Valor’s Choice (Confederation #1) by Tanya Huff

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: March 17 to 25, 2019

Initial impression upon first finishing the book: 
A rollicking good read, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would considering this is military sci-fi that’s light on the sci-fi and heavy on the military.

After a quick reread:
My initial impression still stands. This was a surprisingly enjoyable read, although that will never not be weird to say about military fiction (even in genre). Another point in this book’s favor is it’s the beginning of a new series that looks like it could be really good, if the first book is any indication, and I’m looking forward to diving in further.

Tanya Huff is a new author for me, one I’ve been meaning to read for years now, just never had the chance. She’s favorite among my circle of friends, and now that I’ve read one of her books, I can see why.

Her prose is exacting, to the point, and she doesn’t waste space summing up things for you nor does she dwell too long on sentimentality. She strikes a balance between the physicality of war and the emotional toll it takes on troops on the ground, and between the personal and the political. I think it’s just right for this kind of story where the balance of deftness and a delicate hand is required.

That aside, the tone is actually neither heavy-handed or maudlin as one might expect from military fiction. There’s a lot of humor, bantering, and camaraderie, even in the face of peril. And all of it feels authentic. As a matter of fact, this whole book feels authentic, if you don’t count the space ships and lizard people.

Every military organization needed heroes; tragic heroes if they were the only type available.

The book kicks off by dropping you into the beginning of a new mission.

The marines of Sh’quo Company have recently returned from a mission in which they suffered a great deal and lost a number of their own. They’re currently on temporary leave at the start of the book. However, that doesn’t last long as they get called to another mission. Not to another battlefield this time, but to a meeting of diplomats. The company is to escort a group of ambassadors to a new planet, Silsvah, that the Confederation (hegemony) is looking to bring into its circle.

Along with the order, the company also receives a new commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Jarrat, to replace their recently deceased lieutenant. The new guy is good with diplomacy, but has zero field experience. He’s basically custom-fit for this job, whereas the company, being a group of rowdy marines with the exception of their sargents, are not.

Weird to call in battle-weary troops to be diplomatic escorts, yeah? That’s what they thought as well. But an order is an order and they might as well see the new planet and meet its apex predators, the Silsviss, while they’re at it.

The catch is–of course there’s a catch–the new planet is inhabited by a less advanced, rather primitive race of warmongering lizard people who are undecided about the Confederation and aren’t easily impressed by its fancy techs. These people require a show of might before they agree to anything the Confederation has planned.

What initially starts as an assignment to babysit a bunch of diplomats for a few weeks on a foreign planet turns into a siege and a series of skirmishes in the middle of a desert swamp in which the company is outnumbered by hundreds of Silsviss. It’s a grueling fight, but in the end, tech wins out, even at the expense of the people using it.

“We find it strange,” the ambassador murmured, almost to herself, “how a species can be able to make such a sacrifice one moment and can kill another sentient being the next. This mix of caring and violence is most confusing–it must be a factor of bisymmetrical species.”

[…]

It was by no means a truism that insight into a species could be gained by wholesale slaughter, but Torin was willing to bet that, right at this particular point in time, no one in the Confederation knew the Silsviss as well as she did.

In the midst of all this is Staff Sargent Torin Kerr, the backbone of the company, main POV character, and someone who grew on me. She’s got the weight of the whole universe on her, and I couldn’t help but feel for her and the burden she lugs around. She’s got a platoon to keep in line, a young officer to back up (who looks to her for confirmation), and of course, diplomats to keep alive.

“It’s all right,” [Jarrat] said after a long moment. “I understand where it’s coming from.”

It had come from places he’s never been, from battles he’s never fought. Torin turned, ready to challenge his assumptions, but his profile–carved out of the morning, too tight, too unmoving to be flesh–convinced her to hold her tongue. He couldn’t understand it all, not at his age, not his first time out, but, unfortunately, he was on his way.

