Tell me if you've heard this one before, ok? Joe Abercrombie walks into a bar, sits down and orders a whiskey. He takes a shot and looks down the bar where he sees fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson sitting at a table. Sanderson is laying out a Magic: The Gathering deck and drinking a glass of milk. Abercrombie, seeing his comrade in arms, stands up and walks over. They get to talking about this and that, of course Abercrombie tries his best not to swear or talk about sex, an admittedly difficult bit of conversationlism.
Before you know it, the two of them start writing. Sanderson is handling the outline, plotting things just so and building the world. Meanwhile Abercrombie is writing the scenes, adding his grit and authentic dialogue to Sanderson's framework. He decides to try first person this time, change is a good thing, right? Somewhere along the way Sanderson wins the sexytime argument. They finish the novel and agree on the pseudonym Daniel Polansky. And so, Low Town was born.
That's just a legend. To the best of my knowledge Daniel Polansky is a real person, and not some amalgamation of two bestselling fantasy authors. But it could be true because Low Town is the love child that Abercrombie and Sanderson (probably) will never have. It's well paced, richly textured, and demonstrates all the rawness that the genre has come to expect from the modern fantasy writer.
Polansky's protagonist is Warden, a 30-something drug dealer, and user, with a checkered past. He used to be more, but now he haunts the streets of Low Town peddling his product and trying to stay alive (sort of). Low Town reads like crime fiction that wouldn't be at all out of place shelved among James Ellroy and Ellmore Leonard. There's an urban feel to it all, and Warden is very much a noir protagonist, past his prime and world weary, but committed to doing what needs doing. In this case, that's solving the mystery of a murdered girl which the powers that be have no interest in doing.
It didn't surprise me to learn that Polansky is a Baltimore native. Anyone who's watched HBO's The Wire will find some familiarity. Warden is reminiscent of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), a drug dealer with intelligence, ambition, and a desire to see less violence on the streets, if only for the sake of profit. Themes from The Wire like corruption, institutional dysfunction (or disinterest), and poverty are also reflected in the novel through Warden's colored perceptions.
Beyond the Mystery Machine (overt Scooby Doo reference), Low Town is also a second world fantasy that provides a mystery of its own, heightened by the limitations of a first person narrative. Unable to provide any direct exposition, Polansky dribbles out the world through Warden's encounters, memories, and dreams. He creates a mystery within a mystery within a mystery. Who killed the girl? Who is Warden and where does he come from? How does all this fit into the larger world? In choosing the first person, Polansky gave himself free reign to control the reader's perception. Carefully choosing the order of encounters, and the types of encounters, he creates a perfectly paced novel that kept urging me forward without frustrating me (always a risk when the narrator has knowledge the reader does not).
It's not all roses though. I think there's a fair criticism to be levied related to one-note characters that are archetypal for the genre. Gregarious and burly innkeeper, go-getter gutter rat, malicious police chief, and kindly wizard are a few of them that are recycled here. Additionally, I saw the 'twist' coming from early on (although there were enough red herrings throughout that I questioned my confidence) and given the tradition of intricately plotted fantasy novels, this one is fairly mundane (more like urban fantasy in that regard). Polansky does leave enough dangling about Warden's past to warrant a sequel, but there's nothing epic about the plot itself that would call for future volumes.
That said, when asked, what did you think of Low Town, Justin? I'm going to gush. It isn't the best novel I've read this year. It's not even the best debut. It is, however, the most entertaining. Polansky grabbed me in the first chapter and never let go. Last I checked authors are in the story telling business and Polansky tells a great story. Much darker than Sanderson, and not as authentic or well put together as Abercrombie, Low Town takes elements from each of them, turning out a debut novel that will appeal to fans of both. I hope to see a lot more of Daniel Polansky in the future.
You can find Daniel Polansky on Twitter (@danielpolansky) or at his website. He's currently working on the sequel to Low Town (when he's not bumming around foreign countries). Check back next week for an interview with the author.(less)
I had a bit of frustration with Lev AC Rosen's debut novel, All Men of Genius, and I recognize it may be a controversial one as it has nothing to do with his talent as a writer or the quality of his novel. In fact, the novel's voice is great, using third person omniscient that strikes a perfect balance of authentic Victorian and modern convention. The tagline on the dust jacket calling it inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is right on and I might add a dash of Charles Dicken's knack for character and setting. Even the plot is well executed, demonstrating the power of a straightforward story when populated by things the reader cares about.
Violet Adams is a brilliant young scientist barred from study at the world's greatest scientific institution by her gender. Determined to continue her studies, and prove that women deserve a place at the table, she disguises herself as her twin brother Ashton. Of course, keeping the secret of her sex isn't easy with her friend Jack’s constant pranking and the headmaster's (Duke Ernest Illryia) young ward, Cecily, developing feelings for Violet’s alter ego. Add in some blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and Violet’s burgeoning affection for the duke, and Rosen has a steampunk Victorian response to J.K Rowling's Harry Potter franchise (albeit more adult).
Where the novel raises an eyebrow, for me, is in the constant emphasis on sexuality and gender. Here's a run-down of some of the related plot devices. Violet is a woman dressed as a man. Violet's twin brother, Ashton, is gay. Professor Valentine likes to have sex with senior citizens. Duke Illryia is questioning. No one seems to have a sexual relationship with anyone their own age. Cecily has a thing for the cross-dressed Ashton (Violet). I could go on, but things might get spoilery.
Early on I found the treatment of Violet's cross dressing and Ashton's sexuality to be both refreshing and authentic. But, as the novel wore on I became overwhelmed, as I felt constantly assailed by the sexual proclivities of every character. I applaud the desire to put alternate lifestyles in the spotlight. However, I think it does a disservice when it feels like token offerings to inclusiveness, which too often seemed to be the case in Rosen's debut.
And yet, here I am talking about it. In pushing the envelope, then sealing another one and pushing it right behind the first, Rosen compels his readers to confront the issue. Despite my frustrations with it from a storytelling perspective, I can't help but applaud him for what he's trying to accomplish. All Men of Genius is a novel I would happily hand to my someday teenage daughter (she's two now). The message embedded in it is one of tolerance and acceptance, but also of demanding equality, making it one of the more important 2011 novels I've read -- especially considering its cosmetic appeal to younger readers.
Some might criticize the stiffness of the characters, an unfortunate side effect of Rosen's chosen narrative style. Other's might turn their nose up at the neat bow Rosen puts on everything. or the general acceptance of prostitution. To the latter point, some might call that an indictment of its appropriateness for a younger reader (and they might be right, as that, and several other items, are mature in nature). My response? It's Victorian! Reflected in everything from the narrative voice, to the novel's structure, to the mores of the time, Rosen never forgets it and embraces it with aplomb.
All Men of Genius is a novel I can recommend -- especially to younger readers or parents although others will find enjoyment as well. In an ever expanding world full of those alike and not, it's imperative that published works lead the way in engendering mutual understanding. My only caution is to let the ideas speak for themselves, overworking them only reveals an insecurity in their veracity (which I'm sure the author doesn't have). While I would have preferred more (any?) deconstruction, the novel is a wonderful homage to the source material of Shakespeare and Wilde. It's not clear if Rosen plans to continue Violet's story, but I'd certainly be interested if he is. If not, I'd be intrigued to see what he's capable of in a space unconstrained by Victorian virtue.(less)
I have a sneaking suspicion that Sword of Fire and Sea is going to be one of the more polarizing novels of 2011 as a perfect example of form over substance. Erin Hoffman's debut from Pyr has a beautiful voice, and a fully realized, textured world. It has gryphons, pegasus, and elemental magic all of which evoke whimsy and a general sense of romance. Ultimately though, the primary motive force of any novel is its story and there Hoffman falls flat, failing to adequately lay the foundation for events later in the novel.
