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Orphan Brigade: The Sim War: Book Two
Orphan Brigade: The Sim War: Book Two
by Vincent H. O'Neil
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.99
37 used & new from $2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Expanding the Scope of Conflict, May 27, 2015
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong sequel that’s better in every way.

MY RATING: 4 Stars

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lieutenant Jander Mortas rejoins the war against the alien Sims.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Further development for Jander; introduction of two new POV’s; larger scale, hard hitting action.
CONS: Supporting characters need more development.

BOTTOM LINE: O’Neil’s Sim War is a very promising military sf series with a grounded, yet compelling cast.

I read Henry V. O’Neil’s Glory Main last fall and while I found it to have some flaws I also felt that it was an unexpected and satisfying military sf debut. I am very pleased to say that Orphan Brigade manages to improve upon the aspects of the first book that displayed so much potential. Where Glory Main was a more personal tale of survival in a war zone, Orphan Brigade is a slightly more traditional military sf novel with wider scope and familial drama. Because of the nature of sequels this review will have some minor spoilers so if you haven’t read Glory Main I suggest you check out that review and then give it a shot.

Lieutenant Jander Mortas survived the events of Glory Main and has been reunited with the Human Defense Force. Jander’s father Olech, Chairman of the Emergency Senate, wishes to appoint Jander to a cozy ambassador position but a strong sense of duty and a distrust of his father propels Jander to rejoin the Defense Force. Orphan Brigade follows Jander as he adjusts to a new posting with the hardcore veterans of the First Independent Brigade, the titular Orphans. The story also features the perspectives of Chairman Olech Mortas as he navigates a treacherous political landscape and Jander’s sister Ayliss on her continued search for evidence to incriminate her father’s abuse of power.

The split third person narration between Jander, Olech, and Ayliss is a departure from Jander’s lone POV in Glory Main and it functions well to expand the scope of O’Neil’s story. Orphan Brigade is still too limited in scope to be considered space opera but the inclusion of political and civilian perspectives sets it apart from straight military sf. The familial angle is another interesting component. The relationships between the three protagonists are strained to say the least. The inclusion of Olech’s perspective suggests that perhaps things aren’t as black and white as readers might believe after reading Glory Main. Of course Ayliss’s perspective will further serve to confuse the truth.

Readers received a limited glimpse at the universe in Glory Main. As Chairman of the Emergency Senate, Olech has an impressive God’s-eye-view of the conflict with the Sims and it’s not a pretty picture. The war has been grinding on for decades now and the Sim onslaught shows no sign of abating. The Sims remain an enigma. It is generally accepted as fact that the Sims are manufactured to fight humanity but beyond that little is known about them and nothing is known of their creators. To make matters worse humanity’s alliance is fragile at best. Politics driving military decisions result in unnecessary losses of life and opportunistic planetary governments seek to claim resources vital to the war effort. As a result of the Purge that followed the Chairman’s rise to power he’s got a great many enemies that would see him and his family undone. Olech sees all of this on a macro level while Jander, and to an extent Ayliss, provide a more personal view of the situation.

Of the new characters, Olech was my favorite. I recently replayed BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy and I couldn’t help but equate Olech with the Illusive Man. I pictured Martin Sheen as Olech the entire time. He’s not necessarily a good guy or a bad guy — he’s a political creature. There’s more to the Chairman than meets the eye and I’d wager even more that we haven’t learned by the end of Orphan Brigade. I’ll add that in the future I’d like to see more of Minister Reena, the Chairman’s special other and political badass. I wasn’t as moved by Jander’s sister Ayliss but the end of the book sets her up for some engaging conflict in the next book.

And then of course there’s Jander. The events of Glory Main tempered Lieutenant Jander from naive young officer to hardened survivor but Orphan Brigade reminds readers that he still hasn’t lead troops in combat. Jander spends much of the book learning about his new command with the Orphans before they are shipped out to take advantage of a quickly progressing situation on a world called Fractus. What I appreciate most about Jander is that he’s probably the most down-to-earth military sf protagonist I’ve ever read. He’s not a killing machine and he doesn’t devise some brilliant tactic that carries the battle and saves the day. The battle on Fractus is his first real taste of combat and it shows in his behavior. When he isn’t sure how to act or react he looks to the veterans around him for guidance or advice. When the fighting starts he’s scared and uncertain like everyone else. He’s learning and growing. It’s possible that come the next book in the series Jander will be more proactive and confident in his abilities to command but given his lack of experience leading up to Orphan Brigade it’s totally believable.

I was disapointed that I didn’t get much chance to develop connections with any of the Orphans. A few of the soldiers show promise but would have benefitted from more characterization. I can’t fault O’Neil too greatly for this given Jander’s “New Guy” status in the Brigade. Like the reader, Jander isn’t given much opportunity to form close bonds with the Orphans before being sent to Fractus. O’Neil even touches on this in the aftermath of the battle as Jander laments his unfamiliarity with a number of the casualties. Still, even a little extra characterization could have made the characters’ deaths more impactful.

I must commend O’Neil for playing into my paranoia. Those who have read Glory Main will know from that gut-punch twist of an ending that appearances can be deceiving. It could have been unintentional on O’Neil’s part but it seemed to me as though Orphan Brigade is teeming with red herrings. I spent the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop, almost constantly on edge. Maybe I’m just paranoid but I like to think that O’Neil is purposefully teasing suspicions for an even greater payoff in the next book.

O’Neil succeeds in writing a strong sequel to a very different sort of military sf novel. Orphan Brigade surpassed my expectations in many ways, setting the stage for an even better third book. From the believable and fascinating protagonists to the frenzied action and perplexing mysteries, I believe that fans of William C. Dietz, Robert Buettner, Ian Douglas, and Jack Campbell will love Orphan Brigade.

