This book is in the middle of the pack. I like the story but the performance badly damaged it for me.
This story concludes the founding of the Liaden universe and explains how a reasonable subsection of humanity came to a place far from their origins. Mostly the story is pretty well told, but sometimes the flaws in characters are beyond belief. A person who is a general expert on just about everything who can handle complex mathematics and espionage who is also bonded to a sentient alien that defended a planet doesn't seem like the sort of person who would dismiss its communications as an irritant. Hard to believe the people who associated with the alien never bothered to talk to it. Is it cargo or something? Are they supposed to be that stupid? Now I understand why people write fan-fic.
How a story is perceived and the opinion you form of the characters is hugely influenced by the voice that you give to each person. A character can be benign, or angry, or calm, or casual all while saying the same thing. I found the choices made in this performance to be very detrimental to the stature of the characters. Contra is almost always played with a southern US accent and on the edge of anger. If you actually went through your life always on the edge of yelling or threatening you'd get nowhere. It certainly isn't how a person of poise and capability presents themselves. In the Liaden universe character and poise are a big deal and these first books are supposed to be the foundation of that universe. When Contra is supposed to sound like a young woman of refined origins she sounds like a quavering seventy year old. Maybe the reader never met a couple of high end combat pilots, he'd have done himself a favor if he had. Certainly the RAF pilots I knew were all very assured and confident. When you do have the capacity to unleash mayhem you don't shove it in everyone's face. The text also says when she's turning on the accent, it isn't necessary to use the accent for everything she says and for all the narration. People's internal voices are not burdened with a thick accent.
When I read this book found some of it very touching, but listening to it on a long drive through CA, OR, WA and in to Canada... well now I'm sorry I didn't just hand my wife the book and let her read it. We spent a lot of time laughing at odd pronunciation. I'd have to listen to it all again to identify the particular words, but the problem is that it pulls you out of the story and suspends the disbelief.
Listening to the performers interview with one of the authors made me want to give him a break. Dude, you aren't baritone. You are tenor. But I just found the performance too disappointing. It spoiled the book and made me less forgiving of some of the issues in the story.
The 'hero' is a selfish and arrogant Republican who thinks that so long as he and his family have what they want he can then apportion the remains to the rest of the peons who should be happy with his rule.
Disaster strikes and, being the sharpest tool in the shed, he dashes to the pharmacy and strong arms the pharmacist in to giving him five months supply of insulin for his daughter despite the fact that they don't have much on hand. After all, only his family deserves to live. Next stop the local store to buy, but not pay for, three cartons of cigarettes. After all, if the world is going to hell what do you need except insulin for your daughter (not a bad choice) and smokes.
Naturally the hero turns out to be one of the few people who has a working car, and he keeps it despite the police needing transport because, naturally, he is by far the most important person, to him, so no one dare try to take his car.
Many of the locals are smarter than the smartest man in this story, so by the time he turns up at the grocery store everything is gone. But at least he has his cigarettes!
Progress through the book is measured by his consumption of the cartons of cigarettes he scammed out of the store owner, before telling him that they'd become a much sought after trading item... once he had his at the normal price... not that he paid.
Every major character in this book is either a nicotine addict or a recovering nicotine addict. Try to smoke in my office, chum, and I will physically deposit your behind in the great outdoors. It takes a privileged and entitled smoker to think people react like that to their stinking habit. So, naturally since he is Mr Important, he ends up in charge. Well he s the most important person.
Like Republicans before him, he accepts the horrible cost of sending other people's children out to die, but not his own. He threatens to send his army to save his daughter from a lingering death. But spends lives in the civil war way instead of trying to keep them all alive the way a modern army works. Frontal charges have not been popular since WWII. The only unfair fight is the one you lose.
Thank god he's a firearms expert. But just a second, he thinks the magazine on a gun is called a 'clip'. No. A gangbanger uses a clip, a shooter knows that thing is a magazine. And he leaves his house defended with a 20 gauge shotgun loaded with bird shot. So he wants to irritate attackers but isn't interested in actually stopping them? Not that I'd want to be shot, but if it were my house in these circumstances I'd have showed the ladies the semi automatic rifle that he admits to having towards the end. He takes off with an old single action revolver. Because he thinks it looks impressive. He does get a 9mm Glock later.
