There I was, World Fantasy in Toronto in 2013, where everyone was talking Urban Fantasy. I like the genre as much as the next guy, but I really wasn't...moreThere I was, World Fantasy in Toronto in 2013, where everyone was talking Urban Fantasy. I like the genre as much as the next guy, but I really wasn't finding what I wanted out of most of the big titles. I wanted diverse characters, maybe something a little bit out of the box. Then I ran across Three Parts Dead in the dealer's room and it struck me hard. THIS, right here, was absolutely the book I was looking for. Already overburdened by books for the flight home, I made a note to order it from my local bookstore when I got back home.
Where I promptly lost many of my recommended reading notes. When it came across my radar again last week, I jumped at the chance to pick it up, lest I forget it again. And boy was I ever rewarded.
I fell in love with Tara Abernathy, the young, rebellious Craftswoman almost immediately. Determined, clever, resourceful, and confident, she was everything I had hoped for in a protagonist. Was she beautiful or sexy? I don't know, for although the cover paints her as attractive, she's never described as such in the book that I noticed. There was no romance angle in Three Parts Dead for Tara, and that was welcome. She was defined by her skills, and that made her great.
The surprise for me was how much I would come to adore the secondary characters, from chain-smoking novice priest Abelard, to his addicted "cop" friend Cat. Bonus points for Tara's boss, the brilliant, cold, and not-quite human Elayne Kevarian (who at one point reminded me of Mary Poppins as a power-attorney/necromancer).
Beyond the strong characterization and twisty plot, Three Parts Dead is a delight of world-buidling. The city of Alt Coulumb came alive for me and felt alive, vibrant, and full of intrigue. I could easily imagine the gargoyle-scarred skyscrapers, the jostling cabs, the orange-clad Criers. I'm looking forward to seeing what Max Gladstone does with his next book and another city/nation. Thus far, it's a rich tapestry full of potential.
Fans of typical sword and sorcery might not get a big kick out of this. Three Parts Dead reads more like a mystery/legal thriller--just in a fantastically realized world--like an excellent episode Law & Order through a dark looking glass. If you like a mix of strong, well written female protagonists, you'll do well in Alt Coulumb. If you're looking for a new spin on vampires, you'll get it here, as well as a flight of gargoyles to add some menace to the mix.
Essential reading to understand not only American history of the past century, but also how our cities and culture were shaped by this mass migration....moreEssential reading to understand not only American history of the past century, but also how our cities and culture were shaped by this mass migration. (less)
What do the movies Requiem For a Dream, Unforgiven, and Saving Private Ryan all have in common? Give up? They are all movies that were brilliantly mad...moreWhat do the movies Requiem For a Dream, Unforgiven, and Saving Private Ryan all have in common? Give up? They are all movies that were brilliantly made which I recognize as exceptional movies, but that I never want to watch again. And the reason is simple. Each movie portrays a bleakness, a world where hope goes to die. And once transported to that place, shown what the film-makers want to show me, I find that seeing it once is enough.
Now, what does this have to do with Broken Slate by Kelly Jennings, you may ask. More than you would expect. Then again, it is written in the fine and honored tradition of Dystopian sci-fi. And Dystopian this is. Broken Slate takes place in a world called Julian centuries and some indeterminable distance removed from Ancient Earth. Julian is dependent upon Contract labor, essentially slaves, many of whom are put into the system at an early age through orphanages. If put in the system at a later age, like Martin, our tortured protagonist, it us usually for perceived criminal acts. Contracts, called “cots” for short, are second class citizens in every way. They own nothing except that which is provided by their Holders. Insubordination is not tolerated, and punishments are cruel in the extreme. A pair of young Contracts who attempt escape to a mythic rebellion in the hills are used to demonstrate this. The couple is dealt with by way of public execution and the burning of their corpses while all the Contracts in the town are forced to watch. The message is clear: “You live by our will alone.”
Martin’s Holder, Deja, is a more direct symbol of that oppression. He keeps Martin not for his practical skills as a secretary, but for his beauty, engaged in a dynamic of sexual control. Sometimes tender, often brutal, he is consumed by jealousy in insecurities. It is Martin who bears the brunt of his master’s rages, and because it is more personal and couched in the words of love, this is the perhaps the most damaging thing in Martin’s life.
Despite vastly superior numbers, fear of reprisal, of punishment, that they are truly alone keeps the Contract population in line. But fear has its limits, and gradually Martin undergoes a period of questioning. If his life is so bad, what is there to fear from trying to bring about change and failing? When a man truly has nothing left to lose, how much power does fear truly hold?
