Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!


Another award winner we’ve reviewed:

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack has won the Philip K. Dick award for best novel appearing originally in paperback.

Congratulations to author Mark Hodder and publisher Pyr.


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Shadows of the Past by Tom Kolega
State of the Art Entertainment, 2009, 365pp.

It’s no secret that I’m a media tie-in junkie. I love reading in shared universes that are based on video games or movies or comics. Back in the days of Deep Magic, we had a shared universe called Kenatos. It was so much fun that I even tried my hand at a story set there. Unfortunately, because I’m such a slow writer, the magazine folded before I finished my story. But it was exciting.

So, when Tom Kolega offered me a review copy of his first book in the Contra Alliance universe, I jumped at it. While not technically a shared universe, Mr Kolega’s Contra Alliance universe is planned on being available in multiple media. Please note that this is not a novel that is being transported to comics and the screen, but that it has been planned from the beginning to be in multiple media, so it feels like a shared universe in many ways.

The Contra Alliance universe is set about twenty years in the future when America is no longer a world power. The globe is on the brink of total chaos. Resources are scarce. And from all this rises a group known as the Revolution whose agenda is not entirely known, but they keep on disrupting what little peace exists. Rumor has it that they have a genetic laboratory hidden in the Colombian jungles where they are conducting clandestine (and obscene) experiments. NATO sends in one of its Counter-Revolutionary (CONTRA) teams to investigate. Even though the team is heavily armored with the latest (and slightly SF) tech, they barely survive when the Revolution’s genetically engineered warriors attack.

Meanwhile, the Revolution is staging an all-out attack on Jerusalem while the world’s attention is turned to the Middle East for the tenth anniversary celebration of the Holy Land peace accords. CONTRA rushes in and fight the Revolution’s forces in a battle that will forever change the world, for unknown to most of mankind, the Revolution is actually the minions of the Nezdeth, an alien race that is intent on ruining the earth.

The plot is much more complex than this brief overview has given, but to reveal more would be to spoil some of the surprises that make this a fun and exciting read. Shadows of the Past is the first book in the first of two planned trilogies of novels in the Contra Alliance universe, and it is a real page turner. I cranked through the book in just a few hours. It is an adventure novel through and through and the story promises future installments to be even more action-packed.

The one downside I found, though, was that the characterization suffered a bit for the sake of the action. Kolega has created a cast of nearly two dozen main characters just for this first novel, with more CONTRA warriors slated for subsequent volumes. Although he does a valiant job at trying to develop some of the characters, for the most part, the majority are reduced to some key character traits, much like in large-ensemble comic books. However, those characters that Kolega does focus on are fairly well-rounded and conceived.

But, like I said, this is mostly an action/adventure novel. If you approach it wanting more, you’re not understanding the genre. My suggestion is to dive in and just enjoy the breathless pace. Unfortunately, this is just the first volume, so you’ll be left wondering how long until the next volume. (But to tide you over, there’s a comic planned for later this summer.)


The British Science Fiction Association has announced its 2010 award winners. For best novel is Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. Congratulations, Mr McDonald!


Our regular readers may have noticed we didn’t have a review posted yesterday, our usual posting day.

The past two months have been incredibly busy for me and my family, so I haven’t been able to read/review as many books as usual. I try to always have a bit of a backlog for when these things happen, but life has been even more demanding than usual in 2011, so even my backlog has all but dried up. For the next month or two, our weekly reviews will be… not weekly. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get back on schedule soon. Thanks to all who visit regularly!


Wild Cards, Volume 1
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Wild Cards (Volume 1), ed. by George R.R. Martin
Tor Books, 2010, 496pp

My kids love to tease me about growing up in the ’80s. To them, the past is a foreign country, especially that distant decade. They listen to the music. They mock. They watch the T.V. series. They ridicule. They see the Atari 2600 8-bit games. They laugh.

Sure, the ’80s were an odd decade to grow up in. But there were a number of good things that came out of that decade, especially in the SF/F genre, not the least of which is the enduring ‘Wild Cards’ shared universe. After a brief pause, the series is back in production with new novels coming out, as well as Tor books beginning a republishing of the original books (with new stories added in).

The first of these is named, aptly enough, Wild Cards, and tells the origins of the Wild Cards universe through a series of related (but stand alone) stories. The basic premise is that in 1945 an alien virus is released into the air above New York City. The virus kills about 90% of the people it infects; of those that survive infection, most come down with strange physical mutations that make them pariahs and outcasts. These are the Jokers. A small percentage, though, are granted superhero-like powers and become known as Aces.

