This is the EXPANDED, UNABRIDGED version of the review. If you want the condensed, Amazon review, go here.
I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.
This book bothered me, a LOT. I've read everything in the series, and loved it. I was EXPECTING to love this as well, but I didn't. In fact, had it not been for the fact that I read the LAST story in the collection FIRST, that being Kacey Ezell's warped and wonderful "The Start of Something Beautiful," there is at least an outside chance that I would have tossed the book midway, and moved on. And that truly, truly bothered me.
It really wasn't so much that I thought the book was bad that bothered me; rather, it's that I have an almost 100% track record for loving the stories in this series, and then I found myself turning pages with distaste.
If you read my blog, you know I've had some health challenges lately. In addition to the physical body stuff, I've had to grapple with some profound issues of life and death, and my ability to stand, when there are forces trying to make me fall. It's been one of the worst periods my family has had to go through.
My question was: had I allowed the personal struggles to taint my ability to read and review a story on its' own merits? I had to ask for help.
And seventeen friends, new and old, responded. I explained my dilemma: I wasn't sure I could trust my opinion on these stories. I asked THEM to read the stories, come to their own conclusions, and then take a look at what I had written; then, tell me if my review was on target or not. (I hope some of them wrote their own reviews, but that wasn't a requirement.)
Here's what I got back: some people had the same problem with the same stories that i did. Some liked best, the stories that I liked least. However, in the end, it seems that it was just a matter of opinion, and not a systematically warped perspective, that accounted for my distaste.
At their request (and I think it's a good idea as well) I'm not going to thank any of the Review Review Crew by name. The opinions I publish are my own, and I take full responsibility for them.
I'm publishing the review in two versions. Here, in my blog, I'm making known my opinion on ALL of the stories. In my Amazon review, I am ONLY reviewing those stories I liked, and I point that out in the review.
It seemed right to me, at the time of writing the review, that I identify science fiction (or other) tropes that show up in the stories. And, in those cases where no pre-existing trope existed, I made one up. In addition, I gave a PLUS '+' rating to stories I like, and a MINUS '-' rating to stories I didn't like.
A general note about the anthology as a whole: One of the other reviewers points out that an appendix which provides the names and traits of alien races would be helpful. I endorse this suggestion highly.
And another general note about collections of short stories in general: they are MUCH harder to review than books.
BUTCH AND SUNDANCE by Peter Cawdron
A routine snatch job is a set-up. The protagonist has to figure out what is happening as the events unfold. As far as I know, I hate stories like this. The object of the snatch knows more about what's going on than the mercs doing the snatch. You might like stories like this, but I found it to be grim, complicated, and unsatisfying, and the fact that it is the lead-off story rather soured me against the entire book. Betrayal of mercenaries, check. Rating: -
WHERE ENEMIES SIT by Rob Howell
Lt. Frazier MacKenzie was a freshly-minted officer in command of a detachment of a particular mercenary company. Either I have a nasty mind ( a possibility) or the name of the outfit was designed for purposes of potty humor. I found this story to be one of the best possible portrayals of the “second lieutenant goes into combat” situation; he knows what he doesn't know, he defers to the experience of the experienced warrant officer under his command, but he ALSO has the command ability to recognize that this action is a set-up, and attempts to save his troops, while preserving evidence for post-action evaluations. Betrayal of mercenaries, check. Redemptive self-sacrifice on behalf of others, check. Rating: +
BOSS by Scott Moon
I don't know that the environment is mentioned in this story; even so, I'm left with the impression that it all takes place in the dark, with a cold, wet, drizzle coming down. The mercenary Ogre Fist Company is out of money, their equipment is substandard, and the commander and his executive officer are, literally, about to kill each other. Furthermore, one of their troopers has been arrested for stealing a computer tablet and killing a cop. This is a linked story, so that just when I thought that I was done with the characters, they crop up again in the next story. Mercenaries scheming against each other, check. Rating: -
LEVERAGE by Josh Hayes
This is a dirty-cop story; it's always seems to be dark and rainy in this story as well. It's linked to the previous story through the follow-up on the activities of the accused copkiller. The tie-in to the Four Horsemen universe is that Macintosh Sacobi, an apprentice Peacemaker, quits because his training officer is a bad cop who cares nothing about collateral damage and beats suspects in handcuffs. He returns to his original position as a community-based cop, but another encounter with the (now) escaped cop-killer brings him back into contact with his former Peacemaker trainer. Bad cops beating up prisoners, check. Falsely accused prisoners dying to save their captors, check. Rating: -
LUCK OF THE DRAW by J.R. Handley & Corey D. Truax
Ivan Petrov is a worthless loser, working sporadically as a bounty hunter to get gambling money. His loan shark/bookie is in the process of having him beaten to death, when he gets a reprieve, in the form of a job offer. The new employer is a Level 4 Peacemaker Hunter named Boudicca, a dog-like Zuul. She has disconcerting puppy-like characteristics, and in addition to a life-saving job, she offers him some potentially life-changing advice:
“I know what it is to lose your pack,” she said. “We can only honor them with our future actions.”
