System Failure by Joe Zieja: The Epic Failure Trilogy Concludes with a Big Success

System Failure

System Failure

by Joe Zieja
Series: Epic Failure, #3

Paperback, 417 pg.
Saga Press, 2019

Read: October 1-2, 2019

“You are literally placing the fate of the galaxy in my hands.” [Rogers] thought for a moment. “Again. You need to stop doing this.”

Every author closing out a series—a trilogy or something longer running—has a daunting task (not that stand-alones or duology’s aren’t daunting themselves, but it seems easier to me). They have to tell a self-contained story; weaving in the character and story arcs that have been percolating since the first book; resolve the new and old arcs; leave the characters in a place that readers will find satisfying; and provide some sort of ending to all of that to leave everyone in a place where you can move onto the next thing. For writers like Joe Zieja there’s an additional challenge—you have to make the whole thing funny.

Thankfully, Zieja does all of that very, very well.

Rogers’ fleet (including the Thelicosans) arrive at the home base for the Free Systems to meet with their High Command. Fully aware that the only military commander that’s had any kind of success with this new enemy is Captain Rogers, he’s named the head of the Joint Force tasked with preventing Snaggardirs from destroying the galaxy.

They also realize that the only way Rogers has had any kind of success is by throwing out all the rule books—including The Art of War II: Now In Space by Sun Tzu Jr. So they tell him to do just that. They don’t care how ridiculous or uneducated his plans are, as long as they get the job done. Snaggardirs has given the Free Systems a very limited time to acquiesce or face the destruction of the galaxy. And they seem to be able to pull that off.

So with help from a very unexpected source, Rogers reaches out to the same space pirates we haven’t seen since the disastrous opening to Mechanical Failure and also is forced to accept help from a Thelicosan practitioner of something that’s a combination of horoscopes and astrophysics (you’ll have to read the book to understand it). These, um, unconventional tools are added to the rag-tag bunch that has come to help Rogers in a last-ditch effort to save reality as we know it.

As usual, Rogers is the focus. He’s been on a journey of personal growth since we first met him—despite his best intentions, it should be stressed. He really comes a long way just in these pages and it’s pretty cool to see.

Of course, I can’t go without talking about Deet—the droid that Rogers assembled from junk. He’s also on a journey of personal growth—just a different kind. In addition to trying to understand how to justify and explain his existence, he’s trying to learn to empathize, as well as lie convincingly (or at all), and he continues to improve his [EXPLETIVE] swearing. He does get better at it and made me laugh out loud several times (both in his successes and failures). There was one misstep that he made, and I re-read that sentence a few times to figure out what he may be trying to say. Naturally, after I gave up and moved on, I learned that no one understood what he was going for.

I should add a little something about Tunger. I found him amusing in Mechanical Failure, but I thought he was overused (and became a little annoying). In Communication Failure, I stopped finding him all that entertaining, mostly trying. Which is how he started in System Failure. But he soon became a very cool character and one of the real strengths of the book. He really might be the best thing that Zieja did throughout the series.

It seems like a bonus to me—not at all the kind of thing one expects from a book like this—we’re given an antagonist that the reader can almost sympathize with. Yes, their methods and strategies are wrong and harmful to innocents. But you can’t help but understand why a people would set off in this direction. I can’t imagine anyone reading about their plight will start hoping for a failure for Rogers and the rest, don’t get me wrong. But you just might see where the Jupiterians are coming from.

There’s a key acronym in the book that a. is fitting, b. is funny, c. took me far too long to get. Once I stopped feeling stupid, I realized it was a great example of this being one of those books where even if you don’t get the jokes, the book holds up as a story well enough that you won’t even notice there are jokes you don’t get until later.

There’s one figure with access to the top of Snaggardirs who isn’t on board with their destroying the galaxy plan. So they set out to sabotage it by helping Rogers. Their scheme was pretty clever, but with one giant flaw. Which made their sacrifice sad—and their attempts at success very funny. It’s a good mix for the reader (a pathetic one for the character).

I’m not sure it’s entirely fair (and I don’t mean to disparage any of the books I’m about to mention in any way), but while reading this, I couldn’t help but compare this to two other humorous series and their conclusions. I hate to compare any comedic SF to The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, but how do you not? This series never got as funny as the best of Hitchhiker’s (maybe a couple of times it got pretty close, though), but it was a cohesive and believable story, populated with better characters and a solid ending — unlike Adams repeated attempts at a conclusion that never really felt satisfying. Similarly, Epic Failure trilogy went out strong, with its strongest material still working, unlike The Tales of Pell which went a little off-course in the final volume and didn’t stick the landing the way that System Failure managed to do.

