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)
I don't plant to write a long review of this. Suffice to say I think as a novel it's got a lot of flaws. However, it's also incredibly brilliant. I re...moreI don't plant to write a long review of this. Suffice to say I think as a novel it's got a lot of flaws. However, it's also incredibly brilliant. I read it as part of my Hugo reading, and offered some thoughts about it in the link below.
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)
I salute Night Shade Books. Starting with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl two years ago, they've been been pumping out quality debuts. This year alone Night Shade released an incredible portfolio of new authors that have been consistently well received (you can visit a nice chunk of them at http://night-bazaar.com/). God's War from Kameron Hurley is very much in this tradition albeit in a novel that ignores genre tradition with impunity.
God's War is a second world fantasy novel written in a technologically advanced society. On her twitter feed last (@nkjemisin) week Hugo Nominated Author N.K. Jemisin asked about whether technology predisposed classification as science fiction in lieu of fantasy. If I was making an argument that technology and fantasy aren't mutually exclusive, Hurley's novel would be the example I hold up. She introduces lots of technology - firearms, cars, spacecraft, wireless communication, among others. The twist is, nearly all of this technology functions through a "mystical" connection between gifted humans (called... wait for it... magicians!) who utilize insects as a power source.
Hurley's plot centers around a woman named Nyxnissa and her unlucky team of bounty hunters headlined by the not so talented magician, Rhys. Set in a world where competing religious factions (both of which "feel" a lot like Islam) have been at war for generations, all men are required to serve at the front. Those that refuse become fair game for teams like Nyx's to be hunted down, killed, and turned in for monetary reward. When the queens calls Nyx's number for a very particular bounty she and her team drop everything to get back on top.
What makes God's War such an accomplishment has little to do with its plot. In fact, the early going of the narrative is rather disjointed with blanks that could use filling. Things are never real clear as to why Nyx's team is so loyal to her and the relationships between Nyx and the various arms of the government lack an equal amount of lucidity. What rescues the novel and makes it such a great read are wonderfully drawn characters and original unexpected world building.
To the first point, Hurley's primary characters are the aforementioned Nyx and Rhys. Her plot flows around these two as they struggle to survive, their relationship to the war-torn world around them, and ultimately their relationship to each other. Nyx is about as hard boiled a female as I've ever seen - somewhat reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie's Monza from Best Served Cold. Unlike Abercrombie's version of the tough female, Nyx comes off authentic; less a force of nature, and more irrecoverably broken by the life she's led. Somehow she retains humanity and a modicum of vulnerability that strikes the perfect tone in her interactions with Rhys who functions as the literary foil to Nyx. Where she is all hard edges, Rhys is softer and more vulnerable hiding the hard edges from view. It makes for a poignant juxtaposition that excels from beginning to end.
The world Nyx and Rhys inhabit is just as poignant. Couched in real world terms God's War provides a look not so dissimilar from what might go on in the Middle East if everyone gave up the hope of peace. While both sides of the war worship the same God and read from the same book, their interpretations are night and day. Nyx's side has become matriarchal, sacrificing the entire male population as fodder on the front lines. The other remains patriarchal with a continued practice of marginalizing women despite the massive exportation of men to the front.
Umayma, the planet on which this all takes place, is an anathema to human life as the war itself. Cancer is rampant among those lacking the means to prevent it and ethnic minorities are discarded. But for a very brief scene in the middle pages, God's War never takes us to war itself. The novel's focus is instead on the war at home - how it impacts those who come back broken and those who were never allowed to go. Interestingly, this is not a sentimental book that beats the drum about the pointlessness of war. Hurley sets the stage, moves her beautiful characters across it, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.
While there are certainly some narrative hiccups indicative of its status as a debut novel, God's War is a clever reinterpretation of the war novel. Hurley takes on issues of gender roles, violence, and religion and does it all with a deft hand. I sincerely hope it receives some well deserved attention come award season and I strongly suggest my readers check this one out.
The sequel to God's War is coming out next month, titled Infidel. I already have my hands on it so expect a review in a week or two.(less)
I read Thomas World by Richard Cox while on a plane to San Francisco. It wasn't my first choice. I fully planned on sitting down to read God's War by Kameron Hurley. When that didn't totally grab me, I tried Necropolis by Michael Dempsey (both are also Night Shade titles and both have subsequently become more compelling). It didn't get me either. After about ten paragraphs of Thomas World, I was hooked. That's not to say it's an exciting read. In fact, it's a little slow and lacks any action to speak of. So what made it so hard to put down? It's a first person look at a man losing his mind wrapped around an ode to Philip K. Dick. In other words, it's just super cool.
For those considering reading Thomas World, my only caution would be to make sure you don't mind reading a book written inside the head of someone losing his mind. Blackouts, alcoholism, drug use, and paranoia are just a few of the hoops Cox makes Phillips jump through. He walks a fine line between convincing his reader that Phillips is insane and providing enough information to think we might be wrong. A few times throughout I asked myself, "Why do I care that this guy is bat shit crazy?" Cox answers that question with compelling pace and prose that urged me forward in learning the root of Phillips' psychosis.
The novel's narrative is relatively straight forward, if not always linear. Things are occasionally disjointed but mostly as a necessary plot point (i.e. blackouts) rather than a symptom of Cox's writing. Much of the novel is spent with Phillips going in circles as he comes to grips with reality disintegrating around him. At times I wondered if Thomas World started off as a short-story or novella before becoming a novel. The novel's conclusion only takes a few dozen pages and it's possible the concept might have been more powerful in a shorter format. Of course, no one buys novella's, so I find its length perfectly defensible.
Thematically, the use of Philip K. Dick's work is incredibly prevalent. Cox explores how we conceptualize reality and identity. He uses mental illness and drug use as plot devices. All of these are notions that Dick explored extensively in his catalog of work. Specifically mentioned throughout are novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and VALIS. In this sense, Thomas World is an homage to Dick and should probably be read a such.
