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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction

Ender Wiggin is just your average six-year old boy, the youngest of three siblings. Average, other than the fact that he’s a budding military genius, taken from his home on Earth and shipped off to be trained in Battle School in space. The human race has been fighting a war against an alien species that attacked the Earth a hundred years ago. They’re called Buggers, for the obvious reason that they look like giant insects. After a fluke victory during the first war, the military has been desperately searching for the next great leader. They hope they’ve found him in Ender. Ender will suffer through five years of grueling training as the men in charge manipulate him and the children he trains with in order to turn him into the best strategist the world has ever seen.

As Ender struggles to survive and thrive in Battle School, his older brother and sister back on Earth are going through their own crucible. Peter Wiggin, the eldest, is a cruel and sadistic boy with grandiose but entirely plausible ideas of ruling the world. Valentine Wiggin is the middle child, protector and defender of Ender and buffer to Peter, trying to keep him from taking out his frustrations and manipulations on the innocents around him. All three kids are scarily smart and intensely calculating; each move they make, each word they utter is analyzed unto the nth degree. Between the three Wiggin children, the world is in for a hell of a ride. But they just might manage to save the human race in the course of all their machinations.

The title Ender’s Game refers to so much more than the mock battles he learns to fight in the Battle School. He is both pawn and player, manipulated by the military men around him, but also trying his best to fight back any way he can. He is very much aware that they are playing with his life, even at the beginning of the story when he is still a child. Although Ender is still very young when the story ends, he stops being a child very early on.

The story asks many questions of us: How far will we go to turn a child into a killer? How much manipulation and isolation can one boy handle for the sake of humankind? Is the price of survival too high? Is the complete and utter destruction of another race really what it takes to ensure our continuation? Is the only true path to power through the means of manipulation and deception?

There are few easy answers in this book. What Ender, Valentine, and Peter endure and engender because of who they are and what they can would be too much for most normal children. But it is very clear that they are in no way normal children. This book is not about childhood. It is about the loss of one, two, or three childhoods for the good of many. Ender is the butt of the worst of the training, but every boy and girl he fights beside and against is a victim of necessity.

Ender, in himself, is not a killer. He has been forced into situations that cause him to defend himself, but on his own, he is a sweet and caring boy. Forces outside of his control cause the literal weight of the world to descend on his small shoulders. Card manages to portray him as very human and very real, even as Ender is pushed above and beyond the edge of human endurance. The people in charge of his life are all bad; many of them care deeply for Ender. But because of the threat of the Buggers, they can stop at nothing to create the ultimate defender. Valentine is also seen as a good sister and a kind person, as she is coldly manipulated both by the military and Peter. Peter is the real bad guy, but he’s bad in such a way that can’t be stopped or proven, but must be endured. He is a megalomaniac in the truest sense, convinced he is the only one that can prevent war between the countries of Earth after the Buggers are defeated. It’s very unfortunate that he might be proven right. In the end, even the Buggers are proved not to be all bad, but merely guilty of misunderstanding the structure of the human race.

The characters and settings within Ender’s Game are compelling. This is a true classic of science fiction. You have space battles, weightless fights, an alien species, and truly genius characters. You also have examples of the best and worst of humanity. There are strong and weak male and female characters, although the boys vastly outnumber the girls in Battle School. Valentine manages to stand out even against her two brothers, though, and she is a genuinely interesting character in her own right.

There are some mixed feelings in the Speculative Fiction community about Orson Scott Card’s works because of some of opinions he has expressed in regards to the gay and lesbian community. Because of those opinions, I can’t honestly endorse buying Ender’s Game, because I feel that the author does not deserve to be supported by the very people he admits to loathing. But sometimes a story reaches beyond petty feelings, and in this case, Ender’s Game is one of those stories. So go to your nearest library or used bookstore and get this book. It’s absolutely worth reading, regardless of the author.

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valors choiceValor’s Choice by Tanya Huff
Mass Market Paperback: 409 pages
Publisher: DAW; 1St Edition edition (April 10, 2000)
ISBN-13: 978-0886778965

Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is a proud member of the Confederation interstellar military. She travels to far off planets and fights against The Others, a race bent on destroying or conquering every other sentient species in the universe. When the Others bumped up against the peaceful aliens of the Confederation, the Confederation realized they needed troops to help fight them off. As they themselves had lost the art of war centuries ago, they recruited the still mostly planet bound human species to be their shock troops. That was about a hundred years ago, and the humans, along with the di’Taykans and the Krai, have created a military force to be reckoned with. Staff Sergeant Kerr is one of their finest products.

