The Sky People by S. M. Stirling

Narrator: Todd McLaren

Publisher: Tantor Audio (2007)

Length: 10 hours 38 minutes

Series: Book 1 The Lords of Creation

Author’s Page

In the 1960s, probes to Venus discovered something completely unexpected – life on Venus. Subsequent probes revealed plenty of animal life including dinosaur-like creatures and human-like people complete with civilizations. Now in the 1980s, the US and it’s allies have set up a small scientific outpost on Venus. The Soviet East Block has done the same thing. Venus comes with plenty of dangers but now it seems there might be a saboteur among the American & Allies crew.

Marc Vitrac, born in Louisiana and complete with Cajun accent, is the hero of this tale. He’s got the smarts and the muscles and the skills while also being friendly to Venusian canines and respectful of women. It’s rare to find such a man in science fiction (and even rarer to find one in real life). I really enjoyed this character partially because of all that stated above but because he’s also put in extraordinary circumstances in which he manages to keep his wits about him.

The setting was gripping. First, we know today that we are very unlikely to find Earth-like people and animals on Venus, but imagine if we had? Wouldn’t that raise all sorts of questions? That’s partially what these scientists are here to investigate. They also simply need to explore Venus, learning about it’s peoples and resources. I loved all the geeky science stuff about archaeology and paleontology.

There’s dinos! Yes! I loved seeing Terrans and Venusians interact with these beasties in all their variety. There’s also some intimidating predator mammals, like this large canine. In fact, Marc gets himself a puppy, Tyo, who becomes quite the novelty and Marc’s best wingman.

Meanwhile, the Venusians have several different cultures going on. There’s the ‘civilized’ Venusians of Kartahown city which is nearby the US outpost Jamestown. There are other cities as well. Then there’s the semi-nomadic and mostly peaceful human-like groups, such as the Cloud Mountain People lead by Teesa, a princess and shaman all rolled into one. Lastly, there’s the mostly nomadic and violent Beastmen, which are Neanderthal-like. Toss in tensions with the Soviet outpost, Cosmograd, then you’ve got some politicking as well (most of which happens behind the scenes).

The cast has a fair amount of diversity. Cynthia Whitlock is an African American geologist, and resistant to Marc’s charms. Christopher Blair is our British bloke with the RAF. Much later in the story we get a Russian woman who is doing her best to retrieve a downed Russian outpost exploration vehicle that had her husband, Captain Binkis, on it. Teesa has her moments, sometimes leading her people and sometimes playing the helpless princess.

Despite the well traveled tropes in this story, I got much enjoyment out of it. For me, the weakness is in the women. Sometimes these ladies are well drawn out with skills, brains, and opinions. Yet sometimes they fall into helpless damsels in distress that need rescuing (and I felt that was too easily done and just for drama). Still, I really enjoyed the story.

The Narration: Todd McLaren makes a really good Cajun Marc Vitrac. He kept all the characters distinct and had feminine voices for the ladies. There were some emotional moments in this book and McLaren was great at expressing those emotions through the characters. I liked his various accents (Cajun, standard American, British, Venusian, Russian, etc.).

What I Liked: Dinos and people!; Venus has much that needs exploring and much that is deadly; the variety of peoples on Venus; the political tensions between America & Allies and the Soviets; the deadly mammal predators; Tyo doggy; the very botched rescue mission; left me wanting more; great cover art.

What I Disliked: The ladies sometimes fall into helpless damsel mode.

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Opening Atlantis by Harry Turtledove

Chupacabra slept right thru this photoshoot.
Chupacabra slept right thru this photoshoot.

Where I Got It: Own it

Narrator: Todd McLaren

Publisher: Tantor Audio (2007)

Length: 16 hours 4 minutes

Series: Book 1 Atlantis

Author’s Page

In this alternative history, Atlantis is a sizable land mass that sits in the Atlantic ocean between England and Terra Nova. Multiple generations of the Radcliffe family are followed in this book, starting in the 1400s during the War of the Roses. In Part 1, Edward Radcliffe and his family are the first Englishman to settle in Atlantis. Part 2 is set a few generations later. The family has split and William Radcliff wants nothing to do with his pirate cousin Red Rodney Radcliffe. Part 3 makes another jump in time and we follow Victor Radcliffe as his society comes to terms with slavery.

There was much to enjoy about this book. First, I really like how the author took this mythical land and made it a real place on the map, one to be discovered and settled in the 1400s. Since Atlantis has been isolated from other land masses for some time, there are some interesting critters. My inner biologist reveled in these details. Also, the flightless birds of various sizes made it easier for the new settlers to gain a foothold, the birds being easy to catch and cook. Yet there are some dangerous beasties as well, ones that can tear out a man’s vertebrae!