To a reader who has only read a little Dick (A Scanner Darkly and some short fiction) - did I get more or less out of Cox's novel? Had I read more of Dick's work would I have found myself drawn into the intertextuality of it all? Or because I was only somewhat familiar with Dick, was Thomas World fresher than it might otherwise be? Since I can't answer these questions, I will say this - Cox made me want to read more Philip K. Dick. I guess that's a rather back-handed compliment, but it should elevate Dick more than it denigrates Cox.
As a 6'4" man I'm going to give a pretty ridiculous compliment - Thomas World made me forget I was on an airplane. Cox communicates his plot beautifully interlacing heartwarming scenes with the bleakness of a man's life coming down around him. In fact, the book's final line is so divorced from the rest of the novel, that I wondered if I'd understood what Cox was doing. Was this really a novel in the mold of Dick who questions what's real? Or instead is Cox saying screw reality, find happiness where you can? I don't know! But it's pretty fun to find myself pondering these questions after reading.
To fans of Philip K. Dick, or films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I think Thomas World will be right in the wheel house. To everyone else, check out some sample chapters and see how it goes. It's a cool experience, but I have a feeling it's not everybody.
Sidenote: The novel includes an Afterword from Richard Cox about an experience he had in his life with regards to "on-line reality." It provides a great deal of context to what steered him toward writing Thomas World. I can't recommend this section highly enough. It's very well done.
Thomas World is due out August 30, 2011 according to Amazon where it is already in stock. (less)
One of the most important decisions an author has to make is how much to tell, how much to imply, and how much to show. In fantasy this even more true in creating a secondary/alternate world. For a debut fantasy author it's triply difficult, because no one (editor or consumer) is going to buy an 800 page book from a total unknown. An author, looking through the world he's created and the plot he's weaving, has to start bailing water to offer a manuscript that's tight enough to sell and verbose enough to be clear - no mean feat.
I bring this up because I think Mazarkis Williams had more water to bail than the average fantasy debut. Not a criticism, I say that because The Emperor's Knife is incredibly ambitious. Heavily flavored with Persian, Arabic, and Asian influence, it is a riff on epic fantasy with a deep magic system, complex political intrigue, and a complete story arc all contained in well under 400 pages.
There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire. Geometric patterns spread across the skin causing those who bear them to become Carriers - mindless servants of the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the marks is put to death by Emperor Beyon's law. Now the pattern is running over the Emperor's own arms. His body servants have been executed and he ignores his wives - soon the pattern will reach his face. While Beyon's agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor's only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a windreader from the northern plains. Unused to being at court Mesema has no one to turn to but an ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor's Knife. As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the Pattern Master appears. The only people standing in his way are a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes.
That's a complete and utter hatchet job on the plot in an effort to briefly summarize the general direction of Emperor's Knife. I went over to read the blurb on Goodreads and it was six paragraphs long. Is it becoming clear why I said Williams' had a tough road ahead of him? Somehow, the novel comes together in in 346 pages - a commendable accomplishment. Unfortunately, on my second point - making sure everything was adequately explained - I'm not sure it was as successful. Having finished the novel I still don't fully understand the motivations and actions of the novel's primary instigator - the Emperor's vizier Tuvaini. Very little time is spent on the primary system of magic whereby a mage is a vessel for an elemental living side them, and while more time is spent on manipulating "patterns" the why or how of it isn't addressed at all. So the question becomes, is that a problem?
The truth is... not really. At the end of the day, Emperor's Knife is a big success, largely on the back of interesting characters and a compelling plot. Williams engages his readers in the early moments posing mysteries that demand to be uncovered like a carrot dangling in front of a donkey compels him to walk. The plot is brisk to start before leveling off where we're given an opportunity to come to care about each of Williams' pieces before he brings them back together in devastating fashion.
As I mentioned before the tone of the world is very Middle Eastern in a time period reminiscent of the Crusade Era. Through Masema, Williams also brings in a steppes culture that would fit well in a Henry Sienkiewicz novel and hints at far more beyond the borders of his map. Naturally, when an author walks into a culture grounded in male chauvinism he runs the risk of being labeled as such himself. Character's opinions are often attributed to the author, almost always unfairly. Williams manages to avoid this, crafting three very enjoyable female characters only one of which comes off shallow and reliant on the support of men around her. Masema, the central female character, comes off far stronger though some of her romantic entanglements felt rushed - something I again attribute to a need to keep things tight in a novel whose scope would seem to predicate otherwise.
Reading through the novel and being an active tweeter lead to a conversation with Williams and fellow 2011 debut author Mark Lawrence (Prince of Thorns) about Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy. Williams admitted it was one of his favorites so I hope he takes it as a compliment that I saw elements in Emperor's Knife that reflected Hobb's influence. Sarmin (the closest thing to a protagonist) is a character of some similarity to Hobb's FitzChivalery. He disbelieves in himself and struggles with understanding his place in the events that rage around him. Farseer fans will also notice that the Pattern Master's Carriers call to mind Prince Verity riding along through others' eyes to interact with and bear witness to events far from him. If it is an homage, it is well done, although I suspect mere coincidence is more likely. Had I not had the conversation prior to reading the novel, I doubt very much I would have made the connection.
Despite some unevenness that manifests in the form of esoteric scenes and absent or unclear foreshadowing, Emperor's Knife is a well imagined, well plotted, and [mostly] well executed addition to the epic fantasy codex. While it's satisfying as a standalone work, the fact is well advertised on the book's cover that The Emperor's Knife the first installment in The Tower and Knife Trilogy. If Sarmin returns he has an opportunity become an iconic character and I hope he gets that chance. More emphatically, I hope that Williams will continue to explore some of the details that were left out in his debut; the lack of which will hold me back from putting this near the top of my best of 2011 list.
I said it at the beginning, and I'll say it again, this is an ambitious debut novel. Thankfully, it's also a novel that demonstrates great deal of promise in its author. I for one very much look forward to the sequel and Mazarkis Williams' continued growth as a writer.
