Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leo Champion's Legion

Have you ever had a bad day? I'm talking about the kind of day where the best case scenario is that you've ruined your life for the next five years and the worst case scenario is that you end up dead or maimed? We're talking about the kind of day where you involuntarily leave behind the career you've spent years building because you got a little too drunk last night. Oh and, just to make it worse, you were promoted last night. I mean, I've had some bad days in my time but this might legitimately be the worst day in history. It's okay though. If Paul Mullins hadn't had the worst day ever then he wouldn't have joined the United States Foreign Legion and there would be no Legion by Leo Champion. That would make me sad because Legion is a really good book.

Our hero is Paul Mullins. After he somehow managed to get so drunk at his own promotion party that he ends up enlisting into the military without wanting to he struggles. His goal is initially to get out of a contract that he was tricked into signing by an unscrupulous recruiter. He eventually ends up just trying to keep himself and his buddies alive. At the beginning of the story he's not used to struggling. By the end it's all he knows.

I find myself liking Mullins. He's hardcore. He made a bad decision but he decides to roll with it. He does try to get out of his contract because he was tricked but he simultaneously pushes himself to be top in his class and survive. He works hard on missions that he never would have been on if he hadn't been tricked. Basically, Mullins finds himself in a situation where he would be perfectly justified in throwing a whiny bitch fit worthy of a Stephanie Meyers protagonist but he never does. I mean, if I ever accidentally joined a branch of the military and then found out my odds were what they are in the USFL I think I'd freak out. Mullins holds it together though.

Mullins matures a lot in other ways as well. At the beginning of the book he's some business guy with better things to do. By the end he has accepted responsibility for his entire unit and called in air and artillery strikes. He has been promoted to radio man, knowing and accepting the fact that his new assignment is even more dangerous than his old one. The only part he seems to worry about is that it'll get him shorten his hitch. He is promoted once and is being looked at for going further. He really seems to have it all put together by the end of Legion and I respect that,

The titular Legion is more properly known as the United States Foreign Legion. It's based on the model of the French Foreign Legion, which recruits anyone but mainly gets convicts and foreigners. French convicts are offered a chance at redemption in exchange for their service. I like the concept. As a matter of fact, offering a convicted felon a choice between imprisonment or service used to be fairly common in the real world US. (True story. My grandfather got arrested for running shine and was offered a choice between prison and the military. He chose prison, but not everyone did.) It has since been ruled unconstitutional by a partisan court. I wouldn't mind seeing the practice brought back though and Champion posits a very realistic way that it could return.

The USFL lives up to its reputation as a bunch of trouble-making convicts as well. Whether they're stealing equipment from the Army or participating in a brawl that is several blocks long, they're always up to no good. They loot places as well. It's weird though because on one hand they're thieves and brawlers but on the other hand, these are the guys who take on the toughest assignments and succeed.

The relationships between the characters in the book are amazingly well done. Not everyone gets along, but that's life in any large organization. They all manage to pull together when it's their asses on the line though. It just works. The NCOs are mean when they have to be and helpful when they can be. The officers (and one lieutenant in particular) give orders knowing that it's going to get their men killed and then agonize about it afterward. And yes, there is the inevitable shirtbird but that happens in every unit too. I'm not sure if Champion has served or not but his unit reads as true to life as it gets.

His use of tactics makes sense as well. The Legion gets all the most dangerous assignments and is not the most well equipped branch of service but they do things in an intelligent manner. There is no lone wolfing. The soldiers work together toward the goal and they have each others backs. They use suppressing fire and grenades when it makes sense to. Kudos to Champion for being the one guy who writes members of the military as having enough brains to fight well. They call for artillery and air support at the right times. They accept help from wherever they can get it when it's their asses on the line. Everything about the way they fight makes sense.

Fans of diversity done right will love this book. Legion is a good story featuring characters of color. The minority characters are believable and they serve a purpose in the story. There is mention of suffering due to racism but it's not the focus of the book. There is no navel gazing here. This is a book with plenty of action to keep things moving that includes minority characters who do things for their own reasons and not necessarily to follow bullshit rules as lain down by Social Justice Bully assholes.

All in all, I really enjoyed Legion. I couldn't find any real problems with it either. There was no jarring moment that threw me out of the work. It didn't shy away from the world's problems but it didn't focus on them to detriment of everything else.  This thing just worked.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Signed Contracts

Legion
Leo Champion
Argilla Tabula Publishing, 2013

Legion is available for purchase at the following link:


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sarah Hoyt's Darkship Revenge


Have you ever sat in a cab at three in the morning with no fare in the back reading when you should have been taking a nap? Have you ever gotten home from a thirteen hour shift driving a cab knowing you only had five hours to sleep before you went back and did it all over again and sat starting at words on a cell phone screen anyway? If not I'm guessing that either:

A.) You've never read Darkship Revenge by Prometheus Award winner Sarah Hoyt.
B.) You don't drive a cab and work midnights.
or
C.) Both.

