Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, narrated by Candace Thaxton

In The Diabolic,  S. J. Kincaid covers a lot of ground and does it all well. Nemesis is a Diabolic. A genetically modified “bodyguard” who is conditioned to be ruthless and bonded to the person they are to guard. They protect them from all threats and would willingly give their life to save their charge. When the Diabolics start to take preemptive action to eliminate threats to those they protect, the Emperor orders them all destroyed. Nemesis’s charge, Sidonia Impyrean, won’t hear of it and her parents defy the orders and keep Nemesis alive. Sidonia’s father, an Imperial Senator, holds heretical views at odds with the Emperor. When the Emperor orders Sidonia to Imperial Court in a transparent attempt to keep her father in line, the Impyreans scheme to send Nemesis in her place.  

The Diabolic creates a fascinating universe. A far future with incredible technology, populated with a people who have both forgotten how to create it and have created a religion which forbids the study of science and mathematics. They live in opulence, creating nothing, while the universe literally falls apart around them. Those that value knowledge and wish to study science are branded heretics and enemies of the Empire. The Imperial court is actually a group of connected spaceships in a hard to reach section of space. “Planetbound” people are considered second class citizens.

The themes here aren’t terrible subtle, but they are well thought out and explored by characters you come to care about. Nemesis is a fish out of water, who with a crash course in court etiquette knows enough to get by, but lives in fear of being discovered, which would be a death sentence for Sidonia. If planetbound people are second class citizens, Diabolics and other genetically modified servants don’t even merit that much consideration. They are property, and disposable property at that. Sidonia views Nemesis as a person, even if Nemesis herself does not. By impersonating Sidonia, Nemesis is forced to explore what she truly is and whether she is different or just taught to believe she is.

The politics at court are vicious and devious. Navigating the affairs at court and knowing who to trust can have deadly consequences. Kincaid pairs this compelling plot with complex characters and relationships. She takes you on a ride where you are unsure how it will turn out until the very end, if not beyond. Themes of science versus religion and those with privileges versus those without are interwoven throughout. The relationship we have with technology, as well as what happens on the day we create an intelligence equal to or greater than our own is also explored.

The Diabolic gives you a lot to think about and explores it with characters that are fun to spend time with. The audio version is narrated by Candace Thaxton who does an outstanding job. The pacing is great and the characters are easy to distinguish. She does a particularly good job with Nemesis who starts as a character who feels more machine than human, and spends the novel exploring her humanity. Thaxton’s narration captures that transformation and enhances the story and the listening experience. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.
Description: A Diabolic is ruthless. A Diabolic is powerful. A Diabolic has a single task: Kill in order to protect the person you’ve been created for.

Nemesis is a Diabolic, a humanoid teenager created to protect a galactic senator’s daughter, Sidonia. The two have grown up side by side, but are in no way sisters. Nemesis is expected to give her life for Sidonia, and she would do so gladly. She would also take as many lives as necessary to keep Sidonia safe.

When the power-mad Emperor learns Sidonia’s father is participating in a rebellion, he summons Sidonia to the Galactic court. She is to serve as a hostage. Now, there is only one way for Nemesis to protect Sidonia. She must become her. Nemesis travels to the court disguised as Sidonia—a killing machine masquerading in a world of corrupt politicians and
two-faced senators’ children. It’s a nest of vipers with threats on every side, but Nemesis must keep her true abilities a secret or risk everything.

As the Empire begins to fracture and rebellion looms closer, Nemesis learns there is something more to her than just deadly force. She finds a humanity truer than what she encounters from most humans. Amidst all the danger, action, and intrigue, her humanity just might be the thing that saves her life—and the empire.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz

Gregg Hurwitz doesn’t always get the attention that some other thriller authors like Lee Child and Vince Flynn, but he’s long been one of the best writers around and with his new Orphan X series, that attention should come. The Nowhere Man is the latest entry in a great new series.

Evan Smoak is known as Orphan X to the shadowy government branch that trained him as an assassin. He’s known to people in need of assistance and who are out of options as The Nowhere Man. Someone who will come to your aid and in lieu of payment, all he asks is that you give his number to someone else who needs his help. Evan had the good fortune to be trained by a man whose goal was to do the near impossible. Turn Evan into an assassin without destroying his humanity. When Evan finds out that the organization for which he was killing as Orphan X has been lying to him, he leaves that life behind and attempts to atone by fighting for the helpless as The Nowhere Man.

