Quite good. I'm looking forward to the series. This book was sort of like a very long form prologue to what I imagine will be something wholly differe...moreQuite good. I'm looking forward to the series. This book was sort of like a very long form prologue to what I imagine will be something wholly different by the end of the next book.(less)
In the year 2069, the first true Artificial Intelligence is created. Thirty years later the Class Fives are born, becoming the first fully self-aware AIs. Along with their less advanced cousins, "Fives" become known as the Nuekind. One of them is Richards, a private detective considered to be the most human of his kind. Richards is approached by the EuPol (think European Union/Interpol) to investigate the disappearance of the world's foremost expert in Nuekind rights. Unfortunately for Richards and Klein, it appears their quarry has hidden himself in Reality Realm 36, a now defunct game world populated by AIs and thus afforded the same rights as Reality itself.
In true Angry Robot form, Reality 36 has lots of robot stuff. There are cyborgs, androids, cydroids (what?), super AIs, wussy AIs, and insane AIs. The internet is on steroids and with a little work the more powerful AIs can send themselves anywhere there's a connection with enough bandwidth to handle them. Naturally, there's no shortage of action. Klein, a decommissioned military cyborg, is almost never still. He leaps over cars, absorbs dozens of flechettes, and generally causes mayhem wherever he shows up. By contrast, Richards is an investigator and a bit of a flirt. He prefers to let Klein get his hands dirty while he plays the mental game.
While the action is very well done, the part that works most in Haley's favor is the application of technology. Everything just makes sense. Haley's world hinges on the discovery of the Singularity within the next hundred years. This application of processing power leads to, as Ray Kurzweil stated, "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". Thanks to this technological change, game worlds (think World of Warcraft) have developed to the point of becoming alternate realities with machines as aware and alive as those existing in Real Space. Makes sense, right? I know I can think of a few humans that spend more time living in a game world than in reality.
This reality (so far as science fiction goes) is what makes the book so compelling. It's an actual glimpse into the future as much as it's a mystery yarn and an action thriller. Isn't that what Science Fiction is all about? I hesitate to put the label of "hard sci-fi" on Reality 36, but only because I don't have the knowledge base to determine how much of what Haley has created is nonsense versus actual science. What I do know is it reads authentic. When bullets aren't flying I felt like I was having a discussion with the author about the implications the Singularity will have on humanity. And that's cool.
Generally speaking Haley writes a strong narrative. In my head as I was reading the novel I was comparing it favorably to another debut from earlier this year - Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief. They really aren't similar in any way other than they read with a similar pace and absence of information dumping (a pet peeve of mine). While there are some expositions from time to time about the world's history, for the most part Haley allows the understanding of his reality to be absorbed organically as opposed to forcing it down his reader's throat. When he does ramble a bit, it's usually integrated into a character that's a bit of a windbag (Hughie, I'm looking at you dude!) I thought this formula was very successful in Thief and Haley accomplishes it here as well in Reality 36.
My only fundamental problem with the novel is that it's not complete. Haley ends things on a pretty brutal cliff hanger akin to the season finale of a TV drama. The way the title is currently worded makes it seem as though the book will read a bit like a TV procedural where each Richards and Klein Novel is a mystery to be solved, but fully encapsulated within the pages of the book. Instead Reality 36 is more like Reality 36: The First of Half of a Richards and Klein Duology. I know I shouldn't be too upset about it, but there it is. Even first installments in a larger series should have a beginning, middle, and an end (call me close minded).
Ultimately, the only conclusion I was able to draw from Reality 36 is that I'll definitely be checking out the sequel Omega Point next year. Sure the ending was annoying, but Guy Haley has really produced a first rate robot novel. While Robopocalypse is this years hottest robot release and will assuredly sell more copies, I think Reality 36 is a superior novel in almost every way. Angry Robot Books keeps churning out great additions in speculative fiction.(less)
I had a feeling when I finished Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline that my review was going to be a personal one. This can happen when the protagonist has a painful resemblance to my teenage self. It's common for me to connect with a book on an emotional level or an intellectual one, but personal? That's pretty rare. Cline's novel really hit home with me and I don't know how to talk about without talking about myself - weird that.
