Book Review: Hard Magic by Larry Correia

I normally write reviews in the passive voice, but in this case I’ll make an exception because my feelings are a bit more personal and the book has been out for several years now.

Hard Magic was published in 2012.  I was very slow to get into it because it’s outside of my preferred genre and I don’t generally like alternative history novels.  Once I was able to get over my own foibles, I was glad to once again immerse myself in Larry’s enjoyable prose.  Hard Magic is Larry’s second series, continuing the fun mix of action and epic adventure that he began with his wildly successful Monster Hunter series, but this time with a noir, steampunky fantasy set in the 1930’s.

The description on Amazon, astonishingly, calls it a cross between The Maltese Falcon and Twilight, and while the former comparison is in the right zip code, the latter is the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen on Amazon since the last review-for-hire attached to a self-published albatross.  The story bears about as much resemblance to the Twilight series as a Twinkie to Foie Gras, insofar as they are both edible (allegedly).  A more apt comparison would simply be to X-Men, though as the reader soon learns, the power behind the enhanced humans is far a far more complicated matter than simply “genetics.”

Comparisons to the Monster Hunter series are inevitable, though I found that Jake Sullivan is the only protagonist that seems like a cookie-cutter version of Larry’s previous characters.  This can hardly be considered a weakness, as his predecessor, Owen Z. Pitt, is a good character and easily carries his own series.  I will say that Jake seems a little more introspective, probably due to his war record.  The rest of the characters are reasonably unique, and Faye stands out in particular.  She was my favorite character in Hard Magic by far.

Each of the “actives” has some innate ability, and it is enjoyable to see the way that Larry pits them against each other.  Jake is a “heavy,” who can manipulate gravitational fields, and Faye is a “traveler,” who can transport herself instantly from one place to another.  There are other actives who can create (and extinguish) fire, those that can heal, manipulate electricity, and augment mechanical devices, to mention a few.  Both sides of the story employ actives for their forces.

The plot is a typical “good guys versus bad guys intent on world domination” affair, but Larry does a good job with his unique alterative history and it remains engaging throughout.  There are extensive reviews with summaries, so I’ll refrain from my own here. The climax of the novel is cinematic, to say the least, and leaves ample room for a sequel without clubbing the reader over the head with it (cough).  One advantage I have with waiting this long to read Hard Magic is that the sequels have already been released, so I don’t have to wait to dig in to the next book.

My rating: 4/5 Stars

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The Dream Writer

The Dream Writer

The day I was hired to be a dream writer was the happiest of my life.  I never imagined that it might kill me, and imagination was the entire reason I was hired.

I became a bartender at the Freudian Cigar to hobnob with dream writers, who worked in the building across the street.  There, at five o’clock in the evening, they would gather to smoke, drink, and blow off steam from the day’s chaos, prior to stumbling to their cars or rideshare services, to go home and hopefully dream of absolutely nothing.  I had hoped, rightfully as it turned out, that I could use that proximity to wrangle my resume into the hands of somebody that mattered.

That the Dinas needed dreams was a relatively well-guarded secret, perpetuated by a tacit agreement between the government and media outlets.  There was far too much money invested in the success of the Dina program for any weakness to be revealed, at least on a widespread basis.  It was pure rumor that brought me to the F-Cig, and I wasn’t disappointed.  As a writer, it was by far the most interesting thing I could be doing with my life.  And I still felt that way even after hearing about how the job really was.

The dream writers, while snugly tucked into my bar with a few belts in them, described a work day with a hellish pace, split between altruistic brainstorming sessions with coworkers and feverishly hammering out mostly outlandish scenarios, with a few moments of genuine literature that would only ever be known to the Dinas receiving them.  The pay was mediocre, though far more than an unpublished genre author could expect to earn, but one only needed to do a quick Google search for Dinas in the news to understand why the dream writers had such high job satisfaction.

Without dreams, the Dinas had a high likelihood of psychosis.  It was something having do to with their genetic coding; they couldn’t achieve REM sleep without a Wave Augmentation Device, and even then, their subconscious minds couldn’t come up with anything, a fact that confounded their creators as Dinas are anything but lacking in creativity when awake.  Research was ongoing, but as a stop-gap measure, it was discovered that giving them a dream script to follow, administered subliminally via the WADs, prevented any mental breakdown.  Once this was discovered, the dream writer career was born, and the government began recruiting.  New York City was the location of the first center, which was uninspiringly called the Nexus (I guess they couldn’t get the rights to the Matrix), and it was across the street, at the F-Cig, where I managed to convince a middle manager with a fondness for whisky sours to consider my qualifications.

