Self Published Science Fiction Contest Book Review: “Along the Perimeter” by Steven Healt

Along the Perimeter by Steven Healt

I am a judge for the SPSFC- The Self Published Science Fiction Contest, and I saw Along the Perimeter in another group’s reads. I decided to give it a go after someone in my group said they enjoyed the prologue quite a bit. I’m glad I did, because Steven Healt delivers an absolutely fascinating world that’s full of questions.

The book starts off with a bang–a young man who lives, er, along the perimeter (get it?) of a shield that covers a massive expanse of land that includes several cities, villages, farmland, and more. The shield keeps out the Haze/Fog, a dangerous cloud of deadly gases. The boy is stunned when raiders from outside the perimeter come and steal food from his village, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Fast forward past this pulse-thumping intro and readers are thrown into a fully-formed world in which aliens, the Amboians, live alongside humans and have apparently rescued humanity from certain destruction.

The world is the star in the novel, really, as it makes for a great setting to explore and learn about the characters. What’s especially awesome is how deftly Healt combines elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Even writing that seems to take away a bit from how well Healt does this. It’s clear that the book could be set in our future–the “fantasy” part isn’t so much magic as it is the feel of the world. You know those epic fantasy books that present a big world full of possibilities in every corner? That’s part of what’s happening here–the world both inside and outside of the Shield feels massive. But another way Healt combines the elements is by having a kind of creeping loss of tech the farther you get from the center of the Shield. For example, the communicators people use to pay each other stop working swiftly towards the perimeter, so they continue to rely on coinage and bartering to pay for things. Little touches of world building like this abound throughout the book, and make it an experience start-to-finish.

The plot itself follows multiple viewpoints as characters work alongside the Amboians, explore the world outside the perimeter, and try to deal with the rising level of conflict happening along the perimeter. Each character’s arc has enough to hold interest. What’s clear reading the book is that it is a slow burn, building the world, showing how pieces are moving, and then easing into the action. Mysteries abound in the world of this novel, and only a few answers are even hinted at here. The experience of reading the book feels very much like an introduction to a lengthy saga. Readers looking for a one-off won’t find many of the answers here, but those looking to explore a series will find much to theorize about in these pages.

What’s striking to me, too, is how many of the scenes are memorable even days after finishing the novel. Longtime readers of speculative fiction can certainly name favorite scenes in books, and Along the Perimeter provides a few truly excellent set pieces in which characters get to shine in surprising and challenging circumstances.

Along the Perimeter is a great start to a series that’s full of interesting characters and mysteries. I look forward to reading the next book! Recommended for fans of science fantasy and first contact novels.

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Links

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Check out all of my posts related to the SPSFC here!

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao- A thrilling YA Science Fantasy

First off, Iron Widow has an absolutely stunning cover. I used the full cover as the pic here, because it is so gorgeous I wanted to share it. Anyway, I wanted to talk about this book because it deserves more attention in the speculative fiction fan community. I saw it described as “Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale.” I’m often skeptical of book blurbs that try to sell them by comparisons because they often either aim too high (e.g. “Better than [insert your favorite series]”) or are so generic it becomes difficult to know what’s meant (e.g. “For fans of Lord of the Rings”–so basically any fan of fantasy?). Here, though, this comparison is spot-on and specific. Handmaid’s Tale makes me think of the book with its focus on religious practices oppressing women (I haven’t seen the show). Pacific Rim makes me think of giant robots beating up aliens. Well, Xiran Jay Zhao absolutely delivers on a combined experience of those.

The setup–there are some aliens that continue to attack humans. Thankfully, they’re not super bright and seem to just come in huge waves that humans have been mowing down with huge mechs called Chrysalises. These Chrysalis mechs are driven by teams–a man and a woman–who use their chi to drive the mechs to even greater heights of destruction and defense of humanity. Zetian wants to become one of the concubine-pilots (the woman part of the pair is expected to submit to the male partner in every way, whether its taking commands on the battlefield, giving up her life to power his chi, or sexual submissiveness). The reason Zetian wants to be a pilot, though, is to assassinate the pilot who killed her sister.

The book takes readers on a dizzying journey, overthrowing expectations of how the plot might turn out time and again. I enjoyed the many ways the characters around Zetian surprised me throughout the story. I expected certain things from some aspects of the plot, and was delighted when they didn’t turn out exactly how I thought they would.

If I have any complaint, it’s that the aliens/mech combat didn’t occupy more of the book. That’s a matter of my own preference–I just like mech combat and don’t get enough of it in novels. But it was kind of a bummer that the action scenes didn’t give me more of the action in detail. On the flip side, the ending of the novel throws a huge wrench in things that makes me even more excited about the plot developments and desperate for the next book.

Iron Widow is going on my nominating ballot for the Lodestar Award for best YA novel at the Hugo Awards this year. I hope you’ll consider giving it a read, too!

