THE FALLEN STAR by Claudia Gray

The Fallen Star
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Claudia Gray
Disney-Lucasfilm Press — January 2022
ISBN: 9780593355398
— Hardcover — 345 pp.


Like the Marvel Cinematic Universe it owns, Disney is putting out its media series of Star Wars: The High Republic series in phases. Along with Midnight Horizon (which I recently reviewed here) The Fallen Star represents the end of Phase I for the novels. I only read the adult and YA novels, so have no knowledge of any of the other entries in the series, such as the comics.

Set roughly two centuries prior to the events of The Phantom Menace, the series has so far been an overall success, exceeding many of the other canon novels that directly tie to the film series or Skywalker saga. A cast of characters who (apart from Yoda) are completely new, has been refreshing. And the antagonist of Marchion Ro has been more compelling than I initially expected, making the otherwise routine scum and villainy of the Nihil more palatable.

The Fallen Star succeeds as a very exciting, fast paced Star Wars adventure that nicely brings some aspects (and characters) of The High Republic to a close, while setting things up for hopefully even better things to come for readers. Nonetheless, it’s not without its flaws, which mostly come from the series set up, rather than the writing of Claudia Gray. Gray continues to be one of the best, if not the best, writer in the Star Wars canon, able to make even dispiriting tragedy and cookie-cutter series architecture into irresistible written gold.

If you haven’t read the previous novels in the series, then The Fallen Star is not worth your time. It might still be comprehensible as self-contained story, but the resonance of the characters and reader connections to them would be lost. If you’ve started the series, well, you should definitely continue at least through this one. If you really love Star Wars, and haven’t started the series, then these are among the best of the novels to delve into. You’ll probably be setting yourself up for continuing reading into Phase 2 to satisfy curiosity and in craving more closure.

[I’m done with Marvel movies, Avengers Endgame was a perfect spot to cry “Uncle!” The last Star Wars movies pretty much did the same for me (and there’s no way I’m giving Disney money for Disney+) but I’m continuing with the novels at least for the time being. The recent move from Del Rey publishing to Disney Books directly has me questioning how long until I quit these too.]

It’s right there in the title, but The Fallen Star chronicles the sabotage and destruction of Starlight Beacon by the Nihil, that shining symbol of hope that the Republic and the Jedi have brought to the Outer Rim. Marchion Ro has sent a small group of Nihil on a suicide mission to infiltrate the base and initiate a series of failures that will bring the station to absolute destruction. To cloud this nefarious scheme from the Jedi and reduce their chance of dealing with the cascading problems that will arise, Ro has sent the Leveler there as well, hidden on a cargo ship. (The Leveler being a creature, first appearing in the previous book, that can block/dull the Force-sensitive from accessing/feeling the Force.)

As Jedi Master Avar Kriss is off hunting for Lorna Dee (mistakenly identified as the Nihil leader) Jedi Master Stellan Gios is left in charge of Starlight Beacon to deal with the unprecedented attack. Among those there with him to help are talented Padawan Bell Zettifar and Jedi Master Elzar Mann, who has willingly distanced himself from the Force due to succumbing to the pull of the Dark Side during the climax of the previous novel. Meanwhile, some former Nihil from previous novels are also held prisoner on the station, brought by a heroic crew that includes a sentient rock named Geode as navigator.

The humor from Geode works well amid all the disaster and death of Jedi as the villains’ plan succeeds. But the real emotional core of the novel is in the ever hopeful and brave Bell, who makes clear with his actions here that he is more of a Jedi Knight now than a Padawan. Elzar Mann’s philosophical crises also remain engaging, particular with the separation he now has with the Force, as well as from Kriss and the severely compromised Gios. Bell in particular symbolizes how to fight through disaster to preserve every little shard and life possible. His process of moving on from the loss of his mentor (and the potential loss here of the replacement) makes him particularly suited to rise to the occasion and show the others how to continue fighting for Light.

Gray adapts just the right tone to make things dour, heartwarming, painful, and hopeful all when required. And she structures the novel well with a brisk pacing that still gives brief moments of emotional respite. This makes the novel entertaining and engaging despite the flaws in the story for me.

Those flaws are largely two frustrations. First, we have here yet another story/situation where the hubris of the Jedi is there downfall. The leveler helps, but Ro’s ability to get that creature in with Nihil members to cause havoc first comes down to the Jedi’s blindness and assumptions. It’s far too familiar to the prequel trilogy in tone, and it would be really nice to see Jedi that aren’t so collectively smug and ignorant for once. Secondly, the Leveler comes off as a glaring plot contrivance just to weaken the Jedi in a profound new way that miraculously has never cropped up before. The series is built on a certain amount of conceptual laziness, not unlike much of the sequel film trilogy, but at least Gray can make that engaging.


