Gathering Ashes by Michael Shean – 5/5 Stars

Gathering Ashes by Michael Shean

‘Endless carefree consumption, total comfort, all you can eat, and only at the low, low cost of your human soul and who believed in that anymore.’

In book three of Michael Shean’s dark cyberpunk series, he explores the paths we can take as humanity: to stick with the militaristic war-like foible of the human race or to use the superior technology of the alien Yathi to humanity’s advantage and risk losing a small part of ourselves.

Thomas Walken’s worst fears are realised when he wakes up as one of the Yathi. He doesn’t know his true purpose or what the Mother of Systems has planned for him. Walken must evolve, from a policeman to a spy operative, listening to external intelligence to make considered choices in the greater scheme of things. His new body has the potential to put him on an even keel with his alien enemies, if only he knew how to unlock his capabilities. ‘The magnetic fields around his hands, his arms, the elements that would flash-heat the trapped air into white-hot plasma. His alloy-laced bones, his diamond heart. The poreless white skin beneath his sensory absorptive coating, Nemea invulnerability rendered from flesh impregnated with nanomachines.’

The author keeps the best parts of character Bobbi’s point of view from Redeye (book two)  and combines it with Walken’s ego: ‘I’m hoping to kick ass and save the day no matter what you do to me’. Bobbi is much stronger and confident in Gathering Ashes, bringing together a group of hackers and using reclaimed Yathi as assassins. Though I was more excited with Walken’s ‘no shits given’ exchanges with enemies, it was Bobbi’s personality and character that felt more real. The way she thought, acted, and interacted bore uncanny resemblance to somebody who might have lived in the real world.

Criticism: I couldn’t easily fault Gathering Ashes. The quotations marks were presented inconsistently. Author should maybe cut out some similes, which stuck out in the text next to the already excellent pace and tone of the writing. Ch.12 was exceptionally long. When did Tom see Scalli, did I miss that part? There is a gap in my memory there. Regarding the ‘mysterious horseshit’ perpetrated by god-like AI Cagliostro, I wanted more answers than conjecture to explain who he is and whether he really can be trusted. It’s clear more will be answered in the next book, but some things could have been wrapped up better.

The author has adapted his writing, adding brief backstories, more considered settings, and even crossed into the spy genre with infiltration missions, all of which were well balanced, at the correct length and written with superb quality. The story contained some of the most exciting action I’ve read in science fiction with the right level of urgency, a firm grip of technology, and an understanding of cause and effect. I liked the fact that Gathering Ashes was not a rushed third book, and the author took his time to reacquaint the reader with the setting and characters. The flow was perfect. What else can I say except that Gathering Ashes is a well-crafted sequel that I hugely enjoyed? Each book continues to get better.

Michael Shean’s website

Ryonna’s Wrath by Christian Kallias – 4/5 Stars

Ryonna's Wrath (Trials) by Christian Kallias
‘Ryonna’s Wrath’ (not ‘trials’) is the new name of this novella, as far as I know.

Fundamentally, Ryonna’s Wrath is about Droxian female alien Ryonna’s attempt to break into the maximum security prison Hellstar to save her son Jax, who we can assume has been wrongly imprisoned. However, the story also has a few parallel plots running, where Ryonna will learn about the circumstances that led to the ruination of her family. Along the way, she meets a friend called Alix, a friendly, helpful, and indispensable part of her team. Ryonna’s friendship with Alix is troubled by a vision she had of his death at her hands – visions she sees that are due to her unique ability of foresight that activates when she becomes acquainted with somebody.

It was engrossing reading about the pickles Ryonna got herself in and seeing how she would be able to get out of them. The theme of torture repeated a few times, but was written about in different ways so it didn’t bore. The technologies were colourful and simple to understand, and for this reason it made the action scenes flow seamlessly. More than one action scene reminded me of the video game Metal Gear Solid, which was well adapted.

The dialogue was always engaging, and sometimes a bit of personality leaked through: ‘Now we’re square puke wise.’

Criticism: the ‘voice’ of the story, while a signature style of the author’s, did not vary much between characters leaving the reader with people that sounded the same when they spoke, lending confusion as if the story was a narration; though an enjoyable one.

There could have been more depth to the story. Some of the prose was a bit simplistic and one-dimensional, perhaps because it was from Ryonna’s point of view and because all she wanted was revenge or justice. And crucially, you didn’t get to know how Ryonna breaks her son out of Hellstar, arguably the main point of the story. I don’t think the author left it to the reader’s imagination. Likely, this will be covered later on in his novel series, but throughout I thought I was going to get some follow-up in this novella as to all the plans Ryonna made. As a result of the lack of depth, I didn’t feel justified giving it the full 5 stars, but it was a fine point to make.

