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It's Battlestar Galactica, rewritten for 4X players.


Ark Royal

Self-published, 2014, 440 pages




"If you wish for peace, prepare for war." (Royal Navy Motto)

Seventy years ago, the interstellar supercarrier Ark Royal was the pride of the Royal Navy. But now, her weapons are outdated and her solid-state armour nothing more than a burden on her colossal hull. She floats in permanent orbit near Earth, a dumping ground for the officers and crew the Royal Navy wishes to keep out of the public eye. But when a deadly alien threat appears, the modern starships built by humanity are no match for the powerful alien weapons. Ark Royal and her mismatched crew must go on the offensive, buying time with their lives And yet, with a drunkard for a Captain, an over-ambitious first officer and a crew composed of reservists and the dregs of the service, do they have even the faintest hope of surviving....

And returning to an Earth which may no longer be there?


Moving ships around an interstellar hex map. )

Verdict: If you like Battlestar Galactica, 4X space combat games, or formulaic military SF in general, you will probably enjoy Ark Royal. It's neither original nor remarkably well-written, but it's a decent serving of exactly what it promises for genre junkies. 6/10.




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It's Battlestar Galactica meets King Arthur.


Dauntless

Ace Books, 2006, 304 pages




The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century, and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who has emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized beyond belief.

Captain John "Black Jack" Geary's legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic "last stand" in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. But a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.

Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance's one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic "Black Jack" legend.


If it doesn't become a movie, it might become a RTS game. )

Verdict: Competent, technically and militarily sound SF with mostly cardboard characters and almost indistinguishable sides. Good if you want to read realistic space combat, but Battlestar Galactic and the Destroyermen have much the same plot, with more fun. 6/10.




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The last man on Earth babysits Eloi amongst an improbable genetically-engineered menagerie.


Oryx and Crake

Anchor, 2003, 374 pages




Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey-with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake-through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.


Remember, Margaret Atwood absolutely, positively does not write SCIENCE FICTION and this is totally not a POST-APOCALYPTIC novel. )

Verdict: Margaret Atwood is a superior author, but science fiction is not really her game. Oryx and Crake is a book that would be mediocre written by a less talented writer. 7/10.


Also by Margaret Atwood: My review of The Handmaid's Tale.




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Three middle-schoolers p0wn the superhero community — if you liked The Incredibles then this book is for you.


Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain

Curiosity Quills Press, 2014, 374 pages




Penelope Akk wants to be a superhero. She's got superhero parents. She's got the ultimate mad science power, filling her life with crazy gadgets even she doesn't understand. She has two super powered best friends. In middle school, the line between good and evil looks clear.

In real life, nothing is that clear. All it takes is one hero's sidekick picking a fight, and Penny and her friends are labeled supervillains. In the process, Penny learns a hard lesson about villainy: She's good at it.

Criminal masterminds, heroes in power armor, bottles of dragon blood, alien war drones, shape shifters and ghosts, no matter what the super powered world throws at her, Penny and her friends come out on top. They have to. If she can keep winning, maybe she can clear her name before her mom and dad find out.


A superhero novel for the true superhero fan. )

Verdict: A fun, light-hearted adventure for anyone who loves superhero comic books, especially those aimed at the younger set. Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain surprised me with how much I liked it; I plan to get the soon-to-be-published sequel as soon as it's out. 9/10.





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A trust fund brat dies, wakes up a hundred years later, and finds out the future sucks.


A King of Infinite Space

Harper Prism, 1997, 312 pages




"This is the story of the last day of my life, and everything that happened after that."

Back in print after a decade, A King of Infinite Space is the final volume of Allen Steele's award-winning Near-Space series, and a cult-favorite among readers. Ranging from a Lollapalooza concert of 1995 to the asteroid belt of 2099, it's the tale of a young man who dies, becomes reborn, and crosses the solar system in search of his lost love... and grows to be a better man, despite himself.


A great space adventure if you can get past the douchebag protagonist. )

Verdict: Allen Steele is a reliable hard SF fix for those who like modern science fiction in the spirit of Heinlein. A King of Infinite Space stands alone well, but is even better following the rest of his Near-Space stories. 9/10.

