You can’t be a writer, not a good one anyway, without also being a reader. Even as busy as I am, I still read 5 to 8 books a month. So, I’m going to start posting each month about some of the notable books, i.e. – the ones worth recommending to others, that I’ve read over the month. As you’ll quickly see, although I love SF and Fantasy, my reading typically ranges quite a bit further than just those genres. This month, I’m recommending three SF books, a Mystery/Crime book, and a Non-Fiction book about climate change.
I’d also like to highlight my 1632 Read-Through project, where each month I read and post about another book in Eric Flint’s wide-ranging shared-universe series. Episodes One, Two, and Three of my read-through are currently available.
Agent of the Imperium, published in 2016, is the first novel by acclaimed game designer Marc Miller, creator of the Traveller role-playing game and one of the founders of Game Designers Workshop (GDW), probably my favorite game company ever. As one might expect, it’s a novel set in the Traveller universe.
Now, there’s been a trickle of other books over the years set in the Traveller universe, which rivals Larry Niven’s Known Space series in size and scope…but none of them were particularly good. What’s different here is…this book is excellent. Not just as a novel within a well-known “environment” but on its own as a solid and innovative SF novel. In fact, it was even nominated for the Dragon Award for Best SF Novel in 2016. I picked up this novel when I was at Balticon over Memorial Day weekend.
Here’s a key summary from the book’s blurb that really sets the stage:
Jonathan Bland is a Decider, empowered by the Emperor himself to deal with the inevitable crises of an empire. In the service of the Empire, he has killed more people than anyone in the history of Humanity, to save a hundred times as many. He died centuries ago, but they reactivate his recorded personality whenever a new threat appears. When the crisis is over, they expect he will meekly return to oblivion. But he has other ideas.
It’s a kaleidoscopic novel, skipping through history with Bland as he resolves crises and eliminates threats to the Imperium, while also giving us flashbacks to his life before he was recorded. Of course, he quickly realizes that he needs to do more than just wake up periodically in order to properly safeguard the Imperium.
The book is a fascinating portrait of a man who will do anything to protect the Imperium that he serves. Bland proves ruthless, devious, and decisive in his mission, but also surprisingly sympathetic. I enjoyed this immensely. Even better, it was really nice to see a book that captured the scope and complexity of the Traveller universe, while simultaneously adding something new and innovative to that universe.
Polymath is a 1974 novel from the late John Brunner, an expansion of a 1962 story. John Brunner is one of the SF greats, though his works seem to have fallen mostly out of public view since his untimely death at age 61 in 1995. This is one of his minor books, but I liked it a lot.
A supernova has destroyed one of Earth’s far-flung colony worlds and a ship of ill-prepared refugees has crash-landed on a new world, one that is unmapped and untamed. By happenstance, there is a bright young man with them who’s had training as a polymath…a professional world tamer. The problem is that he’s only a student and this isn’t the world he’d been studying.
The book is short, only 156 pages, but paints a good picture of the trials and tribulations associated with colonizing a new planet, especially by refugees who aren’t prepared for the venture. A second ship has also crash-landed on the same world, and the book contrasts the distinctly different strategies of the two ship complements. It’s a solid adventure story and a bit of a coming-of-age story, as well.
I’ve never read much of John Brunner. I kind of missed his work when I was growing up. I picked up this book at a used bookstore and I’m glad I did. Thanks to this read, I’ve decided to check out more of his works.
Mamelukes is Jerry Pournelle’s final novel; he died in 2017. Almost complete when he died, it was finished by his son, Phillip Pournelle, with the editorial assistance of David Weber, and published in 2020.
It’s also the fourth book in his Janissaries series. The books in the series are: Janissaries (1979), Clan and Crown (1982), Storms of Victory (1987) and Mamelukes (2020)…so we have a series that has been published over the course of 41 years. This book is NOT where you want to start reading the series.
To catch up, the first three books have been collected in an omnibus volume, Lord of Janissaries. You should read the omnibus before tackling Mamelukes, unless you’re a long-term fan of the series and are already conversant with What Has Come Before.
The premise of the series is that a group of modern soldiers (from 1979) were transported to the world of Tran by the alien Shalnukskis to grow illegal drugs for them. Tran is in an elliptical orbit; the best time for growing the much-prized crop is every few centuries “when the Demon Star comes close,” which is also when the world is beset by floods, tempests, people migrating, etc. As Rick Galloway, the leader of the soldiers, quickly discovers…there are already humans on Tran from previous crop-growing expeditions.
So, the soldiers have to conquer territory for farming the very dangerous and difficult to grow crop, protect said territory from disasters (both nature-related and people-related), and harvest the crop for as many years as they can. And then expect to get nuked afterward by their alien masters.
At the start of Mamelukes, Galloway and company have done just this for the past thirteen years. But now trouble is brewing. First, there’s discord in the alliance that Galloway has put together, and this endangers their capability to repel some tough opponents. Furthermore, at least two more batches of humans have been sent to Tran, but for reasons unknown to Galloway.
Surprisingly, this book is really two books in one, with a fairly well-defined demarcation between them. The first “book” is about dealing with the problems plaguing the alliance. The second directly involves the new folks from Earth and leads to an epic sea battle.
If you liked the other books in the series, you’ll like this one. I enjoyed it and thought it was a solid continuation of the series. I’ll also note that there are a few plot threads left unresolved, which could lead to additional books in the series (however, I’m uncertain who’d write them). If this IS the last book in the series, well, it’s a pretty decent send-off.
The Investigator is the first novel (just published in 2022) featuring Letty Davenport, the adopted daughter of famed detective Lucan Davenport (from Sandford’s most famous series of best-selling books). Letty has appeared in a number of the Lucas Davenport books, in several of which she played major parts and in several others where she made cameo appearances.
In this book, Letty is 24, a college graduate, and bored with the desk job that she has. When a Senator offers her an opportunity to participate in a real investigation in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, she jumps at it. It seems that several oil companies in Texas have reported thefts of crude oil. There are rumors that the illegal gains are being used by some sort of militia group.
It’s another detailed investigation from John Sandford, not his best but far from his worst. It crosses into some new territory for him, as well. Like almost all of his books, I enjoyed it. If I have one beef, it’s that Letty seems to start off as just a little too confident and proficient, even for her background in previous appearances in Sandford’s books. Still, that’s a minor criticism.
Well, there you go…four book recommendations. It was a pretty good month for reading. It was awesome to finally find a great Traveller novel. And almost as awesome to finally see another Janissaries book.