Dream House

In a town in the woods at the top of a hill there’s a house where no one lives, so you take a bag of your big city money there and buy it. But will the house of your dreams turn out to be a nightmare? Well, it’s a paranormal thriller, so that’s not a good sign. Let’s move into Dream House, by Marzia Bisognin.

Synopsis:

From YouTube sensation Marzia “CutiePieMarzia” Bisognin comes a debut young adult paranormal thriller about a girl whose dream house quickly becomes a nightmare.

When Amethyst stumbles upon the house of her dreams, she can’t help but be enchanted by it, even if there’s something a little…off about the place.

It’s everything she’s ever wanted in a home, so when the Blooms invite her to stay the night to avoid an impending storm, she instantly accepts.

Yet when she awakes the next morning, alone and unable to bring herself to leave, Amethyst comes face-to-face with unexpected twists and turns—like Alfred, the creepy gardener; Avery, the handsome but secretive neighbor, and a little girl who keeps appearing and vanishing within the house.

As Amethyst searches for the Blooms and tries to unravel the truth, her connection to the house only grows stronger. Will she be able to break free of the house’s allure, or will its secrets keep her trapped forever?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Dream House is fundamentally a haunted house mystery story. Amethyst comes across a house she feels a strange attraction to and begins staying there with the permission of the owners, and soon clearly ghostly shenanigans begin to occur; and Amethyst has to figure out the reason or risk a fate worse than death. The story pretty effectively maintains suspense and tension by making it unclear which characters are alive and which are restless spirits. The homeowners, who are suspiciously quick to welcome a stranger to stay in their house and then mysteriously vanish? The curmudgeonly gardener, who bears a prominent burn scar hinting at a dark past and prefers to keep to himself? The handsome and charming but very enigmatic neighbor, who clearly knows more about what’s going on than he’s willing to say? The young stringy-haired Japanese girl who keeps appearing in Amethyst’s dreams? (Okay, that one’s not so ambiguous). Amethyst herself, in a patented Shyamalan The Sixth Sense twist? I ended up revising my opinions and theories several times throughout the book as new hints and clues came to light.

If the book has a weakness, though, it’s that after it reaches the big reveal, there’s really nowhere left for the story to go. Ultimately, there’s no villain; and once that becomes apparent, all the conflict evaporates. Amethyst doesn’t even have to face a difficult decision about what to do; once it becomes apparent what the situation is, the resolution is treated as a foregone conclusion. As a result, the denouement feels very lacking. It’s aiming to be very powerful and emotional, but it ends up emphasizing just how little we actually know about Amethyst. Her history and her relationships are nearly a blank slate. This caused the emotional climax to kind of fall flat for me. It was a well-executed mystery and reveal, but a great story requires more than that; and on the character front, it stumbles in the end stretch.

Well, it’s not a perfect story, but it’s decent enough. That’ll put a marzipan in your pie plate, bingo.

Final Rating: 3/5

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Murder On Ceres

When a man is murdered on the Ceres space colony, there’s only one detective who can crack the case: Josephus Miller. Unfortunately, he’s a character in a different, much better book; so I guess we’ll have to make do with Rafe Sirocco’s slow, plodding investigation instead. Sure, why not. Let’s inspect Murder on Ceres, by C. Weber Wagner.

Synopsis:

In space, anything can happen. Rafe Sirocco, an intelligent, by the book detective, thinks he has his life under control. Successful in his job with the Ceres Colony Police Department and happily married to his newly pregnant wife, Rafe prepares for his first ever trip to Earth. But humans are still humans and murder happens. Balancing the demands of his job and his responsibilities to his family, Rafe investigates the suspicious death of a Consortium accountant. Suicide? Overdose? Homicide? Not his upcoming trip to Earth, not his independent and fiery wife, nothing will keep him from the case. Through a whirlwind of illicit drugs, space pirates, and secret identities, Detective Rafe Sirocco chases the truth all 266,000,000 miles from the shining cylinder of Ceres Colony to the alien landscapes of Earth. But will he make it in time to save the one person that matters to him most?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

In space, anything can happen… but it doesn’t. Nothing happens. This book is dull, so dull. Usually, in a detective story like this, there’s some form of risk and excitement: the detective gets jumped by hired goons, or has to sneak into a restricted area to gather evidence, or gets into a high-speed chase, or something. Anything! Not here. No, Rafe performs his work in complete safety: discussing the boring minutiae of the victim’s boring life with helpful and non-hostile witnesses; going through phone records and bank statements; and sitting back in complete safety in the command center watching video footage taken by actual on-the-scene investigators. He’s a perfect example of why we don’t see many stories about firmly anchored cannons who do play by the rules. It’s probably proper police procedure, but it’s damn uninteresting storytelling.

