Ari Marmell's most recent novel from Pyr (at least for a few more weeks) is predicated on the notion of the 'bad guys' as heroes. This is not Joe Abercrombie's morally gray characters, or Stephan R. Donaldson's antihero. Instead, Marmell takes the stereotypical villains of D&D fantasy -- liches, demons, orcs, goblins, trolls, and ogres -- and makes them the heroes in a war against the righteous. The Goblin Corps ends up as a hilarious and subversive novel that struggles a bit to engage the reader beyond the absurd fun of well drawn set pieces.
Morthul, the dreaded Charnel King, has failed. Centuries of plotting from the heart of the Iron Keep was fiuked at the last by the bumbling efforts of a laughable band of heroes, led by the half-elven wizard Ananias DuMark. When news reaches Morthul that the Allied Kingdoms are assembling a counterattacking army unlike any seen before, he sets a plan in motion to secure his future. The lynchpin to that plan is a Demon Squad -- the best and "brightest" that Morthul's own army has to offer. Consisting of a few fighters, a mage, a rogue or two, and a shapeshifter, the Demon Squad exhibits all the classic characteristics of the ideal D&D party.
Structurally, the novel reflects this same homage to the D&D model. Goblin Corps is divided into a dozen long to very long chapters, each of which represents what amounts to a new adventure for the party. These adventures are comparable to a night of D&D and the novel at large consists of an entire campaign. In that regard, Marmell's novel is best read a chapter at a time as each offers some resolution and a lead-in to the next. For someone who tends to read 200 pages in a sitting, I found it to be somewhat labor intensive as there's not a natural story arc with tension building to a grand conclusion.
Instead the focus is on the characters and the clever dialogue that goes between them. If this is sounding a little bit like my review of Sam Sykes's debut novel Tome of the Undergates, I'm not surprised, because the two novels are very similar in their tone. Marmell is having fun with Goblin Corps and it's transferred to his reader in smirks, snickers, and outright laughter as the bumbling Demon Squad goes about its nefarious business. Occasionally, the novel bogs down in the running gag, sacrificing both pace and storytelling to accomplish the punchline. Taken in the right mood and frame of mind, these gaffs are ignorable, and the black, slapstick, and pun laden humor shines.
My major complaint about the novel, beyond the minor niggles mentioned thus far, is that Goblin Corps is just too long. Clocking in around 550 pages, with chapters as long as 50 pages, the novel just doesn't have enough under the hood to sustain itself. By the time I got to the main story arc, which isn't for several hundred pages, I found myself counting chapters to the end. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed almost all of it, but I would be recommending it with much higher praise if Marmell had tightened things up a bit. I don't see a reason why a few of the "episodes" couldn't have been pruned, or some of the setup chapters shortened, to accomplish a better paced novel.
As far as comedic novels go, Goblin Corps is one of the better ones I've read in recent years. It has a great deal of charm, and even the blackest member of the Demon Squad finds a special place in the reader's heart by the time that final page is turned. This is the first novel I've read from Marmell, but it certainly won't be last. I've got a copy of The Conqueror's Shadow in my office, and I'm looking forward to acquiring his newest novel from Pyr, Thief's Convenant..
The final word on Goblin Corps? It's the perfect follow up to something like Malazan Book of the Fallen's (Erikson) grim outlook or Little, Big's (Crowley) dense undertones.(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)
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)
I love Brandon Sanderson. I've read everything he's written for the adult market, from his first novel Elantris to his printing press busting The Way of Kings. His finest work to date is the Mistborn trilogy which contains one of the best beginnings and endings ever done in fantasy. So, it is with great remorse that I must say his most recent Mistborn universe release, The Alloy of Law, isn't very good, or rather it's not nearly as good as everything else Sanderson has written.
Set some 300 years (about?) after the events of The Hero of Ages, Waxillum is a lawkeeper from the Roughs who happens to be a member of one of the richest families in Elendel. When his Uncle dies in an accident, Wax is called home to administer the family fortune (or what's left of it). Of course some trouble has followed him from the Roughs and he'll have to stop it with the help of his snarky partner, Wayne. Yes, you read that right - Wax and Wayne. If this paragraph sounds a bit lighthearted, then I nailed it. Much like in Warbreaker, Sanderson is testing his limits in humor and levity to varying degrees of success.
The novel starts with a prologue featuring Wax in the Roughs, six-shooter in hand. The tone in these opening scenes conjures up rolling tumbleweeds and Danny Glover saying, "I'm too old for this shit," Assuming Sanderson would allow Danny Glover to say shit (he wouldn't). While most of the rest of the novel feels more Victorian than Wild West, the plot items are recognizably Western. Train robberies, good guys and bad guys, a protagonist with a personal code of honor, all conjure up the whistling theme of Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
That said, thematically Alloy of Law isn't a Western. The Western, as a genre, is about 'civilizing' the wilds, whether that's the natural element or the people that live there is inconsequential. None of that is present. Additionally, the Western world is organized around codes of honor and personal justice - not abstract law. Some of that is there, but only through Wax, and to a lesser degree Wayne, whom represent the ideals of the Roughs. For those in Elendel, where the entire narrative is housed, the social order is not only rigorous, it's set down and fundamentally abstract.
That sounds a bit like I'm being negative because Sanderson didn't deliver a Western. Not the case. I'm being negative because he didn't deliver substance. Alloy of Law is shallow. It has moments of entertainment - action packed sequences and witty back and forth. Of course, Sanderson excels with his world building and magic system concepts and applications. He shows how Scadrial has evolved since Vin and company triumphed over Ruin. Sazed (now Harmony) is not only mentioned, but present. All of that adds up to a rather accomplish piece of Mistborn fan fiction or a fun little story designed to be a pallette cleanser as much for the author himself as for his readers.
Given the beginning of the novel, and the flexibility to use the koloss and/or kandra (who are both functionally absent) to represent the 'indigent people', I saw many ways Sanderson could have engaged a deeper level with the novel as he does in nearly everything else he writes. Am I being unfair? Am I demanding a novel that Sanderson didn't want to write? Is this reader entitlement? Maybe. Probably. But expectations are a part of the game, and given Sanderson's past work I have an expectation of what I'm getting when I pick up a book with his name on the cover. For me, Alloy of Law under delivered, offering what was essentially an adventure short that lacked any of the thematic support necessary to sustain a novel.
Now, the real question... was I entertained? Yes! I enjoyed Alloy of Law. It interrupted my read of Never Knew Another (McDermott) and The Winds of Khalakovo (Beaulieu), two novels from Night Shade Books that are dense and full of nuance. Distracting me from these two titles was a surety as Sanderson's new novel is both bite sized and breakneck in its presentation. I would read it again, although not a second time and therein lies the rub. Visceral enjoyment is not enough, for the same reason that Independence Day is not a good film. Alloy of Law fails at a basic level to engage me as a reader beyond the words on the page.
In an interview with Nethspace, Sanderson was asked where Hoid was in the novel. His response was to say:
Hoid is in the book, though his name doesn’t appear. But the things happening here during this interim are not of deep interest to Hoid like the things happening in the original trilogy, so he is playing a much smaller role here than he was in the original trilogy.
Well, that's because they aren't that interesting. There's nothing epic here, in plot or in intent. It's just a guy named Wax and his buddy Wayne, fighting off a criminal who may or may not be part of something larger (admittedly the end of the novel hints strongly at the former). If Hoid isn't all that interested, why should I be? Alloy of Law is an aside for Brandon Sanderson, a break from his tireless schedule of his Stormlight Archive and Wheel of Time commitments. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it felt like when I read it.(less)
I don't read a lot of graphic novels, not so much because I don't like them, but because I have no earthly idea how to pick them. I mean just because I like the art doesn't mean the writing is any good, and I'm really not that much for art. So when I won Tor's New York (Not at) Comic Con Giveaway I was excited to see several graphic novels included. The first one I noticed in the bunch was Dear Creature and boy am I glad I did.
Drawn entirely in black and white, Jonathan Case's graphic novel tells the story of Grue - a sea mutant with a predilection for human flesh. He's awkward, gangly, and carries three crabs around with him who act more like devils-on-his-shoulder than parasitic companions. Surprisingly he also possesses a poet's heart. Through pages of Shakespeare stuffed into soda bottles and cast into the sea, Grue has fallen in love. Dear Creature is a love story of the oddest type between a monster and an agoraphobic woman.
Like every graphic novel I've read and loved (Watchmen being the standard bearer of course), the highlight is the writing. Case is both hilarious, through his crusty crustaceans, and poignant, in Grue's wooing. There is also a brilliance coming from Grue's dialogue which is written entirely in iambic pentameter. For those without previous exposure to ol' Shakespeare's rhythmic writing style, Case went to the trouble of including a primer in the back that's laugh out loud funny and informative.
