The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Military SF

Military SF


Cold Planet by Brian Dorsey

This is a straightforward military adventure. A lieutenant and her platoon from a highly militaristic society (that feels like it has almost made a cult out of dying in battle for the good of the nation) are forced to crash land on a theoretically uninhabited planet when their naval vessel is ambushed. Of course the bad guys (actually two groups of bad guys) are already on the planet and there is a lot of shooting each other up until the good guys win. The action is fine and I enjoyed the discovery that there were two different groups of bad guys on the planet.

What prevents this from being a better story is the lieutenant leading the soldiers. She is the only woman in the entire military and she apparently got there by being the absolute best at absolutely everything—athletic competitions, shooting ranges, etc. In fact, the only thing she can’t do well (and to be fair, the author hits us over the head with this) is lead men. She is too driven to be the best and somehow can’t understand that she can’t force her men to be as good as she is and her inability to deal with this is making her men hate her instead of follow her. So she’s a bad leader.

In addition to this, she seems to have missed all lessens on military etiquette like not talking back to officers. She’s also never read important military regs like who is in command when you’re in combat and the commanding officer is incapacitated. That problem actually solved another problem with the lieutenant’s character as this icily focused woman got weak knees every time that commanding officer got close to her and just couldn’t understand what was wrong with her. I was relieved when he was injured so she could stop having the school girl crush reactions.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the lieutenant was just not likable. That gets a little better when she starts learning a little bit about how to get her men on her side. (And it helps when she’s killing three or four of the enemy for every one they can take down.) But overall, it is really hard on a book when the lead character is someone you can not warm up to.

Still, there was a lot of action and a decent plot.

Marine by Joshua Dalzelle

Many books about the military start with a young recruit who has a lot to learn before the end of the book. Jacob Brown is certainly that. He’s also really enduringly stupid, spoiled, unmotivated, and did I mention, really dumb. On the bright side, he’s got some screwy DNA that makes him superhuman which goes a long way to protecting him from his own stupidity.

If it was just Brown who was so dumb, the book might have survived it. But it turns out the whole military is just as dumb. For example, Brown is graduated early from military school where he did just well enough to keep from getting kicked out. He’s commissioned as a lieutenant in the marines (something he didn’t train for and doesn’t want to do) and sent on a covert, intelligence gathering mission for which he has been given absolutely no training. Then, thanks to an assassination, he ends up in charge of said mission where the stakes are extraordinary. In theory, these elements could have produced a great story, but it frankly didn’t work for me.

This book is the first in a spinoff series from Dalzelle’s Omega’s Force. I haven’t read that series, but the hero of this one is the son of the hero of that one. Perhaps it would have helped to be familiar with those books before trying this one.


Planetside by Michael Mammay

This novel caught my interest from the very first pages and didn’t let it go until I’d read the final word. Colonel Carl Butler is getting ready to retire when his old friend and the second most powerful general in his branch of the military asks him to travel to the planet, Cappa, halfway across the galaxy to investigate the disappearance of an important politician’s son. It actually seems like a pretty straight forward assignment except that at, Cappa, no one will cooperate with him. The young man disappeared from the shuttle taking his injured body from the battlefield to the space station hospital. The hospital claims he never arrived. The shuttle pilots are now dead. And all the records that might trace what happened have disappeared—and all of that is BEFORE the mystery gets complicated.

This is both a great story and a great mystery. Carl Butler is a superb character—an old colonel with a heroic past he won’t discuss and very little in the way of diplomatic skills. He’s a bulldog who won’t stop once he has a mission and yet he also has a peculiar sense of honor and duty that becomes very important to the resolution of the case.

Mammay plays fair with the reader throughout this book. I don’t say that just because I figured out the core of the mystery halfway through the novel. There are plenty of clues, many of them coming in the middle of shocking surprises. The ending was powerful, made total sense, and yet, I didn’t see it coming. Anyone who likes a good mystery will enjoy this novel.

Finally, narrator R.C. Bray, really enhances an already superb novel with his spot-on depiction of Butler’s voice—a totally credible aging colonel who lacks patience for most of the BS happening around him.

