I don't plan to write a long review of Deadline. It's inferior in almost every way to FEED. Still entertaining, but sufficiently lacking in some areas...moreI don't plan to write a long review of Deadline. It's inferior in almost every way to FEED. Still entertaining, but sufficiently lacking in some areas. Definitely a second book in a trilogy. I read it as part of my Hugo reading and offered some brief thoughts about the Hugo Best Novel vote in the link below.
Ari Marmell's most recent novel from Pyr (at least for a few more weeks) is predicated on the notion of the 'bad guys' as heroes. This is not Joe Abercrombie's morally gray characters, or Stephan R. Donaldson's antihero. Instead, Marmell takes the stereotypical villains of D&D fantasy -- liches, demons, orcs, goblins, trolls, and ogres -- and makes them the heroes in a war against the righteous. The Goblin Corps ends up as a hilarious and subversive novel that struggles a bit to engage the reader beyond the absurd fun of well drawn set pieces.
Morthul, the dreaded Charnel King, has failed. Centuries of plotting from the heart of the Iron Keep was fiuked at the last by the bumbling efforts of a laughable band of heroes, led by the half-elven wizard Ananias DuMark. When news reaches Morthul that the Allied Kingdoms are assembling a counterattacking army unlike any seen before, he sets a plan in motion to secure his future. The lynchpin to that plan is a Demon Squad -- the best and "brightest" that Morthul's own army has to offer. Consisting of a few fighters, a mage, a rogue or two, and a shapeshifter, the Demon Squad exhibits all the classic characteristics of the ideal D&D party.
Structurally, the novel reflects this same homage to the D&D model. Goblin Corps is divided into a dozen long to very long chapters, each of which represents what amounts to a new adventure for the party. These adventures are comparable to a night of D&D and the novel at large consists of an entire campaign. In that regard, Marmell's novel is best read a chapter at a time as each offers some resolution and a lead-in to the next. For someone who tends to read 200 pages in a sitting, I found it to be somewhat labor intensive as there's not a natural story arc with tension building to a grand conclusion.
Instead the focus is on the characters and the clever dialogue that goes between them. If this is sounding a little bit like my review of Sam Sykes's debut novel Tome of the Undergates, I'm not surprised, because the two novels are very similar in their tone. Marmell is having fun with Goblin Corps and it's transferred to his reader in smirks, snickers, and outright laughter as the bumbling Demon Squad goes about its nefarious business. Occasionally, the novel bogs down in the running gag, sacrificing both pace and storytelling to accomplish the punchline. Taken in the right mood and frame of mind, these gaffs are ignorable, and the black, slapstick, and pun laden humor shines.
My major complaint about the novel, beyond the minor niggles mentioned thus far, is that Goblin Corps is just too long. Clocking in around 550 pages, with chapters as long as 50 pages, the novel just doesn't have enough under the hood to sustain itself. By the time I got to the main story arc, which isn't for several hundred pages, I found myself counting chapters to the end. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed almost all of it, but I would be recommending it with much higher praise if Marmell had tightened things up a bit. I don't see a reason why a few of the "episodes" couldn't have been pruned, or some of the setup chapters shortened, to accomplish a better paced novel.
As far as comedic novels go, Goblin Corps is one of the better ones I've read in recent years. It has a great deal of charm, and even the blackest member of the Demon Squad finds a special place in the reader's heart by the time that final page is turned. This is the first novel I've read from Marmell, but it certainly won't be last. I've got a copy of The Conqueror's Shadow in my office, and I'm looking forward to acquiring his newest novel from Pyr, Thief's Convenant..
The final word on Goblin Corps? It's the perfect follow up to something like Malazan Book of the Fallen's (Erikson) grim outlook or Little, Big's (Crowley) dense undertones.(less)
I love Brandon Sanderson. I've read everything he's written for the adult market, from his first novel Elantris to his printing press busting The Way of Kings. His finest work to date is the Mistborn trilogy which contains one of the best beginnings and endings ever done in fantasy. So, it is with great remorse that I must say his most recent Mistborn universe release, The Alloy of Law, isn't very good, or rather it's not nearly as good as everything else Sanderson has written.
Set some 300 years (about?) after the events of The Hero of Ages, Waxillum is a lawkeeper from the Roughs who happens to be a member of one of the richest families in Elendel. When his Uncle dies in an accident, Wax is called home to administer the family fortune (or what's left of it). Of course some trouble has followed him from the Roughs and he'll have to stop it with the help of his snarky partner, Wayne. Yes, you read that right - Wax and Wayne. If this paragraph sounds a bit lighthearted, then I nailed it. Much like in Warbreaker, Sanderson is testing his limits in humor and levity to varying degrees of success.
The novel starts with a prologue featuring Wax in the Roughs, six-shooter in hand. The tone in these opening scenes conjures up rolling tumbleweeds and Danny Glover saying, "I'm too old for this shit," Assuming Sanderson would allow Danny Glover to say shit (he wouldn't). While most of the rest of the novel feels more Victorian than Wild West, the plot items are recognizably Western. Train robberies, good guys and bad guys, a protagonist with a personal code of honor, all conjure up the whistling theme of Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
That said, thematically Alloy of Law isn't a Western. The Western, as a genre, is about 'civilizing' the wilds, whether that's the natural element or the people that live there is inconsequential. None of that is present. Additionally, the Western world is organized around codes of honor and personal justice - not abstract law. Some of that is there, but only through Wax, and to a lesser degree Wayne, whom represent the ideals of the Roughs. For those in Elendel, where the entire narrative is housed, the social order is not only rigorous, it's set down and fundamentally abstract.