CALL ME A CAB by Donald E. Westlake

Call Me a Cab
(Hard Case Crime Series #152)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 1st February 2022
ISBN: 9781789098181
— Paperback — 256 pp.


An easy-going New York City cab driver named Tom picks up a fare for JFK airport who seems anxious and out-of-sorts. Engaging in some small talk with her, Tom learns her name is Katherine and that she is headed to the airport to fly to California to give her longtime fiancé Barry a final decision in person on the marriage. She has hesitated on fully committing to the union; though he has been patient, he has now given her an ultimatum. If only she had more time to just think, to figure out the source of her indecisiveness, and find a confident answer within her heart.

Katherine asks Tom what the cost would be to drive her to California in the cab. This would give her time to calm her panic and figure things out in isolation. She has the money; Tom has the time; an arrangement is made. Their journey begins. Along the way a close friendship builds between Tom and Katherine through their conversations and the events that go along their journey across country. They learn things about one another, and themselves. Ultimately, Katherine finds her answer.

Call Me a Cab has an exceptionally simple plot, with two simple characters. But, the interactions between Tom and Katherine are fascinating and refreshing, with flowing language from Westlake that probes psychology and human emotions with humor, playfulness, and respect.

It’s arguable that the novel doesn’t fit into the Hard Case Crime press mission or genre fold. However, I don’t remotely care, and I don’t imagine any other fans of the HCC series would either. Unlike all the other Westlake titles in the HCC library, Call Me a Cab has no crime in it at all, nor really any mystery. It does contain the element of suspense, but it’s a romantic suspense, a suspense of two characters who gradually share more of a bond making efforts to not consummate feelings of attraction they may begin to feel, because of Katherine’s relationship with Barry and because of her vulnerability in a state of uncertainty and confusion at figuring out herself. Interestingly, grappling to suppress and comprehend her friendship with Tom leads her to eventually realize the source of her hesitance with Barry.

I feel as though this is a really hard novel to review or write about, particularly with details because of its simplicity. It’s probably best if I simply wrap it up by stressing how satisfying Westlake’s deliberate and elegant prose is to read here. The reader falls into companionship with Tom and Katherine and those who have fun ‘shipping’ fictional characters who have that connection that feels so perfect, will adore this too.

Westlake wrote Call Me a Cab, it seems, as an exercise in telling a caper story without a caper. I would say that equally it is a romance story without any physical romance. With offerings like this, I’ll always support HCC willingness to stray a bit from their usual fare.


THE NIGHT ALWAYS COMES by Willy Vlautin

The Night Always Comes
By Willy Vlautin
Harper Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9780063035089
— Hardcover — 208 pp.


Lynette is a typical resident of Portland, struggling to survive and keep her family afloat amid ever widening wealth gaps in the population and gentrification of neighborhoods. Owning a home is economic stability. But, real estate prices have skyrocketed, making her goal of fulfilling the American Dream of a stable homestead all the more difficult to attain. Just in her thirties and saddled with bad credit, she works multiple jobs and pushes herself to mental and physical exhaustion to save all she can. Atop this, she spends every waking hour while at home supporting her developmentally disabled brother Kenny.

Finally, a homeowner is willing to give her a good deal and sell to her; she has managed to put together a plan to make it work. But, Lynette’s mother backs out of her financial contribution to the family goal, abandoning hope that owning a home will put them any better off, and opting for supporting her own immediate personal needs of gratification over long term possibilities. Unable to turn her mother’s mind back, Lynette goes out into Portland on a search for the needed money, calling in debts, going to friends for aid, and – as the desperation increasingly sets in – anything she can do to keep her dream of stability alive.

The Night Always Comes is a thrilling, heroic noir quest. But, one cast bleakly with the repeated crushing of an individual’s spirit by the disparity inherent in the indifference of pure capitalism; by the callous greed of other people trying likewise to survive it. The title of the novel, and its cover photography by Todd Hido, are particularly apt. For all the grit and grimdark of this literary thriller, shiny rays of hope persist, peaking out from the shadows. The unavoidable arrival of night is coupled to the unspoken promise that a daytime will surely follow, if one can just survive until then. A light of goodness remains illuminated even in a house of despair, despite being surrounded by caliginous exploitation.

