Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Vagrant by Peter Newman

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Starlight gives way to bolder neon. Signs muscle in on all sides, brightly welcoming each arrival to New Horizon. The Vagrant does not notice; his gaze fixes on the ground ahead.

So begins The Vagrant by Peter Newman, a literary work that is bold, dismal, groundbreaking, and genre defying all at once. It’s concisely written yet full of beautiful prose, and features a menagerie of characters, some good, some evil, and many who fall somewhere between. The central figure is, as the title suggests, the man known only as the Vagrant. Beyond him and a pair of ever present companions (a baby and a goat, of all things), there is little consistency to the cast of personas; the Vagrant is on a mission which  necessitates that he remain on the move and, in doing so, hardly won alliances are often shattered as the Vagrant does what he must do to keep himself and the baby he protects alive.

The world the Vagrant walks is a dark, dismal one, made so by the horde of monsters that emerged from the Breach to enslave and otherwise make ill use of humanity. In this ongoing struggle, few can stand against the monsters. The Vagrant is, not surprisingly, one of them, but only because of the sword he wields, a relic of an order that has been laid low by the monsters and their infernal leader, the Usurper. The Vagrant’s story unfolds over the course of the novel as we are treated to glimpses of his past, how he acquired a Seraph Knight’s sword, and how he came to travel with a baby and a goat. The baby actually influences many of the Vagrant’s decisions. The goat, not so much, though he does view the goat as a companion of sorts and looks out for him as such. The last thing I will say about the Vagrant is that he is a mute. This isn’t immediately obvious; while he doesn’t speak early on in the book, the prose is such that the reader is left to wonder if this is merely a tact the author means to explore for as long as he can. Later it is revealed, however, that he cannot speak. It’s an interesting aspect of the character which allows the author to explore situations in entirely different ways since the Vagrant cannot simply explain himself or his intentions verbally.

The writing is somber and dark in the vein of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, yet leavened at times by the presence of the Vagrant’s companions. The goat is flat out hilarious at times, often inserting himself into the middle of situations (especially if there is food to be had), and the baby brings with her a sense of hope that only a baby can bring. Yet the world as a whole is a dark, dismal place, where seemingly well intentioned characters can and will change allegiances to suit their own needs. Yet even in the darkest places there can be light as we find with a certain abomination-like character.

I’m giving The Vagrant four rockets. It very nearly received five, but there was a point in which I felt the story dragged somewhat. Still, this first installment in The Vagrant Series is a must-read if only because of the uniqueness of the main character and genre-blending aspects of the world he walks. There are aspects of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and dystopia, all blended together in a way that is both horrible to experience yet refreshing from a non-traditionalist’s point of view. The Vagrant has much more story in him, I feel, so I will be purchasing the next two books in the series soon.

Tusk by Nathan M. Hurst

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

On the surface, Tusk by Nathan M. Hurst follows a familiar formula: Earth is dying and the human race with it unless an ambitious plan to colonize a distant planet succeeds. Any experienced science fiction reader has been here before, with an Earth that has been used and abused by its dominant species to the point where it is fast becoming uninhabitable. The only way to save the human race is therefore to travel across the stars to start over on an uninhabited planet. Tusk doesn’t really break from this formula at any point, but it does throw in enough curve balls, mysteries, and a fair level of suspense that it’s an enjoyable, fun read that kept me turning the pages.

Humans are able to travel vast distances across space only because of the pioneering work of one scientist who develops sophisticated cloning technology and, even more impressive, a way to transfer the consciousness of an individual from one body to another. This, in effect, means humankind has achieved immortality; as a person’s body reaches the end of its life, that person’s consciousness can be transferred to a new, young body and theoretically live forever. While the philosophical or religious implications of this are never really mentioned nor explored, I really didn’t miss a deep dive in this direction. Instead we get a practical means by which those onboard the three ships sent by Earth can travel indefinitely until they finally reach their destination. That destination is a place called Hayford b, a system that contains a livable but uninhabited planet ready and waiting for the colonists arrival.

Of course things aren’t what they seem and so the first crew to begin awakening discovers one of their sister ships, the UTS Intrepid, unresponsive. They soon learn that all comms are jammed around the ship and that, even worse, she’s been boarded by an unknown party.

I won’t go into a lot of plot details because it’s too difficult not to give something away, but suffice to say the Intrepid’s boarders do not have the best interests of the colonists in mind. Throw in some additional sub-plots, more than a few battles, and a big assumption that gets turned on its head, and you’ve got a pretty enjoyable science fiction story to look forward to.

The writing is good and concise in a way that doesn’t waste a lot of words or spend a lot of time with ‘filler’ descriptive prose; you’re going to get a lot of straight up drama, action, and suspense with Tusk. As for the characters, there are a lot of them, which, on one hand, is to be expected given the size of the colonization ships. While it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight, the variety allows the author to explore many different aspects of the mission and the various storylines. The AI is especially intriguing as a character. Her depth was refreshing and somewhat unexpected.

All things considered, I liked Tusk enough to give it four rockets. As mentioned, the main plot is not original, but the writing, characters, and storylines all combine to present a science fiction novel that will intrigue and draw you in. One final note: Mr. Hurst contacted me via Twitter to request a review of Tusk. I obliged by purchasing my own copy of the Kindle edition of the book. I have since also purchased the next book in the series, Clarion, which I’ve added to my TBR list and will review sometime in the near future.

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold takes the Penric and Desdemona series of novellas to a new level in terms of story complexity, character development, and reader engagement. Where the previous three installments were serviceable enough stories, fun to read, and moved things along in terms of Penric’s progression as a sorcerer, Penric’s Mission allows the character to grow in entirely new ways. Not only does he display a level of confidence I’ve not seen before with his sorcery, but he also builds up enough courage to engage in a bit of romance despite a certain over-protective brother working against him. I received Penric’s Mission via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Bujold did not write the Penric and Desdemona stories in chronological order, though I’ve been reading them as such, ignoring the order in which they were published. Based on information I found on the Chalion Wiki, Penric’s Mission is the fourth novella in the series.

