The Quest for Perfection (Is a Damn Fine Thing) by Chris Patrick

Chris Patrick’s first novel, The Quest for Perfection, is a fictional docu-novel about what happens when the best of scientific intentions are hijacked and sent awry by the taint of self-interested financing. The novel’s narrator slips back and forth between reporting transcribed conversations with the only survivors of a botched (and deadly) set of experiments and traditional third person narration based on those conversations.

Tom and Issie, a married pair of neuroscientists, experienced a family trauma that focused their research on creating a perfect, virtual, world within an individual’s own mind. If, they reasoned, they could determine just what it took to make others whose lives had crumbled experience perfect happiness, perhaps they could recapture their own lost bliss. Full of ideas but empty of funds, they pitched their theories to the eponymous director of the Wells Foundation, a future-oriented organization full of funds but empty of scruples. Harold Wells isn’t so interested in happiness. Rather, he latches on to the fringe possibility that the human brain could be trained to perform extraordinary feats within the virtual world, then bring that ability to the conscious world.

Almost from the get-go, the experimental process experiences problems. The study’s volunteers begin to die. The subjects still alive began to experience flickers of their old, broken lives. The scientists watching from behind the glass begin to have second thoughts. And of course, none of this is taken well by the Foundation.

Patrick’s story is great. Really great. The characters are compelling, the plot interesting and even a little exciting. I loved this story.

But…the initial version released in February 2019 is riddled with typos. These run the gamut from simple misspellings to what look like incompletely replaced sentences with multiple versions of pronoun/verb combinations. They occur pretty consistently throughout, although there are some pretty clean stretches that let me get into a reading groove. None were such that they ruined my enjoyment of the story, but they did have the effect of bumping me out of the immersion. This is a real shame; as I mentioned above, I loved the story. I reached out to Chris before publishing this review, and he assured me that he went back through the novel and fixed all the errors. Assuming this is true, I have no reservations about recommending the book.

I have previously read Patrick’s two short story anthologies, and neither of them suffered from these sorts of mistakes, so he clearly has a talent for writing. I think I was just unlucky to have picked up the book before all the bugs had been squashed. Lord knows my own late-drafts continued to have errors in them that I needed help finding and correcting.

Age: Teen+

 

Buy if: You’re willing to overlook some issues with the prose to lose yourself in a current-day sci-fi what if.

Don’t buy if: Typos ruin your reading enjoyment. Instead, put it on your Amazon wish list and check back in a few months. As noted above, this concern has apparently been corrected. Unless the story itself does not interest you, this is a solid purchase.

Sister of the Circuit by Amanda Orneck

I first read Amanda Orneck’s writing during the Nerdist novel contest that brought Its All Fun and Games to print back in 2016. She writes strong female characters in clever, well fleshed out worlds, and I quickly became a fan of her writing. Sister of the Circuit, originally titled Deus Hex Machina (which I thought was the coolest title ever), is about Isidore RAM, an up and coming devotee within a techno-theocratic nation state in what is current day California. Among her duties as an initiate for the Church of Technology include patrolling the virtual world to ensure that the sanctity of the design code is maintained. In essence, she’s a bug-quashing zealot.

On her final test before officially becoming a member of the clergy, she is contacted by a rogue element within the system. This experience results in her being both excommunicated and banished from the only home she’s known for the majority of her life. All of this happens within the first couple chapters, leaving the rest of the book to detail her adventures outside her cloister as she first to prove her innocence and return to the fold. As you might expect, these adventures introduce her to a wide cast of characters, both friendly and malevolent, and yield discoveries that cause her to grow as a person and begin to question the fundamental truths that had guided her life. And, of course, behind the scenes, the Church’s high priestess has her own plots at work.

Sister of the Circuit is a solid cyberpunk read, substituting the Church for the omnipowerful corporations pulling the strings in a Shadowrun-esque world, and sprinkling in a couple dollops of combat mechs for good measure. The characters generally have solid motivations driving their individual choices, though I’m a little flummoxed by why one particular one acted as they did (either I missed it or it’s a legitimate deus ex machina). The novel ends on not one but two cliff hangers left to be resolved in future installments. I’ll be grabbing it as soon as it is released.