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 4

There were 5 slots left on my “yes” list for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest but 15 books in the running. That means I need to eliminate 2 out of every 3 books. To do so, I decided to commit to fully reading these 15 books (or, minimally, reading until I decide it’s not for me) and pitting them against each other for the final 5 slots. I had to re-think my reading to do this, because I enthusiastically put too many books on the “yes” stack to start off. So, for the sake of seeding, each former “yes” goes up against two “maybe” books (except for one post where two higher seeds will face off).

Memories of the Khassos by Leah Flaherty

The first 10-20% of this novel had me intrigued by a world-hopping adventure that seemed to blend some elements of hard sci-fi, dystopia, and, frankly, whimsy. As I read the rest of the novel, though, it didn’t ever get over the hump. That is, the premise of the world never seemed fully to be cashed in. There are supposedly numerous civilizations on the line here, but we don’t get enough of a view of any of them as a reader to become invested in their setting. Are they civilizations worth saving? One, hinted at early on, seems to be something of a police-state. But that’s it–we just get hints. The characters feel the same way. While a few of the main characters get fleshed out over time, most of the others seem to be just their as props, barely carrying along the plot. There’s not enough flavor to this world, and that’s a shame, because I think the potential for a wonderful read is there. I thought Flaherty’s prose was a strong point. The Memories of Khassos was initially intriguing, but ultimately it’s getting the cut.

Extinction Reversed by J. S. Morin

I hugely enjoyed J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean series, which is like “Firefly” with magic (and it does work and feel about that way). So, when I first sampled this book, I was surprised it wasn’t an immediate yes. I threw it on the “maybe” stack and figured I’d give it a deeper go later. I’m glad I did, because while I haven’t had the chance to fully read the book, once I got past the confusion with names and places that was piled into the front portion of the book, the plot truly takes off. It becomes an interesting look at how AI and robotic life might examine itself and try to find a place in the world. It also picks up more of the humor and personable characters that I expected from familiarity with some of Morin’s (huge) corpus. I have been enjoying it hugely ever since, and it has moved up the pile.

Things They Buried by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson

I have such mixed feelings here, because Things They Buried is quite the strong work, as well. It’s all about world-building here. There are several different alien(ish) factions here battling for control in a cityscape that is as depressing as it is hope-filled. The characters are fighting against an evil threat that is stealing and harming children. There are dark themes and awful violence here, but its for a purpose and never feels, so far as I can tell, exploitative or pointless. The book is also relentlessly dense, forcing an intense focus as you’re reading it. This is a science fantasy not to be missed by fans of the subgenre, and certainly more so if you enjoy the darker side of storytelling while still having hope even in the midst of atrocity.

Round 1 Status

Battle Royale Round 4 may have been the most difficult of them all. These books each have many merits, and they each bring entirely different things to the table. Memories of the Khassos didn’t quite live up to a promising start, but stands as an interesting enough, if disjointed, story. Things They Buried vs. Extinction Reversed is a tough battle, and I ultimately decided that Extinction Reversed is my choice, though it was very, very close. I’ll be interested to see what my fellow reviewers think of these books. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments!

All links to Amazon are affiliates.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Ken Scholes’s “Psalms of Isaak” – A Haunting Science Fantasy

Inevitably, when you read a lot of sci-fi fantasy, you discover works that you find to be absolutely marvelous but that go by relatively unnoticed by many other readers. Books that you feel deserve awards and widespread sales disappear from publication and booksellers’ shelves. There are several series or standalone books that fall into that space for me. Ken Scholes’s genre-defying “Psalms of Isaak,” a five book series filled with horror, wonder, and hope ranks very highly among them. There will be light SPOILERS for the series in what follows.

My Journey to Reading the Series

I bought Lamentation, the first book in the series, when it first came out in paperback. It languished on my shelf, showing off its beautiful cover art (are those… cowboys in front of a ruin? or warriors riding around?). I lost it in a move but couldn’t shake the image of the cover from my mind. I grabbed it in paperback again, but it was purged when I was getting ready for another move–after all, why keep just the first book in a series I wasn’t sure I’d even like? Finally, as I browsed for audiobooks available through the library, I saw that alluring cover once again. Knowing I like listening to books, and that this one in particular seemed to be haunting me, I dove in.

I was in for an absolute treat. Lamentation has nearly everything I could want in a science fantasy. It has an awesome sense of vastness of the world, both in space and time. There are ruins and mysteries lost to the past. There are subtle hints of technology that may be recovered. There are mysterious steampunk vibes mixed with those of fantasy. Truly wicked villains populate the whole series, while interesting main characters manage to keep hope alive in the darkest of times. The book was brilliant! I immediately grabbed the next one on audio and went through them all. I rarely read series back-to-back, enjoying a break in between with other books, but I couldn’t stop with the Psalms of Isaak and continued all the way through.

What Genre is it?

One of the many things that makes this series so excellent is its ability to defy genres. At its core, it’s a kind of epic fantasy, with some feeling of the hero’s journey happening throughout. But it also has clear elements of science fantasy, with some fantastical elements scattered throughout seemingly explainable with scientific means and in-world rules. Additionally, there is a helping of steampunk swirled in. Ancient artifacts are scattered throughout, as well–one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy tropes. Each time I started a new book in the series I struggled with which genre to file it under, and I ultimately just piled on the labels so that I could find the books if friends asked for recommendations.

