Thursday Reviews: In Her Name: Confederation by Michael Hicks

In Her Name: Confederation

Michael R. Hicks

Indie scifi writer Michael R. Hicks takes his creation, Reza Gard, back to humanity, picking up the thread left off in In Her Name: Empire. Gard comes bearing a letter from a long-dead Marine colonel recommending him for the Confederation Marine Corps. This causes a stir among the Confederation’s leadership, as well as a split between the uber-hawks and everyone else. The ultra-conservative faction wants Gard’s brain subjected to a destructive scan that, it is later deduced, would reveal very little about humanity’s sworn enemy, the Kreel. So, in an effort to at least learn how and why the Kreel fight, they make him a Marine. He picks up a series of friends along the way, including a reunion with his childhood friend Nicole Carre. He is befriended by a fighter pilot-turned-Marine commander Jodi Mackenzie and a near-washout in basic with the unlikely name of Eustis Camden. A hardliner in the Confederation Senate has Gard and Camden buried in the Corps’s undesirable “Red Legion.” Gard’s presence turns his batallion into an elite wing of the legion.

Which is good. Because Gard and his Marines have to help quell a brewing civil war on a planet critical to the war effort. Things get worse when the conservative faction goes outside the lines and attempts to tip the balance toward the planet’s wealthy at about the time Gard and his closest cohorts stumble onto an ancient Kreel artifact that threatens the planet and the human race with annihilation.

Hicks comes across more confident in this one. Confederation‘s prose is tighter and better paced than Empire. Part of this is Reza Gard being the fish out of water among a group of humans. So instead of trying to convey an alien race and their alien mindset, Hicks is now using Gard to look at humans themselves. The book has a lot in common with John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, as well as Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and Ender’s Game. Like Scalzi’s work, however, Hicks’ aliens are refreshingly non-insectoid. (At what point does some SF writer realize that humanity’s salvation is a cosmic-sized can of Raid?)

Thursday Reviews: In Her Name: Empire, 1776

IN HER NAME: EMPIRE

Michael R. Hicks

Reza Gard is the child of human colonists who are slaughtered by the Kreelan, a fierce alien humanoid race who are relentless in their campaign against the Confederation. Reza survives an encounter with a warrior priestess and is rescued. Only he winds up on a farm planet that’s a dumping ground for war orphans. Somehow, Reza manages to bring the Confederation down on the abusive orphanage system as well. So, Reza’s set, right? Wait until he’s old enough and become a Marine.

Well… The Kreelan have other ideas. They kidnap all the children on the farming planet and take them back to their empire. Reza is then bonded to a warrior named Esah-Zhurah, who treats him like an animal. Reza, despite being looked upon by Kreelan society as little more than a domesticated beast, is to train with Esah-Zhurah and bond with her to determine if humans do, in fact, have souls. What starts out as a captor-prisoner relationship becomes, over time, a partnership, then a friendship, and eventually, love.

This is Hicks’ first Kreelan novel, and the first chapter is a little shaky to get through. But once the focus is squarely on Reza and his ever-shifting situation, Hicks catches his groove. The story has a strong YA appeal and is light on high tech trappings. The Kreelan use space ships and heavy weapons to deal with humans in interstellar space, but their homeworld is rather medieval in its culture and architecture. That’s not to say this is a sword and sorcery tale. Far from it. The Kreelan are as alien as one can get while still closely resembling humans, and the absence of males is one of the more original twists on alien mating habits I’ve seen in a while. (I suspect Hicks is a Larry Niven fan.)

Currently, the book is free on Amazon, but if you miss the giveaway, it’s still worth the normal $2.99.

1776

David McCullough

I read this one a few years ago, and this time I revisited it on audio. McCullough’s history of the year America declared independence shows just how the odds were against the fledgling nation. It also shows how King George III blew it before anyone in Congress said the word “independence” on the record. Rather than asking the colonies what the problem was (Siphoning off money and restricting commerce without allowing anyone to represent them in Parliament), His Majesty send the Brothers Howe to lay the smack down on Boston. With an untrained army of farmers ready to leave the minute their enlistments ended, George Washington noticed that the British army had holed up in Boston, then limited to a single peninsula. After pilfering a few old cannons from a former British force in upstate New York, the Continental Army simply cut off the city, took over Dorchester Heights, and proceeded to shell the British. They left.

Now, of course, it’s easy to get cocky when you just chased the world’s first superpower out of town. And that’s exactly what the Continental Army did when they moved to New York to defend against a British invasion. The army got cocky. Washington, historically the very definition of confidence and stability, seems to have lost his mojo. In Washington’s defense, he was undermined by General Charles Lee, a man who thought himself the George Washington of his generation (which, incidentally, was also Washington’s generation) and had to do without Nathaniel Green, stricken by illness as the British invaded Long Island. Much is made of Washington’s cat-and-mouse games with the British in the woods of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the hardiness of his men during that rough winter at Valley Forge, and the surprising discipline showed in the South after the arrival of Lafayette and von Steuben. However, it all nearly came to an end in a comedy of errors in New York, when Washington couldn’t make up his mind how whether to attack or retreat and seemed afraid to make a move without Congress.