Ready Player One is all about a teenager named Wade, although to everyone he knows he's Parzival, a level 3 warrior in OASIS. OASIS is something akin to World of Warcraft meets Second Life meets Windows. It's equal parts game, alternate reality, and operating system. As far as Wade is concerned it's his entire world.
Set in a dystopian Earth some thirty years in the future, OASIS has become the primary means by which the population interacts with one another. When not working or consuming food, nearly everyone puts on their gloves and goggles to disappear into a virtual world that outshines the slowly dying world around them.
When OASIS founder James Halliday dies, he initiates a contest to determine the heir to his fortune and ownership of OASIS. The contest, to find an Easter Egg within the game, will require an intimate knowledge of Halliday and his passions - the 1980's and 8-bit video games. Parzival is a gunter (egg hunter) and might be the preeminent expert on 80's culture. For the last five years he's done nothing but study hoping to uncover the meaning of the Halliday's first clue:
Three hidden keys open three secret gates Wherein the errant will be tested for Worthy traits And those with the skill to survive these traits Will reach The End where the prize awaits.
Now he's decoded it and the race is on to find the egg with the future of OASIS at stake.
Ready Player One is Wade's coming of age story, a frequent and not unexpected character arc. He is a social pariah - poor, unattractive, out of shape - and an orphan with little to no prospects of future employment. His only escape from this miserable existence is OASIS which he accesses through a scavenged laptop and his school issued gloves and goggles. In OASIS, Wade is Parzival and all the things that make him awkward in the real world allow him to stand out in OASIS.
Given today's obsession with World of Warcraft in the U.S. and China, Everquest in Korea, and the soon to be release Star Wars: The Old Republic there isn't a great deal of imagination required to make the leap to what Cline portrays in Ready Player One. What's special about the novel is his treatment of Parzival/Wade. Written in the first person, Cline takes us inside the head of a young man suffering from a host of disorders - social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and paranoia (not all at once of course, poor kid isn't certifiable!). This introspective look connected with me in a way I never expected. I saw myself in Wade, identified with him, and wanted for him the same conclusions that I came to myself as I grew up.
By the end of the novel, I had relived my teenage years and admittedly a few years there in my early 20's. I suppose this is something every young person goes through to some extent as they try to find a niche. Like Wade I turned to the internet although in my day AOL Wheel of Time message boards, MUDs, and Air Warrior On-line weren't quite as sexy as OASIS.
I never wanted to be someone else, not really. Rather I was trying to show the parts of me that I was proud of and stick the rest of them in a box that didn't have a modem. The fact that I was overweight, awkward, and painfully shy around girls was completely inconsequential on-line. I could be witty and smart. I could place at the top of the leader boards for kills or run a MUD and ban people that pissed me off. And more importantly, for a 16 year old boy, I could talk to girls and be charming (they were girls, ok?)
As I moved from high school to college I started to notice there would be some of my peers who wouldn't leave this phase. On-line without the judgement of the "real world" was too easy. They made a choice. Most of them didn't finish college or never got there in the first place, and who knows where they are now? I found my escape (from my escape, oh the irony) in fitness. Much like a smoker gives up cigarettes only to transfer their addiction to food, I channeled my energy into a new endeavor and soon reality was easier (and c'mon, like I gave up geeking out?).
In Ready Player One, Wade/Parzival has to make that same choice albeit his impetus to do so is significantly more robust than my own. That's really what the book's all about. He, and his friends, come to a point where to win they have to break down the barriers they walled themselves inside. It's touching and given the heart underlying all of it I can only imagine that Cline himself has some experience (according to his website he too once wore "husky" jeans). Through his characters he leads us to recognize that the excuses we use to hold us back - weight, skin color, gender, unfortunately placed birthmarks, acne, questionable hygiene (ok, maybe not that one) - are just that, excuses. Sure living in a fake reality is easy, but nothing good should be that easy.
So in all that crap, I may have made Cline's novel sound a little sappy. It's not. That's entirely my own filter. What Ready Player One has going for it is gobs and gobs of fun. To anyone alive in the 80's or who's spent some time in syndicated television, this novel is a pneumatic piston of awesome. It reminds us of Family Ties, Back to the Future, Pac-Man, text based adventure games, and Duran Duran (curiously Super Mario Bros. is conspicuously absent, copyright issue?). Even to a younger generation the adventure aspect of the story is equally as appealing. The film rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers and that's not surprising. The whole thing reads like some amazing concoction of The Wizard, Tron, and Stand By Me. Puzzle solving, giant robot battles, exploding trailers, and indentured servitude as a customer service representative, it has everything someone could want from their friendly neighborhood best-selling adventure novel.
