Monday, July 1, 2019

Galaxy's Edge: The Reservist

They promised him one weekend a month. The House or Reason swore the 9th would never leave their gentle homeworld. But after Kublar, things changed for Sergeant Fetch and the Caledonian Reserve Legion Corps. Thrown into a meat grinder conflict in a desperate bid to hold the line, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reserve or active, only that you kill and survive.

The first book in the Galaxy's Edge series, Legionnaire, began as an attempt to bring back a little of that Star Wars magic in a form palatable to modern military science fiction and military veteran sensibilities. What Nick Cole and Jason Anspach delivered was science fiction's version of Black Hawk Down, a classic military science fiction novel worthy of mention alongside Starship Troopers and The Forever War. After completing the main series, Cole and Anspach opened up the Galaxy's Edge universe to their fellow writers with the Order of the Centurion series. While the tone of each novel varies from that set down by the first, Order of the Centurion (reviewed here), each new book delivered competent military science fiction action and heroism by some of the best military science fiction writers in independent science fiction.

Then came J. R. Handley's The Reservist.

Military science fiction--and military fiction in general--tends to fall into competence porn, or, in the case of farce, incompetence porn. Generally, the protagonist's leadership is sure, decisive, and unwavering, as are his troops. Incompetence, leadership failings, and, just as often, gross moral failings are reserved for the inevitable conflict between the protagonist and his risk-adverse superiors. What does not get shown is the forging process by which a newly promoted NCO or officer, often green and squirrelly, matures into a proper leader worthy of his position. That involves a lot of mistakes, counseling, and, more often that not, a "Come to Jesus" meeting or two. In garrison, there's time and space to learn the ropes in relative safety--for the leader and his troops. But on the battlefield, where dead leejs mean instant promotion, the learning process becomes a crucible.

That's the situation the newly-minted Lieutenant "Fetch" Ocampo finds himself in after a mine and an infiltrator leaves the former sergeant as the most senior legionnaire of Rage Company. He has to adapt to his new position as an officer in the middle of the latest Legion meatgrinder fueled by the Mid Core Rebellion's treachery. But the futuristic version of Isandlwana forces Fetch to come to grips with his shortcomings as a leader elevated above his current capabilities, and each growing pain threatens to cost lives.

It's a far different spin on a reservist's duty than the tired-out weekend warrior tropes thrown at the reserves. And Fetch's pain comes raw, from the first shot of whiskey at a legionnaire's dive bar to the slow whittling down of Rage Company on its way to its last stand. Faith is a solace here, a rarity in science fiction, and it is given the same authenticity seen in Civil War battlefield letters. In general, Handley avoids the common war story tropes cemented by decades of World War Two and Vietnam stories, and delivers a story that's personal and authentic, even to the ear of an extremely real-echelon commo puke.

The result is that Handley has given Galaxy's Edge its second entry into the military science fiction canon.

Currently, The Reservist is available only through Audible, or in ebook for Galaxy's Edge Insiders. A paperback version is on its way, as soon as the exclusivity window with Audible passes.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Light Novels: The Arrows of Time

Up to this point, this light novel survey has been focused on stories set in the writers' present. The recent history of the medium can be organized into three great periods: the secondary fantasy worlds of  the 1980s and 1990s, the primary fantasy adventures of the 1990s and 2000s, and the isekai portal fantasies of the 2000s and 2010s. More than twenty years of popular fiction has used the present as its staging ground, as primary and isekai fantasies are concerned with the affairs of the present--or, at least the present at the time of writing. But fascinations with the past and with the future are universal, and light novel writers have explored history and visions of the future in addition to the preoccupation with the present.

With that said, the arrow of time normally points forward in light novels. History tends to fuel the settings of the secondary fantasy worlds, as in the quasi-medieval Germany of Spice & Wolf, with classical China, Heian and Warring States Japan, and Continental Middle Ages Europe providing the common milieus. Historical figures do tend to be re-imagined into primary fantasies as well, such as in the complete re-imagining of the characters of Twenty Years After of the d'Artagnan romances into the isekai magical academy of The Familiar of Zero. As a result, those looking for historical adventures similar to the Sharpe series or the Three Musketeers might be better served by manga as Cesare, Vinland Saga, or Ruroni Kenshin. However, a handful of history themed light novels have made their way into English publication, including the previously mentioned Full Metal Panic, by Shouji Gatou, a military mecha adventure fueled by an alternate history of the Cold War, and Ryohgo Narita's Baccano, a Great Depression mobster fantasy that combines the farce of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels with European alchemical magic.

