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Book Review: The Burning Skies by David J. Williams

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For whatever reason, series abound in science fiction and fantasy. You can't go through those sections of a bookstore or library without seeing a large number of authors who have embarked on a series. Yet one of the problems that poses for a writer is how much space should be spent trying to bring a new reader up to speed. Should subsequent books stand alone entirely? Should there be an introduction or appendix that allows new readers to get up to date but which prior readers can skip? Or should relevant background be passed along as necessary as the current tale unfolds? There is no uniformly appropriate answer.

David J. Williams takes a somewhat modern, if not entirely satisfactory, approach with The Burning Skies, the second book of a planned trilogy. He seeks to educate newcomers in broad strokes in first 20 or so pages about what transpired in The Mirrored Heavens, the first book in the series. Other than that, there are occasional snippets passed on in the text and an organizational chart of the main characters but which does not really explain any prior interactions. As for the Earth of 2110 in which the story is set, Williams puts greater detail on a related web site rather than as an appendix or supplement to the book.

The themes and approaches of the two books are entirely consistent, though. The ultimate goal is political and military control of the world. The cyberpunk-edged battles for control are seen through some of the leaders and secret operatives of different geopolitical powers and often competing government entities. The operatives in particular are the continuing character base. They include Carson, Spencer and Lynx, physically modified and trained "razors," agents who immerse themselves into electronic/cyberspace networks or "zones," usually as part of a team. Claire, a main focus of the book, is a breakthrough "super-razor," with implications of being almost a post-Singularity messiah. The razors work with "mechanics," heavily armed and armored agents who can physically carry out missions facilitated by a razor hacking into and undermining opponents in the zones. In the first novel, Autumn Rain, a terrorist group, attacked a space elevator. In The Burning Skies, all hell breaks loose on the orbiting Europa Platform, although it is unclear who is trying to trap who, Autumn Rain, the U.S. or the Eurasian Coalition.

The strongest stylistic thread between the two books is virtually nonstop action. The characters often escape death in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, although thousands of soldiers and civilians are not quite so fortunate. In fact, once the characters take their places on or near the Europa Platform, the vast majority of the first 250 or so pages are filled with rapidly paced descriptions of continuing battles between and among the geopolitical entities and their agents and soldiers. Williams quickly cuts from the point of view of one group of characters to another, rarely spending more than two pages on each before changing again. Even more so than The Mirrored Heavens, the feel is like that of a first-person shooter video game in which the reader continually jumps from shooter to shooter, although all of them are on the same side (supposedly). As Williams has acknowledged, some have even called his style "combat porn."

Yet it's not just the battles that are no holds barred. Within and among the various groups and alliances, there are conspiracies and double dealing within double dealing and conspiracies. In fact, when the last third or so of The Burning Skies moves to Earth, the action sequences subside as Williams presents a somewhat neuropsychogical exploration of Claire. Still, the plot continues to try to both hide the ball and slowly reveal the hidden machinations and intrigues.

Personally, I prefer the more thought-provoking aspects of "soft" science fiction over the warfare inherent in military science fiction, especially when the battles royal are as unrelenting as here. As a result, Williams' continuing, if not increased, focus on action as opposed to the political, historical and sociological aspects of this future Earth makes this the weaker of the two books from my perspective. But if you enjoyed The Mirrored Heavens because of its action or are a fan of fast-paced and ferocious combat SF, The Burning Skies should not disappoint.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
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