So, this was an interesting and uneven novel. I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike th...moreSo, this was an interesting and uneven novel. I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike the novel. I almost considered not writing a review at all because I was just so ambivalent. Matthews Hughes' The Damned Busters is a wholly original novel from Angry Robot Books. It is not however the novel I wanted to read. Let me explain.
Filled with fun cartoony characters, Hughes pits Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary of no particular distinction, who accidentally summons a demon, against the hordes of the underworld. Oops. Everyone gets dropped into a bit of a pickle when he refuses to sell his soul thus sending Hell into labor negotiations from... Hell. Shenanigans ensue as the denizens of Hell go on strike. As part of the bargain that puts Hell back to work, Chesney gets the use of his own personal demon who he uses to become a crime fighter.
For the first third of the book the shenanigans are a rousing success. Satan, a few angels, a televangelist, and Chesney all find themselves locked in a room hassling over a contract for Satan's overworked minions. It's so absurd it's brilliant. There is loads of snappy dialog and hilarious situations that could only come from unionized labor. Hughes does well in the space creating a series of encounters that are often laugh out loud funny.
The unfortunate part is the brilliance only lasts for the first third of the book. Once Chesney strikes his deal with Hell the book descends into a pretty boring crime fighter yarn. There are awkward stereotypical encounters with women. He is taken advantage of by a few not-so benevolent powerful people. Not only was the novel less interesting by this point - a lot of Hughes wit seems to fall away as well. What was a light witty novel that read more like a situational comedy, de/evolved into a metaphysical discussion about the meaning of existence.
By the end of The Damned Busters I was completely caught off guard by what was a very esoteric conclusion that left me unsatisfied. Like the second half of the book, this ending wasn't what I wanted to read. I felt betrayed by the promise Hughes made in the opening chapters when he failed to deliver the same level of wit and charm throughout.
I would almost recommend Hughes' novel based solely on the opening. The idea is incredibly clever and he writes it with rare aplomb. I can't help but wonder if The Damned Busters would have been better suited as a novella that ended when Hell went back to work. If that were the case I'd be giving it my highest recommendation. As it stands, I'm not sure it's a great investment of time.(less)
Is steampunk the new vampire urban fantasy? I feel like there's been a huge outbreak of steampunk this year. I guess it makes sense as a natural out growth of the huge boom in urban fantasy. For the most part steampunk tends to be more familiar to people than second world fantasy or space opera with no connection to the "real world". It is traditionally set in a Victorian or Old West environment with historical elements that make sense to mainstream readers and doesn't require vast amounts of information to understand. I would point out that Roil by Trent Jamieson isn't that kind of steampunk.
One of the real up and coming publishers Angry Robot Books, has definitely seen an uptick in steampunk novels. Unfortunately, I hadn't found a title of their's that really called to me until I saw Roil. Billed as steampunk in a second world fantasy setting, it reminded me of The Last Page, Anthony Huso's debut steampunk novel from Tor. Ever since I read Huso's debut, I have been looking for something similar that captured his talent for world building but exceeded his uneven storystelling. Roil did just that.
In Shale, the Roil is spreading. A black cloud of heat and madness has crept through the land, absorbing city after city. Where the Roil goes, life ends. Once there were 12 metropolises, now only 4 remain. Only the cold can stop the Roil and it's getting hotter. A young drug addict, an orphaned girl seeking vengeance, and an Old Man are all that stand between total darkness and the annihilation of humanity. Armed with cold suits, ice rifles, and the mysticism of Old Men the three begin a journey north to the Engine of the World - the only force capable of beating back the inexhaustible Roil.
If it seems curious that I capitalized Old Men thus far, it should. In Jamieson's world the Old Men are something akin to the Apostles of Christ if the Apostles had an insatiable hunger (use your imagination) and the ability to conjure ice at will. In this bad analogy the Engine of the World would be Christ. Throughout the novel who, and why, the Old Men are is of utmost interest. It is clear from early on that the Old Men are a bastion against the Roil. Where the Roil is hot as the sun, the Old Men are cold as hell.