A fellow “Orphan”, Charles Van Scriver, now heads the Orphan program and is determined to eliminate former members of the program with Evan is at the top of that list. Evan is skilled at remaining hidden, but when in the midst of helping someone as The Nowhere Man he is caught unawares and kidnapped, there is a clock ticking down. When it strikes zero, either an innocent victim or Evan could wind up dead. Evan’s captors think that they have captured prey, but they don’t understand what a dangerous predator they have caged. With Van Scriver closing in and time running out on a victim trapped on a container ship, Evan has to use every ounce of skill and experience to escape, realizing that even that may not be enough.

Hurwitz manages to do something that a lot of other thriller writers don’t, and that’s surprise you. He shows that it’s possible to do everything right and still lose. His characters have a lot of depth to them which he displays both through their planning as well as with illuminating insights into their pasts. The investment he makes in his characters makes their fates that much more impactful.

The action sequences in The Nowhere Man are second to none. They come fast, furious and full of twists whether they take place in a gritty urban setting or a posh, snow-capped retreat. Even at such a breakneck pace, Hurwitz manages to throw surprise after surprise at you. The ending manages to top the surprises placed along the way and elevates an already outstanding book to another level.

Great characters, action and pacing make The Nowhere Man an amazing book. Gregg Hurwitz belongs in the upper echelons of thriller writers and Evan Smoak can easily stand alongside such great characters as Jack Reacher and Mitch Rapp. This is a great series and one you don’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book

Description: Spoken about only in whispers, the Nowhere Man can only be reached by the truly desperate, he can ―He will do anything to save them.
Evan Smoak is the Nowhere Man.
Taken from a group home at twelve, Evan was raised and trained as part of the Orphan Program, an off-the-books operation designed to create deniable intelligence assets―i.e. assassins. Evan was Orphan X. He broke with the Program, using everything he learned to disappear and reinvent himself as the Nowhere Man.
But his new life is interrupted when a surprise attack comes from an unlikely angle and Evan is caught unaware. Captured, drugged, and spirited off to a remote location, he finds himself heavily guarded and cut off from everything he knows. His captors think they have him trapped and helpless in a virtual cage but they don’t know who they’re dealing with―or that they’ve trapped themselves inside that cage with one of the deadliest and most resourceful men on earth.

Continuing his electrifying series featuring Evan Smoak, Gregg Hurwitz delivers a blistering, compelling new novel in the series launched with the instant international bestseller, Orphan X.

The Final Day by William Forstchen

The Final Day concludes the William Forstchen trilogy that began with One Second After and continued in One Year After. The series illustrates the devastation that befalls the United States in the wake of a devastating EMP attack that knocks the country back to a pre-industrial level. It is told through the eyes of John Matherson, a former army Colonel and history professor in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This review may contain spoilers from the first two books. This is a series that is best read in order.

Spoilers for One Second After and One Year After below

As The Final Day begins, the people of Black Mountain are starting to climb back from the devastation wreaked by the initial EMP attacks and events that followed. Although much time is spent on simple survival such as growing crops, the first steps towards restoring civilization are well underway. Hydro-powered electricity has been restored and is slowly being spread to surrounding communities in what is loosely known as the “State of Carolina”. When a nearly dead courier arrives with a message for John from someone claiming to be his former commanding officer and friend Bob Scales, John is both relieved and scared. The cryptic message, if true, could portend of another devastating event that could undo all the progress that had been made since the original attack. John must figure out if his old friend is still his friend, and if those claiming to be the government in Bluemont are legitimate or just another pretender with hidden agendas.

Although there is quite a bit of action in this book, the story spends more time on thoughtful questions, both practical and philosophical. Basic questions of survival such as sanitation and medicine take on a whole new look without modern means of production. Avoiding starvation becomes a real concern without modern transportation and distribution systems. Communication has changed from near ubiquity to something more tenuous and requiring more planning.

Matheson’s “State of Carolina” and their near autonomy is a concern to those looking to restore a central government. The presence of Chinese and Mexican occupation of parts of the former United States is a further complication.

Forstchen does a good job of creating sympathetic characters and a realistic, if folksy, depiction of Black Mountain. He also highlights the reliance on modern technology, and the importance of remembering the history of technology and the ability to function at a more primitive level.

