BOOK REVIEW: Corporate Gunslinger by Doug Engstrom

written by David Steffen

Corporate Gunslinger is a science fiction action/drama novel by Doug Engstrom premiering this week with Harper Voyager. Full disclosure: Doug has been a friend for years and is a member of the same small writing group as me, this review was based on an advanced reader copy from the publisher.

Kira is deeply in debt, so deeply that she has decided to sign a contract to become a gunslinger who settles disputes for a major corporation by representing them in good-old-fashioned gun duel (albeit with science fictional tweaks to the format). The story takes place in a sadly-plausible future United States where this is the norm. She must fulfill her contract to make enough money to have a chance of paying off her debt. The alternative is worse: lifelong debt slavery enforced by a chip that makes sure she is always under their control.

Kira is not the fastest, nor the most accurate, but she is working hard to get better at both, and her background gives her an edge that others don’t have. She was a theater major hoping to make it big and she intends to use this the best she can to better understand her opponents and convey the persona she wishes to convey. If she wants to stay alive and in control of her own life she has to find a way to win matches and live with herself afterward.

This story is dark and not for the light-hearted, but I think that it is a glimpse at a future we would better avoid. Kira is a relatable protagonist though she is pressed into doing terrible things on behalf of her corporate employer to save herself. It is no lighthearted book but it is compelling and Kira is easy to root for in her seemingly impossible situation. I quite enjoyed it and am happy to recommend it.

Corporate Gunslinger’s official release date is June 16, 2020. I hope you check it out!

BOOK REVIEW: The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

written by David Steffen

The Prey of Gods is a science fiction and fantasy novel from Harper Voyager, the premier novel by Nicky Drayden.

The book takes place in a future South Africa, where there are a lot of improvements for the future–everyone has a helper android to help make life easier, and the booming genetic engineering business in Port Elizabeth has revitalized the town.

A hallucinogenic drug is gaining popularity, awakening long-dormant parts of the human brain.  And living among us are those who are more than human.  Sydney is a demigoddess who has been laying low for decades, living a subsistence lifestyle for her kind, but she sees opportunity in the state of the world to rise again to her former glory.  The unlikely group of people to stop her: Muzi, a gay teenager living with a traditionalist grandfather and who is discovering his ability to to control minds, Riya, a superstar pop singer who hides her medical condition, Nomvula, a young Zulu girl discovering her own power, and a politician who has a secret second life as a woman (and a singer).

The biggest strengths of the book (and by extension my first sampling of Drayden’s novel-length writing) are: ignoring genre boundaries, strong relatable characters, a sense of humor, and solid action elements that never let the reader be bored.

One of the things I really liked about the book is that it was solidly science fantasy.  There were strong elements of both science fiction (intelligent robot helpers, genetic engineering, technological progression beyond the current time), and fantasy (demigoddesses, other myths proved true).  I feel like publishers too often tend to pigeonhole books into being clearly either science fiction or fantasy–that is important for some stories (The Martian would’ve been ruined if fantasy elements were added for instance) but I would like to see more stories like this that freely mix the two.  The boundary between is in many cases entirely arbitrary, so why not mix them when it makes a more interesting story.

I wasn’t sure how the ensemble cast would work, if there would be too many characters too really get into them, but Drayden has made each one interesting and relatable in their own way.  At first the characters seem to have no connection with each other, but soon the lines of connection between them start to form.  Even Sydney the demigoddess, who is the clearest villain of the novel, is relatable in her own way–remember the great heights of power she has fallen from, she wants to recapture her glory days, but as the book starts she is working in a salon just trying to eke out a basic living and only using tiny bits of magic in small strategic ways.  If anything, I would’ve liked to get to know the characters even better, by the book being longer, but at the same time I appreciated that the book is well-paced and never dawdles, so probably what I really want is for Drayden to write book 2.

I had some unresolved concerns about the ending (but nothing that couldn’t be resolved by a second book). I quite enjoyed the book and would recommend it : weird, compelling, empathetic, and fun.  I look forward to reading Drayden’s next book, and the ones after that.