While the main part of the series takes place in the contemporary world, for this first novel, editor Martin takes the reader back to the beginning and through a series of related stories brings the reader up to date (which would be 1985 for the first book).

One of the strengths of the Wild Cards universe has been that Martin has managed to bring in lots of high-caliber SF/F authors, so the stories themselves are technically excellent (even the not-so-excellent stories stand above the crowd), but I found this first book to be weak. Perhaps it is because the stories are trying to cover so much ground, but I found it hard to care about many of the characters that come on stage for a short story and then are only mentioned in the background of other stories, if at all.

And the stories themselves, with only one or two exceptions, do not focus on the main events of the Wild Cards universe, but on situations that seem to be almost incidental. The overall effect is to distance the reader (at least this one) from really caring about things as a whole. Still, friends have told me that the first volume is actually one of the weaker volumes, so I’ll probably check out the successive volumes as they come out from Tor, but I was definitely underwhelmed with this first foray into the world of Jokers and Aces.


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Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Tor, 2009, 499pp.

Rhennthyl is the son of a wool merchant in the city of L’Excelsis in Solidar. At first it seems like he will follow his father into the industry, but as he grows up, it becomes apparent that Rhennthyl’s desires lie elsewhere, specifically in painting. So Rhenn’s father apprentices him to a master portraitist, in whose household Rhenn lives for a number of years. While there, Rhenn shows himself to be very talented, but he’s kept back because of jealousy toward his gifts, as well as his propensity for defying conventions.

One day, though, Rhenn is angry and frustrated with his master and his master’s son and walks away thinking dark thoughts. Immediately the master’s studio explodes. It is at this point that Rhenn discovers that he is an imager, a person born with the skill of creating objects by thinking of them. And so he joins the Collegium of Imagers to learn how to control his newfound skills and abilities.

Rhenn’s life quickly becomes a routine of lessons to control his considerable abilities (an imager can be dangerous even while sleeping) as well as hard work. On top of this, though, someone is trying to kill Rhenn.

Imager is the first in Modesitt’s ‘Imager Portfolio’ series which is now at three volumes. It is very much an introductory novel that spends a lot of time establishing the rules of this fantasy world as well as establishing characters. I’ve never read Modesitt before, even though I’ve had a number of friends speak highly of him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this was definitely a fun read. Modesitt uses a lot of expected fantasy tropes, but he gives them all a bit of a twist to give the reader something new and unexpected. On top of that, he is skilled at creating well-rounded and believable characters. If you haven’t read Modesitt before, this is as good a stepping-in point as any.


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Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard
Doubleday, 2010, 289pp.

Authors are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” But reviewers are rarely asked, “Where do you get your books for review?” Sure, we get free copies from publishers who want to create a buzz for their latest book, but a lot of what we review here at RGReviews comes from our own personal collections (and thus reflects our own tastes and quirks). However, one other place for ideas of what to review comes from the book group I’m a part of. I like to keep abreast of what’s being published in the field — and I think I do a good job at it — but this month’s book club selection was one I hadn’t heard of: Johannes Cabel the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard.

The Detective is the second adventure of the eponymous Johannes Cabal who is a necromancer in a steampunkish Europe of the past (although obviously not our past). The novel opens with Cabal being arrested for trying to borrow an ancient book from the national library of Mirkarvia. Perhaps the fact that he wanted to borrow it permanently and went about removing it from the library at midnight might explain his arrest. More likely, though, is the fact that Count Marechal of the Emperor of Mirkarvia’s bodyguard immediately blackmails Cabal into helping revive the recently deceased emperor to help avert an uprising by giving a speech that would put control in the count’s hands.

Cabal agrees, but turns the speech against the count, resulting in the necromancer having to flee for his life (but at least he has his life with which to flee). Going incognito, Cabal gets on the new airship, the Princess Hortense, bound for the nearby country of Katamenia. Once aboard, though, one of the passengers is murdered and an attempt is soon made on Cabal himself. Cabal finds himself taking on the mantle of a detective to learn what is going on before the body count includes his own. The result is a fast-paced, rip-rollicking steampunk adventure/detective story.

One of the joys of steampunk is the way it is taking on many different voices as it grows as a subgenre. (I’m tempted to say it is becoming its own genre, but that’s a discussion for another day.) In this case, Jonathan Howard has imbued Cabal with a postmodern irony, a looking at everything including himself from a distance. Cabal is highly conceited and so such a point of view is ideal for conveying his hubris and arrogance while also showing his shortcomings, almost all of which he is unaware of.