First the disclaimer: This is the third book in a series.  I think it would work pretty well as a stand-alone but I've read the first two.  The reader may want to start with Darkship Thieves and Darkship Renegades. Then again,  you don't really NEED to unless you're anal about reading a series in publication order like a certain blogger we all know and lone.  *COUGH*

The story centers around Athena Hera Sinistra, daughter of Goodman Sinistra, ruler of one of the seacities in Hoyt's future Earth. Athena is an interesting character, possibly in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse. She was raised to be a body donor for her father. He did what he had to do to attempt to control her. It didn't work very well. I wouldn't want to be the guy who tried to control Thena. I guess that makes me smarter than him. Then again, Daddy Dearest was gene-engineered to be smarter than the rest of us, sooo... yup. Smarter than anyone who would try to control this chick. She's a little out there. But what do I mean by a littler out there? Either she is;

1.) Totally off her rocker (I don't believe this but she seems to.)
2.) A little "off" (Totally possible)
3.) A sociopath who somehow manages to care about her family, if not anyone else (I'm thinking no, but some of Thena's thoughts about herself seem to tend in this direction)
4.) A hardcore pragmatist who  ignores humanistic concerns (This sort of works, but not really. She does act like her nuclear family and her in-laws. Also, her treatment of the boys in the story is both pragmatic and humanistic.)
or
5.) The only sane person left (This options scares the hell out of me. What she does works too well to be crazy, but if THIS is what sane looks like...)

Since Wonder Woman was my last review, let me say this as well: This is how you do an empowered female character. Thena is a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred type who sees what needs to be done and does it. She won't take know for an answer and she survives things that would kill most people. Thena doesn't give up when she has a goal in mind, ever. She has the protective instinct in spades and she cannot be stopped when it comes to defending her own.

Thena has a child in the first few pages of the book and, while she doesn't think she will make a good mother, she actually does in her own fashion. I mean, I'm not sure that having an infant strapped to your chest during a firefight is all that great of an idea even if you can't find a babysitter but Thena manages to do it without getting either one of them killed so... It's all good... I guess? Right?

The supporting cast is also impressive.  Thena's husband Kit lives and breathes as much as if he were sitting next to you on the couch. The kids Thena and company end up saving come across as true to life as well.  I started out wanting to hate these kids but the time the story was over I wanted to adopt one.  (I'll admit that it didn't hurt that they had named themselves after famous fictional characters.  OK,  so maybe I'm a little testy about a story that includes a Christopher Robin but no Tigger but I'll get over it.)  Nat, Luce,  Simon all seem real. I could almost feel the stress these guys were going through myself.

The story itself has a relentless pace. I've heard it said that if an author feels their story becoming boring they should drop a mountain on their characters. Well, I'm guessing that Hoyt believes in pre-emptive strikes and that the Himalayas are missing a few peaks, because the hits keep coming and the action doesn't stop.

Part of why I like this story is because I love a good villain and Hoyt's Good Men are the type of person I can totally love to hate.  Anyone who would send down a plague to wipe out most of humanity in order to enslave the leftovers is worth killing.  What they do to the children in their care is quite frankly disgusting as well.  Hoyt has obviously taken great care in gifting us with people we can root against.  She's done a damn fine job. It's not often that an author can make me hate a group of characters badly enough to want to choke them all to death but Hoyt manages it with aplomb.

The technology in Darkship Revenge is either really cool or horrifying. Gene-engineered space plants that grow power pods that you can run a city with are sweet.  Characters fly around on anti-gravity powered brooms. Flying cars are everywhere. And of course,  the plio revolves around defeating a biological weapon that is devastating.

There is one facet of Darkship Revenge that drives me batshit insane.  Hoyt's characters shoot at each other with weapons called burners.  They're kind of a cross between a phaser pistol and a welding torch.  In and of itself that's okay.  The problem emerges with the unbelievable shooting skill her characters display under pressure.  I mean, the miracle head shots displayed in  The Walking Dead make me crazy but what these characters do with burners is at least an order of magnitude more difficult.  That being said,  it's called The Rule of Cool for a reason. All in all though,  this book kicked ass.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Brooms

Darkship Revenge
Sarah Hoyt
Baen,  2017

Darkship Revenge is available at the following link:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing From a Different Perspective - Guest Post by Jon Del Arroz