Science fiction is far more popular, but not quite in the same form as American audiences may understand the genre. Japan has a storied history in the genre, with weightier Campbellian and Wellsian speculative social fiction finding a home in more traditional novels, while Continental-style (1) futurist fantasies fill the pages of light novels. As a result, light novel science fiction embraces the genre-blending of "science fantasy", incorporating any plausible or implausible element as long as it can be dressed up in polished metal and shining composite plastic--especially in the use of magic, whether it be in the sufficiently advanced technologies of telepathy, telekinesis, and other forms of Esper mentalism, or the application of computers to Sandersonian hard magic.

Perhaps no genre better illustrates the blended futurist fantasy quite so much as the Battle Academy. These near-future settings combine the magical academies of places like Hogwarts with computers and other forms of technologically-assisted magic. Students at these academies strive to climb the rankings in their class, often through the familiar trope of fighting tournaments. Meanwhile, dark conspiracies play out at the academy, using the students as pawns. As combat and intrigue rage around the often troubled and ostracized hero, he earns respect and a place in the school's social scene through his prowess. The Irregular at Magic High School, by Tsutomu Sato, follows this outline best, with The Asterisk War, by Yuu Miyazaki, a more light-hearted take on the formula. Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index adds a layer of complexity--and the occasional whiplash from tone changes--by forcing the hero to navigate delinquents, predatory professors, and a silent war between scientific Espers and magic-wielding churchmen.

However, those looking for more familiar genres of science fiction will not be disappointed. Space opera looms large, with the True Tenchi Muyo novels expanding on the worldbuilding of the original anime's OAV continuity, and the classic Crest of the Stars (reviewed here). Haruka Takachiho's classic The Dirty Pair follows the Lovely Angels, a pair of intergalactic crime fighters who tend to forge an unmistakable--and unintentional--path of destruction. Asato Asato's 86 taps into the strong dystopian vein of Japanese science fiction as it investigates the forsaken soldiers forced to fight in their government's "bloodless war". And while video game isekai brushes up against many of the same themes as cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex further explores the setting and themes of the classic cyberpunk manga.

The arrow of time flies onward, and readers find themselves at the end of the isekai age, as the popularity of the genre and the web novels that fueled it are waning in Japan. What might replace it, no one knows. It could be a return to the detailed secondary fantasy worlds, the low fantasies of the current day, or even the grand space operas of the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, English publishers such as Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and Vertical are bringing the vast backlog of this medium to a growing and enthusiastic English-speaking audience.

*****

(1) "Ah, well, you’re now taking the German view that any romance about the future is science fiction." C.S. Lewis, "Unreal Estates". Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.






Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Great LibertyCon 99-Cent Book Sale

(h/t: Hans G. Schantz)
With the LibertyCon Science Fiction Convention about to convene in Chattanooga, Tennessee, some attending authors and friends are offering a few of their most popular ebooks for only $0.99. For most books, the sale begins 12 am PDT Wednesday 6/26 through 12 am PDT Wednesday 7/3 on Amazon, (12 am GMT 6/26 through 12 am GMT 7/3 on Amazon.co.uk).  The author’s chosen start and end dates may vary – always confirm the price before you buy. 
Get a great deal on a liberty-friendly book, and help support the creators. Here’s the full list (including both some familiar Ratburger favorites and new discoveries), alphabetical by author…
The full list can be found at The Ratburger. While I am working through this list, I can say that Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, by Fenton Wood, is a must read, and Hell Spawn, The Hidden Truth, and The Powers of the Earth, the 2018 Prometheus Award winner, are all climbing my To Read pile.

UPDATE: Soda Pop Soldier, by Nick Cole, Fade, by Daniel Humphreys, and Honor at Stake, by Declan Finn join the sale to make 10 books available at 99 cents each.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Light Novels: Secondary Fantasy Worlds

Previous entries in this light novel recommendation series have explored Tolkien's primary and secondary worlds, with the aim of explaining the mechanics of isekai portal fantasies that take characters from the present and fling them into fantasy worlds. As a result, the selections have dealt with heroes from the primary world--our world. But self-contained and internally consistent fantasy worlds such as Westeros, Selenoth, Newhon, and Discworld have captured the imagination of readers around the world, and it comes as no surprise than Japan's light novels have their own treasured adventures in such fantasy worlds.