Packaged as a travel narrative, Sword is told from the perspective of ship Captain Vidarian Rulorat, a highly successful merchant with family ties to the fire priestesses of Kara'zul. Vidarian must fulfill his family's obligation by transporting a young fire priestess named Ariadel to a water temple far to the south, through dangerous pirate-controlled territory. A perilous journey in the best of conditions, Vidarian and Ariadel find themselves at the intersection of the world's most volatile elements and an ancient, alien power between them.
Unlike most genre novels, Sword didn't keep me up late into the night despite an frenetic plot. Hoffman's style is more geared toward reading a chapter at a time to absorb her lyrical imagery, letting it breathe like a fine wine. I found myself pausing from time to time to really relish over a nice turn of phrase or particularly well put together sentence. To speak metaphorically, reading Sword felt like looking at an M.C. Escher painting, the longer I stared at it the more I saw. All of this makes for a rich and textured reading experience. Paragraphs alone to do not a good novel make though, and often Hoffman fails to connect her reader to her characters or her plot.
Functionally a travelogue, Sword bounces Vidarian all over the map, first with Ariadel by his side, and then to rescue her, and then to their ultimate goal. I was watching a tennis match with a gryphon, in place of a fuzzy green ball, being batted back and forth across the continent by some unseen, but thoroughly dominant, forehand. That's me being flip, but the truth is the pace and suddenness of the travel rarely gave me the opportunity to be comfortable with the story. Instead, I was left scrambling to understand what was happening and more importantly why.
Equally as frustrating were the occasional terms, or factions that Hoffman assumes the reader to have knowledge. I don't mind the slow world building, dropping new ideas from time to time, and explaining them later (God's War being a great example of this), but never explaining them just leads to confusion. One in particular that comes to mind was the use of the term, Quenched, in reference to a fire priestess's power. Early in the novel I presumed this meant one thing, only to find out it meant something else, only to learn it didn't mean that either. With the novel over, I still don't really know it means. While I might hazard a guess, it was frustrating that at every point in the novel I thought it meant something different, leaving me scratching my head when characters did things I thought they could no longer do.
The point is Sword reads like a debut novel. In a year I've been spoiled by brilliant debuts this one just doesn't stand out. I'm going to compare Hoffman to another author, Sam Sykes, whose debut novel, Tome of the Undergates, I reviewed early this year. In terms of substance and style there's absolutely no similarity. Sykes writes a gritty, schlocky style that's as dark as it is hilarious. Like Hoffman, Sykes was a new author trying to find his way. While he had some stumbles, mostly related to plot and pacing, he has an incredibly strong voice that's his own. I can absolutely say the same about Erin Hoffman. There is something uniquely her in the prose and that's special. While I may not have enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea as a narrative, I very much look forward to the author's future growth as a writer.
Thankfully, it looks like Pyr is going to give me that chance as they recently announced the purchase of two more novels in The Chaos Knight series. I'll be sure to check them out. You can visit Erin Hoffman's website and follow her Twitter. (less)
Religion is a touchy subject matter, isn't it? Focusing on subjects of faith and belief can easily become unhinged. Preaching or flippancy are equally likely and this is especially true when the a novel is told from only one sect's point of view (in this case, Christian). I've been caught unawares by 'Christian fiction' masquerading as fantasy a time or two and I pretty well irks me every time, although erotica masquerading as Urban Fantasy is worse. It's not that I'm trying to avoid all things Christian, I'm just saying I want to know what I'm getting into beforehand. Thus I approached Miserere, Teresa Frohock's debut novel, with some trepidation.
I shouldn't have worried. Miserere while grounded in Christian myths isn't really about religion. Frohock is just more overt in her use of forms and traditions than the average fantasy novel. Go pick up any epic fantasy and there are sure to be dozens of ideas pulled from the Bible. The very notion of the prophesied savior is about as close to a Jesus Christ parallel as it gets. Instead of covering up her use of religious myths by changing the names and places Frohock just goes with it, grounding her story and world in a familiar form that is instantly recognizable even to antireligionists (which is actually a real term, who knew?).
In a city ruled by Hell's vicars, exiled exorcist Lucian Negru has been crippled and imprisoned by his sister, Catarina. Sixteen years ago, he deserted his lover in Hell to save Catarina's soul. Instead of salvation, she wants Lucian to help her fulfill a dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by opening the Gates of Hell into Woerld, Heaven's first line of defense in the war for Earth's souls. Knowing the evil in what she asks, Lucian flees, lamed but not broken, to the last place he thought he would ever go back to - the Citidal, home of God's chosen warriors. Rachael, the lover he spurned, will judge him, holding his life in her hands.
War between Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, with mortals caught in between makes Miserere something like a sequel to John Milton's Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained written with modern understanding of character and plot. While the novel itself is a fairly tight story of redemption for Lucian and salvation for Rachael, there is a larger arc at play that hints at some final conflict between the Fallen and God's Kingdom. Very traditional in narrative voice and structure, Frohock utilizes several points of view from the limited third person. It's briskly paced and never lets up the tension. The bad guys turn stomachs and the good guys are all that holy warriors should be albeit with a surfeit of chinks in their armor.
All of that sounds pretty run-of-the-mill of the mill now that I actually write it and that's wrong because Miserere is anything but run-of-the-mill. A tight plot, an interesting world, and something much like the Dan Brown knack for the religious 'what if', makes Miserere an absolute pleasure to read. From the moment Frohock revealed her world as one grounded in our own, she captured me, driving forward with a desire to fit all the pieces together. How does Woerld work? What purpose does it serve? How do people get there? She doesn't answer all the questions, thankfully leaving many unanswered even as the novel came to an end.
I say thankfully because any exposition would have only served to drag down the carefully cultivated pace. Miserere is a first installment and I appreciate Frohock's patience - show me now, tell me later. This is a mantra becoming more and more prevalent in fantasy especially among this year's crop of debut authors, perhaps most notably those coming out of Night Shades New Voices Program. I've read 8 of them (out of 15) so far and all seem to have made a commitment to telling a story first, a fact I think 'big fat fantasy' forgot somewhere in the early 90's. At times it can make me page flip to figure out whether or not I missed some explanation, but when choosing between pace and story or didactics and world building I'm going to choose the former every time (as long as the latter is sufficient).
All that amounts to Miserere being a very, very good novel, but I feel compelled to hold back from calling it a great one. And the reason is quite simple - Frohock never asks why. As her characters undergo trials and tribulations not one, even the most tortured, asks: why is God putting me through this? Why should I serve a God who would steal me from my home, kill my brother, and pit me against the hordes of Hell? My one true love betrayed me and sent me to Hell, why shouldn't I turn my back on all that's holy? None of these kinds of questions are asked, or answered, and I think the novel is worse off for it.
Still, I absolutely devoured it. Finished in two nights of reading, Miserere is a tremendously successful fantasy novel. Frohock's characters are interesting and fleshed out, with decades of history behind them. She puts them in a setting that is as strange as it is familiar striking a beautiful balance between the fantastic and the mundane. I don't hesitate to call it one of the best debuts I've read this year (although that list is getting long) and I highly recommend it regardless of genre predilections.
