-7-1

There is no graphic material I look forward to more than this series from Eureka, which features adaptations of classic SF and other fiction.  The latest is, obviously, all SF. It opens with a version of "In a Thousand Years" by Hans Christian Anderson, which I've never read, a one page story, followed by a longish, excellent version of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.  Jules Verne's "In the Year 2889" is done, appropriately enough, in the style of the Jetsons.  There are also excellent renditions of "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley Weinbaum, "The Disintegration Machine" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Bureau d'Echange de Maux" by Lord Dunsany, and "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster.  All are done in full color throughout.  The artists are Hugh Emerson, Micah Farritor, Kevin Atkinson, Johnny Ryan, George Sellas, Roger Langridge, Brad Teare, and Ellen Lindner.  The adaptors, when not the artists, are Rich Rainey,  Ben Avery, Antonella Caputo, Rod Lott, and the editor.  Kudos to them all for a really first class product.  6/11/09

Relentless by Dean Koontz, Bantam, 2009, $27, ISBN 978-0-553-80714-1 

Dean Koontz’s latest thriller warns you not to talk back to book reviewers, so beware!  The protagonist intrudes briefly upon the privacy of one Shearman Waxx, a prominent critic, after which he and his family are subjected to a plague of night time intrusions, tasering, bombs, and general mayhem.  It turns out that Waxx has done this and worse to at least one other writer, and the family is soon on the run because there’s no way to prove his involvement, and he has friends in high places.  Although this one moves quickly and, dare I say it, relentlessly toward its conclusion, I was less impressed than I usually am.  I think the problem is that Waxx just wasn’t realistic enough for me to consider him a credible threat.  At times it reads more like a satire than a suspense novel.  I’m sticking this in SF because there is teleportation and other mildly fantastic elements, but they’re almost peripheral to the plot. I've become a real fan of Koontz's fiction over the years, but this one was a miss for me, particularly since I thought this might be another Intensity, my favorite of his books. 6/9/09

Pulse by Jeremy Robinson, Thomas Dunne, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-312-54028-9 

An obsessed millionaire has been searching for the truth of the legend of the Hydra, a supposedly immortal creature killed by Hercules.  When an archaeologist discovers that Hercules and the Argos came to Peru and buried the Hydra’s immortal head there, they excavate the site, but he and the Hydra are kidnapped by the bad guy’s henchmen.  Fortunately, this annoys Jack Sigler, part of the Chess Team, an elite military group working secretly for the US government.  Sigler wants payback and the journey takes them to Gibraltar for the final, violent confrontation.  This has all the elements of a good thriller but for me it was spoiled by a bit too much testosterone inspired action and not enough atmosphere and characterization.  It was exciting when I was reading it, but I missed feeling any real concern that the characters would survive.  A nice monster, but it’s not on stage long enough. 6/8/09

A Man of Double Deed by Leonard Daventry, Berkley, 1967 

Stories about telepathy have largely disappeared from contemporary SF for some reason.  This early one – to which there are two sequels – impressed me when I first read it more than forty years ago and I decided to find out how well it stood up.  I even remembered the name of the protagonist, Claus Coman, although I had forgotten that it was set in a post-apocalyptic England where men are allowed multiple wives (but apparently not the reverse). Coman has two wives, who are annoyingly submissive and “feminine” in their behavior.  In fact, Daventry sometimes refers to them as the “blonde girl” and the “dark girl” rather than by name.  Coman is a keyman, a group of telepaths who “guard” the world from dangers.  Having just completed a mission on Venus, he has returned to look into a rising tide of violence among young people including a wave of murders. There are also hostile but as yet unidentified aliens from outside the system attacking human spaceships, and intelligent species have evolved on Mars, Venus, and Saturn, which apparently is not a gas giant. The world is one of robots, moving sidewalks, aircars, and other advanced and often impractical technology.  It is also unclear how his telepathy was discovered, since at first it seems to only work when wearing a device called a Connector, which is stated as being very rare. On other occasions, however, Coman is able to sample the thoughts of others without assistance. 

Society in general is described as having been distorted by the quest for material wealth and a fascination with technology.  Coman is supposedly old fashioned, but he employs a wide variety of high tech devices in his house. The violent attacks have reached a level of severity where the government is considering quarantining everyone with “antisocial tendencies.” The sense of this is questionable, however, since perfectly legal broadcast entertainment includes actual beheadings of some of the entertainers.  Coman, who supposedly works to support the state, contradicts himself by plotting to retain custody of his child despite the law that all children will be raised by the government.   