The art itself has a very pulp quality that conveys some noir sensibilities in its use of light and shadow, but also a certain flair that's identifiable to me as Western. Of course there's a mounted cop that has a thing for the local 'working girl', so I suppose the Western elements aren't all that inconspicuous. My one complaint is in choosing the black and white palette. While striking, some panels become difficult to follow especially in the under water scenes that lack the stark white contrast.
Nested within the larger arc, is a secondary story featuring the aforementioned cop and his 'working girl'. While the response to Grue's love of his human soulmate is (perhaps) warranted given his history of violent crime and outwardly monstrous appearance, this secondary story demonstrates humanity's capacity for closed mindedness. It also highlights an unwillingness to look beyond ourselves as the cop becomes persecutor and persecuted.
All told Dear Creature is wonderfully imagined. The writing is crisp and quirky, complimenting the story, and its art, perfectly. Although I'm a neophyte in the reading (and even more so in the reviewing) or graphic novels, I would strongly recommend this one to all fans of the medium.(less)
That link also has a giveaway of the first two books open through Nov 17, 2011.
Earlier this year I reviewed Jon Sprunk's 2010 debut novel, Shadow's Son. While I very much enjoyed it, my review was less than glowing. I felt some things were sacrificed to the novel's breakneck pace and that Caim, Spunk's protagonist, was a little too one-dimensional. In a not so stunning development, Shadow's Lure corrects many of these deficiencies and in so doing demonstrates tremendous growth in Sprunk's craft.
Without spoiling too much of what went on in the first novel, Lure picks up right where Son left off. Caim (what?! the main character survives? no way!) leaves his home in Othir behind, heading north to discover the truth behind the murder of his parents and his power over the shadow. He leaves Josey behind, now Empress of the Nimean Empire, to consolidate her power.
The nature of the two stories, which could be read completely separate from one another, blunt the pace that was such a hallmark of Sprunk's debut. Much of the slowdown (never slowness) is affected by much more extensive character development and world building, an almost always welcome and, in this case, necessary inclusion. That lack of frenetic energy shouldn't be taken to mean it's inferior. Quite the opposite. In taking his time to build the narrative, Sprunk has written a different kind of novel that succeeds because of what it doesn't have, almost as much as because of what it does (Yes, that was an awkward sentence, screw it).
Lure is divided primarily into three points of view - Josey, Caim, and Kit. While Sprunk occasionally dips into other characters, it's these three who comprise the bulk of the narrative. He separates them from one another in the novel's early stages, providing him the opportunity to drill down to a level that the structure of the first novel never allowed him to.
Josey's point of view is very political in nature, subject to plots and machinations of factions within the Empire. Through her, the world is capably fleshed out without resorting to information dumps or poorly concealed exposition. Similarly, Kit becomes the defacto spelunker who delves into the Shadow, revealing the world behind the world that is only tangentially touched on prior (for fans of Kit she gets significant page time). In contrast, Caim's sections remain highly kinetic, often going from fight to fight. Moments of rest in between allow him to develop into a textured character and not a simple archetype.
Of course, it should be no surprise that Sprunk continues to shine in his depiction of action sequences. Sure, they compelled a raised eyebrow of disbelief from time to time, but they always left me with a crystal clear picture in my mind of how Caim whipped his opponent(s) - something that other writers (Weeks) in this sub-genre can struggle with. By novel's end, the relentless action connects with the determined expansion of world and character, making Lure a much more complete novel than its predecessor.
There are some hiccups though. Things are on occasion too neat and black and white. At one point there's an attack on Josey where a single bite would kill (or seriously incapacitate) her. Despite the creature being wrapped around her, she somehow manages to avoid such a fate. Sprunk uses the annoying trick of handicapping his protagonist with wound after festering wound. Someday, I would very much enjoy an author letting his protagonist face the final battle at 100%. The series's villain is inherently evil and I never felt that her actions were righteous even from her perspective - something that modern fantasy has become very adept at doing. Mostly these are small quibbles and Sprunk tells such a capable story that none of them remotely imperiled my enjoyment of the novel.
While elements remain decidedly couched in a common, and arguably overused, motif, the Shadow Saga remains a worthy addition to the fantasy Rolodex. Once completed, Sprunk's trilogy will go on the shelf right next to the Night Angel Trilogy where it will compete for the hearts of assassin lovers for years to come. For fans of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, and to some degree Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, this is a series that shouldn't be missed. Shadow's Master, the third and final volume in the series, is already one of my most looked forward to titles of early 2012.(less)
Tell me if you've heard this one before, ok? Joe Abercrombie walks into a bar, sits down and orders a whiskey. He takes a shot and looks down the bar where he sees fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson sitting at a table. Sanderson is laying out a Magic: The Gathering deck and drinking a glass of milk. Abercrombie, seeing his comrade in arms, stands up and walks over. They get to talking about this and that, of course Abercrombie tries his best not to swear or talk about sex, an admittedly difficult bit of conversationlism.
Before you know it, the two of them start writing. Sanderson is handling the outline, plotting things just so and building the world. Meanwhile Abercrombie is writing the scenes, adding his grit and authentic dialogue to Sanderson's framework. He decides to try first person this time, change is a good thing, right? Somewhere along the way Sanderson wins the sexytime argument. They finish the novel and agree on the pseudonym Daniel Polansky. And so, Low Town was born.
That's just a legend. To the best of my knowledge Daniel Polansky is a real person, and not some amalgamation of two bestselling fantasy authors. But it could be true because Low Town is the love child that Abercrombie and Sanderson (probably) will never have. It's well paced, richly textured, and demonstrates all the rawness that the genre has come to expect from the modern fantasy writer.
Polansky's protagonist is Warden, a 30-something drug dealer, and user, with a checkered past. He used to be more, but now he haunts the streets of Low Town peddling his product and trying to stay alive (sort of). Low Town reads like crime fiction that wouldn't be at all out of place shelved among James Ellroy and Ellmore Leonard. There's an urban feel to it all, and Warden is very much a noir protagonist, past his prime and world weary, but committed to doing what needs doing. In this case, that's solving the mystery of a murdered girl which the powers that be have no interest in doing.
It didn't surprise me to learn that Polansky is a Baltimore native. Anyone who's watched HBO's The Wire will find some familiarity. Warden is reminiscent of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), a drug dealer with intelligence, ambition, and a desire to see less violence on the streets, if only for the sake of profit. Themes from The Wire like corruption, institutional dysfunction (or disinterest), and poverty are also reflected in the novel through Warden's colored perceptions.
Beyond the Mystery Machine (overt Scooby Doo reference), Low Town is also a second world fantasy that provides a mystery of its own, heightened by the limitations of a first person narrative. Unable to provide any direct exposition, Polansky dribbles out the world through Warden's encounters, memories, and dreams. He creates a mystery within a mystery within a mystery. Who killed the girl? Who is Warden and where does he come from? How does all this fit into the larger world? In choosing the first person, Polansky gave himself free reign to control the reader's perception. Carefully choosing the order of encounters, and the types of encounters, he creates a perfectly paced novel that kept urging me forward without frustrating me (always a risk when the narrator has knowledge the reader does not).
It's not all roses though. I think there's a fair criticism to be levied related to one-note characters that are archetypal for the genre. Gregarious and burly innkeeper, go-getter gutter rat, malicious police chief, and kindly wizard are a few of them that are recycled here. Additionally, I saw the 'twist' coming from early on (although there were enough red herrings throughout that I questioned my confidence) and given the tradition of intricately plotted fantasy novels, this one is fairly mundane (more like urban fantasy in that regard). Polansky does leave enough dangling about Warden's past to warrant a sequel, but there's nothing epic about the plot itself that would call for future volumes.
That said, when asked, what did you think of Low Town, Justin? I'm going to gush. It isn't the best novel I've read this year. It's not even the best debut. It is, however, the most entertaining. Polansky grabbed me in the first chapter and never let go. Last I checked authors are in the story telling business and Polansky tells a great story. Much darker than Sanderson, and not as authentic or well put together as Abercrombie, Low Town takes elements from each of them, turning out a debut novel that will appeal to fans of both. I hope to see a lot more of Daniel Polansky in the future.
You can find Daniel Polansky on Twitter (@danielpolansky) or at his website. He's currently working on the sequel to Low Town (when he's not bumming around foreign countries). Check back next week for an interview with the author.(less)
I'm not sure The Restoration Game is science fiction. Sure, it's technically based on a speculative what-if, but does that make something a science fiction novel? Science fiction, I believe, is all about a discussion on humanity's relationship to technology. I feel a lot more comfortable thinking of it as a Dickian (Philip K.) novel that grapples with issues of human perception more than one looking at our relationship to technology. Or maybe it's just a thriller.
