It’s been four years since the Confederation and her allies stopped the advance of the Highborn invasion. Now, with sacrifices back home blunting enthusiasm for a much needed defense, Admiral Tyler Barron is compelled to take the fight to the Highborn before they launch a renewed offensive. However, the attack will certainly be a trap, and the Highborn have developed their own fighters. The one advantage the Confederation had over the Highborn is now gone. And as Barron’s fleet flies to certain doom, the Highborn exploit the tensions back home.
Empire’s Ashes is the latest in Jay Allan’s Blood on the Stars series, a worthy successor to Honor Harrington. The past couple books, however, prompted fears about the series growing too fond of desperate last stands and a procession of increasingly stronger enemies. Fortunately, Empire’s Ashes tries something new for the Blood on the Stars series as Tyler Barron embarks open-eyed onto what should have been a naval blunder. As always, the bravery of the men and women of the Confederation is the key to Barron’s success and survival. The stakes are personalized in the fighter duels between the Confederation ace and the Highborn’s mysterious yet familiar ace–a conflict that only heightens the terror of the Highorn’s favorite brand of technological tyranny. The result invigorates a series that had grown comfortable and was drifting close to formulaic.
As an impending asteroid collision threatens to wipe out humanity, “Grim” Jack Mitchell has won the lottery. Not the one for a place in the few shelters set aside for survivors, but for a chance to irreversibly upload his mind into Viridian Gate Online, an MMO designed to survive the cataclysm. Soon after he arrives in game, Grim Jack learns that the offer of eternal paradise in a game hid a dire prison. For the rich, corrupt, and ruthless in the real world have made deals with the programmers to allow them to rule over the millions of unsuspecting players. Worse still, Grim Jack has stolen the key to do so from a violent drug kingpin who is ready to turn Grim Jack’s ticket for survival into eternal torture.
In Viridian Gate Online: Cataclysm, James Hunter uses the threat of extinction and transhumanism as a backdrop to the battle inside the game’s servers. To save millions, design choices, favors, and compromises were made that directly influence the evolution of the in-game story. But it’s still a game, and subject to the familiar, almost cozy tropes of litRPGs and progression fantasies. Thrust into becoming VGO’s equivalent of World of Warcraft’s Thrall, Grim Jack, a former medic, must prevail over hostile players and the increasingly perilous quests the game throws at him if he is going to defeat the drug kingpin out to ruin him. Cataclysm may be a power fantasy, but Grim Jack and his companions are grounded compared to many of his peers, lacking the indulgences common to the genre. For instance, the flamboyances of 2018 harem fantasies are nowhere to be found. As for the rattle of virtual dice and the crunch of rules, Hunter minimizes the intrusion of video games elements without shying away from the reality of playing a game in an immersive environment. But for those what want the coziness of a Let’s Play video, the encounters are pretty crunchy and consistent with the rules laid out by the story. Those readers looking for an introduction to litRPGs will find none better.