To be fair, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ernest Cline's novel had a larger impact on me as an individual than it may have on the general reading populace (especially the high school bullies, assholes, like any of them read anyway). Still, I would bet that among video gamers and the Science Fiction community at large there are more than a few who had similar paths to adulthood. To those I say - read Ready Player One, you won't be sorry. For everyone else, if you don't want to read it (you still should), buy it for your kids. There's a lot to learn here and who knows? Maybe they'll start asking questions about the 80's. Safety Dance is looking for the next generation of fans.(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)
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)
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)
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)
Is steampunk the new vampire urban fantasy? I feel like there's been a huge outbreak of steampunk this year. I guess it makes sense as a natural out growth of the huge boom in urban fantasy. For the most part steampunk tends to be more familiar to people than second world fantasy or space opera with no connection to the "real world". It is traditionally set in a Victorian or Old West environment with historical elements that make sense to mainstream readers and doesn't require vast amounts of information to understand. I would point out that Roil by Trent Jamieson isn't that kind of steampunk.
One of the real up and coming publishers Angry Robot Books, has definitely seen an uptick in steampunk novels. Unfortunately, I hadn't found a title of their's that really called to me until I saw Roil. Billed as steampunk in a second world fantasy setting, it reminded me of The Last Page, Anthony Huso's debut steampunk novel from Tor. Ever since I read Huso's debut, I have been looking for something similar that captured his talent for world building but exceeded his uneven storystelling. Roil did just that.
In Shale, the Roil is spreading. A black cloud of heat and madness has crept through the land, absorbing city after city. Where the Roil goes, life ends. Once there were 12 metropolises, now only 4 remain. Only the cold can stop the Roil and it's getting hotter. A young drug addict, an orphaned girl seeking vengeance, and an Old Man are all that stand between total darkness and the annihilation of humanity. Armed with cold suits, ice rifles, and the mysticism of Old Men the three begin a journey north to the Engine of the World - the only force capable of beating back the inexhaustible Roil.
If it seems curious that I capitalized Old Men thus far, it should. In Jamieson's world the Old Men are something akin to the Apostles of Christ if the Apostles had an insatiable hunger (use your imagination) and the ability to conjure ice at will. In this bad analogy the Engine of the World would be Christ. Throughout the novel who, and why, the Old Men are is of utmost interest. It is clear from early on that the Old Men are a bastion against the Roil. Where the Roil is hot as the sun, the Old Men are cold as hell.
One of the most frustrating things with steampunk for me is the lack of fantasy. Not in a genre sense, but in the sense of imagination. I always find myself asking the question, if I wanted to read about Victorian England why am I reading a steampunk re-imagining of it? Jamieson has totally sloughed off this genre standard in creating an entire second world fantasy. The Roil, the four metropolises, ice cannons, Engines of the World, and other epic sounding steampunk elements compose a beautifully dark, wholly imagined world that bears no resemblance to our own.
Jamieson populates his worlds as much with "villains" as with heroes. I put quotes around villains because to be frank, I'm not sure Roil has a villain. It's clear Jamieson wants his reader to hate Stade, the leader of the city of Mirrlees. He begins the novel by murdering his rivals in the street and doesn't get much friendlier from there. The truth is, he's trying to do right by his people. He sees the Roil as an inevitability and he wants to protect as many of his citizens as he can (everyone else can kiss his ass). Even the Roil itself, which is about as evil as it gets on the surface, is more a force of nature than a malevolent force.
Of course given that, it should be no surprise that Jamieson's heroes aren't particularly heroic. David, a young man of privilege is addicted to a drug called Carnival (heroinesque). He is often more concerned about scoring than he is about staying alive. His companion, an Old Man named John Cadell, isn't all roses either. In fact, he killed David's uncle a few years back. He's feels bad about it though. The list goes on and on. If a novel's strength is judged on its characters, then Roil is She-Hulk. Not the Incredible Hulk mind you (there isn't an iconic character in the bunch), but Jamieson has created a smorgasbord of captivating characters that bring everything to life.
