Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme:  So If You Like That Show… – books that remind you of TV series.

When trying to get someone interested in a book or series, I’ve found TV shows are a great way of creating a point of comparison.  Gene Roddenberry famously used this technique to pitch Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars”, but it’s such an obvious thing to do that I’m sure all of us have done it at some point or another. I certainly do with the “So if you like” headings in my columns, and this month I’m going a step further with books that, for various reasons, remind me a lot of certain TV shows that you may or may not have seen.  So if you’re interested in seeing a fresh take on familiar material, you may be interested in the following.

So if you like

The TV series Stranger Things (You’ve probably seen it.)
The movie Leon: The Professional.
A handy guide to life on the run.
Kids with special abilities.
Freaky secret government labs.

You might like

The Broken Room, by Peter Clines

Overview

A retired assassin is convinced to team up with a girl on the run from a freaky government project because she’s having conversations with his dead partner.

Sample passage

He flexed his fingers on the tabletop. “Natalie, I don’t know what they told you, but I’m a very bad man. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to. Now, who sent you here?”

Her head went side to side again. “No, you’re not.”

“Not what.”

“A bad man. Tim says you’re a good man who…” She paused, closed her eyes as if remembering the exact spelling of a long word, and then said, “You’re a good man who did bad things so nobody else had to do them.”

Hector stared at her.

“He also says you owe him for El Salvador.”

“How do you know about him and me in El Salvador?”

“I don’t know what you mean. He said to tell you that you owed him for El Salvador. It’s a marker, and he’s calling it in.”

“Who told you about that?”

“Tim.”

“Tim Steirs is dead! He’s been dead for years.”

“Yes. He said you wouldn’t be this upset about it.”

“About…”

“About him being dead. He said you both knew it was just part of the job. It happens, you accept it, and you go back to work. And he said you’d help me.”

Hector sank back into his side of the booth. The drink called to him again. This time he listened to it.

Natalie sat on her side of the booth and watched him swallow two big mouthfuls of whiskey. Her mouth kept moving. Flexing. It seemed like a nervous habit.

He set the mostly empty glass back down on the table. “You said there were people after you?”

“Yes. Two standard two-man retrieval teams with a tactical support team on standby.”

“Those aren’t terms a little girl usually knows.”

“Tim taught them to me.”

Takeaway

While the Netflix series Stranger Things wasn’t the first to come up with the plotline of “kid with powers on the run from the government” it is one of the more recent examples of it. That concept, along with a few other elements tucked away in The Broken Room certainly create an easy comparison. This book reads like the action movie you’d expect it to be – and I mean that in the best possible way.  If you’re familiar with Clines’ work it’s really easy to see how it could be adapted to screen, which makes for a straightforward narrative with a few interesting and well plotted twists. Indeed, in the afterword, Clines mentions that he pictured The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal playing the main character.  If you’re interested in seeing how the concept of a twelve year old on the run with a dead assassin giving her tips was going to play out, The Broken Room delivers as well as you’d hope it would.

So if you like

The TV series Firefly (You’ve got a friend that’s seen it.)
Space Westerns
Books that really feel like Firefly yet somehow avoid being derivative.
Strong female protagonists with baggage

You might like

Ten Low, by Stark Holborn

Overview

An ex-military drifter with a sketchy past saves a child from a crashed spaceship and discovers that ship was crashed for a reason.

Sample passage

The man’s eyes follow my movements as I haul the tarp from the back of the mule. He’s more alert now, but that does not mean he will live. Folk often have a wave of consciousness before the end. I once read about forest trees on Earth, and how they did much the same: used the last of their strength to send their life force through the roots and into the soil, giving it to others. That was what this stranger had done, in all likelihood, for this child. So be it. One life is better than none at all.

I set up a shelter from the rising sun, stretching the tarp from the post anchored on the mule across to the wreckage. I try to work fast, my eyes on the child, not yet conscious.

‘You,’ the man croaks. ‘Woman. Your name.’

‘Hafsa Gellam,’ I lie, as I tie off the tarp.

I feel his eyes traveling across my sunburned face, half-hidden by the scarf that wraps my neck from collarbone to chin, across my shorn head, my old jacket, my hands, roughened by the winds.

‘Which side?’ he asks.