It’s might be difficult at times to read Broken Slate if you have even a rudimentary knowledge of slavery in our shared history. Likewise if you have an experience with abusive and dysfunctional relationships, this could be tough. That’s a good thing. Really. That is because the author clearly knows her way around the material and makes it breathe. And As painful as things get, Martin’s journey is not without hope of redemption. As rich as I found the descriptions of the physical environment, as detailed as the aches and pains of the abuses heaped upon Martin as he claws his way blindly towards his destiny, it is the emotional weight that put the hooks in me. While there were times I wondered exactly where the story was taking me, I never lost interest in the journey to get there. And I am pleased that my loyalty to the story was rewarded with an ending that, felt hard earned and strangely inevitable.
As an examination of the power dynamics and those who use fear to control people, Broken Slate is a thoughtful little gem of a sci-fi novel. The characters are rich, even if I didn’t always like them. If you’re a fan of Dystopian sci-fi, don’t mind reading about sex (most of it male/male) and sexual domination, then I suggest you give Broken Slate a read. You can find it here, and I strongly suggest you pick it up on release day, July 15th, if you have the opportunity.(less)
Expectations are a funny thing. For the sake of this analogy, consider Starbucks as an example. In my mind, speculative fiction, urban fantasy in part...moreExpectations are a funny thing. For the sake of this analogy, consider Starbucks as an example. In my mind, speculative fiction, urban fantasy in particular, has been a lot like Starbucks. (I agree there are exceptions, of course, so untwist your chainmail BVDs.) A coffee purist might be quick to dismiss the ubiquitous coffee purveyor; bitter, over-roasted beans, calorie-laden menu, a macchiato that is anything but. However they have mastered two things: training the world to drop a five-spot n a cuppa joe, and meeting expectations. True, they might not be the platonic ideal of COFFEE, but it will be the same when you order it, whether you order it in downtown Seattle or the Great Wall of China. Likewise, it seems that urban fantasy has been largely a brooding loners, predominately Caucasian, confronting supernatural threats of a European nature — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Like Starbucks, it fills the need but rarely excites me for long.
Granted, it’s a tortured analogy.
So, Mr. Coffee Snob, what does this have to do with this review?
The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust is no Starbucks. In fact, it blew my expectations clean out of the water, so much so that I hesitate to call the novel speculative fiction at all! This, despite the fact that the bulk of the book is split between two parallel stories with 7,000 years separating them. In one set of alternating chapters, Faust tells us the story of Hru, a boy who survives the destruction of his village only to encounter the Swamp of Death and the forces of the mysterious, and aptly named Destroyer. In the other chapters, we get the story of Raphael “Supreme Raptor” Garang, also an refugee, now living with his mother in Edmonton, Canada, in a neighborhood that contains multiple transplanted African ethnic groups. Both young men get taken under the wing of a spiritual mentor who helps them find their own inner strength, transforming them metaphorically from lead to gold.
While the Book of the Then has all the hallmarks of fantasy, with magic and fantastic beasts, the Book of the Now could be straight up YA fiction with no fantastic elements at all. We fall even further from the folds of speculative fiction when it is suggested that the Book of Then is the basis for the spiritual teachings that the Supreme Raptor receives, acknowledging that story as metaphor and not literal truth. This begs the question, “What is the truth?” And more importantly, in matters of faith, is literal truth more important than the message being taught?
I’ve talked about the importance of faith elsewhere recently, so this idea was fresh in my mind as I read The Alchemists of Kush. And as the novel is, at it’s heart, about a spiritual awakening, it felt perfectly timed that I discovered the book when I did.
The twin stories and characters had me drawn in immediately, and it didn’t hurt that there was ample name dropping of favorite musical artists (Gil Scott-Heron among them) and comic book characters (Static and King Peacock). The narrative voice for each section was different enough as well that it helped sell the story within a story. I found myself so invested in the characters that when Supreme Raptor makes bad decisions, I found myself wincing in empathy. And thank you, Mr. Faust for giving us heroes that are real enough that they make bad decisions and have to learn from them.
In fact, without a traditional antagonist in the contemporary timeline (I know, no villain in an urban fantasy? Heresy! Glorious, glorious heresy!), the Supreme Raptor sometimes pulls double duty as his own worst enemy. And while some problems are solved with violence, it is rarely the easy solution it appears to be. More often than not, a calm head needs to prevail, and problems need to be solved with words with hard work to back them up.
That alone would make for a compelling reason to read The Alchemist of Kush, but it’s by no means the only reason. The characters are rich, their battles hard fought and heartbreaking. And the resulting affirmation of of love, community, pride, responsibility, and family makes this the caliber of book I would love to see as required reading at the high-school level.