Buy if: You’re a fan of Shadowrun or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (That’s not to say that Orneck’s writing is as good as Stephenson’s but that her merging of the “real” and virtual world makes me think of Snow Crash)

Don’t buy if: You’re not a fan of Sci Fi or find the premise of an increasingly important virtual world one disbelief too far for suspension.

Age: 13+

Critical Failures by Robert Bevan

Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I love a good portal fantasy. People from our world thrust into a world of magic and adventure has almost limitless possibilities in how the story could proceed. My own first experience with the genre was a series of books by Joel Rosenberg called Guardians of the Flame that I read back in High School in the late 80s. So when I saw an ad show up on my Facebook feed a few years ago advertising a portal fantasy comedy series, it was an easy bite. This isn’t a 2019 read per se, as I read the latest installment last year.  But on a recent drive taking my daughter back to college I bought book one on Audible because I’d heard great things about it.

In gaming a critical failure typically results from rolling a 1 on the die, and often leads to hilarious mishaps (here’s a famous meme example), and Bevan’s characters are, themselves, a bunch of failures. Tim runs a sketchy fast food restaurant called the Chicken Hut, and Cooper and Julian are adults whose professional careers have peaked at the role of Pizza Delivery Boy. After annoying their new “Cavern Master” Mordred with off color jokes about his appearance, his mother, and any number of other things, Mordred uses his magical dice to send them into the C&C world to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, the very last thing that Cooper did in the game before this happened was to jokingly chop the head off a local guard.  I mean, he was just an NPC anyway, and not even an important one, so why not? Unsurprisingly, the local militia has a very different opinion and the disoriented players suddenly had to deal with the consequences of their idiocy.

This begins a series of (mis)adventures that span six full length novels and thirty or so short stories. The vast majority of the humor is off color, juvenile, and either focused on someone’s mother’s loose morals or related to farts and other bodily functions. Cooper’s character is, after all, not only a jerk, but also a half orc with a Charisma of 4. For those unfamiliar with D&D and similar games, this makes him not only universally unlikeable but almost guaranteed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, often accompanying his verbal diarrhea with literal poop dripping down his legs. For some, this line of humor will quickly go stale. For others (like me) it never seem to get old, just like people still find “That’s what she said” funny all these years after its first utterance.

And just in case there was any doubt, the series’ tag line is “Swords, Sorcery, D*ck Jokes,” and one of the novels is subtitled “The Phantom Pinas.” A pinas is a boat, but, well, you can guess where the jokes went with that one, especially since a pinas is a kind of junk.

One last thing to mention is that the audio book is every bit as great as I had heard. The voice actor plays with accents, affects and volume to give each of the main characters (and some of the minor characters) distinct personalities in a way I haven’t always heard. If you’re an audiobook person, this is a great one.

Buy if: You like stupid, rude, or raunchy humor in your fantasy.

Don’t buy if: You are easily offended or under 16 (and even that may be pushing it)

Age 16+

The Animal in Man by Joseph Asphahani

Maxan is a fox. Scratch that. Maxan is the only remaining fox, after first his family and then his friends in the rogue’s guild were killed. With nowhere else to go, he enlists in the city guard, using his natural stealth and cleverness to act as a scout and rooftop observer. This job has become only more important over time, as an increasing number of the town’s residents slowly return to their species’ wild, feral roots.

On one mission into the city’s quarantined districts Maxan makes several stunning discoveries. First, he is not the only living fox, after all. And second, this new vixen is a member of a shadowy organization charged with guarding the world against ruination caused by misuse of ancient technological artifacts. Unfortunately, the leaders of an upstart religion and their secular pawns want those artifacts for their own use.

It’s not long before Maxan and his only friend – a rhinoceros, of all people – find themselves in the midst of this shadow war, uncertain of whom to trust but nonetheless feeling the need to act. And, of course, there is the question of the buried technology’s origin. Who created it, and how does it relate to the animals’ recent sentience and self-awareness?