Zieja successfully called back to elements of the first book (some I’d forgotten about, some I thought had fully served their purpose) and built on the developments of the second to give this volume a bit more heft and greater stakes. Then he added a great story new to this novel and wrapped up everything in a satisfying and definitive way. All while making me chortle, chuckle, grin and occasionally laugh. Who can ask for [EXPLETIVE] more? I don’t know what Zieja has planned next, but sign me up for whatever it is.


4 Stars
Humor Reading Challenge 2019

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A Couple of Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The first Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book was published 40 years ago on October 12, 1979.

Just a couple of thoughts in response to this…I don’t want to blather on. (if you want to see me blather on about the series, click here).

bullet 40 Years? Wow. Sure, a lot of it is dated, but most of it feels so fresh that he could’ve written it within the last year or two.
bullet Yeah, that’s the original cover—that’s a long way from the smiling planet logo I’m used to seeing (and have tattooed on my arm).
bullet On a related note, someone—multiple someones, actually—thought that cover was a good idea.
bullet 40 years later, it’s still the benchmark. How many works from that era are still that important? (maybe some cinema)
bullet Okay, that’s actually all I’ve got—it’s just cool to note big anniversaries like this. So, now we have.

Have you read this series? Got any thoughts/memories to share?

Universal Monster Book Tag


Witty and Sarcastic Book Club tagged me in her little creation—a tag based on Universal’s Classic Movie Monsters. There’s a lot of recency bias in my pics, but oh well—I liked the list. I really need to do more things like this, it was fun.

While trying to come up with the last couple of entries for this, I took a Facebook break and read a couple of posts on a Nero Wolfe fan group, and realized I could fill my blanks from that Corpus. Then it occurred to me that I could do one of these with entries only from the Nero Wolfe series. Or, the Spenser series. Huh. (I’d have trouble with some other series depending how you define “sequel” below). Watch me control the impulse.

bullet Dracula: a book with a charismatic villain
The Silence of the Lambs
My Pick: Gotta go with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, every other charismatic villain I can think of pales in comparison.
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: (yeah, so much for restraint—this was a fun additional challenge) Paul Chapin in The League of Frightened Men (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: The Gray Man in Small Vices

bullet The Invisible Man: A book that has more going on than meets the eye
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity
My Pick: The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Even in the Best Families
Bonus Spenser Pick: Early Autumn

bullet Wolf-Man: A complicated character
Needle Song
My Pick: Doc Slidesmith in Needle Song (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Can I just use Nero Wolfe? Eh, Orrie Cather in A Family Affair
Bonus Spenser Pick: Patricia Utley in Mortal Stakes

bullet Frankenstein: A book with a misunderstood character
The Unkindest Tide
My Pick: The Luidaeg in The Unkindest Tide by Seanan McGuire (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Over My Dead Body (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: Hawk, A Promised Land

bullet The Bride of Frankenstein: A sequel you enjoyed more than the first book
Stoned Love
My Pick: Stoned Love by Ian Patrick (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: The League of Frightened Men (yeah, that’s the second time this shows up, but it’s the sequel…) (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: God Bless the Child

bullet Creature from the Black Lagoon: An incredibly unique book
A Star-Reckoner's Lot

(there’s a better cover now, but this is the first)

My Pick: A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Some Buried Ceasar (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: A Savage Place

bullet The Mummy: A book that wraps up nicely (see what I did there?)
Every Heart a Doorway
My Pick: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: This applies to almost every one of them, I’m going to go with The Doorbell Rang
Bonus Spenser Pick: The Judas Goat

I’m not going to tag anyone, but I’d encourage any reader to give it a shot. I’d like to see your lists.

Also, I’ve been thinking for awhile I needed to do a re-read of the Spenser series. This post has convinced me I really need to get on that.

Pub-Day Repost: The Princess Beard by Kevin Hearne, Delilah S. Dawson: An Adventure on the High (and Joke-Filled) Seas of Pell

The Princess Beard

The Princess Beard

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
Series: The Tales of Pell, #3

eARC, 384 pg.
Dell Rey Books, 2019

Read: September 16-21, 2019

Readers of Kill the Farm Boy (the first installment in the Tales of Pell trilogy) may have been wondering about what happened to Princess Aurora/Snow White-esque figure, Princess Harkovitra*. Well, she wakes up, and finds herself in the position she’s always wanted—a chance to start over. She leaves her name and home behind, hitching a ride with our old acquaintance Morvin on his way to start a new life himself.

