Opening Lines—System Failure by Joe Zieja

Head & Shoulders used to tell us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That’s true for wearing dark shirts, and it’s especially true for books. Sometimes the characters will hook the reader, sometimes the premise, sometimes it’s just knowing the author—but nothing beats a great opening for getting a reader to commit. This is one of the better openings I’ve read recently. I’m sure we can all relate to it.

Lucinda Hiri was pretty sure taking over the galaxy hadn’t been in the job description when she was offered this intern position six months ago. Then again, it wasn’t impossible. The Snaggardir corporation’s paperwork was notoriously long and detailed, vetted by droves of lawyers at every level of approval to make sure that the language had all the right loopholes in all the right places. Lucinda supposed that somewhere on page 356 there could have been a small asterisk that said “in the event a nascent people rise up after two hundred years of secret collusion, you will be required to take detailed notes at their strategy meetings.”

It had seemed like a dream come true at the time. Sal Snaggardir and his family’s company were arguably the most powerful economic force in the galaxy. The possibilities for her career as a businesswoman were endless. Not liking interning at some space technology company on Urp, where she would likely move laterally for the entirety of her disappointing, coffee-supported life. Snaggardir’s was the place to make it big.

In retrospect, though Lucinda should have noticed that Mr. Snaggardir was trying to conceal just how big his company had gotten. Subsidiary corporations literally thousands of banks all across the galaxy holding funds under different names, and that nondisclosure agreement she signed threatening to eradicate her family line if she ever told anyone anything about the company. The legal department said that was boilerplate, and, really, what did she know? She was just a thirty-year-old unpaid intern with three advanced degrees in business arts.

from System Failure by Joe Zieja

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Reposting Just Cuz: Communication Failure by Joe Zieja

Communication FailureCommunication Failure

by Joe Zieja
Series: Epic Failure, #2

ARC, 325 pg.
Saga Press, 2017

Read: October 31 – November 2, 2017


So, Captain Rogers has escaped with his life after saving the 331st Meridian Fleet from a takeover from almost all the droids on board, now he’s been made acting admiral and is faced with a potentially bigger threat: the Thelicosan fleet — the very fleet that Rogers’ ships are to keep on their side of the border — has informed him that they are about to invade. Given the size of the fleets facing off, this is an invasion that will not go well for the 331st.

So how is this would-be con-man, former engineer, and current CO going to survive this? He hasn’t the foggiest idea.

Clearly, for those who read Mechanical Failure (and those who haven’t have made a mistake that they need to rectify soon), whatever solution he comes up with is going to rely heavily on Deet and the Space Marines (the Viking/Captain Alsinbury and Sergeant Malin in particular) will be heavily involved. Malin has taken it upon herself to help Rogers learn some self-defense (even if that’s primarily various ways to duck), the Viking is questioning every decision her new CO is making, and Deet is continuing his exploration into human behavior/consciousness (he’s exploring philosophy and spirituality at the moment — which is pretty distracting). Basically, if Rogers is looking for a lot of support from them, he’s going to be disappointed.

It turns out that the Thelicosans didn’t intend to send that message at all, what they were supposed to communicate was very different, actually. But before Rogers and his counterpart can find a way to de-escalate the situation, shots are fired, milk is spilled, and events start to spiral out of control. Which isn’t to say that everyone is doomed and that war is inevitable, it’s just going to take some work to keep it from happening. There are forces, groups, entities — whatever you want to call them — hawkish individuals who are working behind the scenes to keep these cultures at odds with each other, hopefully spilling over into something catastrophic. Which is something too many of us are familiar with, I fear — and something that someone with Zieja’s military background is likely more familiar with. The Thelicosans and Meridians discover who these people are — and how they are attempting to manipulate the fleets — and the big question is how successful they’ll be.

We focus on three Thelicosans, but spend almost as much time on their flagship (The Limiter) as we do the Meridian flagship (Flagship). Grand Marshall Alandra Keffoule is the commander of the border fleet — at one time, she was a star in the special forces, and now she’s been assigned to the border fleet as a last chance. She fully intends on taking full advantage of this opportunity to make history and restore herself to her position of prominence in the military. Her deputy, Commodore Zergan, has fought alongside her since the special forces days and is now trying to help her rebuild her reputation. Secretary Vilia Quinn is the liaison between the Thelicosan government and the fleet. Quinn’s development through the book is a lot of fun to watch — and is probably a bigger surprise to her than it is to the reader, which just makes it better. Thelicosan culture is saturated in science and math, and is full of rituals that are incredibly binding and incredibly difficult for outsiders to understand. In many ways, the culture is hard to swallow — how a society develops along those lines seems impossible. But if you just accept that this is the way their society functions, it ends up working and stays consistent (and entertaining).