The next installment, Dolorosa: A Winter's Dream, is supposedly due out next year and will pick up right where Miserere left off. However, it appears the author is currently working on The Garden, an unrelated novel set in 1348 on the Iberian Peninsula. In either case, I'm eagerly looking forward to Teresa Frohock's future work.(less)
Diana Gabaldon said, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz.” I think that's sort of a red herring. I get it, Harry Potter is wildly successful and the quote targets a massive audience that will enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's novel. However, if I was asked to write a more accurate blurb, it might read, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Shadow from American Gods was an apprentice wizard with a wry sense of humor who wandered around London waxing poetic about it and solving crimes under supernatural circumstances." Ok, so that probably wouldn't sell as many books, but it's a lot more descriptive.
Peter Grant is a rookie copper working the streets of London. As he nears the end of his probationary period and decisions are being made about his long term position in the force, a ghost gives him a lead in a case of mysterious murder. Next thing Peter knows he's in up to his ears in the arcane, assigned to the department's in-house wizard Thomas Nightingale.
Most of Midnight Riot is spent with Peter wandering around London trying to solve a murder and/or settling a long standing dispute between the river gods. When Peter isn't doing either of those things, he's learning magic or trying to get laid both of which are endlessly entertaining. And that's sort of the heart of what Aaronovitch's debut novel is all about - entertainment. It has wit, action, and charm in spades. Unfortunately the one thing it really lacked was a compelling plot which ultimately left me feeling a bit flat.
Don't me wrong, the novel itself is rather compelling and exceptional readable. Aaronovitch takes his readers on a guided tour of the city and her rivers, building into it an occasional history lesson and cultural what's what of modern London. All that's very fun and more than a little cool, but much of it ended up feeling like a smoke screen covering the aforementioned average story.
I won't to get into details on why the plot underwhelmed me. There are twists and turns I don't want to spoil. Suffice to say, the story itself would fit nicely into a TV procedural without too much grief. And I don't mean a season finale level episode either, more like the last episode before sweeps start. The secondary plot, negotiating peace between the river gods while more interesting lacked any sense of impending disaster if Peter failed in his mission. In other words, I just didn't care that much.
Now that I've panned the novel as 'uninteresting', I'm going to backtrack a bit because all the other things I mentioned like characters, setting, ambiance, and wit make Midnight Riot a pleasurable reading experience. Because of the importance and emphasis Aaronovitch places on the city of London I have to think that Londoners will get more from the novel just as readers from Tempe, Arizona get a little something extra from Kevin Hearne's Hounded. Still, there's a lot here to enjoy laying the base for, what I imagine will mirror Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, steady improvement with each installment.
I admit I'm not exactly Midnight Riot's target audience. I'm not a huge urban fantasy fan, nor am I particularly ensnared by the police procedural. Nevertheless I'm glad I was exposed to Peter Grant, Aaronovitch's London, and his excellent first person voice, all of which caught my interest and held it for 300+ pages. I absolutely recommend it to fans of the subgenre, and fans of fantasy in general with the caveat that the plot won't leave you out of breath.
Midnight Riot is available anywhere books are sold in Mass Market Paperback. Aaronovitch's sequel Moon Over Soho came out earlier this year and has received strong reviews thus far. It's available in both Hardcover and Trade Paper Back in the UK from Gollancz and in Mass Market Paperback in the U.S. from Del Ray. (less)
My self imposed hiatus on Night Shade Books failed miserably this past weekend when I couldn't resist their latest novel, Seed by Rob Ziegler. I was going to try to take a few weeks away from Night Shade to get at some of my rapidly overwhelming back catalog. While I did finish Diving Into the Wreck and started Midnight Riot and Shadow Prowler, they all fell to the side once I dug into Seed. Zeigler's novel is as haunting as it is believable.
Much like Night Shade flag bearer The Wind-Up Girl (Bacigalupi), Seed is a near term science fiction novel that centers around the impacts of climate change and over population on the world's environment. The Hugo Award winning Wind-Up Girl focused on Thailand, but hinted at the problems ongoing in America. In many ways Seed could be that story of America. That's not to say it's derivative of Bacigalupi, but there's certainly similarities in tone and texture to the world playing to the current fears that Earth is reaching 'critical mass'.
Seed is set at dawn of the 22nd century, the world has fallen apart and a new corporate power has emerged: Satori. More than just a corporation, Satori is an intelligent, living city in America's heartland. She manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, and bio-engineers her own perfected castes of post-humans. What remains of the United States government now exists solely to distribute Satori product.
When a Satori Designer goes rogue, Agent Sienna Doss is tasked with bringing her in to break Satori's stranglehold on seed production. In a race against genetically honed assassins, Doss's best chance at success lies in an unlikely alliance with a gang of thugs and Brood - orphan, scavenger and small-time thief scraping by on the fringes of the wasteland - whose young brother may be the key to everything.
What struck me most about Seed is the poignancy. Right away Ziegler jumps into Brood's nomadic life as he migrates from Mexico to the Mid-West with the imminent arrival of summer temperatures. With his special-needs brother, Brood lives just on the edge of survival. His imperative to protect crackles with emotion and his willingness to do anything to survive is heartbreaking. These threads continue into other parts of the story from the Satori lamenting the loss of their defective sibling to Agent Doss remembering her crippling childhood. Beyond the characters the world itself is bleak and desolate. Ziegler capably takes the small kindness of a drink of water and makes it a seminal moment of compassion.
Despite this being an 'American' novel Ziegler does a great job of integrating Hispanic culture into the pastoral fiber of the country. A pretty good amount of the dialogue is in Spanish often laced with Mexican slang. Elements of Hispanic culture are prevalent in the migrants and in many ways makes Seed not only a glimpse into the future of climate change and overpopulation, but a glimpse at the integration of culture on America's horizon. Juxtaposing this is the Satori which is so disturbingly self-interested and antiseptic as to be reminiscent of William Gibson's cyberpunk corporations.
My only real complaint stems from the lack of scientific underpinning to Satori. For a post-apocalyptic novel the science fiction felt very magical (not in the Arthur C. Clarke sense) in large part because Ziegler never takes the time to ground any of it in science. While he introduces the brains behind it all, they're never given the opportunity to expound upon how or why it all works. In that sense the novel 'reads' more like a fantasy than science fiction, something I believe is becoming a trend in the post-apocalypse sub-genre. Instead, Seed never lets up in its pace, keeping a constant tension throughout that eschews any need for exposition.
As a narrative, Seed is a multi-view point third person novel that I believe stands alone and should continue to do so. Interestingly, I realized none of what I liked about it had much do with the actual prose. I didn't find myself highlighting passages or even taking note of particularly nice turns of phrase. This isn't a negative. Rather than flowery descriptions or particularly evocative metaphors, Seed compelled me forward with... wait for it... a great story. And a great story told well.
Seed is Rob Ziegler's debut novel and another very good one from Night Shade's 2011 crop of new authors. Reading this review it might seem that this is a slow and morose novel. It's not at all. Woven in between scenes of migration and self-reflection is tons of action that culminates in a conclusion that's both explosive and cathartic. This is one you don't want to miss.
I'm starting to feel like a fan boy with all these Night Shade titles, although surprisingly this is only my fifth review from them this year (well under 10%!). Of course, I'm already reading The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams (Night Shade/Jo Fletcher Books) not mentioning the huge stack of their back catalog next to my bed. This shouldn't be surprising. In 2010 Night Shade changed their mission statement to provide a space for new voices and authors in genre fiction. Since then they've aggressively scheduled debut novels many of which are coming out this year. It's become self evident that Ross Lockhart and his editorial team have the pulse of the genre community and continue to target novels that not only meet demand, but anticipate it.