One of the most frustrating things with steampunk for me is the lack of fantasy. Not in a genre sense, but in the sense of imagination. I always find myself asking the question, if I wanted to read about Victorian England why am I reading a steampunk re-imagining of it? Jamieson has totally sloughed off this genre standard in creating an entire second world fantasy. The Roil, the four metropolises, ice cannons, Engines of the World, and other epic sounding steampunk elements compose a beautifully dark, wholly imagined world that bears no resemblance to our own.
Jamieson populates his worlds as much with "villains" as with heroes. I put quotes around villains because to be frank, I'm not sure Roil has a villain. It's clear Jamieson wants his reader to hate Stade, the leader of the city of Mirrlees. He begins the novel by murdering his rivals in the street and doesn't get much friendlier from there. The truth is, he's trying to do right by his people. He sees the Roil as an inevitability and he wants to protect as many of his citizens as he can (everyone else can kiss his ass). Even the Roil itself, which is about as evil as it gets on the surface, is more a force of nature than a malevolent force.
Of course given that, it should be no surprise that Jamieson's heroes aren't particularly heroic. David, a young man of privilege is addicted to a drug called Carnival (heroinesque). He is often more concerned about scoring than he is about staying alive. His companion, an Old Man named John Cadell, isn't all roses either. In fact, he killed David's uncle a few years back. He's feels bad about it though. The list goes on and on. If a novel's strength is judged on its characters, then Roil is She-Hulk. Not the Incredible Hulk mind you (there isn't an iconic character in the bunch), but Jamieson has created a smorgasbord of captivating characters that bring everything to life.
That said, Roil is not without some fault. For all his exceptional world building and lush characterizations, Jamieson's narrative is decidedly standard to anyone who's read a surfeit of fantasy novels. Yet so are many of the paragons of the genre. Moreso than any genre, speculative fiction excels foremost through characters and setting. A strong, original narrative is all well and good, but without fantasy a novel will fall flat. On the strength of his setting and characters alone, I believe Jamieson has begun something that has the potential to be a standard bearer for Angry Robot and the steampunk subgenre.
And don't forget, Roil is the first in The Nightbound Land series - I'm sure Jamieson has a few twists and turns in store. So get back to work Trent, I'm ready for the sequel.
Sidenote: It's a real pain to write a review where one of the characters (Roil) is the same as the title of the novel (Roil). Just saying...
Release Information: Roil is due for a U.S. release on August 30, 2011 in Mass Market Paperback and Kindle.(less)
In the year 2069, the first true Artificial Intelligence is created. Thirty years later the Class Fives are born, becoming the first fully self-aware AIs. Along with their less advanced cousins, "Fives" become known as the Nuekind. One of them is Richards, a private detective considered to be the most human of his kind. Richards is approached by the EuPol (think European Union/Interpol) to investigate the disappearance of the world's foremost expert in Nuekind rights. Unfortunately for Richards and Klein, it appears their quarry has hidden himself in Reality Realm 36, a now defunct game world populated by AIs and thus afforded the same rights as Reality itself.
In true Angry Robot form, Reality 36 has lots of robot stuff. There are cyborgs, androids, cydroids (what?), super AIs, wussy AIs, and insane AIs. The internet is on steroids and with a little work the more powerful AIs can send themselves anywhere there's a connection with enough bandwidth to handle them. Naturally, there's no shortage of action. Klein, a decommissioned military cyborg, is almost never still. He leaps over cars, absorbs dozens of flechettes, and generally causes mayhem wherever he shows up. By contrast, Richards is an investigator and a bit of a flirt. He prefers to let Klein get his hands dirty while he plays the mental game.
While the action is very well done, the part that works most in Haley's favor is the application of technology. Everything just makes sense. Haley's world hinges on the discovery of the Singularity within the next hundred years. This application of processing power leads to, as Ray Kurzweil stated, "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". Thanks to this technological change, game worlds (think World of Warcraft) have developed to the point of becoming alternate realities with machines as aware and alive as those existing in Real Space. Makes sense, right? I know I can think of a few humans that spend more time living in a game world than in reality.
