Ever read a novel and say... I can't say anything bad about it? That's pretty much the case with Myke Cole's debut novel Shadow Ops: Control Point. It's not a great novel; it lacks the artistic flair of something by K.J. Parker or the deep emotional resonance of something like The Tiger's Wife (Obreht). It is, however, a very good one that tells a compelling story connected to well conceived world building and substantial undercurrents. After finishing it I'm flabbergasted that Ace decided to only release it in mass market paperback as I've read few novels that will appeal to such a broad spectrum of readers.
Control Point begins with a scene too familiar to the American mind -- school shooting. In this case, the students are shooting fire. Across the country and in every nation, people are waking up with magical talents. Untrained and panicked, they summon storms, raise the dead, and set everything they touch ablaze. They're latents, young people incapable of controlling in-born magical power, and because of it they've been marked for termination.
Oscar Britton, Cole's protagonist, is an officer attached to the military's Supernatural Operations Corps. His mission is to bring order to a world gone mad. An archetypal military officer, Britton believes in his government despite struggling to obey orders in conflict with his personal code. Having read Cole's reflection on his time spent serving in Iraq, I can only venture a guess at the nascence of Britton's internal conflict. When Britton suddenly manifests a power of his own, he's forced to reevaluate his conflict and his answer is to run.
He doesn't get very far and in that moment he becomes a part of Shadow Ops. I won't say anymore as the revelation of where things go from there is a real treat. Cole moves away from what resembles urban fantasy and into something wholly new. Control Point isn't urban fantasy or military science fiction (I've seen it referred to as both), but rather a blending of the two -- military urban fantasy. It's a combination I've not seen before and one that works because of Cole's authentic point of view as an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
To have a discussion about the novel, it's almost mandatory to know something about Cole himself. He did three tours in Iraq -- some as a security contractor and some as a Coast Guard officer. He's served as a government civilian, working Counterterrorism and Cyber Warfare and he was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Talk to him for a minute and his passion for service is palpable. Given that, I was stunned by the skeptical lens by which he examines government and those who serve it. The impetus for the novel begins with the question, what would the government do if magic existed and it was illegal? Cole's answer is: establish a secret government agency to control it and use it for its own purposes.
Ok, so maybe that's not so much of a leap. But, beyond that the core of Cole's novel is the conflict of duty and mortality and self-preservation and self-sacrifice. He forces Britton to make choices about where duty ends -- at what point has the government asked you, as an individual, to do too much to your own humanity to continue? Taking it a step further, he asks at what point is it your responsibility to fight against the establishment asking you to do those things? Cole tries to answer these moral riddles, but in so doing admits the answers are as elusive as right and wrong in a world gone gray.
While all of these themes operate beneath the story, the primary take away is that Shadow Ops: Control Point is an absolute blast to read. Oscar Britton is a fallible, modern character, and Cole surrounds him with a vibrant cast. The plot won't be confused for a twisty thriller, but it gives a creative world and dynamic characters the space to shine, which they absolutely do.
I received my ARC for Control Point back in October, started it the same day, and finished it two days after. If you're a lover of fantasy, comic books (X-Men parallels are prevalent), and/or video games, my advice is to run, don't walk, to your nearest bookseller and buy a copy on February 1. I predict Myke Cole's debut is going to be a monster success -- don't make me wrong.(less)
I've read some crazy good debuts over the last twelve months, including two of the best novels I read last year. It's not the norm, however, for a debut author to spring forth like Athena, fully grown and ready to kick some ass. And Elspeth Cooper's (can we agree that Elspeth is a cool name?) Songs of the Earth is more the norm, a well conceived and well written novel that suffers from debut hiccups.
Cooper's protagonist is Gair, a holy-knight-in-training who's been exiled and branded by the Church for witchcraft. Starved and battered, he finds help from a mysterious man who can teach him to control the magical song in his mind. The man, Alderan, is a member of an ancient order of Guardians, charged with protecting the barrier between the world and something akin to Hell. What follows is the 'magical school' plot device that's so widely applied across the genre, and for the most part it's well done, although the focus remains more on Gair's romance with an older woman than education.
