Book Review: “The Trilisk Hunt” by Michael McCloskey

The Trilisk HuntFollowing the events of The Trilisk Supersedure it becomes clear to Telisa and Magnus that if they want to properly track down the Trilisk that ran away from them that they are going to need a bigger team because just the two of them supplemented by Shiny just isn’t going to be enough firepower to make things happen. In The Trilisk Hunt, they use their cover corporation of Parker Interstellar Travels to recruit several new members to their team in hopes that the right complement of skills will let them take the Trilisk down once they have found it again.

The new crew members on board the Clacker (Magnus and Telisa’s ship) are Caden, a virtual combat champion; Imanol, a mercenary; Maxsym, a xenobiologist; and Siobhan, a mechanical engineer and adrenaline junkie. All of them are required to undergo a gamut of training at the hands of Magnus and Telisa, training specifically designed to help equip them in combatting the Trilisk if they do manage to confront it once more. One of the best part about the training is that none of them have any idea about Shiny until they reach a certain point, and once his involvement is revealed all of them accept it with varying degrees of comfort. Some of them have no problem with Shiny while some of them really aren’t so sure about him, much like Magnus continues to have his own doubts.

One thing that changes the dynamic of the mission is that Shiny has devised a way for the crew members to create enhanced versions of themselves they can use in combat without having to put their original bodies in harm’s way. They can be stronger, faster, anything they need, but then they have to sync their memories back up with their original selves so that they don’t become two separate consciousness. Once they manage to find the Trilisk they take these new bodies into combat and try to capture it, but that does not go well when they realize that the Trilisk tubes that Shiny uses to make their new bodies have a built-in failsafe so that a Trilisk can override the bodies at any time. That means the crew has to go after the Trilisk a second time, but without their enhancements.

The end result is the Trilisks still escaping and several members of the crew winding up dead from the mission. Telisa also discovers that the Trilisks are heading to Earth in order to use humanity as a tool to bring about the resurrection of the Trilisk race. The fallout from the mission leaves Telisa is a rather fragile place psychologically and some of the other crew members wondering if they really want to continue with what they were recruited to do.

The Trilisk Hunt was a fairly decent entry into this series, but I did feel a little bit like the ending tied itself off a little too fast. The development of the new characters was strong as they were added to the cast, but in the closing pages of the book I felt like something was missing and that things were left a little too open-ended. I have one more book to go to finish the series, so we’ll see how things shape up in the end.

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Book Review: “Paradox Series: Heaven’s Queen” by Rachel Bach

Heaven's QueenThere is nothing better than a satisfying ending to a well-written and enjoyable science fiction trilogy. Heaven’s Queen is exactly that, and it finds a way to fulfill the story in a way I expected while still throwing in a few plot twists that I didn’t see coming. Devi and Rupert continue to be wonderful, compelling characters, and Rachel Bach crafts an ending to a fantastic science fiction tale that can satisfy just about anyone if you ask me.

A lot happens in Heaven’s Queen as Devi continues on her mission to take down the Eye organization and stay one step ahead of everyone trying to track her down to capture her or kill her, whichever is more convenient for them at the time. Unlike in the previous two books, the reader is treated to Devi and Rupert on screen as the main focus for almost the entire book. A couple of times they get separated briefly, but they are a team now, a somewhat dysfunctional team at times, but a team nonetheless. I liked how their relationship manages to come full circle and return to being a romantic one while still showing that the two of them have grown and matured about the reality of their situation. Their romance still creates a few tough decisions and maybe they make the wrong decision a time or two in order to protect one another, but ultimately they know what has to be done even if they don’t like it all that much.

My favorite part of Heaven’s Queen is when Devi faces down the Lelgis queen and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that humanity will not tolerate being used as the Lelgis’ test subjects and/or guinea pigs any longer. The last portion of the book when Devi faces them down might have been some of the best writing in the entire series. I know that as I was reading those scenes I wasn’t convinced that Devi was actually going to pull things off in the end, but she does and I was pretty happy with the result.

