World War Z could perhaps be considered the definitive zombie novel of the last decade; you’d be hard-pressed to find another stand-alone zombie story that comes more readily to the minds of modern readers. After finally reading it myself, I was happy to discover that is has, for a number of reasons, more than earned this revered status.
An unorthodox format The subtitle of World War Z is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and that’s exactly what this book is. It isn’t told in the conventional format of a novel as there isn’t a protagonist or even a group of characters that the book follows. Instead, it is broken up into a series of many, many interviews (supposedly conducted by the author, Max Brooks), in which survivors of “World War Z” tell their stories. These stories are arranged in a roughly chronological format so as to follow the arc of the Zombie War from its inception to its conclusion, which, in its own way, makes the Zombie War itself the protagonist of the novel.
The format of World War Z may not sound like the recipe for engaging novel, but Max Brooks presents these interviews with such confidence that you simply cannot help but continue to turn the pages. With perhaps a few minor exceptions, every survivor’s story is crafted with such attention to detail that you’ll want to keep reading just to absorb all the meticulously drawn facets of the Zombie War. Unfortunately, the voice of each interviewee isn’t quite distinct enough to make any of them memorable beyond the actual content of their stories. They do begin to run together in a continuous stream that sounds more like conventional prose than the natural voices of separate people, but this is a relatively minor trade-off that detracts very little from the book as a whole.
Spectacular worldbuilding If Brooks deserves to be commended for one aspect of World War Z above all others, it has to be the worldbuilding. By the time I finished the book, I felt as if I was actually a reader in the future who had flipped through the chronicle of a legitimate period in human history. Every detail of the Zombie War is colored with such real-world truth that they’ve been seared into my mind with an incredible vividness; I keep having to remind myself that the people and events that defined the Zombie War—Yonkers, Redeker, the Honolulu Conference—are all fictional.
Even more remarkable than this worldbuilding is that Brooks never resorts to heavy exposition, and that is perhaps the primary reason why World War Z is as engaging as it is. Instead of falling back on basic info dumping, Brooks uses a very clever technique to fill his readers in on these people and events: he splits them up into tiny bits of relevant information, and then strategically places that information within the interviews. Slowly, over the course of many interviews, you will be able to piece together the chronology of the Zombie War—and there is something immensely satisfying in being able to put everything together on your own, rather than simply being told what happened.
Captivating stories Although the individual interviewees in World War Z aren’t quite as distinct as I would have liked, many of their stories are astounding snapshots of high-quality writing. You might think that a novel told in the format of World War Z would fail to present thunderous action sequences or the moments of sheer, adrenaline-pumping terror that you’d naturally associate with a story about a “Zombie War,” but you’d be wrong. The interview format allows Brooks to give us both stories of the defining moments in the Zombie War through the perspectives of first-hand accounts and intensely personal stories of endurance and survival from the rest of the world’s populace. World War Z features massive, jaw-dropping battles between the military and the undead, heart-pounding escapes from zombie hordes, and even quiet, simple stories of people trying to find their place in a world where humanity is on the brink of annihilation. Some stories are straightforward and climatic, while others contain clever psychological twists. The variety between them all will keep you turning pages to find out what Brooks is going to throw at you next.
Why should you read this book? There is a reason why World War Z is considered to be such a definitive zombie novel; it has everything you could want from this kind of story, and the refreshing interview format spices things up enough that the book is able to dodge the potentially dangerous pitfalls of not having a protagonist or any consistent characters to invest in throughout the course of the novel. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Even still, I had a blast with this book. I finished it feeling anything but disappointed, and the vivid (and often horrific) imagery still haunts me in the best way possible. World War Z is an absolute must-read for any fan of zombie stories or even speculative fiction in general, and I don’t hesitate at all in giving it my highest recommendation.(less)
Kitty Rocks the House by Carrie Vaughn is the eleventh chapter in the Kitty Norville series. The urban fantasy series follows title character Kitty, a werewolf public radio DJ that shocks the world by becoming the first paranormal celebrity. As you might imagine, there are folks who aren’t too happy with her for shining lights into their darkness.
Kitty’s back in Denver from the scientific conference in London where she warned the world about the vampire Roman’s Long Game. She and the vampire Master of Denver, Rick, are busy receiving envoys from potential allies against Roman when a strange wolf appears and attempts to join the pack. Kitty has her hands full defending her position as Alpha while Rick mysteriously disappears.
