Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha (Mercenary Librarians #1)

40078832._SY475_The United States went belly up 45 years ago when our power grid was wiped out. Too few live in well-protected isolation while the rest of us scrape by on the margins. The only thing that matters is survival. By any means. At any cost.

Nina is an information broker with a mission: to bring hope to the darkest corners of Atlanta. She and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to help those in need. But altruism doesn’t pay the bills—raiding vaults and collecting sensitive data is where the real money is.

Knox is a bitter, battle-weary supersoldier who leads the Silver Devils, an elite strike squad that chose to go AWOL rather than slaughter innocents. Before the Devils leave town for good, they need a biochem hacker to stabilize the experimental implants that grant their superhuman abilities.

The problem? Their hacker’s been kidnapped. And the ransom for her return is Nina. Knox has the perfect bait for a perfect trap: a lost Library of Congress server. The data could set Nina and her team up for years…

If they live that long.

Review:

I held on to this advance copy for a while, sure I would like it – and what’dya know, I love it.

The good:

  • Yay for science fiction to take us away from our current world. Sure, it depicts an America where government has been taken over by corporations, infrastructure has collapsed, and it’s every chemically and mechanically enhanced person for themselves… but at least it’s not our reality! I kid (kinda…) but it was nice to be so fully immersed in another world, even one as gritty as this.
  • The worldbuilding is solid. There’s one slight info dump early, but this America is so different from ours it felt justified. After that we learn things in bits and pieces, and by the end of the book I feel like I have a solid grasp of the world.
  • I love all of these characters, and they’re all fleshed out as people with different abilities, likes, and quirks. Bonus for found family vibes and casually mentioning that someone has had both boyfriends and girlfriends, because that’s totally a thing.
  • The structure helps introduce us to the characters one-on-one, as in addition to chapters from the two main characters’ point of view we also get interstitial chapters from everyone else. Being inside each person’s head let me get a better grasp for who they are while hinting at potential future conflicts and love interests.
  • Yes love interests, because Deal with the Devil is a great blend of science fiction and romance. I get the impression that we’ll be following a different couple in each book while the overall story arc continues. There isn’t as much sex as in Rocha’s other works, but what’s here is hot and advances the story as it should.
  • And the plot! Things are always happening. At 65% or so I was worried because many books would have ended things there, but the story afterward was just as important and maybe even more interesting.
  • The fights are so well done. They’re gripping but also made me cackle with joy.
  • And the banter! Once the band is together the wit and one liners fly – this is my love language.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Be ready for a bunch of tragic pasts with torture and abuse, along with the murder and death you’d expect in a story with mercenaries. The fights are about action, not gore, so I wasn’t grossed out.

The not-so-good:

  • The documents placed between each chapter could have been a little more clear – I’m know I’m going to get more out of them on a reread.

In short, Deal with the Devil takes place in a gritty, post-apocalyptic world where librarians and their friends save the day while maybe falling in love. I wasn’t sure if escaping to a different hellish world would work for me but I blew through pages and enjoyed the ride.

Thanks to Tor and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner #1)

13274939The first book in C.J. Cherryh’s eponymous series, Foreigner begins an epic tale of the survivors of a lost spacecraft who crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race.

From its beginnings as a human-alien story of first contact, the Foreigner series has become a true science fiction odyssey, following a civilization from the age of steam through early space flight to confrontations with other alien species in distant sectors of space.

Review:

Foreigner is my first foray into Cherryh’s work and the beginning sucked me in. A lost spaceship is stranded in orbit around a planet that supports life. They know they shouldn’t disrupt the native peoples but after years and years of sticking it out they send a few folks down, and then a few more.

First contact does not go as planned, but now Atevi and humans have an uneasy peace. The translator/ambassador between the two races is our main character Bren. It’s a stressful but quiet job spent attending meetings, filing reports, and trying to understand Atevi culture and language as best he can. One day his life is put in danger, though, and the story spirals from there.

The good:

  • Cherryh’s worldbuilding is wonderful. We learn tons of detail about Atevi language and history in passages that could feel like info dumps, but don’t. She’s thought things out in great detail, from how Atevi language influences their thought (there’s no word for “trust” or “friend”) to how such different cultures would exchange information over time.
  • Likewise, the characters are complex and the emotional beats ring true. Some people go through a heckuva lot over the course of the novel and they get just as mad and frustrated and sad as you would expect.
  • The beginning and the end of the book, especially, are exciting and kept me glued to the page.
  • I’m curious about and invested in this world.

