I’ve fallen behind a bit in my reviewing, with some ten books read as yet unreviewed. In an effort to catch up, I’m going to do write three short reviews here. It isn’t just a matter of catching up, the truth is books don’t always have a thousand word review in them, and who would want to read a thousand words about everything I read?
Armor by John Steakley
Steakley’s classic often stands in the shadow of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. It’s true that all three feature power armor and have military forces gallivanting across the galaxy killing wacky aliens, but Armor is an all together different kind of novel. That fact is not clear at first, featuring Felix, an Earth soldier encased in special body armor designed to fight an insectoid alien horde. This part of the novel is much like the Heinlein and Haldeman novels, describing the horrors of war from an ‘in the thick of it’ point of view.
Once this section ends, it switches to an entirely different story on a planet called Sanction where infamous pirate Jack Crow is doing his best to hijack their power source. How these two stories interconnect contains the heart of Steakley’s narrative. It’s a commentary on strength, not the physical kind that’s augmented by armor, but the internal kind that comes only from within.
In that way, Armor is a much more personal narrative than its fellow classic SF novels which rely much more on thought experiments like interstellar travel and societal reorganization. For that reason I found it a much more compelling story, if somewhat less intellectually engaging than the Heinlein or Haldeman. Highly recommended.
A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King
This is a novel that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while as I tried to figure out how to review it. It’s a superhero novel, very much in the tone of Watchmen. By that, I mean it’s about superheros who aren’t all that super, both in regards to their power level and their personalities.
After sacrificing their powers and Ultimate, the greatest hero of them all, to defeat the latest threat, the remaining heroes of Arcadia are just like everybody else. Of course, threats remain and when the world comes under fire again it’s down to these regular men and women to save the day, along with PenUltimate — the only hero who refused to keep playing the game.
The operative word in that paragraph is the last: game. It’s the word King uses to describe the never ending battle between the heroes and villains in his world. That idea should resonate with comic book readers who’ve undoubtedly observed over the eons of stories that heroes never quite die, and villains are never quite defeated. The cyclical nature of that conflict, lacking any real consequence for either side, can only be described as a game. It’s a keen observation by King and one that also seems to hold true for real world conflicts, where states duke it out for supremacy, but never seem to be held accountable for their foibles.
A Once Crowded Sky has a lot of things going on behind the curtain. Written like a graphic novel, with prose that calls to mind panels more than pages, the narrative is often repetitive, covering the same ground from different angles much the way a comic book is constantly reminding the reader what happened before. There’s also a host of extended metaphors that seem clear at times and disappear at others.
Overall, I felt it tried to do too much, often at the expense of the main narrative that never quite grabbed a hold of me. Recommended, but only just.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard
Howard’s previous work, The Johannes Cabal novels from Doubleday, doesn’t appear to have much in common with newest novel, out this week, Katya’s World from young adult imprint Strange Chemistry. Very little humor and no magic, Katya’s World is a science fiction novel set in the distant future on the unloved, and landless, colony world of Russalka.
With a war for independence from Earth only a few decades gone, Katya Kuriakova is making her first submarine voyage as crew, a nice simple shipping route. Or it should have been. When a government operative commandeers her Uncle’s vessel to transport a prisoner, Katya is catapulted into the middle of a battle for the very existence of the Russalkan people.
While the plot is well done, quite adventurous and compelling throughout, it is not really the core of why this is one of the better young adults novels I’ve read. Where most of the genre’s science fictional stories trend toward dystopia or occasionally space opera, Howard writes something that feels almost like hard science fiction, albeit fudged around the edges.
It’s an unexpected delight, complimented as it is by exceeding strong characters, particularly Katya who doesn’t fit into any steriotypical boxes that would brand her as a typical YA heroine. She’s self reliant, and does not find herself with any romantic entanglements. Of all the YA books I’ve read this year, this is easily the one I’d most like my daughter to read.
After reading Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse, I was worried that Strange Chemistry wouldn’t have much for me as a reader. I couldn’t have been more wrong — this is exactly the kind of novel I love to read.