A question I get asked a lot from reviewers of For Steam And Country is: Is it weird to write from a first person perspective of a sixteen year old girl?
The answer is yes. It took me several passes to actually dial in what Zaira Von Monocle’s perspective would be, and I had to work extremely hard to get her to the point where she’s the fun character in For Steam And Country that my advance readers tell me they love.
I’m going to give a little peek behind the curtain as to my learning as a writer, and my process as I came up with all of this, in hopes that it is both interesting to readers, and potentially helpful to newer writers.
When I first conceived the novel, I knew that I wanted to write a Steampunk fantasy, to create a fantasy world of kingdoms and airships, alchemy and swashbuckling, high adventure that most books in the steampunk genre had shied away from. Most books in the genre either went going something darker and grittier, or dipping further into romance. I also wanted to make it somewhat YA (I consider the finished product a tweener between YA and regular fantasy, though it’s perfectly suitable for all ages), which I thought would allow me to take a lighter tone.
YA fantasy novels take the first person perspective more often than not, allowing for a real sense of feeling like you’re inside the head of the protagonist, or at the very least sitting across from them while you take high tea. A recent trend has them in first person present, which makes people really feel in the action, but I didn’t want to go that far, as it’s very few and far between I read a book in the present tense that doesn’t annoy me.
I actually had this plan to write in the first person perspective from the onset, getting to worldbuilding and character creating. In keeping with YA, I wanted to keep the protagonist young, and also to the market, having a female perspective seemed the way to go. I looked at the idea and thought, “wow, do I really want to write a 16 year old girl in the first person?” It sounded pretty daunting, and like it required a lot of work to keep realistic. Once I looked at the job from that perspective, I viewed it as a writing challenge to myself.
Very little gets me motivated like a challenge, competition, even if it’s something as small as posing the question to myself if I could pull something off. In fact, a lot of my best work comes out of such challenges. It sounds silly, but in writing, self-motivation is about the most important skill you can learn. It’s hard to go through scenes, especially some of the heavier ones, and it’s much harder to edit. If you have other goals that trick yourself into feeling like a game, then you’ll more often than not breeze through something that seemed at first like a chore.
And this turned out hard to do, not in the sense of it took me a long time to write--I actually had so much fun with this world and with these characters that I breezed through my first draft-- but when I went through it the first time, the character didn’t come across as a good protagonist at all.
In my figuring this out, I observed teenagers, and tried to remember what it was like to be a teenager myself. Frankly, I found teenagers to be a bit rambunctious, acting without thinking, and extremely low in self-confidence (for the most part, there’s always exceptions). And I wrote my character as such. In my early submissions drafts that I sent out to agents and editors, the character whined a LOT. She was combative, teasing her love interest a bit too hard. Honestly, it felt very realistic to me from what I’ve seen of a lot of teenagers, but those behaviors grate on a reader if they’re too pronounced, and I found that many of the editors didn’t connect with the character because of that.
I later learned the value of connection over realism in writing, something I wish I would have learned a lot easier and sooner. Readers want to see some flaws, some mistakes, but they don’t want that to be overwhelming, don’t want to find a person annoying. And in a heroic adventure, some of those life quirks need to be toned down rather than be presented as too realistic.
I let the book sit for awhile, wrote Star Realms: Rescue Run, and released that to quite a bit of fanfare. When I looked at this novel again, I saw it was close, but I needed to push that perspective character to the next level. I thought of who this character was, and how it would have shaped her so she’s different than just a normal teenager. Zaira’s lived mostly abandoned, on her own except when the neighbors checked in on her. She’s had to work for herself, farm for herself, wash her own clothes, cook her own meals for a couple of years now. That’s a pretty hard life to have 14-16, and one that requires a lot of work. As such, she’d be tougher. The whining had to go. She’d also have a very strong sense that she could do anything herself, including going in and doing things like flying an airship (minor spoiler, but I think you probably figured out that airship flying occurs by this point!). That has negative effects like stubbornness, which provide for some good conflict that a reader can relate to more. With those major facets of her personality in mind, I rewrote the book. And this time, everything clicked.
Even though there were heavy rewrites, I flew through this last pass because I made a character that was compelling and fun for me. And that’s what it takes to make something compelling and fun for a reader.
Authors often strive too hard for realism, to the point where it makes a lot of works bland and boring. Something that we can’t connect with because we’re not wishing we were in that person’s movie. And that’s what the author has to create. We as readers want people to rise up and be heroes, to meet challenges, to exceed expectations. That’s why we escape into fantasy in the first place. Realizing that changed my world, making Zaira Von Monocle into the farm girl-turned-hero that she ended up being in For Steam And Country. She’s still got her inexperience, but her wide-eyed sense of wonder and being willing to take on big challenges makes her a fun protagonist. I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed writing her.
Jon Del Arroz is the author of the Alliance Award nominated and top-10 Amazon bestselling Space Opera, "Star Realms: Rescue Run." His second novel, "For Steam And Country," is just out. He hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, is a guest contributor to the Hugo Award-nominated Castalia House blog, and regularly posts to http://delarroz.com. Twitter: @jondelarroz Gab.ai: @otomo

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

DC's Wonder Woman Starring Gal Gadot

(*SIGH* Before I get into the fun  part, especially with this being a DC Comics related post, I have to share my thoughts on the passing of Adam West. I want to cry. I've been a fan of his since before I can remember. One of the local independent TV stations used to carry Batman episodes back to back on weekends. I've always loved them. So Godspeed Adam West. That's another piece of my childhood gone.)

