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....more
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. ...more
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. ...more
Science fiction as a genre has always been based on what if. What if we brought a man back to life? What if we gave a computer control of a space station? What if robots had the ability to reason? Diving Into the Wreck is very much in this tradition, asking what happens when we start to forget technology? Kristine Kathryn Rusch's answer is: nothing good. Refreshingly old school, Wreck calls to mind the horrors of cramped space craft, the bleakness of space, and the depravity of human greed.
Boss loves to dive historical wrecks, derelict spacecraft found adrift in the blackness between stars. Sometimes she dives for salvage, but mostly she's a historian. Once she dives a ship, she either leaves it for others to find or starts selling guided tours. It's a good life for a loner, with more interest in history than the people who make it.
When she comes across an enormous spacecraft, incredibly old, and apparently Earth-made, she's determined to investigate. It's impossible for something built in the days before FTL travel to have journeyed so far from Earth. Boss hires a group of divers to explore the wreck with her, but some secrets are best kept hidden, and the past won't give up its treasures without exacting a price.
Diving in space is a lot like diving in the ocean. Instead of being worried about something snagging the air hose or running into a shark, sharp edges and nebulous ancient stealth technology are the fear du jour. Rusch does a brilliant job of communicating the claustrophobia and paranoia that seem inimical to creeping through a derelict space craft far from any safe haven. Stealth tech is the macguffin, a lost technology that promises untold wealth and power to the person(s) who can bring it back, that promises a horrible death to anyone who comes in contact with it.
The most charming aspect of the novel for me was the author's commitment to wreck diving. Not the plot, but rather the nuts and bolts of the profession. She considers all the pitfalls and realities of the job - what kind of person Boss would have to be, how she would make a living, and why she would put herself through it all. By the end of the novel nothing in Wreck lacked authenticity. So much so that if I didn't know the novel was set in the future I might find myself looking in the yellow pages for wreck divers.... you know, if I had to venture into deep space to recover something.
The novel is divided into three parts corresponding to the two novellas and a third part that weaves them together. Taken on their own the first two parts are incredibly dynamic with pace, tension, and all the hallmarks of great science fiction. It's unfortunate then that the connection of the two comes off a bit disjointed as though they weren't necessarily written with each other in mind. This is pervasive throughout the novel where in order to tie the two novellas into a connected arc with a shared conclusion Boss spends a great deal of time talking, and talking, and talking to members of her team. While these scenes are excellent opportunities to character build, and believe me the characters are tremendous, they leave quite a bit to be desired when it comes to pace.
Told entirely in the first person, Wreck is very introspective . Boss spends a great deal of time humming and hawing her motivations in the midst of coming to grips with relationship to her father. This deep introspection combined with the need to tie together the disparate story modules led to an unfortunate lack of world building. Although not entirely necessary for the kind of story Rusch was telling the world itself is very bare bones. I never got a great feel for the 'space' her lush characters were inhabiting and I'm not sure if the final product wasn't a little harmed as a result.
Nevertheless, Diving Into the Wreck is a worthwhile investment of reading resources. Although the novel as a whole has some hiccups with an overly tidy ending there are parts here that hold up against the best science fiction on the market. City of Ruins, Rusch's sequel, was released in May of this year. I've already got a copy on my bedside table and look forward to getting to it soon. I'm very confident that lacking the need to integrate two novellas into a larger arc City of Ruins can only improve over a very solid first installment....more
Who is Sam Sykes? Parts of Tome of the Undergates would suggest he might be to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction or what Christopher Moore is to whatever the hell genre Christopher Moore writes. Other parts make me think he's a glorified AD&D Dungeon Master who decided to write down his most recent campaign in painstaking detail. And still others make me think he might be the next great voice in epic fantasy. So I guess my answer to my opening question is - I don't have a freaking clue, but I really want to find out.
Tome tells the story of a band of six adventurers (pejoratively) none of whom particularly like one another or themselves. Led by Lenk, a charismatic warrior with some sanity issues, the group is hired by Lord Emissary Miron Evenhands to recover a stolen tome that has the power to return the demon goddess Mother Deep from the depths of hell (or its reasonable approximation). To accomplish their goal all they have to do is kill a few fish-men, a couple demons, and some purple longfaces, while not killing each other in a fit of pique.
Now does that sound like a AD&D campaign or what? Making up Sykes' party of adventures are the aforementioned Lenk, Kataria the shict (elfish) archer, Gariath the dragonman barbarian, Daenos the craven rogue, Dreadaelion the powerful yet sleepy wizard, and Asper the whiny cleric. I do believe that's the perfect mix. Healer? Check! Tank? Double check! Backstab and traps? Check! Ranged Damage? Check! I'm not being remotely critical either because I actually think AD&D shenanigans is what Sykes was trying to do. Tomes is a caricature of a pen and paper role playing game with six players, a deranged DM, and maybe a few bong hits in between battles for comedic purposes. I mean, look at the map Sykes gave to his German publisher and tell me I'm wrong.
It's in this activity where Sykes frequently calls to mind Douglas Adams or Christopher Moore. His dialogue is snappy and clever. He makes fun of the misuse of the term irony, and then displays lots of proper irony. Embracing the unexpected, Sykes' barbarians have a gentleman's courtesy and a professorial vernacular. Half of his main characters hear voices, hinting at best mild schizophrenia and at worst full blown demonic possession, while the other half are chicken shit or oblivious. Even his most hard-boiled killer at one point dances a jig while teasing someone about being a pansy. The whole thing reeks of satire and frequently induces belly jiggling laughter.
While the satire works (for the most part) that doesn't mean there aren't significant flaws in the narrative. Most noticeable are the first 160 pages of the novel which consist almost exclusively of an extended fight scene that left me cold and more than a little bored. Excising, shortening, or perhaps relocating the entire section would have done a great deal for the novel's first impression on this reader. Beyond the early struggles Sykes also frequently falls into the trap of allowing his band of adventures to break character for humorous asides. Sure the humor nearly always hits the mark (Sykes is a funny dude), but I found that oftentimes it took me out of the story and reminded me I was sitting in my living room reading a book. All in all the novel's missteps felt like a debut author finding his way into his characters and the story he wanted to tell.
And then... the strangest thing happens. Sykes puts the laugh track away and closes out the novel with 100 pages I'll hold up against anybody in the genre. Wouldn't you know it, Sam Sykes has heart. I won't go into detail here about these pages because they are frankly a gem that should be enjoyed without any expectation placed on them. I will say though that one chapter in particular featuring Gariath could be an award winning short story. In addition to these later pages, Sykes divides the novel into three acts beginning each of them with an entry into Lenk's journal. Similar in style to his concluding pages these entries set down the opportunity to explore more serious themes should he choose in future novels.
Tome of the Undergates is a difficult book to rank. I purposefully don't give ratings as a reviewer (on the blog anyway) because I think they're misleading and any star rating on this novel wouldn't do it justice. Strictly as a narrative, I didn't particularly enjoy it. For it's comedy and irreverence toward the AD&D paradigm, Tome is a breath of fresh air. In terms of being able to watch a potentially brilliant, and wholly unique voice in the fantasy genre come of age? It's priceless. And I mean that in the least lame way possible.
I look forward to reading Sykes' sequel Black Halo soon. To anyone reading this, who is not following Sykes on twitter @SamSykesSwears stop right now, open up another window, and follow him. He's better than Shark Week (not really)....more
I love historical fiction. Shogun by James Clavell, Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham, and Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, are a few of my favorites off the top of my head. What I love about the genre is how it stimulates me to learn about historical events or individuals that I haven't had an opportunity to pay much attention to. If an author is clever enough to take this historical fiction element and blend in some science fiction the end result is something I can't help but want to read. After finishing The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder I feel a great deal of conviction in saying, "Please sir, can I some more?"