It took a humiliating rout in Manhattan to cure him of that. By the time, Washington reached Trenton in December, he had resolved to use the British army’s overconfidence to his advantage, taking the Hessians in New Jersey prisoner on Christmas Day, 1776. That was enough to convince his demoralized army to give him an extra month on their enlistments, during which Washington repeated the feat. That in turn guaranteed fresh recruits for Washington and an end to any hope the British had for a short war in North America.

All narrated by David McCullough.

Ebookery: Michael R. Hicks

Michael R. Hicks is one of the most successful independent writers out there today. He began with his epic In Her Name series, about a protracted war between humans and the Kreelan. Hicks consistently ranks high in sales on Kindle. He recently published a book explaining his system, and his motivations for going the indie route.

Let’s begin with what brought you to where you are. Describe the In Her Name series.
In Her Name is sort of a mix of space opera, military science fiction, fantasy, and romance all rolled into one. The stage is set against the backdrop of a century-long interstellar war between humanity and the alien Kreelan Empire, a race of warlike humanoids who seem hell-bent on humanity’s destruction. The war isn’t over resources, territory or the like, however: it’s to find a human who has a soul as the Kreelans define it, a human who can release their race from an ages-old curse that will eventually lead the Kreelans to extinction.
When the series (or at least the core of it, as I haven’t discarded the idea of doing “spinoff” novels) is complete, there will be three trilogies. The first one, which includes First Contact, Legend of the Sword, and Dead Soul, which was just released, focuses on the start of the war, and is tilted more in the direction of military science fiction with a bit of fantasy mixed in. The second trilogy has yet to be written, but will focus on some of the characters that appear in the third and final trilogy, which includes Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle (and which are all contained in the “omnibus edition” of the book). Each of the trilogies focuses on a separate set of characters and what they have to go through, spread across the hundred years of the war.
Another set of books will tell the story of the founding of the Kreelan Empire, but we’ll save that for another day!
You also have a present-day thriller, Season of Harvest. What is that about?
Season of the Harvest is a parable about the dangers of genetically engineered organisms. The premise is that all the food we’re eating that is based on “GMO” (genetically modified organisms) crops might not be quite what we think it is. What if there was a dark design behind it, and our food was being used to help exterminate us?
This is what FBI Special agent Jack Dawson has to sort out after his partner and best friend is brutally murdered. He at first believes it’s the work of a shady band of eco-terrorists, but soon finds that not all is as it seems, and what starts as a single murder explodes into a plot to exterminate humanity.
You started out trying to sell to traditional publishers. How long did you go that route before going independent?
I submitted the manuscript for In Her Name (what’s now the omnibus edition, because that’s how it was originally written) to a dozen or so publishers. To be honest, I don’t even remember how many now, as this was back in 1994. Could I have worked it harder? I’m sure, but I suspect the result would have been the same. I didn’t know then what I know how, and there’s no way any publisher would have picked up that book: too long, too unconventional in some ways.
So In Her Name sat under my desk in a box until 2007, when I found out about Kindle publishing. I spent that winter scanning in the thousand or so pages of the full manuscript, and published it in May 2008.
How long did you work the indie route before your books started to catch on?
By the end of 2008, I’d say I was making roughly $300-400 a month from my royalties, on average. That continued with various ups and downs until February of this year, when I published Season of the Harvest. Then, well, things exploded: my royalties soared from a few hundred a month to $30,000 for both June and July.
And that’s where things got really interesting, because starting in August, sales began tapering off. By September things were down to $10,000 or so. That’s still a whopper of a royalty check, but it’s not a trend I want to see continue!
My cure for that is to keep writing. I hadn’t put out anything since February, and sales wont’ stay up in the air forever. Dead Soul was just published at the start of this month and is doing well, but I plan to try and put out a book at least every three months so my family and I can keep paying the bills!
In your book about e-publishing, you’re pretty specific about how you approached marketing. Other authors seem to be intentionally vague about the subject. Do you see an advantage in sharing the wealth, so to speak?
This is something I learned while working 26 years at the National Security Agency: teamwork wins. Period. People who share knowledge, who build coalitions and partnerships, can leverage a tremendous amount of power for mutual benefit. Other authors, even science fiction or thriller authors, aren’t my competition, their my allies. Readers will buy what they want, when they want. Chances are that if those readers like one of my friends’ books, they’ll like mine, and vice versa. Even if they don’t, what harm does it do me if I point a reader at another author’s books? If they don’t like mine, I’m not losing anything. If they do like mine, I’m still not losing anything, but the reader may discover another favorite author based on my recommendation. So what’s the downside?
As I’ve said repeatedly on Twitter, it’s about coalition, not competition. Besides, working together is a lot more fun!

