Tag: Speculative Fiction

Check by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff

Check by Mimi Jean PamfiloffCheck by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff
Series: Mr. Rook's Island #3
Published by Paper & Silver, Inc. on 21st August 2018
Pages: 137
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two-stars

Mr. Rook, eccentric billionaire and owner of the most exclusive island resort in the world, has a secret. Hint: Legends say it can make you young again. But when he’s no longer willing to pay the dark price to keep eternal youth on the island’s menu, the very thing that once kept him young is now turning on him.

With only hours left to live, the woman he loves is taken by the worst kind of man this world has to offer. Turns out she’s been keeping dark secrets of her own, and getting her back won’t be as simple as writing a check.

The cost will leave her broken hearted, hating him forever.

(Morbid?) Curiosity brought me here.

In ‘Check’, things do come to a head and with several twists and turns—this can range between absolute nuts and sort of believable if you squint—, somehow Stephanie and Rook break free of their curse, the bad guys miraculously get what they deserve and all’s well that ends well.

There’s no secret really, that I’ve found this series of Mimi Jean Pamfiloff’s a little too zany for me, but the odd licks of the paranormal and the mysterious here and there keep me coming back. There are tantalising ideas here—with part-gothic, part-supernatural vibes, with the sacred and the profane crossing so many times that this should be a sultry and deliciously forbidden read—but they aren’t fully realised or deeply explored enough given the novella-length stories in this entire series.

But ultimately, too much of this story I think, depends on having a huge suspension of disbelief here in the existence of the paranormal, which is all well and good. Still, Pamfiloff’s implicit insistence that some things should stay unexplained (skirting paranormal explanations by simply having the characters choosing to not want to know more for the sake of their own sanity) just might not be good enough when it comes readers like me needing a semblance of explanation for events that don’t entirely really make sense in a story because well, it still needs to be satisfactorily coherent and not cross the line into the ridiculous.

Still, what kept me on the back foot really, was also a ‘heroine’ whom I absolutely loathed by the end of the series. While Rook himself isn’t all that innocent, the self-sacrifices he made in contrast, simply showed Stephanie up as petty, vindictive, petulant and fickle by the end of it all…too small-minded not to grasp the bigger picture and made things all about herself and her own tragedy.

In any case, it’s been quite a ride. I’m not too sure still what to make out of this, but this series simply felt like it could have done much more and reached so much higher than it did.

two-stars

Entropy by Jess Anastasi

Entropy by Jess AnastasiEntropy by Jess Anastasi
Series: Atrophy, #4
Published by Entangled Publishing, LLC on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 271
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Captain Qaelan Forster is used to trouble. He lives on the wrong side of the law and he’s on the most-wanted lists. He’s mixed up in his cousin's mess who has problems on a cosmic level—like shape-shifting aliens who want them dead. But Qaelan’s not prepared for the cheeky kind of trouble called Camille Blackstone, whose infamous father has any man interested in his daughter executed.

After Camille drags Qaelan into an impulsive act of rebellion, she finds herself trying to defend the sexy captain from her overprotective father's wrath, even if she has to handcuff herself to the captain to keep him alive. However, it soon becomes apparent there are much more dangerous things lurking in the dark corners of the universe than a vengeful pirate lord. And she's just landed in the middle of it.

Qaelan Foster’s latest outings with his cousin have been more misadventures than adventures and mostly of the dodgy variety. But then he gets entangled with the likes of Camille Blackstone, which brings a whole new meaning of trouble.

But first, context is king: ‘Entropy’ isn’t exactly a standalone and there’s quite a backstory as to how this book begins. Basic knowledge of Jess Anastasi’s world-building surrounding the Imojenna and its ragtag crew would provide a fuller appreciation of Qae/Camille’s relationship and why we keep getting teased with Rian’s own ‘will-they-won’t-they’ relationship with Ella). And that’s as much as I should say, without needing to go into any longwinded recounting (which a book review isn’t supposed to be anyway) of the whole story.

Sadly, I wasn’t too sold on Qae and Camille to begin with: their (sort-of?) one-night stand, without the buildup or chemistry didn’t do much for me so very early on in the story, though it was a clever twist on how things ended up—Anastasi leaves a little bit to anticipate—before the story really kicks in.