That sounds a bit like I'm being negative because Sanderson didn't deliver a Western. Not the case. I'm being negative because he didn't deliver substance. Alloy of Law is shallow. It has moments of entertainment - action packed sequences and witty back and forth. Of course, Sanderson excels with his world building and magic system concepts and applications. He shows how Scadrial has evolved since Vin and company triumphed over Ruin. Sazed (now Harmony) is not only mentioned, but present. All of that adds up to a rather accomplish piece of Mistborn fan fiction or a fun little story designed to be a pallette cleanser as much for the author himself as for his readers.
Given the beginning of the novel, and the flexibility to use the koloss and/or kandra (who are both functionally absent) to represent the 'indigent people', I saw many ways Sanderson could have engaged a deeper level with the novel as he does in nearly everything else he writes. Am I being unfair? Am I demanding a novel that Sanderson didn't want to write? Is this reader entitlement? Maybe. Probably. But expectations are a part of the game, and given Sanderson's past work I have an expectation of what I'm getting when I pick up a book with his name on the cover. For me, Alloy of Law under delivered, offering what was essentially an adventure short that lacked any of the thematic support necessary to sustain a novel.
Now, the real question... was I entertained? Yes! I enjoyed Alloy of Law. It interrupted my read of Never Knew Another (McDermott) and The Winds of Khalakovo (Beaulieu), two novels from Night Shade Books that are dense and full of nuance. Distracting me from these two titles was a surety as Sanderson's new novel is both bite sized and breakneck in its presentation. I would read it again, although not a second time and therein lies the rub. Visceral enjoyment is not enough, for the same reason that Independence Day is not a good film. Alloy of Law fails at a basic level to engage me as a reader beyond the words on the page.
In an interview with Nethspace, Sanderson was asked where Hoid was in the novel. His response was to say:
Hoid is in the book, though his name doesn’t appear. But the things happening here during this interim are not of deep interest to Hoid like the things happening in the original trilogy, so he is playing a much smaller role here than he was in the original trilogy.
Well, that's because they aren't that interesting. There's nothing epic here, in plot or in intent. It's just a guy named Wax and his buddy Wayne, fighting off a criminal who may or may not be part of something larger (admittedly the end of the novel hints strongly at the former). If Hoid isn't all that interested, why should I be? Alloy of Law is an aside for Brandon Sanderson, a break from his tireless schedule of his Stormlight Archive and Wheel of Time commitments. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it felt like when I read it.(less)
I don't read a lot of graphic novels, not so much because I don't like them, but because I have no earthly idea how to pick them. I mean just because I like the art doesn't mean the writing is any good, and I'm really not that much for art. So when I won Tor's New York (Not at) Comic Con Giveaway I was excited to see several graphic novels included. The first one I noticed in the bunch was Dear Creature and boy am I glad I did.
Drawn entirely in black and white, Jonathan Case's graphic novel tells the story of Grue - a sea mutant with a predilection for human flesh. He's awkward, gangly, and carries three crabs around with him who act more like devils-on-his-shoulder than parasitic companions. Surprisingly he also possesses a poet's heart. Through pages of Shakespeare stuffed into soda bottles and cast into the sea, Grue has fallen in love. Dear Creature is a love story of the oddest type between a monster and an agoraphobic woman.
Like every graphic novel I've read and loved (Watchmen being the standard bearer of course), the highlight is the writing. Case is both hilarious, through his crusty crustaceans, and poignant, in Grue's wooing. There is also a brilliance coming from Grue's dialogue which is written entirely in iambic pentameter. For those without previous exposure to ol' Shakespeare's rhythmic writing style, Case went to the trouble of including a primer in the back that's laugh out loud funny and informative.
The art itself has a very pulp quality that conveys some noir sensibilities in its use of light and shadow, but also a certain flair that's identifiable to me as Western. Of course there's a mounted cop that has a thing for the local 'working girl', so I suppose the Western elements aren't all that inconspicuous. My one complaint is in choosing the black and white palette. While striking, some panels become difficult to follow especially in the under water scenes that lack the stark white contrast.
Nested within the larger arc, is a secondary story featuring the aforementioned cop and his 'working girl'. While the response to Grue's love of his human soulmate is (perhaps) warranted given his history of violent crime and outwardly monstrous appearance, this secondary story demonstrates humanity's capacity for closed mindedness. It also highlights an unwillingness to look beyond ourselves as the cop becomes persecutor and persecuted.
All told Dear Creature is wonderfully imagined. The writing is crisp and quirky, complimenting the story, and its art, perfectly. Although I'm a neophyte in the reading (and even more so in the reviewing) or graphic novels, I would strongly recommend this one to all fans of the medium.(less)
That link also has a giveaway of the first two books open through Nov 17, 2011.
Earlier this year I reviewed Jon Sprunk's 2010 debut novel, Shadow's Son. While I very much enjoyed it, my review was less than glowing. I felt some things were sacrificed to the novel's breakneck pace and that Caim, Spunk's protagonist, was a little too one-dimensional. In a not so stunning development, Shadow's Lure corrects many of these deficiencies and in so doing demonstrates tremendous growth in Sprunk's craft.
Without spoiling too much of what went on in the first novel, Lure picks up right where Son left off. Caim (what?! the main character survives? no way!) leaves his home in Othir behind, heading north to discover the truth behind the murder of his parents and his power over the shadow. He leaves Josey behind, now Empress of the Nimean Empire, to consolidate her power.
The nature of the two stories, which could be read completely separate from one another, blunt the pace that was such a hallmark of Sprunk's debut. Much of the slowdown (never slowness) is affected by much more extensive character development and world building, an almost always welcome and, in this case, necessary inclusion. That lack of frenetic energy shouldn't be taken to mean it's inferior. Quite the opposite. In taking his time to build the narrative, Sprunk has written a different kind of novel that succeeds because of what it doesn't have, almost as much as because of what it does (Yes, that was an awkward sentence, screw it).
