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This is an outstanding collection of two short science fiction novels. Remember the old Ace Doubles each containing two separate novels, two covers, and you flipped the book over to read the second novel? The Wildside Doubles are just like that, though they are trade paperbacks rather than mass market paperbacks. Because the novels are entirely unrelated, I’ll review them separately below.

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

THE BATTLE FOR EDEN by Mark E. Burgess is the third short novel in the Human-Knacker War series. (I reviewed the omnibus edition that collects the first two novels in the series, by the late Ardath Mayhar and Robert Reginald, respectively, here.) The series is set in an indeterminately far future in which humanity has colonized a host of new worlds before encountering the implacable Knackers, a species of ravenous crustacean-like predators who conquer and devour all other species they encounter. And the Knackers are not just vicious foes; their technology is superior to that of humanity, they essentially refuse to communicate or negotiate, and they have so far been winning battle after battle in the war. Thus far, all three of the Human-Knacker War novels have focused not on the major battles and strategies of the war, but on how ordinary people become caught up in this existential conflict and must overcome their own personal circumstances to survive. While this premise could easily result in a dark, depressing tone to the books, all three have managed to strike a balance between the very real threats faced by the protagonists while still holding out hope for both the individuals involved and humanity as a whole.

THE BATTLE FOR EDEN opens with a surprisingly interesting and well-done space battle but soon shifts to the surface of the remote human colony world Eden, when a human space pilot, Major Simon Roy, is forced to crash land and throw in his lot with an extended family of colonists in the wake of a Knacker victory. Roy and the colonists must fortify and defend an isolated farmstead against the inevitable Knacker ground forces. What follows is a clever and engaging battle of wits and ingenuity as the humans must rely on smarts rather than superior technology just to stay alive. Along the way there are some nice allusions to events in the previous books (all well-explained, so that they are not confusing for readers who haven’t read those yet). THE BATTLE FOR EDEN likewise does a good job of advancing the larger plot of the series, showcasing some new developments in the larger war while retaining the charm and individual focus of the previous books. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to the next Human-Knacker war book, as well as more fiction from Mark Burgess. This was the first book by Burgess I have read, but his characterization, dialogue, and plotting are all outstanding and I look forward to reading much more of his work.

UNDER THE EMBER STAR by Charles Allen Gramlich is a rousing science fiction tale of a streetwise young woman named Ginn who was left to her own devices at a young age when her archaeologist father was killed. She lives on Kelmer, a distant human colony world, which features a native humanoid species, hostile terrain, an enigmatic past, and a cooling sun that promises to slowly worsen the planet’s climate. Ginn is hired by an inscrutable member of the native species for a job that will take her into Kelmer’s wilderness, battling human and alien foes who seek to stop their quest, in an effort to learn more about the planet’s origins and the involvement of a long-lost alien species. Gramlich’s worldbuilding is superb; Kemler never ceases to seem like a real place, and Gramlich’s construction of a relatively primitive alien culture in a tense but not entirely antagonistic relationship with human colonists is some of the best I’ve seen in years. This fast-moving, well-written adventure yarn is an exceptional science fiction story.

I actually found UNDER THE EMBER STAR’s subtitle – “A Science Fantasy Novel” – to be a little misleading, as there aren’t really any “fantasy” elements I could point to. This isn’t a “hard” science fiction novel by any means, but there’s certainly no mix of magic with rayguns and starships, as I typically think of “science fantasy” stories. I certainly hope we see a follow-up to UNDER THE EMBER STAR soon. The protagonist Ginn and the planet of Kelmer both have a lot more depth to explore. In many ways, while the novel is certainly complete and self-contained, the climax of the story left me wanting to know what happens next (always a sign of a good thing, I suppose).

This short novel compilation is highly recommended for fans of science fiction, especially those interested in the human dimension, rather than the technological, of science fiction. I genuinely enjoyed both books, even more than I thought I might from their initial descriptions, largely because of the strength of both authors’ writing. No prior knowledge of the first two Human-Knacker War books is required to fully understand and enjoy Burgess’ tale, so don’t let that deter you from picking it up. Burgess and Gramlich both know how to tell engaging, fast-moving science fiction adventures and I hope to see their work receive much more attention in the future.

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Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers