Jokers Wild, edited by George R. R. Martin

jokerswildDisgusting Alien Powers Used to Abuse Little Kid.
Juvenile Delinquent Uses Ace Powers to Aggravate City.
Aggravate?  Can’t I at least terrorize?
Maybe when you’re older.
-Conversation between Kid Dinosaur and Doctor Tachyon

Of this set of Wild Cards books, this is the one I found most enjoyable.  While the first book set the stage, and the second one had a theme, Jokers Wild is a mosaic novel, with all the storylines occurring simultaneously.  The only books that I’ve read that surpasses this one in blending multiple authors into a seamless story were the Star Trek collaborations (which covered all the television series in separate books except for Voyager).

Jokers Wild’s major plotline picks up from a plot from Fortunato’s stories.  The Astronomer, the mind behind the coming of the Swarm (or at least so it’s popularly believed) has decided that he’s going to finally repay all the aces that smashed his base of operations in the Cloisters-by killing all responsible, saving Fortunato for last.  He’s gathered a number of aces to give him a hand with it-although one notable exception who doesn’t want involved again is Demise.  That decision puts him up at the head of the list for the Astronomer.

The timing of the Astronomer’s rampage couldn’t be worse.  The date is September 15, 1986, the fortieth anniversary of the day the Wild Card virus was unleashed on Earth.  Wild Card Day has become New York’s version of Mardi Gras.  And there’s a lot more happening than just the Astronomer’s work.  A young thief going by the name of Wraith has stolen a pair of notebooks from a Kien Phuc (don’t laugh-it’s really his name!), and one of those notebooks is far, far more valuable than it looks.  This leads a number of individuals hunting for it, not the least of which is the most infamous archer in the city.

In the meantime, a mysterious organization is moving in against the Mafia, looking to take over organized crime in the city.  Rosemary Muldoon, an assistant DA and mafia princess, and her ace friend Bagabond become involved with that, while their mutual friend Jack Robicheaux tries to catch up to his niece Cordelia, who’s just run away to NYC-and she becomes involved with a bunch of the events of this book.

And just to keep things interesting, other characters are heavily involved in the assorted plots, such as Doctor Tachyon, Hiram Worchester-the owner of the restaurant Aces High-and his friend Jay Ackroyd, a character who I really enjoy reading!

This was, in my opinion, the best of this trilogy.  While there were some hiccups due to the number of writers, the story tended to blend well-characters from multiple stories interacted with each other seamlessly, and the tone of each character was maintained by all the writers.  There’s plenty of intrigue-as evidenced by Wraith and the notebooks, Demise in his attempt to make a living (not in a nice way) while evading the wrath of the Astronomer, and the Astronomer’s work to have each of the aces who ruined his plans killed.  And there’s enough action to satisfy-from a confrontation in Aces High to a fight in the sky above New York.

If the reprints stop here, at least Jokers Wild ends at a decent enough note-it’s a good stopping point for those who don’t want to continue paying the overpriced re-releases.  But if so, I’d still recommend hunting down remaining Wild Card books at used bookstores (or even online), because it gets better.  After all, this is a book series that isn’t afraid to do in characters (which will become abundantly clear), which sets it apart from the reset-button mentality of other super-hero genre novels (Batman, Spider-Man, etc).

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Jarka Ruus, by Terry Brooks

jarkaruusWhat is she like?
You’ve spent time with her.
Not very much.  not enough to know her well.  She doesn’t let you know her well.  She keeps you at a distance.
She does that even to me.  I can tell you that she lives with her past more than most.  She’s haunted by it, Penderrin.  She hates who she was and what she did as the Ilse Witch.  She would do anything to take it all back and start over.  I don’t think anyone understands that.  The Druids mostly think she hasn’t changed all that much, that once you have the kind of magic she does, you don’t regret anything.  They think she’s the same underneath, that she just masks it from them.
-Penderrin Ohmsford and Tagwen

You know, creating the Third Druid Council seemed like a good idea in concept….  But in the latest offering from Terry Brooks, Jarka Ruus, it seems that this noble goal has a few unpleasant realities attached, and they are about to come around and bite the High Druid.

