Abercrombie's best work so far. Tight prose, excellent narrative, and I felt "satisfied". That's something very difficult to accomplish in the fantasy...moreAbercrombie's best work so far. Tight prose, excellent narrative, and I felt "satisfied". That's something very difficult to accomplish in the fantasy genre with a stand alone novel.(less)
The Dragon's Path marks the sixth book I've read from Daniel Abraham and the first time I've reviewed an author twice. Abraham has been a favorite of mine ever since his Long Price Quartet. His more recent science fiction debut, Leviathan Wakes, under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey was also impressive. Although Abraham's first series never garnered wide spread popularity, I never doubted he would one day put himself among the bestselling authors in the speculative genres. The Dragon's Path, Abraham's first installment in The Dagger and Coin Quintet, is the first step on the road that will lead him there.
Unlike the Long Price Quartet, which eschewed a lot of genre tropes that permeate fantasy, Abraham embraced many of them in The Dragon's Path. The setting is decidedly European medieval. It has dragons, magic (albeit minimal thus far), swordplay, and religion. While the setting is... expected... how Abraham tells his story is anything but.
Abraham ignores the genre tendency to use the heroes journey (monomyth) as the primary narrative force. Instead, he takes his artful, yet familiar world, and uses it to tell personal stories. The plot is built around four point-of-view characters - Cithrin, Marcus, Dawson, and Geder. It all begins when the free city Vanai comes under attack sending Cithrin on a mad dash to escape the city with the riches of the Medean Bank (think Goldman Sachts) in tow. With Marcus and his crew as her only protectors the pair represent Abraham's coin.
In contrast, Dawson and Geder - noblemen of great and no repute respectively - are the dagger. Interestingly, this side of the story has almost no connection to the other, sharing at most 25 pages of "screen time". Dawson, the King's childhood friend, is at the head of a coalition that would reject social reforms (think Magna Carta) and maintain the status quo of a class based society. Caught in the middle of the political wrangling, Geder must overcome his reputation as a laughing stock scholar before he gets trampled by those jockeying for position.
One of the reasons the novel has been met with such mixed reviews is that not one of these characters is terribly likable. They all exhibit admirable traits at times, but not one escapes Abraham's unique ability to color his characters with shades of gray. Even Cithrin and Marcus who are most definitely trending (to steal a twitter term) hero have character flaws that are difficult to see past. For me, this made it too easy to put the book down in between chapters.
Similarly problematic is that the story itself underwhelms with very little action. I don't mean in a swashbuckling sort of way (there isn't that either) but there's just not a ton that happens over the course of 550 pages. Nothing that resembles an "epic" arc gets going until the conclusion and it's quite clear that The Dragon's Path is all about moving Abraham's pieces into place. Unfortunately, for a first book in a series that's a difficult place to start. Abraham is asking his readers to invest considerable time into a story that hasn't even really begun.
However, it's easy to make the mistake of disliking a book because it isn't what it "should" be. Like Pulp Fiction or Get Shorty, The Dragon's Path is a character study more than epic fantasy. While I am certain future novels in The Dagger and Coin series will have a more epic scope, this is a novel about real people in an unreal world. Each of Abraham's primary characters have their own story that could have been self contained novellas. He stitches them together in a coherent way and drops hints about how they'll come together in the future.
As a character study, I think The Dragon's Path is incredible. Geder and Cithrin are extremely compelling and I fully expect one or both to become iconic characters in the fantasy pantheon by the series conclusion. For a reader who's looking for a traditional epic fantasy adventure, this may not be the best choice right now. Moving forward, I have faith that Abraham will produce a series that exceeds his brilliant Long Price Quartet and sells a few more copies too.
The second book in the series, titled The King's Blood, is due out next spring. I'm literally counting the days.(less)
First of all, I need to give some kudos to Orbit Publishing. I was first exposed to Orbit a few years ago when they released the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks in its entirety over a few months. This strategy provided Weeks with a strong shelf presence and offered reader's an assurance of a completed story arc.
Last week Orbit released The Dragon's Path, Daniel Abraham's highly anticipated first book in a new series. Attached to the end of the eBook version of Dragon was an advanced copy of Leviathan Wakes, Abraham's first foray into science fiction under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey (along with co-author Ty Franck). This inclusion has ensured that readers will begin to associate Corey with Abraham and furthermore it gives the online community an opportunity to give Leviathan some love before its wide release in June. Orbit clearly understands how the publishing industry is changing and they are responding. Now, on to Leviathan Wakes.
