Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Series Review: Star Carrier by Ian Douglas

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I'm a pretty big fan of good military science fiction. I'm willing to enjoy and digest a wide variety of the genres' variations, from pulpy classics like Starship Troopers to much grittier material by authors such as Peter F. Hamilton, as well as newer writers like John Scalzi, the writer of Old Man's War and the books which followed. I've even digested way too many of Games Workshop's Warhammer: 40,000 military sci-fi novels, which are so far from "hard science fiction" as to make them essentially fantasy novels set in the far future of this universe.

The Star Carrier series features the "space navies" of the 25th century doing battle against the proxy fleets of the massive Sh'daar Empire, a galaxy-spanning alien domination that purports to be half a billion years old. Over the course of the three novels that form the first saga, so to speak, of the series, the America battlegroup (named after the Star Carrier that forms the flagship of the group) takes the fight to the enemy. The Sh'daar have been at war with the people of Earth for several decades now, slowly shrinking the fledgling Earth "bubble" of space. Almost 40 years ago, emissaries from the Sh'daar informed Humanity that they were advancing too fast, technologically, and they must become part of the Empire and stagnate their technological growth, or face annihilation. Humanity, being the plucky fellows that we are, refused, and so...war happened.

I don't want to give away any spoilers, because the final resolution of the plot is actually pretty interesting, if a little convoluted. Douglas has clearly done his homework regarding astronomy and spaceflight, especially with regards to not only the vast distances in space, but the vast time that space needs to be measured in. The ideaof the Sh'daar being half a billion years old boggles the minds of the humans, but when it comes to space itself, half a billion years isn't really all that long. By the end of the series, you may find your perspective on time and evolution and technological advancement has changed somewhat.

With regards to the "military" part of "military science fiction", Douglas doesn't hold back. There are a number of pretty spectacularly-epic space battles; huge dogfights between fighters, immense brawls between kilometer-long capital ships, and everything in between. Some of these battles feel like the better space battles of the various Star Wars movies, with gigantic ships exploding and crippled fighters cartwheeling past, energy beams and nuclear-tipped missiles and kinetic kill projectiles slashing through space. Douglas has done enough homework to come up with plausible technologies behind all of his advancements, so it's not just "blasters" and "thrusters" and "shields", but very specific and thought-out ideas that make sense. While you can't necessarily call them "hard sci-fi", the ideas are ones that have been bandied about for years now as plausible future advancements that we might one day achieve without breaking any of what we consider to be the fundamental laws of physics.

There are a few points that bother me about this series, though. Douglas is one of those authors who feels the need to give you a review of pretty much every character background and advanced technology every book, and sometimes re-describes things even in the same book. Once one fighter is launched via the g-forces that spin the grav-hab spokes of the star carrier, accelerating at .5 Gs, after dropping into the launch tube through a permeable nanoseal matrix, we don't need to read about it again...and again...and again. By the third novel, I found myself skimming a lot of the bits between stuff actually happening, because it tended to be backfill. I understand the idea that you should always write a novel as if it is the first time the reader has been introduced to the world, but in today's book market, I feel like this is less of an issue; it is far more trivial a matter to find and buy the first book in a series that catches your eye, than being forced to start an interesting series at book 2 or 3 because you simply can't find book 1. Because of this, I feel like this style of writing has become a little archaic, and especially in Douglas' case, adds a lot of unnecessary padding to the later books.

One major complaint I also have is that the three books I read were not very well proofed, at all. There were a number of typos, mis-matched words, and other errors in each of the three books, enough (one every couple of chapters at least) that after I began to notice it regularly, I had to go back to Amazon and re-confirm that I was reading a book put out by a major publishing house, and not an indie author. In fact, even if it was an indie author, I'd be a little concerned about his proof-reading, because the errors were common enough that I'd expect him to get dinged in the reviews. That this is the case in a book that'd be sold in bookstores and other normal "trad-pub" venues, and backed by Harper-Collins, goes a long way to show that, just because someone is traditionally published, it doesn't mean their book is magically nurtured and polished by a team of experts until it has become some kind of flawless literary gem. Frankly, whoever edited this series should be fired.

Overall this was an entertaining series that could have used a real editor, one who'd have worked with Douglas to attend to not just the proofreading issues, but some of the clunkier bits of the writing, such as the techno-explanations. This is, however, balanced by a pretty action-packed series with a lot of battles and cool tech and ancient alien civilizations. I'd call this recommended, but with reservations.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: Project Nemesis (A Kaiju Thriller) by Jeremy Robinson

Click Cover to See the Book on Amazon

Funnily enough, I had downloaded this book because of a free book promotion email some weeks - maybe even months - before seeing Pacific Rim. I thought hey, a novel about huge monsters, and it's free? Cool, I'll grab it. Then it sat in my Kindle for an indeterminate amount of time, before I decided to read it on my new Kindle Paperwhite (which, by the way, is a very nice ebook reader).