So this is a Republican survivalist wet dream. Very right wing and right coast. Very condescending about hippies and other liberal losers.
And he lets his daughter die because he is stupid. Dude, you people are living on pigs and cows. You need insulin for one kid and you are throwing away the cow and pig parts it was harvested from. Go to the library and look up how it was made before 1984 then go down to the slaughterhouse and pick up the spare pancreases that nobody wants. Extracting the insulin is pretty easy. Pathetic losers. If he wasn't so clearly the leader he'd not have made it through the first week.
Let's get the reader out of the way first. She is an award winning New Yorker who has awards for being a top class reader. If she was reading something else then probably I'd agree, but her supposed English accent is littered with words that just aren't right. This is an English accent the way Americans think English people speak. She has been there often enough, she should know some of her problems. As a fifty something English car enthusiast, and having lived half my adult life in Bedfordshire, I have never met anyone who pronounced Daimler as "diemlar", in my lifetime I have only ever heard "daymler". In some ways it would work better if the accent was just ignored and read in American, as it is the inaccuracies are irritating. Being an immigrant to the US now I can tell you that the headline accent differences are not the things that mark you as foreigner, and this gets the unusual things wrong. But narrating a badly written book opens her up to more negative scrutiny than she probably deserves.
It is funny that a book about time travel has so many time problems. A woman takes a child to the railway station to be early for the afternoon train, so it is early afternoon and light. A few minutes later she is talking to some other kids and the delayed morning train turns up. She sticks the first kid on the train (Which is populated with sexually aggressive and suggestive Americans with English accents and uniforms. A British soldier of that era would not behave that way, and especially not in those words). The kid gets on the train and suddenly it is dark and they are late home. What? When did that happen? I know the author and reader have been to Britain, it isn't the tropics, dusk and dawn above 50 degrees north do not happen fast.
The characters are endlessly banging on with an internal dialogue of "what if" this that or the other goes wrong. It never settles down to getting on with the story. What was the point of this book anyway? Oh, it never gets to one. Just endlessly bangs on in this "stranger in a strange land" way. One of the characters gets stuck with an American accent, but it also seems to turn him American. He can't do anything right and suddenly has no understanding of Britain and British culture. Why would someone spend an entire day trying to get a lift somewhere he could have walked in a few hours?
Why would a letter from one part of Britain to another have a 2 CENT stamp on it? The Royal Mail has never used cents. In 1939 first class mail was 1 1/2 pence and second class was 1 penny. So there wouldn't be a 2 anything on a letter.
A naval gentleman makes one of the characters a cup of coffee and then starts making dinner. Initially he lights a fire under a kettle and that turns in to a Primus stove. Moments later he decides to feed the character a stew of bully beef and potatoes. A few words of dialogue and the coffee is cold and the beef has become sardines? An open can of sardines was mentioned, but that's not what our officer was said to have dumped in the pan. Unless we are peeling through alternate universes this is just badly edited. This seriously needs an appointment with the editor, to remove endless streams of pointless nothingness while the story isn't progressing in any way. It is apparent what is going on in the story early on, but the characters and the delivery are soooo slooowww that it takes hundreds of pages before realization and revelation even begins to dawn.
This reads like American Harry Potter fan fic. Full of incongruities and essentially unedited and delivered in a fake English accent by someone who can almost carry it off. Which results in a jarring sense of wrong.
I really really don't need to waste the money to find out how this ends.
And some really strange pronunciation. Sword... who pronounces the 'w'?
I was gratified that the author gave up on the usual American rehash of the dehumanising method the American military uses to beat its people in to their required, unthinking, shape.
The story is OK, while being way too video game. But whatever, it's a spin-off. Just accept it and it's not bad. But it really isn't 'good'.
But forget the physics making any sort of sense. The author obviously has zero understanding of the scale of space, even a solar system like ours, and the huge speeds that would be necessary to get around. If you can transit a system in a few hours then you are doing millions of miles per hour. So if you are at a range of a few miles you are within a microsecond of a collision. Conversely kinetic, unguided, weapons are almost entirely useless. If your ship is a mile long, then a microsecond difference is a total miss. Sub-light weapons, well you can see them coming thousands of miles away, and if you can see the things moving then there's loads of time to make a tiny course adjustment and miss by miles. It just doesn't make sense. You certainly can't collide with another ship at stellar speeds and survive. Even at orbital speeds a glancing impact releases fantastic energy.
