Review: Night Shift by Robin Triggs

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My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Robin Triggs delivers an initially-solid-but-ultimately-rage-inducing Antarctic mystery-thriller peppered with a few doses of low-key science fiction concepts, in his debut, Night Shift.

As the Australis base prepares for six months of darkness, a freshly-appointed security officer, Anders Nordvelt, arrives just in time for the crew to find themselves under attack. Obviously, it doesn't take long for Nordvelt to become the prime suspect in the baffling string of disasters befalling the Australis's researchers and miners, and Triggs keeps both Anders and readers guessing about the real culprit and his or her motivations in this little whodunnit.

The isolated Australis is positively rife with suspects, from the overbearing and sexually promiscuous base commander, right down to the janitor, Max, who keeps herself secluded from the rest of the crew and surrounded by jury-rigged robots and welded metal sculptures. Seemingly everyone has a motive, and as Triggs reveals new facets of his characters he gives readers plenty of meat to chew on as the guessing game wears on.

While the mystery aspect of Night Shift is pacey and intriguing, the science fiction aspects feel a bit tacked on, and even superfluous at times. Triggs gives us small doses of near-future tech and hints of a dystopic Company-ruled world at large, but these minor conceits are never explored deeply enough to feel wholly necessary. Even the book's climax, which ultimately hinges on the half-baked incorporation of these sci-fi elements, lacks the necessary oomph and depth of information to really deliver a powerhouse of a finale as the culprit's motivations come unraveled.

After seeing how the all pieces fell together, I was still left with a frustrating question of why? Why was any of what happened necessary? Unfortunately, Night Shift isn't able to provide a satisfying answer to resolve its own premise, and Triggs simply doesn't do enough world-building or provide us with enough information to make the culprit's motivation for the attacks feel smooth and logical. Worse still, in a brief supplemental interview with the author at book's end, Triggs compounds the lack of information in Night Shift with a promise to explore all this stuff in better detail over the course of a trilogy. As far as I'm concerned, it's a cardinal sin, as well as a rage-inducing annoyance, to knowingly fail to properly execute a narrative in book one, hinging the importance of your book's finale on concepts reserved for book two, and promise to make it up to readers at a later date. Night Shift's finish is the type of cash-grab finale that makes me hate the whole damn thing, which is a shame because I did enjoy most of it, right until it royally pissed me off for wasting so much of my precious time.

The bulk of Night Shift is a breezy and engaging enough read, right until the book's last few chapters where it quickly falls apart and devolves into a supremely frustrating experience as Triggs delivers a softball non-ending that serves only to provide fuel for additional mysteries regarding a concept that felt largely extraneous to begin with. It's a book that I mostly liked, right up until the bait-and-switch revelation that Night Shift is intended to be the first in a trilogy. Triggs gives us an interesting bit of mystery in the Antarctic, a location I absolutely love to see explored in fiction, but fails to stick the landing, delivering a finale that's cheap and flimsy, and, worse, predicated upon its expectation that readers cough up for more time and money for a sequel if they want the real story.

[Note: I received an advanced reading copy of Night Shift from its publisher, Flame Tree Press.]

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Review: The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency #2) by John Scalzi [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers who enjoyed John Scalzi's previous entry in his latest series, The Interdependency, should find The Consuming Fire a fun romp. That said, being a second book in a trilogy, it does have a fair bit of middle-child syndrome, even if it is, overall, an engaging and fast-paced listen.

The Collapsing Empire, 2017's most appropriately named book release, set the stage for this series with its central premise of interstellar travel by way of the Flow (think rivers in space) and what will happen to these intergalactic civilizations when those streams begin to collapse. As The Consuming Fire picks up, more Flow streams are collapsing, setting off a political shitstorm between Emperox Grayland II and the ruling houses either hellbent on denying the science behind the Flow's collapse or usurping the throne in order to further their own power.