So, I got what I wanted after all those years.  I soon discovered that all those bar patrons weren’t exaggerating.  Dream writing was an enormous task.  Our branch handled over 500 Dinas, and each of them needed at least a three hundred word dream outline daily.  We ran three shifts, just like out in the world, but thankfully only a quarter each of the Dinas worked second and third shift, respectively.  I was on second shift, so my workload wasn’t quite as bad as the first shifters.  I only had 27 Dinas assigned to me, and most of them were stationed at Fort Ellis Island, which made writing their dreams pretty easy.  Soldiers were probably the easiest career field to write for; one could get away with fairly mundane stuff and keep ‘em from eating the business end of their sidearms.  Still, I tried to add as much science fiction to the dreams of military personnel as possible, after all, if an alien invasion really did occur, they’d be better equipped to deal with it.  Right?

It wasn’t until I had a .45-caliber pistol pointed at my testicles that I realized that might have been a mistake.

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Graphic Novel Review: Chosin: Hold the Line by Richard Meyer, et al.

Chosin: Hold the Line is a vibrantly illustrated story about a company of Marines sent to the Chosin Reservoir during the winter of 1950. Forced to face waves of North Korean soldiers and Chinese “volunteers,” Fox Company struggles against overwhelming odds even as promised reinforcements are nowhere to be found. In this frozen hell, the cold is just as fatal as enemy rounds, but the Marines remain stalwart.

When Battalion realizes their efforts are hopeless, they are ordered to withdraw to the coastline. The fight continues as the enemy is relentless, and the Marines are given no respite during their journey.

With a compelling plot and an excellent pace, Chosin: Hold the Line will satisfy all but the most jaded reader. While the character development is slight, the format of the graphic novel in general does not lend itself to too much detail in that regard. At the forefront here are the illustrations, which realistically depict the horrors of war. The characters themselves are presented with exaggerated facial features, which while lacking in overall verisimilitude, is actually quite useful for keeping track of who’s who. Additionally, the weapons and equipment are faithfully rendered and instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with that era of warfare.

The story also takes the time to look at the perspective of some of the enemy forces, adding a human element to what would otherwise be limited to faceless hordes swarming the Marines. There is also an additional short story, To the Sea, which follows two young Korean refugees caught in the middle of the conflict, a summary of the Chosin campaign, and a number of maps and photographs included, which I found unexpected but very much welcome. I am looking forward to more work from Meyer and his colleagues.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Though my Kindle reader was very slow to load each page (Samsung Galaxy Tab 2) due to the large file size, this is not a reflection of the work nor have I included this minor inconvenience in my rating. It is also worth noting that the Kindle version is not available on Windows readers on OS 7 or earlier, which is disclosed on the “available only on these devices” tab on the Amazon page. If you are limited to a computer running Windows 7 or earlier, you will have to order a hard copy. Still it looks great on my Galaxy Tab, and I am sorely tempted to order a hard copy, too.

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Novella Review: The Demon Cross by Nathan Shumate

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a small-town private investigator tangled with a passel of occult-obsessed neo-Nazis?  This is the premise of The Demon Cross, a taut novella by Nathan Shumate.

Rennie Avalon is that PI, atypical of the breed as a single mother, but well qualified for her work nonetheless.  She is approached by Mister Enrst Vielstich, an academic from the Old Country and a collector of rare books.  A particular specimen from his library has been stolen, and he needs Rennie to recover it.  He can’t go through proper law enforcement channels, for reasons that quickly become apparent.  Rennie takes to the case with aplomb, but a bit of recklessness, and soon discovers that the case is more complicated and dangerous than she could have ever guessed.

The Demon Cross is an enjoyable tale, successfully combining the feel of Dashiell Hammett and H.P. Lovecraft.  The pace is excellent, and most readers will finish it within one or two sessions.  The author has a knack for description, giving adroit attention to details that are necessary without languishing on unimportant minutiae.  Shumate is an expert on “B movies,” as evidenced by his prior non-fiction work, The Golden Age of Crap, and his love of the genre is well channeled in this story.  It is also strongly reminiscent of the television series Supernatural, and fans of the show will see obvious similarities with it.  Whether intentional or not, it is a positive aspect.