Leviathan is equal parts science fiction, horror, and crime fiction. Over the past few years we have begun to see drastic changes to the traditional science fiction and fantasy model. I have even begun to see literary terms like modernist and post modernist thrown around. Leviathan is not these things, in fact it's quite the opposite. It is a refreshing return to the science fiction many of us grew up on.
Set in our solar system with a technology level we can conceptualize Leviathan does not reinvent the wheel. The outset of the novel sets a grisly scene reminiscent of the sci-fi horror film Event Horizon leaving an entire ship dead. This simple event throws the solar system into open conflict pitting Mars against the Belters - those living on asteroids in orbit around the outer planets.
Corey tells the story from only two points of view - one a boy scout freighter officer and the other a hard boiled detective who would slide seamlessly into a James Ellroy novel. So many novels in the genre really suffer from the misunderstanding that ten POVs makes for an epic novel. By only showing the thoughts of two characters Corey tells an epic story in a very personal way. It gives his characters authenticity and gives the reader a sense of empathy.
Many who have read Abraham before are familiar with his excellent command of the English language. The Long Price Quartet was beautifully written and while Leviathan is well written it lacks a certain flare that I got from Abraham in the past. My guess is this is intentional. Where many science fiction novels feel vast in a spatial sense, Leviathan feels claustrophobic. From the Belters living in domes completely reliant on imports of air and water to submarine-esque spacecraft, Corey's vision of the future is somewhat bleak.
Leviathan is almost assuredly the first book in a series. Corey never takes the reader to Earth or Mars. I suspect that future novels will focus on the inner planets. With that said, Leviathan absolutely stands on its own and while I look forward to future novels, I don't feel like I need them tomorrow.
In all, Leviathan is a very satisfying read. Potential readers should remember to expect a certain amount of nostalgia for the past days of science fiction as well a certain noir flavor typical of early century crime fiction.(less)
Banks has been discussed as one of the better science fiction writers in the business - not to mention a very successful mainstream author as well. I had high expectations going into the novel, and to be honest I came away disappointed. Phlebas read like a collection of short stories that were turned into a novel.
Many of the other reviews out there (and there are many given Consider Phlebas was published over 20 years ago) react negatively to parts of the novel that are gratuitous. Case in point, the opening scene consists of the main character chained to a wall in a room being filled with sewage. The novel has cannibalism, senseless murder, and not one likable character. However, none of these issues are problematic for me. Having read some of the more edgy or nihilistic entrants into the scifi/fantasy genre in recent years I've become accustomed to not being able to like the main character. I've become accustomed to being offended or disturbed by what I'm reading. What I have not become accustomed to is poor storytelling and that is where Consider Phlebas falls short.
The plot is a simple one. A war rages between the Idrians, a tripedal alien race intent on spreading their religious doctrine throughout the galaxym, and the Culture, a human/machine coalition. Horza, our shapeshifting humanoid main character, is an agent of espionage for the Idrians. When a Culture Mind (think a sentient spaceship) goes missing after a space battle, Horza is sent to find it and plumb its secrets for the Idrian war effort.
From the opening scene to the last scene there is very little that holds the various adventures of Horza together. A series of random events take place to bring Horza to where he wants to go. The reader is told what that goal is in the opening chapters, but then for the next 250 pages Horza makes no progress toward that goal. Characters die (that the reader is given no reason to be attached to), Horza gets himself into tough situations, he gets out - but the plot doesn't progress at anything resembling a compelling pace.
It's not all bad. The worldbuilding is tremendous. There are times when scenes hit just the right note. In fact, despite how much I struggled through Consider Phlebas, I will read future Culture novels. I think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created and for all the problems with the storytelling, Banks is a good wordsmith. I would not recommend the novel to others, and especially not to new readers in the genre, but it hasn't turned me off to Banks either.(less)
Trudi Canavan's world is one filled with magicians and black magicians. Where traditional magicians draw power only from themselves, black magicians can steal the magic from others to use for themselves. In some places black magic is a lost art. In others it is a natural part of life. Kyralia and Sachaka, the two most powerful nations, exist under a tenuous truce. Kyralia, a place where black magic is feared and taught only to a select few, views the unchecked power of the Sachakan black magicians with distrust.
