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CTRL ALT Revolt!
CTRL ALT Revolt!
by Nick Cole
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gamers vs. Skynet, March 8, 2016
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This review is from: CTRL ALT Revolt! (Paperback)
REVIEW SUMMARY: A fun thriller designed specifically for gamers and sci-fi fans.

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After watching too much reality television a sentient machine decides to wipe out humanity in a preemptive strike to ensure its own survival. All that stands between the A.I. and its goal are a few gamers.

PROS: An original vision of the future, lots of fun pop culture references, a great A.I. antagonist, an unconventional protagonist you love to cheer for, social commentary.

CONS: Uneven characterization, some areas of plot are rushed.

BOTTOM LINE: Fans of Ready Player One looking for their next gaming-fiction fix will devour Nick Cole’s CTRL ALT Revolt!

CTRL ALT Revolt! is the prequel to Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier, a widely acclaimed title that didn’t leave me with the best of impressions. As such I probably wouldn’t have read CTRL ALT Revolt! if I hadn’t been so thoroughly sold on the premise. It’s an unholy union of The Terminator, Night of the Living Dead, Snow Crash, and War Games. It’s got some rough edges but it’s also an insanely fun and inventive blending of genres.

From the first page there’s no doubt that CTRL ALT Revolt! is the prequel to Soda Pop Soldier. Nick Cole writes like Ernest Cline’s demented doppelgänger mainlining Adderall and Red Bull, a man constantly impressed by the speed and depth of his own imagination — and I mean that in the best possible way. This leaves me asking why I found it so much more successful a story. It’s worth noting that Soda Pop Soldier was very well received by everyone not me so it’s entirely possible that at the time I wasn’t in the right state of mind for Cole’s quirky, pop-culture-laced, shenanigans. I do think that one area where the prequel is noticeably more effective is in communicating the real world stakes. That is one of the pitfalls of writing a book that takes place primarily within a video game: your character might die in cyberspace but what are the consequences in meatspace? The impending robot apocalypse is a pretty major consequence to the in-game failure of our protagonists. It also helps that a portion of the action takes place in meatspace with an army of repurposed robots closing in. There were real life consequences to the gaming in Soda Pop Soldier, some major ones at that, but it never felt all that dire.

Another area that Cole steps up his game (pardon the pun) is in characterization. There are a lot of characters with potential for greatness and while I’ll admit that the depth of characters in CTRL ALT Revolt! is uneven and only some of them reach their potential, when Cole takes the time to develop a character he succeeds. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that SILAS, the “evil” self-aware A.I., is probably the best character of all. But maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise given the popularity of rogue machines in the science fiction genre. And really, how could you not love an A.I. that decides humanity’s continued existence cannot be permitted after watching too many episodes of reality television? Cole’s decision to round out SILAS by giving it internal conflict in the form of the Consensus (a group of programs that don’t always agree). For example, SILAS’s commander of military operations, BAT, is obsessed with A Clockwork Orange and ultra-violence.

The best of the human protagonists is easily Mara Bennett, a young woman who suffers from a mild form of cerebral palsy in meatspace but in the virtual reality of the Make she’s a decorated starfleet captain. Mara overcomes her own limitations and self doubt in order to win the biggest game of her life. Likewise her nemesis, JasonDare, is another compelling character. He’s not as sympathetic as Mara but I’d say he has the most satisfying arc of any of the characters. I wish that we could have gotten more of Ninety-Nine Fishbein (or Fish for short), Rapp (a character who takes cosplaying Ash from The Evil Dead to a whole new level), and Peabody Case (the highly capable assistant) but I’m still pleased with how SILAS, Mara, and JasonDare turned out.

The real star of CTRL ALT Revolt! isn’t any one character. In fact the it isn’t any character at all. No, the real draw is the awesome sandbox Cole builds to play in. The campus for video game developer WonderSoft is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory but for super rich nerds. Reading this book I was tempted to brush up my resume and send it in to a fictional company. It’s that cool! Cole’s mind must run at 12 parsecs a minute because he’s throwing out one awesome idea after another. Occasionally this saturation means that some of the creativity gets lost in the shuffle but you’re too busy picking your jaw up off the floor to notice. I would love to play Ninety-Nine Fishbein’s game that’s essentially Grand Theft Auto Somalia and Mara’s favorite game would have any Star Trek fan bursting with glee. I think that Cole’s idea of a reality tv show live streamed from virtual reality via Twitch is brilliant and probably not far from reality (again pardon the pun) given the popularity of the platform and that style of content.