A focus on characters rather than action Urban fantasy books can be frustrating for a reader because they feature a ton of action in a relatively small 350 or so page book. Books typically open right before trouble starts, and finish as soon as it’s ended. One of the strengths of the Kitty books is that Kitty herself is so outspoken that the reader has no trouble following her personal growth through each book. However, it’s been a while since Kitty’s had the space to sit down and reassess who she is and why she does what she does. The challenge of bringing newcomer Darren into the pack provides Kitty with a chance to reaffirm her beliefs.
Kitty Rocks the House also lets us see more of a few old characters, as well as some new ones. Spending a lot of book time around the pack lets us see them for the first time since book number eight, Kitty Goes to War. Cormac and Amelia are really starting to jell as a team, and Detective Hardin is back.
Not the highlight of the series The really good long running urban fantasy series all seem to experience peaks and valleys in terms of books that leave you on the edge of your seat, and ones that are quieter reads. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files does it; Patricia Brigg’s Mercedes Thompson series also does it to a lesser extent. Kitty Rocks the House is certainly one of the lulls in action for the Kitty series. This is not a bad thing, as the slower pace and lower stakes let Kitty re-ground herself and deepen her character for the reader. However, it did not leave me reaching the end of the book dying for book twelve to find out what happens next.
Why should you read this book? Kitty Rocks the House is not one of the highlights of this series. At book number eleven, with twelve (Kitty in the Underground) due out at the end of July 2013, it’s also not a good place to jump in having never read any previous titles in the series. That being said, it’s also not a good book to skip. Kitty does a lot of growing here, and there are some major revelations about vampire culture that will be important in future books. And while I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books in the series, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile afternoon read.(less)
Elminster Enraged is the third book in Ed Greenwood’s Sage of Shadowdale series. It follows the arch wizard Elminster’s experiences after the death of the Goddess of Magic, Mystra, and the spread of the Spellplague, which renders magic a dangerous and unreliable force. Though no fourth book appears to have been announced yet, the story is such that I imagine another is forthcoming.
This guy just can’t catch a break Given that the two previous books in this series are called Elminster Must Die and Bury Elminster Deep, and that prior to this he’s also featured in Elminster In Hell, it is no surprise that he’s pretty pissed off at this point. For standard sword & sorcery fantasy, we’ve actually hit a pretty dark place in the story. For those who aren’t familiar with Elminster, he is a Chosen of the Mystra. He’s hundreds of years old at this point, and he has dedicated essentially his entire life to spreading the use of magic in the world and protecting people from the abuses of the powers of evil in the Realms.
When we join him in Elminster Enraged, his Goddess is dead, magic is highly unreliable and dangerous, and those who can use it are viewed with even more suspicion than usual in fantasy. Add to that the fact that the only real legitimate force of magic in the world right now (The War Wizards of Cormyr) basically thinks he’s a fake pretending to be Elminster to steal magic items and generally be a nuisance. All this combines to create an Elminster who is very different than that of the earlier books who could basically go anywhere, do anything, and meet with nothing but awed respect.
But where’s the rage? It’s titular even! For a book called Elminster Enraged, he really doesn’t get angry all that much. He keeps up the “long-suffering mage” routine pretty well, and he has a few moments of “oh why me” throughout, but serious rage is severely lacking here. Honestly, I know it’s supposed to be a testament to his loyalty to his Goddess that in spite of all the bullshit, he continues doing the job, but it’s getting so unrealistic as to be completely ridiculous. It takes massive amounts of patience and dedication to try to do the right thing when it seems like every single person around you is dead set on screwing themselves over and ignoring your advice. That is hard enough to do for ten minutes; Elminster appears to have been doing it for centuries.
Assuming there’s a next book that picks up exactly where this one leaves off, -it- is the one I’d have called Elminster Enraged. I think I’d have called this one Elminster Trucks Along or Elminster Starts to get Cheesed and really set him loose in the next book. Having watched him get crapped on for the past several books, I was really looking forward to seeing him give in and get a little Dark Side on us, but I was left disappointed.
