Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Ink Mage, by Victor Gischler

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The small duchy of Klaar has been impervious to invasion, due to a secure location offering limited access. But when betrayal from within leads to its fall, to the vanguard of an invading Perranese army, heir apparent Rina Veraiin is forced on the run. She is fortunate to encounter one of a handful of people who know how to create mystic tattoos that will imbue the recipient with magical abilities. With her already significant combat skills radically enhanced, and her body now also blessed with a remarkable talent to heal, Rina can set about trying to recover her domain. It won’t be easy, since the king is not even aware the Perranese have landed. But she has help, albeit in the motley forms of a stable boy – sorry, head stable boy – a gypsy girl and a noble scion, whose charm is exceeded only by his ability to irritate.

Despite the young age of the protagonist, who is still a teenager, this isn’t the Young Adult novel it may seem. It’s rather more Game of Thrones in both style and content, with the point of view switching between a number of different characters. Some of these can be rather graphic, particularly the story of Tosh, an army deserter who ends up working as a cook in a Klaar brothel. But even this thread turns out more action-heroine oriented than you’d expect. For the madam gets Tosh to train the working girls in weaponcraft, so they can become an undercover (literally!) rebel force against the Perranese. Can’t say I saw that, ah, coming…

Gischler seems better known as a hard-boiled crime fiction author – though I must confess to being probably most intrigued by his satirical novel titled, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse! The approach here does feel somewhat fragmented, yet is likely necessary, given the amount of time Rina spends galloping around the countryside. It may also be a result of the book’s original format as a serial. However, it translates well enough to a single volume, and I found it became quite a page-turner in the second half. There, Rina readies her forces to return to Klaar, and take on the occupying forces, which have settled in for the winter. 

The tattoo magic is a nice idea, effectively providing “superpowers” that can help balance out the obvious limitations of a young, largely untrained heroine. It is somewhat disappointing that, after significant build-up involving the Perranese’s own tattooed warrior, the actual battle between him and Rina seemed to be over in two minutes – and decided through an external gimmick, rather than by her own skill. In terms of thrills, it’s significantly less impressive than a previous battle, pitting her against a really large snake, or even the first use of Rina’s abilities, which takes place against a wintry wilderness backdrop – more GoT-ness, perhaps?

Such comparisons are unlikely to flatter many books, and this is at its best when finding its own voice, as in the tattooing, or the gypsies who become Rina’s allies. He does avoid inflicting any serial cliffhanger ending on us, instead tidying up the majority of loose ends, and giving us a general pointer toward the second in the three-volume series. Overall, I liked the heroine and enjoyed this, to the point where I might even be coaxed into spending the non-discounted price for that next book.

Author: Victor Gischler
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Chosen, by K.F. Breene

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Shanti is a bad-ass. Not that you’d know it when we first encounter her, staggering through the wilderness on the edge of death, after an ill-considered choice of route as she escapes from… Something. We’ll get back to that. Fortunately, she is found by Sanders, a career soldier from a nearby city, out on a training mission with a band of raw recruits. They take her back to their town, where she’s nursed back to health – then the awkward questions begin, concerning where she was going and precisely why she was carrying weapons. But the key turns out to be Captain Cayan, who possesses the same psionic warfare capabilities as Shanti; except, he’s all but unaware of it, a sharp contrast to her finely-honed and practiced expertise.

When the city comes under attack, it appears initially just to be another raid by the Mugdock, a barbarian tribe who have caused trouble for years. However, it turns out they aren’t alone, and have partnered up with others who pose a bigger threat. While her adroitness, with both mind and sword, are key in fending off the enemy, it offers only temporary relief, because Sanders is then captured while out on a mission, and tortured to reveal the city’s secrets. Cayan, together with Shanti, lead the expedition to rescue him, but the resulting conflict brings her presence in the area to the attention of the very people she least wants to find out.