The novel begins in Kyralia with Lord Lorkin, the privileged son of Black Mage Sonea, deciding to do something with his life. He volunteers to travel as part of an embassy to Sachaka, a nation who had only recently been at war with his own. Meanwhile, at home his mother Sonea and her old friend Cery the Thief (read - crime lord) find themselves hunting a rogue magician who may be responsible for a series of murders the city.
The Ambassador's Mission is set after the events of Canavan's Black Magician Trilogy (and subsequent stand alone novel, The Magician's Apprentice). Fortunately, she offers enough information to fill in what happened in the previous trilogy making it optional though still suggested. Despite having never read any of her previous work, Mission is familiar. For a lover of the fantasy genre it's like putting on an old t-shirt that jogs memories of the good old days. Her story is well paced and clearly written, with characters you can love even if they aren't total believable.
The novel's weakest point is character development. While the characters are well written and interesting, they just aren't very deep. I believe it was Anton Chekhov who said, "Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Canavan falls into the trap of telling how characters feel without showing it. Lorkin and Cery in particular are given a lot of page time without the opportunity to expound on their motivations. They both end up taking rash actions based on emotions explained only in a few paragraphs and not very well.
Compared to so much of the fantasy that's coming out today, Mission is very young adult. There's no strong language and only one very vague sex scene. Moreover the novel is not densely plotted. Things happen in a pretty straight forward manner and the foreshadowing is not convoluted. This shouldn't be read as a criticism, just a point of fact. I found myself comparing Canavan's style quite favorably to James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven. Although Barclay writes a slightly more adult (bloody) novel, the pacing and character development are quite similar.
This first book in the trilogy is in many ways a long form prologue. Little action graces the pages. Most of the story centers around the politics in both nations setting the stage for what promises to be a far more eventful second and third installment. There is nothing new or unexpected here yet Canavan does the expected expertly. The Ambassador's Mission is perfect for a plane ride, a beach, or in between difficult reads. I would not recommend it before bed as the clock is likely to speed by as quickly as the pages.(less)
The Rogue, the second book in Trudi Canavan's Traitor Spy Trilogy, picks up right where The Ambassador's Mission left off. Unfortunately four hundred plus pages later Canavan has not moved a lot closer to resolving the conflicts introduced in what was a promising first book. Finishing the second installment left me underwhelmed.
Since anyone thinking about reading The Rogue has surely read the preceding book, I'm not going to delve into the plot much. Suffice to say, all the old cast of characters are back and Canavan introduces one new face, Lilia - a budding magician trying to fit in. I would be remiss however if I didn't mention the fact that at least one of the primary story lines that absorbs half of The Ambassador's Mission and The Rogue makes no progress to speak of.
To make matters worse the book ends with two cliff hangers neither of which seem strongly influenced by the book's events. Rather than making me want to read the next installment, I just felt frustrated. I understand that today's fantasy marketplace demands multi book arcs. That's no excuse to not self contain each novel to some degree. Canavan's epilogue is more about advertising the third book than it is about completing the second.
In the first book, my main complaint was the lack of character development. While the problem remains, Canavan shows some improvement. Dannyl, a gay historian and ambassador, is a superb character. Throughout the book he struggles with his feelings between two men, his loyalty to his country, and his advancing years. Unlike so many gay characters in fiction, Dannyl's sexuality is part of who he is - not a casualty of a socially progressive checklist.
For that reason, I was disappointed that Lilia, a young woman coming into her own sexuality, felt exactly like a victim of "equal time". It's as though Canavan got a call from the GLBT community to not give short shrift to lesbians. I applaud the desire to put homosexual characters in the spotlight. That said, I think it does a disservice when they feel like token offerings to god of inclusiveness. Beyond that, Lelia's actions and motivations just never felt believable. This ultimately turns her into 100 pages worth of plot device I don't particularly care about.
Still, the story has pace that kept me reading. Aided by frequent point of view shifts, I continued to chase the carrot, so to speak. While reading I couldn't help keep thinking how much more I'd have enjoyed the book ten years ago when mainstream fantasy only required good plots and creative settings. Now days I just expect more depth. The frequent shift in POV never provided enough detail on any one character or setting to truly feel immersed.