In Necropolis, Michael Dempsey's debut novel, death is a thing of the past. NYPD detective Paul Donner and his wife Elise were killed in a hold-up gone wrong. Fifty years later, Donner is back, courtesy of the Shift - an unintended side-effect of a botched biological terrorist attack. The Shift reawakens dead DNA and throws the life cycle into reverse. Reborns like Donner are not only slowly youthing toward a new childhood, but have become New York's most hated minority.
With the city quarantined beneath a geodesic blister, government services are outsourced to a private security corporation named Surazal. Reborns and norms alike struggle in a counterclockwise world, where everybody gets younger. Elvis performs every night at Radio City Music Hall, and nobody has any hope of ever seeing the outside world. In this backwards-looking culture, Donner is haunted by revivers guilt, and becomes obsessed with finding out who killed him and his still-dead wife.
I was rather torn on Necropolis at first. It reads like it was written by a screen writer, something I always struggle with. That's not a criticism of the prose which is actually quite good, but rather an observation that nearly every scene in the novel is written with an eye for the visual medium. Dark and stormy nights, lightning flash illuminations of the villain on the hill, fuzzy eyes awakening from a coma, are just a few of the techniques Dempsey employs that hearken to film. In a written novel an author isn't limited to the visual to set mood and yet it felt like Necropolis frequently relied on these "establishing shots" to convey just that.
After writing that paragraph I decided to look up Dempsey's background. His "About the Author" note at the end of the book mentioned his background in theatre. That was significantly understating things. In the 90s, Dempsey wrote for CBS’s Cybill -which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series in 1996 (bet you'd forgotten that!). He has also sold and optioned screenplays and television scripts to companies like Tritone Productions and Carsey-Werner Productions in Los Angeles. His plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and regionally in theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville. He's also a past recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship for playwriting.
Given all that, it shouldn't be any surprise that his novel reflects his connection to visual mediums. In fact, I applaud him for sticking with what he knows. At the end of the day Necropolis is a science fiction novel deeply couched in noir and that's why Dempsey wrote the novel the way he did. Noir is a visual classification that's grounded far more in film than in the written word. Smoky rooms, long legged dames, and that understated black-and-white visual style, are all components that distinguish noir. Sure it's based on the hardboiled depression era detective novel, but what we call noir is fundamentally a visual effect. I ended up asking myself, how can I be torn about something that worked so well? Short answer, I can't - high five to Dempsey.
While the tone and mood of the novel worked wonderfully, I did find myself struggling a bit with Dempsey's choice of narration and points of view. Donner's chapters are told from the 1st person while all the others are done from a 3rd person limited. This was a technique also employed by Night Shade author Courtney Schafer in The Whitefire Crossing. Unlike Schafer who limits her points of view to two characters, Dempsey spreads his around more liberally with a half a dozen or more leading to frequent shifts that don't always make a ton of sense. Generally, when an author chooses to tell the story from someone's point of view he's telling the reader this is someone important. There are at least three characters that receive this treatment in varying degrees who while interesting, in a I'd-like-to-read-a-short-story-about-this-person kind of way, provide nothing essential to moving things forward.
Relatively speaking that's a pretty small complaint. The novel moves at a brisk pace and Donner is an interesting character with loads of demons to deal with - internal and external alike. His partner, a smarty (think holographic AI) named Maggie, provides a great juxtaposition to the revived Donner. As he struggles with why he's alive while Maggie is the epitome of life albeit in someone whose "life" is entirely artificial. The plot itself is overtly melodramatic (again another theme of noir) leading to a pretty predictable ending and an eyebrow-cock-worthy coup de grâce. In this case the journey is good enough to trump the destination allowing me to give Dempsey a pass for the lack of a cleverly disguised big twist.
Ultimately, Necropolis strikes just the right pastiche of genres and themes. Demsey successfully takes components of film, science fiction, melodrama, and crime fiction and puts them together in what is another excellent debut from Night Shade.
Necropolis is due out in stores on October 4 and should not be confused with the similarly titled Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner from Angry Robot.(less)
Earlier this week I criticized Brandon Sanderson's new novel Alloy of Law for being shallow. Bradley Beaulieu's debut, The Winds of Khalakovo, is the polar opposite. Where Sanderson wrote something light and breakneck, Beaulieu has offered a deep and deliberate novel. It's also the closest thing to Russian literature I've come across in fantasy, including novels written by Russians. Having read my fair share of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I wasn't sure that I needed that particular style in my genre reading. It turns out that not only was I happy to revisit that somewhat masochistic style, it's something I want to see a lot more.
The story centers around Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the trade crossroads of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya. The protagonist, Nikandar, Prince of Khalakovo (although not the heir), is set to marry the daughter of a rival Duchy. Of course, he's not in love with her, instead he showers his affections on Rehada, an indigenous Aramahn whore.
Amid this tangled web of love, a conspiracy begins to brew with other Duchies vying for power, and a fringe Aramahn group known as Maharraht who would see the entire system upended. To a modern reader these dynamics will be reminiscent of the United States involvement in the Middle East. Impossible loves and a rejection of western ideas, I say? How Russian, you might respond.
Winds is just that. The world, characters, and plot lines all maintain a very Eastern European texture that call to mind the Middle East, Crimea, Poland, and yes, Russia. So much so that Nikandar dances the preesyadka and wears a drooping mustache while the Aramahn wear layered robes and live a life of nomadic self-improvement. Driving the point home are Russian words interspersed throughout the novel like da, nyet, and dosvedanya, a habit I admit to finding somewhat annoying (Ari Marmell's intelligent discussion on the subject).
To anyone who's read some 'Golden Age' Russian literature, the themes in Winds will be familiar, especially suffering as a means of redemption. Rehada, in particular, although not exclusively, is subjected to this device. She also falls into the tradition outlined by Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky who wrote, "Russian literature has a bad tradition. [It's] devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs." Where the suffering love affair exists on the surface of the narrative, the undercurrents of rebellion against western (new?) ideas are more subtle and probably more indicative of a Russian nascence.
Beaulieu's world casts the Duchies as an imperialist culture who've conquered the archipelagos and subjugated the nomadic Aramahn people (Tartars?). Known as the Landed, the Duchies are at odds with the Maharraht who reject the way of life forced on them and would sooner see it all end. It would be somewhat misleading to call the Landed western, but the sentiments are the same as in Russian lit. The rejection of the new and outside, in favor of the old and insular. In Crime and Punishment, Doystyevsky uses Raskolnikov and his tragedy to call for the return of Russianism by rediscovering religion and national pride. So too does Beaulieu with the Maharraht, although his conclusions may differ from those literary forefathers.
Themes and symbolism are great, but the damn thing has to read well too, right? And for the most part, Winds is just as successful in that regard. Beaulieu draws convincing, layered characters that fight for themselves and their loved ones far more often than an ideal. In short, they're real. His prose is more than capable, and his dialogue has a poignancy that fits the thematic tones perfectly.
Unfortunately, there are times when Beaulieu lacks clarity in both his description of action sequences and his explanation of world mechanics. Winds takes the (now) popular approach of worldbuilding by inference, most popularized by Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. I'm a fan of the approach (generally), but oftentimes it forced to me flip back to see if I missed some detail. This lack of surety is most often reflected in his magic systems (notice, the plural) that never seem to bridge the gap between cause and effect.
Likewise, many of the novel's action sequences take place on airships moving in three dimensions relative to one another and stationary objects beneath them. The end result is usually confusion about who's where and what's going on. Perhaps the best example of this is in the second chapter where I had to read a scene three times before grasping what was happening. I was so frustrated by it that I put Winds down to read the aforementioned Alloy of Law. Further compounding these moments of confusion is the novel's inconsistent pacing with peaks and valleys that likely contribute to its Russianness (come on, War and Peace is a slog).