The good-for-me:

  • I buddy read Foreigner with Rachel from Kalanadi which was amazing. She has read through much of the series before and provided context and encouragement when I needed it.

The not-so-good:

  • Once things get set into motion the reader is presented with a million things to puzzle over and wonder about but precious few answers. This, combined with Bren having next to no agency, made the middle third a little tough to get through. At the end of Book Three, Chapter Ten, though, things click into place and the meaning of many earlier events comes into focus. It was worth it for me, but may be annoying to some.
  • One way the Atevi are othered is that they have jet black skin, and that didn’t sit well with me, especially at first. Once we learn more of the history it’s obvious that the Atevi in no way correspond to people of color on Earth, but it’s not the best look. The book did come out in 1994, so keep that in mind, as well.
  • …it doesn’t help that the humans are all super duper white, though.

There are a lot of details to keep straight so I’ll be diving into book two, Invader, right away. Apparently Cherryh wrote the books of this series as trilogies, so I’m curious to see how the three book arc shakes out.

Crux by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #2)

32335970._SY475_Erin McGarry fears she’s becoming the very thing she hates. She travelled to the planet Jekh to get her big sister, Courtney, out of a jam, and now Erin has become a colonist, too. To complicate her ordeal further, as one of very few women on a planet of desperate men, people expect Erin to pick a lover – or two – and settle down. With the Jekhan race having nearly been obliterated by Terran colonists, Erin refuses to help further dilute their culture. But at least two men think Erin’s objections don’t hold water….

Review:

This felt solid, largely because the heavy worldbuilding was taken care of in book one. I love the overarching plot, the themes of colonization and how best to rebuild a society that’s in trouble at a genetic level. The issues explored hark back to historical situations in the US but are completely different at the same time.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance, however. I wasn’t on board with Esteben because while he and Erin have a power exchange-esque dynamic it’s never discussed as such. As a result it feels creepy and kind of wrong, especially compared to her sweet relationship with swoon-worthy Headron.

There are a couple of elements that carried over from the first book that I wish didn’t, including native English speakers blithely using hard to understand idioms in front of people learning the language. I find it disingenuous that Erin and Courtney care so much about preserving Jekhan culture but don’t bother to learn their language, not even single words. They spend a lot of time reflecting on their position as colonizers, and at the same time expect all Jekhans to speak perfect English. GAH.

All that being said I’m excited to read the next book. I’m not sure the romance (m/f, not m/m/f) will be for me, but the large-scale story has me hooked.

Erstwhile by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #1)

31282859As an adamant opponent of Terran settlement on the planet Jekh, Owen McGarry made his family name synonymous with “traitor” on Earth. Nearly twenty years after Owen’s supposed death, his granddaughter Courtney wants to learn the truth—even if she has to travel to the far-flung colony to do it.

Court soon learns that not only was her grandfather right about the Jekhans, but that conditions on their world are far more hostile than she feared. Terran forces decimated the population of the resident human-alien hybrids, and the people who remain seem to be all out of fight. That is, except for the pair of men Court finds hiding in her basement.

Review:

I needed an off the wall romance to reset a brain beset by sad literary fiction, and this cover promises just that – a triad, in space! I didn’t need much beyond that, but Trent brings a bunch more.

The good:

  • Considered, in-depth world building. Trent has built an entire society complete with history, traditions, and -isms, for a lack of a better term. The beginning of the novel scratches the surface and things get deeper as you go on. At first I wasn’t sure Trent would go that deep, so I was happy to see she thought the world out completely.
  • The romance is okay and the plot works fine, but the characters are what keeps the story going. It’s not about watching the relationship evolve as much as it’s watching them recognize and overcome differences.
  • But above all, the themes discussed made the book for me. There’s a look at how first contact can go oh so wrong. Earth colonized the Jehkhan’s planet in a way that calls back to the treatment of Native Americans, yet isn’t a carbon copy. Intercultural relationships are examined in a way that feels true, and recalls moments (okay, fights) in my own international marriage. Along with the characterization it gave me a lot to chew on.
  • It read quickly and was just what I needed in the moment, always a plus.

The not-so-good:

  • Instalust quickly leads to more, and Court doesn’t examine some (spoilery) big steps as much as I would like.
  • After a bunch of characterization work the plot takes off like a rocket for the last chapters, coming out of nowhere and depositing us in a completely different place, a bit stunned and confused.

Erstwhile ended up being more intellectual than I would have thought from the cover and description but still provided the romantic escape I needed. I’m looking forward to getting into book two and seeing how the world deepens from here.

