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.

“He’s just a one-trick pony, that’s all he is,
But he turns that trick with pride.”
-One Trick Pony, Paul Simon

This column’s theme: One Trick Ponies. Characters that have some minor special ability…and that’s it. They don’t have multiple super powers, they’re not going to just blast their problems away with their trick – but used the right way, in the right situations, it can get them out of jams. Since they have to think and be creative, they usually end up surprising themselves and the reader.

So with that said, let’s trot out a few one trick ponies.

So if you like

Spies with secret powers
Science fiction on the lighter side
Cruise ship mysteries

You might like:

Waypoint Kangaroo Curtis C. Chen

Where the trick is: an extradimensional space for his stuff.

Overview

Codename Kangaroo is a secret agent with the ability to stash objects in a nearby dimension. When his latest mission goes less than perfect, he’s told to go on vacation for a while, but he soon begins to suspect that his cruise to Mars may not be entirely recreational.

Sample passage

So for the last five years, the agency has deployed operatives on a wide variety of glamorous missions, from space junk cleanup to investigating possible signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. No aliens yet, but it’s amazing how paranoid people can get when you pay them to think up worst-case scenarios. Also no faster-than-light travel, though we have scavenged some pretty killer new tech from other people’s failed experiments. In fact, I have a few of those derivative gadgets hidden in the pocket right now, including one very large—

Wait. Is it possible Fakey’s looking for me?

Exfiltration is always the hardest part of the job. Even if nobody suspects anything, you still know you’re guilty, and it only takes one slip at the wrong moment to give yourself away.

Just take it easy, Kangaroo. Don’t wig out until there’s an actual reason.

This is not how the operation was supposed to go. I shouldn’t be flying solo. Reynaldo was the primary. He was the one who spoke Kazakh, the one who knew our contact, the one who would recognize the item we were sent to retrieve. I was just along for the ride.

But you know what they say: the best laid plans of mice and kangaroos often go awry.

Takeaway

I’ve been wanting to review this for quite a while, but it had to wait until I came up with a third book for the column. This was a fun adventure story, with good pacing and some interesting twists. Kangaroo is more of a smartass than James Bond, (although he does sport some better gadgets), so it’s no surprise when things don’t go exactly as planned, but he’s also smart enough to think his way out of them. His ability to stash all kinds of things in a parallel dimension is that magic trick of pulling a rabbit or an anvil out a hat, and, as you’d hope, it’s put to some very creative uses.  Waypoint Kangaroo is a standalone story, but if you like it, there’s the follow up: Kangaroo Too.

Trivia: Curtis C. Chen used a rubber stamp with the logo of the Martian cruise line when he autographed books. I don’t know if he still does, but it was a nice touch that I’ve never heard of another author doing.

Or if you like:

Resourceful female lead characters
Grittier fantasy worlds, like Glen Cook’s Black Company
Less gritty fantasy worlds, like Fred Saberhagen’s Swords books
Magic with limits

You might like

Hall of Smoke, by H.M. Long

Where the trick is: setting people on fire.

Overview

A priestess of a demigod of war gets pulled into a war among gods, and begins to think that maybe everything she’s been told to believe isn’t entirely accurate…

Sample passage

My stomach fluttered. “I saw him in the mountains, in my vision. Maybe he’s connected to all this. I just can’t imagine how.”

“Is he human?”

I hesitated, greasy fingers reaching out to pluck more meat from the thinning hare. “Yes. I sensed nothing unnatural about him, except… I can’t use my Fire around him. I think your mother is withholding it.”

“‘Unnatural’.” Ogam’s mouth twisted into a grin. “We gods created you. You are the ones that did not naturally arise. That is odd though, about your Fire. My mother is petty at times, but not quite so.”

I remembered Omaskat’s heresy about the gods being created by divinities even more powerful than they, but I refused to get sidetracked. “As far as I could tell, Omaskat is as human as the next Algatt.”

“And Vistic? This baby?” Ogam pressed. “Is he human?”

I let my hand drop. “Why do you keep asking if people are human?”