Matheson and Scales must both weigh their personal morals and how they fit into the new paradigm. Trust is an important theme in this book. They must decide if the government issuing orders is legitimate and what the moral course of action is.

The Final Day is a dystopian story and there are plenty of personal losses along the way. Despite a couple of plot holes, this is an entertaining book and a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.  Anyone who enjoyed the earlier books will enjoy this one.  Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: Since the detonation of nuclear weapons above the United States more than two years ago, the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina has suffered famine, civil war, and countless deaths. Now, after defeating a new, tyrannical federal government, John Matherson and his community intend to restore their world to what it was before the EMP apocalypse. For the most part, they are succeeding.

This period of relative stability doesn’t last long. A new, aggressive government announces that it’s taking over and ceding large portions of the country to China and Mexico. The Constitution is no longer in effect, and what’s left of the U.S. Army has been deployed to suppress rebellion in the remaining states. John fears he and his town will be targets.

General Bob Scales, John’s old commanding officer and closest friend from prewar days, is sent to bring John into line. Will John and his people accept the new, autocratic regime? Or will revolution rip the fledgling nation apart at the seams?

Months before publication, William R. Forstchen’s novel One Second After was cited on the floor of Congress as a book all Americans should read. This third book in the series immerses readers once more in the story of our nation’s struggle to rebuild itself after an electromagnetic pulse wipes out all electricity and plunges the country into darkness, starvation, and death.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Trespasser by Tana French

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad is a consistently well-written and entertaining psychological suspense series. The latest entry, The Trespasser, is another winner. While not my personal favorite in the series, it is nevertheless a terrific read with French’s trademark plot twists and deep delving into the minds of both the victims and the cops who investigate the crimes.

Since the first book in the series, French has taken a secondary figure from an earlier book and made them the lead in the next one. The Trespasser is told from the perspective of Antoinette Conway, the lone female detective on the murder squad. Along with her partner, Stephen Moran, they are called in to investigate what looks to be a routine domestic incident that led to the death of a young woman, Aislinn Murray. It wouldn’t be much of a story if it were actually a routine incident, so of course it is not.

The boyfriend is an obvious suspect, but Conway sees an unusual amount of secrets in the victim’s life, and finds the pressure from within the squad to make a quick arrest of the boyfriend likewise suspicious. Complicating matters is the harassment Conway routinely receives from her own squad. This causes her to suspect that she may be being misled so that she will make a mistake which will lead to her either quitting or being fired. But is the mistake acting too quickly or not acting quickly enough with an obvious suspect in front of her?

In the first part of the story, we learn of the possible presence of a “mystery man” in Aislinn’s life. The evidence is scant enough that it’s possible he doesn’t exist. This fuels Conway’s paranoia. At various points she begins to suspect everyone on the murder squad to be out to get her, even coming to believe that her partner wouldn’t mind seeing her gone. It’s in this early part that I felt the story suffered a little in comparison to previous entries in the series. Conway’s introspective paranoia began to stray from legitimate grievances to self-pitying wallowing. Whether this was a result of or caused by a lot more of the novel spending time within the actual police headquarters as compared to the other books I’m not sure.  The time spent focusing on Conway’s relationship with the squad seemed to slow what we were learning about Aislinn’s life to a trickle.

The story picks up the pace at about the halfway point and we begin to see more solid evidence of there being more to Aislinn than meets the eye. Some of the most entertaining parts of French’s books are the investigatory dead ends that rather than being throwaways, are part of the sifting and winnowing that allows the true story to emerge and lead to the solving of the crime. Likewise, there is a jumping back and forth in time, as events in the victim’s past shine a light on the crime in the present.

As Conway and Moran close in on the murderer, not only does Aislinn as a victim come into tragic focus, but Conway gets clarity on her own place in the squad and is able to interpret events a little more realistically.

One of the things that French does best in her novels is to drive home the tragedy and pointlessness of these crimes. She also shows how events deep in the past have shaped these persons lives; victims, perpetrators and investigators. The open question is whether once started on this path, was tragedy always inevitable? French makes you care about these characters and feel the pain of the choices they made. Hope comes in the form of the lessons the detectives learn along the way and the chance that it alters their perspective enough to change their own path.