Unlike the trajectory that the Atrophy series has been taking, ‘Entropy’, with the story of Qae/Camille, is like a diversion, steered towards a different path of space adventures because it isn’t directly focused once more on Rian, his demons and his endless chasing after an enemy that he may never overpower. Whatever few scenes with Rian/Ella/others I lapped up; the rest with Qae/Camille, I read with a bit more lukewarmness and frustration. Because despite their flirty push-pull, foreplay-esque tussles which I probably would have liked more if there weren’t the weight of the narrative arc already written into the series, all I could keep thinking about was Rian and when he’d finally get his own story straightened out. It’s that heavy of a presence he has in ‘Atrophy’, which I find impossible to shrug off.

Even if Qae/Camille’s tale and their frolic with the space pirates didn’t exactly keep me engaged, I still like the organic whole of the ‘Atrophy’ series and that isn’t often that I can say this. Reading any book of Anastasi is like having a mish-mash of scenes from syfy-series that I’ve enjoyed over the years flash fondly through my mind. There’re parts of everything I love/hate, along with the understated dashes of humour which make me laugh not only because they always serve as shadows of what I miss in those—like new wine continually put in old wine skin.

But until Rian’s story comes, I suspect I’ll be in a well of frustration.

Imperator by Anna Hackett

Imperator by Anna HackettImperator by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #10
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on July 8th 2018
Pages: 206
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three-half-stars

Space station security specialist Sam has done one thing since her abduction by alien slavers…fight to survive. But now one strong alien gladiator stands at her side and Sam knows she is no longer alone.

Thrust into a lawless desert arena, Sam Santos has done terrible things in order to stay alive. As the Champion of Zaabha, she’s been fighting to find a way out. Everything changes when the Imperator of the House of Galen sacrifices his freedom to help her. The hard-bodied, fierce man has vowed to help her escape, but getting out of Zaabha is only the first deadly task they face.

Galen was bred to be a royal bodyguard and protect his prince. With his planet now destroyed, he’s grown powerful and forged his wealthy gladiatorial House on the desert planet of Carthago. All Galen knows is honor, service, and sacrifice. Now his life depends on working with one battle-hardened woman of Earth as they fight together to survive. But Sam Santos is not what he expected. Tough, yes. A brilliant fighter, for sure. But there is a softer side to the woman as well. And Galen finds himself irrevocably drawn to all of Sam’s captivating facets.

Then they uncover a devious plot by the Thraxians that could bring down the foundations of the Kor Magna Arena and all they hold dear. Galen and Sam will stop at nothing to defeat the evil alien slavers, even if it means war. In amongst the fighting, Sam may finally show a man who lives for everyone else, that he deserves more than just honor and freedom, but love as well…if they survive the coming battle.

‘Imperator’ closes out Anna Hackett’s Galactic Gladiators series, or at least it’s the end…for now, until the next House gets its own story as a spin-off in the future.

Opening straight from the end of the last book (best to read them in order at least), Sam Santos’s and Galen’s story is one that Anna Hackett has been promising for a while. The fight agains the mortal enemy in this world comes to a head in this book and it’s an exciting one, though it did get loopy at times, as if Sam and Galen went round the merry-go-round getting free from the Thraxians, only to be captured again.

Sam, the former head of security on a space station, is as much as a gladiator and imposing warrior in her own right—I keep imagining a very sweaty Beyoncé dressed in tight leathers constantly holding a sword and knife for some reason—and a perfect match for Galen. Uber-capable, super tough, straight-shooting and determined, it’s easy to root for a strong female protagonist that you wish would always grace the pages of adventure romance books—eclipsing even the stoic and ever-in-control Galen who’d always scoffed in resignation about his gladiators falling for earth women.

I’ll admit that this isn’t quite the series that I’ve been salivating over, despite the rush of romance, adventure and iron-clad HEAs that are guaranteed in Hackett’s books. With the same formula of pairing women from earth with alien mates, the last-minute miraculous rescues and the survival against all odds that’s found in all of the books, I’m guessing that I’m probably thirsting after some deviation…somehow, somewhere.