The ironic stance, though, comes with its downside, and in this case, it distances the reader from Cabal. If the book was any longer, I probably would have had trouble finishing it since I was having trouble liking Cabal — the humor of his arrogance only carries the narrative so far. However, because the book is not too long and the pace so fast, it is not long before the reader sees growth in Cabal’s character (unbeknownst, most likely, to Cabal, however).

I’m glad I stumbled across this book and I’m going to hunt down the first volume and will probably also look for the next in the series.


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The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas
Roc, 2009, 369pp.

Dragons are a mainstay in fantasy. Tolkien had dragons in Middle-earth — who can forget Smaug? — so it’s no surprise that they appear a lot in epic fantasy. However, it’s rare that they are fleshed out into a compelling race. Thankfully, newcomer Stephen Deas has done just that with his first book, The Adamantine Palace, first book in “The Memory of Flames.”

In Deas’ fantasy world, the Realms are sustained by the power of dragons enslaved by the nobility of the various kingdoms. Over all the monarchs is the Speaker of the Realms whose job is to keep the peace amongst the rulers. As to be expected, while some rulers are content with that set up, there are those that grasp for more power, wanting the Speakership for themselves. Without the dragons, the scenario would be one of political intrigue much like Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire: The Adamantine Palace is full of scheming and manipulation amongst a large cast of ruling monarchs who are trying to position themselves for the soon-to-be-vacated Speakership. But the dragons add a whole new aspect to the story.

The dragons are enslaved by a liquid that keeps them docile. Without the liquid, their minds return and they become much, much more powerful, gaining not only strength but also keen minds. In the past, before being enslaved, the dragons were a force to be reckoned with. Now, they are weapons in the hands of power-grasping monarchs. But at the beginning of The Adamantine Palace one of the dragons goes missing. Without the soporific liquid, the dragon’s mind starts to return with drastic consequences.

The Adamantine Palace was one of those books that I really wanted to enjoy and almost did. Unfortunately, even though the idea of the enslaved dragons was fascinating and the political machinations were captivating, Deas doesn’t give us enough likable characters to sustain the narrative. I’m not asking for lily-white saints, but most of the book focused on the kings and queens who were not too enjoyable. The non-noble characters were interesting, but they didn’t get enough attention in the narrative to develop into captivating and well-rounded people. Ironically, perhaps the most humane of the characters was Snow, the lost dragon, whose mind we see slowly returning.

Overall, it was a fun read, but I felt it didn’t hold up to the promise of its premises to be a series I will hunt down to finish.


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Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown
Solaris, 2010, 430pp.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for future dystopia novels. The idea fascinates me: so much of science fiction is about how wonderful the future is going to be, but what if things go wrong? Could the things that are extolled so much in SF actually result in the opposite? Additionally, dystopias are a great way to explore what makes us human and what makes humans exceptional.

This past year I’ve heard a lot of buzz about the writings of Eric Brown, that he’s the next big thing. So when I saw that he had a new dystopian novel coming out, Guardians of the Phoenix, I snatched it up.

Approximately one hundred years from now, a series of man-made and natural catastrophes have destroyed almost all life on earth. Water is a very rare resource with the oceans all but dried up and freshwater difficult to come by. The great cities of Europe are being erased by the encroaching desert and humanity is nothing but a handful of enclaves, a number of which fight amongst themselves for the few precious resources.

Paris has been reduced to a desert and only two people are left living there. Paul is in his early twenties and goes out daily to hunt for water and to capture the few remaining lizards for meat for himself and the only other human in his world, the octogenarian Elise. One day, though, he comes across a young woman who is being chased by some well-equipped men who hunt her down and after taking advantage of her turn to cannibalism.

Paul is, of course, appalled by what he sees, but he doesn’t know (yet) that the hunters are on the run from the human enclave they were a part of. The hunters’ leader, Hans, had a falling out with the leaders of the Baltic band of humans and has left, taking with him knowledge of where there might be a huge store of food. The Baltic humans have sent a contingent after Hans, mostly to try to save the girl who is the daughter of one of their leaders.

The groups meet in Paris where Paul is being held captive by Hans. They engage in a shoot-out and Paul is rescued by the Baltic group. Hans and his group, however, flee and the Baltic group take a detour on the way home to try to discover some water.

Hans heads ‘home’ to his original enclave, only to head out again with the leader and his some-time lover, Samara, who has just learned from her dying father that one of humanity’s last big attempts to save itself, the Phoenix project, was thwarted by terrorists but it could still hold the secret to humanity’s redemption.

