Preamble

Okay, this is something I’m really excited about. I’ve got a secret project in the works (secret because I’m not quite ready to officially announce it yet), something I think you all will really enjoy. Anyway, my newsletter subscribers and Patreon supporters have already had access to this, but now, the rest of you get to catch this sneak peek into my secret project.

Enjoy!

*****

“Doctor… Lo, is it?”

Amanda Crawford tossed her glasses on top of the overstuffed file folder in front of her. There were so many files and papers crammed into the folder, it was a wonder the thing hadn’t torn yet. Maybe her advisers were right; maybe she should upgrade to a binder. But binders took up space, and space was one luxury her she didn’t have these days.

Well, her new office had plenty of space. Personal space? That was another story.

Sebastian Lo loosened his black tie for what seemed like the thousandth time since he stepped out of the limousine that had dropped him off here. Formal attire didn’t suit him in the best of situations, but with his nerves so shot that he could feel the sweat stains forming under his arms, it was a wonder the woman sitting next to him couldn’t smell him.

“Y-yes.” He gave a curt nod, pushed his black-rimmed glasses back up his nose.

“You have had quite the career,” Amanda offered with a shake of her head. “Normally, I wouldn’t give someone with a dishonorable discharge on their record the time of day, but right now, beggars can’t be choosers.”

Lo’s frown deepened. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

The annoyance on Amanda’s face melted away, replaced with an exhaustion and a weariness that typically didn’t befall those in her profession until after a couple years. The bags under her eyes were darker than her brown irises, and in the harsh light of her office, she appeared so pale as to be dead.

But she wasn’t a corpse on Lo’s slab. She was the newly-elected President of the United States. And why she was bothering to meet with Lo, he had no idea. But the nausea told him whatever was in that folder wasn’t good.

“Are you familiar with the attack on D.C. several months ago?” she asked.

Lo’s frown disappeared. He quirked an eyebrow and stole a glance at the rest of the Oval Office. What was pristine in photographs, awe-inspiring, was surprisingly ordinary in-person. Sure, it looked like the Oval Office should, but the mystique Lo expected to feel wasn’t there.

Maybe it was the nerves. Sure, that was what he told himself.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he admitted, again pushing his glasses. “Not sure what to believe.”

“Well, it’s all true.” Amanda stood with a sigh, walking past Lo and staring out the massive windows overlooking the lawn. The American flag flanked her to her left, much larger than the pin she kept on her lapel. “There are monsters in this world, Doctor. Things far more dangerous than any threat we’ve ever faced. And I mean to do something about it.”

Lo blinked. “I don’t recall monster slaying being part of your platform.”

“No one will ever know,” she said, hands clasped behind her back. Her gaze never left the window. “What I’m proposing, Doctor, is completely off-the-books. Unofficial, doesn’t actually exist.” She glared over her shoulder. “That means nothing we discuss leaves this room. Understood?”

Lo nodded.

Amanda’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes,” Lo answered with a placating shrug.

“I’m impressed with your work, moral judgments aside,” she said. “I daresay that in many ways, you’ve honored Dr. Roberts’ legacy. Human prosthetics and cybernetics are as advanced as ever, and something tells me we’ll need that technology and expertise in the coming battles.”

Lo shook his head, removing his tie entirely. For the first time since entering the Oval Office, he could take a full breath. “Are you offering me a job, Madame President?”

“I’m offering you a choice.”

Lo opened his mouth. Amanda turned away from the window and took the large leather seat behind her desk. She seemed to sink into the cushion, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Lo the same sort of look the dean used to give him when he was an undergrad and spent more time chasing bottles and skirts than textbooks.

“I know what you did for David Gregor,” she said. “And I know all about your… other experiments. Rest assured that not only are they grossly unethical, they also break several laws.”

Lo pursed his lips. “I see. I either accept your offer or you throw me to the wolves.”

Amanda offered a thin-lipped smile. “So to speak.”

“What’s the offer?”

Reaching into a drawer to her right, Amanda produced another folder — this one far thinner than the first. It was plain manila, with large red letters spelling out CONFIDENTIAL – EYES ONLY scrawled along the front. She tossed the folder at Lo, and he watched it land in his lap.

“Open it.”

With shaky hands, Lo did just that. He frowned at what appeared to be autopsy photos — only these were no ordinary humans. One specimen had his mouth pried open, revealing fangs. Another looked to be an oversized slug split open down the middle, like it was a middle school science class dissection. A third photo was of a man-sized bat, half of his body scorched and rotting.

“Operation: Hellion is our answer to the growing supernatural menace,” she explained as Lo thumbed through the rest of the folder’s contents. “If the monsters are intent on invading our planet, threatening our way of life… well, what kind of president would I be if I didn’t try to protect my people?”

