A review of Reality Dawn, by Kate Genet

READ FEBRUARY 2014

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: Reality Dawn is a dimension travelling Reality Worker. She’s on our Earth to make sure no unauthorised doors between dimensions are opened, Unbeknownst to most people, this happens quite often – passages from one Earth to another, parallel Earth open without warning, and the consequences can be alarming. Fearless, adventurous Reality Dawn loves her job, and loves having company on her travels, which is why, when Rae meets her after her sister-in law mysteriously disappears, Rae is invited along for the daring rescue from a parallel Earth unlike anything she’s ever seen.

In this first episode, Rae’s sister in law vanishes into thin air right outside her house. No one can figure out how that is even possible, never mind what has happened to her. Until, that is, the equally mysterious Reality Dawn turns up late that same night. Rae is alternately baffled and intrigued by this strange woman who is addicted to tea and biscuits but claims she can get Rae’s sister-in law Morgan back from wherever she disappeared to. When Reality invites Rae along, Rae can’t help but go – this might be the big adventure she was always hoping for. If not, at least it’s better than sitting around twiddling her thumbs. And anyway, if this Reality woman is half as nutty as she seems to be, it’s going to be one interesting trip. She only hopes Reality is serious about rescuing Morgan.

MY REVIEW: To put it simply, I loved Kate Genet’s Reality Dawn. Some time ago — must’ve been almost a year, ‘cause St. Paddy’s Day was coming up — the author mentioned a series featuring a lesbian Doctor Who-type character. Lapsing into my occasional faux-Irish mode, I said the idea sounded “dead fockin’ brill.” Well, folks, the realization of that idea is even better. I’ll warn you in advance: some gushing may ensue.

But, ya know, it’s not enough to say you love a book (film, song, painting, single malt Irish whisky); then, a review becomes just fan a letter, and too damned many of those, along with a plot summary, get posted as “reviews,” already. As inquiring minds do, you want to know why I loved it. So…

Reality Dawn has all the qualities I’ve come to expect and admire from Kate Genet: intriguing premise, logical plotting (within context, it is SF, after all), interesting twists, very likable characters, a decent sized serving of humor, very proficient writing, technically, and a fluent narrative style.

The premise: A Doctor Who-like protagonist who, it’s implied, at least, is a lesbian, and her reluctant companion, who happens to share that orientation, embark on a quest. Make no mistake, though: this is in no way Doctor Who fanfic, or, I suppose, femslash. It simply takes the general concept of a character like the Doctor and asks, as all science-fiction should, “What if?” or pace Rod Serling, “Posit this.” What results is more of an homage (fem-age?) to The Doctor, but, on Genet’s own terms. There are even very brief nods to Tolkien and Madeline L’Engle, in addition to a more obvious one to the Brothers Grimm.

Plotting: Given the above premise, the plot follows logically and events never violate Genet’s created world. While this should be a requisite of any type of writing, it’s absolutely de rigueur in any sort of speculative fiction. In fact, it’s probably the biggest downfall of unsuccessful stories in that genre. Yeah, I know that seems paradoxical, since, in science/speculative fiction, some elements are already at variance with the world as we know it; here’s the thing, though:  once the rules of the author’s fictional universe are established, any deviation can topple the entire house of cards. In other words, having already suspended a healthy chunk of our disbelief, the story mustn’t go beyond that, or we say, “Whoa! Enough, already!” Or maybe just “WTF? “ Happily, even the most unlikely events in Reality Dawn don‘t exceed the boundaries the author has set.

Interesting plot twists: Let’s start with the opening scene. A woman is walking across her front lawn, observed from an upstairs window by her life partner. Suddenly, she just disappears. No, she doesn’t fall into a hole, though hookah-smoking caterpillars and Off-With-Her-Head queens wouldn’t be out of place here. She simply vanishes. Into the proverbial thin air. Twisty enough for you? Good. Then I won’t give anything else away, which would spoil an awful lot of fun for you.