Also by Allen Steele: My reviews of Coyote, Apollo's Outcasts, and Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete "Near Space" Stories, Expanded Edition.




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An old man tells his grandsons about the world before the Red Death depopulated it.


The Scarlet Plague

London Magazine, 1912, approximately 20,000 words.. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




An old man, James Howard Smith, walks along deserted railway tracks, long since unused and overgrown; beside him a young, feral boy helps him along. It has been 60 years since the great Red Death wiped out mankind, and the handful of survivors from all walks of life have established their own civilization and their own hierarchy in a savage world. Art, science, and all learning has been lost, and the young descendants of the healthy know nothing of the world that was—nothing but myths and make-believe. The old man is the only one who can convey the wonders of that bygone age, and the horrors of the plague that brought about its end. What future lies in store for the remnants of mankind can only be surmised—their ignorance, barbarity, and ruthlessness the only hopes they have?


Did you know Jack London wrote a post-apocalyptic novel? I didn't! )

Verdict: The Scarlet Plague is a rather dull post-apocalyptic novella, interesting as a historical relic that influenced later writers, but there is not much in the way of story or originality. 5/10.

Also by Jack London: My review of The Call of the Wild.




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The novella that spawned The Thing,


Who Goes There?

Astounding Science Fiction, 1938, 168 pages




Who Goes There?, the novella that formed the basis of the film The Thing, is the John W. Campbell classic about an antarctic research camp that discovers and thaws the ancient body of a crash-landed alien.


Paranoia will destroy ya, but murderous shapechanging aliens will kill you faster. )

Verdict: A fine pulp adventure that was made into three decent monster movies. Who Goes There? is a sci-fi classic that added paranoia about alien dopplegangers to the tradition of weird fiction set in the Antarctic. 8/10.




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A first contact novel, starring a linguist, that does not suck.


Damocles

47North, 2013, 350 pages




When Earth is rocked by evidence that extraterrestrials may have seeded human DNA throughout the universe, a one-way expedition into deep space is mounted to uncover the truth. What linguist Meg Dupris and her crewmates aboard the Earth ship Damocles discover on Didet - a planet bathed in the near-eternal daylight of seven suns - is a humanoid race with a different language, a different look, and a surprisingly similar society. But here, it's the "Earthers" who are the extraterrestrial invaders, and it's up to Meg - a woman haunted by tragedy and obsessed with the power of communication - to find the key to establishing trust between the natives and the newcomers. In Loul Pell, a young Dideto male thrust into the forefront of the historic event, Meg finds an unexpected kindred spirit, and undertakes an extraordinary journey of discovery, friendship, and life-altering knowledge. Told from both sides of a monumental encounter, Damocles is a compelling novel about man's first contact with an extraterrestrial race.


Apparently comic book geeks and conspiracy theory journalists are universal. )

Verdict: A thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi novel that explores linguistics and alien cultures in a realistic way. Damocles is not a particularly exciting book, but it's a fine work of genuine speculative fiction. 7/10.




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NASA discovered an alien spaceship in the asteroid belt in the 1960s. Fifty years later, they send a bunch of idiots to investigate it.


Fluency

Self-Published, 2014, 283 pages




NASA discovered the alien ship lurking in the asteroid belt in the 1960s. They kept the Target under intense surveillance for decades, letting the public believe they were exploring the solar system, while they worked feverishly to refine the technology needed to reach it.

The ship itself remained silent, drifting.

Dr. Jane Holloway is content documenting nearly-extinct languages and had never contemplated becoming an astronaut. But when NASA recruits her to join a team of military scientists for an expedition to the Target, it's an adventure she can't refuse.

The ship isn't vacant, as they presumed.

A disembodied voice rumbles inside Jane's head, "You are home."

Jane fights the growing doubts of her colleagues as she attempts to decipher what the alien wants from her. As the derelict ship devolves into chaos and the crew gets cut off from their escape route, Jane must decide if she can trust the alien's help to survive.


A linguist exploring a Big Dumb Object should have been awesome. Instead: consternated, probing purrs. )

Verdict: An awesome premise, horribly executed. Fluency showed signs of being one of those self-published gems, but the cover is about the best thing going for it. If you like fanfic-quality writing and research that consists of watching hours of Stargate, maybe you will like it. 3/10.





