Sunday, March 22, 2020

My Review of Vokhtah, by ac flory

VOKHTAH (The Suns of Vokhtah Book 1)

“They were now just two frail iVokh pitting themselves against the might of the wild.”

Vokhtah is a difficult but rewarding book.  If you like unusual conceptions of extraterrestrials, this is for you.  Once you’ve read about half of it, the complexities begin to clarify themselves, but two readings are needed for complete understanding.  For example, it took me quite a while to grasp that the Blue and the Messenger were the same individual, and I also didn’t realize that there were two traders’ caravans wending their way to Needlepoint – I thought the Junior and the Messenger were in the same caravan and I got confused.  Part of the problem is that the characters don’t have names, only titles.  In her end matter, the author addresses this – it seems there is a taboo in this culture about enunciating your real name. 
Vokhtah is a grim and forbidding planet; it has two suns, one a hot white star and the other a red dwarf.  Sometimes they both shine at once, creating a climate of extremes.  The planet is populated with an assortment of mostly vicious and predatory lifeforms and that includes the intelligent ones, who prefer to consume their food animals live.  It’s a tribute to the author that she can take these basically repulsive intelligent lifeforms and make them sympathetic.  And I would recommend that any human ship of exploration steer clear of the planet Vokhtah – humans would probably be seen as prey animals!
My guess would be that the Vokh evolved from bat-like creatures – their ability to echo-locate is mentioned briefly.  They have wings (which contain their lungs), so most of them can fly.  They have two hearts.  And they are telepathic hermaphrodites with seemingly magical inner powers, like mind-healing and also mind-killing (their Healers are also trained as assassins).  There are two variant species – the Vokh (large and dominant) and the iVokh (meaning literally “small Vokh”).   The Vokh have a serious flaw – breeding is consummated by means of violent rape; nobody wants to bear an offspring because the “female” always dies in childbirth (this doesn’t occur with the iVokh). 
However, the people have a strong sense of honor and obligation – if you accept help from someone, you incur an obligation and if you don’t fulfill it, you are ostracized. In the second half of the book, after the episode at the Little Blue River, the main characters – the Messenger and the Apprentice – are shown developing a sense rare in these people – empathy, an ability to relate to and care about others with whom one has a relationship, beyond the obligations of the code of honor.
All this just scratches the surface of the author’s astonishing creation.  I should also mention that the book is a cliff hanger, and no second volume has yet appeared.
I must say a few words about the language.  Unfortunately, the Kindle version has no Table of Contents and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the author provided a brief treatment of the language in the end matter.  It seems to have no pronouns, and verbs are consistently rendered only with the present participle form, all of which helps to create the alien language effect.  Certain words used in the text are self-explanatory, like “ki” for “no” and “s’so” for “yes.” 
There is one etymological gaffe that I can’t help commenting on – the explanation of the word “boot” (a foot-covering).  The character doesn’t know what the word “boot” means and it’s explained as a contraction of “bucket for foot.”  And yet that derivation would be impossible since the iVokh aren’t speaking English.  You have to assume that the Vokhtah words reflect a similar construction, which the author could have fabricated.
But that’s only a quibble – don’t be deterred!  This really is an amazing book and while the culture may not be palatable to everyone (you need a strong stomach sometimes), I definitely recommend it to any serious reader of science fiction.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

First Review of Man Who Found Birds, Part 7 - a humdinger of a review!

By Audrey Driscoll

This is the seventh part of the fictional biography of 28th century spacefarer Robbin Nikalishin. It's every bit as gripping and exciting as the very first book. No, actually it's even more so, because in this book, the long-anticipated voyage to the stars actually happens. The first third of the book shows Capt. Robbie and his crew launch into space and settle in to shipboard routines in a long series of temporal quantum jumps and intervals that eventually take them to the vicinity of the star Epsilon Eridani. The only shadow on this optimistic beginning is the secretly delusional state of Chief Engineer Ian Glencrosse. Otherwise, we have a multicultural storytelling session, hormone-driven hijinks, birthday celebrations, and even a wedding. I laughed out loud at some scenes and was moved to tears at others. Many of the crew members are familiar personalities from the earlier books, so it's easy to relate to them as they interact and become an extended family.

Things get serious when part of the ship's engine malfunctions. Two tension-filled chapters are followed by relief and the thrill of discovery and a series of historical "firsts." Then, just over the halfway point, real disaster strikes and the tension is cranked up to excruciating. There were many places where I honestly did not want to keep reading, but couldn't make myself stop. I will say no more at this point, except that the ending promises momentous revelations for humans of the 28th century as well as readers of the 21st. Those who have read Lorinda J. Taylor's book The Termite Queen may guess at some of them. I hope Part 8 is in the works!

A few things that impressed me especially: first, the extent to which Robbin Nikalishin has grown and matured since his younger days. He has definitely overcome some of his personality flaws to the point that he draws upon his earlier errors and their consequences in dealing with a number of issues on this all-important mission to the stars. Second, the aforementioned wedding scene includes a tantalizing glimpse into the writings of one of the Mythmakers. The Valley of the White Bear and the character Ingreaf are referenced in several of the earlier books, so I was intrigued to learn a little more about them here. Finally, I continue to be impressed by the technological terms for engines and other devices that do not as yet exist. When the Engineers and technical crew deal with these items, their discussions sound absolutely authentic (bearing in mind that I'm neither engineer nor scientist).