Then there’s the writing style. It is of course cliche for books to start with a seemingly exciting action scene only to reveal it to be a dream or some other fake-out, but the first three sentences of this book must set the record for giving up on the pretense:

TS-17 Raiders screamed overhead. A flaming groundcraft hurtled towards him. “Off,” he said and exited the comfort bubble into the silent hotel room.
Murder on Ceres, Chapter 1

Really? Really? Just what was the point of that? Ugh.

The mystery is no great shakes, either. The instant TePaki made that winking comment about seeing Mark again, it was obvious that Mark had faked his death; so when that was revealed as the huge shocking twist of the book, it fell kind of flat for me. And the climax just struck me as bizarre. Usually there’s a denouement, a wrapping up of loose ends; but here, it’s just a sudden avalanche to kill off the bad guy, a few short sentences saying that Rafe and Terren were unharmed, and then the end. It doesn’t even confirm that the avalanche did kill Mark (though I’m assuming it did, since it would be karmically appropriate); and there’s no closure at all as to what happens to TePaki, Ballesteros, or that guy on Ceres who was selling bad Halo gas. The story doesn’t conclude so much as just stop.

Hey, what was up with that Halo gas, anyway? I know, it’s role in the story is to serve as a futuristic equivalent to modern-day drugs. But the book actually gives the name and chemical formula for Halo: it’s CCl3F, Trichloroflouromethane. That’s an actual real world substance which, so far as I can tell, is not in any way a drug or intoxicant. I mean, it’d be fine to give an existing drug like Halothane a new futuristic “street” name (look, Halothane even starts with Halo); but it breaks suspension of disbelief to say that everyone is getting high on something that doesn’t actually get you high.

Yeah, I can’t recommend this one. Go ahead and throw Murder on Ceres out the airlock.

Final Rating: 2/5

D-List Supervillain #3: Secrets Of A D-List Supervillain

We’ve seen the past and present of D-List supervillain Cal Stringel; now, it’s time to move into the future with a continuation of the plot… well, sort of. Let’s expose Secrets of a D-List Supervillain, by Jim Bernheimer.

Synopsis:

Cal Stringel may be dead to the world at large, but a select few know that he’s still alive and in control of the most powerful suit of battle armor ever created. He’s part of a rogue super team taking the world by storm and changing the dynamic for both heroes and villains alike. With change comes resistance and those holding control and power are not ready to just hand it over without a fight.

For the former D-List Supervillain, it’s time to break out the spare synthmuscle, charge the massive railgun pistol, and bring the pain. With his new team, he thinks he can take on the world, but is Cal biting off more than he can chew? He must deal with sanctioned hero teams and power mad bureaucrats on one side and the major supervillains of his world on the other.

As Cal and his allies ready themselves to face friend and foe, he will also have to deal with his relationship with Stacy Mitchell, also known as the Olympian, Aphrodite. Separated for over a year, they’ve only just reunited and are faced with the prospect of being on opposite sides of the coming conflict. Can they find enough common ground between the secrets and half-truths to sustain their fledgling relationship, or are they doomed like the last time to crash and burn?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

When I read Confessions of a D-List Supervilllain, I found it to be an unpolished but promising introduction to a new superhero universe. The follow-up, Origins of a D-List Supervillain, was an improvement in quality and style; my only problem with it (aside from the Dead Lesbian Penalty for offing Maxine) was that, as a prequel, there wasn’t any real suspense to it – I already knew how everything would turn out. Now, though, with the third installment of the series, we’ve got an actual proper sequel. I can’t wait to see what completely unpredictable adventures that I do not already know the inevitable conclusion to are lying in store for Cal. And the answer is…

…Flashbacks. Loads and loads of flashbacks. In fact, the majority of this book is not a sequel at all, but an “interquel” set during the latter part of Confessions of a D-List Supervillain. Sure, it’s nice to actually see some of the significant events that were glossed over, but… once again, I had that suspense-killing problem of already knowing ahead of time exactly how things were going to turn out.

