Category: Speculative Fiction

Manu by Anna Hackett

Manu by Anna HackettManu Series: Hell Squad #16
Published by Anna Hackett on May 6th 2018
Pages: 138
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four-stars

As the battle against the invading aliens intensifies, a group of bad boy bikers and mercenaries will stand and fight for humanity’s survival…

When former berserker Manu Rahia lost his leg on a mission, he was forced to leave his squad. He knows his new role as head of the Enclave’s firing range and armory is important, but hates that he isn’t still out there fighting face to face against the aliens and protecting his brothers’ backs. But then one woman catches his eye. A no-nonsense woman dedicated to her job as head of security. A woman who seems cool on the surface, but who Manu is convinced is hiding more under her business-like exterior.

Captain Kate Scott dedicated her life to her career in the Army. Now she works hard taking care of security for the Enclave and its residents. She learned a long time ago that she isn’t a passionate woman, and that she’s better off sticking to her work. But seeing one big, bronze-skinned, muscled man at the range every day has her hormones going into overdrive. She’s never felt like this and she’s determined to get herself under control.

But when the aliens launch a viscous new attack, right on the Enclave’s doorstep, Kate and Manu must join forces to stop the raptors before more people get hurt. Kate will fight fiercely to protect her team and the base, as well as her heart. But Manu Rahia is a man who knows what he wants, will walk through fire to get it, and what he wants is Kate.

Hell Squad’s into its 16th installment and going strong as Anna Hackett makes her way through the squads defending earth that has gone under in an alien apocalypse.

Here, Hackett pairs the eldest of the Rahia brothers—these brothers have been making way too many waves even when they’re secondary characters in the rest of the books—with a no-nonsense former Army captain and it’s a romance that’s unusual in several aspects: an older hero/heroine, with the former whom I’d never thought would actually get his own book.

Apart from the quick attraction between Manu and Kate and their even quicker slide into instalove, I did like ‘Manu’ for the return to this particular world of the Gizzida and the continuing fight against them, as Hackett invents newer and newer threats which are barely countered by the end of the book. The numerous action scenes are engaging (mind-boggling even, considering the length of the novella), the sex scenes scorching and the HEA that happens at the end just reaffirms that there’s more to come, just not so soon, sadly.

four-stars

Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

Ocean Light by Nalini SinghOcean Light by Nalini Singh
Published by Berkley on 12th June 2018
Pages: 416
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four-stars

Security specialist Bowen Knight has come back from the dead. But there's a ticking time bomb in his head: a chip implanted to block telepathic interference that could fail at any moment--taking his brain along with it. With no time to waste, he should be back on land helping the Human Alliance. Instead, he's at the bottom of the ocean, consumed with an enigmatic changeling...

Kaia Luna may have traded in science for being a chef, but she won't hide the facts of Bo's condition from him or herself. She's suffered too much loss in her life to fall prey to the dangerous charm of a human who is a dead man walking. And she carries a devastating secret Bo could never imagine...

But when Kaia is taken by those who mean her deadly harm, all bets are off. Bo will do anything to get her back--even if it means striking a devil's bargain and giving up his mind to the enemy...

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bowen Knight, even loved his cause and his unwavering, determined fight for humanity in the Human Alliance (guess which one I belong to?)—the least of the three races it seems, in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling world. My heart sank when Bo went down hard in ‘Silver Silence’ and just as I thought all hope was lost, ‘Ocean Light’ became my own (and Bo’s) salvation. This was the book I’ve always wanted ever since Bowen burst onto the scene, from the moment I learned that he had an immovable but lethal chip in his head about to detonate any time.

That Singh chooses to introduce Blacksea using Bowen’s story is an obvious shift away from the Bear changelings in ‘Silver Silence’, a mysterious group hinted at in the closing books of Singh’s “season 1” of her Psy-Changeling novels that focused solely on the cats and the wolves. Here, Singh opens yet again new pathways and original insights into her massive world-building that continues now deep down in the sea, so compelling in ways that it’s hard to turn away from the myriad of sea creatures and their personalities that populate this book. Half the book however, after the intriguing setup, comprises Singh’s languid, thorough exploration of the world Bo has found himself in, not least the slow unfurling and the slow romance between him and Kaia, before the pace picks up frantically again towards the end.

