04 January 2014

FWS Book Review: Strings On A Shadow Puppet by T.L. Evans

It is 2014 and FWS is back to the business of military science fiction. Lately, FWS has been putting out too many blogpost that zeroto do with our core mission of exploring and explaining this important sub-genre of science fiction. In our first blopost of 2014, we are very much exploring the realm of MSF literature with T.L. Evans's first novel: Strings on a Shadow Puppet. Military science fiction is filled various tales of future soldiers, future governments, and the conflicts that consume their lives and actions. It is the way that creators and author approach the conflicts of the future and the people and governments involved in these flash-points that give life to the world of military science fiction. While many stories exist of super-soldiers waging war on far-away planets with a blazing assault rifles, few are devoted to the shadowy world of espionage, intelligence and counter-intelligence. This applies to even myself. I am much more comfortable with soldiers slugging it out on muddy off-world battlefields than the cloak-and-dagger world of intelligence and Bothan spies. I deeply respect those that can forge original tales of this murky world...especially those set in the far-future. Within this world of espionage science fiction is one of the finer examples, Strings of a Shadow Puppet by T.L. Evans. This e-book/print-on-demand book is the first sci-fi outing for the author, and this novel was sent to FWS for review, but did not color the review. This format will be different than previous FWS book reviews, we are experimenting with a new system. This review features an interview with the author T.L. Evans, which I am personally very excited about.

The Setting of Strings on a Shadow Puppet
At times, the fate of the world and its future rests in the outcome of a war, much like World War II and the Cold War. This is very true of the distance future interstellar societies seen in the pages of Strings of a Shadow Puppet. During humanity's expeditions into deep space, we discovered other sentient alien races, but they lacked FTL propulsion and/or any type of space flight. This allow humanity to be the superior species in the region until the encounter with the Graat and the beginning of the War of Extinction. Humanity and her allied aliens won, but it was a costly war in both lives and treasure, but also innocence. The Graat were xenocidal, and humanity was their target...there had been no threat or invasion to provoke such a violent response. Our mere existence pissed them off. The Terrans were just there and the Graat wanted to solve that problem.
Mankind's first contact with a spacefaring race begin in bloodshed and ended with a deep society-wide physiological scar. After the war, humanity distrusted aliens and they, as a whole, became second-class citizens in the government was formed after the war. This government was formed with the help of the genetic elite, the Mandellans. Thirty years before the events in Strings on a Shadow Puppet, the Sophyan Empire was formed to stable the galaxy, and bring order and rights to the colonized worlds. However, while civil rights are granted to all, human and non-human, the power was in the hands of the few, and some in the galactic society had issue with that. So much so, that there organized political terrorism under the Wayang Liberation Front for a federation-style government. This is the galaxy in which the crew of the RECON sheath ship, the HMS Hunter enter into...along with the reader.