I also really liked how Caldswell, despite knowing that Devi has actually managed to fix the underlying problem with the phantoms continues to see her as a traitor and somehow who took unnecessary risks to reach her end goal. He’s dedicated to the organization he is a part of and he does not want to admit that her approach was actually the better one.

However, the most satisfaction I got from Heaven’s Queen and from the entire Paradox Series on the whole was that it has a happy ending. If you ask my wife, she’ll tell you that I really have a hard time with sad or open-ended endings when I am reading a book or watching a television show or movie. I still find those things enjoyable even if the endings are satisfying to me, but I always like it when the endings have more sunshine and flowers than moral lessons and hardship. Heaven’s Queen ends in a way that kept me smiling all the way to the end of the last sentence and I can imagine the wonderful things that Rupert and Devi are going to accomplish together as they move on to the next stages of their lives, happy to be together, and happy they are alive.

To my knowledge this is the last book of the series, but I very well might be wrong about that in the end. Rachel Bach has tied things off nicely so that another book is not necessary, but at the same time it could be done. If I had my wish, I hope she leaves it where things stand at the moment, but I’ll readily admit that if a fourth book shows up someday I’m going to snatch it up right away and get to reading.

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Regarding the Five Star Rating System

Part of reading books is stacking them up against each other with each one you finish. Whether you then write a review for the book or not, it doesn’t matter. As soon as you finish reading the book you picked up from the library last week or the one you downloaded to your Kindle yesterday afternoon, you are going to rank that book in some fashion against the other books you’ve read recently. You may just say to yourself, “I liked that book more than anything I’ve read in the last few months,” or, maybe you’ll be more specific and think, “You know, that book is the strongest ending of a trilogy I’ve ever read.” It doesn’t matter how specific you are, but you really can’t stop yourself from grading everything you read in some fashion.

In the world of book blogging and reviewing, the five-star system is the general standard for rating books; five stars being the best and one star being the worst, with occasional use of zero stars for the truly terrible. Let me be clear in stating that there is nothing inherently wrong with the five-star rating system. The problem I have is oftentimes the five-star rating system is used incorrectly or in ways that dilute it in some fashion.

Here is a collection of examples of what I see happen more often than not:

  • Someone grabs a book by their previously established favorite author and reads it. Then, simply because that author is their favorite author, they give it five stars.
  • “For no other reason than I liked this book, I give it five stars.”
  • Someone reads a book recommended by another book blogger or friend who gave it five stars and gives it five stars as well so they don’t start a fight.
  • Someone reads a book by an author with a different political/social/moral viewpoint than their own and then proceeds give it zero stars.
  • Someone discovers a few punctuation or small grammar mistakes in a book and then gives it one star.
  • Reader: “I don’t like first person viewpoints.” Gives all first person viewpoint novels two stars regardless of anything else.

And my personal favorite:

  • Someone reads a book written by a family member, friend, or friend of a family member, and then gives it four or five stars so as not to give offense to someone they might actually have to talk to at a later date.

I feel very strongly that all of these listed usages of the five-star system are wrong. Not only do they show that the person giving the rating has no idea how a five-star rating system is supposed to work, but they also serve to make it impossible for someone trying to decide if a book is worth their time to get an accurate assessment.

When looking at a five-star rating system objectively, despite its inherent subjectivity, there are some things that can be established as benchmarks that assist in keeping most interpretations within acceptable boundaries.

First, in a system where you have five options, the middle option is the equivalent of “average.” That is to say, a three star rating means the book was average. It did not do anything wrong, and it did not do anything especially unique. A big problem with the use of the five-star rating in today’s world of book blogging and reviewing is that everyone feels giving something a three star rating means that the book was “bad” or “sub par.” In actuality, a three star rating means the book set out to do what it should: tell a story in a coherent, engaging manner without plot holes, flat characters, or any other large oversights. It could be argued that any book someone starts reading gets the benefit of the doubt of having a three star rating until it proves itself otherwise. I don’t think that happens very often, which is disappointing. I am of the opinion that 85-90% of books are worthy of a three star rating. No more, no less.