Some of the scenes were too similar to Metal Gear Solid, in that I could make a direct connection between characters of the video game moving, fighting, or manipulating others; drop to one knee, shattered glass, battling a mech with a lot of jumping around, and a main character’s fate. Nonetheless, it was engaging and some ideas were new, or new enough, like the light-blades.

Ryonna’s Wrath is like a Star Wars novel, but without the political and techno babble, and fused with fantasy instead. Aside from any preconceptions I might have had about the novella, I found the writing to be exciting, fast-paced, and intriguing. It brings forward the visual technology and the movement of action scenes with clarity. I liked seeing Ryonna in action, and some of her battle scenes and struggles were borderline epic. I did prefer his novel Earth: Last Sanctuary, but I would read from this author again. Ryonna’s Wrath is a quick nugget of thrills and excitement, so if you’re looking for a short space opera read then this should quite easily satisfy your need.

Christian Kallias’ website

Mamluk by James Jackson – 5/5 Stars

Mamluk Emergence by James Jackson

The story of Mamluk is the story of a prototype reptilian soldier stranded on a primitive planet, fighting for survival and learning and using every device at his disposal to launch back towards the safety of the Protectorate empire that created him; a ruthless expanding empire that sends in enhanced soldiers to wipe out indigenous species in expectation of a second wave of colonisation. Along the way Mamluk will witness the growth of a civilisation, make many enemies, and even find what it means to have friendship and mutual respect.

The most compelling aspect was the friendship between Mamluk and a feline predator he names Madcat, especially when they are threatened by groups of savage tribal people that makes you wonder who the real predators are. Through stages of civilisation, in which technology ever increases, Mamluk and Madcat must work together to survive and protect their territory; which starts as a familiar cave but expands at a nice pace to encompass a lava tube, valley, forest, etc. The second half of the story complements the first well, filling it with emotion and purpose and adding significance to the main struggles Mamluk had faced and the people whose lives he touched. In this way there were potent messages in this story, of the impact of individual actions and how they shape the future in terms of war, monuments, and records.

Author James Jackson’s use of the first-person present tense gave him a platform for connecting scenes together with immediacy, thrill, and visual clarity. It enabled him to build Mamluk’s situation without interfering with other plotlines. What suggestions I have for improvement are minor. I’d have liked to learn more about the periods on the planet, or involve more complexities between Mamluk and the main people he comes across; mostly those referred to later on. I didn’t think any more depth needed to be added to the people, beasts, or the environment. The simplicity of the descriptions was why many chapters worked so well in connecting the rest of the plot into a cohesive and comprehensible whole. I did occasionally feel as if there was a bit too much fighting, but I gradually came to accept this made sense as Mamluk’s genetics, training, and his way of dealing with problems; which were abundant because he looked like a monster to the locals. An extra scene break or two might not have gone amiss; it would have disrupted the flow in some chapters; but would have given that extra breathing room between fighting in others.

Mamluk is a concise and well-structured novella that doesn’t try to be too clever by introducing events on a grand scale, instead presenting them in a relatable way through the immediate action Mamluk faces. This is quite despite the fact that author James Jackson has thought a lot about his world-building. For example, in reference to an expanding empire: ‘numerous space-factories churn out a steady stream of defence platforms to fill gaps in the grid as it expands’, shows that he has thought about solutions to his creation. Mamluk is a thoughtful novella that makes you think about what’s really important on a world that appears cruel, barbaric, and yet familiar. The setting surprised me with its familiarity to a medieval fantasy, but thankfully it only dips into the similarities enough to make the second half of the story plausible. Yes, you really need to read the second half to get the full benefit. I’d say Mamluk was a tidy novella overall, with all the elements in their allotted place; a feat I can imagine to be quite difficult for the average author. Supposedly advanced technology wasn’t so much explained, as it was delivered in terms that are well known to most avid genre readers, which made reading effortless. Make no mistake though that it’s quite clear throughout that you’re reading a science-fiction story. With Mamluk, I think James Jackson’s writing has made an impression on me, and has given me confidence he can craft engaging stories with vision, balance, and brevity. I have a newfound appreciation for his writing and hope he continues to think, write, and share his creations!

James Jackson’s website