The plot, in brief: A secret program to use DNA recovered from a long-dead Kaiju (giant monster) corpse found in Alaska results in creating a human/Kaiju hybrid that goes on a crazed rampage, growing at an unbelievable rate until it's skyscraper-tall within a few days. Pitted against this monster are the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security's Paranormal office, a hush-hush team of three agents who're ostensibly tasked with checking out X-Files-like threats to national security. Of course, they've never conclusively found anything...until now.

I've never been obsessed with giant monster movies. I've seen the original Godzilla and many of its "versus" sequels, and although they're entertaining, I can't say I'm a "fan" of the genre. I suppose my lukewarm attitude comes from the stories all generally feeling the same; giant monster shows up (right at a huge population center, of course), wrecks a bunch of stuff on an epic scale, and is eventually driven off (almost never really killed). There's also a certain suspension of disbelief I find difficult to achieve in terms of the humans never seeming to be able to kill the Kaijus in these movies. I know it's no more or less ridiculous than Mack Bolan surviving through hundreds of novels' worth of gunfights, but I guess we all have areas we're less forgiving with than others.

Overall, however, Project Nemesis is a pretty solid book. The Kaiju has a strong motivation for doing what it does, and the characters are all engaging enough that I found them easy to read and no one was particularly disagreeable. The notion of a DHS department that was created to fight paranormal threats, and is considered an embarrassing joke by the other DHS offices right up to the point where the 300-foot tall monster is leveling a big chunk of New England, made me laugh. There's actually a couple of direct X-Files references, and the association is very fitting.

One aspect of the novel that I found particularly entertaining is that the Kaiju is born in a secret research facility in Maine. It then stomps and eats its way to - and through - the coastal city of Portland before diving into the Atlantic and swimming to Boston, where it proceeds to flatten Beverly up on the North Shore, before leveling a good chunk of Boston. I saw that author Jeremy Robinson hails from New Hampshire, so he's got sufficient familiarity with New England to get a lot of the flavor and feel of Maine spot-on. His depiction of Boston was a little odd to me though - despite the creature being 300-plus feet tall by the end of the novel, it finds itself unable to get through "all the skyscrapers blocking it from downtown Boston" or somesuch. While there are a few tall buildings relatively close to the waterfront, that area of the city is not particularly big, and so there are some scale issues involved at the end of the book. I suspect Robinson didn't want the Kaiju to just stomp stomp stomp to where it needed to go in a paragraph or two, so he needed to slow the beast down a little. Regardless, it is a minor quibble, and one only someone who'd take the time to examine the creature's route and compare it to the city itself would notice (raises hand guiltily).

So, if you like Kaiju movies, and particularly if Pacific Rim tickled your fancy for more stories involving giant monsters smashing the hell out of cities while people scurried around underfoot, Project Nemesis is worth picking up, especially at the low ebook price of $3.99.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fan-Made Trailer for The Longest Day (1962)

It's incredible what a talented individual with suitable non-linear digital editing software and some free time can accomplish. I just found this fan-made trailer for The Longest Day, and felt I had to share it.

I think it's a nice alternative without straying too far into something unrecognizable.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Commando Series - One Year Later

As of this weekend, COMMANDO: Operation Arrowhead has been published for a year. My short story The Train to Calais has been available for a little over nine months, and Operation Bedlam has been out for four months. As I type this, I'm currently halfway through writing the third book in the series, Operation Cannibal. I thought I'd share some observations and data with my readers, to give them an idea of how the series has been doing commercially.

As of today, I've sold a little over 3,400 ebook copies of the two novels. Arrowhead is in the lead (as can be expected), but the lead isn't all that great - about 1,900 to 1,500. At the time I released Bedlam four months ago, Arrowhead had sold about 750 copies in 8 months. As you can see, not only did Bedlam sales almost immediately explode to exceed Arrowhead on a monthly basis, the first book's sales also immediately increased. I don't want to get into the dangerous territory of making causative guesses, but I feel that having a second title in the series made the books look a lot more attractive to prospective readers, giving them a sense of legitimacy.

