TBR Challenge: Atrophy (Atrophy #1) by Jess Anastasi

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

No one on Erebus escapes alive…

Twelve years on the prison planet Erebus makes a man long for death. The worst part for Tannin Everette is that he was framed for murder. He’s innocent. When the ship Imojenna lands for emergency repairs, Tannin risks everything to escape…only to find himself face to face with the captain’s undeniably gorgeous sister.

Zahli Sherron isn’t planning on turning Tannin in. In fact, she actually believes him. Sure, he’s sexy as every kind of sin, but he’s no criminal—so she hides him. But no one escapes from Erebus and lives to tell about it. With every day that passes, Zahli further risks the lives of the entire crew…even as she falls in love with a man she can never have for herself.

Rating: B+

When I saw this month’s prompt was to read Something Different, I knew pretty much exactly which genre and which book I was going to choose. Last year sometime, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR reviewed a Sci-Fi romance called Quantum, which was the second book in Jess Anastasi’s Atrophy series. I really liked the sound of it and it struck me that while I’m actually a fan of Sci-Fi in TV and film, I don’t read it – so I picked up the first book in the series, Atrophy for the May prompt.

I admit that I hadn’t realised, going in, that it’s part of a series in which there is an overarching story that runs through all the books (there are three so far). Still, it’s a thumping good read and I’m sufficiently invested in that particular plotline to want to read the other books – when I can find the time! I also liked that the book is very much an ensemble piece, with a handful of principal characters to start and a few new ones introduced along the way. There’s a romance with an HEA to be sure, but that’s not the primary focus of the story and I was perfectly okay with that; there’s plenty of action and the gradual emergence of a really intriguing plot, all of it skilfully woven together into a rip-roaring, enjoyable yarn.

Due to the latest in a string of mechanical failures, the cargo freighter Imojenna is forced to land on the prison planet, Erebus in order to pick up spare parts and make repairs. On duty when the ship applies for permission to land is Tannin Everette, one of the number of inmates who is allowed to work in the prison administration. Twelve years earlier, he was convicted of a murder he did not commit, and when the chance of escape presents itself, he takes it, planning to stow away aboard the Imojenna. He’s not without misgivings; the penalty if he gets caught will be heavy and he’ll be a fugitive for the rest of his life. But on balance, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Crew member – and captain’s sister – Zahli Sherron, is in the marketplace buying supplies for the next leg of the Imojenna’s journey when she is approached by an officer and taken into a deserted building. Knowing the officer for one with an unpleasant reputation where women are concerned, Tannin is immediately suspicious and follows the sounds of a struggle only to come upon the young woman kneeling on the officer’s body with her hands around the knife in his chest. Tannin helps Zahli escape – and she later returns the favour by sticking up for him when he is discovered aboard the ship. There’s an instant attraction thrumming between them, but her immensely scary brother makes it clear that Zahli is firmly off-limits; and ship’s captain Rian Sherron reminds Zahli that while she’s his sister, as a member of the crew the same rules apply to her as to everyone else – which includes the non-fraternization policy.

Tannin is a likeable character, a whizz-kid hacker who somehow managed to keep the authorities on Erebus from finding out about his mad hacking skillz. These make him very valuable to Rian, who has his own reasons for choosing to captain a rickety freighter instead of returning to the military where he could be hero-worshipped until the end of his days. I liked the way the author shows Tannin’s loyalties becoming more conflicted the more time he spends aboard the ship; he’s falling for Zahli and he owes her his freedom and his life, but Rian, once he’s realised that Tannin has useful skills, has allowed him to stay on board and in effect given him a home of sorts. Tannin wants to be with Zahli but owes Rian, too, and doesn’t want to repay the trust he is gradually being given by directly disobeying orders.

I didn’t warm to Zahli all that much, though. She’s supposed to be kick-ass and competent, but even she sometimes questions her position among the crew, seeing herself as someone who just deals with the finances and does the shopping. I suppose she’s the crew’s peacemaker, sometimes standing between them and Rian and frequently calling her brother on his shit the way no-one else can. The sibling relationship is quiet well done, but she’s rather a bland character on her own.

The romance between Zahli and Tannin works well-enough for all it’s based on insta-lust, but the thing which really captured my interest is the plotline that is clearly going to run through all the books concerning Rian, a former military officer with a reputation for bad-assery of the highest order. Three years before the end of the Assimilation war, he disappeared without trace and was presumed dead, and then, just as suddenly, he reappeared and single-handedly ended the war with one daring, completely mad and potentially suicidal act. But he returned a changed man, bitter, reckless and distanced, always careful not to let anyone see the bleak darkness inside him, the intense and barely-leashed rage that he battles daily to contain. Ever since his return, he has been set on achieving one goal – to hunt down the shape-shifting aliens who captured and tortured him and make them pay. His quest for revenge sees him sometimes making questionable decisions, ones which could have disastrous outcomes for him and his crew, but he makes them anyway, putting nothing ahead of his achieving his goal. One such decision is to accept another shipment of cargo from a known shady-dealer, which turns out to be a woman, more specifically, high-priestess Miriella from the planet Aryn. The Arynian priestesses are known to have powerful psychic abilities and it’s immediately clear to Rian she could be a valuable bargaining chip, weapon or both. But he’s wary of her; her telepathic abilities unsettle him and he keeps his distance, although there’s definitely a spark there which I really hope is going to be explored in future books.