It's an interesting concept for Petrov; he hasn't had the slightest interest in honoring anyone for quite some time; only in ending his existence in the way designed to aggravate the maximum number of people. Loan sharks with incredibly stupid business plans, check. Pawns selected because of their faults, check. Rating: -
CONTRACT FULFILLED by Tim C. Taylor
Sisters Midnight and Solara command a merc company which is under contract to Oriflamme, decadent governor of a mining world with suspicious sources of income. They kidnap a suspected spy, and on the way to cash him in, things happen. One of the sisters, Midnight aka Blue, has so interfered with her nanite load that her pleasure centers are always turned on, and are particularly stimulated by danger. Hint: never, ever place a person with this condition in charge of anything. It seems to be an excuse for writing soft porn without having to resort to descriptions of body parts. Also, if there is not a limit on the number of times you can throw a flashback into the story, there should be, and the limit had better be one; perhaps one per character, at the most. Otherwise, it comes across like a kindergartner telling a story. Booty call, check. Betray the employer, check. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” check. Rating: -
EMANCIPATION by Mark Wandrey
Cartwright's Cavaliers are one of the original companies making up the Four Horsemen, although their survival was almost negated by the subsequent action of she-who-is-better-off-forgotten. Jim Cartwright has rebuilt the company and provided it with the leadership it needed more than the equipment. He has bad taste in music, though.
As they are dropping into a hot combat zone, he plays “Radioactive,” by Imagine Dragons. I was previously unfamiliar with this music, and so I researched the band and listened to the song. If they had played it for me when I was dropping into combat, I would have frantically searched for another channel; heck, even talk radio. Admittedly, the hot zone is that, literally; in addition to the fire from hostiles, the area is, well, radioactive. So, the song is, perhaps, appropriate. Still, the music is an acquired taste, and does not pound the blood like 'Days of Elijah,' or even 'Seven Spanish Angels.'
Apart from that, however, Cartwright demonstrates the best of the admittedly limited options left to the human race. Forced into an undesired role, they not only perform focused violence with elan, they exploit the system better than anyone else, by actions not directly related to their own self-interest. Great story in the tradition of Four Horsemen, check. Rating: +
FORBIDDEN SCIENCE by Terry Mixon
An advanced graduate student can see the Promised Land clearly, but also understands that there is an impenetrable barrier to entry: approval by a faculty committee. In this case, Jeff has been handed an assignment which cannot possibly work out well: he has been ordered to take part in forbidden research into anti-matter, while simultaneously serving as a spy for the administration, which decidedly does not wish the research to succeed. Although only peripherally related to the main narrative of the Four Horsemen universe, several goofy elements make this an excellent read for me, a surviving post-grad student. Kill your faculty advisor with a meat-ax, check. Rating: +
CHANGE OF COMMAND by Thomas A. Mays
When you are young and inexperienced, you want command because it's fun to tell other people what to do. Then, at some point, you learn about responsibility, and things change. Unfortunately, humans found themselves with an expanding need for military organizations, and not enough time to grow the leaders.
That is precisely the situation the Terrible Texans faced when the simple garrison duty contract turned hostile. The very few competent leaders died fast, and officers who had some specific technical skills found themselves unprepared. And as is always the case, the poor bloody infantry foots the bill.
Betrayal by REMFs, check. Science rocks, check. Rating: +
A FAMILY TRADITION by Ian J. Malone
Wow. This is one you have to read for yourself, because it's a gimmick story. It's a GOOD gimmick story, and well within the traditions of the Four Horsemen, but everything I want to mention as a hint gives the whole thing away. I only had a slight tickle while reading it, but once I finished, everything tied together. Tribute to departed, check. Rating: +
GO FOR BAIT by T.C. Bucher
The title is a pun, and it's the only thing that's funny about the story, although there might have been humor involved in setting up the original scene. It IS intriguing, though: how fast can you adapt to an enemy who is coming in an altogether unexpected direction? I can see this emerging as a thought problem in an after-con discussion. Bad intelligence from the REMFs, check. Sacrifices for comrades in arms, check. Rating: +
THE KRA’DAAR by Chris Winder
An unknown something is setting fires for some reason on a planet where that is particularly bad, for reasons that are partially revealed. No, you aren't going to get much more description than that. I'm not fond of stories that leave out significant details. Primitive world exploited by Galactic Union, check. Former savage despises roots, check. Rating: -
BLOOD OF INNOCENTS by James Young
At best, a second-tier merc company can expect second-tier jobs with second-tier pay. When a truly lucrative contract appears, it's because no one else will take it.