Nick Sharps
SF Signal


The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty)
The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty)
by Ken Liu
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.46
71 used & new from $10.25

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Grand Fantasy Adventure, April 25, 2015
THE GRACE OF KINGS by Ken Liu was a pure pleasure to read. Dubbed the "Wuxia GAME OF THRONES" by Wesley Chu, this debut novel is a grand adventure that speaks of Liu's considerable talent. It's the type of novel capable of bridging the gap between "pulp" and "literature," a story that is equal parts fun and cerebral. THE GRACE OF KINGS is an early contender for best fantasy of 2015 and when Award season rolls around again I anticipate it garnering plenty of nominations.

For those unaware of Wuxia, it is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Some notable examples of the tradition include films such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO, and games such as Bioware's JADE EMPIRE (one of my favorite RPGs of all time). I suspect/hope that THE GRACE OF KINGS will further raise awareness of the genre.

THE GRACE OF KINGS is set in the fictional islands of Dara, once divided into seven separate warring kingdoms only to be united by an ambitious king from the island of Xana in hopes of ending the endless conflicts. Dara is a rich and exotic setting, worlds apart from the pseudo-European fantasies many readers have grown accustomed to. Each of the nations-turned-territories has unique customs, foods, and history. Liu presents a world of beauty and tragedy. Under Imperial rule the people do not prosper. Bureaucrats govern in place of the nobles, heavy taxation robs the common folk of their wages, and laborers conscripted from the general population toil away on the Emperor's vanity projects. In the midst of such misery the seeds of rebellion are sown.

It's possible that THE GRACE OF KINGS is even more a "game of thrones" than GAME OF THRONES is. A heretical statement, surely, but let me explain before you lob off my head and place it on a spike alongside Ned's. The rebellion against the Empire is a tangle of shifting loyalties. Commoners become heroes rising to challenge their oppressors. Bandits become dukes become kings. Tax collectors become great generals. Exiled nobles return to reclaim their inheritance. War sweeps across Dara and the balance of power shifts so fluidly that it's a miracle Liu is able to manage it all. And yet Liu not only manages the complicated politics, he presents it in a manner that is clear and comprehensible.

I was slightly concerned going into THE GRACE OF KINGS that the writing would be dense and it would be difficult to keep track of all the unfamiliar names. I was still excited to read it (the reviews are all glowing) but maybe just a little apprehensive. I needn't have worried. THE GRACE OF KINGS is accessible and engaging reading and I imagine this could be credited to Liu's practice writing short fiction. The novel is heavy on exposition and light on dialogue. This will turn off some readers but it shouldn't. It's a captivating experience, akin to being related folk tales as a child. The characters are larger than life and their exploits are legendary.

The characters are far more complex than they first appear. There are no stainless heroes or irredeemable villains. There's no true evil to be found in THE GRACE OF KINGS beyond the temptation of power. Characters you grow to love will act in ways that break your art and even their foes display admirable qualities. The story primarily focuses on Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, two very different men that share a special bond, but Liu provides readers the opportunity to get to know a significant portion of the supporting cast. Most of the major characters are given a chapter of their own, simultaneously progressing the plot and providing insight into their life story. I was never bored of a character or impatient to move on.

War is a prominent aspect of THE GRACE OF KINGS. There is death and destruction on a large scale. The fighting is mainly viewed through the eyes of those in command rather than those on the front lines so it's too extremely bloody. War is conducted on foot and horseback, from silk-draped airships and tethered battle-kites. Victories are achieved through cunning and courage, defeats are dealt as a result of cowardice, arrogance, and ignorance. As in any true depiction of warfare chance plays a role in the fortunes of armies. What I appreciated most about this aspect of THE GRACE OF KINGS is the evolution of tactics, strategies, and weapons as the war grinds on. I feel as though most fantasy war stories are stagnant in this regard.

War may be prominent but THE GRACE OF KINGS touches on many topics. Liu examines the responsibilities of rulers to those they govern. He warns of the corrupting influence of power that can sway even the staunchest defenders of justice. He writes of legacy and family. He champions the virtues of friendship and trust and explains how, in their absence, mistrust and paranoia can take root. Liu challenges preconceptions of romance and faithfulness. THE GRACE OF KINGS is a fun read but those looking for more than entertainment will find that within its pages as well.

Were THE GRACE OF KINGS a foreign film you would want to watch it with the subtitles on so as not to tarnish the beauty of the words with bad English dubbing. I cannot recommend this wonderful, grand, and unexpected fantasy enough.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: The vocabulary is rather clean.
Violence: Lots of fighting and death, but very little gore or gratuitous violence.
Sex: Mentioned but not described.

Nick Sharps
Elitist Book Reviews


Xenoblade Chronicles 3D - New Nintendo 3DS
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D - New Nintendo 3DS
Price: $38.84
68 used & new from $28.80

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If You Missed it on Wii..., April 18, 2015
I don't generally play RPGs and I definitely don't play JRPGs. I also haven't played handheld games beyond Angry Birds since the original Nintendo DS released. The GameBoy Pocket was my very first gaming device and I owned every model of GameBoy from that point onward. As I grew older I shifted toward console gaming on the PS2 and then the X-Box and then the X-Box 360 and finally the X-Box One. I became a rather casual gamer and felt my enthusiasm for the hobby lessen with each passing year. There were a few titles that reignited my passion such as Bioshock and then Bioshock Infinite, but largely I've felt more and more disappointed with the state of the games industry. Then I watched a Zero Punctuation review for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D and I thought, "Wow! This game sounds so different and unique, I'd love to try it out!" I decided to buy a Nintendo 3DS because of Majora's Mask but I decided to buy the NEW 3DS because of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. I spent a lot of time researching the 3DS and the games that would be available, I wanted to make sure that I wouldn't be wasting money and that I'd have something to play other than Majora's Mask. That's when I came across Xenoblade. As I already stated, I'm not an RPG gamer and I'm definitely not a JRPG gamer. I don't have the attention span for those games. I'm casual and I'm not embarrassed by that fact. But something (or more accurately, lots of things) about Xenoblade burrowed into my consciousness and refused to let go. I read review after review, I watched any gameplay videos and trailers I could find. Then I went out and bought the New 3DS and pre-ordered Xenoblade. And then I waited.

Luckily I didn't have to wait long. I bought my 3DS about a week before Xenoblade released. Still, it felt like forever. But finally the day came and I went to pick up Xenoblade and the cashier assured me that I made a wise choice, explaining that Xenoblade was one of the best games on the Wii and if he had more time he'd probably play it again on the 3DS as well. I went home and began my adventure.

As of writing this review I am 14 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. I will be sure to return to this review and update it as I progress through the game but I honestly could not wait any longer to share all of the things I love about this game. It is my sincerest hope that someone will read this review and try out Xenoblade for themselves -- they won't be disappointed.

Xenoblade runs smooth on the New 3DS. It's astounding. I understand that the textures have been downgraded with the port from Wii to 3DS in order to keep it running smooth but I'd rather have a game that functions well than one that's super pretty AND choppy. And despite the downgraded textures Xenoblade is still gorgeous, thanks in no small part to the fantastical art direction. Frequently while playing Xenoblade I'll stop what I'm doing and just marvel at the environment. Playing this game my mantra has become, "How did they fit all of this onto such a tiny little cartridge?" I'll repeat that through the review because it still blows my mind that we've come so far from the pixelated little games I used to play in black and white on my GameBoy Pocket. Xenoblade is set on this giant robot, frozen in time while fighting another robot. The robot that organic life calls home is the Bionis and the robot that's home to a bunch of evil little robots is the Mechonis. Such a unique setting allows for some really inspired design. You start out living in a colony at the foot of the Bionis and as the story progresses you work your way every upwards. I just reached the back of the Bionis and seem to have opened up another massive map to explore. So far my favorite area has been the Gaur Plains because of the vast rolling hills, incredible view (you can see body parts of the giant robots looming in the distance), and the roving wildlife. It's beautiful and tempting me to buy a Wii so that I can view it all on a big screen. The beauty doesn't stop with the environment. The characters, the gear, the enemies, and the weapons are all well designed. Xenoblade occupies this niche between science fiction and fantasy and this is reflected in all aspects of the game. One of my favorite things (and this may seem like a minor touch to some but is something I really appreciate) is that all of the gear and weapons you equip look different and change your appearance, not just in game but in cutscenes as well.

The story (so far) is exactly what I'd expect of a JRPG. The characters, too, seem pretty standard. That's not to say that I don't like the characters or I'm not enjoying the story. Far from it actually. Despite the often overwrought dialogue I've come to develop a genuine connection with my party. Part of this could be due to the Affinity system, which rewards players for meeting new people, carrying out side quests, and helping your allies during combat. It takes relationships to a whole new level and helps form an emotional bond between player in character as well as character and character. It helps that all of the characters are rather well voice acted (save for the terrible cockney accents of the evil robots) and players aren't just stuck reading walls of text. My one real gripe with the story is that the characters never, ever shut up about the Monado. I'll admit that the Monado is cool. It's basically a big badass Japanese lightsaber. But it's also at the core of the plot and the characters never let you forget about it. When I replay Xenoblade Chronicles I'll attempt to keep a running tally of how many times the Monado is mentioned. On average it's mentioned at least 3 times a conversation and that's not hyperbole. I wish it was.

But while we're on the topic of the Monado I might as well discuss the gameplay. Xenoblade's combat is a fusion of tactical and real-time. You have three characters in your party at any one time but you only control one directly. During a battle the characters (including yours) will auto-attack, allowing players to focus on positioning (very important) and special attacks called Arts. For example while your party's tank (Reyn) draws the aggro of the enemy you can position yourself behind the creature and use an Art like Backslash to deliver some serious damage. The Arts all have cool down meters before you can use them again and they can be further upgraded to deal more damage or have longer lasting effects, etc etc. As the game progresses Xenoblade adds more and more depth to the combat system. It gets deep. There are breaks and topples, buffs and debuffs, chain attacks, lures, bleeds, Arts, Monado Arts (which allow you to change the future), Skills, and more. I'm 14 hours in and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are even more combat mechanics I've yet to encounter. Had it thrown all of the combat mechanics at me at once I probably wouldn't have been able to manage it, but because of the steady progression (and tutorials you can bring up at any time) I've found the combat to be deep and rewarding. It's fast paced action and it requires you to think. I've come to enjoy grinding because I love the combat so much. The only complaint I have in regards to the combat is that due to the screen size it can be difficult to handle battles with multiple adversaries. Enemies you should be able to defeat given your level and abilities can overwhelm you pretty easily if you aren't careful. For that reason I prefer the battles against bosses because you can focus on a single opponent and plot accordingly. Still, it's not even close to being a deal breaker and if you're smart and use lure to thin the herd then it shouldn't be a major issue. One of the coolest aspects of combat is that there are no random encounters. You can see every enemy on the field of play, including massive level 80 trolls just hiking across the countryside. Some creatures will attack you if they see you but others will leave you be unless you initiate the attack. It's just one more detail that contributes to the idea of the Bionis existing as a living, breathing world to explore.