Other than a prologue and an epilogue, the events in Ken MacLeod's most recent novel take place in 2008, leading up to the South Ossetia War (or at least a fictional simulacrum there of). The narrative is recounted by Lucy Stone, an Edinburgh expat from the former Soviet controlled Krassnia. In that troubled region of the former Soviet Union, revolution is brewing. Its organizers need a safe place to meet, and where better than the virtual spaces of an online game? Lucy, who works for a start-up games company, has a project that almost seems made for the job: its original inspiration came from Krassnian folklore. As Lucy digs up details about her birthplace, she finds her interest has not gone unnoticed.
The main narrative is endemic to spy fiction. Lucy's mother, and great grandmother both have some connection to the CIA and their machinations have compromised their progeny. Mystery's abound. Who is Lucy's father? What are the motivations for the revolution? Who stands to gain? This thriller mentality works well as MacLeod revists the how and the why of the fall of the Soviet Union. Through Lucy the reader is exposed to documents detailing KGB investigations, and commentary on Stalin's purges. Ultimately these commentaries become a demonstration of the prevailing power of capitalism and the inherent expression of it in the human spirit.
Early on, Restoration Game seems to be more about how the story gets told than the story itself. MacLeod layers Lucy's narration, starting near the end and backtracking. She reveals things about her life in her own time, often referencing things like 'The Worst Day of My Life' without describing the day until several chapters later. While this technique can be occasionally frustrating, MacLeod is mostly successful in using it to maintain a constant tension.
Additionally, the main plot is bracketed by an prologue and epilogue that set up and conclude the twist that makes the novel "speculative" and not simply an alternate look at Russian foreign policy. Much like the M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, once the twist becomes clear, the entire narrative changes - was I reading what I thought I was reading? Unfortunately, this is also one of the novel's weaker points as the 'twist' is fairly obvious from the prologue... wait maybe it is an M. Night Shyamalan movie! The problem isn't so much that MacLeod does a poor job of concealing it, rather it's a twist I've seen used a hundred times. I recognized it early on and kept hoping there would be more to it. Alas.
Telling a story in this manner takes an extremely capable writer. The jumps through time, and back again, into source documents, and then back into Lucy's head, are all done with a deft hand, highlighting MacLeod's command of his story and the language. But, I would be remiss if I didn't say that my opinion of Restoration Game would be loftier with the extraneous bits cut out, which, in this case, means all the science fiction stuff. Most of it comes off as tangential to the larger plot of Lucy and her family's history, making me wonder if the idea for the science came after the idea for the fiction.
Despite a frustratingly transparent and common twist, Ken MacLeod has written a wonderful story about Lucy Stone against the Russians. While it blends history and current events in compelling fashion, the science fiction framing doesn't wash. It's a thriller, that would stand out in the spy fiction market, dressed up as science fiction. All of that makes The Restoration Game a novel worth reading, although not necessarily one that demands to be read. (less)
I have a sneaking suspicion that Sword of Fire and Sea is going to be one of the more polarizing novels of 2011 as a perfect example of form over substance. Erin Hoffman's debut from Pyr has a beautiful voice, and a fully realized, textured world. It has gryphons, pegasus, and elemental magic all of which evoke whimsy and a general sense of romance. Ultimately though, the primary motive force of any novel is its story and there Hoffman falls flat, failing to adequately lay the foundation for events later in the novel.
Packaged as a travel narrative, Sword is told from the perspective of ship Captain Vidarian Rulorat, a highly successful merchant with family ties to the fire priestesses of Kara'zul. Vidarian must fulfill his family's obligation by transporting a young fire priestess named Ariadel to a water temple far to the south, through dangerous pirate-controlled territory. A perilous journey in the best of conditions, Vidarian and Ariadel find themselves at the intersection of the world's most volatile elements and an ancient, alien power between them.
Unlike most genre novels, Sword didn't keep me up late into the night despite an frenetic plot. Hoffman's style is more geared toward reading a chapter at a time to absorb her lyrical imagery, letting it breathe like a fine wine. I found myself pausing from time to time to really relish over a nice turn of phrase or particularly well put together sentence. To speak metaphorically, reading Sword felt like looking at an M.C. Escher painting, the longer I stared at it the more I saw. All of this makes for a rich and textured reading experience. Paragraphs alone to do not a good novel make though, and often Hoffman fails to connect her reader to her characters or her plot.
Functionally a travelogue, Sword bounces Vidarian all over the map, first with Ariadel by his side, and then to rescue her, and then to their ultimate goal. I was watching a tennis match with a gryphon, in place of a fuzzy green ball, being batted back and forth across the continent by some unseen, but thoroughly dominant, forehand. That's me being flip, but the truth is the pace and suddenness of the travel rarely gave me the opportunity to be comfortable with the story. Instead, I was left scrambling to understand what was happening and more importantly why.
Equally as frustrating were the occasional terms, or factions that Hoffman assumes the reader to have knowledge. I don't mind the slow world building, dropping new ideas from time to time, and explaining them later (God's War being a great example of this), but never explaining them just leads to confusion. One in particular that comes to mind was the use of the term, Quenched, in reference to a fire priestess's power. Early in the novel I presumed this meant one thing, only to find out it meant something else, only to learn it didn't mean that either. With the novel over, I still don't really know it means. While I might hazard a guess, it was frustrating that at every point in the novel I thought it meant something different, leaving me scratching my head when characters did things I thought they could no longer do.
The point is Sword reads like a debut novel. In a year I've been spoiled by brilliant debuts this one just doesn't stand out. I'm going to compare Hoffman to another author, Sam Sykes, whose debut novel, Tome of the Undergates, I reviewed early this year. In terms of substance and style there's absolutely no similarity. Sykes writes a gritty, schlocky style that's as dark as it is hilarious. Like Hoffman, Sykes was a new author trying to find his way. While he had some stumbles, mostly related to plot and pacing, he has an incredibly strong voice that's his own. I can absolutely say the same about Erin Hoffman. There is something uniquely her in the prose and that's special. While I may not have enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea as a narrative, I very much look forward to the author's future growth as a writer.
Thankfully, it looks like Pyr is going to give me that chance as they recently announced the purchase of two more novels in The Chaos Knight series. I'll be sure to check them out. You can visit Erin Hoffman's website and follow her Twitter. (less)
Religion is a touchy subject matter, isn't it? Focusing on subjects of faith and belief can easily become unhinged. Preaching or flippancy are equally likely and this is especially true when the a novel is told from only one sect's point of view (in this case, Christian). I've been caught unawares by 'Christian fiction' masquerading as fantasy a time or two and I pretty well irks me every time, although erotica masquerading as Urban Fantasy is worse. It's not that I'm trying to avoid all things Christian, I'm just saying I want to know what I'm getting into beforehand. Thus I approached Miserere, Teresa Frohock's debut novel, with some trepidation.
I shouldn't have worried. Miserere while grounded in Christian myths isn't really about religion. Frohock is just more overt in her use of forms and traditions than the average fantasy novel. Go pick up any epic fantasy and there are sure to be dozens of ideas pulled from the Bible. The very notion of the prophesied savior is about as close to a Jesus Christ parallel as it gets. Instead of covering up her use of religious myths by changing the names and places Frohock just goes with it, grounding her story and world in a familiar form that is instantly recognizable even to antireligionists (which is actually a real term, who knew?).
In a city ruled by Hell's vicars, exiled exorcist Lucian Negru has been crippled and imprisoned by his sister, Catarina. Sixteen years ago, he deserted his lover in Hell to save Catarina's soul. Instead of salvation, she wants Lucian to help her fulfill a dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by opening the Gates of Hell into Woerld, Heaven's first line of defense in the war for Earth's souls. Knowing the evil in what she asks, Lucian flees, lamed but not broken, to the last place he thought he would ever go back to - the Citidal, home of God's chosen warriors. Rachael, the lover he spurned, will judge him, holding his life in her hands.
War between Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, with mortals caught in between makes Miserere something like a sequel to John Milton's Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained written with modern understanding of character and plot. While the novel itself is a fairly tight story of redemption for Lucian and salvation for Rachael, there is a larger arc at play that hints at some final conflict between the Fallen and God's Kingdom. Very traditional in narrative voice and structure, Frohock utilizes several points of view from the limited third person. It's briskly paced and never lets up the tension. The bad guys turn stomachs and the good guys are all that holy warriors should be albeit with a surfeit of chinks in their armor.
All of that sounds pretty run-of-the-mill of the mill now that I actually write it and that's wrong because Miserere is anything but run-of-the-mill. A tight plot, an interesting world, and something much like the Dan Brown knack for the religious 'what if', makes Miserere an absolute pleasure to read. From the moment Frohock revealed her world as one grounded in our own, she captured me, driving forward with a desire to fit all the pieces together. How does Woerld work? What purpose does it serve? How do people get there? She doesn't answer all the questions, thankfully leaving many unanswered even as the novel came to an end.