The first half of the novel moves very slowly.  Coman is supposed to go on a dangerous mission to a government official to tell him that the keymen support a plan to create war zones, areas where aggressive youths can kill and maim each other to their hearts content.  The keymen believe that this will stimulate telepathy and resourcefulness.  Leaving aside the inanity of that, one has to wonder why they don't just call the politician and tell him.  There is no reason why they should send a secret agent to speak to him personally, nor is there any reason why the unnamed opposition should anticipate this move and send two rogue telepaths - jokers - to stop him.  One of the jokers is a woman, hence, subject to falling in love with Coman and being manipulated by both him and her male partner.

The dialogue is relentlessly awful, and the interpersonal relationship awkward and implausible. The prose in general is so awkward that it's nearly unreadable and certainly would not be published by Berkley books today.  Daventry inserts rather bland sexual commentaries constantly, and they feel like pre-adolescent boys talking smutty when no one is around. Coman’s telepathic abilities vary from chapter to chapter, and his behavior is inconsistent. At times he can pick up thoughts that originated in the past. At another point it is asserted that he can use his mental powers to alter the attitudes of people around him.  He insists that telepaths don’t casually eavesdrop on the thoughts of others, shortly after having clearly done exactly that, and does so several times afterwards.  I am not surprised that I wasn’t troubled by some of the bad writing when I first read this back in my teens, but I am disappointed that I don’t seem to have noticed the inconsistencies in plot and structure. 6/3/09

Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker, Tor, 6/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2074-2  

Ordinarily I shouldn’t have liked this at all.  I am almost always put off by novels in which the laws of nature are scrambled so wildly that I no longer understand the rules.  Even in horror fiction, I grumble when the supernatural beings don’t obey a stated set of laws.  If there are no limitations, if anything can happen, then the setting is too unfamiliar for me to relax into it.  This is probably a contributing factor to the reason I have trouble getting deeply involved in fantasy novels that rely on too much magic.  So this follow up to Postsingular should not have pleased me at all.  The singularity has changed things dramatically and I was unconvinced by the world Rucker presents.  Humans are trying to adjust to the new order of things when a bunch of aliens from different races arrive with various promises, offers, and suggestions, none of which can be assumed to be entirely truthful.  Who will sort this all out?  You’d be surprised.  Much to MY surprise, I was caught up in this often amusing chaos quite early and enjoyed it even more than its predecessor. 6/1/09

Fragment by Warren Fahy, Delacorte, 2009, $25, ISBN 978-0-553-80753-0 

Mainstream thriller writers continue to draw on SF themes, notably this new novel that reminded me in general terms of William Hope Hodgson’s The Boats of the Glen Carrig, one of my favorites.  A seagoing survival show visits a remote and unexplored island which turns out to have a very different, and extremely unfriendly ecology.  The opening chapters are a bit uneven, introducing a great many characters too quickly for most of them to be differentiated other than by stereotypes, but then I figured they were simply set up to be killed so it didn’t matter.  The contrivance that gets them to the island – a propitiously timed short term emergency beacon – is a bit too coincidental, and totally unnecessary since the island was on their original itinerary in any case. I’m also suspicious of some of the science that follows.  Even given millennia of separation, I’m not sure that creatures quite as alien as this would have evolved on Earth – trees with mouths and eyes for example, and the overall ecology seems too violent to be stable, but I was willing to give the author a pass on this since the story wouldn’t be as exciting otherwise.  The carelessness of some of the researchers bothered me, given that eleven people died during their first few minutes on the island.  I would have thought that even biology geeks would have been sobered by that fact.  The stupidity of the Presidential envoy is not only a cliché but a bad one.  As the story progresses, there is literally too much action.  It becomes numbing, and the stock characters meant to be foils – the stupid envoy, the short sighted and self serving science writer, become more caricatures than characters.  Some nice stuff in here, mixed with some awkward writing, and the story really goes down hill when they discover an intelligent inhabitant – a section filled with so much scientific nonsense I had trouble continuing to the end. 5/31/09

Overthrowing Heaven by Mark L. Van Name, Baen, 6/09, $25, ISBN 978-0-6840-7206-7   

Jim Morse and Lobo, an artificial intelligence mounted in a kind of futuristic armored car, are back for their third and most challenging adventure.  They’re caught in the middle of multiple conflicts this time as two major nations struggle for supremacy, a conflict which could lead to a major war.  Then there are questions about the morality of science as employed by a brilliant but obsessed researcher who is not above using humans as his subjects.  And did I mention the seductive, highly competent, and apparently omniscient female agent who has her eyes on Jim?  Thrill and chills, spies and courtesans, battles and conspiracies, all mixed together and dispensed at full speed.  The story may feel a little busy at times, but the author certainly knows how to keep his readers turning pages, and the mix of military with other story elements gives a nice balance to what might otherwise have been rather pedestrian. 5/29/09