“It is a question no one asks enough. Do you know how many gods are posing as humans at any given time, meddling and mating and spying? No. Of course you do not. You’ve never been taught to ask, and oh, how the gods love to masquerade, how good they are at it. Learn to ask the right questions, Eangi, and you will go far.”

Takeaway

While Hall of Smoke reminded me in some ways of grimdark novels by Glen Cook or Joe Abercrombie, it’s not quite that grim or dark. At the same time, there’s a conflict between tribes and an empire, gods and demigods are walking the earth, and things do not go easy for our protagonist, Hessa. While she does have the ability to summon divine strength, and set enemies on fire with a thought, it is a limited use power, which means she can’t just clean house every time a sword is drawn, and spends a lot of time recovering from setbacks. The fact that she’s not ‘the chosen one’ (well, perhaps a chosen one, among a bunch of others) adds some tension and creates an engaging read where the reader is wondering how she is going to get out of the set of problems she’s currently in.

There are some interesting twists here and some character development as Hessa realizes that not everything she thought was true about the world actually is. My only quibble with the book is that it does take a while to get going – I felt the first 20% was mostly setup, but I’d attribute that to being more first novel problems than anything else – but once it got rolling it was great. Given that it is a fantasy novel, and trilogies seem to be mandatory these days, it is unusual that Hall of Smoke seems to tell a complete story, so those of you that don’t want to wait years for a full story to be told need not worry.

 Or if you like:

Science fiction with that 70’s feel
Future crimes
Stories like Ringworld, set in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe
Future noir, like Blade Runner

You might like
Flatlander: The Collected Tales of Gil “The Arm” Hamilton,* by Larry Niven

Where the trick is: a feeble telekenetic arm that can reach through objects and poke around.

Overview

This collection of mysteries revolving around to-be-invented crimes is set in Niven’s Known Space universe and features an ex asteroid miner in the role of hard boiled detective who works for the UN’s police wing, running down criminals who kidnap people to sell their organs for transplant.

Sample passage

An electric cord trailed from the top of the cylinder and ran to a small wall socket. The cylinder was a droud, a current addict’s transformer. I stepped closer to the corpse and bent to look. The droud was a standard make, but it had been altered. Your standard current addict’s droud will pass only a trickle of current into the brain. Owen must have been getting ten times the usual charge, easily enough to damage his brain in a month’s time. I reached out and touched the droud with my imaginary hand. Ordaz was standing quietly beside me, letting me make my examination without interruption. Naturally he had no way of knowing about my restricted psi powers. Restricted was the operative word. I had two psychic powers: telekinesis and esper. With the esper sense I could sense the shapes of objects at a distance; but the distance was the reach of an extra right arm. I could lift small objects, if they were no further away than the fingertips of an imaginary right hand. The restriction was a flaw in my own imagination. Since I could not believe my imaginary hand would reach further than that. . . it wouldn’t. Even so limited a psi power can be useful. With my imaginary fingertips I touched the droud in Owen’s head, then ran them down to a tiny hole in his scalp, and further.

Takeaway

These stories, for obvious reasons, have that 70’s sci-fi feel. Everybody smokes, free love is a thing, and there are some interesting takes as to where the future was going. Plus, it has some of that “future noir” feel, although that may just come from it being a spin on 30’s detective stories.
Also, there’s a number of interesting boxes this collection checks:
Locked room murder – check.
Scientist killed with a kooky device – check.
Gods of biomechanics – check.
Kidnapping with a gnarly twist – check!

I was pleasantly surprised how well it held up from when I’d read it in the early 80’s. Apart from the shallow portrayals of women (which were not out of line for the time, but are noticeable today), and a few bits about computers, it hasn’t aged too badly. It also comes out well in the Blade Runner comparison as it was written 7 years before that movie (and I mean the movie, not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) hit theaters. Readers familiar with the movie can decide for themselves if certain elements were coincidence…or inspiration.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

*And in Niven’s universe, a Flatlander was someone from Earth, not Massachusetts.

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