SciFi for ignorant children.
The reading was decent. Perhaps the reader might have put too much selfish whining in to the reading, but I think it was there in the writing.
Spoiler alert. The method of storytelling, a mixture of psychiatrists sessions and retrospective details of the real story, was irritating at best.
Perhaps it is because I am British and we don't really do all this navel gazing shrink junk. The pathetic selfish attitude. The drugs, alcohol, smoking and gambling.
So basically it was just a recipe for making me happy to see him dead. There was nothing redeeming in the character for me.
If the main character had had some professionalism this could have been very different.
The science fiction side is the epitome of not explaining the science. I actually don't have a problem with that. I think it is a huge mistake to try to describe speculative or pure BS science in detail. But so much more could have been done with this. The destinations were uninteresting,
At least it was cheap.
OK, so the story is fun and the characters are well written. The technology is believable, the descriptions are credible and avoid the common mistake of getting in to technical detail that someone with a scientific or engineering background would find offensively wrong.
But in some places it could do with some technical checking. The ships, in normal space, are running at 0.25-0.5 C in combat. That is 75-150,000 Km/s. Now they are maneuvering within 10,000-20,000 Km of enemy vessels. So 4/15 to 1/15 of a second. With humans driving.
And then there's the serious anachronisms. 300 years in the future they are driving ships that can accelerate in moments to multiples of light speed and have ship killing plasma canons. But they are still using Bren Tens and M1911s as personal sidearms. At least once the 1911 is described as the best hand gun ever made. But that isn't true now. By current standards it is dangerously unreliable and marginally effective. If you replace a bunch of parts it can be extremely accurate, at the expense of reliability, unless you pay a very great deal. And even then it's only pretty reliable. If you clean it every day and keep it away from all dirt it works OK, but it is hardly a Sig or Glock either of which will work no matter what. And each of which is highly reliable. 300 years ago we had single shot flint lock pistols. In 300 years a 1911 is utterly out of place. Like if he'd had his Harley Davidson brought on board as a way of getting round the ship fast.
The good stuff first. It's a good story. I won't say it isn't predictable in places, some of them significant. But that doesn't detract a great deal. The story is fun and moves along. I am not going to do spoilers so I'll leave it at that. I think I will be buying the next one too.
The English... well I need to check the written word against the audio version. "Crumbled to the ground"? Really? Not crumpled? There were quite a few things like that.
Then there are the anachronisms. Things taken from a Valley Girl lifestyle today. "She grabbed 'a water' from the fridge". In the future we are still stupid enough to pay more for water than for gas? At one point one of the military commanders sounds like she's got a yoga mat under one arm and a bottle of designer water in the other. Really.
And odd pronunciations. Pyper doesn't strike me as someone who swears much, or she'd know how to do it.
And then there's the odd spacing "street-rat hacker" gets read as "street rat-hacker". Who hacks rats? That happened all the time, it was a continuous distraction.
Our heroes are supposed to be adults? They sound like they are 16 and 17. At times they remind me of my brother and his girlfriend in high school.
And the accents? Was that supposed to be Scottish? Oh, Irish. Well OK. Perhaps Pyper could pay attention next time she is listening to a Mick? And is that French? That French accent reminds me of the outrageous French accent of the British secret agent in Allo Allo. That is not good. But at least it was consistent.
The worst part is... well why would you read a military commander, the head of a massive galaxy spanning navy as a Valley Girl. Fer shure? Why would you read a decisive military commander's address to their forces like some pathetic HR address to people you are trying to con?
Really. Listen to some military folks. There are female military commanders. They don't sound like HR dweebs or valley girls.
I find the story entertaining and engaging and I wish there was a third one out. There's always something going on or about to go on and yet the plot doesn't take you where you expect, it's always something slightly different, or radically different, from what you thought. The characters are believable and engaging. The side issue of Earth society is dealt with in a credible manner without becoming preachy or boring.
The reader is pretty good, but sometimes hard to tell men from women and too many people have the craggy "I shout for a living" voice even when talking to normal people. I worked with UK military for a long time and have US military friends (senior master sergeant, nuclear engineers, SEAL team commander, Ranger) and none of them had that ruined voice. Mostly I liked the performance though, 97%.