Set in London, 1861, Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne stand at a crossroads in their lives. They are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, commissions Burton to investigate why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End and if there's any connection to the assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack. Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist.
As an American, I didn't have a great deal of historical attachment to any of the characters in Strange Affair. Before cracking it open the only two characters I had any real conception of were Burton himself (only barely), Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale (cameo appearances!). As for the many other historical characters in the novel I was largely blank - although Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a sad oversight on my part. I can't begin to describe what a pleasent sensation it is to finish a novel and immediately adjourn to wikipedia. Who knew Spring-Heeled Jack was a real figure? Mark Hodder reminded me that life is stranger than fiction, and life with a heavy dash of fiction is even stranger.
The central figure in the novel is obviously Richard Burton whom represents the paragon of English maleness for the Victorian era. He is rugged, overtly sexual, and excessively educated. It's unfortunate that he often seems to possess some incredible powers of deus ex machina. He always has the answers and manages to be in the right place at the right time regardless of the circumstances. Faced with a sword wielding panther man, well wouldn't you know it, Burton is a master swordsman! This is a minor complaint as Burton's renaissance man capabilities were well established early on and it did little to take away from Hodder's plotting which is - if I'm being frank - masterful.
Most of the novel's early going is spent introducing Burton and "Victorian" London now powered by all kinds of incredible contraptions. There are message delivering robot dogs, street sweeping crabs, armchair helicopters, and some form of early botox to name a few. Once all that's out of the way and Burton gets his assignment the novel begins to read a bit like Sherlock Holmes before descending into a paradoxical mind trip. Paradoxical I say? Yes, not everything in Strange Affair is steampunk and I think calling the novel anything but science fiction obscures the truth.
If what I write here is a bit obscure, I apologize, but it's in an effort to avoid spoiling any of Hodder's twists. While the novel's early parts are historical urban steampunk, the latter half goes in a disparate direction culminating in a lengthy section told from the point of view of a character other than Burton or Swinburne. Things very much slow down as this point and scenes become somewhat redundant as Hodder runs through the reasons why in 1840 history as we know it ceased to exist. I don't begrudge the time spent as the explanations are necessary to unravel his dense plotting.
By the novel's conclusions everything makes sense, which for anyone reading the middle section described above may seem like quite an accomplishment. None of that would have been possible without some brilliant writing. I don't mean that Hodder is some kind of wizard of metaphors like Lauren Beukes or an efficient wordsmith like K.J. Parker (although he does write a fine sentence). Nor has he put together a layered narrative like Lev Grossman. Instead, what I mean by brilliant writing is that he's written something that feels Victorian, but reads modern. Compare it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which feels Victorian and reads the same way leading to an occasionally frustrating experience. I think it's quite an accomplishment to write a dated voice but make it so easily readable to modern sensibilities.
I've been making up sub-genres lately. In my Zoo City review I coined urban noir magical realism and now I'm forced conjured up historical science fiction steampunk. Whatever. Regardless of what I call Strange Affair it's a premier example of how to do historical fiction through the specfic lens. Hodder has given readers a tremendous trip into the history books, a dynamite adventure to keep things lively, and a science fiction twist to get the mind working. Consider me a big fan of Mark Hodder moving forward. I can't wait to check out the sequel The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man....more
I don't read a lot of anthologies. No particular reason really other than I tend to read them a story at a time in between novels. Thus they take forever for me to finish, and oftentimes I've forgotten the less memorable stories by the time I actually finish the whole collection. If I were smart, I'd do a quick paragraph on each story as I finish them. In case you're curious, I'm not and I didn't. So instead I'm going to do more of a short review about the overall tone of Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge edited by Lou Anders and give a few of my favorites.