Spaceside by Michael Mammay

In a worthy sequel to his excellent novel, Planetside, Mammay picks up the story of Colonel Carl Butler a couple of years after he saved humanity by committing a genocidal act against the alien, Cappa. About half of humans believe him to be a hero for this act and the other half despises him as a mass murderer. The fallout cost him his career in the military, his marriage, and his ability to sleep through the night. Now he has a good job as a security consultant for a major corporation but he doesn’t appear to be happy. He’s just going through the motions when his CEO hands him a special assignment out of the blue—find out how a rival corporation’s computer network was hacked. Unfortunately, somebody doesn’t want Carl to find the answer to that question and they’re willing to kill people to keep him from doing so.

There’s a complex mystery at the base of this novel and frankly I don’t have any idea how Carl figured out how to uncover it. I don’t think there was any time in this book when I would have known what the next step to take should have been. That doesn’t mean that the author was playing unfair with me, I just couldn’t have solved this mystery. And such an enticing mystery it is intertwining corporate espionage, military and civilian politics, and the remnants of a nearly exterminated alien species, Carl once again has to sift the best possible decisions to make out of a host of clearly wrong answers. So hold onto your seat because Spaceside will take you on a truly wild ride. I just hope there’s going to be another sequel.

Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Colonel Carl Butler is back! The man who twice launched weapons of mass destruction and is hated by half of the human race for a genocidal action that he took to save them is pulled into another complicated and intensely exciting mystery that once again involves an alien species. This time he’s hired by one of the richest men in the galaxy to find out what really happened to his estranged daughter when she went missing and was reported killed outside the dome on a small colony world. His mission is supported by the president which one would think would mean that people would bend over backward to help the investigation, but the opposite is happening. Most everyone, including the company owned by the man who launched Butler’s inquiry, are all being quietly obstructionist. Everyone appears to expect Carl to rubberstamp the previous report on how the woman died, collect his money, and go home. But obviously, they don’t know Carl Butler!

This novel is a completely worthy successor to its two predecessors, Planetside and Spaceside. The tension builds to excruciating levels as Carl gets deeper and deeper inside the mystery. And he’s finally up against an opponent who is frankly better than he is and the odds against him are crushingly high. It’s always hard to write a review that doesn’t give away critical plot elements, but I will say that I’m impressed by how deep inside Carl’s skull Mammay gets in this novel. Every single thing Carl does—correctly or mistakenly—read true right down to his stubborn willingness to die rather than be untrue to himself. In fact, death seems like a very probable outcome of the novel despite the fact that Carl is narrating the action, so if you’re like me, you’ll be looking for opportunities for him to record what he knows, and waiting for someone else to come in with the epilogue to the story. That’s how serious the action gets. I just hope there will be another book in this series soon.

Poor Man's Fight

Elliot Kay's vision of the future is a galaxy where corporations corruptly influence the government and have locked the citizenry into an inescapable form of debt slavery. It's so insidiously done--starting with basic elementary school education costs--that people don't realize they are trapped and the system is corruptly rigged against them. In Poor Man's Fight, the system government of Archangel begins to fight back. The corporations are not going to take this lying down...

Poor Man's Fight by Elliot Kay

This is the first novel in what promises to be another great series by Elliot Kay. This story has everything you need in military science fiction—great action and memorable characters. It also has the extras that take a book from being fun to great—convincing politics, really rotten bad guys, and a setting that helps build the credibility of the storyline rather than burning it away. Let me start with the setting.

The key to understanding Kay’s future society is debt. The major interstellar corporations have succeeded in basically taking over human space by corrupting politicians and effectively tricking the population into enslaving themselves through various kinds of debt. It starts when children are actually children being charged for their education and continues throughout their lives with a thousand tricks to keep the debt rising no matter how hard people work to pay it off. And if that isn’t bad enough, the whole system is secretly rigged to make certain that nobody can actually get out from under the corporate thumb and take control of their own lives.

