Book Review: The Expanding Universe, Volume 4

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Hey Space Cadets, how’re you doing?  I’m good, busy with the usual shenanigans of life. My oldest, who is 11, is telling me he is a pre-teen. Clearly a lie, I am NOT old enough for that so there must be some computing error. I’m still writing, with some publications coming out in the coming months. I’ve determined that I’m too slow of an author with too crazy a life for the churn model Amazon favors, so I will just publish and hope for the best. I’ve been writing more book reviews lately, as you’ve seen and wanted to share what I recently finished. Here is the next installment in my series of book reviews. This review was also a discussion on the Sci-Fi Shenanigans Podcast, which has already dropped. I’ve reviewed a few short stories here that didn’t make it onto the podcast. If my co-host also writes a blog with his thoughts on this collection, I will share here as well. It should be fun to see two different reactions to the same stories.

But enough dallying, on to the review! 

 

Title: The Expanding Universe 4: Space Adventure, Alien Contact, & Military Science Fiction (Science Fiction Anthology)

 Author:  Multi-Author Anthology

Editor: Craig Martelle

Price:  USD 3.99 (Kindle Edition)

Obtained:  I read this anthology on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program.

 Pages:  478

 

 

Rating:  5/5 Grenades

 

 

Overview:

 

Today my book review will be a bit different, I’m going over a massive collection of short stories in this anthology. I was included in Volume 3, so I was confident in the quality I would find. Since the collection has 31 short stories, we couldn’t review them all. My co-host for the Sci-Fi Shenanigans Podcast, Chris Winder, picked the ones we reviewed. Click here to listen to us break down this anthology. To keep it fresh, I’ve added some here that we didn’t discuss. I hope that you enjoy my selection! This is my third review of an anthology, but I like this format for such reviews. If anyone has a different or better format to review an anthology, please comment below! I’ll include the actual summary of the story from the blurb and then write my thoughts on the story separately and conclude with an overall review of the collection.

 

Information War by Craig Martelle:

             Summary: The first casualty, when war comes, is the truth.

            My thoughts: I’m torn on this one because if I rated the overall body of work of the author I would sing this one to the stars… but I have to rate the presentation. I loved Martelle’s Darklanding Series, and his Kutherian stuff looks intriguing enough that I bought the first book to give it a chance. Keep in mind, what works for some won’t be appreciated by others. This is entirely subjective. Having said that, I found the story premise to be more preachy than I would normally like. Some of the larger theme fit squarely into my worldview, but I prefer escapism in my reading… even when the bias agrees with me. The larger message seemed to be about trying to discover the truth in a post-truth world when sound bites are all that matter. That was what we saw from the goings on down on earth, but it was what happened in space that sold me. In the inky darkness of the void, this story stood out for me. Some of the discussion about the alien invasion had shades of Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers.” I like that vibe in this story, it allowed the sleight-of-hand to make the final reveal amazing. It was the normal first contact trope, but he delivered it in a way that caught you off guard. There were parts where the overuse of acronyms slowed me down a little bit, but in all fairness that could just be my brain injury getting in the way. Finally, the conclusion on the earth side of things was exactly what I expected. This is really a mixed bag for me, but I’m glad that I stuck with it. There wasn’t a whole lot to say about the world building since it’s a near future story that builds on what is already our reality. However, when it comes to describing the interaction between the aliens and the Space Force pilot Martelle shines. Those scenes show why I’ve enjoyed some of his other works. I wasn’t a fan of how busy the story felt, but if it was flushed out into a full-length novel I would probably buy. I give this story 4 out of 5 grenades! If this was flushed out into a novel, I could see giving it five out of five grenades and buying the next book in the series.

 

 

Unexpected Bounty by Terry Mixon:

           Summary: Zag the bounty hunter just wanted a beer. The universe had a different plan.

            My thoughts: In full disclosure, I heard Terry talk about this on his weekly podcast, The Dead Robot’s Society. I’m a Patreon of his podcast, and we’re buddies on Facebook, though we’ve never met in person. This is important since I want you to be able to weed out any potential biases. I also found some Easter Eggs in there, maybe because I’m aware of some of the inter-author fun that inspired them. Now that we have that out of the way, we’ll get into the story itself. It started out brilliantly, and only got better from there! The main character is basically a Sci-Fi version of Hellboy, which was hilarious! His name is Zag, and he’s a massive Minotaur like alien from Borel. He’s a bounty hunter, and a tall one at 2.5 meters, who just wanted to find a nice quiet place to hunker down and drink a beer. Sadly, for him, though it inspired an excellent story, he picked the wrong planet. Like most bounty hunters in the science fiction trope, he rides in a ship that looks like garbage but has an engine that makes it a force to be reckoned with. The ship had a Millennium Falcon feel for me, with a more humorous vent. The ship had features which I thought hilarious, like an alarm that functioned much as what we have on our automobiles. For some reason, that just struck me as uproariously funny. The story overall was a fast-paced adventure about an adventurer in the wrong place at the wrong time. One whose notoriety finally caught up to them, as a bad guy he’s never heard of assumes that Zag must be there hunting for him. This unintentionally leads to him teaming up with a thief, whose name pairs well with his own. The action was fun, it kept the pace moving and left you wanting more when it was all over. I had to read the story twice because the first time I was so engrossed in what was happening that I forgot to take notes. It was lighter on the details than I like, but I’m aware that I prefer more than most readers. The author, Terry Mixon, gave you just enough to make the story fun and I never felt like it was lacking. Overall, the story didn’t take itself too seriously in the and being opened up the possibility of more from these adorable characters. It didn’t so much feel like amending, as it did the beginning of something even more exciting. As I’ve said, and it’s worth repeating, I will read more by this author. I enthusiastically give this story 5 out of 5 grenades! Heck, the short story alone is worth the price of admissions for this anthology.

