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  1. #1
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Veteran by Gavin Smith

    My take on this debut SF novel:

    Three centuries from now, the human race has survived a nuclear war and expanded into space, colonising several nearby star systems. During their colonising efforts, humanity has come into contact with 'Them', a powerful and apparently ruthless alien race. War has raged ever since between the two races, a sixty-year cycle of blood and deadlock.

    Jakob Douglas is a former British special forces operative dishonourably discharged from the service for organising a mutiny, but still held on the reserve list (thanks to politics). When it appears that an elite alien infiltration unit has breached Earth's defenses and crash-landed near Jakob's home town of Dundee, Jakob's commission is reactivated and he is sent after the creature, triggering a series of events that will have far-reaching consequences for humanity.

    Veteran is the debut novel by British author Gavin Smith, and potentially the first in a series (the ending could go either way). This is a fast-paced, action-oriented but sociologically-aware post-apocalyptic, quasi-cyberpunk war story, strongly in the vein of Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books (Kovacs and Douglas could almost be old war buddies). Veteran, impressively, withstands the Morgan comparison quite well, even if Smith's infectious enthusiasm sometimes overrides his storytelling logic (Earth is simultaneously a technologically-advanced spacefaring world and also a Mad Max-style nuclear wasteland, which seems a bit contradictory). But the book is just so much fun that you don't really end up caring too much that the worldbuilding is a bit shaky in places.

    Character-wise, this is a first-person story from Douglas' perspective, and he is a reasonable protagonist, even if the cynical, addictive-personality, ex-soldier with impressive resources is fairly cliche by this point. Douglas has some interesting psychological issues stemming from his background experiences, which are gradually revealed through strategically-placed flashbacks throughout the book, making him a more interesting lead. Some of the other characters are likewise fascinating, such as the psychotically angry embedded combat journalist Mudge; Balor, the egotistical pirate king of New York with a disturbing affinity for sharks; and Rannu, a badass but also ultra-cool elite Gurkha trooper. The female lead, Morag, is also intriguing, although Douglas' feelings of condescending protectiveness towards her does reduce her to something of a cypher in his eyes. This is at least deliberate, and resentment of this fuels Morag's later character development in the book.

    On the weaker side, as well as the somewhat inconsistent worldbuilding there is a bit of a Joss Whedon thing going on with the cast of characters getting bigger and bigger as the book proceeds (Smith is ruthless enough to kill a few off, but not as many as you might think) and the focus occasionally dissipates, with some characters vanishing or being present but not contributing anything worthwhile for long periods. There are also a lot of scenes in the second half where the characters sit around debating the plot for long periods rather than getting on with things or giving the reader a bit more credit for being able to figure things out themselves. With another 100 pages or so shaved off the book, it would be much tighter and leaner.

    That said, whilst the overall picture of the worldbuilding is confusing, the individual elements such as the Rigs (a city built out of abandoned oil rigs), Crawling Town (a mobile city of motorhomes, caravans and trucks) and the flooded, abandoned New York City are all vividly described, and there's a constant stream of exciting, well-choreographed battles (in the air, on the ground, inside space elevators, underwater, on the surface of asteroids and more) as well as effective reflections on human nature, the military complex and other issues. Smith, in probably his biggest deviation from the Morgan template, also has a wicked sense of humour and some sequences in the book are genuinely hilarious, whilst he has also nailed the team's snappy dialogue and banter quite well.

    Veteran (****) is an accomplished and enjoyable debut SF novel. With some better pacing, Smith could easily rise to the big leagues of modern SF authors quite quickly, and I look forward to his next book. The novel will be published in the UK on 17 June and should be available on import from Amazon.com at the same time.

  2. #2
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Book 2: War in Heaven

    There is a war in the digital realm. The nefarious military leader Rolleston has unleashed Demiurge, an ultra-powerful AI which seeks to control and consume everything else on humanity's computer networks, to guarantee himself ultimate power. A band of opponents and self-appointed freedom fighters, led (reluctantly and often shambolically) by ex-soldier Jakob Douglas, have fought back by unleashing their own AI onto the net to expose everyone's dark and dirty secrets, which has not gone down well with the great and the good who rule the Solar system. Of course, Jakob also had to go and call this AI 'God', utterly enraging the (very large) religious portion of the human race as well. Still, God has won the first round, banishing Demiurge, Rolleston and their followers to the colony systems.

    With Rolleston and his forces gathering strength in the colonies and preparing for a fresh assault on Earth, it falls to Jakob and his colleagues to pursue them and finish the job that they began. But with Jakob's allies including an alien race who until recently had been slaughtering humanity relentlessly for decades, a drug-addicted journalist and a bunch of superstitious hackers, this mission will not be an easy one.

    War in Heaven is the sequel to last year's Veteran, Gavin Smith's well-received debut novel. Refreshingly, this is the conclusion to the story (no trilogies here, thank you very much) and the story ends in a pretty definitive manner which seems to limit the chances of a follow-up. As such, those who've held off on reading Veteran until the story was completed can now proceed with confidence.

    Like Veteran, War in Heaven is a hard-edged novel mixing elements of space opera, military SF, cyberpunk and horror. It's heavy on the action, but also features a decent amount of character development, with the character of Jakob (our first-person protagonist) being repeatedly taken apart and his motives analysed, along with those of his friends, though often in a manner skewed by Jakob's own perspective. This focus on characterisation as well as on action and battle sequences helps give depth to what could have been a fairly straightforward military SF novel. Unfortunately, there are a few too many moments (and a few more than there were in Veteran) when this introspective edge slips over into characters pointlessly sitting around and talking about the plot for pages on end instead of getting on with business, which tends to result in slightly uneven pacing. The novel has a stop-start feel, increased by is episodic structure: the book is divided into several distinct sections, set in different locations with different tasks to be accomplished.

    Smith encourages you to overlook that through some interesting musings on morality and taking responsibility for your actions, as well as a lot of black humour and some nice meta-commentary on science fiction cliches. There's some clever plot twists and the resolution to the story is reasonably well-set-up, though the full impact of some massive events that happen during the finale is lost due to the limits of the first-person perspective. He also delivers great action sequences, involving personal combat, mech battles and space engagements, and succeeds in keeping these elements fresh and intriguing.

    War in Heaven (****) is a worthy successor to Veteran and concludes the storyline begun there in a very solid manner. Smith is a talented writer and a strong new voice in the SF field, but some problems with pacing and over-exposition lightly mar this first duology. Certainly he is a writer to watch. The novel is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.

  3. #3
    A chuffing heffalump Chuffalump's Avatar
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    Didn't realise there was a sequel yet. I'll keep an eye out.

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