I enjoyed reading this – after a couple of fairly lackluster entries in the genre, it was refreshing to find something where you wanted to keep turning pages, to find out what would happen next. Shanti is an excellent heroine: smart, fiercely loyal to those who have earned her trust, takes no shit from anyone, with a sardonic wit and possessing copious back-story, some of which is filled in over the course of this book. But woe betide you get on the wrong side of her, for she can kill you quickly with her sword – or very slowly with her mind. As we see near the end of the book, you’d better pray you get the former fate. Speaking of which, her talents are showcased particularly well in the following passage, depicting her defense against the Mugdock attackers:

Words could not describe how thoroughly Sanders had underestimated her. How they all had. She moved as if in some elaborate dance. Every nuance of her body was in perfect harmony as she glided through her fighting postures, slicing and cutting, weaving in and out. Even her sword was part of the dance, moving like an extension of her arm. She was breathtaking. And extremely deadly. Her pile was larger than her male counterpart’s. It was neater, too. One cut, maybe two, and they were brought down. Appendages sliced off, heads, limbs, incapacitated, then she moved on. Every so often she would throw a knife, hitting someone in their head, heart, or, most often, their neck. He had never seen anything like it.

Damn. It’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t more action, because it’s described so evocatively when it comes along, you’re left feeling as if you were there, and wanting more. To her credit, Breene also does a good job of Shanti’s psychic abilities; I’ve seen books where that kind of thing turns into clunky and ineffective prose, not the case here. A couple of other points worthy of praise. While there’s obvious unresolved sexual tension between the heroine and the Captain, this provokes a lot less eye-rolling than usual; indeed, it makes sense, given their mental bond. It’s also a fully-formed story – Shanti’s saga goes on, obviously (there are six books in The Warrior Chronicles to date), yet this finishes at a point that feels complete, not an obvious “Continued in Volume 2!”

There were occasional passages which I did find myself having to re-read, because the intent or meaning of them seemed rather confused. But that’s a small quibble, for an engrossing story in a universe a bit reminiscent of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (albeit with fewer dragons… at least, so far!). My rule of thumb for deciding whether a book is good or not, is whether I watch it unfold cinematically in my mind’s eye as I read. That wasn’t just the case here, I was also actively casting it. What do we want?! Cecily Fay for Shanti. When do we want it? As soon as someone gets the budget. :)

Author: K.F. Breene
Publisher: Through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Weekend Warriors, by Fern Michaels

Literary rating: starstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2
“Poorly written, crypto-fascist vigilante wish-fulfillment.”

I think it’s the “poorly written” aspect which I find most offensive. For I’m entirely down for some good ol’ entertainment in the form of justified violence, from Dirty Harry through Ms. 45 to Starship Troopers. But this… Oh, dear. The most stunning thing was discovering that this was the first in a series of twenty-seven novels in the “Sisterhood” series. Twenty-seven. I guess this proves there’s a market for this kind of thing, though I am completely at a loss as to who it might be. It certainly isn’t me.

The concept of the Sisterhood is a group of women, who have all suffered some kind of unpunished misfortune, and have been brought together to enjoy the vengeance which they have been denied by the official system. The ringleader is Myra Rutledge, who conveniently for the series is an extremely wealthy woman. She lost her daughter Barbara in an accident caused by a driver with diplomatic immunity, which inspired her into acction. Assisting is Nikki Quinn, her late daughter’s best friend, now adopted by Myra, who is a defense attorney; and a suave, British former MI-6 agent Charles Martin, who can apparently pull anything needed by the plot out of his suave, British arse.

There are various other characters, but they’re so poorly drawn as to be little more than ciphers, ranging from a securities broker, to a token Oriental, Yoko, who runs a flower shop (and it appears, turns out in later books to be great at martial arts. What are the odds?). The only one worthy of note is the wronged woman in this opening installment, is Kathryn Lucas, a truck driver who was brutally raped by three members of an upscale motorcycle gang, while her disabled husband (now deceased) was forced to watch. She didn’t bother to notify the authorities, for some unconvincing reason, and now the statute of limitations has expired. Naturally, They Still Must Pay – in this particular volume, with their testicles.

No, seriously. The convoluted plan hatched by Myra, Nikki and Charles involves some kind of contest involving the prize of a motorcycle, which will let them kidnap the culprits, castrate them in the back of a 16-wheeler converted into an impromptu operating room, and then dump them off with their now-separated family jewels. There is absolutely no part of this which is interesting, plausible or packs any kind of charge. You’d expect, or at least hope, that there would be some kind of dramatic arc here, but even Kathryn appears to achieve about as much closure from the retribution as would be gained by a trip to the supermarket. About the only plus is the lack of any real romantic subtext, though even here, I sense Nikki will be the source of much sexual tension down the road, with her district attorney ex-boyfriend, Jack.