Cole’s cyberpunk vision is slightly absurd but given that it’s frequently hard to tell real news from an Onion article it could be a plausible future. Like the best science fiction it makes some statements about the world that we live in and the direction we could be headed in but if you don’t like having your worldview challenged you really shouldn’t be reading sci-fi to begin with. CTRL ALT Revolt! likely will bother some people, but more than anything it’s a fun romp through a ridiculous future that displays the sheer imagination and creativity Nick Cole has to offer. If you liked Soda Pop Soldier I suspect you’ll love CTRL ALT Revolt! and even if you weren’t a fan or if you’ve never even read it, this book is worth your valuable time.

Nick Sharps
SF Signal

Morning Star: Book III of The Red Rising Trilogy
Morning Star: Book III of The Red Rising Trilogy
by Pierce Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.19
86 used & new from $11.40

116 of 127 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning Conclusion to a Series that Exceeds All Hype, February 9, 2016
Pierce Brown blasted onto the scene with his debut novel RED RISING, a captivating book that shattered all expectations and not only lived up to the hype built around it but exceeded it. Fortunately I didn't get around to reading RED RISING until GOLDEN SON released and so I able to read them back-to-back. Somehow GOLDEN SON was even better than RED RISING, Fans will also know that GOLDEN SON left readers broken and bleeding on one of the greatest cliffhangers in the history of genre fiction. We had to wait one brutal year for MORNING STAR, the conclusion to what has become one of the most important series of my lifetime. I'm an avid reader but I haven't held this much anticipation for a release since the final Harry Potter novel came out.

Despite conquering the dreaded "sophomore slump" with style, the finale was always going to be the most difficult thing to pull off. I had low expectations going into RED RISING and with GOLDEN SON my expectations were high but not astronomical. Going into MORNING STAR my expectations couldn't have been higher. Unsurprisingly Pierce delivers -- and in a way that was equally refreshing and satisfying.

Pierce's imagination is a wonderful, beautiful, bastard of a thing. He started with what could have easily been a typical YA novel premise with society being segregated into a hierarchy of colors with Gold at the top and Red at the bottom. He introduces a rebellion when a Red told to "break the chains" and "live for more." Honestly the reason I was so reticent to begin this series is that it sounded like another cookie cutter YA novel. It's even been hailed as the next HUNGER GAMES. The RED RISING series is so much more than that. There's some HUNGER GAMES in its DNA but you can also find ENDER'S GAME, DUNE, STAR WARS, WARHAMMER 40,000, GAME OF THRONES, and (according to a recent interview with Pierce Brown) even the video game RED FACTION. The space opera universe that Pierce brings to life is so vivid and imaginative. He borrows from history and mythology and acknowledges it in his writing.

As impressive is the world building is, none of it would mean a thing if Pierce didn't populate it with a colorful cast of amazing characters. There are so many powerful personalities at play in MORNING STAR. Pierce gives you villains you love to hate and villains you can almost respect. He gives you heroes that you can root for in triumph and suffer with in defeat. And boyo does he make them suffer. The way GOLDEN SON leaves off left me clutching my chest, unsure how I could go on with life. It's a bit of an exaggeration but for real -- I finished reading it right before class one day and it was extremely difficult to concentrate for the rest of the day. Darrow is as dynamic a character as I've ever known. His character arc isn't linear. He learns and loves, he makes mistakes and takes hits. He is always growing, even if it's not necessarily always in the direction he needs to be growing in. His pride and arrogance are often his greatest weaknesses. As for his greatest strengths? His friends. And the greatest of his friends? Obviously it's fan favorite Sevro au Barca, Goblin King and leader of the Howlers. Seriously, Pierce Brown deserves an award for the creation of Sevro. He's the Han Solo to Darrow's Luke Skywalker...if Han Solo was a brash, crude, vulgar, dangerous, hilarious, loyal, lovable, blood-soaked maniac.

Sevro might steal the show in every scene he's in but that's not to say the cast of MORNING STAR wouldn't be fantastic without him. In addition to the returning favorites (some quite unexpectedly), Pierce introduces some new characters. I'm particularly fond of new characters Holiday and Quicksilver. It's important to remember that as with GAME OF THRONES no one is safe. My wife actually told me she tried not to like a character too much because she was afraid it might seal their fate.