The world-building is nonetheless impressive—it’s why Hackett’s books primarily appeal, even if not always for the pairing for me at least—and the book’s easy enough to breeze through, which would make it a perfect escape for a couple of hours.

three-half-stars

Chaos by J.M. Madden

Chaos by J.M. MaddenChaos by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 26th 2018
Pages: 201
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three-half-stars

Aiden Willingham has lived a hard life. As a Navy SEAL, he agreed to take part in an ultra-secret government testing program. The company running the program, the Silverstone Collaborative, has produced a serum from an Amazonian plant that’s been proven to enhance physical abilities and mental fortitude. Problem is, men-- heroes-- have died during the testing, and it’s time for the company to be taken down before more men die needlessly.

Aiden, along with three others, have escaped the camp with evidence of the company’s horrendous practices. Now they’re in a race to expose them. They’ve already lost one of their team, and the Collaborative’s mercenaries are converging.
Angela Holloway knew the homeless man with sadness in his eyes was trouble as soon as she saw him hanging around the site of a murder.

Uncooperative, he stonewalls her investigation, but draws her in when the badge comes off. Aiden has scars, both internal and external, that make her heart ache. It’s a serious no-no getting involved with a suspect… too bad her heart isn’t listening. As details come to light about what’s going on in her city, she has to fight for what she believes is right, as well as the man on the wrong side of the law.

I can’t recall the number of iterations of the enhanced super-soldier I’ve gone through, but by now, it’s probably a lot. The conspiracy, the theories, the villainous cold-blooded woman (this pops up too predictably), the tortured men and the paranormal abilities they’ve developed because of the secret testing program…well, I can’t get past those enough, it seems.

‘Chaos’ is another version of these stories, so what really differentiates such stories from one another would then be the quality of the storytelling, which I’ve found myself subconsciously assessing on a personal scale.

As much as I loved the prequel, ‘Chaos’ plunges straight into the meatier side of it, this time with a romance on top of it, as the very sympathetic Aiden Willingham finally gets some due justice alongside a capable woman who does seem perfectly matched for him. Better yet, there aren’t the shenanigans of men behaving like growling beasts (both in and out of bed) then given the official excuse thrown out time and again for their inevitable actions.

So, by and large, ‘Chaos’ is a decent read, but I did think that J.M. Madden’s writing tended to get lost in several loops at times—too much of this, too little of that, but these are clearly my own gripes.

There’s a lot going on in here (sometimes too much I think), which might account for the rambling telling rather than showing: the recounting of past events, the conflicted inner monologues, the ton of information and context that Madden seems desperate to relay to the reader. Like the book’s title, some parts were chaotic though shrouded in mystery, and as a result, slowed the pacing in the first quarter of the book where I’d expected more driving forward momentum.

That said, I’m curious to see how Madden will take this entire narrative arc—I’m eternally grateful that Madden doesn’t deliberately leaving a cackling villain who survives until the very end just to draw out the good-evil conflict—and that black hole of not knowing what will happen next in this case, is a very welcome one.

three-half-stars

Genesis by J.M. Madden

Genesis by J.M. MaddenGenesis by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #0.5
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 20th 2018
Pages: 45
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four-stars

After a harrowing mission, Navy SEAL Aiden Willingham was approached to participate in a secret research project. Now he realizes the Spartan Project is a covert, multinational government testing program run by a private company called The Silverstone Collaborative. The company’s mission is to create super soldiers, men capable of recovering from horrendous illness and injuries, using a serum derived from indigenous plants in the Amazon rainforest.

The program is brutal and when the men object, they go from test subjects to caged prisoners overnight. The doctor leading the program is world-renowned for his cutting-edge cures, but Aiden sees only the madness in his eyes. The serum is producing results, but men are dying every day of testing.

And, as more men die, the experiments turn more deadly. What the research team doesn’t realize is exactly what the serum is doing…creating a psychic connection between four of the men. Aiden and his team have to break out of the camp before they’re compromised further. But getting out of the camp is the easy part. They know that actually living to bring the Silverstone Collaborative to justice is going to be the most difficult mission any of them have ever undertaken.