Lieutenant Lieutenant Nolan “Flash” “Chillster” “Snake” “Blade” Fisk, the best pilot the 331st has is a great addition to the cast — yeah, he’s probably the most cartoonish, least grounded, character in Rogers’ fleet — but man, he’s a lot of fun (and I think it’s pretty clear that Zieja enjoys writing him). think Ace Rimmer (what a guy!), but dumber. Mechanical Failure‘s most cartoonish character, Tunger, is back — the would-be spy/should-be zookeeper finds himself in the thick of things and is well-used (as a character) and is well-suited to his activities. Basically, I put up with him in the last book, and enjoyed him here. I’d like to talk more about Deet and the other characters here — I’ve barely said anything about Rogers (he develops in some ways no one would’ve expected) — but I can’t without ruining anything, so let’s just say that everyone you enjoyed in the previous installment you’ll continue to enjoy for the same reasons.

Mechanical Failure didn’t feature a lot of world-building outside life on the ship. Zieja takes care of that this time — we get a look at the political situation between the various governments, and the history behind the four powers. Which isn’t to say that we’re drowning in details like George R. R. Martin would give us, it’s still breezy and fast-paced. Still, there’s a handle you can grab on to, some context for the kind of madness that Rogers finds himself in the middle of.

One of my personal criteria for judging books that are heavy on the humor in the midst of the SF or mystery or fantasy story is judging what the book would be like without the jokes. The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, for example, would fall apart in seconds (and few rival me for their devotion to that series). Magic 2.0 would hold up pretty well, on the other hand. The Epic Failure series would be another one that would hold up without the jokes. I’m not saying it’d be a masterpiece of SF, but the story would flow, there’d be enough intrigue and action to keep readers turning pages. However, you leave the humor, the jokes and the general whackiness in the books and they’re elevated to must-reads.

There are too many puns (technically, more than 1 qualifies for that), there’s a series of jokes about the space version of The Art of War that you’d think would get old very quickly, but doesn’t — at all; and Rogers has a couple of bridge officers that make the pilot Flash seem subtle. Somehow, Zieja makes all this excess work — I thought the humor worked wonderfully here, and I think it’ll hold up under repeated readings.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can’t wait to see where Zieja takes us next.

Disclaimer: I received this book ARC from the author, and I can’t thank him enough for it, but my opinion is my own and wasn’t really influenced by that act (other than giving me something to have an opinion about).

—–

4 Stars

Reposting Just Cuz: Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

Oddly tired today, so I can’t get my post for 9/17 finished. So, I’ll dig up a couple of blasts from the past in honor of volume 3 of the Epic Failure trilogy’s release today. There are a few sentences here that I wish I could rewrite, but oh, well…This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years, and I can’t wait to dive into System Failure.

Mechanical FailureMechanical Failure

by Joe Zieja
Series: Epic Failure, #1

Hardcover, 343 pg.
Saga Press, 2016

Read: August 17 – 18, 2016

No duty was too great that R. Wilson Rogers couldn’t find a way to shirk it.

This is the essence of R. Wilson Rogers (don’t ask what the R. stands for) compressed into one sentence — an engineer for the Galactic Navy during the longest peacetime in Galactic Memory. As a result of all the peace, there’s not a whole lot for a Naval ship to do — nor for the men assigned to it. So, Rogers and his fellow crew members got up to a lot of nonsense — drinking, gambling and worse. Eventually, Rogers finds himself leaving under less than auspicious circumstances. Not long after that, under even less auspicious circumstances (which I’ll leave for you to read about and chuckle over) he finds himself back on the appropriately named Flagship which has transformed in his brief absence in to a serious-minded place, full of random inspections, wartime preparations (despite centuries of peace), and odd assignments.

Before long, Rogers finds himself getting promotions, leading a group of battle droids, and seriously considering suicide and desertion (favoring the the latter, I assure you) — and that’s when things really start to get interesting.