Let me get this off my chest real quick. I don't believe in the Devil. I only kind of believe in devils in a theoretical sense; as evils we can't unde...moreLet me get this off my chest real quick. I don't believe in the Devil. I only kind of believe in devils in a theoretical sense; as evils we can't understand. What I do believe in is the ties of family. I believe that it is the duty of parents to protect their children, not to the extent of keeping them safe from every scrape and fall, but the big things, certainly.
But when the evil that threatens the family act through the child? What then?
Seed gripped me early on. The split narrative which showed both generations dealing with the same menace helped give added depth and clarity while throwing the father's fears into the proper perspective. Additionally, children can be creepy as hell when handled well, and they're handled exceptionally well here. There were several times when I found myself cringing in anticipation of what would happen next. As a seasoned horror vet, that is a difficult reaction to get out of me.
The only flaw I found in the book, and it was a minor one at that, was that at a certain point the story moves forward with a certain degree of grim inevitability. A few incidents feel dropped in to explain major plot points, or underscore character motivations. And while the set pieces are well written, it doesn't feel quite as organic as the rest of the book.
I'm simply stunned that Seed is a first novel. It went by far too quickly. It was a hell of a fun, scary-as-hell ride. And I eagerly await whatever the author does next.(less)
I love strong women. That’s no secret. I’ll take a competent woman adventurer over a damsel in distress any day.
I also love anthologies. Anthologies,...moreI love strong women. That’s no secret. I’ll take a competent woman adventurer over a damsel in distress any day.
I also love anthologies. Anthologies, as I’m certain someone has said before me, are like a box of chocolates. I picked up Beauty Has Her Way from Dark Quest Books as an informed reader. I knew editor Jennifer Brozek put out quality anthologies. Heck, she even won an award for one last year (the superlative Grant’s Pass). And I like several of the names attached to this particular anthology. So even if I found a few literary equivalents of a cherry cordial (the bane of my chocolate box existence), I knew I’d find a few delights in there. Worst case scenario, I could skim the stories that didn’t work and save myself some reading time. The book is divided into three sections: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. I figured that in a set up like this, anything could happen.
What didn’t happen was me skimming stories. I read every one without hesitation. That always makes me happy. That said, I didn’t love all the stories, but I at least enjoyed them all. The first story in the collection was a bit of a rough start. “Sacrifices to the Moon” by Paul D. Batteiger presented us with a bad-ass woman warrior heading into inhospitable wastes, potentially to her death, with no visible motivation other than to prove to the reader that 1) she was stubborn as well as a bad-ass, and 2) to set her up as the Outsider hero. It felt contrived. But by the time the spear came out and she gots to killing anything that stood in her way like a proper barbarian warrior, I was willing to forgive the set up. Did it remind me of Robert E. Howard? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Not a chance!
But there are 16 stories in this collection, so let me share what I saw as the highlights.
In the Yesterday section, the story that grabbed me most was the wild-west fantasy “Vengeance is Mine” by Kenneth Mark Hoover. Holy doodle did I love that story and the steely heroine Magra Snowberry! I would love to see more of the character and the town of Haxan.
I felt the Today section was the strongest, from the Caribbean-tinged dark magic madness of Chuck Wendig’s “The Moko-Jumbie Girl,” to Filamena Hill’s story of a mobster’s daughter avenging the death of her cousin in the chillingly satisfying “Men Do Nothing.” All of the stories in this section thrilled the hell out of me. Also worthy of particular note is the full-tilt and high-octane action that I’ve come to love from Erik Scott de Bie’s action heroines in the past. He does not disappoint in “Witch Fire” and I hope to see more of the character in the future.
The Tomorrow section packed a double-punch or powerfully emotional stories. “Ride the Rebel Wind” by Amanda Gannon is a breathtaking adventure, truly steam-punk done right. Told from the point of view of a young engineer dragged into action, it tells powerful tale of a mad captain chasing the beastly airship she put on auto pilot and set loose on the world in the wake of the Civil War. But the true gem, and quite possibly the best story in the collection is “A Well-Embroidered Heart” by Keffy R.M. Kehril. At turns heartbreaking and terrifying, it presents a dystopian land run by the most unique necromancers I’ve encountered in all my years of fantasy fiction, and stars the outcast child seeking vengeance and something more. It evoked thoughts of cold-war European despair and favorable comparisons to China Meiville’s better work.
At a paltry $14.95, lovers of determined women are all but certain to find something to entertain and and intrigue. Recommended.