The Spoiler-Free Review of Strings on a Shadow Puppet
Science Fiction is often used as a forum for discussing current issues that allow us to think, rather than judge and construct mental walls. Star Trek was famous for using this tool and within the pages of The Strings of a Shadow Puppet, there is a political discussion that is both timeless and timely: democracy. civil rights, and security. Evans uses the crew of the RECON sheath vessel of the 12th Fleet, the HMS Hunter to explore the complex nature of the Sophyan Empire and the mission to hunt down the leader of the Wayang, Dalang. The central message of the book is what would you exchange for security and civil rights? Would it be the voting rights that we enjoy in America and most of the Western world? Or would you trade security and civil rights for freedom and the power of the vote? Instead of just the POV of the imperial naval crew, and elite members of the imperium, Evans also shows us members of the Wayang...in all of their brutality and humanity, to show their side of the struggle. Evans uses his commanding knowledge of language to fully develop the complex and layer plot. But it is all not just flowery prose with high-minded political discussions, which are there, but there is also intense combat scenes with all of the frank descriptions of blood and weaponry. I very much enjoyed these types of scenes, and how they integrated to the overall theme of the book. I also enjoyed that Evans is honest and realistic about language...in combat, the word "fuck" the best one to use, and I was grateful that realistic language was reflected in the text.
When it came to weaponry, which is often hit-or-miss in MSF works, Evans developed guns that were reflected in the world and technology. This is also applied to the shipboard weaponry when the scenes of ship-to-ship space combat unfolded. So, the author gets the details right...what about the overall plot and characters? The characters are solid, diverse enough in language and writing to allow the reader to discern between them, and each one is developed enough to allow the reader to gain interest in one or all. Several other well developed areas of The String on a Shadow Puppet is real examples of espionage, intelligence gathering, and counter-intelligence, as well as the technology of the future. There is a more realistic method of gathering intelligence and the work of far-future espionage. This was more Argo and Body of Lies than Bond or Mission Impossible...which was nice to see, and this book could serve as a good examples for others interesting in writing sci-fi espionage. The technology presented is very well-developed that keeps pace with likely evolution of today's tech, and it also shows the effect of technology on society. I laughed out loud at the description of player-junkies, and how true it rings. When it came to cybernetic technology, I also impressed at the level and abilities, along with how the author used these technological elements within the Wayang organization.  
 When it comes to plot and since this a spoiler-free review, I cannot go into the depth that I would like, but it is layered with complexity and substance, Muck like a fine meal from the mind and hands of Gordon Ramsay, all of the favorites compliment each other, and build on one another, until the end, and then, you sit back with a nice strong coffee and cigar, and dwell on what you experienced. Okay, so what didn't I like about the book? My only issues with The Strings of a Shadow Puppet is that this is a novel that demands your attention. If you are not paying attention, than you will be lost, and the subtext and switching between the settings and characters will not make any sense. Part of this is helped by the many chapters, 60 in all, but once again, this is not a light, easy read. Think of The Strings of a Shadow Puppet in a similar fashion to the works of Asimov, Clancy, or even David Brin's Uplift works. For examples, when I first received the book in the mail, I took it with me to an salon appointment, and was bumped by an hour, so I tripped over to one of my favorite Lebanese food joints in Dallas, and read the first forty pages while happily eating away. Being a crowded place with loads of activity and music, I was not reading as carefully as I should have...and I had to start nearly over. However, I did enjoy the read both times! Needlessly to say, The Strings of a Shadow Puppet will be one seen many more times on FWS...in the examples section of certain blogposts.     
The Interview with the Author: T.L. Evans
This interview was conducted via e-mail around December of 2013 and January of 2014.

First off, thank you for read, very much enjoyed it! 
Feel free to answer at any length you desire. Would it be okay to ask followup questions?

I'd like to thank you for inviting me to interview.  I am actually a bit of a fan of Future War Stories, particularly your tech bits.  You have a lot of great information presented in a clear and interesting manner.  What's more, it's pretty well researched.  It makes me very excited to read your novel when it comes out.

1. What was the genesis for Strings of a Shadow Puppet?

There are, in a sense, two separate sets of origin for the book.  
The first lies in the obvious social and political questions that lie behind the world: are democracies always right for all people?  How does one protect a minority from being suppressed by a majority?  What is more important: the protection of all people's civil rights or the ability for a majority of a population to control its government? 
The second origin is in the characters. In some ways, like any espionage novel, this book is strongly character based.  The characters were created first and then thrown into a world of my own invention, in situations that allowed me to examine the questions I outlined above.  

2.Why did you chose to set the novel in a military sci-fi context?

Well, first off I love Speculative Fiction of all sorts, particularly Sci-fi, so that doesn't hurt.  I have a particular soft spot for military science fiction because of the situation it puts the characters in.  Military life has strengths and weaknesses.  It forces people to cooperate (or not) in certain ways that doesn't always sit well with them.  It forces people to voluntarily enter dangerous situations that one would probably not walk into all on your own.  In horror or disaster stories, the characters have those situations forced upon them, in Mil Fic (sci-fi or otherwise), they have a duty to engage danger.
Setting the book in the far future allowed me to create a backdrop where I can ask the questions I wanted to ask.  It allowed me to create sympathetic characters on all sides of the conflict and help the readers question their own assumptions.  What's more, I could create military units and protocols that don't exist in this world, as well as sociological settings that suited the story I wanted to tell.  
Besides… honestly? Military Science Fiction is just interesting and fun to write about.

