A Simple Murder [Book Review]

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns

The story.  William Rees is a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a grieving widower, and an itinerant weaver.  When his son runs away from his sister’s care to join a community of Shakers near Durham, North Carolina, Rees leaves his wandering to attempt to reconcile with his son but becomes entangled in the murder of a young Shaker woman.

What I liked.  I like historical mysteries where the emphasis in on human psychology and old-fashioned sleuthing.  The Shaker community, called Zion, appears to be a collection of simple, God-fearing souls but of course in no time is revealed to be a complicated mess of human frailties and of course murder.  Kuhn clearly knows the period and frequently puts in as much color as she can to help bring the period to live.

What I didn’t like.  This is Kuhn’s first novel, but Rees seems to have just a bit too much backstory, with constant references to previous murders that he’s solved, including one where he was the prime suspect, old partners in solving crime, etc.  I don’t know if Kuhn has these other stories in the form of unpublished manuscripts or is laying the groundwork for a future prequel, but it felt forced in the story.  It did have the effect of explaining why a traveling weaver would be called on to solve a murder when there is a sheriff in the area whose job it would be in the first place.

In addition there’s a romantic subplot involving proto-feminist Lydia Ferrell whose relationship with Rees seems rushed somehow, as does Rees’ conversion from basically telling her to not speak in his presence to missing her presence every time they are apart.

Then there’s the murder itself.  It is not a complicated affair and I think most readers will at least pick up on the primary culprit without too much difficulty.  I actually talked myself out of believing who it was based on the clues because I expected some clever twist, some missed detail, that would point to someone else.

My takeaway.  I’m always looking for things to use in my own storytelling, and the notion of a bucolic, even boring community holding dark secrets is one that I did like about this book.  Kuhn treads into the water of having religious people revealed as hypocrites, but there are enough genuine, kind people (usually those on the fringe of the Shaker community) to make it not too blatant.

Buy, library, or skip?  I probably won’t be re-reading this book, but it wasn’t bad, so I’m  calling it a library check-out option.

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[books for gamers] All the Gold of Ophir

All the Gold of Ophir, written by David Drury, is half pulp detective, part hard-sci fiction story.  Private investigator Michael Flynn has been hired to look into the “accidental” death of a young man on a Jupiter space station.  The victim worked for the mega-corporation that not only owns the station and employs three-quarters of its thousands of inhabitants, but also has its own lethally-armed security force.  Flynn is assisted by corporate attorney Wendy Chadwick and opposed by Silvanus Drake, so improbably named that J.K. Rowling would even blanche.

Drury is a professor of engineering and uses his knowledge to tell the story, one laden with stereotypical characters: the Irish hard-drinking PI, the incompetent and belligerent head of the police force, even the psycho ex-girlfriend (whom I kept calling “Ira” after Spade’s ex in The Maltese Falcon).  The mystery was interesting and the action moved along well (although I had a pretty good idea of what happened fairly early on).

My only complaint, because I can let hackneyed, two-dimensional characters slide in a story like this one, is that in science fiction you have to give the reader certain boundaries of genre.  Faster-than-light travel?  Aliens?  Artificial intelligence?  You have to let the reader know what exists and what doesn’t, especially when you’re doing a mystery.  It isn’t fair to say, allow teleportation to exist in the last chapter if it is instrumental to the plot.  And Drury succumbs to this–after establishing the boundaries throughout the book he breaks one (as the underwhelming “shocker”) to tie up one of the loose ends.  Or in other words, you can get most of the mystery on your own, but you’ll never get the last ten percent because Drury breaks his own rules.  It is a frustrating end note to an otherwise fun weekend read.

From a gaming perspective, All the Gold of Ophir reminds RPG fans of how depending the gaming industry is on pulp-ish stories.  The Jupiter space station would make a fine sci-fi environs, big enough to introduce new elements but contained enough to keep players from running far off the beaten track (my biggest gripe with sci-fi RPG’s).

[books for gamers] Aftermath by Ben Bova

Terrible.  Just terrible.

I could leave it at those three words, if I wished.  Rarely have I found myself literally skimming the final chapters to see if anyone important dies or if possibly, possibly the plot moves in any real direction.  But no, this book may in fact be the weakest of the “Asteroid Wars” series, and that is saying a lot.

In the third book Bova introduces an alien artifact and its impact on Dorin, the psychotic mercenary and war criminal from the earlier books.  Dorin and his companion, an elderly artist who has found a new lease on life thanks to her exposure to the artifact, are on a strange mission to provide proper burials for all who died in the Asteroid Wars.  “Proper burial” meaning being crammed in an industrial incinerator aboard their ship, by the way.