The characters: For me, the most enjoyable thing about Kate Genet’s stories is her characters. Sure, the stories are always really entertaining and the writing itself is excellent, but characterization may be her forte, or, at least, first among equals. Anyway, Reality Dawn is very recognizable as a Doctor Who type, especially the 4th Doctor (Tom Baker — long scarf, long coat, certain mannerisms,  fondness for sweets. Reality also exhibits some of the brashness of the 9th Doctor (Christopher Eccleston — “Stupid, on the whole, but curious at least”, though he, like Reality, would soften the cheeky words with an “impish smile.”) My favorite line, “I don’t have to tell you what I think I’m doing, because I can tell you what I know I’m doing,“ (italics, mine) could have been spoken by almost any of the Doctor’s incarnations, but somehow it’s uniquely Reality‘s, as well. Genet doesn’t try to disguise the similarities, either, as some writers might; in fact, she flaunts them  (“Doctor Who’s Tardis had nothing on this”), and this is exactly the right tack, as well as the source of much of the story’s considerable humor. Despite Reality’s debt to the Doctor, though, she’s every inch her own distinct character, too.

The other main character is Rae, whom Reality cajoles into joining her by saying it will be a fun adventure, and you get the idea that there hasn’t been much fun in Rae’s life, not to mention adventure. It’s a little like Han telling Leia, “You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” Ostensibly, Rae’s rationale for going is the desire to “retrieve” Morgan, Rae’s sister Bronwyn’s wife (see online summary). Apparently, though, she’s not very close to either Morgan or Bronwyn which makes her willingness to help rescue Morgan all the more admirable. But, whether she admits it or not, the need for excitement is definitely a factor, too; she knows this may be her only chance to escape, even briefly, her humdrum life with its series of dead-end jobs.  Rae is unsure of herself, of her abilities and of who she’s meant to be, so, in a sense, this is also a coming-of-age story. A character discovering her inner strengths is a common theme in Genet’s works, and watching those characters unfold, blossom, even, is one of the true pleasures of reading her stories.

The interaction between the Reality and Rae is, on one level, typical Doctor/companion, stuff. But, and it’s a big one, the potential for romance here is much stronger, the kiss between Rose and the 9th Doctor notwithstanding. Yes, the Doctor does feel affection for some of his companions, but, in Reality Dawn, Rae is genuinely attracted to Reality, and, while Reality doesn’t overtly express her feelings, there’s a helluva lot of hand-holding which you sense could easily turn into something more. The (possibly) developing relationship between the characters helps move the story along every bit as much as the mission to save Morgan. It’s also an inducement to read the next entry in the series, assuming you need a reason aside from the sheer fun you had reading this one.

Humor: I don’t remember more than a couple of truly laugh-out-loud moments, but, that’s okay: that type humor quickly evanesces. Instead, almost every page has at least two or three things that elicit a knowing smile, especially if we’re hip to the Whovian canon, and they leave us with a longer-lasting, warmer feeling of familiarity.

Proficient writing, technically: The lapses so common these days, in grammar, punctuation, and word usage, all of which remove the reader from the story in which s/he’s become absorbed, simply aren’t an issue. Of only a couple of other writers, I’ve written that I’m not sure they’re even capable of writing badly; I now officially add Kate Genet to that small list.

Narrative style: Another reviewer has referred to Genet’s narrative style as “eloquent,” and I’ve used the word “spare.” Essentially, we’re saying the same thing. Eloquent, in addition to meaning fluent and forceful (in the sense of moving or effective) also means appropriate, and what I mean by “spare” is that latter connotation, using the right words at the right time, uncluttered by unnecessary verbiage. In other words, perfectly pristine prose. (Hey, Ursula Le Guin says you should  use alliteration, and who am I to argue with a master, a Grand Master, in fact?) Genet has a knack for choosing just  the right words and avoiding the extraneous ones, while still filling the narrative with plenty of descriptive detail.

