I thought I’d look at some good old fashioned military science fiction for my first review here at Amazing Stories. Five by Five is an anthology of five short novels by five well known science fiction authors who have reputations for writing fast moving space opera and military sf, among other things. I’d previously read works by three of them; the other two (Coleman and Larson) were new to me.
At least “novels” is how the promotional copy describes them. The lengths vary, but I’d call them novellas. Not that it really matters; the main thing is whether they’re worth reading? Let’s look at them one at a time and see.
The lead story is “Big Plush” by Aaron Allston. It’s set on a distant planet and concerns the Dollgangers. These are doll sized artificial people. They’re fully sentient, but they’re not fully free. Many, but not all, work as indentured servants or slaves to one degree or another. Others have been given their freedom. As you can easily imagine in a situation like this, there are division among them. Some of them want to rebel, and they don’t have a problem killing people, even though it’s against their programming. The Dollgangers have managed to overcome their programming. And some of this group of Dollgangers don’t have problems with killing some of their own.
The central character is Bow, a privileged Dollganger. These are called “Plushes” by the other Dollgangers, and it’s not meant as a compliment. Bow finds himself having to make some serious choices about where his loyalties lies, and no matter how he decides, someone will get hurt.
Next is “Comrades in Arms” from Kevin J. Anderson. As far as I know, this one isn’t part of a series. At least I haven’t seen any other installments if it is. Rader is a Deathguard, a terminally wounded soldier who has been given an extension through advanced medical treatment. He’s still going to die, but it will be on the battlefield rather than in a hospital bed. He’s been reprogrammed as a killing machine in the war against the alien Jaxxans. Only he finds himself in a no-man’s land on a contested asteroid with a Jaxxan, and they need each other to survive. This is not your typical kill-all-the-aliens military sf, nor is the the typical soldier-throws-down-his-arms-and works-for-peace plot either. Rather, Anderson navigates between the two, to tell a story laden with irony and heart.
Loren L. Coleman is next with “Shores of the Infinte”. I found this one to be the bleakest story in the book. There are two stories here that somewhat intertwine. In the first, a group of Combat Assault Troopers are separated from the rest of their forces and fight blind against a ruthless cyborg army. The cyborgs recruit as they go along. Although “recruit” is probably too soft a word. They conscript. And conscripts are turned into cyborgs on the spot. Usually without benefit of anesthetic. The second story in this novella is about a young man who is helping a group of kids try to reach a sanctuary, but to get there, they have to avoid the cyborgs.
“The Black Ship” by B. V. Larson is set in the Imperium Series. One of the most deadly planets than humans have ever attempted to colonize has been forgotten, but there are still survivors. A Mech ship is about to make landfall, a ship with a mad captain. Onboard, the engineer desperately schemes to avoid suffering the fate of his predecessors. Now on an isolated island, one wanderer is about to find that he had bigger concerns than getting off the island. This is another one with dual plotlines that converge.
The final story is “Out There” by Michael A. Stackpole. I enjoyed all the preceding stories, but this story alone would have been worth the price of the book. It was easily my favorite. The Qian are an alien race that has promised advanced technology to Earth if humanity will provide fighters to help in their war with another alien race. The President’s estranged son is one of the pilots selected for an elite squadron. He has secrets of which even he is not aware. This tale was a self-contained story set in a larger story-arc. There was a satisfying ending, but there were sill plenty of unanswered questions.
So, overall, how did the fiction stack up? While I liked certain stories better than others, this was a good anthology. I definitely would be interested in reading more in the series by Stackpole and Larson. I especially liked the format. Five novellas by five different authors. The novella is my favorite length. Combining five authors into one book allowed me to sample a chunk of writing by some authors whose work was unfamiliar to me. I’d definitely read more books with this format.
Now, before I give a totally positive endorsement, I want to talk about production values. I read on a first generation Nook, so I can’t speak for the book appears on Kindle, Kobo, or iBook formats. First, the positive. The stories were edited and copy-edited. No problem, there. The table of contents contained links to each of the stories, so I could have skipped around had I chosen to do so (I didn’t, but I could have.)
Unfortunately there were some problems with the formatting. First, the cover art isn’t the first page of the file, something I found disappointing, since the only view of the cover is the thumbnail on the touchscreen at the bottom of the device. This is minor, but annoying. The copyright page and table of contents had no page break between them. Nor was there a page break between the table of contents and the first story. Or between any of the stories. In a few places the text contained a page break in the middle of the screen. The first time it happened, I thought I’d hit a chapter break.
The page numbering was odd, as well. There are 1948 pages in my edition. “Big Plush” is over half of those, even though it isn’t any longer than the other stories. Changing the font size didn’t affect this, either. The pages still skipped in numbering. I’ve read plenty of ebooks in which you scroll forward for a screen or two without the page number changing, but not many where the page number jumps so much. None of the other stories had these big skips, although some of them did skip by one or two pages. Why all the stories didn’t skip the same amount is a mystery to me. I suspect it had something to do with differences in the files the individual authors submitted.
WordFire Press is run by Kevin J. Anderson, and the link to the press given in the book takes you to his website. No problem, there, except that this book isn’t listed anywhere that I could find. I know I was at the right spot because there was a picture of the book among others of Anderson’s. I just couldn’t find any information about the book itself there. That may have changed between the time I type these words and the time you read them.
So, as far as the fiction goes, it was solid. If you like military sf, you’ll find something here you’ll enjoy. Probably several somethings. The formatting needs a little work in spots, but it’s not horrible. Unless you get hung up on the page numbering, and some people do, most of formatting the issues I raised aren’t deal breakers. At least for me. Your mileage may vary. Reading this book was a positive enough experience that I would read something else from WordFire.