Review of Overdraft by John Jackson Miller

February 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Overdraft by John Jason MillerOverdraft: the Orion Exclusive
By John Jackson Miller, Read by Luke Daniels
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / military sci-fi / stock market / aliens /

Publisher summary:
In the twenty-second century, humanity has journeyed to the stars, and found them open for business. And when it comes to protecting that business, Chief Bridget Yang and Surge Team Sigma—her squad of heavily armed space marines—are up to the task. Unfortunately, Jamie Sturm is one problem they can’t just vaporize. When Jamie’s financial schemes bankrupt their expedition, Bridget and her crew refuse to let the rogue stock trader walk away. To save their jobs, the soldiers drag him out from behind his desk—and onto a seemingly hopeless mission to the frontier, seeking to open the most dangerous parts of the Orion Arm to trade. But in turning over every alien rock looking for profit, the hapless trader and his reluctant protectors uncover something that endangers humanity itself.

You should read this book. You should read this book if you like adventuring soft SF. You should read this book if you like funny adventuring soft SF. You should read this book if you like funny adventuring soft SF that doesn’t take itself too seriously. So, should you read this? Only you know. Choose, but choose wisely.

The premise of Overdraft is rather underwhelming. A greedy twenty-second century stockbroker is caught before his insider trading pays dividends. In a strange twist, the stockbroker is forced into trying to earn one hundred billion dollars in one hundred days by selling wares to aliens. In the twenty-second century, Earth has joined a galactic syndicate based on the buying and selling of goods. Imagine a door-to-door salesman in space. Throw in power-armor wearing bodyguards who dislike the stockbroker, and you get a plot that seems like it should just fizzle and blow away. But it doesn’t!

Of course, anytime you try and slap funny onto SF, you know what happens. Inevitably, it always draws comparisons to that author with the alphabetical-friendly last name. We all know the writer I’m talking about. If you don’t, don’t panic! All I’m saying is that it’s not fair to forever compare humorous SF to the work of Douglas Adams. Adams is in his own galaxy. So can we please, please, oh please stop trying to measure all prospectively humorous SF to Douglas Adams?

John Jackson Miller delivers a fun space adventure that follows a fairly tight point-to-point storytelling. It never tries to be bigger/more than it is, and for this I am grateful. I thought the beginning drug on a little. I also didn’t feel the double agent was necessary to the plot, if anything it detracted from the story by injecting unneeded complication, but perhaps this is merely character maneuvering for future works in this series.

Luke Daniels narrates the audiobook. It was my first time hearing Daniels read and I admit to feeling some early trepidation. I soon stopped doubting Daniels. He brings each character to life with such subtle grace that his voice becomes the story’s voice. When this happens, when a reader just “becomes” what they are reading, it’s special.

If you can watch the original Get Smart television program without griping that it’s not James Bond, I think you’ll like this book.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

Review of In Enemy Hands by David Weber

December 30, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

In Enemy HandsIn Enemy Hands (Honor Harrington #7)
By David Weber; Narrated By Allyson Johnson
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 20 hours

Themes: / military sci-fi / prisoners of war / tree cats / torture /

Publisher summary:

Honor Harrington has survived ship-to-ship combat, assassins, political vendettas, and duels. But this time, Honor and her crew, ambushed and captured, are aboard an enemy ship, bound for a prison planet aptly named ‘Hell’ – and her scheduled execution. Yet the one lesson Honor has never learned is how to give up. She and her people are going home – even if it means conquering hell to get there!

Weighing in at nearly twenty hours, In Enemy Hands is the seventh volume in the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. If you’re new to this series, I highly urge you to start at the beginning with On Basilisk Station. This is solid military SF and if you can overlook the unnecessary info-dumping that Weber appears to frolic in at length, this is outstanding stuff.

The action scenes are crisp and well presented. And while there are a few ship-to-ship battles, most of the action occurs hand-to-hand. Weber does a pretty nice job at teasing tension out of the story but when he shifts into exposition, and this happens far too frequently, the earlier tension is lost and the reader is left to flail about in the sudden slackness of superfluous narrative. You know that person who talks and talks for no other reason than they like the sound of their own voice? Yeah, this is how it feels when you hit one of these info-dumping spots of Weber. But if you can tough it out and just grit your teeth, you’ll be rewarded with a fun and exhilarating military SF story with believable characters that you can root for.