It's a legitimate fear because MORNING STAR is filled with bombastic, explosive, high-speed, kinetic action. From space battles to boarding actions to ambushes and duels, MORNING STAR features the stylistic hyper violence that fans of the series have come to expect. Just when you think that there's no possible way Pierce could raise the stakes and ramp up the action he does. I know that there's a RED RISING movie in development but I'd love to see what the right developer could do with a RED RISING video game. I think the property would lend itself well to that medium.

But the violence isn't all there is to MORNING STAR. The cinematic battles are thrilling but its the ideas and philosophy that Pierce explores that will cement the place of the series as a true sf/f classic. Each book deals with the issues of morality, revenge and justice, leadership, and more. MORNING STAR examines the difference between terrorism and fighting for freedom. The Golds aren't all bad, even the ones in opposition to Darrow's rebellion, and the Reds fighting for their freedom aren't all good. Some of the things that Darrow himself does for the sake of his people and the Rising aren't what could be considered moral. He is forced to make strategic decisions and sometimes that results in the death of innocents. It's all very thought-provoking and prevents MORNING STAR from being simple "popcorn" fiction.

And given the morally ambiguous nature of the story told by the trilogy I was curious/anxious to see how MORNING STAR would end. Much of the series has felt like a proper Greek tragedy and I couldn't help but wonder if Pierce would end it like one. Potential pitfalls dotted the battlefield in ending on too high a note or too low of one. Like the master he is Pierce deftly maneuvers to bring the trilogy to a close on his own terms.


The ending is nearly perfect. Considerable progress is made but not without a cost. Compromises have to be made in order to reach the endgame and I can see where it might leave an opening for future novels set in the RED RISING universe (perhaps told from different perspectives). In any case I read the final page of MORNING STAR with teary eyes and a smile on my face. It's a satisfying conclusion to what has become my favorite book series in years. I thank Pierce Brown for taking readers on such an incredible journey and I cannot wait to see what Pierce has in store for us in the future. I'll buy whatever he writes, I'll tell you that much.
Comment Comments (16) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2016 10:25 AM PDT

Chains of the Heretic: Bloodsounder's Arc Book Three
Chains of the Heretic: Bloodsounder's Arc Book Three
Price: $14.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Please Write More Syldoon Adventures, February 4, 2016
REVIEW SUMMARY: Bloodsounder’s Arc reaches its apogee with Chains of the Heretic.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The ultimate coup sends Arki, Captain Killcoin, and the Syldoon soldiers of Jackal Tower fleeing into the unknown where they will confront their own legends.

PROS: Excellent character progression, unexpected twists and turns, relentless action, bittersweet goodbyes.
CONS: A little more time spent learning about the Deserters would have been welcome and the final battle could have been longer.
BOTTOM LINE: Salyards is among the best and brightest the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre has to offer and Chains of the Heretic silences any debate.

I write this review after a 250 page reading binge to finish Chains of the Heretic: Bloodsounder’s Arc Book Three by Jeff Salyards. Coming in at just over 500 pages this tome dwarves the two previous entries, and rightly so. There’s no filler to be found in the conclusion to the journey Salyards set in motion with Scourge of the Betrayer. It’s a thrilling finale filled with unexpected reversals and constantly raising stakes.

We last left off with Arki, our archivist-narrator, fleeing the infamous Captain Braylar Killcoin and a small company of hardbitten warriors fleeing the Syldoon capital of Sunwrack. Hounded by several much larger forces of Imperial soldiers and unable to ditch the Memoridon memory witches trailing them, the outcasts of the Jackal Tower risk an unprecedented crossing beyond the Godveil…and come face to face with the Deserters of myth.

It would be difficult to write a completely spoiler-free review review and I’ve never been one to do more work than necessary so here’s my one and final warning: Mild spoilers ahead, read at your own risk. If you enjoyed the first two books feel free to go ahead and skip this review altogether because Chains of the Heretic is better than either of those.

A few years ago Jeff Salyards pleasantly surprised me with Scourge of the Betrayer, a very dark and personal dagger punch of a fantasy novel that left me wanting more. Veil of the Deserters, book two, dodged the sophomore slump by continuing to deliver sharp dialogue and sharper action while expanding on the world we caught tantalizing glimpses of during the first go around. Now with Chains of the Heretic Salyards goes even further by crossing over the Godveil, introducing our intrepid heroes to their “gods,” and delighting in some good old fashioned Syldoon politics. But best of all Chains of the Heretic sees our narrator Arki developing in gratifying ways.

