Short Story Review: “Saxophone” by Nicholas Royle

4 of 5 stars.

In an interesting twist of alt-history, this tale depicts a ravaged Iron Curtain separating Communist Soviet Union’s sphere of influence from that of NATO’s. The tense border between East and West Germany led to shots fired, war escalating, and eventually biological warfare. Hungary and Yugoslavia are the worst ravaged, with most of the population turned to zombies and a dark trade in live organ harvestings. Harvested American military organs bring an especially hefty price on the black market . . .

The metaphor of zombies as denizens of warzones is both unique and particularly apt. It is a tense and joyless existence. The fully cognizant zombies try to keep their heads together [literally] to keep on going, even after the loss of their “lives”. Memories of better times, ie living times, are bittersweet.

Hasek, the main zombie POV, played jazz saxophone when living, now he doesn’t have the breath for it. Nor the instrument. That doesn’t stop him from fingering his air-sax out of habit as he tries to bring a little imagined joy into his music-less reality.

This tale appears in Book of the Dead edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.
 
 
 
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Novel Review: Former.ly by Dane Cobain

Former.ly: The Rise and Fall of a Social NetworkFormer.ly: The Rise and Fall of a Social Network by Dane Cobain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The cutthroat world of internet startups and social networks reveals its darkest side in this thriller about e-commerce and murder. Most enjoyable are the descriptions of the slapdash, duct tape protocols of the startup office–people living at the “office,” and job interviews at nightclubs.

Dan’s a freelance coder with not enough business coming in. The relationship with his live-in girlfriend has hit the doldrums. Then he lands the interview with Former.ly, an up-and-coming, start-up social networking site . . . for the dead. Clients write their bios while alive, but it doesn’t post until they’ve died. Death = money.

The company runs on high secrecy, sloppy logistics, and the skin of its teeth. Until a company party ends with a murdered journalist. The press is all over it.

The quirky staff of Former.ly feel both the stress and thrill of burgeoning success as questions and deaths propel their business . . .

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com. I previously read and reviewed this author’s Eyes Like Lighthouses When the Boats Come Home.
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Novella Review: The Uprising by Kachi Ugo

The UprisingThe Uprising by Kachi Ugo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There’s an ethical conundrum that asks: If you could travel through time and go back to when Hitler was an innocent baby, would you/could you kill him? This novella seems to revolve around this very question. And then lets the question linger.

Two elemental magic users representing the most powerful coalition of elementals travel back in time about 60 years to collect a baby that will grow up to be an awful, awful person. A Voldemort, perhaps. Never is a single atrocity, or crime cited and linked to the baby keeping that important aspect of the story cloaked, or just underdeveloped.

Interestingly, some characters appear in both time lines. Better yet, their positions in the government and in their relationship to the baby or to the kidnapping can oppose their other self. This is a clever contradiction worth exploring but left curiously quiet.

Rather, the book focuses on the mother [Sarah] of the kidnapped child. She’s a flawed elemental with anger issues stemming from being the mother scorned. Her husband is high up in the organization that likely took her child which puts her at odds within her own household. I call her flawed due to her lack of a moral compass. By the start of the book, she has started an uprising gathering over one thousand followers in opposition to the elemental government. She knowingly sets them all up for slaughter for a single siege to perhaps gather a single clue or tool in the drive to reclaim her stolen baby. What type of person would kill 1000 supporters just to open a door that they know their baby is not behind? She’s been wronged, but she’s also an awful person. And the story does not do enough to support this position.

The tale is also full of contradictions other than the purposeful time-bending ones. In the beginning of the tale, Sarah’s husband calls her to talk her out of the action she’s about to do. He knows what she’s doing and cites details. The government knows too, he says, and is expecting her. Much later in the book, he claims to her that he did not know that it was her that did what she did. [Except that he was also on the phone with her while she was doing it and well aware at that point.]

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com. I previously read and reviewed this author’s The Great Hunt.
 
 
 
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Novel Review: The Alpha Plague 5 by Michael Robertson

The Alpha Plague 5 (The Alpha Plague #5)The Alpha Plague 5 by Michael Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Alpha Plague is a British rage-style zombie pandemic. The zombies aren’t dead, merely afflicted, and they aren’t dying off due to their hunting prowess and willingness to eat any animal they can get their hands on. Not that zombie tales are about the zombies–they aren’t. They’re almost always about the societies and relationships between people amidst a horrific backdrop that could turn anybody you love into the “other.”