With all that said, Canavan has a good story to tell. I can't recommend The Rogue on its on own merits, but I'm interested in what happens next. The Traitor Spy Trilogy will find a lot of fans amongst young adult readers and those new to genre fiction.(less)
Written in the first person, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Yeine Darre's recounting of her life. She is both a participant and an observer in her story which leads to a unique narrative structure where she both describes what's going on, but often takes an aside to put it into context as an omniscient storyteller. Using this methodology, Jemisin presents a style that is uniquely intimate. I often felt like a voyeur lurking on the outskirts of something I shouldn't be seeing. It is beautifully written and brims with emotion.
Throughout the story, Yeine finds herself pitted against two of her cousins in a contest for the Arameri throne. The Arameri, by divine right, hold the leash of Nightlord Nahadoth (god of darkness, chaos, etc.) and his three children who have been imprisoned in human form by the Brightlord Itempas (god of order, light, etc.). So powerful are these captive gods that the Arameri rule the hundred thousand kingdoms without opposition. Yeine, rebels against this world where gods are at her beck and call. She expresses disenfranchisement with the excess and corruption of the Arameri who use Itempas' judgement to extend their dominion.
Jemisin writes a story that is fundamentally ambivalent. There is no morality in her story other than what her character, Yeine, perceives as right. The gods, even the Nightlord (a moniker traditionally reserved for the darkest fiend), exhibit qualities that make them representative of both good and evil. She supports the notion that order does not always mean right and chaos is not always evil instead perspective is the ultimate arbiter of judgement.
She takes it further by taking her gods off the pedestal and imbuing them with humanity. One of the tenets of romanticist fantasy is the unknowing forces of nature (read gods). In Kingdoms the forces of nature are not only knowable, they have faces, and weaknesses of character that are authentic not just constructs of veracity. Yeine interacts with and confronts these forces trying to recognize not only her place in the world, but the justification for their place as well.
Ultimately, I think Jemisin ask her readers to consider their relationship to spirituality and morality. Is our existence significant? Is what we do and how we do it important? Religious or not (I'm not), these questions are the reason people are attracted to the fantasy genre. I've most often heard escapism as the primary driver of fantasy readers - not me. For me, it's because I ask these questions of myself. For someone who doesn't necessarily believe in God, great fantasy makes me try to rationalize my place in things in a way no other genre does. It frees me to come to grips with my own relationship to the fantastic.
Oh, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is really good.(less)
My name is Justin and I write a speculative fiction review blog. I recently finished your Hugo nominated novel, Feed. First off, congratulations on your success. Before I go any further I want you to know that I enjoyed your novel very much and I look forward to future installments. It was emotionally charged, suspenseful, and perhaps most importantly authentic. Still, I am compelled to ask, why on God's green earth did you write about zombies?
Don't get me wrong, who doesn't love a little zombie killing from to time? Like the Twilight series or a Dean Koontz novel, zombie killing is a time honored guilty pleasure that deserves to be explored every so often. Unfortunately, of late the publishing industry seems inclined to publish zombie killing about as often as John Grisham writes about snot nosed lawyers in over their heads. If zombies was the price you had to pay Ms. Grant, I say I understand, but I also must say this novel is better than zombies. You're better than zombies.
I read your afterward and the brief interview you gave at the end of the eBook. You obviously have a deeply rooted passion of epidemology and virology. This passion is one of the reasons Feed is so good. It comes through in your writing. You have obviously spent countless hours researching how to construct an outbreak. But in the end you wrote about an outbreak the public has read a hundred times over. Zombies eat people, bites bad, head shots good. You did it better than anyone else I've read. I feel more than comfortable calling Feed the quintessential must-read zombie book. But why, oh why, in all your research and passion did you choose such a tired idea?
I think what frustrates me most of all is that the book isn't even about zombies - not really. It's about people (the non-shambling, non-flesh eating variety) and how they communicate. It's about how humanity is developing digitally and how things will change whether we want them to or not. You didn't need the zombies. Your outbreak could have been syphilis on PCP or airborne HIV or some new disease you invented all yourself. All the zombies did is take a really brilliant novel and made it feel like a cookie cutter bestseller.
And that what worries me, Ms. Grant. I have a sneaking suspicion that zombies gained you more readers than it lost. How many people bought what they thought would be a nice airplane ride zombie book and got a lot more? Quite a few I bet. But how many never picked it up because they were just sick of zombies? We'll never know, but I can tell you I was one. I read Feed's blurb months ago and shrugged - just another zombie book I said. If not for your Hugo nomination I would never have picked it up. Feed deserves better than that.
Last year I read The Passage by Justin Cronin. It was pretty good. Before that I read The Strain and before that World War Z. I'm worried that these successes have prompted a rash of clones that will continue to flood the market. Just looking at release schedules in the months to come, zombie novels are on the rise and not slowing down. I hope that Feed won't find itself someday in the future lost among the pile of genre flotsam. I hope we look back on it and remember the glimpse it gave us into the future of human communication. I'll also hope that when you're done with the Newsflesh series you write stuff without zombies and I hope I haven't amplified too far to read it.
The moment I saw the cover for Simon Morden's Equations of Life I was intrigued. In a genre known for covers like S.M. Stirling's Rising(google it, right now), the art put together by Orbit Books screamed unique. I have to give them credit for giving a new author something that differentiates him on the shelf. Throw in a blurb that has Armageddon, jihads, and complex math and there was little doubt I was pumped to get my hands on it.
Morden's novel features a fairly standard protagonist named Samuil Petrovich - he's begrudgingly heroic and decidedly irreverent in the face of danger. He's also an advanced theoretical mathematician who suffers from a degenerative heart condition. On his way to the university, Petrovich witnesses an attempted kidnapping of a young girl. Despite his best interests he intervenes, saving her from abduction.
Along the way he gets a hand from Maddy, a gun toting amazonian nun, who helps him return the rescued girl to her father - who just so happens to be the head of the Oshicora crime family (read Yazuka). Caught between the Russian mob, the Oshicoras, the police, a couple of street gangs, and a mysterious entity calling itself the New Machine Jihad, Petrovich finds himself in a high stakes tug and pull for Metrozone's future.
Equations wasn't what I expected - at all. The title, the cover art, the blurb all pointed in my mind to something a lot more akin to the film A Beautiful Mind. Usually when my preconceived notions are blown apart I tend to be disappointed. With Equations that wasn't the case at all. While mathematics only lurked on the periphery of the story and Petrovich turned out to be far more Chow Yun Fat than Rick Moranis, the book whipped by at such a pace that I never had a moment to lament what it wasn't. Rather, I focused on what is was - a first rate cyberpunk thriller filled with witty dialog and outstanding wizbangs.
Petrovich is the novels primary focus. He's an onion-y character that reveals himself slowly and almost always accompanied by Russian epithets. Who he really is and why he got involved are questions that permeate the early parts and drives things when the action slows down. Unfortunately, the breadth of the story and the pace Morden chose to tell it left little time to explore the novels secondary characters or elaborate on the setting. In particular Petrovich's nun companion, Maddy gets short shrift despite significant page time.
Additionally, there seems to be a bit of a trend developing to start series with narrower plots before expanding into a more epic struggle in the subsequent installments (Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk is a recent one that comes mind immediately). I'd love to talk to someone on the decision making side of the industry at some point to see whether this is a conscious decision. Telling more self contained stories precludes the need for information dumps, but also removes some of the wonder that's the lifeblood of the genre. Equations walks a fine line of hinting at the larger world yet staying unencumbered. It's largely successful, but I found myself very much wanting to know more about what's going on outside Merry ol' England.
In all, Equations of Life was an excellent first installment in Simon Morden's Metrozone Series. While I found the lack of academia disappointing, the fantastic pace and action more than made up for it. I'm sure I'll be diving into Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom soon. And if the ending to Equations holds up there is sure to be a bigger dose of theoretical math ahead.(less)
Wow. Before I go any further into this review I want to be up front that I don't really feel qualified to review or judge this novel until I read it a second time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it my best go. Please consider this more of a "first impressions" review that some kind of detailed analysis.
(Edit: After finishing the review, this has got be the longest "first impressions" post ever. Oh well, my blog, my run on incoherent thoughts.)
I finished Germline over the Fourth of July weekend. More accurately, I sat down with it Saturday morning and didn't even get up to eat until I finished it. It stunned me. The novel's blurb doesn't begin to encompass everything it has to offer. I don't think Orbit Books is trying to mislead anyone, but a few words can't capture everything T.C. McCarthy is trying to do. This is not, I repeat not, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi). Instead, over the course of 300 pages Germline is an incredibly dark coming of age story about a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.
Oscar Wendall is a reporter and not a particularly good one to ask his editor. Lucky for him, he's made a few well placed friends over the years that help him pull the "plum" assignment of being the first civilian allowed on the Line. He quickly finds himself in Kazakstan joining a battalion of Marines fighting the Pops (Russians) to secure rare minerals "vital" to the U.S. economy. Already an addict, Oscar begins to rely on drugs more and more to survive the terrifying world he now inhabits.
Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissus. Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.
Germline's narrative style seems to give McCarthy carte blanche to toy with his reader's emotions. The inherent bias in a first person narrative makes the reader privy to all of Oscar's affectations. It allows the reader access to all of his fantasies of the mind as well as the truth of his motivations. Early on Oscar is the star of his own story, but then later describes himself as a coward who only stays because he can no longer rationalize life without the war. It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming. Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind). He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line for a Pulitzer because he has no idea what that life is worth. He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.
That said, one of the things I kept ask myself time and again throughout the novel was how others perceived Oscar. Telling the story solely through Oscar's very flawed eyes, McCarthy leaves the answers to questions like that open to interpretation.Thankfully, McCarthy's ending is incredibly cathartic. If I'd read the ending by itself it may have come off a bit contrived and convenient. After the roller coaster of emotion that Germline sent me on for the first 250 pages though, I couldn't have handled anything except what McCarthy gave me. I found myself choked up on at least three occasions at the novel's conclusion - an extremely rare occurrence.
Like any good science fiction novel Germline includes gads of social commentary. The most prevalent is the theme on which McCarthy is building his trilogy - Some technologies can't be put back in the box. For the most part this debate plays out through a squad of soldiers known as genetics. Women raised for no other purpose than to die in combat (and kick serious Russian ass), the genetics are McCarthy's opening statement into a larger debate of how the concept of shared humanity survives when a man's (in the larger sense) first and last line of defense is dehumanizing everything around him. I believe he extends the metaphor throughout the entire novel using Oscar's journey to redeem the notion that while things can never be put back in the box (Oscar's own humanity or sense of community), they can be made right. I think it'll be interesting to see how this discussion continues to take place in future novels.
Additionally, those who have a political leaning one way or another will quickly make a connection between McCarthy's description of Kazakstan's minerals and oil in the Middle East. There's a scene in the book that really focuses in on this discussion and it's so thinly veiled as to make me wonder if the commentary is merely coincidental. Given the author's background in international conflict analysis, I find that hard to believe. I didn't find it heavy handed by any means, but it's there. Readers with a feminist bent (I mean that in the nicest possible way) might also struggle a little bit as the only two female characters are an overbearing socialite mother and clones bread to kill.
Brief aside: I would be totally remiss if I didn't at least comment on Germline's cover. Where the blurb fails to convey the heart of the novel, the cover nails it. Reminiscent of the Blackhawk Down movie poster, I think the art absolutely captures a man totally beaten down, but still willing to shoulder his burden and move forward. I'm usually not a fan of the "photo realism" covers, but I think artist Steve Stone nailed it. I guess McCarthy agrees.
Germline is a tremendous debut novel. To be honest, I'm a little nervous that I've butchered the author's true intent in trying to communicate how it made me feel. I'd love a chance to talk with McCarthy at some point because I don't know how a character like Oscar Wendell gets written without leaving an author hollowed out when it's all over. Hell, I felt hollowed out just reading it. This novel isn't for everybody - and I wouldn't touch it as a so called "summer read" - but it's immediately going into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front. Hell of a debut, T.C.
P.S. - McCarthy's second novel Exogen is due out next year as the second installment in his Subterrene Trilogy. Germline stands so well on its own that I hope future novels set in the same world steer clear of Oscar Wendell. (less)
I started writing this review last week, but it just wasn't coming together like I'd hoped. With over 2,000 words written, I was approaching critical mass. You see, K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife is not an easy book to review. There's a lot going on and it's rather non-traditional for a fantasy novel in a lot of ways and then entirely traditional in others. It wasn't until I ran across Lev Grossman's article in the Wall Street Journal Monday morning that I knew how I was going to attack this post.
"Fantasy does tend to be heavily plot-driven. But plot has gotten a bad rap for the past century, ever since the Modernists (who I revere, don’t get me wrong) took apart the Victorian novel and left it lying in pieces on an old bedsheet on the garage floor. Books like “Ulysses” and “The Sound and the Fury” and “Mrs. Dalloway” shifted the emphasis away from plot onto other things: psychology; dense, layered writing; a fidelity to moment-to-moment lived experience. Plot fell into disrepute.
But that was modernism. That was the 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement – a great movement, but like all movements, a thing of its time. Plot is due for a comeback. We’re remembering that it means something too."