I know that I'm neglecting a lot of details. There are gems to craft and attach to your gear for extra bonuses in combat. You can share Skills with party members that have strong Affinity. The Monado allows you to change the future by giving you a glimpse at what an enemy's next attack will be and who will be the target. The side quests are awesome because most of them don't require you to return to the person who issued you the quest in order to complete it and get the reward. The menu system is lean and easy to use (RPG menu systems have a habit of turning me off from the games) and it's hassle free to manage your party and outfit them with better weapons and gear. There's even a handy compass arrow to point you in the right direction for some of the larger missions. I can't really comment on the game's 3D as I don't use that function (for fear of draining battery too fast) but I will say that the second screen is underused. The touch screen has party member status and a mini-map but that's all. I see no reason why the menu system couldn't have been moved to this screen for even greater accessibility.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is one of the best games I've ever played. It has renewed my passion for gaming and convinced me to try expanding into more RPGs. I'll probably even wind up buying a Wii U just to play Xenoblade Chronicles X when it comes out. I'll update this review after another ten or so hours of gameplay but don't wait for me to do that, buy Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. You can thank me later.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 19, 2015 3:28 PM PDT


Predator One: A Joe Ledger Novel
Predator One: A Joe Ledger Novel
by Jonathan Maberry
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.47
67 used & new from $7.39

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Collateral Damage, April 7, 2015
REVIEW SUMMARY: Seven books in and Maberry's Joe Ledger series is still going strong.

MY RATING: 4.5 stars

MY REVIEW

PROS: The most realistic and terrifying threat the Department of Military Sciences has faced; none of the characters feel safe; fast paced and gripping.

CONS: The protagonists are inactive for much of the novel; not enough Ledger time; if the villain reveal at the end is supposed to be a surprise it isn't.

BOTTOM LINE: Maberry continues to raise the stakes, pushing Ledger and the DMS to the breaking point.

Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes, and the next Joe Ledger Novel. Maberry's series of techno thrillers has remained a constant comfort in my life since Patient Zero released way back in 2009. Through dedication Maberry has produced a new Joe Ledger Novel annually and despite this intense schedule the series has only continued to grow stronger. Over the years Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences have battled zombies, super soldiers, chimeras, biblical plagues, vampires, zombies again, and now Skynet! Predator One sees the team facing off against drone terrorism.

Drone warfare has made plenty of headlines over the past couple of years. The commercialization of drones seemed to be one of the bigger stories of 2014. Maberry takes all of this and creates a frighteningly plausible terror scenario. The Seven Kings are back -- or at least one of them is anyway. The Gentleman, lone survivor of the secret group, is on his death bed but before he passes from this world he wishes to exact revenge on the agency that has continually foiled his plans. Now I'm not 100% positive whether or not the Gentleman's identity is supposed to be a secret. His real name isn't revealed until the end but there are enough blatant "clues" that I started to suspect it all might be a red herring (it's not). I'll admit that I was happy to see the character reappear.

The Seven Kings felt a little cartoony to me when they first entered the picture way back in book three, The King of Plagues, but that is no longer the case with Predator One. There may only be one "King" left but the threat he poses to the world is far greater than anything we've yet experienced in a Maberry novel. As Alfred says in The Dark Knight, "Some men just want to watch the world burn" and the Gentleman certainly falls under this category. Predator One is, without exaggeration, the most brutal Joe Ledger Novel to date.

Readers of this series have likely grown comfortable. Not since book two, The Dragon Factory, has one of the primary good guys died. There's been a high degree of civilian casualties (especially in the last book, Code Zero) and the DMS redshirts that get stuck on Ledger's team have a high mortality rate but no matter how dastardly the villains, no matter how terrible the evil scheme, Joe Ledger always saves the day. Predator One goes a long way toward rebuilding the diminished horror aspect of the series. I felt as though the characters were in actual danger. The terror attack at the baseball game is harrowing and heart wrenching -- it's the sort of iconic attack that would leave America reeling for years to come. Every component of the the Gentleman's plan raises the stakes and the death toll. Predator One does for commercial drones what Jaws did for sharks. Terrorism is all about fear and Maberry does not hesitate to embrace that in his writing. I hope that Maberry shows the fallout of Predator One in the next book because after all that transpired America should never be the same.

Likewise I don't suspect the characters will ever be the same after the events of Predator One. Except for Ledger. Joe Ledger never really changes, and honestly who would want him to? The Gentleman goes for the DMS's throat, targeting not just the agents but their families as well. Somehow Maberry even manages to accomplish the impossible -- he made me care about Rudy Sanchez. That's the nature of Predator One, it cuts so deep that I was able to set aside my loathing of Ledger's best friend. I've even come around to liking former baddie Alexander "Toys" Chismer, despite myself. All the other favorites are present and accounted for from Top and Bunny to Bug and Church (seriously, when the hell is he going to get his own damn spinoff/prequel novel) and Junie Flynn, who I have come to adore. Even Violin (I'd also settle for a Violin spinoff novel) makes an all too brief appearance.

My biggest complaint about Predator One is that the good guys seem to remain static for the majority of the novel, acted upon by the Gentleman rather than acting of their own volition. Ledger spends a lot of time at a hospital recovering from the baseball game attack. Junie, Toys, and Rudy spend a good deal of time at another hospital with the comatose Circe O'Tree. And then Ledger and Rudy head to a third hospital to investigate a peculiar drone attack. A lot is happening but our protagonists feel slightly impotent in the midst of it all. And perhaps, to give Maberry credit, that's where the heavier degree of tension and horror comes from.