I guess you could call it inspirational, in the sense that if this is the kind of rubbish which can lead to a 27-volume book deal, I’m inspired to take the same concept and knock up a bestseller over the course of this weekend. But otherwise, this is feeble nonsense – likely reaching its worst with the section where someone explains to Yoko, how to drive a manual transmission car. I should have given up at that point, and saved myself from further punishment.

Author: Fern Michaels
Publisher: Zebra, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Getting Wilde, by Jenn Stark

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I initially thought I had a fairly good handle on where the first book in the Immortal Vegas series (currently at six entries, plus a prequel) was going, with a Lara Croft-esque lead, who specializes in locating and recovering ancient artifacts. You can also throw in fragments of The Da Vinci Code, since she is hired to retrieve a relic from the secret basement beneath the Vatican, and is going up against a cult of religious, Catholic fanatics. But it somehow ends up taking a sharp right-turn, ending up in a version of Las Vegas where, just out of phase with the casinos and hotels, lurks a hidden dimension of other venues, populated by…

Well, probably best to rewind a bit. For in this universe, magic is real, albeit not apparent to the vast majority of the population. Some, particularly sensitive types, have an affinity for it, in one way or another, giving them abilities such are remote viewing or precognition. These are the Connected, and our heroine Sara Wilde is one of them. She started before she was even a teenager, using a talent for locating missing things to help her local police. But after a tragic incident, she was forced out on her own, and now wields her skill in the pursuit of material objects.

Meanwhile, the Arcana Council – largely formed of characters out of the tarot deck, e.g. the High Priestess, the Magician and the Devil – are based in that alternate Vegas strip. They seek to maintain the balance between good and evil, preventing either from prevailing, and that’s becoming a problem. For the increasing intersection of technology and magic is being exploited by those who want to benefit from the resulting synergy – they don’t care how many lives have to be destroyed in that process. Which is where Sara comes in, as exposure to a psychoactive drug turns her into a seer, and she unwillingly takes on that mantle, to protect the innocent alternatives.

If it sounds rather complex and confusing, that’s about right. You’d expect the first book in a series to set out the universe and its rules fairly clearly. But here, you’re largely dropped in to the middle of things, then have to try and figure out what’s going on, from nuggets dropped by Sara almost in passing. Maybe previous knowledge of Tarot might help? It also suffers from incompleteness, a sadly common trait in e-books; Stark sets up the characters and plot, then more or less ends in “Buy volume 2!” rather than offering any resolution. The book’s attitude to sex is kinda weird as well. Wilde doesn’t actually have any, but comes perilously close on multiple occasions, to the extent this seems like some kind of edging fetish.

But you shouldn’t take the above to mean it’s all negative. In particular, Wilde is a very well-formed character. She’s clearly a heroine, willing to put herself in harm’s way (both physically and psychically) to protect others, out of genuine concern for their well-being. Yet she’s far from flawless, carrying her own share of historical baggage, and has a sarcastic wit to which I can easily relate. Stark has a good eye for her settings too – having been to Las Vegas, it would be the perfect location for a supernatural governing body to set up their operations, just out of sight behind the lurid facades.

I’d probably have liked to have seen more action out of Sara. Her first excursion, into the depths beneath of the Pope’s palace in Rome, is almost an occult Indiana Jones escapade, and she clearly is capable with more than just her mind. But after that, there is a lot more talk than walk, save perhaps for her helping bust loose some unwilling participants from behind a sleazy casino, in an even sleazier back-room. Hopefully, future entries will have more of this, and she won’t be stuck doing remote viewing for the High Priestess, which is where she ends this volume. I’d probably be interested in another adventure, given the potential here; yet there are enough flaws, it could all end up being thoroughly wasted.

Author: Jenn Stark
Publisher: Elewyn Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Warning –my review doesn’t contain any spoilers for this book, but it does divulge a major series plot development from the preceding book!