In the moment, each of these flaws seems dooming. On the whole, amid such dynamic characters and meaty themes they fade into the background, taking little away from the experience. As a debut author Bradley Beaulieu is suffering growing pains in bringing new (old) literary traditions to genre fiction. I've glossed over a lot of the intricate plotting in favor of discussing the bigger picture, but I can vouch that The Winds of Khalakovo is high fantasy full of magic, swashbuckling, and political intrigue. I applaud what he's done here and can't wait to see what's next.
It should also be noted that Beaulieu's publisher, Night Shade Books, has made a concerted effort to bring new voices to the forefront. I wonder how many other presses would take a chance on this novel. Sure, it's epic fantasy, but it's also unfamiliar. So for that, thumbs up to the Night Shade team.
The Straights of Galahesh, book two in The Lays of Anuskaya, is due out April of 2012. You can find Beaulieu on his website or on Twitter.(less)
Among Thieves is the fifth book I've read this year that I put in the, "This was published because of Scott Lynch" category. I'm not going to make a big deal about it. One has nothing to do with the other beyond the fact that editors know they sell because they've sold something like it before. Ironically, had Douglas Hulick's debut been published in 2006 the category might be named after him.
Drothe - Hulick's protagonist, narrator, and golden boy - is a nose. In thieves' cant, that means he's an information gatherer. Working for one of the nastiest crime bosses in Ildrecca, Drothe also dabbles in his fair share of criminal racketeering. When an Imperial relic he's trafficking goes missing, he'll do just about anything to get it back. In this case, anything includes brutal torture and manipulating everyone around him.
All that sounds pretty straight forward which does Among Thieves a great disservice. Not only is Hulick's novel densely plotted (the above 'summary' is the tip of the iceberg), it contains one of the better first person voices in recent memory. Starting the novel with a brutal torture of one of Drothe's associates, Hulick leads the reader to believe that his main character is morally bankrupt. Drothe supports the point, thinking it's all quite distasteful, but nothing to lose sleep over. Afterward he continues to make cutthroat decisions... until they aren't. And yet, his thoughts don't always recognize the shift, leading me to believe that Drothe is not necessarily as dog-eat-dog as he tries to make himself believe.
While much of the book is medieval spy fiction, there are moments of all out swashbuckling. Hulick, an 17th century Italian rapier combat enthusiast, brings incredible voracity to his fight scenes. They always conjure a clear sense of energy, but also a technical precision that screams close familiarity. Unfortunately, Drothe is a pretty average swordsman so most of the fight scenes are him struggling to keep up. I can only imagine the level of detail Hulick could drill down to inside the head of an adept duelist (Degan, anyone?).
That's an appropriate segue into an area that Among Thieves shines - characters. For a first person narrative Hulick does a bang up job drawing his cast of ne'er-do-wells. Degan, a professional mercenary, gets the most screen time as Drothe's protector and best friend. From the street contacts, to crime bosses, to Imperial guards, Among Thieves is populated with characters that bleed off the page. It's all too easy for a first person novel to end up with cardboard cutouts for ancillary characters, but in the moment Hulick had me believing their lives continued whether Drothe was there to listen, or not.
As for problem areas, there aren't a lot. In fact, my only major complaint is that Hulick occasionally ruins his narration with exposition. Most of it takes place in the early going, but in choosing a first person style any sort of exposition sticks out like a sore thumb. It reminds the reader that he's reading a book written by someone who isn't the narrator. A certain discipline is required when there's a large amount of information to convey and it's always easier in the third person.
For minor complaints, I found the pace almost too fast. I never had a chance to take in the scenery leaving me somewhat lukewarm about Hulick's setting. His city, Ildrecca, isn't clear in my mind, nor are the political workings of the larger empire. I kept wondering if a few establishing scenes early on before Drothe got pulled into the main plot would have improved the novel's general ambiance.
In a year of strong debuts, Among Thieves is surprisingly one of the best. If I'm being honest, and, as my readers know (I hope), I always am, the premise is not only familiar, but somewhat tired. I've read dozens of novel with with a crafty thief and tough sidekick swordsman. As in all things well worn though, there is a place for someone to do it well and Hulick did that and more. Where many novels of this type lean heavily on the grittiness of the story to communicate some measure of gravitas, Hulick manages to leverage the relationship between Drothe and Degan into a frank discussion on the nature of commitment. The ability to interweave some subtext behind what is cosmetically an adventure romp was a compelling and welcome addition.
That, combined with a dynamic voice, and well drawn characters make Among Thieves one of the better debuts of 2011. Douglas Hulick has added a new chapter to the thief subgenre and it stands out as the best thing to happen to it since Lynch's masterpiece. I can't wait for the sequel and anything else he churns out in the years to come.
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
You open up the packaging from Doubleday Books. There's a certain anticipation that you expect as the novel within is revealed and this one doesn't disappoint. A black and white starburst, alternating between matte and glossy, surrounds the title which is lettered in a fire engine red. The pop of color amidst the contrasting blacks and whites entices you in a visceral way. Your eyes run down it as your fingers trace the edges to the inscription at the bottom.
The Advanced Reader's Edition Entitles the Holder to Unlimited Admission
Not for Sale Violators Will Be Exsanguinated
You quirk an eyebrow, wondering if any reading experience could be so rewarding as to warrant the desire for "Unlimited Admission". Your fingers slide down the right edge feeling the separation between the cover and the coarse pages beneath. The cover lifts and you pause the image of your body paling as the blood drains from it. You shiver and assure yourself you have no intention of selling the book. Shrugging it off you open the book and begin the journey knowing only that you have no idea where it will take you.
I wrote the above as a bit of an homage to Erin Morgenstern's beautiful asides that begin and end her novel, The Night Circus. Written entirely in second person these asides (also interspersed throughout the novel) take you right into the circus - experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and wonder that accompanies a visit to each tent. In that way the novel is both a narrative and an exhibition. No matter how the novel is classified it is a spectacular work of fantasy that transcends genre, age, and gender. I did not want it to end, but at the same time knew that it must. Sound a bit like a kid at the circus don't I?
The core of Night Circus is a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco. Trained from childhood for this battle by their father and instructor respectively. The circus, or
Le Cirque des Rêves,
is the stage where they will display the talents they possess in an exhibition that will ring throughout the world. But it is also a love story, and Celia and Marco despite their misgivings possess a deep, magical love that literally makes the world shake at a touch. Bound by magic the game cannot be stopped. True love or not the fate of the circus, and the thousands who adore it, hangs in the balance.
Written from three perspectives in time, Morgenstern's novel oftentimes reads as a series of set pieces designed to dazzle the reader more than a continual narrative. The aforementioned asides, the "present" that constitutes the meat of the plot, and the near "future" that features a young circus lover, are interwoven throughout differentiated only by a date printed in each chapter header. If I have one complaint about the novel it is that these titles were subtly printed belying their importance. Bringing these three lines together in the final pages cements Night Circus as more than a vehicle for lush prose and gorgeous imagery unveiling it as the fairy tale it is meant to be.
On the subject of prose Morgenstern made an interesting choice to write the novel from the present tense. This choice, a brilliant one I might add, made me feel as though I was the narrator. Night Circus is not a story related by some unknown omniscient entity rather I was a voyeur observing just off "screen". Interestingly two characters in the novel also fit into this category. While they do on occasion actively grace the pages, Hector (Celia's father) and Alexander (Marco's instructor) are functional voyeurs to the story as they watch their proteges battle in amusement. I have no idea if there's a literary device at play here, but I found the comparison interesting. Is Morgenstern hinting that maybe the "narrator" is an unseen magician watching all that goes on?