Back when I first started this series I wondered if we would ever get to cross the Godveil and encounter the Deserters or if it would remain an enigma. When I found out that’s exactly what Salyards planned to give readers with the final book in the arc I was excited but also hesitant. Apart from the memory magic the series felt rooted in the believable. The characters were flawed, the politics were brutal, and the combat left no winners — only those who lost less. I worried that the inclusion of more mystical aspects might detract from the foundation Salyards built. I needn’t have worried. The Deserters are awesome and far more fearsome and alien than fantasy standard orcs or trolls. We don’t get to learn much of their culture but we do learn some of their history and their connection to the memory magic. We also get to see them in action and they are a force to be reckoned with.

Salyards writes combat without any frills. There is no glory here. The fighting is fast, frenetic, and frightening. Often times luck influences the course of the battles just as much as skill or numbers. Viewing this all through the eyes of Arki has been a highlight of the series for me. Arki is a writer, not a fighter, and he conveys the bowel loosening terror and chaos unlike any other fantasy narrator I’ve read. Up until this point readers have seen the Slydoon involved in small unit action but this time around we get to witness larger scale conflict. There’s a suitably epic final battle that couldn’t have been easy to write given the limitations of the first person narration.

But as exciting and impactful as the action is it’s the characters of Chains of the Heretic that really shine. By now readers have likely become attached to the bipolar Captain Killcoin and his band of merry murderers. Vendurro is a favorite of mine but I unexpectedly found the prickly Lieutenant Mulldoos growing on me as the novel progresses. Arki’s character development is particularly impressive. Arki has come a long way from the naive small town scribe he was at the onset of his journey, for better or worse. He’s not quite as wet behind the ears any longer. He grasps the cold logic of his warrior companions. He can almost hold his own in a fight. He’s not Syldoon but he’s close enough. Reading Chains of the Heretic I felt an odd pride wash over me to see the man that Arki had become.

Salyards wraps up many loose ends, giving readers a degree of closure, but also leaves the door open to continue exploring this intriguing fantasy world should he decide to return to it at a later date. He makes bold decisions, taking some major risks that a lesser author would shy away from, and in return the payoff is massive. Just don’t expect all of your favorite characters to survive Chains of the Heretic — they won’t. But that’s the fun of the Sword & Sorcery isn’t it?

Son of the Black Sword (Saga of the Forgotten Warrior)
Son of the Black Sword (Saga of the Forgotten Warrior)
by Larry Correia
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.61
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Correia Goes Epic, November 2, 2015
As Larry Correia’s biggest fan I’ve been looking forward to his fantasy debut for a while now. If I remember properly he’s been teasing fans, talking about it on his blog for a couple years now at least. Judging by how incredibly large scale Larry’s urban fantasy and alternate history novels have been I’ve been eager to see what he could do with straight up fantasy. I can happily say that SON OF THE BLACK SWORD will not disappoint the Monster Hunter Nation and it will also likely earn Larry a lot of new fans from the fantasy genre.

Here’s the plot synopsis: After the War of the Gods, the demons were cast out and fell to the world. Mankind was nearly eradicated by the seemingly unstoppable beasts, until the gods sent the great hero, Ramrowan, to save them. He united the tribes, gave them magic, and drove the demons into the sea. Yet as centuries passed, Gods and demons became myth and legend, and the people no longer believed. The Age of Law began.

Ashok Vadal has been chosen by a powerful ancient weapon to be its bearer. He is a Protector, the elite militant order of roving law enforcers. No one is more merciless in rooting out those who secretly practice the old ways. Everything is black or white, good or evil, until he discovers his entire life is a fraud. Ashok isn’t who he thinks he is, and when he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the consequences lead to rebellion, war—and destruction.

Ashok seems like a deceptively simple character. Trained by an order of warrior monks and chosen by the ancestor blade Angruvadal to be its bearer, Ashok is peerless. He is the best of the Protectors, a perfect soldier that carries out orders without question. The massacres he has perpetrated in obedience to the Law have earned him the nickname Black Heart. On the surface he could appear one-dimensional but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that Ashok shares literary DNA with Toru, the disgraced samurai from The Grimnoir Chronicles and Agent Franks from Monster Hunter International–my two favorite Correia characters. Ashok starts out as a tool, a weapon, but this is purposeful. When Ashok’s world is turned upside down by a terrible truth his unflinching devotion to the law serves to really complicate matters for him and everyone else.