The second plot involves a family separated by Dorin’s attack on the space station Chrysalis.  The father is back at the station, his family is adrift in a space literally years away from home.  Much of that plot revolves around the teenage son concocting ways to trying to get home safely while the dad tries talking someone into giving him a ship to go scour all of the solar system for his family.

Pancho Lane?  Gone.  Humphries?  Only a token presence as the mastermind being the forces hounding Dorin.  Ambrose?  More antagonist than charming side character.

Any purpose, history, or any plot movement on the whole alien artifact thing?  Nope.

In fact really it feels a lot like a non-finish, with the exception of resolving the whole family being separated thing.  I would expect the artifact to show up in other novels.  What also showed up in spades was something I had read about in other reviews, namely Bova’s latent misogyny.  All of his women characters are either mentally weak (like the mother and daughter or the family) or possessing what used to be called weak moral fiber.  For example most of the women who are not dim bulbs (Pancho Lane, Humphries rotating  cast of assistants, the captain of the ship the father ends up aboard) use their sexuality to advance themselves professionally.  In addition, there is the egregious example which follows below:

Spoilers Ahead

The worst example of this comes when the mother of the family is raped by a pirate captain in order to shield her daughter from the crew.  Having been away from her husband for several years, the wife is surprised to find herself “liking it,” and later the event is equated by her and her husband to his infidelity while aboard the space station.

Liking being raped?  Equated with the husband’s years-long marital infidelity?  Okay Bova, I’m sticking a fork in your backside–you’re done.

As I said: terrible, just terrible.

The Silent War by Ben Bova

Sigh.

On more than one occasion I’ve started an RPG campaign which I thought was the cat’s pajamas and then, after a few months said, “forget this, it isn’t working,” and went onto something else.  (My Star Wars campaign is a good example of this.)

The Silent War, the third book in the “Asteroid Wars” series by Ben Bova feels a lot like this.  After a pretty good set-up novel and a solid second one, the third book feels a lot like Bova said “enh, I dunno where this is going,” wrapped it up with a whimper and quickly moved onto a totally unrelated plot point.

What’s more, he begins the novel with a cutscene from several years after the events depicted in the book, revealing several major plot points in the novel that occur later in a way that just seems unnecessary.  But the point of the “sneak peek” is to have the author say to the reader, “Look!  Alien artifacts!  Get yourself through this novel and you’ll get alien artifacts in the fourth one!  Just bear with me while I tie a bow on this other stuff I spent two other novels laying out for you, and then I’ll get around that what I really want to write about!”

Because honestly, alien artifacts have nothing to do with the plot of the first three books of the Asteroid Wars.  It’s a sharp right turn that seems to be motivated only by Bova’s realization that he’s told this story before, and perhaps better, elsewhere.  To give credit where it is due, there’s some interesting utilization of technology in the realm of inter-space ship battles, like coating the ships with asteroidal rock as armor.  There’s also an extended scene where my favorite PC-as-book character Pancho Lane escapes the clutches of the bad guys using gear that looks like it was cribbed from the Stainless Steel Rat, but I like that kind of silliness so it is all good.

On the “books for gamers” note, as I said before I’m reminded of what happens when a GM/DM/judge runs out of juice on a storyline.  There’s lot of reasons why this happens–a better idea comes along, players don’t quite gel with what the GM thought it would be like, or it just doesn’t turn out to be as interesting in practice as in theory.  How a GM responds has a lot to do with his or her own skill and the group, but taking a storyline that the players are invested in, but the GM isn’t, and just letting it wither out doesn’t seem to be the answer.

[books] The Rock Rats by Ben Bova

I’m willing to give an author a shot if the first novel in a series seems to be too caught up in laying out the greater story to the point that it can’t stand alone, if that same story looks compelling enough.  The Precipice had enough promise to get me to read the second book, The Rock Rats, and I’m glad I did.

The Rock Rats had a few surprises, not the least of which is that the most interesting characters from the first novel, Pancho Lane, isn’t in this one (there’s a suggestion she’ll play a greater role in later books).  The Rock Rats instead focusses on the relationship between Amanda “I need a personality” Cunningham, her husband Lars Fuchs, and the seminal villain Martin Humphries, aka Evil Corporate Guy.  As other reviews have mentioned, Bova borrows heavily from classic tragic themes, even going so far as to citing both the Flying Dutchman and the Nautilus in association with Fuchs, who is fighting almost a one-man war against Humphries to keep him away from both the asteroids and his wife (who ironically wants nothing to do with Humphries, not that Fuchs notices).  I quickly read through the book watching Fuchs rush blindly to his (possible) doom.