The Emperor's Knife will be published in the UK on October 27 by Jo Fletcher Books and in the US on December 6 by Night Shade Books.
Who is Sam Sykes? Parts of Tome of the Undergates would suggest he might be to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction or what Christopher Moore is to whatever the hell genre Christopher Moore writes. Other parts make me think he's a glorified AD&D Dungeon Master who decided to write down his most recent campaign in painstaking detail. And still others make me think he might be the next great voice in epic fantasy. So I guess my answer to my opening question is - I don't have a freaking clue, but I really want to find out.
Tome tells the story of a band of six adventurers (pejoratively) none of whom particularly like one another or themselves. Led by Lenk, a charismatic warrior with some sanity issues, the group is hired by Lord Emissary Miron Evenhands to recover a stolen tome that has the power to return the demon goddess Mother Deep from the depths of hell (or its reasonable approximation). To accomplish their goal all they have to do is kill a few fish-men, a couple demons, and some purple longfaces, while not killing each other in a fit of pique.
Now does that sound like a AD&D campaign or what? Making up Sykes' party of adventures are the aforementioned Lenk, Kataria the shict (elfish) archer, Gariath the dragonman barbarian, Daenos the craven rogue, Dreadaelion the powerful yet sleepy wizard, and Asper the whiny cleric. I do believe that's the perfect mix. Healer? Check! Tank? Double check! Backstab and traps? Check! Ranged Damage? Check! I'm not being remotely critical either because I actually think AD&D shenanigans is what Sykes was trying to do. Tomes is a caricature of a pen and paper role playing game with six players, a deranged DM, and maybe a few bong hits in between battles for comedic purposes. I mean, look at the map Sykes gave to his German publisher and tell me I'm wrong.
It's in this activity where Sykes frequently calls to mind Douglas Adams or Christopher Moore. His dialogue is snappy and clever. He makes fun of the misuse of the term irony, and then displays lots of proper irony. Embracing the unexpected, Sykes' barbarians have a gentleman's courtesy and a professorial vernacular. Half of his main characters hear voices, hinting at best mild schizophrenia and at worst full blown demonic possession, while the other half are chicken shit or oblivious. Even his most hard-boiled killer at one point dances a jig while teasing someone about being a pansy. The whole thing reeks of satire and frequently induces belly jiggling laughter.
While the satire works (for the most part) that doesn't mean there aren't significant flaws in the narrative. Most noticeable are the first 160 pages of the novel which consist almost exclusively of an extended fight scene that left me cold and more than a little bored. Excising, shortening, or perhaps relocating the entire section would have done a great deal for the novel's first impression on this reader. Beyond the early struggles Sykes also frequently falls into the trap of allowing his band of adventures to break character for humorous asides. Sure the humor nearly always hits the mark (Sykes is a funny dude), but I found that oftentimes it took me out of the story and reminded me I was sitting in my living room reading a book. All in all the novel's missteps felt like a debut author finding his way into his characters and the story he wanted to tell.
And then... the strangest thing happens. Sykes puts the laugh track away and closes out the novel with 100 pages I'll hold up against anybody in the genre. Wouldn't you know it, Sam Sykes has heart. I won't go into detail here about these pages because they are frankly a gem that should be enjoyed without any expectation placed on them. I will say though that one chapter in particular featuring Gariath could be an award winning short story. In addition to these later pages, Sykes divides the novel into three acts beginning each of them with an entry into Lenk's journal. Similar in style to his concluding pages these entries set down the opportunity to explore more serious themes should he choose in future novels.
Tome of the Undergates is a difficult book to rank. I purposefully don't give ratings as a reviewer (on the blog anyway) because I think they're misleading and any star rating on this novel wouldn't do it justice. Strictly as a narrative, I didn't particularly enjoy it. For it's comedy and irreverence toward the AD&D paradigm, Tome is a breath of fresh air. In terms of being able to watch a potentially brilliant, and wholly unique voice in the fantasy genre come of age? It's priceless. And I mean that in the least lame way possible.
I look forward to reading Sykes' sequel Black Halo soon. To anyone reading this, who is not following Sykes on twitter @SamSykesSwears stop right now, open up another window, and follow him. He's better than Shark Week (not really).(less)
Lauren Beukes is the Queen of Metaphors. I capitalized and underlined it so it must be true. I'll go into why this is an awesome novel in a second, but first let me treat everyone to one of Beukes' metaphors:
"I haven't drive in three years and the car handles like a shopping trolley on Rohypnol."
I don't highlight much when I read, if at all, but I found myself marking sentence after sentence reading Zoo City. Beukes writes with a rare vividness that would keep me reading regardless of what the hell she's writing about. As it turns out, what she's writing about has the same zest and magnetism as how she's writing it.
Zinzi December is a Zoo. Having committed an unforgivable act she has become animalled, cursed (blessed?) with a Sloth that's an extension of herself. Unfortunately, to everyone who looks at her, Sloth is a scarlet letter marking her a criminal. She exists on the fringes of Johannesburg in the slum known as Zoo City where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in fear of being separated. A recovering drug addict, she owes money to some bad people. She writes 419 scam e-mails to keep the mob off her back and in her spare time she finds lost items for cash. When a client turns up dead before paying, Zinzi is forced to take on a missing person's case. She's hired by the private and wholly odd-ball music producer Odi Huron to find a teenage pop star. The case is her ticket out of life in the slums, but it might cost her the last shred of human dignity she has left.
Joining a masterful group of first person SFF novels written over the past few years (developing trend?), Zoo City is told entirely within Zinzi's head. To some degree, Beukes' novel is a pastiche. Scenes and plot devices referencing The Golden Compass and the film District 9 are obviously prevalent. There are elements of noir, urban fantasy, psychological thriller, not to mention a bit of not-so-thinly veiled social commentary. Somehow Beukes manages to pull all this together and instead of coming off as imitation of these various styles she instead finds something all her own. Let's call it urban noir magical realism (that's gold baby, copyrighted!).