A couple of examples might help give you the flavor of the thing: “Black, blighted building;” “deep, dark dusk (Remember what Le Guin said about alliteration? I thought you did.) Phrases like “The words tripped over themselves falling from Rae’s dry mouth” could, for some authors, become mere mannerism, but Genet recognizes that, as effective as personification can be, it can also be overdone, so she uses it fairly judiciously. Similarly, a word such as “perambulation” would, for some, be pretentious, but, here, it’s absolutely right. There are plenty of similar words the author could‘ve used — meander, amble, mosey, but there’s something about “perambulation” that takes Rae’s casual saunter and makes it purposeful. (Note: Lest you think I’ve given you too many snippets, spoiling the reading pleasure in some way, fear not: the story’s chock-full of them, and, anyway, you‘ll be so absorbed in the story, you won‘t even remember I mentioned them.)

In Writing Fiction, one of my favorite books about writing, Janet Burroway tells us “Significant detail, active voice and prose rhythm are techniques for…taking the reader past the words and the thought to feeling and experience.” Genet, whether intentionally or instinctively, makes use of those techniques, and so we become immersed in her stories instead of just being outside observers.

Deep breath, now. Drum roll, maybe: While I’m not completely sure what it is — partly, that ability to know just which words to use and how to put them together to evoke a particular emotion or mood — there’s something about Genet’s writing, that reminds me of Harlan Ellison. It’s a statement I don’t make lightly, folks, ‘cause, for me, anyway, there just ain’t any higher praise.

To conclude (whew!), I’ve used a few academic concepts to explain why this is such a damned good book, and, hopefully, to make you want to read it. I have only one thing more to add: Reality Dawn is a deliciously fun, thoroughly entertaining romp, and a joy to read. Try it. I think you’ll agree.

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A review of Kris Longknife: Furious (Kris Longknife #10) by Mike Shepherd

READ MAY 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Having used unorthodox methods to save a world—and every sentient being on it—Lieutenant Commander Kris Longknife is wanted across the galaxy for crimes against humanity. For her own safety, she’s been assigned to a backwater planet where her Fast Patrol Squadron 127 enforces immigration control and smuggler interdiction.

But Kris is a Longknife, and nothing can stop her from getting back to the center of things—not when all hell is breaking loose. Now she’s on the run, hunted by both military and civilian authorities—and since the civilian authorities happen to be her immediate family, Kris soon finds herself homeless, broke, and on trial for her life on an alien world…”

MY REVIEW: l Iiked it, but didn’t exactly kvel. Knowwhudimean? There are probably better space opera/military science-fiction series out there, but its hard to think of any that are more fun. I felt the series had sort of gone downhill in the last few entries, mostly because Kris’ self-aware personal computer was becoming more and more annoying, but also because there was a certain sameness in the plots. Furious, for me, returns almost to the level of the earlier books of the series. One major complaint: the actions of Kris’ one-time nemesis, later friend, Vicky Peterwald are completely out of character as portrayed in the previous couple of books.

Lots of humor, but, if you’re familiar with the series, you’ve heard most of it before. Plenty of excitement and suspense. Likable characters, particularly Princess Kristine and her security officer Penny. For some reason, the romance between Her Highness and her body guard, Jack, just doesn’t work for me. Hell, maybe I’m just jealous; I like Kris a lot. But, as I said, Nelly is RFA (Really…Annoying) and Kris’ maid, Abby, is getting pretty damned close to joining her in that category.

Decent writing. Fast paced. Likable characters, for the most part. Interesting, if not awfully original plot. Mostly, though just a good ol’ time of a read. Reviewing another book in the series for Tor.com, Liz Bourke opined the Kris Longknife series was a good kind of “pure fluff…entertainingly sticky, full of implausible successes, assassins, fleet actions and daredevil do-or-die gallantry.” I wouldn’t disagree with a word, except to add that it’s some of the most entertaining “fluff” out there.

A review of Friends in High Places (Far Seek Chronicles #1) by Andi Marguette

Read July 2013

Online summary: “Outlaw Torri Rendego and her crew pilot the Far Seek to the mining colony of Newburg on Old Earth to smuggle out rare black opals, in fulfillment of their latest contract. So far everything goes as planned until Torri learns that Kai Tinsdale, her Academy bunk mate and now a Captain for the hated Coalition, is there to break up the dangerous but profitable smuggling rings. Will Torri and Kai survive another test of their fragile bond as they battle nefarious forces to complete their conflicting missions.”

