Review: The Returning by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Title: The Returning

Author: Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Rating: 

Publisher: Diminished Media Group

Format: electronic ARC

Review:

It is a shame that heroic science fiction has fallen out of favor. It seems there is a certain dystopian threshold or grittiness of character that is required in fiction these days, resulting in dark and bleak stories. Reading The Returning is like a splash of cool water, bringing back the nostalgia and feel of a Star Wars-like universe that instills the passion from my childhood. The Returning is original with characters that draw the reader into their world.

Freedom doesn’t come easy for the Vertullians. Even after defeating Xalivar, the High Lord Councilor of the Borali empire, their return to full citizenship is marked with discrimination and treachery. Vertullians across the solar system are being murdered by assassins and everything they have fought for could soon be lost.

Davi Rhii, our hero and a captain in the Borali Alliance, is tasked with finding out who is behind these killings. But he is not alone in this crucial mission. Accompanying him are Farien, an old friend of Davi, who has worked alongside him in the alliance; Dru, a promising cadet who narrowly escapes an attempt on his own life and disobediently proves himself worthy of going on the mission; and Yao Brohma, a professor in charge of the Vertullian assimilation into the academy. Together they visit dangerous planets and Vertullian resistors to try and restore peace.

To complicate matters further, the love of Davi’s life, Tela, is growing impatient with his over-protection. She too has proven herself in battle and doesn’t want to sit around waiting for her boyfriend to be killed. While Davi tries to balance his duty to the alliance and to Tela, the lives of High Lord Councilor Tarkanius, Lord Aron, and even their family are in grave peril.

I must admit that I didn’t read the first book of the series, but there were no issues jumping in with the second novel. I understood The Worker Prince (book 1) to be a loose retelling of the story of Moses in the form of a space opera. I was pleased to find out the series is much more than that. The Saga of Davi Rhii is not really an allegory, but a story in its own right. The Vertullians are a Judeo-Christian people, but instead of entering a period of wandering toward the Promised Land, they are trying to establish peace, integrated with the Boralians. Also, the religious elements of the novel are non-intrusive and help paint a clearer picture of the Vertullian people and history.

The novel has good conflict and action. The characters are real and suffer real emotions and even death. I liked the romantic tension between Davi and Tela; however, it felt too contained. Davi remains too perfect, never letting his emotions make the best of him (unlike Moses, whose anger prevented him from entering the Promised Land). Tela’s emotions, on the other hand, seemed confused. She is a strong-willed woman around Davi, lovey-dovey with her “daddy,” and insecure when she is assigned to lead security detail. On the other hand, perhaps this is what makes her character more real.

The universe is creative, employing humans, insectoid-reptillian Lhamors, and blue-skinned Xanthians and Andorians. I would have liked for the novel to go a little deeper into their culture to help flesh out the solar system.

Overall, I don’t think you can go wrong with this novel. It was an enjoyable read and I had no trouble starting with the second book. Enough details are self-contained and it serves as a standalone novel within the broader story arc. If you are looking for optimistic science fiction with good action and adventure, The Returning is the book for you.

I look forward to the next book in the series.

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Review: Space Battles Anthology

Title: Space Battles Anthology (Full-Throttle Space Tales #6)

Editor: Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Rating:

Publisher: Flying Pen Press

Format: electronic ARC (provided by editor)

Review:
Bryan Thomas Schmidt has collected seventeen tales, each with a different take on the theme of space battles. The collection is good and its strength lies in its diversity. We see both male and female protagonists; human and alien. A majority of the stories deal with ships fighting ships in space, which would be expected. The highlights of the collection for me were Like So Much Refuse (for its unique take on the theme), First Contact (for its strong voice and vivid action scene), Isis (for its originality), The Hand of God (overall story and writing), and Guard Dog (for its thoughtful SF elements and a story with an unpredicted twist).

There are no bad stories in the collection and a person who is looking for a collection of short stories about space battles will find what he/she is looking for. For the casual SF reader, there are a few stories worth picking this volume up for, but I wouldn’t say every story particularly stands out. Some of my criticisms about individual stories can be found below. Overall, I found the collection worth the read.

