Before we even begin the review, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to do two things: ignore the cover, and ignore the title. Seriously. PreteBefore we even begin the review, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to do two things: ignore the cover, and ignore the title. Seriously. Pretend that somebody who hated the book and wanted to make sure it sold zero copies somehow got control and slapped the cover onto it.
I'll come back to this later.
Rebecca Lickiss's Deck of Cards is a space opera, with heavy elements of thriller and comedy of manners thrown in for good measure. Imagine early Lois McMaster Bujold, as this fits very well with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, despite being a wildly different story.
The story is also set in a very complicated world.
Five is a resident of the planet Fenris, and somewhere in the top dozen or two slots for the line of succession to the throne to rule the planet.
As the novel opens, we quickly learn that Five, whose real name is Valor, works with his siblings together to protect the youngest ones from their mutual father, Sigil. There are more than twenty siblings, nearly all called by number by their father, and the protection is needed. The opening scenes have Sigil returning from an audience with the King and taking out his fury, causes unknown, on Five's right hand, breaking every bone in it. Five's relative acceptance of this clearly signals that, while this attack was extreme, it was simply of a piece with all the previous treatment by his father. Further, it's very clear that Five takes abuse on himself so that the other siblings won't be targeted.
Almost immediately following, Five learns that he has a required audience with the King the following day, and there is a rush with the doctor to get his hand into presentable shape in time.
The audience with the King is, if anything, even more disastrous than his encounter with his father. The King tells Five that he will marry a daughter of the king of Ariel, the mysterious Princess Dedalean Leonargus, as a means of easing tensions between Ariel and Fenris, and encouraging trade.
Which explains Sigil's vicious attention to Five's right hand, since that's the hand that will hold the wedding ring.
Yes, the wedding ring goes on the right hand.
Lickiss's novel has many, many impressive accomplishments, not least of which is the detailed world-building. In this case, I'm referring to the cultures and histories of the two worlds featured, rather than the climate, geography, or other physical features.
Fenris and Ariel orbit the same star, Ariel having the much larger orbit, and according to legend, they were colonized at the same time, four hundred years ago, in a desperate last-ditch effort not to lose a revolution. We don't get much more detail about that, but the legend includes the fact that the two worlds will unite again in a hundred years to re-take "Target", a planet somewhere outside of the system, whose location nobody seems to know.
In the meantime, Fenris and Ariel have been at near-constant war, all the while looking over their shoulders dreading outside invasion, in spite of the fact that many (including five) don't actually believe the legends. Five's marriage is publicly part of an effort to reconcile the two cultures ahead of the fulfillment of the forefathers' plans to re-take Target.
Privately, however, there is another purpose.
Five's father, Sigil, is a wildly violent, unstable, unpredictible psychopath, as has already been established. And several people in line for the throne have died in mysterious, not-quite-provably murdery circumstances, including the King's two sons. Sigil wants the throne, and the King knows it, but can't move against Sigil for unknown reasons, though part of it is clearly fear.
And the secret reason Five is being sent to Ariel, along with his youngest siblings and other children currently in Sigil's path, is to provide a safe haven for the King's as-yet unborn son, about whom nobody knows except the King, the Queen, and now, Five. Once established, and the prince born, the child is to be sent to Ariel as a bastard child of a royal cousin, as cover. The real reason is to keep him completely out of Sigil's purview.
Following all of this so far? Good, because that's merely a part of the first two chapters. This is all merely set-up. I haven't even gotten to Arielan culture, the large cast of characters over there, or the delightful interactions between the emigrants and the Arielans.
And it's all handled magnificently, with only a few minor missteps, none of them relating to the story itself.
Lickiss handles a very, very large cast, with complicated and shifting interrelationships, in a way that makes me jealous. And once you tune into the cultures that she has built, it's pretty much all crystal clear, except when it needs not to be, to keep the reader in suspense. She also develops two related, but markedly different cultures, almost purely through showing them to you, not lecturing the reader much at all, except when characters truly don't or wouldn't know things, and need to be lectured about them.
The story is engaging and interesting all the way through, leads to a very satisfying ending, and leaves the door wide open to further stories in this setting. We never find out much about Target or the circumstances that led to Ariel and Fenris being colonized, for example.
It's all quite excellent and entertaining, and I recommend it highly.
That said, there are some minor defects, technical things really, in the story itself.
And there is also the cover, and the visual presentation of the Kindle edition of the book.