Fortunately, as the book goes on, the present-day sections serving as bumpers between the flashbacks start getting larger and more relevant, eventually actually developing into a proper story that picks up where the first book left off. Furthermore, the writing quality is top-notch: fast-paced and funny. And the author tastefully refrains from killing any more lesbians. So, on the whole, I can give this book a stamp of approval.

Final Rating: 4/5

D-List Supervillain #1: Origins Of A D-List Supervillain

It’s time to look at the second book in the D-List Supervillain series – which is numbered one, despite being published after Confessions of a D-List Supervillain; which was retroactively numbered two, despite coming out first. Welcome to the Time Cube. Let’s unmask Origins of a D-List Supervillain, by Jim Bernheimer

Synopsis:

Even D-List Supervillains have to start somewhere.

Follow Cal Stringel’s misadventures as he climbs to the lowest levels of supervillany in the prequel to the smash hit, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain. Angry that he wouldn’t be known as the engineer who made Ultraweapon’s force blasters, Cal resigns to chase after a bigger, better paycheck.

However, the Promethia Corporation isn’t going to let him go that easily and sets out to make his life a living hell. Fed up at being pushed around by a company with an endless supply of lawyers and litigation, Cal sets out to build his own version of Ultraweapon’s powered armor and take his revenge!

What Cal doesn’t count on is just how hard this is going to be.

Along the way, he will make both friends and enemies and discover how hard hitting rock bottom can feel. Whether Cal is trying to smooth talk his way out of the prison for supervillains, haggle with nefarious employers over the price of his inventions, or battle with the Gulf Coast Guardians, he’s in for one wild ride!

He’ll need to learn that when money is tight that everything has a price – from the cost of making weapons for a psychotic speedster to how much to charge for taking the blame for a drunken rampage through Las Vegas.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I was a bit leery going into this one because it’s a prequel. There’s a problem with prequels: namely, that they tell you a story you already know. Confessions of a D-List Supervillain already covered Cal’s backstory through his dialogue with other characters. Thus, in reading this book, I already know how the majority of events are going to turn out. I know that Cal’s inventions will be stolen by Lazarus, causing him to leave the company; I know that Lazarus’s lawyers will ruin Cal’s life, causing him to become the supervillain Mana-CAL-es; I know that he’ll be defeated by the Biloxi Bugler; I know that he’ll fall in love with a supervillain who will die when the Evil Overlord’s base self-destructs. Is it really necessary to go through all of that again? I am put in mind of another review blog, commenting on the Attack on Titan prequel spinoff A Choice With No Regrets:

The first fifty-six pages of your story should never, ever be so devoid of information that they can be summed up in two word bubbles that a character already told another character in a chapter in a different manga that was published two years ago. Ahem.
papermoon2

Now, to its credit, the book does contain plenty of good and original content; for instance, the story of Cal’s stay in prison and how he escaped. It does a much better job of introducing us to this world of superheroes and supervillains which Cal inhabits – if you’ll recall, one of my complains about Confessions of a D-List Supervillain was that it dropped us straight into the bug apocalypse, a major shake-up of the status quo, without bothering to first establish the status quo. So maybe the series would in fact work well when read in numbered order rather than publishing order. On the other hand, my other complaint about Confessions of a D-List Supervillain was that the writing style was kind of clumsy, particularly in action scenes. Origins of a D-List Supervillain significantly improved in that regard. So if you were to read it first, you might then wonder why the quality of the writing takes a dive in the next book. It’s an interesting conundrum.

There is, however, one major storytelling faux-pas which I cannot overlook: the book introduces a lesbian character, only to immediately kill her off. Always with the dead lesbians. Nowadays, authors feel the need to include at least one LGBTQ+ character to prove that they’re politically correct; but when it comes time to off someone, guess who’s the first character they turn to? Well, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore. Henceforth, I’m instituting a -1 Dead Lesbian Penalty to my final ratings. Yeah, I’m going there. I’m sick and tired of lesbian character always getting the axe, and my ratings are going to reflect that. If you want to impress me, try doing something original and write a lesbian character who doesn’t die.

Origins of a D-List Supervillain is a good book, superior in narrative and writing quality to Confessions of a D-List Supervillain; but it suffers from having been published as a prequel rather than a proper series opener.