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Between the Rocks by Anna Paradox — Four mineral transporters are traveling from Jupiter to one of its implanted moons when they see that their com tower has been destroyed. Without weapons, the crew members of The Courtly Vizier must use ingenuity to survive against an unknown enemy. This story had good action and crisp dialog, which made the prose move along nicely. A stronger motive and conflict resolution would have fleshed out the story even further.

The Thirteens by Gene Mederos — Captain Andromeda Sax wakes to learn that a bogey ship has entered their system. After withstanding an all-out assault, the crew members fight back to learn the identity of a new enemy and the meaning of The Thirteens. This story had a good battle scene and was enjoyable to read. The amount of characters and back story was a little large for a story this short, but it was told without overburdening the reader.

Like So Much Refuse by Simon C. Larter — The last Confederation star cruiser, the Galaxy, is under attack. Its biggest threat is a man named Engel who is highly trained and will stop at nothing to bring the ship down. This story was told from two viewpoints, which is a difficult task in a short story, but I think it worked for the most part. It was also unique in that this wasn’t a good guys versus bad guys battle — just a man on a suicide mission and the reader wonders who will win.

Jump Point Blockade by David Lee Summers — A crew aboard The Legacy land on an asteroid to steal a few months’ salary of precious ore. After a battleship detects their presence, a landing party from the Legacy find themselves trapped on the asteroid. I found this to be a little large in scope for a short story. There was a battle that involved an Alpha Coma navy, New Earth ships composed of battleships, destroyers, and dreadnaughts — plus several of the individual ships were named. The dialog and writing were decent, but I was left wanting something more tangible.

First Contact by Patrick Hester — Xyn and Zian are non-human anthropods out exploring for enemy League ships near an asteroid belt. When a cloaked ship mounts an attack on them, they flee through asteroids and eventually discover something much bigger than a couple of League fighters. Hester works a tale that draws on inspiration from Star Wars (fleeing through asteroids) and Stargate (the ring). The dialog is real and the action is good. The ending was a bit off the wall, but it delivered as a fun read.

Isis by Dana Bell — The Spacers rescue some human missionaries, bringing them aboard Isis, an artificially intelligent and self-aware ship. When told that they are going to the Badlands, the nuns are concerned, since it is known as the scum of the galaxy. They are followed by a Buton battle cruiser and Captain Blair M’Tok must make the ultimate sacrifice to save them. This story has many unique elements, which is the story’s strong point. The idea of a living ship reminds me of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, but other elements are added to make it original in its own right. I found the toddlerish language of the ship to be strange and the Captain’s ultimate decision on how to keep the missionaries safe also odd. But the read was still enjoyable and I appreciated the imagination behind it.

The Book of Enoch by Matthew Cook — Enoch is a crew member aboard the Lancaster, who will soon come into contact with the E’k, an enemy race. The pacifist captain and his crew have taken an oath not to fight back, or even to defend themselves. Will Enoch stay true to his oath or will he do what it takes to survive? This story touches on a few Christian themes (pacifism vs lawful war, salvation, oaths, etc.). I thought that a short story on space battles is a good place to explore such themes. The writing seemed a bit overworked, but it communicated the story just fine. I would have started later in the story and cut out the major,  instead focusing on just the ship’s crew, really getting to the heart of who Enoch is and what leads him to make his decisions. Nice to have themes and a story to think about afterward, though, instead of just superficial action.

The Joystick War by Jean Johnson — Scott Grayson and his bushy-tailed, Solarican friend, Rrenn F’sauu, are searching through a storage bunker for salvageable materials when they find the controls for some old drones. While Scott, Rrenn, and other family members are taking the drones out for a trial run, they come across an enemy that puts Earth at risk. Rather than run, they engage in a battle that could define the war. This story had some interesting concepts. I became a little confused with the various characters and the fforeignn diallogg of the Solaricans, but overall it was a good read. Perhaps I would have preferred the story to only include Scott and Rrenn and to focus on what happens when they try out the joystick controls of the drones.

