Escape Velocity, by Jason M. Hough

Escape Velocity, by Jason M. HoughThis is the second half of and conclusion to the Dire Earth duology that began with Injection Burn. This duology itself is also a follow up to the Dire Earth cycle, a trilogy of novels published a few years back. I haven’t read the Dire Earth cycle novels, but these books do a wonderful job of filling in any gaps that may be present for readers new to the series. I never felt like I was missing anything, but undoubtedly there are little character details that are probably improved by a more complete understanding from having read the trilogy.

If Injection Burn was basically “get there”, Escape Velocity is very much “get it done and get home in one piece”. It hits the ground running at the same breakneck pace established in Injection Burn, and never really hits pause. At the end of Injection Burn our characters have been forcefully separated, thrown in different directions by their AI ship in a last ditch effort to accomplish their collective goal. We have three main group POVs to follow, each fighting for survival on a hostile alien world, trying to find each other, trying to gather their bearings and figure out how to do what they need to with nearly everything (even the air) trying to kill them.

It’s a great conclusion to this story, but leaves the universe open enough for more. I’m particularly interested in what may come after this. There’s a lot of potential for some really interesting far future Earth society stuff, as well as more information about some of the alien societies present here.

Jason M. HoughI was introduced to Jason M. Hough through his fantastic sci-fi spy thriller Zero World a couple years back, which I absorbed (and need more of! Don’t be shortsighted Del Rey, make it happen). It was the most original science fiction novel I’ve read in a long while. He writes really straightforward prose that gets out of the way and lets the fun flow straight to the brain. You often forget you’re reading a book, instead you’re just experiencing the story. It reads so effortlessly.

I’d recommend these books for fans of the The Expanse novels for sure. They’re very much written in a similar style: huge, narratively driven ideas, delivered in a fun, highly-readable package. Like classic era science fiction for a new generation. Blockbuster page-turners with great characters, adventure and thrills. These are great summer reads.


Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

A high concept Space Opera full of huge ideas; instantly readable, and a hell of a lot of fun. I have been reading a bunch of really heavy non-fiction lately and this was just the right fun SF to break out of that over the last few days. It’s been such a ride reading this.

I am extremely impressed with the pacing of this novel. It builds and builds and builds, and just never lets up. A real page turner like James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, but exploring loftier themes similar to some of those covered in Iain M. Banks’ The Culture novels. I’m a big fan of both, so this resonated with me on nearly every level.

Jason M. HoughThe cover is extremely action/military Scifi looking, and there is a lot of that toward the end, but I’m extremely happy that it’s not just an action story. There is a lot of classic, high concept, creative idea science fiction going on here as well. If you’ve read last year’s fantastic Zero World, you know this is something that Jason M. Hough is particularly fantastic at. At the risk of diverging a little here, I’m just going to say that Zero World needs a lot of sequels. It’s absolutely crying out for them.

This book is technically both the fourth Dire Earth novel, and the first in a new duology. I had previously read about the first hundred pages of The Darwin Elevator, the first Dire Earth novel, and couldn’t really get into it. So, I was only slightly familiar with the concept of the series going in, but never felt like I missed anything. I’m happy to report that this could absolutely be read without having to read any of the other Dire Earth books first; I have a feeling there are some small moments of payoff for longtime fans of the series sprinkled throughout though. I’m always really impressed with books that are both standalone, and a part of a larger series like this. That takes some serious writing chops to pull off, which Jason M. Hough obviously appears to have.

It is definitely half of a much bigger story, and ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Thank god that Del Rey is publishing them less than a month apart. I think I would lose my mind if I had to wait much longer than that to finish this narrative. Del Rey, if you’re reading this, please send me a copy of Escape Velocity ASAP. I kind of need it.

Injection Burn is out now, and the follow up Escape Velocity will be out June 27th.

 

Skyler Luiken and his ragtag crew of scavengers, scientists, and brawlers have a new mission: a long journey to a distant planet where a race of benevolent aliens are held captive behind a cloud of destructive ships known as the Swarm Blockade. No human ships have ever made it past this impenetrable wall, and Skyler knows not what to anticipate when they reach their destination.
Safe to say that the last thing he expects to find there is a second human ship led by the tough-as-nails Captain Gloria Tsandi. These two crews and their respective captains initially clash, but they will have to learn to work together when their mutual foe closes in around them and begins the outright destruction of their vessels along with any hope of a return to Earth.


D’Arc, by Robert Repino

D'Arc, by Robert Repino

This sequel to Mort(e) picks up right where we left off and then propels itself forward. It feels like a few different genre novels married to each other: A western, a murder mystery, and an action/adventure story. I’ve always enjoyed that approach in speculative fiction. You take something fantasy or scifi, and write a story in that world from a different genre.

I thought it did a great job building up a mystery, while expanding on the mythology and worldbuilding quite nicely. In some ways it’s also a coming of age novel; a moral tale about choosing your own path, and writing your own story.

Robert RepinoRepino’s writing is extremely clean and tight. It reads effortlessly, and never gets in the way. Simple declarative sentences lay it all out for the reader. When the story really starts to get going, it’s almost like the writing entirely disappears, and you’re just… in it. I have to applaud him for that. I’m not even sure how one accomplishes something like that, but it’s impressive.

There was some fun closure for secondary and tertiary characters from the first novel, particularly Wawa. I really loved her arc in this. She was one of the better developed characters in Mort(e), so it was nice to see her get something good to chew on again in this one.

The last third, and the conclusion to the story didn’t really work for me. Early on there were a few big questions that were set up, and a great antagonist built through his own POV chapters, but those questions were mostly sidestepped, and the antagonist just fizzled out. I suspect that there will be more novels that may resolve my questions, and in fact, there was quite a bit of setup for what may be coming next. I have to admit it sounds very interesting. The world really is ripe for more stories.