*Then again, maybe you’re like me, and figured she was like Worstely and that her only purpose was to kick-start the novel and hadn’t thought of her since.

They’re not the only ones looking for a new start. We also meet a swole centaur prone to over-compensation, seeks to reach a mystic temple that will heal him of (what he considers) his emasculating magical abilities. A pariah elf is looking for the opportunity to do something more meaningful than swindle tourists. And we also pick up with one of the newly liberated dryads from No Country for Old Gnomes, who needs a way to get to her chosen law school, Bogtorts.

All of these new starts require the characters to travel somewhere inaccessible to foot/horse/carriage traffic. Enter the Clean Pirate Luc (a.k.a. Filthy Lucre), who happens to be a one-eyed talking parrot. He needs new crew members and is willing to let these travel to their intended destinations in exchange for labor. Even if the result is something incongruous, like a centaur swabbing the decks (thankfully, that’s a funny image—a great thing for a comedic fantasy). Except for Morvin, who has other plans that involve less of the high seas.

The pirate ship ends up being just the thing to take our characters from quick adventure to quick adventure, creating opportunities for bonding and character growth. It’s different enough from the land-based pilgrimages of the past two novels to keep things feeling fresh, while allowing the same kind of vibe to permeate the book. I’m not the biggest fan of pirate/ship-based adventures, but when they’re done well, they are a lot of fun. And who doesn’t like a good Melville-based joke (or several)?

Not just Melville-based jokes, but there’s more than a couple of The Princess Bride riffs (in case the title didn’t tip you off). Which seems timely, given the resurgence in interest in William Goldman’s classic thanks to some nonsense about remaking the movie. I could be wrong, but this seems to be the jokiest of the three (I’m pretty sure my notes/list of great lines is longer than normal). Not that the others were joke-light, but this seems more focused on them and less focused on the story. Which makes it less successful as a novel in my opinion. But that’s in comparison to two really strong and effective novels, so I’m not saying it’s not a good read—it’s just a not-as-good-as-I-wanted read. If this was the first Pell book I’d read, I’d rush out to get the others (particularly, if a charming and insightful blogger had said the others were better than this one). I started chuckling within a page and didn’t finish until the end. Sometimes I did more than chuckle.

I’m not complaining a bit about the number of jokes, the character names alone are hilarious and make the book worth reading. It just takes away some of the impact of the story and the characters—or it distracted the authors from making them as compelling as they could have been. It’s kind of a chicken vs. egg thing.

Each of these characters gets an opportunity to find themselves, find their inner-strength, true desires, real self—whatever you want to call it. It turns out that some of them were right all along, and others just needed the fresh perspective that extreme circumstances can bring.

I didn’t connect with this one as much as I did the ones before, ditto for any of the characters. But I expect that my experience isn’t typical—The Princess Beard will resonate with some more than the others did. Either way, the reader will enjoy the ride. It’s exciting, it’s affirming, it’s a hoot.

I’m going to miss Pell, and hope the authors decide to dip their collective toes back into the land from time to time in the future. If not, at least we get the beginnings for these beautiful friendships.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this entertaining romp.


3.5 Stars

Ghosts of You by Cathy Ulrich: The thing about murder victims is . . .

Ghosts of You

Ghosts of You

by Cathy Ulrich

eARC, 150 pg.
Okay Donkey Press, 2019

Read: September 23-30, 2019


This collection of 31 pieces of flash fiction shouldn’t work. This is probably not the sentence that the author and her publicist want me to start with, but hear me out. It shouldn’t, but it does.

Why shouldn’t it work? For starters, each story has essentially the same title. “Being the Murdered _____.” Earle Stanley Gardner got away with it, as did Lilian Jackson Braun—but I can’t see how anyone else does. Add Ulrich to the list.

Secondly, each story starts with the same sentence:

The thing about being the murdered [word/phrase from title] is you set the plot in motion.

Outside of “Once Upon a Time,” that should not be done (it’s arguable that it shouldn’t be done there, either). But it does work.

From these nearly identical launching pads, Ulrich spins 31 incredibly distinctive tales about what happens after various women are murdered. I should probably clarify a bit, about what I mean about the various women (and the blanks above). These stories focus on people like the murdered Girl, Wife, Lover, Homecoming Queen, Babysitter, Mother, Extra, Jogger—mostly the kinds of women you read about/see in the beginning of a murder mystery. Ulrich also goes for some unexpected types, e.g.: Politician, Mermaid, Muse, Chanteuse (she probably deserves extra points for using that word in the Twenty-First Century), and Taxidermist.