In telling the story, Beukes takes her readers on a ride through Johannesburg. When I read Dervish House earlier this year I mentioned Istanbul as one of Ian McDonald's characters. I think the same holds true in Zoo City. Johannesburg, its music scene, and its abject class warfare, occupy significant space in the novel. Beukes' flawed protagonist is in many ways reflected in this space - corruptible, decayed, and hopeless. But she is also trying to be something else. In many ways the city acts as her foil - its static nature contrasting Zinzi's desire to be better despite her frequent failures.
The most impressive accomplishment in Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction. Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes' cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction. The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel. It's clear that Beukes' world isn't just an author's passing fancy. Zoo City is the representation of a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg would be if our conscience had four legs and fur.
Sadly no novel is perfect, and there a few hiccups here and there. Things get a little occult toward the end, more so than the early parts of the novel might suggest, and the villain's motivation is a tad esoteric. There are also moments when the pace slows down usually as a result of not always brief asides. It's easy to breeze through these moments to get back to the compelling story. I strongly suggest reading them closely, not only for the key world building information provided, but for the fairly hilarious inter-textual Easter eggs scattered throughout.
Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy for her work in Zoo City, Lauren Beukes has established herself as someone to watch in the coming years. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zoo City is a novel that will stand up today, tomorrow, and for decades to come. I'm going to be in San Francisco next weekend and I'm hoping to take a daytrip to Reno and WorldCon. If I do, I fully plan to find my favorite South African writer and give her a big high five. (less)
I love historical fiction. Shogun by James Clavell, Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham, and Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, are a few of my favorites off the top of my head. What I love about the genre is how it stimulates me to learn about historical events or individuals that I haven't had an opportunity to pay much attention to. If an author is clever enough to take this historical fiction element and blend in some science fiction the end result is something I can't help but want to read. After finishing The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder I feel a great deal of conviction in saying, "Please sir, can I some more?"
Set in London, 1861, Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne stand at a crossroads in their lives. They are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, commissions Burton to investigate why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End and if there's any connection to the assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack. Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist.
As an American, I didn't have a great deal of historical attachment to any of the characters in Strange Affair. Before cracking it open the only two characters I had any real conception of were Burton himself (only barely), Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale (cameo appearances!). As for the many other historical characters in the novel I was largely blank - although Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a sad oversight on my part. I can't begin to describe what a pleasent sensation it is to finish a novel and immediately adjourn to wikipedia. Who knew Spring-Heeled Jack was a real figure? Mark Hodder reminded me that life is stranger than fiction, and life with a heavy dash of fiction is even stranger.
The central figure in the novel is obviously Richard Burton whom represents the paragon of English maleness for the Victorian era. He is rugged, overtly sexual, and excessively educated. It's unfortunate that he often seems to possess some incredible powers of deus ex machina. He always has the answers and manages to be in the right place at the right time regardless of the circumstances. Faced with a sword wielding panther man, well wouldn't you know it, Burton is a master swordsman! This is a minor complaint as Burton's renaissance man capabilities were well established early on and it did little to take away from Hodder's plotting which is - if I'm being frank - masterful.
Most of the novel's early going is spent introducing Burton and "Victorian" London now powered by all kinds of incredible contraptions. There are message delivering robot dogs, street sweeping crabs, armchair helicopters, and some form of early botox to name a few. Once all that's out of the way and Burton gets his assignment the novel begins to read a bit like Sherlock Holmes before descending into a paradoxical mind trip. Paradoxical I say? Yes, not everything in Strange Affair is steampunk and I think calling the novel anything but science fiction obscures the truth.
If what I write here is a bit obscure, I apologize, but it's in an effort to avoid spoiling any of Hodder's twists. While the novel's early parts are historical urban steampunk, the latter half goes in a disparate direction culminating in a lengthy section told from the point of view of a character other than Burton or Swinburne. Things very much slow down as this point and scenes become somewhat redundant as Hodder runs through the reasons why in 1840 history as we know it ceased to exist. I don't begrudge the time spent as the explanations are necessary to unravel his dense plotting.
By the novel's conclusions everything makes sense, which for anyone reading the middle section described above may seem like quite an accomplishment. None of that would have been possible without some brilliant writing. I don't mean that Hodder is some kind of wizard of metaphors like Lauren Beukes or an efficient wordsmith like K.J. Parker (although he does write a fine sentence). Nor has he put together a layered narrative like Lev Grossman. Instead, what I mean by brilliant writing is that he's written something that feels Victorian, but reads modern. Compare it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which feels Victorian and reads the same way leading to an occasionally frustrating experience. I think it's quite an accomplishment to write a dated voice but make it so easily readable to modern sensibilities.
I've been making up sub-genres lately. In my Zoo City review I coined urban noir magical realism and now I'm forced conjured up historical science fiction steampunk. Whatever. Regardless of what I call Strange Affair it's a premier example of how to do historical fiction through the specfic lens. Hodder has given readers a tremendous trip into the history books, a dynamite adventure to keep things lively, and a science fiction twist to get the mind working. Consider me a big fan of Mark Hodder moving forward. I can't wait to check out the sequel The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.(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 don't read a lot of anthologies. No particular reason really other than I tend to read them a story at a time in between novels. Thus they take forever for me to finish, and oftentimes I've forgotten the less memorable stories by the time I actually finish the whole collection. If I were smart, I'd do a quick paragraph on each story as I finish them. In case you're curious, I'm not and I didn't. So instead I'm going to do more of a short review about the overall tone of Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge edited by Lou Anders and give a few of my favorites.
Anders, in his introduction to the anthology, reminds us that, "To a very real extent, we live today in the science fiction of the past." He's so right - just look at William Gibson's notion of cyberspace in Neuromancer (1984). Fast Forward 1 is all about looking at the implications of technology on society, but not today's technology. Anders and his all-star cast of authors are instead looking at the future of tomorrow and millenium from now to push the envelope not only about what technology we can expect to see, but how it will impact our lives. Anders goes on to say that, "it is the future of science fiction itself (and that of science fiction publishing) that some have called into question, and lately it seems as if the very idea of the future has been under threat." In his essay "The Omega Glory," Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon summarizes Anders' thoughts:
"I don't know what happened to the Future. It's as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date."