Why should you read this book? This was still a great book, despite the fact that the rage made little more than a brief cameo. Elminster is an excellent character, and Greenwood writes him very well and very consistently (a feat, considering he first appeared in print twenty-five years ago). As a story, it was quite enjoyable. It is a little tough, as somebody who spent so much time in the main chronology of the Forgotten Realms, to keep track of everything happening now nearly 100 years later in Realms time, but it was worth it.
Elminster really is a character for the ages. At once serious and absurd, stoic and passionate, he struggles to do what he knows he should, even when nobody around him understands. He’s also one of the most completely written characters in history, with thousands of pages dedicated to him from a young man up to now, 1200 years later.(less)
Shadowdale was first published in 1989 as the leading novel in The Avatar Trilogy, arguably one of the most significant series of Realms novels in terms of their effect on the setting. It was written under the pseudonym Richard Awlinson, which I always believed was to protect the actual authors (Troy Denning and Scott Ciencin) from the ensuing fallout. Shadowdale begins the tale of the fall of the Gods of the Realms. Chaos, destruction, and death abound as the Gods themselves walk the earth in mortal shells.
Even the Gods have Gods The premise of the story is this: the Gods and Goddesses of the Forgotten Realms themselves answer to an over-being called Ao. Ao summons all of the deities into his presence and informs them that the Tablets of Fate (which define and describe the individual duties of each deity) have been stolen, and their juvenile jockeying for power, instead of managing the world as they should have, has disappointed their master. As punishment, Ao forces them all into human bodies and casts them down to the Realms to, I guess, learn humility or something.
Naturally, they just continue their juvenile scheming and jockeying for power. This leads to a number of, frankly, ridiculous changes to the existing structure of Forgotten Realms geography, religion, magic, you name it. We’re talking dead Gods, mortals elevated to Godhood, the introduction of “dead” and “wild” magic zones in the world, earthquakes, floods, and all the good bible stuff. It’s such a fundamental change to so many things, done so early in the life of the setting that it makes one wonder just what TSR was thinking.
Some compelling characters Major plot element aside, here’s the actual meat of this story: the adventures of a very typical D&D party (composed of a fighter, cleric, mage, and thief, exactly how D&D was designed) are actually quite good. As much as I may disagree in isolation about the changes that were made to the Realms in this book, watching these characters deal with something as significant as Gods walking the earth was very engaging. They all have their own problems going on, were thrust together more by circumstance than choice, and experience plenty of conflicts among themselves; all this combined made for some really great storytelling.
One of the two most interesting characters is the party fighter, Kelemvor Lyonsbane, who suffers from one of the most original curses I’ve seen in a long time. Some early ancestor of his was a greedy jerk who fell afoul of some gypsies (as you do) who cursed him (as they do) such that he could only ever engage in selfless acts without any desire for compensation or reward. If he ever did something for his own profit, he would transform into a werebeast and kill people. However, somewhere down the line, the terms of the curse flipped around. Kelemvor can ONLY do things for his own personal selfish benefit. He needs to put a price on everything, and do nothing for the sake of the act. It makes for some really amazing scenes when the group is basically trying to save the world, and he’s trying to negotiate a price for it.
The other great character is the party thief Cyric. He’s the best kind of burgeoning villain. Pragmatic rather than malevolent, he believes what he sees and not much else. He’s cynical, suspicious, and rational. One of the early introductory bits of history about Cyric involves him directly facing the Goddess Tymora, to whom he did not tithe a proper amount of gold. When asked whether or not he believes in her, and whether that is why he would not sacrifice to her, the response is basically, “If you’re not a goddess, you don’t deserve my gold; if you are a goddess you have no need for it, so why bother?” In a world like the Realms where the supernatural is so commonplace, the logic and rationality is actually quite refreshing. Cyric becomes a much larger fixture in the history of the Realms as a result of actions that occur during this trilogy, and giving him such a relateable grounding helps establish him later in the series.
Some strong opinions The Avatar Trilogy turned out to be something of a polarizer for fans of the Forgotten Realms. It was once suggested to me by a source who will remain nameless that many of the changes these books made to the setting were done without much consulting with the other authors; a few works in progress had to be changed if not all but scrapped to account for the new state of things. This is where my almost certainly false idea about why the book was published under a pseudonym originates. It was also the catalyst for plenty of questions for various authors and other TSR staff at conventions for a few years following the publication of the series.
