Fire with Fire by Charles Gannon
Fire with Fire is the first Baen novel I’ve ever read that wasn’t written by Lois McMaster Bujold! Is that crazy or what? Although, I read it concurrently with The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon, which Baen published in 1988. One has to give proper dues, after all.
Charles Gannon’s first solo-novel is a science fiction thriller that has something in common with H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy if it were dropped into the middle a science fictional spy novel and Jack Holloway was a polymath instead of a prospector turned legal advocate. That’s really not a good description at all, but roll with it.
Gannon presents a galaxy spanning space opera setting, but only arrives there after a lengthy ‘prologue’ (half the book?) where humanity extends its reach among the stars. At a critical point in that expansion, Fire with Fire becomes a story of first contact. What begins as “we’re not alone”, quickly turns into a larger discussion about humanity’s place in the galaxy, or more casually “how do we not get stomped by aliens”.
The novel is definitely of the older school space opera variety where the science is relatively hard and the reader must be willing to immerse in the text. I rather enjoyed the experience and think other readers skeptical of Baen might also.
Colours in the Steel by KJ Parker
Who knew that KJ Parker could write a novel that’s less than great? Colours in the Steel struggles to really coalesce into the kind of novel it wants to be. Of course, it was her debut novel. Should I give her a pass?
Bardas Loredan is a fencer-at-law in the city of Perimadeia, mercantile capital of the known world. The city has some problems, namely over confidence, that have led it to dismiss its standing army. Their notion of security is to ask, what’s the point? Who would want to destroy a city that makes them so much money? Of course, pride comes before a fall and no one uses that technique more than Parker. When things go wonky, Loredan is forced to return to his past life and command the city’s defense.
All that sounds like a pretty standard fantasy pastiche, but there’s also these strange side stories. The most prominent of these stories involves a young woman who has Loredan cursed by a mage, and when it doesn’t work decides to become a student of the fencer in order to learn how to kill him. Tacked on to that is a separate story about the mage who teaches a school of magic that has little to no practical use. All of that combines into a story that has no compelling direction particularly as the separate lines mix together.
However, each section works beautifully on its own and reminds me of the brilliance Parker shows in later work. For someone looking to see what Parker is all about, I would not recommend Colours in the Steel as there are far stronger options like The Folding Knife or Devices and Desires.
The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham
The third book in Abraham’s Dagger & Coin series, The Tyrant’s Law, is the most transitional of the three, promising more future conflict than delivering. Such books are always difficult to evaluate, particularly when the previous installment, The King’s Blood, avoided the second book trap. Despite being more Empire than Jedi, Abraham still writes exceptionally drawn characters that evoke visceral reactions from the reader. Even with that, I continue to maintain this is the best currently active series in the fantasy genre, paying respect to what’s come before while pushing the entire genre forward.
Valor’s Choice by Tanya Huff
For something published in 2000, Valor’s Choice feels a little dated. Not thematically as much as texturally. I suspect that feeling comes mostly from the stark similarities between Huff’s futuristic setting and that of Andre Norton’s Central Control books. In the distant future, humans and several other races have been granted membership in the Confederation, but only if they act as protectors of the far more civilized races who have turned away from violence.
Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr’s platoon is sent with Confederation delegates to greet a newly discovered and warlike lizardmen. The goal being to bring them into the Confederation as another protector race. Everything goes askew when the delegation’s transport is shot down in the wilderness and they’re put to the test by the planet’s denizens.
A straight forward narrative of survival against impossible odds makes Valor’s Choice heavily reliant on the readers’ investment in the characters and, in the case of this particular telling, the readers’ willingness to explore the military structures. In both cases Huff does a reasonably good job. It’s a strong addition to the military science fiction cannon, but not an example of pushing the subgenre anywhere interesting.