One weakness of the novella is the slight character development, though this can be excused due to the short length of the story, as well as the fact that more adventures of Avalon and Company are expected.  Of particular criticism is the character of Rennie herself; her background needs to be expanded to explain her steely resolve and courage in the face of an increasingly bizarre case.  Hopefully the reader will be offered this information in future volumes.  The last issue is the sudden drop in editing quality in the latter fifth of the story, which up until that point had been flawless. However, these errors are not overly distracting.

In all this is a fun, exciting story that is well worth the reader’s time.  3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Book Review: The Quiet Place by Scott Ferguson

In this quick read for the Kindle, a ragtag platoon of soldiers is sent to a small planet on a recon mission.  Reports have filtered in that Earth’s mysterious enemy, the Tarturans, have set up a weapons research facility on the planetoid, known as Elysium.  Corporal Adams is put in charge, and the platoon heads out.

Upon arrival, disaster strikes, as the undisciplined pilot of the dropship comes in too hot and the vessel crashes.  Adams and a handful of survivors find themselves in a harsh wilderness of rivers, swamps, and mangrove-like trees.  They scrounge for weapons and supplies and set up camp, determined to complete the recon mission despite the hardship.

The Quiet Place is a very difficult novel to assess.  The placement of valuable military resources in the hands of an obviously troubled platoon stretches belief, and the explanation of why soldiers with so many discipline problems were sent on the mission is slight.  One would have to assume that dropships, weapons, and equipment are in surplus in the military of the future.  It is also strongly implied from the outset that the mission was never really intended to succeed, again forcing the reader to wonder why the brass even bothered.

If one can take these problems in stride, the rest of the story is at least interesting.  The soldiers encounter local flora and fauna that proves to be deadly, and the survivors of the dropship crash begin to dwindle in number.  The incompetence of the marginalized soldiers only adds to the chaos, creating a frustrating situation where the reader is doubtlessly rooting for them to succeed, but is forced to watch them make several recklessly idiotic decisions.  Corporal Adams appears to be the lone voice of reason, and he does not have the weight of character to hold the group together.

All of that being said, the narrative and description are good.  Ferguson creates a vibrant, terrifying world.  The pace is also excellent and pulls the reader through the story relentlessly.  There is also a complication about two-thirds of the way through that comes at a perfect time and breathes new life into the story.  The last third of the book is arguably the most interesting and the story ends on a high note.

3 out of 5 stars.  Readers who are looking for a more generalized sci-fi adventure may be disappointed.  If you like stories about surviving disaster and exploring harsh alien worlds, this book is for you.

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The Adventures of Space Cop Rylie: Space Cop!

Okay, so I don’t have a title yet.  This latest entry is the result of six months of brainstorming and debate.  It is the first chapter of my fifth novel.  It follows the adventures of Fernwyn Rylie, a Solar Police Officer who returning readers will recognize from The Tarantula Nebula and the first part of Bitter Arrow.

Though Fernwyn’s previous adventures are well documented in canon, this new work will only reference them as exposition.  The story itself will be original.

Chapter One

It was a gorgeous day for a wedding, and in less than an hour, almost everyone would be dead.

Ferwyn Rylie sat on one of the many verandas of Castle Tarsus, the ancestral home of the Umberian royal family.  She was watching the sun creep toward the horizon in the starkly idyllic mountain valley where the impressive stone structure had been placed.  It was a warm mid-summer day in the southern hemisphere, though far more agreeable here than in lower elevations.  She was nursing a cocktail of some sort and all but ignoring the other guests, most of whom were strangers to her anyway.  Her fiancée, Marek, was more familiar with the crowd, and was milling about somewhere else at the moment.  The whole thing wasn’t really her scene, but it was tolerable, and the drinks were free.

Fernwyn was also trying to avoid running into the bride’s parents and cousins.  Driven off of Umber during the Zendreen invasion eleven years ago, they had settled in the tropical region of Misrere Prime.  There, like so many other humanoid settlers, they had chosen to pick up Mektite symbiots.  The spider-like creatures averaged two hands-breadth in size and attached themselves to the back of the neck of the host.  They could only communicate with humanoids while attached to a host, and it was considered normal by the locals to swap symbiots so that they could introduce themselves.  It was also recognized that many people would find this act disturbing, so it wasn’t considered rude to decline.  Fernwyn was in the latter category and just wanted to avoid the situation altogether.