My review: If I didn’t care for Friends in High Places quite as much as the other works of Marquette’s I’ve read — at least early on — that’s in no way a put-down. It’s still really enjoyable and certainly well worth reading.

Both main characters are extremely likeable, and I especially appreciated the contrast between them. Torri’s sort of a female Han Solo, something of a “scoundrel,” for those of you who remember The Empire Strikes Back, though she’s a helluva a lot smarter than he is; Kai’s a loyal, by-the-book officer in the Coalition armed forces, though she’s beginning to wonder if her loyalty may be misplaced. T and K were roommates at the Academy, and Kai has absolutely no doubts where that loyalty is concerned. Secondary characters, though their appearances are brief, are more well-drawn than in a lot of books, too, adding depth.

The writing is a bit less smooth, less crisp than in Marquette’s other works, at least at the very beginning. Once you’re drawn in to the story, though, it’s not a problem at all. (Note: this in absolutely no way is meant to imply that the writing is “bad”; from what I’ve read, I’m not sure Ms. Marquette’s even capable of writing badly.) And while the plot’s not exactly revolutionary, it’s still interesting, and keeps you turning pages, which is the whole point, right? Anyway, the tropes of science fiction and space opera are by now so prevalent, there’s nothing wrong with an author employing any one –or ten — of them in her work; in fact, it’s damned near unavoidable. I was particularly impressed by how Marquette incorporates back-story in the action and in the dialogue, avoiding the large “info-dump” trap so many authors fall into, especially in the SF and UF genres.

A caveat — or maybe kudos: Yeah, there’s sex. Not tons, but more than a little. It’s well-written, and, frankly, it’s pretty erotic. If that’s not your thing — well, you should still read the book, damn it!

All in all, a very satisfying reading experience: Competent writing and editing, though something tells me Marquette’s prose doesn’t really require a lot in the way of redaction; engaging characters; consistent, well-paced plotting; plenty of suspense.  Very definitely recommended. I generally like to put several months between reading books that are part of a series, but I can assure you I’ll be reading more of the Far Seek Chronicles at some point.

A review of Protector of the Realm (Supreme Constellations #1) By Gun Brooke

Online plot summary: ‘With the fate of entire civilizations at risk, the galactic battleground makes for unusual alliances and unexpected passions as two women from very different worlds join forces. When Commodore Rae Jacelon of the Gamma VI space station apprehends the alluring but decidedly dangerous Kellen O’Dal, it is the start of a breathtaking love story, as well as a dangerous rescue mission. A space adventure filled with suspense and a daring intergalactic romance.”

My review: Protector of the Realm is book one in Gun Brooke’s Supreme Constellations series. Call it science fiction, call it space opera, but PLEASE don’t use that awful neologism, sci-fi. Personally, I’ll go with science-fiction, as it seems to have a good deal more depth than what’s generally considered space opera. Whatever you call it, though, this is an extremely enjoyable novel. The writing is skilled, mechanically, the plot compelling, the drama abundant, and the pacing, for the most part, keeps you happily turning the pages. The entire cast of characters is very likable and the romance is, well, romantic. I don’t always like to compare writers, but, there’s something of Radclyffe, here. I don’t mean that it’s derivative in any way, I just offer it to those who may not be familiar with Brooke but do know Radclyffe’s work.

The two main characters are strong, resourceful, determined, independent and engaging women. If that sounds like the formula for a Mary Sue character, both women have realistic vulnerabilities to balance their strengths. Their romance proceeds slowly enough to be believable, but, when they finally “hook up,” wow! And, Armeo, the young boy they both vow to protect, will charm readers as easily as he charms everyone he encounters in the novel.

For those who are hard-core science-fiction devotees, you won’t find startling world-building here. The setting and the plot are genre standards. However, competent writing, an interesting story, admirable lead characters, a host of very likeable, well-drawn supporting characters and plenty of suspense, all make for a very entertaining reading experience.