Twenty years have passed since the return of the Jerle Shannara; twenty years where Grianne Ohmsford, once known as the malevolent Ilse Witch, has worked to fulfill the charge laid upon her by the Druid Walker Boh.  Grianne has done what he could not-she has formed a new Druid Council, an organization of learning of both magic and science (mostly magic).  Unfortunately, she’s also made a great deal of enemies in the process.  The Elves don’t like her:  she conveniently kept Walker’s fate from them when she returned, and once the Elven King found out, he wasn’t too well disposed towards her-and neither was his son.  The Federation remembers her well as the Ilse Witch.  The greatest potential danger, however, comes from within the Druid Council itself.  Too many people want her to step down as High Druid-willingly or not, and some are not choosy as to how healthy she is when she is removed.

The plans of one Druid are about to come to fruition:  one night, Grianne disappears-and the Druid Council suddenly undergoes a semi-hostile takeover.  Grianne’s most trusted aide, the Dwarf Tagwen, flees the Druid stronghold of Paranor to find the only man who might be able to find her-Grianne’s brother, Bek.  Who he ends up finding, however, is Bek’s son, Penderrin.  An encounter with pursuers who want to close off loose ends, as well as the intervention of a very familiar character to Shannara readers, sends the two on a journey to find a way to rescue Grianne from a fate that none have suffered since ages past.

Those who have followed the saga of the Ohmsfords will find much familiar to them; this is hardly the first time that a young Ohmsford has had to go on a quest that fairly drips with magic.  This time around, the quest is more personal than epic-instead of saving a race or a nation, Penderrin’s out to save his aunt.  Unlike the previous books, though, the primary antagonists are Druids.  Each of the Druids involved have various motives for wanting Grianne out of the way:  one of them remembers when she was the Ilse Witch, and joined the Druids to keep an eye on her, and he believes that the Four Lands still holds her past against her-and that’s hanging around the collective necks of the Druids.  One hates her for the humiliation that, really, she brought upon herself.  And one hates her because she wants the High Druid’s power and position.  But to keep things even more interesting, it appears that someone is moving behind the scenes, manipulating the players in the drama for very different ends….

There’s a number of additional characters who show up in this book as well.  For example, Ahren Elessedil is alive and well, and living in the Westland; his niece, Khyber, is very interested in the Druidic arts, which puts her most definitely in conflict with her parents’ plans for her.  The Rovers are also represented in this book with the father/daughter airship team of Gar Hatch and Cinnaminson (which is a bit of a mouthful); lest you be deceived by happy memories of the last book’s group of Rovers, keep in mind that not all Rovers are nice; think of the Rovers in Elfstones of Shannara, and you may get a better idea.

But the best parts of the book are the parts I can’t really go into without really spoiling some of the good stuff, but all are related to Grianne and her fate.  There are a pair of really great moments that had me thinking “Oh, this is so not-good”!  Suffice it to say that she has never been in this bad a position, not as a Druid, and not as the Ilse Witch-or even before that.  I was also really happy about some of the little things that tie this book to past books, between the return of the deadliest hand weapon in the Four Lands (and it isn’t the Sword of Leah), and the continuing presence of the most famous Elven magic in the series-especially when it isn’t used as a weapon but in its other aspect.

And just what is Jarka Ruus?  Well, I’ll give one hint:  it’s not a person.  But as a book, I have to say I liked Jarka Ruus.  It doesn’t have the same feeling of dread and danger that the Voyage of the Jerle Shanarra (well, not yet), but it does have a similar feel to the earlier Heritage of Shannara; and as it has a somewhat smaller cast than past books, it feels a little more focused as well.  I hope this continues on through the next book in this series.

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3001: The Final Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

3001And because, in all the Galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere.  They became farmers in the fields of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped.
And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.
-On the Firstborn

3001:  The Final Odyssey, continues and concludes the Odyssey saga.  Unlike the other three, this is very much a character driven book, as opposed to plot driven.  While there are events occurring, it’s really a book on where humanity may be a thousand years from now.  (I guess Clarke didn’t want to have history roll over his speculations this time!)

The story opens with the recovery of an astronaut frozen in space (possibly just beyond the solar system); amazingly enough, it is the body of Frank Poole (lost in space since the first book)!  Poole is revived, and begins the long process of becoming acclimated to the many changes in both Earth and the rest of the solar system, including the fact that there’s a new sun out there!  But eventually, he discovers a desire to complete a mission started a thousand years ago, and return to Jupiter (well, Lucifer now).  Of course, ever present in these books are the monoliths, and the mysterious purpose behind them.

Clarke spends a good deal of time exploring Earth in this book, or at least some of what must have been many changes in the past one thousand years.  Clarke’s Law certainly applies here, where any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Poole finds himself frequently surprised by the changes in both technology and society in general-and for the most part, all are positive developments, even though the path to get here has not always been smooth.