Lure is divided primarily into three points of view - Josey, Caim, and Kit. While Sprunk occasionally dips into other characters, it's these three who comprise the bulk of the narrative. He separates them from one another in the novel's early stages, providing him the opportunity to drill down to a level that the structure of the first novel never allowed him to.
Josey's point of view is very political in nature, subject to plots and machinations of factions within the Empire. Through her, the world is capably fleshed out without resorting to information dumps or poorly concealed exposition. Similarly, Kit becomes the defacto spelunker who delves into the Shadow, revealing the world behind the world that is only tangentially touched on prior (for fans of Kit she gets significant page time). In contrast, Caim's sections remain highly kinetic, often going from fight to fight. Moments of rest in between allow him to develop into a textured character and not a simple archetype.
Of course, it should be no surprise that Sprunk continues to shine in his depiction of action sequences. Sure, they compelled a raised eyebrow of disbelief from time to time, but they always left me with a crystal clear picture in my mind of how Caim whipped his opponent(s) - something that other writers (Weeks) in this sub-genre can struggle with. By novel's end, the relentless action connects with the determined expansion of world and character, making Lure a much more complete novel than its predecessor.
There are some hiccups though. Things are on occasion too neat and black and white. At one point there's an attack on Josey where a single bite would kill (or seriously incapacitate) her. Despite the creature being wrapped around her, she somehow manages to avoid such a fate. Sprunk uses the annoying trick of handicapping his protagonist with wound after festering wound. Someday, I would very much enjoy an author letting his protagonist face the final battle at 100%. The series's villain is inherently evil and I never felt that her actions were righteous even from her perspective - something that modern fantasy has become very adept at doing. Mostly these are small quibbles and Sprunk tells such a capable story that none of them remotely imperiled my enjoyment of the novel.
While elements remain decidedly couched in a common, and arguably overused, motif, the Shadow Saga remains a worthy addition to the fantasy Rolodex. Once completed, Sprunk's trilogy will go on the shelf right next to the Night Angel Trilogy where it will compete for the hearts of assassin lovers for years to come. For fans of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, and to some degree Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, this is a series that shouldn't be missed. Shadow's Master, the third and final volume in the series, is already one of my most looked forward to titles of early 2012.(less)
Tell me if you've heard this one before, ok? Joe Abercrombie walks into a bar, sits down and orders a whiskey. He takes a shot and looks down the bar where he sees fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson sitting at a table. Sanderson is laying out a Magic: The Gathering deck and drinking a glass of milk. Abercrombie, seeing his comrade in arms, stands up and walks over. They get to talking about this and that, of course Abercrombie tries his best not to swear or talk about sex, an admittedly difficult bit of conversationlism.
Before you know it, the two of them start writing. Sanderson is handling the outline, plotting things just so and building the world. Meanwhile Abercrombie is writing the scenes, adding his grit and authentic dialogue to Sanderson's framework. He decides to try first person this time, change is a good thing, right? Somewhere along the way Sanderson wins the sexytime argument. They finish the novel and agree on the pseudonym Daniel Polansky. And so, Low Town was born.
That's just a legend. To the best of my knowledge Daniel Polansky is a real person, and not some amalgamation of two bestselling fantasy authors. But it could be true because Low Town is the love child that Abercrombie and Sanderson (probably) will never have. It's well paced, richly textured, and demonstrates all the rawness that the genre has come to expect from the modern fantasy writer.
Polansky's protagonist is Warden, a 30-something drug dealer, and user, with a checkered past. He used to be more, but now he haunts the streets of Low Town peddling his product and trying to stay alive (sort of). Low Town reads like crime fiction that wouldn't be at all out of place shelved among James Ellroy and Ellmore Leonard. There's an urban feel to it all, and Warden is very much a noir protagonist, past his prime and world weary, but committed to doing what needs doing. In this case, that's solving the mystery of a murdered girl which the powers that be have no interest in doing.
It didn't surprise me to learn that Polansky is a Baltimore native. Anyone who's watched HBO's The Wire will find some familiarity. Warden is reminiscent of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), a drug dealer with intelligence, ambition, and a desire to see less violence on the streets, if only for the sake of profit. Themes from The Wire like corruption, institutional dysfunction (or disinterest), and poverty are also reflected in the novel through Warden's colored perceptions.
Beyond the Mystery Machine (overt Scooby Doo reference), Low Town is also a second world fantasy that provides a mystery of its own, heightened by the limitations of a first person narrative. Unable to provide any direct exposition, Polansky dribbles out the world through Warden's encounters, memories, and dreams. He creates a mystery within a mystery within a mystery. Who killed the girl? Who is Warden and where does he come from? How does all this fit into the larger world? In choosing the first person, Polansky gave himself free reign to control the reader's perception. Carefully choosing the order of encounters, and the types of encounters, he creates a perfectly paced novel that kept urging me forward without frustrating me (always a risk when the narrator has knowledge the reader does not).
It's not all roses though. I think there's a fair criticism to be levied related to one-note characters that are archetypal for the genre. Gregarious and burly innkeeper, go-getter gutter rat, malicious police chief, and kindly wizard are a few of them that are recycled here. Additionally, I saw the 'twist' coming from early on (although there were enough red herrings throughout that I questioned my confidence) and given the tradition of intricately plotted fantasy novels, this one is fairly mundane (more like urban fantasy in that regard). Polansky does leave enough dangling about Warden's past to warrant a sequel, but there's nothing epic about the plot itself that would call for future volumes.
That said, when asked, what did you think of Low Town, Justin? I'm going to gush. It isn't the best novel I've read this year. It's not even the best debut. It is, however, the most entertaining. Polansky grabbed me in the first chapter and never let go. Last I checked authors are in the story telling business and Polansky tells a great story. Much darker than Sanderson, and not as authentic or well put together as Abercrombie, Low Town takes elements from each of them, turning out a debut novel that will appeal to fans of both. I hope to see a lot more of Daniel Polansky in the future.