In Penric’s Mission, the titular character finds himself in a far and distant land, working undercover to enlist the aid of a disaffected general. All seems to be going well until Penric is betrayed, thrown into a dungeon, and then sentenced to death. Penric has come a long way since he first met Desdemona, the demon who shares his body in a sort of symbiotic relationship, so he handles this change of fortune with tact and intelligence. Once free, he has the option to flee for his life. Instead, Penric stays on point, putting the mission ahead of his own well-being. It doesn’t hurt one bit that Penric finds himself attracted to the general’s sister. What started as a straightforward mission to secure the aid of a military genius becomes a fight for survival as Penric must face off against his betrayer and the sorcerer who serves him.

Penric’s Mission is a great addition to the Penric and Desdemona series and the first novella to earn a four rocket rating from me. Bujold’s writing style is as captivating as always, but what really sets this book apart from its predecessors is Penric himself, who has matured in terms of both his sorcery and his personality. He still relies on Desdemona’s greater experience and wisdom, but he often shows initiative all on his own now. It’s a refreshing change to his character, one that allows him to grow much more within the span of this one book then I’ve seen previously.

Needless to say, I liked Penric’s Mission and I already have plans to pick up the next book in the series.

Outpost by W. Michael Gear

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Outpost by W. Michael Gear is the first novel in the Donovan Trilogy. The second book, Abandoned, is slated for release in November 2018. In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of Outpost from the publisher via NetGalley. I’m giving Outpost a solid four rockets because it’s a fun read with some unexpected developments, some interesting characters, and one heck of a problem/mystery that serves as a nice, overarching dilemma that really drives some of the character’s decision-making. You see, no ship has arrived at the planet of Donovan in some time. Not for lack of trying, it turns out, as the inhabitants of Donovan learn once Turalon arrives in orbit. The people of Donovan, who thought they’d been abandoned, come to realize that other ships have attempted to reach Donovan, but that each attempt has resulted in the disappearance of the ship in question.

This really isn’t a problem so much as an unsolved mystery to the inhabitants of Donovan, though. They came via an Earth ship of their own many years before with the intention of settling the habitable but wild planet. Extreme circumstances called for extreme survival tactics such that once they came to realize no additional supplies were coming, the Donovanians stepped up and began to provide for themselves. They established their own government, their own laws, and staked their own claims to the land. Their system is not the rigid form of government they left behind, but one that values self-sufficiency and independent thinking. This works great up until the point when Turalon, the first Earth ship to reach Donovan in years, arrives and makes contact. Their mission to bring new settlers and supplies to the planet becomes one of suppression and control as they attempt to establish order in a society they deem as lawless.

Now this may all seem somewhat stereotypical to the point of tossing the book out the window because who hasn’t read this sort of story before, right? But Gear takes this whole thing in an entirely new and almost opposite direction from what you might expect. I won’t go into details for fear of ruining the story for you, but suffice to say some characters change allegiance, others who seemed doomed have a change of fortune and really shine, and others who you might want to meet a horrible fate embrace the new world order that is Donovan and (unfortunately) come out on top. But the story is in no way finished with this first book. Abandoned, the next book in the series, comes out soon. I plan to pick it up either via NetGalley or on my own via Amazon.

Outpost earns a solid four rockets from me. I liked the characters, the story, the planet, and the direction the author is going with all of it. It’s a good science fiction series you should add to your reading list.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

In The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, humans finally leave Earth to settle the distant stars when a remarkable discovery is made. The Flow, as it’s called, is a phenomenon made up of passageways that enable FTL travel. But the Flow is scarcely understood, and soon Earth is cutoff from the rest of the Flow when it’s entry point mysteriously closes. No matter, though, because the Interdependency, a series of unified human settlements, has done well on its own, establishing artificial worlds all along the Flow’s pathways and a substantial presence on the only habitable planet along the Flow, End (called that because it literally lies at the end of the Flow).

As one might imagine from the book’s title, the empire, in this case the Interdependency, is on the verge of change or, rather, collapse. [Note that none of this is a spoiler since this information is in the book’s description] Not because it’s reached it’s height of decadence or because of imminent invasion, but because the entry and egress points along the Flow are closing, cutting off each symbiotic piece of the Interdependency one by one until each settlement will be entirely on its own. Of those settlements, only End has any hope of surviving because of its natural resources. As readers, we learn of the imminent catastrophe in bits and pieces. Ultimately, the problem becomes one the new emperox of the Interdependency, Cardenia, must solve.

But along the way there are mutinies, business and political backstabbing, and attempts on a certain emperox’s life. If you have an appreciation for Scalzi’s other work you should have no problem settling into the punchy, dialog-heavy writing, which actually does a fairly nice job of keeping the story moving along at a fairly fast-paced clip. Right away, we experience what happens when an entry point into the Flow begins to close. For a ship’s crew marooned outside the Flow, they face a slow death as their stores and power runs out long before they can traverse the potentially hundreds of light years distance to the next closest settlement. Space is truly vast and humans never developed FTL technology.

One word of caution: if you are in any way put off by use of the F-word, then tread carefully into this one. Scalzi uses it like it’s going out of style. One character in particular has few sentences, if any, that do not contain swearing. It fits the character, but even I thought it was a bit much after a few hundred pages of it.

The Collapsing Empire is an exciting read and only the first book in the Interdependency series, so there’s plenty more to come. If you liked Old Man’s War and the other books in that series, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well.