It’s in space, though, that the real fun begins.  Poole’s return to this region of space begins a race against time, as he encounters-beyond expectations-a pair of old friends (?), and discovers that a long delayed message is about to arrive, one with potential terrifying consequences….

In many ways, I liked this book.  It’s not action oriented at all, though, so folks who want that better look elsewhere.  I enjoyed reading about the advances in technology and the way that technology changed humanity for the better (although some of the advances aren’t my cup of tea, but then, I’m a thousand years behind).  The finale almost disappointed me, although I won’t spoil anything here-it seemed almost prosaic, and it soured me on the book…until I read the last page of the story.  Pointlessly cruel to toss that page in there on the Final Odyssey!  (heheh)

All in all, though, it’s a good wrap up to the Space Odyssey books, and closes the book on the story of the monoliths.  Much thanks to Arthur C. Clarke for writing these books!  They were good reads, especially for someone who was once very interested in astronomy and what might be out there in the stars.

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Condemnation, by Richard Baker

condemnationWhat did you mean about that last bit?  About the betrayal?
About each of us betraying someone?  Why, I couldn’t begin to guess.  It’s the nature of magic to offer cryptic predictions like that, threatening little riddles that you have little hope of solving until it suddenly becomes obvious that the event you feared has come to pass.  If only one of us doesn’t have some shocking act of treachery to pull off in the near future, I must say I’d like to know who’s sleeping on the job.  He’ll tarnish our reputation if he’s not careful.
-Jeggred and Pharaun Mizzrym

Our merry band of dark elves have had a time of it in the previous book.  The Spider Queen remains silent (and it has become more and more obvious to the reader why), and a drow city has fallen in a rather spectacular fashion, and now they’re in the last place they want to be-the surface.  Now, they need to seek out the only lead they have to find out why Lolth has seeming withdrawn her favor from the drow.  Unfortunately, there’s a number of turns along the way.  In the meantime, things are moving in Menzoberranzan, as the usual intrigues are mixed with the plans of Nimor Imphraezl, the Anointed Blade of the Jaezred Chaulssin-who is manipulating dark elves, gray dwarves, and fiends to a single goal:  the destruction of Menzoberranzan.

Condemnation picks up right where Insurrection left off, as the “envoys” of Menzoberranzan are in the desert of Anauroch with a couple of additions to their group-Halisstra Melarn and her battle-captive, Danifae, both formerly residents of Ched Nasad before its effective demise.  It doesn’t come as a surprise that the pair have their own motivations, which evolve a great deal (especially in Halisstra’s case) in the course of this book.  With them in tow, the crew of Pharaun, Ryld, Quenthel, Jeggred and Valas travel all over-from the deserts of Anauroch, to a city of the gray dwarves, to the doorstep of the Spider Queen’s realm.  Along the way, they have to deal with not only the various assorted challenges along the way, but also with the rampant distrust that colors their entire culture in microcosm.

A very significant amount of space in the book is also dedicated to Nimor’s work.  We finally get a good look at just what mortal forces are stirring things up in Lolth’s absence.  The Patron Fathers of Chaulssin, City of the Wyrmshadows, seem to have managed a conspiracy that stretches across at least three cities of the drow (well, two now…).  Admittedly, they seem to have gone a little too far with Ched Nasad, but they see that with Lolth’s absence, they’ll never have a better opportunity to change the nature of the drow forever.  Nimor himself manages to set into motion the fall of Menzoberranzan, with allies both outside of the city, and within it-and some of those allies are powerful enough to give even the Archmage of Menzoberranzan pause.

As far as Quenthel’s gang goes:  well, it’s nice to see that some things remain constant.  While the constant bickering between Pharaun and Quenthel is nothing new, we’ve now got the Ched Nasad contingent in the mix.  I wasn’t all that surprised to see that the two are doing their best to find a way to make themselves valuable to Quenthel; I also wasn’t surprised that Danifae also had her own ideas of her future, which preferably not include Halisstra-who is in the process of having trouble figuring out her own future in light of the continuing divine silence.  Valas is beginning to look like the most rational character there, followed closely by Ryld-although Valas does find himself in a rather ticklish situation later in the book.  It’s not always good to know more than a priestess of Lolth….