A review of The Temple at Landfall (Celaeno #1) by Jane Fletcher

Online summary: Lynn feels more like a prisoner than the chosen of the Goddess. Transfer to another temple is her chance to taste a little freedom on the journey, but all does not go to plan and her dull life is shattered by the dangers and choices that await her.

My review: As usual, I’ll assume anyone reading this has already checked out the book’s plot summary on Goodreads, Amazon, or elsewhere. Since others have extolled some of the virtues of the The Temple at Landfall, maybe I’ll have a go at a few of the detractors.

First, the romance: Some have complained about the briefness of Lynn and Kim’s time together before they’re separated. Personally, I think Fletcher quite adequately shows their growing attraction, albeit subtly, and there is more than enough time spent at the way station, after the snow lion attack, for strong feelings to develop. Incidentally, I liked that it occurs without any physical closeness, not that I have any aversion at all to sex scenes, but, given Lynn‘s background, they would be out of place so early on. It’s once Lynn arrives at Westernfort that I think things proceed too quickly. I’d like to have seen the couple gradually spend more time together, so their first time together doesn’t have that instant lesbianism feeling of bad girl/girl flics.

It’s also been suggested that, given Lynn’s inexperience, what she feels may be just a crush, and that’s not without merit. But, you know, first romances can sometimes be “the real thing,” your first crush can be “the one.” I think what makes the romance work is Kim’s character. she’s really not quite the “player” the Rangers portray her as. But, again, I would like to have seen things develop more slowly. The “avoid, avoid, avoid, have sex” thing doesn’t quite work. The sex scene, when it comes, though, is nicely written, and its mild eroticism doesn’t feel at all gratuitous.

I’m surprised, and a little dismayed, by all the various objections to the introduction of science-fiction elements. (Please, please don’t say “sci-fi. Okay?) This really isn’t a fantasy novel, as some have suggested. I had only read a few pages when I began wondering where these people came from, as it‘s clearly not a post-apocalyptic society on Earth. After a few more pages, I wanted to know how the technology of imprinting originated, and it is technology, make no mistake. By the time Lynn and the nuns, in the company of the Rangers, set out for Landfall, my interest had become captured by the characters, and those earlier questions may have been put on hold, but they were still there.

To those who complained that the science-fiction elements were intrusive, on the contrary, they’re the essential underpinning of the tale. Without them, there’d be no story. What, some witch casts a spell and suddenly certain women can manipulate DNA and transfer genetic material? Sorry, not buying that this could be pure fantasy in any way, shape or form.

I imagine such complaints mostly refer to the appended journal of Peter McKay. For me, it’s a perfect ending to novel, nicely, even poignantly answering the questions raised earlier. For those who suggest it should have been placed at the beginning, I think that might well have ruined the novel, taken away the mystery of how the highly advanced technology of Imprinting exists in a society on a level somewhere between the Roman Empire and the medieval period. In addition, it would have made technology the focus rather than the characters and the conflict between Sisters and the Heretics. Placed at the end, when we’ve invested ourselves in the characters and the world Fletcher has built, the diary seems almost nostalgic, and a satisfying denouement.

At least one reader complained about how, in the absence of men, some women essentially “become” men, even in the absence of a sexual duality. I assume she means the self-centered, belligerent, dictatorial, power mad, reactionary demagogues. In other words, some women in this society become “the bad guys”, so to speak, which that reader equates with men.

Sorry to disappoint the Robin Morgan/Andrea Dworkin types out there — and, honestly, I completely understand and sympathize with your righteous anger — but good/bad is a human trait, not a gender-based one. Hope that doesn’t smack too much of Manicheism for your taste. In any society, hierarchy is going to arise, and there are always going to be the “haves” who want to hold on to whatever it is they have, particularly if it’s power. To call the authoritarian characters in Fletcher‘s novel “substitute men” is to fail to understand the human condition.