The two groups — Samara and Hans and the Baltic enclave — end up running into each other again. Each group has something the other wants and an uneasy peace ensues until the truth about the practices of Samara’s group comes out and an all-out fight ensues as they each try to find the Phoenix project without the other knowing.

The Guardian of the Phoenix is definitely a page turner. From the moment I picked it up, the story line had me hooked and the pace never flagged. Brown only gradually (and never completely) tells the story of how humanity managed to destroy itself and yet save itself in the midst of death. Along the way he tosses out tiny bits of information, pieces to a larger puzzle that he eventually reveals at the end. All along, though, he lets the reader know that there is something more coming; he just doesn’t tell you what that is until the very end.

And the story he tells to get you to that revelation is action-packed. From the first page to the last, there is always something going on, something to get you to turn the page. Even though the plot is densely packed, Brown has a light touch that keeps even the coincidences from seeming contrived or unlikely.

If there’s one complaint I have about the book, it is that the big reveal at the end doesn’t have much to do with the main characters of the novel: they are merely tools to discover the secret of humanity’s salvation, but have little to do with obtaining that salvation, other than (literally) flipping a switch.

But still, Guardians of the Phoenix is a wonderful adventure that still manages to look at the extremes that a violent environment might put humans through to survive. Brown asks the question about whether the ends justify the means and gives a satisfying answer without being the slightest bit preachy.

If you haven’t read Eric Brown yet, I recommend doing so. This is SF as it should be: deep in meaning yet also a fun read!


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Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra, 2010, 512pp/641 pp

I always love it when one of my favorite authors takes up one of my favorite topics. My wife and I both love Connie Willis’s writing, and we both have an interest in life in wartime England. (My wife grew up in London and has memories of bomb craters still existing as late as the ‘80s. Her parents were both born during the Blitz, an event which greatly affected generations of Brits.) It’s been eight years since Willis’s last novel, so we were naturally excited about the publication of one of our favorite authors on a subject we both love.

Blackout/All Clear, although published in two volumes, is like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: a single novel split across multiple volumes. Willis takes us back to the time-travelling universe setting of her previous books The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, as well as the short story “Firewatch”. Since the latter two both deal with the London Blitz, I guess it was inevitable that Willis would return to it for her largest work yet.

The time-travelling scholars of Oxford of the future are back for this latest story. This time around, Mr Dunworthy, the head of Oxford’s time-travel institute, abruptly and inexplicably starts rearranging and even cancelling the time-travel ‘drops’ of his students. The students in turn scramble to get as many of their drops completed before they are cancelled entirely. One set of students are headed to various times and locations during World War II, to learn and experience first-hand what war-time life was like. They all, however, begin to experience ‘slippage’ — that is, they don’t come through at the correct time and/or location. Eventually, things get so bad that their drop sites for their return do not even open and they find themselves stuck in the past, with very few ways to communicate with the future.

Anyone familiar with Willis’s style will not be surprised to learn that what ensues is a lot of misdirection and misunderstandings as the protagonists try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.

The book is strongest in showing what life was like in war-torn England. There are a few historical gaffes that others better educated in the era than I have found, but the general consensus I have seen is that Willis gets it almost all correct. Not only is the setting well developed and realized, but so are the characters. Throughout the long course of this story, Willis is juggling at least a dozen major characters and nearly as many storylines split out across a couple hundred years. Yet with this many balls in the air, she manages almost effortlessly to keep everything straight.

The main conceit of the novel is the effect of time travel on the fabric of time. Without giving away too much, I think it is safe to reveal that the reason for the drops not opening has to do with damage done to the time stream by all the time traveling. Even though the characters take nearly a thousand pages to figure this out, it is quite obvious from early on in the novel to even the most careless of readers.

And therein lies the great weakness of this otherwise excellent work: the big reveal at the end of the novel about what is happening is not too revelatory because readers can figure it out much sooner than the characters. Most of the second volume is the characters stumbling about, doubting in themselves, and only gradually figuring out the problem. But the reader has most likely figured it out by that point and is screaming, “Just get on with it!” Instead, the cast will get close to the answer, have it on the tip of their tongue, only to get distracted by something, and then the scene changes, etc. It becomes very frustrating very quickly. I’ve encountered this before with Willis’s writing, but never to the degree that it is within Blackout/All Clear. I think the book could easily have been trimmed by a quarter to a third and would have been much powerful.

Nonetheless, this was an extremely enjoyable read and lots of fun. Willis is still up there in my top 10 list of authors.