While Gair's journey is the primary story line, other plots are afoot, including Church politicking as Preceptor Ansel prepares for a coming conflict. Coming conflict I say? Can I provide more details? Well, not really, which caused some consternation. Maybe Cooper is being too subtle, or maybe I'm dense, but Ansel spends a great deal of time researching, plotting, and executing (maybe?) something. 460 pages later, it's not clear at all what that is. I might have a guess about the ultimate goal, but the methods he's laying out to accomplish them? I've got nothing.
For me, Ansel's sequences were far more compelling than Gair's. Populated by interesting characters with blurred morality, it's unfortunate they function more like an extended epilogue, as none of it felt relevant to the main arc. Of course, it whet my appetite for the next book, the obvious intent, but interspersing it throughout the novel slows the narrative, leading to a novel with inconsistent pace.
There is one other niggle that bears mentioning. A moment occurs about halfway through the novel where Gair demonstrates a capability with no groundwork to support it. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and somewhat impeaches what is in my mind a tremendous first half of a novel. In fact, had I written this review based solely on the preceding pages, I would be stringing together a series of superlatives. All of which goes to say, Cooper absolutely has the talent to succeed.
Despite some bumps in the road, I found Songs an enjoyable read. The characters are well drawn, some exceptionally so (Alden), and Cooper demonstrates a knack for believable dialogue. Her descriptive prose flows well especially in action sequences where her familiarity with swordplay is apparent. Also, some of the novel's most impressive moments come in the aforementioned romance. What could have come off awkward and stilted, always felt sweet and natural.
Given what I know about Cooper, and what she's shown in Songs of the Earth, I have a strong feeling the Wild Hunt series will be more well regarded as a whole, than the first installment on its own. Numerous fantasy series have started slow before catching fire. With a little more polish and experience, I can see Elspeth Cooper doing just that.(less)
One of the most highly anticipated titles of early 2012, Adam Christopher's Empire State has been billed as superhero noir. Angry Robot, recognizing the broad appeal of such a pastiche, has marketed the novel along with their WorldBuilder project. WorldBuilder invites readers to create their own works based in the world of Empire State, which Angry Robot may publish (if they get anything good). That's neither here nor there, but I thought it worth mentioning. As a novel, Christopher's debut is wildly entertaining in a tradition Angry Robot fans have come to expect.
Set in New York City during prohibition, Empire State starts with a street tough named Rex witnessing the final battle of the superhero Skyguard and his nemesis the Science Pirate. Make note of this, because it's the last real super-superhero action you're going to get (mostly). The story quickly jumps out of New York and into the Empire State (don't worry, you'll be back) -- a parallel-universe, where prohibition continues unfettered and a never ending war with an unknown enemy keeps the populace in constant fear.
The narrative centers around a private dick named Rad Bradley, a divorcee who at 40 years old can only remember the last dozen years or so. Beautiful women and newspaper reporters soon get him embroiled in a murder mystery that crosses space, time, and dimension. Sound a little complicated? It is and it isn't. At its core, Empire State is a standard mystery novel couched in the noir tradition. Rad is a straight forward down on his luck, hard-boiled P.I. working his way through a murder and the conspiracy behind it.
So, that's what the novel is about? Not really. Near as I can tell, it's really about social inequality. Existing as a poor copy of New York, down to the people themselves, the Empire State is an isolated and oppressed pocket of humanity. At its edges, reality blurs, and across the Hudson River exists the Enemy, a nebulous entity of government machinated fear. The conceit exists on two levels, both within Empire State and in New York. Internally the authoritarian government rations its populace living large at the top, while those below struggle to subsist. Externally, those without would sooner see it forgotten or destroyed all together because the implications of Empire State call into question self-realizing notions of identity and existence (draw what parallels you like from real life).
Alright, I might be pushing it a bit with that breakdown, but it's certainly there, whether the author intended it or not. As for the prose and tone of the novel, Christopher does a bang-up job of conveying the State's bleakness. The lament of lost memory and the hopelessness of constant war hangs over everything. It's tangible and permeates all of his characters most especially Rad and heretofore unmentioned trapped explorer, Captain Carson. Christopher channels a certain dark humor as well that kept me smirking in the face of the unrelenting gloom.
