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The Reference Library
Don Sakers

It’s the December issue once again. In American civil society, as well as in many other traditions, it’s a season for the giving of gifts—and I have some recommendations for you.

It’s easy enough to please the science fiction readers on your list. First, a gift subscription to Analog is an ideal gift for anyone who doesn’t already have one. Second, I’ve recommended plenty of good SF books over the last year; it should be easy to find something for just about every SF reader.

But what about those friends and family members (everyone has them) who don’t ordinarily read SF? The trick, of course, is to respect their own reading preferences while still sneaking in some SF. Here are some books that will help you.

Product Details

Like Water For Quarks
Edited by Elton Elliott & Bruce Taylor
MVP Publishing, 312 pages, $20.00
(trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1613641446
Genre: Short Story Anthology

Like Water For Quarks

To begin with, there’s your friend Deirdre (all these names, by the way, are made up), who only reads literary fiction; when she discovered that you liked SF, she insisted that you read Doris Lessing, and you’ve never forgiven her. A few years ago she tricked you into reading The Life of Pi (it had nothing to do with math), and currently she’s been after you to read a 500+ page snoozefest called The Help.

Deirdre is probably familiar with the type of fiction called “magic realism,” which is literary-speak for fiction that contains fantasy elements. But too much fantasy can leave readers lost and confused, so magic realism has to be firmly grounded in today’s familiar world.

Editors Elton Elliott and Bruce Taylor have combed SF and put together this anthology of SF tales that also fall under the magic realism umbrella. There are 21 stories, about a third of them reprints. The authors range from familiar names such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert J. Sawyer, and Connie Willis to relative newcomers. Many are more “speculative fiction” than “science fiction”—for example, George Zebrowski’s “Once We Were Dragons,” is set in a world in which humans descended from dragons instead of apes, and Sawyer’s “Lost in the Mail” involves a reality-bending postal service. Still, these stories aren’t watered down—they’re pure-quill SF, in a friendly wrapper that won’t frighten Deirdre away. With any luck, she’ll soon ask to read more from these LeGuin, Sawyer, and Willis people.

Product Details

Ghost Ship
Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Baen, 328 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
Baen Webscriptions: $15.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3455-9
Series: Liaden Universe: Theo Waitley 3
Genre: Romantic SF

Ghost Ship

Next on the list is Danielle, a voracious reader of romances. She gobbles Harlequins by the bunch, quotes Janet Dailey chapter and verse, and gets most excited each full moon when the new Nora Roberts title hits the stands. (I’m not dissing Roberts, who is a fine storyteller, and who writes legitimate SF mysteries under her J. D. Robb pseudonym.)

For decades now, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee have been writing delightful stories of adventure and romance set in far-future, vaguely space opera milieu known as the Liaden Universe. After long millennia of struggle and diaspora, humanity is split into three subspecies: Terrans (regular humans), the Yxtrang (warmongering brutes), and the Liaden (gentle, philosophical, and more than a little xenophobic). In and out of the long history of the three races runs the Liaden Clan of Korval, whose relations include just about everyone of any importance in the galaxy.

It’s all a rather heady mix of Gordon R. Dickson, The Forsythe Saga, and Victoria Holt, with Lee and Miller’s own unique touches making it all sparkle and fizz. Anyone whose taste runs toward SF in the true romantic tradition can’t help but like the Liaden Universe.

To say the series has had a checked publishing history is like saying Saturn’s rings are a tiny bit on the pretty side. Publishers have abridged the series, cancelled it, abandoned it, even dropped dead in the middle of it. But still Lee and Miller have soldiered on, thanks primarily to a devoted fan base who just won’t let Liaden die. Currently all of the books are available in single and omnibus editions from Baen Books, and new titles are appearing regularly.

For two previous books, Fledgling and Saltation, we’ve been following the career of Theo Waitley, a Terran-Liaden half-breed struggling to make her way as a star pilot in a universe at best indifferent to her. Theo takes after her father, a major Liaden player who’s a legendary maverick—but Theo charts her own course, regardless of what any of her relatives want.

Ghost Ship, which can easily be read without any reference to the other books, is a fitting capstone to Theo’s story. In the end, she makes peace with her demons and finds her place in the universe—but getting there is an exciting trip. And one that friend Danielle will surely enjoy.

Product Details

Deus Ex: Icarus Effect
James Swallow
Del Rey, 341 pages, $15.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-345-52359-4
Genre: Adventure SF, Cyberpunk, Games & Gaming

Deus Ex: Icarus Effect

Then there’s Nephew Zack. He doesn’t read much; he spends most of his time with his Xbox, has posters of Ratchet and Clank on his bedroom wall, and can tell you every minuscule plot element from every version of Halo. You know the kid likes SF—heck, his life is science fiction. If only you could get him to read more. Give Deus Ex: Icarus Effect a try. The game is a popular one, selling more than a million copies in earlier incarnations. The newest version came out this summer. Not a mere shoot-em-up, Deus Ex is a role-playing adventure set in a cyberpunk-flavored near future with all the trimmings: nanotech-enhanced human agents, rogue computer viruses, vast conspiracies. A surprising amount of the actual gameplay involves reading text, so the transition to a tie-in novel is a natural one.

The book is a cracking good yarn set in one of the obscure corners of the Deus Ex world. When Secret Service agent Anna Kelso insists on investigating her partner’s killing against orders, she is suspended—but keeps up the investigation on her own. Soon she’s on the trail of a cover-up involving private paramilitary forces and mysterious hackers. Then she runs into Ben Saxon, another former government agent turned mercenary. Together they go on to tackle the shadowy organization behind everything.