Written into Kaia Luna’s and Bowen Knight’s attraction is a conflict that’s drawn up against these lines: the bad blood between the humans the Blacksea changelings rather than just a personal feud that Kaia sets up against Bowen for the losses in she feels keenly in her life. Enemies-to-lovers in this context, might just seem a little too dismissive after all, too small a view to take in the huge world that Singh has written, though this is still a trope nonetheless, in romantic fiction which I like a lot.

Yet Kaia, a scientist-turned-cook (with maternal instincts and a soft, easily hurt heart that’s prone more to pulling away) in the Ryujin BlackSea Station, is the last person I’d expect Singh to pair with the hard security chief, who is as ruthless and emotionless as the Psy themselves without the telekinetic power. Coupled with the (somewhat unbelievable) bit of instalove written into a strong attraction—cue bodies hardening, arousal flaring—that strikes the both of them at first glance is perhaps also an attempt to humanise the hard-nosed image of Bowen Knight who is more a man of flesh and emotions more similar to the other alpha changelings than we think. I would have loved a stronger, harder, a more sword-wielding-type mate for Bo—the type that would have stood for his fight in the Human Alliance by his side with a weapon— but clearly this is my personal preference speaking for such heroines to materialise every time.

‘Ocean Light’ is satisfying on many levels, but I particularly loved the introduction to the Blacksea changelings and Bowen’s Knights. The threads of this incredibly complex arc that Singh has written are far from tied up, nonetheless. There are still too many unrevealed secrets here—things that Singh doesn’t choose to reveal—that baby steps seem to be the only way in which this juggernaut of a story can move on, which is both as rewarding and as frustrating at times.

four-stars

Forged in Ember by Trish McCallan

Forged in Ember by Trish McCallanForged in Ember by Trish McCallan
Series: Red-Hot SEALS #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 15th May 2018
Pages: 394
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three-stars

In the final novel in the scorching Red-Hot SEALs series, a desperate mother and a Navy SEAL fight fire with fire to protect their love and save the world…

Amy Chastain has made a lot of enemies—none so ruthless as the insanely powerful New Ruling Order (NRO). When they killed her husband, it was hell. Then they targeted her children by injecting them with a dangerous, experimental isotope. Now Amy trusts only one man to help her: the ex-commander of SEAL Team 7.

In the company of Navy SEALs, Jace “Mac” Mackenzie was in his physical element. Now he’s on the run from the same cabal that poisoned Amy’s children. That doesn’t stop him from launching a mission to bring down the NRO—and find an antidote. But the clock is ticking. And as the sparks fly between him and Amy, Mac realizes he has more to lose than ever before.

As Mac closes in on the NRO, he uncovers a plot that threatens more than Amy’s children. Now it’s a race against time to stop a global conspiracy, save the woman he loves, and protect the family that’s starting to feel like his.

Driven by hate, Amy Chastain seeks vengeance for her children who have been used as scientific subjects. She’s not the only one part of the collateral damage when a flight was hijacked months ago, though that critical event has made it obvious that there are bigger things at play. Smack in the middle of the instability are new bonds that are made (though not without much friction in the process) and with a revelation of a Dan-Brown-type conspiracy, 4 SEALs manage to fall in love along the way. That, in a nutshell, is how far we’ve come.

‘Forged in Ember’ closes the whole series as the bad guys are dispatched, only with a loose thread or so left hanging so that there’s room for a sequel. There’s also a helpful recap of the entire story-arc in the beginning, which makes ‘Forged in Ember’ a passable standalone, but the odd bits of paranormal activity, coupled with the suspense, would probably mean that the rest of the books in this series are best read in order before tackling this one.

There’s no bigger relief than this—to see the final book in Trish McCallan’s ‘Red-Hot SEALs’ series appear, especially since the wait time for it has stretched an excruciating number of years. But I’ve held out, unable to forget that the series contains an odd but good mix of conspiracy theories, military suspense and paranormal happenings that form a cocktail potent enough to keep me constantly lapping at the pages. That McCallan’s writing style is exactly what I go for in this particular genre for doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve always been intrigued by the tension between Jace McKenzie and Amy Chastain after their very unusual meeting (in rather tragic circumstances) in the first book, anyway, and ‘Forged in Ember’ finally tells their story. Amy Chastain has always stood out like a beacon of unflagging courage and fortitude—the horrors of what she’d suffered from the first book have made me want her story from the start, as McCallan pairs a woman whose strength can’t afford to waver with a rough-hewn, temperamentally impulsive commander who’s as brutish, gruff and blunt as they come. Still, their coming together is more muted that I thought, hindered many times, by the race to save her son.