Thursday Book Reviews – 10/4/11: Carte Blanche, Pistol Poets, The Path to Self Publishing Success

CARTE BLANCHE

By Jeffrey Deaver

Following EON Productions’ reboot of James Bond with Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s estate does the same in print with Carte Blanche, the first original Bond novel since Sebastian Faulks Devil May Care. To succeed Faulks and longtime series author Raymond Benson, they recruited Jeffrey Deaver, no slouch as a thriller writer, to reimagine Bond as a present day agent. The Bentley Continental is still present, as is the curmudgeonly M (Admiral Miles Messervy of the original novels and movies, not the Judi Dench-based character, though she certainly would fit in here), Moneypenny, the CIA’s Felix Leiter, and Q. Only his name is not Q. He is an Indian technical wiz named Sanu Hirani.

That’s not the only change. MI6 is not front and center. Bond works for a super-secret, questionably authorized organization with the bland name Overseas Development Group. Why? Well, you can’t be a secret agent in MI6 these days. Hell, the headquarters showed up in the last four James Bond movies.

In a nutshell, our new Bond, mid-30’s and a veteran of Afghanistan, is assigned by M to find out what garbage mogul Severn Hydt is up to. Hydt is one of the strangest Bond villains ever, a man with long fingernails and an unhealthy, almost sexual obsession with death and decay. It’s this fetish that throws Bond and Felix Leiter (pre-shark bite, we assume) onto the wrong trail while trying to stop what’s been labeled “Incident 20.”

The women in Carte Blanche are certainly worthy of a Fleming novel, from Ophelia “Philly” Maidenstone, Bond’s analyst coworker in the ODG, to tough-as-nails South African cop Bheka Jordan to the clearly Flemingesque Felicity Willing. But the regular characters seem almost cursory. M has one or two good scenes. Moneypenny is talked about more than portrayed, and Mary Goodnight is so generic I wondered why Deaver included her.

It’s a fun novel about a guy named James Bond, and it’s clearly better than anything John Gardner foisted upon us in the 1980’s, but it lacks some of the edge that the Fleming Bonds and even Faulks’ retro effort had. But since Deaver isn’t trying to force-fit Daniel Craig into a storyline that originally predated Sean Connery, it wouldn’t hurt to see what he does next. Read this more for Deaver than for Bond.

PISTOL POETS

By Victor Gischler

Full disclosure: I never took up golf as a favor to Vic so he would never lose a golf game to me. (Actually, the few times I’d played, he would have nothing to worry about.)

This is Gischler’s second novel and one from his Plots With Guns days. Visiting professor Jay Morgan starts his day off badly. His latest one-night stand has OD’d in his bed. Meanwhile, St. Louis drug lieutenant Harold Jenks assumes the identity of a grad student after a mugging goes bad. What do these two things have to do with each other? Well, Jenks and Morgan run afoul – separately – of the college’s cross-dressing dean, Fumbee, OK’s local drug dealer, and a private detective who is as depraved as he is inept. On the upside, an aspiring novelist thinks sleeping with Morgan is the perfect way to start her career. Make sense?

Of course not! It’s a Gischler novel. Chaos reigns, and you spend about 340 pages trying to figure out which character is the punchline to this joke. (Spoiler alert: All of them.) A worthy successor to Gun Monkeys.

THE PATH TO SELF PUBLISHING SUCCESS

Michael R. Hicks

In this modern era of ebooks and independent writers, you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting someone who wants to sell you a book on how to sell a gazillion copies. I’ve read two in recent weeks, one of which had lots of exclamation points!!!!

Michael Hicks, a science fiction writer going to the indie route, did not abuse the exclamation points. And before I spent an admittedly small amount, I actually checked his Amazon rank for his In Her Name series. After all, how many books on getting published, selling a gazillion books, and writing that bestseller have we seen over the years by writers who never wrote a bestseller (and worse, dispensed their advice via PublishAmerica or iUniverse)?

Hicks’ advice is similar to that of ebook bestseller John Locke’s, but Hicks is more specific, doesn’t beat around the bush, and isn’t dogmatic about how to go about one’s business. One of Hicks’ principles is self-improvement. You need to work on the author before you work on the story, and you need to have a story before you can even worry about marketing. He also warns against being obnoxious in self-promotion, essential for the independent ebook author.

I took the risk on his book because it was cheap, and Hicks has sold a few books. But I downloaded a couple of his novels because his marketing book had something I’ve seen too many supposed writing guides lack: Hicks can write.