You can find Daniel Polansky on Twitter (@danielpolansky) or at his website. He's currently working on the sequel to Low Town (when he's not bumming around foreign countries). Check back next week for an interview with the author.(less)
I 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'm not sure The Restoration Game is science fiction. Sure, it's technically based on a speculative what-if, but does that make something a science fiction novel? Science fiction, I believe, is all about a discussion on humanity's relationship to technology. I feel a lot more comfortable thinking of it as a Dickian (Philip K.) novel that grapples with issues of human perception more than one looking at our relationship to technology. Or maybe it's just a thriller.
Other than a prologue and an epilogue, the events in Ken MacLeod's most recent novel take place in 2008, leading up to the South Ossetia War (or at least a fictional simulacrum there of). The narrative is recounted by Lucy Stone, an Edinburgh expat from the former Soviet controlled Krassnia. In that troubled region of the former Soviet Union, revolution is brewing. Its organizers need a safe place to meet, and where better than the virtual spaces of an online game? Lucy, who works for a start-up games company, has a project that almost seems made for the job: its original inspiration came from Krassnian folklore. As Lucy digs up details about her birthplace, she finds her interest has not gone unnoticed.
The main narrative is endemic to spy fiction. Lucy's mother, and great grandmother both have some connection to the CIA and their machinations have compromised their progeny. Mystery's abound. Who is Lucy's father? What are the motivations for the revolution? Who stands to gain? This thriller mentality works well as MacLeod revists the how and the why of the fall of the Soviet Union. Through Lucy the reader is exposed to documents detailing KGB investigations, and commentary on Stalin's purges. Ultimately these commentaries become a demonstration of the prevailing power of capitalism and the inherent expression of it in the human spirit.
Early on, Restoration Game seems to be more about how the story gets told than the story itself. MacLeod layers Lucy's narration, starting near the end and backtracking. She reveals things about her life in her own time, often referencing things like 'The Worst Day of My Life' without describing the day until several chapters later. While this technique can be occasionally frustrating, MacLeod is mostly successful in using it to maintain a constant tension.
Additionally, the main plot is bracketed by an prologue and epilogue that set up and conclude the twist that makes the novel "speculative" and not simply an alternate look at Russian foreign policy. Much like the M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, once the twist becomes clear, the entire narrative changes - was I reading what I thought I was reading? Unfortunately, this is also one of the novel's weaker points as the 'twist' is fairly obvious from the prologue... wait maybe it is an M. Night Shyamalan movie! The problem isn't so much that MacLeod does a poor job of concealing it, rather it's a twist I've seen used a hundred times. I recognized it early on and kept hoping there would be more to it. Alas.
Telling a story in this manner takes an extremely capable writer. The jumps through time, and back again, into source documents, and then back into Lucy's head, are all done with a deft hand, highlighting MacLeod's command of his story and the language. But, I would be remiss if I didn't say that my opinion of Restoration Game would be loftier with the extraneous bits cut out, which, in this case, means all the science fiction stuff. Most of it comes off as tangential to the larger plot of Lucy and her family's history, making me wonder if the idea for the science came after the idea for the fiction.
Despite a frustratingly transparent and common twist, Ken MacLeod has written a wonderful story about Lucy Stone against the Russians. While it blends history and current events in compelling fashion, the science fiction framing doesn't wash. It's a thriller, that would stand out in the spy fiction market, dressed up as science fiction. All of that makes The Restoration Game a novel worth reading, although not necessarily one that demands to be read. (less)
I have a sneaking suspicion that Sword of Fire and Sea is going to be one of the more polarizing novels of 2011 as a perfect example of form over substance. Erin Hoffman's debut from Pyr has a beautiful voice, and a fully realized, textured world. It has gryphons, pegasus, and elemental magic all of which evoke whimsy and a general sense of romance. Ultimately though, the primary motive force of any novel is its story and there Hoffman falls flat, failing to adequately lay the foundation for events later in the novel.
Packaged as a travel narrative, Sword is told from the perspective of ship Captain Vidarian Rulorat, a highly successful merchant with family ties to the fire priestesses of Kara'zul. Vidarian must fulfill his family's obligation by transporting a young fire priestess named Ariadel to a water temple far to the south, through dangerous pirate-controlled territory. A perilous journey in the best of conditions, Vidarian and Ariadel find themselves at the intersection of the world's most volatile elements and an ancient, alien power between them.
Unlike most genre novels, Sword didn't keep me up late into the night despite an frenetic plot. Hoffman's style is more geared toward reading a chapter at a time to absorb her lyrical imagery, letting it breathe like a fine wine. I found myself pausing from time to time to really relish over a nice turn of phrase or particularly well put together sentence. To speak metaphorically, reading Sword felt like looking at an M.C. Escher painting, the longer I stared at it the more I saw. All of this makes for a rich and textured reading experience. Paragraphs alone to do not a good novel make though, and often Hoffman fails to connect her reader to her characters or her plot.
Functionally a travelogue, Sword bounces Vidarian all over the map, first with Ariadel by his side, and then to rescue her, and then to their ultimate goal. I was watching a tennis match with a gryphon, in place of a fuzzy green ball, being batted back and forth across the continent by some unseen, but thoroughly dominant, forehand. That's me being flip, but the truth is the pace and suddenness of the travel rarely gave me the opportunity to be comfortable with the story. Instead, I was left scrambling to understand what was happening and more importantly why.
Equally as frustrating were the occasional terms, or factions that Hoffman assumes the reader to have knowledge. I don't mind the slow world building, dropping new ideas from time to time, and explaining them later (God's War being a great example of this), but never explaining them just leads to confusion. One in particular that comes to mind was the use of the term, Quenched, in reference to a fire priestess's power. Early in the novel I presumed this meant one thing, only to find out it meant something else, only to learn it didn't mean that either. With the novel over, I still don't really know it means. While I might hazard a guess, it was frustrating that at every point in the novel I thought it meant something different, leaving me scratching my head when characters did things I thought they could no longer do.