Like a parable, The Night Always Comes is a succinct lesson in what economic divide and desperation can engender. The strength of Vlautin’s writing shows in how this lesson gets imparted with honesty and impassivity, never feeling pontifical. He renders Lynette with equal sincerity, illustrating both her virtues and her shortcomings. The character allows him to explore the psychological effects that disparity can have on a person, as panic and despair drive one to balancing indiscretions with the desire to keep a pure soul. The other characters offer depictions of other outcomes. For instance, the mother who has simply given up and can fight no further for anything but keeping herself happy and comfortable, a drug perhaps more addicting than the literal ones where Lynette might turn. Or, in contrast, the blithe innocence and ignorance of Kenny, a man whose ‘disabled’ mental faculties have protected his basic human love and empathy from being ground down by society and circumstances as in others.

Some might even consider Vlautin’s novel a crime story, both from the perspective of Lynette’s actions and what others do to her, but also in the sense of what society is doing to people. The noir tone of the plot and Vlautin’s language really augment this feeling. Both his dialogue and his descriptive passages show exceptional craftsmanship, and I guess this is nothing new, as he has won multiple awards and general accolades for previous novels. I hadn’t heard of Vlautin prior to getting a copy of this novel through a Goodreads giveaway, but I’ll definitely be looking for his past and future work now.

If you’re a reader who really looks for ‘feel-good’ escapist fiction, then this certainly is not the novel for you. If there was ever an opposite to a feel-good story (a feel-dreadful story?) then it’s this. But, that doesn’t mean it’s an unpleasant read, or a night of darkness you can’t get through. And maybe it’ll drive more into action that help bring the daylight to our world.


THE BONE FIRE by György Dragomán (Translated by Paul Olchváry)

… a brilliant novel about self-discovery, a coming-of-age within those shadows of the teen years before the Spring of adulthood. It’s a parallel for the self-discovery of a nation, or a people, formed through many past traumas and facing uncertain future. To make it through requires ritual, a bone fire cleaning of house that acknowledges those lost, the souls and sins of the past, a rite that strengthens the ties between the community of individuals who have survived to hang on to each other even amid failings.

Read my latest review of The Bone Fire at Speculative Fiction in Translation

Mariner Books – February 2021 – Paperback – 480 pp.

QUARRY’S BLOOD by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Blood
(Quarry Series #16)
(Hard Case Crime Series #151)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 22nd February 2022
ISBN: 9781789096682
— Paperback — 224 pp.


Quarry’s Blood is a quick and satisfying pulp read, with Collins infusing his latest novel with fresh blood (yes, bad pun groan) to invigorate the aging Quarry series. I first saw this title in the Hard Case Crime catalog and thought, oh dear, another Quarry novel? And then I was even more confused to see that it was set in 2021, well after the events of The Last Quarry, which had been meant as the chronologically final story of the former contract killer’s life. I read how HCC editor Charles Ardai talked Collins into writing this entry, read the novel, and then was very glad that Ardai succeeded.

If, perchance, you haven’t read a Quarry novel, or if you haven’t seen any of the brief Cinemax series based on the series, here’s the gist of the character. A Vietnam veteran trained as a sniper, the man later dubbed Quarry returned home after the war to find his wife had been cheating on him with another man. Quarry killed that man, but circumstances led to him legally getting off from the crime, and to be recruited as a hitman for a powerful ‘Broker’ with mob connections, a man in charge of delegating regional contract killings. The Broker names his talented new recruit “Quarry” for the man’s rock solid appearance and hollow emotional core, and Quarry quickly becomes one of his best hitmen. Until the Broker begins to worry about Quarry and betrays him. Quarry goes rogue and takes care of the problem, procuring a list of jobs in the process. Quarry begins to go to people on the hit list and offer his services to get rid of the contract killers after them, and then also to try and find out who ordered that hit and take them out too. As he ages, he eventually settles for one last job with a big payout; he ends up with retirement with a woman he loves.

In Quarry’s Blood, the former hitman is still living the quiet, retired life, mourning the recent loss of his wife to COVID, but continuing his daily routine as he approaches seventy years old. This calm routine changes when a true crime writer, Susan Breedlove, arrives knocking at his door with questions. Susan has written a best-selling book that investigated and exposed many events from Quarry’s past, including what occurred with the Broker, and she is looking to write more, with more details and the hope of cooperation from Quarry, the man she knows far more about than anyone should. Even more disturbingly, soon after her visit, a contract killer and his backup make an attempt on Quarry’s life. It’s reasonable to Quarry to assume these two events are connected.