Haze by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 6/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2302-6  

Although L.E. Modesitt is best known for his fantasy novels, I’ve generally liked his SF better, not surprising given my own preference for SF.  This new one is a bit out of ordinary, a kind of blend of a spy story with a Utopian novel.  The protagonist is dropped secretly onto the mysterious planet Haze to evaluate their defenses and the possibility that they might present a threat to a human federation dominated by the Chinese.  The secret of his presence turns out not to be because he is met almost immediately, welcomed, helped to spy on anything he likes on a world that seems to have found a workable balance between progress and ecology.  Of course, there’s always the feeling that there is something more that he isn’t being shown, but I’m not going to tell you how it all works out.  A relatively quiet novel but I found it a surprisingly quick and involving one to read. 5/28/09

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America by Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, 6/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1971-5  

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a good post-collapse novel, and even longer since the last great one.  Wilson’s newest is the story of Julian Comstock, nephew of the President – although he’s really a dictator – of the theocratic society that evolves out of the collapse of the present civilization, dominating North America from his capital in New York. The story is narrated by Adam Hazzard, a lower caste friend from his childhood.  The collapse was caused by some undefined oil crisis although it also appears that global warming has changed the climate significantly. The Europeans have colonized Labrador and there is a war underway to drive them out.   Julian fears his uncle, who had his father killed out of fear he might be a rival, and he flees conscription because he believes it’s a trap designed to arrange his death.  He is accompanied by an older protector and the narrator, but all three find themselves drafted anyway, although under assumed names.  Not surprisingly, he distinguishes himself in combat, while Adam finds a wife and a sense of his own worth.  The ruse can only last so long, however, and once again Julian is at risk that his uncle will decide to have him killed.  Part of what follows is predictable, part is not.  Inevitably there is tragedy in the story as well as moments of greatness.  Another fine book from one of the field’s finest authors. 5/26/09

Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey, Grand Central, 5/09, $13.99, ISBN 978-0-446-19817-3  

This is a considerable change of pace from Carey’s previous novels, which have all been fantasy, although at times it has the feel of magic.  It’s set in the near future after a new plague has resulted in a more repressive government in the US and the creation of a buffer zone in southern Texas whose residents are no longer considered citizens of the US and who are therefore not afforded the rights and protections they formerly enjoyed.  The protagonist is Loup Garron, the daughter of a local woman and a renegade, genetically enhanced soldier whose modifications have been passed down to his daughter.  She acts as a kind of low key Zorro, righting the wrongs wreaked on her friends and neighbors, helped by some of them whom she enlists to her cause.  Although rather downbeat in tone, I thought this was quite good and I hope Carey’s vacation from fantasy is a protracted one because I’d like to see more of her SF. 5/25/09

Leviathan by David L. Golemon, Thomas Dunne, 5/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-312-37663-5 

The Event Group is back for its third mission in this series which started out as a kind of X Files variant, but has moved closer to action adventure with this latest.  Someone has started attacking ships of various nations on the high seas, destroying them so quickly that many are unable even to send a distress signal.  Before long we realized that  a rogue submarine using unprecedented technology is loose in the oceans and preying on any victim that comes within reach.  The similarity to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne is more than coincidental; it turns out that the chief villain is descended from the man whose life inspired Verne to write that novel.  Anyway, the Event Group is enlisted in the effort to hunt down and neutralize the menace in an exciting if not always entirely plausible story.  This one is a kind of men’s adventure novel with more ambitious prose and read as pure entertainment, it’s pretty good and a lot better than its two predecessors. 5/23/09

In the Stormy Red Sky by David Drake, Baen, 5/09, $25, ISBN 978-1-4165-9159-7  

Daniel Leary is back in this latest mix of military and political infighting.  He and his friends face multiple dangers this time, so many that it feels as though several separate stories have been woven together.  One of them involves an immature planetary dictator with delusions of grandeur, and the power to enforce his desires.  Another potential enemy is an unsuccessful politician who also enjoys using personal power for her own purposes.  Then there’s a world of slaves and a military base reminiscent of the Death Star, so powerful in its own right that it can determine the fate of worlds.  Leary is his usual dashing self in this exciting but not entirely believable space opera.  This is actually my favorite of Drake’s various series, but not up to the level of some of the installments that preceded it. 5/22/09

Relentless by Jack Campbell, Ace, 5/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01708-9  