This is pretty decent Military SF with a twist of humor, a dollop of irony, a pinch of satire, and so on — I don’t want to compare it to Adams. But I’ll compare it to a mix of Scalzi, Harry Harrison, Jack Campbell, Grant Naylor and Peter David. There’s a sense of play, even when he’s not going for the comedy, which makes the whole thing fun to read.

Best ‘droid since Marvin, best malfunctioning human personality software since Marvin (or Lore — but not as creepy or murderous), funniest ‘droids since Kryten. I could keep those comparisons going — essentially, I really liked all of the Droids on Flagship (especially Deet). The CO that reminded me of some sort of hybrid between the pointy-haired boss and Douglas Reynholm is great comic relief, but there’s more to him than that.

Honestly, I could go on and on, Zieja assembled a great cast of characters — real enough that you can like them, outlandish enough that you don’t take them terribly seriously. Not just the obviously comedic characters either, there are a few “straight (wo)men” characters scattered throughout, keeping the rest grounded. Rogers is the best of the bunch — there’s a little personal growth to him (no one’s more surprised and dismayed by that than him), I enjoyed seeing that come out. I liked how despite himself he learns to set aside prejudices, take things seriously, and even act a little heroically. I as amused by (and occasionally disturbed by) his attraction to/fascination with the Amazonian Marine Captain. Rogers’ way of looking at the world is pretty relatable (I’m not saying that he’s the kind of guy you spend time with, he’s the guy you want to spend time with), and he’ll win you to his side pretty quickly.

One thing that I really appreciated was the respect that Zieja showed to the military personnel throughout this — too often everyone (with a maximum of a couple of exceptions) in a book like this is depicted as a moron — think of Richard Hooker’s classic for a moment. It’s just one example, but it’s a good one. You’ve got Jones, the Painless Pole, Hawkeye, Trapper, Duke, and a couple of nurses here and there who are competent, if not great, doctors. Who else? Everyone else is a “regular Army” schmuck ho shouldn’t be allowed in an operating theater or near anything where life and death decisions come into play.

Zieja doesn’t play it this way — these Navy and Marine men and women (with one or two exceptions, because there are always exceptions) are treated as competent, equipped and dedicated people whose greatest problem is that they have nothing to do, so things get a little loopy from time to time. But you give then an enemy, you give them a goal, you give them some way to target their talents and energy — good things happen. Even the really incompetent turn out to be quite competent when put in the right spot, doing what they’re good at (even if that’s not what they want to be good at). Problems are solved, crises averted, and enemies thwarted. That’s just not seen often enough, and I appreciate Zieja doing that.

That doesn’t mean he can’t find ways to make fun of the dedicated, the competent, and equipped — but he doesn’t make them into buffoons to do so (mostly).

I knew that I was going to like this book by page 3, I was audibly chuckling by page 4. The rest was just gravy. I laughed, chortled, and grinned my way through this — practically from beginning to end. The story as pretty good, the story plus the comedy made this gold. If I could think of stronger words to use to endorse this, I’d probably slap them here. But I can’t — just get your hands on this one. Meanwhile, I’m already looking forward to the sequel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the Publisher in exchange for my honest comments on it — sorry for the delay, I greatly appreciate the book.

—–

4 Stars

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow: A truly magnificent book that I can’t adequately express my appreciation for

The Power of the DogThe Power of the Dog

by Don Winslow
Series: The Power of the Dog, #1

Paperback, 542 pg.
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2005

Read: December 29, 2018 – January 8, 2019

           The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity. Without them, cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges, and instead of making billions smuggling it, I’d be making pennies doing stoop labor in some California field, picking it.

And the truly funny irony is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling protection against him, charging the independent contractors who want to move their product through La Plaza thousands of dollars for the use of our cops, soldiers, Customs agents, Coast guard, surveillance equipment, communications . . . This is what Mexican cops appreciate that American cops don’t. We are partners, mi hermano Arturo, in the same enterprise.

Comrades in the War on Drugs.

We could not exist without each other.

You ever start a book and within a few chapters you know, you just know — the way you know about a good melon — that this is going to be a great book? Not just a good book, an entertaining book, a rave-worthy book, but a great one? Sure, it doesn’t happen often enough, but we’ve all been there. It’s happened almost every time I’ve read a Winslow book, I have to say.