Interestingly, one of Anders' contributors, Paolo Bacigalupi said in an interview with Locus Magazine:
"Maybe science fiction lost its track a little bit, and got off on some lines of speculation which are pretty interesting but not necessarily connected to today’s questions, as previously it had been core to our conception of ourselves and where we were headed."
I think Bacigalupi's view and Chabon's desire to continue pushing the envelop are well blended by Anders. Fast Forward 1 shows how the world will change just over the next hill in stories like Elizabeth Bear's The Something-Dreaming Game or Mary Turzillo's Pride. It looks beyond and into the distant future with stories like The Terror Bard by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper or No More Stories by Stephen Baxter.
For me the anthology works best in the stories that fell in between. Not so esoteric as to be difficult to identify with, and not so near term as to be uninspiring. These stories shined because they not only pushed the science fiction envelope, but found a way to use that technology to pull back the shades on the cultural and ethical dilemmas of today. To me, and Anders who I quote, "science fiction is a tool for making sense of a changing world. It is the genre that looks at the implications of technology on society, which in this age of exponential technological growth makes it the most relevant branch of literature going."
Haunting stories like Bacigalupi's Small Offerings and George Zebrowski's Settlements confront our ability to sustain humanity. A Smaller Government by Pamela Sargent parodies the U.S. government, while Jesus Christ, Reanimator by Ken MacLeod takes on faith. Vanity is a popular subject reflected in p dolce by Louise Marley and The Hour of the Sheep by Gene Wolfe. There are very few failures in the anthology. Some are not terribly memorable like The Girl's Hero Mirror Says He's Not the One by Jennifer Robson or Kage Baker's Plotters and Shooters, but in the moment they are compelling and well worth the read.
Perhaps the most thought provoking work in the book is Anders' introduction which I have quoted from liberally. He provides a thought provoking discussion about where the genre has been, is going, and will find itself in the years ahead. It's well worth a read all on its own and can be read on-line in its entirety (here). Anders was recently awarded a Hugo for his editing prowess and as far as I can tell from Fast Forward 1 and the dozens of other Pyr titles I've read, it is well deserved.
As I stated in the early parts of this review, I don't read many anthologies so rating this is one tough. I can say that there was no story I rolled my eyes at or felt like skipping and there are certainly several stories I would hold up against any I've read.
In the mood for a science fiction anthology? Definitely pick this one up.(less)
My wife and daughter were out of town this past week so I took the opportunity to really plow through some of my to read pile backlog. K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog coming out this September is hard to justify as "backlog", but it's a title that’s called to me from the first time I laid eyes on it. The cover is another one from Raymond Swanland who has done such good work for James Barclay, Glen Cook, and others. His covers always contain such tangible motion and barely contained violence, which appropriately describes K.V. Johansen's novel.
At first glance Blackdogis a traditional epic fantasy. It has scope, powerful magic, gods, and demons. There is a central villain and an obvious and vulnerable yet strong willed heroine surrounded by her stalwart cadre of allies. Soon though, as the pages go by, things become more robust. Johansen's world expands and what appears to be another hero's journey is instead a journey to humanity, an evaluation of the bonds of family, and an examination of divinity.
Blackdog's world is lush, in a cognitive sense, barren and arid in truth. Shown only a fraction of the larger spectrum, the novel focuses on a caravan route through the desert to the mountain steppes. Each city, or culture, is founded around a god of the earth who appears in both human and incorporeal forms. Similar to novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin) or Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson), gods are very much active in the world, interacting with their followers and enemies alike.
Where Erikson is overly esoteric at times, Johansen has a knack for not getting off kilter. Opportunities arise to wax on a philosophical leaning or delve unnecessarily into a facet of her world not relevant to her story and each time she resists the urge to be diverted. In doing she captures some of the scope and majesty that Erikson so often does, but manages to avoid the trap of self indulgence. While Blackdog lacks the genre commentary and philosophical meandering that Malazan excels at, I can't help be feel some kinship between the two works.
My only real complaint stems from complex naming conventions that often led to a sensation of reading one of the Russian greats. Everyone has at least two names, and the devil/wizards have a minimum of three. Cities tend to be 10-12 letters or more, and many of them have similar sounds. Main characters even have names that run together with each other at times. Given Johansen's education background (MA in Medieval Studies), I'm confident that phonetically and historically speaking all the naming conventions make sense. For example, a woman raised in Attalissa's lands is likely to have a similar sounding name to honor her goddess. However, for readability, I found it all a bit distracting; often pulling me out of the story to reevaluate who the hell she was talking about.
If I was pulled out of things occasionally by confusing names, I was more often sucked in completely (I finished the novel at 2 AM). Blackdog possesses a dreamlike quality that lends itself to distorting time. Divination and soothsaying, inherently intangible pursuits, are prevalent themes in the novel. Magic in general is abstract with little no explanation as to why or how it works (Malazan again, anyone?) relying on deep concentration and meticulous preparation. Combined with the notion of body sharing demons, this all leads to long periods of time where Johansen finds herself describing non-visual events like meditation and internal battling. This would normally lead to periods of boredom, but instead she rescues the slower pace with often lyrical prose that shows and directs, but never tells.
Early on I felt myself digesting Blackdog in small chunks. A chapter here, a chapter there, I wrapped my mind around Johansen's complex world building. Like a runner in a 5K, I found my pace, easing into a rhythm before unleashing my Usain Bolt like speed in the stretch run. By the novels end I was breathless, winding down from a tremendous dénouement, and a heartfelt ending.