The Trespasser is another great read from French and perfect for anyone who enjoys psychological suspense. I’ll keep reading as long as she keeps writing. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description:  In bestselling Tana French’s newest “tour de force,”* being on the Murder squad is nothing like Detective Antoinette Conway dreamed it would be. Her partner, Stephen Moran, is the only person who seems glad she’s there. The rest of her working life is a stream of thankless cases, vicious pranks, and harassment. Antoinette is savagely tough, but she’s getting close to the breaking point.
Their new case looks like yet another by-the-numbers lovers’ quarrel gone bad. Aislinn Murray is blond, pretty, groomed to a shine, and dead in her catalogue-perfect living room, next to a table set for a romantic dinner. There’s nothing unusual about her—except that Antoinette’s seen her somewhere before.
And that her death won’t stay in its neat by-numbers box. Other detectives are trying to push Antoinette and Steve into arresting Aislinn’s boyfriend, fast. There’s a shadowy figure at the end of Antoinette's road. Aislinn's friend is hinting that she knew Aislinn was in danger. And everything they find out about Aislinn takes her further from the glossy, passive doll she seemed to be.
Antoinette knows the harassment has turned her paranoid, but she can’t tell just how far gone she is. Is this case another step in the campaign to force her off the squad, or are there darker currents flowing beneath its polished surface?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Remnants of Trust by Elizabeth Bonesteel

Elizabeth Bonesteel has created a fascinating universe in her Central Corps series. Remnants of Trust, the second book in the series, builds on the promising beginning from the first book and takes her storytelling to the next level.

The story begins with an out of character attack on a Central Corps ship by raiders. The Galileo, home to Captain Greg Foster and Commander Elena Shaw, is near enough to respond to the Exeter’s distress call, but not near enough to prevent its destruction. The intervention of the closer PSI ship, Orunmula, is able to avert that disaster, but not the loss of nearly 100 crew members from the Exeter. Signs point to sabotage, but by whom and for what reasons is a deeper mystery. Hidden agendas and factions within the Central Corps government further complicate the mystery and put everyone in danger.

Elena and Greg, as well as Jessica are among the characters who return from the first novel and their characters are further developed here. Strong new characters such as Captain Celik of the doomed Exeter are introduced. None are more fascinating than the very pregnant captain of the Orunmula, Shiang Guanyin. I could read a whole book just about her. We get to spend a lot of time with her and her PSI generation ship which is a fascinating contrast in cultures from the Central Corps ships. We get to take the time to understand how these different cultures frame the perspectives of the individuals who live in them.

Bonesteel perfectly captures people's imperfect understanding of each other. She uses this to show how it influences decision-making and outcomes. The relationships between and among her characters are realistic and nuanced. There are a lot of things to like about Bonesteel’s books. The plot moves along steadily, there are great action scenes, a complicated mystery and a government with agendas within agendas manipulating people and events for reasons that remain murky. The greatest accomplishment, though, is a full cast of characters who are complex, have depth, and have realistic motivations. Bonesteel skillfully lends perspective to show that individual motivations are more complex than simple good or evil.

Remants of Trust is a great entry in the series. It is an exciting story with a solid mystery. Even as the mystery is solved, it leads to more questions to be explored in future entries in the series. The characters and their development is a cut above ordinary military sci-fi and reason enough to read these books by themselves.

Sign me up for more adventures in the Central Corps universe as well as anything else Bonesteel wants to write. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: In this follow-up to the acclaimed military science fiction thriller The Cold Between, a young soldier finds herself caught in the crosshairs of a deadly conspiracy in deep space.
Six weeks ago, Commander Elena Shaw and Captain Greg Foster were court-martialed for their role in an event Central Gov denies ever happened. Yet instead of a dishonorable discharge or time in a military prison, Shaw and Foster and are now back together on Galileo. As punishment, they’ve been assigned to patrol the nearly empty space of the Third Sector.
But their mundane mission quickly turns treacherous when the Galileo picks up a distress call: Exeter, a sister ship, is under attack from raiders. A PSI generation ship—the same one that recently broke off negotiations with Foster—is also in the sector and joins in the desperate battle that leaves ninety-seven of Exeter’s crew dead.
An investigation of the disaster points to sabotage. And Exeter is only the beginning. When the PSI ship and Galileo suffer their own "accidents," it becomes clear that someone is willing to set off a war in the Third Sector to keep their secrets, and the clues point to the highest echelons of power . . . and deep into Shaw’s past.