As science fiction if he wants a mega gun that can do what a tank gun does today but can be carried by a normal soldier I have no issue with that. Unlikely, or according to NASA this week, quite possible FTL drive... perfectly fine by me. And there's plenty of that. SciFi does not need to explain its physics and should not try.
Slight spoilers and complaints of poor research and physics from here...
Where it broke the suspension of disbelief for me was in the mundane physics. You don't need to be specific, you can say it's a micronuke and leave it at that.
If you are bothering to tell me the weight and speed of something please bother to work out your numbers credibly when you are putting them in the mouth of a physicist. 43,000 metric tons is 43x10^6 Kg, 5km/s is 5x10^6m/s. Energy is 1/2 mv^2 so .5x43E6x(5E6)^2 = 5.375E20J. As it happens there is a well known conversion factor for TNT equivalence so 1billion tons of TNT is 4.184E18J so the number you want is 128.5GT equivalent. Not vaguely hundreds. If the blast took place in one second then it is 5.4E20 Watts, the sun is 4E26 Watts, Just about 1,000,000 times the power, all the time. So at about 8.3 light minutes it would still just be a little flash. Not a second sun for some time. Not enough to bother sensors.
If a thing happens 150 million Km away and you are using optical sensors it will take 8.3 minutes for the light to get to you, not a few seconds.
If you blow up a ship its engines can no longer propel it, so it is not still accelerating at 0.25g.
A 50 microton warhead would be equivalent to 1.6oz of TNT. Why not just use 1oz of HMX and save the technical complexity. Of course that won't do what you said, but it's SciFi, feel free to make the warhead a more believable and credible size.
There were more, but those were the ones I found particularly offensively careless.
The story is set in London and is close enough considering Steam Punk is supposed to be slightly out of our current universe. The representation of the young ladies is OK but a bit hackneyed. It is very much an outsider's view of society girls and a typically idealized view of 'polite' girls.
The story does not go the way that it looks like it will, and it isn't surprising that a bright woman sometimes does stupid things. People are far too simplistically offended, we are occasionally treated to adults taking permanent dislike to children based on a single sentence. A bit too pat.
On the one hand the story is fantastic, as in unbelievable. But on the other it isn't quite supposed to be real Victorian society, so the differences are forgivable.
In the end the story is enjoyable but too short, half a book.
Within a few minutes of the start we hit the first Americanism and they come in every few minutes from then on. "she fit in"? The poor reader must have choked on this. She fits or she fitted. In Victorian England they may have used steam power but they knew their language. England does not have Sidewalks. Nor shingle roofs, even cheap homes had slate or stone roofs. Pocket book? Really> I have never heard that term in English English, but I am not certain. Britain did not grow maize, what Americans call corn. Corn in Britain meant wheat, cornfields were yellow dry grass. Every few minutes another Americanism. There are various "brit fic" communities, or the Little Details community on Livejournal that would be able to provide direction. The Americanisms really spoiled the effect and pushed my assessment to Fan Fic rather than serious and professional writing.
The thing that's missing from this is a feeling for the time it takes to get from sighting a sailing ship to arriving at gun range. This tends to gloss over that in a few paragraphs, so it lacks tension. There's not a great deal of atmosphere or scene description either.
There was one point where I said "and here comes the love interest" and without spoilers she arrived exactly in the expected mode and at exactly the expected time. This was never going to be a book about the Royal Navy getting thrashed, so that part is forgivable.
My remaining impression is that this lacked breadth.
This is an immediately engaging story and it gets more interesting as it goes along. Some of the tech is already dated, but that almost seems to have been a choice instead of an accident and it did not reduce my pleasure in the story. He avoids the major mistake of attempting to explain technologies, which is very easy for SF authors to fall in to. The characters are engaging and distinct, as usual. There's a lot of imagination shown in various aspects of the story. I don't want to spoil it so I will leave it at that.
My other half and her friends are writers, we listened to this as we drove around Scotland together. If there had been significant mistakes it would have been torn to pieces, but the writers kept quiet and enjoyed the story.
In some ways the story line is a common one, but this is a good example of the type.
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