When Torin and her company are tapped for ceremonial duties on a new planet the Confederation is hoping to recruit, she knows things won’t go as planned. The Silsviss are a lizard-like race that weeds their excessive number of males out by sending them into battle against each other. And Torin and her Sh’quo Company of Marines are there to convince them that the Confederation is a powerful force that would be a worthy ally for the Silsviss planet. Of course, nobody told Torin or her Marines that this would involve being shot down in a game preserve and fighting off scores of hormone-crazed adolescent Silsviss males.

Torin is a Staff Sergeant’s Staff Sergeant. She is the balancing point between the enlisted men and women on the ground and the officers in charge of her people. She must be seen to know all, see all, and be psychic besides. Staff Sergeants don’t make mistakes, at least not where their Marines can see them do it. When Torin wakes up in bed next to her company’s new Second Lieutenant, nobody will hear about it from her. It’s up to her to make sure Sh’quo gets through this ceremonial duty without too many people dying and no one finding out she’s actually human and not infallible.

The Staff Sergeant is an utterly confident woman. She knows what needs doing and she’s not afraid to get dirty doing it. She can shoot, march, and strategize as well or better than anyone, and with her eyes closed. At least, that’s the picture she must present in order to keep her people confident and unflappable. As a leader Torin is charged with upholding morale and getting them through even the most dire situations as intact as possible. What this means as she is unable to show any weakness, even that of normal emotions, for fear of letting her people down. We only learn about her emotions through her inner monologues, but that is more than enough to admire Torin for. She truly cares deeply for everyone under her command, and for the officers who depend on her. She just doesn’t let that get in the way of her job.

Valor’s Choice is a fantastic example of Military Science Fiction. You’ve got guns, troops, aliens, and lots of gore. Huff manages to instill a very human or at least human-like quality, to all of her species. They are thinking and feeling people, not just killing machines. Even as they are cutting their enemies to pieces, they retain those aspects that make good soldiers and good people. Dignity, respect, loyalty. There are three more books in the Valor series, and I suggest you go out and read every one. War isn’t pretty or heroic. Most of the time, it’s just soldiers out there doing their jobs. Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr does hers better than anyone else.
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Check out Tanya Huff’s website or follow her on Twitter @TanyaHuff

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Thanks to a comment I received today from an annoyed author, I wanted to talk a little bit about writing and relinquishing control of that writing.

Writing a story or book is often like having a child. The original idea, as it grows and changes within you and then begins to pour out onto the page, is comparable to birth and sometimes just as painful and exhilarating. As you write the story, polish it, pass it around to your friends for analysis, you are raising that story.

When you send it off to the publisher hoping for acceptance but fearing rejection, it’s like the first day of school. Once that book is published and available to the masses, your child has graduated and is at the mercy of the world at large. Just as you wouldn’t follow your kid to every friend’s house, every job interview, and every party, at some point you won’t be able to keep up with everyone who has read your book.

Some people will not like your book, it’s inevitable. They won’t “get it” in the way you had intended. There will be misunderstandings and interpretations that may not make sense to you. However, you can’t control every reaction. In most cases, you can’t even argue it. You can try to understand where the person is coming from with calm discourse and clear discussion, but a defensive posture won’t win anyone over to your side.

Criticism is the bane of every professional, be it writer, artist, or teacher. Criticism means somewhere, someone thought you did it wrong. A consummate professional learns to take criticism in the spirit in which it is given. It is directed at the work, and the impression that person garnered from it. Basically, it’s not personal. Learn from criticism; that’s its purpose. If you feel you must engage with critics, do so in a manner that reflects well on you. Cries of “My baby!” or the equivalent will not bring about real constructive conversation.

A great way to learn and grow as a writer is through discussion. Why didn’t they like this character? Why didn’t they get the tone I was trying to portray? Ask. No story is perfect and the best way to improve upon future works and future children is to learn from the mistakes of their older siblings. Once that book has left your hands, you lose control of where it will go and who will read it. You lose control of people’s responses and interpretations. If you find you don’t like what you’re hearing from critics, listen to what they’re saying and decide if you should change that in the next book.

As a reviewer, I try to ignore the author completely when I’m reading. Although I might be interested in them as people later, when I’m reading I honestly don’t care. I care about the story and characters in it. If I feel like it’s a good story, I then try to analyze why. If I feel like it wasn’t a good story, I go into as much detail as I can about why that is. If the author of the book comes across my review, it is their job to interpret my response in a rational way. If you can’t do that immediately, go away and come back later after the initial impact has passed.

