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Book Review: Koban

This is a review for the first book in the Koban series by Stephen Bennett.

This review may sound rather critical, so let me begin by stating that overall, I enjoyed the book a lot. However, there were three issues that really disappointed/annoyed me disproportionally. So when continuing to read, keep in mind that these are really the only negative points that I noticed, i.e. in every other aspect the book is great.

The first issue that really bugged me is with the grand story ark. The entire story is based on the idea that the krall are doing "combat tests" with some captured humans on an isolated world to determine if it's worth fighting a good man-to-krall combat with all of humanity, or if they should just eradicate all of humanity from space using their superior technology. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any need for this separate combat testing in the first place. Why don't the krall simply attack humanity? If the fight becomes too boring, they can always fall back on their technological advantage anyway. There truly seems to be no reason at all to first test a few humans, if the eventual goal is war on humanity in any case.

Another thing I just couldn't wrap my mind around is the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the human's AI. All in all, this is definitely a pretty clever AI. It can understand and respond pretty much any sentence (when addressed directly), is able to learn new languages on its own initiative, and clearly also able to adapt to unforeseen situations and make independent inferences. However, the very same AI is described as having serious trouble figuring out when it'd be appropriate to answer a question or provide information. This leads to the main character to come up with some complicated scheme for asking questions without the Krall noticing that just doesn't make any sense at all. Given the other abilities of the AI, it just doesn't seem reasonable that it wouldn't be able to figure out when it is expected to respond.

The third point I'd like to make may seem a bit unfair, but I think that in parts the author was actually being too ambitious for his own good. For example, one of the main ideas is that the dynamics between men and women have changed fundamentally after some event in the books past. This idea certainly has a lot of potential, and I would have loved to see how it affects the story and interaction of the characters. This is also well done in the first chapter or so, but after that (when the humans arrive on Koban) one almost gets the impression that the author got tired of having to think about this, because suddenly all that's left of an entirely different social context is a different salutation and different surnames. Given the potential of the idea, this is rather dissappointing, and I think the book would actually been better if it hadn't introduced the idea at all rather than introducing it for a little while and then discarding it entirely. In another example, it seems that the author could not quite decide if the Koban animals are sentient or not. I believe the goal was probably to tell the reader about them being (a little bit?) sentient, while at the same time making it clear that the characters are not aware of that. The result, however, is a slightly irritating dissonance when the book jumps from one viewpoint to the other.

While not related to the quality of the book, I also want to briefly comment on the book's own description (as it's used on the cover letter or the product page of your favorite ebook store): this description is completely misleading. While there is some talk about genetic modification, it's mostly about two guys slightly enhancing their strength and endurance towards the end. The danger of loosing their humanity by carrying this further is expressed in a few sentences in a conversation at the very end of the book, and the phrase about the bio-scientist producing "better, smarter fighters" is just plain wrong. The rippers (I suppose this is what the big cat is supposed to be) also feature in just one scene that leaves the reader with a lot of open questions. My best guess is that the cover is meant to describe the triology rather than this book (I haven't read the other books yet though).

Verdict: try it.