Ms. Anastasi weaves a fast-paced, complex (but not unintelligible) and enthralling story with nary a dull moment as the Imojenna wends its way across the skies, evading pursuers, avoiding traps and generally making more enemies than friends along the way. The various crew members are engaging and have important parts to play; these are secondary roles, but they are all clearly defined as characters and all contribute to the overall feeling of camaraderie among this closely-knit bunch.

While there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me – there’s a situation near the end which is resolved in a way that feels like a bit of a cop-out, for instance – on the whole Atrophy is a terrific read and one I’d certainly recommend. The world-building is excellent and while there are quite a few characters and plotlines introduced, I was never confused as to who was whom or who was doing what. Lucky for me, there are two more books in the series (Quantum and Diffraction) available with a fourth book, Entropy, coming in 2018.

Relaunch Mission (The Galactic Cold War #1) by Robyn Bachar

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Living mission to mission on the fringes of civilized space, Captain Lindana Nyota has managed to keep her crew paid and her ship in one piece. Barely. The privateer’s life of stealing Soviet supplies for the Alliance is taking its toll on everyone. Down a crew member, she now has to take on a new intel officer and hope it’s someone she can trust.

Lieutenant Gabriel Steele knew Lindy wasn’t expecting him to walk out of the air lock and back into her life, but he didn’t think he’d get his nose broken. As an intelligence agent for the Alliance, Gabriel has spent his career in deep cover, his sense of self crushed under layers of deceit—starting with the lies he had to tell Lindy years ago when he left her. A fresh start is all he wants, but the Alliance and his secret orders have already jeopardized that.

When an infamous pirate and friend of Lindy and her crew is reported alive and in possession of knowledge of a powerful Soviet weapon, finding her before the enemy does is paramount. But Gabriel can’t do it without regaining Lindy’s trust—and hopefully rekindling what he once sacrificed in the name of duty.

Rating: B-

This is the first in Robyn Bachar’s new Galactic Cold War series of science-fiction romances, and when I saw it touted as  ‘Firefly meets James Bond’  I couldn’t resist!

Set in a future in which the Cold War never ended, the story features the crew of the privateer ship Mombasa as it operates on the fringes of known space carrying out missions for the United Alliance of Democratic Nations – which mostly consist of raiding Soviet ships for supplies.  Captain Lindana Nyota and her tightly knit band of officers live a difficult existence; times are hard, their ship is in dire need of parts and repairs, and their last few jobs have gone badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of two crew members to whom Lindana was particularly close.

One of those people was the ship’s intelligence officer, and it’s imperative to their continued operation that they obtain a new one as soon as possible.  Arriving at the neutral  Tortue Station, Lindana is shocked and more than a little pissed off to discover that her new crew member is Lieutenant Gabriel Steele, the man who broke her heart fifteen years ago.

(As an aside, I had to chuckle a little at the description of Gabriel – he’s gorgeous, British, upper class, well-dressed and from a posh family… basically, he’s a space-duke 😉  It seems there’s no getting away from ‘em in romance – even in outer space!)

Not only is Lindana furious at the idea of having to work with the bastard who betrayed her so cruelly, she’s furious at herself for the fact that even after so many years, Gabriel still makes her feel things nobody else ever has.  Unfortunately, she has little choice but to agree to his appointment – but she doesn’t have to like it.

For the past fifteen years Gabriel  has worked as an intelligence officer (spy) for the Alliance, but that life has begun to pall and he’s tired of living a lie.  He requested the posting to the Mombasa because he wanted to see Lindana again and try to make things right, but he then receives orders to track down the Soviet spy responsible for the ship’s recent run of bad luck.  And of course, he’s not authorised to share that information with anyone – even Lindana – which pretty much puts paid to his idea of regaining her trust and asking if they can make a fresh start.

The story is action-packed and fast-paced, and Ms. Bachar packs a lot into a fairly small page count.  If anything suffers, it’s the romance – which is fairly perfunctory – but all the other elements of the story – the setting, the background, the action – are well done and kept me engrossed and entertained.   The political shenanigans between the Alliance, the Soviets and the breakaway Core Colonies Collective (C3) are clearly explained, and in a way that adds information at relevant times so there’s no feeling that you’re being subjected to an info-dump; the plotline is complex without being unintelligible and the author ramps the tension up nicely in the later chapters, when the crew of the Mombasa is on the trail of a ‘super weapon’ developed by the Soviets and beset by betrayal from their own side.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.