Yup, that sounds quite a bit like what's going on in Folding Knife and to everyone's benefit it allowed me to cut about a thousand words.
In the Vesani Republic, the First Citizen's word is nearly law. Elected by the people, he administers the largest economic power outside the somewhat fractured Eastern Empire. Today, the First Citizen is Bassianus Severus (Basso). Deaf in one ear and brilliant in business, he killed his own wife and brother-in-law after finding them in bed together. Alienated by his surviving family, he uses his influence to become the most powerful man in Vesani. Now what?
The first two sentence of that last paragraph, forget them... entirely. Anyone who has read this blog before knows I believe that world-building is a vital part of what imparts fantasy. I've always said great prose, great characters, and all the rest will only get someone so far in the speculative fiction genre. Parker has proven me wrong... mostly.
Folding Knife takes place in an invented setting. Want to know a secret? I don't care. I have no idea where Vesani is in relation to the Eastern Empire. I don't care. The moniker of Eastern Empire is so nebulous that I realized Parker doesn't want me to care. Parker's intent, I believe, is to cut away all the extraneous items that distract from the plot. Into that pit go world building, flowery prose, and unnecessary description. Parker even seems to do away with foreshadowing instead opting to tell the reader what happens before going into the details after.
What Parker has accomplished is like taking a car from Pimp My Ride and restoring its far more useful and effective former self. Parker picks out the important bits, remove the extraneous fluff, but keeps the meaning the same. This is accomplished to a degree that the novel possesses a style almost reminiscent of a news article (albeit the most impressive news article anyone might read). Even the opening chapter hits the reader with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN as Basso leaves the Republic in poverty on the top of a wagon. What it holds back is the why. Parker relishes filling in that blank with a brilliant tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and Euripides (ok, that might be hyperbole - but not absurdly so).
So that's what Folding Knife is. As for what it's about, the closest I can come is finance, loneliness, and in true Shakespearean form hubris. Finance is the device that Parker uses to move the plot from Basso's role as head of the Charity and Social Justice Bank. As someone who makes a living in the American political system I couldn't help observing a parallel between the Vesani (read: Basso) economy and America's. Leveraged, always betting on future profits, never cutting back - all of these are part of why Congress is having a lengthy argument about how best to restructure the federal budget. In that way it can certainly be read as a criticism of U.S. economic policy.
As for the other two items (loneliness and hubris), they are the impetus behind Basso's machinations both economic and political. Basso is emotionally challenged and acts out like a robber-baron to preserve not only his place in society, but to boost his perceived infallibility. While this doesn't make him particularly likable, it does make him extremely compelling. Beginning with Basso's murder of his wife and brother-in-law, Parker sets up scenes of loss and heartbreak that resonate time after time.
After writing this glowing review, I started wondering why Parker isn't ubiquitously mentioned as one of the foremost authors in the genre? If I had to answer I'd give a two-fold answer. First, Parker is an anonymous writer with no social media presence. Second, Parker writes literary fantasy. Last time I checked Martin Amis and Don DeLillo weren't exactly making the New York Times Bestseller List. If we can all agree that less people read fantasy than "real" fiction, the market Parker is ultimately writing to is even smaller than her mainstream contemporaries. Most the novels that are placed above Parker's are more traditional epic fantasy - A Song of Ice and Fire, The Black Company, The Kingkiller Chronicle, Lord of the Rings, etc.
Interestingly, for all that, Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages. Unfortunately, this straddling the line of epic and literary fantasy limits Folding Knife's exposure somewhat preventing Parker from being appropriately recognized. I might be wrong. But if I am, why is there any list of the best fantasy novels out there without The Folding Knife right near the top? I can't explain it any other way.(less)
I recently finished a book that was completely beyond the scope of what I normally read. The book? Blood Rights by Kristen Painter. I don't read a lot of urban fantasy and I read zero paranormal romance (and by zero I mean none). Why in God's name did I decide to pick up this title then? Well, I'll tell you - I trust Orbit Books. The more I read the more I come to depend on publishers I trust to consistently put out quality books regardless of subject matter. Not to mention Orbit and Nekro put together an absolutely gorgeous cover that appealed to me as a red blooded American male. We're so simple aren't we?