Within the story, there were a very few times where Lickiss did not signal things quite clearly enough, at least for this reader. It is, as I indicated, a masterful job of juggling a very large cast, keeping all the interrelationships straight in the reader's head, and showing the different cultures to boot. However, a few times, she slips. There is an important conversation between Five and the King of Fenris, private, that I started out thinking was between Five and his father, because she used the King's given name, something that had been mentioned once, I think, but hadn't stuck in my head for some reason. That was the worst example, but there were a few other times in the book where I had to stop for a moment, go back and reread a paragraph or two, to make sure I was oriented correctly within the story. (Also, toward the end, there were a few obvious typos that pulled me out of the story briefly, simply because there had been so few, possibly none, in the early going, so they stood out.)
The title works once you have read the story, because one of Five's idiosyncracies is that he uses a deck of cards (unique to the story and world) to play solitaire as a way of helping him sort out relationships and figure out how to solve problems between people. However, it is *not* a title that indicates "space opera" or "science fiction" in any way, which is why I said to ignore it. It's not a bad title, but it fails to signal the reader what kind of story it is.
And the cover. Oh, alas, the cover.
Look, within the story, both Fenris and Ariel have strongly feudalistic tendencies, and some primitivism, such that the aristocracy live in castles, and on one planet, they are horrified at the very mentionof indoor plumbing, because that might give away their real level of technology should Target attempt to invade. And no, that makes no sense, as characters in the story realize, but it's a brilliant bit of world-building that rings true.
However, a plain picture of a castle-like structure? That, really and truly, gives you zero idea what kind of book this is. On top of which, it's bland rather than intriguing. And currently, SF covers still tend strongly toward artwork rather than photographic realism, for obvious reasons.
So, ignore the cover, don't let the title fool you, this is a fun, exciting space opera of a fairly unique kind, and I want a sequel, or even a prequel, dammit!
I started reading S.L. Huang's Zero Sum Game for two reasons.
First, and most importantly, the premise had not one but two brilliant "high concept" elI started reading S.L. Huang's Zero Sum Game for two reasons.
First, and most importantly, the premise had not one but two brilliant "high concept" elements, either one of which would have been enough to make me want to read it, but together made it a must-read for me. "High concept" is a now-dated screenwriting term that can be defined a number of ways, one of which is: an exciting premise that can be stated in 25 words or less.
Huang's double-barrelled high concept is that her protagonist sees the world as math (I'm oversimplifying a bit), and that whoever or whatever her antagonist is, it gets inside the protagonist's head and can edit, delete, and plant new thoughts. So the protagonist has to figure out how to beat someone who is very literally inside her head.
I mean, damn. Right there, you should want to run out and read this book, knowing nothing else about it. (And if you don't, the failure is mine in communicating it, I promise.)
The second reason you might say is almost out of guilt. If you follow me at all, you know that I'm an advocate of the Creative Commons. My own work goes out under CC licenses, and I share all kinds of music I find in the commons that I think is worth telling people about.
But I haven't really done much regarding CC-licensed books. Part of that is that the ones of much quality that I came across were from big(-ish) names that published through major publishing houses. If you read SF and F much, you've probably at least heard of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, e.g. And the few I've read that were totally indie were... not "bad", but each had idiosyncracies and self-indulgences that rubbed me wrong, and as an advocate, I want to share The Good Stuff, not rag on authors with different tastes than mine.
So when I came across the summary of Zero Sum Game at Unglue.It, I instantly downloaded it and put it into my (terrifyingly lengthy) to-read list.
And now I've read it.
Holy crap is it good!
S.L. Huang has, in her very first novel, completely mastered the craft of writing a thriller. On a chapter-by-chapter basis, it is a joy to read. The laying of hooks, the timing of twists, the deft handling of exposition that also reveals character. She is, first novel, indie published, absolutely professional.
Cas Russell is the narrator and protagonist, and we meet her in the middle of doing her job --- she's a retrieval specialist, and on the first page of chapter one, she's retrieving a young lady from a drug cartel's compound. In fact, we first meet Cas as she's punching in the face the only person in the world whom she trusts.
She hadn't realized when taking the job that this man was in fact undercover with the cartel on his own mission, but it makes sense to her, since he was the one who gave her name to her client.
Except, as it turns out a bit later on, he's never heard of her client and didn't give her name to anybody recently.
Again, I'm just completely in love with Huang's skill at putting this all together. The story starts off in the middle of an elaborate action scene, and only gets more tense once the action lets up.
I don't want to go into the plot much more than that, but there are several observations I must make.
Cas Russell's gift/curse of seeing everything as math essentially gives her superpowers. She sees, instantly and automatically, tiny little windows of probability, and how to use them, which (believably, within the story) gets her to such astonishing acts as breaking into a barred third-story window without any means of support or leverage, and figuring out a sniper's precise location and taking him out with a pistol.