Final Rating: 3/5

Bone Universe #2: Cloudbound

We now return to a universe of bone, where humans inhabit living spires above a sea of clouds. The fall of the central Spire has upset this unusual city’s long-maintained status quo, and now a hard wind’s a-gonna blow. Let’s clear the air with Cloudbound, by Fran Wilde.

Synopsis:

“As children, we learned early that the clouds were dangerous. Turns out the city wasn’t all that much safer.”

After the dust settles, the City of living bones begins to die, and more trouble brews beneath the clouds in this stirring companion to Fran Wilde’s Updraft.

When Kirit Densira left her home tower for the skies, she gave up many things: her beloved family, her known way of life, her dreams of flying as a trader for her tower, her dreams. Kirit set her City upside down, and fomented a massive rebellion at the Spire, to the good of the towers—but months later, everything has fallen to pieces.

In Cloudbound, with the Towers in disarray, without a governing body or any defense against the dangers lurking in the clouds, daily life is full of terror and strife. Naton, Kirit’s wing-brother, sets out to be a hero in his own way—sitting on the new Council to cast votes protecting Tower-born, and exploring lower tiers to find more materials to repair the struggling City.

But what he finds down-tier is more secrets—and now Nat will have to decide who to trust, and how to trust himself without losing those he holds most dear, before a dangerous myth raises a surprisingly realistic threat to the crippled City.

In the sky-high city of living bone, to fall beneath the clouds is to be lost forever. But Nat Densira finds more in the grey expanse than he ever expected. To survive, he must let go of everything he believes.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

This book wasn’t what I expected.

From the beginning I was thrown by the switch from Kirit to Nat as narrator. Since the first book was all about her discovering her special power, rising from humble origins to join the Spire, and overthrowing the corrupt government, she was firmly established in my mind as the protagonist of the series. Not that I have anything against Nat, but he just kind of seems bland in comparison. No secret talent or secret heritage, never initiated into the Spire’s mysteries… definitely a Watson rather than a Holmes, if you catch my drift. And while of course there’s nothing wrong with telling a story in that way, it works best if you start as you mean to continue rather than beginning from the more interesting character’s perspective and then switching away.

But still, fine. It wasn’t really the characters that got me interested in Bone Universe in the first place; it was the setting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Kirit or Nat who’s exploring the mysteries of the City and uncovering secrets about the world, just so long as the investigation is actually occurring. Unfortunately, that’s not what this book is about. Faced with a vast, wide, unknown world, the characters decide to turn their attention inwards and expend all their energy on pointless bickering. Or, to use the technical term, politics.

I do not care about the city’s politics. I care about the mysteries of this universe. So when the book goes on and on about the power vacuum caused by the Spire’s fall, the new laws being passed to restore order to the city, the procedures of the new Council which has replaced the Singers, intrigue revolving around messenger birds being killed off and replaced with other birds bearing false messages… my interest goes right out the window. I turn to fantasy worlds like Bone Universe to escape such things, and so have no desire to read about it in a book which could have focused on so many other, more interesting things. Instead, it was a long, dreary slog to the end, which finally revealed a new worldbuilding detail: the towers are alive!

…Duh. The towers are made of bone, which grows. Of course it’s alive. I didn’t even realize that was supposed to be a surprise until all the characters seemed shocked and treated it like a dramatic reveal. So, not exactly the type of Earth-shattering revelation that would have been worth the wait.

Cloudbound can be thrown to the winds.

Final Rating: 2/5

Bone Universe #1: Updraft

Welcome to the Bone Universe series, where a people live in home precariously perched upon sky-scraping pillars of living bone. Let’s spread our wings and soar over Updraft, by Fran Wilde.

Synopsis:

In a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves.

Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever – if it isn’t destroyed outright.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Plot-wise, there is nothing special about Updraft. Indeed, I found it remarkably generic. There’s a teenaged protagonist who discovers she possesses an unusual power. Because of this, a vague yet menacing organization tries to recruit her. She refuses their first overture, so they sabotage her life and leave her with no recourse but to agree. Cue dangerous initiation ceremony, learning the ways of the vague yet menacing organization, revelation of deep dark secrets, inevitable rebellion against the organization, villain is defeated by hero and dies in a fashion karmically appropriate to his crimes, roll credits. The sort of plot you can write in your sleep. No stunning surprises, shocking swerves, or big twists here; everything goes down exactly as it always does.