(I got to go with my kiddos! Check us out in our 3D glasses!)


For the longest time I've been a DC movie hater. Seriously. I'm guilty. I will admit to a bit of an obsession with Wonder Woman though. I watched the live action TV series in re-runs as a kid. I loved the Super Friends/ Justice League cartoon. I haven't watched a Batman movie since the Clinton Administration. I'm a blatant Green Lantern fanboy but I was disappointed by the GL movie. For whatever reason, though they go this one right. And not just a little right. Wonder Woman was everything I wanted the GL movie to be and more.

I'll be honest in stating that I was a bit disappointed that the movie was set in World War One as opposed to World War Two, when Wonder Woman's birth took place in the comics. I'm not a true hardcore purist but I do have enough purist tendencies that I was  bit annoyed with such a massive change in timing. That lasted about ten minutes into the movie. I don't want to give too many spoilers but the story just worked.

Wonder Woman has always been a story with one half based on Greek myth and the other based on the real world. The movie exemplified that. When  you've got an invasion of the island of Themyscira  by the German army (the World War I version, not the Nazis) it can't be anything else. German troops are from the  real world. Themyscira is from myth. Poison gas is (horrifyingly) from the real world. Ares, God of War, is from Greek Myth. I could go on. There is a point here though:

The Wonder Woman mythos has always depended on the ability of the writer to blend the two worlds well and here they've done it flawlessly. The blend is seamless. I'd say they transition back and forth well, but the bottom line is that there is no need for the TO transition. They two are straight up blended. The writers did a wonderful job with this script. There are no two ways about it.

Oh, and another thing: If Wonder Woman doesn't win the Oscar for best special effects someone needs their ass kicked. Someone as in, like, the entire Academy. If there is a problem finding someone to do it, I will volunteer as tribute. Everything about this film looks gorgeous, from the Lasso of Truth, to the explosions, to the poison gas, the costuming, everything. The fight between Diana and her target is epic. I hate to say it, but I'm almost wondering if they stole some people from Marvel because this movie is beautiful.

Of course the true key to any adaptation of Wonder Woman is the title character herself and Gal Gadot knocks it out of the park. She is Diana, Princess of Themyscira. She has the look and the personality just right. The only actor I've ever seen play a super hero this well previously is Robert Downey Jr. Yup, you heard it hear first: Gadot plays Wonder Woman as a well as Downey plays Tony Stark. Coming from me, that's high praise indeed.

Granted, Diana grew up on an island where she was the only child and there were no men. She does not have a working knowledge of modern society because she didn't grow up in it. The first time she sees a baby she marks out but it all makes sense. She wasn't raised in a normal environment and so she isn't used to normal things. Gadot plays this part of her character to a t and I'm wondering how she did it.

Of course, a good Steve Trevor always helps as well and Chris Pine nails it. He plays the perfect soldier: The mission means everything. All else is secondary. He falls in love with Diana and makes you believe it. He's got the cocky thing down (and Trevor is both a pilot and a spy, therefore making him cocky as hell) but he's level headed enough to wish he didn't have to fight and he makes you believe all of it. Very few actors will ever fit into a role they way Gadot does in this one, but he comes close.

Any story is improved with a good villain and Wonder Woman delivers those in spades. Whether it's Ares, Greek God of War, a German general who wants the war to continue, to the evil Dr. Maru inventor of a horrifying chemical weapon that can destroy gas masks (and also a woman with a career in STEM) there are plenty of people to root against. It's always good to see the protagonist win, but it's even better when you want to see the bad guys lose. Oh, and speaking of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics:

I've heard a lot of debate about whether or not Wonder Woman is a feminist movie. Consider the following quote:

"You are stronger than you believe and more powerful than you know" - Antiope to a young Diana Prince

Consider the fact that Diana does things her way, places her mission over the mission of the men she is with (albeit while ultimately believing that her mission is more important and will complete the mens mission for them.) and completes it by defeating a man. Consider the fact that she is expected to fail and succeeds anyway. This is a woman who takes her own counsel, who does not back down when confronted by anything and who does not let anything deter her from her path. Diana is a woman who kills a Greek god using only her own innate power. In short, this is a feminist film.

Yes, I've heard the complaints that Wonder Woman is not a true feminist because she is a straight white woman and in good shape, but check facts: It is not necessary to be a fat lesbian person of color to be a feminist. I'm not generally a fan of expecting kids to find their role models in the entertainment industry, but if my girls go that route I want them to watch this movie and see something to emulate. Yes, this is the message I want all young girls everywhere to hear: You can be what you want, do what you want and achieve anything with or without a man.

It's worth noting that both of my daughters loved this movie so much that they thanked me for taking them when we went on Saturday, then again when I saw them on Sunday and again when I saw them today. My youngest was a bit scared of the poison gas scenes (Honestly, so was I. I've read about what that crap can do.) and even the older of the two called them "creepy". They're both kind of right but this movie wouldn't work if it was all wine and roses.