Enter the solar system of Archangel—ninth largest economy in the Union—whose newly elected leaders have constructed a very dangerous plan to free their people from what is effectively debt slavery. This ongoing effort will probably be the primary focus of the entire series, but it’s just getting ratcheted up in this first book. It’s driving the action, but it’s mostly behind the scenes making you wonder which of the many bad things that are happening to and around Archangel are really the result of nefarious corporate efforts to stop Archangel from freeing itself and its citizens.

While all of that is happening in the backdrop, Kay spends most of his energy focusing on Tanner Malone. He’s an incredibly bright kid who gets shafted by his parents and the system and ends up tanking on the all-important Test that determines how much money each student owes as he graduates high school. Feeling he is out of options, Tanner joins the navy as a way to start paying down his debt and getting some help with college. The early portion of the novel is a boot camp story that was surprisingly interesting despite the fact that I’ve probably read a couple of hundred other boot camp stories over the years. It’s entertaining and really helps us get into Tanner’s head. The young man really isn’t fit for the military because he really hates the idea of hurting other people. He’s not a pacifist, but he’s really too nice for his own good. Helping him come to the point where he understands on an emotional level why militaries sometimes have to hurt people is a great set up for the crises he faces in the rest of the book.

I don’t want to put any spoilers into this review, but I will say that the crises—especially the final one—are exceedingly well done. Tanner accomplishes things that should have had me turning off my book and saying—no, that’s too much—and yet I really didn’t have any problem believing anything that happened. That not only requires great writing, it demands superb characterization. Something that has always been a strength of Kay’s novels.

The final thing I want to say about this book is that the epilogue-like ending is a terrific set up for the next novel. I can’t wait to see where Kay is going to take this one.

Rich Man's War by Elliot Kay

The system of Archangel is in dire straits at the start of Rich Man’s War as three major interstellar corporations twist the screws on its government after a spectacular series of security failures led Archangel to suspend both its security contracts with the corporations and suspend its debt payments to them. We the reader know that Archangel covertly arranged those spectacular security failures in the last book. For their part, the corporations only know that the game is supposed to be rigged in their favor and that they cannot afford to let Archangel get away with rewriting the rules or else other governments within the Union may try and do the same. They must do everything possible to keep that from happening including using their tremendous influence to stop other companies from dealing with Archangel and attacking the government through its citizens by jacking up the interest rates on already incurred private debt. They also try and embarrass and hurt Archangel by taking covert military action against them in other areas of the Union.

As the tensions continue to increase, we return to the POV of Tanner Malone who is trying to come to grips with his fame and to hold on to his decision to serve out his term and return to private life. Unfortunately, his commanding officers understand what kind of a man they have serving under them and keep putting him into troubled areas where his unique combination of qualities might prove the most useful. This works very well as we see Tanner pulled into another fantastically depicted military action.

We also get to see more of life for a normal enlisted man in the Archangel navy. Tanner finally gets to go to school, this time to become a military policeman, finishing his training just in time to be involved in the defense of the system against a major corporate fleet which should crush Archangel like a tiny bug on the tarmac. The corporations are convinced they are using overwhelming force, but Kay has permitted the Archangel navy brass to construct a truly clever (if far fetched) counter plan. It requires a little conscious suspension of disbelief, but if you give it that little bit of extra leeway, the action (as in the first novel) is absolutely superb right to the end of the novel.

Yet action alone does not make a great sf novel and once again Kay comes through with superb characterization. Tanner with his regrets and grudging acceptance of the role he has to play in the military crisis is totally credible, but once again it is the secondary cast—recurring and new—that really make this book so wonderful. They’re real people—many of whom you’d want as friends. There are also a couple of really great enemies—including the pirate from the first novel—who manage to be both cool and despicable at the same time.

A lot of times sequels are weaker than the first book, but not in this case. Kay has delivered a worthy follow up to Poor Man’s Fight and I’m looking forward to reading book 3.

Dead Man’s Debt by Elliot Kay

The third book in the Poor Man’s Fight series could have been the closing book of a trilogy. It wraps up all of the important storylines and even gives Tanner his chance to bring the pirate, Casey, to justice. It’s a good novel, but not quite up to the quality of the first two books in the series.

