Review: The Defiant Agents

The Defiant Agents
The Defiant Agents by Andre Norton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This third entry in the Time Agents/Ross Murdock series was not as good as the previous two. The main reason was not the writing, but the premise on which the adventure starts.

Travis Fox, a time agent recruit of Apache heritage – who was a main character in the last book in the series – is supposed to be a volunteer on a colonizing mission to the planet Topaz. He and several others with historically nomadic or naturalistic ethnic backgrounds are specifically selected by the American government for settling this planet because… well, it’s a frontier? See, this is where the logic fails. The author wanted a story about Native American interplanetary settlers…so, reasons were found… just not very good ones. Supposedly, they were being regressed so they would have a better chance at survival. They even had a special machine as a backup plan that would allow them to mentally live out the lives of their ancestors somehow (as preparation for survival on the new planet?) This ends up being used (last resort) when their ship is shot down by the Russians who have beaten them to the planet.

Side note: this is 18 months after they got the spaceship from the last book back to Earth. Somehow in that time, they let the whole world share in their knowledge (which they could have kept totally secret and would have during the real Cold War). And, they (and the Russians and others) have managed to reverse engineer it and build working copies.

Credulity: Strained

So, back to the Topaz thing…. well, the Russians imported their own natives (Mongols) but being very bad people, the Russians are using mind control to make them slaves. sigh Why? It’s just dumb.

There just wasn’t any way for me to dismiss these failed premises. I mean, seriously, you are going to establish a colony on another planet, and you select people based on their ‘rugged ancestry’, and then you don’t supply them with any technology at all? No supplies? I mean, the ship should be able to make round trips, shouldn’t it? Sure, it gets shot down, but you didn’t plan for that to happen, right? I just can’t think of a good reason to excuse this silliness. The author wanted to write about Indians on another planet, so the reasons why they are there and still at a primitive tech level don’t matter enough to be plausible? Survey Says: baaammmph

So, you may be able to see my problems with the book. But… set aside nonsense (if you can) and the story becomes one of low tech vs high tech. Oh, and I forgot to mention the telepathic coyotes… they’re pretty cool. And there’s some alien stuff in there too. The writing is fine, and the characters are understandable, maybe even relate-able at times. In summary, the book isn’t bad, but it’s not all that good. I hope the next in the series is better.

So, only two stars, and I call this one a Confusing Premise Read.

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Review: Police Your Planet

Police Your Planet
Police Your Planet by Lester del Rey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Police Your Planet takes you through the newly outcast life of Bruce Gordon who has been exiled to Mars, like may others from Earth, in a manner similar to the founding of Australia with prisoners and undesirables. He is sent as punishment for revealing wrong secrets (I think?) and blackmailed with the threat of worst conditions on Mercury if he doesn’t help Security (interplanetary equivalent of the U.N.) by spying for them… although he isn’t really told ‘how’ to do that. He is left to his own devices and slowly and painfully tries to find a way to buy a ticket back home to Earth. He is wholly unsuccessful as his personal honesty/fairness trait keeps him from doing the things it truly takes to succeed in Mars corrupt society.

So the story wasn’t horrible, and I did kind of like the book, but for every Pro there was a corresponding Con to go with it.

The action was there, but it was hard for me to relate to because it was harsh physical action. Most of the time the things that were happening involved someone getting the crap beat out of them. That turned me off.

The pacing was good, but the story moved from one steady crappy situation to another. I know upping the ante for the protagonist is supposed to happen, but this one cranks it to ludicrous level.

The background/world/environment was very vivid, but it was so seedy in nature that it depressed me. The whole story revolved around a grinding, inescapable, systemically criminalized society. The only people who ever got ahead were the criminals. The ‘honest’ people were the prey and virtual slaves. The criminals used each level of the crime riddled world to try to gain an upper hand, but usually only ended up feeding upward to the next highest level until it basically ended up in the mayor’s pocket. Marsport is a really run down Banana Republic-esque capital city crossed with a mob-ridden New York. The cops are the official racketeers who do protect and serve… but at exorbitant cost. Any criminal they stop, they usually pick clean, beat down, and move on. It’s quite a miserable place.

One political thing I took away was that the author apparently had a very bad opinion of nationalism, which is why his ‘good guys’, Security, were the U.N. This was written in 1956, so the Cold War was going on, and I guess the whole clash between superpowers was bugging him. It all seems nonsensical today based on how history has unfolded, but I guess it made sense then.

The typical failure of 50’s era male-female relationships to translate to current (2016) norms was almost laughable in this one. The ‘I tried to kill you three times, and now I’m in love with you’ plus ‘everyone on the planet is a criminal, but God forbid we should sleep in the same bed together’ made the whole ‘romance’ portion just too absurd for it to have the intended effect on me as a reader. I’m sure it was fine for it’s time, but it totally fails to work now.

All that criticism might make you wonder why I even get up to 3 stars. I’m not sure either, but it was better than just ‘ok’. I guess I was waiting on the resolution of all the issues, and that’s what kept me reading… to see how bad it would get before it got fixed. It does get fixed, but because of the relationship fail I mentioned above, the ending was only mediocre. So, if you have spare time and you want a Goodfellas on Mars story, go ahead and read it, but definitely keep in mind the culture shift in the last 60 years really dates this one. I give it 3 stars and call it an Interesting Read.

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Review: The Serpent’s Head

The Serpent's Head
The Serpent’s Head by Bryan Young
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

You know, I would really like to be able to post a review of a good book on this blog. It’s been quite a while.  Unfortunately, this one is not the one.  This is the second novel by Bryan Young that I have read, and it will probably be the last. I had forgotten that he was also the author of Operation Montauk which left me disgruntled with the ending despite the excellent story and fast paced action. It would have been nice if this one was better. Alas, it is worse.