It's unclear whether or not Johansen has a sequel in store, if so, there's no indication on the copy I received to review. The final pages complete the story, but leave enough hanging to warrant future installments. The world building alone surely invites future exploration. In either case, I should think lovers of epic fantasy, particularly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, will devour Blackdog with vigor. I definitely did.(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)
Warning: I have never taken a comparative literature course. This are merely my musings about a novel I very much enjoyed beyond the story. It's quite possible I have completely missed Grossman's point. It's also possible I'm full of shit and committing intellectual masturbation. Whatever - I was bored.
To deconstruct something, literally, means to take it apart. In a literary sense, to deconstruct something means to take apart the structure and expose the assumption that things have a fixed reference point beyond themselves. I am of the opinion that The Magicians is a deconstruction of the young adult fantasy novel (almost, I'll come back to this later). It strips down each of the components that represent the genre, exposes them, knocks them into unfamiliar shapes, and ultimately uses them to tell a narrative that's still familiar. If Magicians is the beginnings of a deconstruction, than Lev Grossman's sequel, The Magician King, is a reconstruction of that same paradigm.
To anyone who's read Grossman's first novel, everything will be familiar. Quentin is now a King of Fillory. Along with his old friends from Brakebills (Eliot and Janet), he is joined by Julia - one of his closest friends from his days as a normal person, or as normal as Quentin gets. It turns out ruling a magical kingdom gets rather boring and Quentin soon finds himself in search of a quest. He sets off on a benign sea journey to an island called Outer to check up on their unpaid taxes. Joined by Julia, the pair find themselves caught up in a larger war that sends them bouncing between worlds trying to save Fillory from destruction.
In many ways I think Magician King is the novel Magicians detractors wanted to read. It doesn't have near the level of nihilism or self-loathing that's so present in the first novel. Nor is it full of the boredom and minutia of learning magic at Brakesbills. What results is something far more akin to the standard fantasy novel - there's a quest, a wrench gets thrown into it, and then ultimately the quest is resolved. Characters undergo change and demonstrate growth concluding with some measure of closure for all of them. What survives from the first novel is Grossman's tremendous prose, clever integration of modern culture, and warm vulnerable characters.
A major departure structurally, half the novel is told from a point of view other than Quentin's. Julia's flashbacks detail her journey to becoming a magician on the "mean streets" and draw a juxtaposition to Quentin's rather posh education. Since anyone reading Magician King should have read the first installment, being able to see what became of Julia will be like remembering a dream thought forgotten. Her absence from the second half of Magicians was a glaring omission and Grossman's resurrection of the character works beautifully. Even outside the flashback chapters where she is viewed only through Quentin's point of view, Julia shines as a character emerging onto the stage as Alice and Eliot did in the first novel.
Julia's story arc is primarily where Grossman begins his reconstruction. The components of this narrative are in familiar shapes and move through a very linear process where she is identified, inducted, educated, and graduated from her learning phase only to move on and join a quest to save the world. Sure she's a lot more Draco Malfoy than Hermione Granger and her education is more on par with what Harry might have expected if Snape taught all his classes, but the fundamental plot movements are that of a coming of age tale - albeit of someone in her early 20s.
Contrasting that throughout are Quentin's points of view from the present where he continues to lack direction or the ability to properly produce serotonin. For a deconstruction to work (I'm coming back to it now), at least as I'm applying the term here, the disparate pieces that were exposed in Magicians have to ultimately come back together into a recognizable shape. Otherwise, what's the point? Through Julia and her growth as a character, Grossman pulls Quentin along by his bootstraps providing a completed arc that is recognizable as a young adult fantasy (again, there is an irony here given Quentin is closer to 25 than 15).
Now if that's all Magician King had going for it, it might be a successful bookend to Magicians, but it would be a pretty boring read. Beyond the main story arc Grossman delves into cultural mythology frequently paying homage to and poking a little fun at European legend. Many called Magicians Harry Potter for adults. The comparison is hardly accurate, but if it were then this part of Magician King might be American Gods for teenagers. Overlaying the themes of mythology and de/reconstructed YA fantasy, is the edge Grossman gives to everything he writes. Removing all of the novels undertones, Grossman still leaves his readers with an adventure romp that can be enjoyed purely on surface value alone.
Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, Grossman's deftly applies modern culture to alleviate what is an oftentimes dark tale. Sure he sometimes tries overly hard to cram in some hilarious references to an internet meme or incorporate a rap lyric such as "suckers walk, players ride." But for the most part these references provide laugh out loud moments.
In my review of Magicians I said I wasn't sure it demanded a sequel. I thought it stood on its own and adding to it would only weaken the original novel. I feel simultaneously vindicated and chastened. In many ways Magician King is a superior novel. It has a more complete plot and works better as a narrative. At the same time, it lacks some of the inherent charm that comes from tearing down and exposing long held conventions. I still believe Magicians stands on its own as a piece of fiction. That said, I also believe that Grossman's intended thought experiment isn't complete without the second verse. What to do?
The truth is, the sequel is just as good Magicians. For many it will be a more rewarding read and it would not surprise me if many who were turned off by the first novel will find a lot more to like in The Magician King. But to me it will never approach The Magicians because of its audacity to challenge its readers.(less)
I started writing this review last week, but it just wasn't coming together like I'd hoped. With over 2,000 words written, I was approaching critical mass. You see, K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife is not an easy book to review. There's a lot going on and it's rather non-traditional for a fantasy novel in a lot of ways and then entirely traditional in others. It wasn't until I ran across Lev Grossman's article in the Wall Street Journal Monday morning that I knew how I was going to attack this post.
"Fantasy does tend to be heavily plot-driven. But plot has gotten a bad rap for the past century, ever since the Modernists (who I revere, don’t get me wrong) took apart the Victorian novel and left it lying in pieces on an old bedsheet on the garage floor. Books like “Ulysses” and “The Sound and the Fury” and “Mrs. Dalloway” shifted the emphasis away from plot onto other things: psychology; dense, layered writing; a fidelity to moment-to-moment lived experience. Plot fell into disrepute.
But that was modernism. That was the 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement – a great movement, but like all movements, a thing of its time. Plot is due for a comeback. We’re remembering that it means something too."