Second, the use of “half stars” between the delineated 1,2,3,4, and 5 star ratings serves no purpose but to dilute the system and turn it into a ten star rating system. If you think a book is truly deserving of three and a half stars, give it a three star rating or a four star rating and then explain yourself in more detail during your review. Do not use “half stars” as a crutch.

Third, it’s my feeling that ratings should be from one to five stars. No zero star ratings. I have yet to see a zero star rating where the reviewer was not just being petty and insulting for the sake of being so in an antagonistic manner. If you don’t find anything redeeming about the novel, give it one star and move along. There is no need to be disrespectful by slamming the author further into the ground for no reason but your own satisfaction.

By establishing these three ground rules, the five-star rating system begins to have a lot more structure and reviewers can help readers more accurately determine the worth of a book. Allowing your fanboy emotions for a particular author to grant higher ratings than a book is actually worth doesn’t help. Neither does slamming a book because of your personal prejudices.

Some might have noticed that I do not provide ratings, grades, or any other such system with my book reviews any longer. I had a grading system a while back and I’ve dabbled in the idea of using the five-star system a little bit, but I don’t trust that others will interpret my ratings for what they actually are: as objective as I can make them. Instead, I imagine those reading my blog, be they casual readers, other book bloggers, or authors, will see any three star ratings as some sort of insult. If I were an author, I’d be thrilled if a bulk of my ratings were three star ratings and any four or five-star ratings would just be icing on the cake.

For the sake of argument, and because I have been considering the use of the five-star rating system again in the near future for my own reviews, here are the guidelines I personally use when rating a book after having read it (with included examples of books I’ve read in the past year or so that fit within each rating level):

Five Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent, engaging story that is free of major grammatical errors, large plot holes, undeveloped characters, and any other things that would take me out of the story. In addition they feature unique magic systems, plot devices, or character development that is not found anywhere else in their respective genre. I read these books very quickly; staying up all night to finish them or avoiding important responsibilities to keep reading. These are books I sincerely believe to be deserving of any and all literary awards they are eligible for at the time. I would recommend a five-star book to anyone at anytime regardless of their genre preferences.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Five Star Rating:

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
  • The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez
  • The Enceladus Crisis by Michael J. Martinez
  • Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Four Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent, engaging story that is free of major grammatical errors, large plot holes, undeveloped characters, and any other things that would take me out of the story. In addition it utilizes common genre tropes in interesting new ways that keep them from being stale. I read these books rather quickly, possibly staying up an hour or two late, or ignoring smaller responsibilities to keep reading. I would recommend these books to anyone who is a fan of its respective genre as well as selected people who are not generally readers of that genre. These books would be deserving of at least consideration to be nominated for some literary awards.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Four Star Rating:

  • Defenders by Will McIntosh
  • Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood
  • The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan
  • Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole
  • The Stormlight Archive: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Three Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent, engaging story that is free of major grammatical errors, large plot holes, undeveloped characters, and any other things that would take me out of the story. I tend to read books of this type over the course of a few days without avoiding other responsibilities or staying up late to keep reading. I would recommend a three star book to just about anyone that I know enjoys the genre it falls within.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Three Star Rating:

  • The Iron Druid Chronicles: Hounded by Kevin Hearne
  • Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • Soulminder by Timothy Zahn
  • Paradox Series: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

Two Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent story that may have a few plot holes or characters that are in need of better overall development. These books are free from any major grammatical errors, but may have a higher number of smaller errors than is ideal for a reading experience. I often find myself reading these books more slowly and sometimes reading a better book at the same time. I rarely stop reading these books in the middle, but I do have a hard time recommending them to others unless there is something very specific I feel that person will enjoy due to their personal tastes.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Two Star Rating:

  • The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Moon College by Geoffrey Litwack