All in all, it’s a fun continuation of the story that began in Mort(e), but it feels much less it’s own thing, and more an interstitial chapter in a continuing saga; something that needed to happen before the next part can occur. I’m still very excited for that next part though!

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

I’m notoriously picky, and it’s hard to find something that checks every one of my boxes: worldbuilding, prose, characters, and story. Usually I’ll find something that hits 2 or 3 of them; a great story, written well, but with weak worldbuilding or characters. Or a top notch world, with vivid characters, but only serviceably written. Void Star nails them all. It’s true literary Speculative Fiction, and a rare find.

It not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Zachary MasonInstead we have three main POVs, which build the narrative like three avalanches, accelerating as they accumulate, eventually converging violently and spiraling out in interesting and unexpected directions. The chapters are very short, often only five or six pages, seventy-seven chapters total in just under four hundred pages, which makes it really approachable. I would often sit down with not much time, intent on only reading a chapter or two, but the short chapters gave it a forward momentum that made it difficult to put down. The conclusion satisfies immensely, and I have a strong feeling that it’s even better on subsequent readings. If I didn’t have a few novels and novellas I still need to read before the Hugo vote this year, I would reread this one right now. I’m considering it a strong contender for the Hugo or Nebula awards next year. I do think it’s a little better suited for the Nebula though, as that award usually embodies novels with terrific prose.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jumpstart your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

The worldbuilding is so thorough: favelas that are nearly alive with their continually evolving construction by drone, layers of society and culture, poverty and wealth all clashing at their intersections, powerful corporations pulling strings, artificial intelligences that are as distant from us as we are to bacteria. It’s near(ish) far future, but the tech isn’t all state of the art. It’s presented in a much more realistic way; the way things have always been. You might have some tech that is cutting edge (your phone, or tablet, etc), but you still interact with other bits of technology that are nearing their obsolescence (maybe you drive an old carbureted pickup truck, or an antique motorcycle, maybe you use an ancient fax machine at work). In this world there is tech that is still far in the future for us, but to the characters using it, it’s a bit obsolete. This small detail makes all the difference in my suspension of disbelief as a reader, and makes this world that much more comprehensively thought out and impressive.

I love novels that tell a huge, satisfying science fiction story in a relatable world like this. Highly recommended.


The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

There is something tragically romantic about lighthouses: The structures themselves stand watchful and solitary, a beacon of warning and assistance to those at sea. The broad scope of protection proffered by one individual toward so many others. It makes the profession of lighthouse keeper appear selfless, but in my mind it’s more symbiotic than that. I imagine a lighthouse keeper as someone who strives to be useful, but requires isolation the way others require companionship. Introspective in a world that forces continual socialization; the job facilitating a way for them to achieve fulfillment while maintaining the functional distance they inherently need. I imagine them as superheroes in a way. Working alone in the dark for the betterment of humanity, but if they’re really being truthful, they do it for themselves more than anyone else. I’m obviously taking a lot of liberties here, but it’s how I’ve always imagined that world and those who inhabit it.

As far as I understand, modernity has mostly removed the need for lighthouse keepers, relocating that profession to an era of the past. This only adds another layer to the romance and tragedy for me. Basically, this is a long winded explanation of why I am inexorably drawn to stories featuring lighthouses, or lighthouse keepers, and what a story this one was.

We have two main points of view nested within each other: A third person narrative of a lighthouse keeper on a particularly cold night, reading a parcels worth of letters written by his somnambulant predecessor, each detailing a dream experienced during his sleepwalk events. These personal accounts are where the bulk of the story is contained, and in my opinion, where it really shines. The third person interludes between the dreams felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. I wanted something more introspective from these sections. However, I do believe the context in which they reside would change on a subsequent reading, so that may be a rash judgement on my part as a reader.

Lars Boye JerlachThe story itself has some strong elements of Paul Auster’s style of storytelling. Mystery upon mystery. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical realism. In his dreams, the somnambulist momentarily inhabits the bodies of others (or sometimes Poe’s raven Nevermore). Some of these characters are historically known to him, others are known to the lighthouse keeper reading the somnambulist’s accounts, and others still, aren’t known by either (but should be apparent to the reader of this book itself). There are a few fun surprises here as you become aware of who is being inhabited, and the way that these characters relate to each other. The somnambulist is unsure whether his dreams are genuine experiences, premonitions, or merely dreams. It’s really a clever story structure; each additional dream sequence adding to the mystery and intrigue as the story unfolds toward its conclusion.

The writing style took some time to become accustomed to. The whole book is double line spaced, there are almost no first line indentations, and the author has an on-again/off-again relationship with paragraphs. It feels like a stylistic choice, and I’ve seen it before, but I’m still unsure of the reasoning.

The Somnambulist’s Dreams is postmodern literature with a capital P. Which I’m all about, but have to be in the right kind of mood to properly enjoy. When it comes to postmodernist writing like this that is more ontological, paradoxical, etc, I find it often helps me if I know that that is what I’m getting myself into from the start. The gorgeous cover artwork and synopsis communicate this quite nicely. Every thread may not pull itself together into a pretty little bow in the end, but that’s part of the appeal; it’s the journey, not so much the destination with this kind of novel. I enjoyed this for the type of presence it cultivated while being read, not so much the definitive conclusion or ending that a traditional story builds toward. That’s not to say that The Somnambulist’s Dreams doesn’t conclude in a satisfactory way, it does. It’s just that it’s a bit of paradox in itself, which to me can be infinitely more interesting when it’s handled with grace like this.