Being a writer means being brave. You pour your innermost thoughts and feelings out onto a page and hope for the best. The bravest thing you can do as a writer, beyond writing, is letting go. Once that story is out there, it’s over for you. What comes next can only be another story. There will be some minds you can never change, and it frankly is not your job to go around explaining what your book really meant. It is the job of your book to tell its own story. If you’ve done your writing well enough, your book will be able to speak for itself.

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MagicInTheBloodMagic in the Blood by Devon Monk
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Roc; 1 edition (May 5, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0451462671

Picking up where Magic to the Bone left off, we meet up with Allie Beckstrom just as she’s recovering from her last adventure in Devon Monk’s first book. For Allie, magic is still pulling a double whammy on her, making her pay in pain and memory. Because of this, Allie does not remember much of the events that happened in Magic to the Bone, including her relationship with the mysterious Zayvion Jones. She also doesn’t remember the investigation of her father’s death or the events that led up to her strange set of magical tattoos. Thanks to her friend Nora, though, she’s gotten the gist of past events.

When her father’s ghost begins haunting her, however, Allie begins to wish magic could be directed to take specific and very unpleasant memories. Daniel Beckstrom was a manipulative bastard while alive and death apparently hasn’t changed him much. He’s riding Allie to investigate the disappearance of some dangerous new technology that Beckstrom Enterprises developed. Meanwhile, MERC, the magical arm of the police department, wants Allie’s help in tracking down a serial kidnapper who’s been stealing young women with the aid of magic.

On top of all of this madness, Trager, a man Allie helped put away years ago for dealing in illegal blood magic has gotten out and is looking for revenge. He’ll use any means necessary, including her fellow Hounds, to get back at Allie for what she did to him. Add to this a creepy new twist in Allie’s magic that is causing ghostly people to attack her, and you’ve got a recipe for either disaster or a great book.

One of the best parts about this book, though, is the relationship between Allie and Zayvion. He’s not out to be her knight in shining armor, although he’s helped her out of more than a few tight spots. He wants her to learn to control her magic and her life, and many times goes out of his way to help her understand what’s going on. The romance between them doesn’t detract from the book, and it’s not even the main focus, but it adds some nice background music to a thrilling story.

Allie continues to grow and change as a character. After living for years with her head in the sand about how her city really runs, she’s finally started to take a look around. What she sees isn’t all bad, but it’s in no way all good either. People are using magic in ways that are dangerous and even deadly and Allie is out to stop them any way she can. As she does her job as a Hound, she also starts to take responsibility for the life she ran away from. Reconnecting with her stepmother Violet is one part of this, but she also starts to realize she has more friends to call on then she ever knew.

My favorite side character in the storyline barely shows up for twenty or so pages, but he’s quite memorable. Grant Rhines runs Allie’s favorite coffee shop, Get Mugged, with a friendly and casual style. He’s a big, tall, and handsome guy who just happens to be gay. Grant is quick to come to Allie’s aid, asks few questions of her, and stands up for her when she needs it. I honestly hope we see more of this very warm character, because he’s a breath of fresh air compared to many of the thugs Allie ends up meeting.

Magic in the Blood is great sequel. It develops the characters and the storyline, and answers some questions that were raised in the first book. Too often, authors think being mysterious and close-mouthed about what’s really going on in their created worlds leads to repeat sales. In my case, it just annoys me when you get so few clues about the behind the scenes action. Monk does a good job of revealing answers to older questions, while bringing to light new questions. The complexity of her world continues to grow along with her characters, and that’s absolutely a good thing. This is one urban fantasy that’s headed in the right direction.

Since this book is part of a series, it’s generally a good idea to read the first book and then go down the list. But I think the author does a good job of giving enough background without info-dumping so that you could conceivably pick up the second or third book and just read.

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Check out Devon Monk’s website or follow her on Twitter @DevonMonk

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sf sitemoxylandIn Moxyland, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has spread to a Grand Canyon sized gulf. Set in the near future of South Africa, it follows the interweaving story of four very different kinds of people. This was a great book to read, I once referred to it as cyberpunk-chic and I stand by that tag. I’ll be interviewing the author, Lauren Beukes, in a couple of months for Author of the Week so check back for more information about Moxyland.
nekropolis
Matt Richter is good at doing favors for people. A former cop, he’s good at finding things out and making people talk. He’s also very, very dead. Nekropolis was an okay book. There were definitely some rough patches in the story, places that didn’t line up quite right. But there was a lot of potential in Waggoner’s book, and I’m hoping that as he gets more practice, Matt Richter will become a permanent figure on the Urban Fantasy landscape.