As a lifelong reader of the Forgotten Realms, I don’t like a lot of what happened in this book and this trilogy. It just pushed so much existing lore out the window and replaced it for evidently no necessary reason. This is a lot like retconning a series to make a future mistake into truth. Instead they seem to be suggesting that they’d screwed up somewhere in earlier works and wanted to reset the world more to their liking, but the changes they went with remain very strange to me.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoy epic fantasy without necessarily having to slog through 10+ books and thousands of pages, this is a great book for you. The whole trilogy is only about 1000 pages end to end and all done in the classic action-oriented realms style that made it so popular. Not to mention, you have Gods battling over cities, magic going awry throughout the world, and an intrepid band of heroes facing impossible odds to try and save the world from utter destruction.
It also serves as one of the more integral “realms history” books in the catalogue. So much changes with how the Realms function as a result of this series that in order to really understand a lot of events of later works, you need to understand what happened during this time. Many elements are referenced only obliquely from here on out, and if you don’t read it here, you might find certain things confusing or hard to follow down the road.
Whether you like, dislike or don’t care about the changes these books made to the setting, they are inarguably among the most important and impacting entries in the Forgotten Realms bibliography.(less)
Azure Bonds, written by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, was published in 1988 and tells the story of a sell-sword named Alias who awakens one morning to find a mysterious tattoo on her arm with no memory of how it came to be there. Her quest to uncover information about the symbols inscribed thereon leads to battles against powerful magic users, assassins, undead Liches, and even a God, all of which leaves her questioning her very existence.
You awake in a tavern... All right. I know I’ve mentioned before that a lot of Forgotten Realms novels read like Dungeons and Dragons modules, but this one is a little out of hand. Not only was this another Realms novel written by authors who started off creating game modules for TSR, it has pretty much the exact arc that a gaming module would. The party leader has a mystery that needs solving, so she assembles a party, sets out to overcome obstacles one by one until the final encounter is met, and afterwards everything pretty much just ends. Heck, a character even levels up in this book, about as explicitly as you could portray it without the Final Fantasy victory music playing in the background.
It’s no coincidence that shortly after this book was published, the PC game Curse of the Azure Bonds was released, and it basically follows the plot of the book. The ease with which it does this goes to demonstrate just how like a gaming module the story turned out to be.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing Don’t get me wrong, this was still a great book for the exact reasons it sounds like I’m criticizing above. The thing about gaming modules is that they are exciting! They are fun! They keep you engaged! The reason you play Dungeons and Dragons isn’t for the Mountain Dew, it’s to put yourself in the middle of incredible events and get through them. You can feel the level progression throughout the story as they work their way through the weaker minions of the forces of evil, have a boss fight or two along the way, and fight a final epic battle full of cutscenes. And it’s awesome.
There is and always will be something to be said for some good old-fashioned ass kicking, complete with villains monologuing, “you’ll never take me alive”-ing, and all those great tropes of storytelling. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want in a story, and Azure Bonds delivers in spades. It’s actually quite gratifying to see respectable authors publish respectable fiction that is basically the same kind of stories you told yourself with action figures in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon.
Continuing to set the stage An obviously recurring theme in most of these event reviews is that these early works helped to pave the way for future fantasy (and not just Forgotten Realms fantasy). They helped to bring a lot of things into the mainstream that weren’t previously considered “valid” fiction by a lot of people. While most of the characters and settings in Azure Bonds don’t actually go on to impact much of future Forgotten Realms fiction, it did later grow into a trilogy, which also spawned several connected novels afterwards that were among some of my personal favorites in the Realms.
The conversion of the story into the PC game also went a long way toward bringing PC RPGs into the wider public eye. The “Gold Box” Dungeons and Dragons games (starting with Pool of Radiance, just before Curse of the Azure Bonds) had a huge impact on the future of RPG gaming. These games led to arguably the best PC RPG ever made, Baldur’s Gate from Black Isle Studios. Its emphasis on storytelling, dialogue trees, nested options, and alignment/reputation systems could be easily suggested to have inspired the entire Mass Effect generation of RPGs, actually adding the same role-playing you would have done around the dining room table into a single-player experience.