On the downside, the novel does struggle at times with clarity (here's where things get complicated), mostly in breaking down how and why Empire State exists. Christopher would probably have benefited greatly from an astrophysics degree, and the whole setup reminded me not a little of Mark Hodder's Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack in that the novel itself isn't science fiction, but the device that makes it possible is. How it all ties together with the plot makes for an obscure ending that doesn't jump the shark as much as it detours around it. All that adds up to an ending that relegates Empire State to great noir instead of a great novel.
Utlimately, Christopher does a lot more right than he does wrong in his debut. It seems that Lee Harris and the Angry Robot team have a clear editorial direction in publishing these pastiche novels that don't fit neatly into any sub-genre -- a trend that looks to continue well into 2012 with Empire State at the fore. I don't put it in the same class as Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, but Adam Christopher is another great new voice in the genre. It'll be interesting to see where he goes next.(less)
Heard of this one? Probably not. It's been pretty under the radar for book due out in less than three weeks. Seriously, go Google it. Now try the author's name. What'd you come up with? Not much, I bet. All I could find was an erudite i09 piece and the corresponding Amazon.com and Nightshadebooks.com pages. The Goodreads.com page doesn't even have cover art for crying out loud. All of that goes to say, more people need to be talking about Faith. Jove Love's debut is tremendous science fiction that blends literary traditions with space opera and all the various subgenres therein.
The basic premise is that 300 years ago an unidentified ship visited the Sakhran Empire and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognized the ship for what She was and wrote the Book of Srahr. When they read it, the Sakhran's turned away from each other, sending their Empire into a slow but irreversible decline. They called Her, Faith. Now She's back, threatening the human Commonwealth and the only thing standing in Her way is the Charles Manson.
Aegrescit medendo. A latin medical phrase that means, 'The cure is worse than the disease,' is appropriate here. The Charles Manson isn't the Enterprise. It's an Outsider, one of the Commonwealth's ultimate warships, crewed by people of unusual ability -- sociopaths whose only option is to serve or die.
I mentioned the Enterprise because the main plot is somewhat reminiscent of the Star Trek model. Deep space encounters, prolonged stand-offs, failed diplomacy, synthesizing the unknown, and eventual escalation of force are all eminently present in Faith. The bridge of the Charles Manson, where the vast majority of the novel takes place, has a captain, a first officer, an engineering officer, a pilot, a weapons officer, and all the other parts normally associated with a Federation Starship. Of course, Captain Picard wasn't a sexual deviant (notice I didn't say Kirk!) and Commander Riker wasn't an alien with claws for hands.
In many ways Faith is a satire of the model Gene Roddenberry exemplified in his iconic series. To boldly go where no man has gone before was the mantra of the Enterprise, a ship that was the Federation's representative to all sentient life throughout the galaxy. The Charles Manson is the ship the Federation would send in when a Romulan Warbird took a dump on the Enterprise. It's the ship their embarrassed to have, unwelcome in every port, but tolerated for the service only they can offer. Love gets into the muck with each of his deviants, connecting them one by one to the reader, never redeemed but always compelling.
Not just a delinquent Star Trek novel, Faith is also a psychological journey akin to that of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. On the Charles Manson, Aaron Foord is Ahab, an unrelenting, obsessive, and meticulous task master who drives himself and his crew to the limits to defeat Faith. And Faith, an enigmatic and worthy opponent who Foord both loathes and adores, is the white whale. To someone whose read Melville's classic, many of the concepts that the whale represents are likewise present here. By the novels conclusion Love has melded the space opera with the literary, providing a resolution to the conflict while initiating a conversation with his reader about metaphysical concepts at home in Plato's Cave.
If the novel has a weak point, and I'm not sure it does, it's that some of the early chapters -- incredibly well done in their own right -- seem unrelated to the main narrative. This phenomenon leads to somewhat rhetorical beginning that doesn't engage at the same level as the time spent on the Charles Manson bridge. There are also moments where Love delves into some of the more scientific details or finds himself caught in a logical loop. For a novel that ends with more questions than answers, the fact that these explanations. both scientific and subjective, were allowed to slow down a brisk novel seemed a strange choice.