All good stuff, but I have just one quibble. I always imagined the future of warfare to have more drones and fewer or no boots on the ground. The battle scene described in this book, while very well portrayed, is not unlike any battlefield from the last century, which is a little off-putting for me simply because, if humanity ever manages space travel and forms coalitions with alien lifeforms, would face-to-face combat still be a necessity? Wouldn’t there be a more efficient way to eliminate a threat on a large scale?

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The Bones Beneath My Skin by TJ Klune

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: March 11 to 15, 2019

I will sum up this book the way it was recommended to me: like an X-Files story on a road trip minus the FBI.

Didn’t know much about either the author or the book itself, but I was intrigued by that pitch and anything inspired by the X-Files was and will always be a point of interest for me.

So I went into this book not knowing much about it, which wasn’t that hard as the blurb barely touches on the actual plot, and that’s the best way to approach it. Go in unaware and let the story slowly reveal itself to you. It’s worth the experience. The characters are endearing and their journey, unforgettable.

This book has everything–well, almost everything. Big government secrets, fugitives on the run, botched cover-ups, road trips, first contact, crazy cults, a love story, and a comet shooting across the sky. None of which makes any sense until you start reading.

This book is so much more than the sum of its parts, so much more than what I initially thought it was. It’s a journey, it’s an experience, it’s a new way of looking at the world and it makes you want to believe.

The thing that will stay with me long after I finish reading is the humor. I didn’t expect such a somber, sobering novel to have so many laugh-out-loud moments embedded within the text.

It took awhile to suck me in, over 30%, but once I was in it, I found myself unable to put it down. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to finish in one sitting because you have to know how it ends, but at the same time, you don’t want it to end.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

So a rough sketch of the premise is:

The year is 1995 and a comet is making its way across the sky, inspiring a bunch of conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials, Roswell, and what the government is keeping from the people.

Nate Cartwright, who just lost his dream job as a journalist for the Washington Post, gets a call from his estranged brother letting him know that their parents, who were also estranged from Nate, have died. His father has left him an old pickup truck and his mother, a cabin in the woods of Oregon.

So Nate, adrift and grieving and angry, leaves his life in DC behind and heads for the cabin in the woods with the intention of taking some time off to gather his thoughts and figure out his next career move. Once there, though, he finds two squatters in the cabin. Alex, a gruff ex-military guy with a huge chip on his shoulder, and with him, Art, a little girl about ten years old and very precocious but not so as to be annoying.

It’s a weird situation and a surreal experience, so weird and surreal that Nate couldn’t help but get pulled into it. He lets them stay in the cabin and slowly become entangled in their lives. Once trouble, in the form of secret government agents, catches up to them, they all go on the run. The journey takes them from the Pacific Northwest all the way to the East Coast; it’s quite delightful, given the circumstances.

On this cross-country road trip, Nate finds out who and what Art really is. Then, he learns of Alex’s connection to her, and Nate’s mind gets sufficiently blown by all these back-to-back revelations. Again, it’s really funny.

“Don’t drive away,” Art said, eyes wide as she stared at Nate. “If you do, there is nowhere you can run where I couldn’t find you.”

Nate gaped at her.

“Knock it off,” Alex said, cuffing the back of her head.

“I was just kidding!”

“Does it he look like he knows that?”

“It’s not my fault Nate’s mind is being expanded in ways he never expected.”

[…]

“What’s that look on your face?” Art asked. “Is that what sheer terror looks like? I mean, yesterday you looked scared because of the guns and the helicopters, but this certainly isn’t that. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone look so white before.”

In the course of the road trip, Nate and Alex also grow closer, like two lost souls recognizing in each other a familiar sense of loneliness. It’s very sweet watching these two get to know each other, and I’m glad they got their happily ever after.

“Does that mean you like me?” Nate wondered aloud, as if Alex wasn’t capable of reaching over and strangling him with one hand. “Because I think that means you like me. At least a little bit.”

“Absolutely not,” Alex retorted. “I don’t like anything about you.”

“Well, that’s certainly not true. You seemed to like how I look in the morning when i drink coffee. Saw that image a couple of times.”

