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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Three Novel Reviews -- 4/1/2019

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Three Novel Reviews – 4/1/2019

 


Breach

 

 

(A Cold War Magic Novel, Book 1)

 

 

by

 

 

W. L. Goodwater

 

 

(Ace, November 2018, pb, 357 pp.)

 

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Breach is W. L. Goodwater’s debut novel and an engaging one it is. Taking place in an alternate post-World War II Earth during its Cold War years, it is full of dark magic, spy agencies from the East and West focusing their resources along the border of a different kind of Berlin Wall—one created by powerful Soviet magic—and that now our CIA has discovered is slowly beginning to weaken, to show small rips and tears in its heretofore stable fabric. And unbeknownst to all but a few aged sorcerer-types from the days of the war, behind it all exists the overarching shadow of a monstrous Evil which threatens to be set free, and not to be overlooked, a certain ancient book of power.

In the midst of all this impending doom comes the erstwhile protagonist thrust into the middle of it all, sent from America to Germany to investigate the Wall’s increasing instability and hopefully to find a way to fix it. The only “problem” is that the protagonist is a young woman, one Karen O’Neil, a skilled but junior magician in the American Office of Magical Research and Deployment, and the fact that she has been selected for the assignment over senior male magicians (remember this is the equivalent of the 1950s in our own timeline, and its sometimes sexist view of women holding certain professional jobs), causes her some grief along the way, grief and attitudes which she must overcome if she is to do her job at all, and to prove that she is indeed worthy of being chosen to handle such an important assignment, one with potentially world-shattering implications.

When attempts from our male-dominated spy headquarters in Berlin to sideline her from any real responsibility are enacted, Karen takes matters into her own hands, skirts her orders, and soon finds herself in the thick of things when she experiences firsthand and for the first time shady, untrustworthy operatives, a traitor, the underground world of espionage in general with all of its duplicity, amoral selfish motives on the part of both primary and secondary players, subtle chess board misdirection, and more. In short, Breach has all the trappings of a high energy spy thriller but with the added bonus of a magic-spawned Berlin Wall (the McGuffin anchoring the entire storyline), with the secrets of its ominous creation more dangerous than many had imagined (including, but not limited to, an unhealthy dose of ghostly German soldiers bent on mass murder for good measure). I found this to be an intriguing first entry into what promises to be an absorbing dark fantasy series and look forward to learning more of the mysteries contained in a certain notebook’s inscrutable entries. A dog-eared notebook now in the possession of Karen O’Neil.

♣  ♣  ♣ 

The Valley of Shadows

 

by

 

John Ringo & Mike Massa

 

(Vol. 5, Black Tide Rising series)

 

(Baen, November 2018, hc, 287 pp.)

 

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

This is the fifth novel in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series. The first four, published between 2013-2015 were given a general review here, and in June of 2016 an anthology titled Black Tide Rising edited by John Ringo & Gary Poole (comprised of a dozen stories set in this zombie apocalypse universe and written by others) was published. It has now been four years since the last BTR novel and two and a half since the anthology, and this eagerly awaited new novel is sure to delight the many thousands of the series’ diehard fans.

The words “zombie apocalypse” weren’t in the first draft of this review, the reason being that I didn’t want to turn potential readers off to this book or the entire series altogether, fearing there were many like me who were tired, or bored, or tired and bored to death with zombie novels, or apocalypse novels, or heaven forbid another zombie apocalypse novel, much as we may have enjoyed a good zombie apocalypse story or movie or tv series when they first became all the rage. I said as much in the opening paragraphs of my general review of the first four novels (see above link), but after reading all four in rapid sequence I fessed up that despite all of my misgivings about another zombie or apocalypse novel I couldn’t put these down, and I recommended them highly. Here are my exact words:

Despite my triple reservation about these books: yet another apocalypse saga, a zombie apocalypse on top of that, and the daunting task of being presented with all four novels which I assume it was hoped I would read (as if) in order to review primarily the newest one, I found myself unable to put them down. I read the first one in short order, but rather than skipping over the next pair and reading the fourth, I found myself devouring the next three quicker than the first. I had to find out what came next. John Ringo's Black Tide Rising tetralogy flies in the face of everything I had convinced myself (with good reason) I wouldn't like. He proved me dead wrong.

Lovers of zombie or apocalypse scenarios are going to love these books, and if you're a fan of military fiction as well, you'll have hit the ultimate trifecta with John Ringo's Black Tide Rising novels.”