I say thankfully because any exposition would have only served to drag down the carefully cultivated pace. Miserere is a first installment and I appreciate Frohock's patience - show me now, tell me later. This is a mantra becoming more and more prevalent in fantasy especially among this year's crop of debut authors, perhaps most notably those coming out of Night Shades New Voices Program. I've read 8 of them (out of 15) so far and all seem to have made a commitment to telling a story first, a fact I think 'big fat fantasy' forgot somewhere in the early 90's. At times it can make me page flip to figure out whether or not I missed some explanation, but when choosing between pace and story or didactics and world building I'm going to choose the former every time (as long as the latter is sufficient).
All that amounts to Miserere being a very, very good novel, but I feel compelled to hold back from calling it a great one. And the reason is quite simple - Frohock never asks why. As her characters undergo trials and tribulations not one, even the most tortured, asks: why is God putting me through this? Why should I serve a God who would steal me from my home, kill my brother, and pit me against the hordes of Hell? My one true love betrayed me and sent me to Hell, why shouldn't I turn my back on all that's holy? None of these kinds of questions are asked, or answered, and I think the novel is worse off for it.
Still, I absolutely devoured it. Finished in two nights of reading, Miserere is a tremendously successful fantasy novel. Frohock's characters are interesting and fleshed out, with decades of history behind them. She puts them in a setting that is as strange as it is familiar striking a beautiful balance between the fantastic and the mundane. I don't hesitate to call it one of the best debuts I've read this year (although that list is getting long) and I highly recommend it regardless of genre predilections.
The next installment, Dolorosa: A Winter's Dream, is supposedly due out next year and will pick up right where Miserere left off. However, it appears the author is currently working on The Garden, an unrelated novel set in 1348 on the Iberian Peninsula. In either case, I'm eagerly looking forward to Teresa Frohock's future work.(less)
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)
Happy Halloween! I figure since it's Halloween I ought to review a novel with some kind of horror element. Well let's see,The Traitor's Daughter, "is...moreHappy Halloween! I figure since it's Halloween I ought to review a novel with some kind of horror element. Well let's see, The Traitor's Daughter, "is a dark, rich feast, rife with plagues, kidnappings, political intrigues, bloody crimes, bloodier revenges, arcane upheavals, and the threat of zombies.” Zombies! Perfectly Halloween or so the writer of that blurb would have me think. Unfortunately, my quest to review something horror was a complete failure. While there is something akin to zombies in the novel, albeit not in a traditional sense, they manage to only garner 10-20 pages of 'screen' time. As much of a red herring as 'zombies' are, it's nothing compared to the outward appearance of Paula Brandon's debut novel which reflects almost nothing of what she actually wrote.
See, Traitor's Daughter just doesn't look like the kind of novel I would enjoy. I try not to read reviews before I pick-up a novel, it's hard to articulate my thoughts clogged up by other people's, but I wasn't going to read Brandon's novel blind. To allay my fears I sneaked a peak at the Goodreads reviews to get a feel before giving it a shot. Quite a few of the reviews were lukewarm or negative in large part based on the incorrect assumption that Brandon's novel was historical fantasy romance - which was music to my ears. Looking at the cover and the overt Jacqueline Carey blurb, I think those expectations were reasonable. So much so that Amazon filed it under Romance.
At first glance, Traitor's Daughter looks like Gone with the Wind at best and Fabio on the Plantation (pretty sure I made that one up) at worse. The long flowing dress, the articulated 'D', and soft blend of a house emerging from a cloud with star pinpricks all over, screams: this is a book for CHICKS! Unfortunately the back cover (below) isn't much better:
On the Veiled Isles, ominous signs are apparent to those with the talent to read them. The polarity of magic is wavering at its source, heralding a vast upheaval poised to alter the very balance of nature. Blissfully unaware of the cataclysmic events to come, Jianna Belandor, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a powerful Faerlonnish overlord, has only one concern: the journey to meet her prospective husband. But revolution is stirring as her own conquered people rise up against their oppressors, and Jianna is kidnapped and held captive at a rebel stronghold, insurance against her father’s crimes.
The resistance movement opens Jianna’s eyes―and her heart. Despite her belief in her father’s innocence, she is fascinated by the bold and charming nomadic physician and rebel sympathizer, Falaste Rione—who offers Jianna her only sanctuary in a cold and calculating web of intrigue. As plague and chaos grip the land, Jianna is pushed to the limits of her courage and resourcefulness, while virulent enemies discover that alliance is their only hope to save the human race.
So, other than the first sentence and the last clause of the last sentence, Traitor's Daughter sounds like a romance story between the kidnapped Jianna and the healer Rione. It's not. Brandon debut is high fantasy with a sprawling plot, political machinations, complex systems of magic, all of which manifest themselves in themes that both men and women will very much enjoy. To someone looking for romance they're going to be sorely disappointed.
That's not to say there isn't a love story - there is sort of - but it's far more in-line with what a typical fantasy reader would expect in a non-Joe Abercrombie novel. All told, it probably occupies a quarter of the novel leaving the rest of the time for Brandon to flesh out Magnifico Aureste Belandor, Jianna's father. The fact his name isn't even mentioned in the novel's blurb boggles me. Most of the novel is spent on his ongoing political struggle to rescue his daughter without destroying his tenuous position as a Faerlonnish lord ruled by the Taerleezi conquerors.
The society of the Veiled Isles is one akin to Apartheid. An ethnic minority (Taerleezi) rules by way of conquest, oppressing the indigenous population (Faerlonne) and elevating those few willing to work for them. Those elevated have become a lightening rod to their oppressed brethren diverting much of the unexpressed anger and resentment from the true oppressors. Aureste, one of these 'betrayers' has spent his life securing his house's place under the Taerleezi government. He has hidden his activities from his daughter, sheltered her, and now she'll pay for his crimes. Brandon examines the lengths to which a father will go to protect his child as well as the sins a child's unconditional love can ignore.
A distinct lack of moral certitude permeates Traitor's Daughter. Aureste and his daughter's captors both feel wronged and view there causes as right and just. To them the ends always justify the means. Jianna and Rione, representing the next generation, become Brandon's moral center, setup to become the reformer of their predecessors whom are stuck in the memory of past wrongs and outdated world views. It all works spectacularly well creating an emotional investment not just in the characters, but in the political and familial structures Brandon puts in place.
If there's one black mark, aside from its marketing, it's that much of Traitor's Daughter feels like a prologue to a larger arc. The novel is framed by chapters from Grix Orlazzu, an arcane practitioner who's clearly pegged to the larger story line of the world's wavering magic. His chapters demonstrate a state of technological advancement that is far ahead of that present in the rest of the world. Jianna and Aureste's narrative only tangentially touch on this framing, leaving me to wonder how everything is connected, a fact that's a little frustrating having finished a third of trilogy. Given that the series is already completed and on an accelerated release timetable, I'm willing to give Brandon a pass despite my strong preference for every novel to have a beginning, middle, and end.
This is a long review that does a bit of a disservice to Brandon's novel. As a novel, I definitely recommend it. It's unquestionably one of the better fantasy debuts this year and the series holds a lot of promise. I compare it favorably to Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet (not quite that good) for its audacity to write a fantasy series that focuses on politics instead of war without relying on the crutch of romance and sex. Fans of epic fantasy that enjoy a slow build, ambitious world building, and political intrigue will absolutely eat it up.
In terms of marketing, I have to give it a big F. It's not romance, or horror (zombies, ha!), or steampunk, or science fiction, or pure fantasy - it's a mix of all them making Traitor's Daughter a genre novel, but one that's hard to pigeonhole in a business that demands the opposite. There's a possibility the next two installments are a lot more romance that the first. But somehow the skeptic in me thinks that branding the novel as romance was a conscious choice and I find it a bit intellectually dishonest.
Long story short: buy the book, read it, and ignore the cover and the reviews that have a lot more to do with a poorly conceived presentation than any failing of Paula Brandon's. The sequel, The Ruined City, is due out in early 2012 with the third installment to follow before year's end. I look forward to spending a lot more time in the Veiled Isles.(less)
Diana Gabaldon said, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz.” I think that's sort of a red herring. I get it, Harry Potter is wildly successful and the quote targets a massive audience that will enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's novel. However, if I was asked to write a more accurate blurb, it might read, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Shadow from American Gods was an apprentice wizard with a wry sense of humor who wandered around London waxing poetic about it and solving crimes under supernatural circumstances." Ok, so that probably wouldn't sell as many books, but it's a lot more descriptive.
Peter Grant is a rookie copper working the streets of London. As he nears the end of his probationary period and decisions are being made about his long term position in the force, a ghost gives him a lead in a case of mysterious murder. Next thing Peter knows he's in up to his ears in the arcane, assigned to the department's in-house wizard Thomas Nightingale.