There are two things to the aptly titled Quarry’s Blood that make it succeed in terms of its plot. First, it is now a case where Quarry is the contract. He has to both protect himself from being killed, while also investigating to try and figure out who would want him dead and how it relates to Susan’s book/research. And, though he is in remarkable shape for his age, he is certainly not in top form for the kind of exertion that investigation might entail. Second, is the character of Susan: who she is and how that relates to Quarry and his past. The person who put out the hit on Quarry, and their secret reasons for doing so also pull from the core of Quarry’s past and nicely parallel his relation to Susan.

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to be more detailed, but I’m going to opt for keeping it all a surprise. The novel begins with three chapters set in the 1980’s, so that by the time we get to the present and Susan arrives, things should already be clear to readers. Thankfully Collins doesn’t take too long to dance around things either, leaving the real mystery of the novel to who is targeting Quarry – and even moreover why.

Collins’ writing is exactly what one would expect from this master of neo-pulp. The text and dialogue flow crisply, with bits of playful trashiness one would expect from the genre. The novel is also preceded by some quotations, one of which is a definition for ‘meta’. Indeed, there are many self-referential nods in Quarry’s Blood, including mention of the TV series and the idea that Quarry himself writes the pulp Quarry series that everyone thinks is fiction.

Collins clearly has fun writing this unexpected chapter in Quarry’s story, and he succeeds in making it unique enough from previous entries to warrant its telling. Susan is an impressive addition to the series, and I could see things continuing in spin-off series featuring her. In fact, I hope Ardai pushes strongly for that.


THE HOUSE OF STYX by Derek Künsken

The House of Styx
(Venus Ascendant #1)
By Derek Künsken
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — August 2020
ISBN: 9781781088050
— Hardcover — 500 pp.


It’s approximately two hundred years in our future and the atmosphere of Venus has been settled by descendants of Québécois settlers. They subsist as a self-governed mining cooperative, but their political structure and livelihood are ultimately controlled by the bank that holds the economic strings. Families live in floating complexes, bio-engineered trawlers derived from native Venusian life that has evolved in the sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere. Active mining habitats circulate between atmospheric rangs to harvest elements and compounds that can be sold. It’s a dangerous life in environments inhospitable to human life, demanding bravery and advanced engineering skills.

The D’Aquillon family owns a habitat/vessel named Causapscal-des-Profondeurs, where patriarch George-Étienne leads their mining efforts in the lowest of Venusian rangs, isolated from the main colony, both its control and its support/aid. In part, the D’Aquillons are self-exiled to this most dangerous area of Venus, to an existence that has already claimed the lives of George-Étienne’s wife and one daughter. Jean-Eudes, the first-born son of the family was born with Trisomy 21, Down’s Syndrome, a condition the colonial authorities would not allow to exist, diverting precious resources to an individual who could not ‘contribute’. George-Étienne and his wife refused to give up their son, trading a life with the gentle and loving Jean-Eudes for medical services and colonial support, moving the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs to where no one else was willing to go.

With George-Étienne and eldest son Jean-Eudes are youngest son Pascal, a brilliant engineer of only sixteen years, and young grandson Alexis, the son of the daughter who was lost in a Venusian storm. While exploring the high pressure surfaces of Venus, George-Étienne and Pascal discover a cave where atmospheric currents oddly seem to be entering. Using a submersible probe and camera and they explore, bringing back rare metals and materials that should not be present on Venus, and machinery that appears to be alien. Pascal has the radical idea that they have just discovered something unfathomably priceless: a possible worm-hole to another part of the universe there within the Venusian cave. An opportunity for mining goods that no one else within the colony can get at, a possible way to get out from under the influence and power of Venus’ colonial system and the banks that enforce it.

The only person they are willing to trust with their discovery is Marthe, sister to Jean-Eudes and Pascal, who lives in a habitat with the main colony as a delegate to the ruling assembly, a leading minority voice against those in power. Marthe realizes that any move the D’Aquillon’s make to take advantage of Pascal’s discovery will need some support from other families, so she uses her diplomatic skills to pursue these. However, she is less certain whether to also bring her other brother in on the plan, Émile, the black sheep of the family, who left the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs after a bitter argument with his father, who now lives mostly in weak pursuit of women, Venusian religion, and an aspiration to writing poetry. This he fuels with self-destructive resentment and anger, mixed with alcohol and other drugs.