That said, Roil is not without some fault. For all his exceptional world building and lush characterizations, Jamieson's narrative is decidedly standard to anyone who's read a surfeit of fantasy novels. Yet so are many of the paragons of the genre. Moreso than any genre, speculative fiction excels foremost through characters and setting. A strong, original narrative is all well and good, but without fantasy a novel will fall flat. On the strength of his setting and characters alone, I believe Jamieson has begun something that has the potential to be a standard bearer for Angry Robot and the steampunk subgenre.
And don't forget, Roil is the first in The Nightbound Land series - I'm sure Jamieson has a few twists and turns in store. So get back to work Trent, I'm ready for the sequel.
Sidenote: It's a real pain to write a review where one of the characters (Roil) is the same as the title of the novel (Roil). Just saying...
Release Information: Roil is due for a U.S. release on August 30, 2011 in Mass Market Paperback and Kindle.(less)
Wow. Before I go any further into this review I want to be up front that I don't really feel qualified to review or judge this novel until I read it a second time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it my best go. Please consider this more of a "first impressions" review that some kind of detailed analysis.
(Edit: After finishing the review, this has got be the longest "first impressions" post ever. Oh well, my blog, my run on incoherent thoughts.)
I finished Germline over the Fourth of July weekend. More accurately, I sat down with it Saturday morning and didn't even get up to eat until I finished it. It stunned me. The novel's blurb doesn't begin to encompass everything it has to offer. I don't think Orbit Books is trying to mislead anyone, but a few words can't capture everything T.C. McCarthy is trying to do. This is not, I repeat not, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi). Instead, over the course of 300 pages Germline is an incredibly dark coming of age story about a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.
Oscar Wendall is a reporter and not a particularly good one to ask his editor. Lucky for him, he's made a few well placed friends over the years that help him pull the "plum" assignment of being the first civilian allowed on the Line. He quickly finds himself in Kazakstan joining a battalion of Marines fighting the Pops (Russians) to secure rare minerals "vital" to the U.S. economy. Already an addict, Oscar begins to rely on drugs more and more to survive the terrifying world he now inhabits.
Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissus. Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.
Germline's narrative style seems to give McCarthy carte blanche to toy with his reader's emotions. The inherent bias in a first person narrative makes the reader privy to all of Oscar's affectations. It allows the reader access to all of his fantasies of the mind as well as the truth of his motivations. Early on Oscar is the star of his own story, but then later describes himself as a coward who only stays because he can no longer rationalize life without the war. It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming. Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind). He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line for a Pulitzer because he has no idea what that life is worth. He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.
That said, one of the things I kept ask myself time and again throughout the novel was how others perceived Oscar. Telling the story solely through Oscar's very flawed eyes, McCarthy leaves the answers to questions like that open to interpretation.Thankfully, McCarthy's ending is incredibly cathartic. If I'd read the ending by itself it may have come off a bit contrived and convenient. After the roller coaster of emotion that Germline sent me on for the first 250 pages though, I couldn't have handled anything except what McCarthy gave me. I found myself choked up on at least three occasions at the novel's conclusion - an extremely rare occurrence.
Like any good science fiction novel Germline includes gads of social commentary. The most prevalent is the theme on which McCarthy is building his trilogy - Some technologies can't be put back in the box. For the most part this debate plays out through a squad of soldiers known as genetics. Women raised for no other purpose than to die in combat (and kick serious Russian ass), the genetics are McCarthy's opening statement into a larger debate of how the concept of shared humanity survives when a man's (in the larger sense) first and last line of defense is dehumanizing everything around him. I believe he extends the metaphor throughout the entire novel using Oscar's journey to redeem the notion that while things can never be put back in the box (Oscar's own humanity or sense of community), they can be made right. I think it'll be interesting to see how this discussion continues to take place in future novels.
Additionally, those who have a political leaning one way or another will quickly make a connection between McCarthy's description of Kazakstan's minerals and oil in the Middle East. There's a scene in the book that really focuses in on this discussion and it's so thinly veiled as to make me wonder if the commentary is merely coincidental. Given the author's background in international conflict analysis, I find that hard to believe. I didn't find it heavy handed by any means, but it's there. Readers with a feminist bent (I mean that in the nicest possible way) might also struggle a little bit as the only two female characters are an overbearing socialite mother and clones bread to kill.
