Wrapping up the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi (books 4 – 6)

Finally, after threatening to read these books for oodles of year, I’ve done it! As of this past week, I’ve finished the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi. I’m definitely feeling a sense of satisfaction over seeing this through — but what will I put on my reading resolution list for 2019, now that this perennial favorite has moved to the “already read” shelf?

After finishing the first three books in the six-book series, I wrote a wrap-up post (here) to share my thoughts from the halfway point. So now, I’ll dive back in and focus on books 4 – 6, which take the series in a decidedly different direction.

Book #4, Zoe’s Tale is THE EXACT SAME STORY as the one told in The Last Colony. The catch is, this time around we see events through the eyes of Zoe, adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, and biological daughter of a man who came close to destroying all of humanity. (Spoiler alert: he failed.) Once again, we journey with the family to the new colony of Roanoke, where things go spectacularly badly for the human colonists.

Zoe is a fun point-of-view character, giving us the teen girl take on being dragged across the universe by her parents, being forced to leave her friends and technology behind, and engage in the dirty, difficult business of building a new home out of practically nothing.

Zoe is smart, and a smart-ass, and it’s exhilarating to see her come into her own and make a difference in intergalactic politics and intrigue. Plus, Zoe — by virtue of her birth father’s contributions — is a hero to an entire alien race, and seeing Zoe interact with her Obin bodyguards is worth the price of admission all on its own.

As a side note, throughout the series, Scalzi excels at creating multitudes of alien races and making them distinct and endlessly entertaining. Some are weird, some are scary, some are practically beyond description… and it all just adds to the fun of the Old Man’s War books.

You might think it would be dull to read about the same events in a second book, but trust me, it’s not. It’s kind of a blast to hear Zoe’s take on what happened, and to see how her version dovetails (or not) with her parents’ side of the story. Really, Zoe’s Tale is a great read — and I think best appreciated if read immediately following The Last Colony.

Zoe’s Tale is, in a way, an end of the main piece of the story, at least if you consider the series to be specifically about John Perry and his family. The next two books continue with events in the Old Man’s War universe, but have a very different format and focus.

Books #4 and 5, The Human Division and The End of All Things, are written (and were originally published as) a series of interconnected stories. John Perry’s actions at the end of the previous books pretty much blew up the uneasy coexistence of the Colonial Union (representing humanity) and the Conclave (an alliance of 400+ alien species). In these two books, we see what happens next.

Previously, Earth was kept isolated from the Colonial Union. Earth humans had the option of joining the CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) when they turned 75, but it was a one-way relationship. Earth was kept mostly in the dark about the goings-on out in space, and had no say in how humans interacted with the various other species they encountered.

John Perry broke through that barrier, and in The Human Division and The End of All Things, we see the fall-out. Earth is no longer willing to be merely a supplier of people and goods to the Colonial Union, and wants its own voice heard. In these two books, we meet diplomats — lots and lots of diplomats — from Earth, from the Colonial Union, and from the Conclave, each of whom represent their people’s interest, but carry layer upon layer of secret agendas as well.

Of course, these are John Scalzi books we’re talking about, so in addition to diplomatic negotiations, we have daring space rescues, lots of things blowing up, a brain in a box (yup!), wise-ass soldiers wielding mighty weapons while discussing ancient pop culture, descriptions of very interesting and sometimes scary alien beings, and more snark than might seem possible to fit into two paperback books.

As I said in my wrap-up of the first three books in the series:

Ever since discovering John Scalzi’s amazing books, I’ve know that I needed to make time for this series, but after talking about it for so long, it started feeling like a huge undertaking — and I’m not quite sure why. Now that I’ve dived in (and read three books in the space of a week), I can tell you that this series contains all the trademark Scalzi wit and smart-assery (is that a word? it should be a word) that we know and love from books like The Android’s Dream, Redshirts, and Lock In. I was afraid that Old Man’s War would be all hard sci-fi, serious and full of space battles, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case. I mean, yes, there are space battles and the eradication of planets and species… but these books are funny, dammit, even while containing moments of deep emotion and moral dilemmas.

Now that I’ve reached the end of Old Man’s War, I can say that I’m 100% happy to have read the series! John Scalzi is consistently smart and funny in everything he writes, and I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan for life. I haven’t started his newest series, The Interdependency (which consists of two books so far, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) — so I guess I do have something Scalzi for my goals list for 2019 after all.