The pacing of the book feels just right, too.  There was only one portion of the book that felt a little rushed, but it’s at the back end of the book, just before the final leg of the journey.  The book switched at the right times between our group of drow protagonists and the work of Nimor and his allies-never seemed awkward.  And the final chapters of the book make it clear that while our “heroes” have reached an important destination in their trip, more questions remain.  Condemnation moves things along nicely, and makes it clear that this series isn’t so much a war of the Spider Queen as much as it is a war against her-and the outcome of this war is still very much in doubt.

(Talk about not being sure who to root for…!)

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Rising Son, by S. D. Perry

risingsonA Herald, unforgotten, but lost to time, a Seer of Visions to whom the Teacher Prophets sing, will return from the Temple at the end of this time to attend the birth of Hope, the Infant Avatar.  The welcomed Herald shares a new understanding of the Temple with all the land’s children.  Conceived by the lights of war, the alien Avatar opens its eyes upon a waxing tide of Awareness.
The journey to the land hides, but it is difficult; prophecies are revealed and hidden.  The first child, a son, enters the Temple alone.  With the Herald, he returns, and soon after, the Avatar is born.  A new breath is drawn and the land rejoices in change and clarity.
-A portion of the prophecy of the Avatar

He has been a reporter and a writer.  He is close friends with the son of the Grand Nagus.  He’s seen the horrors of war, experienced the thrill of accomplishing a feat once performed by the ancient Bajorans, and acquired an extremely rare baseball card for his father just before the Dominion War.  He is the son of the Emissary.  And now, he is the star of his own book.  Jake Sisko has been missing in action ever since the events of Avatar, and not a peep had been heard from him until the very end of Mission Gamma.  The question has been hanging out there for quite some time now.  Now, the author who stuck Jake in the wormhole in the first place chronicles just what he’s been up to since in Rising Son.

As the reader may recall, Jake had read a prophecy that seemed to hint at the return of his father, Ben Sisko (former commander of DS9) from the Celestial Temple in time for the birth of his child-and it further indicated that Jake would have to go and get him.  So he took a shuttle and went into the wormhole near the station to do just that.  Unfortunately for Jake, he forgot one of the rules of prophecies (and really, as a writer himself, he shoulda known this one):  no prophecy is as straightforward as it sounds.

The novel opens up with Jake in a bad spot.  His shuttle is a mess, and he’s about to die-worse yet, he knows it.  He does, however, managed to get extremely lucky.  He is rescued before he succumbs fully to hypothermia (although it’s a close thing) by…well, a rather interesting group of characters in the Gamma Quadrant..  Their ship is called the Even Odds, and its crew consists of a hodge-podge of a number of Gamma Quadrant races, both familiar and new (and a couple of Alpha Quadrant races who have in the past had cause to be there).  They spend their time, as their captain Dezavrim put it, “looking for trouble”.  They’re a group of fortune-hunters, salvage experts, and retrievers, and their activities have gotten the attention of the Dominion (although things are pretty quiet with them lately).  And because they do business, they don’t really have the time to immediately ferry Jake back to the Alpha Quadrant.  And that begins a trip unlike any Jake has taken before, both physically and emotionally-and drives him to a meeting with destiny.

Where to begin?  Well, first, let me say that it was a distinct pleasure to open the first page and see the return of the first Gamma Quadrant species that the crew of DS9 had ever encountered.  It only got better from there:  the entire novel is sprinkled with exclusively Gamma Quadrant references.  For example, the war with the Dominion was known as the “Quadrant War”; the folks on the other side of the Anomaly (that’s the wormhole, for those who didn’t know) can be referred to as “Alphies”, and we meet again at least two other races known to exist in the Gamma Quadrant-races unaligned with the Dominion!  There’s even a brief segment that shows that the whole Gateways storyline had at least a little impact on Jake’s journey.

Then there’s the crew of the Even Odds.  Dez is the most interesting of the bunch (hey:  he’s the captain!  What’d you expect?), but Perry also has some other interesting crew members as well-such as Sraal, a life-form that interacts with machinery in a rather unique way; Pifko, who is certainly the most enthusiastic member of the crew; and Arislelemakinstess, a character I still haven’t been able to wrap my brain around (it doesn’t help that the character is actually kind of five characters, only one of which actually talks).  But it is Dez who takes an early personal interest in Jake, seeing perhaps a chance to be a better father to Jake than Dez’s father was to him; of course, he has to walk carefully, as he’s dealing with Jake’s memories of his own father, as well as the “Starfleet sensibilities” he was raised with.  The ship itself is an interesting one, as it has been patched together over time, and includes a portion of a subdeck that tends to migrate around (not to mention change size-although the ship itself doesn’t alter in size or shape).