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It's Midway, Aubrey-Maturin, and Battlestar Galactica put together.


Crusade

Roc, 2008, 400 pages




Lieutenant Commander Matthew Reddy, along with the men and women of the USS Walker, have chosen sides in a war not of their making. They have allied with the Lemurians - a mammalian race whose peaceful existence is under attack from the warlike, reptilian Grik.

The Lemurians are vastly outnumbered and ignorant of warfare, and even the guns and technology of Walker cannot turn the tide of battle. Luckily, they are not alone. Reddy finally finds Mahan, the other destroyer that passed through the rift. Together, the two American ships will teach the Lemurians to fight and stand against the bloodthirsty Grik - or so they think.

For there is another vessel that does not belong on these strange seas - the massive Japanese battle cruiser Amagi, the very ship that Walker was fleeing from when the rift took them. Like Mahan, it followed them through. And now Amagi is in the hands of the Grik.


The second book is even better, though it looks like it's going to be a long haul. )

Verdict: Better than the first book, Crusade made me a fan of this series. I know it's already become one of those series that goes on and on, so I hope it doesn't disappoint me in future volumes. Nothing more than a well-researched naval adventure/war story, I still enjoyed the heck out of this book. 9/10.

Also by Taylor Anderson: My review of Into the Storm.




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An anti-Heinleinian military SF novel for SF fans who don't actually like the military or Heinlein.


Old Man's War

Tor, 2005, 320 pages




John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce—and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding. Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine—and what he will become is far stranger.


Go to strange new planets, meet interesting, exotic aliens, and kill them. (SPOILERS) )

Verdict: A good book, not a great book, I'd have liked Old Man's War more if it was more of what it was, a sci-fi adventure starring a clever Earth dude from Ohio, and less of what it was trying to be, a sci-fi war story in the tradition of Starship Troopers. Scalzi's writing is much of a piece, and there is definitely good story here, so despite being quite annoyed with significant parts of it, I'll probably read the rest of the series. 7/10.

Also by John Scalzi: My reviews of The Android's Dream, The God Engines, Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts.




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The terraforming and settling of Mars in an alternate history.


The Empress of Mars

Tor, 2007, 304 pages




When the British Arean Company founded its Martian colony, it welcomed any settlers it could get. Outcasts, misfits, and dreamers emigrated in droves to undertake the grueling task of terraforming the cold red planet - only to be abandoned when the BAC discovered it couldn't turn a profit on Mars.

This is the story of Mary Griffith, a determined woman with three daughters, who opened the only place to buy a beer on the Tharsis Bulge. It's also the story of Manco Inca, whose attempt to terraform Mars brought a new goddess vividly to life; of Stanford Crosley, con man extraordinaire; of Ottorino Vespucci, space cowboy and romantic hero; of the Clan Morrigan; of the denizens of the Martian Motel, and of the machinations of another company entirely - all of whom contribute to the downfall of the BAC and the founding of a new world. But Mary and her struggles and triumphs are at the center of it all, in her bar, the Empress of Mars.

Based on the Hugo-nominated novella of the same name, this is a rollicking novel of action, planetary romance, and high adventure.


A worthy heir to Burroughs, Bova, Bradbury, and Robinson. )

Verdict: There are lots of books about colonizing Mars: The Empress of Mars is one of the better ones I've read. Be aware that this is an alternate history novel, though it's never explicitly stated, but it's fun and could easily be the launch point for a series of its own. 8/10.




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Interstellar

At some point the near future, a "blight" is destroying all crops on Earth. The human race is facing slow extinction. A former astronaut-turned-farmer stumbles upon a secret NASA project to send explorers to other planets, thanks to a wormhole to another galaxy discovered near the orbit of Saturn. They believe they have received messages from an advanced alien race steering them towards this wormhole. So he is corralled into piloting the ship that will chose humanity's new home.

Oh. My. God.

This movie is an actual Science Fiction movie.

I wouldn't quite call it "hard SF" - I'm sure physicists more educated than I were probably wincing at the math and the relativity and the wormholes, and I definitely spotted some dubious science concerning the black holes, travel times between planets, a lot of hand-waved technology, and some suspensions of disbelief in the plot.

Nonetheless, this is probably the best true science fiction (as opposed to science fantasy) movie I have ever seen.