Given that it's the first 2012 novel I've reviewed, I'm hesitant to be as glowing as I'd like to be about Faith. How can I call it one of the best debuts of the year? I don't suppose I can. I'll have to settle for this: John Love's debut is on par with Dan Simmons's Hyperion in its quest to pose questions and attempt to answer them. It may not measure up to Simmons's classic space opera in terms of pure storytelling, but I have little doubt that the currents of the novel will ebb and flow in mind for years to come. Not bad for a debut no-one's talking about. (less)
Contrary to the article that graced this blog last week, I have been known to choose a book to read (or not read) based on genre. Usually I do it to avoid things I know I won't like, as opposed to trending toward things I know I will. For example, I hate paranormal romance and dislike most urban fantasies (because they masquerade as paranormal romance). Over the weekend, I made a choice to read an Urban Fantasy book specifically because I realized I should practice what I preach. With that in mind I read Jennifer Safrey's debut novel Tooth and Nail, from Night Shade Books.
Gemma Cross's boyfriend is running for congress. She used to be a professional pollster, but now she's retired to support her boyfriend's ambition. To keep herself busy she's rededicated herself to boxing, a childhood love and lifetime hobby. Her life is perfect, until a magnetic young woman shows up at her gym offering her the job of a lifetime. See, Gemma is half faerie - specifically half tooth faerie. Get it? Tooth and Nail. As a hybrid of fae and human, Gemma is destined to defend the Olde Way, the memory of an idyllic life that pre-dates humankind. To bring back the Olde Way, the fae collect innocence, which is -- not surprisingly -- encapsulated in the baby teeth of children. Someone is threatening that process, and Gemma is the only person who can stop it.
Before I go any further let me be clear, this is an utterly ridiculous premise. How ridiculous? Like John Travolta insisting he's straight, ridiculous. Ok, maybe not that bad. But, Tooth and Nail is about the tooth faerie saving the world, an idea I thought put aside for good after the movie starring the Rock. Unlike the movie, I'm pretty sure Safrey isn't going for tongue in cheek comedy (unless I'm really dense), instead opting for a serious take on (I feel silly even saying it) the mystical being that replaces teeth with small change. Some readers just won't be able to get past that, and I wouldn't hold that against anyone. That said, and believe me this is hard to say, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I read it in one sitting.
Perhaps I was predisposed to like Safrey's novel. Set in Washington DC, in the midst of a Virginia Congressional election, the book moves through a lot of my circles. Even a boxing gym in Chinatown, where one actually exists, is rendered with a touch of familiarity. Safrey deftly captures the paranoia of a political race, and the mindset of most candidates as they have their life picked apart. There's even a blogger called the D.C. Digger. Trust me when I say, there are plenty of those in the real world. Added to this perfect (for me) milieu, are dynamic and effective characters, a distinct lack of overt romance, and a well designed plot, making Tooth and Nail everything I want from my urban fantasy (that I almost never read).
The novel focuses on three primary points in Gemma's character that ultimately drive the narrative. First, that Gemma isn't some trophy wife, who will sit on the sidelines while her man makes laws. Second, being a tooth fairy isn't exactly what she had in mind. Third, filling that role is a lot more than she bargained for, jeopardizing her life, her boyfriend's career, and the way she relates to the world at large. To the first point, I think a lot of the novel's success is predicated on Gemma being a real woman with... AGENCY. I've been waiting to use that term ever since Liz Bourke wrote her review of Theft of Swords.
Gemma doesn't wait around for men to solve her problems. She isn't overly beautiful, or stereotypical in any way that I've come to recognize females in fantasy novels. Sure, she gets weak in the knees at the sight of a set of six-pack abs, but that comes across more realistic than gratuitous and for an urban fantasy novel, Tooth and Nail spends very little time developing romantic tension. Safrey instead develops tension by challenging her characters and their mores, asking them to exist in real space, not some contrived romantic or supernatural boondoggle. That's not to say there aren't some contrived scenes (there are several), but they are the exception as opposed to the rule.
For those who read this blog regularly and/or converse with me on Twitter, I'm sure this review is somewhat staggering. Tooth and Nail is radically divorced from what I typical read or enjoy. Tying it back to my article from Friday, that's the beauty of reading without preconceptions. The truth is there are good urban fantasies and paranormal romances, just as there are epic fantasies and space operas. It's unfortunate that I'll read very few because of how they're defined by the marketplace.
I'm glad to have read Jennifer Safrey's debut and I'd love to hear from anyone out there with ideas for novels I might enjoy off my beaten path. (less)