This reality (so far as science fiction goes) is what makes the book so compelling. It's an actual glimpse into the future as much as it's a mystery yarn and an action thriller. Isn't that what Science Fiction is all about? I hesitate to put the label of "hard sci-fi" on Reality 36, but only because I don't have the knowledge base to determine how much of what Haley has created is nonsense versus actual science. What I do know is it reads authentic. When bullets aren't flying I felt like I was having a discussion with the author about the implications the Singularity will have on humanity. And that's cool.
Generally speaking Haley writes a strong narrative. In my head as I was reading the novel I was comparing it favorably to another debut from earlier this year - Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief. They really aren't similar in any way other than they read with a similar pace and absence of information dumping (a pet peeve of mine). While there are some expositions from time to time about the world's history, for the most part Haley allows the understanding of his reality to be absorbed organically as opposed to forcing it down his reader's throat. When he does ramble a bit, it's usually integrated into a character that's a bit of a windbag (Hughie, I'm looking at you dude!) I thought this formula was very successful in Thief and Haley accomplishes it here as well in Reality 36.
My only fundamental problem with the novel is that it's not complete. Haley ends things on a pretty brutal cliff hanger akin to the season finale of a TV drama. The way the title is currently worded makes it seem as though the book will read a bit like a TV procedural where each Richards and Klein Novel is a mystery to be solved, but fully encapsulated within the pages of the book. Instead Reality 36 is more like Reality 36: The First of Half of a Richards and Klein Duology. I know I shouldn't be too upset about it, but there it is. Even first installments in a larger series should have a beginning, middle, and an end (call me close minded).
Ultimately, the only conclusion I was able to draw from Reality 36 is that I'll definitely be checking out the sequel Omega Point next year. Sure the ending was annoying, but Guy Haley has really produced a first rate robot novel. While Robopocalypse is this years hottest robot release and will assuredly sell more copies, I think Reality 36 is a superior novel in almost every way. Angry Robot Books keeps churning out great additions in speculative fiction.(less)
Lauren Beukes is the Queen of Metaphors. I capitalized and underlined it so it must be true. I'll go into why this is an awesome novel in a second, but first let me treat everyone to one of Beukes' metaphors:
"I haven't drive in three years and the car handles like a shopping trolley on Rohypnol."
I don't highlight much when I read, if at all, but I found myself marking sentence after sentence reading Zoo City. Beukes writes with a rare vividness that would keep me reading regardless of what the hell she's writing about. As it turns out, what she's writing about has the same zest and magnetism as how she's writing it.
Zinzi December is a Zoo. Having committed an unforgivable act she has become animalled, cursed (blessed?) with a Sloth that's an extension of herself. Unfortunately, to everyone who looks at her, Sloth is a scarlet letter marking her a criminal. She exists on the fringes of Johannesburg in the slum known as Zoo City where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in fear of being separated. A recovering drug addict, she owes money to some bad people. She writes 419 scam e-mails to keep the mob off her back and in her spare time she finds lost items for cash. When a client turns up dead before paying, Zinzi is forced to take on a missing person's case. She's hired by the private and wholly odd-ball music producer Odi Huron to find a teenage pop star. The case is her ticket out of life in the slums, but it might cost her the last shred of human dignity she has left.
Joining a masterful group of first person SFF novels written over the past few years (developing trend?), Zoo City is told entirely within Zinzi's head. To some degree, Beukes' novel is a pastiche. Scenes and plot devices referencing The Golden Compass and the film District 9 are obviously prevalent. There are elements of noir, urban fantasy, psychological thriller, not to mention a bit of not-so-thinly veiled social commentary. Somehow Beukes manages to pull all this together and instead of coming off as imitation of these various styles she instead finds something all her own. Let's call it urban noir magical realism (that's gold baby, copyrighted!).
In telling the story, Beukes takes her readers on a ride through Johannesburg. When I read Dervish House earlier this year I mentioned Istanbul as one of Ian McDonald's characters. I think the same holds true in Zoo City. Johannesburg, its music scene, and its abject class warfare, occupy significant space in the novel. Beukes' flawed protagonist is in many ways reflected in this space - corruptible, decayed, and hopeless. But she is also trying to be something else. In many ways the city acts as her foil - its static nature contrasting Zinzi's desire to be better despite her frequent failures.