My only complaint her is kind of lame, but I'm going to put it out there anyway. This is an awesome film. It needs a sequel. I'm not sure where they left room for one though. The main villain is deader than disco. His two accomplices have been wiped out. There is no unfinished business. Dammit, I want another Wonder Woman movie. DC better figure this out and get me one. You finally got one right DC. Follow up. And for the sake of all of your fans PLEASE use the same writer and director. You can still screw the next one up. I would prefer if you didn't.

Bottom Line: 5.0 out of 5 Bullet Proof Bracelets

Wonder Woman
DC Entertainment, 2017

Some Wonder Woman related merchandise is available at the links below:





Thursday, June 1, 2017

Christopher Nutall's Ark Royal

What happens when humanity becomes confident that they're the only species in space and gets comfortable? What happens when no one plans for conflict with an alien race? How about if humanity is so worried about border skirmishes with other Earth nations that they're not looking outward for trouble? Well, if they're in Christopher Nutall's Ark Royal they start off getting their asses kicked. It makes sense.

Ark Royal features a few classic tropes that just make my day. The first and most obvious is old-ship-comes-out-of-mothballs-to-kick-ass. I like this trope, but Nutall does it better than most, simply by providing a reason that the Ark Royal is able to light it up. Simply put the Ark Royal is armored. The new ships are not. The older ship can take a beating that would leave nothing of the newer ships but a debris pile. I like the trope and it's even better when it makes sense. Nutall got this one straight as well.

Ark Royal is a tale of redemption not just for the ship but for her crew and her captain. The vast majority of the crew was stationed on the ship because they were problems. Commodore Sir Theodore Smith is the captain of the ship... but he should have been cashiered because of his drinking problem. He starts off the book hung over and craving another drink. He manages to bring himself back from the abyss though. The whole crew does.

In a weird sort of way (and I'm not sure if Nutall intended this or not) the redemption of the crew is also the redemption of humanity. The human race has become complacent. It has done nothing to protect itself from outside attack. Humanity has not armored its carriers. It has no workable plans in place to protect itself from attack and no one trained to handle a peaceful first contact. Yet, when the Ark Royal's crew gets itself together, things get better for the Earth. The first victories against the aliens are led by a recovering alcoholic and his misfit crew.

It's odd too that the Ark Royal is a ship of the British Royal Navy but is put together from parts of only God and her captain know how many various nations. Honestly, I'd almost bet that the captain would have to sit down and count. This reflects the fact that all nations of the Earth are going to need to work together to repel the alien threat. Again, I'm not sure if Nutall meant it this way or not but the ship again takes on the mantle of the entire human race. The juxtaposition is a fascinating aspect of the story. I'm just not sure it was intended.

Nutall's alien invaders are mysteries throughout this first book. I like this approach. The humans know nothing about their enemies. They just know that these things showed up and started killing people. They're not even sure why or what the enemy wants. They work out how to fight them based on trial and error. It's all they can do. I am often a fan of the reader knowing things that the protagonist does not but this time I think Nutall has done the right thing.

Now, I will grant that there are eight books that follow this one (Ark Royalis the first in the series) and at some point I hope that Nutall makes more of the alien thought process known to his readers. That only makes sense. In an ongoing series more will most likely be revealed. I just started this series though, so I can't comment on whether or how it happens.

The combat scenes in the book work well. It helps that the aliens aren't stupid. The Ark Royal has a weapon that the ships they've fought previously have already abandoned and it catches them flat-footed.It makes sense in the context of the story. Just as important though, is the fact that the aliens respond and find an intelligent way to fight back. This leads humanity to adjust their tactics... and so on. This is how wars actually work in the real world though, so that makes sense. Both sides use whatever information they can find about the other side against them.

Commodore Smith's superiors don't trust him as much as he would probably like and that makes sense too. He is a known alcoholic. It's interesting though, to see how the loyalty of the people under his command shines through when they're asked to spy on him. It's twice as interesting to watch how the perceptions of one particular character change over the course of the book. Nutall does a good job showing the interlocking and sometimes conflicting duties and loyalties of a member of the military. Loyalty is key but it's not always clear which loyalty is more important. Nutall shows this clearly and his characters agonize. It fits. The battles with family/marital loyalty make sense as well. He even teases a problem with for the next book. I'm betting dollars to doughnuts that I've figured out at least part of it, but I could be wrong. I haven't bought it yet. (Sorry, Mr. Nutall. Rent was due.)

Smith and crew are hardcore and resilient. They think outside of the box. In short, they're precisely what they need to be to defeat a force that superior in both technology and numbers. It's often a close run thing but they fight and/or find a way through. Their missions turn out at least marginally successful because they refuse for them not to. This is a crew you can really admire. I'd go to war with them.