As a result, the HEA in the uneasy aftermath feels like shaky foundation on which this book ends. McCallan’s SEALs get their happy rides into the sunset, banished as they are from active duty as they know it, reinstated into another secretive order that will probably see the light of day again. There are things that I thought somewhat bizarre and out of place—the large insertion of native Indian tribal rites and rituals, the super-secret, well-stocked military base off the official lines, the influence of the supernatural here—which also takes a great amount of the suspension of disbelief. Or that paranormal abilities, which defy all attempts at rational explanation anyway, conveniently pop up at times give a deus-ex-machina cop-out to prevent more characters from dropping dead like flies and help save the day.
three-stars

Cyborg by Anna Hackett

Cyborg by Anna HackettCyborg by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #9
Published by Anna Hackett on April 1st 2018
Pages: 156
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three-stars

Scientist Ever Haynes was shocked when she was abducted by alien slavers...but the last thing she expected was to find herself pregnant with a cyborg's baby.

Ever has been fighting for her life since her abduction, and the only good thing to happen to her was one heated night with a mysterious prisoner--a connection, a flash of light in the darkness. But then he was rescued and she was left behind. Now, weeks later, she's been saved by the House of Galen gladiators...and by the man she shared the hottest night of her life with. But cool, emotionless cyborg Magnus Rone has no memory of their night together and finding out that she's expecting his baby is a shock to everyone.

Created in a military program, Magnus is genetically and cybernetically enhanced--emotionless, ruthless, focused. He vows to protect Ever and the baby she carries, and despite his lack of memory, everything about tough, levelheaded Ever draws him in. All his life, his emotional dampeners and training have limited his ability to feel emotions...but one small Earth woman cuts through all that and leaves him feeling.

As they work together to hunt down the deadly desert arena of Zaabha and the final human woman trapped there, Ever and Magnus find a stunning passion neither can resist or ignore. But in the dangerous desert sands of Carthago, with the House of Galen gladiators by their sides, deadly enemies are closing in. Ever and Magnus will be dragged back into the darkness, and Magnus will do anything and sacrifice everything to keep her safe.

In Anna Hackett’s Gladiator universe, it feels as though anything is possible. And that much frees the narrative to range from far-flung sand-dune adventures to ancient Rome-type fighting for sport and commerce.

With a stoic, near-emotionless cybernetically-enhanced guy suddenly thrust into the emotionally-laden sphere of impending childbirth with a woman he’d apparently been kidnapped with, I felt a little lost at sea here after the sudden shift in focus from the House of Galen to the House of Rone—like I’d been thrust into a backstory that I had no clue about at all, only for it to have been narrated almost as a throwaway line.

Nonetheless, ‘Cyborg’ feels like the book that’s leading us to the edge of some precipice that Hackett hasn’t yet thrown us over…as though it’s the penultimate book of a series that has mainly dealt with the systematic rescue of more earth women from unscrupulous traders and aliens, as the House of Galen and the House of Rone fight to dismantle illegal fighting rings and stop the kidnappings. Magnus Rone’s book continues this similar storyline with a different couple so it did seem a bit repetitive for me, though it’s always great fun each time to read the new things Hackett comes up with when the action scenes finally roll around.

The slight bit of a cliffhanger here is an excellent hook for the next book, though Hackett’s fans would barely need it at this point in time.

 

three-stars

Lie Close to Me by Cynthia Eden

Lie Close to Me by Cynthia EdenLie Close To Me by Cynthia Eden
Series: Lazarus Rising #5
Published by Hocus Pocus Publishing, Hocus Pocus Publishing inc. on March 20th 2018
Pages: 209
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three-stars

He’s Lazarus, and so is she. What happens when their worlds collide?

He’s hunting her. Maddox Kane has one goal—track Luna Ashton. He’s the best hunter on his team, finely honed and designed by Uncle Sam to be an unstoppable killing machine. He’s a super solider—faster, stronger, and deadlier than anyone else. Maddox keeps his emotions under careful lock and key because he can’t afford to feel. Feeling is too dangerous, and the attraction Maddox feels for Luna is positively lethal.

Luna has no memory of being in the labs with Maddox. She doesn’t remember the connection they shared when they were trapped in hell. She doesn’t remember escaping the facility. She doesn’t remember him. So when Maddox hunts her down, she’s terrified of him…and of the strange psychic and sensual connection they seem to share. Surely she shouldn’t want him so much?