The Animal in Man uses as its guide Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and it’s not at all hard to draw parallels between Asphahani’s story and mankind’s own struggle to put aside its violent tribalism and build a sustainable, peaceful society. It is absolutely not preachy, however, so don’t worry about being talked down to.

This is the first of a planned trilogy, and promises a deep, engaging story.

 

Buy if: You like a good, rollicking fantasy but also like to think about deeper questions about life.

Don’t buy if: You are looking for a breezy read. There’s a good deal to chew on here.

Age: Teen+

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

We Are Legion (We Are Bob). What an absolutely absurd title…how could you not love it? I received this book as a Christmas gift from my nephew’s fiancé this year – she had recently read it and though that I would like it as well. She was absolutely right.

The (sub)titular Bob begins the story as a tech mogul who had just cashed out of his startup for the dreamed-of fabulous riches. Among the first things he did with the money was to sign a contract with a cryo-preservation company to save his body upon death, bringing him back when whatever killed him had been cured. It’s not a bad plan, I guess. I could swear I heard that Walt Disney did it years ago. Maybe that was just urban legend, but I’m too lazy to take the 15 seconds to actually google it.

As one would expect, Bob does in fact die. When he wakes up, however, it’s not to a miracle of medicine bringing him back from the dead, but to the new reality that his body went to the old meat grinder and all that’s left of him is an AI imprint. It turns out that there is a new space race, with nation-states vying to be the first to send off their exploration probes to the stars. And guess who gets to pilot those drones? You guessed it, the AIs!

Advances in mining technology an 3D printing means that when Bob gets to his first stop, one of his first priorities is to build additional probes and copy himself into their newly built AI systems. Interestingly, while they may well become legion, they are not all Bob. Each replicated imprint is a little twist on basic Bob, with different parts of his underlying character being more or less prominent on each new copy.

In addition to the quite enjoyable plot following Bob from the current day US to the future, the book touches lightly on what it means to be human and be alive. It’s a nice extra layer on which to chew as you read, but not central to the story that this can’t be a bedtime read. There are two additional books in the Bobiverse series, and I’m looking forward to reading each.

Buy if: You’re a SF fan, especially if you like space exploration

Don’t buy if: You are looking for galactic space battles or aliens. Humans are the only advanced sentients

Age: Teen+

Eastwind Witches Book 9 (Hallow's Faire in Love and War) by Nova Nelson

My first book of the new year was the latest installment of a series I followed all throughout 2018. I picked up the first Eastwind Witches cozy mystery purely on a whim and a recommendation by an author friend of mine, H. Claire Taylor.  I’d never heard of “Cozy” as a book descriptor before, and she explained it meant no bad language and no on-screen sex. Ok, I don’t put any of that in my books either, so for 99 cents, why not give it a try?

Crossing Over Easy tells the story of Nora Ashcroft, high performing Texan restauranteur, who dies and “crosses over” to the town of Eastwind. She soon discovers that not only is she a witch (with a sarcastic, lazy, bacon-loving familiar the size and shape of a newfie), but the special kind of witch that can communicate with spirits. The only other Fifth Wind witch in town takes her under her wing, and Nora soon finds herself solving a murder mystery. It seems that the ghost of the departed had some unfinished business.

These are not deep literature. They are fun, light, peppered with humor and a touch of romance. There is a touch of the love triangle that I typically avoid, and several books in it becomes a love square (pyramid?). The books themselves are quick reads though, and most of the stories focus on the underlying mysteries, so if you want to skim through the triangle/square stuff it’s easy to do. Having said that, I’ve bought each new novel on release date so I could find out what happens next. That’s about as ringing an endorsement as I can give.

Buy if: You enjoy supernatural stories, particular murder mysteries, you are looking for a light reading diversion, you like “romance” stories but more in a flirty way than a bodice ripper

Don’t buy if: You are looking for heavy duty spell-slinging, or explicit romantic scenes.

Age: Teen+