Why should you read this book? You should read this book because it tells a great, engaging story of struggle and overcoming odds. You should read it because it is an early instance of fantasy that has a strong female protagonist who solves her own problems and don’t take no crap from no one. You should read it because it laid the foundation for some of the best things fantasy literature and gaming have done in the past 30 years. You should read it because it has a lizard man who smells like freshly baked bread when he’s angry (no I’m not kidding).
Most of all, you should read it because it’s an excellent story, and learning about it by playing the PC game would be murderous. I mean, those graphics have NOT aged well at all! But in all seriousness, as a child and early teen, I must have read this book a dozen times, and the action and pacing keep it engaging every time, even when you know how it ends.(less)
While not the first book published in the Forgotten Realms by American author R.A. Salvatore, Homeland takes place first chronologically, and it reveals much of the history of one of the most famous characters of the Forgotten Realms, the Dark Elf Drizzt Do’Urden. As the first book of The Dark Elf Trilogy, it provides back story to Drizzt who appeared pretty much fully-formed and complete in the novel The Crystal Shard. Starting with Homeland and proceeding through Exile and Sojourn, this trilogy details the life of Drizzt from birth to just before the events of The Crystal Shard.
A troubled life Drizzt Do’Urden suffers from a strange affliction: he isn’t evil. While we are no strangers to morality and shades of grey here on Earth, fantasy settings with their roots in gaming have a slightly different outlook: namely that monster sheets have a blank that says “alignment” on it. While it may be difficult to envision a race or society (or even a single town, for that matter) where everybody in it is evil, it is a necessary tool when you’re building a world for a role-playing game. You can’t handle goblins attacking the town by stopping to decide if maybe a few of the goblins are simply following orders and are really just nice guys. Goblins are evil, says so in the book, it’s okay for my good character to kill goblins. It’s a necessary sacrifice in the name of game design, and it bleeds into the fiction with pretty much no issues.
This is why Drizzt is presented as such a compelling and sympathetic character. He’s not evil, he doesn’t want to be evil or do evil things, but he exists in a culture where everybody is evil. Families advance in the hierarchy of the city by exterminating the family above them. Sons and daughters in the family advance the same way. Drow Elven society is presented as a culture of paranoid opportunists who will do anything to get ahead. He knows that if the wrong people discovered his true thoughts, they would simply kill him out of hand, and that sure-fire knowledge provides the driving force of his character.
A life of trials The problem with the above scenario, however, is that it is completely impossible. If we forget for a moment the absurdity surrounding the idea that a whole race of people are evil, and the equal absurdity that in that situation, someone could be born who is instinctively good (this also says a lot of things about nature vs. nurture that are awkward to consider in this context), the issue is that there is no way he would have survived to adolescence, let alone adulthood. It might be easy to pretend to believe a certain way and to talk a good game, but there would have come a moment, many moments, where he was called to act in a way in keeping with his society, and he would have balked. The sheer volume of second chances Drizzt gets growing up completely contradicts the cut-throat and pragmatic culture we’re being asked to accept.
Drizzt, of course, has one way to deal with the issue of his beliefs in the face of those of his culture: be better at everything than everyone. The primary characteristic of Drizzt, beyond not being evil, is his incredible fighting skill. He goes to the academy where the males are trained in warfare, almost immediately trusts someone, gets stabbed in the back (nearly literally), decides to just go it alone from then on, and dominates everybody in every competition forever. He falls victim to that same heroic gene that Legolas and Aragorn have in The Lord of the Rings; you know, the one that makes them basically invulnerable and immune to any harm? It really doesn’t serve to make him a realistic character at all.
His saving grace The one thing that saves this review from actually being overall negative (this in spite of my Drizzt obsession while I was a young teen) is the action. If you’re going to write a character who is basically a machine of death, the best thing you can do is keep putting him in fights and letting him loose. R.A. Salvatore is renowned for his combat writing, and for very good reason. The fights between Drizzt and his various recurring and one-time enemies are incredible. In the original trilogy, Drizzt gets himself a proper nemesis, the assassin Artemis Enterei, with whom he fights dozens of times in over a dozen novels, and each and every one of those fights is solid gold.