It may be argued that a reader committed to a long-running series may not be an entirely objective reviewer. On the other hand, having followed Capt. Robbie's career through its many ups and downs, I would have been disappointed if this episode had been less than thrilling. I was certainly not disappointed, and would definitely recommend this book to anyone who appreciates serious science fiction leavened with realistic human relationships and emotions. But you really have to read the first six books to fully appreciate this one!

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Friday, February 28, 2020

Saturday, January 11, 2020

New Review of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Pt.2: Wounded Eagle
New review by Berthold Gambrel 

This was a tough review to write, because this book is part two of a series, and part one ends on a massive cliffhanger. The majority of part two is therefore about the protagonist, Captain Robbin Nikalishin, dealing with the repercussions of that cliffhanger.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of plot, for fear that people would stumble upon this review without having read part one, and it would be spoiled. Normally, I’m content to give spoiler warnings, but in this case I don’t even want to risk that.

Many of the things I said in my review of part one still apply: The story is still engaging, the characters are still memorable and vivid, the world-building is impeccable, the prose is still crisp, and Capt. Nikalishin is still a brave man who nonetheless can be profoundly irritating in some respects. His stubborn pride remains, although it kind of morphs into something else as he grapples with the consequences of the events at the end of the first book. And his relationship with his mother continues to make me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Grow up, you big baby!”

And, as I said in my review of the first book, none of these latter points about the captain’s character should be interpreted as negative comments on the book itself. Quite the contrary. Even more than the first, this book is a character study of Nikalishin, and he is certainly a very interesting, multi-faceted personality.

Again, no spoilers, but one of the central plot elements in Wounded Eagle involves Nikalishin being forced to choose whether to reveal certain information to punish a particularly despicable character, but at the cost that revealing this information will be deeply painful to an innocent third party. Nikalishin’s choice, and the reasoning behind it, are very well thought-out and described, and was satisfying to read, even if I can’t honestly claim I’d have made the same decision.

Read my review of the first one, and if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read this series, I don’t know what will. It’s a sci-fi epic that focuses on human drama, with lots of interesting world-building, as well as some deep philosophical and religious ideas woven into the story, in the form of the “Mythmaker Precepts”—the philosophical pillars at the core of Taylor’s 28th century society.

Now, with all that out of the way, I want to have a word about my favorite character in the series: Prof. Anezka Lara. She’s not actually in this book as much as she is in part one, but when she’s around, she’s a lot of fun. Her gruff, no-nonsense personality reminds me of several academics I’ve known, and frankly, I adore the way she bluntly tells Nikalishin what she thinks. It’s especially nice in this book where—and here I’m straying close to spoiler territory—he’s kind of a big deal, and most people are treating him with kid gloves. Not Lara. She’s never one to mince words.

Again, if you like sci-fi at all, read this series. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, there’s a good chance you’ll be captivated by the narrative Taylor weaves.

Now, I’m off to write some fan-fiction about Prof. Lara and…

JUST KIDDING! That is a joke; don’t worry. But if you want to understand the joke, you should read the series.

See the original review at

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Review of Brother Termite, by Patricia Anthony

I've reviewed a very strange book entitled Brother Termite, by Patricia Anthony.

“We should have been more intelligent than to love the thing we were destroying.”