Lo frowned. “I’m not a monster fighter.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not asking you to be one.” Amanda leaned back in her chair, hands steepled together. “I could put the most capable military might at our disposal on this team, and they wouldn’t last two seconds against a nest of vampires. No, I need a super team. I need people with… abilities.”

Closing the folder in his lap, Lo sighed and shook his head. “You want to resurrect Project Fusion. Officially.”

“No. I want something better than Project Fusion. And you’re going to give it to me.”

*****

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About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

 

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: S.E. Anderson

Hey, everyone! It’s time for another Author Spotlight, and I’m excited to feature one of my favorite indie authors, S.E. Anderson! She’s a fantastic sci-fi author, but she’s also a kickass graphic designer (seriously, look at her covers for my series), she’s studying to be a scientist, and… oh yeah, she also happens to be a fan of mine.

Anderson is one of the reasons I love being an indie author, and I’m excited to tell you guys all about her work! First, let’s have a chat with S.E. Anderson.

 

What was your inspiration behind the Starstruck series?

Back when I first started writing the series, it was a joint effort between me and one of my closest friends, Joanna. We wanted to write what we weren’t finding in the books available to us: a girl struggling with real life, but also science fiction that was fun and possibly even hilarious. She wanted to work on characters who lived so long they couldn’t remember where they started out; and I wanted to write an adventure serial about teleportation. The two ideas meshed perfectly!

In my experience, and I know I haven’t read the entirety of it, the science fiction genre can be pretty doom and gloom, and a lot of times, it’s a genre that takes itself far too seriously. How important to you was it for your series to not fall into that trap? How important is the humor in these books?

It’s essential for the series. The universe is a massively chaotic place; the only way through it is not to fight the chaos, but go along with it. Living life by that logic, I’ve been able to have the funnest, oddest experiences. For Sally, it’s on a much larger scale. She struggles with depression and anxiety, so it would be really easy for the series to get quite dark. And it will: some moments are harsh and painful. But it’s in those moments of pure, unadulterated absurdity that she grows.

Tell me a bit about your background as a scientist. How does being a scientist affect your writing? Do you get story ideas from your academic work?

I’m still just a student, but I know enough now to see where science fiction differs from science-fact. I love learning a new concept in lectures and thinking about how to integrate it into my books. It’s fun trying to work out warp drives or faster than light travel with friends! I definitely love to learn, and hints of things that really hit me are dotted throughout the series.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist grow from one book to the next?

Personally, I’ve read books that fall on either side of the wall: great stories with flat characters and boring plots with amazingly relatable people. But I think character is the most important element. If a book has amazing characters, they could be doing absolutely anything and I’d still read them. I’d read a whole book of Percy Jackson doing his dishes or Harry Potter trying to help Ron with taxes. At the end of the day, those characters are the ones that make you come back to the series.

In my opinion, a plot cannot be separate from characters. Everything (interesting) that happens is driven by choices. So good characters make for a gripping story, no matter what. And authors who treat their world as a character and build it up in the same way usually create something more visually impacting.

Sally is constantly growing through the series. My biggest struggle writing Starstruck(s) comes down to how Sally is going to change. What makes her mad, what drives her to aspire to do more? The upcoming book 4 will make her decide if she wants to take on responsibility or if she’s not ready yet. In the end, the series is Sally’s saga, how she changes from a shy, isolated, self-conscious girl to a strong woman ready to take on anything the universe throws at her. But she’s not there yet.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The more I plot, the more I procrastinate. I have a premise, my characters, and they lead me along to find the plot as I write. Editing will change a lot of my first drafts!

On top of being an author and a scientist, you’re a graphic designer and a book reviewer. How do you manage all of those different hats, and how does each piece of the puzzle fit into the greater whole that is S.E. Anderson?

I shall answer this with two words, one sound: *pterodactyl scream*

Tell me about some of the other projects you’re working on. I know there’s one more book coming in the Starstruck series, and I think you’re working on a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz?

That’s right! Celestial, book four of Starstruck, is currently with my editor. Book five is being written off and on. My real focus over the next few months is to bring YELLOW (read sneak peek here) to life. The book follows Dora, an illegal clone of the current royal princess, who finds herself trapped on a mysterious planet in the Outer Zone after making a costly mistake. She makes allies with a girl with no memory, a droid with no personality, and a genetically modified soldier with no orders. Together they need to find the Technomage, a genius engineer who could potentially solve all their problems – if he can be trusted. It’s a story about identity, friendship, and taking risks.

What are some of your favorite books right now?

So many! Absolutely loves Atlas Fallen by Jessica Pierce. And Children of Blood and Bone – Phenomenal!
Now, let’s check out her books!