The point is Sword reads like a debut novel. In a year I've been spoiled by brilliant debuts this one just doesn't stand out. I'm going to compare Hoffman to another author, Sam Sykes, whose debut novel, Tome of the Undergates, I reviewed early this year. In terms of substance and style there's absolutely no similarity. Sykes writes a gritty, schlocky style that's as dark as it is hilarious. Like Hoffman, Sykes was a new author trying to find his way. While he had some stumbles, mostly related to plot and pacing, he has an incredibly strong voice that's his own. I can absolutely say the same about Erin Hoffman. There is something uniquely her in the prose and that's special. While I may not have enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea as a narrative, I very much look forward to the author's future growth as a writer.
Thankfully, it looks like Pyr is going to give me that chance as they recently announced the purchase of two more novels in The Chaos Knight series. I'll be sure to check them out. You can visit Erin Hoffman's website and follow her Twitter. (less)
Happy Halloween! I figure since it's Halloween I ought to review a novel with some kind of horror element. Well let's see,The Traitor's Daughter, "is...moreHappy Halloween! I figure since it's Halloween I ought to review a novel with some kind of horror element. Well let's see, The Traitor's Daughter, "is a dark, rich feast, rife with plagues, kidnappings, political intrigues, bloody crimes, bloodier revenges, arcane upheavals, and the threat of zombies.” Zombies! Perfectly Halloween or so the writer of that blurb would have me think. Unfortunately, my quest to review something horror was a complete failure. While there is something akin to zombies in the novel, albeit not in a traditional sense, they manage to only garner 10-20 pages of 'screen' time. As much of a red herring as 'zombies' are, it's nothing compared to the outward appearance of Paula Brandon's debut novel which reflects almost nothing of what she actually wrote.
See, Traitor's Daughter just doesn't look like the kind of novel I would enjoy. I try not to read reviews before I pick-up a novel, it's hard to articulate my thoughts clogged up by other people's, but I wasn't going to read Brandon's novel blind. To allay my fears I sneaked a peak at the Goodreads reviews to get a feel before giving it a shot. Quite a few of the reviews were lukewarm or negative in large part based on the incorrect assumption that Brandon's novel was historical fantasy romance - which was music to my ears. Looking at the cover and the overt Jacqueline Carey blurb, I think those expectations were reasonable. So much so that Amazon filed it under Romance.
At first glance, Traitor's Daughter looks like Gone with the Wind at best and Fabio on the Plantation (pretty sure I made that one up) at worse. The long flowing dress, the articulated 'D', and soft blend of a house emerging from a cloud with star pinpricks all over, screams: this is a book for CHICKS! Unfortunately the back cover (below) isn't much better:
On the Veiled Isles, ominous signs are apparent to those with the talent to read them. The polarity of magic is wavering at its source, heralding a vast upheaval poised to alter the very balance of nature. Blissfully unaware of the cataclysmic events to come, Jianna Belandor, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a powerful Faerlonnish overlord, has only one concern: the journey to meet her prospective husband. But revolution is stirring as her own conquered people rise up against their oppressors, and Jianna is kidnapped and held captive at a rebel stronghold, insurance against her father’s crimes.
The resistance movement opens Jianna’s eyes―and her heart. Despite her belief in her father’s innocence, she is fascinated by the bold and charming nomadic physician and rebel sympathizer, Falaste Rione—who offers Jianna her only sanctuary in a cold and calculating web of intrigue. As plague and chaos grip the land, Jianna is pushed to the limits of her courage and resourcefulness, while virulent enemies discover that alliance is their only hope to save the human race.
So, other than the first sentence and the last clause of the last sentence, Traitor's Daughter sounds like a romance story between the kidnapped Jianna and the healer Rione. It's not. Brandon debut is high fantasy with a sprawling plot, political machinations, complex systems of magic, all of which manifest themselves in themes that both men and women will very much enjoy. To someone looking for romance they're going to be sorely disappointed.
That's not to say there isn't a love story - there is sort of - but it's far more in-line with what a typical fantasy reader would expect in a non-Joe Abercrombie novel. All told, it probably occupies a quarter of the novel leaving the rest of the time for Brandon to flesh out Magnifico Aureste Belandor, Jianna's father. The fact his name isn't even mentioned in the novel's blurb boggles me. Most of the novel is spent on his ongoing political struggle to rescue his daughter without destroying his tenuous position as a Faerlonnish lord ruled by the Taerleezi conquerors.
The society of the Veiled Isles is one akin to Apartheid. An ethnic minority (Taerleezi) rules by way of conquest, oppressing the indigenous population (Faerlonne) and elevating those few willing to work for them. Those elevated have become a lightening rod to their oppressed brethren diverting much of the unexpressed anger and resentment from the true oppressors. Aureste, one of these 'betrayers' has spent his life securing his house's place under the Taerleezi government. He has hidden his activities from his daughter, sheltered her, and now she'll pay for his crimes. Brandon examines the lengths to which a father will go to protect his child as well as the sins a child's unconditional love can ignore.
A distinct lack of moral certitude permeates Traitor's Daughter. Aureste and his daughter's captors both feel wronged and view there causes as right and just. To them the ends always justify the means. Jianna and Rione, representing the next generation, become Brandon's moral center, setup to become the reformer of their predecessors whom are stuck in the memory of past wrongs and outdated world views. It all works spectacularly well creating an emotional investment not just in the characters, but in the political and familial structures Brandon puts in place.