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

41940477The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Review:

Trigger warning for anything and everything guns, violence, and mass murder.

The America circa 2030 that Bennett pictures is not a happy place. Take the most troubling parts of American life and shove them down the slippery slope – a lack of gun control leads to a culture where open carry is de rigueur and random gun violence is part of everyday life. Technology has evolved and a newscaster can be generated from algorithms, and live video can be manipulated to the point that you never know if what you’re watching is completely real. The West has fallen on extremely hard times and many young people in America have emigrated to places with better prospects like China and South America.

In this dystopian but eerily familiar world mass shootings approach entertainment, leading one company to develop a reality show based on that concept. Pay the owners of malls and other public gathering sites for the right to stage an episode of Vigilance at a time of the producer’s choosing, several fully armed people who want to commit mass murder are set loose on the unsuspecting crowd, and people who survive get a big cash reward. The entire ordeal is broadcast live to millions.

…disturbing as fuck, right?

The book follows the production of one Vigilance episode through the eyes of the main producer in the control room and a bartender every-woman. We see how America has changed, how hungry the public has become for this entertainment, and how many almost relish the thought of being unwittingly cast in the show to see if they have what it takes to survive.

Parts of this book are very well done. The world building in particular is tight and combined with a driving plot led me to reading the novella in a single day. (Wanting to avoid violent dreams may have been another reason….)  The America Bennett imagines may seem too far gone but the seeds of many ideas, especially with regard to technology, already exist today.

I had a bunch of issues as well, though. First, despite the female POV character I doubt this passes the Bechdel Test, and most women characters (that is, two out of three-ish) are stereotypes or a virtual personality made to fit the expectations and criteria of men.

Second, while the set up is interesting the end of the story fell flat. One character ended up being the undoing of another, and I recognized it as soon as they were introduced because I saw how the stereotypical gender dynamic was going. The story ends on a big AHA that felt not only out of left field but not in keeping with the themes he had been playing with to that point.

I think Vigilance works as a piece of speculative fiction in that it shows what America, ruled by greed and unchecked gun possession, could become. The idea of the reality show is fascinating, and I kept reading to see how this sort of thing could possibly be set up. Once we get past the setup, though, there’s a whole bunch of disappointment. It’s a haunting read, to be sure, and the idea behind the book will stick with me longer than the so-so writing, plot, or characters.

Sleeping Together by Kitty Cook (Perfect Drug #1)

44082618Vanessa Brown is having nightmares ever since her husband, Pete, mentioned he wanted to start a family. So when she catches her slacker-cool coworker, Altan Young, stealing sleeping medication from the pharmaceutical company they both work for, she decides to try the pilfered pills to finally find some rest.

But side effects of Morpheum include possible mind melding—a fact Ness and Altan stumble upon when they share the same freaky sex dream. (Awkward.)

With the stress of being caught between the men of her literal and figurative dreams (not to mention her nightmare of a boss), Ness starts to enjoy snoozing more than being conscious—and the company of her work husband more than her real one. If she doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee soon, her dreamy escape could become a dirt nap in this feisty debut novel about the dark side of dreams’ coming true.

Review:

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, addiction, and infidelity

I picked up this book because it was listed as “Romance/Women’s Fiction” on NetGalley but has decisively unromantic jacket copy. I’ve seen left-my-husband-for-a-better-guy story lines work before, usually because the husband is awful and undeserving of his lovely wife, and I was curious to see how it would be handled here with a science fiction twist.

Vanessa and her lawyer husband are going through a rough patch because he wants to have kids and she doesn’t for reasons connected with being gang raped in college. She hasn’t told him this, though, so he becomes understandably frustrated with her elliptical reasoning.

She’s stressed so when she catches her kinda handsome coworker Alton stealing experimental sleeping pills from work she takes some, hoping she’ll find peace. Instead Vanessa and Alton end up having hot, sexy, shared dreams.

Up to this point I’m not thrilled, but I’m mostly okay. Vanessa desperately needs to see a professional to work through past trauma, but I get that she may not be ready or able to do that. She has a loving husband who is doing his best to meet her in the middle, and there’s one episode of dream sex before Alton and Vanessa realize the dreams are shared, but then they stop. We’re still in romance territory, even if it’s a bit darker than my usual.

But after that things pile up plot-wise. It ends up being a story of addiction, full stop. Vanessa spends more and more time asleep, traversing dreamscapes with Alton while ignoring her sweet, reasonable husband at every turn. Her boss makes work a living hell complete with sexual assault, she cannot function without taking the drug every night, and it becomes a story of adultery and being tempted by a young, unproven guy over the husband who has treated her amazingly well and whom she still feels a deep love for.

One common definition of a romance is that it’s a story where people form a loving relationship while overcoming difficulties. This, however, is a woman falling into the dark pit of addiction and finding a somewhat handsome guy at the bottom. She needs all kinds of help, help that her husband is ready to find and provide, but running off with the guy who for all intents and purposes is her drug dealer is more appealing.

I feel like Cook is trying for a hopeful, happily-ever-after-for-now ending but I don’t buy it. Vanessa doesn’t learn anything and runs away from problems without solving them. She still needs to get clean and doesn’t have much desire to do so. She throws away one of the few good things in her life… and this is the uplifting ending. GAH.

Those are the plot problems, but I have more. I am not a fan of the writing. Cook drops similes all over the place and they’re weird and distracting rather than insightful. Characters quoting movie lines at each other is seen as the highest form of humor. It’d make sense in YA, maybe, but not here.

The cast of characters is small considering the page length, and even so the only one that’s fully developed is Vanessa. Alton turns from an annoying, coarse, “slacker cool” guy in real life into the sweetest guy in her dreams (literally). There’s no trigger for this change other than the fact that it’s more socially acceptable to flirt with a married woman in dreams than reality. It calls to mind the YA trope of guys being borderline mean to girls because they “like her so much”, which is kind of toxic and definitely not my thing. Also, his entire personality can be summed up in three simple traits, which isn’t a good look for a main character.

On top of all this the end of the book ignores a whole bunch of stuff. Questions are left unanswered, relationships are tossed up in the air, and narrative threads are dropped never to be picked up again. This is the first in a series but the teaser for book two hints that it’ll be with different characters, so I’m not sure what the end game is here.

All of that being said, there is some good stuff here, especially in the first couple of chapters. I appreciate Cook examining the dynamic of a relationship where one partner wants kids and the other doesn’t. She also explores the differences in how men and women approach the world with regard to their personal safety. It was a bit too on-the-nose by the end for me, but some of the beginning parts are well done.

Overall I’m mad this was in the romance section because it’s not a romance, but putting that aside I don’t consider it a successful work of general fiction, either. Only pick it up if it’s exactly your thing and you can get along with the trigger warnings.

Thanks to Brass Anvil Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Murderbot Diaries #2)

36223860It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

Review:

Murderbot, how I love thee!

That sounds so wrong but feels so right. Socially anxious and perfectly happy to escape the world via thousands of hours of video programming, our relatable narrator finds itself on a quiet transport ship that isn’t quite so quiet.

Being the second in a series I don’t want to say much, but I loved reading it’s next adventure. As much as I would have liked to see Murderbot continue on with the crew from the first book ART is a wonderful addition.

I wanted more from this book, but I think that’s just me being greedy. The plot fits the page count, we get to watch Murderbot evolve a bit, and the world is opened up to us oh so slightly. This series has become a comfort read for me. As much as I’d enjoy gobbling up the next two novellas I’m going to space them out – the next book, a full-blown novel, won’t be released until 2020. 😭

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

18726080The United States government is given a warning by the pre-eminent biophysicists in the country: current sterilization procedures applied to returning space probes may be inadequate to guarantee uncontaminated re-entry to the atmosphere. Two years later, seventeen satellites are sent into the outer fringes of space to collect organisms and dust for study. One of them falls to earth, landing in a desolate area of Arizona. Twelve miles from the landing site, in the town of Piedmont, a shocking discovery is made: the streets are littered with the dead bodies of the town’s inhabitants, as if they dropped dead in their tracks.

Review:

While I’ve watched Crichton before (ER, Jurassic Park) I hadn’t read any of his novels.  The Andromeda Strain is a natural entry point for me – medicine! science fiction! – and I ended up really liking it. The story is easy to sum up: the US government searches for organisms in space… and finds them.

The good:

  • The plot starts coming and it just keeps coming.
  • Medicine and doctors are important in figuring out what the Andromeda strain is and I got a kick out of thinking about diagnoses along with the doctors.  In that sense it’s puzzle mystery, and we get much of the info needed to reason things out as the story moves along, often in primary source format.  Huzzah for MDs writing fiction!
  • The book was written almost 50 years ago and it’s interesting to see what aged well and what didn’t.  Many of the medical gadgets still feel high tech while the computer references come off as quaint.  I don’t hold this against Crichton, quite the opposite, it strikes my fancy.
  • Andromeda StrainWhile the writing isn’t amazing it fits the mold aimed for, namely narrative nonfiction of a past event many people may have forgotten or never known about.  In that sense it reminded me of Command and Control.
  • Despite that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There are a couple of moments I said “Oh.” along with a character, and there are some laugh out loud funny lines as well.  And the “References” listed at the end are a fun touch.
  • Crichton respects the reader.  He hints and points at things obliquely for us to figure out… and lets them be.  No knocking facts over our heads, no “did ya see that there, hmmmm?”  When a writer respects the reader I’m much more likely to respect them.