In the 10th century B.C., the kingdom of Sheba (or Saba –the S and Sh sounds were still fluid in the Semitic alphabets of that day) straddled the Arabic and African sides of the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and enjoyed considerable income from its control of that trade route. Both the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles record a state visit by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Neither of these writers record her name (it varies in the legends, but the most common name given is Balkis or Belkis –English transliterations vary) or much about her, and written records from Sheba at this time have not survived; but she’s also mentioned in the Koran. Jewish, Arabic and Ethiopian legends (the latter written down in the ancient writing Kebra Negast, or “Glory of Kings”) some of which probably preserve actual handed-down oral history, greatly elaborate the story, and the latter makes Solomon out to be the father of her son and heir, Menelik. (The royal house of Ethiopia historically claimed descent from Solomon through Menelik.) The legends of the Masai and other African peoples south of Ethiopia also credit Menelik with a great (and obviously historically memorable) expedition through their territories. This real-life material provides the basis for Jade del Cameron’s fifth adventure.

It’s now the autumn of 1920, and an American silent film company is in Nairobi, preparing to journey south (into what is today the country of Tanzania) to fabled Mount Kilimanjaro, there to film a movie, set partly in ancient and partly in modern times, based on a supposed legend of Emperor Menelik having climbed the mountain to die and be buried near the summit with his treasure. Ever ready to visit other African locales to do an article and photo shoot for “The Traveler” magazine –based on the real-life magazine of that era “Travel”, as Arruda mentions in her fascinating-as-always Author’s Notes– Jade’s agreed to go along as second-in-command (with primary responsibility for looking after the expedition’s female members) to the group’s guide –though she’s less than delighted to learn that the guide is Harry Hascombe, whom series readers have met before. The trip will also give her a chance to think seriously about, and hopefully finally sort out her mixed feelings, about her beau Sam Featherstone’s marriage proposal. But shortly before departure, things get off to an ominous start with a strange murder-suicide just outside Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club.

Much that I’ve said in my reviews of previous books in the series applies to this one, too. All the things that attract its fans are here: a strong, tough heroine with admirable character and with the guts and physical conditioning to handle dangerous challenges (yes, that knife in her boot on the cover picture is going to have to come out of its sheath!), well-drawn and sometimes likeable supporting characters, adventure and danger in a well-realized exotic setting, chaste romance, good writing with bad language kept to a minimum and no explicit sex, an undercurrent of supernaturalism and mystery that never turns the book into supernatural fiction but that adds a dash of that flavor. But I can say that this is one of the strongest books in the series, and presents one of the best constructed mystery plots –in several of the books, I fingered the culprit early on (and twice in the first chapter!), but I didn’t here! This one kept me guessing (wrongly) almost down to the wire. The behind-the-scenes look at the film industry of the 1920s enhanced the book; and though I didn’t recognize the tie-in to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (never having read that story) until the Author’s Notes explained it, I can recognize now that it was masterfully done. I also appreciated the personal growth here of Jade’s young Kikiyu friend, Jelani.

There are only (so far) two more books in this series; Barb and I have already started reading the sixth installment, The Crocodile’s Last Embrace. I’m hopeful Arruda will eventually write more of them; Jade’s a heroine we both want to keep on spending time with!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library (Obsidian imprint), available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Double-Sided Magic, by McKenzie Hunter

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is set in a world where various kinds of magic exist, alongside humans. The former include shapeshifters, vampires, faes (fairies), mages and the despised “Legacies”. The last-named cover the heroine, Levy Michaels, and that’s a bit of a problem. The reason for the hate, is because some of her kind were responsible, in previous generations, for a very nasty bit of spellcasting called “The Cleanse”; it was basically intended to cause occult genocide, and only narrowly avoided. Since then, Legacies have been harried and hunted by the other kinds. Levy’s late parents taught her to hide her abilities and pass as human, and she does so now, albeit occasionally having to handle those who track her down.

This mostly quiet, largely undercover existence is rudely ended when she suffers a blackout, only to regain consciousness standing over several very dead bodies, with absolutely no recollection of how she got there. Almost simultaneously, a relic called the NecroSpear, with which she was involved in a professional role, goes missing. This all brings her to the attention of Gareth, who heads the Supernatural Guild that are responsible for policing crimes involving magic. Again, a bit of a problem, since attention is the last thing an incognito and persona non grata creature like Levy needs. But it eventually becomes clear that someone equally powerful is out there, and she may be the only thing standing between humanity and an even bigger calamity than The Cleanse.