If there's one black mark, aside from its marketing, it's that much of Traitor's Daughter feels like a prologue to a larger arc. The novel is framed by chapters from Grix Orlazzu, an arcane practitioner who's clearly pegged to the larger story line of the world's wavering magic. His chapters demonstrate a state of technological advancement that is far ahead of that present in the rest of the world. Jianna and Aureste's narrative only tangentially touch on this framing, leaving me to wonder how everything is connected, a fact that's a little frustrating having finished a third of trilogy. Given that the series is already completed and on an accelerated release timetable, I'm willing to give Brandon a pass despite my strong preference for every novel to have a beginning, middle, and end.
This is a long review that does a bit of a disservice to Brandon's novel. As a novel, I definitely recommend it. It's unquestionably one of the better fantasy debuts this year and the series holds a lot of promise. I compare it favorably to Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet (not quite that good) for its audacity to write a fantasy series that focuses on politics instead of war without relying on the crutch of romance and sex. Fans of epic fantasy that enjoy a slow build, ambitious world building, and political intrigue will absolutely eat it up.
In terms of marketing, I have to give it a big F. It's not romance, or horror (zombies, ha!), or steampunk, or science fiction, or pure fantasy - it's a mix of all them making Traitor's Daughter a genre novel, but one that's hard to pigeonhole in a business that demands the opposite. There's a possibility the next two installments are a lot more romance that the first. But somehow the skeptic in me thinks that branding the novel as romance was a conscious choice and I find it a bit intellectually dishonest.
Long story short: buy the book, read it, and ignore the cover and the reviews that have a lot more to do with a poorly conceived presentation than any failing of Paula Brandon's. The sequel, The Ruined City, is due out in early 2012 with the third installment to follow before year's end. I look forward to spending a lot more time in the Veiled Isles.(less)
Diana Gabaldon said, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz.” I think that's sort of a red herring. I get it, Harry Potter is wildly successful and the quote targets a massive audience that will enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's novel. However, if I was asked to write a more accurate blurb, it might read, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Shadow from American Gods was an apprentice wizard with a wry sense of humor who wandered around London waxing poetic about it and solving crimes under supernatural circumstances." Ok, so that probably wouldn't sell as many books, but it's a lot more descriptive.
Peter Grant is a rookie copper working the streets of London. As he nears the end of his probationary period and decisions are being made about his long term position in the force, a ghost gives him a lead in a case of mysterious murder. Next thing Peter knows he's in up to his ears in the arcane, assigned to the department's in-house wizard Thomas Nightingale.
Most of Midnight Riot is spent with Peter wandering around London trying to solve a murder and/or settling a long standing dispute between the river gods. When Peter isn't doing either of those things, he's learning magic or trying to get laid both of which are endlessly entertaining. And that's sort of the heart of what Aaronovitch's debut novel is all about - entertainment. It has wit, action, and charm in spades. Unfortunately the one thing it really lacked was a compelling plot which ultimately left me feeling a bit flat.
Don't me wrong, the novel itself is rather compelling and exceptional readable. Aaronovitch takes his readers on a guided tour of the city and her rivers, building into it an occasional history lesson and cultural what's what of modern London. All that's very fun and more than a little cool, but much of it ended up feeling like a smoke screen covering the aforementioned average story.
I won't to get into details on why the plot underwhelmed me. There are twists and turns I don't want to spoil. Suffice to say, the story itself would fit nicely into a TV procedural without too much grief. And I don't mean a season finale level episode either, more like the last episode before sweeps start. The secondary plot, negotiating peace between the river gods while more interesting lacked any sense of impending disaster if Peter failed in his mission. In other words, I just didn't care that much.
Now that I've panned the novel as 'uninteresting', I'm going to backtrack a bit because all the other things I mentioned like characters, setting, ambiance, and wit make Midnight Riot a pleasurable reading experience. Because of the importance and emphasis Aaronovitch places on the city of London I have to think that Londoners will get more from the novel just as readers from Tempe, Arizona get a little something extra from Kevin Hearne's Hounded. Still, there's a lot here to enjoy laying the base for, what I imagine will mirror Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, steady improvement with each installment.
I admit I'm not exactly Midnight Riot's target audience. I'm not a huge urban fantasy fan, nor am I particularly ensnared by the police procedural. Nevertheless I'm glad I was exposed to Peter Grant, Aaronovitch's London, and his excellent first person voice, all of which caught my interest and held it for 300+ pages. I absolutely recommend it to fans of the subgenre, and fans of fantasy in general with the caveat that the plot won't leave you out of breath.
Midnight Riot is available anywhere books are sold in Mass Market Paperback. Aaronovitch's sequel Moon Over Soho came out earlier this year and has received strong reviews thus far. It's available in both Hardcover and Trade Paper Back in the UK from Gollancz and in Mass Market Paperback in the U.S. from Del Ray. (less)
I get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of self-published or small press titles for review. I usually say yes, with the caveat t...moreI get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of self-published or small press titles for review. I usually say yes, with the caveat that I may never actually read it or get past the first chapter. Most of them are not very good. Once in a while though there's a real home run. After the Apocalypse, a collection of short stories by Maureen F. McHugh, is a home run.
I'd never heard of McHugh prior to receiving an e-mail about her collection. It turns out she's published four novels and over twenty short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. In 1996 she won a Hugo Award for her short story The Lincoln Train. After reading this collection, none of that surprises me. Many of the stories in this collection are "award worthy" - especially the three new ones that are published here for the first time.
As the title implies, all of the stories in this collection deal with what comes after the apocalypse. Notice that's a lower case apocalypse. While some of the stories delve into the aftermath of the "big-one", some are more about a personal cataclysm. All of them are told from a very tight point of view in a consistently haunting prose. McHugh's characters are all real people, with real problems, who lived before she opened the window into their story and will continue to live after it's closed. It's rare that I enjoy short fiction this much. It's even more rare when I'd put a 200 page short story collection against any novel I've read this year.