Despite all of the politics and the space battles, this series has always been principally the story of Tanner Malone, a book smart and extremely ethical young man who keeps finding himself in the proverbial fire having to take on extraordinary odds to save the day. Tanner is extremely likeable, keeping a tight rein on his temper—most of the time. This third novel shows what the wear and tear of too much warfare will do to that temper and the lengths to which a very smart young man will go to find out if his nation’s enemies are the only bad guys in this fight.

Tanner doesn’t always make good decisions, but it’s really hard not to respect his choices—especially when he knows what sort of penalties he will have to pay to remain true to himself and his ethical code. I’m glad to see that he will be a major player in the fifth book of this series and I’m hoping he gets some significant screen time in the fourth.

I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out.

No Medals for Secret by Elliot Kay

The fourth book in the Poor Man’s Fight series recounts a side story left over from the war between Archangel and the big Corporations told in the first three books. References to things that happened as a result of this novel appear in the third book of the series. It follows one of the secret missions that Corporal Alicia Wong was drawn into and gives us our first look at two of the extraterrestrial species in Kay’s universe.

Like much of the series an important theme of the books is ethical—what is the correct use of force even in a war. What are the correct rules of engagement in a covert operation with huge implications for the future of Archangel? Kay handles these questions quite well and makes them meaningful with real consequences for the decisions of his characters.

I found this book a little bit slower moving than the first two in the series. Perhaps I was just disappointed that we had gone back in time to tell another story of the war when I was ready to look at the consequences of the fighting for our characters. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story and it gives us further insight into some of the important members of the supporting cast of the first three books.

Last Man Out by Elliott Kay

The latest novel in the Poor Man’s Fight series finally brings us past the Debtor’s War and into a whole new galaxy of troubles. Tanner Malone has become one of the most hated men in the galaxy thanks to the propaganda machine of the Northstar Corporation which has succeeded in twisting his heroic deeds against them into the actions of a blood thirsty war criminal in the eyes of much of the Union. Fresh out of the military, Tanner is trying to get his life started again by finally heading to college, but he discovers that many of his fellow classmates are more interested in protesting his presence than in learning anything approaching the truth about what actually happened. To make matters worse, many who lost a lot of money because of the war have decided that killing Tanner would give them no small manner of satisfaction.

With his life in danger and apparently going nowhere, Tanner gets an opportunity to join a xenoarchaelogical dig which would get him away from campus for a semester and earn him tons of college credits. He agrees and in so doing gets himself firmly entrenched in a mystery involving another greedy corporation, colonial insurgents, and an alien technology from a race that died off five hundred years before.

This is the most complicated of the books so far with plots and subplots galore, but ultimately, like all the others it’s a wild ride with the kind of action that makes this series stand out from so many others. By the end of the novel, the galaxy of Poor Man’s Fight has gotten a lot wider. I can’t wait to see where Kay plans to take the series next.

Troy Rising

Live Free or Die by John Ringo

I’ve long enjoyed John Ringo’s novels and have read at least twenty of them over the years, and have read of them more than once. This is the opening book in my favorite science fiction by him. It sets the stage for both an exciting sf military series, and also for one in which the clash of cultures—a science fiction theme I find absolutely fascinating—becomes increasingly important as the series progresses.

The first novel begins with an explanation for how aliens encounter and take over earth really without any particular difficulty, leading into what becomes known as the Maple Syrup War. It’s this initial war—fought over the one unique substance on earth that aliens actually want—which sold me on the series. But as the book progresses, it quickly becomes much more than that.

The central figure of the first book is an overachiever named Tyler Vernon. Before the aliens, Tyler was a science fiction writer with a movie deal. After the aliens, he’s working 5 minimum wage jobs and not making his child support payments. Then through entrepreneurial genius he discovers that one of the races of aliens find maple syrup intoxicating and he uses his knowledge as a springboard for a daring plan which he hopes will lead to driving a hostile group of aliens (the Horvath) who currently claim to own the earth out of the solar system.

Much of the early maneuvering is between Vernon and the U.S. government which tries to seize the maple syrup to give it to the Horvath so they won’t bomb U.S. cities, but Vernon brilliantly outmaneuvers everyone, then goes on to use the maple syrup profits (remember, he’s being paid in galactic currency) to begin creating a mining laser out of solar mirrors and figuring out how to get the Horvath out of our skies. He thinks big and watching him bring his ideas into fruition makes for riveting reading.

