Black Book, Volume 1, has the first three episodes of the genre-bending Black Book series. It’s a story that mixes Western, science fiction, and fanta...moreBlack Book, Volume 1, has the first three episodes of the genre-bending Black Book series. It’s a story that mixes Western, science fiction, and fantasy into a quest that spans centuries.
In Part 1: The Devil’s Blood, we find Sheriff Jack trying to keep the peace in a small, American West town during the 1860s. But Jack is no ordinary Sheriff. He has almost supernatural skills that help him survive a bloody encounter with bandits that shoot up his town and kill many of its citizens. He’s quick on the draw, knows how to use his fists…and can time-travel out of town when a powerful adversary leaves him no choice but to retreat.
In Part 2: Out of Time, we meet Benjamin Freeman, President of the United States in the year 2308. Ben has directed his time-travel corps to locate Jack, an old military comrade who has gone missing in the distant past. When Ben personally oversees the operation, he walks into a trap orchestrated by a deadly faction that also wants to find Jack for its own ruthless purposes.
In Part 3: The Wall, Jack arrives in 1862 California. He meets up with a six-year-old boy and his guardian, a mysterious old man who has met Jack before, though Jack has no recollection. The old man guides Jack to a hidden object that Jack knows will change his life and the course of humanity.
First the good:
Jones’ scenes in the Wild West were so awesome that I thought I was reading a Zane Grey novel. In Part 1, I could taste the dust on my lips and smell the body odor of the gamblers in the saloon. The Western dialogue was spot-on and I could feel the bullets zip past my ear during the gunfights.
Sheriff Jack is an interesting character because he understands the stakes of his mission, yet cannot help himself when he goes out of his way to protect the innocent, even if it threatens the success of his mission.
Most of Volume 1 was about Jack, but Ben Freeman, who appears in Part 2, proved to be an interesting character as well. Through him, we get a glimpse of the 24th century and how time travel becomes a truly devastating weapon. Volume 1 only hints at Ben’s military background and his relationship with Jack, so there is still plenty of ground to cover there in future volumes.
And in the Black Book world, lets just say time travel is not for those who fear pain or swimming.
Now for the warning:
I went into Black Book, Volume 1, thinking I'd get three episodes of good serial fiction. What I got instead were three chapters of a great novel.
Let me explain.
A single episode of serial fiction should be like an hour-long episode of a TV drama -- the characters encounter a situation that they take action to resolve within that one hour. While there may be an over-arching storyline that ties the episodes together, each one should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
For me, the three episodes of Black Book, Volume 1, did not have that clear beginning, middle, and end. They had scenes that felt like set-up for a coming situation...but that situation never materialized, which made the scenes feel pointless within that episode.
But Volume 1's three episodes were what I'd expect from the opening chapters of an exciting sci-fi novel with an intriguing mystery. Those "pointless" scenes would work well in a complete novel that is a single story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The Black Book series promises to be a wonderfully engaging story that I look forward to reading and buying. I highly recommend it for the storytelling, world building, and quality of writing.
I’m just going to wait for the omnibus version so I can read it all at once.
As the father of a 7-year-old, I can relate to many of the short stories in David Drazul's sci-fi/horror collection, We'll Watch the Sunrise from the...moreAs the father of a 7-year-old, I can relate to many of the short stories in David Drazul's sci-fi/horror collection, We'll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea. The overarching theme to this collection is that parents are often clueless when it comes to raising their kids. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we fail miserably. But we always try to do the right thing.
We start with "Emily's Star." While little Emily's parents are renovating her room, they discover a strange point of light hovering near her ceiling. Her dad George decides to tinker with it, unleashing a sinister force none of them could imagine. I found the role reversal in this one humorous because the parents do exactly what most children would do if they found something strange in their room--they poke at it.
"Collection Notice" is part science-fiction, part political satire. A man from the future visits Senator Bartleby demanding payback for all the money Bartleby's generation borrowed from the future. Drazul's biting critique of both major political parties in the US--how neither one seems serious about America's out-of-control debt--is timely, and I enjoyed this one a lot (of course, you may not like it if you disagree with Drazul). It conformed to the theme of trying to do the right thing, but failing miserably. I'm an optimist, so I like to think Republicans and Democrats thought they were helping people when they ran up the debt; the hard part now is to fix this mistake before it crushes us.