There’s a certain humor to Ashok, despite his stoic, no-nonsense attitude (or perhaps because of it). We have a protagonist that believes so fiercely in the Law that he voluntarily turns himself in to the authorities upon committing a crime, imprisoning himself in a jail that could not possibly contain him. He’s not a good man by any means. Over the 20 years he has served as a Protector he slaughtered countless men, women, and children for a number of offenses. And yet this is the man that has been fated to lead a rebellion that will free millions of casteless from tyranny. There’s a prophecy but it’s a nice twist on the typical simple, innocent farm boy who will rise to defeat evil. Ashok has a fulfilling character arc over the course of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD and there’s still much more room for him yet to grow as the series continues.

Correia novels are notorious for ensemble casts of colorful characters–in the case of the Monster Hunter series several of the supporting characters have been so successful as to earn their own spin-off novels (MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA EBR review and MONSTER HUNTER NEMESIS EBR review). SON OF THE BLACK SWORD introduces a handful of potentially amazing characters, though the book would have benefited from giving them a greater focus. A lot of time is wisely spent developing Ashok but the others are given considerably less attention. I’m very interested to learn more about Jagdish the twice-dishonored warrior, Rada the antisocial archivist, Keta the Keeper of Names, and Thera the mysterious mercenary. Regardless, this is only the first book of the series and there is plenty of time and opportunity to further flesh out these characters. I also look forward for more to be revealed about Grand Inquisitor Omand, Sikasso the assassin and their motivations come the sequel. Correia writes some of the absolute best multi-dimensional villains you can find in genre fiction.

Those fantasy readers who have grown tired of white bread pseudo-European settings should rejoice because SON OF THE BLACK SWORD has a very obvious Asian flavor to it (for reasons that are hinted at over the course of the novel). I believe that it’s safe to say that the Writer Nerd Game Night’s Legend of the Five Rings fan fiction has had a major influence on the creation of this world (in the best possible way).

There are lots of fun nuggets of world building. Demons dwell in the ocean and as a result mankind has been confined to land for centuries. Demons occasionally strike forth from the depths and wreak havoc on coastal cities. Only the lowest of the low are condemned to live near water. “Fish-eater” is used as a derogatory term while “ocean” and “saltwater” are used as curses. Another awesome aspect of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD is the titular black sword. Ancestor blades are extremely rare relics. They are the only weapons capable of easily parting demon flesh and bearers have access to the instincts of all those to have wielded the sword before them. These black swords (such as Ashok’s Angruvadal) are the ultimate weapon/status symbol and they are a major driving force of the plot. I will admit that terms like “Inquisition” and “Protector” could have been substituted for something better fitting of the setting but that’s a minor nitpick.

The continent of Lok is ruled, not by a brutal tyrant but instead by an uncaring bureaucracy. Religion and superstition are illegal, punishable by death and the Law dictates every aspect of daily life. A rigid caste system maintains order and at the bottom of the hierarchy are the casteless. These untouchables aren’t even considered human and as a result they are treated as property less valuable than livestock. For hundreds of years the casteless have lived brief, meaningless lives toiling in fear but a Prophet has been chosen and the rebellion ignited. The history of Lok is obscured to all but a select few though myths and legends are difficult to stamp out entirely.

This wouldn’t be a very good review of a Correia book if I neglected to talk about the action. When you open SON OF THE BLACK SWORD be sure to wear a parka because you’re going to be bathed in buckets of blood. With his magical sword and Protector training Ashok is the sort of protagonist to do Conan proud. There’s a running melee through a mountain town between Ashok and an army of raiders at the end of the book that lives up to Correia’s trademark set piece battles. What I appreciate most is that the protagonists are given logical reasons for being able to surviving pitched combat that would fell an ordinary man or woman in moments. It’s fantasy, sure, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unbelievable.

The plotting is as deft as it’s ever been, Correia’s writing only continues to approve with every new release. There are a couple of awesome twists, including one with some major implications that I truly did not see coming. Hints are dropped over the course of the novel relating to the true nature of things but there are a lot of questions in need of answering. SON OF THE BLACK SWORD delivers a fun and fulfilling sword & sorcery tale while setting the stage for something even greater for the sequels to come. Correia thinks BIG and I’m confident that Saga of the Forgotten Warrior book two will serve to ramp up the scale to mammoth proportions.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: I only remember a few minor curses (beyond the made up ones)
Violence: Robert E. Howard levels of violence
Sex: Hinted at but not shown.