I open the medkit to check its contents which, in truth, are pitiful. I haven’t been able to bring myself to stop at a trade post for some time and here is the evidence: two rolls of squashed bandage, a bottle of cleaning fluid, a few ampules of analgesics and tranqs and boosters, needles, thread.

‘What does it matter?’ I say, searching for my cleanest rag. ‘War’s over.’

‘Which side?’

‘I didn’t fight.’

‘Everyone fought.’

‘Not here.’

He grunts, as if to say that’s something I can well believe, but when I take out a roll of bandage, his eyes narrow. The bandages are black market, lifted long ago from a consignment headed for the First Accord. At the sight of the double yellow triangles stamped upon the wrappings, he seems to relax.

Whoever he is, he’s given himself away. One way to find out for sure. Kneeling, I unclip the shattered helmet from his flight suit and work it free. As the man gasps in relief, I see the tattoo on his temple, half-hidden by tangled copper hair. The same double triangles that mark the bandages. Beneath them is a thick line. A lieutenant, then. I glance at the ruined craft – a defector?

Takeaway

Objectively, Ten Low is a solid science fiction adventure story about a nameless drifter trying to protect a child who has crashed on a backwater world that is marginally habitable.  It’s well plotted, well paced, and a number of questions that need answering get paid off by the end of it.

If, however, you’re a Browncoat, it does feel like walking into a slightly different version of the ‘verse. It’s setting that feels familiar without being derivative, which is a neat trick, as there are a number of parallels that go beyond just “space western” that are sure to be recognized by fans of Firefly.

[ X ] War between industrialized planets and frontier planets.
[ X ] Main character did stuff in the war, and was on the frontier losing side.
[ X ] Main character’s vehicle is referred to as ‘the mule’.
[ X ] Main character is guarding a child that is most definitely not like other children.
[ X ] Crazy ass (human?) natives that you do NOT want to ever encounter.
[ X ] Train robbery.

However, let’s loop back to the not derivative part – which is a very neat trick to pull off given the number of parallels, but at no time did I ever feel that Ten Low was unoriginal Firefly fan fiction.   The war itself had some interesting twists, the cast is a lot smaller, the kid isn’t entirely a victim, the story only marginally takes place on a spaceship, and there may/may not be some sort of alien life that may/may not be pulling everybody’s strings.
Going in to it more than that would be dropping spoilers, but if you’re looking for a well written space western, or anything that feels like Firefly’s ‘verse – you’ll want to give Ten Low a read.

So if you like

The TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles (You really should see it.)
The movie 12 Monkeys
Changing the past to fix the present and save the future, depending on your perspective
Time travel with limits

You might like

Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds

Overview
A last ditch experimental project is trying to recover from a global environmental collapse by using a team of “pilots” to control people in the past to fix the present. Although as one might expect this comes with some unintended consequences

Sample passage

“She’s seen the Vaymyr. She’s seen Margaret. She’s had flashes, glimpses of upstream.”

“Tibor said the same.”

“Then something’s not working the way it should.”

“Are you terribly surprised? These control structures were a barely tested experimental technology before we started trying to operate them across fifty-two years of time-separation. Cho’s nanotechnology was second-grade ex-military, the only thing anyone could get their hands on now. It’s no wonder it went wrong inside Christos, no wonder it’s not working quite the way it should now. But if that is the only thing that goes wrong with them . . .”

Takeaway

While the plot of The Terminator movies was all about changing the future, the spinoff TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles examined both the effects carrying that burden had on it’s protagonists, and some nasty tricks that could be played when the future was not set.  Permafrost manages to invoke the same atmosphere – bringing the universe of The Terminator to mind while very much being its own story. This is helped by Reynolds’ fresh take on established time travel tropes. For example, showing what happens in the future when you deliberately change it, or having the limitation that a time machine can’t go back to a time before the time machine existed (which does come out of the real world mathematics of time travel).

Overall, the stakes are high, the characters motivations are clear, and there are hints of something going on in the background that provides a mystery to solve later in the novel, which is told with a non-linear chronology (because: time travel). I can’t say much about it apart from I was still thinking about how things fit together days after finishing it…

So, what other books remind you of shows that remind you of books? Leave your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for my next column.

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