Y’know, I really have to wonder about all these villainous organizations who think that the best way to get the protagonist to join their side is to abduct them, imprison them, abuse them, put them in lethal situations, and generally threaten their lives. It’s a real trend I’ve noticed lately: it happens in the Towers Trilogy by Karina Sumner-Smith, and the Veiled Worlds trilogy by Jo Anderton, and plenty of other works I’ve read. I mean, it’s villainous, but it’s not very smart. What really bugs me are the occasions when the recruiting strategy actually works for a time, and it’s only later that the protagonist has the huge revelation that this organization is in fact evil, as if they’d forgotten that the whole way the organization recruited them in the first place was through assault and kidnapping and blackmail and various other sundry means. Kirit seems really quick to accept that the Spire blackmailed her for her own good, and sabotaged her flight test for her own good, and imprisoned her in a room until she nearly starved for her own good, is what I’m saying. So when she was later horrified that they forced to her to fight Nat to the death, and she discovered they were secretly breeding Skymouths as living weapons to use against the City, I was thinking, “No, surely not! The Spire, that font of kindness and mercy, that bastion of morally upright behavior, would surely never stoops so low as to… pfffft! No, sorry, I can’t even think that and keep a straight face. What’d you expect, dumbass?”

Honestly, the plot doesn’t interest me so much as the setting. The beauty of speculative fiction is that it can give rise to an infinity of beautiful and unique worlds, each with scenery more bizarre and fantastic than the last. And that is Updraft’s strength: the spectacular setting it creates as the backdrop for its humdrum plot. A city above the clouds, whose inhabitants use artificial wings to fly between their towertop homes. Great pillars of living bone, growing ever upwards, whose inhabitants are constantly moving upwards into newly grown terraces. It’s a world unlike any other I have ever read about. And it raises so many fascinating questions. How long has this group been living in the bone towers? How long can they continue to live up there – are they in danger of running up against limits like the maximum height the towers can grow to or the air becoming too thin? What’s the surface below like? What prompted them to begin living in the towers in the first place? Are these bone spires unique, or common in their world? Are there other colonies of people elsewhere in the world? Hopefully, interesting questions like these will be given equally interesting answers in the books to come.

Even if the plot isn’t that creative, the world is captivating enough that I can’t help but want to read more.

Final Rating: 3/5

Women of the Otherworld #7: No Humans Involved

The Women of the Otherworld have returned to kick ass and star in books with one-word titles, and they’ve run all out of one-word titles. This time, Jaime the necromancer takes center stage; and in these supernatural proceedings, there are no humans involved.. Let’s unearth No Humans Involved, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Readers around the world have fallen for Kelley Armstrong’s intoxicating, sensual and wicked tales of the paranormal, in which demons and witches, werewolves and vampires collide – often hilariously, sometimes violently – with everyday life. In Armstrong’s first six novels, Elena, Paige and Eve have had their way with us. Now get ready for Jaime Vegas, the luscious, lovelorn and haunted necromancer. . .

Jaime, who knows a thing or two about showbiz, is on a television shoot in Los Angeles when weird things start to happen. As a woman whose special talent is raising the dead, her threshold for weirdness is pretty high: she’s used to not only seeing dead people but hearing them speak to her in very emphatic terms. But for the first time in her life – as invisible hands brush her skin, unintelligible fragments of words are whispered into her ears, and beings move just at the corner of her eye–she knows what humans mean when they talk about being haunted.

She is determined to get to the bottom of these manifestations, but as she sets out to solve the mystery she has no idea how scary her investigation will get, or to what depths ordinary humans will sink in their attempts to gain supernatural powers. As she digs into the dark underside of Los Angeles, she’ll need as much Otherworld help as she can get in order to survive, calling on her personal angel, Eve, and Hope, the well-meaning chaos demon. Jeremy, the alpha werewolf, is also by her side offering protection. And, Jaime hopes, maybe a little more than that.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The title of this one amuses me. Not only is it a departure from the naming convention of the six previous books, but it’s a total lie: ordinary humans are more deeply involved in this story than they have been in any previous Women of the Otherworld book.