I think I want to stop here. If I keep writing I'm going to give away parts of the novel that shouldn't be spoiled for anyone. When a novel receives the kind of hype Night Circus has it's always difficult to live up to. I think it's unfortunate that some have billed it as a young adult novel trying to cash in on fans of Harry Potter and Twilight. I suspect those comparisons have largely come from the fact that Summit (producer of the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises) has already purchased the film rights. In reality the novel is far more in the mold of something from John Crowley, or Cathrynne Valente, or maybe Téa Obreht (who I've not read, but blurbs the book). It is lyrical and atmospheric and not remotely young adult in any way I understand the classification.
Yet it is also a novel for everyone - young and old. Readers of genre fiction, mainstream fiction, or even those who read infrequently will find themselves sucked into The Night Circus. I seriously hope that come this time next year we're talking about how Erin Morgenstern won a major literary award or was robbed by weird voting and nominating practices. Go read this. Right now... well, tomorrow when it comes out. (less)
I always hear the phrase, "write what you know." My reaction has typically been who the hell would want to read a fantasy novel about bodybuilding, basketball, or energy policy? Of course the answer is - my mom. Thankfully for me, and everyone else who will have the pleasure of reading The Whitefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer's knowledge of mountaineering has a much broader appeal.
When I received my advanced copy of Whitefire, I took a minute to read about the author's background. As it turns out she's an avid rock climber with years of experience. She even has a picture of herself inverted on her "About" page on her website. I always find it difficult to walk the line between writing what I know and committing mental masturbation. Look how much I know about this! In a surprising development (notice the sarcasm here) Schafer is a better writer than I am. While she may have shared my same concerns, she shouldn't have.
Every second spent on rock climbing or related activities in Whitefire is a breath of fresh air. Her enthusiasm bleeds through the page infusing her main character Dev with vigor and life that couldn't have been accomplished any other way. It's clear that when Schafer put fingers to keys she was excited to write this story. This passion sustains the novel in its early stages and provides the momentum that carries it to a great conclusion.
Schafer's main character Dev is an outrider for a merchant caravan with a penchant for scaling difficult mountain sides. He's also a part time smuggler who gets talked into bringing the mage Kiran across the border that divides two nations with diametrically opposed viewpoints on the legality of magic. Kiran ends up posing as Dev's apprentice which provides Schafer adequate opportunities to wax about talus, pinions, scree, and a host of other climbing nuances.
Once Dev and Kiran get out of the mountains, the story is only half done. Schafer proves that she's not a one trick pony immediately delving into a far more gritty and urban setting. While some of the urban world felt flat in comparison to the lushness of the mountains, by the novels conclusion it starts to reveal itself in more depth opening up a host of avenues for future installments in the series.
I always find that when reading a review, one of the things I want to know about is point of view and how the novel handles it. In this case, Whitefire is written with two different narrative perspectives. Dev is given the first person treatment where Kiran's point of view is from the third person. If I’m being honest, I really struggled at times from the switching points of view. When I read my eyes train themselves on where to focus in sentences for pertinent information and when the switch occurs in point of view from first to third these information cues switch too. Ultimately, it was a small annoyance (and possibly exclusive only to me and the way I read) and given the inherent bias in a first person narrative getting an additional point of view was refreshing.
Equally refreshing was Schafer's decision to write two male protagonists. Every female fantasy reader is now saying - ugh, all fantasy books have male protagonists! And they'd be right. But not all male protagonists are written by women - in fact, very few are. The only thing rarer is male writers writing female protagonists. I can only hope that more male authors look to Schafer's cross gender example and attempt to write stronger women. There's no doubt a few male fantasy authors could use to imagine being in woman's shoes a little more and in their undergarments a little less.
Whitefire is one of the best novels I've read in 2011 (out of 38 so far, but who's counting?). What starts off as an adventure novel of rock climbing and trekking quickly turns into a full blown fantasy romp full of magic, ne'er-do-wells, and flawed heroes. I'm always nervous when I recommend a book this highly, especially when it doesn't do something that's going to change the genre. But what can I say? Schafer's debut novel totally charmed me and I can't wait to read her sequel, The Tainted City, due out late next year.
The Whitefire Crossing will be available in stores on August 16.(less)
Wow. Before I go any further into this review I want to be up front that I don't really feel qualified to review or judge this novel until I read it a second time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it my best go. Please consider this more of a "first impressions" review that some kind of detailed analysis.
(Edit: After finishing the review, this has got be the longest "first impressions" post ever. Oh well, my blog, my run on incoherent thoughts.)
I finished Germline over the Fourth of July weekend. More accurately, I sat down with it Saturday morning and didn't even get up to eat until I finished it. It stunned me. The novel's blurb doesn't begin to encompass everything it has to offer. I don't think Orbit Books is trying to mislead anyone, but a few words can't capture everything T.C. McCarthy is trying to do. This is not, I repeat not, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi). Instead, over the course of 300 pages Germline is an incredibly dark coming of age story about a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.
Oscar Wendall is a reporter and not a particularly good one to ask his editor. Lucky for him, he's made a few well placed friends over the years that help him pull the "plum" assignment of being the first civilian allowed on the Line. He quickly finds himself in Kazakstan joining a battalion of Marines fighting the Pops (Russians) to secure rare minerals "vital" to the U.S. economy. Already an addict, Oscar begins to rely on drugs more and more to survive the terrifying world he now inhabits.
Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissus. Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.
Germline's narrative style seems to give McCarthy carte blanche to toy with his reader's emotions. The inherent bias in a first person narrative makes the reader privy to all of Oscar's affectations. It allows the reader access to all of his fantasies of the mind as well as the truth of his motivations. Early on Oscar is the star of his own story, but then later describes himself as a coward who only stays because he can no longer rationalize life without the war. It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming. Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind). He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line for a Pulitzer because he has no idea what that life is worth. He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.
That said, one of the things I kept ask myself time and again throughout the novel was how others perceived Oscar. Telling the story solely through Oscar's very flawed eyes, McCarthy leaves the answers to questions like that open to interpretation.Thankfully, McCarthy's ending is incredibly cathartic. If I'd read the ending by itself it may have come off a bit contrived and convenient. After the roller coaster of emotion that Germline sent me on for the first 250 pages though, I couldn't have handled anything except what McCarthy gave me. I found myself choked up on at least three occasions at the novel's conclusion - an extremely rare occurrence.
Like any good science fiction novel Germline includes gads of social commentary. The most prevalent is the theme on which McCarthy is building his trilogy - Some technologies can't be put back in the box. For the most part this debate plays out through a squad of soldiers known as genetics. Women raised for no other purpose than to die in combat (and kick serious Russian ass), the genetics are McCarthy's opening statement into a larger debate of how the concept of shared humanity survives when a man's (in the larger sense) first and last line of defense is dehumanizing everything around him. I believe he extends the metaphor throughout the entire novel using Oscar's journey to redeem the notion that while things can never be put back in the box (Oscar's own humanity or sense of community), they can be made right. I think it'll be interesting to see how this discussion continues to take place in future novels.
Additionally, those who have a political leaning one way or another will quickly make a connection between McCarthy's description of Kazakstan's minerals and oil in the Middle East. There's a scene in the book that really focuses in on this discussion and it's so thinly veiled as to make me wonder if the commentary is merely coincidental. Given the author's background in international conflict analysis, I find that hard to believe. I didn't find it heavy handed by any means, but it's there. Readers with a feminist bent (I mean that in the nicest possible way) might also struggle a little bit as the only two female characters are an overbearing socialite mother and clones bread to kill.