***

During his travels, merchant Kraft Lawrence comes across a village harvest festival centered around a wolf and wheat. Despite the enthusiasm of the celebration, the village treats these rituals as little more than superstition. Later on that night, Lawrence stumbles across the harvest goddess, Holo the Wisewolf, who makes a request of him, in her own maddening way. Progress and the church have pushed out the old ways, and Holo wishes to see her hometown in the North once more. Lawerence agrees, and as they journey north, the cunning Wisewolf helps him toward his own dream, earning enough money to settle down and open his own shop. To get to the North, they must navigate the intrigues of merchant houses, church politics, the occasional would-be suitor, and the growing May-December bond between a mortal man and an immortal goddess.

Occasionally nicknamed "Wolf and Economics" for the deep dives into medieval trade deals, Isuna Hasekura's Spice & Wolf is a long courtship between Kraft Lawrence and Holo the Wisewolf. Contrary to early American marketing attempts, Spice & Wolf is not a fanservice book, as the romance is driven by poignant character interaction and not Holo's state of undress. Unlike most light novel romances, not only is marriage the intended resolution, but the romance is full of more than just the give and take of Holo's teasing. Over the course of their journey to Holo's hometown, Lawrence and Holo's growing trust in each other is tested, broken, rewarded, and reconciled as Lawrence attempts one audacious sales deal after another. Amazingly for the genre, some of the obstacles in Lawrence and Holo's path stem not from the looming threat of the church, but out of their reluctance to wed. Unfortunately, the 2000s distrust of organized religion that filled many Japanese anime, manga, and games is present, simmering as wary caution instead of outright hostility. Fortunately, Lawrence's sales broker schemes are quiet duels of wit and resolve, buoyed by Holo's cunning, instead of academic accounting exercises. As a result, the travelling merchant has been a role more and more light novel heroes have adopted in their adventures.

***

Never let marketers name books. Contrary to the expectations of the genre, Fujino Omori's Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is not a harem story, regardless of the marketing team's efforts to frame it as such. Rather than the adventures of a rake, Bell Crandell decides to be an adventurer but has to get rescued when he gets in over his head. He crushes on his rescuer, the renowned Sword Princess Aiz Wallenstein, and the puppy love drives him to become a hero worthy of fighting by her side. Along the way, Bell's determination, growing skill, and an entire warren of rabbits' worth of luck draw fellow adventurers to the familia of his patroness goddess, Hestia. But the city's dungeon holds ever-growing dangers for adventurers, and Bell's grandfather might have placed a heavy responsibility on Bell's shoulders.

While Bell strives to improve through determination and practice in a way familiar to fans of Shounen Manga such as Naruto, My Heroic Academia, and more, the main theme is the close, almost familial bonds of friendship. Every member of Hestia's growing familia is an orphan or an outcast who finds a home by Hestia's hearth. This allows for two rarities in light novel fantasies, male friendship towards the hero and romantic subplots that do not involve the hero. While Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? bears the video game trappings of the genre lightly, the influence of Final Fantasy VII is unmistakable. For those interested in reading from the beginning, the pretentiously literary prologue is sandpaper rough--after the attempt to tie the story to the marketer's title, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? soon demonstrates why new volumes are bestsellers, even in English fantasy lists.

***

Instead of notable mentions, this week brings two classic light novels that continue to shape fiction and even gaming to this day.

Ryo Mizuno's Record of Lodoss War may have started as a transcript of 1980s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG sessions by Japanese game designers, but it quickly became one of the foundational fantasies for the light novel market, popularizing Western-style fantasy in Japan. Like the Dragon Quest games, it set many of the conventions of future fantasy--including the fascination with the trappings of Western fantasy. What Lord of the Rings is to the portrayal of elves in English language fiction, so too is Record of Lodoss War to elves in Japan. Up until recently, these stories were only available in English through the anime series and manga. However, like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and other light novel classics, the English publication of Record of Lodoss War was overshadowed by the glut in isekai portal fantasies. However, this epic fantasy is highly regarded, and worth seeking out.

Hajime Kanzaka's Slayers, on the other hand, takes a comedic approach to sword and sorcery. Sorceress Lina Inverse hunts treasure, and, in truth, she's not too different from the bandits she charbroils with her magic to get that treasure. Yet this carefree sorceress finds herself a constant pawn in the intrigues between gods and demons. The levity of the humor is balanced by the world-shaking scope of the events and the tactically sound magic battles. Fans of the classic anime will find a few familiar faces missing, but the dim yet strangely perceptive swordsman Gourry is Lina's constant companion. English volumes of Slayers are difficult to come by, thanks to the 2000s manga contraction nearly bankrupting the publisher. Hopefully, with the newly announced third series of Slayers soon hitting Japanese shelves, Slayers may be rereleased in English. Until then, Amazon and used book stores are your best bet to find these books.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Galaxy's Edge Insider

But the galaxy is a dumpster fire. A hot, stinking dumpster fire. And most days I don’t know if the legionnaires are putting out the flames, or fanning them into an inferno.