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Book Review: Swords of Exodus by Larry Correia and Mike Kupari

In a lawless region of the world, nestled in an inhospitable mountain pass in central Asia, a warlord dominates.  Sala Jihan is his name, and the area is known as The Crossroads.

While various factions are allowed to operate in the area under his purview, Sala Jihan remains the undisputed king, overseeing his mining operation with a large number of enslaved workers.  An army of enthralled soldiers are at his disposal, including the mysterious and seemingly invincible Brothers, elite men who fight like demons.  Exodus, a global network of fanatical warriors, has set their sights on Jihan, and intend to wipe his scourge from the face of the Earth.

It is into this struggle that Lorenzo, an accomplished mercenary, is recruited.  Brought out of pseudo-retirement, he and his tried-and-true tech buddy Reaper and his girlfriend Jill (herself a competent fighter) are contacted by Exodus and asked to participate in the strike against Jihan.  Normally rue to get back into that world, Lorenzo is compelled to join when he learns that his brother Bob, a federal agent, has gone missing in The Crossroads.  Lorenzo gathers his team and equipment, but first they must rescue an old acquaintance: Valentine.

Michael Valentine is also a former mercenary, held in captivity by a shadowy arm of the US government.  He is of value to both them and Exodus for what he may know about Project Blue, a program many wish to know about but few actually do.  Whether or not Valentine will be of any help elucidating the facts behind Project Blue remains to be seen, though his value as a fighter make him worth the trouble.  Lorenzo has no particular love for the man, so it is an uneasy arrangement in all aspects.  Once Valentine joins the action, the story really takes off.

Swords of Exodus is a sequel to Dead Six, an excellent action-adventure novel in its own right.  Both books follow the same formula, trading perspectives between their two protagonists as they weave their way through the story.  It is not an easy technique to pull off, and as the series goes, Swords sometimes falls short of the standard set by its predecessor.  It remains a very good adventure, and is well worth the attention of fans of Dead Six; however, the balance between Lorenzo and Valentine isn’t as exact this time around.  Lorenzo seems to receive more attention in this story, with Valentine more of a hapless participant by proxy than a motivated adherent.  While it makes sense contextually, returning readers may be slightly disappointed by it.

There are many other aspects that help make up for this.  For one, Lorenzo continues to be a fascinating and entertaining anti-hero, and one of the best action-adventure characters ever conceived.  Like Correia’s other notable protagonists, he is a lot of fun to follow and does not disappoint.  Valentine’s sections are well-written and add a critical perspective to the narrative, and his introspection helps to provide contrast to Lorenzo’s gonzo (though often cynical) attitude.  Both authors do an excellent job of illustrating the world of the story, and The Crossroads in particular comes alive vividly.

Another positive aspect is character development.  Lorenzo and Valentine are fleshed out in more depth, with more details from their past revealed including interesting tidbits from the events in Dead Six.  While adding a lot to the story, neither author dwells on it to the point of slowing down the narrative.  Each man becomes more human in the eyes of the reader, even as they’re surrounded by inhuman chaos.

Also carrying over from the first novel are the action sequences.  Correia and Kupari outdo themselves again.  They are taut at the same time they’re relentless, described with just the right amount of detail to be exciting and rewarding.  As usual, some scenes are depicted with a sanguine, cringe-worthy edge, which might dissuade the casual reader if they happened upon this novel randomly but are right at home regardless.  Valentine’s handiwork with his S&W 629 .44 Magnum revolver is the most obvious example of this.

Overall, Swords of Exodus has a different tone than Dead Six.  It is more of a slow burn, more contemplative, with a slightly more meandering pace.  For returning fans, it should be well-received, but in a microcosm, it might not be as popular as its predecessor.  One common aspect for a sequel is to raise the stakes, and in this case, while the mission is extremely important to Exodus, the involvement of the protagonists does not feel as critical as before.  Also, as previously mentioned, Valentine’s participation leaves something to be desired, an aspect that one hopes will be addressed in Project Blue, the upcoming third addition to the series.  Also in that regard, Swords is very much a middle story, leaving a great deal unresolved.  However, it serves only to make the third book more compelling, and hopefully we won’t have too long to wait for it.

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