Anders, in his introduction to the anthology, reminds us that, "To a very real extent, we live today in the science fiction of the past." He's so right - just look at William Gibson's notion of cyberspace in Neuromancer (1984). Fast Forward 1 is all about looking at the implications of technology on society, but not today's technology. Anders and his all-star cast of authors are instead looking at the future of tomorrow and millenium from now to push the envelope not only about what technology we can expect to see, but how it will impact our lives. Anders goes on to say that, "it is the future of science fiction itself (and that of science fiction publishing) that some have called into question, and lately it seems as if the very idea of the future has been under threat." In his essay "The Omega Glory," Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon summarizes Anders' thoughts:
"I don't know what happened to the Future. It's as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date."
Interestingly, one of Anders' contributors, Paolo Bacigalupi said in an interview with Locus Magazine:
"Maybe science fiction lost its track a little bit, and got off on some lines of speculation which are pretty interesting but not necessarily connected to today’s questions, as previously it had been core to our conception of ourselves and where we were headed."
I think Bacigalupi's view and Chabon's desire to continue pushing the envelop are well blended by Anders. Fast Forward 1 shows how the world will change just over the next hill in stories like Elizabeth Bear's The Something-Dreaming Game or Mary Turzillo's Pride. It looks beyond and into the distant future with stories like The Terror Bard by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper or No More Stories by Stephen Baxter.
For me the anthology works best in the stories that fell in between. Not so esoteric as to be difficult to identify with, and not so near term as to be uninspiring. These stories shined because they not only pushed the science fiction envelope, but found a way to use that technology to pull back the shades on the cultural and ethical dilemmas of today. To me, and Anders who I quote, "science fiction is a tool for making sense of a changing world. It is the genre that looks at the implications of technology on society, which in this age of exponential technological growth makes it the most relevant branch of literature going."
Haunting stories like Bacigalupi's Small Offerings and George Zebrowski's Settlements confront our ability to sustain humanity. A Smaller Government by Pamela Sargent parodies the U.S. government, while Jesus Christ, Reanimator by Ken MacLeod takes on faith. Vanity is a popular subject reflected in p dolce by Louise Marley and The Hour of the Sheep by Gene Wolfe. There are very few failures in the anthology. Some are not terribly memorable like The Girl's Hero Mirror Says He's Not the One by Jennifer Robson or Kage Baker's Plotters and Shooters, but in the moment they are compelling and well worth the read.
Perhaps the most thought provoking work in the book is Anders' introduction which I have quoted from liberally. He provides a thought provoking discussion about where the genre has been, is going, and will find itself in the years ahead. It's well worth a read all on its own and can be read on-line in its entirety (here). Anders was recently awarded a Hugo for his editing prowess and as far as I can tell from Fast Forward 1 and the dozens of other Pyr titles I've read, it is well deserved.
As I stated in the early parts of this review, I don't read many anthologies so rating this is one tough. I can say that there was no story I rolled my eyes at or felt like skipping and there are certainly several stories I would hold up against any I've read.
In the mood for a science fiction anthology? Definitely pick this one up....more
My wife and daughter were out of town this past week so I took the opportunity to really plow through some of my to read pile backlog. K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog coming out this September is hard to justify as "backlog", but it's a title that’s called to me from the first time I laid eyes on it. The cover is another one from Raymond Swanland who has done such good work for James Barclay, Glen Cook, and others. His covers always contain such tangible motion and barely contained violence, which appropriately describes K.V. Johansen's novel.
At first glance Blackdogis a traditional epic fantasy. It has scope, powerful magic, gods, and demons. There is a central villain and an obvious and vulnerable yet strong willed heroine surrounded by her stalwart cadre of allies. Soon though, as the pages go by, things become more robust. Johansen's world expands and what appears to be another hero's journey is instead a journey to humanity, an evaluation of the bonds of family, and an examination of divinity.
Blackdog's world is lush, in a cognitive sense, barren and arid in truth. Shown only a fraction of the larger spectrum, the novel focuses on a caravan route through the desert to the mountain steppes. Each city, or culture, is founded around a god of the earth who appears in both human and incorporeal forms. Similar to novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin) or Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson), gods are very much active in the world, interacting with their followers and enemies alike.