Below are a quick taste of each of the stories:
The Naturalist (Subterranean Online, spring 2010)
After the zombie plague is over the remaining walking stiffs are sealed into wild preserves. To cut costs, America has started sending their criminals into the preserves fend for themselves. This is a gruesome story of humanity's ability to adapt and need to survive.
Special Economics (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, May 2008)
This is an odd story about a hip-hop dancing Chinese woman who's come to ShenZhen to find a job. She ends up with New Life, a bio-engineering company that designs green technologies for America. New Life though is a "company town" and owns its employees. While not a classic apocalypse story the character arc is very much one of overcoming adversity and refusing to lie down when that's the easiest thing to do.
Useless Things (Eclipse Three: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, October 2009)
Definitely a global warming gone wrong story, Useless Things follows an artist in New Mexico struggling to carve out an existence. All the comforts of today are still available, but resources are scarce. As a woman living alone the threats of the world at large are real, and not something she's prepared to deal with.
The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large (Eclipse One, October 2007)
The only story where the narrator isn't the primary character, it tells the story of a young man and his family who survive a series of dirty bombs in Baltimore. He's afflicted with a mental disorder that's resulted in him becoming someone else. While this is the least evocative of all the stories in the collection, there's a certain beauty to the way McHugh constructs it, reading something like an article in Time Magazine.
The Kingdom of the Blind (Plugged In, May 2008)
A standard setup for a science fiction story, McHugh dabbles in the birth of artificial intelligence. She takes a unique look at it though discussing the never used truth that a computer intelligence has no way to perceive the outside world and no concept of what it wants. Extremely intriguing story that reads more like a pre-apocalypse than a post.
Going to France (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 22, June 2008)
This one had a very interesting premise - people suddenly feel compelled to go to France. Some fly, gliding across the Atlantic (people can fly), others race to the closest airport. This one was a bit too esoteric for me. I admit I'm probably just not smart enough to get it.
Honeymoon (new to this collection)
An overweight and broke young woman has her marriage fall apart seconds after it starts. Her apocalypse happens when her marriage ends, and she has to soldier on. Picking up the pieces she moves to Cleveland where to make extra money she puts herself into drug trials - one of which goes wrong. This is a fairly inspirational story about a girl taking charge of her life and finding her own place in the world - really connected to this story.
The Effect of Centrifugal Forces (new to this collection)
I don't understand the title of this story really, again I'm not that bright, but the story itself is poignant. Irene is a teenage girl living with her mom, and her mom's new partner, Alice. Her other mom, has a boyfriend now who's always strung out. Irene's mom has ADP (think Alzheimer's meets MS) and she dying. Having lived through two family members die of slow diseases, the hurt and loneliness that Irene feels was particularly meaningful for me. Worth the price of admission on it's own.
After the Apocalypse (new to this collection)
This story made me want to throw up from the first paragraph. I saw what was coming and knew it was inevitable. The parent in me rebelled to no avail. Haunting doesn't begin to describe this story of mother and daughter trying to survive when society falls apart. I appreciate the stupendous execution, but I'm allowed to hate it too right? Almost a horror story to the right reader and done so well.
My self imposed hiatus on Night Shade Books failed miserably this past weekend when I couldn't resist their latest novel, Seed by Rob Ziegler. I was going to try to take a few weeks away from Night Shade to get at some of my rapidly overwhelming back catalog. While I did finish Diving Into the Wreck and started Midnight Riot and Shadow Prowler, they all fell to the side once I dug into Seed. Zeigler's novel is as haunting as it is believable.
Much like Night Shade flag bearer The Wind-Up Girl (Bacigalupi), Seed is a near term science fiction novel that centers around the impacts of climate change and over population on the world's environment. The Hugo Award winning Wind-Up Girl focused on Thailand, but hinted at the problems ongoing in America. In many ways Seed could be that story of America. That's not to say it's derivative of Bacigalupi, but there's certainly similarities in tone and texture to the world playing to the current fears that Earth is reaching 'critical mass'.
Seed is set at dawn of the 22nd century, the world has fallen apart and a new corporate power has emerged: Satori. More than just a corporation, Satori is an intelligent, living city in America's heartland. She manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, and bio-engineers her own perfected castes of post-humans. What remains of the United States government now exists solely to distribute Satori product.
When a Satori Designer goes rogue, Agent Sienna Doss is tasked with bringing her in to break Satori's stranglehold on seed production. In a race against genetically honed assassins, Doss's best chance at success lies in an unlikely alliance with a gang of thugs and Brood - orphan, scavenger and small-time thief scraping by on the fringes of the wasteland - whose young brother may be the key to everything.
What struck me most about Seed is the poignancy. Right away Ziegler jumps into Brood's nomadic life as he migrates from Mexico to the Mid-West with the imminent arrival of summer temperatures. With his special-needs brother, Brood lives just on the edge of survival. His imperative to protect crackles with emotion and his willingness to do anything to survive is heartbreaking. These threads continue into other parts of the story from the Satori lamenting the loss of their defective sibling to Agent Doss remembering her crippling childhood. Beyond the characters the world itself is bleak and desolate. Ziegler capably takes the small kindness of a drink of water and makes it a seminal moment of compassion.
Despite this being an 'American' novel Ziegler does a great job of integrating Hispanic culture into the pastoral fiber of the country. A pretty good amount of the dialogue is in Spanish often laced with Mexican slang. Elements of Hispanic culture are prevalent in the migrants and in many ways makes Seed not only a glimpse into the future of climate change and overpopulation, but a glimpse at the integration of culture on America's horizon. Juxtaposing this is the Satori which is so disturbingly self-interested and antiseptic as to be reminiscent of William Gibson's cyberpunk corporations.