My only quibble with this story is Nate’s reluctance to get on board with the situation he’s found himself in. It takes too long for him to accept the reality that there are [*mumbling spoilers*] out there. I mean, he’s a journalist in DC before this road trip, so he should have been used to uncovering outlandish stories and been quicker on the uptake. But at least he got in the end.

“You make yourselves a home out of nothing. Out of a place where one should not exist. You carried each other until your knees gave out and you stumbled. It’s always impossible to understand. None of us could get that. not until they felt a heart beating in a chest like I have. Not until I felt the bones beneath my skin. We’re not alike. Not really. We’re separated by time and space. And yet, somehow, we’re all made of dust and stars. I think we’d forgotten that. And I don’t know if you ever knew that to begin with. How can you be alone when we’re all the same?”

[…]

And strangely, somehow [Nate] was okay with it. He was okay with all of it. He’d been lonely. He’d been sad. But he’s found a purpose. He’s found a reason. Two, in fact. If he died right here, right now, there was a very real possibility that he’d done something good. That his life had mattered. That he’d loved and been loved in return.

[…]

[Nate] thought they were getting close to an ending, one the precipice of a new beginning. It didn’t matter. Home didn’t always have to be a place. Home could be a person too.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the way in which it took me on a transformative journey along with the characters from start to finish. Like the them, I actually felt like I became a different person by the end of the book.

Wild Country (The World of the Others #2) by Anne Bishop

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: March 5 to 9, 2019

Initial reaction:

Not good and yet I’m looking forward to the next book. It’s complicated… not this series, but the reason I’m drawn to it and keep on returning to it even though it just isn’t good.

More on this later, when I sort it out.

* * * * *

Now that I’ve had a few days to sort it out, I’ve come to the conclusion that my attachment to these books is quite simple, really. I only like one thing and that one thing is karmic retribution, and this series has it in strides. By the end of each book, you are guaranteed a bloody, satisfying ending in which decency comes out on top and evil doers get what they deserve–eaten, as nature and the universe intended. Many of them die in horrific ways and all of them are satisfying on a very basic level.

There are no complexities here. You never have to worry about nuance or depth or lack of depth or shades of gray or moral ambiguity or finding yourself in a tough spot when you’re reading. You’re relieved of the burden of having to figure out where you stand on questionable things because “good” and “evil” are clear cut and defined in ways that leave no room for discussion. If one happens to get eaten by nature, then one definitely had it coming because nature is never wrong. Simple as that.

That’s too basic for what I normally like in my fiction, but I put up with it here because the ways in which the revenge-by-nature or nature-with-a-vengeance arc is played out is so satisfying. It fills a void that other, better written, more dubious fiction don’t or can’t.

I mean, where in fiction do violent, openly racist (specie-ist?) characters consistently get what they deserve (eaten)?

The moment a shady character shows up on the page causing trouble, you know that character will suffer and die by the end of the book. It’s only a matter of how and how bloody it will be. Mauled by wolves? Mauled by bears? Mauled by panthers? Drained by vampires, pecked by crows, harvested by a harvestor or–everyone’s personal favorite–torn to pieces by an elder and left for scavengers?

However they die, they die for good. It’s kind of ghoulish, but in a fun way.

I made the mistake of calling this series “cozy” and a friend read Written in Red (#1) on my recommendation thinking it’s an actual cozy like a cozy mystery. She came back, just kind of stared at me, and then said, “I don’t think you know what ‘cozy’ means.”

Me: *scoffing* “Of course I do.” [I didn’t, apparently.]

Bewildered friend: “People get ripped apart and eaten in this book. In just the first few chapters!”

Me: “And they deserved it.” *failing to see what the issue was here*

BF: “That’s not cozy. That’s not what cozy is.”

Me: *narrowing eyes* “But it should be, yeah?”

BF: “NO.”

And then the discussion veered off into what was and wasn’t cozy and how I should read actual cozies to see what they’re like.

Me: “Do bad people get devoured in cozy books?”

BF: “Nope.”

Me: “Then they’re not very cozy, are they?”