There's a dark vein running through the core of The Consuming Fire, what with its promise of civil war, attempted assassinations, and ENTIRE FUCKING PLANETS FULL OF PEOPLE being cut off from civilization and the resources required to keep them alive as the Flow disappears to condemn everybody to certain death. And yet, somehow, Scalzi avoids miring this series in prolonged, protracted portrayals of misery. The political shenanigans involving various houses competing for control of the empire recall a certain Game of Thrones In Space! element, but The Consuming Fire never devolves into violently brutal bloodbaths and Scalzi is hardly the sadist George R.R. Martin is, even though his plot promises the untimely deaths of waaaaaaay more people than Martin ever conjured to kill. No, somehow Scalzi manages to keep it all fairly light and, somehow, comical, even when bodies are hitting the floor.

Operating as an allegory to climate change and how the rich and powerful attempt to profit from science denialism in order to become even more rich and powerful, right up until the moment of complete and utter collapse, really shouldn't be this entertaining. Yet I found myself laughing frequently, thanks to Scalzi's wordsmithing, particularly at one point late in the book when a formerly human-now artificial intelligence jokes about dying in the flow.

“We have to talk about your sense of humor,” the formerly human-now AI is told.
“It was like this before. How do you think I died?”


Yeah, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at that one. A lot of this is due to Wil Wheaton's narration. The Collapsing Empire was my first introduction to both Scalzi as an author and Wheaton as a narrator, and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. It was apparent right from the start that Wheaton is a perfect match for Scalzi's work and sensibilities, and Wil just flat-out gets it. The Consuming Fire isn't just funny, it's goddamned snarky, and Wheaton does a fine job delivering snarkiness. Having been an actor since his childhood, he brings along that element of role-play to his audiobook narrations, injecting the reading with emotion and verve that really keeps things hopping along nicely.

The Consuming Fire is a worthy follow-up to the prior book, and while it doesn't advance the story of The Interdependency in huge leaps and bounds Scalzi does inject a few interesting wrinkles and side adventures for his cast of spacebound lords and ladies. Being the middle-child, its primary mission is to move certain pieces into place for the grand finale next book, and Scalzi does this really well, presuming that the next book, ominously (or at least tentatively, per Scalzi's February 2018 blog update) titled The Last Emperox, is indeed the last. Throughout this necessary bit of set-up, though, Scalzi at least injects enough new stuff, and even a few new mysteries, to make it a highly worthwhile listen. Plus, it's just damn good fun, and that's always welcome and necessary considering the time and reality we currently live in.

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Review: Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries #4) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having already reviewed the previous three installments of Martha Wells's The Muderbot Diaries, I'm not sure I have much left to say about this series. In fact, there's a line toward the end of Exit Strategy that sums it up my general thoughts to this series of audiobooks as a whole pretty well (although since I listened to this in audiobook I'll have to paraphrase the sentiment): "It's a good story, even if the tone is a bit dry."

The dryness in tone largely stems from narrator Kevin R. Free, who does a serviceable job here but who, also, over the course of four books has yet to impress me performance-wise. The character of Muderbot strikes me as having more in the way of feelings and expressions, even as an artificial intelligence, than Free's interpretation allows. Free slips into some fairly monotone deliveries, which absolutely kill my attention. It's hard to pay much attention to a story when a narrator cannot engage you, and unfortunately I found myself mentally checking out and wandering away from Exit Strategy frequently.

Story-wise, Exit Strategy is simple, even for a novella. Wells brings back the cast of human characters from book #1 as Murderbot's investigation into the evil corporation GrayCris comes full circle and he returns to deliver evidence of this company's conspiracy to Dr. Mensah. Easy right?

Well, there's a few wrinkles here and there, but as with the prior episodes in this series it's mostly pretty straight-forward. Wells continues to provide some interesting doses of Murderbot's introspection and its interaction with other artificial intelligences and bots proves just as intriguing as its relationships with humans.

Murderbot continues to be a fascinating character in its own right, and even in this fourth novella Wells still finds new facets of this rogue SecUnit's personality and motivations. As far as antisocial killing machines who are addicted to intergalactic soap operas, Murderbot is a surprisingly charming character and with a full-length novel due out in 2020 I'm happy to know neither Wells nor Tor are finished with its story just yet.