Most of Midnight Riot is spent with Peter wandering around London trying to solve a murder and/or settling a long standing dispute between the river gods. When Peter isn't doing either of those things, he's learning magic or trying to get laid both of which are endlessly entertaining. And that's sort of the heart of what Aaronovitch's debut novel is all about - entertainment. It has wit, action, and charm in spades. Unfortunately the one thing it really lacked was a compelling plot which ultimately left me feeling a bit flat.
Don't me wrong, the novel itself is rather compelling and exceptional readable. Aaronovitch takes his readers on a guided tour of the city and her rivers, building into it an occasional history lesson and cultural what's what of modern London. All that's very fun and more than a little cool, but much of it ended up feeling like a smoke screen covering the aforementioned average story.
I won't to get into details on why the plot underwhelmed me. There are twists and turns I don't want to spoil. Suffice to say, the story itself would fit nicely into a TV procedural without too much grief. And I don't mean a season finale level episode either, more like the last episode before sweeps start. The secondary plot, negotiating peace between the river gods while more interesting lacked any sense of impending disaster if Peter failed in his mission. In other words, I just didn't care that much.
Now that I've panned the novel as 'uninteresting', I'm going to backtrack a bit because all the other things I mentioned like characters, setting, ambiance, and wit make Midnight Riot a pleasurable reading experience. Because of the importance and emphasis Aaronovitch places on the city of London I have to think that Londoners will get more from the novel just as readers from Tempe, Arizona get a little something extra from Kevin Hearne's Hounded. Still, there's a lot here to enjoy laying the base for, what I imagine will mirror Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, steady improvement with each installment.
I admit I'm not exactly Midnight Riot's target audience. I'm not a huge urban fantasy fan, nor am I particularly ensnared by the police procedural. Nevertheless I'm glad I was exposed to Peter Grant, Aaronovitch's London, and his excellent first person voice, all of which caught my interest and held it for 300+ pages. I absolutely recommend it to fans of the subgenre, and fans of fantasy in general with the caveat that the plot won't leave you out of breath.
Midnight Riot is available anywhere books are sold in Mass Market Paperback. Aaronovitch's sequel Moon Over Soho came out earlier this year and has received strong reviews thus far. It's available in both Hardcover and Trade Paper Back in the UK from Gollancz and in Mass Market Paperback in the U.S. from Del Ray. (less)
Science fiction as a genre has always been based on what if. What if we brought a man back to life? What if we gave a computer control of a space station? What if robots had the ability to reason? Diving Into the Wreck is very much in this tradition, asking what happens when we start to forget technology? Kristine Kathryn Rusch's answer is: nothing good. Refreshingly old school, Wreck calls to mind the horrors of cramped space craft, the bleakness of space, and the depravity of human greed.
Boss loves to dive historical wrecks, derelict spacecraft found adrift in the blackness between stars. Sometimes she dives for salvage, but mostly she's a historian. Once she dives a ship, she either leaves it for others to find or starts selling guided tours. It's a good life for a loner, with more interest in history than the people who make it.
When she comes across an enormous spacecraft, incredibly old, and apparently Earth-made, she's determined to investigate. It's impossible for something built in the days before FTL travel to have journeyed so far from Earth. Boss hires a group of divers to explore the wreck with her, but some secrets are best kept hidden, and the past won't give up its treasures without exacting a price.
Diving in space is a lot like diving in the ocean. Instead of being worried about something snagging the air hose or running into a shark, sharp edges and nebulous ancient stealth technology are the fear du jour. Rusch does a brilliant job of communicating the claustrophobia and paranoia that seem inimical to creeping through a derelict space craft far from any safe haven. Stealth tech is the macguffin, a lost technology that promises untold wealth and power to the person(s) who can bring it back, that promises a horrible death to anyone who comes in contact with it.
The most charming aspect of the novel for me was the author's commitment to wreck diving. Not the plot, but rather the nuts and bolts of the profession. She considers all the pitfalls and realities of the job - what kind of person Boss would have to be, how she would make a living, and why she would put herself through it all. By the end of the novel nothing in Wreck lacked authenticity. So much so that if I didn't know the novel was set in the future I might find myself looking in the yellow pages for wreck divers.... you know, if I had to venture into deep space to recover something.
The novel is divided into three parts corresponding to the two novellas and a third part that weaves them together. Taken on their own the first two parts are incredibly dynamic with pace, tension, and all the hallmarks of great science fiction. It's unfortunate then that the connection of the two comes off a bit disjointed as though they weren't necessarily written with each other in mind. This is pervasive throughout the novel where in order to tie the two novellas into a connected arc with a shared conclusion Boss spends a great deal of time talking, and talking, and talking to members of her team. While these scenes are excellent opportunities to character build, and believe me the characters are tremendous, they leave quite a bit to be desired when it comes to pace.
Told entirely in the first person, Wreck is very introspective . Boss spends a great deal of time humming and hawing her motivations in the midst of coming to grips with relationship to her father. This deep introspection combined with the need to tie together the disparate story modules led to an unfortunate lack of world building. Although not entirely necessary for the kind of story Rusch was telling the world itself is very bare bones. I never got a great feel for the 'space' her lush characters were inhabiting and I'm not sure if the final product wasn't a little harmed as a result.
Nevertheless, Diving Into the Wreck is a worthwhile investment of reading resources. Although the novel as a whole has some hiccups with an overly tidy ending there are parts here that hold up against the best science fiction on the market. City of Ruins, Rusch's sequel, was released in May of this year. I've already got a copy on my bedside table and look forward to getting to it soon. I'm very confident that lacking the need to integrate two novellas into a larger arc City of Ruins can only improve over a very solid first installment.(less)
I get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of self-published or small press titles for review. I usually say yes, with the caveat t...moreI get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of self-published or small press titles for review. I usually say yes, with the caveat that I may never actually read it or get past the first chapter. Most of them are not very good. Once in a while though there's a real home run. After the Apocalypse, a collection of short stories by Maureen F. McHugh, is a home run.
I'd never heard of McHugh prior to receiving an e-mail about her collection. It turns out she's published four novels and over twenty short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. In 1996 she won a Hugo Award for her short story The Lincoln Train. After reading this collection, none of that surprises me. Many of the stories in this collection are "award worthy" - especially the three new ones that are published here for the first time.
As the title implies, all of the stories in this collection deal with what comes after the apocalypse. Notice that's a lower case apocalypse. While some of the stories delve into the aftermath of the "big-one", some are more about a personal cataclysm. All of them are told from a very tight point of view in a consistently haunting prose. McHugh's characters are all real people, with real problems, who lived before she opened the window into their story and will continue to live after it's closed. It's rare that I enjoy short fiction this much. It's even more rare when I'd put a 200 page short story collection against any novel I've read this year.
Below are a quick taste of each of the stories:
The Naturalist (Subterranean Online, spring 2010)
After the zombie plague is over the remaining walking stiffs are sealed into wild preserves. To cut costs, America has started sending their criminals into the preserves fend for themselves. This is a gruesome story of humanity's ability to adapt and need to survive.
Special Economics (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, May 2008)
This is an odd story about a hip-hop dancing Chinese woman who's come to ShenZhen to find a job. She ends up with New Life, a bio-engineering company that designs green technologies for America. New Life though is a "company town" and owns its employees. While not a classic apocalypse story the character arc is very much one of overcoming adversity and refusing to lie down when that's the easiest thing to do.
Useless Things (Eclipse Three: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, October 2009)
Definitely a global warming gone wrong story, Useless Things follows an artist in New Mexico struggling to carve out an existence. All the comforts of today are still available, but resources are scarce. As a woman living alone the threats of the world at large are real, and not something she's prepared to deal with.
The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large (Eclipse One, October 2007)
The only story where the narrator isn't the primary character, it tells the story of a young man and his family who survive a series of dirty bombs in Baltimore. He's afflicted with a mental disorder that's resulted in him becoming someone else. While this is the least evocative of all the stories in the collection, there's a certain beauty to the way McHugh constructs it, reading something like an article in Time Magazine.
The Kingdom of the Blind (Plugged In, May 2008)
A standard setup for a science fiction story, McHugh dabbles in the birth of artificial intelligence. She takes a unique look at it though discussing the never used truth that a computer intelligence has no way to perceive the outside world and no concept of what it wants. Extremely intriguing story that reads more like a pre-apocalypse than a post.
Going to France (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 22, June 2008)
This one had a very interesting premise - people suddenly feel compelled to go to France. Some fly, gliding across the Atlantic (people can fly), others race to the closest airport. This one was a bit too esoteric for me. I admit I'm probably just not smart enough to get it.