Allyson Johnson narrates this audiobook, and all I can really say about her reading is that it is tolerable, but just barely. I feel a good reader should become the story rather than assuming the role of performer. If I listen to a book and am consciously aware of the narrator, the reader has failed. Not once was I able to focus on Weber’s story without being painfully aware of Johnson’s jarring and awkward rhythm. It felt as if she, Johnson, wanted to convince anyone who was listening that she “could” do the job of reading. Too many narrators try too hard to do their job when all they really need to do is read, just read, nothing more. It’s like climbing up a really tall ladder. Everything will be fine so long as you just climb. You only get into trouble when you start thinking about climbing.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

Review of Conquest by B.V. Larson

October 8, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

ConquestConquest – (Star Force #4)
By B.V. Larson, Performed by Mark Boyett
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hoursThemes: / aliens / military sci-fi / fighting bugs / machines / invasion /

Publisher summary:

Conquest is the next chapter in the great interstellar war between all living creatures and the machines. Star Force must stop the machine invaders once again – but how? In the fourth book of the Star Force series, Kyle Riggs has freed Earth from the chains of the Macros – but at what cost? The Macros no longer trust him. He is a mad dog that must be put down – and all Star Force must be stamped out with him. The war expands in this story, and mankind is once again faced with annihilation.

Conquest is the fourth book in the Star Force series by B. V. Larson and, while it continues the well-established tradition of this series for thrilling military action, it also brings several of the flaws of the series into sharp focus.

Over the course of the previous three novels in the Star Force series, Kyle Riggs has made some bad calls. He has sworn Earth to provide troops for a dangerous enemy, ordered thousands of his troops to their deaths, and cast aside strategic alliances with little thought to the long-term consequences of his actions. Throughout it all, I continued to root for Riggs and the rest of his band, even as I questioned his actions. Now, though, I can’t help but wonder if Star Force is the right team for the job.

Of course, they never were supposed to be the first best choice. Riggs and Crow, the co-leaders of Star Force, were plucked from their homes by brutal machines and only came to command the most technologically advanced army in human history because they managed to survive a brutal series of tests, so it should come as little surprise that these two often resort to brute force to solve their problems. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that these two men were woefully unfit for command when the first few chapters of this book consisted of little more than a super-powered grudge match between them. Riggs, as the narrator and protagonist, does his best to justify his actions to the reader, but many of his arguments can be boiled down to, “I did my best, but I’m not really a soldier.” Meanwhile, Crow is written as a chameleon who repeatedly vacillates between careless pirate and brilliant strategist, with little to no transition between.

One might expect that the return of the giant Macro robots would bring some unity to Star Force, or at least some sound strategic planning, but it doesn’t. Instead, Crow runs away (as usual) and Riggs comes up with some brilliant modifications to the Star Force battle equipment, then fails to use them to their potential (as usual). The one piece of brilliant strategizing that Riggs does manage to pull off, which results in the Macros focusing their attacks on Star Force’s home base rather than assaulting the entire planet, backfires spectacularly when he forgets the lessons learned in his previous fights against both the Macros and the Helios Worms. Riggs knows the Macros are underground, but makes no plans to defend against an attack from below. He gives his troops the ability to fly, but rarely uses that to his strategic advantage. Mistake compounds mistake until only nuclear weapons and convenient force-field failures can save Earth.

Apparently I am not the only one dissatisfied with the leadership of Kyle Riggs, as the author included a subplot of ongoing assassination attempts in Conquest. Obviously, I won’t say who or what was behind the attempts, but I like to imagine that there was some level of symbolism to B. V. Larson’s decision to introduce this plot element. I have to wonder if maybe there is some chance that, by the time he reached this book, Larson had realized that Riggs needs to develop further as a leader and a character.

Mark Boyett does an admirable job narrating this series, navigating the wide range of accents with ease. I did think, as I listened, that I caught a few errors, but I am more inclined to believe that these were missed during the editing of the book, rather than introduced in the recording of the audio. At a running time of just over eleven hours, spanning ten CDs, the book is just long enough to tell the story of the second invasion of Earth without overstaying its welcome. I plan to continue reading this series, but I truly hope to see some growth in strategic thinking from Riggs, or I could see myself beginning to feel sympathetic towards Conquest’s failed assassins.