It has been so long that I’ve actually gone into a book without romance as its primary goal and this much I’d say: it’s a change, a subtle shift in re-looking the way I tend to evaluate romances…and perhaps a most welcome one after having gone through too many forgettable and mediocre reads. That also means the very freeing sensation of not having to nitpick through romantic tropes and analysing why they work (or not) for me and then rating the plot and/or the characters as disappointing/unimpressive each time. At least, that has been the pattern with me for a long, long time.

As the prequel J.M. Madden’s ‘Dogs of War’ series, ‘Genesis’ is the short but brutal story of captured soldiers experimented on and their daring escape—men bonded by torture and their emerging abilities—from a nightmare that they can’t seem to free themselves from. I barely remember Aiden Willingham at all from Madden’s other books, but the prequel takes care of it all, unravelling his past in a way that leaves no uncertainty or mystery (at least for Aiden as a character) in the next book to come. In any case, ‘Genesis’ is quite the exciting read: full of danger at every turn, with the thrills of these men’s desperate race for survival during harrowing flight for freedom (with a lick of the paranormal), proving a rollicking good start to a series which I can’t wait to see out.

four-stars

Unidentified by Anna Hackett

Unidentified by Anna HackettUnidentified by Anna Hackett
Series: Treasure Hunter Security #7
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on June 10th 2018
Pages: 120
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three-stars

The Emerald Tear: ambitious archeologist Oliver Ward leads a dig in the wild jungles of Ecuador and collides with feisty, independent treasure hunter Persephone.

Oliver Ward loves getting his boots dirty on fascinating digs, and investigating strange ruins in Ecuador is no exception. When bandits threaten his team, a small, tough treasure hunter bursts into his world to save the day. He finds himself captivated by the bright, vibrant woman and sucked into a wild and dangerous treasure hunt for a lost Incan emerald.

Daughter of a con artist, Persephone Blake trusts no one and has a plan—find and sell artifacts until she can retire on a white-sand beach. But her plans are derailed when a handsome, smart, and stubborn archeologist pushes his way onto her hunt. She finds herself irresistibly tempted by Oliver, and as they trek deeper into the jungle, danger follows. And Persephone isn’t sure what is in more danger—her body or her heart.

The Emerald Butterfly: former Navy SEAL Diego Torres finds himself helping the one woman who drives him crazy—the DEA agent who boarded his ship and handcuffed him.

Injured and tortured on a mission, Diego Torres was ready to leave the SEALs and loves being captain of his salvage ship, the Storm Nymph. As he begins his vacation, he planned for solitude, late mornings, and drinking beers while watching the Florida sunsets, what he didn’t plan for was the gorgeous DEA agent who boarded his ship several months before. And he really didn’t plan for an underwater expedition in search of a shipwreck and a priceless Incan emerald.

Sloan McBride’s grandfather dreamed of finding the Emerald Butterfly his entire life. Now he’s dying and she vows to find it for him…even if she has to work with the hard-bodied ex-SEAL she got off to a very wrong start with. But as Sloan and Diego work side by side, dogged by dangerous black-market thieves Silk Road, they uncover a scorching hot passion. They will do anything to protect each other, including calling in their friends from Treasure Hunter Security, and they’ll risk everything to beat Silk Road to the emerald.

‘Unidentified’ is Anna Hackett’s double romance within a novella, so make that 2 very short vignettes tucked neatly into a normal ‘Hackett-sized’ book. I’ll admit that I have my doubts about the short length of each story, wondering how Hackett would juggle not only the action-packed adventure with the eroticism written in for both couples.

But these 2 stories feel very much like side helpings in some ways, like a comet’s short burst of magical brilliance that’s ephemeral: full of treasure-hunting Indiana-Jones style goodness but thin on the romance (though copious on the sex). Oliver and Persephone Ward’s story made me do the side-eye look; knowing that they are the parents of the protagonists of the first 3 books in the series made me a little squeamish—akin to watching or reading about your parents having sex in the 70s porny style—about this couple and their romantic connection. I took to Diego/Sloan’s story somewhat better given their short but hostile(ish) history, yet finished the entire book with some scepticism about the ‘same-ish’ feel that this series has, seeing as it was a repeat about finding a treasure (the goal), beating the bad guys, and then riding happily into the sunset together.