3. Tell us about your favorite sci-fi works and how they influence your novel. 

Oooh… good one, but the answer is too long to give in full.  I can say that some of my favorite Sci-Fi, like Iain M. Banks, Alistair Reynolds or the like, didn't directly influence my work itself - but did inspire me to actually publish it.  Alistair Reynolds balanced a life of scientific research and science fiction and that really pushed me to getting my manuscript in shape and putting it out there.
But probably, like most people my age, I would be lying if I didn't say that the biggest sci-fi influences in my life were Star Trek and Star Wars… well, the first two Star Wars (A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back).  And Dune…. Can't forget Dune.
Star Trek, the Original Series that is, really caught me up at a young age (4 or 5), and made me a die hard Sci-Fi fan fascinated by the idea of the struggles of a crew in space facing the unknown. Cool ships at the center of the stories are pretty slick.  More than that, however, the idea of military structure (loose as it is) and its interplay with the personal stories and interactions particularly caught my attention - especially when they put duty up against friendships or personal beliefs.  
Similarly, Star Wars impacted my imagination pretty heavily, mostly because of the cool nature of the ships, but also because of questions it inspired in me:  
"What would have happened in this story if Darth Vader was the kind of person people would actually follow?"
"What would have happened if the rebels acted the way many modern "freedom fighters" do?" and "What about the inherent inequalities in the Star Wars universe, the implied second class citizen status of aliens and what amounts to slavery for the droids?"  
And then… there is Dune.  The whole deep political backdrop to that story is wonderful, and I'm sure a lot of my own idea of what is interesting in a tale is tied to that as well.

4.Given the setting of The Strings of a Shadow Puppet, has the work intelligence/counter-intelligence/espionage always interested you?

Absolutely.  At the same time I was watching Star Trek The Original Series, I was also watching episodes of the old British Spy-Fi series, The Avengers. Knowing that, you may recognize a touch of John Steed and Emma Peel in my novel - the classic intelligent, yet elitist banter held by them. That sort of Science Fiction laced adventure spy story fascinated me as a kid and probably produced my first crush.
When I was old enough to read real books (as opposed to the terrible children's books in my elementary school), I didn't have access to much Science Fiction, so instead I plunged into Sherlock Holmes, Graham Green and eventually found my way to John LeCarré.  His Smiley series probably has more to do with the tone of my books than any Science Fiction novel does.  
From there, my father, who was a historian and had previously worked in the State Department, lead me down the road to reading about real espionage.  Later happen-chance friendships with people who really know about this stuff built on from there.  It is a fascination that remains today.  

5. Given the very advanced and intriguing technology presented in the pages of Strings of a Shadow Puppet, and that only 3.2738% were "voluntary naturals", where did the ideas originate from and do you believe that in the far future, the latest iPhone will be an implanted technology? Most of it seems on par with modern visionaries like Shirow and Gibson. 