Yup, that sounds quite a bit like what's going on in Folding Knife and to everyone's benefit it allowed me to cut about a thousand words.
In the Vesani Republic, the First Citizen's word is nearly law. Elected by the people, he administers the largest economic power outside the somewhat fractured Eastern Empire. Today, the First Citizen is Bassianus Severus (Basso). Deaf in one ear and brilliant in business, he killed his own wife and brother-in-law after finding them in bed together. Alienated by his surviving family, he uses his influence to become the most powerful man in Vesani. Now what?
The first two sentence of that last paragraph, forget them... entirely. Anyone who has read this blog before knows I believe that world-building is a vital part of what imparts fantasy. I've always said great prose, great characters, and all the rest will only get someone so far in the speculative fiction genre. Parker has proven me wrong... mostly.
Folding Knife takes place in an invented setting. Want to know a secret? I don't care. I have no idea where Vesani is in relation to the Eastern Empire. I don't care. The moniker of Eastern Empire is so nebulous that I realized Parker doesn't want me to care. Parker's intent, I believe, is to cut away all the extraneous items that distract from the plot. Into that pit go world building, flowery prose, and unnecessary description. Parker even seems to do away with foreshadowing instead opting to tell the reader what happens before going into the details after.
What Parker has accomplished is like taking a car from Pimp My Ride and restoring its far more useful and effective former self. Parker picks out the important bits, remove the extraneous fluff, but keeps the meaning the same. This is accomplished to a degree that the novel possesses a style almost reminiscent of a news article (albeit the most impressive news article anyone might read). Even the opening chapter hits the reader with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN as Basso leaves the Republic in poverty on the top of a wagon. What it holds back is the why. Parker relishes filling in that blank with a brilliant tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and Euripides (ok, that might be hyperbole - but not absurdly so).
So that's what Folding Knife is. As for what it's about, the closest I can come is finance, loneliness, and in true Shakespearean form hubris. Finance is the device that Parker uses to move the plot from Basso's role as head of the Charity and Social Justice Bank. As someone who makes a living in the American political system I couldn't help observing a parallel between the Vesani (read: Basso) economy and America's. Leveraged, always betting on future profits, never cutting back - all of these are part of why Congress is having a lengthy argument about how best to restructure the federal budget. In that way it can certainly be read as a criticism of U.S. economic policy.
As for the other two items (loneliness and hubris), they are the impetus behind Basso's machinations both economic and political. Basso is emotionally challenged and acts out like a robber-baron to preserve not only his place in society, but to boost his perceived infallibility. While this doesn't make him particularly likable, it does make him extremely compelling. Beginning with Basso's murder of his wife and brother-in-law, Parker sets up scenes of loss and heartbreak that resonate time after time.
After writing this glowing review, I started wondering why Parker isn't ubiquitously mentioned as one of the foremost authors in the genre? If I had to answer I'd give a two-fold answer. First, Parker is an anonymous writer with no social media presence. Second, Parker writes literary fantasy. Last time I checked Martin Amis and Don DeLillo weren't exactly making the New York Times Bestseller List. If we can all agree that less people read fantasy than "real" fiction, the market Parker is ultimately writing to is even smaller than her mainstream contemporaries. Most the novels that are placed above Parker's are more traditional epic fantasy - A Song of Ice and Fire, The Black Company, The Kingkiller Chronicle, Lord of the Rings, etc.
Interestingly, for all that, Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages. Unfortunately, this straddling the line of epic and literary fantasy limits Folding Knife's exposure somewhat preventing Parker from being appropriately recognized. I might be wrong. But if I am, why is there any list of the best fantasy novels out there without The Folding Knife right near the top? I can't explain it any other way.(less)
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 first read A Game of Thrones when I was a 16 year old high school student. My mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who couldn't use a little escapism at a time like that? A Clash of Kings was already on the shelves by then and I blew through them both. My mom recovered and I fell in love with a genre that would become a huge part of my life.
I remember my second year in college waiting eagerly for A Storm of Swords. Like any college kid I was still finding my way. I hated where I was living and was searching for some direction. I bought the hardcover on release day at the Barnes and Noble down the street. To this day, hundreds of book later - I have yet to be more blown away.
By the time A Feast for Crows was released I was an adult working in Washington DC. Better read and more mature, I reread all the first three books before starting the fourth. It was better than I'd remembered. By now Martin's world was as familiar to me as our own. It was alive in a way few authors could ever hope to create. And I was better for having read it.
I only tell this story because I think it's important for anyone reading this review to know how long A Song of Ice and Fire as been with me. If Harry Potter is the story of today's youth, and Middle Earth was the majesty that was my parent's, then Westeros is mine. It's the world I have escaped to more than any other in my life and I want nothing more that to love each book Martin gives us.
So this past week, when A Dance with Dragons was released, I found myself a husband and a father. Successful (or close enough) and happy, I waited up on July 11 refreshing my Kindle every minute until it arrived. I read the prologue that night and two more chapters over breakfast. I read at work and at the gym. I read while watching Dora the Explorer and while lounging on every piece of furniture in my house. This morning, as I turned the final page to the heraldry of the Boy King, I put down my Kindle and said out loud - seriously?
Strangely enough I was reminded of Tiger Woods. One night he got in a car accident. He came up with a story, but couldn't get himself out. He was in so far that the only way out was to tell the whole story no matter how long and sordid. He ended up on national television doing a tell all press conference. Dance is Martin's press conference.
The reckoning of Dance is the response to what he calls the "Mereenese Knot." This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany's character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.
This untying is why as a novel(as fifth installment in a series, its success remains to be seen), Dance is a failure. The book's pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travelogs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his "Mereenese Knot." For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King's Landing crew coming to fruition.
Additionally, some of his tricks are getting a little tired. The imminent death fade to black has been used about ten times too many with survival being the end result nearly every time. There also seem to be some reoccurring themes that successful governing is irreconcilable with honor and duty. Or perhaps that honor and duty preclude the ability to compromise. This is of note most significantly in the Jon and Dany chapters where neither seem capable of or willing to listen to those around them. Given their ages, this is probably an accurate characterization. Nevertheless, I find it a bit dogmatic.