I'm trying to find something to complain about and it's just not working. I'm not going to say that this is a perfect work of Science Fiction but there are no MAJOR flaws that I could detect.I was never thrown from the story. The only characters I found annoying were the ones that were supposed to be annoying. I'm no expert on the tactics of space combat but everything in the book made sense from a fan's point of view.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Mass Drivers

Ark Royal
Christopher Nutall
Self Published, 2014

Ark Royal is available at the link below:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Vanessa Ravencroft's Eric Olafson: Midshipman

(First a bit of housekeeping. I've started a Facebook group for this blog. Please join and tell your friends!)

I love a good space opera. It's pretty much impossible that I wouldn't. I mean, I grew up on Star Trek: The Original Series and then got into every iteration that came after. It's in my blood. That much being said, I'd like to say this: Thank you, Vanessa Ravencroft, for upholding my faith in my favorite sub-genre of Science Fiction. Seriously. Eric Olafson: Midshipman knocked it out of the park. I'll get to why in just a bit, but for now the disclaimer:

This is the eighth book in the series. I was able to follow 95% of it easily. It was all entertaining. I'm really only mentioning this because I know some people (and I happen to be one of them) prefer to start a series at the beginning. If you're looking for book one, it ain't here. If you're looking for a rollicking good time though, look no further. This one owns it.

Eric Olafson is not your typical midshipman/cadet. He has decorations that many senior officers don't, including the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He seems to be beloved by just about every race of aliens in the galaxy, including the mysterious ones that no human seems to understand. And believe me, no one who is not a Narth really understands the Narth, but they love them some Midshipman Olafson. Seriously. That's really cool though because we get to see all kinds of alien races. With apologies to the Honor Harrington saga, the best Space Opera always includes aliens. Trek, Wars, Green Lantern, etc. It's an old tradition and it gets carried on here.

I want to praise Ravencroft for something else as well: Many authors have characters that are either gay or have some kind of weird gender but very few get it right. Ravencroft does. EO:M is a story about a person named Eric Olafson who has two genders (I may be describing this wrong, I'm not an expert on the subject) but the story is about his second and third years at the United Stars Naval Academy. This is not a story about someone having a mixed gender, it is the story of a mixed gendered person. It's a good story. Very rarely have I seen books with mixed gender and/or gay characters that actually managed to tell a good story but Ravencroft pulled it off. Kudos to her.

There is something else that works with the whole mixed gender thing. Eric thinks that no one knows but everyone does. They just don't care. He's in the closet for no reason. I like that. Most people have no problems with a person being mixed-gender and/or homosexual in today's society. A lot of the supposed transgressions committed by those of us who are not gay (although certainly not all) are more a matter of the way things are perceived. Ravencroft seems to get this.

The story of Eric Olafson: Midshipman focuses on the titular characters second and third years at the naval academy. Olafson and his friends get into more trouble than the Harry Potter gang. Really. These guys could walk into a Kool-Aid tasting and walk out with a collection of black eyes and scalps. It makes the book fun. If you're looking for action look here because you'll find plenty.

Olafson alternates between extremely humble and a take no shit attitude. It fits though. I want to know how Ravencroft pulled this off. One minute, Olafson is like "Aw shucks" and the next he's like "Yes, I am an officer and I earned these medals. Follow my orders, dammit!" It's impressive.

The book offers several interludes. These switch point of view and location of the narrator. This is a good thing. This is the exact technique used by just about every movie or TV show ever. More authors should do this, because it gives the reader a much better understanding of what is going on in the wide world without necessarily informing the main character or something he doesn't need to know. And let's face it: We all love to squirm when the MC acts without knowledge that we have as readers/viewers. It just works.

Some of the gadgetry in the book is just plain cool as well. Every Space Opera ever (I may be exaggerating) has a device that produces a pressed uniform on command, but only the Galactic Chronicles has a device that will put your outfit on you. The power armor in the book includes rockets so that Marines can work/fight in space. The list goes on. I like SF doohickies. Chalk this one up as a win.

I'm confused though. This book is clearly labeled as eighth in the series, but there is only one other book available. I want a chance to read the rest of these books and I'm willing to pay for them, but I can't. That's frustrating. I want to give my money to read the books. This should be a fairly easy thing to negotiate. I mean, I know some authors get frustrated with the whole "Shut up and Take My Money" thing but damn. Where are the other seven books?

While I'm kvetching about things that have nothing to do with the story... I received this book as an ARC for review in e-book form. Yet, when I check Amazon I don't get a link to an ebook. I have nothing against a hardcopy release but I'm confused. The work has already been done. Why is there no e-book available? It seems to me that she'd make more money selling both for whatever that's worth.


My only complaint about the actual story is one that has been made over and over about heroes in stories. Olafson is way too good at, well, everything. He doesn't seem to have a weak spot. He out battles one of his friends who comes from a race that is supposedly invincible in hand to hand fighting. He commands the biggest starship in the fleet on his first day as a cadet and gets through his first combat almost perfectly. He boards another ship in combat and comes back alive and victorious. I mean, this guy couldn't mess up if he tried. Oh, and he's a diplomatic wiz too. The various alien races in the book all recognize Eric as one of their own, even though he is clearly human. Overall though, the story was awesome and the flaws forgivable.