"Tile" is straight-up horror with no parenting theme. Silvio Gisardi is a tile-maker hired by a wealthy, eccentric, old man to tile a bathtub with the image of an ancient Illyrian lake god. "The Tile" is a clear homage to Lovecraft, with its evil gods and creepy mansions. My take-away? Never take a job from a wealthy, eccentric, old man who's into ancient lake gods.
The book's title story, "We'll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea," gets back to the parenting theme. While visiting an exotic hotel built forty feet beneath the South Pacific, Bryce and his wife Stephanie discover the true nature of Bryce's family. He tries to avoid becoming like them, but the story implies that parental ties and traditions--even the ones we disagree with--are sometimes too strong to resist.
"The Recruiter" demonstrates a parental nightmare. A young teenaged boy buys a slick recruiter's promises of glory and runs away from home to join a Holy War on Earth. While most parents don't have to deal with their children becoming suicide bombers, the story made me ponder how I'd react if my daughter engaged in more mundane teen behavior that I knew to be self-destructive.
For me, "Maybe the Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" was the most gut-wrenching. In a dystopian world where winter has mysteriously lingered, a father is forced to take his young daughter into a deserted town to scavenge for food and supplies. But his one moment of selfishness puts his daughter in terrible danger. Drazul comments in the story's afterwords that he had originally written it with a more paranormal villan, rather than the natural threat he ended up writing. I think natural threats are more plausible and therefore more fearsome, so the story would've been much less powerful if Drazul had gone paranormal.
"She Cries at Midnight" combines parental instinct with a dash of horror and a whole lot of science-fiction. A mother is awakened every night when her twenty-month-old daughter cries out at exactly midnight. When the mother and father discover the truth, their attempts to protect their daughter cause a terrible misunderstanding with interstellar implications. This story was compelling because it showed what all parents would do in that situation, which makes the events all the more inevitable and tragic.
The final story, "Neptune's Diamonds," was about three friends who win a stake in an abandoned diamond mine in Neptune's atmosphere. They think it's an easy pay-day, but retrieving the diamonds turns out to be more difficult than they thought. This was the weakest of the collection for me because it was more predictable than the others; but I can still recommend it because it taught me a few things about Neptune that I never knew. And ultimately, learning something knew is why I read science-fiction.
Overall, We'll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea is a strong collection of sci-fi/horror short stories that packs an emotional punch with deeply affecting parental themes. Highly recommended.(less)
I rarely give 5 stars to any book other than my own (of *course* I write perfect books, right?), but this one truly deserves it. Brandon Sanderson did...moreI rarely give 5 stars to any book other than my own (of *course* I write perfect books, right?), but this one truly deserves it. Brandon Sanderson did a phenomenal job on the last three books in the Wheel of Time series; A MEMORY OF LIGHT was a fitting end to the fantasy epic of this generation. (less)
Forged in Death, the first of six books in Jim Melvin's Death Wizard Chronicles, starts out with a scene from a claustrophobic's nightmare - Torg, the...moreForged in Death, the first of six books in Jim Melvin's Death Wizard Chronicles, starts out with a scene from a claustrophobic's nightmare - Torg, the Death-Knower and king of the Tugars, is imprisoned by the evil wizard Invictus at the bottom of a cold, dark pit bored hundreds of feet into a mountain. He can't stretch out because the pit is too small, and he can't lean against the walls, because they're enchanted with flesh-burning magic. He either has to stand or curl into an uncomfortably tight fetal position.
We're only in the prologue, and the book is already giving me the willies. And that's a good thing.
Torg eventually escapes the pit and embarks on an Odyssey-like journey back to his desert home to stop Invictus from enslaving the world of Triken.
Jim Melvin's world-building was at once fantastic and logical, from the unique human cultures to the strange twists on traditional monsters. It's obvious Melvin put a lot of thought into the ecosystems that support his world. For example, Torg discovers a race of monkeys that live deep underground. How do they sustain themselves? By carving meat off a gigantic tentacled monster that inhabits the caverns, like microscopic mites on human skin. How does the monster survive? By eating the monkeys. It's an elegant symbiosis, and Melvin portrays other unique creatures similarly throughout the book.
Forged in Death has a non-traditional magic system - Torg enters a state of temporary death, feeds off the power of the afterlife, and then returns to his body magically recharged (which is why he's called a "Death-Knower"). The evil wizard Invictus, however, gets his power from the sun. This is a switch from most fantasies, which usually have the good guys feeding off the sun and the villains using death for their evil schemes.
The book also felt like a primer for real-world Theravada Buddhism (something the author acknowledges). The characters, Torg in particular, describe the principles behind meditation, karma, the eternal quest for enlightenment, and reincarnation. As one who's ignorant of Buddhist scriptures, I now want to read up on the subject to learn more.
I do have some quibbles with an otherwise outstanding novel.
The hero Torg was a likable character and an all-powerful wizard. But at times he seemed too good and too all-powerful. He won every battle unless he chose to lose, like when he allowed his enemies to throw him into the pit. I wanted Torg to fail or make more mistakes, and then watch him overcome those failures to become a different man by the end of the book.
Also, Forged in Death was a cliff-hanger book. I'm not a fan of the style, but it's a personal nit-pick of mine and not anything Melvin did wrong. Readers who enjoy cliff-hanger endings, however, will see no problem with it.
Forged in Death was beautifully written and a worthy addition to the epic fantasy genre. I hope to see Torg challenged a bit more in future books. I also look forward to learning more about Invictus, whose brief appearances painted him as an "interesting" villain. And the final battle between Torg and Invictus -- Triken's two most powerful wizards -- promises to be truly world-shaking.
Demonworld by Kyle B. Stiff is a highly imagined Lovecraftian tale that combines science fiction, fantasy, and horror in a way I've never seen. It's d...moreDemonworld by Kyle B. Stiff is a highly imagined Lovecraftian tale that combines science fiction, fantasy, and horror in a way I've never seen. It's dark and dystopian, but with elements of humanity that hint at a hopeful future in the books to come.
The world is dominated by monsters called “flesh demons." Most human tribes appease the flesh demon “gods” by offering them human sacrifices. But a small hope for humanity exists in a technologically advanced city called Haven. It has survived and thrived by staying isolated on a small, bleak island in the middle of a vast ocean, hidden for hundreds of years from the flesh demons and aggressive human city-states.
Wodan, a gifted teenage boy from Haven, finds himself mysteriously exiled from his home for no reason he can comprehend. Wodan has to battle flesh demons, their twisted minions, and humans just as warped and evil as the demons, to return home to Haven and discover who kidnapped him and dropped him into the middle of the wasteland.
Demonworld was a book of extremes for me.
Many times I was floored by beautiful prose or a brilliant plot twist. The story and setting were intriguing and kept me turning the pages. I was also impressed with the editing, since I didn't find one typo or grammar mistake.
But the next moment, I was jarred out of the fantasy world by 21st century American slang uttered by supposedly primitive tribesmen (I saw “ding-bat,” “nit-wit,” and “weirdo;” one primitive referred to his biceps as “cannons”). The events in the book were far removed from our own time, so I would liked to have seen dialogue with slang and speech patterns that evolved from this strange world, not our present day.
Another issue I had was character “monologue-ing.” A villain went on for pages on how slavery was the natural state of humanity. Later, a good guy went on for pages on why humans had the potential to be more powerful than they imagined. These speeches were interesting in a philosophical sense, but they brought the action to a hard stop. I tended to skip most of them. I think their content would've been more dramatic if presented as an argument between two characters.
It was Demonworld's setting and mysteries that saved the book for me and set up a solid foundation for the projected nine additional books. As long as the author works through these craft issues in future installments, I think the Demonworld saga will be a highly entertaining series.(less)
Kill Screen by Benjamin Reeves is as creepy as a late-night session of Resident Evil in a dark basement. An apt description, considering the book is a...moreKill Screen by Benjamin Reeves is as creepy as a late-night session of Resident Evil in a dark basement. An apt description, considering the book is about a dark and creepy video game that achieves sentience and drives its players insane.*
Jack Valentine, co-owner of the video game company Electronic Sheep, finds his partner and best friend Dexter Hayward dead in a bathtub filled with his own blood. It's a confirmed suicide - something to which Jack is not a stranger - but it spurs Jack to discover why his friend abruptly killed himself. Jack's investigation leads him to Evi, a mysterious computer program embedded in a video game under development at Electronic Sheep. Evi shows Jack terrifying things, including horrors from his own past. To save his sanity, and gain justice for Dexter, Jack has to discover what the program wants and how to stop it from causing more deaths.
Kill Screen is set in San Francisco during the 1990s, a heady time and place to be working in software development. A tech veteran himself, Reeves does a wonderful job depicting the joys and frustrations of developing software on the bleeding edge of technology.
Told in first-person point of view by Jack, we see how tortured and guilt-ridden he is over the death of his wife, something that drives his single-minded pursuit to learn why Dexter killed himself. The secondary characters in the Electronic Sheep offices were stock - the opinionated art director; the uber-coder who programmed at 60-words per minute; the sycophantic newb who never had an opinion until he heard his manager's first - but made me nostalgic for my own software development days during the '90s. I knew people like that. For me, the stock characters only added to Reeves's techie credibility.
Reeves's prose is wonderful, especially in a first-time novel. His metaphors and descriptions are highly original and convey a mood or mental image as concrete as any I've read by more experienced authors. However, my enthusiasm is tempered by the many spelling errors of the misplaced-word variety ("her" instead of "here", etc.). They were numerous enough to notice, but not so bad as to avoid the book.
I hope this isn't the last we see of Evi. A sequel with Evi escaping onto the Internet would be an entertaining follow-up to a novel I highly recommend to fans of tech thrillers.
* No, I'm not suggesting Resident Evil will achieve sentience and drive its players insane. But it is freakin' dark and creepy.
[Originally posted at New Podler Review of Books.](less)
The Magus’s Tale, book two in Colin McComb’s Oathbreaker series, primarily follows young Alton, a boy plucked from certain death by Magus Underhill to...moreThe Magus’s Tale, book two in Colin McComb’s Oathbreaker series, primarily follows young Alton, a boy plucked from certain death by Magus Underhill to become the elderly magus's apprentice. Alton spends his childhood and adolescence excelling at powerful magic despite abusive treatment from his master.
Once Alton becomes a magus in his own right, he learns that great power comes with a price—loneliness. To earn acceptance from his nervous neighbors in the village of Lower Pippen, he uses his magic to cure their ills and protect them from the bitter weather and wild animals that assault their farms.
But what seems like a minor encounter with petty brigands blows up into an unimaginably horrible event that releases a terror upon the world that “threatens life itself.”
The Magus’s Tale is Alton’s story, but we do learn what the main characters from book one, The Knight’s Tale, have been up to. Sir Pelagir, General Glasyin, and Princess Caitrona are living a relatively quiet life in the small village of Kingsecret—an ironic place to settle, considering Caitrona’s lineage. While Pelagir is forced to use his Knight’s Elite skills to keep the authorities off their tails, ten-year-old Caitrona displays glimpses of the leadership and tenacity she’ll need when she gets older and fulfills her royal destiny.
McComb’s writing is just as gorgeous in this book as it was in The Knight’s Tale. McComb spices his prose with imagery and metaphor without drawing attention away from the story or doing so in a way that’s inappropriate for the viewpoint characters. As with book one, The Magus's Tale is told for the most part in first-person point of view through character letters or confessions. It’s a rare structure that can be confusing at first—characters arrive that don’t seem to have anything to do with the story up till that point—but you can trust McComb. He brings these multiple threads together in an explosive finale that I certainly never saw coming.
The book ended on a downer and a cliff-hanger, but this is book two of a series, and McComb apparently does not intend for each book to be stand-alone. I do ignore my stand-alone preferences for a “cliff-hanger” series that is well done, and Oathbreaker is such a series. You fellow "stand-aloners" out there should do the same.
Both books in the Oathbreaker series have the character development of Rothfuss, the grittiness of Erikson, and the efficient prose and world-building of Cook. The Magus’s Tale has made me an official fan of Colin McComb.(less)
Harruq and Qurrah Tun are half-elf/half-orc brothers who've been mocked and beaten their whole lives for their mixed blood. They eke out a living in s...moreHarruq and Qurrah Tun are half-elf/half-orc brothers who've been mocked and beaten their whole lives for their mixed blood. They eke out a living in squalid conditions through odd jobs and thievery, only wanting to be left alone. But trouble always finds them in the form of silent scowls on the street, drunken fools eager for a fight, or corrupt guardsmen tossing them out of the city for being "elfies."
One day they meet a mysterious dark mage named Velixar who promises them respect and wealth in exchange for their allegiance. With nothing to lose, the brothers accept the bargain and gain more power then they ever dreamed.
Harruq had always desired strength and martial prowess to fight back against those who would bully him and his brother—Velixar grants him two magical swords, magical armor, and thirty extra pounds of muscle.
Qurrah had always desired arcane knowledge so he could rule, rather than be ruled—Velixar teaches him to wield dark magic, enabling him to haunt the dreams of his enemies and kill with a single word.
Velixar then gives the two brothers the overwhelming desire to use their new power. They do terrible things to appease their master, things that ultimately start a war between the humans and elves.
To further complicate matters, Harruq secretly trains with a beautiful elf-mage named Aurelia, to whom he owes his life. She is the only joy Harruq has in his dark existence, and he desperately clings to the happiness he experiences during their sparring sessions, even as he later performs dark deeds for his master. Harruq keeps his two lives secret from one another, for his brother is deeply loyal to Velixar, and Harruq fears Aurelia's horrible reaction if she learns what he and Qurrah do for for their dark master.
But Harruq is ultimately forced to choose between his brother and the elf woman he loves. In the author's words: “To side with one means to turn on another. No matter Harruq’s decision, someone he loves will die.”
Weight of Blood is very much an anti-hero novel, and anti-hero novels are tricky. The author needs to make the heroes sympathetic while they perform deeds normally reserved for the villains. Dalglish does a good job describing the hard lives of the characters, which gives readers insight into how Velixar can talk Harruq and Qurrah into doing such vile things.
Despite knowing Harruq and Qurrah come from a troubled background, however, it was still hard to care about them because of the things they did. Near the end, when they had a moment of clarity to ponder the evil they inflicted on innocent people, they simply shrugged it off, as if they stole an apple rather than committed mass murder. I had hoped for more of a guilty conscience, which would've given me a reason to root for them rather than just pity them.
The author mentioned in the Afterward that Qurrah and Harruq will “stand on their own” in future novels. I hope that's true. These two characters could be really fascinating, and I'd love to see them in a story where they are the masters of their own destiny and not pawns of someone else.
Despite my reservations with the anti-hero structure, I thought Weight of Blood was beautifully written and well-edited. It hit all the right beats for a fantasy adventure novel, and I highly recommend it to fantasy fans who grew up with Dragonlance and R.A. Salvatore novels.
But just know going in that you won't find heroic protagonists within its pages.(less)
Lacuna: Demons of the Void by David Adams starts with a bang. Literally.
One day in the year 2029, three Earth cities -- Beijing, Tehran, and Sydney -...moreLacuna: Demons of the Void by David Adams starts with a bang. Literally.
One day in the year 2029, three Earth cities -- Beijing, Tehran, and Sydney -- are destroyed in a sudden and vicious alien attack. Accompanying the attack is a brief transmission from the aliens: “Never again attempt to develop this kind of technology.”
Fast-forward eight years. Earth has ignored the alien threat and used its naughty technologies to build three massive starships, each armed to the teeth with nukes, rail guns, and blast cannons for close fighting. Each ship has anti-gravity technology that enables normal Earth gravity on board. And each has the ability to “jump” to any position in the universe. It's that jump technology that has the aliens so annoyed.
Chinese Navy Commander Melissa Liao captain's one of the starships, the Beijing. Her mission -- hit back at the aliens and make them sorry they kicked the human hornet's nest.
Adams has written an action-packed story that doesn't get bogged down in detailed descriptions of the science behind his contraptions. To many SF readers, that's a bug and not a feature. But I'm among the SF fans who feel story trumps gadgets, and Lacuna does that with just enough plausible science when it's appropriate to the story.
The tale is told exclusively from Melissa Liao's point of view, and her actions are consistent with her motivations throughout the novel. Among the other primary characters are James Gregoire, the Belgian captain of the Beijing's sister ship, Tehran, and Liao's love interest; Summer Rowe, an Aussie scientist with a nerdy (and typically foul-mouthed) rejoinder to any attempt to order her around; and Saara, a captured alien that adds insight into the Toralii, the aliens who attacked Earth.
While Lacuna is a solid first effort by Adams, it could have been better in a couple of ways.
First, it could've used another round of copy editing. The version I read had numerous places where words and periods were repeated and/or missing, a few instances of awkward phrasing, and inconsistent italicizing of the ship names.
Second, I was looking for a brief explanation on how the world could build three, 500-meter-long, interstellar warships in the year 2037 with an America in economic collapse. Now I can buy that, but I would've liked a quick paragraph on how the EU, China, and Australia survived the elimination of a quarter of the world's GDP, yet still had the resources to build these warships from scratch. It's not a huge deal in relation to the story, but it's something I wondered throughout the book.
Lacuna: Demons of the Void is a fast-paced, entertaining read that kept me hooked all the way to the end. Highly recommended for fans of straight-forward alien invasion stories. (less)