 

 

The Burden of Honor by Kevin McLaughlin:

           Summary: Sir Drake returns home to rally his people against an ancient enemy. But threats far closer threaten to turn his mission to ashes before he can even begin.

            My thoughts: This story started out a little mysteriously, but the world grew on me the deeper in I got. The main character, Sir David Drake, was what you’d expect if Horatio Hornblower jumped out of the Age of Sail and into the Spacefaring Age. Speaking of, the whole story had a bit of the sailboat vibe. The author used his naming convention to say a lot about who and what everything was. His ship, the HMS Armistice, is a good place to start. Who names a warship something so soft as “truce?” He also named his main character after a Vietnam veteran, turned science fiction author and the planet they landed on after a ship that the Germans sunk in the early days of WWI. Kevin McLaughlin, Even better, the main polity was the Star Kingdom, which evoked vibes of David Weber’s Honorverse. He tops his excellent naming choices off with a nautical vibe that kept me intrigued, down to the ship having a steering wheel that any pirate would’ve been proud of. Even his use of the term sailing master for what seems to be his second-in-command brought back images of sailboats in space. The culture that he described would’ve fit in at the height of the United Kingdom’s empire when the nobility ruled the world. I laughed when he had the Admiralty drinking hot tea in the afternoon. This was definitely a different take on the standard trope of the war against the AI. There were a few typos that drew me out of the story, I suspect this was a dictation fail that made it through the editing passes. Normally, that sort of thing doesn’t jar me out of the story, but this time was different. Why was it different? Because the story was so good, that those typos made me remember that I wasn’t really there. Again, this was a story whose ending felt more like the beginning of something even bigger and better. When the author writes this series, I’ll buy them in a heartbeat. Overall, I enjoyed this story and I would enthusiastically give this story 4 out of 5 grenades! If it weren’t for the typos, it would be a perfect score. Also, I would be willing to give this author’s other books a chance.

 

 

Messenger by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne & R.R. Virdi:

             Summary: Am I a man dreaming that I am a machine or a machine dreaming of being a man?

             My thoughts: The story was easy to jump into, but I had to take some of the references to Indian culture on faith. Luckily, this is the part of the globe where the authors are from! We were able to learn something about the modern world while reading an awesome science fiction adventure. The main character is a former soldier, who volunteered to become something more so he could avenge his family. He becomes a robot and struggles to maintain his humanity in the face of an enemy bent on destroying everything he holds dear. In a desperate gamble to save the world from an alien invader, becomes one of the Skikari, and assumes the identity of Vishnu’s Vengeance. There were plenty of references to recent discoveries in modern science, including the real-life Oumuamua that recently did a flyby of Earth. There were a few subtle references to Arthur C. Clarke and Garden of Rama, which fit for the setting. In case you didn’t know, Clarke spent his twilight living in writing and Sri Lanka. This story felt like it was more of a hard science tale than I normally read, it was extremely accessible for an intellectual neophyte like myself. Even with those references to real science, the story stayed true to the military sci-fi that I know and love. They excellently captured the chaos that is a modern battlefield, enough so that you could almost smell the smoke and the stench from your hopes and dreams burning in front of you. They evoked a visceral imagery that put more seasoned authors to shame, and I can only hope that I’m that good someday. We watch the main character struggle to balance who he was with who he has become, though this didn’t slow down the pacing of the story. The writing was good, nay excellent, but it seemed more like the authors used British English over what an American might normally see and hear. Speaking of language, the authors did an amazing job. Every turn of phrase had a lyrical vibe to it, so much so that I stopped to read out loud so I could hear it again. Seriously, their prose was on fire! These two are going places, and I’m just glad I get to say I saw them at the beginning. There was some switching of tense that was a bit confusing, but I think that it had to happen. That confusion helped show the dichotomy of the main character; man and machine in a struggle to see who survives. I definitely want to see more from this world, and from these authors. I enthusiastically give this story 5 out of 5 grenades! And if you don’t agree with me, you’re probably in league with the aliens! Okay, I was joking… I think? But this was another story that made the price of admission worth every penny.