One Star Rating: A book at this level has most likely not managed to tell me a complete story. It suffers from major plot holes, unrealistic or unbelievable characters, significant grammatical or formatting errors, or failing to feel like a cohesive piece of literature. A book at this level may also be full of offensive material not suited for general consumption, or it may just be so confusing that a reader cannot follow the plot from point A to point B effectively. I make a point of not recommending one star books to others.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a One Star Rating:

  • Shattered Soul by David Bentley
  • Soulminder by Blake Walker

I’m not saying that my way is necessarily the right way, but I do believe it’s a lot closer to the correct way of using a five-star rating system than what I see happen on a lot of blogs and other review locations such as Amazon or Goodreads. Everyone loves getting a five-star rating on something they’ve written or otherwise created through hard work and determination, but I would much rather a five-star rating on something I’ve created be coming from a place of as much objectivity as possible rather than subjective whims.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much structure one tries to apply to any kind of rating system because the very nature of reading and enjoying a book means no system will be 100% objective because opinion by default cannot be applied 100% objectively. Take for example the fact that I think The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a lousy book when it is generally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Enjoying a book is always going to have a subjective element to it, but that doesn’t mean the rating system preferred by most couldn’t be applied a little more consistently across the board.

Book Review: “The Trilisk Supersedure” by Michael McCloskey

The Trilisk SupersedureIn the third book of the Parker Interstellar Travels series, Michael McCloskey keeps the action moving by having Magnus, Telisa, Shiny, and their newest recruit Cilreth moving on to the next world they’ve discovered with Trilisk artifacts and ruins to explore. The Trilisk Supersedure continues the trend of these books being short, compact, and well-paced so that the reader can pick them up, dive right in, and possibly even finish things all in one sitting. I continue to think that there are not enough books that fill that criteria in mainstream science fiction these days.

My biggest question about this book was how Cilreth was going to mesh with the already strong trio of Telisa, Magnus, and Shiny. It’s been established that Shiny has something of his own agenda but is willing to remain with the humans for the time being. Telisa and Magnus are involved both as business partners and emotional partners, and they have been through a lot as a team. Adding a new element, another female no less, had me wondering if some sort of love triangle was going to make an appearance. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and Cilreth had her moments to shine as she bails Telisa out of a couple tight spots and shows her usefulness to Shiny along the way as well.

Two very interesting things happen in this book that did not happen in the previous two books in the series. First, the group of explorers runs into another sizable human force which turns out to be a remnant group of the Unified Earth Defiance that the UN Space Force had defeated years earlier. This group of UED soldiers had been hiding out on the planet that Telisa, Magnus, and Shiny choose to explore next and they have been dealing with a very aggressive and dangerous alien life form that has slowly whittled the group down soldier by soldier over time. Telisa and Magnus know nothing about this alien when they land on the surface and that causes all sorts of problems.

The second big thing to happen in The Trilisk Supersedure is that Telisa, Magnus, and Shiny encounter a living Trilisk for the very first time. Nobody had any idea if they were still a living race, but it turns out they are still around and Telisa gets a first hand look at how the Trilisks “supercede” themselves into the bodies of other life forms in order to accomplish their goals. Telisa spends a bit of time with her consciousness transferred into one of the aliens and the Trilisks manage to escape the planet by transferring themselves into an escaping UED soldier that manages to make it off the planet when all is said and done, leaving Telisa, Magnus, and Shiny to give chase.

I liked how The Trilisk Supersedure took a few moments to dig a little deeper into the character development of Telisa, Magnus, and Cilreth. They become a little better as characters with each subsequent chapter. Shiny is his usual wonderful self whom I still wish had more actual screen time than he gets.

There are two books remaining for me to read in the Parker Interstellar Travels series and I intend to get to them sooner rather than later because I don’t want to leave the series unfinished long-term. I’d rather finish it up and see where things take me.