Brief aside: I would be totally remiss if I didn't at least comment on Germline's cover. Where the blurb fails to convey the heart of the novel, the cover nails it. Reminiscent of the Blackhawk Down movie poster, I think the art absolutely captures a man totally beaten down, but still willing to shoulder his burden and move forward. I'm usually not a fan of the "photo realism" covers, but I think artist Steve Stone nailed it. I guess McCarthy agrees.
Germline is a tremendous debut novel. To be honest, I'm a little nervous that I've butchered the author's true intent in trying to communicate how it made me feel. I'd love a chance to talk with McCarthy at some point because I don't know how a character like Oscar Wendell gets written without leaving an author hollowed out when it's all over. Hell, I felt hollowed out just reading it. This novel isn't for everybody - and I wouldn't touch it as a so called "summer read" - but it's immediately going into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front. Hell of a debut, T.C.
P.S. - McCarthy's second novel Exogen is due out next year as the second installment in his Subterrene Trilogy. Germline stands so well on its own that I hope future novels set in the same world steer clear of Oscar Wendell. (less)
I am never excited to write a negative review. Last month I reviewed the first book in the Ancient Blades Trilogy titled Den of Thieves. David Chandler's first foray into high fantasy had its problems. I regret to report problems have continued into A Thief in the Night albeit not always the same ones. After finishing the novel I wondered why I didn't like it? Harper Voyager liked it enough to purchase the entire trilogy and release them over three months. Is it possible there's something fundamentally flawed in the way I read the novel? Are my expectations out of whack?
I'm 30 years old and I've read a lot of fantasy over the last twenty years. My first fantasy novel was in the 7th grade - Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. I moved on to The Sword of Shannara, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and every other book I could lay my hands on that was available at the Vista Campana Middle School library in Apple Valley, California. I wanted sweeping epic fantasy with dwarves, elves, and all kinds of other fantastic constructions conveyed in straight forward no nonsense prose. The farm boy prophesied to save the world was the end all be all for young Justin.
Somewhere along the road to adulthood I decided I wanted a little more from my fantasy and modern fantasy has delivered. Of course, fantasy has always had ambition - Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, John Crowley's Little, Big, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, to name a few. But, for the most part, the development of more ambitious epic/high fantasy is recent. Authors like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, and Steven Erikson have brought a great deal more depth to the sub-genre. Elves and dwarves are largely gone and the farm boy is more likely to get a sword through the stomach before he gets far enough into the game to impact anything. Abraham has even gone so far as to turn the farm boy paradigm into a female alcoholic banker. These authors led me full circle back to Holdstock, Crowley, and Beagle who have in turn led me to Gene Wolfe, Carthrynne Valente, and China Miéville.
And yet, I very much enjoyed James Barclay's The Raven Chronicles and Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations both of whom in terms of world construction and character archetypes bear close resemblance to Chandler's Ancient Blades Trilogy. I guess what I'm saying is that while I may have developed tastes that take me beyond elves, dwarves, and straight forward narratives, it doesn't mean that I'm not up for a simple adventure romp from time to time. If that's true, and my expectations aren't broken, then why didn't I enjoy the first two installments in Chandler's series?
I'm so glad I asked - because they just aren't as good. The prose is fine and even quite good in places if a bit overwritten. The stories themselves aren't terribly contrived, at least no more so than "comparable" novels like the aforementioned Barclay and Sullivan. But, and it's a big one, I cannot ignore a novel whose plot and characers just aren't interesting. It's unfortunate that Chandler has fallen into this category because I actually think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created - which isinteresting.
Based on a serf/lord model of medieval Europe, it's a world where most folk are oppressed. In the free-city of Ness, where Den takes place entirely and Thief begins, everyone is free to choose their own destiny - albeit options are rather limited. Magic is based on the summoning and harnessing of demonic energy. To combat this threat to the fabric of reality seven blades were created and seven warriors were chosen to wield them. But demons have almost been exterminated and the ancient blades aren't quite sure to do with themselves. Cool premise, no? Once things move beyond world building though, the whole thing falls flat.
