A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson: A Review

It was not hard to find a book to fit Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #20, a book set in space. I love science fiction, and my shelves are full of books that qualify. I ended up choosing A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson, book one in the series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Someone in my book club stumbled on this series and presented it to the rest of us as a really fun read. We even made arrangements for the author herself to come to one of our meetings, and so this book jumped to the top of my space book options.

In this series opener, we meet Ia, a precog who is plagued by visions of the future where her home world is devastated. In order to prevent this from coming to pass, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military. This first installment encompasses Ia’s enlistment, initial training and her first tour of duty.

There is a lot of world building involved in this first book, and I had some difficulty getting into the story. Still, it is well written, with a great deal of realistic detail, especially in regards Ia’s basic training experiences. I think the bigger payoff will be in the remainder of the series where the story can develop further on this foundational world building.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet Jean Johnson in person and talk with her about her books and her experiences as an author. I look forward to reading the rest of this series and more by Jean Johnson. Besides this military sci-fi novel, I also had the opportunity to check out another of Johnson’s series – a paranormal romance series, the Sons of Destiny. This series is also a lot of fun.

Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown: A Review

On ATY’s 2019 Reading Challenge list is prompt #18, a book related to one of the elements on the periodic table. I’m not sure how, because it’s been on my TBR for quite a while now, but Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown, didn’t immediately come to mind. When I finally thought of it, it seemed so obvious. Just one element off the periodic table? Why not two?

I read the first trilogy – Red Rising, Golden Son and Morning Star – a couple of years ago, before Iron Gold was released. I was eager to read Iron Gold immediately but it wasn’t available, of course. By the time I finally got back to this book, I was a little afraid it wouldn’t hold up to the first trilogy. I shouldn’t have worried.

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, writing this review proved difficult without inadvertently spoiling something from the original series. If you haven’t read the first trilogy, you might consider avoiding the rest of this post.

Iron Gold takes place ten years following the events of the first trilogy. The uprising Darrow helped to initiate has had consequences across the galaxy. Peace remains an impossible dream, and Darrow seems willing to do just about anything to bring an end to the war.

Just like the first series, this book doesn’t let up. The action is relentless. In this book, Brown has introduced other voices. The story isn’t told exclusively through Darrow’s first person perspective, but includes three new voices. This broadens the scope of the story considerably, as we get to see the events through the experiences of other people.

I loved this book as much as the first series. I’m excited to see where Brown will go with this story next.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick: A Review

For the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge #16, a book with a question in the title, I chose to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I have long been wanting to read more classic science fiction and fantasy, and this book was the first that came to mind when I set about looking for books to read this year.

This book is the future, post-apocalyptic story of Richard Deckard, a bounty hunter who tracks down and “retires” rogue humanoid androids. Due to massive nuclear pollution following a world war, most humans have been mass emigrated to Mars. Many animal populations have died off entirely. Android technology is so advanced, they are nearly indistinguishable from humans. Therefore, elaborate psychological tests have been developed in order to identify them.

I found this book a little confusing, but interesting. It’s a short book, and maybe that is part of my difficulty with it. It has more of a short story feel than a novel. I think it could have benefited from a bit more world-building details.

Published in 1968, the imagined technology is fun to read about. By the year 2021, we have hover cars, vid-phones (that aren’t mobile), and androids so life-like they can’t easily be distinguished from the real thing. Aside from the androids, the technology in this book actually has a sort of archaic feel to it.

This was a fun book, and I enjoyed reading it.

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff: A Review

For the 2019 Reading Challenge, a book with no or unusual chapters, I chose to read Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This book joined my to-read list sometime last year after seeing it discussed frequently on Goodreads. The premise had me intrigued…

This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra – who are barely even talking to each other – are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

To be honest, though, I was a bit daunted by what I’d heard about the format of the book. It is an epistolary novel, told through IM messages, military briefings, emails, transcripts and so on. My experience with this sort of novel hasn’t been that great so far.