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Review: Bastion Magazine, Issue #1

Bastion #1About six months ago I happened across a blog post that featured the very first issue of Bastion Magazine. For a long time I’ve wanted to find a science fiction or fantasy magazine to read so I could expose myself to new writers and to more short fiction within those two genres. Part of the reason I want to read more short fiction is because I would like to get back into creative writing at some point and I think my strengths might point more to that format rather than full-length novels.

At the time I said to myself, “A brand new science fiction magazine! This is perfect! I can jump in on the ground floor with this!” Then, as seems to be the usual case with me, life got busy and I was trying to stay on track with reading my 100 books for the year, then I was starting a new job, then I was moving to a new home, and now it’s October and the year is almost over. I guess that time has a problem of just getting away from me sometimes, although I’m fairly certain I’m not the only person who suffers with that problem in life.

So, now Bastion Magazine has released its sixth issue in October and I’ve just managed to read the first one. Luckily for me, I have all six of them sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read as soon as I can work them in. I may still have 30 books to read towards my goal for the year as of the writing of this post, but I decided it was time to pause on that and see what Bastion Magazine has to offer me. At the very least, they have magnificent cover art, but I have a feeling the stories in each issue are going to entertain me just fine.

Let’s start with a few comments on the individual stories in Bastion Magazine, Issue #1:

That World Up There by Kurt Bachard
It isn’t often nowadays that you read something written with a second person point of view, but this story took the leap and gave it a try. As a result, I had to reread a few sections to make sure I was following the story correctly because I’m not used to reading in that viewpoint. I did like how the author left it ambiguous as to exactly what the character was, especially given that it can apparently jump bodies at the end.

The Dead Channel by David Galef
I suppose there will always be a debate about whether or not the soul exists and by extension what happens to the soul after a person dies. The idea that families could have a television set that allows them to see and/or hear the person that has recently deceased is something I find both fascinating and a little bit creepy at the same time. Is that something I would want to have for my children if my wife died prematurely? I’m really going to have to think about that before I can settle on an answer.

The Trial of Avery Froelich by Eric J. Hildeman
This was my favorite story of the issue. It had just the right amount of personality from the author leaking through the words and the dialogue was wonderful. Besides, I’m a big fan of the whole “big and unexpected plot twist” thing, which this story had plenty of to go around.

The Dreamcatcher by M. Justine Gerard
I’ll admit, I had to read this one twice. The first time I don’t think I was paying close enough attention to the details and that left me a little bit lost. The second time through I was paying attention and when I was finished I felt a bit creeped out. In a good way. Unexpectedly, this story is the one that made me the most uncomfortable in a “well, that’s definitely something to think long and hard about” sort of way. Stories should do that sometimes.

The Last Repairman by David Austin
This story had me thinking a lot about Hugh Howey’s Wool as I read it. I know it wasn’t really the same thing, but the idea of someone having to “go outside” and everyone being worried about it really sent me back to when I read Wool. I think there is a bigger story inside of this one that I really want to see on the page someday.

Shale by David Jack Sorensen
I think Shale was the shortest story in the issue by a big margin. It’s really only one scene that incorporates a bit of a flashback and then leaves the reader to their own devices as to deciding what happens next. I’m not generally a fan of that sort of thing, but it worked pretty well.

The Crystal Forest by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
The most humor in the issue came from this story. I’ve read several books lately that deal with sentience being transferred to robotic bodies or held in limbo until physical bodies can be repaired, but I hadn’t come across one where the transfer to a robotic body led to a switch in gender, a switch that for all intents and purposes is permanent. I really, really wanted another 10,000 words of this story to magically appear when I was finished. It hooked me in hard.

Shock by Samuel Marzioli
I’m not really sure how I feel about this one. The manifestation of healing powers that save a life is a little bit of a reach for me personally, but given the short fiction format, I’m not sure there is much else one can do about it. It was well written, but might have just not been my personal cup of tea in the end.

Lighthouse to the Depths by Nicholas Mazmanian
When I finished Lighthouse to the Depths I was reminded of some of the older science fiction I’ve read for school in the past. The kind where not everything is explained and you really have to sit back and fill in some blanks on your own.