The two points of view Chandler writes from - Malden and Croy - undergo a shift in Thief where they betray the mores built up throughout the series. To me, it all felt very forced as though the characters changed because the author needed them to. Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy and the bestseller The Black Prism wrote:
"My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. "
For me, Chandler swung and missed at this. I understand where he wanted to take his protagonists. I just didn't buy it.
I also struggled with Chandler's use of magic throughout the novel. Cythera - Malden and Croy's mutual love interest - has an ability to absorb curses. This absorption manifests itself as tattoos on her body. In the first novel Cythera cannot be touched lest this magical energy be unleashed. Lo and behold, come Thief she can release such energy at anyone/thing she likes. Brandon Sanderson in his treatise on magic (which I highly recommend) said:
"If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."
For example, Thief takes the merry band of adventures to an ancient city that's been entombed beneath a mountain. The entrance is chained shut with magical chains that (it seems) will strike anyone dead who touches them. Cythera, being magically cursed, touches them, absorbs their power, and channels it to burn a hole in the door. Snazzy, right? Of course, she couldn't do this in Den and I didn't see any explanation about this new found ability. I suspect this scene was included to setup how a much more pivotal conflict is resolved in the novel's conclusion (actually, in EXACTLY the same way). Instead, a few sentences about how Cythera has been learning to control her ability and using a well established capability of another party member to open the door (say... I don't know the master engineer of a dwarf maybe?) would have been more interesting and set up the later scene just as well.
Ok, so I think it's fairly obvious that I really didn't like A Thief in the Night (or Den of Thieves for that matter) and I don't want to further belabor the point. The truth is, they're not bad books. I read them both quickly and never cast them aside. However, as a reviewer advising my readers about what is worth their time, or not, I believe there are far better options available.(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)
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 had a bit of frustration with Lev AC Rosen's debut novel, All Men of Genius, and I recognize it may be a controversial one as it has nothing to do with his talent as a writer or the quality of his novel. In fact, the novel's voice is great, using third person omniscient that strikes a perfect balance of authentic Victorian and modern convention. The tagline on the dust jacket calling it inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is right on and I might add a dash of Charles Dicken's knack for character and setting. Even the plot is well executed, demonstrating the power of a straightforward story when populated by things the reader cares about.
Violet Adams is a brilliant young scientist barred from study at the world's greatest scientific institution by her gender. Determined to continue her studies, and prove that women deserve a place at the table, she disguises herself as her twin brother Ashton. Of course, keeping the secret of her sex isn't easy with her friend Jack’s constant pranking and the headmaster's (Duke Ernest Illryia) young ward, Cecily, developing feelings for Violet’s alter ego. Add in some blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and Violet’s burgeoning affection for the duke, and Rosen has a steampunk Victorian response to J.K Rowling's Harry Potter franchise (albeit more adult).
Where the novel raises an eyebrow, for me, is in the constant emphasis on sexuality and gender. Here's a run-down of some of the related plot devices. Violet is a woman dressed as a man. Violet's twin brother, Ashton, is gay. Professor Valentine likes to have sex with senior citizens. Duke Illryia is questioning. No one seems to have a sexual relationship with anyone their own age. Cecily has a thing for the cross-dressed Ashton (Violet). I could go on, but things might get spoilery.
Early on I found the treatment of Violet's cross dressing and Ashton's sexuality to be both refreshing and authentic. But, as the novel wore on I became overwhelmed, as I felt constantly assailed by the sexual proclivities of every character. I applaud the desire to put alternate lifestyles in the spotlight. However, I think it does a disservice when it feels like token offerings to inclusiveness, which too often seemed to be the case in Rosen's debut.
And yet, here I am talking about it. In pushing the envelope, then sealing another one and pushing it right behind the first, Rosen compels his readers to confront the issue. Despite my frustrations with it from a storytelling perspective, I can't help but applaud him for what he's trying to accomplish. All Men of Genius is a novel I would happily hand to my someday teenage daughter (she's two now). The message embedded in it is one of tolerance and acceptance, but also of demanding equality, making it one of the more important 2011 novels I've read -- especially considering its cosmetic appeal to younger readers.