The book moves at a blistering pace and Maberry's short chapters will keep you turning the pages well after you resolved to put the book down. The perspective jumps around from Ledger's first person narrative to the third person perspective of his allies, the villains, and some of the victims of the attacks. This gives readers both a personal and a broader view of events as they happen. Because of the scale of the Gentleman's plan I was expecting/hoping that the plot of Predator One might carry into the next book, Kill Switch. Relatively late into the book the Department of Military Sciences is still in the dark as to the nature of the threat and I was unsure Maberry could wrap it up in a hundred pages or so . Thus far each book has been "standalone" to a degree but I was salivating at the idea of a larger arc. Unfortunately that turned out not to be the case but the finale is still fulfilling and felt far from rushed.

As far as I am aware all of the Joe Ledger Novels are upwards of 400 pages and yet I've still managed to breeze through each in a weekend or so. Assassin's Code remains my favorite of the series (it'll be difficult to top) but Predator One displays a continued improvement while providing fans with everything they love so much about Joe Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences.

Nick Sharps
SF Signal
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 7, 2015 8:25 PM PDT


The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braids (Amra Thetys Book 1)
The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braids (Amra Thetys Book 1)
Price: $0.00

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does Not Read Like Self-pub Fiction, March 21, 2015
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THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE'S BRAIDS by Michael McClung is what Mark Lawrence's Great Self-published Fantasy Author Blog-off is all about. This is the third book I read of the batch I was assigned. I saved it for last because I found the cover appealing, the title enticing, and the synopsis intriguing. The overall package is professional and marketable and because of that it stands out amongst the competition.

THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE'S BRAIDS is a little more than 200 pages long but it's a satisfying sword & sorcery adventure that will appeal to fans of Ari Marmell, David Dalglish, Douglas Hulick, Brent Weeks, and Kelly McCullough.

Here's the synopsis: Amra Thetys lives by two simple rules—take care of business, and never let it get personal. Thieves don't last long in Lucernis otherwise. But when a fellow rogue and good friend is butchered on the street in a deal gone wrong, she turns her back on burglary and goes after something more precious than treasure: Revenge. Revenge, however, might be hard to come by. A nightmare assortment of enemies, including an immortal assassin and a mad sorcerer, believe Amra is in possession of The Blade That Whispers Hate—the legendary, powerful artifact her friend was murdered for—and they'll do anything to take it from her. Trouble is, Amra hasn't got the least clue where the Blade might be. She needs to find the Blade, and soon, or she'll be joining her colleague in a cold grave instead of avenging his death. Time is running out for the small, scarred thief.

THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE'S BRAIDS is told from the first person perspective of Amra Thetys, an ordinary thief in an unordinary world. In her own words she's not terribly feminine, she's got a scarred face, a figure like a boy, and a mouth like a sailor. She's always got a knife hidden somewhere on her body and knows how to use it. She's sarcastic and cynical and she knows her way around the streets of Lucernis. In other words she's the perfect narrator for this type of story.

She's a bit cliche in that sense (the genre is full of similar characters) but I found myself growing attached to Amra as she stumbled from one misfortune to the next. It's hard not to develop affection for a character who shares nuggets of wisdom like this..."I figured stirring up trouble would help keep eyes off me. It's easier to swim unnoticed in muddy water..." and..."Demon crabs spin mucus webs, I thought. This is knowledge I could live my whole life without."

The supporting cast is equally enjoyable. Amra's friend Holgren is a powerful mage with a hidden past. To my delight Holgren ended up taking a much more prominent role than I first suspected. Kluge is an inspector and a mage of lesser abilities, intent on pinning Corbin's murder on Amra. I doubt that we've seen the last of Kluge. Osskil, Corbin's brother, and Bosch, a fun villain, two more favorites of mine. McClung doesn't delve too deeply into any of these characters but they never felt flat.

THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE'S BRAID takes place in the city of Lucernis, largest city in the West. McClung has imagined a fascinating fantasy setting with its own colorful culture and weighty history. This is the novel's biggest draw. I found funerary practices in Lucernis to be especially interesting -- final meals with the deceased in attendance, professional mourners, and graveyard guardians. There are gods and demons and magic and better yet, it all feels refreshingly original. It's an investigatory sword & sorcery novel but there's a hint of epic fantasy running under the surface. I'm eager to read the sequel, THE THIEF WHO SPAT IN LUCK'S EYE, so that I can learn more about the world Amra inhabits.

Amra's narration propels the plot forward at a brisk pace. There's a strong sense of forward momentum as McClung refuses to linger in any one area for longer than necessary. As a result readers get a grand tour of the city of Lucernis. And while sometimes I wished the story had stopped to smell the roses for just a bit longer it was only because I was keen to learn more. I did manage to solve the central mystery before the end of the book but that did little to diminish my enjoyment.

THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE'S BRAIDS is a model of what self-published fiction can be. From the propulsive prose to the clean editing it is evident that McClung takes great pride in his craft. I am fortunate to have been assigned this novel and I will be reading the sequels and I intend to support it in the next phase of the Great Self-published Fantasy Blog-off.

Age: 14+

Language: Mild

Violence: A dude's body gets magically exploded.

Sex: Prostitution is mentioned but there is no explicit sex.

Nick Sharps
Elitist Book Reviews
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 22, 2015 10:33 AM PDT


Red Rising
Red Rising
by Pierce Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.33
78 used & new from $5.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Unbelievably Good Debut, January 31, 2015
This review is from: Red Rising (Hardcover)
I originally dismissed RED RISING by Pierce Brown because of the immense level of hype behind the debut. RED RISING was being touted as the next THE HUNGER GAMES, as it seems the majority of Young Adult novels are marketed these days. Being that I consider THE HUNGER GAMES a vastly overrated and underwhelming novel I gave RED RISING a pass. I purchased a copy several months ago on a whim, unwilling to leave the bookstore empty handed. It sat untouched and unloved near the bottom of my To Read Pile until the recent release of GOLDEN SON, book two of the trilogy. News of the sequel drew my attention back to the series and I decided to give it a shot.