If The Precipice laid out an easy-to-copy universe for a gamer to use in a sci-fi RPG, then The Rock Rats definitely gives you the campaign premise.  It isn’t easy to imagine players enjoying the boardroom-drama of Dan Randolph, but Lars Fuchs as the force of good in a lawless region threatened by corporate domination is tailor made (in fact, the whole thing sounds a lot like the Traveller sourcebook Belters, if my memory serves me correctly).  As fellow “Rock Rats” PC’s could vacillate between trying to find their fortune in hostile space and fending off Humphries’ pirates and fellow miners.  There’s a scene where two spaceships are locked in combat, both cumbersomely spinning around which people hang out of cargo hatches blasting away with cutting lasers that definitely belongs in the descriptive text of some sci-fi RPG shoot-out.

Finally, there’s two “Easter Eggs” in here.  Throughout the book Bova drops out of the narrative to give the reader a glimpse at a “dossier” of two very minor characters in the book.  Don’t stress about them–they are, at least at this point, totally irrelevant to the plot.  But they could both make for good backstories of PC’s if you’re looking at a Rock Rats campaign.

[books] The Precipice

I don’t usually read a lot of “hard” science-fiction, so I thought I’d branch out this summer and try a few of the big hardcover books at the library with spaceships zooming around, and see if it is any use to be as a gamer.

The Precipice by Ben Bova is the first of a series called “The Asteroid Wars” and is set in a dystopic near-future (by my count, about fifty years from now).  The world has toppled into an ecological disaster, compounded by religious conservatism and foreign nationalism keeping certain new technologies (like nanotechnology) from being utilized.

The story revolves around 3.2 characters.  Dan Randolph is the waning corporate bigwig seeking redemption from his role in the crisis by trying a last-ditch attempt to save the world.  Martin Humphries is the yound meglomaniac corporate bigwig who wants to capitalize on the situation and take control of the moon (the only place worth living anymore).  The third is Pancho Lane, the spunky astronaut-cum-con artist who has been put in the middle of both their plans.

There’s also a fourth character (the “.2” I mentioned) who is really a side character throughout the book but turns out to be very pivotal to the plot.  I will not spoil it by pointing out who it is (unlike the book jacket).

This does actually bring me to my biggest gripe about this book.  It’s the “set up” book for the series, meaning that it just lays out the general concept for the series, introduces the characters, and gets the ball rolling.  So it isn’t going to make great strides plot-wise.  But the book jacket tells you the entire plot in about three sentences.  I mean the whole damn thing.  It’s like a preview for a comedy where they show you every good joke and you spend the other sixty two minutes suffering through the bad ones.  Plot elements that are clearly supposed to be twists are laid out in the jacket, and frankly it made the whole book a foregone conclusion.  So if you do read it, for God sakes don’t look.

What’s in there for gamers?  Well, if you’re looking for a “stock” cyberpunk or dystopic near future universe, this one can certainly help you out.  It’s almost generic in nature, with names for groups like “New Morality” and the “Global Economic Council.”  Bova doesn’t really try too hard to come up with innovative nomenclature for his vision of the Earth.  It’s also too bad that he doesn’t do more with its main character, Randolph, who is clearly tottering between his guilt for being a huge corporate figure and his enjoyment of what he’s accomplished as one.  He can’t help but feel pride about the space stations he built, and at one point is clearly indulging in a little human trafficking, but he’s trying replace that with his new crusader-persona that most people around him view with skepticism and pessimism.  Bova’s prose is also sparse, with little in the way of description, making the space-hopping plot seems a little sterile and boring.  The only location that actually gets any real attention in Humphries’ home, and that’s the hammer home that he is really is an opulent, self-serving Big Evil Guy.

Lane is the clear “RPG PC in a novel.”  She’s a smart-alecky spaceship pilot who is constantly pulling scams, has a genetically-modified snake that serves as her bodyguard, and has the secret backstory that explains her hidden heart of gold.  Oh, and she’s got a wacky name too.  I’d say “play her in your next cyberpunk/sci-fi game” except that most people already do.  She’s obviously meant to do the heavy lifting for the series too when it comes to plot.

Light, but good fare.  Bova will need to make sure he doesn’t succumb to the “first book is the best book” trap of fantasy/sci-fi series if “The Asteroid Wars” is going to go anywhere, however.