Can the D’Aquillon’s come together again, putting family first for their future, and the colony’s? Will the bank and the leaders of the colonial governing council discover what they are up to and put a stop to things? Might their efforts and diplomatic outreach to other families be the start of something much larger?

The House of Styx originally appeared in serialized form as three parts published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine back in 2020. Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) subsequently put out the complete version, and I recommend readers check it out. If you happen to have read other novels by Künsken, The House of Styx does exist in the same ‘universe’ as his “Quantum Evolution” series. My understanding as the “Venus Ascendant” series serves as a prequel detailing the establishment of things in the other. The House of Styx is similarly built on ‘hard’ science fiction and a focus on things physical and technological. I do wish Künsken had devoted as much to his exploration of the Venusian biology. The hard science of the House of Styx gave it a home in Analog, but really its all built on core themes of the novel dealing with familial interaction and identity politics. It is a space opera amalgam of hard SF and soap opera. And, as I detail below, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Given its original serialized format, the has an organization into thirds. The first establishes the setting and the personality/relationship between the D’Aquillon family members up to Pascal’s discovery. The second details the family’s process of making a decision of what to do regarding their discovery, and reaching out to potential allies. And the concluding third unveils the fruition of those plans and how that impacts the various family members.

A lot happens, therefore, in The House of Styx. Yet, it also reads as relatively incomplete. As the first part of a series, it is largely setting things up for the future, and the novel ends with a lot being unresolved. Sure, some things wrap up, and there are certainly character arcs/growth going on. I’m just not convinced that there’s enough for the novel to satisfyingly work as a stand-alone. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more. But, I don’t think I’d recommend it to someone who was only willing to commit to reading just this first book. If you read this, you’re setting yourself up to need to read the future books of the series to fully appreciate things.

Here’s why The House of Styx and beyond is worth investment: the setting and its characters work phenomenally well to explore both concepts of science and of humanity. The Québécois culture and argot that peppers the novel give it a unique and personalized tone from Künsken that provides an interesting and new perspective to what might be expected of future colonists of a world like Venus. The pride, daring, and loyalty of the D’Aquillon’s shines to overcome their sins, failings, or ‘imperfections’ for their environment.

Of all the characters, Pascal is most frequently central, with events going through his point of view, with Marthe and Émile being close seconds. For each of these siblings (and to some extent other characters who don’t really have POVs), the plot of the novel is really a vehicle for them to fully work out who they each are as individuals. Are they just a D’Aquillon, or are they also Venusian? Can they be different from their father, yet still be loyal to the family? What are they meant to do with their life? Who are they really meant to be, at their core?

These dilemmas become most perceptible in Pascal, who from early in the novel voices feelings of discomfort with his body and self image. Gradually, he begins to wonder whether the alienation he feels within himself between mind and the physical may come down to discord between biological sex and gender. Through conversations with his sister and his brother Jean-Eudes, coupled with self-reflection, Pascal decides that he is perhaps really a girl. In a very moving and well-rendered passage, an instant of a few words, Pascal become Pascale. She is more confident, but still confused on how to tell all her family, or the man she has fallen in love with (and he with her.)

Just as the novel centers of the themes of personal discovery of identity, so too does it work on the larger scale of political identity: self-sufficiency versus shared governance, a part of the colony or separate, beholden to a repressive economic condition or economically fully independent of such powers?

The House of Styx ends in a somewhat heartbreaking and cliff-hanger fashion, yet I suspect the follow up novel will have resolutions that make the ending happier, or offer return of characters long-thought lost. Regardless, I’m invested in seeing where things go for this planet, for this new partnership of families, for these people. Just, please, some more hard biology to go with the engineering stuff?


MIDNIGHT HORIZON by Daniel José Older

Midnight Horizon
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Daniel José Older
Disney-Lucasfilm Press — February 2022
ISBN: 9781368057288
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Set two centuries before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The High Republic media series has depicted the Republic and the Jedi try to deal with fighting off a mysterious new enemy called the Nihil amid their attempted expansion of Republican ideals toward the Outer Rim.

Within the different types of media, I only care about the novels, and I expected the series to simply consist of a trilogy of adult novels and a trilogy of young adult novels, but apparently this is only the start of an ongoing thing. This third young adult novel Midnight Horizon takes place roughly concurrently with the events of the third adult novel The Fallen Star (which I’m reading now.)