In short, the fun times are there in ‘Unidentified’, especially if you’re looking for a short, short read with some thrills and can sort of brush off the instant-lust and love romance that’s formed in the heat of the moment.

three-stars

Pestilence by Laura Thalassa

Pestilence by Laura ThalassaPestilence by Laura Thalassa
Series: The Four Horsemen #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on March 20th 2018
Pages: 382
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three-stars

They came to earth—Pestilence, War, Famine, Death—four horsemen riding their screaming steeds, racing to the corners of the world. Four horsemen with the power to destroy all of humanity. They came to earth, and they came to end us all.

When Pestilence comes for Sara Burn’s town, one thing is certain: everyone she knows and loves is marked for death. Unless, of course, the angelic-looking horseman is stopped, which is exactly what Sara has in mind when she shoots the unholy beast off his steed.

Too bad no one told her Pestilence can’t be killed.

Now the horseman, very much alive and very pissed off, has taken her prisoner, and he’s eager to make her suffer. Only, the longer she’s with him, the more uncertain she is about his true feelings towards her … and hers towards him.

And now, well, Sara might still be able to save the world, but in order to do so, she'll have to sacrifice her heart in the process.

Now then, how’s this for a monumental twist of enemies-to-lovers? Saying that ‘Pestilence’ subscribes to this trope is like putting a pram’s wheels on a Ferrari. Or some other super car. Somehow Laura Thalassa manages it at least in the beginning half with a chilling and riveting start of 4 horsemen of the apocalypse riding through earth bringing death and destruction.

Particularly visceral is the trek down the famous highway 99 from Whistler to Squamish, a dystopic vision of a lone horse rider and his unwilling companion now superimposed on my memories of one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever been down. The extended time Pestilence and Sara spend together is in itself unusual: one filled with macabre curiosity and horrors, necessitating a slow, slow burn as Pestilence somehow finds a human side to get in touch with.

Yet what started as fascination turned into uneasiness, which then turned into pure disbelief. Issues of faith, religion and judgement—or at least what Thalassa presented—were never far from my mind running as meta commentary as I kept on reading, which Thalassa definitely succeeded in doing if this was always her aim.

As a romance however, it just became painfully obvious that Pestilence and Sara was a pairing that became harder and harder to get invested in as time wore on, the primary difficulty being reconciling the idea of the otherworldly Pestilence falling prey to human charms and human fallacies with the perpetual image I have of these perfect and deadly creature who always seem far above imperfections. To be laid low by a 21-year old who pretty much showed the ever-changing sides of a young adult (part-petulant, part-annoying, part-compassionate and part-self-righteous) who came close and pushed away repetitively? It just seemed somehow below an eternal being who’d never once wavered from his monumental task since time immemorial, who was now swayed too easily by a firefighter with a crude mouth and a penchant for not making up her mind.

What finally turned me off her however, came tragically at the end, where Sara’s own twisted rationale of love gave her the courage to walk away as she finally deemed Pestilence—who had a heavenly duty to fulfil—unworthy of her affections. Accusing Pestilence of judgement when she was guilty of doing the same, then having him crawl back to her was when I felt Thalassa had personally taken off the shine of what had made Pestilence so unique as an anti-hero, before imbuing him with the earthly loyalty of a teenage boy with stars in his eyes.

On the other hand, the constant vacillation of characterisation had me struggling with Pestilence, vague as Thalassa is with his origins and more so with his personality, the reasoning being that we mere mortals can’t ever hope to understand his higher purpose (it just made him frustratingly unknowable and too mysterious for all the millennia he’d been around).

With an ending that had me more baffled than happy, the story finishes on a grim warning and a rather uneasy HFN (to put it badly, considering Pestilence had somehow condescended to be human for the time both he and Sara will be around). I was still left feeling out of my depth as a reader, unable to hang on fast a pairing that took root but didn’t quite take off.

three-stars