The origin of my fascination with implanted technology and cybernetics actually predates Gibsons' work… and is probably tied to my childhood love of the Six Million Dollar Man.  I had one of the Steve Austin action figures in the day, and with it, a very very cool communications backpack that had a crystal radio set built in.  My father had been a Radio Operator in WWII, so that sparked a real shared interest… led to lots of things including my love of Navigation-Communications, etc.   Added to that, one episode of the Bionic Woman where Jamie Summers had to go up against an AI with a doomsday device played a part in my sense of sympathy for computer intelligence.
But yes, I am sure my latent love of cybernetic implants was really brought to a climax by Gibson, Sterling and the whole Cyberpunk movement. That clearly had an effect on me.  I became particularly interested in the social and psychological impact of the technologies they were on about.  How would it be practically integrated into society? If implanted technologies became normal, how would people go about using them? What would the practical elements be? What about people who reject the technology. Things like that.  
Of course, there are those who say implanted technologies wouldn't fly because of the speed by which technology becomes obsolete. As I see it, however, there are two problems with that kind of nay-saying.  The first is the assumption that the technology of implants would not allow an easy removal and/or replacement of upgrades.  Nanotech medicine, for example, could readily allow for systems to be wired through the body and even removed when needed… as one scene in my book shows.
The second assumption is just as important, maybe even more so.  People often assume that technology will continue to advance at the same rate as today.  History (and prehistory) show something quite different, however. We have periods of dramatic technological development, followed by periods of social change, often corresponding with or followed by plateaus of technology.  That is not to say technology doesn't advance at those period, but not as quickly as we have been seeing in the recent past.

6. Why did you choose to published Strings on a Shadow Puppet via e-book and print-on-demand?

The publishing world is very conservative right now, and understandably so. To have an economic downturn at the very moment your industry is changing is very difficult.  As a result they have been somewhat reluctant to take chances on new authors, and on genre bending books.  Fair enough. 
My book does not sit easily into any one genre.  It is military science fiction, but it is also an espionage novel (as opposed to spy story).  Military Sci Fi is often characterized by a straightforward plot progression with clear heroes and antagonists, while espionage is centered around convoluted story lines that focus on shades of grey.  Mil Fic tends to be techno in nature, often with a lot of attention played to hardware, while espionage is almost always a character driven tale (note the difference between espionage and spy stories, which are often a bit more techno and action in nature).
While it's my view that this combination is the book's real strength, it also makes it a bit of a risk for a publisher to put out, especially when it is written by someone who has not published in that genre before.  If I had followers, that would be one thing… but with the exception of a very select group of academics…
As a result, it was the advice of a number of the larger name authors I know and respect that independent publishing might be a good way of getting attention, particularly of publishers, who might then want to pick up the novel or perhaps invest in other books.  

7. Now that your novel is out, what would have done differently?

I would definitely have delayed the release until I had done more marketing first.  More copies to more reviewers, built more hype, gotten more cover quotes.  That was a mistake.  
I also might have tried with a few other publishing houses before going it alone.  I like writing, but as much as every author must publicize their own works, when you self-publish, it really is all on you.  I did the typesetting, the marketing etc, all by myself.   I also would have spent more money on a copy editor.  I had some great editing services provided, particularly in the realm of content editing, but I am still finding typos because my proof reader was a talented volunteer rather than a trained professional.  Of course, now I also know more editors as well, so that helps.

8. I very much enjoyed the grittiness of the future off-world colonial streets, coupled with realistic language used by your characters, the frankess of sex and violence. This paired with the refined and cultured of the elties of the Sophyan Imperial soceity Was this intended, and if so, what was the reason?

This was very much intentional, and I'm delighted that you liked it.  One is never sure, is one?  A whole central element of the story really revolves around that social difference.  The protagonists are working for a culture where elitism is considered good.  A society where a formalized hierarchy exists, one that is open to new individuals, but still, where it is believed there is a serious advantage to having your society ruled by people trained from birth to govern others.  I wrote the book primarily from their points-of-view, but there are ramifications of that sort of strict social hierarchy and I wanted to show those as well.  I wanted to show a strongly hereditary Platonic Utopia, and then show the other side of the coin.  

9. I also enjoyed the description of the playerjunkies/gamepariah in the novel who devoted themselves so completely to the online world that they literately  waste away in the real world. Was this inspirited by the culture of gamers today or is it a warning of things to come? 