Posted by Andrew Linke

Review of Rebellion by B.V. Larson

August 29, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

rebellionRebellion (Star Force #3)
By B.V. Larson, Performed by Mark Boyett
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours

Themes: / aliens / military sci-fi / fighting bugs / machines /

Publisher summary:

Rebellion is the turning point in the great interstellar war between all living creatures and the machines. Star Force is on the side of the machines – but for how long? In the third book of the Star Force series, Kyle Riggs learns just what kind of war Earth is caught up in. At the mercy of the Macros, his marines fight against new alien races, big and small. They battle the innocent and the vile alike, until their situation becomes grim.

Rebellion is the third novel in B. V. Larson’s Star Force series starring computer science professor turned interstellar marine Kyle Riggs. It stands on its own better than the previous novel, Extinction, but I would still recommend reading the previous books first as the plot throughout the series thus far has been mostly linear. In Rebellion, Larson takes his Star Force formula, throws in a couple new atomic grenades, and keeps blasting right along with the story of humanity’s fight against alien machines known as the Macros.

Given the title, it should come as no surprise that in this novel Kyle Riggs leads the battered remnants of his Star Force marines in a rebellion against their Macro masters. His reasons for this are many, but the decision point comes when he discovers that, while the Macros are scrupulous in abiding by the letter of their agreements, they have no compunction in their networked silica minds against taking advantage of every loophole in an agreement. In this case, they use Riggs’s nanotized marines to attack a race that had failed to include a prohibition against indirect assault using mercenaries in their peace treaty. Riggs concludes that the Macros will employ similar tactics against Earth and the near future and determines that it is better to restart the war now. On his own terms. With only five thousand men. With no way of alerting Earth.

Draw your own conclusions about Kyle Riggs’s big-picture tactical planning capabilities but, as in the previous novels, it is hard to fault his individual decisions in the heat of the moment. Indeed, I’m starting to wonder if Larson intends his hero to be an object lesson in the difficulty of making good choices under stress.

The structure of the Macro / Nano division continues to frustrate me. I’m beginning to accept that Nanos can not simply swarm a Macro and take it apart, though this acceptance is less for any logical reason than just because it continues to not happen, even though there are specific scenes of destroyed Macros being disassembled by Nanos and reprocessed. Perhaps my worst gripe along these lines for Rebellion is the revelation that Macro ships are difficult to pilot because the cockpits are built for pilots with seven arms. Now, I’ll accept that there is some sort of fundamental programming element that requires all Macros to be large, but when their entire command structure is built on networked parallel processing, why aren’t the ships just built into that network? There is simply no reason for the Macros to have physical ship controls, any more than there is a need for their ships to have pressurized compartments.

All complaints aside, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rebellion features more, and far more interesting, revelations about the Star Force universe than its predecessor. The best of these are the emergence of a new machine intelligence and Sandra finally coming into her own as a character. This new intelligence starts off as little more than another of the nanobot “brain boxes” that Riggs uses in every aspect of his military. Riggs names the over-achieving brain box Marvin, in what I can only hope is an unacknowledged tip of the hat to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the interactions between Marvin and the human characters are probably the best part of this novel. As for Sandra, she spends half the novel in a coma, then wakes up just in time to reprise her roll as Riggs’s shallow, hot-tempered girlfriend. Literally her first action after waking up is to punch another woman for kissing Riggs in a moment of desperation. Fortunately, Sandra seems to blow most of her daft behavior allocation in that first moment as, with the help of some sentient microbes who have been tortured into assisting Starforce, she quickly evolves into a strong, self-motivated character.

Development of characters other than Kyle Riggs has been a weakness for this series from the beginning, and Rebellion does little to change this. Other than the introduction of Marvin and the growth in Sandra, the only supporting characters to see a change are Jasmine, who develops a crush on Riggs, and Kwan, who gets a girlfriend and learns a few new English idioms. But you don’t read Star Force novels for character development or fully coherent plot. If you are a fan of fast-paced science fiction featuring liberal quantities of bloody, laser-scorched human versus robot combat, Rebellion will quench your thirst for action.

