Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review: THE LADY HEIRESS (2020)

British independent science fiction and fantasy writer Chris Nuttall and I have agreed on another review swap, his new fantasy novel The Lady Heiress and new science fiction novel The Lion and the Unicorn for my steampunk military fantasy Battle for the Wastelands and its prequel novella "Son of Grendel." So let's return to his Zero Enigma fictional universe, a world of manners, magic, and backstabbing...

The Plot

Lucy Lamplighter, a member of a declining aristocratic family in the fantasy city of Shallot, graduates from her young ladies' boarding school to find herself in a bind. Her father had attempted to stop their family's collapse by engaging in increasingly reckless business gambles, most of which failed, and now House Lamplighter's fortunes are in free fall. Rather than taking what's left of the money and running, Lucy decides to restore the family's fortunes. She makes some risky moves that allow for the payment of some of the family's debts, but like her father soon finds herself playing with fire...

The Good

*Protagonist Lucy Lamplighter is an engaging and clever character whom I really like and whose fate I really care about. She's very well-handled, and how she went about restoring her declining family's fortunes wasn't what I expected. However, she does have character flaws and her decisions, both good and bad, proceed from these flaws. And through her actions we see the benefits and flaws of her boarding-school education--although it teaches her valuable skills, the inconsistent consequences for rule-breaking don't necessarily prepare one for the high-stakes world of aristocratic politics and crime.

*Because the reader cares about Lucy's adventures and ultimate fate, the book is a fast read. I think I finished it in two sessions on my apartment elliptical.

*The villain arrives much later in the story than I expected and they're an absolutely slimy, vile, disgusting person who is also very, very smart. Not going to go into a lot of detail for spoiler reasons, but this character too is very well-drawn. And the villain does a very good job using blackmail to draw characters into committing more and more heinous acts. Science fiction author David Brin illustrates how the process works here. Their decisions, both good and bad, ultimately stem from the character's own personality as well.

*I also liked some of the supporting characters, like wealthy commoner Gary Prestwick and Lucy's long-suffering Uncle Jalil who fears his niece is going down the same path as her father.

*Although this book is set in Chris's Zero Enigma universe, one doesn't need to have read the other books in the series to enjoy it. The main-series characters drop in now and then, but the characters in this story are small fish in this world's upper class who realistically wouldn't interact with them. And you get all the worldbuilding you need in this book, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who has to grow up too soon.

*Finally, Chris spent his money very well on the cover from artist Brad Fraunfelter. His cover is quite frankly awesome.

The Bad

*Some revelations about Lucy's father that explain the villain's actions could have been better foreshadowed. The reader knew he was getting desperate, but there's "making bad investments" and there's what ultimately gets revealed.

*Lucy's school rival Marlene could have been better developed, especially given some revelations the villain makes about her.

*Overall the book felt a bit short.

The Verdict

Some very good characterization of major characters, but the minor ones need some work. Definitely worth reading once, especially if you're already a fan of the Zero Enigma series. 8.0 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Review: THE LION AND THE UNICORN (2020)

British independent science fiction and fantasy writer Chris Nuttall and I have agreed on another review swap, his upcoming fantasy novel The Lady Heiress and new science fiction novel The Lion and the Unicorn for my steampunk military fantasy Battle for the Wastelands and its prequel novella "Son of Grendel." So let's be off into a world of aliens, space warfare, and mayhem...

The Plot

The zombie apocalypse in space. I'm not making this up. That's the thrust of the plot. Humanity and several alien races are doing battle with what is essentially a sentient plague that has infected many worlds and turned the populations into a singular hive intelligence. Said hive intelligence has industrialized shipyards, space fleets, etc. and it's expanding like, well, a virus.

(Rather appropriate given the circumstances in which I'm writing this review.)

Captains Thomas Hammond and Mitch Campbell, the first a conservative old war-horse and the latter a a less-experienced but far more daring new captain, are placed in charge of two new warships. And among the enlisted ranks, Royal Marine Colin Lancaster and gunboat pilot Tobias Gurnard have to face the demons their youth in Liverpool have set upon them.

If they don't, they're all dead. And humankind and its aliens might die with them.

The Good

*Although the book is actually the fifteenth in a larger series, it essentially stands on its own. Events that happened in previous books are introduced smoothly as part of a character's background rather than something the reader has to have read about in order to enjoy the current book.

*The book is overall a fast and entertaining read, perfect for the elliptical exercise sessions where I typically indulge myself with e-books. The last quarter or so of the novel is particularly gripping.

*Chris begins the novel by hanging a lampshade on several ridiculous sci-fi tropes, including Star Trek's infamous exploding consoles. However, with that one he also plays it straight, explaining just how it might realistically work. I thought that was fun. There are also a couple riffs on Superman and S.M. Stirling's Draka that science fiction fans would appreciate.

*I liked Colin's arc as he realized how much of a bastard he was to Tobias when they were students and how he handles his return to the boarding school and dealing with both former cronies and enabling administrators who hadn't grown like he has. I also liked how Tobias struggled with the low self-esteem and paranoia that a youth of horrific bullying had inflicted on him.

*The concept itself is pretty cool. I've read zombie stories and am familiar with the concepts of body-snatching, demonic possession, etc. even though I haven't consumed any media about them, but I don't think I've ever read a story with a "virus space empire" as the enemy before. And the possibilities for trouble such an enemy can produce are pretty clever when every conceivable living thing can be infected.

*There are a couple fake-outs that Chris throws our way that keep the story from being predictable.

*The book sets up more adventures that I'd definitely be up for reading.

The Bad

*Those who've read a lot of Chris's work will notice some stock characters like the nerd with a chip on his shoulder because of boarding-school bullying or the nobleman who married for family duty more so than love who has to keep track of an elaborate social circle with debutante balls and parties and has entailed assets. Those tropes existing in the past or fantasy worlds that mimic the past like his Zero Enigma and Schooled In Magic series make sense, but the Ark Royal series is supposed to be set in the future. I could imagine the modern-day British navy reflecting these types of class distinctions, but hundreds of years in the future? Cultures change a lot, and they can change very quickly. Compare Britain of 1945 with Britain today.

*Although there's much talk of how humanity and its allies are losing the war against the virus, I never really got the urgency of the situation. If there were more horrors--worlds falling, refugee fleets getting quarantined in deplorable conditions or nuked lest they bring the virus with them, people getting scapegoated for the disease and murdered like medieval Jews--on-screen, I would have gotten that better. With coronavirus crisis still ongoing, there are plenty of horrors to crank up to eleven. I'm actually getting some Cozy Catastrophe vibes.

*The book makes references to people who'd been infected but been freed from viral control after a relatively short time (the most is a few months), but characters also speculate about what it's like to be infected by the virus--whether an infectee's consciousness just goes to sleep and never wakes up or whether they're helplessly watching as their body does the virus's bidding. This is something that should be well-known among the rank and file, if anything for the propaganda value--if the alternative to victory is an endless And I Must Scream trapped in one's own head, that'd be quite a motivating factor to give one's all for victory. The book makes a reference or two to labor unrest and scaring the hell out of people so they don't undermine the war effort is a missed opportunity.

(Later in the story characters start talking about being infected by the virus as being "a living death," but it would have been better if this was something mentioned earlier.)

The Verdict

Definitely worth reading once and a worthy addition to the Ark Royal series. 7.5 out of 10.