Off the Bookshelf: Altered Carbon, The January Dancer, Dreadnaught, In Death Ground

I’ve been able to make a serious dent in my summer reading list over the last few months, knocking out four books in two months.

Given how busy work has been, that’s not to bad. Of course, it helps that I was on vacation for 10 days, which allowed me to knock out two of the books (Dreadnaught, In Death Ground) and most of a third (The Shiva Option, the sequel to In Death Ground).

The 8-hour road trip to get our vacation spot also allowed me to make a serious dent in the audio version of The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian, one of his Aubrey/Maturin novels about naval warfare in the early 1800s.

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan was a pretty intense read, full of noir shadows, cyberpunk dystopia and twisted humanity. Former U.N. operative turned detective Takeshi Kovacs has been hired by a man to discover why that man killed himself. It’s a potentially confusing concept, but makes perfect sense in Altered Carbon, where people are able to “re-sleeve” themselves into new bodies. In this case, Kovacs’ employer is a rich man who woke up in a new body to find the old one had been killed … and that he was apparently the one who pulled the trigger. Kovacs has to find out what really happened.

It’s a twisted mix of cyberpunk and noir that made for a compelling read but it made me long to return to the friendlier skies of space opera.

The January Dancer

I picked up The January Dancer by Michael Flynn hoping for a good space opera novel. I got one — though it’s space opera primarily insomuch as it handwaves much of the complexities of FTL and spawns several stellar (if human) civilizations) — but what the book reminded me most strongly of was Isaac Asimov’s work. Like some of Asimov’s best books (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun) this book is a mystery powered by a set of science fictional rules.

At first glance (and second and third) the Dancer — an alien artifact recovered from a long-derelict museum — seems like nothing more than a MacGuffin, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear there’s something else going on here. The book doesn’t end with a bang; there’s no Death Stars exploding, no mighty clash of galactic fleets — but it’s satisfying all the same.

The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnaught

The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell. That’s a hell of a title isn’t? But when you’ve got a seven book series called “The Lost Fleet”, you don’t really want to lose that branding when you launch a new series.

The continuation of the Lost Fleet series starts off slow as Black Jack Geary wades through political landmines and scheming Syndic CEOs to get on to his real mission: confronting a shadowy enemy menace.

The pace isn’t the book’s biggest problem though – that lie in the fact that Geary’s hasn’t face a significant challenge – or made a costly mistake – in 500 pages or more. That lowers the series’ trademark tension considerably. I’m hoping well see some truly notable, Geary-worthy challenge in subsequent books.

In Death Ground

In Death Ground by Steve White and David Weber draws inspiration from Heinlein & Niven for a tale of galactic invasion by bug-like aliens. I enjoyed the “better mouse trap” arms race depicted between the humanity-led federation and the all-consuming Bugs, but the writing can be dry in places as the action reads more like a battle report, and less like a novel.

There are a few notable, and well-fleshed out, military characters, but these tend to be admirals or other high-ranking characters. The book occasionally switches to the point of view of grunts, but not for long; more of that would have helped break up the battles-turned-butchers’ bills.

The book’s non-military characters are almost uniformly portrayed as opportunistic, political buffoons who stand between the military and their job of defending humanity. The political could have added some real drama to the book, but the homefront vs. battlefront tensions never materialize.

In Death Ground is a decent book, and it scratched that military SF/starship battle itch I’ve had all summer. Military SF fans should enjoy it, as should anyone who’s spent their weekends playing marathon sessions of Starship Battles or Battlefleet Gothic should love it.

The Letter of Marque

The Letter of Marque is book 12 of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical naval fiction. This book picks up where the last one — Reverse of the Medal — left off. British Navy Captain Aubrey has been stricken from the naval list after being convicted of manipulating the stock markets. It’s a crime he didn’t commit, and one that friends know he’s incapable of. While a brilliant officer when it comes to naval combat, he’s completely lost when it comes to matters of finance and business.

In this book he commands his old frigate, the Surprise. The antiquated vessel was purchased from the British Royal Navy by Aubrey’s good friend Steven Maturin. Maturin’s also secured a letter of mark that allows the Surprise to prey on French shipping in the name of the king. While Reverse of the Medal was largely procedural in nature, dealing with Aubrey’s trial and the conspiracy against him, The Letter of Mark returns to the action/adventure themes of earlier books in the series.

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