The audiobook narrated by Mark Boyett has the usual quality of production and performance. Three books into the series, I do have to admit that I am starting to get annoyed by the accents of characters other than Kyle Riggs, as it seems that any human character who merits a name also has an accent. Mark Boyett does a fine job with his reading, and I do appreciate that B. V. Larson is attempting to show the global nature of Star Force, but the continual shifting of accents and genders from a single male reader grows tiresome after about six hours.

Posted by Andrew Linke

Review of Crown of Slaves by David Weber & Eric Flint

August 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Crown of Slaves by David Weber and Eric FlintCrown of Slaves (Honorverse: Wages of Sin #1)
By David Weber & Eric Flint; Narrated by Peter Larkin
Publisher: Brilliance Audio (Audible 2009)
[UNABRIDGED] – 20 hours

Themes: / military sci-fi / slavery /

Publisher summary:

The Star Kingdom’s ally, Erewhon, is growing increasingly restive in the alliance because the new High Ridge regime ignores its needs. Add to that the longstanding problem of a slave labor planet controlled by hostile Mesans in Erewhon’s stellar back yard, a problem which High Ridge also ignores. Finally, the recent assassination of the Solarian League’s most prominent voice of public conscience indicates the growing danger of political instability in the League – which is also close to Erewhon. In desperation, Queen Elizabeth tries to defuse the situation by sending a private mission to Erewhon led by Captain Zilwicki, accompanied by one of her nieces. When they arrive on Erewhon, however, Manticore’s most capable agent and one of its princesses find themselves in a mess. Not only do they encounter one of the Republic of Haven’s most capable agents – Victor Cachat – but they also discover that the Solarian League’s military delegation seems up to its neck in skullduggery. And, just to put the icing on the cake, the radical freed slave organization, the Audubon Ballroom, is also on the scene – led by its most notorious killer, Jeremy X.

Multiple articulated segments valiantly strive to give shape to this story.  At times they move in joint cooperation and at others, they do not.  This coauthored book is the first in what is being labeled the “Honorverse” series.  It is said that it will launch an exciting new telling that… I’m sure you get the idea, or at least the idea that the publishers and Weber might wish you to have.  The story appears simple at the surface.  We encounter issues of slavery, the incessant pursuit of power, ill-conceived notions of political philosophy,  religious ranting, and a whole lot of exposition.  Yes, this seems simple, right?  And to some degree it is.  But a recipe merely listing the ingredients does not guarantee a tasty delight on the tongue.  Or in this case, the literary palate.  David Weber is a talented writer.  Unfortunately Weber’s skill is not on display in this book.

First off, I don’t like writing reviews wherein I simply dump on an author’s book.  It is easy to criticize something and all too often we tend to focus on the negative more than the positive.  As I indicated, David Weber is a gifted writer in the military science fiction genre.  His first volume of the Honor Harrington series On Basilisk Station is a fine read.  But this book lacks Weber’s eye for craft.  The sheer tonnage of exposition in this book is staggering.  I’m not a fan of the information-dump, and I am especially not a fan when you are strapped down and force-fed it until your eyes glaze over.  Flint and Weber’s ability to provide the reader with a strong foundational understanding of the rationale behind all character and political motivation is stunning.  In many ways this book has the feel and tonality of a history book.  You learn who did what and then why.  This knowledge then is the underlying cause for the action of a character that you will now be told about.  And perhaps this is my core issue.  I felt as if this story was told to me and not shown.  If this had been a lecture about lectures, it would have been more interesting than this book.  Aside from massive droughts of exposition, flat characters, and shoddy dialogue, come the issue of adverbs. If you are reduced to using adverbs in dialogue attribution in order to tell the reader how someone says their lines, it is up to the editor to politely ask (demand) the author to rewrite.  This book is full of adverbs and awkward transitions between metaphors and similes that are rarely rendered well.

Peter Larkin serves as narrator.  And while his performance is better than I’ve heard in the past, he still injects far too much drama into his reading.  His interpretation of youthful characters is distracting at best and downright irritating for the most part.  Larkin doesn’t fall into the pitched cadence reserved only for air traffic controllers but comes dangerously close on several occasions.  If Larkin can set aside the idea of performing and just read, he’ll do well in the business.