It's really an intensely creative novel that only gets better as the series progresses.

Citadel by John Ringo

In Citadel, Ringo leaves Tyler Vernon behind to follow two new people (a military pilot and an orbital miner working for Vernon’s company) through the last part of the first book and on to new problems in the second book. The Horvath and their allies still want the earth back and are willing to bomb humanity into extinction to get it.

Ringo plays a lot with the clash of cultures as humans attempt to get themselves united for the ongoing war while also trying to understand the alien races it is struggling against. The result is a fascinating blend of action and intrigue. One of the best parts of the book is from the POV of a group of alien military planners who are trying to understand what humans are capable of as they plot to conquer our system. So even while the humans are winning, we can see worse problems on the horizon.

The Hot Gate by John Ringo

Earth is finally secure against its alien enemies—or is it? The bad guys are still plotting to crush earth’s resistance to them, and earth is once again having trouble getting its act together. The clash of cultures takes a front row seat in this volume as western alliance countries try to work with their counterparts from different parts of the globe generating a lot of friction. Ringo gets into discussions of class and sexism that create great points of tension within the novel.

At the same time, understanding the alien cultures and vice versa continues to be a very important plot point—because the aliens are getting ready for their next Pearl Harbor style moment and humanity may not be up to the challenge.

In Alpha Order by Author

The Defense of Exeter Station by Thom Bedford

The Defense of Exeter Station is the story of an important early military action in a complex war between the Alliance and the Union. Part of the complexity of the novel is that neither the Alliance nor the Union appear to be particularly admirable political entities. The Alliance is a military and economic powerhouse that has been using its resources to take advantage of a large number of colonial systems. Many of those systems resent the domination by the Alliance core systems and accuse the Alliance government of having created a government that gives the pretense of political participation to the colonies without any real influence or power. The Alliance, quite understandably, sees matters differently.

The Union, on the other hand, is also a highly disturbing political entity. While it tries to position itself on the moral high ground, it is the power that initiates violent hostilities and it does so by recruiting thousands of agents inside the Alliance military and key civilian locations and using them to commit acts of mutiny and sabotage that cripple the Alliance fleet and kill millions of people. There’s also something unsettling about the style of Union propaganda that gives their government an almost cultish atmosphere.

After hostilities commence, Exeter Station discovers that the new political realities have changed it into an Alliance border system with badly weakened defenses and a Union fleet on the way to take possession of it. The whole novel revolves around the determination of a few Exeter personnel to prevent that from happening.

The Defense of Exeter Station is a very exciting novel. As Exeter Station attempts to rebuild its sabotage-weakened defenses in time to stop the Union from capturing it, a mystery ship—possibly a ghost ship—enters Exeter’s proximity further complicating their situation. They have a serious staffing shortage and very little reach thanks to their lack of a defensive fleet. This is really the crux of the novel—can Exeter solve the mystery of the ghost ship and can they create a plan that will bring the enemy ships into reach of Exeter’s superior firepower? Watching the heroes grapple with this issue makes for a great story.

I received this book free from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

Boarding Party by Jake Elwood

This is a fun short story about a young officer who does something stupid in an effort to prove himself and ends up averting a war. His inexperience shows and makes him both more believable and more likeable. There’s also a nice twist on the bad guy. All in all, it’s a very quick and enjoyable read.

Flesh Eaters by Rachel Ford, Sarah Ford and Judah Ford

I’ve enjoyed Rachel Ford’s Time Traveling Tax Man series and was happy to give this new series a try. It’s very different than the other one, but doesn’t disappoint. In Flesh Eaters, the Fords focus on a covert military mission to a world belonging to terrorist flesh eaters to recover a secret weapon the terrorists had been developing to use against the Empire. This weapon is so powerful that the flesh eaters accidentally ravaged their own world with it destroying Empire civilian diplomats in the process. Now the Empire has deemed it a top priority to destroy that weapon before it can be turned on other planets.