The most impressive accomplishment in Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction. Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes' cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction. The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel. It's clear that Beukes' world isn't just an author's passing fancy. Zoo City is the representation of a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg would be if our conscience had four legs and fur.
Sadly no novel is perfect, and there a few hiccups here and there. Things get a little occult toward the end, more so than the early parts of the novel might suggest, and the villain's motivation is a tad esoteric. There are also moments when the pace slows down usually as a result of not always brief asides. It's easy to breeze through these moments to get back to the compelling story. I strongly suggest reading them closely, not only for the key world building information provided, but for the fairly hilarious inter-textual Easter eggs scattered throughout.
Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy for her work in Zoo City, Lauren Beukes has established herself as someone to watch in the coming years. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zoo City is a novel that will stand up today, tomorrow, and for decades to come. I'm going to be in San Francisco next weekend and I'm hoping to take a daytrip to Reno and WorldCon. If I do, I fully plan to find my favorite South African writer and give her a big high five. (less)
I think I've mentioned this observation in the past, but it continues to prove out the more books I read from the 2011 catalog. First person person narrators are hip in the publishing world. I was listening to an Odyssey podcast the other day and Richard Sawyer was talking about point of view. He made the remark that something like 80% of fantasy and science fiction is written in the third person. In years past, I would totally agree. Today it seems that more and more are being written in the first person. This year alone the genre has seen dozens of debuts in the first person including Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns and Daniel Polansky's Low Town (obviously I could list a lot more, but will use those two as high profile examples).
Being a rather amateur writer and reviewer, I don't know exactly why this shift toward more first person narrators may be happening. It could be in response to the desire for more character driven drama. Or maybe the fact that it seems so many of them are from debut authors is significant? Does writing in the first person make it easier for the reader care about the protagonist? If so it would be a pretty small leap to assume that first person narrations suck in agents and editors at a higher rate. Just looking at this years Hugo and Campbell Nominees I count five out of the ten as written in the first person and all of them are relatively new authors. Regardless of the why (although I think it's an interesting question) Debris by Jo Anderton joins the ranks of 2011 first person debuts.
Tanyana, a talented artist and architect, was born the ability to see and control pions - the the building blocks of matter. When she falls from the top of her newest project under mysterious circumstances the damage to her body leaves her stripped of her powers. Bound inside a bizarre powersuit, Tanyana doesn't see pions anymore, only the waste they leave behind - debris. Cast down to the lowest level of society, she must adjust to a new life collecting debris while figuring out who or what made her fall.
Debris takes a familiar shape without being tired. There's a character who's powerful, loses her power, ends up at the bottom, and has to claw her way back up. A mystery is afoot as to how she ended up where she did and of course she's not as powerless as she's been led to believe. Despite the fact that Tanyana is a grown woman, the arc of the character is a coming of age tale of sorts. Being reduced in power and influence she becomes forced to reinvent not only how she is perceived by others, but how she perceives herself.
I find that the primary challenge an author has in pulling off a successful novel is making me care about the main character. In a first person narrative this is doubly true. Anderton achieves this beautifully, portraying Tanyana as a strong, but ultimately vulnerable woman. She also successfully identifies a series of ancillary characters that manage to have depth despite their lack of focus. I do wish that I could have spent some time inside the heads of the other characters recognizing the impossibility of that request given the choice of narration.
Replete with mythology and a strong sense of history, the novel demonstrates a commitment to place centered around the city of Movoc-under-Keeper. A stark divide exists between the haves and have-nots where those at the bottom of society struggle even to eat, while those at the top attend lavish balls and flaunt their power. This world view is kept in place by a group known only as the Veche who employ human puppets to enforce order. Order in this sense means making sure people like Tanyana and her crew keep collecting debris and don't focus on the why.
Dark tones run throughout the setting and I often found myself drawing favorable comparisons to Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn for that reason. The similarities between the two don't entirely end there, but going any further down this road would end up spoiling quite a bit of Debris' reveals and I want to avoid that if at all possible. I'm not criticizing Anderton for being derivative - not all. In fact, the plots aren't all that similar and trying to predict where Debris was going based on my knowledge of Sanderon's trilogy would have been erroneous. It wouldn't surprise me to hear she hasn't even read Mistborn. Nevertheless, as someone who has read Mistborn and loved it, the similarities between it and Debris stood out.