Never Look Back by Grace Bridges — Marit and her suicidal sister Lauren are in a broken explorer vessel, waiting for a repair ship to come. Marit has moved on from a past tragedy, but there is an enemy who hasn’t let it go and won’t stop until vengeance is served. Can they be saved from their attacker, much less themselves? This story dealt with characters that had both internal and external conflicts. The resolution to these conflicts left a little to be desired, but it still provided for a decent read. I would have liked for Marit and Lauren to demonstrate themselves as women finding internal strength to overcome their fears and hopelessness instead of being portrayed as a rescued damsel in distress.

The Gammi Experiment by Sarah Hendrix — Naz Othran returns after being discharged from the military to fight against the Ukran pirates that are threatening the system. As captain, Othran must lead a crew to stop the pirates from overtaking the federation. This story flowed well and was fairly straight-forward. I would have liked to know more about the main character — his back story, how his previous experiences led him to be an asset against the Ukra, and how his personality helped him in battle decisions.

Space Battle of the Bands by C.J. Henderson — The Roosevelt, the Earth’s most advanced warship, is in display in the Belthis System, merely to showcase its grandeur to others. During the proceeding, the Danerians attack the Confederation, wanting its own presence established in the sector. With technology that utilizes sound and light to create weapons, the two enemies battle each other in a space battle of the bands. The title and concept of the story were innovative and the writing flowed smoothly. The actual space battle was a small part of the story and could have been explored in greater depth.

A Battle for Parantwer by Anthony R. Cardno — The Parantwer, which just dropped out of warp, finds itself under heavy fire. Pirates have been a menace to the system and the captain of the Parantwer decides to engage. Will the crew succeed in stopping the enemy and saving one of their own? This story is an all-out space battle the whole way through. I enjoyed the action. Maybe a better understanding of the enemy’s motivations would help round out the story.

With All Due Respect by Johne Cook — Ambassador Tenrife is awakened by a klaxon (alarm), warning of an incoming enemy. The crew of the Kikyan must fight against a savage predatory alien species to survive. The story held my interest and there was a balance of diplomatic talks and military sci fi. Some of the dialog was a bit forced (used to explain why they don’t have shields or artificial gravity on their small vessel, what a transmitter is, etc.), but the writing was effective and held my attention.

Final Defense by Selena O’Rourke — Forent Nahn is a nacre (brain in a pod) sailing through a debris field and communicating on an interstellar CB radio known as Chatspace. It communicates with a navy vessel out on the night shift (?) called the Wakerunner. The Wakerunner attempts to conscript the nacre to assist in defending the Final system. Nahn has the resources the Wakerunner‘s captain needs and considers helping even though it is not human. I must admit that the story left me a little confused as to the nature of the nacre and their role in the Final system’s ecology.

Bait and Switch by Jaleta Clegg — Tayvis is a cadet seeing a weapons demonstration of a patrol cruiser in action for the first time. When his trainer gets knocked unconscious by an incoming projectile, Tayvis and Tish (a spotter) are the last hope. Tayvis is given orders to stand down and he must decide whether to obey or to fight back. This was a simple space battle story, but it was a fun read. Classic military SF trope where cadet is suddenly thrown into a battle due to unforeseen circumstances and must defy all odds to win.

The Hand of God by Bryan Thomas Schmidt — Buj is returning from a simple run to get supplies for a colony when he is ambushed by pirates. A nearby freighter recognizes the unmarked pirate ship as The Hand of God, which had earned a reputation for terrorizing smugglers and commercial pilots. It appears Buj is safe until several ships appear out of lightspeed to assist the pirates. Severely outnumbered,  Buj and the Borali Alliance must engage the pirate fleet with ingenuity and skill to survive. This story was written well and it was an enjoyable read. The enemy of evil pirates stealing basic supplies seemed a bit one-dimensional and unnecessary for them, but overall it was a good story.

Guard Dog by Mike Resnick and Brad R. Torgersen — Chang is a wounded veteran turned cyborg, whose head is direct-connected to a spherical ship. He is a member of a Watchfleet and finds himself under attack. As a battle ensues, Chang is confronted with his worst nightmare that will change his perspective on everything. The final story was definitely one of the stronger ones. I have read a couple of Torgersen’s novelettes and enjoyed them immensely and Mike Resnick certainly needs no introduction. This story is short, but complete and a nice ending to the anthology.