So far, so good.
But then, I lost the story in the middle of the witty repartee being conducted between the leader of the mercs and a sentient owl, representing one group, and a horse-faced Peacemaker, representing...something. I re-read the story, looking for details I missed, but it didn't work. I don't know who the mercs were working for when they hit dirtside.
And the story just...stops. No resolution, no hints.
I hope we don't die, check. Rating: -
MESSENGER by Nick Cole
Years ago, there was a saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I don't know if that expression still exists; it's been 42 years since I took off the uniform for the last time, and I'm out of touch. There's a basic truth, though: when you are alone, and facing death, you become very devout.
It doesn't take an actual foxhole to make that happen. For lots of young guys, having the comfort of home stripped away, facing a seeming eternity of wearing a uniform, in what seems to be a consistently hostile environment, those factors are what raise the question of the nature and meaning of life. And, once converted, they become enthusiastic, dedicated evangelists; they burn with a pure fire.
And that's the story here: sift the messengers as fine as you like; you may find them to misinformed, they may be ignorant; but their devotion is as pure as clear water and sunlight. Continue the mission, check. Rating: +
FAITH by Chris Kennedy
There are a lot of reasons mercs are distrusted by civilians, but one of the most insidious is the mixed hatred and contempt that people in power have for an armed force that isn't under their control. In this story, we find out one of the consequences of a world government: if you use a firearm in the commission of a crime, your sentence is automatic: life without parole. In a cave. On Phobos, orbiting Mars.
Pretty bleak, eh?
There are no such things as extenuating circumstances; nobody is concerned about whether the dead 'needed killing' or not. The government would take away all firearms if possible. However, since the economy now depends on mercenaries, that isn't an option. So, they grudgingly ignore the armed mercenaries in their midst, until they have an excuse to incarcerate one forever.
That's the thing about totalitarian authorities: they will go to any lengths to enforce their system on the rest of the universe. And that's why we can NEVER have any truce with kings. Bad intelligence from REMFs, check. Loyalty to comrades, check. Rating: +
TINKERMAN by Jake Bible
Another variant on the theme that authority cannot tolerate power not under its' control. For a person raised in the exact opposite end of the country, it takes a bit for the incongruity of Oregon as tumbleweed country to sink in, but I DID catch on by the time I read that there was no snow on the mountains. Ancient refugee engineer stymies modern corporate tech, check. High Noon revisited, check. Rating: +
THE START OF SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL by Kacey Ezell
If you want to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, this story is a good place to start.
It's IMPOSSIBLE not to shudder when thinking of the giant spider warriors known as Tortantulas. It simply cannot be done; we are hard-wired to hate spiders. These aren't just spiders, though; they are gigantic spiders, with lasers. And they eat their prey, and just about anything that exists qualifies as prey. One of the looming events in the Four Horsemen saga is a battle scene involving a gratuitous assault by Tortantulas; why couldn't it be butterflies? Because butterflies, even giant butterflies with lasers, don't produce a visceral reaction, that's why!
To make things even worse, they are accompanied by furry, wile-tempered, bitey riders. We hates them, yes we do, precious, nasty monsters with rats on their backs!
...this one is...cute. Sort of.
At least in these circumstances, which frankly seem to be the only way in which such a horrid pairing could be concocted. We assume it follows under the category of imprinting, or symbiotic relationships, or science or something.
If you can't find six impossible things to believe in THAT, here's one more for you: This is the last story in the book, but it's the first one I read. This turned out to be a REALLY GOOD THING, because otherwise, I would not have kept reading; I disliked five of the first six stories, and it was really because of THIS story that I knew there had to be more material I would enjoy.
Women warriors, check. Cuddly monsters, check. Team loyalty, check. Rating: +
And thus endeth the review. Many thanks again to those who helped me verify that my perspective wasn't distorted.
And I'm looking forward to MORE writing in the Four Horsemen Universe.
Peace be on your household.