Bottom Line: 4.5 out of 5 Auto Dressers

Eric Olafson: Midshipman
Vanessa Ravencroft
Createspace, 2017

Eric Olafson: Midshipman is available at the link below:


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Memorial Day Post: John R. Taylor's Return to Normandy

(Yes, I know that I'm a day late and a dollar short but this is my annual Memorial Day post dedicated to all of those who went off to fight for the United States of America and didn't make it home. "Home of the Free because of the Brave" is a cliche but it's true. This post is also dedicated to anyone who has lost a loved one in the service of the USA. Let's not forget that every service member who passes leaves a family behind.)

There is very little in the world as satisfying as reading a work of military science fiction written by a veteran. They can portray things in a manner that is believable and authentic because they've been there. The relationships between the characters work on a level that can't be faked. The tactics make sense. The characters are neither cowardly nor psycho gung-ho and eager to die. They are, in short, just like members of the real life military. All of this is true of John R Taylor's Return to Normandy. He nailed it. I really enjoyed this book.

The premise of the book is pretty simple: In celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion, several of the nations that participated in the battles on D-Day, including the Germans, send paratroopers to drop on Normandy. This actually happened in the real world. In Taylor's version the lead plane is filled with American paratroopers who are transported back in time to June 6, 1944 and arrive before the invasion troops. They have period weapons and uniforms as part of the festivities, but no ammunition. Things get interesting quickly.

Our heroes don't know what to do at first but that makes sense. They were planning on landing in a wide open field in front of a huge crowd of spectators and instead they're getting shot at by Germans at night. I can't help but think that confusion is the only possible reaction. It's not like this was some kind of experiment intended to transport them. I mean, when they first hit the ground they don't know when or where they are. Once they figure it out they can't figure out how they got there and a few members of the platoon reject the idea. It's natural and believable.

I don't have the details of Taylor's actual military service (his bio lists him as having served in the 101st Airborne just like his characters) but I'm guessing he never made high officer rank. He seems to have a healthy dislike of those who give orders and get soldiers killed. That makes sense too. According to his Amazon bio, Taylor served in combat in Vietnam and obviously lost some buddies. I can't blame him for being bitter. High command was hated in Vietnam and for good reason: A lot of the men giving the orders behind the lines had no clue what conditions were for the troops they were issuing orders to. They understood the war they were fighting from an academic point of view but not what it was actually like since they hadn't been in those conditions.  I'd hate to be the officer he patterned some of these characters on but that's neither here nor there.  It does bring up a good point though.

I'm as big a fan of stories like the Honor Harrington saga as anyone, but sometimes it can get a bit frustrating when everything is told from the top down. One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book is that it's told from the point of view of the common soldier. The main character is the lieutenant but he's still a man in the field facing the same dangers as his men. I love that. He gives the orders but he's no Dwight Eisenhower, leading from hundreds of miles away. That is, in my opinion, the best way to tell a story.

I don't do spoilers, but I'm going to this time. Taylor's men meet up with the men from Easy Company, a la Band of Brothers. Talk about a good time. They actually know who they're meeting up with since they've seen the show. It's a good time for them and for the reader as well. I found myself grinning like an idiot when it happened and it fits so well that it didn't throw me out of the story at all. I got a big kick out of it.

Getting back to the point about officers: At one point, Lieutenant "Spike" Wilson gets an order to take out a mortar emplacement. It should be a good order. Americans are dying because they're taking shells and someone needs to take it out. He's told that there should be a company defending the mortars and that he's supposed to take them out with sixteen men while massively outnumbered. He's a soldier so he follows his orders - right up until he realizes that the enemy is in battalion strength and he has no chance of success. Once again, what we're seeing is the battle between officers in the field and their commanders . One knows what's going on and the other doesn't. As someone who has studied the Vietnam War (but has no actual combat experience) this seems to match up with what I've learned about the way things worked there. The realism here is palpable.

My only complaint about Return to Normandy is a weird one. The first chapter of the book takes place in Afghanistan. I get it on an intellectual level. It focuses on an elite airborne unit in the modern US military that would have deployed into combat zones for obvious reasons. It sets up the relationship between Spike and his platoon. Spike shows how much he cares for his men and that is key to the rest of the story. I should be okay with it, but...

It threw me. I was looking for a story in Normandy and I ended up in the rock pile. I felt lost and disoriented for a bit. It's not that it was poorly written. In actuality it was very well done and entertaining. It just wasn't what I expected. I actually went back and checked to make sure I had ordered the right book. (Yes, most of my reviews come from people who have sent me their books in exchange for a review but I didn't have anything that would have worked for a Memorial Day review so I bought one. I'm glad I did.) All in all though, this story still kicks ass. It just took a few more minutes to get through the first chapter than it would have ordinarily.