I have conflicted feelings about this book – in fact, I found it profoundly disturbing – and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to give it three or four stars.  I couldn’t give it five because the plot is annoyingly muddled and hard to follow.  But the book is also very affective, partly because it’s narrated from the aliens’ point of view and the reader can’t help having sympathy for them, so I settled on four stars. 
The story is laid in an alternate reality (I think you know that aliens didn’t really take over Earth during the Eisenhower Presidency) and those aliens are obviously extrapolated from the Gray Aliens of Roswell fame.  These aliens evolved from an extraterrestrial termite-like species, but I doubt the author really studied termites.  I’ve made an extensive study of termites and I can’t believe that evolved intelligent termites would be anything like the creatures in this book.  Apparently the author was fascinated by the hive-mind concept – the inescapable collective consciousness – which I think might be applicable to various species of ants, but less so to termites.  Termites mind their own business and are very peaceable.  They have their castes – workers, soldiers, alates (reproductives) – and each caste behaves according to its genetic imperatives.  They kill only in self-defense, such as against invading ants, when the less powerful termite soldiers sacrifice themselves to satiate the invaders, thus preventing an invasion of the mound and the destruction of the Queen.  And the alates also sacrifice themselves, flying out in great numbers, of which only a very few will successfully breed and form a new colony.  The rest end up as food for every other species in the world, including sometimes humans.  And my opinion is that if such a species developed intelligence and individuality, that would lead to an inner moral sense that is not so different from the human imperative. 
There are many characteristics displayed by the aliens in this book that I take exception to.  They can’t touch each other because that plunges them back into the collective consciousness and they lose their individuality.  Now, terrestrial termites are very tactile – since they are all deaf and only the alates have eyes, they rely on touch, as well as pheromones, for communication.  Pheromones aren’t even mentioned.  These aliens have both hearing and sight, and they seem to be all male (except for the breeding female), so perhaps they evolved from Kings.  (They also seem to have only four limbs and an upright walking stance, and they also breathe and talk like humans, through the mouth.  Insects breathe through spiracles on their abdomen.)
But then there are the “Loving Helpers” – an ironic name for very small, non-intelligent entities who must have evolved from workers and perhaps also from soldiers.  They constantly inhabit the collective consciousness and can’t live apart from one another, and it seems that anything they touch is destroyed.  They absolutely terrify humans.  I can’t imagine any real termite workers (or soldiers) evolving like that. 
As I was reading this book, I kept thinking that if termite-like creatures evolved in this manner, it must have taken a really long evolutionary period like 10s of millions of years.  And lo and behold, near the end of the book it’s stated that these “people” (I don’t recall if a name is ever given to the species) first came above ground 30 million years ago.  So they could have evolved this way, I guess, but I certainly don’t like the results.
 One thing I do like is the impressive descriptive style.  The “Cousins” (as they are known throughout the book) have a great sense of order and anything chaotic unsettles them.  The author uses colors, smells, and configurations (the Cousins especially like fractals) to set up scenes and define emotions and attitudes.  This is done very skillfully and it’s one of the reasons I settled on four stars.
I notice that the Goodreads description mentions that the book is occasionally comical, but I didn’t find one single bit of humor in this whole book.  I recommend Brother Termite only with a warning – prepare to become deeply involved and profoundly unsettled as you read it.

Additional note for my conlanging friends:
In Brother Termite, no attention is given to the communication problem. How did they communicate with Earthers when they first invaded? Everybody speaks perfect English all the time, even among the aliens. There are maybe three words used that would be in the alien language, and don't ask me what they are because I didn't write them down as I read, and finding anything in an ebook is well-nigh impossible. So I found that aspect of the book quite a disappointment.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Great New Review of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Part One: Eagle Ascendant 
The first review that ever commented on a seminal thread in the book - Robbie's relationahip with his mother.

From Berthold Gambrel's blog,

This book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of the old religions.
Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So, the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.
Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with how the author has chosen to depict the subject.
Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an experimental program known as SkyPiercer.
Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.
Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors are quite enjoyable.
That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space hero.
But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard, meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe rendered in prose.
Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so, and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.
Now we’re at the part of the review where I typically mention typos in indie books. I know from reading Taylor’s blog that she self-edits her books, and that’s typically verboten for indie authors. Do you know how many typos I found in this book?
That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a word count for this book, but I know Amazon estimates the length at 510 pages. My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately 217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about 110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors.
That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place, before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of her own starships!
If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about them. This is sci-fi at its best.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely unspoiled.
Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of becoming a starship captain. 
At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.
This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to heart.)
In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable. We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone, and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.
Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like the concept is completely new to him.
He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.
To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is to say, quite maddening to know personally.
And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly looking forward to finding out how things develop from here. 
It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures, most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and well-executed science-fiction epic. 
As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of science fiction!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Review of Cornerstone: The Delving, by K. A. Krisko

Cornerstone: The Delving by [Krisko, K.A.]

Here is my 5-star review of K. A. Krisko's book Cornerstone: The Delving (v.2 of the Cornerstone series)

So Rook has finally taken a form outside his cornerstone and his castle, and I wasn’t surprised to see what that form was!  I suspected all along, but that’s all I’ll say because I don’t want to be a spoiler.
Ambiguity rules in the Cornerstone series.  The premise isn’t in doubt: Rook is probably an alien lifeform who was carried to Earth in some kind of space rock and found a home in a piece of granite later used as a cornerstone of a castle.  But is he a force for good or for evil?  He maintains that he wants to make the Earth a better place, but is he trustworthy? Two groups have been fighting over his destruction or preservation for many centuries – the Fell Ken, who support Rook, and the Koen (Knights of Earth Natural) who want to destroy him and keep him from changing the Earth.  So who is right?  The Koen are quite willing to use deadly force to destroy Rook and the Fell Ken, but why should we consider the Fell Ken justified in supporting this foreboding space alien?  They have nothing but his word that he isn’t evil.
Along comes our Wizard-in-training (the Lorecaster), Lorcas Fellken, who is a strangely passive character, who tends to go with the flow and take the simplest path.  If he is ever going to be the kind of powerful, dynamic Wizard who might confront a balrog and cry out, “You shall not pass!” it will be far in the future.
I debated whether to give this second volume 4 stars or 5 stars partly because Lorcas is somewhat disappointing as the character – he doesn’t evolve all that much.  The other reason for a possible 4-star rating is the difficulty of figuring out the configuration of the castle.  I got lost in the castle every time I went into it!  I know change is endemic within the castle structure, but still I never knew where I was.
5 stars won out!  I decided the originality of the concept was more important than niggling details.  I plan to read v. 3 soon.