THE TERRANS by Jean Johnson

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The Terrans
(First Salik War Book 1)
By Jean Johnson
Ace Books – July 2015
ISBN 9780425276914 – 454 Pages – Paperback
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Although set in the same universe as Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series of military science fiction The Terrans marks the start of a new series, with a different thematic focus, which can be read on its own. Having never read anything by Johnson before I can attest that the start of this series does work on its own, though doubtless fans of her science fiction universe will find nods and gems that I couldn’t pick up on. The novel also works effectively enough without its sequels. Its followup, The V’Dan, was published this past winter and the series conclusion, The Blockade, is slated for this coming November.
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This is one of those books that I wouldn’t likely pick up on my own. A mass market paperback of an author I’m not familiar with at all. The start of a series that could compel a commitment to read more. A subtitle and cover that brings to mind military SF, a sub-genre I’m unlikely to get much enjoyment in. Without a recommendation or reading reviews that suggest some compelling part to the novel, I just wouldn’t risk the time.
The Terrans did not blow me away, but it is a better-than-average space opera with some strong assets that will get me to seek out the second book in the series. Unlike the five novels to date in Theirs Not to Reason Why, this first book of The First Salik War focuses on first contact diplomacy more than military culture and conflict. Had that not been the case I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel because the other aspects of the novel I did enjoy would not have made up for an undesirable plot and theme.
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Set two hundred years prior to the events of her other series, the Terrans features protagonist Jacaranda (Jackie) MacKenzie, a diplomat and translator with powerful psychic abilities and training. The prescient members of humanity have foreseen alien first contacts and the coming of a terrible war. Jackie is recruited back into the Space Force to serve as both soldier and politician in a team sent to investigate the threat of the alien race and find a way to delay or prevent conflict. While dealing with bigotry, prejudice, and internal conflicts among the team she has been designated to lead, Jackie must find a means of cross-cultural communication with the V’Dan, a long forgotten branch of humanity that already has been targeted by the predatory Salik aliens.
The Terrans is superb in concept and genre balance. I enjoyed the mixtures of action, romance, social commentary, and politics in the novel. Johnson does a phenomenal job in making her novel diverse in character. She includes technological and psychological details that provide a hit of ‘hard’ science fiction among the space opera and the fantastic. I loved the considerations of quarantine, and the struggles of even communicating with fellow humans, whether the distant V’Dan or fellow members of the same planet with vastly different points of view.
However, the novel really fails in how it executes its grand ideas. The dialogue and exposition are heavy handed, even tedious. The writing is geared more towards celebration of its ideas rather than a more artistic side of literature that would use well crafted lines for nuanced exploration of themes. Seeming almost ‘preachy’ in some regards Johnson makes her characters too clear-cut, idealized or criticized. Jackie in particular is a Renaissance woman type, excelling at so many skills, yet bearing the patience of a saint in the face of harsh, unjust treatment. A small dose of such perfection contrasted with villainy is fine, but here it begins to get frustrating, drawing the reader out of the story itself into a view of the novel as a constructed image of the author of how people treat one another versus how things should be.
And so if you are reader who would like space opera that affirms diversity with feel-good idealism, then this is something you’d probably really enjoy. I wouldn’t want to just read something like that, but I did overall enjoy The Terrans despite its heavy-handedness. The story was compelling enough and I liked the dilution of action with inter-human and human-alien communication. If you, however, feel time away from action makes a novel drag, then Theirs Not to Reason Why may be more the series for you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

LINESMAN, by S.K. Dunstall

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Linesman
By S.K. Dunstall
Ace Books – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780425279526 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