(Yes, I know that I'm a day late and a dollar short but this is my annual Memorial Day post dedicated to all of those who went off to fight for the United States of America and didn't make it home. "Home of the Free because of the Brave" is a cliche but it's true. This post is also dedicated to anyone who has lost a loved one in the service of the USA. Let's not forget that every service member who passes leaves a family behind.)

There is very little in the world as satisfying as reading a work of military science fiction written by a veteran. They can portray things in a manner that is believable and authentic because they've been there. The relationships between the characters work on a level that can't be faked. The tactics make sense. The characters are neither cowardly nor psycho gung-ho and eager to die. They are, in short, just like members of the real life military. All of this is true of John R Taylor's Return to Normandy. He nailed it. I really enjoyed this book.

The premise of the book is pretty simple: In celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion, several of the nations that participated in the battles on D-Day, including the Germans, send paratroopers to drop on Normandy. This actually happened in the real world. In Taylor's version the lead plane is filled with American paratroopers who are transported back in time to June 6, 1944 and arrive before the invasion troops. They have period weapons and uniforms as part of the festivities, but no ammunition. Things get interesting quickly.

Our heroes don't know what to do at first but that makes sense. They were planning on landing in a wide open field in front of a huge crowd of spectators and instead they're getting shot at by Germans at night. I can't help but think that confusion is the only possible reaction. It's not like this was some kind of experiment intended to transport them. I mean, when they first hit the ground they don't know when or where they are. Once they figure it out they can't figure out how they got there and a few members of the platoon reject the idea. It's natural and believable.

I don't have the details of Taylor's actual military service (his bio lists him as having served in the 101st Airborne just like his characters) but I'm guessing he never made high officer rank. He seems to have a healthy dislike of those who give orders and get soldiers killed. That makes sense too. According to his Amazon bio, Taylor served in combat in Vietnam and obviously lost some buddies. I can't blame him for being bitter. High command was hated in Vietnam and for good reason: A lot of the men giving the orders behind the lines had no clue what conditions were for the troops they were issuing orders to. They understood the war they were fighting from an academic point of view but not what it was actually like since they hadn't been in those conditions. I'd hate to be the officer he patterned some of these characters on but that's neither here nor there.  It does bring up a good point though.

I'm as big a fan of stories like the Honor Harrington saga as anyone, but sometimes it can get a bit frustrating when everything is told from the top down. One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book is that it's told from the point of view of the common soldier. The main character is the lieutenant but he's still a man in the field facing the same dangers as his men. I love that. He gives the orders but he's no Dwight Eisenhower, leading from hundreds of miles away. That is, in my opinion, the best way to tell a story.

I don't do spoilers, but I'm going to this time. Taylor's men meet up with the men from Easy Company, a la Band of Brothers. Talk about a good time. They actually know who they're meeting up with since they've seen the show. It's a good time for them and for the reader as well. I found myself grinning like an idiot when it happened and it fits so well that it didn't throw me out of the story at all. I got a big kick out of it.

Getting back to the point about officers: At one point, Lieutenant "Spike" Wilson gets an order to take out a mortar emplacement. It should be a good order. Americans are dying because they're taking shells and someone needs to take it out. He's told that there should be a company defending the mortars and that he's supposed to take them out with sixteen men while massively outnumbered. He's a soldier so he follows his orders - right up until he realizes that the enemy is in battalion strength and he has no chance of success. Once again, what we're seeing is the battle between officers in the field and their commanders . One knows what's going on and the other doesn't. As someone who has studied the Vietnam War (but has no actual combat experience) this seems to match up with what I've learned about the way things worked there. The realism here is palpable.

My only complaint about Return to Normandy is a weird one. The first chapter of the book takes place in Afghanistan. I get it on an intellectual level. It focuses on an elite airborne unit in the modern US military that would have deployed into combat zones for obvious reasons. It sets up the relationship between Spike and his platoon. Spike shows how much he cares for his men and that is key to the rest of the story. I should be okay with it, but...

It threw me. I was looking for a story in Normandy and I ended up in the rock pile. I felt lost and disoriented for a bit. It's not that it was poorly written. In actuality it was very well done and entertaining. It just wasn't what I expected. I actually went back and checked to make sure I had ordered the right book. (Yes, most of my reviews come from people who have sent me their books in exchange for a review but I didn't have anything that would have worked for a Memorial Day review so I bought one. I'm glad I did.) All in all though, this story still kicks ass. It just took a few more minutes to get through the first chapter than it would have ordinarily. Heck, I've already picked up

Oh and, for the record, I'm pretty bitter. If I had read this before I did my Dragon nominations I'd have put it up for Best Alternate History. Oops. That's just plain bad timing on my part.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Missed Drops

Return to Normandy
John R Taylor
CreateSpace, 2017

Return to Normandy is available at the following link: