Friday, December 4, 2020

"Mutineer," by Mike Shepherd--Fiction Review

Get your space boots on cadet, for this week’s review, we’re blasting off with Mike Shepherd’s military sci-fi novel “Mutineer,” which is the first book in the Kris Longknife series. 

Mike Shepherd

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“Mutineer” features a strong female protagonist that never stoops into the strong super serious badass woman warrior cliché or frilly girly-girl cliché who needs to be saved by her boyfriend. Kris manages to be a strong, capable character who doesn’t sacrifice her femininity or sense of humor. 

With quite a few plates spinning, which the novel pulls off reasonably well, there are bits for many different audiences—action-adventure, political intrigue, military sci-fi, and even the suggestion of an unexpected romance subplot in this story. It’s certainly never slow-paced. 

This novel’s liquid metal starships that can shift into different forms and configurations as needed is a cool science fiction technology that I haven’t seen used before in quite this way. For me, liquid metal shapeshifters have always been terminators. So I thought it was pretty neat how the Typhoon is described as a ship that can morph into various forms to suit its mission parameters or, while in battle, to compensate for damage.  

What I don’t love about this book:

The main character, Kris Longknife, isn’t graced with my favorite protagonist name. So a kris is a type of knife, which means that her name simplifies to knife knife if you think about it—edgy. Okay, I know, cheap for even me. 

I also don’t like the best friend character—and nothing else! Tommy is annoying most of the time. He oscillates between whiny to cowardly too many times to count. For example, when his rich, obviously beautiful peer, Kris Longknife, invites him to her homeworld, his first thought is to whine. Sure her forceful personality didn’t give this wet blanket much choice in the matter, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him as, oh no, they’re going to go sailing on the Longknife family yacht. 

With the disaster relief mission, the whole middle of this book feels like marking time until we can return to the A plot that the book starts off with and ends on, obviously tying into a sequel. It isn’t that the book’s middle is a bad story per se but more like a character development subplot gone awry that dominates the novel.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

This novel starts with our main character Ensign Kris Longknife suiting up with a detachment of space marines—it counts, they’re in space some of the time—to rescue the kidnapped child of a high-level functionary of one of the worlds of the society of humanity. The mission hits several hiccups, possibly sabotage, but Kris’s team ultimately saves the hostage and neutralizes all threats. Then there is a big party, which is incredibly uncomfortable for Kris because she’s always being compared to her famous family, the Longknifes.

Back aboard the Typhoon, Kris is informed that the Typhoon will be drydocked for a few months and that she will have leave. She convinces her friend Tommy to accompany her back to her homeworld. There she meets up with a family friend to discuss her concerns about the gear the kidnappers had, and it’s discovered that while camouflaged to look old, the equipment Kris discovered is actually very advanced. Kris becomes more-and-more concerned that a greater conspiracy is afoot. While home, Kris also hears rumors of a possible break up of the society of humanity—the current galactic government—and feels that somehow the two events are related. This is because the evidence suggests that the kidnapping plot was engineered as a trap to kill Kris and set off an incident with galactic repercussions because her father is the Prime Minister of a powerful world.        

Shortly after, Kris and Tommy get reassigned to a particularly down on its luck colony world for peacekeeping and disaster relief duty while the Typhoon is in dock. This start-up planet suffered a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, which has disrupted the local environment. What follows is a series of events, where Kris, along with Tommy, has to solve several logistical problems to help run the ground naval base and feed the local population. Then they have to deal with raiders, preying on the weak and defenseless, and see some combat against human and natural forces alike.

After their success helping to prop up the colony world, Kris and Tommy eventually find their way back on the Typhoon. Typhoon is deploying, along with its squadron, to meet a fleet coming from the Earth in a fleet action. Supposedly, Earth’s fleet is coming to the outer worlds to formally dissolve the society of humanity, but many suspect it might actually be the start of war. None of this makes too much sense to Kris since Earth’s fleet, while substantial, is severely out of date when compared to the outer rim ships.  

Kris is forced to mutiny against her skipper when she discovers that he’s part of a plot to kick off the very war Kris’s father and grandfathers are hoping to avoid. She finds herself briefly in command of the Typhoon and forced to fight off some of the other ships of her squadron to prevent them from ambushing the Earth delegation.

When the dust settles, Kris has prevented war, but the society of humanity is finished, and humankind has fractured into factions, and the future, has never been more uncertain.  


“Mutineer” feels like two stories, neither of which were quite long enough to fill a novel. Instead of telling these stories sequentially, Shepherd starts in plot A and then shifts hard into plot B, which takes up most of the book, only to swerve back into plot A again for the final few chapters. I guess that’s more creative than just tackling one story, then launch into the next immediately after, but since I can “see,” the novel’s seems and comment on it, I’m not sure that I like it.

While I like Kris Longknife, other than her dumb name, the other characters don’t fill out as well as she does. Often in the narrative, I feel like I am being told who these people are without experiencing them as they are. Yes, I realize that’s an oblique reference to the clichéd advice of “show, don’t tell,” but clichés aren’t always wrong, and I feel like it applies here. Besides Kris, Tommy, who I do not like, is really the only consistently present character. 

I think my problem with the characterizations of the other characters grows from the nexus of three elements. First, the story is told exclusively from Kris’s point of view, and second, there are many moving parts to the plot happening off stage with other characters we don’t see. Finally, and thirdly, since Kris knows a lot of the characters in the plot, to develop them without changing POV characters, we get a lot of editorializing about other characters from Kris’s point of view. This means that we, as the audience, don’t see other characters develop and change, only live up to or fail to meet Kris’s expectations. Again, other than Tommy, whose entire character arc is overcoming his wet blanket-ness—barely—but it is an arc.    

Parting thoughts:

So this book, much like “Homeland,” which I reviewed last week, is the genesis of a long series of books, which has spanned into epic proportions. Over the course of my career as an avid reader, I have gone back and forth on whether or not I like a colossal series of books. They’re certainly intimidating to pick up because the time investment to complete them is undoubtedly significant. I personally can’t understand how people seem to pick up a book series somewhere in the middle and bounce around—that shit would drive me nuts. 

I’ve heard the argument that writers keep a series going, not out of artistic merit, but as some sort of cash grab—and maybe that happens from time-to-time, but it’s an argument that’s never rung true for me. It’s often difficult to ascertain how well anyone book sells in true numerical terms from an outside perspective.  However, a good proxy is to check out how many ratings it has online on sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, et cetera. 

When you look at a series, whichever source you like, you’ll notice a trend. As a series of books goes on, the rating score might remain consistent, but the total number of actual ratings sharply declines the longer the series goes on. It even happens with book series so famous everyone knows of them, even if they’ve never read them, such as Harry Potter. This makes sense in one regard, the first book of any series is the oldest and longest on the market and therefore has had the most time to accumulate ratings from readers. This, however, is only part of the story. With each passing book, there is reader attrition, readers who, for whatever reason, never pick up the next book in the story. So the pool of readers shallows out to only the really dedicated fanbase.

This implies that the first book in any series is probably that series’s bestseller, and from a purely monetary point of view, it would make more sense to write either a short series or, better yet, standalone novels. Again, though, it’s actually more complicated than that because as a series grows in popularity, and dedicated readers get more-and-more invested with each book, they talk to their friends. Word of mouth might inspire a new reader to buy the first book in the series, boosting earlier book sales and creating feedback.

The trick might be, wherein lies the point of diminishing returns monetarily and artistically? I think that’s a question every author needs to ask themselves. I have found in recent years that I’m most comfortable with book series that are either three or four books long, but I will even enthusiastically go in on a book series as high as nine books. Still, once a book series reaches double digits of novels, then my enthusiasm starts to flag.

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