The protagonist this time is Jaime Vegas, a necromancer who has shown up as a supporting cast member in a few of the previous novels. I don’t think I explicitly mentioned her in any of my reviews because, to be honest, I didn’t much like Jaime in her previous guest appearances. She always struck me as kind of phony, a ditzy Hollywood attention whore; a distraction from the actual serious characters. Needless to say, I wasn’t enthusiastic to learn she was the main character of this book. Ultimately, however, this outing ended up improving my opinion of her a great deal. Seeing things from her perspective really made me a lot more sympathetic towards her, as I got a much better handle on what she wanted out of life, how her past experiences had shaped her, and why she acted the way she did. Score one for strong character writing.

The mystery aspect of the book, however, was a bit lacking. I picked out May as the villain in her very first scene. She had one line which was just too on-the-nose, practically screaming “I am a secret villain and this is me subtly hinting at the motive behind my evil”:

“They say that if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist underneath. That holds true for many of our members, myself included. Some of us have had bad experiences with paranormal scams. Others, like myself, are fascinated by the paranormal, and disappointed with our inability to find proof of its existence.”
– May Donovan, No Humans Involved, “The Erich Weiss Society”

There is, admittedly, an admirable last-minute attempt to set Hope up as a red herring for the position of villain; revealing that she is the literal daughter of Lucifer and lusts for chaos and violence is rather effective at raising doubt as to whether Jaime is wise to be trusting her. However, even without knowing at the time that Hope is the protagonist of the next book in the Women of the Otherworld series, it just wasn’t convincing. It had already been made perfectly clear that the killers were full humans, committing the crimes as part of their attempts to enter the world of the supernatural which lay tantalizingly just out of reach; thus, it just didn’t make sense to pin the guilt on Hope, who is fully aware of her half-demon heritage and thus firmly on the supernatural side of the Masquerade.

In the end, I think No Humans Involved is decent enough; a somewhat weak story bolstered by strong character development.

Final Rating: 3/5

Transcendental Trilogy #2: Transgalactic

The second book of the Transcendental Trilogy picks up right where the last one left off: Riley and Asha, having passed through the Transcendental Machine, are separated from one another and stranded at separate locations across the galaxy. Let’s journey across the Universe with Transgalactic, by James Edwin Gunn.

Synopsis:

When Riley and Asha finally reached the planet Terminal and found the Transcendental Machine, a matter transmission device built by an ancient race, they chose to be “translated.” Now in possession of intellectual and physical powers that set them above human limitations, the machine has transported them to two, separate, unknown planets among a possibility of billions.

Riley and Asha know that together they can change the galaxy, so they attempt to do the impossible–find each other.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Let’s talk about trilogies. As one of the most basic storytelling structures, there is a long-established tradition as to how trilogies are supposed to work. The first book introduces the world and the protagonist, details his rise from humble origins to hero, and concludes with his first triumph over evil – while making clear that the greater war between good and evil has only just begun. That war is concluded in the third book, which features the climactic final battle between the hero and the ultimate villain. What, then, of the second book? Well, in a good trilogy, it marks the point where the villains are ascendant – where the Empire strikes back, if you will. But in bad trilogies, the second book is just padding. The conflict engine which drives the story is set to neutral, plot and character development idle, and nothing much happens at all.

Transgalactic is a total snorefest.

The plot is actually not that different from Transcendental, in that it follow Riley and Asha on perilous space journeys, albeit this time towards rather than away from galactic civilization. The difference in circumstances, however, means that none of the previous’s book’s tension carries over. In Transcendental, they were aboard a pilgrim ship packed with strange and exotic aliens, any of whom could have been the Prophet, assassins sent by the conspiracy to kill the Prophet, or just plain harboring some strange ulterior motive all of their own. There was a whole Canterbury Tales / Hyperion Cantos theme, with each alien recounting its story, revealing fascinating details about its race’s outlook on the universe and hopes for or fears of the Transcendental Machine. Transgalactic has none of that. Sure, Asha and Riley each pick up an alien sidekick, Solomon and Rory; but both are from primitive pre-technological races, clearly cowed subservients rather than enigmatic equals to their traveling partners, and both get summarily ditched as soon as possible. Was I supposed to care?

The only thing that could pass for actual plot development is the revelation that the Pedias were behind the conspiracy from the previous book to assassinate the Prophet and destroy the Transcendental Machine. But even that doesn’t end up going anywhere. There’s some talk of making an effort to avoid detection by the Pedia, but the Pedia locates them anyway and chooses not to do anything about them. There’s some talk of instigating a great rebellion against the Pedia, but everyone agrees that a violent uprising would cause more problems than it’d solve and immediately drops the issue. Then Asha and Riley just have a friendly chat with the Pedia; and just like that, everything is resolved. Other trilogy protagonists, take note: next time, instead of trekking all the way to Mt. Doom in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie, consider just politely asking Sauron to loosen up a bit.