Gaming is very addictive, so is just emailing, texting, facebooking and the like.  I can see certain personality types getting drawn into that as much as others get drawn into heroin. I know I can lose a whole day to social media, and have found myself wasting away hours to strategy games.  Add physical stimulation to the senses to the model and implants could be a recipe for disaster. 
The playerjunkies and gamepariahs are the extreme of that, as are the proletarian-savants, or prole-savs, the people who perform menial labor as a way of staying alive while they engage in intellectual pursuits on the side.  The prole-savs basically have the equivalent of implant-tech dependence in intellectual debates and research in the way some people do on line today via email and blogs and the like.  Unlike the player junkies in my world, the prole-savs are considered a bit more socially acceptable because society has found a use for them, both physical and mental, but they remain an anathema to most.  

10. Is there an historical reference, comparing the Sophyan Imperium and their struggle with the Federatist Revolution  with the British Empire of the 19th century and their own independence uprisings in their former colonial holdings?  

There is more than a bit of a correlation there, as well as more than a little examination of both the American and British domestic situations at the same time.  Particularly things like the Rebecca Riots, the Molly McGuires and the like. As well as some of the questions about early American Politics… such as say… oh… the Federalists and their attitudes towards governance in the emerging American Republic compared to other groups.  Not to mention Rome… there is a lot of Rome in the inspiration.

But I would be lying if I didn't mention that much of my direct inspiration came from the 20th Century conflicts in Northern Ireland, Colombia, and the Near and Middle Easts.  Much of the book found it's inspiration in those fights, as well as the occasionally conflicting views that many Americans have of those conflicts. 

11. Strings on a Shadow Puppet is timely given the discussions and debates on the role of domestic spying to ensure security. Was the book inspirited by contemporary events in our post-September 11th reality? 

Actually, most of the plot of the book was outlined in the 1990's, and was going to be a cautionary tale.  I intentionally created the Federalists as Pro-Democracy Terrorists because of the conflicting nature of popular views towards groups like the IRA, the PLO, FARC, the ANC, ETA, etc.  Some groups were viewed as heroic, others as diabolical.  
It is all tied back to a statement my father posed to me years ago: "I am a Freedom Fighter, you are a rebel, he is a terrorist."
After 9/11, of course, the story took on new significance and needed to be significantly revised.  The attack had far reaching implications, as did the Patriot Act, and I needed to rethink some of those elements.

12. Do you regard the HMS Hunter a ship of peace or of war?

Great question.  The crew views it as a ship of peace… but its design is certainly that of a warship, one that is probably better suited toward a war between nations than a civil war.

13. For me, part of the heart of the novel was the political discussion between Samantha, Razza, and D'Ascoine. This is rare is sci-fi novels, especially given the overall political struggle and social friction overtone in the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this theme of the novel? I sense some of Gattaca in those pages. 

I cannot say how delighted I am that you feel that way.  While writing the book I knew this would be a hate-it-or-love-it part of the novel… and the Amazon reviews show that.  For me, however, it sets up the central dynamic of the whole world.  That, and well, Chrom's comments at the end of the climax.
As for its influence, a lot of these questions pre-dated Gattaca, though I do actually love that tale and it does play upon very similar ideas.  It is certainly possible that some of Gattaca influenced the final form, but for me, those questions had a much earlier start.
One could say a central genesis of the world I set my book in lay a single line in the old Star Trek (TOS) episode Space Seed where they first meet Khan.  In that show, they said that the Eugenetic Wars of the 1990's (yep… I guess I slept through that war, huh?) were a war where the genetically modified super-humans fought to take over the world.  Of course, subsequent movies and Star Trek shows demonstrate that they meant that they fought the rest of the world… a sort of GM superior race with NAZI like dreams trying to dominate everyone else.  
In my young mind, however, that's not what I understood.  What I thought was that the super-humans fought each other to dominate the world. This made me wonder what happened when the war ended?  This must have struck a cord, because it was only with the recent release of Star Trek Into Darkness that I realized that the whole backstory of the Strife of the Made in my book was based on this early seed of an idea.  
If you create a race of super-humans designed to lead with the kind of 'need to be alpha' that is implied by that, well… you will eventually end up with the kind of war I had thought Space Seed was talking about.  Of course, in my world it wasn't just a military war… some of it was simple economic conflict, but the result was the setting I had imagined.
Added to that is my own anthropological training and the fact that part of my academic specialty is the rise of hierarchical systems and I suppose you're bound to see those issues rise up

14. As per your back cover, in the war between democracy and civil rights, which do you choose? Are you an Imperialist or Hegemonist, or Egalitist, or even Federalist? 