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The details:

Zoe’s Tale – published 2008; 325 pages
The Human Division – published 2013; 431 pages
The End of All Things – published 2015; 380 pages

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Book Review: Depth

DepthSome two hundred years from now, the polar ice caps have long since melted. Chicago is on the coastline of mainland United States, which is ruled by a fundamentalist Christian government. Moving east, you’ll find the Appalachian Islands, and then huge expanses of ocean covering the drowned cities, where tips of building occasionally poke up from the waves.

And then there’s New York which, Depth makes clear, can survive anything.

Water levels have risen about 20 stories — so the million or so people who still inhabit New York live on the 21st floor and above, employing newer technologies such as Glassteel to keep the above-water buildings more or less dry and waterproof. The building are connected by an intricate maze of bridges — some well-maintained, some rickety — and permanently moored boats, such as converted cruise ships and military vessels, which form everything from police stations to nursing homes to floating restaurants.

Watch your step! The waves keep churning beneath your feet, and you WILL get wet. Salt water and sea spray are everywhere, and those bridges can get pretty slippery. One big storm or moment of inattention, and you’ll end up in the water… and in general, those who go in only come out as corpses destined for the recycling plant.

Oh, it’s quite a world that author Lev AC Rosen has built here in Depth. The concept alone is worth picking up this futurist, sci-fi, noir detective story (described in the cover blurb as “Heinlein meets Hammett”) — but hey! There’s an actual plot to go with it, and it’s quite a good one.

Private investigator Simone Pierce is a tough, prickly red-head who goes her own way and sticks to her own company for the most part. Her only two trusted friends are Caroline, a highly-placed politician from a powerful family, and Danny, a young man with some unusual talents who masquerades as a psychic. Simone is out on a routine case, trying to get the goods on a client’s possibly cheating husband, when she’s pulled into something far more deadly and complicated. When the husband turns up dead, Simone finds herself embroiled in a web that includes suspicious cops, a potentially crooked pastor, an art-loving power broker, a sexy grad student, and a mysterious woman, whom Simone thinks of as The Blonde, who seems to be at the center of it all.

The author has pulled off quite a balancing act here, creating a fully fleshed-out detective story that keeps powering forward with high-level energy, and at the same time pulling us into a crazily off-balance world that delights with each water-soaked new chapter. The new environment is just fascinating, and I am full of admiration for the way the author slips in little details about the waves or the salt water or the constant dampness while there’s a chase scene underway.

The dialogue has all the wryness, and sarcasm of a traditional noir detective tale, fine-tuned for this new place and time.

“Are you asking me along to watch you interrogate someone I’m angry at in an attempt to repair our friendship?”

“That is exactly what I’m doing.”

“Will you let me hit her?”

“If the opportunity presents itself.”

Even the descriptive passages are full of some wonderful imagery:

Simone tossed what was left of her cigarette into the ocean. It cartwheeled into the water, one end leaving a trail of sparks like blood spatter.

Really, I just can’t say enough about Depth. I’ve been a fan of this talented author since his debut novel, All Men of Genius, was released in 2011. The detective part of the story is fun and engaging, but it’s this concept of New York as a drowned city that somehow has managed to survive, to thrive, and to keep its own sense of independence and defiance that’s truly a treat. I can’t get enough of the world Lev AC Rosen has created in Depth, and I just hope there will be a sequel so I can visit once again!

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The details:

Title: Depth
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Regan Arts
Publication date: April 28, 2015
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

 

Book Review: The Infinite Sea

infinite seaThis is the second book in a series, so here come the warnings:

SPOILER ALERT: This is the follow-up book to The 5th Wave. Events from The 5 Wave will be discussed! So, need I say it? If you haven’t read The 5th Wave, now would be a good time to look away. (Better yet, go get a copy of The 5th Wave! It’s good.)

KINDA SPOILER-ISH ALERT: There are some elements from The Infinite Sea that I’ll have to talk about in order to write any sort of review. I’ll try not to go into a tremendous amount of detail, but if you prefer to know nothing about what happens, well, here’s another good time to look away.

And that concludes the housekeeping portion of this post. Moving on…

In The 5th Wave, the subject matter is nothing less than the destruction of the human race at the hands of alien invaders. Over the course of an apocalyptic few months, 98% of Earth’s population has been killed in all sort of horrifying ways. The story focuses on a handful of survivors, each on their own, trying not only to stay alive themselves, but to save or sustain the people they love.

The Infinite Sea picks up pretty much right after the big, blow-out ending of The 5th Wave. Our little band of survivors is hunkered down in an old, abandoned motel, waiting for whatever comes next, listening to the rats in the walls. (The rats are important — more on this later.)

What else? Well, that’s mostly it.