This is the first book in Hunter’s second series; her first, the Sky Brooks series, is about a werewolf who also has the unique (for her type) ability to do magic. This seems more like a slightly different variation on the same recipe, rather than a different meal, but a sai wielding heroine is always going to get my attention. Having her an uber-powered magic-user does initially seem a bit of a “Mary Sue”, but the constraints of Levy’s situation mean she has to survive as far as possible without using those skills. That said, she’s not exactly as reticent with them as I would have expected, and it’s fortunate everyone else appears to have a blind-spot with regard to her. She does wield those sais effectively; just not enough for my tastes.

It’s not exactly a finished story either, ending in a neo-cliffhanger way that appears largely designed to get the reader to part with their shekels for the upcoming book two. My other main qualm was Gareth: I rolled my eyes at the initial description of him as “sexy and dangerous” [which seems an archetype for Hunter, based on synopses from her other works, as well as some of the characters here] – and yeah, the sexual tension between him and Levy ran the entire gamut, from tiresome to cringeworthy. That’s a shame as Levy actually worked nicely as a standalone character, with a self-deprecating sense of wit that is quite appealing. But it appears almost obligatory to shoehorn in a romantic angle to this kind of book, whether it is necessary or not.

Hunter has put some obvious thought into the universe and its rules, making it certainly one with scope for development, though some additional exposition would have helped with certain aspects. I’m also not certain this is the best place to have started. Hearing about The Cleanse in a “previously, on…” kinda way, seems like a waste of an epic opportunity. There’s an origin story for Levy, which could well have been more interesting than the one actually told. Still, I wouldn’t be entirely averse to reading more of her adventures, though it would likely be a case of waiting for a 99-cent sale on Amazon, rather than paying full-price.

Author: McKenzie Hunter
Publisher: Through Amazon, only as an e-book.

Resident Evil: The Novels, by S.D. Perry

I will cheerfully confess to never having played any of the Resident Evil video-games at all. Everything I know about its universe, I learned from the films starring Milla Jovovich. It was thus something of a surprise to learn that her character, Alice, was entirely created for the films, and doesn’t appear in the game series at all. That said, there’s a reason why Paul Anderson opted to make his hero a heroine. The series has been emphatic about being thoroughly equal-opportunity in its carnage since 1996. It was then the first game came out, as Biohazard in Japan, offering players a choice between playing as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine.

With the film series coming to an end (supposedly!), it seemed like a good point to dip into the more “authentic” parts of the universe. I don’t have the time or enthusiasm for the games, but figured the novels, written by S.D. Perry, would fit my lifestyle nicely. There are seven of these, with five being novelizations based on the first five games, along with two original stories, which take place between #1 and #2, and #2 and #3 respectively. While they’re not as thoroughly heroine-centric as the movies, they’re no less equal-opportunity than the games, with Valentine leading a swathe of solid and strong female characters.

resnovel1

The Umbrella Conspiracy

In the opening book, we follow members of  the S.T.A.R.S. task force, investigating a series of brutal murders on the outskirts of Raccoon City, only to be trapped in a manor house. This turns out to be a research facility for the Umbrella Corporation, abandoned after an accidental release of T-virus and now inhabited by zombies and other unpleasant creatures. These include cannibalistic plants and the “Big Bad”, the Tyrant, the end result of prolonged exposure to the virus.

In terms of spirit, this isn’t dissimilar to the first film, which similarly had a group of soldier types exploring a research complex infested with both monsters and traps, albeit a far larger one. The book’s origins as a game are sometimes clunkily obvious here, with traps and puzzles showing up in the prose here, in ways that would only make sense in a Playstation context. It’s also a little heavy on minute details, such as getting very specific on the layout of the house, which really doesn’t deserve as many words.