 

 

Checkmate by Jonathan P. Brazee:

             Summary: Winning is everything, especially in war.

             My thoughts: The story was another that is hard to review for me, the author is another veteran whose work has come highly recommended to me. I’ve read the sample of his The United Federation Marine Corps and was hooked enough to buy the first few books in the series. That said, let’s dive into this review. I was confused about who the main character was, for most of the story I thought it was Jorge and then at the end, I realized I was wrong. I think it was someone named Isaac, and the confusion cut out a lot of enjoyment from the story. In this world, armies are replaced with merc companies who fight in an arena to settle scores while being watched by the folks back home. There is definitely a learning curve for this story, and I just don’t think it was long enough to fully realize itself. Given that he listed people’s heights, it seemed like everyone was extremely short. I briefly wondered if it was an army of little people or non-humans. I was never given an answer to this, so I was just left with the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. In the story, the military forces are able to use teleportation which was a lot of fun. It is in a new trope, but the author used in a new way. Forces were able to pop in and out of the battlefield as needed, giving the moves a chess-like tactical significance. I liked that there was a limit to the energy available, limiting how often they could use teleportation during the battle. The generals, who are called engineers, reminded me a little bit of Enders Game. I make that connection in a good way, though I know Orson Scott Card is an acquired taste for some. The ending was a little bit unexpected, but because the story didn’t really grab me I just didn’t care. I’m also going to do my rating on this one a little bit different because I rate the prose as a solid 4 out of 5 grenades but the story was only a 3 out of 5. The only reason I’m writing this review because I avoid negative ones is that I feel like there was something here worth exploring. If this short story was expanded into novel length, I would definitely give it a shot. I feel like with more words, the author could’ve done this concept justice, and I’d be singing a different tune.

 

 

Overall:

First, I need to start with the presentation of the book. I was a huge fan of the cover art, it was a perfect balance of cool imagery and room for the writing (title name and author name) to shine through. As I’ve mentioned before, I am colorblind so your mileage may vary. If you hated it, start a discussion in the comments and we can talk about it! I love telling people how wrong they are! With that out of the way, let’s talk about the anthology itself. I enjoyed this anthology, though it was so massive that it wasn’t a quick read. At 478 pages of epic sci-fi goodness, you’ll get hours of entertainment from this collection of short stories. I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, though not for lack of interest. It was just too big for that, not when you have little ones running around demanding things like food. As with the anthology format, the stories will be a hit and miss. I really loved about 75% of them, with Terry Mixon, Kevin McLaughlin, Kayelle Allen and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne/R.R. Virdi’s story being worth the price of admission. If those were the only three stories in this collection, I’d still pay full price and demand more! Yes, hyperbolic but I really did love them that much. One of the things I loved about this anthology was that it was a perfect balance of established authors and some who were still making their bones. One of the things that make this series of anthologies so special is how professional it is, it shines indie authors in a good light. Despite the talk, most of the indie authors who stick around or producing quality stuff. I love that this anthology helps dispel the myth that all indie writing is garbage. Our community will always be indebted to Craig Martelle for his work on this front. Why does it matter to you, if you’re not an author? Because you can guarantee your only reading the best, that you got your dollars worth out of this purchase.

When you read my reviews, keep in mind that I was just giving you a sampling of what was there and you should be your own arbiter of all things amazingly awesomely bookish. What I hate, you may love and vice versa. Let’s be real that is normal for an anthology, and part of what makes them useful. You get exposed to new takes on things and see the world from multiple perspectives. I’m confident that you’ll find you like more stories than you would normally skip, hence my recommendation. Even though one of them wasn’t my thing, there were parts of it that I really loved. Like always, I went the spoiler-free approach. What does this mean for my overall ranking?  I really enjoyed this collection, and happily, recommend it. Many of you have commented that I give a lot of higher reviews, but that’s intentional. I choose to study authors who do it better than I could, hoping to learn from the seat of the masters. I also like to find new voices, to see the world from another perspective. Because, seriously, I want to hook you from the first page! I want to weave the action in such a compelling way that you want to jump into the armor yourself. This leads me to screen my books before buying them. Life is too short to read books that you don’t like. Luckily, my tastes are diverse, and I enjoy the classics too. I just only write reviews on the science fiction stories I’m reading. Overall, this is a book I would happily recommend, and some authors I will definitely read again. I freely give this novel a 5 out of 5 grenades!

 

 

Until next time, stay frosty and don’t forget to keep your powder dry!

brown_bess

JR

 

–> As usual, all images came from the Google’s “labeled for reuse” section or are used on the Fair Use Doctrine.

 

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