But  make no mistake:  while the new characters and their ship are interesting, this is Jake’s story.  In the television series, we never really got to know Jake as well as I’d have liked; we knew he liked to write, and that he loved his father; he was best friends with Nog, and got along well with the entire crew of DS9.  Perhaps Jake didn’t even know himself that well, either-but in Rising Son, Jake manages to grow into a new role, at least for a while (in fact, he manages to overcome one of the more unpleasant episodes in his life in his time on the Even Odds).  And while I had a good idea of the end result from Mission Gamma and having seen the cover of this book before that, it was fun to see exactly what Jake Sisko was up to for the months he was missing; and the climax of the book will add a new dimension to the Bajoran religion as well (and I’m not talking about the obvious).  The Deep Space Nine saga continue to roll on, and Rising Son does a great job on advancing the DS9 storyline, and that of Jake Sisko-I sure hope that we haven’t seen the last of him in future books, because he does a respectable job as his own character here.

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Captain Nemo, by K. J. Anderson

nemoWhat one man can imagine, another can achieve
-Jules Verne

There was a time when science fiction didn’t mean outer space battles, or exploration of worlds beyond the farthest stars.  The earliest days of science fiction could be said to have taken place on Earth.  Jules Verne is one of the most celebrated authors of that time; Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea20,000 Leagues, in fact, has Verne’s best known antagonist, Captain Nemo.  And Nemo is the star of a new book bearing his name.

The book works of an interesting premise-Captain Nemo was real; Andre Nemo is a friend of a young man named Jules Verne, and is his rival for the affections of Caroline Aronnax.  The pair of friends come from different backgrounds-Jules from a family of wealth, and Andre from poverty.  But Jules is the dreamer; it’s Andre who acts on his dreams; in fact, the early pages of the book details Andre’s work on a prototype diving suit.

Events start moving fast when Andre’s father dies in an accident, and he is forced to seek his own destiny on an English ship sailing around the world.  This event starts Nemo on adventure after adventure; most of these adventures later serve as the inspiration for Jules Verne to write his famous novels, changing names as needed.  As time passes, Jules and Caroline move on with their lives, as Nemo is given up for dead.

I picked this book up on a lark, honestly.  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read any of the classics, and Captain Nemo gave me an excuse to revisit that time for a while.  Kevin Anderson has managed to do a credible job on recreating that time, while populating it with the fantastic events that Nemo keeps running into.  The pacing of the book felt a little slow, but I’ve probably been spoiled by the modern day sci-fi books; again, the pacing fits the time that this book is set in.  Some readers may not be thrilled by the lack of action in this book.

The characters besides Nemo are not exactly heavily fleshed out; the most significant thing about Jules and Caroline is that they fit the loose triangle together.  While romance is involved in this book, it isn’t exactly a major theme.  Other characters have a transitory feel to them, as Anderson covers a lot of books in a single novel.  We do, however, get a good idea of the character of Andre Nemo, and that’s how it should be.

Fans of the classics may appreciate Captain Nemo.  Other readers who will appreciate this book are folks who enjoy novels that are set as historical novels (specifically the late 1800’s).  I thought it was pretty nice for a while to go read an older style of science fiction; it’s a nice change of pace.

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The Cestus Deception, by Steven Barnes

cestusdeceptionFrom water we’re born, in fire we die.  We seed the stars.
-Funeral for a clone trooper

The Clone Wars continue….

The war is going well for the Republic, but the fabled Jedi Knights are being stretched thin, called upon to do too many things.  For example:  Obi-Wan Kenobi is called back to Coruscant, capital world of the Republic, along with his Padawan, Anakin Skywalker.  However, the two are parted as they have separate paths to walk:  Anakin to study at the Jedi Temple, and Obi-Wan is to attend a demonstration of a new style of battle droid.  This type of droid is a JK series droid; some believe that JK stands for “Jedi Killer”.  Obi-Wan, along with Kit Fisto-another Jedi Master on the cover of the book-is about to be sent to the world of Ord Cestus to attempt to engage in diplomacy with the manufacturers of the JK droids to prevent the sale of such droids to the Confederacy of Independent Systems.  This is the lead in to the story of The Cestus Deception, a novel set six months after the events of Shatterpoint.