You won’t find any deep philosophy in the Drizzt Saga (unless you think “it’s so hard being good when everyone thinks you’ll be evil” is deep), though you can witness at least some superficial dialogue on prejudice and racism from the way most people treat him. What you will find is some of the best action fantasy ever written, with an eye on detail and description of maneuvers that create the fight right in your mind’s eye. I’m flabbergasted that none of these books have been tapped to be made into movies, especially with the popularity of Drizzt among readers who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. They are just -begging- for some fight choreographer to go to town on them.
Why should you read this book? Drizzt Do’Urden is one of the most famous characters in fantasy. Just as you should know at least a little about the origins of Superman, Gandalf the Grey, and Rand Al’Thor, you can’t really claim to have a properly broad appreciation for fantasy without knowing about Drizzt. While his action-packed stories are perhaps a little lacking in deep character development, the sheer quality of the action more than makes up for it. These books are quick, fun escapism distilled down to its essence. You’ll burn through them quickly, and you’ll have a ton of fun doing it.(less)
The Grandson of the Great Khan, Temur, awakens on a field of dead men, having just survived a bloody battle in a civil war his uncles have perpetuated. Abandoned and alone with no family and no friends, Temur finds a pony and begins to ride away from the dead. After finding a lover, Edene, among the people of the plains, the wizard Al-Sephr steals her away in a storm of ghosts, and Temur vows to bring her back. And south among the mountains, the once princess Samarkar has finished her training and awaits the form her magic will take. Soon though, she is embroiled in the great war of khagans, and joins Temur to find Edene and bring peace to the continent.
Inspired by and set against the backdrop of 14th century Asia, Elizabeth Bear creates a wonderful, rich, and complex world in the first book of the Eternal Sky series.
Paint by numbers no more Elizabeth Bear has done away with the standard paint by numbers fantasy world that so often happens in the genre. She writes a vivid world of magic and politics, far removed from the usual medieval European fare. In every corner of the world, the sky changes color with the gods, shifting from purple and blue to the burning bright orange of a heartless sun, with dozens and dozens of moons in the night sky. Magic is not defined by any known science; it forms in the hole in your heart and your strength defines it. Ghosts of all manner haunt the world, and tiger warriors hide among the mountains and hills.
Powerful prose, vulnerable characters While the worldbuilding is top notch, the true heart of the novel is in the subtlety of the writing and the strength of the characters; those two cannot be separated.
Bear writes with a certain economy, always choosing to hold back a paragraph when a sentence will do, especially in regard to a character’s inner turmoil. When Temur feels the loss of his family, when Samarkar questions her strength, or when Edene fights back against her captor, the readers are able to reach across the divide of the writing and draw the conclusions for themselves. Bear never treats her readers like idiots, and it is that confidence and subtlety that make this such a great novel. Their pain is our pain, their triumphs are our triumphs, and it is all because of the confidence and trust that Bear gives the readers.
Fireside tale Any writer, or reader for that matter, can tell you how important plot is. Characters, worldbuilding, prose: none of these things matter if there is not a strong story behind them. Bear demonstrates her mastery of the craft in this novel, as she has all these elements as well as a strong, solid plot with an innate sense of pacing. Range of Ghosts is a novel that takes its time. Range of Ghosts is never slow but it does not rush, either. Bear takes her time with each character and each moment, but never lingers too long. Like a storyteller around the fire, she knows exactly where to focus and how many breathes to take between sentences.
Why should you read this book? The strength of the worldbuilding, the subtlety of the characters, the economy of the prose, and the pitch perfect pacing all make this book one of the best released in 2012. If you are tired of your standard, paint by numbers fantasy, then take Range of Ghosts for a spin and fall in love with its world.(less)
When choosing to write a posthumous sequel to a book that is arguably one of the finest examples of children’s literature to date, you must do so very carefully. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908, laid the literary groundwork for novels such as Richard Adams’s Watership Down and even Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. So to say the undertaking of a sequel is an ambitious task would be an understatement (see William Horwood’s questionable addition to the Willows series). However, it seems that Jacqueline Kelly is all too familiar with a sequel’s potential to flop, or even worse, tarnish the name of the original and what she has created here moves deftly in familiar waters, riverbanks and streams.