The musical score at the beginning and end of each CD is too long, too dramatic, and distracting to the extent of making it difficult to hear the narration under the music.  In this case, a little goes a long ways.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

Review of Extinction by B.V. Larson

August 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Extinction by B.V. LarsonExtinction (Star Force #2)By B.V. Larson; Performed by Mark Boyett
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours
Themes: / aliens / military sci-fi / fighting bugs /

Publisher summary:

Earth’s Star Force Marines invade an alien world! In the second book of the Star Force series, Kyle Riggs has another bad year. The Nano ships have a new mission – one that sentences their pilots to death. Meanwhile, the governments of Earth want to steal Star Force’s Nano technology for their own. Worst of all, Earth has made a promise to the Macros, and the machines are coming to collect. Extinction is the story of Earth’s entry into an interstellar war between living creatures and machines. To buy the peace, we’ve signed up with the machines.

If the first book of B. V. Larson’s Starforce series set humanity at the center of a conflict between Replicators and Terminators, this second entry sticks with that mostly successful formula and improves on it with a healthy dose of Starship Troopers. Kyle Riggs remains the protagonist and narrator of the story and all the important characters from the previous novel return and see some development. The plot of Extinction can be broken into five major acts, which for the purpose of this review I will call Return to Earth, Independence, Exploration, Growth, and Fighting Bugs.

The Return to Earth portion of the story brings Kyle back from the confrontation around Venus that ended Swarm. It essentially serves to reintroduce readers to his character and give some nods to character development. Gone is the mild-mannered university professor of the previous novel. Riggs has been transformed by his experiences in South America and around Venus and is now a hard as nails military commander. Larson devotes just enough time to the deaths of Riggs’s children and the other horrors of Swarm to show that his protagonist still has a human side, despite being enhance by a body full of nanites.

The portion of the story that I think of as Independence finally brings some serious political intrigue to the series. I know that this is Starforce, not Game of Thrones, but it’s nice to see some consideration given to the big picture. In addition to establishing clear political relations between Starforce and the nations of Earth, this second portion of the novel develops the relationship between Riggs and his sometimes-commander Crow. Sandra is back as well and, while Riggs still appears to treat her as little more than a sex machine and foil for exposition, the author at least gives Sandra more freedom to act. She even surprises Riggs a few times throughout the story by taking initiative in difficult situations and pushing him to make the right decisions.

The Exploration and Growth portions of the story race by as quickly as the year of plot time that they encompass. Larson pulls in more elements from the science fiction cannon in these sections, with star gates, inertial suppression (or the lack thereof), and the difficulties of negotiating with artificial intelligences all adding their flavors to the story. Little can be said about this portion of the story without giving away the plot points, so I’ll just say that if you like fast moving exposition about strange planets and alien technology, this part of the story is a great read.

Everything in the book builds up to the final portion of the story, which can be summarized in two words: Fighting Bugs.

The alien enemies in this portion of the story are truly alien, even if we have seen similar creatures from other series, and they give the Starforce marines a good fight. Thousands of nanite-enhanced marines and machine gun-toting aliens are slaughtered on the altar of audience entertainment in a bloodbath of storytelling that rivals the plot of Starcraft. If that sort of action is what you are looking for, then this book will be exactly your cup of energy drink. On the other hand, this section of the book does have a distinctly video game feel to it, as Kyle Riggs slogs neck deep through the blood of literally thousands of other humans and aliens as they are slaughtered all around him. Sure, readers need a hero with which to identify, but at some point you stop caring about Kyle Riggs as a character and just assume that he will survive any situation to get the reader to the next battle.

I think that this book should mark the decision point for readers. Two books into the Starforce series, Larson has clearly established what sort of story he is telling. If you like this particular brand of military scifi, you’re going to get your fill. Larson does little to expand on already existing science fiction tropes, but like a very talented Lego artist, he continues to stick these already existing elements together to build new stories that are quite cool, even if the edges are a bit rough and the construction materials easily recognizable.

The production quality of this audiobook was excellent. Mark Boyett provides the perfect narration for a character who still retains elements of his former life, but is slipping deeper into his role as a cold-hearted commander. The CD version I listened to comes on ten discs, each of which begins and ends with a short musical cue. I started to find the narration a little slow in parts, so about three hours in I set my iPod to double-speed and was much more content. Don’t take this to mean that the narration is too slow. I think it is perfect, as the standard speed is just right for people who are new to audiobooks and long time listeners like me can double it with little distortion.

Posted by Andrew Linke

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