The "telepathy" in the story is not anything "psionic" or magical. It's more like charisma at it's most extreme degree, something done purely through vocal and physical presence and interaction. I've never seen it handled this way before, and it was terribly interesting, had restrictions I hadn't encountered before because of its unique nature, and was made believable in part by the reader's buying into Cas's own gifts.
Huang is a fan of Firefly and the movie that followed it, Serenity. There is a character very much inspired by The Operative from Serenity, and this is acknowledged within the story by a nice reference, only once but enough to let the reader know that the influence was neither unconscious nor accidental.
If I have a quibble, it is incredibly minor and it is this: Zero Sum Game is the first book of a series, and does (excellent) spadework in establishing characters and relationships that are clearly going to play out over many stories. However, the nature of the story it tells feels, to me, like a story that should have occurred in an already-going series. For instance, the way that Cas is made to realize that some of her thoughts are not her own is dependent on a pre-existing relationship. As presented in the story, it's set up expertly and is effective. But, it would have worked better if the relationship had already been going, in the reader's head, for a book or several books already. There are a few other little details like this throughout the story. It's not that they don't work, because they do. It's that they would have worked better if the series already had backstory in the reader's mind. Again, this is an incredibly minor quibble, but I felt I should note it.
Finally, before going off on the political tangent, I'll note that the resolution is open-ended and some readers might find it less than totally satisfying. As will become clear by implication below, I do not consider this a flaw, but a necessary and intentional consequence of how Huang approached the thematic issues she's handling in the story. I won't say I found the way things end up in the story unsatisfying, I enjoyed the whole book right up to the very end. But I do hope, at some future point, that she returns to the situation at the end of this story and explores further the conflict between different, incompatible ideals that she seems to hold.
Political stuff: You may or may not know it, but I am a member of the supposedly-evil, supposedly-racist, supposedly-misogynist Sad Puppies campaign that led to so much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media in the past few months, and exposed the folks behind the Hugo Awards to be the whiny, glory-grabbing twits that we always said that they were.
I didn't know it when I began the book, and only learned it inadvertently while reading, but S.L. Huang aligns with the "social justice warriors" of science fiction, the putative heroes saving the world from all the evils there are, especially racistsexistmisogynist Sad Puppies and other troglodytes. As far as I know, Ms. Huang was not involved in this past year's Hugo kerfuffle at all, but her sympathies are indisputably at odds with mine, and others on her side of things would say that I'm more interested in pushing minorities out of the genre than anything else.
Which is exactly why I wrote this ecstatic, laudatory, five-star review. Obviously.
Snark aside, there is a point in the story where Huang's social justice ideology comes up. The phrase "social justice" even gets used. And it's not an aside or a throw-away; it's inextricably tied into the theme of the book, to the point that the discussion gives the book its title.
If I were what the SJWs portrayed all the Sad Puppies as being (again, not Huang in particular, as I don't think she got much involved in the controversy this year), then I would denounce this intrusion of the author's axe-grinding into the story.
And if it did harm to the actual story, I would denounce it.
But it does not.
Huang grapples, in the story, with some of the negative consequences of her beliefs. Cas Russell is faced with a moral dilemma, and both possible outcomes offend her, in different ways. She has a choice (broadly and vaguely speaking) between enacting "social justice", explicitly stated to be what she considers a good, or defending individual free will, and thus permitting individual people to do evil and commit social injustices.
This is presented honestly and fairly, without the author putting her thumb on the scales or magically making her pet ideas work where they wouldn't and haven't in the real world. She explores the conundrum she sets in good faith.
And I can't help but think that she has problems with the choice her heroine makes. It's certainly not an easy choice for Cas, and one that sits uncomfortably with her after she makes it.
I applaud this. I can do nothing else.
(As a minor note, of course I think she gets things wrong, because she's proceeding from a false premise, but that's beside the point. She's dealing fairly, doesn't cheat, and it makes the story a richer and more interesting experience. One can hardly ask for more than that from anybody.)
The first half to three-quarters is pretty amazing, as Eric Flint brings his chess-match-style story construction from previous shorter works in WeberThe first half to three-quarters is pretty amazing, as Eric Flint brings his chess-match-style story construction from previous shorter works in Weber's Honorverse ("From The Highlands" and "The Fanatic") to a full-on cloak-and-dagger novel.