[As an aside, I don’t understand the whole young adult marketing at all, particularly for media tie-ins like this. They don’t seem very distinguishable from an adult novel to me – having more teen Padawans appearing as the protagonists does not inherently make something ‘young adult’. And I wonder how much the readership really divides along age lines between the two types of novel – if at all?]

If you haven’t read the previous novels yet, you should start there. While the specifics of Midnight Horizon are a self-contained story, the broader strokes of galactic conflict and history between many characters can only be appreciated or followed with the context of previous stories.

Two Jedi Masters, Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy travel to Corellia to investigate mysterious attacks on the planet’s upper class that may be linked to the Nihil, as part of the new active efforts of the Jedi to try and stamp out the terrorist raider threat. With them in Coronet City are Padawans Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, and local help in the form of a young woman named Crash who leads a gang of bodyguards for the Corellian elite.

The High Republic has been a series of ups and downs for me, sometimes being riveting thrills and other times a stew pot of mediocrity. Midnight Horizon felt similar, compressed into one story. The start of the novel begins with an attack and mystery that feels promising, but soon the story languishes in slow build up that focuses more on interactions between the Jedis. The end finally picks up, considerably bolstered by the appearance (finally) of Yoda, whose name has been merely teased throughout earlier novels. Flashback scenes with Yoda earlier in the novel are also bright spots.

This overall arch of Midnight Horizon is actually not any different from all the other Star Wars novels, the middle portions are built on slower moments of character interactions, their emotions and their growth. So why was I bored so much by it here, while I enjoyed it elsewhere? I think the answer simply comes down to my appreciation of the writing style of the author. Older’s style is just not for me.

I previously read Older’s Star Wars novel that coincided with that terrible Solo: A Star Wars Adventure film. I chalked up my disinterest in that novel to the fact that I really couldn’t stand Solo or its characters. I now see it’s not just that. Older returns in Midnight Horizon to that world of Solo by setting this novel on Corellia, and I won’t deny his strengths at working in that world – or in serving as an overall story architect for The High Republic. But, both novels also have a distinctive voice that feels extremely off for the setting, too emulative of modern English, particularly with phrasing or adding slang that make it more like teenagers are speaking. There are moments where it feels cutesy, and cutesy is not something that for me fits with Star Wars.

This negative becomes augmented by the molding of Midnight Horizon to a “young adult” market (so I guess that wasn’t totally an aside above.) Older’s style that grated at me felt worst with scenes and points of view of the Padawans or Crash. The parts more focused on the Jedi Masters simply felt better, not drawing me out of the story and universe.

If you’re reading The High Republic series, this is certainly enjoyable enough to warrant reading, even if Older’s style doesn’t match your tastes. If you have no qualms with his style, you’ll probably love this novel. If you haven’t read The High Republic, but are a Star Wars fan, it’s a series worth looking into, better than most of the novels that were released alongside the latest film trilogy, with a large cast of new, interesting characters. Just start with the first books that set it up so well.


FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel

Five Decembers
(Hard Case Crime Series #150)
By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789096118
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


This is perhaps the best Hard Case Crime novel I’ve yet read, and it is among the best novels in general that I’ve read in the past year. I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment, as the Mystery Writers of America just announced Five Decembers as the winner of the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel a few days ago. James Kestrel is a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, whose previous novels are now going onto my to-read list with that priority of engaged excitement. Here’s why you might enjoy this novel as well, even if you are not a regular reader of the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Five Decembers opens with a set-up of plot and atmosphere that smolders with a familiar intensity of pulpish noir suspense. Former Army officer Joe McGrady now works as a Honolulu city police detective, perceptive and dedicated, though resented and unappreciated by many of his colleagues, particularly his boss. But, as Europe and the rest of the world beyond begin to churn into global conflict, he lives content on the island with his job and a woman he loves.

The trajectory of Joe’s life change when he is assigned a gruesome double homicide that ends up having links to the family of the Admiral who heads the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and to Japan. After a shootout near the scene of the murder with one of the killers, McGrady ends up on the trail of a professional killer across the Pacific, eventually reaching British Hong Kong. The chaos of World War II and an attack by Japan on Hong Kong make tracking a dangerous killer the least of McGrady’s worries, as his investigation and pursuit quickly turn into becoming a prisoner of war.

The adventure of Five Decembers stretches across five years (hence the title), in an epic story that combines elements of crime fiction, historical war drama, romance, and conventional literary explorations of cross-cultural contact. Clandestinely freed from execution within a Japanese prisoner camp by one of his captors, Joe McGrady must spend most of the war in hiding within a Japanese home. The war’s end finally gives him the freedom to leave and resume the hunt for the killer that began his journey. But how have the secluded years living with a Japanese family changed him, and what is left for him to return to?