The story is a very used wild west tale, simply retold with an interplanetary frontier take. There are lots of problems with the story and the writing. There’s the tired nature of the tale itself… I felt like I had seen this b-rated spaghetti western before. There was also a heavy dependency on euphemisms in the prose despite their complete lack of fit to the situations they were used in.

For example:

The gunslinger hit the accelerator on the stolen speeder, launching him across the expanse of Glycon-Prime’s prairie. He flew far and fast toward the edge of the red desert, knowing he didn’t have long before Guerrero’s men would be on to him.

“So, can I call you Kelly now?” Zeke said to him, modulating his volume over the roar of the speeder.

“You know better than to even ask.” The gunslinger shouted, adjusting his feet on the pedals in order to keep his speed down. Now that he was out of cannon range of the complex, he wanted to give the Glick’s an easy chance to catch his trail.

He flew far and fast? No he didn’t… he slowed down so they would see him and chase him.

This quote also shows an example of a horrid tendency to say one thing is happening, but immediately say the opposite in the next two to three sentences. It was almost like it was written one way, then edited to expand it without rereading what was already there.

The characters were also shallow and self-contradictory. Their motivations and emotions were smothered in an overriding tell, tell, tell versus show writing style which often did not match their actions. The mysterious hero, Twelve, is not sure of his own motivations for acting as the hero… a fact of which you are informed dozens of times. In the end, his backstory is not even revealed, which is exasperating to me. The sub-villain, Santa Madre, was supposedly soooo horrible and did horrible things to the kidnapped young girl, Miri… yet there were no permanent repercussions to her that I could see… at least none that a good shower couldn’t fix.  The main villain who was supposed to be an angry, mean completely evil mastermind, turned out to be kind of a stupid wuss. Of course you don’t find this out until close to the end, which stinks.

All of this just constantly threw me out of the story. I’m not sure why I kept reading it other than my own tendency to need to complete a task. And it was a task.

After trudging through all that, the ending fails. It is lackluster, unsatisfying, and predictable.

I can’t even give this novel 2 stars. I recommend anyone thinking of reading it wait until it is re-released after a good edit. There’s potential for a decent story, but the novel in its current state does not live up to it.

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Review: Hammer’s Slammers

Hammer's Slammers
Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like with most of Drake’s books I have read, afterward I find myself thinking… ‘Well, that was almost good.’ It’s just on the border of OK and Good. This one was good in premise, and it had its moments of intensity, but for the most part I have to call it lackluster. Something about it just felt like I was thrown into the middle of a story without enough context to understand what was happening. You eventually get the info you need, but it’s like having someone explain an inside joke after everyone is done laughing about it… it falls flat.

One word of caution to anyone reading these as part of the Complete Hammer’s Slammers omnibus… ORDER MATTERS. I suggest you read in the order shown in the original, and not the order of the omnibus version. I did not realize this, and I think this is why I felt contextually lost as I mentioned above.

Anyway, I’m going to write about the individual stories (but not the interludes) in detail and give them ratings. I’ll try not to get spoiler-y, but be cautious reading from this point forward. Overall I give the book a rating of PI – 22 stars over 7 stories – (3.14 stars) and call it an OK Read.

But Loyal to His Own (4 stars)

An introduction to the origins of Hammer’s Slammers. General Hammer must defend his troops from political plotting of the Friesland President who sent them out to fight in the first place. Now that they have won (at any cost) he fears they are too powerful and can’t be redeemed. His solution to that problem is not something Hammer will let happen.
This is a good story. It should be read first before anything. It is key to understanding the background for all the others.

The Butcher’s Bill (2 stars)

Introduces a recurring character, Danny Pritchard, who serves as a conscience (albeit maybe an ignored one) to Hammer’s Slammers. In this story, the client who’s hired the Slammers is naïve to the costs of war. They want to stop once they realize what’s coming, and Mercenaries live off their reputations, and blood has already been spilled.

Under the Hammer (3 stars)

This is a decent story introducing another minor recurring character, Rob Jenne, who gets his first taste of combat on his first day on the job.

Cultural Conflict (5 stars)

This is the best story in the book IMO. A tanker crew whose boring assignment is canceled runs afoul of local flora/fauna. A sentient hive mind tries to defend itself, but the supertanks of Hammer’s Slammers are not a natural enemy. There is another minor recurring character intro in this one also, Sgt. Horthy.

Caught in the Crossfire (4 stars)

A competing Merc group is trying to set a trap for Hammer’s convoy. They are using a village populated by women and children (whose men-folk – save one too injured to go – have been conscripted) to do it. One of the women, Margritte, is made a widow and has nothing left to strive for except revenge. She too becomes a recurring minor character in later stories.

Hangman (3 stars)

A competing merc company and the Slammers have been transition from fighting on either side of an ethnic war to keeping the peace in it. Unfortunately, the opposing mercs have too many cultural ties to one side and surreptitiously begin to aid them, while the Slammers can do nothing that won’t jeopardize their own contract. That’s why Danny Pritchard and his crew must allow one atrocity to trigger a reaction that will prevent a larger one. This story highlights Pritchard’s conscientious but loyal personality, and the dichotomy of war as a means to peace.

Standing Down (1 star)

While this story puts a period to the quest for a home for the Slammers, it is scattered and not very memorable. Hammer returns his company to Friesland to help put a dictator in power… the dictator ‘dies’… Hammer becomes ruler and is about to marry the daughter of former President Tromp to cement a political alliance. Holdouts die mercilessly.

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