Luna is different from the other Lazarus subjects, and Maddox isn’t the only one hunting her. She’s a dangerous threat to Project Lazarus, and Luna isn’t going to be allowed to just slip away from the U.S. government…or from the other super soldiers who are also desperate to find her. Every Lazarus subject has incredible psychic gifts. Some Lazarus subjects can make people see their worst fears, some can control minds…but Luna’s gift—she can show people their memories. Luna has the ability to restore memories to all of the other Lazarus subjects, yet she can’t see her own past.

And if you can’t see your past…then you never know what danger is coming, what killer is standing right next to you, touching you, lying to you…not until it is too late.

If I was horrified by subjects rising from the dead in a macabre fashion from the first book, Cynthia Eden’s characters do it rather regularly now to the point where I find myself quite immune to these ‘risings’, only for the fact that it proves to be a reset button that’s both a boon and a bane to read about. ‘Lie With Me’—Eden’s 5th outing into this series—was just a book I wanted to get into despite my own personal misgivings about this series, because the subject matter is darkly seductive enough to draw me in.

But I wasn’t entirely too sure what I was reading about as well, to be honest, even up to the halfway mark of the story, or how it all tied into the first few books and this wasn’t rolled out early on enough for me to catch on. So I trudged along trying to make sense of it myself, even if the lack of signposting was just not helpful. The roundabout teasers about who Maddox and Luna were but not confirmed until later, the villain playing tricks (or truth?) in both the characters’ and the reader’s head, and the somewhat repetitive action of more Lazarus soldiers seemingly joining in the fray rather randomly simply added to my confusion instead of clearing it up. It did get better later though, as Eden brought in characters from previous books while seemingly expanding the narrative arc of this series.

Apart from this, well, I can’t deny that there is series-fatigue setting in where things started to sound same-y. Eden’s cackling villains are evil to the point of funny at times, her supersoldiers start to blend into each other to the point where Maddox could easily be Sawyer who could easily be Flynn…both in behaviour (all are darkly and growly possessive, have raging breeder-type tempers and say ‘mine’ too often) and in general appearance (all are tall, muscled and so on).

I can see where this might be an attractive boon for some readers nonetheless—with past slates wiped clean, no other mentions of other lovers (who’re automatically considered inconsequential), and altered personalities to the point where the heroine becomes the sole, intense focus of the changed hero who would do anything to keep her with him.

The new-ish bits that kept me going on were simply these: the fact that Eden finally writes the possibility of recovering a Lazarus soldier’s past, and the expansion of the abilities of these soldiers, like Luna. And perhaps it’s development enough to see me through another book in this series.

three-stars

Guardian by Anna Hackett

Guardian by Anna HackettGuardian by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #9
Published by Anna Hackett on March 6th 2018
Pages: 139
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three-stars

Rescued from alien slavers, former cop Dayna wakes to discover she’s host to a powerful alien symbiont, and the only man who can help her is the mysterious and dangerous casino owner, Rillian.

Dayna Caplan has dedicated her life to protecting others…and now that she’s no longer a captive at the desert arena of Zaabha, she desperately wants to help find the last of the other human women who were abducted by the Thraxians. But now she has to deal with the intense hunger and powerful new abilities the alien living inside grants her…and the person forcing her to confront her new reality is the cool, enigmatic, and far-too-attractive Rillian.

Rillian has wheeled and dealed his way to the top of the food chain on the lawless desert world of Carthago. He lets no one close and keeps iron-clad control on his life…which vital to keeping the lethal power within him in check. But one human woman—tough, stubborn, and fascinating Dayna—works her way under his skin, and he finds himself obsessed with protecting her. But as dead bodies start appearing in his casino as a deadly warning, dangers are closing in on them.

With their allies, the gladiators from the House of Galen, Rillian and Dayna find themselves fighting for survival on every front. On the hunt to find Zaabha and the lost humans, they will face murderers, slavers, and the deadliest of all challenges…the aliens living within them.

Anna Hackett’s Galactic Gladiator series—like any other series of hers—are quick but and adventure-filled reads that, for the duration of the hundred-ish pages, have the arm-chair-travelling ability to immerse you straight into this desert world that expands as quickly as the universe itself with each book she puts out.