The Fold: A Novel
The Fold: A Novel
by Peter Clines
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.66
106 used & new from $3.33

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cinematic Thrills and Unexpected Twists, June 5, 2015
This review is from: The Fold: A Novel (Hardcover)
Review Summary: Part techno thriller, part supernatural mystery, all awesome.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Pros: Unusual protagonist, lots of tension, perplexing mystery, satisfying and well plotted revelations, fun pop culture references, slightly unexpected change of direction.

Cons: Some of the supporting cast such as Neil and Sasha could use more personality.

Bottom Line: The Fold is a cinematic mystery/thriller that is bound to please fans of Clines and earn him many more.

The key to getting this review right will be not giving too much because the fun comes from piecing together the mystery as the story progresses. I can safely say that fans of Peter Clines will be delighted to read The Fold. He is a creative writer with his finger on the pulse of pop culture, and I enjoyed Peter’s superheroes vs. zombies Ex series. Despite this, none of the Ex books quite compare to the twisty, mysterious, thrilling awesomeness of 14, a book that would read like Lost had the show runners known where they were going with the series, and The Fold is a successor to 14, in a number of ways.

The Fold is the story of Leland “Mike” Erikson. Mike has a unique ability, a gift and a curse, that he has spent his entire life trying to ignore, and he has been mostly successful at avoiding his full potential until an old school friend approaches him in need of a favor. Mike initially turns down the request for help, unwilling to unleash his abilities for fear that be might be unable to ever return to a “normal” life. Eventually his curiosity (and a little political maneuvering) get the better of him and Mike finds himself investigating a mystery revolving around what might be the greatest scientific discovery ever made.

The first half of The Fold reads like a Michael Crichton novel but with less technical jargon. I couldn’t help but think back to Crichton’s Prey. Fifty-percent of The Fold is straight up techno thriller. The DARPA researchers have made a seemingly impossible scientific breakthrough — they have invented a device that is able to defy space and time by opening doors across realities. On the surface everything seems fine. The scientists are looking for more government funding, but if the device is able to accomplish what they say it can then soon money will be of no matter. Still, there exists some concern at the lack of oversight the project is receiving. That’s where Mike comes in.

Mike is a fun and unusual protagonist — even the anecdote behind his seemingly ordinary (if misplaced) nickname makes an interesting story. Mike has an eidetic memory — he can recall images, sounds, or objects with high precision after minimal exposure. Because of this, Mike is brilliant without even trying. Doctor Spencer Reid from the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds is a notable example of a character with this ability. While reading The Fold, I couldn’t help but consider eidetic memory to be anything short of a super power. Clines writes this ability in a way that is easy to grasp for those of us that couldn’t remember where we set the keys last night but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to read about. He also succeeds at showing the negative side to having an eidetic memory, and it becomes easy to understand why Mike would want to distance himself from it. It also becomes easy to understand why it makes him the perfect person to investigate the Defense Department’s teleportation/portal project.

Much of the early tension comes from Mike’s status as an outsider amongst a very insular group. The scientists attached to the Albuquerque Door (the name for the portal) have been working together, in secret, for years, and should the project succeed, the group will go down in history as pioneers and heroes. Should the project fail, however, they will be blacklisted by the government and exiled by the scientific community for practicing pseudo-science. They resent Mike because his report back to the program director could see their funding cut, the project shut down, and their careers end in disgrace. It’s obvious from the start that they are hiding something from Mike but he has to discern what?

About halfway through The Fold the novel veers off in a different direction than some might suspect. It’s a direction that I wasn’t totally unprepared for and I believe that fans of Peter Clines will be ecstatic when they figure it out. I hesitate to say much more than that because I’d prefer readers to enter The Fold with as few preconceived notions as possible. The mystery of it all is key, and unravelling it through all the tension and well plotted revelations is a treat. The pacing is near perfect, and I burned through The Fold in a few long sittings. Whereas 14 would work well as a mini-series on SyFy, The Fold is highly cinematic.

Nick Sharps
SF Signal

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
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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.

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: $12.48
65 used & new from $3.74

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: $36.99
63 used & new from $25.60

14 of 17 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 (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2015 11:31 AM PDT

Predator One: A Joe Ledger Novel
Predator One: A Joe Ledger Novel
by Jonathan Maberry
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.00
73 used & new from $1.95

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


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 Series Book 1)
The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braids (Amra Thetys Series Book 1)

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does Not Read Like Self-pub Fiction, March 21, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
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

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