As can be expected with a series featuring British Commandos, I sell more books in the UK than in the US - it's about 2/3rds of my sales. There is a small, but strong, market right now in the UK for WW2 "men's adventure" style fiction, with a handful of traditionally published authors selling their own series of books, each of them centering around a singular heroic Tommy in a regular line regiment. In fact, I find it rather interesting that almost all of the series follow this pattern. Some folks I've seen reviewing the books refer to this as "Richard Sharpe Syndrome" after Bernard Cornwell's Napoleonic-era fighting officer of the same name. Some use the term with mild scorn, but considering that Cornwell has done extraordinarily well for himself over the last few decades as a historical novelist, I don't really see it as a criticism. If it is a formula, it is one that works.

One of the more interesting phenomena of the Commando series venture has been the relative success of my short story, The Train to Calais. Although it received its first 1-star review this past weekend (from a reader who, apparently, didn't notice "short story" in the book description), The short story is averaging over a hundred sales a month. While this isn't crazy money, an extra $30-40 a month isn't bad, either. And many readers and reviewers commented favorably on the way it serves as a tie-in between the first and second novels, while at the same time spotlighting characters who are normally more in the background compared to the Commandos. I actually hope to publish another, similar short detailing the origin story of Andre Bouchard, the "Butcher of Calais".

It is also worth pointing out that while I have done a copule of free promotion days using KDP Select, they usually didn't result in that many downloads; I've probably only given away less than two thousand copies of Arrowhead and half that for Calais. Bedlam has never been given away for free. I'll probably arrange a special promotion when Cannibal is published, but so far, I haven't needed to rely on promotions to get the series out there. I sold more copies of Arrowhead in the first month it was available than I sold of Killer Instincts in the first three months.

Reviews-wise, the response to the series has been largely positive. There have been a few cranky Brits who questioned the series' authenticity, but like J.A. Konrath often says, if your book is actually well-written, the majority of the bad reviews you'll get will largely consist of people for whom the material really wasn't written.  The Commando series is essentially, as one reader put it, a "Commando Comic" in prose form. If that works for you, then I think you'll like them. If you need something more realistic or historically truthful, it's probably not for you. My strategy has been to keep the little details as authentic as I can, and use a fairly accurate depiction of the war as a backdrop for (mostly) fictional plotlines. I do intend to break this pattern at the end of the year, when I hope to write Operation Archery, a fictionalization of an actual Commando mission, launched at the end of 1941. I don't think it'll be a full-blown novel, however - it'll probably be a longish short story.

So, all in all, I'm extremely impressed and elated over the success of this series. When I wrote Operation Arrowhead as a break from finishing Killer Instincts, it was written more on a lark than any serious attempt at breaking into the military historical fiction genre. I wrote Arrowhead in little more than a month, and although I feel the writing could be a bit tighter, and I know I made a few mistakes here and there, I do think the series is fun, entertaining, and a real pleasure to write. I hope to keep 'em coming for many years.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review - Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

Click the Cover for Amazon Page
Many readers of this blog are already familiar with Hamilton's Matt Helm novels, a series of books that set the gold standard in many people's minds for the "hard-bitten secret agent", Matt Helm.

Rather than writing a long lead-up explaining the series, I'll offer up this link to a website dedicated to the series.

Recently, the Matt Helm books have begun to see a reprinting facelift, including ebook versions. I've got a couple of the vintage paperbacks, and I read the seventh book in the series, The Shadowers (my review can be found here). While I have Death of a Citizen in vintage paperback now, I decided to buy and read the new ebook version, since my paper copy is definitely old and a bit fragile.

The ebook was well-formatted, and I don't recall any really glaring formatting or OCR-related errors. There might have been a couple, but they clearly didn't stand out so blatantly as to make me take undue notice. And, while the covers are pretty generic on these new reprints, they are at least stylish and professional-looking.

In short, the story behind Death of a Citizen is simple. Matt Helm was a special operations agent who carried out assassinations and other "black ops" during World War Two. Now, he's a family man, with a wife and small children, a "citizen" living an ordinary life until an old acquaintance, a former fellow agent and lover, comes back into his life. Literally overnight, Helm is dragged kicking and screaming back into the world of covert operations, and by the end of the book, we've seen - ta daaa - the "death" of citizen Matt Helm, and the re-birth of counter-espionage agent code-name Eric. 

Overall, the writing is excellent, the pace is quick but not sloppy, and the action is decisive and brutal. Hamilton writes with a blunt economy, and as the story is told from the first-person perspective of Helm, we can see almost immediately that those predatory killing instincts were not lost - they were only sleeping. Helm left his soul shredded and discarded on the battlefields of Western Europe years ago; he's now as ruthless and unrelenting as The Terminator.

If you like hard-bitten Cold War-era espionage thrillers that pack a lot of character and action into short, fast reads, you need to get your hands on these Matt Helm novels. The ebooks and paperbacks are reasonably priced, so treat yourself to Death of a Citizen and enjoy.