This book tells the story of Kady Grant and her ex-boyfriend, Ezra Mason. They live on a planet which is an unsanctioned mining operation. It is invaded by a rival corporation and thus begins a massive chase as the survivors flee through space, pursued by the invaders. Besides this pursuit, they are beset by internal issues as well. Such as an AI system that took damage in the initial attack and a mutating virus spreading quickly through the refugee fleet.

Because of the book’s format, you are never directly involved in the action. But I was never disengaged from this story. It is intense. The suspense is executed superbly, and the characters feel real and relatable. This book had me at times furious, terrified and devastated. In a word, thrilled. I am definitely continuing with this series!

Valor’s Choice, by Tanya Huff: A Review

For the 2018 Reading Challenge prompt #27, a book set on another planet, I chose to read Valor’s Choice, by Tanya Huff. Tanya Huff is another writer I came across when I was researching women writers from various genres, times and places. I used to have a rather snobbish attitude toward science fiction and refused to read it, sure that I would not like it in the least. I’ve since decided a more open-minded approach is much better.

Valor’s Choice is the first in a series of military science fiction novels centered around the main character, Torin Kerr. Torin is a Staff Sergeant in the Confederation marines – a group of planets joined together by treaty. She has just returned from a particularly devastating planetfall, in which her platoon suffered many casualties. Before their well-deserved shore leave is over, however, Torin is ordered to assemble as many of her team as possible and report for a new mission immediately. This mission is supposed to be an easy, diplomatic mission. But it turns out far different than what anyone expected.

Huff has created an impressive variety of alien civilizations, each with their own distinctive biological and cultural attributes. I loved the interactions between the characters. There is a realistic feel to the military language and action which drives this story. I really enjoyed this book, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr: A Review

When I first went through the list of prompts for the 2018 Reading Challenge to see what, if anything, came to mind for each one, I was struck by #11, a book with a female author who uses a male pseudonym. I knew instantly I wanted to read something by James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree showed up on my list of must-read science fiction writers, so this was an easy choice.

In my search, I ultimately decided on Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a short story anthology of some of Tiptree’s best work. Originally published between 1969 and 1981, the stories contained in this anthology encompass a range of ideas and themes. There are aliens on Earth and humans on alien planets, space travel, time travel and futuristic scenarios. Many of the stories contain feminist ideas. I noticed, too, that much of Tiptree’s writing has a rather pessimistic outlook on humanity.

My favorite story is probably “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” This story jumps back and forth a bit in time as it progresses, and this drives the tension up. Surprise follows surprise until the end of story. The writing is superb.

There is also “The Screwfly Solution” that kept me reading to the end in a sort of horrible fascination. And “The Man Who Walked Home” about an experiment that’s gone horribly wrong. These, and many of the stories will keep the reader guessing right up to the end.

All the stories are written with vivid imagery. They really come alive off the page. This book is amazing, and I loved every bit of it. I’m pretty sure I missed the deeper messages within some of the stories, but they still kept me completely spellbound, I needed to keep reading. I will read these stories again.

Shattered, Part Three

(To catch up, read Part One and Part Two)

ANDREÚ

From the moment I met her, I loved her. How could I not? She was beautiful and strong. She was everything I never knew I needed. But always, there was her twin, Marcel. The two of them shared an Empathic bond closer than any I’d ever heard of before. There was no getting through that.

I am Andreú. I am a Beast Empath, with bird-sight. I saw this war coming days before anyone else knew the Jut’ma were anything more than legend.

When the battle with the Jut’ma began, I tried to stay close to Jana. She had attached herself to Marcel, of course. The battle was even more brutal than we’d been told to expect. I fought back against the mental onslaught of the enemy Empaths, pushing back their attacks even as I launched my own.

I don’t know how I’d managed to get separated from Jana and Marcel, but suddenly I was surrounded by Jut’ma invaders. The wall of soldiers around Jana was being cut down. Jana fought as fiercely as I’d ever seen her fight. Only two more soldiers remained fighting at her side. She and Marcel would be cut down next. I had to get back to them.

I shoved my thoughts against the Jut’ma surrounding me, feeling the bond with their own Empath snap with the ferocity of my attack. Two fell to their knees, their hands clasped to their heads, faces contorted in agony. Another dropped his weapons and fled heedless back into the battle. Only one remained standing, weapons raised against me.

As I fought my way back toward Jana and Marcel, I saw her go down, an enemy sword thrust into her side. I tried to call out to her, but there was too much noise.

By the time I reached her side, Marcel had stepped around her toward the battle. I felt the earth tremble beneath me, but my focus was only on Jana. Blood stained her leather jerkin. She coughed foamy red spittle as I lifted her into my arms. Her pain filled gaze met mine.

Andreú.”

Shh,” I said, cradling her close, my hand seeking the wound in order to stop the bleeding. “Don’t speak. I’m here, love.”

I’m sorry.”

Jana, don’t—.”

Andreú, listen.”

She coughed again. I could feel the warm, wetness of her blood on my hand, on my legs. I wanted to beg her to be still.

I’m sorry,” she said again once the coughing subsided. “I didn’t… want… hurt you.”

I leaned in closer to catch her words, my face almost touching hers. My tears ran openly, dripping onto her cheek, creating red-tinged rivulets.

Marcel… Andreú, please.” Her hand came up to my face, her touch as light as butterfly wings. “Take care… of him. He… needs… help.”

Jana, I can’t take your place.”

I love you, Andreú.”

Jana. No.”

Her hand fell limply back to her side. I watched the light fade from her eyes. I felt her last breath like a final kiss goodbye on my cheek.

I had thought it painful before when she’d refused me for the second time. But this, my heart had been ripped from my chest, still beating, and crushed by the cruelties of fate. I held her to my chest, completely heedless of the war still raging around me. For the moment, even her last request could not rise above my grief. There was only this raw, bitter pain.

It wasn’t the noise or the shaking that brought me back to myself. It was more the absence of those things. Jana’s eyes stared sightlessly beyond me, and I gently brushed my fingers over them to close them forever.

When I finally turned my attention to Marcel, I was shocked at what I saw. The earth had been rearranged while I was lost in my grief. Marcel stood a bit above me on an outcropping. We were on what could only be described as a pillar of stone. Other than the slightly raised area where Marcel stood with his arms over his head, the top was sort of flat, like a table. The place where Jana’s body rested in my arms was slightly indented, as if the earth cradled her form.

I gently laid Jana’s body down in the little hollow. It appeared to have been made for just that purpose. With her last words running through my head over and over, I scrambled over the still trembling ground to where Marcel stood.

I thought about what I needed to do. Jana had shared a bond with Marcel. She told me once, they’d always been bonded. Now, with her death, he would be lost, adrift. Perhaps more so than most Empaths. His uniqueness already set him apart. As badly as I was hurting right now, I had no idea what he must be going through.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to make the bond without his knowing what I was doing. I had to make him see me. To do that, I had to move around in front of him. I clambered around beside him so that I stood on the edge of on the tiny raised platform. Almost immediately, I was beset with vertigo. The stone outcropping looked down into a deep gash in the earth. Far below I could just make out what appeared to be water. There was no river here this morning. What had Marcel done?

Across the canyon a mountain range had been thrust up from the depths. What had once been low hills receding into the northern wastes was now tall peaks that should have been covered in snow. Scattered across the slopes I could just make out the bodies of the armies, both the Jut’ma and the Bangorans.

I turned my attention to Marcel, turning away from the mass destruction all around us. He and I could have been the only two people left alive in the whole world. He stood rigid, his hands fisted above his head, a snarl locked on his face. He didn’t turn when I touched his arm. He made no indication at all that he recognized my presence.