This episode of the series can be read alone or after just the 4th in the series. The initial trilogy was largely self-contained as it documented the initial 48 hours of the pandemic showing the luck, wherewithal, and canniness necessary in such desperate a situation. The immediate predecessor of this installment jumped a full ten years allowing 6-year old Flynn to become a hormonal–but not annoyingly so–teenager. His perspective is unique in that he doesn’t remember nor understand how society used to work. He essentially knows nobody but his parents and Vicky, the lone survivors of the first trilogy. The ten years pass with them not finding anybody as they hid away in a remote location.

A radio broadcast from other survivors launched an epic journey in book 4 to find Home. Along the way, other groups were discovered. And not unlike in The Walking Dead, most of those groups are disturbed in one manner or another. Slavery. Cannibalism.

This book depicts the cushy life inside of Home. The group lives underground with electricity thanks to a solar panel field they maintain. They have alarms and cameras. Clean water, showers and gyms. They even have an underground farm for raising plant crops. Under Hugh’s leadership and sometimes heavy hand, Home supports about 100 people in a little Utopia. And yet Vicky and Flynn cannot relax.

There’s a strictness to Home, in the name of security. Signs of “plague” or mental illness are dealt with in the harshest possible ways . . . Also, the internal farm is starting to fail with its depleted soil.

The entire series is recommended.

I’ve previously read this author’s:
     The Alpha Plague–5 stars
     The Alpha Plague 2–4 stars
     The Alpha Plague 3–5 stars
     The Alpha Plague 4–4 stars
     “The Arena” (The Shadow Order)–5 stars
     The Black Hole (The Shadow Order, #1)–2 stars
     Crash (Crash, #1)–4 stars
     New Reality: Truth (New Reality, #1)–3 stars
     New Reality 2: Justice (New Reality, #2)–4 stars
     New Reality 3: Fear (New Reality, #3)–3 stars

Novella Review: The Adakian Eagle by Bradley Denton

3 of 5 stars.

Detective thriller meets World War II historic fiction in this novella set in the Aleutians when a private finds first a ritualistically slaughtered bald eagle on a wind-swept volcano on Adak. He returns to the scene of the crime to find a murdered Navy grunt.

What unspools is a tale of power, corruption, intimidation and canny detective work on the part of the Army base’s lead news reporter. Profound rifts divide the island’s inhabitants: native and military, enlisted and officer, army and navy. Distrust run deep. Echoes of A Few Good Men reverberate through the story.

A supernatural element comes into play when the private and the detective go on an Aleutian vision quest for answers. It’s an unnecessary plot device akin to finding a magic mirror to reveal all of the elements . . .

This tale appears in Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.
 
 
 
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Novella Review: Downfall by Joseph Mallozzi

4 of 5 stars.

Redemption and rehabilitation aren’t uncommon themes in literature. Here, a man struggles to stay true to his word, a word he’s broken before to those he loves.

Marshall was born with hereditary superpowers. But his single mother has never revealed the identity of his absentee father. So, Marshall grows up with a mental list of potential candidates. But growing up is hard, and Marshall finds himself surrounded by bad influences and users. He becomes a supervillain named Downfall in a gang of supervillains.

For the sake of his wife, Allison, he quits the gang and moniker and promises to lead an upstanding life. A bad decision, and relapse, finds Marshall busted in a bank robbery with his old gang and tossed in prison for 5 years. It’s 2 years before his wife even visits. But he vows to steer straight and is released on good behavior after a few more years.

Life on parole isn’t easy. Especially when one particularly beloved superhero, The Imperial, has made it his personal mission to reveal Marshall’s true identity wherever Marshall and Allison try to hang their hat. They can’t put down roots, or relax–they cannot start a family in circumstances like this. So, when The Imperial turns up murdered, it’s awfully ironic the feds want Marshall’s help to find the perpetrator. Or, is it?

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Novel Review: The Devil’s Mouth by Matt Kincade

The Devil's Mouth (Alex Rains, Vampire Hunter, #1)The Devil’s Mouth by Matt Kincade
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With a particularly well-played prologue to hook the mood and scenery, this vampire hunter series starts on all the right notes. Vampires on the southern US border are preying on illegal immigrants directly and on a legal system that’d prefer to look the other way when it comes to trials of the disenfranchised.

The hero of this tale, Alex Rains, is a Taratino-ish cowboy that’d blend in with the characters of Kill Bill. The campy aw-shucks-t’aint-nothing attitude belies the sword-play martial arts. Early on, Alex meets the ex-cop Carmen desperate for the trail of her sister who’s gone missing after crossing into the New Mexican desert with an immigrant smuggler.