There’s a multi-threaded storyline, focusing on Redfield and Valentine, but also involving the other members of the S.T.A.R.S. team, and this works better than you might expect. Perry keeps all the balls in the air effectively, and things converge nicely on a rather Aliens-esque finale, the team rushing to escape the facility before it self-destructs. Which probably makes sense, as Perry also wrote several entries based on the Dark Horse Comics Aliens series

resnovel2

Caliban Cove

The second book takes place between the first and second entries in the game series, rather than being an adaptation. Despite this, it feels similar to the first novel, with another S.T.A.R.S. team – this one not officially sanctioned – investigating another Umbrella facility gone awry. In this case, however, it’s not the result of an accident, but deliberate malfeasance. Rogue biochemist, Dr. Nicholas Griffin, has created a virus which turns humans into zombies, and now is preparing to unleash that virus on the world.

The main heroine is Rebecca Chambers, the teenage biochemist who is the only significant player here carried forward from Book #1. So, I guess she’s playing the Ripley in Aliens role. The “puzzles” the team need to solve barely register: “As I was going to St. Ives…”? Really? Guess Perry didn’t see Die Hard With A Vengeance. The other weakness is the author’s struggles with the action sequences; while these are fine when it’s one-on-one, the depiction of anything involving more participants becomes hopelessly jumbled and confusing.

There are some positive aspects. One perspective provided in the book is that of someone infected by the virus, which is chilling in its depiction of the inexorable loss of control. Some of the monsters are also nicely done, particularly the aquatic Leviathans, whose understated descriptions are quite Lovecraftesque.  Otherwise, though, this feels too much like a retread of its predecessor, in both style and content.

City of the Dead

A novelization of the second game, this introduces two major characters. Along with Claire Redfield, who arrives in Raccoon City seeking her brother, the other hero is Leon Kennedy, a newly-assigned cop. Both are understandably disturbed to find it the epicentre of a zombie outbreak, and have to survive those and a bevy of even nastier monstrosities. There’s also Ada Wong, an independent agent, who has been sent in to obtain a sample of the G-virus, the even more twisted successor to the T-virus.

This is a relatively straightforward tale, simply and effectively told. That said, the Aliens aspects are almost overwhelming. Monster which crawls down your throat, gestates for a bit and then comes out? Check. [The book even calls it, “A chest-bursting parasitic creature. straight out of a sci-fi movie”…] Heroine who ‘adopts’ a little girl who has been scurrying around, trying to survive and hide from the monsters? Check. Frenzied rush to escape, as the location counts down towards complete immolation? Check.

Otherwise, though, it’s not bad at all, even if I could probably also have done without the clunky romantic tension between Kennedy and Wong. I definitely wish they had made this into a movie; Redfield and Wong provide enough action heroine-ness to go around, and the chief human antagonist is also female, Umbrella researcher, Annette Birkin. Perry delivers a solid page-turner, engaging in spectacularly moist prose to describe the creatures now roaming Racoon City.

Underworld

Sadly, not the hoped-for crossover featuring Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale. Instead, it sees a five-person team of former S.T.A.R.S. sent to Utah, where the mysterious Trent tells them a simple retrieval mission awaits. Needless to say, it proves to be anything but, with the team separated. Three members are stranded up top, facing Umbrella security, while two are stuck below, to run a gauntlet through four test areas, stocked with some of Umbrella’s most lethal creations [It’s a little like the simulations in Resident Evil: Retribution, but with different terrain types, rather than different cities]

Indeed, this was disappointingly heroine-light: Leon and John Andrews do most of the heavy lifting, as the pair trapped in the underground complex. Rebecca and Claire are both left up top, and the former is wounded while trying to hide from the security team, so is more an encumbrance than an asset to her colleagues. That only leaves Claire; while brave and resourceful, she’s a civilian, with a civilian’s skill-set, and the ass-kicking which results is inevitably limited in its scope.

Like Caliban Cove, this is a standalone work rather than an adaptation of a game, though the structure of the test areas certainly has the feel of stages, with the “Fossil” at the end undeniably Boss-level. I did enjoy the “first-monster” perspective section, telling events from Fossil’s point of view; it’s a somewhat chilling angle, since its life is “Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” But overall, this would likely have been significantly improved if there had actually been considerably more Selene.

Nemesis

I was surprised to discover in the course of this one, the short time frame over which this all takes place – it’s only about six weeks since the events of the first novel, and we’re already into the fifth installment, based on the third computer game. The central characters here are Jill Valentine, returning from The Umbrella Conspiracy, and new hero, Carlos Olivera, an Umbrella operative who is unaware of the company’s secrets.