Marcel.”

I spoke his name softly, afraid of startling him and sending both of us tumbling to our deaths. He still didn’t acknowledge my presence.

There wasn’t much room where we stood, but I maneuvered myself so that I stood directly in front of him. Wind blew through the new canyon, ripping at my clothes and carrying the scent of death. I felt I would be torn from this peak at any moment. Or shoved off by Marcel. One misstep, and I would fall.

He had to see me. I took hold of his face, forced him to look in my direction. At last he looked at me. What I saw in his eyes frightened me far more than anything I’d already seen. In his gaze I saw a deep pit, full of darkness and chaos. I had to put an end to this. For Jana. I had to help him.

I knew Marcel didn’t like me very much. Though we were once friends, the feeling was mutual. But now was not the time for old disputes. For Jana’s sake, I needed to set that aside.

Marcel,” I said again, with more force this time. “Do you see me?”

I needed for him to know what I was about to do. I couldn’t bring myself to force his mind like so many unscrupulous Empaths had done to others, destroying innocent minds.

Marcel. You are going to have to trust me.”

I grasped his head firmly in my hands, and gave it the tiniest shake. His arms came down suddenly and he grasped the front of my tunic. My foot slipped, nearly sending me over the edge. I held steady, meeting his mad gaze.

For Jana,” I hissed through my teeth. “Let me help you.”

His hands tightened on my clothes. His gaze held mine. The dark madness didn’t change.

Jana,” he said at last.

Yes, Marcel. For Jana.”

As I watched, a saw just a flicker of lucidity. There was the tiniest sense of a plea so desperate, I took it for the answer I sought. I opened my mind to his.

Reeling through time and space. Reality had no meaning. My mind shattered into a thousand shards of brilliant, white light. It was an agony like I’d never known. I was lost, swallowed by the madness. I could hear voices everywhere. The voice of the earth beneath my feet, of the river far below, of the wind all around me. I was sure I could hear even the voices of the dead crying out in accusation.

But maybe it was only my own voice. In that swirling darkness I could no longer be sure of anything.

I may have fallen to my knees. I may have taken hold of Marcel and driven him backwards. I only knew pain for a very long time. An eternity of madness.

Stop!” I screamed at the voices. “Look at what you’ve done!”

No!” The voice screamed back at me. “I did not kill her.”

She is dead!” I cried. “Dead.”

They killed her! They killed her!”

I reached for the tiniest scrap of memory left to me. A face. A beautiful face. Even in the madness, her face remained true.

They killed her!” The other voice sobbed again.

This agony I recognized. This pain matched my own. The pain of losing that beautiful face forever. I held to that familiar pain, and slowly pulled myself back together.

I had no way of knowing how long I struggled against the madness. It might have been only an hour, or it could have been days. I wrestled it with all my strength, clinging to my memory of Jana as to a lifeline.

In the end, I think it was Marcel himself who brought us back. Using me as his guide he gradually began to pull away from the wild voices.

Afterward we lay there on the stone weeping. Marcel had moved away just enough that we were no longer locked in our bitter embrace. No longer physically connected, perhaps, but our minds were now as one.

I felt the enormity of his earthspeak gift. I could hear the voices of the wind, the water, the earth. I was aware of other voices as well.

Marcel moved to sit beside Jana. He lifted his sister into his arms and cradled her against his chest, his body rocking gently as he held her. I remember what she had told me before, could it have really only been a few days ago? How she had tried to explain to me what it was like to be bonded to her brother, to carry the burden of his gift.

I hadn’t understood then, though she’d tried to make me see. I recognized it now. How every moment for Marcel was a battle to remain intact, a desperate, constant struggle not to shatter into a million pieces.

I could feel his grief, his rage, like they were my own. Indeed, they were my own. I could feel his madness tugging at my mind toward the darkness.

(c) 2018 T. A. Hampton