Welcome to Brave New Words™, the all new Inveterate Media Junkies Book Review column. Before I get started with my very first review, I’d like to give you an idea what to expect– and what you won’t be seeing here.
I’ll be covering three genres: Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Unless something unique or topical comes along, I’ll be changing genres from one column to the next. (Variety is the spice of life after all.) Speaking of variety, I’ll be covering writers and books that may be off the beaten path for many of you. This isn’t to disparage the best-sellers out there– I’ll cover some of them too– but plenty of small presses exist and they put out some great work as well. Props should go where they are due.
What you won’t see is a number, a letter or some other gesture to sum up the worthiness of a book. I can’t honestly formulate a review to fit a discrete value like that. Reading is an experience– a process by which our brains pick apart prose, digest the context into images and voices and sounds in the mind’s own little theater. It’s both diet and an exercise for the noggin… And the best part is, you don’t have to worry about puking words if you over indulge.
Okay, maybe that’s taking that metaphor too far.
The key point is this: Reading is unique to the reader. To break it all down to a small value won’t do you any good. Instead, I’ll tell you what I think stands out, for good or for ill. I might even tell you if I like it.
Still with me? Then let’s get this started.
Fighting Kat is science-fiction blended with romance (or maybe it’s a romance blended with science-fiction). It doesn’t matter, both can be used to describe PJ Schnyder’s latest creation.
Kaitlyn “Kat” Darah is the medic aboard a mercenary starship. She’s also a survivor of cruel experiments that left her afflicted with a form of lycanthropy… And appropriately enough, Kat can shift into the form of a panther. The change is mental as well as physical, although some of the human thought process persists while Kat’s in her feline state.
When dealing with lycanthropy, most authors go one of two ways. Many tend to overtly focus on the “man versus beast” struggle (sometimes with a dose of angst), while other writers show characters reveling in their power. Schnyder takes an engaging tack to the trope. Kat’s struggle is more on a subliminal level, one of reason versus instinct. Human beings, by nature, don’t have a great deal of instinct– so this psychological conflict comes across as genuine. In the first scene, Kat struggles with issues of dominance, command structure, territory and predator/prey instinct– all while just talking with her Captain in the ship’s medical bay.
Kat’s struggle plays consistently throughout the novel, and its top-notch characterization. She’s a damaged woman, altered on a cellular level to the point where even she’s not sure what she is. Refreshingly, her eventual acceptance of her altered nature is neither triumphant nor tragic… It’s more akin to watching someone go through the various stages of grief.
Kat’s love interest is Lt. Christopher Rygard, a career soldier. He’s aware of Kat’s ability to shape shift, and he’s willing to stay with her– even with the light-years of distance that often separates them. Rygard is a skilled soldier, loyal to people both up and down the chain of command… Although he doesn’t take well to arrogant officers. I get the impression he’s more a sergeant type that got bumped up in rank without really wanting it.
Relationships are critical to any romance, and Kat and Christopher’s love is complicated by several factors: Kat’s lycanthropy makes her a person of interest in the eyes of the Terran Military… And the light-years separating the two lovers is no exaggeration. He’s on a recon mission at a distant undeveloped planet, while she’s back at her ship ferrying reinforcements. In fact, the first sex scene in the novel (yes, there’s a sex scene in the beginning… I told you there was romance!) is cybersex taken to an astronomical level. Some science-fiction aficionados might even call it ansible-sex.
Kidding aside, the scene demonstrates the difficulties for separated couples, particularly when one person is deployed as a soldier. The lack of physical contact between the two characters, despite the fact they can see and interact with each other, does little to remedy their longing. Kat and Rygard love each other and need to be close.
The novel’s main antagonists are Captain Petrico-Calin, who’s overseeing Rygard’s operation from Kat’s ship, and Bharguest– a prisoner and a shapeshifter with serpentine qualities. Petrico-Calin shows more concern for his mission specs and reputation than the well-being of those under his command. He also has a keen interest in apprehending shifters for further study. Bharguest sometimes comes off as a scaly Riddick (from the film Pitch Black). I mean this literally. My brain pops Vin Diesel (sans black goggles) into a scene the moment the character speaks.
Bharguest is the more interesting of the two when stacked against Kat, even if the character sometimes lacks purpose. His presence appeals more to Kat’s shapeshifter instinct. In the end it’s more temptation than anything else– otherwise he just keeps trying to mess with her head. I’d say Bharguest helps Kat develop and fine tune her shifting abilities, but she seems to mostly figure all this out on her own. Once she proves comfortable going from human to panther to points in-between, Bharguest leaves (as one would expect). No doubt he’ll return later.
Author PJ Schnyder wastes little time getting to the action. Rygard’s base camp is overrun by forces unknown, with everyone on the recon team going MIA. What started as a delivery cruise turns into a search and rescue, with Kat taking point as a scout… Trying to keep her abilities a secret as best she can. While she does find Rygard, she doesn’t recover all of his team, and her “inner cat”– as far as she’s concerned– is out of the bag. This is the sort of thing that happens when a woman rips a would-be rapist apart with one hand.
Not all is lost. A ship flees the star system… And Kat takes off in pursuit– still dealing with the fallout directed at her and the realization that the base they just hit was experimenting with the same lycanthropic virus that forever changed her. The chase takes them out of Terran space and leads to an interstellar gladiator pit. In order to rescue the rest of Rygard’s team Kat, Rygard, Bharguest, a KX-9 operator (and his enhanced dog) infiltrate the arena as a fighting team.
The fight scenes are well-handled. Kat comes into her own as a warrior, utilizing fist and claw to get through the brutal matches. These sequences are essential, as they show Kat’s instinctive and tactical mindsets beginning to meld. She doesn’t lash out blindly in animal form, instead maintaining enough of a sense of reason to know when, what and how to shift to give her the advantage. This is all part of the acceptance I referred to earlier… Kat’s goal is to survive, as she uses her discipline to balance out her aggression.
I recommend this book to anyone who’s a fan of SF or Romance– and for those that want to read something a little outside of their comfort zone. Fighting Kat walks ably between the two genres without undue sacrifice to either. Yes, the sex scenes are a bit more explicit than the average SF fan might expect, but there’s a stronger emotional context in play here too… And PJ Schnyder’s attentiveness to character connectivity is a major plus.
I should also note Fighting Kat is not a hard Military-SF novel, but rather an action thriller. As this is the second novel of the Triton Experiment series, the rich backstory for Kat and Rygard’s romance is lacking… But since you can pick up the previous book– Hunting Kat– for as little as two bucks, getting caught up is only a minimal investment.
You can find PJ Schnyder’s Fighting Kat (along with her other works) wherever e-books are sold. Don’t forget to check out her Schnyder’s website too!