You know, if you’d rather your story be boring.

Final Rating: 2/5

Transcendental Trilogy #1: Transcendental

A Prophet has come from beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy, bearing word of a Transcendental Machine with some vaguely defined power to do something unclear that might impact the galactic balance of power, somehow, for some reason. Nobody quite knows the details, but that’s not going to stop them from assembling a pilgrimage and embarking on the first book of the Transcendental Trilogy. Let’s meditate on Transcendental, by James Edwin Gunn.

Synopsis:

Transcendental, an epic, high-concept space opera, is a Canterbury Tales of the far future in which beings from many planets hurtle across the universe to uncover the secrets of the legend of Transcendentalism. Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, however, is not journeying to achieve transcendence, a vague mystical concept that has drawn everyone else on the ship to this journey into the unknown at the far edge of the galaxy. His mission is to find and kill the prophet who is reputed to help others transcend. As the ship speeds through space, the voyage is marred by violence and betrayal, making it clear that Riley is not the only one of the ship’s passengers who is not the spiritual seeker they all claim to be.

As tensions rise, Riley realizes that the ship’s journey is less like the Canterbury Tales and more like a harrowing, deadly voyage on a ship of fools. Looking for allies, he becomes friendly with a mysterious passenger named Asha, who, like so many others on the ship, is more than she appears. But while she professes to be just another pilgrim, he comes to realize that like him, she is keeping secrets could be the key to Riley’s assignment, or might make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Transcendental is one of those books that is more about the journey than the destination. Indeed, the destination is kept deliberately quite vague; while everyone agrees that the rumored Transcendental Machine is extremely important and could potentially upend the balance of power in the galaxy, they all seem to have quite different ideas about what it is actually capable of doing. Indeed, the most interesting thing in the book is not the sought-after Machine, but the backstories and motivations of the aliens seeking it. In the style of the Canterbury Tales – or the Hyperion Cantos, if you want to stick within the sci-fi genre – each pilgrim tells a story about how they came to seek the Transcendental Machine, often providing in the process a history of their entire species. That is where Transcendental really shines as speculative fiction: the insights given into how each race evolved, and the impact this has had on their views of the Universe, how they see their place in it, and their reasons for desiring or fearing the Transcendental Machine.

The rest of the book, unfortunately, is a bit weaker. It’s supposed to be a mystery who among the pilgrims is secretly the Prophet guiding their journey, but I immediately pegged Asha as the one. She just has that classic distant and mysterious attitude, holding herself aloof from the others and occasionally making cryptic remarks, which practically screams that she’s holding back a hugely important revelation.

The journey itself ends up being a mostly boring one. There are occasional events which seem like they might portend drama – the murder of a passenger, the captain sealing the bulkheads between the passenger and crew quarters, an unusually rough hyperspace jump – but no drama actually materializes. And while the stories that the passengers tell are intellectually interesting as examinations of evolutionary biology in different planetary environments and the resultant impact on species’ philosophy and culture, they don’t exactly make for super-suspenseful thrill-a-minute pulse-pounding page-turners. To put it short, this is a book where very much is said but very little actually occurs.

Things only start happening right at the end, when the pilgrims descend to the planet of the Transcendental Machine and are attacked by alien spiders. The ending comes extremely abruptly: the Machine is revealed to just be a transporter rather than whatever omnipotent wish-granting device some of the alien species seem to have been imagining it as; Riley and Asha make it to the machine and pass through it to arrive at two separate destinations. No closure is given as to the other pilgrim seeking the machine, whether they eventually found it and were teleported to other locations or killed by the spiders. But that is forgivable when one considers that Transcendental is only book one of a trilogy. A cliffhanger ending is appropriate under such circumstances, and doubtless the next book will pick up where this one left off and resolve the dangling plot threads.

At least, it will if it’s a good book, which remains to be seen. Transcendental is more of a “decent enough” book; it has some indisputably good parts in it, but they don’t all quite mesh together due to the large amounts of boring padding between them. That said, I found the aliens’ tales to be of enough interest to deem this book worth reading.

Final Rating: 3/5