The latter is dropped into Raccoon City on a supposed rescue mission, really intended to provide data to the corporation, and it’s not long before he’s the sole survivor of his platoon. Meanwhile, Valentine seeks her own way out, having abandoned her humanitarian efforts, but is trailed by the Nemesis, a particularly unstoppable Umbrella creation programmed to hunt and kill S.T.A.R.S. members. The human villain is another Umbrella soldier Nicholai Ginovaef, a psychopath with his own agenda.

It’s decent enough, and good to see Valentine again, who kicks ass solidly. Its origins as a game occasionally remain too obvious – the laser cannon sure is convenient! – though at least the puzzle aspects are more restrained. Ginovaef is a nasty piece of work, especially disturbing since much of it is told from his perspective. Something of a shame he doesn’t get the deserved comeuppance, at the hands of Jill, since the game is played largely from her perspective (Olivera being a helpful NPC). Though Perry probably should have skipped the feeble attempt to explain her tube-top and miniskirt costume. “Mobility”? Suuuuuure…

Code: Veronica

Looked like earlier entries in the series were building toward a raid by the ex-S.T.A.R.S. on Umbrella’s European headquarters. But this entry leaps over it entirely, and the subsequent capture of Claire Redfield, and begins with her locked up on Rockfort Island, a remote corporation outpost in the Southern Hemisphere. The facility descends into chaos after a T-virus outbreak, and she is set free by a sympathetic employee, to fend for herself among the weaponized creatures roaming the isle. They’re overseen by Alfred Ashford, who’d be described by any passing psychiatrist as “batshit crazy”; she teams up with another prisoner, the even younger Steve Burnside. Cue romantic tension…

You sense even Perry is becoming jaded by the repetitive nature of the source material. Early on, Claire quips to herself, “What’s a biohazardous disaster without a crazy or two?”, and later, Steve wonders, “Keys and emblems and proofs and submarines; it was a wonder [Umbrella employees] ever got shit done.” However, Redfield’s return is as welcome as Valentine’s was – pity the game makers never saw fit to team them up. And if the nature of Alfred’s insanity will come as absolutely no shock to anyone who has seen Psycho, the story here then layers an additional level of horror on top, rescuing it from the over-obvious.

It felt like the novel is going to end at the 3/4 point, but the plot suddenly diverts to Antarctica for a final section. Claire’s brother, Chris, shows up at Rockfort in search of her, then ends up near the South Pole as well, where we get the grand finale, which seems tacked on. Again, hard to blame Perry for this, and likely not her fault either that, despite being the last novel chronologically, it offers very little in the way of a true conclusion.

Zero Hour

Hang on, didn’t you say Code Veronica was the last novel? Ah, important word there: “chronologically”. For Perry finished off the series with another novel, which comes at the beginning; it covers the first S.T.A.R.S team to come into contact with the results of the T-virus, whose ‘chopper goes does in the woods near Raccoon City. In particular, it’s the story of Rebecca Chambers, then on her first mission. She comes across a train which has been attacked by persons or creatures unknown, and also Billy Coen, a prisoner and former soldier who escaped while being taken to an impending execution.

On balance, I should probably have read this one in its position at the beginning. If there’s not much lost, I was aware Rebecca survived to appear in the subsequent entries, and Coen is nowhere to be found, so there wasn’t much tension here. However, the small cast – there is hardly anyone else present – does mean Perry has the chance to give the characters more depth than some entries in the series. The Coen/Chambers pairing is a good one too, matching up brawn and brains respectively, and I didn’t even mind the inevitable unresolved sexual tension too much.

What I particularly liked was the sense of vulnerability that we get from Chambers. She isn’t an unstoppable ass-kicking machine – frankly, after the preceding novels have left the score S.T.A.R.S 6, Umbrella 0, that’s a refreshing breath of fresh air. It left me wishing I’d seen more of her in the series.

All told, even as someone who has never so much as picked up one of the games, I generally found the novels entertaining. They’re a fast, easy read: my main criticism would be they’re too loyal to the puzzle-solving aspects. These may be an intrinsic part of the game experience, but fail to transfer at all well on to the printed page. But the books do offer a potential route forward for the film franchise, if they decide to continue with it, on past the “final chapter”.