The missions of the two Jedi have a similar end goal, but a different means to achieve them.  The Supreme Chancellor does not want the Confederacy to get a hold of those battle droids, machines capable of matching the skills of a Jedi (Kit Fisto does a good job on demonstrating that a Jedi can defeat such a droid very early, but war is rarely one-on-one battles).  Obi-Wan attempts the diplomatic approach, with the assistance of Doob Snoil, a barrister from the Coruscant College of Law, as he tries to wade through planetary law and the Five Families of Cestus Cybernetics, the producers of the droids.  He also needs to send the message that Count Dooku is not the best fellow to throw in with.  Kit Fisto has a somewhat different plan, and it’s meant to go into effect if Obi-Wan fails:  basically, he’s going to quietly set up a popular revolt among the poor farmers against the Families.  To help him, he brings along a small group of clone troopers, including one Advance Recon Commando-one of a dozen elite troopers, one of the few trained by their genetic template, Jango Fett.

Unknown to the Jedi, though, they aren’t the only ones going to Ord Cestus.  A commander of the Separatists is also there-one who has a special hatred of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and is known for using a pair of lightsabers….

Unlike Shatterpoint, this book doesn’t center on the brutality of the war; this one’s more intrigue, because warfare isn’t going to get either the Republic or the Confederacy what it wants.  Obi-Wan’s portion of the book tends to center on the diplomacy aspect; and to be fair, he does a reasonable job considering it’s not his strongest point.  Unfortunately for him, he’s got to deal with the intrigues of the Five Families and the aforementioned commander behind the scenes, and they’ve had more practice.  Kit Fisto, in comparison, has it easy:  he has a real gift for rabble-rousing!  His covert activities give him a flexibility that Obi-Wan can use if he needs it.

The strongest point of this book is one I’ve been hoping to read on ever since Episode Two came out:  the point of view of a clone trooper-in this case, the ARC trooper using the designation A-98 (or “Nate”).  Through this character, we see some of the conflicts a clone trooper goes through-more, we get to see the opinions they have of the Republic, the Jedi, and Jango Fett (it’ll come as no surprise that they don’t know everything about Jango).  Nate also undergoes a crisis of his own when he meets someone from Fett’s past.  The ARC trooper’s mindset is unique (well, not totally-it’s shared by a million or so clones), but as the story goes on, he finds that he questions some very basic assumptions about who he is…and who he wants to be.

I found The Cestus Deception to be a less intense book than Shatterpoint, but closer to what I’d consider a traditional Star Wars novel, at least for this era.  It doesn’t take place on the front lines of the Clone Wars, but it demonstrates that the war proceeds on many fronts, and the battlefield is only one part of it.

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Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett

monstrousGood evening, gentlemen!  Please pay attention.  I am a reformed vampire, which is to say, I am a bundle of suppressed instincts held together by spit and coffee.  It would be wrong to say that violent, tearing carnage does not come easily to me.  It’s not tearing your throats out that doesn’t come easily to me.  Please don’t make it any harder.
-Private Maladict, Black Ribboner and soldier in the service of Borogravia, to recent captures

It is not an unusual story; a woman dresses as a man to get into the army, for various reasons; this story can be seen in history as well as fiction.  When the woman lives on the Discworld, though, the story takes one of those off-kilter spins.  This is the rather simple opening of Monstrous Regiment.

Polly Perks wants to join the army-specifically, the army of Borogravia, which is a small country with a short temper, ruled by Duchess Annagovia (at least in name).  It’s also got a fairly strict religion following the god Nuggan that has declared a whole bunch of things as Abominations.  You know, the usual list:  chocolate, dwarfs, the color blue, and clacks towers (this religion’s got the only holy book with a appendix with room for additions).  Another Abomination is the idea of women owning property.  Borogravia also has an irritating habit of taking lands that really doesn’t belong to it.  This has given it no shortage of enemies.

Polly wants to join the army mainly because of the aforementioned Abomination laws (women can only inherit “the things of women”, which property definitely doesn’t fall under); in order for her to keep her family’s inn-ironically named “The Duchess”-she needs to get her brother, Paul.  Who was last seen serving in the army’s Tenth Foot, a.k.a “The Ins-and-Outs”.  So when they happen to be passing through, Polly cuts short her hair, and dresses appropriately to have a man made of her (er, so to speak).  It turns out that Paul is presently MIA, but she doesn’t have any other leads.  Besides, the crew she falls in with is a handful enough.  It would be bad enough trying to keep her gender a secret among a “normal” army.  However, the new recruits include a vampire with a craving for coffee, a troll, and an Igor (who always believe in recycling parts….).  And she soon discovers that many of these people have their own secrets.