I keep going back and forth on how I feel about Linesman, the debut novel of a series written by Australian sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall. It has some issues, which of course I’ll get to, but ultimately it is a solid, entertaining space opera, with a protagonist I found interesting. And balancing each problem I saw with the work, the Dunstall pair did something else really well that I appreciated.
Ean Lambert is a Linesman, rated at the highest level of ten. But he is also a pariah, self-taught and from a disadvantaged background, with odd behaviors and views of the lines that every conventionally trained Linesman considers quetionable, bordering on a sign of insanity.
The problem is that though the lines have been used for centuries, no one really knows what they are, or what exactly they could be capable of. The lines have allowed humanity to travel the stars as never before. Apparent remnants of some alien technology, the lines form an intimate connection with ships, powering them to safely travel through the Void, effectively giving humans faster-than-light travel technology. Through the centuries humans manage to figure out what most of the lines seem to do, and come to a rough understanding how some people have the power to control them. Humanity has spread out among the stars into an empire. But politically organized business interests and others stand in opposition to the Empire, near war. A strange confluence of lines and the discovery of a dangerous derelict alien vessel propel competing political factions into a race to capture potential new line technology, and a powerful weapon.
By happenstance Ean is thrust into the center of this building conflict, but members of the empire begin to realize that Ean’s unique approach to the lines may be the key to everything. Ean doesn’t just fix lines and use them, he sings to them, he hears their music. As his powers and abilities build he finds that he can communicate with them, and that the lines may be far more than ever suspected, and the mysterious alien race that once used them could one day represent a grave danger for humanity.
One of the best aspects of Linesman is how well the Dunstalls relate this universe to their readers. Things are explained as thoroughly as the characters understand, and the info dump of material blends in rather seamlessly. However, they do a bit too much in trying to make sure readers have gotten things straight. For instance, I began getting tired of reading how ‘no one knows what lines seven and eight do’. This sticks out in mind, but there were other aspects to plot and character that became repetitively pointed out.
Cutting that repetitiveness would’ve been a good start, but I also did feel it could have used some larger trimming, particularly chapters from the point of view of another Linesman, Rossi. Ean has a rather unconfident personality – which makes sense given who he is, where he is from. But I still found him endearing, I like rooting for underdogs and the under-appreciated. But Rossi is just a complete ass. And like most of the characters in the novel, he doesn’t really change. (I hope characters can go through more development in the follow up to this). Rossi is from the other side, the enemy of those Ean Lambert works for. So Rossi’s sections are here to give us some of that perspective, but also to relate plot details that Ean isn’t present for. For the most part I didn’t find those necessary though. And with so few redeeming qualities it is hard to see him other than as a sneering character ‘type’.
Despite this weakness of Linesman, its otherwise careful construction, excellent dialogue, and tremendously entertaining action/shifting plot made it a real enjoyable read throughout. (And Rossi’s chapters are at least mostly short). The Dunstalls relate the action of a scene well, I could follow what was going on easily. By making the exact nature of the lines (and their origin) a bit of a mystery the novel also helped keep my attention through curiosity to find out more on how all these things worked – and the authors seriously tease the reader’s curiosity with the novel’s last line!
Linesman is a fun space opera and the authors show a lot of potential – as does the series itself for going interesting places. I’ve read a cluster of ‘first-in-a-series’ recently and this one seems to be set up to go in interesting new directions. At the same time this novel has a clear resolution to work well enough, satisfyingly, on its own should one choose not to keep reading future volumes.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder


Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor Books
Serialized in Analog Science Fiction & Fact (Dec. 2013 – Apr. 2014)
ISBN: 0765337266
352 pages, hardcover
Published: 25th March 2014

Though marketed as a young adult book in its complete form, I read Karl Schroeder’s new novel Lockstep during its serialization in Analog Magazine over the span of four issues. My reaction to it is colored to begin with through the format. I dislike the practice of serialization of novels (or of excerpts) when they are taking up the space that could go to complete shorter stories. Even for authors I consistently enjoy, a serialization will bother me, an except will just be ignored.

In the case of Schroeder, I’ve found his world-building – his imagination – to be outstanding, thought-provoking, and well structured.  But, how well that stellar idea and exquisitely fashioned framework is translated into a full compelling tale varies. I recall somewhat enjoying Sun of Suns, and being captivated by Queen of Candesce during their runs (both also serialized).

With Lockstep, Schroeder addresses the difficulties in having a ‘hard science’ fictional universe featuring an interstellar civilization. With speed of light limits to travel (NASA plans notwithstanding) Schroeder came up with his ingenious “lockstep system” relying on synchronized prolonged hibernations. The novel opens when Toby, a teenager whose family has fled Earth to stake claims on frontier territory, becomes stranded in orbit of a lifeless planet. Using his family’s technology for cold sleep, he enters into a slumber that he expects will be his last.

Instead, Toby awakens amid a thriving intergalactic empire run on the hibernation technology, far-flung worlds tied together on a schedule of brief active periods separated by long stretches of hibernation allowing travel between distant worlds. The coordination of this political and social endeavor, Toby soon learns, is overseen by the rule of his family. Though he has been in sleep for thousands of years, so too has his family spent most of those years in hibernation. Toby learns his younger brother, now older but quite alive, rules this lockstep system with the firm dictatorial grip of technology monopoly. And for reasons not fully clear to Toby, his reawakening ‘from the dead’ threatens his brother’s position and this empire, and Toby’s brother wants Toby dead.

The setup and explanation of all this in the first chapter is brilliant. A recent review of the novel on io9.com by Michael Ann Dobbs even states the worldbuilding will make a reader giddy. It didn’t quite do that for me, but I’m not a particular champion of ‘hard’ sci-fi. But the general point I can agree with. The trouble comes in going beyond the setup and this worldbuilding. The entire middle of the book seems particularly drawn out – and admittedly a serialization made this worse for me. By the time the concluding sections arrive everything seems to fall together a bit too easily, leaving the majority of the novel after this brilliant idea and introduction of the Lockstep to simply feel underwhelming, and in well, juvenile.

And I use that word intentionally of course, and not to be disparaging. Though I felt it a rather straight-forward and predictable sort of space adventure in terms of story for the pages of Analog, considering it anew in the light of “young adult” marketing, that makes a lot of sense. Dobbs’ comparisons of Lockstep‘s tone to some of the young adult works of Heinlein are apt. There isn’t much deep here, but for a young adult with a nerdy science or technological leaning, this novel could be perfect. Despite good qualities, it made a belabored serial and just wasn’t a novel for me.

Three Stars out of Five