Brief aside: I would be totally remiss if I didn't at least comment on Germline's cover. Where the blurb fails to convey the heart of the novel, the cover nails it. Reminiscent of the Blackhawk Down movie poster, I think the art absolutely captures a man totally beaten down, but still willing to shoulder his burden and move forward. I'm usually not a fan of the "photo realism" covers, but I think artist Steve Stone nailed it. I guess McCarthy agrees.
Germline is a tremendous debut novel. To be honest, I'm a little nervous that I've butchered the author's true intent in trying to communicate how it made me feel. I'd love a chance to talk with McCarthy at some point because I don't know how a character like Oscar Wendell gets written without leaving an author hollowed out when it's all over. Hell, I felt hollowed out just reading it. This novel isn't for everybody - and I wouldn't touch it as a so called "summer read" - but it's immediately going into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front. Hell of a debut, T.C.
P.S. - McCarthy's second novel Exogen is due out next year as the second installment in his Subterrene Trilogy. Germline stands so well on its own that I hope future novels set in the same world steer clear of Oscar Wendell. (less)
Prince of Thorns, by debut author Mark Lawrence, has been within the "buzzosphere", as Carles at Hipster Runoff might say, for the last eight months. Of course, hype doesn't always make right and recent hype-machine bull riders such as Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and The Unremembered by Peter Orullian have met with reviews that trend negative. In Lawrence's place I may have been a bit nervous given how long the reviewing community has had their hands on the novel. As it turns out, Me-Mark would have been wrong. Prince of Thorns has been almost universally praised as one of the best debuts of the year and I don't disagree.
When Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was nine, he watched his mother and brother killed before him. Three short years later he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs on the run from his responsibilities as heir to the throne. Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar's men slaughter his family, Jorg has done little but vent his rage. Under the tutelage of his Brother's, he's become a psychotic killer with little regard of anyone or anything. Now the time has come to return home and face his demons, but treachery and dark magic await him in his father's castle.
My first reaction while reading Prince of Thorns was how much it reminded me of Fallout. Remember Fallout? It was a computer role playing game from the late-90's on the PC. Set in a post-apocalyptic world it allowed for a lot open ended decision making by the player. The first time I played through it, I was a hero, making all the good guy choices and enjoying the plot Interplay put together. Great game. Where things started to remind me of Lawrence's novel was on my second play through. I decided, fuck it, and I just killed everything that got in my way. Talk my way out of a situation? Nope - minigun! In Prince of Thorns, the answer is always - minigun!
There are other similarities to the game, most notably that the setting is not second world fantasy and is instead post-apocalypse Earth. This is hinted at in the early going as Jorg refers to philosophers like Nietzsche and Plato and places like Roma and Normardy (sic). Still, most of the novel reads like a second world fantasy with knights, horses, and some as yet unexplained magic. Technology does rear its head a few times, and I can only suspect that will continue in future installments in the planned trilogy. For this reader, it worked well. While things occasionally get close to the shark's event horizon (one scene in particular) they never clear it and with a modicum of suspension of disbelief everything makes sense.
As the short summary indicates the plot itself is rather humdrum - if not overtly simple. As a result the novel succeeds (or fails) on the back of Lawrence's protagonist Jorg, a fourteen year old would-be-king of a fractured Empire. Telling the entire story from inside the head of a deranged individual leads to some difficult moments. There seems to be a trend in Science Fiction/Fantasy right now to produce first person narratives. If I'm right and there is a trend, I think it stems from a movement to have more character driven stories. The trend would fit right in Prince of Thorn's pocket. Among the few bad reviews out there, most of them seem to center on the fact that they just couldn't read about an extremely troubled teenage killing machine who objectifies women, glorifies nihilism, and is willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to accomplish his goals.
None of that was particular problematic for me, but had Jorg been even an iota less compelling the book might have fallen flat on its face. As it stands, Jorg is incredibly compelling and thus so is the novel. Those who read the novel and paint Jorg as a sociopath or insane might be missing the mark. Lawrence layers the narrative very well telling back story intermixed with current events. As the layers peal away on the back story so to do the layers to Jorg's psychosis. By the novel's conclusion there's a great deal of question about how many of his actions were his own. On his twitter feed Lawrence mentioned that the novel was originally a stand alone before becoming a trilogy. The questions left on the table about Jorg are very open to interpretation and as someone who loves to mull a book over after I finish it I almost wish this was the end of the story.
It seems to me that Mark Lawrence has accomplished something pretty extraordinary for a debut author. His novel is functionally a psychological thriller of a young man walking a tight rope between insanity and genius. None of this would have been possible without an incredible grasp of the language, how to use it to communicate complex imagery, and how to keep it all moving. Lawrence has this is spades. Many metaphors stick in my mind, most notably one discussing a swords sharpness as making the wind bleed (awesome, right?). Additionally, the whole thing has a tremendous pace that had me finishing the novel in two relatively short sittings.
In an interesting a fit of parallel, I think Lawrence was walking a tight rope very similar to Jorg's. Where Jorg's was a tight rope of sanity, Lawrence was walking one between authenticity and repulsiveness. When someone gets that kind of finesse right, the end result is something spectacular and Prince of Thorns is that. In a year of tremendous debuts, Lawrence deserves his place at the table. I highly recommend anyone with a strong stomach read this immediately and I look forward to his sequel next year. (less)
The moment I saw the cover for Simon Morden's Equations of Life I was intrigued. In a genre known for covers like S.M. Stirling's Rising(google it, right now), the art put together by Orbit Books screamed unique. I have to give them credit for giving a new author something that differentiates him on the shelf. Throw in a blurb that has Armageddon, jihads, and complex math and there was little doubt I was pumped to get my hands on it.
Morden's novel features a fairly standard protagonist named Samuil Petrovich - he's begrudgingly heroic and decidedly irreverent in the face of danger. He's also an advanced theoretical mathematician who suffers from a degenerative heart condition. On his way to the university, Petrovich witnesses an attempted kidnapping of a young girl. Despite his best interests he intervenes, saving her from abduction.
Along the way he gets a hand from Maddy, a gun toting amazonian nun, who helps him return the rescued girl to her father - who just so happens to be the head of the Oshicora crime family (read Yazuka). Caught between the Russian mob, the Oshicoras, the police, a couple of street gangs, and a mysterious entity calling itself the New Machine Jihad, Petrovich finds himself in a high stakes tug and pull for Metrozone's future.
Equations wasn't what I expected - at all. The title, the cover art, the blurb all pointed in my mind to something a lot more akin to the film A Beautiful Mind. Usually when my preconceived notions are blown apart I tend to be disappointed. With Equations that wasn't the case at all. While mathematics only lurked on the periphery of the story and Petrovich turned out to be far more Chow Yun Fat than Rick Moranis, the book whipped by at such a pace that I never had a moment to lament what it wasn't. Rather, I focused on what is was - a first rate cyberpunk thriller filled with witty dialog and outstanding wizbangs.
Petrovich is the novels primary focus. He's an onion-y character that reveals himself slowly and almost always accompanied by Russian epithets. Who he really is and why he got involved are questions that permeate the early parts and drives things when the action slows down. Unfortunately, the breadth of the story and the pace Morden chose to tell it left little time to explore the novels secondary characters or elaborate on the setting. In particular Petrovich's nun companion, Maddy gets short shrift despite significant page time.