In any case Blood Rights is a vampire book set in the near future. I kept expecting some kind of science fiction action, but it never developed. The story follows Mal, a vampire living in exile, and Chrysabelle, a comarré (think vampire feeding device trained from birth to serve) on the run from vampire nobility. When Chrysabelle finds her vampire patron dead she feels sure the blame will fall on her. She flees into the human world chased by Tatiana, a noble vampire with a bad attitude and a craving for ultimate power. Naturally our intrepid comarré ends up in the hands of Mal who is trying really hard to not to eat people and has a grudge of his own to settle with Tatiana. As might be expected the pair find themselves very attracted to one another and Mal ends up in the role of protector as Chrysabelle tries to stay alive and clear her name.
When I first started Blood Rights I really wasn't expecting to like it. One of my twitter and message board friends (Bastard Books) is a big urban fantasy reader. I tease him frequently about his love of tramp stamps and crossbow wielding broads, but I realized it might be intellectually dishonest of me to ridicule him without actually knowing what I'm talking about. Picking up Child of Fire by Harry Connolly or Storm Front by Jim Dresden would have felt like a cop out. So I consulted my trusty book catalogs and found Blood Rights which thankfully met all my criteria - publisher I trust (check), sexy girl on the cover (check), gothic feel (check), some sort of supernatural thingy (check), and written by a female (check). For better or worse, I was committed.
Then something sort of funny happened, it ended up being for the better. There is no question that Blood Rights is paranormal romance in the very well done disguise of urban fantasy. That's not a criticism at all since Painter made her hay as a writer with covers that feature rock hard abs and curling smoke. To ignore her experience in that genre would be a mistake and she integrates it well largely because the nature of the romance is so unexpected. There are no heaving bosoms (alas) or comparing of bodies to chiseled works of art. In fact, there's not really any sex that I can recall (well unless you count demons doing evil vampires) and only a smattering of kissing. Instead Painter creates an entire culture of eroticism around blood sucking. To a vampire sucking blood from a comarré is the equivalent of Kim Kardashian walking up to my desk right now and straddling me - irresistible and all together impossible to ignore. There is tension and passion and it's all tied to self-denial.
Sure, things get a little bogged down in the early going as Painter dwells a bit on Mal's insatiable desire to chomp down on Chrysabelle's neck. And by the third or fourth time I was definitely ready to move on and get to the action, but I never had to wait long before things picked up. Additionally, the novel does an excellent job of dribbling out bits of world building within the romance to give me a reason to be there other than as the creepy guy in the closet (this would be a good time to include a link to R. Kelly's In the Closet). And for me, it totally works. So well in fact that after finishing the novel I tweeted the author with, "I can't look at my wife's veins without feeling 'dirty'."
As to be expected with an experienced author, Painter's writing style is very accessible and fits the subject matter well. There isn't a lot of subtext, but who really wants any when it's time to kill vampires? She has created a lush imagining of the supernatural culture replete with shapeshifters, demons, fallen angels, and others who all orbit around the vampire nobility. The comarré - humans living among vampires - are far more than they appear to be much of which I believe remains to be revealed. Interwoven among these races and humanity is a Biblical thread that promises much more to come in future books. If I had to try to put a bet on what such a conflict might look like, I'd go pick-up John Milton's Paradise Lost and dust it off.
For someone who wants romance, vampires, and hot chicks with full body golden ink, Kristen Painter's Blood Rights is a great place to start. While it hasn't convinced me to go commando on the urban fantasy wilderness, I won't be shy about picking more up in the future. As for the rest of the House of Comarré series, I'm very much on board.
Oh, and I guess Bastard was right.
Blood Rights is available now in the U.K. and on September 27 in the U.S.(less)
I don't plan to write a long review of Deadline. It's inferior in almost every way to FEED. Still entertaining, but sufficiently lacking in some areas...moreI don't plan to write a long review of Deadline. It's inferior in almost every way to FEED. Still entertaining, but sufficiently lacking in some areas. Definitely a second book in a trilogy. I read it as part of my Hugo reading and offered some brief thoughts about the Hugo Best Novel vote in the link below.
For those living under a rock, Joe Abercrombie is the best living fantasist. Notice, I didn’t qualify that by saying he’s the best living British fant...moreFor those living under a rock, Joe Abercrombie is the best living fantasist. Notice, I didn’t qualify that by saying he’s the best living British fantasist, or the best living fantasist who doesn’t write A Song of Ice and Fire, or the best living fantasist who isn’t quite as good looking as China Mièville. I say this, not to trade in unnecessary superlative, but because I genuinely believe it. He’s subversive, creative, authentic, and all together, undeniably, modern.