While the first four novels written exclusively by John Ringo take place primarily on board various boats or ships (commercial or military) up and down the east coast of the United States and at various locations across the Atlantic ocean, this one takes place in New York City proper, and is written by Mike Massa. The first four novels focus on high school professor Steven Smith, his wife Stacey, and his two teenage daughters, Sophia (15) and Faith (13). Over the course of these novels it is tough, smart, Faith who has become a cult heroine among readers. In this new novel the focus is on Steven’s brother Tom, who is the global managing director for Security and Emergency Response in the Wall Street office of the Bank of the Americas. He is the ultimate expert on all things having to do with physical and cyber security, and it was he who sent the coded message to Steven in the first BTR novel about the outbreak of the airborne Zombie Plague which was the no-nonsense pre-arranged alert for Steven to grab family and bug-out essentials and get out of New York City.

The Valley of Shadows takes us back to those first days of the zombie outbreak in New York City and shows us how Tom is tasked with handling the crisis as it happens on the homefront. Thanks to the author’s extensive experience as a real life consultant on cyber security for several governments, “Fortune 500 companies and high net worth families on issues of privacy, resilience and disaster recovery,” not to mention as a former Navy SEAL, Massa brings a detailed and eye-opening taste of reality to the book. The tightly interwoven web between world banking systems and day to day living is brought into stark reality, and how if the former fails the latter is affected in more ways than the average person can even begin to imagine. It’s a harsh lesson in survival Massa gives us, and worth taking seriously. Keeping electronic banking systems and stock markets afloat is but one of Tom’s jobs, however, as outside his offices and on the streets of New York City the zombies are increasing in number and causing all sorts of death, destruction, and panic. Tom must try to keep the city from crumbling from within and solicits help from politicians with their influence, the large NYC police force, and certain heads of organized criminal enterprises, hoping he can get them to work together for their, and the city’s, survival. Alas, when personal survival is at stake, keeping groups usually at odds with one another to honor commitments doesn’t always work out, and thus Massa thrusts the reader into a hornet’s nest of backbiting, betrayal, and oh, yes, hordes of zombies growing larger and more menacing by the hours and days. There’s enough tension, drama, and action coming at the reader from several fronts here to fill several novels, but Massa does it effortlessly in a page-turning glimpse of what we might be up against with any sort of apocalyptic scenario of this nature. It isn’t pretty, but it’s not meant to be. Which is a point both Massa and Ringo drive home in these Black Tide Rising books: that under such dire and immediately life-threatening circumstances many of Life’s taken-for-granted moral and ethical givens are tested, and though some will rise to the occasion and survive (understanding a new Reality, its inescapable moral and ethical matrix when they see it), others are not suited to do so, aren’t equipped to cope, or deny the new Reality and are destined in one manner or the other to perish. The reader is thus forced to question his or her own reactions to situations and choices presented in these books, and digging deeply with soul-searching self-examination determine if they would, or would not be, survivor material.

Massa has done an exemplary job with The Valley of Shadows, capturing the essence of the initial Ringo novels—yes, the blood and guts excitement of blowing zombies to smithereens, the nail-biting drama of a 24/7 life or death existence from which there is no escape and what is necessary to cope, and the ever-evolving moral and ethical backdrop with which the characters are faced—while adding his own areas of expertise, that of the interconnectedness of global economic ecologies and their sadly overlooked importance necessary to our current level of civilization most citizens in their everyday lives would never have cause even to realize existed (which educationally enlightening economic aspects are a major plus in my book; who knew?). In short, kudos to Massa for keeping the faith with Ringo’s Black Tide Rising original novels and expanding the storyline into fresh areas equally as rewarding.

The second title in this Black Tide Rising sub-set (I refer to them as the Tom Smith BTR books, as opposed to the initial tetralogy of Steven Smith BTR books), is River of Night (Baen, July 2019), also penned by Mike Massa.

♣  ♣  ♣ 

Marked

 

by

 

S. Andrew Swann

 

(DAW, January 2019, pb, 329 pp.)

 

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Before being sent Marked for possible review, I must confess I had read nothing by S. Andrew Swann, though a quick search revealed he has now written 26 novels since 1993 in both the SF and Fantasy genres, and all but two have been published by DAW. With that many novels under his belt—an average of one per year for more than a quarter of a century—I figured he must be doing something right.

Marked is the story of Dana Rohan, detective extraordinaire, whose arrest and conviction rate is second to none. The reason for that has to do with what began as an oddly shaped birthmark—more a tattoo actually—on her back, a mark so unusual that no matter who her adopted parents took her to for a look at the curiosity it remained a mystery. Only as Dana grew older did she become self-conscious enough to keep it hidden from everyone in her attempt to appear normal (not an easy task and not without personal sacrifice—no boyfriends for but one unforeseen consequence), even as she learned, as time went by, that it was more than an ever-changing birthmark—in both size and shape—but that it held within it a strange ability that through trial and error she learned to control as she periodically felt it ripple and play across her back: the power to move forward and backward in time in those dimensions most closely adjacent to ours, a power she used to discover who and how crimes were committed by revisiting the exact moment they took place and finding evidence hidden or destroyed in her own timeline, and then returning home to find said discarded murder weapon or some other incriminating piece of evidence (such as the actual identity of the criminal) leading to the closing of a case. Thus, her exemplary arrest and conviction record.