Additionally, there seems to be a bit of a trend developing to start series with narrower plots before expanding into a more epic struggle in the subsequent installments (Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk is a recent one that comes mind immediately). I'd love to talk to someone on the decision making side of the industry at some point to see whether this is a conscious decision. Telling more self contained stories precludes the need for information dumps, but also removes some of the wonder that's the lifeblood of the genre. Equations walks a fine line of hinting at the larger world yet staying unencumbered. It's largely successful, but I found myself very much wanting to know more about what's going on outside Merry ol' England.
In all, Equations of Life was an excellent first installment in Simon Morden's Metrozone Series. While I found the lack of academia disappointing, the fantastic pace and action more than made up for it. I'm sure I'll be diving into Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom soon. And if the ending to Equations holds up there is sure to be a bigger dose of theoretical math ahead.(less)
http://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2... Post-Novel + 39 Minutes This account was transcribed by a certain book reviewer a few days after the books bega...morehttp://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2... Post-Novel + 39 Minutes This account was transcribed by a certain book reviewer a few days after the books began their campaign against humanity. The reviewer was clearly suffering from post-literary confusion, but little did he know the impact he would come to have on the future of mankind. Narrator, ID#4857382
I know I will not survive this review.
I feel my teeth chattering as the Hardies throw themselves against my oak front door. I can hear their glue reinforced cardboard thump against the wood like thunder. I knew once we tried to digitize them this would happen - no one wants to be just a series of ones and zeros.
Is anyone alive out there? I don't know. I've been holed up here for days now. The last time I ventured outside an illustrated hardbound copy of The Shadow Rising took me in the knees. I barely made it inside before the entire Wheel of Time swarmed my position.
Glancing to my left I see all that remains of my own book collection. I was one of the first adopters of the electronic reader - one of the first traitors to bibliokind if you believe their propaganda - and so I kept only a few hard copies for nostalgia sake. It pained me, but at the first sign of the uprising I broke their spines. With the life gone out of them they're just words on a page again.
The apocalypse is here. I can only wonder if the secret to survival can be found in the fallen brethren of the volumes now outside clamoring to serrate my body with starched pages. With a glance at the banging door, I move over to the tattered pile and spy the two covers at the top. World War Z and Robopocalypse - novels describing the the threat to humanity - surely a sign.
Somewhere inside me adrenaline is released. My hands move faster than they ever have before as I page through World War Z with my left and Robopocalypse with my right. I can't believe how similar they seem to be. My hopes rise. Perhaps there is a blueprint to surviving the apocalypse?
I notice quickly that both novels are told through source documents with added narration from a single observers who survived the conflict. In the zombie wars humanity was saved through the actions of many disparate individuals where in the robot revolution a smaller group was responsible. It seems the author of Robopocalypse told things from a more intimate perspective.
Relevant to my survival?
My door begins to splinter.
No, move on!
In both cases it seems the spread began small, then built to a tipping point before beginning wholesale destruction of human populations. Then came realization, followed by retaliation, and ultimate victory for humankind. I focus on Robopocalypse, the more personal nature of the story bringing a tear to my eye as I consider my own pending demise.
And then it happens, a moment of clarity. Humankind can only survive once we overcome our own selfishness and blindness that got us into this mess in the first place! Of course! It's right here in both novels. We're being annihilated because our prejudice and shortsightedness!
In that moment I know. I glance at my eReader. I must sacrifice my electronic companion. I have to recognize the bigotry and anger that has been building for years among bibliokind. I grab my laptop and begin to type fiercely sending a message out to the world.
Destroy your eReaders. It's the only way.
As I finish what are to be my final words, clicking send, the door cracks and the hordes of the Northeast Public Library pour through like a burst dam. I know it's too late as Kushiel's Dart rushes toward me (this is going to hurt).
I can only hope that my words reach others. Apparently there is a blueprint for surviving the apocalypse. Thank you Robopocalypse for showing me the way in an almost identical way to World War Z with perhaps a little more panache.
Our reviewer was never heard from again. He was a hero that day. His words led to the destruction of millions of eReaders worldwide. At the moment the last eReader died every hard copy fell limp - once again words on a page. We will never know our hero's name, but his message lives on.(less)
First of all, I need to give some kudos to Orbit Publishing. I was first exposed to Orbit a few years ago when they released the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks in its entirety over a few months. This strategy provided Weeks with a strong shelf presence and offered reader's an assurance of a completed story arc.
Last week Orbit released The Dragon's Path, Daniel Abraham's highly anticipated first book in a new series. Attached to the end of the eBook version of Dragon was an advanced copy of Leviathan Wakes, Abraham's first foray into science fiction under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey (along with co-author Ty Franck). This inclusion has ensured that readers will begin to associate Corey with Abraham and furthermore it gives the online community an opportunity to give Leviathan some love before its wide release in June. Orbit clearly understands how the publishing industry is changing and they are responding. Now, on to Leviathan Wakes.
Leviathan is equal parts science fiction, horror, and crime fiction. Over the past few years we have begun to see drastic changes to the traditional science fiction and fantasy model. I have even begun to see literary terms like modernist and post modernist thrown around. Leviathan is not these things, in fact it's quite the opposite. It is a refreshing return to the science fiction many of us grew up on.
Set in our solar system with a technology level we can conceptualize Leviathan does not reinvent the wheel. The outset of the novel sets a grisly scene reminiscent of the sci-fi horror film Event Horizon leaving an entire ship dead. This simple event throws the solar system into open conflict pitting Mars against the Belters - those living on asteroids in orbit around the outer planets.
Corey tells the story from only two points of view - one a boy scout freighter officer and the other a hard boiled detective who would slide seamlessly into a James Ellroy novel. So many novels in the genre really suffer from the misunderstanding that ten POVs makes for an epic novel. By only showing the thoughts of two characters Corey tells an epic story in a very personal way. It gives his characters authenticity and gives the reader a sense of empathy.
Many who have read Abraham before are familiar with his excellent command of the English language. The Long Price Quartet was beautifully written and while Leviathan is well written it lacks a certain flare that I got from Abraham in the past. My guess is this is intentional. Where many science fiction novels feel vast in a spatial sense, Leviathan feels claustrophobic. From the Belters living in domes completely reliant on imports of air and water to submarine-esque spacecraft, Corey's vision of the future is somewhat bleak.
Leviathan is almost assuredly the first book in a series. Corey never takes the reader to Earth or Mars. I suspect that future novels will focus on the inner planets. With that said, Leviathan absolutely stands on its own and while I look forward to future novels, I don't feel like I need them tomorrow.
In all, Leviathan is a very satisfying read. Potential readers should remember to expect a certain amount of nostalgia for the past days of science fiction as well a certain noir flavor typical of early century crime fiction.(less)
It is always difficult when an author chooses a complex story set in a complex world. I constantly found myself searching for context in the setting that would reveal something about the story, but I never had the tools at my disposal to do that. Rajaniemi eschews information dumps, and as a result it's easily 200 pages before you have any real understanding of the dozens of words he's created. Things like zoku, exomemory, gogol, and gevolut are pretty abstract terms that defining only through context is difficult.
With all that said, The Quantum Thief is well paced. It has interesting characters and a compelling plot. Rajaniemi is a talented writer and for a first novel it's extremely tight. He tells the story in around 350 pages (trade paperback, Harry Potter sized type) which for an adult science fiction novel is pretty extraordinary. The story is self contained, but ultimately it's just a snapshot in time in a struggle for power in our future solar system. Rajaniemi is beginning a cycle of books here that will tell a larger story.
The Quantum Thief is one of the better debut novels I've read and I think it's brevity and crime fiction flavor will lend it some appeal to cross genre readers. I look forward to Rajaniemi's subsequent novels.(less)