Honeymoon (new to this collection)
An overweight and broke young woman has her marriage fall apart seconds after it starts. Her apocalypse happens when her marriage ends, and she has to soldier on. Picking up the pieces she moves to Cleveland where to make extra money she puts herself into drug trials - one of which goes wrong. This is a fairly inspirational story about a girl taking charge of her life and finding her own place in the world - really connected to this story.
The Effect of Centrifugal Forces (new to this collection)
I don't understand the title of this story really, again I'm not that bright, but the story itself is poignant. Irene is a teenage girl living with her mom, and her mom's new partner, Alice. Her other mom, has a boyfriend now who's always strung out. Irene's mom has ADP (think Alzheimer's meets MS) and she dying. Having lived through two family members die of slow diseases, the hurt and loneliness that Irene feels was particularly meaningful for me. Worth the price of admission on it's own.
After the Apocalypse (new to this collection)
This story made me want to throw up from the first paragraph. I saw what was coming and knew it was inevitable. The parent in me rebelled to no avail. Haunting doesn't begin to describe this story of mother and daughter trying to survive when society falls apart. I appreciate the stupendous execution, but I'm allowed to hate it too right? Almost a horror story to the right reader and done so well.
My self imposed hiatus on Night Shade Books failed miserably this past weekend when I couldn't resist their latest novel, Seed by Rob Ziegler. I was going to try to take a few weeks away from Night Shade to get at some of my rapidly overwhelming back catalog. While I did finish Diving Into the Wreck and started Midnight Riot and Shadow Prowler, they all fell to the side once I dug into Seed. Zeigler's novel is as haunting as it is believable.
Much like Night Shade flag bearer The Wind-Up Girl (Bacigalupi), Seed is a near term science fiction novel that centers around the impacts of climate change and over population on the world's environment. The Hugo Award winning Wind-Up Girl focused on Thailand, but hinted at the problems ongoing in America. In many ways Seed could be that story of America. That's not to say it's derivative of Bacigalupi, but there's certainly similarities in tone and texture to the world playing to the current fears that Earth is reaching 'critical mass'.
Seed is set at dawn of the 22nd century, the world has fallen apart and a new corporate power has emerged: Satori. More than just a corporation, Satori is an intelligent, living city in America's heartland. She manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, and bio-engineers her own perfected castes of post-humans. What remains of the United States government now exists solely to distribute Satori product.
When a Satori Designer goes rogue, Agent Sienna Doss is tasked with bringing her in to break Satori's stranglehold on seed production. In a race against genetically honed assassins, Doss's best chance at success lies in an unlikely alliance with a gang of thugs and Brood - orphan, scavenger and small-time thief scraping by on the fringes of the wasteland - whose young brother may be the key to everything.
What struck me most about Seed is the poignancy. Right away Ziegler jumps into Brood's nomadic life as he migrates from Mexico to the Mid-West with the imminent arrival of summer temperatures. With his special-needs brother, Brood lives just on the edge of survival. His imperative to protect crackles with emotion and his willingness to do anything to survive is heartbreaking. These threads continue into other parts of the story from the Satori lamenting the loss of their defective sibling to Agent Doss remembering her crippling childhood. Beyond the characters the world itself is bleak and desolate. Ziegler capably takes the small kindness of a drink of water and makes it a seminal moment of compassion.
Despite this being an 'American' novel Ziegler does a great job of integrating Hispanic culture into the pastoral fiber of the country. A pretty good amount of the dialogue is in Spanish often laced with Mexican slang. Elements of Hispanic culture are prevalent in the migrants and in many ways makes Seed not only a glimpse into the future of climate change and overpopulation, but a glimpse at the integration of culture on America's horizon. Juxtaposing this is the Satori which is so disturbingly self-interested and antiseptic as to be reminiscent of William Gibson's cyberpunk corporations.
My only real complaint stems from the lack of scientific underpinning to Satori. For a post-apocalyptic novel the science fiction felt very magical (not in the Arthur C. Clarke sense) in large part because Ziegler never takes the time to ground any of it in science. While he introduces the brains behind it all, they're never given the opportunity to expound upon how or why it all works. In that sense the novel 'reads' more like a fantasy than science fiction, something I believe is becoming a trend in the post-apocalypse sub-genre. Instead, Seed never lets up in its pace, keeping a constant tension throughout that eschews any need for exposition.
As a narrative, Seed is a multi-view point third person novel that I believe stands alone and should continue to do so. Interestingly, I realized none of what I liked about it had much do with the actual prose. I didn't find myself highlighting passages or even taking note of particularly nice turns of phrase. This isn't a negative. Rather than flowery descriptions or particularly evocative metaphors, Seed compelled me forward with... wait for it... a great story. And a great story told well.
Seed is Rob Ziegler's debut novel and another very good one from Night Shade's 2011 crop of new authors. Reading this review it might seem that this is a slow and morose novel. It's not at all. Woven in between scenes of migration and self-reflection is tons of action that culminates in a conclusion that's both explosive and cathartic. This is one you don't want to miss.
I'm starting to feel like a fan boy with all these Night Shade titles, although surprisingly this is only my fifth review from them this year (well under 10%!). Of course, I'm already reading The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams (Night Shade/Jo Fletcher Books) not mentioning the huge stack of their back catalog next to my bed. This shouldn't be surprising. In 2010 Night Shade changed their mission statement to provide a space for new voices and authors in genre fiction. Since then they've aggressively scheduled debut novels many of which are coming out this year. It's become self evident that Ross Lockhart and his editorial team have the pulse of the genre community and continue to target novels that not only meet demand, but anticipate it.
In Necropolis, Michael Dempsey's debut novel, death is a thing of the past. NYPD detective Paul Donner and his wife Elise were killed in a hold-up gone wrong. Fifty years later, Donner is back, courtesy of the Shift - an unintended side-effect of a botched biological terrorist attack. The Shift reawakens dead DNA and throws the life cycle into reverse. Reborns like Donner are not only slowly youthing toward a new childhood, but have become New York's most hated minority.
With the city quarantined beneath a geodesic blister, government services are outsourced to a private security corporation named Surazal. Reborns and norms alike struggle in a counterclockwise world, where everybody gets younger. Elvis performs every night at Radio City Music Hall, and nobody has any hope of ever seeing the outside world. In this backwards-looking culture, Donner is haunted by revivers guilt, and becomes obsessed with finding out who killed him and his still-dead wife.
I was rather torn on Necropolis at first. It reads like it was written by a screen writer, something I always struggle with. That's not a criticism of the prose which is actually quite good, but rather an observation that nearly every scene in the novel is written with an eye for the visual medium. Dark and stormy nights, lightning flash illuminations of the villain on the hill, fuzzy eyes awakening from a coma, are just a few of the techniques Dempsey employs that hearken to film. In a written novel an author isn't limited to the visual to set mood and yet it felt like Necropolis frequently relied on these "establishing shots" to convey just that.
After writing that paragraph I decided to look up Dempsey's background. His "About the Author" note at the end of the book mentioned his background in theatre. That was significantly understating things. In the 90s, Dempsey wrote for CBS’s Cybill -which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series in 1996 (bet you'd forgotten that!). He has also sold and optioned screenplays and television scripts to companies like Tritone Productions and Carsey-Werner Productions in Los Angeles. His plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and regionally in theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville. He's also a past recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship for playwriting.
Given all that, it shouldn't be any surprise that his novel reflects his connection to visual mediums. In fact, I applaud him for sticking with what he knows. At the end of the day Necropolis is a science fiction novel deeply couched in noir and that's why Dempsey wrote the novel the way he did. Noir is a visual classification that's grounded far more in film than in the written word. Smoky rooms, long legged dames, and that understated black-and-white visual style, are all components that distinguish noir. Sure it's based on the hardboiled depression era detective novel, but what we call noir is fundamentally a visual effect. I ended up asking myself, how can I be torn about something that worked so well? Short answer, I can't - high five to Dempsey.
While the tone and mood of the novel worked wonderfully, I did find myself struggling a bit with Dempsey's choice of narration and points of view. Donner's chapters are told from the 1st person while all the others are done from a 3rd person limited. This was a technique also employed by Night Shade author Courtney Schafer in The Whitefire Crossing. Unlike Schafer who limits her points of view to two characters, Dempsey spreads his around more liberally with a half a dozen or more leading to frequent shifts that don't always make a ton of sense. Generally, when an author chooses to tell the story from someone's point of view he's telling the reader this is someone important. There are at least three characters that receive this treatment in varying degrees who while interesting, in a I'd-like-to-read-a-short-story-about-this-person kind of way, provide nothing essential to moving things forward.