BF: *showing signs of mental hair pulling*

I did end up trying a few categorically cozy mysteries to see what they’re like as the friend requested. And? They’re fine, just not for me. Too tamed and not enough wholesale devouring for my taste (puns maybe intended).

This series is kind of difficult to sum up using existing paranormal books and series as examples or descriptions because it’s in a class of its own. However, if you’ve read one book, you’ve pretty much read them all.

* * * * *

Okay, now onto this book.

It takes place in the town of Bennett, where a wolf pack was massacred in by humans in an attempted land grab and where the apocalypse officially “kicked off.” The story opens after the apocalyptic events of Marked in Flesh (#4) and the timeline runs parallel to Etched in Bone (#5). It runs up to Meg’s kidnapping and recovery and then breaks off to deal with trouble brewing within the town.

Bennett is right in the middle of the wild county. There’s a small farming village close by, but the land is extremely isolated from the rest of the human population and the elders live just on the other side of the invisible border. A group of sanguinati led by Tolya and two wolves, Virgil and Kane who are the only survivors of the slain pack, take on the difficult task of resettling the town by gradually letting select humans come in to work for them.

Most of the people they let in are skilled, hardworking people who really need the jobs and a fresh start. But then there’s the Blackstone clan who are a family of intuit swindlers and grifters; they’re looking for a fresh start as well, but they’re not inclined to share the town. They head to Bennett thinking they could case the area and then push out the Others for control of the town, with the idea of turning it into a paradise for more people like them.

Things… don’t go as planned. Lots of people and Others are killed. The ending is a bloodbath, literally, though not as intense as the ones in previous books. The plotting could have been tighter to ratchet up the tension, about 200 pages could have been cut to quicken the pace, and a couple of the minor character-centric subplots could have been discarded to keep the focus on the action leading up to the showdown between the Blackstones and the Others.

Some familiar characters are back: Jesse Walker and her son Tobias, both intuits from the farming village; Barbara Ellen, assistant vet and Micheal Debaney’s sister; John Wolfgard from the Lakeside bookstore.

Lots of new characters are introduced: Jana, the first and only female cop in this whole world (no joke); Abigail, another intuit who can “read” gemstones and a former Blackstone; Joshua Painter, an orphan raised by panthers; Saul Panthergard, one of Joshua’s adoptive relatives; the Gott family; the Hua-Stone family; Scythe, a harvestor (like Tess).

This is the first book in which we get a sex scene between a human and an Other (sanguinati). The pairing is an interesting one. The characters have a working relationship prior to getting together, and much to my surprise, there’s no awkwardness between them afterward.

This is also the first book in which we get to see a same-sex relationship. It’s never been mentioned before, not even briefly, so I just thought it was the author’s choice to not take on subject matter she wasn’t comfortable writing. But here in this book, we see a gay couple who have adopted 4 children, 3 Others and a blood prophet (unbeknownst to them), and are looking to start a new life together in the wild country, far away from judgmental humans. (Yes… even in the post-apocalypse… *long suffering sigh*)

What’s interesting about this development is it’s some of the humans, not the Others, who take issue with same-sex relationships, although they don’t voice their objection as Bennett is an Other-controlled town. The Others are actually fine with the 2 dads and their 4 kids. They only make a fuss at first because one of the kids is a young, untrained blood prophet and they thought the couple stole the kids.

Another first for the series is having a minor character with Down Syndrome, but since she’s not a POV character (yet?), we only get to read about what the main characters think and say about her. Once they make the connection between her and Skippy (back at Meg’s office in Lakeside), the Wolves look after her as one of their own.

One last first for the series: first female cop. Jana is the first woman to graduate from the police academy and become the first female police officer ever, but she can’t get hired in any human-controlled areas because, you know, sexism and misogyny. She has to go all the way out to the wild country if she wants a job. This is a world that’s vaguely technologically advanced–there are cell phones and internet–and yet Jana is the first woman to become a cop in the history of humanity. (*long suffering sigh to the power of infinity*)

And that pretty much wraps up this book.