Unfortunately, he loses a bit of traction in the ending, at least for me. To begin with, the title becomes distressingly literal, which disappointed me. Also, after the midpoint action bit, Flint seems to get bored with the (admittedly large number of) extra characters he had been following, and moves many of them (the surviving ones, I mean) off the board with less than spectacular justification. Narrowing the focus of the story also didn't help in that something that was flowing naturally then feels like it is forced, with a ball peen hammer, into a (cockeyed) Cinderalla story, and that didn't sit well with this reader either.
It never gets bad, nor does it stop being entertaining, but the closing quarter or so feels extremely forced, whereas everything Flint had done in the Honorverse prior flowed extremely well without obvious authorial manipulation....more
Comedy does not entail grabbing the reader by the shoulders and screaming in his face "THIS IS *FUNNY*! THIS IS *HILARIOUS*!! *LAUGH*, DAMN YOU, **LAAComedy does not entail grabbing the reader by the shoulders and screaming in his face "THIS IS *FUNNY*! THIS IS *HILARIOUS*!! *LAUGH*, DAMN YOU, **LAAAUUUUUGH**!!!"...more
It is unfortunately quite tempting simply to list Mr. Abnett's extensive body of work-for-hire, to snidely imply (or even to declare outright) that heIt is unfortunately quite tempting simply to list Mr. Abnett's extensive body of work-for-hire, to snidely imply (or even to declare outright) that he is therefore a hack, and then invite the reader to draw the appropriate conclusion about this original work.
Tempting, but not (entirely) fair. Even scribblers, after all, must eat and pay bills. And better, always, to judge a work by its own merits than by pedigree.
I can say this in praise of it: Triumff, Her Majesty's Hero is a quick, breezy read, mostly amusing, and it is set in an interesting and unique alternate history.
The rest of what I have to say about it is not praise. Alas.
The interesting background is also extremely inconsistent. This may be intentional on Abnett's part — most of the inconsistency seems to come from a clear choice: "be consistent, or go for the laugh"; and he goes for the laugh every time. In a spoof, this would work, but Triumff is also a white-knuckle thriller, and internal inconsistencies and illogicalities conflict with this end. Or at least undercut its effectiveness.
Another problem is characterization. Nearly everyone who is not the eponymous protagonist aspires to one-dimensionality, most being mere collections of attributes with a name attached. And everyone who is the protagonist, Sir Rupert Triumff, is a collection of wildly inconsistent attributes that fail to cohere into a memorable character, or even a caricature. Is he a drunken oaf? A lovable rogue? A dissipated gentleman? A quick-witted, experienced spy? A bold adventuring explorer? An upperclass twit? A noble guardian of the superior non-West against the rapacious and destructive an all-but-evil western world? The answer is any of the foregoing which serves the present scene, subject to renegotiation in any and all future scenes.
Which is a bit surprising, as Abnett claims Triumff has been residing in his head for two decades or more. One would hope for a more memorable character, considering that.
Further marring what was meant to be, and ought to have been, a light-footed romp full of delights is the plot construction. That the A plot and the B plot are entirely unrelated and seem to be together in the same book only due to a shotgun marriage would not, in the normal course of things, be a deal breaker. Unfortunately, the A plot, while serviceable in terms of content, is constructed in a way that is jarringly discordant with the world in which it takes place.
Triumff lives in a world in which Great Britain and Spain allied under Elizabeth I, Britain became dominant in the world through use of magic, and still rules nearly all in 2009 under the reign of Elizabeth XXX (go ahead, snicker, it's certainly intentional), with no technological advancement, and only slight magical advancement over Liz I's period. (There *is* technological advancement elsewhere, and a very funny if highly unlikely reference to VisageBook.) So, when I tell you that the plot is structured like the unholy child of modern comic book "decompressed storytelling" and Dan Brown, you have some idea how well the ticking bomb climax, which takes up nearly a third of the total novel, fits with the book's milieu — which is to say, it doesn't.
Which is further to say that Triumff, Her Majesty's Hero is thoroughly contemporary in the most irritating, thoughtless, and (though I've not dealt with this aspect) politically correct ways possible.
A pity, too, because the premise had much potential. Alas, the result is only superficially diverting and, apart from a few very funny lines, will quickly fade from memory.
When Bujold announced that she was working on "an Ivan book", you probably heard my squeals of delight echoing off the ionosphere.
Those squeals were fWhen Bujold announced that she was working on "an Ivan book", you probably heard my squeals of delight echoing off the ionosphere.
Those squeals were fully and completely justified. Arguably Bujold's funniest book, fully satisfying, and makes me wish she would write another dozen Ivan adventures.
Also, equally happily, the latter part of the book, had it been written from a different point of view, could almost have been a Simon Illyan adventure. It isn't (quite), but he's prominent in the best way possible....more