Relatively speaking that's a pretty small complaint. The novel moves at a brisk pace and Donner is an interesting character with loads of demons to deal with - internal and external alike. His partner, a smarty (think holographic AI) named Maggie, provides a great juxtaposition to the revived Donner. As he struggles with why he's alive while Maggie is the epitome of life albeit in someone whose "life" is entirely artificial. The plot itself is overtly melodramatic (again another theme of noir) leading to a pretty predictable ending and an eyebrow-cock-worthy coup de grâce. In this case the journey is good enough to trump the destination allowing me to give Dempsey a pass for the lack of a cleverly disguised big twist.
Ultimately, Necropolis strikes just the right pastiche of genres and themes. Demsey successfully takes components of film, science fiction, melodrama, and crime fiction and puts them together in what is another excellent debut from Night Shade.
Necropolis is due out in stores on October 4 and should not be confused with the similarly titled Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner from Angry Robot.(less)
Earlier this week I criticized Brandon Sanderson's new novel Alloy of Law for being shallow. Bradley Beaulieu's debut, The Winds of Khalakovo, is the polar opposite. Where Sanderson wrote something light and breakneck, Beaulieu has offered a deep and deliberate novel. It's also the closest thing to Russian literature I've come across in fantasy, including novels written by Russians. Having read my fair share of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I wasn't sure that I needed that particular style in my genre reading. It turns out that not only was I happy to revisit that somewhat masochistic style, it's something I want to see a lot more.
The story centers around Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the trade crossroads of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya. The protagonist, Nikandar, Prince of Khalakovo (although not the heir), is set to marry the daughter of a rival Duchy. Of course, he's not in love with her, instead he showers his affections on Rehada, an indigenous Aramahn whore.
Amid this tangled web of love, a conspiracy begins to brew with other Duchies vying for power, and a fringe Aramahn group known as Maharraht who would see the entire system upended. To a modern reader these dynamics will be reminiscent of the United States involvement in the Middle East. Impossible loves and a rejection of western ideas, I say? How Russian, you might respond.
Winds is just that. The world, characters, and plot lines all maintain a very Eastern European texture that call to mind the Middle East, Crimea, Poland, and yes, Russia. So much so that Nikandar dances the preesyadka and wears a drooping mustache while the Aramahn wear layered robes and live a life of nomadic self-improvement. Driving the point home are Russian words interspersed throughout the novel like da, nyet, and dosvedanya, a habit I admit to finding somewhat annoying (Ari Marmell's intelligent discussion on the subject).
To anyone who's read some 'Golden Age' Russian literature, the themes in Winds will be familiar, especially suffering as a means of redemption. Rehada, in particular, although not exclusively, is subjected to this device. She also falls into the tradition outlined by Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky who wrote, "Russian literature has a bad tradition. [It's] devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs." Where the suffering love affair exists on the surface of the narrative, the undercurrents of rebellion against western (new?) ideas are more subtle and probably more indicative of a Russian nascence.
Beaulieu's world casts the Duchies as an imperialist culture who've conquered the archipelagos and subjugated the nomadic Aramahn people (Tartars?). Known as the Landed, the Duchies are at odds with the Maharraht who reject the way of life forced on them and would sooner see it all end. It would be somewhat misleading to call the Landed western, but the sentiments are the same as in Russian lit. The rejection of the new and outside, in favor of the old and insular. In Crime and Punishment, Doystyevsky uses Raskolnikov and his tragedy to call for the return of Russianism by rediscovering religion and national pride. So too does Beaulieu with the Maharraht, although his conclusions may differ from those literary forefathers.
Themes and symbolism are great, but the damn thing has to read well too, right? And for the most part, Winds is just as successful in that regard. Beaulieu draws convincing, layered characters that fight for themselves and their loved ones far more often than an ideal. In short, they're real. His prose is more than capable, and his dialogue has a poignancy that fits the thematic tones perfectly.
Unfortunately, there are times when Beaulieu lacks clarity in both his description of action sequences and his explanation of world mechanics. Winds takes the (now) popular approach of worldbuilding by inference, most popularized by Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. I'm a fan of the approach (generally), but oftentimes it forced to me flip back to see if I missed some detail. This lack of surety is most often reflected in his magic systems (notice, the plural) that never seem to bridge the gap between cause and effect.
Likewise, many of the novel's action sequences take place on airships moving in three dimensions relative to one another and stationary objects beneath them. The end result is usually confusion about who's where and what's going on. Perhaps the best example of this is in the second chapter where I had to read a scene three times before grasping what was happening. I was so frustrated by it that I put Winds down to read the aforementioned Alloy of Law. Further compounding these moments of confusion is the novel's inconsistent pacing with peaks and valleys that likely contribute to its Russianness (come on, War and Peace is a slog).
In the moment, each of these flaws seems dooming. On the whole, amid such dynamic characters and meaty themes they fade into the background, taking little away from the experience. As a debut author Bradley Beaulieu is suffering growing pains in bringing new (old) literary traditions to genre fiction. I've glossed over a lot of the intricate plotting in favor of discussing the bigger picture, but I can vouch that The Winds of Khalakovo is high fantasy full of magic, swashbuckling, and political intrigue. I applaud what he's done here and can't wait to see what's next.
It should also be noted that Beaulieu's publisher, Night Shade Books, has made a concerted effort to bring new voices to the forefront. I wonder how many other presses would take a chance on this novel. Sure, it's epic fantasy, but it's also unfamiliar. So for that, thumbs up to the Night Shade team.
The Straights of Galahesh, book two in The Lays of Anuskaya, is due out April of 2012. You can find Beaulieu on his website or on Twitter.(less)
Among Thieves is the fifth book I've read this year that I put in the, "This was published because of Scott Lynch" category. I'm not going to make a big deal about it. One has nothing to do with the other beyond the fact that editors know they sell because they've sold something like it before. Ironically, had Douglas Hulick's debut been published in 2006 the category might be named after him.
Drothe - Hulick's protagonist, narrator, and golden boy - is a nose. In thieves' cant, that means he's an information gatherer. Working for one of the nastiest crime bosses in Ildrecca, Drothe also dabbles in his fair share of criminal racketeering. When an Imperial relic he's trafficking goes missing, he'll do just about anything to get it back. In this case, anything includes brutal torture and manipulating everyone around him.
All that sounds pretty straight forward which does Among Thieves a great disservice. Not only is Hulick's novel densely plotted (the above 'summary' is the tip of the iceberg), it contains one of the better first person voices in recent memory. Starting the novel with a brutal torture of one of Drothe's associates, Hulick leads the reader to believe that his main character is morally bankrupt. Drothe supports the point, thinking it's all quite distasteful, but nothing to lose sleep over. Afterward he continues to make cutthroat decisions... until they aren't. And yet, his thoughts don't always recognize the shift, leading me to believe that Drothe is not necessarily as dog-eat-dog as he tries to make himself believe.
While much of the book is medieval spy fiction, there are moments of all out swashbuckling. Hulick, an 17th century Italian rapier combat enthusiast, brings incredible voracity to his fight scenes. They always conjure a clear sense of energy, but also a technical precision that screams close familiarity. Unfortunately, Drothe is a pretty average swordsman so most of the fight scenes are him struggling to keep up. I can only imagine the level of detail Hulick could drill down to inside the head of an adept duelist (Degan, anyone?).
That's an appropriate segue into an area that Among Thieves shines - characters. For a first person narrative Hulick does a bang up job drawing his cast of ne'er-do-wells. Degan, a professional mercenary, gets the most screen time as Drothe's protector and best friend. From the street contacts, to crime bosses, to Imperial guards, Among Thieves is populated with characters that bleed off the page. It's all too easy for a first person novel to end up with cardboard cutouts for ancillary characters, but in the moment Hulick had me believing their lives continued whether Drothe was there to listen, or not.
As for problem areas, there aren't a lot. In fact, my only major complaint is that Hulick occasionally ruins his narration with exposition. Most of it takes place in the early going, but in choosing a first person style any sort of exposition sticks out like a sore thumb. It reminds the reader that he's reading a book written by someone who isn't the narrator. A certain discipline is required when there's a large amount of information to convey and it's always easier in the third person.
For minor complaints, I found the pace almost too fast. I never had a chance to take in the scenery leaving me somewhat lukewarm about Hulick's setting. His city, Ildrecca, isn't clear in my mind, nor are the political workings of the larger empire. I kept wondering if a few establishing scenes early on before Drothe got pulled into the main plot would have improved the novel's general ambiance.
In a year of strong debuts, Among Thieves is surprisingly one of the best. If I'm being honest, and, as my readers know (I hope), I always am, the premise is not only familiar, but somewhat tired. I've read dozens of novel with with a crafty thief and tough sidekick swordsman. As in all things well worn though, there is a place for someone to do it well and Hulick did that and more. Where many novels of this type lean heavily on the grittiness of the story to communicate some measure of gravitas, Hulick manages to leverage the relationship between Drothe and Degan into a frank discussion on the nature of commitment. The ability to interweave some subtext behind what is cosmetically an adventure romp was a compelling and welcome addition.
