Book Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire (NeoG #2) by K.B. Wagers

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: July 27th, 2021
Pages: 416, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G)—inspired by the real-life mission of the Coast Guard—patrols and protects the solar system. Now the crew of Zuma’s Ghost must contend with personnel changes and a powerful cabal hellbent on dominating the trade lanes in this fast-paced, action-packed follow-up to A Pale Light in the Black.

Zuma’s Ghost has won the Boarding Games for the second straight year. The crew—led by the unparalleled ability of Jenks in the cage, the brilliant pairing of Ma and Max in the pilot seats, the technical savvy of Sapphi, and the sword skills of Tamago and Rosa—has all come together to form an unstoppable team. Until it all comes apart.

Their commander and Master Chief are both retiring. Which means Jenks is getting promoted, a new commander is joining them, and a fresh-faced spacer is arriving to shake up their perfect dynamics. And while not being able to threepeat is on their minds, the more important thing is how they’re going to fulfill their mission in the black.

After a plea deal transforms a twenty-year ore-mining sentence into NeoG service, Spacer Chae Ho-ki earns a spot on the team. But there’s more to Chae that the crew doesn’t know, and they must hide a secret that could endanger everyone they love—as well as their new teammates—if it got out. At the same time, a seemingly untouchable coalition is attempting to take over trade with the Trappist colonies and start a war with the NeoG. When the crew of Zuma’s Ghost gets involved, they end up as targets of this ruthless enemy.

With new members aboard, will the team grow stronger this time around? Will they be able to win the games? And, more important, will they be able to surmount threats from both without and within?

In K. B. Wagers’ Hold Fast Through the Fire, the NeoG kick ass, take names, and hug each other a lot. The story focuses more on the interpersonal relationships and the battle games between the various military groups. A task force has been assembled to take down the people behind the problem of supplies not getting to the habitats in the outer solar system. Max, Jenks, and the rest of the team on Zuma’s Ghost are part of the force. 

I usually try to avoid spoilers, per NetGalley rules, but one or two may pop up during this review.

I’m conflicted. The leaders of the task force are all male. They all decide to keep the mission secret from their teams, which are mostly comprised of females. The reasoning behind this is to keep the potential leaks to a minimum. The leaders all recognize that their teams will be extremely mad when they find out they’ve been kept in the dark. They also don’t consider that their team members have unique skills and could have valuable insights if they were only “read in” to the mission. So, when things predictably go pear-shaped with some near-fatalities, and the teams figure out what’s going on, there’s some well-justified anger. Now, most of the blame has to go to Stephan, as it’s his order that gags the other leaders. The most aggravating part is when Max and Jenks pointed out ways they could have helped in specific situations, the guys all say, “yeah, we didn’t think of that.” 

When there are terrorist attacks on various military facilities, Stephan and another task force leader fake their deaths. This seems to serve no purpose other than to send Jenks into a tailspin. Max and Jenks also forgive Luis, Tivo, Nika and Stephan far too easily, in my opinion.

So, I’m conflicted. The physical affection between the teammates felt a lot more like the camaraderie in Wagers’ Hail Bristol series. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but I expect this series to be more military than the other. I also can’t think of a time where she let her male characters make the female characters feel like crap so much. Somehow, I still liked the story. I think credit for that goes to Jenks and Doge. Doge the robot dog was amazing in this book, and I hope his character progression continues, as well as that of Jenks.

Book Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace Books
Publication Date: June 18th, 2019
Pages: 352, trade paperback
Source: Library

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark. 

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

I thoroughly enjoyed this strange little mashup of Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes that shouldn’t work but absolutely does. The mystery is well layered, the culprit believable, and the conclusion satisfying. Putting queer and PoC into the world of Lovecraft is one of my favorite tropes, simply because I know it would horrify the racist were he alive now to see it. 

Shaharazad is an immensely fun character to read about, though I will say she’s more of a composite of the pop culture idea of Sherlock Holmes than a direct translation of the character. She veers closer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, only more queer and terrifyingly powerful. Whereas the Watson of this story, John Wyndham, a gay trans man, hews closer to the original Watson. It works better than it has any right to, but if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the Holmes character, I would lower my expectations on that front. 

The important part is that Shaharazad’s friendship with Wyndham reads as genuine and touching, which should always be the biggest accomplishment of any Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

The only thing I truly found tiresome is that Wyndham has to leave his home country because of the trans hatred he faces there, from society and his own family. In a world where you can visit a Mad God and be back in time for tea, the fact that bigotry against trans people is a thing that still exists is unoriginal and annoying, especially in a book that teems with originality. 

Still, I’ll be back for the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see how Moriarty is adapted to this universe (if he is).

Book Review: Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication Date: January 5th, 2021
Pages: 512, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Hugo award-nominated author Stina Leicht has created a take on space opera for fans of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop in this high-stakes adventure.

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht is a female-powered SF adventure. A misfit band of mercenaries goes on a suicide mission to defend a colony of the indigenous population from the evil head of a the corporation controlling the planet.

This is a fairly strong debut, and Leicht has obviously benefitted from her support team. Although there are a few info dumps early on, they’re handled well enough that they didn’t detract from the story for me. Angel, Sukyi, Enid, and Lou do bad things for good reasons and are engaging antiheroines who will have you rooting for them as they take on relationships, terminal illness, evil overlords, and giant bears.

There are multiple queer characters, and given that this seems to be normal in their society, I was a bit confused about the emphasis the author put on describing the gender of everyone encountered, even minor throwaway characters like the corporate mercenaries. Still, it was great to see a wide representation of people, human and non-human.

The artificial intelligences in the book are maybe not quite as engaging as Angel and her team, but they are complex, and have formed relationships and bonds of their own. If there’s a sequel to this, I hope Leicht explores not only the “Sisters,” but Zhang, as well.