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Review: Hell Divers IV: Wolves by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the final moments of the third Hell Divers novel, Deliverance, Nicholas Sansbury Smith promised to change up the formula a bit and deliver a fourth novel covering some terrain we hadn't seen too much of in this sky- and radioactive wastelands-focused series. Smith immediately delivers on that promise in the opening chapter of Wolves, shifting the focus of his series from the deadly skies to the equally terrifying seas.

As a fan of aquatic horror and survival at sea stories, this is very much a welcome expansion to the Hell Divers canon, but it's not all smooth sailing for the book's characters. Xavier "X" Rodriguez and his partner Magnolia Katib has hit the high seas on a mission of revenge, aiming to track down the Cazadores, a cannibalistic cult of killers, and lead the small remnants of humanity of the Metal Islands, possibly the closest thing left to paradise on Earth.

Although X's adventures by boat are a large part of Wolves's focus, Smith hasn't forgotten about the airships and their crew. The addition of the airship Deliverance has helped make life more comfortable for those aboard the Hive, but they can't get too cozy just yet. After all, it wouldn't be a very exciting story if half the book's characters were able to just lounge about sipping tea. There's still plenty of action left for those characters in the skies, and the fresh squadron of Hell Divers manage to find themselves in way over their heads in short order.

Smith keeps this book running right from the opening pages, with the pace cranked all the way up to frenetic, juggling some big action set pieces between both the A- and B-plots. Wolves is a fast, energetic read, and it's easy to sink into the narrative. The climax is exciting as hell with its Mad Max-at-sea action - a welcome source of post-apocalyptic inspiration, and one I hope Smith elaborates on further in the next book.

However, with a fifth Hell Divers title on the way in the first half of 2019, a lot of Wolves feels like prelude, giving it a middle-child vibe a lot of series suffer from. Wolves cannot resolve all of its plot elements, and much of what's here is set-up for Captives, purportedly the series finale, to resolve. That said, Smith certainly packs Wolves full of new material, expanding on the historical record of his series and introducing some new and highly durable threats that I hope to see more of soon.

Between the change of scenery and a few new enemies for X and his fellow Hell Divers to confront, Smith has injected a welcome bit of freshness into the end-game of his series. Wolves sets the stage for the grand finale, but as the Hell Divers series as a whole has shown, for Smith, the sky isn't the limit - it's just a good place to start.

[Note: I received an advanced reading copy of this title from the author.]

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Review: Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

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Thin Air: A Novel
By Richard K. Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Richard K. Morgan's style of science fiction writing and his return to the field after a decade-long absence is certainly welcome, with Thin Air doing much to remind me why I fell in love with this author's work to begin with.

Morgan writes sci-fi that is heavily, heavily influenced by hard-boiled mysteries. Beneath all the whiz-bang high-tech wrappings of interstellar colonization, cybernetic augments, and next-gen weaponry, there's a grizzled take on the classic PI - down on his luck, hard drinking, smartly armed, and chasing dames - and a planet-sized dose of noir. Thin Air is gritty, like a mouthful of coffee grounds and gravel, and just as grim and bloody as you could imagine.

On Mars, one lucky lottery winner has won his ticket back to Earth. Only problem is, he's dead, a complication that has triggered a planet-wide audit by the colony's Earth overseers. Hakan Veil is a former overrider - a genetically augmented warrior who has had his license to kill revoked and has been exiled to Mars. He's just murdered a local gangster, which has put him in police custody. He can make the charges disappear if he can protect the auditor, Madison Madekwe, and keep her safe from whoever's murdered the lottery winner. Veil makes the deal and finds himself up to his neck in organized crime, terrorist factions, killers, and political intrigue...and then things go even further south from there.

Thin Air is a densely packed narrative, and Morgan has done an excellent job building up the world of Mars and delivering a cast of deeply complicated characters. Loyalties are ever-shifting, and there's almost as many motives to the madness Veil finds himself lost in as there are Martians. The plot spins wildly upon each new revelation, and the scope of this particular story grows broader and broader. I have to applaud Morgan for being able to keep all the twists, turns, and back-stabbings straight, because there are a lot of moving pieces and characters to keep track of here. I honestly wouldn't mind seeing the notes and outlines he must have created to keep this story flowing as impressively as it does. Thin Air is a perfect example of how characters serve the plot, and the reasons behind their motivations are just as labyrinthine as the story Morgan is telling.