The military team is well drawn and it is certainly exciting as they get whittled down trying to carry out their mission. The Empire they serve sounds extremely authoritarian which builds some sympathy for the terrorists even as the authors keep us worried about the soldiers. As so often happens in this style of book, everything goes to hell and hidden agendas begin to appear, which adds substantially to the tension of the novel, The final chapter was worth reading the whole book for. I look forward to finding out what the Fords have in store for our heroes next.

I received this book from Free Audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter

Faith Hunter leaves her vampire series to present a fascinating science fiction tale about a no-longer quite human woman in a post-apocalyptic world. Hunter always presents fascinating heroines, multi-layered plots, and lots of action—and all of those elements are found here in plenty. The cats are especially interesting as they are obviously much more than simply cats. There were, however, small elements that made me question both the heroine and the world she lives in. For example, one of the critical elements of her story is that she has a piece of a starship that crashed from orbit at the site of the junkyard in which she now makes her home. I don’t know about you, but I would have immediately wondered what happened to the rest of the ship—and it was very easy to find out its fate when the heroine finally chose to interest herself. Small points like that aside, this is a fast-moving fascinating story.

Oblivion Threshold by J. R. Mabry and B. J. West

In Oblivion Threshold, J. R. Mabry and B. J. West put a twist on the classic space war for the survival of humanity. Actually, they put two twists on it and both are really good. First, the alien Prox are just weird. They ride on the outside of their spaceships and scavenge solar systems for all of their collectable metals. There are a lot of creepy images associated with this trait, but the best is the sound of alien creatures landing on human spaceships and starting to carve them open so they can harvest their metals. Humans aren’t food here—they’re just in the way.

The second twist is the accidental solution that might let humanity survive these creatures. Captain Jeff Bowers is killed while spying on the Prox but a second group of aliens—a sort of group intelligence who have transcended above physical bodies—intervene and reconstruct him. In doing so, they accidentally show him how to translocate objects across lightyears of space instantaneously. If Bowers can master this power, humanity will be able to bolster its defense against the Prox by fully utilizing all of its military assets while jumping them around space to keep them out of harms way. Problem—the second set of aliens don’t want Jeff using his powers this way. They seem to think that there’s a decent chance he’ll accidentally destroy the universe.

So Oblivion Threshold develops two very different, but totally intertwined, storylines involving two different alien species—and it is fascinating watching the cast try and sort through their problems. I do have a couple of nitpicky complaints, but I want to stress that these didn’t harm my overall enjoyment of the novel. First, and most importantly, the obvious solution to the second alien race’s fear is for them to help humanity defeat the Prox by doing the translocation for them. They might have said no, but they needed to be asked. Second, I found it unlikely that the one military commander whose ship successfully fought and escaped the Prox would have later been risked in an experiment that any captain could have handled. It seems to me that her expertise would have been tapped to prep humanity for its next encounter with the hostile aliens.

Those complaints aside, this is a really fun book that people who love a bit of military space opera are likely to enjoy.

I received this book free from Audio Book Boom in exchange for an honest review.

The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay

Michael Mammay likes to write stories about corruption in the military usually in the form of the military industrial complex making money off war. For me, that is the heart of his newest novel, The Misfit Soldier—not the Ocean’s Eleven style heist that the blurb talks about. The Misfit Soldier is about a sergeant who is in the military to avoid the ramifications of a con gone wrong deciding to put it all on the line to recover one of the soldiers lost from his platoon after an apparently pointless battle.

So he pulls a Kelly’s Heroes and assembles a team to illegally drop from their ship, get behind enemy lines, and rescue their man. In doing so, they get stuck in a high-level power struggle between different officer factions who have different ideas about how and why the war should be prosecuted—causing a second unexpected problem that needs to be resolved by the end of the novel.

This is a fast moving, fun, book, but I don’t think it achieves the heights of Mammay’s Planetside series. Sergeant Gas is a pretty good guy despite apparently not wanting to be, but I just didn’t find his unabashed “I have no real plan” attitude to be believable. Naturally, plans go wrong and improvisation would then be needed, but Gas’ entire plan is to improvise from point A to point Z and in the end, I think that hurt the story.