Throw in the fact that one of the latest enemies is a city that is miffed by having its clacks towers burned down (that would be “Ankh-Morpork”), and the situation becomes very slippery indeed; it doesn’t help that along with soldiers, Ankh-Morpork has sent the second most powerful man in the city and nicknamed “The Butcher” to see to things.  There’s also little details like opportunistic national neighbors and the media that also enjoys to get involved with times of turmoil; all of which keep the Ins-and-Outs occupied; and nobody’s quite sure what’s become of the Duchess herself….

In all honesty, this book didn’t grab me as much as other Discworld offerings, and I can’t really put my finger on why; it isn’t because of the characters-between Maladict the vampire, Polly, Sergeant Jackrum (I love the character’s way of speaking-“Upon my oath!”), and “The Butcher”, there’s not any shortage of interesting characters.  Perhaps it is a bit of the plot, which seems to meander at times (although, I’ll admit, when you’re on the side of the army that is losing, your options get a little limited).  Or perhaps there’s a bit too much going on at once; we’ve got Polly’s infiltration of the Ins-and-Outs, the broader picture of the war, the Ankh-Morpork point of view, the media involvement….

All the same, Monstrous Regiment does have a large number of fun moments, and Pratchett once again manages to take some shots at the various conventions (for some reason, of the entire regiment, Polly doesn’t have any trouble at all with “pretending” to be a woman, just as one example).  And given the way things tend to trend up to midway through the books, some of the final revelations won’t be horribly surprising, although there quite a bit of irony involved.  This isn’t a bad book at all, but it didn’t really turn out to be my cup of tea (I’ve probably been spoiled by the City Watch grouping of books, and the Death grouping, and the Witches grouping….)

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New Frontier Omnibus, by Peter David

newfrontSometimes you simply have to assess a situation and say, “Dammit, it’s me or no one.”  And if you can’t live with no one, then you have to take action.
-Captain Mackenzie Calhoun of the U.S.S. Excalibur

Lately, it seems that Pocket Books has begun leaning towards Star Trek books that are more or less independent of the four main franchises (for those not in-the-know, that’s the Original Series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager).  According to the releases slated for this year, we’ve got a book that builds on the New Earth set of books, and the beginning of Deep Space Nine novels that take place after the series finale.  But these probably wouldn’t have been possible without the New Frontier books.

Peter David’s been writing Star Trek for a long time (at least as far back as the fifth original Next Generation novel), and has been regarded as a fan favorite.  That put me in a favorable frame of mind when there was the announcement that there would be a series of four books in 1997 that would take place with “a new ship, a new crew, and a new mission”.  With House of Cards, Into the Void, The Two-Front War, and End Game, readers were treated to the exploits of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and the U.S.S. Excalibur.  These books were later re-released as a single collected edition.

The early portion of the book takes place in the past, showing the early life of the boy M’k’n’zy of Calhoun, on the planet Xenex, leading a revolt against a race called the Danteri; an incident on the planet Thallon with a Vulcan woman named Soleta and another Vulcan of considerable fame; and Dr. Selar (formerly of Picard’s Enterprise), returning home to Vulcan to deal with Ponn farr.  After that, though, we hit the present time-chronologically sometime shortly after the events of the movie First Contact.  A sector of space (221-G) has fallen into anarchy, due to the fall of the Thallonian Empire.  It is decided that the Federation should send a ship for humanitarian aid and exploration into Thallonian space.

The crew is a diverse one; Calhoun is a bit of a maverick, which is pointed out by a number of officers in Starfleet.  Elizabeth Shelby (seen in the Next Generation episodes “The Best of Both Worlds”) is a strict, by the book officer, but she has a past with Calhoun.  Zak Kebron is the Brikar security officer, who gets some of the best lines in these books, in my opinion.  Soleta and Selar get a fair amount of attention, due to a subplot that I wouldn’t want to ruin for anyone.  And these are just the characters who get the most time in these books, with a single, non-Starfleet addition, who just gets along quite badly with Kebron.

I had pretty high expectations for these books, and Peter David didn’t disappoint.  His past books have blended humorous moments with some deadly serious material, and for the most part he’s mixed them well.  He also has a reputation for exploiting the history behind the various Star Trek franchises.  He continues to do so here; this is probably what has contributed to the continuing success of the New Frontier novels (now up to 11 books and with at least one more scheduled in ’01).  But a word of warning:  this probably isn’t a series that should be started with someone who has no clue about Star Trek.  This is a series whose appeal is tied directly to the reader’s familiarity with the entire Star Trek line.