And, of course, there is plenty of sex and violence to move that story forward - it wouldn't really be a Richard K. Morgan book without those elements appearing rather frequently in grisly, graphic abundance. Veil is a lab-engineering killing machine; murder is literally built into his DNA, so expect a no-holds barred approach to the action sequences here. Ditto the book's sex scenes. Veil may have been coerced into playing the role of a private dick, but of this latter, well, it ain't all that private and Veil isn't the kind of guy who lets nearly being murdered with a military-grade rocket prevent him from shacking up with the stripper next door.

After spending the better part of a decade crafting a trilogy of fantasy novels, it's pretty damn thrilling to have Morgan back in the game of telling ultra-gritty, hard-boiled futuristic noir. I've missed his contributions to science fiction, and Thin Air didn't disappoint in the least. This sucker is chock full of crime, conspiracy, action, and subterfuge, and Morgan is a goddamned master, at the top of his game right here. I just hope I don't have to wait another decade for his next work of dark sci-fi, but if it's as good as Thin Air, I certainly won't complain.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of Thin Air from the publisher, Del Rey Books, via NetGalley.]

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Review: Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third (and penultimate) entry in Martha Wells's The Murderbot Diaries picks up immediately after the prior episode Artificial Condition, setting Murderbot off a new adventure with a new group of humans and bots while continuing its search for evidence against the evil corporation, GrayCris.

Having been binge-listening to The Murderbot Diaries, I have to admit the formulaic structure of these episodes is getting a bit creaky. Both Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol follow the exact same story beats - Murderbot sneaks aboard a ship, encounters and befriends an artificial intelligence aboard ship, then saves the humans. There's not a lot of room for surprise, and the similar length both of these entries share make these events feel very scheduled, the plot operating like clockwork in accordance to a rigorous three act structure. You could almost time the occurrence of both books' events right down the minute.

While the structure of The Murderbot Diaries is by now intimately familiar, Wells does find a few spots to make fresh. The character dynamics and personalities of Rogue Protocol are almost a direct inverse of the prior episode, with Murderbot attempting to hide from the ship's crew before facing its own natural instincts (or perhaps its base SecUnit coding is more accurate) to protect them. We get another view of human-AI interaction, helping to illustrate the diversity among even artificial man-made constructs. Some robots are forced into mortal combat for their owner's entertainment, while others are infantilized and treated more like pets. Actual equality between man and machine, though, is awfully rare and Murderbot at times struggles between its nature as a rogue unit and the expectations placed upon it by humans that view it as nothing more than a standard factory-line killing machine. This societal dimension of the story still has plenty of material left for Wells to explore, and it's been one of the highlights of the series thus far.

Kevin R. Free has settled into narrating duties, having found a comfortable style in the prior entry that he carries over to Rogue Protocol. There's perhaps little point in reinventing the wheel, narration-wise, three books into the series, and whether you dug Free's style or not thus far, you'll know exactly what to expect here. For me, it's a bit too gentle and even keel of a reading and the easy-listening nature of it makes my mind susceptible to wandering.

Rogue Protocol keeps on keeping on as the series builds towards its finale in book #4. Diving into this one right on the heels of its predecessor, though, makes the story feel a bit too repetitive as Wells eschews any narrative risks in order to deliver a safe story built in the exact same mold as book #2. If you've been enjoying this series so far, Rogue Protocol certainly isn't a deal breaker by any means, but it's not exactly fresh and exciting either.

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Review: Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Murderbot Diaries has thus far been an excellent introduction to the work of Martha Wells, a new-to-me author, and she is proving to be quite adept at serialized story-telling. Artificial Condition picks up shortly after the finale of All Systems Red, with the murderbot operating as an independent free-agent.

As a formerly-corporate owned SecUnit cyborg, Murderbot's memories were routinely purged, although a few still linger, particularly those surrounding the murder of 57 miners in the wake of a malfunction. Murderbot wants answers, and its journey back to the RaviHyral mining facility sees it taking passage aboard a bot-operated research vessel and getting hired on as a security consultant for a team of scientists.