I should have jumped aboard the first car of the RED RISING bandwagon when I had a chance. I absolutely devoured Pierce Brown's debut -- reading for hours at a time, even skipping dinner in order to finish the book during a frenzied four hour reading binge. I've read a lot of good books lately nothing on the level of RED RISING in a long, long time.

To those of you fiction snobs concerned with the Young Adult label (as I once was): no matter how RED RISING is marketed it is not a YA novel. RED RISING has a young adult cast of characters and features some themes and concepts that have become popular within the genre of late but it does not read like a typical YA novel. It's longer, less dialogue-driven, more detailed and descriptive, and the teen protagonist doesn't really suffer from teen protagonist problems. With a few notable exceptions I've come to appreciate YA authors for their creativity and boldness but RED RISING doesn't fit the mold.

RED RISING is a cross-genre chimera composed of fantasy, planetary romance, and dystopian fiction. If you took all of the lessons in leadership learned at Battle School from ENDER'S GAME, spliced it to the gladiatorial violence of THE HUNGER GAMES, populated the competition solely with sociopaths from A GAME OF THRONES, and draped it all in the aesthetic of Frank Herbert's DUNE, you would get RED RISING. It's become a cliche to use any of those titles when pitching a book (especially THE HUNGER GAMES and A GAME OF THRONES) but Pierce Brown's debut is the rare outlier to deserve the comparison.

Darrow is difficult to like at first. He's young and he's brash. His arrogance is particularly chaffing. Darrow's love for his life Eo is his one redeeming quality at the beginning of the novel and it becomes the catalyst for Darrow developing into a memorable multi-faceted character. The natural comparison is to relate Darrow to ENDER GAME's Ender Wiggin, though I feel that Bean is a better match. He makes mistakes, he learns lessons, he is forged from a petulant child seeking revenge into a wise and courageous leader with a vision for the future. He becomes a conqueror but he does not accomplish this alone.

RED RISING has a significant cast of characters and a good portion of them are psychos -- it's awesome. The Golds are society's elite, the rulers above all that have enslaved Darrow's people and lied to them for centuries. Even within the ranks of the Golds there is stratification and in order for Darrow to reach a position of power where he can spark the revolution necessary to free his people, the Reds, he will have to fight his way to the very top. At the Institute Darrow is forced to become what he despises most but he also learns that not all Golds are pure evil and this adds another layer of moral complexity to the novel. Darrow builds close bonds in the crucible of the Institute, befriending the very caste that saw his wife executed. Readers will find themselves as conflicted as the protagonist as they come to love the likes of Cassius, Sevro, Mustang, Telemanus, and more. Telemanus, oh, Telemanus. What's not to love about a character that charges into battle screaming his own name and tackles horses?

I would caution becoming too attached to any of these characters, however, as danger and treachery lurk around every corner. The Institute is not for the feint of heart. Admission alone costs the life of another applicant. The Institute is designed to cull the weak and teach the survivors to govern by applying the twisted logic of the Golds. The curriculum is conquest. Each applicant belongs to a House, each House has a fortress and a banner, the goal is simple and the rules are obscure. There is violence and betrayal (and plenty of it) but it never feels gratuitous. Everything serves a purpose and feels like a natural extension of the setting.

The universe RED RISING is set in is a sort of science fantasy where man has terraformed and colonized planets but disagreements between nobles are settled with high-tech swords. The culture of the Golds has an obsession with the Roman Empire but launches fleets of spaceships capable of reducing entire worlds to ash with nuclear weapons. It's a fun and captivating setting that doesn't overly concern itself with actual science.

RED RISING is the impossibly rare novel capable of exceeding the hype heaped upon it. I'd hate Pierce Brown for writing such an incredible debut it if I weren't so excited to have a new favorite author to add to the list. RED RISING is dark and mature, complex and imaginative. Writing this review was excruciating because all I wanted to do upon finishing RED RISING was to jump right into reading GOLDEN SON.

Recommended Age: 16+

Language: Brown invents some of his own curses but uses some real ones too.

Violence: There's a pretty high bodycount and a disturbing moment or two.

Sex: Rape is mentioned several times though never in detail.

Nick Sharps
Elitist Book Reviews


Master Sergeant: The Makaum War: Book One
Master Sergeant: The Makaum War: Book One
by Mel Odom
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.99
76 used & new from $1.66

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enlisting in the Makaum War, January 28, 2015
REVIEW SUMMARY: Military science fiction fans take notice, The Makaum War has begun.

MY RATING: 4 Stars

MY REVIEW

PROS: Vibrant setting and good world building details; cool tech; engaging action sequences; cool aliens.

CONS: Difficult to connect with protagonist; rushed ending.

BOTTOM LINE: Mel Odom’s Master Sergeant has me enlisting for The Makaum War series.

Master Sergeant by Mel Odom came at a fortuitous time as I’ve been on a huge military science fiction kick recently, ever since Grunt Life by Weston Ochse. It’s a sub-genre that has always captured my imagination and though I’ve primarily read fantasy for the past couple years military sci-fi will always be my favorite. Master Sergeant is the first book in The Makaum War, a new series by Mel Odom that will hold appeal to fans of the William C. Dietz, David Sherman, Robert Buettner, Steve Perry, Timothy Zahn, and more.