Some might criticize the stiffness of the characters, an unfortunate side effect of Rosen's chosen narrative style. Other's might turn their nose up at the neat bow Rosen puts on everything. or the general acceptance of prostitution. To the latter point, some might call that an indictment of its appropriateness for a younger reader (and they might be right, as that, and several other items, are mature in nature). My response? It's Victorian! Reflected in everything from the narrative voice, to the novel's structure, to the mores of the time, Rosen never forgets it and embraces it with aplomb.
All Men of Genius is a novel I can recommend -- especially to younger readers or parents although others will find enjoyment as well. In an ever expanding world full of those alike and not, it's imperative that published works lead the way in engendering mutual understanding. My only caution is to let the ideas speak for themselves, overworking them only reveals an insecurity in their veracity (which I'm sure the author doesn't have). While I would have preferred more (any?) deconstruction, the novel is a wonderful homage to the source material of Shakespeare and Wilde. It's not clear if Rosen plans to continue Violet's story, but I'd certainly be interested if he is. If not, I'd be intrigued to see what he's capable of in a space unconstrained by Victorian virtue.(less)
I always hear the phrase, "write what you know." My reaction has typically been who the hell would want to read a fantasy novel about bodybuilding, basketball, or energy policy? Of course the answer is - my mom. Thankfully for me, and everyone else who will have the pleasure of reading The Whitefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer's knowledge of mountaineering has a much broader appeal.
When I received my advanced copy of Whitefire, I took a minute to read about the author's background. As it turns out she's an avid rock climber with years of experience. She even has a picture of herself inverted on her "About" page on her website. I always find it difficult to walk the line between writing what I know and committing mental masturbation. Look how much I know about this! In a surprising development (notice the sarcasm here) Schafer is a better writer than I am. While she may have shared my same concerns, she shouldn't have.
Every second spent on rock climbing or related activities in Whitefire is a breath of fresh air. Her enthusiasm bleeds through the page infusing her main character Dev with vigor and life that couldn't have been accomplished any other way. It's clear that when Schafer put fingers to keys she was excited to write this story. This passion sustains the novel in its early stages and provides the momentum that carries it to a great conclusion.
Schafer's main character Dev is an outrider for a merchant caravan with a penchant for scaling difficult mountain sides. He's also a part time smuggler who gets talked into bringing the mage Kiran across the border that divides two nations with diametrically opposed viewpoints on the legality of magic. Kiran ends up posing as Dev's apprentice which provides Schafer adequate opportunities to wax about talus, pinions, scree, and a host of other climbing nuances.
Once Dev and Kiran get out of the mountains, the story is only half done. Schafer proves that she's not a one trick pony immediately delving into a far more gritty and urban setting. While some of the urban world felt flat in comparison to the lushness of the mountains, by the novels conclusion it starts to reveal itself in more depth opening up a host of avenues for future installments in the series.
I always find that when reading a review, one of the things I want to know about is point of view and how the novel handles it. In this case, Whitefire is written with two different narrative perspectives. Dev is given the first person treatment where Kiran's point of view is from the third person. If I’m being honest, I really struggled at times from the switching points of view. When I read my eyes train themselves on where to focus in sentences for pertinent information and when the switch occurs in point of view from first to third these information cues switch too. Ultimately, it was a small annoyance (and possibly exclusive only to me and the way I read) and given the inherent bias in a first person narrative getting an additional point of view was refreshing.
Equally refreshing was Schafer's decision to write two male protagonists. Every female fantasy reader is now saying - ugh, all fantasy books have male protagonists! And they'd be right. But not all male protagonists are written by women - in fact, very few are. The only thing rarer is male writers writing female protagonists. I can only hope that more male authors look to Schafer's cross gender example and attempt to write stronger women. There's no doubt a few male fantasy authors could use to imagine being in woman's shoes a little more and in their undergarments a little less.
Whitefire is one of the best novels I've read in 2011 (out of 38 so far, but who's counting?). What starts off as an adventure novel of rock climbing and trekking quickly turns into a full blown fantasy romp full of magic, ne'er-do-wells, and flawed heroes. I'm always nervous when I recommend a book this highly, especially when it doesn't do something that's going to change the genre. But what can I say? Schafer's debut novel totally charmed me and I can't wait to read her sequel, The Tainted City, due out late next year.
The Whitefire Crossing will be available in stores on August 16.(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)