Five Decembers starts as hard boiled crime, and eventually returns to it. But the majority of it serves as something much more profound and heartbreaking, yet just as entertaining, just as fluid with dialogue that pops and grittiness that touches the soul. Even in the moments of the novel without ‘crime’ and the mystery plot, the tone of the novel stays consistent with the genre.

The hard boiled or film noir style is largely defined by the cynicism in its characters, brought on by cycles of violence and despair. Bright rays of hope that appear, and dreams of a happy future, become clouded over by gruesome reality. War does this as well, as it overturns the lives of ordinary people, people who may even be the enemy, but who are at their heart still good. Systems destroy even the good, particularly the good.

McGrady finds himself prisoner to a life he never intended, could not have chosen. Yet somehow it becomes a life of beauty and tranquil peace. Of happiness. Just as the outbreak of war causes chaos and disruption, so too does the end of these conflicts, as others coming into power and enemies are not just defeated, but also punished. The end of war is not a new peace. It’s a return to the same cycles of violence, with different players and stages. McGrady’s life is again disrupted and he’s forced to again find his place in the world.

Five Decembers is a cinematic novel, one that I could easily seen adapted into a movie that was on one hand action/suspense, but also art house, using the familiarity and entertainment of genre conventions to probe the human condition in one common man across a swath of time. It’s a complex novel that I would enjoy reading again, and I believe that a lot of people across reading interests would find rewarding.


DOUBLE DOWN by Max Allan Collins

Double Down
(Hard Case Crime Series #149; Nolan Series #s 3 – 4)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789091410
— Paperback — 352 pp.


Even mediocre Max Allan Collins provides more entertainment value than much of the crime fiction that is out there, and with this volume one gets two episodes from the neo-noir series featuring the professional thief Nolan for the price of one. Double Down is a recent Hard Case Crime reissue of the third and fourth novels of Collins’ Nolan series, Fly Paper and Hush Money. Originally written back in the ’70’s, but not published until 1981, these novels have since been often out-of-print. This release by Hard Case Crime follows their publication of the final Nolan novel (#9, Skim Deep) a few months prior, which I reviewed here previously.

In Fly Paper, Nolan has settled into retirement from pulling jobs for the Detroit mob, surviving old enemies to manage one of organized crime’s legitimate businesses, the Tropicana hotel and nightclub outside Chicago. But Nolan receives a call from his protégé Jon that sets the pair up for a heist of some easy money from a member of the Comfort family, a crime clan who continue as a principal antagonist to Nolan in the series. Meanwhile, a man plots the daring hijacking of a flight for some ransom money. Unfortunately for this man, he has chosen the flight that Jon and Nolan are taking after netting their easy score.

Fly Paper is an odd entry to the Nolan series compared to the others I’ve read. The heists and crimes come down entirely to happenstance, showcasing the Pasteur quote “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” It all ends up feeling like a cakewalk, with Nolan and Jon barely breaking any sweat. Additionally, the novel has the feel of being two stories set in one (compounded here with Fly Paper being paired with another novel.) There is the one plot with the Comfort family, which easily resolves, and then there is the plot inspired by the real history of “D.B. Cooper” and his hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. I imagine Collins read the news stories about this stunning event back in the early 1970’s and thought, hmm, I wonder how that would’ve gone down if a real bad ass were on board at the time to steal from the thief? Beef that concept up with a set-up to get Nolan on the plane, and print it.

Hush Money takes place concurrently with Fly Paper, and immediately following. Someone in Des Moines is killing business associates of organized crime, and the Mob thinks that Nolan may be the best person out there to find who is responsible and cleanly make it end. With the amount they offer him, how could Nolan turn it down, especially with Jon eager to help? It takes a good third of the short novel for Nolan and Jon to even appear, so a good chunk of Hush Money involves the killer, the targets, and their families during the time when Jon & Nolan are making bank off the Comforts and an odd plane trip home. Again, this gives Hush Money the feel of being two stories that merge into one. The plot feels superior to that in Fly Paper, though, with less of a reliance on happenstance, and without the DB Cooper gimmick going on. It’s also interesting to see Nolan work in a role of mediator where he ends up not ever having an ‘enemy’ or ‘evil person’ who he has to go up against for survival.