Jack Geary returns for his fifth adventure.  He has successfully managed to keep his outnumbered fleet from being destroyed by the enemy Syndics, and has inflicted considerable damage on them.  His latest mission puts some of his gains at risk, however, because he needs to conduct a sortie into a hostile system where the remains of the enemy fleet – still formidable – have gathered.  The purpose of the mission is to rescue a number of prisoners being held on one of the planets of that system.  Although – to no one’s surprise – the raid is a success, there’s a down side because the Syndics plan to catch the rescuers in a trap.  There are no real surprises in this one, but there aren’t meant to be any.  We know that Geary is going to succeed; we just don’t know how he’s going to do it.  That’s one of the difficulties inherent in most military SF – there really isn’t a lot of suspense.  Be that as it may, Campbell (John G. Hemry) produces one of the few series in that genre that I find consistently rewarding, and this was no exception to the rule. 5/18/09

Conspirator by C.J. Cherryh, DAW, 5/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0570-0 

Tenth volume in the Foreigner series, which is beginning to wear on me a bit, although this one ventures in some new directions that are rewarding.  The premise is that a small colony of humans exists on an alien world, whose inhabitants have blended their own ingenuity with human technology to forge a space going civilization despite some inherent difficulties with their own culture.  Most of this story is seen through the eyes of one of the aliens, a prominent young leader who was raised in close proximity to the humans, the first of his kind to have done so.  His dual perspectives suggest that he might be willing to move his people more quickly and in different directions, and naturally that’s a threat to the established powers.  As always, Cherryh makes her aliens credible and concocts a fascinating culture, but now that the novelty has worn off, some of the freshness is gone from this series. 5/12/09

The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker, Tor, 5/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1890-9  

I miss the days when Leigh Brackett and others could write romantic adventure stories set on a version of Mars that resembles the Old West.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this new novel which blends that kind of atmosphere with more modern sensibilities about scientific possibilities.  A British corporation has created a colony on Mars, hoping to turn a profit, but when the colony turned out to be less remunerative than expected, they decide to pull out, leaving a wide variety of misfits and malcontents stuck on a planet inimical to human life.  So they decide to change the planet, while outside forces maneuver to gain their own advantage.  Much of the story is told from the viewpoint of a tough woman raising her daughters on Mars, supporting them by running what is essentially a saloon.  I really got sucked into this one quickly.  I’m not sure if this is Baker’s best novel to date, but it’s the one I most enjoyed. 5/10/09

Flinx Transcendent by Alan Dean Foster, Del Rey, 2009, $26, ISBN 978-0-345-49607-2  

After many years, Foster finally brings the story of Philip Lynx to an end.  Flinx and his mini-dragon have been on the run for some time now, but at last they turn and move toward their enemies, in this case the reptilian AAnn.  The various mysteries in his life have finally begun to unravel, and he hasn’t always liked what he has found out. He is determined to change his life or end it, and in the process encounters a star traveling battle station operated by a not very friendly artificial intelligence.  What’s more, some of Flinx’s enemies seem perfectly content to allow the destruction of worlds.  In one way I’m kind of sorry to see this saga come to its end, although the last few installments have had an air of unfinished business about them and did not seem as gripping as the earlier ones.  That’s not the case with this one, a satisfying adventure story and an entertaining final bow. 5/3/09

The Genesis Secret by Tom Knox, Viking, 2009, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-670-02088-1 2230 

This new thriller is marginally SF, has elements taken from horror fiction, and a familiar theme.  I seem to have been inundated with Biblical related thrillers of late, all by authors new to me.  This one starts with the mutilation of a caretaker at a museum in London, and switches to a journalist sent to look into an archaeological site in Kurdistan where the oldest known human megaliths have recently been uncovered. The museum was once the home of Benjamin Franklin and some years earlier a handful of skeletons had been found in the basement.   The dig site has not been publicized because the Turkish government either wants to prevent people from overrunning the place, or doesn’t want the Kurds to benefit from the discovery, or both. A bigger mystery is why and how the edifice, presumed to be a temple, was built 12,000 years ago, and why it was deliberately buried 2000 years later. When the project head dies in an apparent accident, one of the staff insists that he was murdered and recruits the journalist into her impromptu investigation. There is also a suggestion that he was cursed, and there is evident resentment on the part of the locals.  I won’t mention the surprise revelations, but they’re very much telegraphed, and also scientific nonsense, but they’re almost peripheral to the main story.  It’s a very readable thriller based in large part on the actual dig site mentioned in the book, although the author’s speculations are almost entirely his own.  Quite suspenseful and very fast moving, although the kidnapping of the journalist’s daughter is a tired old cliche.  Possibly amusing coincidence.  In the novel, the protagonist goes to a restaurant in London and has penne al arrabiata.  Three days before reading the book, I ate at a restaurant of the same name, and had the same dish, but alas, not in London. 5/2/09

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