Yet there are eleven books by Winslow that I haven’t read yet. Explain that to me, please.

It’s hard to say exactly when it was that I realized that with The Power of the Dog but it happened — and it took me by surprise for a half of a second, and then the voice in the back of my head said, “Of course.” The scope, the style, the voice, the audacity of the novel — there’s no easy way to describe it. And now I have to try to talk about it? I do super-hero novels, stories about detectives who use magic — or hunt for rare vinyl LPs, teenagers post videos of their drunken parents on Youtube or Picture Books about Die Hard — I posted about (and loved) 2 completely unrelated Crime-Solving Comic Book Artists last year! How am I supposed to talk about this?

After a quick — and disturbing — look at the cost of the War on Drugs in 1997, Winslow takes us back to 1975 in the State of Sinaloa, Mexico. There we meet new DEA agent Art Keller — a Vietnam vet, who’s come to use his experience to help take on the Opium trade. Thanks in large part to those efforts, the Opium trade is devastated — but the industry shifts to cocaine, and well — things go from bad to worse.

We follow Art’s career from 1975 to 2004 — watching him try to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S. Calling that a Quixotic effort seems to be an understatement at best — but one particular cartel has made things personal for him and he directs most (if not all) of his efforts — you could argue most of his life — at disrupting their business and, hopefully, dismantling it. It’s no small task, and no quick battle.

But this isn’t just Art’s story — he disappears from the focus several times, in fact. It’s also the story of a maverick Mexican priest as he struggles to minister to various drug dealers, their family members — and their victims. We get to know some members of the Federación very well (too well, in some cases). Also, because the Federación needs customers, we meet several, ahem, NYC-based importers. Connected to all of the above is a high-class prostitute. We see these characters moving through actual history — Iran-Contra, the Mexico City Earthquake, political shifts in Washington. It was striking reading this in 2018/2019, remembering that once upon a time the name “Giuliani” was an invocation of law and order — a name that symbolized a change in organized crime’s power (at least perceived). Watching these individual’s stories weave in and out of each other’s over the decades and over huge geographic areas moves this from an intricate crime story to an epic.

None of these criminals is wholly evil (well, you could make the case for a couple of them, maybe), there are very relatable moments for just about all of them. They love, they laugh, they nurture their kids — they do good things in their community. The same can be said for the law enforcement characters — they aren’t wholly good, in fact, some of what they do is downright despicable. All of them, in short, are very human.

Winslow’s skilled at weaving in seemingly disparate tales into this tapestry and eventually you can see enough of it to appreciate why they’re all there. There are scenes in this book that are among the most depraved I’ve read. Scenes of torture, scenes of murder, scenes of heartbreak. But they’re not written for thrills, they’re not exploitative — they’re just horrific, and very likely based on something that actually happened. There’s a sweet little love story, tucked away in the middle somewhere that I kept wondering why we were getting. It was hundreds of pages, really, before I learned why — I enjoyed it while I could.

There is within this book a very heavy critique on the so-called War on Drugs in the U.S. — at the very least, on the way it’s being waged. Sometimes this comes from the narration, sometimes from a narcotraficante (see the opening quotation), sometimes from DEA agent — it doesn’t really matter whose mouth the critique comes from, it’s biting and it’s typically on point. It will likely make many people uncomfortable — by design; it should make many people upset. But Winslow never browbeats you with these critiques — unless you take the entire book as one, which it very arguably is.

I don’t know if I have the ability to describe Winslow’s writing here. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, it’s not a difficult read. Despite the horrors depicted, it’s not overwhelming. In fact, there are moments of happiness, and some pretty clever lines. Which is not to say there’s a light-hand, or that he ever treats this as anything but life-and-death seriousness. It’s not an easy, breezy read — but it’s very approachable.I don’t know if there’s a moment that reads as fiction, either — if this was revealed to be non-fiction, I would believe it without difficulty. I will not say that he transcends his genre to be “Literature,” or that he elevates his work or anything — but I can say that Winslow demonstrates the inanity of pushing Crime Fiction into some shadowy corner as not worthy of attention of “serious” readers.