Since the book is divided into three parts, it was more like reading three novellas set in the same land but during different time periods. Since I wasn’t aware of that going into the book, I think I got the most attached to Edward and his two sons, Henry and Richard, from Part 1. They make the discoveries, set the sailing route to and from England, and also negotiate the first settler rights of the land. Also, this was a time of exploring the land and getting to know the wildlife, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

When we get to Part 2, Red Rodney’s daughter, Ethel, is the character that stole the show. She’s being raised by a roguish pirate and has aspirations of captaining her own pirate ship when she is grown. In fact, she is the only female character of note in the entire story. There are a few other ladies that get names; a few even get a few lines. While Ethel is a thoroughly enjoyable character, she doesn’t make up for the very obvious lack of integral female characters for the rest of the book.

Part 3 takes on a pretty serious subject: human slavery. Victor struggles with what he knows of slaves and former slaves he has befriended and what he knows about the economics of the day. Victor truly believes that Atlantis cannot continue to be a financially independent country without slavery to run the plantations that make up the backbone of economy. The author doesn’t turn a blind eye to the nastier side of slavery but he also doesn’t revel in the brutality of the subject.

Throughout the three parts, Atlantis is not solely British. The Spaniards and French also find their way to the large land mass and make settlements of their own. Eventually, there are clashes. Some of these rivalries are continuations of European wars; some of them are purely Atlantis squabbles. These interactions were mostly interesting and only sometimes got a little unwieldy, and hence, a little boring.

The Narration: Todd McLaren did a good job. He had distinct voices for all the male characters and the few female characters that had lines. His various accents were well done. His voice for Ethel was great!

What I Liked: The cover art; a fun ‘what-if’ scenario; interesting animals of Atlantis; multi-generational; conflicts between settlements; doesn’t shy away from addressing human slavery.

What I Disliked: Very few female characters and only 1 of note; sometimes the conflicts between settlements got a bit unwieldy and slowed the pace of the story.

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Em and Emm Expound on Exposition

Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Robert E. Howard

Waffles cuddling up to my book.
Waffles cuddling up to my book.

Where I Got It: PaperbackSwap.com

Narrator: Todd McLaren

Publisher: Tantor Audio (2009)

Length: 11 hours 47 minutes

Author’s Page

Many folks know Robert E. Howard for his sword & sorcery character Conan. However, before there was Conan, there was Kull from Atlantis, a mere man who won the crown of Valusia. This book comprises the previously published and unpublished Kull stories and poems. Additionally, there are two essays by Robert E. Howard enthusiasts. In this book are the following stories: “Exile of Atlantis,” “The Shadow Kingdom,” “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” “The Cat and the Skull,” “The Screaming Skull of Silence,” “The Striking of the Gong,” “The Altar and the Scorpion,” “The Curse of the Golden Skull,” “By This Axe I Rule!” “Swords of the Purple Kingdom,” “The King and the Oak,” and “Kings of the Night.”

I think this book would be great for REH enthusiasts but perhaps not for the REH beginner. The opening essay on the magnificence of REH lasts about half the first CD. This essay refers to things a newbie wouldn’t know about – like specific imagery in the Kull and Conan stories. I personally have only read one collection of Conan stories plus Wolfshead. So much of the references to the Kull stories were completely lost on me. I was ready to jump into the Kull tales right away, so I skipped ahead and came back to the opening essay later.

The collection of stories is great. Since most of the tales follow chronologically one after the other, they almost read like one big novel when strung together. I was very surprised to see that there were no racial slurs as I have seen in the Conan stories. I honestly don’t know if this collection was sanitized for modern readers or if that is how Howard truly wrote them. I do know that nearly all of these tales went unpublished until long after Howard’s death. At any rate, I got swept up into the magic, the betrayals, the sheer might in wielding a heavy sword!

As with other Howard stories, the ladies are few and far between. They don’t always get names or spoken lines. If they aren’t sexual objects to be protected and bedded, then they are betrayers. This is a theme that has been in nearly all Howard works I have read (the exceptions being those works that contain zero females). I am sure there are some interesting psychological analysis of Howard and his works out there.

This audiobook also contains drafts of his Kull stories which are very close to the final versions and I found them a bit redundant. The book ends with another essay on the awesomeness that is Kull and REH. I think this second essay was more interesting simply because I had some knowledge of the Kull stories at that point.

Over all, I loved the imagery of the Kull stories, the adventure, the male bonding and camaraderie. REH has this way with words that turns scratches on a page into a full, lush landscape. He would be one of my favorite writers if he included some worthy female characters. Alas, that isn’t to be.

Narration:  Todd McLaren was a good pick for this book. He had that noble, yet gruff, voice for Kull that made me want to strap on a leather loin cloth, arm myself to the teeth, and set off on an adventure with the warrior. He also had excellent voices for other recurring side characters like Brule. There is one cat character that talks and McLaren did a good job making it sound like a snobby cat. His female voices were done well, especially the old crone.

What I Liked:  The cover art; Kull and his sense of nobility; REH’s way with words; the adventure and camaraderie; the final essay.

What I Disliked:  Very few female characters and nearly all of there were ridiculous; the draft versions of the stories were not significantly different and therefore, not particularly interesting.

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