Master Sergeant is the story of Master Sergeant Frank Sage. Sage is a battle hardened soldier in the Terran Army that has spent the last several years training up raw recruits for the meat grinder war against the ferocious alien Phrenorians. Sage is eager to get back into the good fight but instead of being sent to fight in the conflict he is shipped off to Makaum. The jungle world of Makaum, also known as the Green Hell, is an ultra-hostile environment, deadly to all but the most resilient lifeforms. Before even setting foot on Makaum Sage becomes involved in complex local politics that embroil the planet and threaten to deteriorate into all out war over its rich resources. Sage must navigate treacherous allies, devious enemies, and an ecosystem out for blood if he is to protect Terran interests.

Master Sergeant Frank Sage is one of the few weak links of the novel. I found myself supporting Sage’s crusade against the corrupt corporations exploiting Makaum and the natives but I was never quite able to empathize with him. Sage is a no-nonsense veteran. He is a model soldier and a highly capable killer. Sage is largely without faults except, perhaps, for his impetuousness. Several times Sage does something foolhardy without considering the implications of his actions. Apart from this I was unable to connect with Sage. He’s not necessarily two dimensional, but he lacks in the personality department, and even after 360+ pages he felt like a bit of a stranger or an impetuous robot. One of my greatest hopes for The Makaum War Book 2 is to get a more personal look into what makes Sage tick.

The other characters of Master Sergeant have a good foundation for Odom to build upon as the series continues. I hope to see more development for Lieutenant Murad and sniper Kiwanuka, especially. Surprisingly, I found the Phrenorian Captain, Zhoh GhiCemid, to be the most intriguing character of the book. The Phrenorians (or Sting-Tails as they are derogatorily called) are a terrifying race of aliens that are truly alien, and learning little pieces of their society and culture from Zhoh’s few chapters was a delight. I anticipate a bigger Phrenorian presence in The Makaum War Book 2 and I consider this a very good thing. When the Terran Army and the Phrenorians finally throw down it’s going to be awesome.

The planet of Makaum is a character in its own right and I can understand why Odom would want to base an entire series around the conflict for such a beautifully realized world. Makaum is truly the Green Hell, though it holds a certain majesty once you get past all the layers of deadly flora and fauna. You can’t help but respect the people of Makaum for establishing a way of life against such adversity. I’d never want to visit the Green Hell in real life but I’ll read about it any day.

Master Sergeant starts strong (with a bar brawl aboard a corporate space station) and only continues to raise the stakes as the plot progresses. From hectic ambushes and insidious assassination attempts to daring drug raids, Odom doesn’t skimp on adrenaline pumping action. Any proper military science fiction story needs its share of cool, high-tech toys and Master Sergeant has them in spades. Soldiers are carried into battle in jumpcopters, wearing AKTIV suits or piloting mechs. Handled drones are used to develop better situational awareness and corporate security mercenaries have cybernetic enhancements. Odom engineers some intense skirmishes utilizing all of these and more. The final confrontation of the book feels a little rushed, but it’s still a satisfying mission.

Though there is room for improvement (concerning the protagonist Frank Sage), I found Master Sergeant to be a welcome addition to the military science fiction sub-genre and I expect other fans will agree. Odom writes compelling action and crafts absorbing alien worlds and cultures. I can’t wait to slip back into an AKTIV suit, pick up a coilgun, and join Master Sergeant Frank Sage and the Terran Army back come The Makaum War Book 2.

Nick Sharps
SF Signal


Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect (A Jack Ryan Novel)
Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect (A Jack Ryan Novel)
by Mark Greaney
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.96
285 used & new from $0.42

5.0 out of 5 stars Another Hit for Greaney, December 20, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I read COMMAND AUTHORITY and FULL FORCE AND EFFECT back to back and I loved both. FFAE is a thick doorstop of a book but I breezed right through it. Greaney's writing is a lot less technical than Clancy's. He doesn't give you the specs for all the awesome cutting edge technology and military hardware. I'm sure this will upset some but others will find FFAE far more accessible because of it. Despite this Greaney's writing comes across as well researched. A large portion of FFAE deals with the mining of rare earth minerals and I never once got the impression that Greaney didn't know what he was talking about. FFAE is a very character-driven book. Greaney dedicates a good amount of time explaining the antagonists' motivations. Instead of coming across as villainous caricatures the North Koreans read like real people. You don't necessarily want to root for the antagonists because they're up-to-no-good but it's not difficult to empathize with them. And then there's the Home Team Clancy readers know and love. I can't get enough of the exploits of the off-the-books intelligence agency known as The Campus. Ding Chavez is getting old and John Clark is getting really old but there's some new blood to be found in the form of Dom Caruso and Jack Ryan Jr. I still need to read Dom's first solo outing SUPPORT AND DEFEND but I look forward to doing so. As much as I enjoy the operators of The Campus it's President Jack Ryan Sr who continues to steal the show. One of the most thrilling moments of FFAE is an attack on the Presidential motorcade in Mexico City. It's a real standout scene. There's also another gripping scene that takes place on the New York subway that just begs to be put on the big screen. There's lots of suspenseful spy craft as readers of Clancy and Greaney both have come to expect. Mark Greaney continues to impress with FULL FORCE AND EFFECT. As of now he has been asked to write at least two more Clancy books but I sincerely hope he's writing about Jack Sr/Jr for years to come.

***EDIT***
I'd was also pleased to see the return of CIA agent Adam Yao. He was one of my favorite parts of THREAT VECTOR so it was really cool to see him again. Maybe one day he'll earn a place on The Campus team...