Starstruck (Starstruck #1)

In my experience, science fiction is a genre that takes itself far too seriously.Starstruck

Fortunately, Starstruck — S.E. Anderson’s debut novel — doesn’t have that issue. Don’t mistake: the stakes are high, both in Sally’s life and for the world at large, but this is a quirky tale that isn’t afraid to occasionally stop and take a moment to laugh at itself.

After all, Sally goes from a relatively dead-end life to one in which she’s knee-deep in aliens and trying to save the world. It’s an absurd concept, and the narrative not only acknowledges that absurdity, it embraces it. Sally is a great protagonist who is surrounded by equally remarkable characters. Zander is a treat, and Blayde was so much damn fun to read — very Faith Lehane-like — that I want much more of her going forward.

Most protagonists with Sally’s backstory spend the entire story feeling sorry for themselves, but she doesn’t fall into that trope. Instead, Anderson gives her remarkable agency, revealing layers of depth and bravery even Sally doesn’t realize she has, and it is viscerally satisfying to see how much Sally grows from the first page to the last.

In a way, the ending is a little bit of a head-scratcher, but a) that’s by design, and b) this is clearly the first in a series I have on good authority will be at least five books in length. And if the future volumes are anything like Starstruck, then sci-fi fans are in for a treat.

Anderson’s debut is a fun ride with more depth than it might appear on the surface. It’s not afraid to go for a laugh, but it also takes great care in making sure Sally is at the forefront of everything. She is a fantastic character, one I’m eager to accompany on future adventures.

Starstruck is one of the best books I read in 2017, and it is highly recommended.

Rating: *****

Buy Starstruck now!

 

Alienation (Starstruck #2)

Alienation, the follow-up to S.E. Anderson’s debut sci-fi romp Starstruck, is grander in scale and far more intense than its predecessor. Don’t worry, though; there are still 20623566_10213617375530787_675999032_oplenty of laughs to be had, and Anderson never loses sight of what drives Sally and what keeps her going in spite of… well, everything.

This is very much a fish-out-of-water story. I suppose Starstruck was, to a degree, but whereas the first book had a supporting character learning a new world in Zander, Alienation puts Sally through the proverbial wringer, plunking her on a foreign planet, separating her from Zander and Blayde, and… I’m not sure which winds up harder for her, the mental anguish or the physical pain.

Seriously, Sally goes through some stuff here.

But all the qualities that made Starstruck so great remain in Alienation. Sure, the fantastic world and strange alien species are cool, and it’s fascinating to see how the locals react to Sally as much as vice versa, but the strength of this series remains the humor and the heart. There’s a certain whimsy throughout much of this book, which makes the darker, heavier passages easier to navigate, and Sally’s continued growth is evident.

For all the change Sally endured from the beginning of Starstruck to the end, she grows even more here in Alienation. To see someone so anxious, so used to life being an absolute dumpster fire, seeing Sally stand up straight, ball up her fists, and pretty much say “Alright, enough of this crap” is as satisfying a journey as zooming through the cosmos.

Too much science fiction anymore is dark, gritty, and so damn focused on apocalyptic futures. That’s fine – there can be some great stories to come from that backdrop – but Anderson’s insistence on not falling into that trope is a large part of what makes Alienation every bit the excellent read Starstruck was.

Anderson is not afraid to go for a laugh, but she also takes great pains in crafting a memorable protagonist who’s easy to fall in love with. More than anything, Anderson proves that science fiction can not only be funny, but it can also have tremendous heart.

Rating: *****

Buy Alienation now!

 

Traveler (Starstruck #3)

Traveler, the third installment in S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series, might not be as laugh-out-loud funny as its predecessors, but it is quite possibly the best, most well-rounded entry in the series to this point.38469649

A cross between Galaxy Quest and Clue, this latest has us join Sally, Zander, and Blayde as they appear on a rather large spaceship — one that winds up being not quite was it seems. In fact, very little is as it seems in this book, which in the hands of a less capable writer would be frustrating. But Anderson’s attention to character detail, and her ability to know when to let a moment breathe, make the journey worthwhile.

Though the outright laughs are not as plentiful in Traveler, there is still a whimsy to it all. The doom and gloom are doomier and gloomier than before, but Anderson never lets us forget how utterly ridiculous this all is. After all, Sally’s on a spaceship. There’s Star Trek fanfic. And a robot trying to do its best Billy Graham impression.

Yet it all works.

All three books in the series to this point have taken place in different locales, and Anderson is showing that she’s just as good at building multiple worlds as she is in crafting memorable characters. Her love for the genre is obvious, even in the moments when she lampoons it, and that’s just another piece of the puzzle that makes Traveler such a great read.

If you’re not in on this series yet, you really should be.

Rating: *****

Buy Traveler now!

 

In addition to the Starstruck series, be sure to catch S.E. Anderson’s work in several anthologies. Check out S.E. Anderson’s website, as well as her Amazon and Goodreads pages. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and be sure to check out her covers, too!