Swallow (who is one of the authors of the new game) knows his stuff, and he’s a good storyteller. Nephew Zack probably already considers you his favorite aunt or uncle; this one will only cement his opinion.


Product Details

Steve White & Charles E. Gannon
Baen, 630 pages, $24.00 (hardcover)
Baen Webscriptions: $6.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3433-7
Series: Starfire
Genre: Military/War SF


How about Cousin Jack who voraciously reads techno-thrillers? His favorite authors are Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts, and Larry Bond (although privately he will admit that the quality Clancy’s writing has declined—a contention that seems to involve a logical impossibility). Big books don’t deter him, nor do series books.

Extremis is a standalone novel in the Starfire series, which Steve White wrote in collaboration with David Weber. Now White steps into the role of senior collaborator, and does a pretty good job of it.

It’s another far-future space opera universe with many different alien races and technologies. The galaxy is tied together by jump points, with the stars like stations on a mass transit line. Nearly a century ago, Humans united with three other races (the Orions, the Ophiuchi, and the Gorm) to form the Grand Alliance to defeat the alien Bugs. In four big books, the Alliance swatted those Bugs good, leaving known space relatively calm.

Of course the Alliance did what governments always do in these books, it got fat and complacent and forgot the fine military traditions of the past.

And now comes the new threat: Another implacable, inimical race; a fleet of city-sized slower-than-light ships fleeing the nova that doomed their homeworld. The newcomers are conquerors; they descend upon a human-colonized planet and learn about human technology, including the FTL drive and jump points.

Now it’s up to old soldiers Sandro McGee, Harry “Light Horse” Li, and their buddies to come to the rescue of the Alliance—which they do with great abandon, throwing force beams and mil-tech acronyms around like grenades. It’s a grand, fun series of battles and campaigns, worthy of anything Dale Brown or Larry Bond ever wrote. Cousin Jack won’t have any problem getting past the “aliens” thing—Nazis, terrorists, drug lords, aliens, it’s all good.


Product Details

Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Spectra, 423 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-553-80770-7
Series: Volstov 4
Genre: Steampunk


Friend D. B. has recently discovered SF and fantasy by way of steampunk; he listens to Abney Park, every piece of clothing he owns is adorned with gears, and he owns sixteen separate pairs of goggles (not to mention three monocles). What to get this budding steampunker?

The Volstov series has everything a steampunk lover is looking for. The empire of Volstov—which combines the most delicious aspects of Byzantium, Catherine the Great’s Russia, and Victorian England—rose to power on the backs of dragons: giant mechanical metal dragons, animated by a mix of science and magic, and ridden by courageous fighter pilots.

It’s now a time of peace, but that peace is a delusion (as is much in Volstov’s intricate, conspiracy-filled government). The illustrious Dragon Corps is dismantled, the riders scattered, and ex-Chief Sergeant Owen Adamo is on the track of nefarious doings in the highest ranks. It seems that the ruler, the Esar, is pursuing a plot to reanimate dead dragons and start another war.

Adamo, of course, is opposed to the idea. But he’s been exiled to the University, and his former associates have also been stripped of their influence and powers. The magician Royston dares not openly confront the court. And Adamo’s former lieutenant, Balfour, is in worse shape: he lost both his hands in the war, and must make do with ugly, clumsy mechanical replacements.

Then along come two students. Laurence is a feisty Amazon (her father wanted a boy), and Toverre, her betrothed, is a genius fop with a penchant for dressing in women’s clothing. This unlikely pair are just the allies Adamo needs to move forward in his opposition to the Esar’s plans.

The rest is high adventure, intrigue, scheming, treachery, and quite a bit of intricate machinery—both metal and social.

Product Details

King Freedom
Uncle River
Fantastic Books, 235 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-60459-924-4
Genre: Dystopian SF

King Freedom

Finally there’s dear sweet Aunt Jenny, who is a bit of a free spirit. She drives a Prius, avoids meat, and distrusts corporations, authority, and technology in general. She might have been at Woodstock; she certainly knows someone who was.

Well, one free spirit deserves another—and just when we need him, here comes Uncle River.

Uncle River, who is no stranger to Analog’s pages, is one of science fiction’s true eccentrics . . . and in a field like ours, that’s saying a lot. For decades Uncle River lived as a hermit and a writer in New Mexico; now he’s reentered the world. And he’s brought along King Freedom, a delightful and thought-provoking tale of dystopia, tyranny, and growing up.

Adolescent Kile Tose lives in a world ruled by Church and State, a world where justice is swift and merciless. We meet him on the day he’s released from prison—after a two-year sentence on trumped-up charges. During that two years, Kile has learned his place. He’s learned to be quiet, to fear authority, to work and do as he’s told. Learned to eliminate anger, aggressiveness, disobedience. Learned not to feel, not to think, not to hope. Learned to avoid attracting attention.

All Kile wants to do is work off his parole, stay out of jail, and get on with his life. But the system won’t leave him alone.

You know how this kind of story is supposed to go. Kile’s supposed to escape, find the resistance, and take a key part in the battle that defeats the evil State and sets everyone free. You’ve read it a million times.

Not this time, though. Kile does eventually escape, and finds those opposed to the system . . . but there’s no revolution, no overthrow of the government, no toppling of the Church. Instead, Uncle River gives us an intense story of how one young man learns how to transcend the limits of his world, and find a freedom that he could never have imagined.

Aunt Jenny’s going to love this one. And before you wrap it up for her, you might want to give it a try yourself. Uncle River isn’t to everyone’s taste (what author is?), but Kile’s story is a rewarding one.

That’s it for this time around. Happy celebrations to all, and may next year bring even better.

Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna and A Voice in Every Wind. For more information, visit Genre and series information is based on listings at

"The Reference Library" copyright © 2011, Don Sakers