Their murders change the lives of those around them, those who knew them, knew of them, investigated their deaths both immediately and for years to come.

Now, as the word “plot” in the topic sentences indicates, these are primarily reactions to/depictions of/commentaries on the way that the homicides of fictional women are portrayed in Crime Fiction (or even “Literary” Fiction), TV, Movies, etc. I think it has a lot to say about those depictions, but I think there are a lot of weaknesses to Ulrich’s approach, too. Too often, her critiques are overgeneralized, inflammatory and outdated—while retaining a kernel worth chewing on.

Thankfully, the book is about more than that (or I’m not sure I’d have bothered to finish it). I frequently felt like my reaction to the stories was not what it was intended to be. When she’s telling a story (as abbreviated as they are), describing human reactions to situations that “tragic” doesn’t quite begin to apply to—these pieces shine. For someone who shuns self-help books, I’ve read a lot about grief in the last couple of years—these stories contain some of the best portrayals of it in all its varied expressions—that I can remember. If your heart doesn’t break a little at least twice while going through this collection, you need to go listen to some community singing in Whoville, so they can help yours grow.

Beyond that, there’s the obvious strength of the economy of words here—these stories are lean, without a wasted word, and are pound-for-pound some of the most effective stories I’ve read this year.

As with any collection, there are stronger pieces and weaker pieces—some that will satisfy some and other readers will be stupefied by or indifferent to the same ones. I do think there’s a better hit to miss ratio in this collection than I’m used to. For what it’s worth, “Being the Murdered Bride”, “Being the Murdered Student” and “Being the Murdered Mama” were the high-points for me.

While these are all very different (Ulrich almost never plays the same note twice), I don’t recommend reading too many in one sitting (I limited myself to three at a time, for example)—beyond that, you risk robbing them of their impact.

I heartily recommend this collection that works far better than it should. It’ll cause you to stop and think, stop and feel, and hopefully change your perspective on a few things.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


4 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

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

Justice Gone by N. Lombardi Jr: Timely and Compelling

Justice Gone

Justice Gone

by N. Lombardi Jr

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Roundfire Books, 2019

Read: September 27-30, 2019


I’ve mentioned before here that after I decide to read a book I forget what its about (if I even know) to keep myself coming from being disappointed by preconceived notions. It worked this time, I really had no idea what it was about when I opened it on my Kindle last week.

Which made the opening pages, featuring the killing of an innocent and compliant veteran by the police, as shocking as they could’ve been. But they also led me to believe I was in for a grim, adult version of The Hate U Give. So when that story took a hard turn a few chapters later with the murder of some of those police officers, I was reeling as much as Lombardi could’ve hoped for.

That sensation kept repeating at each new phase of the action in Justice Gone—”Oh, so this is what the book is about.” Until I finally got that the book was about all of these things—not just one or two themes. It was actually pretty effective in that way, more than I might have thought possible in the abstract. It’s difficult to enumerate them without revealing too much, so I’ll be vague here—the central question is about the place of (and possibility of) seeing justice in our current politicized climate given the high level of suspicion of the police (and their suspicion of the general public) coloring everything, and apparent interference by government officials (especially those elected to office) on criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Sadly, in the mix of all those themes and ideas, the incident that set all of the rest in motion is forgotten about when not overshadowed by the events that spiraled from it. I wish Lombardi had been able to keep the focus on it while telling the other story, because that really is something tat needs to be told. Not that the rest doesn’t, don’t misunderstand. It’s just we’ve all seen several variations of the rest of the novel, and haven’t seen nearly enough of that.

One thing I really appreciated was the focus on the jury’s deliberation toward the end of the novel. Lombardi’s not afraid to introduce new characters—twelve of them, in fact—as the book wraps up. Occasionally, a legal thriller will take a peak inside the Jury Room, but never to this extent. Now I wonder why not.

Lombardi does slip into melodrama more than a few times. He gets out of it pretty quickly and easily, but it’s there. His characters could all use a little more work to not be so forced, and be a little more believable—except for the accused, I never had a problem with him. But Lombardi’s a good enough story teller that the problems with the writing and characters are swept under the carpet and ignored as long as you can focus on the story unfolding.

It’s a book that feels timely and important—the kind of thing that will spark reflection on the part of the reader, and hopefully discussion. Justice Gone is the kind of compelling novel we need more of.


My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.