There is social commentary, like the bright-eyed teacher insisting that the moon landings were a hoax, and the (quite legitimate) debate over spending enormous resources for an extra-solar mission when people are starving at home. There is touching family drama and heroism and sacrifice. There are some awfully cool alien landscapes, and friendly AIs who do not go all HAL 1000 on the crew.

It's like The Black Hole minus the Disney silliness. It's like Contact but not boring. It's like 2001: A Space Odyssey but not boring. It's like Gravity without relying on George Clooney. It's all the best parts of those movies wrapped into one.

5 stars, see it in theaters, boo and hiss when it fails to win an Oscar.
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Supervillains save the world in a novel that almost achieves comic book scale.


Burn Baby Burn

Self-Published, 2011, 212 pages




Sundancer is a militant radical who channels the heat and light of the sun, capable of melting steel and vaporizing anyone who stands in her way. Pit Geek is seemingly immortal, able to survive any injury, but haunted by fragmented memories. Together, these supervillains launch a crime spree bold enough to threaten the world's economy.

To stop them, the government authorizes a new band of superheroes known as the Covenant to hunt down the menaces. Sundancer and Pit must learn to rely on one another as never before if they're to escape the heroes that hound them. When they finally run out of places to hide, can mankind survive the conflagration when Sundancer unleashes the full force of her solar powers?


Robots and Monkeys make everything better. )

Verdict: Burn Baby Burn is a stand-alone sequel that's better than the first book, and highly recommended for all superhero fans. While the writing remains a bit flat at times, and characterization is sometimes narrated rather than displayed, James Maxey has mastered the superhero genre, and is able to deliver a book that has all the best aspects of both novel and comic book. Aliens, robots, monkeys, and apocalyptic showdowns, and somehow it doesn't fall over into silliness. 8/10.

Also by James Maxey: My review of Nobody Gets the Girl.




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A Heinleinian woman hooks up with a space highwayman, leads a rebellion, looks great in heels.


Darkship Thieves

Baen, 2010, 384 pages




Athena Hera Sinistra never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in finding out the truth about the DarkShips. You always get what you don't ask for. Which must have been why she woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in her father's space cruiser, knowing that there was a stranger in her room. In a short time, after taking out the stranger--who turned out to be one of her father's bodyguards up to no good, she was hurtling away from the ship in a lifeboat to get help. But what she got instead would be the adventure of a lifetime - if she managed to survive.


Heinleinian fanfiction, which is not necessarily a bad thing. )

Verdict: Darkship Thieves is a nice light romantic space opera with a character who very much wants to be in a Heinlein novel. This book isn't quite that, but it's a passable facsimile. 7/10.




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Mars attacks! The granddaddy of all alien invasion stories.


The War of the Worlds

Originally published in 1898. Approximately 60,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




First published by H. G. Wells in 1898, The War of the Worlds is the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories. The novel begins ominously, as the lone voice of a narrator intones, "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's."

Things then progress from a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first, the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity, even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100 feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat.

With horror, the narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much as corralled.


The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, he said... )

Verdict: Truly the granddaddy of alien invasion stories; The War of the Worlds is still a frightening and entertaining classic. The plot is slow in places, and the characters don't really do much, but Wells describes a near-end-of-the-world in words that could be applied to any civilization that's been crushed, bombed, or genocided. 8/10.




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This futuristic story of haves and have-nots was a post-apocalyptic let-down.


Osiris

Night Shade Books, 2012, 400 pages




Nobody leaves Osiris. Osiris is a lost city. She has lost the world and world has lost her...

Rising high above the frigid waters, the ocean city of Osiris has been cut off from the land since the Great Storm fifty years ago. Most believe that Osiris is the last city on Earth, while others cling to the idea that life still survives somewhere beyond the merciless seas. But for all its inhabitants, Citizens and refugees alike, Osiris is the entire world--and it is a world divided.

Adelaide is the black-sheep granddaughter of the city's Architect. A jaded socialite and family miscreant, she wants little to do with her powerful relatives--until her troubled twin brother disappears mysteriously. Convinced that he is still alive, she will stop at nothing to find him, even if it means uncovering long-buried secrets.