In The 5th Wave, our main three point of view characters are Cassie, Ben, and Evan. Each has his or her own intense story to tell, with a unique viewpoint on the events unfolding. In The Infinite Sea, the perspective expands to include chapters narrated by several other characters. Does this help broaden the view of life after the invasion? Not really.

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in what happened in The Infinite Sea. I was. But at the same time, the story somehow feels narrow, almost claustrophobic.

Part of what really impressed me in The 5th Wave was the epic scale. As seen through the eyes of our POV characters, the destruction is devastatingly huge, yet also intimate in that the impact of the invasion is highly personal. Family members die cruel, bloody deaths. Trusted adults betray in horrible, mind-breaking, soul-damaging ways. Safe havens turn out to be hell on earth. Humans yearn for companionship, but safety lies only in isolation. The loss each character experiences, especially Cassie, is enormous not just for the character, but because of what it means for the entirety of human life.

Compared to all that, The Infinite Sea feels small. In a most literal sense, it is: Going by my physical copies of both books,  The Infinite Sea is about 150 pages shorter than The 5th Wave. The invasion is still underway, but not much has changed. We spend all of this second book holed up with our group of characters, waiting for the next awful thing to happen. The relationships barely move forward, and they have very little to do other than hide and speculate – and talk and talk and talk.

The endless talk is yet another piece that works less well for me in The Infinite Sea. In The 5th Wave, the language is often highly dramatic, much more figurative than you might expect out of the mouths of teens dealing with disaster, but somehow it matches the grand tone of the entire book. Sadly, in The Infinite Sea, the language tends toward an overuse of imagery and metaphor, and rather than feeling epic, it ends up sounding like borderline mumbo-jumbo.

I understood. In the safe room, a billion upraised faces populating the infinite, and the eyes that sough mine, and the question in those eyes too horrible to put into words, Will I live? It’s all connected. The Others understood that, understood it better than most of us. No hope without faith, no faith without hope, no love without trust, no trust, without love. Remove one and the entire human house of cards collapses.

It’s all about a search for meaning in disaster, but the discussions go in circle upon circle: There are rats in the walls. Are we the rats? Is the Earth the inhabited house the aliens want to move into? Why not kill all the rats? Why leave some rats alive? There’s the rock problem: Why not just use a big rock (i.e., a meteor) to wipe out all life? Why embed aliens inside the humans? Why play all the mind games? Why, why, why… this books amounts to a never-ending litany of characters discussing “why” — but unfortunately, we end with little more understanding than we had at the beginning of the book.

Another problem: In what felt like a baffling shift to me, the entire second half of the book is focused on Ringer, a character in a supporting role in The 5th Wave. We barely know her; we never saw her point of view in the first book. An awful lot of space is devoted to Ringer’s experience, trapped and cut off from the other characters, and it’s a weird shift in emphasis. Cassie was established in The 5th Wave as our primary character, yet she and the rest of her entourage are absent for almost half of this book. Ringer’s story adds some knowledge to the mix, but it’s kind of jarring to have the book split like this, with two stories that don’t fit together.

The Infinite Sea is clearly the bridge book in this trilogy. We need to get from the introduction of the disaster in The 5th Wave to the final resolution in the 3rd, yet-to-be-published book, but other than as a connection from point A to point B, The Infinite Sea adds very little to the world-building or the story arc of the series. By the end of this second book, I would have expected to understand much more about the reasons for the invasion and the strategies employed by the invaders. Instead, the only real progress is that the characters are beginning to understand that there’s a lot that they don’t know, that there has to be more to what to the invaders want, and that there are major pieces of the strategy that remain to be figured out.

The more I write about The Infinite Sea, the more I realize how unsatisfying I found it. With very little story progression or character growth and very little in the way of unraveling the mysteries of the alien plan, it’s very difficult to point out much that’s gained by reading The Infinite Sea, other than a reshuffling of the chessboard and a set-up for a finale. Perhaps this series should have been two power-house books instead of a trilogy with a tepid middle. I’m hoping that the final book, supposedly to be released in September, will blow the story out of the water.

The 5th Wave was amazing. I suppose if you want to find out what happens next, you have to read The Infinite Sea. But unless something is revealed early on in book #3 that demonstrates how the events of #2 matter, I’d say that The Infinite Sea is a mostly unimportant interlude that comes nowhere near to matching the power and scale of The 5th Wave. Proceed with caution — or perhaps wait until the release of the 3rd book and read it as an introduction to #3. Read on its own, as the eagerly anticipated sequel to a fantastic first book, The Infinite Sea disappoints.

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The details:

Title: The Infinite Sea
Author: Rick Yancey
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Publication date: September 14, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult/science fiction
Source: Purchased