The not-so-good:

  • Not a lot of time is spent on characterization.  The space given is used well, but I’d like to see more.
  • Major Bechdel test fail, and I don’t remember a single character of color.  The 1971 movie took steps to correct this, making one of the scientists female and casting several people of color.
  • The “Odd-Man Hypothesis” is stupid idea and needs to die like now.
  • The ending is abrupt and bound to annoy some people.

All in all an engrossing read, perfect for a lazy summer day, a plane ride, or breaking a reading slump.  Especially recommended if you’re into medicine, or science fiction with a side of thriller.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (The Murderbot Diaries #1)

32758901On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Review:

Almost every Tor.com novella I’ve read has been wonderful (see Passing Strange and Every Heart a Doorway), and All Systems Red is no exception.

Before I started I was confused by reviews, which often boil down to, “SQUEEE I love Murderbot!”  Kind of a scary name for a lovable character, no?

All Systems RedAfter reading I get it – Murderbot is one of the most relatable narrators I’ve read in a while.  Part machine and part organic components and referred to with the pronoun “it”, Murderbot is like many of us.  Socially anxious, it would like nothing more than to be left alone with 35,000 hours of video programming, thank you. The people it’s protecting are being targeted by someone who would rather them dead, though, so there’s a job to do.

The story is short at 144 pages but it fits its length perfectly.  Wells manages some great characterization despite the page count, and the plot pulls you all the way through.  This would have been a one sitting read for me if I didn’t have to make dinner. 😛

All in all I’m glad I jumped on the Murderbot train – great for any fan of science fiction.

The Star King by Susan Grant (Star #1)

35805990Years ago, Air Force pilot Jas Boswell believed she met the love of her life. She shared a mesmerizing encounter with a stranger after a terrible crash. As soon as rescuers arrived, the mysterious golden-eyed man disappeared. She has spent the last two decades trying to convince herself it was all a dream…

Once heir to a galactic kingdom, Rom B’kah is captain of a starship of derelicts and smugglers. He remains haunted by the memory of the “saving angel” he met during wartime and who vanished without a trace. His loyal crew thinks he has pined for this fantasy woman long enough. Then Jas suddenly returns to him and sets their lives on a collision course with destiny…

Review:

I was hooked early on but as the story developed I lost interest and got more and more annoyed.

The good:

  • The world building early on is well done and kept me curious about what this Earth was like and who the aliens who want to visit are. The story is contained and moves at a good pace.
  • At the beginning Jas’ development as a character is realistic and interesting.  She works hard to learn an alien language from scratch and while she’s a quick study Grant lets her grasp for words and speak awkwardly.  As someone who lives and interprets in a second language learned as an adult I can totally relate.

The not-so-good:

  • Once the action moves off Earth and into space the tightness of the world and plot fall apart.  The setting is expanded tenfold with all kinds of planets and peoples and things to take in, losing what groundedness it had.
  • Jas gets an case of being too stupid to live.  Rom leaves her to wait in a hotel with all kinds of warnings – keep your hood up so people don’t realize you’re from Earth, don’t stray far, oh and here’s a bodyguard to keep you safe.  So of course Jas immediately talks to random people and accepts their invitation to go up to a remote mountain retreat because, something.  And when they give her a necklace that freaks the hell out of birds she doesn’t get suspicious, just thinks ‘ah, silly birds, scared of a benign piece of jewelry.’ Gah.
  • While early on Jas’ language acquisition is within the realm of suspendable belief later she’s all, ‘I’m picking up this completely different alien tongue just by eavesdropping on conversations for a few days’.  Maybe if she was with three year olds or something, but high-level political conversations when you don’t know the grammar or how to read it?  I call bull.
  • The hero and heroine have sex on the top of a giant snail.  For real.  It’s the sort of thing that could be amazing in a crazy way if done right but I’m not even sure why the scene is there.

If the second half were as good as the first this would be an amazing read but alas, I don’t even think I’m going to pick up the next in the series.