Neither Fly Paper or Hush Money are ground-breaking or remotely compare to the best noir that Collins has produced. But, regardless, he can write. Nolan shines with style, wit, and a charming elegance that imparts that compulsively readable pulp crime vibe. Jon has more naiveté, but an earnest drive to learn and find success. The stories and dialogue smoothly flow to give a simply entertaining diversion of crime fiction, bread-and-butter of the Hard Case Crime line that doesn’t demand much, but also doesn’t insult or fail.

Hard Case Crime is in the process of publishing additional works by Max Allan Collins, including titles featuring his character Quarry and volumes from the Nolan series that follow this one. The character of Nolan is inspired (at least in part) on a thief from Donald E. Westlake’s oeuvre writing as Richard Stark, and Hard Case Crime is likewise amid several Westlake releases. Look for reviews of those releases coming ahead, and check the novels out if you’re a fan of this pulp crime gold.


ENGINES OF OBLIVION by Karen Osborne

Engines of Oblivion
(The Memory War Book II)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250215505
— Paperback — 416 pp.


Trilogies and beyond are certainly the norm for genre fiction. Many stand-alones exist. But, seem to be pretty rare. If writing two distinct chapters, how easy it much be to stretch things for more. If they aren’t so distinct, couldn’t they simply fit together into just one longer volume? Karen Osborne does something unique and remarkable with her “The Memory War” duology. Engines of Oblivion, the second book of the series feels even more successful than the first.

The two novels are flip-sides of the same coin, or the same vinyl record, bearing different surface characteristics but forged from the same core elemental materials. Both of them enrich one another: the first is necessary to grasp the sequel, but the sequel makes the reader appreciate its predecessor more deeply. The duology actually becomes a whole. Though Engines of Oblivion may feel better, it’s mostly because the reader can now fully connect with what came before, realizing this is a story of two distinct protagonists faced with the same economical and political exploitation/control.

The first novel of “The Memory War”, Architects of Memory, follows corporately indentured salvage pilot Ash Jackson, who (with the crew she works with) discovers a weapon of mass destruction that might be useful in a war between humanity and the alien Vai. I wrote more on that novel in an earlier review, and I also had the opportunity to interview author Karen Osborne on the series.

Engines of Oblivion continues following the events that close Architects of Memory, but now following protagonist Natalie Chan, a war veteran who served with Ash on the crew of the Twenty-Five. Chan has barely survived the battle of Tribulation at the climax of the first book, but has gained her corporate citizenship as a result. However, it still comes with additional price. The Board of the Aurora Corporation doesn’t believe Ash and her partner Kate (the former captain of the Twenty-Five) are dead, and they suspect Chan may have even had a hand in letting them escape with the secrets of the alien technology that could be used to defeat the Vai. Chan is sent along with other former crew member Dr. Reva Sharma to find Ash and Kate. There is a significant complication, however. Natalie Chan has lost pockets of her memory, and she is beginning to doubt many things she took for granted.

Like its predecessor, Engines of Oblivion has rapid pacing, but familiarity with the characters makes it far easier to jump into. The first book showed how a tight-knit group of people who professionally relied on each other for their lives turned to mistrust, betrayal, and some signs of hopeful empathy/solidarity. The sequel explores these character connections more deeply, in satisfying ways that enrich the characterization from the first novel.

Some readers may find it jarring for the story to turn towards the point-of-view of Natalie Chan. Readers become very accustomed to Ash in the first novel, and invested in rooting for her success. We see Chan in that novel only through Ash’s interpretative mind, and not as a particularly relatable person to empathize with. However, Osborne does fabulously well from the start putting readers into Chan’s confused mind to get another perspective on things and generate reader sympathy for someone who may have been more disliked prior.

Chan has bought into the power structure and narratives of the Corporatocracy that runs things in “The Memory War”. But she slowly begins to see things that Ash had long known and appreciated. Through Natalie Chan’s initial complicity, and gradual awakening, Engines of Oblivion is able to dramatically expand the themes of corporate power and personal freedom that the first novel touched upon.

As with the first novel, Engines of Oblivion provides some twists and surprising turns to end up in a satisfying conclusion that draws both the heart of this novel, and the overall series plot, into effective close. I would have enjoyed more background detail and exploration of the Vai over other elemental foci of the novel, but that is the biologist in me, I understand that not everything can fit.

If you are a fan of space opera and still haven’t checked this pair of books out, go get Architects of Memory now, it ranks among the best in the current sub-genre and would give any of the ‘classics’ a run for their money.