Perhaps the main criticism from existing fans is the way they diverted from the games, but these novels do show, a more faithful adaptation can work as entertainment. There would still need to be some adjustments – tone down the puzzle solving and probably find out a way to limit the need for multiple perspectives too. But there’s little doubt that the characters, situations and monsters offer plenty of cinematic scope, and CGI has improved enough since the original movie in 2002, it is now capable of doing the creatures justice. If Sony opt to reboot, they could go back to Zero Hour, introducing Rebecca, then move into The Umbrella Conspiracy for the rest of the S.T.A.R.S. team. It would be a seam of fresh material, and one potentially also embraced by those “long-suffering” game fans.

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This works rather better as historical fiction than an action novel, and is set in the late 15th century, when the province of Brittany was fighting to remain independent from France. Such high-level political machinations are far above the heads of most inhabitants, who are busy with everyday survival. At the beginning of the book, this includes the heroine, 17-year-old Ismae, who is more concerned about her upcoming, unwanted marriage – more of a sale by her father, to be honest – to a brutal husband. Rescue comes in an unexpected form, as she is whisked away to the Convent of St. Mortain, devoted to one of the pagan gods, absorbed into the Catholic faith as a saint. Mortain’s field is death, and Ismae, who has a natural immunity to poison, is trained in his dark arts. She becomes a tool used by the Mother Superior – albeit for political ends as much as religious ones.

After a couple of training missions, the main thread of the book is her presence at the court of the young Duchess of Brittany, where she is sent as the “cousin” to her adviser, Duval. Quotes used advisedly, since the general assumption is that she’s Duval’s mistress. Know I mentioned “high-level political machinations” in the previous paragraph? Cue these, in spades, as the future of Brittany hinges largely on to whom the Duchess is married. [It was only right at the end that I realized the Duchess had barely turned thirteen, rendering some of the previous events significantly more creepy] There are any number of factions, each with their own agenda, and willing to go to any lengths to make sure they’re achieved; figuring out and negotiating the maze of loyalties and deception is no easy matter.

By coincidence, I read this not long after The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory, which depicts events in a similarly chaotic period, just across the English Channel and around the same time. That didn’t have enough action to qualify here, but did get me in the appropriate Middle Ages mindset. It did share a supernatural element, with its heroine being able to affect the weather, for example. Here, Ismae’s main talent is her ability to see the mark of Mortain on those the saint has targeted for death. But this is problematic when it conflicts with the instructions given to her by the Mother Superior, and the main thrust of the heroine’s development is her transition away from an indoctrinated cult-head, as she realizes she might be being manipulated and used, almost as much as in her peasant days.

Part of this is – and you can insert a heavy sigh, complete with eye-rolling here – her blossoming feelings for Duval. It’s clear, virtually from the first time he appears, that he is the Designated Love Interest, and it’s only a matter of time before our hard-nosed assassin will inevitably be making googly eyes at him. It’s certainly the case that, once she and he arrive at the castle, the action largely grinds to a halt, being replaced by much skulking around and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. There’s much more suspicion than assassination, outside of one incident at the banquet, where she saves the Duchess from violent death at the hands of a mime – okay, it’s more one of a strolling troupe of players, but I find the idea of a killer mime just too amusing to discard. [Also: while Ismae does wield a crossbow, it’s considerably smaller than the one pictured on the cover!]

I did like the meshing of old and new religious beliefs, and must confess, this certainly didn’t feel like a 550-page tome [one advantage of e-books is their lack of weight!], since I ripped through it in not much more than a week, which is lightning fast by my standards. But the book did suffer from incomplete subplots, such as the psycho fellow novitiate, who is also present in the Duchess’s castle, only to vanish entirely from the story without explanation. Perhaps this is something which will be explained in a future installment. Having paid 99 cents for this on special offer, I guess I can’t complain; but I likely wouldn’t be inclined to pay the $9.99 currently being demanded for the second part of the trilogy.

Author: Robin LaFevers 
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, available through Amazon, both as a printed book and an e-book.

Here’s the trailer. Yep, TIL that books nowadays have trailers…