Where Erikson is overly esoteric at times, Johansen has a knack for not getting off kilter. Opportunities arise to wax on a philosophical leaning or delve unnecessarily into a facet of her world not relevant to her story and each time she resists the urge to be diverted. In doing she captures some of the scope and majesty that Erikson so often does, but manages to avoid the trap of self indulgence. While Blackdog lacks the genre commentary and philosophical meandering that Malazan excels at, I can't help be feel some kinship between the two works.
My only real complaint stems from complex naming conventions that often led to a sensation of reading one of the Russian greats. Everyone has at least two names, and the devil/wizards have a minimum of three. Cities tend to be 10-12 letters or more, and many of them have similar sounds. Main characters even have names that run together with each other at times. Given Johansen's education background (MA in Medieval Studies), I'm confident that phonetically and historically speaking all the naming conventions make sense. For example, a woman raised in Attalissa's lands is likely to have a similar sounding name to honor her goddess. However, for readability, I found it all a bit distracting; often pulling me out of the story to reevaluate who the hell she was talking about.
If I was pulled out of things occasionally by confusing names, I was more often sucked in completely (I finished the novel at 2 AM). Blackdog possesses a dreamlike quality that lends itself to distorting time. Divination and soothsaying, inherently intangible pursuits, are prevalent themes in the novel. Magic in general is abstract with little no explanation as to why or how it works (Malazan again, anyone?) relying on deep concentration and meticulous preparation. Combined with the notion of body sharing demons, this all leads to long periods of time where Johansen finds herself describing non-visual events like meditation and internal battling. This would normally lead to periods of boredom, but instead she rescues the slower pace with often lyrical prose that shows and directs, but never tells.
Early on I felt myself digesting Blackdog in small chunks. A chapter here, a chapter there, I wrapped my mind around Johansen's complex world building. Like a runner in a 5K, I found my pace, easing into a rhythm before unleashing my Usain Bolt like speed in the stretch run. By the novels end I was breathless, winding down from a tremendous dénouement, and a heartfelt ending.
It's unclear whether or not Johansen has a sequel in store, if so, there's no indication on the copy I received to review. The final pages complete the story, but leave enough hanging to warrant future installments. The world building alone surely invites future exploration. In either case, I should think lovers of epic fantasy, particularly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, will devour Blackdog with vigor. I definitely did....more
As I was nodding off last night to the thundering pops of at home fireworks outside my window (northeast D.C. thinks the 4th of July lasts for a week), I couldn't get Disney's Beauty and the Beast out of my head. Beautiful Belle is trapped in the Beast's castle and held against her will. During her imprisonment Belle comes to see the Beast for what he is and not what he looks like. He's smart, gentle, and compassionate. Outside the castle, Belle's suitor - Gaston - plots to "rescue" her. In truth, Gaston is a blowhard who only wants to free Belle to pump up his own ego.
After twenty minutes or so of pondering, I realized that I couldn't get Beauty and the Beast out of my head because I'd just read it. Only Beast was a vampire in a book called The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith. Of course the realization came at the same time my neighbor set off a screamer, so my epiphany was accompanied by me falling out of bed - not terribly impressive.
In 1870, vampires rose up to become the dominant life form on earth. This event would come to be known as The Great Killing. 150 years later free humans only exist in enclaves near the equator where vampires refuse to live. Adele, princess and heir to the largest of these enclaves, has been captured by Prince Cesare, the most notorious vampire alive. Not everything is at it seems in the world of vampires, and Adele soon comes under the protection of Cesare's brother Prince Gareth. Now, she's a piece for both sides in a chess match that's sure to lead to open war between vampires and humans. The only thing between Adele and a gruesome death are Gareth and a mysterious entity named the Greyfriar. Can they keep her alive long enough for her betrothed, Senator Clarke, to come and rescue her?