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Infiltrator, by S. M. Stirling

infiltratorHer peripheral vision caught a Jeep passing by outside.  The driver was male, no passengers.
Adrenaline kicked her heartbeat into overdrive and her stomach clenched like an angry fist; her breath stopped as though she’d been suddenly plunged into cold water.
Sarah froze with the sandwich almost in her mouth.  I can’t be having the DT’s, she thought.  I wasn’t drinking that heavily!
She could have sworn that she had just seen a Terminator drive by.
-Sarah Connor’s first glimpse of Dieter von Rossbach

If you thought blowing up the Cyberdyne Corporation was going to stop the Terminators, think again.

It’s amazing to me that a movie nearly twenty years old still works today.  Of course, Star Wars and Star Trek and others have done it, so why not this one?  For those who may not have seen the movies The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, here’s a brief recap.  At some point in the future, approximately around the 2020’s, humanity has nearly become extinct; mostly because of an artificial intelligence called Skynet, which was originally designed for defense, and decided that humanity in general was a threat-so it started a nuclear war which did in most of humanity; then it constructed machines to kill the rest.  One of the most frightening machines were the Terminators:  built to look human, but were all machine.  Designed to infiltrate and destroy the pockets of human resistance within.  It wasn’t the best in the world at infiltration, but it was very good at killing.  And they were very hard to stop, even with futuristic technology.  Things were dim, until a man named John Connor managed to lead humanity to victory over the machines.

Almost.  In a last ditch effort to deal with the problem, Skynet sent back in time a pair of Terminators, one a highly advanced model, to attempt to kill John Connor before he became a problem.  Connor sent back two operatives to prevent that.  The Terminator tried to kill his mother, Sarah Connor; the second, John when he was a young kid.  In the process, the first operative fell in love with Sarah and managed to father a child-John (I hate time travel).  The second operative was a modified Terminator that helped Sarah and John destroy Cyberdyne, the corporation that built Skynet, before it could actually do so.  Having broken a large number of laws in doing so, they fled the country, secure that they had prevented that terrible future from ever happening.

It’s not that easy.  This is the basis of T2: Infiltrator.  In the future, prior to John Connor’s victories, Skynet begins a project to infiltrate humanity again-but this time, it does so using human embryos.  One of the first is called Serena, a model T950.  She’s close enough to human to even fool dogs (who have always had a knack for sensing the wrongness of a Terminator).  She infiltrates a human resistance cell, and is very, very close to getting at John Connor when Skynet recalls her.  It seems that something funny is occurring with time, and she is to be sent back in time to insure the birth of Skynet.  And if she should do in the Connors in the process, so much the better.

Meanwhile, in Paraguay, the Connors have managed to set up a life for themselves.  Sarah’s running a shipping/smuggling business, and John’s in a military academy.  However, their lives are shaken up considerably when their new neighbor arrives to start his own ranching business; probably because he looks exactly like the T101 Terminators sent to alternately kill and protect the Connor’s.  However, his own background is just as potentially dangerous to the pair.

A great deal of this book is setup.  It chronicles the early training of Serena and her infiltration of humanity-both in the future and in the present, and it chronicles the recent history of the Connor’s and the rebirth of Cyberdyne.  Once people start interacting, though, things start happening quickly.  There’s also a number of subplots going on at the same time-a character named Tricker, whose true identity and purpose remains secret, is influential in getting Cyberdyne back on its feet; a fellow named Ron Labane travels the country, who is fearful that one day, machines are going to be able to do without people.  While it seems that he’s got a good insight on the future, he’s also a fruitcake-a very dangerous fruitcake.

One of the things I was rather amused by was the fact that the voice of the familiar Terminator is not the voice of his look alike, Dieter von Rossbach; however, the fellow supplying that voice is in this book-the accent is written so perfectly that for a moment I thought this character was Dieter!  As for Serena herself, she didn’t really give me the same feeling of implacability as the original Terminators; those things just kept coming and coming.  On the other hand, what she lacks in quality, she makes up for in quantity; read the book, and see what I mean.

It’ll be interesting to see if T2:  Infiltrator matches up well with the rumored Terminator 3 movie that is bandied about the internet so often; after all, the rumor implies the next Terminator will be a woman…like Serena.  There’s apparently no connection between this book and the rumored movie.  It’ll be even more interesting to see what happens in the next book-because there’s a couple of gaping loose ends left hanging at the end of this one.  On its own, Infiltrator works okay, even if it seems like it has too many balls in the air at once sometimes.

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