To read the full reviews, head over to SF Site. Just click on the book covers.

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Author of the WeekNext week’s Author of the Week will be urban fantasy author Devon Monk. Don’t miss it on Monday, November 9th! Three reviews will cover her Allison Beckstrom series, Magic to the Bone, Magic in the Blood, and her newest release, coming out tomorrow, November 3rd, Magic in the Shadows.

As an added bonus, Ms. Monk will be offering a signed copy of Magic in the Shadows to one lucky commenter on her interview. You’ll have 24 hours to comment, then I’ll announce the winner Tuesday afternoon. This book giveaway is open to international participants as well. I’m really excited about this giveaway, and I hope to see lots of great comments next week.

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crystalrainlargeCrystal Rain by Tobias Buckell
Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction (May 29, 2007)
ISBN-13: 978-0765350909

John DeBrun is literally a man with no past. Washed up on the seashore 27 years ago with no memory and only the chain around his neck to tell him his name, John has managed to build a life for himself, despite his terrible handicap. With his wife, Shanta, and son, Jerome, he lives the life of a coastal fisherman on the island world of Nanagada, suffering through nightmares and a feeling of deep loss as he tries to make new memories to fill the hole left by his amnesia.

That all changes, though, when the Azteca on the other side of the Wicked High Mountains invade, looking for slaves and sacrifices for their strange, alien gods, the Teotl. Forced to flee before the invading army, John heads for Capitol City without his family, determined to join up with the mongoose-men, the best fighting force the Nanagadans have to offer. He’s hunted by both the terrifying Teotl and a brutal man named Pepper, for reasons he can neither remember nor understand. It’s up to John to find some way to stop the Azteca, regain his lost memories, and save his family, all while trying to stay alive.

Nanagada is a colony planet of Earth, but the reasons why this branch of humanity has ended up there, or what they were meant to do, have been lost hundreds of years ago. With the flavor of the Caribbean woven throughout the story, Buckell paints a vivid world full of diverse people, with strange enemies, and even stranger friends. John is a strong man bent under by the force of his unknown past, and the fate of his family. A rare figure in speculative fiction, he’s a black man trying to make his way in a world he doesn’t remember. He shows emotion freely, genuinely loves his wife and son, and is doing his damnedest to either save them or make someone pay, hard.

Pepper is someone from John’s past, a walking, talking killing machine with dreads, who has a secret soft spot for lost causes and hopeless people. Haidan is a man of honor, the General of the mongoose-men charged with protecting Nanagada, and weighed down by responsibility and a creeping sickness. Oaxyctl is an Azteca who befriends John, madly driven by his bloodthirsty gods to get the secrets from John’s memory any way he can. And Prime Minister Dihana is a shrewd, tough young woman determined to keep her people alive while at the same time bringing them back out of the dark ages. All these characters and more make for a riveting tale.

There are several recognizable influences in the book. The Azteca are modeled after the Aztecs of South America, the alien Loa that many in Capitol City worship are references to the practice of voodoo in Haiti and other areas, and even the Rastafarians briefly mentioned come from Jamaica. This mix of religions, peoples, and historical references makes for a rich and varied background against which the main story takes place. It is rare to find an author with a deft touch for so many unusual cultures, but Buckell pulls it off beautifully, probably with plenty of help from his own Caribbean upbringing.

The tech in Crystal Rain remains relatively low key up until the very end, turning the focus on the main players instead of the shiny machines as some authors do. What tech does appear has an almost steampunk quality at times, with soaring airships, armored locomotives, and a steamer ship that can pop out treads and crawl over land. There is also a hair-raising tech scene towards the end that brings to mind something that happened in the Matrix, but I don’t want to spoil it by giving away details. Just read the last few chapters with care.

Crystal Rain is a fascinating and memorable experience, and a great opening for the start of Buckell’s first series. The only problem I had at times was the cant with which some of the characters spoke, but it’s an adjustment that comes quickly once the story picks up. If you’re into adventure, betrayal, grotesque aliens, strange technologies and a life or death struggle, go pick up Crystal Rain immediately. And while you’re at it, pick up the next two books, Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose. This is a series worth reading.
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Check out Tobias Buckell’s website where you can read the first 1/3 of Crystal Rain for FREE! or follow him on Twitter @tobiasbuckell
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Other Reviews of Crystal Rain:

Fantasy/Sci-Fi Lovin’
SFFWorld.com
Enduring Romance

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