Despite its shortcomings in storytelling, Dance is beautifully written, as always. Martin litters his pages with suburb foreshadowing and Easter eggs. Nothing I've read urges a reader to comb through paragraphs for hints like A Song of Ice and Fire and nothing here changes that legacy. Some of the POVs are stunningly good - especially Reek/Theon and Victarion. There are exciting seminal moments for the series (dragons!) and in true Martin style he's not shy about putting his most cherished characters to the sword.
Like Tiger, I think Martin made the decision to tell the ENTIRE story instead of creating a compelling narrative. The difference being Martin has the ability to change his story at will. If this was the only way through the knot for my favorite author, so be it; but I can't help but be disappointed after seven years of anticipation. Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn't a very fun book to read. I don't mind Martin's lack of progress with the plot so much as I lament the excruciating detail with which he wrote what is still the "first half" of a novel. My complaints have nothing to with what happened, only about how they happened. Had Martin written this same book with two thirds the word count minus a POV or two, I would surely be trumpeting the novel as the next great installment in the most brilliant series fantasy has ever seen (like nearly every other blogger is).
Instead I'm here saying to anyone who hasn't started A Song of Ice and Fire, wait until the it's done. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, while being eminently better written, are the functional equivalent of the Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he's got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess (cynasse) pieces before he can go on the attack. If I were a new reader, I'd want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.
On the other hand, to current fans of the series, I'll be hitting refresh on my Kindle at 12:01 the day The Winds of Winter is released. What can I say? I'm pot committed. (less)
Lev Grossman's The Magicians has engendered no small amount of vitriol since its release two years ago. I'm not sure there's been a more divisive book...moreLev Grossman's The Magicians has engendered no small amount of vitriol since its release two years ago. I'm not sure there's been a more divisive book released in recent memory. Most of the negative comments seem to hover around the the novel's bleakness and the notion that it's extremely derivative. Strangely enough, that's why I like it. Grossman has taken the young adult fantasy genre, poked it with a stick, and then told a darkly beautiful coming of age story within that framework.
Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant and depressed high school senior. He's secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to Fillory, everything else is listless. As it turns out, Quentin is one of the few born with a talent for magic and is chosen to become a student at a prestigious (just ask them!) magical university in upstate New York, where he receives a rigorous education in sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: sex, alcohol, and boredom. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. Then he makes a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.
First of all, Fillory is Narnia. It's not even derivational - it just is. Quentin's college is a university level Hogwarts. Alice is Hermione (kinda). Eliot is a gay Ron (kinda). There are references to almost every young adult fantasy novel of any repute. Many of Grossman's critics have called this derivative. I call it intentionally subversive. He doesn't twist the genre tropes so much as he uses them didactically. The result is that there's nothing remotely young adult about this novel. Yes, he uses a young adult frame work, but the thematic underpinnings are adult.
So adult that most of Magicians is disturbingly depressing. There's very little happiness for any of Grossman's characters. It's raw and real in a way that is so divorced from traditional fantasy. Even Quentin's study of magic is benign. In that way, I get why people pushed back on it. To someone looking for a more adult Harry Potter (as the book was often advertised) there is going to be some intense dissatisfaction. Unlike Harry Potter, where magic and "fantasy" are the point, Magicians uses these things as a thematic device to deliver a message - life is hard, even when it should be easy.
Quentin is nearly a nihilist. He is a vortex of woe-is-me at a school full of tortured teenagers who until they became magicians were socially awkward and painfully excluded. What Grossman is trying to do it well summed up by Quentin's professor. He said:
"Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by others means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you."
Quentin, carrying this pain around is looking for an escape. Go to any fantasy message board right now and ask, "Why do you read fantasy?" The common answer is - escapism. That's what fantasy is all about (or at least, was about). Quentin wants to be able to turn the page and go away. He keeps chasing a carrot for what will make him happy instead of recognizing what makes him unhappy. When magic isn't enough, he tries love and then ultimately he pins all his hopes on Fillory - a magical land imagined in his youth. Want to guess how that works out? I guess I'm saying Quentin is a metaphor for fantasy readers. He wants to escape so he throws himself into one new adventure after another. Instead of escaping he just ends up ignoring everything around him. Hmm, now I feel kind of insulted?
That's not to say that the novel doesn't have some "bright" spots. Most of these are moments of comedy when one character or another uses some cultural reference to great effect. As a fan of a few on-line shooting games in my youth, I couldn't help but blow milk out of my nose when I read:
"Or we're in some kind of really high-tech multiplayer video game." He snapped his fingers. "So that's why Eliot's always humping my corpse."
These moments are fairly frequent, especially later in the novel once Quentin and his "party" go on a dungeon crawl reminiscent (again, intentionally) of a misguided D&D session with a power tripping dungeon master.
And that's the rub, isn't it? The novel is knows it's borrowing, bastardizing, and in some cases copying what's come before in an effort to parody it. This clearly puts off readers that aren't invested enough in the genre to enjoy what Grossman is doing or are looking for the notion of escapism he's lampooning.
Despite all of the games Grossman is playing, the heart of the story is the coming of age tale and a tragic love story. If he removed all the fantasy elements, the novel still has a fairly compelling story - albeit not remotely something the typical fantasy reader would be interested in. If I had to classify all the fantasy novels ever written into "beginners, intermediate, and advanced" categories. The Magicians would be decidedly placed in the latter. Not because it's a difficult novel. Grossman writes an eminently readable book. But it's a novel written to and about fantasy readers , but not necessarily for them.
Despite my enjoyment of The Magicians I'm a little concerned about his sequel due out next month. This novel stands on its own, but it only stands up because of the thematic game Grossman played. To use the same trick of subverting the genre would leave me feeling cold. Still, I enjoyed the first novel so much that I can't help but look forward to the second. Color me cautiously optimistic.(less)