With those words, Jason Anspach and Nick Cole hooked science fiction readers on Galaxy's Edge, a reworking of everything people loved about Star Wars through the lenses of traditional science fiction and War on Terror veteran sensibilities. Their first book, Legionnaire, proved to be the Black Hawk Down of science fiction, taking a place alongside Starship Troopers, Armor, and The Forever War as a classic of military science fiction. Through nine volumes, the Legion fought against insurgents, rebels, and a strange, impossibly magical warlord who proclaimed himself Emperor. While the fimal volume of the main story, Retribution, might have seen rushed, until a reread of the series reveals how much foreshadowing was set in place from the start, it provided a satisfying ending, a rarity in today's day of endless serials.

Since then, Ansspach and Cole have opened their world to a number of prominent independent military science fiction fiction authors through their Order of the Centurion series, published first as audiobook exclusives through Audible. Anspach and Cole have also dropped hints about upcoming series that cover the Savage Wars, the Galaxy's Edge equivalent to the Clone Wars, bounty hunter contracts fulfilled by the legends Wraith and Tyrus Rechs, and a serial bridging the fall of the Empire to the next grand saga in the Galaxy's Edge universe.

Many a fan might be able to wait patiently for these new stories in the expanding universe of Galaxy's Edge. But for those of us who are impatient, there's Galaxy's Edge Insider.

Insider is a $10 per month subscription services which provides a number of perks, such as swag, discounts, exclusive podcasts, a Tuckerized cameo in future stories, and more. Most important to a reader, however, is the ability to download electronic advanced ready copies (eARCs) of upcoming Galaxy's Edge books. Now, paid eARCs is a not a new service, as Baen is known for selling upcoming new releases as eARCs for $15 each, or about 1.5 times the new release ebook cost to receive the book 3-6 months early. However, for the Galaxy's Edge fans, Insider is far more lucrative. This month offered the ability to download five new Galaxy's Edge novels, including the stunning Savage Wars, and two installments of Takeover, the aforementioned serial. That's $90 of eARCs, or $30 of ebooks in one month.

Future months will bring in additional installments of Takeover, the newest volumes in three spin-off series, and new books in Anspach and Cole's non-Galaxy's Edge projects. But even at one month, the Insider subscription is an excellent deal for fans of the series.


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Crest of the Stars

In the far-distant future, mankind has traversed the stars and settled distant worlds. But no matter how advanced the technology of the future becomes, it seems the spacefaring nations cannot entirely shed their human nature.

Jinto Lin finds this out the hard way when, as a child, his home world is conquered by the powerful Abh Empire: the self-proclaimed Kin of the Stars, and rulers of vast swaths of the known universe. As a newly-appointed member of the Abh’s imperial aristocracy, Jinto must learn to forge his own destiny in the wider universe while bearing burdens he never asked for, caught between his surface-dweller “Lander” heritage and the byzantine culture of the Abh, of which he is now nominally a member. A chance meeting with the brave-but-lonely Apprentice Starpilot Lafier aboard the Patrol Ship
Goslauth will lead them both headfirst down a path of galaxy-spanning intrigue and warfare that will forever change the fate of all of humankind.

It's refreshing to read a light novel not encrusted with 20 years of bad fannish in-jokes. However, Hiroyuki Morioka's Crest of the Stars was also written at a time when linguistics was a writing craze on both sides of the Pacific Rim, so the book serves as much as a crash course on the Abh language as it does a story. The J-Novel Club translator uses an interesting strategy to minimize this, by bolding sections of the English text when corresponding Abh words have already been introduced to the reader. It's still jarring, but not so much as the same text half-written in another language. A reader should not have to hold degrees in neologistic linguistics, history, psychology or anthropology in order to understand the story. Fortunately, once the exposition-heavy introductions are complete, the interruptions settle to a more manageable rate. But that's still one massive hurdle, one that many readers might balk at.

On the plus side, there's a real Vorkosigan Saga feel so far as the story follows Lafier and Jinto on what will become their first mission in an interstellar war. There's mild Ceteganda influence to the Abh, with a society disrupted by genetic manipulation and a uterine replicator on steroids. Lafier's obsession with the proof and status of being a "Daughter of Love", a child created from an act of passion instead of laboratory procedure, is a glimpse at the first cracks in the Abh's air of supremacy. Neither Lafier or Jinto are on the manic level of Miles Vorkosigan, but then again, few characters are. Jinto displays a pragmatism forced on him as the only non-ethnically Abh noble, a mayfly among elves, while Lafier is a hammer with a strong sense of obligation that weighs heavily on her shoulders--more so than the privileges of her lofty position. Instead of an odd couple, they are complementary and will rely on each other's talents as they speed to warn the rest of the Abh fleet of invasion and war.