With this intriguing background established, the story really starts to move. While driving her beloved midnight-blue Dodge Charger home from work, a scraggly, bearded man, apparently homeless, flags her down and utters a line of cryptic nonsense that sounds like a warning of some kind, something sounding like “the Shadows are coming,” as he pounds on her driver’s side window, but before she can react—and seemingly appearing out of nowhere into the street—a man in augmented medieval armor (replete with clicking gears and the sound of some sort of engine) appears and kills the old man. He then disappears into the emptiness from which he came. Stunned, she calls 911 and while helping the dying man onto the quickly arriving ambulance gurney notices that he too has a tattoo, a special Mark frighteningly similar to her own.

Later that night and home alone with her thoughts, deciding she’s had enough of the mystery and needing to know how another person has a most unusual tattoo like her own, and who the man in armor was and from whence he came, she decides to use her Mark to revisit the scene for clues. In the course of her time traveling to the crime scene, working in tandem with her Mark, moving slowly through nearby dimensions similar to ours for a different perspective, something happens and she finds herself being chased through one alternate reality after another by what she later learns are zombie-like creatures known as Shadows, finding, fighting against, and then becoming allies with the armored man, and eventually landing in a dimension somewhat similar to our own but at the same time strikingly different, with a form of government ruled by an Emperor, and why one of his children, a possible successor to the throne, has begun a series of assassinations to enhance her chances at the throne by getting rid of Dana. But Dana has no knowledge of this dimension or its people, much less be tagged as a member of the royal family now marked for death. At the heart of it all is her Mark, which she learns is somehow quite special, and is what has put a target on her back.

The odd dimension Dana finds herself thrust into is also worthy of mention in and of itself, as it adds color and depth to this wildly inventive tale. In its own way it reminds one strongly of the late Philip José Farmer’s much adored novel Riverworld, the story of that strange, never-ending river, the after-world where famous people found themselves after passing on from their own times and places. It is the land where we find well known personages from different eras in Farmer’s book enjoying the company of all sorts of people from other historical times and places, and in this current, mixed-up alternate dimension we have a conglomeration of famous people from Germany, France, England, and the United States, though primarily from the pre-World War II era, but again with a sort of punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a notion from evolutionary theory, in the uneven levels of science and technology we are shown. It gives the author the opportunity to slip in interesting observations the contemporary reader will hopefully appreciate and adds another reason to smile as pages are turned.

The book is rather descriptive (especially so, one might think, for those vintage readers of the splatterpunk persuasion) in its mention of grisly, newly made Shadow zombies created from once-normal servants, who now must fight in service of the powerful woman trying to murder Dana, strips of their own tattoos flayed from their backs and through a form of magic their former owners are then turned to zombies. These are not your grandfather’s zombies, created from plague, but vicious mind-controlled savages made from magic.

There is an aerial battle to end all aerial battles between enormous airships (think zeppelins) with seemingly far more interior space (with elegantly appointed royal halls and luxurious private rooms) than a first glance would suggest, and the tricks we learn about how to use the Mark’s teleporting powers to move through time and space at a moment’s thought make for a thrilling read.

In short, and with just a few of the more colorful highlights listed above as teasers, Marked also offers more of Dana’s personal backstory and history (which ably rounds out her character and helps the reader feel for her as she fights for her life in a strange land she has no knowledge of, but one that is tied inseparably to the mystery of her living tattoo, that ersatz-stigmata she also has lived her life with no knowledge of but which has framed and charted her life’s story at every turn. And remembering that she was adopted is another almost-forgotten mystery, another crucial clue to her origins yet to be resolved).

Reading Marked was a lot of fun. It is easy to understand why S. Andrew Swann has seen published an average of a novel a year for the past quarter of a century—he’s obviously doing something right. He knows how to entertain while having fun doing so. You can almost see him at his keyboard typing away, allowing his imagination to bounce unfettered where it will, and he’s right clever at pulling it together and somehow making it all work, the final result being a rousing good tale. I hope there will be a sequel to Marked, for the ending certainly sets the table for one. Dimensions are without number and given a detective with the special ability to travel forward and backward in them, the sky’s the limit for story material in the right hands.


Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since July of 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.