I like the book a lot. I thought the characters were great, especially Kim, and enjoyed the world Fletcher has created. To be sure, some elements were predictable, but, the story itself was enjoyable enough and the characters likable enough, to overcome that.

So, why only four stars? While the writing was competent, I though it could have been better. When I was finished, I felt about Fletcher a little like I do about Jo Rowling: great storyteller, but just okay as a writer. I no way was the writing bad, I just thought it wasn’t up to the level of the story itself. The exception, I felt, was the diary at the end, which wouldn’t be out of place in any annual collection of the year’s best science fiction.

My other problem with The Temple at Landfall is that the villains of the piece, some of the Sisters and Major Rozek, are painted with such a broad brush as to be more caricature than character.

That said, I would definitely recommend this and will certainly read the rest of the series at some point.

A review of A Soldier’s Duty (Their’s Not to Reason Why, #1), by Jean Johnson

I always hate giving a low rating or a negative review to any book. Bringing a novel all the way to publication requires a helluva lot of time and effort, and is an endeavor not to be taken lightly. With Jean Johnson’s A Soldier’s Duty, though, I find myself in the opposite situation, almost having to apologize for giving a book a better rating than it perhaps merits.

As I was reading, I had an issue with the book that, I thought, was major enough to earn it a rating between two and three stars, but somewhat closer to two. Sort of “Yeah, I kind of liked it, but…” When I finished, though, somehow a pleasurable reading experience — you know, just pure, simple enjoyment — had overcome that obstacle, and I found myself in the three and a half star range. As I like to say, the kinder, gentler me almost always rounds up, where once I’d have been more of a hard-ass.

There’s a lot of good, here: From the standpoint of craftsmanship, i.e., the mechanical aspects of writing, I found absolutely nothing to complain about. In a publishing world where copy-editing seems to have become a luxury writers can’t afford, or, worse, think they don’t need, Johnson and her editors are to be congratulated. In addition, Ia is a likable character, though a bit of a caricature, too, at times. Action scenes are well-written, if pretty over-the-top. Plot-wise — sorry for the Watergate-ism — a surprise or two would have been nice, but, at least, the plotting is consistent. The world-building is not astonishingly original, though the idea of a precog who also has the strength and speed of a heavy-worlder is, I thought, a nice touch. The details were quite realistic, especially boot camp. Kudos to the author for all of the above.

So, what’s that bugbear issue? At the first battle scene i,n an reading update on another forum,  I commented that a precog with other psi powers could easily become a Mary Sue character, but that Johnson had avoided that pitfall. Alas, my praise was premature.

In the next major action sequence, we find our intrepid heroine surfing atop rampaging flood waters on a piece of metal roofing, then balancing as she leapt from log to tree trunk in the churning waters. It was like Tarzan swinging through the trees, fergodssake. You could almost hear the percussive rhythms of the Rite of Spring in the background. Later, we learn she can deflect blasts from a laser weapon with her sword. Un huh. Sure she can. And, oh, yeah, she can control people’s minds. In fact, she can pretty much pull any psychic trick out of her asteroid that the situation requires.

In short, what had been an exciting tale, and quite interesting character study becomes, to a large degree, the stuff of comic books. All that’s missing are the “Craaak”s and “Zap”s and “Kapow”s. However, unlike comic books, the fact that our protagonist can overcome every obstacle removes any element of surprise or suspense, which might have elevated this from a decent book to a great one. It was kind of like reading the early Dresden files novels: Major problem? Oh, yeah, Harry just happens to have a spell for that very issue.

Still, despite the very Mary Sue nature of a character who can circumvent — for which, read “abliterate” pretty much any obstacle, however formidable, and defeat any foe, however powerful, and despite the outrageous blood-letting — yeah, I get that it’s part of the Bloody Mary legend Ia’s trying to create, but really! — this turned out to be a very enjoyable book. So much so, in fact, that, as I said, I raised it a point and a half from what had been my estimation during the course of reading it. Yes, it is over-the-top, egregiously so. But, it was damn fun. And that, folks, is a very good thing, indeed.