On top of all of that, though, there is an evocative sense of religious crisis. I read some autobiographical stuff from Scholes as I read through the series and it appears he has had his own crisis of doubt–I’m unsure where he came out of it. That sense is mixed throughout this series as religion plays a major pot in many of the plot threads. It adds yet another layer of both hope and dread.

Read It!

I hope I’ve sold you on the Psalms of Isaak, because it is a series that is well-worth your time. I’m nabbing the audiobooks on Audible as I get credits. It’s a wonderful journey through a fantastic world, filled with so many vibes and ideas that you might think it’s overwhelming. But it’s not. Scholes does a great job grounding readers in this haunting place, and his storytelling will make you want to stay there forever.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Indie April Highlight: “The Sword of Kaigen” by M. L. Wang

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books.

The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

One of my favorite things to do is read lists of great books, and I also love book clubs! I am part of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book Club on Goodreads, and in March they chose The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang. I saw that some reviews described it as a Wuxia-like fantasy novel, and I was all in. The story is a prequel to the Thenoite series by the same author. That series has unfortunately been discontinued for now, but Sword is a standalone, and since I didn’t read anything else by the author before reading it, I can confidently say it truly does stand on its own. 

The world of The Sword of Kaigen is a big part of the draw. It seems to parallel our own in many ways, and I was initially shocked when one character came to a school and began talking with Mamoru, one of the main viewpoint characters, about things similar to telephone towers. I had to sit down and think about it for a bit–I do enjoy science fantasy (eg. Star Wars) but what about fantasy science? I’ve had a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with urban fantasy, so I was a bit chagrined, but I pressed on and ultimately really loved where Wang took some of the ideas. Mamoru, a 14-year-old, is confronted by stark realities about what he was taught opposing what visual evidence and other evidence he is presented with about the Empire and its relationship with his home. Misaki, a woman who has a secretive past (in swordplay!), provides the other main viewpoint, and her story takes its own surprising twists and turns.

I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll try to keep this somewhat vague. There are effectively 3 major parts of the novel, and they are so different that this almost feels like 3 books in one. I confess I probably enjoyed the first part the most, but I liked the whole book all the way through. The first part is a lot of buildup, the second part is a lot of action, and the third part is a wrapping up of the previous two. There’s a coming-of-age story here, but it’s not what one would expect as it goes on. I was surprised, I cried, I triumphed with the characters. It was well done. That’s not to say it was flawless, though, as at times it felt the frenetic action of the second part did away with the elaborate world-building of the first part. 

If you’re looking for a deeply built story with some magical wuxia- like fighting, this is an indie novel for you. Coming in at a bit over 600 pages, it will scratch that itch for a while, and you’ll be in love with the characters. Check out The Sword of Kaigen

Links

Indie Highlight– Read about more indie titles by looking at all my posts about indie sci-fi/fantasy (mostly)! Scroll down for more. Let me know what you think, and tell me your recommendations!

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

“The Mechanical” – Ian Tregillis’s Steampunk Epic

I first read The Mechanical after I saw it at a bookstore. The premise immediately struck me as something I’d be interested in, so I gave it a try. I was completely enamored at once with its compelling cast of characters and extremely high octane drama and intensity. I want to commend it to my readers here, so I’ve written up a short review. There will be some minor SPOILERS here so if you want to avoid that, just go read the book, it’s great.

The Mechanical

There are many things that make this book great. First, the setting. It’s set in the early 1900s in an alternative world in which the Dutch have mastered a kind of magical clockwork that allows them to animate robots to do their bidding. This has led to the Dutch dominating much of the world. Meanwhile, readers are also treated to following the attempts of New France to become a power again, using their chemical know-how to fight the mechanicals of the Dutch. Throughout all of this is woven a heaping helping of religious strife, with the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics being at odds against each other on almost every level.

Another aspect of the series is its fantastic characters. Ian Tregillis writes not just one, but three extremely compelling characters that were sympathetic almost from the start. On the flip side, it’s not always clear who is “good” or “bad” in many of the scenarios presented. Because much of the conflict is over both religious and economic war, it is difficult to find a right side, and that certainly reflects the real world. But tied into this is a third fantastic part of the series, which is the deep philosophical questions raised about free will and religion that come with it. Jax, a mechanical and one of the protagonists, is immediately sympathetic as one who seemingly has free will thwarted by clockwork. Meanwhile, other characters must deal with almost opposite effects. It is all fascinating.

Yet all of these wonderful details are tied into a plot with an absolutely roaring pace that never lets up. Whether it’s spy drama, nefarious evil, or warfare, there is an enormous amount of action in this book, and it never lets off the gas. It is a thrill ride that has much deeper elements than one might expect.

I have read the rest of the series, back when it first came out, and it is all very good. I will be re-reading it on audiobooks now as I continue. I recommend this series to you, dear readers. Check it out! Read The Mechanical now! And come back and discuss it with me!

Links

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Like Steampunk? Be sure to also read Robyn Bennis’s fantastic “The Guns Above.”

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.