I'm not sure what to say that hasn't been said already by better reviewers than myself. I grew up in cowboy country, so I went through my westerns pha...moreI'm not sure what to say that hasn't been said already by better reviewers than myself. I grew up in cowboy country, so I went through my westerns phase. There's something deeply ingrained in me that craves those kind of stories. I became a fantasy and sci-fi reader very shortly after, and for some reason the idea of telling a high-fantasy parable using western mythology never once occurred to me. If it had, I doubt I could have imagined it pulled off as well as Felix Gillman did in The Half-Made World.
This is a masterful tale writ large, a Cinerama-screened, technicolor beauty of blazing deserts and burning sunsets. Not for the timid, there is violence a'plenty, and I can't help but picture Creedmore, Agent of the Gun, as anyone but Lee Van Cleef in his spaghetti western days.
I would have liked a bit more of a resolution for the main characters. I found it just a bit ambiguous to my taste. But other than that, their individual arcs were fascinating to watch and unfolded organically.
While I didn't see the ending coming, I still found it to be a very satisfying read that walked a delicate line between dream and reality. A bit bleak...moreWhile I didn't see the ending coming, I still found it to be a very satisfying read that walked a delicate line between dream and reality. A bit bleak at times, in a way that reminded me strangely enough of Perdido Street Station by Meiville or Geek Love by Dunn.
I enjoyed it enough that I will seek out his other books as time permits.(less)
There are certain things I expected from a Rosemary Jones fantasy novel. A resourceful heroine, an affinity for the working class, some misfit characters, a great sense of humor, and thrilling action more akin to The Princess Bride than Conan the Barbarian. But City of the Dead tromps through George Romero's sandbox. How was she going to balance her playful romp style with the threat of an undead apocalypse?
When, about 4 pages in, I burst out laughing at a brief, non-verbal exchange between a protective statuary and ghostly essence of Waterdeep's famed necropolis, I knew I was in good hands. Somewhere between the topiary dragon, the "dark dearlings," and the mounting horror of what is about to be unleashed, I was completely won over. I ended up reading the book straight through, pausing only briefly for brief family activities, and couldn't go to bed until I finished it. That's the kind of book City of the Dead is: a spookhouse thrill-ride that grabs you by the hand and won't let go until you get to the other side. If you're a fan of fantasy fiction and have, know, are, or have ever been a teen girl, this should be on your shelf. If you like a fun story masterfully told, that goes double.
I eagerly anticipate her next book. And until then, I won't be able to "visit" Waterdeep without thinking fondly of the Carver family and the vital service they provide to the city.
I don't know what I was expecting when I picked this up. I had read some of Alexie's short fiction anthologies and enjoyed them. Upon moving to Seattl...moreI don't know what I was expecting when I picked this up. I had read some of Alexie's short fiction anthologies and enjoyed them. Upon moving to Seattle and finding out that he was a local, I picked this up at a used book store, figuring I'd give it a read. I did not expect Thomas-builds-the-fire to get under my skin and change my life. Yet somehow he did.
I grew up a stone's throw from the Southern Ute and Navajo reservations. I had friends from both tribes through most of my public school years. Yet I had never understood what it was to be a Native American. "Reservation Blues" made me realize that I may never fully understand, but gave me new eyes to help me at least see.
Truly one of the best novels I've ever read - perhaps because it was the perfect time of my life to read it, perhaps for other reasons. But there are few books that compare in my experience for capturing a generous slice of humanity in a very true manner.(less)
There are some basic tropes in the comic book world of super-heroes. One - problems are general solved with violence. Two - characters wear spandex (o...moreThere are some basic tropes in the comic book world of super-heroes. One - problems are general solved with violence. Two - characters wear spandex (or similar) outfits. Three - there's a clear line between who the "white hat" and "black hat" are. Victoria Newcomb's delightful and touching young adult novel "Gathering Grace" defies those conventions, and in doing so brings a level of pathos and humanity that others working in the super-hero (or Cape and Cowl) genre could learn from.
How Grace and her wonderfully dysfunctional grandmothers develop and evolve throughout the course of the novel in the wake of tragedy never feels forced nor rushed. The Ruth's compromises and Elizabeth's decisions take this pair of super-powered adversaries to places no one, least of all them, would have expected.
Despite the occasional "five dollar" word, it would be entirely appropriate for a teen or pre-teen audience, but was engaging even for this jaded fogey. I look forward to what she comes up with next -- perhaps even a sequel to "Gathering Grace" so I can follow the fascinating trajectory that the two grandmothers have found themselves on.(less)