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Review © 2002 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Bruce Jensen.



Expecting a book to suck is not, I suppose, the fairest or most open-minded approach to bring to reading. But it does mean that you're never disappointed, and it often means you get to be pleasantly surprised. Case in point: First Battle, the second of five novels about "Skyrider" Melacha Rendell. The first book in this series was the worst sort of space opera dreck, featuring amateurish writing, a loathsome protagonist and a tepid, frequently illogical plot. This sequel isn't going to earn Melisa Michaels a seat at the table with C. J. Cherryh or David Weber, but it shows marked improvement. First Battle is silly but fun, and fun was a quality conspicuously absent from Skirmish. The story works on the level of the kind of thing the Sci-Fi Channel likes to run: fast, easy, formulaic, and well within the grasp of the least demanding audience functional literacy allows. As junk food entertainment goes, you could do worse than First Battle.

Recap: Michaels' little saga is set in the near future when humanity has colonized Mars and the asteroid belt, and the Colonials have begun to adapt genetically to their new environment, some of them perfectly suited to free-fall and incapable of handling gravity at all. Political turmoil exists between the Colonials (known derisively as Belters) and the Earthers. The Earthers are the Bad Guys. The Belters want independence from Earth, and Earth will have none of it. That's all you need to know for backstory purposes.

Melacha is known as "Skyrider" for her amazing piloting skills, something not exactly set up in a convincing manner in Skirmish. (For one thing, the nearly impossible docking maneuvers she's famed for are dangerously unnecessary; why not just go EVA?) In First Battle, Michaels makes this just a little more palatable. Melacha rolls her eyes at her reputation, which she considers just a tad overblown and the product of that good old bugbear, Media Hype.

First Battle opens at a summit meeting out in the belt between Colonials and Earthers. A zero-G cocktail party (nice) is raided by terrorists, who take numerous hostages — including the children of a couple of Melacha's friends — off to a remote space station called Newhome. Melacha suspects that the terrorists, who are garbed in the uniforms of Colonials, are actually provocateurs from Earth who are trying to start a new war and make it look like the Colonials are to blame. Melacha and crew locate Newhome, where she does another one of her incredible docks (she finds a "blind side" where the station has a disused docking port) and they infiltrate the station. Once there, it becomes clear these terrorists have a bigger operation than originally surmised.

First Battle keeps the action flowing briskly, so that you're in and out of its 250 pages in no time. Melacha is a much more human character here, and the tale has its skiffy entertainment value, even if dopey plot flaws keep it from being actually good. At one point, Melacha is captured aboard Newhome because the terrorists have been tracing her communications, which she foolishly forgot about. But after she and one of her crew are locked up, the terrorists are obligingly dumb enough to leave the comms with them, so Melacha can fool the terrorists into thinking they're still in the cell while they busily escape into a conveniently unsealed maintenance tunnel. Why an important operation like one the terrorists are trying to run would be manned by a bunch of idiots (Melacha comments that they are "amateurs") is a mystery. They don't exactly seem to pose a serious threat, which dulls a bit of the book's suspense. Still, we get a nice space battle towards the end. And the book's finale adequately resolves all of its plot contrivances while subtly setting up the next sequel.

First Battle is pretty fun to read for the same reason potato chips are fun to eat. At her current rate of development, Michaels could get to where she's a reasonably decent writer of sci-fi (not SF) after just a couple more books.

Followed by Last War.