I think I’ve pretty much covered everything on my pared-down outline. I really want to keep going, but I can’t imagine that many have read this far. As it is, this is at best, an inadequate job describing the book and how wonderfully constructed and written it is. Hopefully, this encourages you to seek more information, or actual reviews about it. Really, The Power of the Dog is a tremendous book and should be read by many. Be one of those.

—–

5 Stars

The Bone Keeper by Luca Veste: When an Urban Legend becomes Urban News

The Bone KeeperThe Bone Keeper

by Luca Veste

Paperback, 421 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2018

Read: April 17 – 19, 2018

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you
Three, four, better lock your door
Five, six, grab your crucifix
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late
Nine, ten, never sleep again

(that’s not from this book, it’s from The Nightmare on Elm Street movies — but you’re so clever, you probably didn’t need me to say that)

I’ve never been a horror movie guy — but I watched a couple of the Elm Street movies as a kid, mostly because my younger sister was obsessed by them. Still, if I sang this song, played a bit of either The Fat Boys or DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s songs about the movies (the musical bit), she would get freaked out. Something about that song immediately tapped into the fear of that movie for her (and made it very easy for her older brother to torment her).

I mention that because the Bone Keeper — an Urban Legend, a bogeyman story — has his own song that kids throughout all of Liverpool know and have known for decades/generations. He’s a supernatural being, living in the woods near/around the city who captures kids and adults, kills them and keeps their bones (hence the name). Clearly just a story to be told around campfires, etc. Right? One more way for older brothers, cousins, etc. to torment their younger friends and relations.

But when an injured, bleeding, and disoriented woman comes stumbling out of the woods singing that song, everyone (police, media, social media users) starts wondering — is the Bone Keeper real after all?

DC Louise Henderson and DS Paul Slater are officially skeptical (okay, more than skeptical) about the Bone Keeper’s involvement in the attack on the woman as they begin their investigation. Finding bodies in the area near where she was probably attacked (and inexplicably escaped), with strange symbols carved into nearby trees only fuels the speculation — and perhaps gets at least one of the detectives thinking that maybe they were too quick to write off the “out of the box” suspect.

As the investigation continues, the options are (at least for the reader, even if Henderson and Slater can’t think this way): there’s a deranged serial killer out there taking advantage of the Bone Keeper legend to mask his crimes; there’s a deranged serial killer out there that thinks he’s a supernatural creature, killing people; or there’s a supernatural being out there killing people. Veste writes this in such a way that every option is a valid conclusion up until the moment he has to make it clear just what’s been going on.

Like the Elm Street movies, The Bone Keeper isn’t my kind of book — but I gave it a shot anyway. I’m so glad I did. It was gripping, it was addictive, there are many other adjectives I could use here, but they don’t seem to be adequate. Let’s say that it’s the kind of book you read in the waiting room of your doctor’s office and hope that he’s running late (I was able to read enough to get to an acceptable stopping point so I didn’t resent him being pretty much on time).

I cannot talk about this book the way I want to — I’d ruin everything. I’ve deleted several sentences (or at least the beginnings of several sentences) already — and I’ve not typed a few others. Take the premise above and imagine the best way to tell that story — that’s precisely what Veste has given us.

The opening chapter is one of the creepiest that I can remember reading — and things only move quickly from there until the action-packed conclusion and almost-as-creepy coda. Haunted characters, haunted families, haunted woods — in at least one sense. The Bone Keeper‘s characters and setting are rife with opportunity and material for Veste to use to tell his story of a literal walking nightmare. A police procedural that brushes up against the horror genre — this is a thriller that’ll stay with you for a while (I’m not sure how long it’ll stay with me, but I can tell you I’m avoiding places rich with trees for the foreseeable future).

—–

4 Stars

The Dying Place by Luca Veste

Good grief! It’s taken me almost a year to read the second in this series? I’ve got to get this TBR under control.

The Dying PlaceThe Dying Place

by Luca Veste
Series: Murphy and Rossi, #2

Paperback, 383 pg.
Avon, 2014

Read: January 24 – 27, 2018

You can’t choose the last words you ever say to your child — and that’s what they are, no matter what age — as they leave the house. Off to school, off out with friends. Off to work, or on a date. You don’t think of them as last words. Just another part of the ongoing conversation, the never-ending role as a parent.

But at some point, they will be the last words you say to your child, and for too many parents in these pages, those words come a lot sooner than anyone expected or wanted. Which is just part of what makes this novel so effective and devastating.