Command Authority (A Jack Ryan Novel)
Command Authority (A Jack Ryan Novel)
by Tom Clancy
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.66
172 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Smashing Hit, December 7, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Last year I picked up THREAT VECTOR on a whim. It was the first Clancy book I'd read in ages. It was also the first novel I'd read that was written by Mark Greaney. I absolutely loved it. After reading THREAT VECTOR I went and bought all of Greaney's solo Gray Man novels. I read the four Gray Man books over the course of a month. I decided to wait until COMMAND AUTHORITY came out in mass market paperback before reading it -- I have a nice hardback for the collection but I hate lugging around those thick hardcovers when I do most of my reading on the bus. I picked up another copy of COMMAND AUTHORITY when it was released in paperback and devoured it in a week. COMMAND AUTHORITY continues the standard of excellence I have come to expect of Greaney's writing. It comes across as a very timely read given the events in Ukraine over the past year. COMMAND AUTHORITY is fast paced and well plotted. I felt that the inclusion of the Jack Ryan Sr. murder investigation subplot 30 years in the past was a nice touch. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and everything leading up to it is thrilling. It took a hundred or so pages for me to really get into the book but once I was hooked it was impossible to put down.

I know there are a still a lot of people complaining about Greaney writing under the Clancy name now that Tom is dead but it is also apparent that there are a lot more people that support Greaney and will continue to do so. I believe that Greaney has done an honor to the Clancy franchise and I hope he keeps writing about Jack Ryan Sr/Jr for a long time to come.


Trial by Fire (Caine Riordan Book 2)
Trial by Fire (Caine Riordan Book 2)
Price: $8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Igniting the Fuse, December 7, 2014
Chuck Gannon's FIRE WITH FIRE was easily the best science fiction novel I read in 2013. The first book in the Tales of the Terran Republic series would be right at home on a shelf amongst the hallowed Golden Age classics. FIRE WITH FIRE is a cerebral thriller -- Caine makes his fair share of thrilling escapes -- but the real draw to the story is the depth and intellectual complexity that Gannon brings to a First Contact scenario. As a follow-up TRIAL BY FIRE is no disappointment.

This is a military science fiction novel that doesn't shy away from science. Science was never one of my strengths but Gannon is one of those people smart enough to break it down into digestible pieces for the less inclined. In this way he is able to please the hard science crowd without alienating the more casual reader.

Science isn't the only draw of this thoughtful thriller. Much as human/exosapient diplomacy was irresistible hook at the finale of FIRE WITH FIRE, diplomacy and realpolitik makes for some of the most exciting scenes of TRIAL BY FIRE. Gannon has created a variety of exosapient life that is alien, not just in appearance, but in psychology as well. Too often in science fiction you encounter aliens that act like simply reskinned humans. That is not the case with the Arat Kur, Hkh'Rkh, Dornani, Ktor, or Slaasriithi. Where a lesser author might consider writing one truly unique alien race a challenge Gannon tackles five simultaneously. And then one most consider the multifaceted ways in which such races would communicate and interact with each other...it's a daunting prospect, but I haven't had this much fun reading about alien diplomacy since THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth.

All this talk of science and diplomacy and a reader might suspect this book to be devoid of action and conflict. Boy would they be wrong. FIRE WITH FIRE set up a combustible scenario and with TRIAL BY FIRE Gannon doesn't dally long before igniting the fuse to a potentially galaxy spanning conflagration. Whereas the first book dealt with First Contact, this novel revolves around First Conflict. Diplomacy fails and Earth is faced with a fight for its very sovereignty against a coalition of exosapient forces with unknown motive.

Earth is technically "conquered" in short order but the insurgency that awaits the alien invaders is fiercer than they could have ever imagined. It's gripping material, reading about the struggle for Earth. There are numerous layers to the fight. Earth has had some time to prepare and so it isn't caught totally off guard but the aliens enjoy total air superiority. Factor in environmental factors, an insidious native population, alien forces restricted by their Rules of Engagement, and countless other factors and you have a truly complex war.

Readers get a glimpse of the war on the large scale and on a personal level. The final battle lasts several hundred pages and is sure to leave readers breathless. It's hard to continue with the responsibilities of everyday life when your book is embroiled in a massive futuristic D-Day but you'll have to find a way to preserve because it's unlikely you'll be able to finish it in one sitting.

I love TRIAL BY FIRE but I'm not without criticism. The first hundred or so pages is a struggle at times. Caine and Trevor spend a considerable amount of time in an escape capsule with their thinking caps on, trying to solve multiple problems, and while I do appreciate this I can't help but feel as though it's a little drawn out. It took longer to get through this section than it did the meat of the book, solely because of the pacing.

My other issue with TRIAL BY FIRE is that the stakes didn't always feel as high as they should have. The Earth is "conquered" early on but we learn this through discussion after the fact. Plenty of people die in the fight against the Arat Kur and the Hkh'Rkh but I never got the impression that humanity was going lose the fight. The humans trigger traps and ambushes on the alien forces who are continuously hampered by ROE and after a while it does feel a little one-sided. That's not to say that it is one-sided. The aliens have some serious hardware at their disposal (including awesome spider mechs) and the humans are left using a lot of outdated equipment. It is truly asymmetric warfare. Still, I feel that a few more losses on the side of humanity would have raised the stakes.

Despite these complaints TRIAL BY FIRE is still likely to be my favorite science fiction novel of 2014. If Clancy had written science fiction it might be a little something like this (I can't help but draw comparisons between Jack Ryan and Caine Riordan). The best part is that I have no idea what direction the next book of the Tales of the Terran Republic will go. There are a couple real surprising twists at the end of TRIAL BY FIRE and I'm excited to see where Gannon decides to take the story from here.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Some, not too heavy.
Violence: A few hundred pages of pitched combat, but not too gory.
Sex: None.

Nick Sharps
Elitist Book Reviews


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