Back in Cathargo, ‘Guardian’ pairs former New York detective Dayna and über-rich (but cold and near-unfeeling) Casino man Rillian together, though Hackett gives a twist on the use of symbionts that gives their relationship an added dimension. The murders of Rillian’s old lovers oddly put Dayna in her element given her background, though it is the similarities of their physical makeup (post-capture and rescue) along with the pressing mission to find other Earth women that give the story its forward momentum, along with the copious amount of sexy times and the somewhat tiresome bit of instalove that Hackett writes in to satisfy even the most voracious of romance readers.

The brevity of ‘Guardian’ however, does short-change the richer world-building Hackett could have done on symbiosis; I would have loved to know more about the symbionts and the different ways they function besides invading human or humanoid hosts in Hackett’s Cathargo world at least—to what extent are they parasitic or psychic? How malevolent of a presence can they be, or are do they work in a co-operative fashion in human bodies? How many kinds are there and what forms do they come in?

My own niggling questions aside, ‘Guardian’ is a pretty decent addition to the series. Hackett’s setup of future pairings—thus far it’s a rather predictable mix of alien men with earth women—is hinted at again once more but damn if those aren’t the best hooks for her upcoming books.

three-stars

X-Ops Exposed by Paige Tyler

X-Ops Exposed by Paige TylerX-Ops Exposed by Paige Tyler
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on April 3rd 2018
Pages: 384
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three-half-stars

Lion hybrid and former Army Ranger Tanner Howland retreats into the forests of Washington State to be alone—he’s too dangerous to be around people. He had to leave the love of his life behind but little does he know, she followed him.

Dr. Zarina Sokolov has an anti-serum she hopes will make Tanner human again. But before she can convince him to take it, they discover he isn’t the only hybrid that survived the experiment. And there are people who want to use the hybrid shifters for sport, pitting them against each other for money. But does Tanner have what it takes to save his fellow hybrids and Zarina—or will he lose control again?

Tanner’s and Zarina’s story has been a long time in coming, their ups and downs well catalogued through Paige Tyler’s X-Ops series. And this starts on a down, so to speak, after Tanner has run off into the woods, tortured and determined to stay isolated because of his uncontrollable hybrid instincts. But Zarina is unwilling to give up on this man (?) who’s seen enough torture for a lifetime and her stubbornness somehow pulls Tanner from the brink, though all isn’t as it seems.

This far down the series, ‘X-Ops Exposed’ is near-impossible as a standalone with a narrative arc that has already been flung wide open and many dangling loose ends held by a multitude of secondary characters. With a focus on a pairing (as well as potential ones) and a different plot-line in every book, ‘X-Ops Exposed’ like every other book in this series, rushes ahead to tell its bursting-to-the-seams story without looking back too much because there’s just so much going on. The recap—and there is a bit of it—of previous events is understandably brief and Tyler pushes ahead with Tanner’s backstory that adds on to an already complicated canon that involves super secret departments, shifters, hybrids and genetic experimentations. As the 8th book of the series, appreciating the pairing, let alone the ever-expanding storyline, could be difficult for those trying to wade into the series right here.

It’s also probably worth noting that Zarina and Tanner’s ongoing saga is just what makes up half of the story; the other half is a rather major sub-plot taking place across the country in Maine as the now-partnerless Tate Evers teams up with a potential new lead (but cool) character trying to solve more of the same problem. I’m admittedly not too fond of the part where Tyler introduces survivalists, but they do play a part in the larger narrative arc, even if the push-pull between Zarina and Tanner doesn’t make much headway as the sub-plot gains in traction.

If I started out ‘X-Ops Exposed’ thrilled about Zarina and Tanner—Tyler’s action scenes are good and reading through them is akin to watching cool action-movie fight scenes—,the structure of the plot was such that the pace faltered in parts, along with some cock-blocking moments to the point where picking up later doesn’t quite have the same impact dimmed my enthusiasm somewhat. There is a vague notion of ticking clock that counted down to zero hours, a forward but somewhat muddied drive about how hybrids and their nefarious creators still cause trouble, but in the end I couldn’t step back and say for certain that I knew where the book was headed.

Only towards the end does Tyler bring these threads together (somewhat) and I started enjoying the action again. But like every other book in the series, ‘X-Ops Exposed’ closes some loops and opens others, upping the stakes in this political game as well. Frustrating as it can be, that’s also what keeps me coming back, truth be told.

three-half-stars