The breadth of the story is guilty fun, if not predictable.

Jen, the character to watch out for, plays medic to the vampire hunting crowd. She hints at a layer of society to which even Alex is unaware. This tease pays off in the brief but poignant epilogue. In a sea of errant author epilogues, this one hits the mark.

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald

3 of 5 stars.

Cyber thriller meets urban fantasy superhero tale when a “nethead” cyber master linked into the various world webs is able to gum up the computing power of an Avengers-like organization to scour for his own interests. They’re looking for a nethead to work with them for the greater good. He wants to know what happened to the girl he loved . . .

The gambits play out nicely with Superhero tropes filling in the scenery.

This tale appears in the anthology, Superheroes edited by Rich Horton.
 
 
 
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Novel Review: Gemina by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Gemina (The Illuminae Files, #2)Gemina by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The exciting and worthy sequel to Illuminae ably walks the fine line between stylistic consistency and narrative predictability. Like the first in the series, this novel takes the form of epistolary dossier with a smattering of emails, texts and video transcriptions. A brilliant if not ominous addition is the new heroine’s hand-drawn journal bringing a graphic element into the mix. A bullet hole through each page and an increasingly larger blood stain marring her sketches provide appropriately unsubtle foreshadowing.

The previous trilogy of protagonists [Kady, Ezra, and the existential AI–AIDAN] take a backseat to a new trilogy of sub-adult heroes. Hanna, of the aforementioned journal, is the well to-do daughter of the Heimdall Space Station captain. With all survivors of the first book crammed on the science vessel, Hypatia, due to arrive within days, the Bei-Tech Corporation plans a full-scale attack on the Heimdall and its wormhole to keep news of its atrocities from getting out. Working with her are teenaged, unregistered cousins, Nik and Ella, the scions of a mafia family. Heavily inked Nik has already done time for murder and has the survival instincts and resourcefulness to prove it. His plague-stricken cousin Ella [think: Polio] may not have use of her lower body, but she makes up for that in cyber know-how.

Whereas in the first book the Bei-Tech attackers remain largely nameless and most threats seem to come from within, this novel leans into new subgenres quite unlike the those of the first book. The first subgenre to this sci-fi is clearly Thriller as 2 dozen highly trained militants are sent to Heimdall to kill everyone on the space station and to pave the way for a drone attack to finish off the Hypatia and the Kerenza colony. A 25th operative is already working undercover on the station. A second subgenre [Horror] emerges from the recreation of the mafia family. To foster their drug trafficking, Nik and Ella’s family farms psychotropic substance-secreting, parasitic aliens in underused parts of the station. These aliens resemble four-headed hydras crossed with lamprey eels and have the cuddle-factor and predatory instincts of Ridley Scott’s aliens. What could possibly go wrong??

The huge Win in this book and series lies in the unreliable narration provided by the dossier files as emails and texts reach Facebook levels of news-reliability.

This series is highly recommended.
 
 
 
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Novella Review: The Last Witness by K. J. Parker

The Last WitnessThe Last Witness by K.J. Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memory is a tricksy thing. When toyed like in the movie Memento, it’s a solid foundation for a slippery psychological thriller. One’s sense of self and purpose is only as good as what one makes of one’s memories.

In this fantasy-thriller novella, the roguish narrator is a dark hero–perhaps a superhero–with the ability to steal away specific memories from other people. He can do almost whatever he wants, and blank any potential witnesses. This doesn’t work out for his relationships with his family, nor his lover. They’re too complicated, with too many intertwined memories.

The cad becomes a memory-thief for hire, and there’s good money in it from the sort that would hire him. But memories stolen become his own, and it’s not always easy to tell which memories are which or from whom. He half-knows places and people like near constant deja vu . . . As the ultimate witness to so many crimes [because he took the memories on], assassins are often sent his way. But they can be blanked, too, while revealing their patron . . .

One day he takes on charity case, the victim has been assaulted and likely raped. He’s loath to own these memories, but he accepts the case and a few coins. In the avataristic realm where the thought-thievery takes place, the victim’s avatar shockingly appears to defend her memory. She, too, is a memory thief . . .

In a realm with two memory thieves whose lives become entwined, nothing can be trusted.

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction Novellas: 2016 edited by Paula Guran, which I received directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Heaven Thunders the Truth” and The Things We Do For Love.

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