So the plot of a fantasy novel is retread? Right, no one is surprised. There are more examples of recycled material in fantasy novels than almost any other genre. As long as there's enough to otherwise entertain a fantasy yarn can get away with some unimaginative storytelling. By and large, I think Greyfriar accomplishes that.
I maintain that world building is the most important aspect of a novel in the speculative fiction genre. So many blemishes can be covered up by a world that stimulates the imagination in a new and unique way. The Griffith's blend a fully realized alternative reality earth complete with imperial borders, political infighting, and magical powers. They also up the ante by providing something fresh to the vampire narrative by tossing out many of the stereotypical "vampirisms" to create a more realistic (lol?) interpretation. It's my opinion that they pull of this off near flawlessly providing such a great backdrop that the underwhelming plot becomes an afterthought to the world's epic scope.
Outside the not-so-imaginative plotting, my complaints are two fold. First, two real places featured heavily in the story - the Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle - just aren't well drawn. I've been to both of these places and neither were described in a way that made them come alive. I'm not sure what the point was of naming them as real places given their lack of ambiance. Both of these places are as haunting and impactful as a place can be. None of that really came through in the writing. Second, there's just a too much Twilight going on between Adele and Gareth. It's pretty well done and there's a great deal of action to keep things butch enough for male readers (yes, a generalization, sue me). Still, in this post-Twilight world vampire/human infatuation is going to near impossible to pull off without some serious eye rolling.
To use a ridiculous metaphor, Greyfriar is to books like Big League Chew is to chewing gum. I mean it's no Bubblelicious, the unquestioned king of gums. Nor is it like a black licorice gum with nuanced flavors. It's not even one of those gums that's like regular gum until it's bitten into and there's that squirt of liquid whatever it is. Nope. It's Big League Chew - simple, fluffy, and a little overwhelming after an extended chew. It's not a gum that's meant to be chewed every day (unless exhausted jaw muscles are the end game), but there's nothing wrong with occasionally shoving a big wad of Big League Chew into your mouth and endangering your ability to breath.
So where do I come down on this book anyway? To be honest, I'm not really sure. This definitely isn't the kind of novel that I gravitate toward with the, how can our love survive the gulf between us malarkey. Still, there's a pace of action, and a depth to the world that are impossible for me to ignore. For anyone who enjoys romance, action, and some blood sucking - The Greyfriar is a great choice. It hits all three of those things out of the park and provides enough that I will absolutely check out the sequel, The Rift Walker. Looking for something with a dynamic plot or lustrous prose? Eh, I might look elsewhere....more
I shouldn't like this book as much as I do. I should be writing about how many fantasy cliches it has and how unimaginative the narrative is, but I'm not. Instead I'm going to write a review about how damn fun Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son was to read.
Caim is a knife for hire and he's got the reputation as one of the best. Orphaned at a young age his only companion is a woman named Kit. Unfortunately, he's the only one who can see her. As an assassin, there's few who can match his skill. Along with Kit's extra set of eyes and a strange ability to cloak himself in shadows he has never failed an assignment.
Caim lives in Othir, the heart of what was once known as the Nimean Empire. Twenty years previously (or so) the Church ousted the empire and waged a pogrom against the nobility. When a rush job comes to Caim's attention he is plunged into a conspiracy that will shake the prelacy to its core.
Shadow's Son moves at a breakneck pace. Sprunk tells a straight forward story in less than 300 pages making it a very tight novel. The entire narrative takes place entirely within the span a few days save for a few brief flashbacks from Caim. Succinctness, an underused style in the fantasy genre, affords little time for waxing poetic or excessive world building. Still Sprunk finds plenty of time to hit just the right note in a series of action sequences that include superlative swordplay and Prince of Persia like break ins. These moments are written beautifully reminiscent of James Barclay - another member of Pyr's excellent stable of writers.