Vikram, a third-generation storm refugee quarantined with thousands of others in the city's impoverished western sector, sees his own people dying of cold and starvation while the elite of Osiris ignore their plight. Determined to change things, he hopes to use Adelaide to bring about much-needed reforms--but who is using who?

As another brutal winter brings Osiris closer to riot and revolution, two very different people, each with their own agendas, will attempt to bridge the gap dividing the city, only to find a future far more complicated than either of them ever imagined.

Osiris is the beginning of an ambitious new science fiction trilogy exploring a near-future world radically transformed by rising seas and melting poles.


400 pages about a sea-themed city of the future and a rich socialite's parties. )

Verdict: Well-written but melodramatic characterization more suitable for a romance novel than a dystopian drama. Nice worldbuilding and evocative writing, but too much of the latter and too little actual plot. 5/10.




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Belle dames and battlecruisers: a Neutral Good Thief in a sci-fi setting.


The Stainless Steel Rat

Sphere, 1961, 158 pages




Jim DiGriz is caught during one of his crimes and recruited into the Special Corps. Boring, routine desk work during his probationary period results in his discovering that someone is building a battleship, thinly disguised as an industrial vessel. In the peaceful League no one has battleships anymore, so the builder of this one would be unstoppable.

DiGriz' hunt for the guilty becomes a personal battle between himself and the beautiful but deadly Angelina, who is planning a coup on one of the feudal worlds. DiGriz' dilemma is whether he will turn Angelina over to the Special Corps, or join with her, since he has fallen in love with her.


In a civilization that's grown too civilized, only criminals have any fun. )

Verdict: The Stainless Steel Rat is humorous, light-hearted space opera that will cause readers of a certain generation (ahem) to recall classic Traveller games of yore. Particularly recommended for fans of Keith Laumer's Retief or A. Bertram Chandler's John Grimes series.




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Book three in the zombie apocalypse-superhero mashup.


Ex-Communication

Broadway Books, 2013, 352 pages




"All of us try to cheat death. I was just better prepared to do it than most folks." In the years since the wave of living death swept the globe, St George and his fellow heroes haven't just kept Los Angeles' last humans alive - they've created a real community, a bustling town that's spreading beyond its original walls and swelling with new refugees. But now one of the heroes, perhaps the most powerful among them, seems to be losing his mind. The implacable enemy known as Legion has found terrifying new ways of using zombies as pawns in his attacks. And outside the Mount, something ancient and monstrous is hell-bent on revenge. As Peter Clines weaves these elements together in yet another masterful, shocking climax, St. George, Stealth, Captain Freedom, and the rest of the heroes find that even in a city overrun by millions of ex-humans... there's more than one way to come back from the dead.


And now... wizards and demon lords. )

Verdict: Zombie/Superhero novel should tell you all you need to know. If you like those things, then start with the first book in the series; Ex-Communication is a decent third installment.

Also by Peter Clines: My reviews of Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, and 14.




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A World War II destroyer is trapped on an alternate Earth, in a war between evolved lemurs and dinosaurs.


Into the Storm

Roc, 2008, 400 pages




Pressed into service when World War II breaks out in the Pacific, the USS Walker---a Great-War vintage "four-stacker" destroyer---finds itself in full retreat from pursuit by Japanese battleships. Its captain, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Patrick Reddy, knows that he and his crew are in dire straits. In desperation, he heads Walker into a squall, hoping it will give them cover---and emerges somewhere else.

Familiar landmarks appear, but the water teems with monstrous, vicious fish. And there appear to be dinosaurs grazing on the plains of Bali. Gradually Matt and his crew must accept the fact that they are in an alternate world---and they are not alone. Humans have not evolved, but two other species have. And they are at war.

With its steam power and weaponry, the Walker's very existence could alter the balance of power. And for Matt and his crew, who have the means to turn a primitive war into a genocidal Armageddon, one thing becomes clear: They must decide whose side they're on. Because whoever they choose to side with is the winner.


A war story suitable for Weird Tales, and it would make a pretty good setting for a RPG. )

Verdict: All the fun is in the concept — Into the Storm is basically a space opera without the space. The saga of the USS Walker begins here in what looks like one of those series that goes on and on — nonetheless, the first book is all action with minimal worldbuilding, and enough fun for me to read the second.




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