Crest of the Stars is the first third of a novel split into three books, and, in the 1990s, needed three years to find a publisher willing to take a chance on space opera at a time when space opera was a dying trend. The extra time was spent in refining the prose and the story, creating a space opera tale that is not just a good light novel, but one that can take its place among the better space operas world-wide. It helps that Morioka was a science fiction short story writer, not a fannish writer clinging to trends and in-jokes, and, with the exception of a Tom Swiftie or two, his prose, even when translated, is up to Western standards. This is aided by a rare but consistent use of dialogue tags, which more light novels should employ. Because of all this effort spent on the text, Crest of the Stars can be recommended as a proper science fiction novel, not just a young adult pulp.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Dungeon Born

Conquering dungeons and using them to grow has long been the most efficient way to become a powerful adventurer. The only thing keeping the process from being easy is the Beasts that inhabit these places. Questions plague those entering this particular place of power: Where do the ‘rewards’ of weapons, armor, and heavy gold coins come from? Why is a fluffy bunny charging at me? For abyss-sake, why are there so many monsters?

Cal has all of the answers to these age-old questions for a very simple reason. He is a Dungeon Core, a soul forced against his will into a magical stone. With the help of an energetic friend, Cal grows a dungeon around himself to bring in new sources of power.

When a threat he doesn’t fully comprehend bares its many teeth, Cal is determined to survive the attempt on his life. Unfortunately for adventurers, the only way for him to achieve his goal is to eat anyone that enters his depths.


The first novel in Dakota Krout's Divine Dungeon series, Dungeon Born starts as a pretty formulaic dungeon builder story, in the same vein and general plot as Bone DungeonA murdered man is reincarnated as a Dungeon Core, the chief intelligence in the creation and building of dungeons. Along with his fairy-esque assistant, the newborn Core branches out underground, absorbing wayward creatures and careless adventurers until he attracts the attention of the Adventurer's Guild. The Guild debates destroying the young dungeon, but the drop of a legendary treasure persuades them instead to use it as a training ground for novice adventurers. Along the way, the Core stumbles into a special relationship with one of the young trainees, which will become a lifesaver to them both.

Here, the Core's name is Cal.

Again, pretty standard stuff so far, although Dungeon Born has a sharper edge than the more whimsical Bone Dungeon. Yet Dungeon Born maintains the lighthearted approach that makes many dungeon builder stories a popcorn read.

What does set Dungeon Born apart from other lighthearted gimmick fantasies is its replacement of the traditional dungeon-builder game mechanics of HP, MP, and XP with the chi energy cultivation system of Chinese xianxia. This moves the actual dungeon building exposition from arbitrary mechanics to abstract, but more logically consistent methods. Issues of purity, contagion, and energy flow can affect what Cal is currently able to create, with breakthroughs coming from cleaning up energy paths and new ways to adjust the flows. Chi cultivation also allows for worldbuilding hooks into the plot that mere XP and MP do not allow. Surprisingly, this distinctly Chinese magic system is used without any other chinoiserie elements, which indicates a further progression of xianxia towards the English-speaking fantasy mainstream.

However, Dungeon Born does have issues when it seeks to move past the narrow scope of the dungeon. Since the popularization of The Lord of the Rings, epic scale fantasy has been the flavor of the decades. An intelligent cave just is not mobile enough to visit, much less influence, cataclysmic events, and Dungeon Born, like its fellow dungeon builders, wants to play in the cataclysmic. And rather than train heroes, Dungeon Born wants Cal to be the hero. The result, played out in its sequels, is the power creep familiar to fans of shounen manga. There is also a lack of purpose to the story, as Cal grows stronger to draw more energy to grow stronger in a cave's power fantasy. Every bit of cleverness is tied to a rather weak purpose with few obstacles in the way. The result lends itself to the open-ended approach of kishotenketsu's development-twist-consequences cycles instead of dramatic structure. Dungeon builders in general need more focused plots and more modest stories that take advantage of a dungeon's immobility and allure to adventurers.

As mentioned, Dungeon Born is a lighthearted beach read with aspirations to something grander that stands out more as a transitional story in the growing evolution of American xianxia than on its own merits.