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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Overthrowing Heaven" (Jon & Lobo #3) by Mark Van Name (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Mark L. Van Name Website
Order "Overthrowing Heaven" HERE(US) and HERE(Europe/Overseas)
Order "Overthrowing Heaven" as a drm-free ebook HERE
Read the first 16 chapters from "Overthrowing Heaven" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Mark Van Name's debut "One Jump Ahead" introduced Jon Moore mercenary ex-soldier and a man of many secrets that are so dangerous that he must live alone and make no attachments, and partner Lobo, personal AI warship (PCAV) mooning as park statue/exhibition on an obscure world at the time, an AI ship of many secrets that would not do for anyone to know. The novel was a no-holds barred page turner that made me a fan of the series for the duration.

The moment Baen released the e-arc of the second installment "Slanted Jack",
a triple cross scheme with an unusual boy wanted by various parties and who is in the care of con-man expert and on and off partner of Jon, "Slanted" Jack of the title, I bought it and read it and of course once "Overthrowing Heaven" was released, it was another buy and read on sight as are further installments.

While "One Jump Ahead" introduces us to the universe of the series which is today's writ large on a Galactic scale, "Slanted Jack" focused a lot on Jon's background and naturally "Overthrowing Heaven" deals with Lobo's past.

OVERVIEW: Outside of the Galactic scale, the major difference between Jon & Lobo's universe and ours is the relative lack of ideological and religious difference as important movers of society. Otherwise you could recognize the bureaucrat ready to defend his or her turf at all costs, the local politician caught in the vise of the powerful corporations and the far away government, the corporations that vie for domination, and here in the third installment the corrupt local clique which rules a planet at the intersection of two major power spheres of influence and decides to play one against the other to keep its unsavory hold on power. Familiar, I bet!

There are some specific twists of course. FTL happens by way of "Gates" sprinkled around by some mysterious and vanished elder civilization, which have the one notable property that they do not tolerate violent action in a (relatively) small radius around. Gate traffic as the crux of interstellar travel is controlled by the various governments around and a planet's importance strongly depends on the number of its gates and its location in the "gate network".

Again a typical setup of modern space opera; actual FTL through our Einsteinian universe leads to well known paradoxes, so the wormhole way is a typical work-around and since nobody today actually knows how to build said wormholes, (vanished) elder civilizations are convenient, though quite a few books use naturally occurring ones too.

Most important and unique to the series, there is the only planet settled by sub-light colony ship. With the quirky name of Pinkelponker, it is also a planet of high natural radioactivity that led to mostly deadly mutations and supposedly also to the development of some extraordinary psychic powers by some inhabitants. Hence it has been quarantined for a century and more now and it attained an aura of danger and mystery. There are supposedly descendants of locals who were visiting out-planet when the quarantine has been imposed, but what nobody knows is that Jon Moore our narrator and main hero is a native.

Born mentally impaired and growing up as a very slowly developing child called Benjy, he was taken for lab experiments by the amoral authorities; later he was healed by his sister who supposedly had some unusual powers and acquired some powers of his own including ability to talk with machines, extraordinary regenerative powers and very slow aging.

Escaping Pinkelponer around quarantine time, Jon is forced to keep everything about him as a secret since if there is one thing he fears most of all is becoming a lab rat again. Luckily technology is advanced so people can restore some youthful semblance for a while, so he can get away with the same persona for many decades, the human settled space is large and he has escaped detection so far while being a mercenary, soldier and general all around "tough guy".

The other main character Lobo, a suposedly regular (small) warship AI, obedient to humans and without a "soul" has secrets of his own and this novel explores them among other things.

"Overthrowing Heaven" stands at about 400 pages divided in 64 chapters all narrated by Jon. I loved the ending a lot, since for once when the chips are on the table there is the time for real bullets not tranquilizer ones!!

ANALYSIS: Jon Moore wants to "stay human"
so he tries to do the right stuff! In book one, he wants to help find a kidnapped girl, in book two, despite deep weariness towards Slanted Jack, he still agrees to help Manu the un-well boy with supposedly unusual powers that needs money for treatment, while in book 3 Jon agrees to help a woman escape an abusive relationship. In each case it turns out that deeper agendas are at work, bureaucrats and corporation higher-ups are manipulating Jon, though usually they *live* to regret it.

There are no "true evil" characters, the one closest so far is doctor Wei, from this book but while he is dedicated to his work "for the greater good" as he sees it, Wei is enabled in his work by governments that want the results but cannot be afford to be seen supporting the means.

And pity the poor people, actually kids these days being more "flexible", that have to suffer, it's to their good too since humanity will remember them as martyrs of science and anyway they were mostly not well cared by their parents since after all "how could they be kidnapped with all this modern surveillance around ?" as Wei muses in a particular cruel line to the mother of one such little boy.

Nothing new again and while skirting the sf archetype of "evil scientist", Wei also comes up as a "reasonable" person. Just not a particulary humane one, but he would be just a jailbird or a fugitive without massive collusion from others.

And I really like the "no save the universe against the evil darklord heroics," no escalation of stakes so far, just great adventures, connecting with each other and having real consequences for the characters, while Jon and Lobo truly grow on the reader.

Also the violence while undeniably there, is more toned down than in many similar series and the body count tends to be low since as mentioned tranquilisers are the prefered option.

As the character of Jon demands, female companionship is to be avoided for fear of entanglements, but each book features strong heroines: former squad-mate and current mercenary leader Lim in "One Jump Ahead", "bodyguard" Maggie in "Slanted Jack".

"Overthrowing Heaven" features not one, but two very strong women leads, resistance fighter Pri Suli and highly paid courtesan Matahi and the truly mysterious and dazzling one ( I will leave to the reader figuring out who) may be quite a match for Jon Moore so I would love to see her again.

Lobo with his quirky personality has some great, great lines and I strongly recommend to give the books a try - nothing easier but clicking on the links provided above which lead you to lots and lots of free chapter excerpts on Baen's Webscription site.

This series is slowly evolving into one of my all time adventure sf ones and each book only added to my enjoyment so far. I plan to get and read all further installments asap, as well as review then here as long as I co-edit FBC.

Highly, highly recomended; fun, great heroes, great action, but heartbreak and tragedy too, no fairy tale in "Overthrowing Heaven" !!


Unknown said...

This looks like a good series. Thanks for pointing it out to me as now I'm going to have to go hunting for the first book myself.

Liviu said...

Baen/Webscriptions has extensive excerpts from all books in the links above (lots of chapters) so it's easy to check and see how you like them; I got hooked on the first volume by the second chapter and bought all on the spot when published


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