When I say the novel lacks excessive world building, I don't mean there isn't any. Quite the opposite. Avoiding information dumps Shadow's Son brings the reader along throughout the story dropping tidbits about the world Caim inhabits when the time is right. By the novels conclusion Sprunk's world building leaves quite bit still in the shadows (pardon the pun). Had an additional hundred pages of character development and setting made its way into the book it would have better for it. Characters died without the emotion that should have been present and the scope of the setting seemed smaller in my mind than Sprunk intended, I'm sure.
Furthermore, Caim as a protagonist felt very static. I imagine that he was intended to become less hard and more do-gooder as the novel wore on, but to me felt that way from the get go. Caim convinced himself that all his victims were bad men who deserved it. He never sees himself as a bad guy, nor does anyone else really. Hello?!?! He's an assassin! I think Sprunk has/had the makings of a much deeper character that he gave up on by making him sympathetic from the first minutes.
All told Shadow's Son is an excellent debut novel that avoids many of the debut pitfalls. It is not ambitious by any means, instead providing a great base for Sprunk to grow. I hope other first time authors can look to this as an example in not only how to get published, but how to ensure it happens again.
Jon Sprunks second novel, Shadow's Lure, is due out Tuesday, June 7. ...more
Brilliant. I've never written an author after finishing a book/series and I felt compelled after this. Of course Edelman is a DC metro area resident sBrilliant. I've never written an author after finishing a book/series and I felt compelled after this. Of course Edelman is a DC metro area resident so I felt extra compelled, but I couldn't help but offer him my compliments.
I loved the Jump 225 series. Edelman's wrote a novel an exciting novel that had almost no action. The political and financial wrangling were riveting. It was reminiscent of Abraham's Long Spring Quartet in that regard.
I highly recommend the series. I'm Pro-Natch....more
Sometimes I read a book and I immediately know what I have in front of me. I know it's good, or interesting, or none of those things. With The Dervish House by Ian McDonald I didn't have a clue for two hundred pages. I felt like Paris Hilton after a night out - confused about where I am, at a loss for how I got there, and just hoping to find a ride home with some dignity intact.
Several times in the early going I considered abandoning the book in favor of something more expedient. Unlike most science fiction work out there Dervish House isn't meant to be consumed in 48 hours. I found myself reading small chunks everywhere. A few pages in the bathroom, a sentence or two at stoplights, a couple chapters during an episode of Dora the Explorer, and before I knew it I was so engrossed I finished the last 150 pages in one sitting.
Dervish House follows several characters in the Queen of Cities, Istanbul, that live and work together in the dervish house in Adem Square. There's a boy detective, a retired economist, a treasure hunting wife, a futures trading husband, a nanotechnology start-up family, and a psychopath in the midst of a religious experience. Making the connection between these disparate individuals is the heart of the story moreso than the relatively straight forward terrorist plot that drives the narrative.
If I could ask McDonald one question it would be whether or not Turkey contributed any funds to the novel. I say this tongue in cheek, but Dervish House is a beautiful homage to one of most unique cities on earth.
"The glare of white neon never changes by day or by night. The Grand Bazaar keeps it own time, which is time not marked by the world's clocks or calendars."
Passages like this bring the city to life. If I had to write an essay about McDonald's main character I would write about Istanbul. The city is a character unto itself and the story is a mere backdrop to the heaving nexus between east and west. I finished the novel and immediately asked my wife if we could go to Turkey again. She had been asleep for two hours, but I'm pretty sure the dismissive wave and grunt meant yes.
The novel is slow to develop leading to a frustrating read in the early going. McDonald throws a dozen balls into the air at the outset. Not only is he beginning numerous plot threads that are seemingly unrelated, he is also introducing the reader to a new culture full of its own language affectations and sordid history. Once McDonald finds a comfort level with these things the novel takes off and reads a little like high brow spy fiction.
Nominated for the Hugo Award last week, Dervish House is a worthy addition to that tradition. It is certainly one of the best novels I read in 2010. McDonald asks a lot his readers, but he rewards them with a beautiful novel that I believe will appeal to traditional readers in some ways more than lovers of genre fiction. ...more