So often (arguably, too often) in books about mass killers, the killers are depicted as geniuses, psychopaths, sociopaths, or a combination of thereof. The villains of this book (without giving too much away, I think) are regular people — people you pass by every day, see in stores, say hi to walking down the hall at work, or maybe even chat with a bit by the coffee pot. They’re hard-working, responsible adults — vote, pay taxes, help their neighbors, maybe raised a few kids. But life has dealt them one too many band hands and they make some horrible choices in response. And then things spiral out of control.

The victims aren’t the easiest to sympathize with — at least on the surface — they’re young men, technically adults, but kids really. Petty criminals — felons-in-training, on the whole — loiterers, drug users, public drunks, vandals. Not the kind of criminal you stay awake at night worried about, but you certainly don’t want your kids turning out like them or your daughters dating them. On the whole, men who could profit from a good mentor, like the folks in the previous paragraph.

That’s more spoiler-y than I tend to go around here, but that’s just the first 50 pages. One of these ne’er-do-wells shows up dead on the steps of a church, bringing Murphy and Rossi into the story, investigating this murder and eventually understanding that there’s more going on. This particular murder victim has been missing for months, but given his frequent delinquency, no one other than his mother, took his disappearance as anything to be concerned about. The reader, by this time, knows that he’d been kidnapped by our fine, upstanding citizens for the purpose of (re)educating him and redirecting his life — up until it was ended, and he wasn’t the only one being (re)educated in this fashion. The question is, will Murphy and Rossi catch up to the reader’s information in time to stop them before another young man is killed?

Pretty much at this point, the reader can plot the rest of the book and do a pretty good job of it. What the reader won’t be able to do is pace it like Veste does — it seems like he breaks several Basic Thriller 101 rules on that front. More than once I muttered, “What, he’s doing that now? Already?” (and once or twice the opposite — “he finally got around to this?”). He may have broken pacing rules, but he did so in a way that worked. Which is really all that matters, right?

It’s the characterizations that bring this home — Murphy and Rossi dealing with their demons as well as the mystery surrounding the missing and then murdered victim; the kidnapped men/boys; as well as the kidnappers. He doesn’t dive too deeply into the various kidnapper’s frame-of-minds, just enough that we understand what they did and why — and how they reacted to the chain of events they set in motion. We get a little deeper when it comes to the victims — which allows us to empathize with them.

But Veste also makes us looks at what the people around these victims thought of them and their families (mostly their mothers) both before and after these boys became victims. It’s at this point that society at large fails. Veste doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to fix societal ills, but man, he makes you think long and hard about your attitudes about some people. The fact that he does that while telling a chilling crime story is all the better.

There’s more to be said about some of this, it’s a very ambitious work — I have many more notes about things I intended to talk about, but I think I’m going to stop here so the focus stays on the vital stuff. Veste tapped into something powerful here, and that overshadows a lot of the nuances I could talk about (and outweighs the few nits I want to pick). From the wrenching opening pages to the guy-punch of a conclusion, The Dying Place is a gripping police procedural featuring characters you can’t help but like and root for, even while the world around them comes apart at the seams.

—–

4 Stars

Communication Failure by Joe Zieja

Communication FailureCommunication Failure

by Joe Zieja
Series: Epic Failure, #2

ARC, 325 pg.
Saga Press, 2017

Read: October 31 – November 2, 2017


So, Captain Rogers has escaped with his life after saving the 331st Meridian Fleet from a takeover from almost all the droids on board, now he’s been made acting admiral and is faced with a potentially bigger threat: the Thelicosan fleet — the very fleet that Rogers’ ships are to keep on their side of the border — has informed him that they are about to invade. Given the size of the fleets facing off, this is an invasion that will not go well for the 331st.

So how is this would-be con-man, former engineer, and current CO going to survive this? He hasn’t the foggiest idea.

Clearly, for those who read Mechanical Failure (and those who haven’t have made a mistake that they need to rectify soon), whatever solution he comes up with is going to rely heavily on Deet and the Space Marines (the Viking/Captain Alsinbury and Sergeant Malin in particular) will be heavily involved. Malin has taken it upon herself to help Rogers learn some self-defense (even if that’s primarily various ways to duck), the Viking is questioning every decision her new CO is making, and Deet is continuing his exploration into human behavior/consciousness (he’s exploring philosophy and spirituality at the moment — which is pretty distracting). Basically, if Rogers is looking for a lot of support from them, he’s going to be disappointed.

It turns out that the Thelicosans didn’t intend to send that message at all, what they were supposed to communicate was very different, actually. But before Rogers and his counterpart can find a way to de-escalate the situation, shots are fired, milk is spilled, and events start to spiral out of control. Which isn’t to say that everyone is doomed and that war is inevitable, it’s just going to take some work to keep it from happening. There are forces, groups, entities — whatever you want to call them — hawkish individuals who are working behind the scenes to keep these cultures at odds with each other, hopefully spilling over into something catastrophic. Which is something too many of us are familiar with, I fear — and something that someone with Zieja’s military background is likely more familiar with. The Thelicosans and Meridians discover who these people are — and how they are attempting to manipulate the fleets — and the big question is how successful they’ll be.

We focus on three Thelicosans, but spend almost as much time on their flagship (The Limiter) as we do the Meridian flagship (Flagship). Grand Marshall Alandra Keffoule is the commander of the border fleet — at one time, she was a star in the special forces, and now she’s been assigned to the border fleet as a last chance. She fully intends on taking full advantage of this opportunity to make history and restore herself to her position of prominence in the military. Her deputy, Commodore Zergan, has fought alongside her since the special forces days and is now trying to help her rebuild her reputation. Secretary Vilia Quinn is the liaison between the Thelicosan government and the fleet. Quinn’s development through the book is a lot of fun to watch — and is probably a bigger surprise to her than it is to the reader, which just makes it better. Thelicosan culture is saturated in science and math, and is full of rituals that are incredibly binding and incredibly difficult for outsiders to understand. In many ways, the culture is hard to swallow — how a society develops along those lines seems impossible. But if you just accept that this is the way their society functions, it ends up working and stays consistent (and entertaining).

Lieutenant Lieutenant Nolan “Flash” “Chillster” “Snake” “Blade” Fisk, the best pilot the 331st has is a great addition to the cast — yeah, he’s probably the most cartoonish, least grounded, character in Rogers’ fleet — but man, he’s a lot of fun (and I think it’s pretty clear that Zieja enjoys writing him). think Ace Rimmer (what a guy!), but dumber. Mechanical Failure‘s most cartoonish character, Tunger, is back — the would-be spy/should-be zookeeper finds himself in the thick of things and is well-used (as a character) and is well-suited to his activities. Basically, I put up with him in the last book, and enjoyed him here. I’d like to talk more about Deet and the other characters here — I’ve barely said anything about Rogers (he develops in some ways no one would’ve expected) — but I can’t without ruining anything, so let’s just say that everyone you enjoyed in the previous installment you’ll continue to enjoy for the same reasons.

Mechanical Failure didn’t feature a lot of world-building outside life on the ship. Zieja takes care of that this time — we get a look at the political situation between the various governments, and the history behind the four powers. Which isn’t to say that we’re drowning in details like George R. R. Martin would give us, it’s still breezy and fast-paced. Still, there’s a handle you can grab on to, some context for the kind of madness that Rogers finds himself in the middle of.

One of my personal criteria for judging books that are heavy on the humor in the midst of the SF or mystery or fantasy story is judging what the book would be like without the jokes. The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, for example, would fall apart in seconds (and few rival me for their devotion to that series). Magic 2.0 would hold up pretty well, on the other hand. The Epic Failure series would be another one that would hold up without the jokes. I’m not saying it’d be a masterpiece of SF, but the story would flow, there’d be enough intrigue and action to keep readers turning pages. However, you leave the humor, the jokes and the general whackiness in the books and they’re elevated to must-reads.

There are too many puns (technically, more than 1 qualifies for that), there’s a series of jokes about the space version of The Art of War that you’d think would get old very quickly, but doesn’t — at all; and Rogers has a couple of bridge officers that make the pilot Flash seem subtle. Somehow, Zieja makes all this excess work — I thought the humor worked wonderfully here, and I think it’ll hold up under repeated readings.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can’t wait to see where Zieja takes us next.

Disclaimer: I received this book ARC from the author, and I can’t thank him enough for it, but my opinion is my own and wasn’t really influenced by that act (other than giving me something to have an opinion about).

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4 Stars