Off the Bookshelf: Late Summer ’13 Reading

For the first time since high school I may actually finish my summer reading list, or at least hit the 90% mark. Of the 17 novels, graphic novels, and audio books on my 2013 reading list, I’ve completed 14.

Four of the books, and all of the graphic novels, were read during a two-week vacation on Butler Island in Lake Champlain: Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey, With the Lightnings by David Drake, Conventions of War by Walter Jon Williams, Guardian by Jack Campbell. I also put a serious dent in a fifth book, Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon, which I finished in August.

I completed two of the audio books on my list — The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell and The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny — as well as a third that wasn’t on the list: The Wine-Dark Sea by Patric O’Brian. I even started a 4th book: The Nova War by Gary Gibson.

I’ve got three print books left: On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington) by David Weber, The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson, and The Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. The Bowl was carried over from my winter list.

Unfortunately I don’t think I have enough time to knock out all three of these by Labor Day, but I might be able to do it by the time autumn starts on September 21.

The Good Stuff

The best book on my list was Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey, which wasn’t surprising given the how much I enjoyed his first two books in the Expanse series. This time around the alien virus from the first two books has succeeded in building a stargate. Humans, being humans, naturally go through the gate.

Unlike the first novel, which was about the discovery of the alien protomolecule and saving the Earth from its rampant mutations, or the second, which was about humans trying to turn the protomolocule into a weapon, the third is about how humanity tries to reconcile the seemingly murderous alien technology with our place in the universe.

Religion plays a surprisingly large role in the book. In retrospect it’s only surprising because religion really hadn’t come up in the first two novels, but this one is about humans trying to come to grips with their new reality, and religion — for good or ill — has always played a role in that.

Second best was With the Lightnings by David Drake. Inspired by the Aubrey/Mautrin books by Patrick O’Brian, it follows Daniel Leary, a lieutenant in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy and Adele Mundy, a librarian who finds herself caught up in a military coup on the world of Kostroma. The book takes longer to get going than Master and Commander, with far more focus on the political scheming following the coup as well as the guerrilla tactics that Leary engages in to take back the capital of the usurped world. The final third of the book is when things kick into high gear, with the expected space battles and Leary’s ascension through the command ranks. It was good enough that I’m looking forward to reading Book 2.

The Meh Stuff

Jack Campbell has a problem: he doesn’t want his characters to loose. Guardian, the latest book in the Lost Fleet series, sees Admiral John “Black Jack” Geary bringing his exploratory fleet home after a successful mission to explore beyond the edge of human-controlled space. He does so with a massive alien ship, the Invincible, in tow. To do so he has to pass through space controlled by his old enemies, the Syndic.

Unfortunately at this point there is no battle that Black Jack can’t win. Even when the Syndic come up with a cunning plan (and invent the term “planetary shotgun”) the admiral avoids it. It’s not that he doesn’t have the potential for setbacks — his ships are actively falling apart around him, his allies are scheming to put him on the throne, and his political enemies are secretly constructing a new fleet to oppose him — it’s just that he never, ever loses.

This is in sharp contrast to Jack Aubrey in the Master and Commander series; Aubrey had the nickname “Lucky Jack” because he did so well in battle and took so many enemy ships as prizes, but at the same time he had serious setbacks: ships destroyed by icebergs, crippling debt that nearly landed him in prison, being kicked out of the Navy and forced to work as a privateer, etc. Some of these setbacks took two or three books to resolve; if Black Jack does encounter a difficulty, he usually triumphs in a few chapters.

I still enjoy the series, and I think the next book has potential since it will likely pit Black Jack against his own government, but I wish Campbell would throw in some more adversity.

Conventions of War by Walter Jon Williams was a strange book. It’s the concluding book in the Dread Empire’s Fall series, in which an galactic empire experiences a civil war after the last of its alien founders die. I was expecting a series of starship and ground force engagements between imperial and rebel forces, but what I got was … a murder mystery. The shift in tone and plot hurts the series, which ends on an uneven note.

Reading Upgrades

I’ve read almost all of my summer books on my Kindle Touch. It’s served me well, but I am considering an upgrade. The new Paperwhites have significantly higher contrast than my Kindle, and have the added benefit of having a backlight mode. It’s comparable in price to my Kindle and would make late night reading on the island (where there is no power, and no illumination save for some kerosene lamps and flashlights)