As with All Systems Red, Artificial Condition presents a pretty basic story enlivened by the character of Murderbot itself. In the prior episode, it was Murderbot's interactions with its human employers that provided a lot of that book's high points. Here, much of the fun lies in seeing how Murderbot relates and responds to the shuttle bot operator, ART (yes, ART is an acronym, but to reveal what it stands for spoils the fun of discovery!).

Wells does a fantastic job bringing the construct of Murderbot to life, exploring the various facets of its artificial intelligence. While Murderbot is a machine first and foremost - and the brief action scenes illustrate quite well the proficiency in violence for which it was built - it still presents an intriguing amount of psychological depth and self-awareness, filtered through a pretty unique perspective.

Returning to narrate is Kevin R. Free, who manages a livelier performance after a fairly monotone reading in the previous go-round. As far as listening experiences go, I haven't found his narration thus far to be completely engrossing, and while I'm not familiar with his work outside of The Murderbot Diaries I do appreciate the growth exhibited by Free over the course of these two novellas. Artificial Condition presents a better narration than book #1, but it's still sadly easy to mentally disengage from and let your mind wander.

Although this audiobook wasn't entirely successful in holding my attention and consistently captivating me, I still found myself enjoying it, even if I did have to rewind a few sections to see what I had missed during moments of distraction. Murderbot is a great, and surprisingly relatable, character, and Artificial Condition helps push the overarching narrative a little bit further forward. Now, onto Rogue Protocol!

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Review: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Systems Red, the first installment in Martha Wells' The Murderbot Diaries and winner of the 2018 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards, is a heck of a lot of fun. This is a novella, so the premise is pretty simple - a rogue android has to help keep the humans who have contracted it for security alive during a planetary survey mission. Naturally, Wells inserts a few wrinkles along the way that point to something larger and more nefarious. A murderbot has to earn its pay, after all.

What separates All Systems Red from the pack of droid hero science fiction is the character of Murderbot itself. Murderbot has hacked the governor module that controls and dictates its behavior, making it a free agent, if not for the fact that it has to hide this tidbit of information from its human employers. Despite being fully self-aware and keenly intelligent, Murderbot is still listed as inventory in the Company that contracts it out for security services, so certain ruses must be maintained if Murderbot doesn't want to see itself reformatted and re-enslaved to its corporate masters.

Murderbot may not be human, although it does have some fleshy components, but it is most decidedly a person. Wells gives enough depth to Murderbot to make it sympathetic, relying on the android's personality and issues of human bias and notions of superiority in our historical dealings with artificial intelligences to give us a healthy degree of perspective on where exactly Murderbot is coming from.

And where Murderbot is coming from is decidedly simple - it hates humans and just wants to be left alone to watch its favorite downloaded television shows. Never before have I found an artificial intelligence to be so utterly relatable! While I can fully sympathize with Murderbot's ambitions, it's pretty damn hilarious listening to its encounters with its new human crew and their attempts to humanize a wryly grumpy killing machine, and how Murderbot responds to such showings of support and empathy. The scientific team it is charged with protecting is nicely drama free, but Wells manages to wring a good bit of emotive action out of how Murderbot and its crew respond to each other. Wells doesn't get deeply philosophical about the nature of life, intelligence, and free will, but she does raise a few poignant issues worth thinking about over the course of this short book.

Experiencing All Systems Red in audiobook format, though, leaves me slightly conflicted. It took me a while to warm to Kevin R. Free's narration, and while his reading here is serviceable I wish it were more engaging. Murderbot actually has feelings - it gets angry, its gets sarcastic, and it knows when it needs to be emotionally manipulative to draw out desired responses from the humans around it. Free's reading is dry and largely monotone; this makes for a dull listen despite Murderbot being anything but a dull character. I wish Free would have taken a livelier approach to the material, but I did eventually come around to his style - not enough to rave about his vocal showmanship, but enough that I'm still interested in pursuing this series in audio rather than switching over to print (at least for book two).

Although the narration didn't do the story justice, the character of Murderbot is most definitely one worth paying attention to and has me eager to sink straight into Artificial Condition next. I can't wait to see what further hijinks my new favorite anti-social killing machine gets up to!

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