That would be telling.
[If that seems too coy… then you can add: But seriously, I am all of them.  I can see the strengths and weaknesses in each system, and I worked very hard to avoid having a "Straw Man" system.  It always bothers me when there are easy solutions to complex problems… despite what pundits say, the world just doesn't work like that.   So, do we govern ourselves through a system where people are trained from birth to govern, with all the implied inequality that comes with?  Do we instead make our decisions based on a popularity contest where choices are made based on how simply they can be explained, no matter how complex the solutions really are?  
Similarly, for racism, how does one have a true democracy in a world where other intelligent species have thought processes that are fundamentally different to our own?  Do you want a species that eat the weakest of their young to be in charge of education? Do you want a hive-mind to have a say on individual rights?  These are all valid questions.  The Star Trekian idea of everyone just getting along in a big Federation is all fine and good, but really, could that happen?  
So, I came up with four answers to those problems: the Imperialists, the Hegemonists, the Federalists and the Egalitists.  What's more, I tried to create good reasons for each person to believe as they believe, but each solution also has its weaknesses.  ]

15. Lastly, will there be more novels set in the Sophyan universe? Given the positive comments on Amazon, there are people desiring more, and I am certainly one.  

Actually, I am about 2/3rds of the way done with a sequel to Strings on a Shadow Puppet at the moment.  It has the working title of The Traitor's Gambit, and like Strings it's written to be a stand alone novel, with its own beginning middle and end.  To me that is very important.  I have grown to hate stories that are ten volume cliff hangers that take six years between publication.  
Having said that, The Traitor's Gambit, picks up with the same crew several months later.  To that end, it follows on and addresses some of the questions and scenarios that readers would like to know more about.  It builds on the relationships and the conflict introduced in the first book, and answers many of them outright… I'm sure anyone who's read the book knows some of the one's I am talking about.  Of course, it raises other questions as well, but hey… that's life… or at least fiction.  
I will probably also write other works, maybe a fantasy book or something in an other author's existing world or series.  In fact, am presently involved in some unexpected non-fiction projects.

Eventually, however, I would like to write a wide variety of tales in this world… and not just military science fiction ones, but exploration and the like.  For the foreseeable future, however, I will focus on the adventures of Ripper's Raiders.  It is more than enough to fill my billet.  

Should You Read Strings on a Shadow Puppet?
YES! In his first venture into military science fiction, author T.L Evans expertly forges a brilliant tale of espionage, loyalty, political struggle, and military service, within a galactic setting a far future laced with incredible technology. Prepare yourself for an engrossing read in The Strings of a Shadow Puppet. This book is more than worth the $2.99 asking price on Amazon.com, and is one of the rare examples of sci-fi espionage that is really about the game of espionage with all of the risks and rewards involved.


The author's website:

The Amazon.com Reviews:

The Amazon.com page:

The Smart Girls Love Sci-Fi website Review:


  1. Christopher PhoenixJanuary 8, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Hey, interesting review William- thanks for sharing!! I like the new format- dealing with the setting, then the story, and finally interviewing the author adds a lot of interest and gives the reader an idea of whether they would like to read the book or not.

    "Strings on a Shadow Puppet"- I must say that is a rather good title. I might have to check it out sometime.

    Oh, and late Happy New Year, William- we've gotten off to a good start exploring the murky world of MSF with this review, for sure!

  2. Thanks! I enjoyed this process with Mr. Evans, and we might be giving away a copy of his novel soon! I came with the format after reading a number of Mr. Evans reviews on his website. The next blogpost will be on killer alien tigers from outer space!