That, combined with a dynamic voice, and well drawn characters make Among Thieves one of the better debuts of 2011. Douglas Hulick has added a new chapter to the thief subgenre and it stands out as the best thing to happen to it since Lynch's masterpiece. I can't wait for the sequel and anything else he churns out in the years to come.
Sometimes a book's title says it all. Spellwright. Spell means to write in order the letters constituting a word. It also means a verbal formula considered as having magical force. Spell in these two cases is considered a homonym because they share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Wright or write or right or rite all mean something different but sound the same. They're called homophones. A wright is a person that constructs or repairs something. Write means to form (letters, words, or symbols) on a surface. Right means to be correct. And a rite is a religious ceremony. What am I driving at? I'll come back to that.
Blake Charlton's novel is about a young man named Nicodemus. He's an apprentice to the Grand Wizard Agwu Shannon, an aged and blind, but still powerful member of Starhaven's faculty. At this out of the way haven young men and women are tutored in the language of magic. They learn how to compose elegant prose and cast it into the world to effect change. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is a cacographer - any magical prose he touches immediately misspells. There was a time when Shannon, and others, thought Nicodemus was to be the halycon - the savior of magic - who was prophesied to defeat the Pandemonium. But such a powerful being could not be cacographic for the prophecy also speaks of another who will bring chaos and destroy the halycon.
So back to my opening paragraph, what was that all about? I'm sure it's obvious that cacogaphy in Charlton's world is a parallel to what we call dyslexia. To a dyslexic Charlton's title is something of a mean joke. What the hell does he mean? One who creates spells? One who spells correctly? One who writes down spells? Or is it about spelling as a rite which I think adequately describes the burden the written language can be to someone suffering from dyslexia. In this regard the novel's title is nothing short of genius. To a fantasy fan reading through the shelves the first definition is perfect. Oh, this book is about someone who puts spells together (read: Wizard). Cool. It is, but not really. It's about a lot more than that and after reading the book I realized the title says it all.
See, Nicodemus speaks every magical language he's ever been taught fluently. He should be, for all intents and purposes, one of the most powerful wizards in Starhaven except for the little fact that he has a hard time spelling things correctly. He's ridiculed by his peers and looked on as someone who should never be allowed near magic. Were it not for Shannon and his desire to help cacographers, Nicodemus and his fellow misspellers would have magical language censored from their minds and be sent on their way. In the eyes of the wizarding community at large, they are defective and beyond recovery. To a more radical sect, they are a threat to stability and shouldn't even be allowed to live.
Is it a perfect novel? No, although it is very good. There are some first time author hiccups here and there. The magic system is a bit esoteric and the ending is both overly simplified and a bit confusing. Still, reading Spellwright, I couldn't help but be touched. My wife is dyslexic. She was diagnosed when she was 13. This is late in life so far as these things go. When she was in 8th grade she told her teacher that she wanted to attend Ursuline Academy for high school, one of the more prestigious private schools in Dallas, Texas. Her teacher told her, "you'll never get in there, and even if you did, you'd never be able to keep up."
She got in and worked her ass off. She did well and went to college where she listened to text books on tape, following along with the written words (to give you an idea how much dedication that takes a 350 page novel takes around 12 hours to listen to). It was never easy. She graduated on time with a degree in International Relations. My wife is very smart, but reading and writing will always be, to some degree, difficult for her. She's very aware of the fact and a little bit self conscious about it. I find it all rather inspiring and it makes me proud to be her husband.
Not surprisingly, given the treatment he gives it, Spellwright's author Blake Charlton is also dyslexic. His bio on his website reads:
"I was saved from a severe disability by two things: an early clinical diagnosis of dyslexia, and fantasy and science fiction novels. It took most of my twenties to discover it, but my life’s goal is to give back to the two art forms that saved me."
My wife didn't have that same luck. She still made it. A lot of kids don't. Dyslexia, as a disability isn't something we can cure. There's no pill that makes the connection between eye and brain work better. But, by identifying it early and providing specialized education to young people we can make sure that kids don't have to suffer thinking they're stupid.
George R. R. Martin wrote in his most recent novel A Dance with Dragons:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," said Jojen. "The man who never reads lives only one.”
Reading is the greatest gift I've ever been given. I believe that Charlton's novel is helping spread that gift. From me, from my wife, from my daughter, and from every child and parent out there struggling to make sense of dyslexia - thank you Blake. You should be proud to have written Spellwright. I know I was proud to read it.
The sequel to Spellwright was released two weeks ago from Tor Books. Titled Spellbound, it continues the story of Nicodemus as he comes to grips with his disability and how it will or will not define him. I look forward to reading and reviewing it soon.
Sidenote: I would strongly suggest that anyone who has read this review or Charlton's novels visit http://www.learningally.org/. Formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, Learning Ally serves more than 300,000 learners – all of whom cannot read standard print due to visual impairment, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. More than 6,000 volunteers across the U.S. help to record and process the 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles in their collection. I can't thank them enough for the work they do. (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)
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)
The tagline for The End Specialist by Drew Magary is, "Who wants to live forever?" My immediate answer is, well, I do. Who would turn that down, right...moreThe tagline for The End Specialist by Drew Magary is, "Who wants to live forever?" My immediate answer is, well, I do. Who would turn that down, right? My review copy from Voyager differed slightly with the words, "Immortality Will Kill Us All (Except for me)." Interesting how a few words could make me reevaluate my answer to the first question. That's exactly what Magary's book is all about. What would happen if we had the cure for aging? Is it really a good thing or something we should even be pursuing? End Specialist is a long form response to those questions, very much in the tradition of Marvel's What If? comics.
A cure for aging is discovered and, after much political and ethical wrangling, made available worldwide. Of course, all the cure does is halt aging doing nothing to prevent all the other fun and gruesome ways to die (think heart attack, cancer, torture, etc.). And surprise surprise, not everyone wants the cure leading to extremist groups and zany religious cults. Everything quickly descends into a downward spiral.
Told through the first person blog entries of John Farrell, the novel follows the cure's progression from lab tests, to illegal experimentation, to full-blown saturation of the population before then documenting the fallout and hinting at eventual recovery. If that reads a bit like the plot line for a story about an outbreak of black plague then I may have painted the appropriate picture for how Magary's novel treats the cure for death. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters that include asides to the main story. These windows into the world outside Farrell's view are vital bits of world building that provide haunting, and occasionally hilarious, examples of how the cure for death is failing.
I think haunting is the right word to use to describe End Specialist because it's a novel that going to stick with you for a bit. I'm not sure how the general public reacts to death, but for me, I find it a generally distasteful line of thinking. Whether one possesses religious conviction or not, the thought of losing the "now-ness" (boy, that was articulate) of life is frightening. Magary taps into that fear capturing not only the raw desire for immortality, but the depths to which humanity is willing to sink.
Wrapped up in the novel is something that resembles a love story, albeit not exactly boy meets girl, marries girl, has kid with girl variety. There is some of that, but more often than not it's about falling in love with the moment, and the realization of how stagnant such things are. It's also about vanity, selfishness, and pride as tragic stories tend to be.
There will be parts of the novel that drag a bit as most of the first half is spent in the moderately mundane life of John Farrell the newly immortal. In fact, the end specialist bit promised on the back cover doesn't really get going until about the two-thirds mark. That's not a knock, as the pages flew by, but I was frequently asking myself when Farrell was going to be become a licensed U.S. government end specialist (which in my mind conjured up James Bond with a hypodermic needle). Things pick up significantly in that last third and provide a satisfactory ending to a tremendous setup.
I have a feeling that most of the people who read End Specialist (especially in the UK) aren't going to have a clue who Drew Magary is. The cross-over from U.S. sports humor blogger to international science fiction author isn't commonplace. For the last six or seven years Magary has written at Deadspinand Kissing Suzy Kolber, two blogs that somewhat resemble TMZ or io9 for sports enthusiasts.
Having read these sites off and on over the years I've been pretty exposed to Magary's writing. I have no idea how he went from thisto science fiction, but I'm sure glad he did. The End Specialist is a top-notch novel that should have a great deal of appeal to a wide swathe of readers. I've already ordered a copy for my mom.
The End Specialist is available in eBook now from Amazon.uk and in hard copy September 29, 2011.
In the U.S., Magary's novel is being published by Penguin under the title The Postmortal. It's should be available today in all formats.
The author will be at Politics & Prose in Washington D.C. tomorrow for a reading and I presume signing. I may attend to learn more about immortal strippers.
Read this post from Magary today on Kissing Suzy Kolber. It's a detailed list of things you can expect in the novel. Funny, and informative.(less)