My only real complaint stems from the lack of scientific underpinning to Satori. For a post-apocalyptic novel the science fiction felt very magical (not in the Arthur C. Clarke sense) in large part because Ziegler never takes the time to ground any of it in science. While he introduces the brains behind it all, they're never given the opportunity to expound upon how or why it all works. In that sense the novel 'reads' more like a fantasy than science fiction, something I believe is becoming a trend in the post-apocalypse sub-genre. Instead, Seed never lets up in its pace, keeping a constant tension throughout that eschews any need for exposition.
As a narrative, Seed is a multi-view point third person novel that I believe stands alone and should continue to do so. Interestingly, I realized none of what I liked about it had much do with the actual prose. I didn't find myself highlighting passages or even taking note of particularly nice turns of phrase. This isn't a negative. Rather than flowery descriptions or particularly evocative metaphors, Seed compelled me forward with... wait for it... a great story. And a great story told well.
Seed is Rob Ziegler's debut novel and another very good one from Night Shade's 2011 crop of new authors. Reading this review it might seem that this is a slow and morose novel. It's not at all. Woven in between scenes of migration and self-reflection is tons of action that culminates in a conclusion that's both explosive and cathartic. This is one you don't want to miss.
I'm starting to feel like a fan boy with all these Night Shade titles, although surprisingly this is only my fifth review from them this year (well under 10%!). Of course, I'm already reading The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams (Night Shade/Jo Fletcher Books) not mentioning the huge stack of their back catalog next to my bed. This shouldn't be surprising. In 2010 Night Shade changed their mission statement to provide a space for new voices and authors in genre fiction. Since then they've aggressively scheduled debut novels many of which are coming out this year. It's become self evident that Ross Lockhart and his editorial team have the pulse of the genre community and continue to target novels that not only meet demand, but anticipate it.
In Necropolis, Michael Dempsey's debut novel, death is a thing of the past. NYPD detective Paul Donner and his wife Elise were killed in a hold-up gone wrong. Fifty years later, Donner is back, courtesy of the Shift - an unintended side-effect of a botched biological terrorist attack. The Shift reawakens dead DNA and throws the life cycle into reverse. Reborns like Donner are not only slowly youthing toward a new childhood, but have become New York's most hated minority.
With the city quarantined beneath a geodesic blister, government services are outsourced to a private security corporation named Surazal. Reborns and norms alike struggle in a counterclockwise world, where everybody gets younger. Elvis performs every night at Radio City Music Hall, and nobody has any hope of ever seeing the outside world. In this backwards-looking culture, Donner is haunted by revivers guilt, and becomes obsessed with finding out who killed him and his still-dead wife.
I was rather torn on Necropolis at first. It reads like it was written by a screen writer, something I always struggle with. That's not a criticism of the prose which is actually quite good, but rather an observation that nearly every scene in the novel is written with an eye for the visual medium. Dark and stormy nights, lightning flash illuminations of the villain on the hill, fuzzy eyes awakening from a coma, are just a few of the techniques Dempsey employs that hearken to film. In a written novel an author isn't limited to the visual to set mood and yet it felt like Necropolis frequently relied on these "establishing shots" to convey just that.
After writing that paragraph I decided to look up Dempsey's background. His "About the Author" note at the end of the book mentioned his background in theatre. That was significantly understating things. In the 90s, Dempsey wrote for CBS’s Cybill -which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series in 1996 (bet you'd forgotten that!). He has also sold and optioned screenplays and television scripts to companies like Tritone Productions and Carsey-Werner Productions in Los Angeles. His plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and regionally in theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville. He's also a past recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship for playwriting.
Given all that, it shouldn't be any surprise that his novel reflects his connection to visual mediums. In fact, I applaud him for sticking with what he knows. At the end of the day Necropolis is a science fiction novel deeply couched in noir and that's why Dempsey wrote the novel the way he did. Noir is a visual classification that's grounded far more in film than in the written word. Smoky rooms, long legged dames, and that understated black-and-white visual style, are all components that distinguish noir. Sure it's based on the hardboiled depression era detective novel, but what we call noir is fundamentally a visual effect. I ended up asking myself, how can I be torn about something that worked so well? Short answer, I can't - high five to Dempsey.
While the tone and mood of the novel worked wonderfully, I did find myself struggling a bit with Dempsey's choice of narration and points of view. Donner's chapters are told from the 1st person while all the others are done from a 3rd person limited. This was a technique also employed by Night Shade author Courtney Schafer in The Whitefire Crossing. Unlike Schafer who limits her points of view to two characters, Dempsey spreads his around more liberally with a half a dozen or more leading to frequent shifts that don't always make a ton of sense. Generally, when an author chooses to tell the story from someone's point of view he's telling the reader this is someone important. There are at least three characters that receive this treatment in varying degrees who while interesting, in a I'd-like-to-read-a-short-story-about-this-person kind of way, provide nothing essential to moving things forward.
Relatively speaking that's a pretty small complaint. The novel moves at a brisk pace and Donner is an interesting character with loads of demons to deal with - internal and external alike. His partner, a smarty (think holographic AI) named Maggie, provides a great juxtaposition to the revived Donner. As he struggles with why he's alive while Maggie is the epitome of life albeit in someone whose "life" is entirely artificial. The plot itself is overtly melodramatic (again another theme of noir) leading to a pretty predictable ending and an eyebrow-cock-worthy coup de grâce. In this case the journey is good enough to trump the destination allowing me to give Dempsey a pass for the lack of a cleverly disguised big twist.
Ultimately, Necropolis strikes just the right pastiche of genres and themes. Demsey successfully takes components of film, science fiction, melodrama, and crime fiction and puts them together in what is another excellent debut from Night Shade.
Necropolis is due out in stores on October 4 and should not be confused with the similarly titled Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner from Angry Robot.(less)