While I found some aspects a bit well tread in genre terms, Anderton's debut novel is well worth reading. Tanyana is an engaging character and her supporting cast is well done despite the limitations of the narration. Additionally, the plot and setting interact flawlessly and drive each other to their ultimate conclusion.
I should note here that the ending itself is a bit disappointing. Tanyana never quite has her light bulb moment leaving me to wonder if Angry Robot bought the original manuscript and split it into two novels or their contract was for two books (or more) from the very beginning. Given the latter (as in the case of Guy Haley, another Angry Robot author I reviewed here), I applaud them for having faith in their authors and giving them the space to take their time telling the story they want to tell.
In any case, I recommend Debris with the small caveats I mentioned above. As far as I'm concerned, I find my appetite adequately whetted for the sequel, Suited, due out next year. Debris hits stores (and eStores) next week is the U.S. and the following week in the U.K.(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)
In Lives of Tao, Roen Tan was an everyman. Overweight, shy around women, and lacking self confidence, Roen emerged as an agent of his destiny thanks t...moreIn Lives of Tao, Roen Tan was an everyman. Overweight, shy around women, and lacking self confidence, Roen emerged as an agent of his destiny thanks to the gentle urging of the alien living inside him. The novel is essentially about Roen’s relationships to those around him: his alien, his human secret agent instructor, and a love interest he’s struggling to maintain amid his new reality. Essentially, Lives of Tao is a novel of characters in search of a plot, and it works like a charm.
Deaths of Tao is something else. Roen is no longer lacking self confidence. He’s fit and powerful–all the things we hoped he would become in the first novel. The result is a sequel that lacks the camaraderie of its predecessor. The sense that Roen was like me, just a guy trying to make it through, is no longer prevalent. Additionally, Chu distances himself from Roen by giving Jill, Roen’s love interest in the first novel, a larger role with her own alien ball and chain. RHMT, as a Mel Brooks film, possesses cues the consumer expects. Deaths of Tao challenges that paradigm. It is a novel of plot in search of characters.
The story picks up some years after Lives of Tao. Alien factions that inhabit the world, the Genjix and the Prophus, are escalating their war and our erstwhile pair are right in the middle of it. Jill and Roen have gotten married, had a child, separated, and left their child in the care of Jill’s parents while they gallivant across the world to save humanity. There’s a scene about halfway through the novel when Roen stops in to see his son on the way to a mission. It’s a brief reminder of the magic in Lives of Tao, before much of the emotional rigmarole left in the rear view mirror. We experience some the fallout, but it’s ancillary to what amounts to a full-blown world threatening thriller with a healthy dose of politics thrown in the mix.
As for the politics, well, it’s a mixed bag. Having worked ten years in the U.S. Congress, I find myself with a unique perspective on the mechanisms. In Deaths of Tao Jill is a Senate staffer, using her position to manipulate appropriations in opposition to the Genjix agenda. To varying degrees Chu does it right, lacking only the rather specialized experience to provide nuance. Consider this a standing offer to anyone who writes politics, particularly American politics, I’ll read your manuscript. It doesn’t take much to make it code authentic and it’ll do wonders for the tiny segment of the world that will notice your hiccups.
What the politics do very well is serve the plot, a theme reinforced throughout this review. Chu could have continued the kinds of interactions that made his first book special, but he wanted to go another direction by design. He challenged himself to condense huge ideas into a digestible bite. Sacrifices are made to accomplish it, but the end result is a thrilling novel that without quirky aliens would sit triumphantly in Ian Fleming or Vince Flynn’s wheelhouse.
As I finish this discussion of Deaths of Tao I realize there’s not the kind of effusive joy that followed my reading of Chu’s debut. It may come across as disappointment. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a fundamentally different kind of novel, one focused on story telling, not low hanging nerd-makes-good fruit that so appeals to genre readers. For all its charm Lives of Tao was not nearly as well constructed as its sequel, nor as well written. Chu embraced the challenge of writing a female point of view and does it exceptionally well. Simply put, Wesley Chu leveled up as a writer. If his third book can capture the magic of the first with the technical execution of the second, he’ll be among the elite.