Sequel well-done The very first page of Kelly’s Return to the Willows asks us, or rather implores us, to put down this copy immediately and, “ask our librarian for the first book so [we] won’t be entirely clueless”. Luckily for me I am no stranger to Grahame’s original tale as it was both a favorite of mine and of my children's. From here, we are swept along to the fire-lit burrows of this book’s inhabitants to the very studious and important laboratories of Cambridge as Mole, Toad, Water Rat and Badger take on a whole host of outrageous, often comical but wholly heartfelt adventures. At the start of the tale, Toad has a rather fortuitous head injury that jumbles enough bits in his brain to allow him to be a self-proclaimed genius. He heads off into the world of academia to write dissertations and theses on such distinguished topics of jam and toast. Coincidentally, this also happens to be the exact moment when his nephew, named Humphrey (for "Toad Number Two" doesn’t roll off the tongue so well), comes to visit. All manner of calamities ensue as he is left alone to watch over Toad Hall and the rest of the characters are left to deal with his misadventures.
Kelly’s narration is right on par with that of Grahame’s, even going as far as to invoke Grahame’s classic relative pronoun style of introduction, “In which Toad has…”, or, “In which the pair…” and it surprisingly doesn’t come off as contrived or forced. The rest of the text is perfectly dreamy and somber, and while no accent to the characters is ever specifically implied, one can’t help but give these creatures' voices an air of sophistication and knowledge.
Stunning art The art direction for Return is nothing short of stunning. As I read through the pages of the book my daughter and I were constantly getting lost at the adroit hands of master illustrator Clint Young. From the book’s very first images of Water Rat and Mole lazily sitting in a row boat to the warm glow of a candle at the book’s close, you know that you have been treated to some of the industry’s finest. Young is no stranger to the fantasy genre and has aided in the illustrations of many sci-fi projects, most recently taking the lead art direction for the MMORPG, Star Wars the Old Republic.
Why should you read this book? Ultimately, Return to the Willows is a great success for what it is trying to do. It goes without saying that no recreation will ever live up to the classic, but what Kelly has done here is certainly a great supplement to Grahame’s magnum opus. At the heart of the matter, this is a children’s book and I can certainly assure you that any child with a flair for fantasy and wonder will not turn the last page disappointed.(less)
Anne Bishop broke onto the fantasy scene in 1998 with Daughter of the Blood, the first book in the Black Jewels trilogy. That trilogy is fantastic, so much so that we feature it on our "Twenty Must Read Finished Fantasy Epics - An Introduction to the Genre." However, Bishop’s other work has been a mixed bag. Tir Alainn was a decent trilogy, but didn’t have the same punch that made Black Jewels so ground breaking. Later installments in the Black Jewels universe left me feeling like I was reading fan fiction, even if they were by the original author. The first two installments in Ephemera aren’t bad... but I disliked the third one so much that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to give Bishop a chance again. Written in Red was my one last chance for her, and I’m so glad I took that gamble.
Meg Corbyn lives on an Earth very, very different from ours. The terre indigene rule the world, and in Thasia( what we would know as the Americas) humans lease land and resources from the set of peoples that include vampires, shapeshifters, and elementals. Terre indigene and humans do not get along well and don’t understand each other. In every large human settlement there is a Courtyard, where the local terre indigene live and where human law does not apply. In every Courtyard there is a Human Liaison. Rather than being a diplomatic figure, they are more of a mail clerk responsible for making sure deliveries are made and sent on time between the two societies. Meg Corbyn is on the run and desperate, and the open job of Human Liaison to the Lakeside Courtyard sounds like a great place to lay low for a bit. But what happens when those hunting her find their prey? And what will the residents of the Courtyard do when they realize their Liaison is more than they bargained for?
Classic Bishop Elements Anne Bishop is known for dark worlds inhabited by misunderstood and outright abused characters. Written In Red is par for the course. But where in previous books society itself is twisted, here it’s not. There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about the terre indigene, just very much not human. They don’t understand humans, and very few humans have ever given them a desire to learn more. Human society isn’t inherently warped either, just quintessentially human. There are good people doing the right things for the right reasons, and there are those who are out for everything they can get away with no matter what the cost to everyone else. And while Meg has seen her share of abuse in the past, it hasn’t left her dark and emotionally scarred like Jaenelle (Black Jewels) or Sebastion and Belladonna (Ephemera) are. Bishop hasn’t tried to recreate anything she’s done before, leaving Written In Red to feel fresh, new, and exciting while still being something that no one else could write.
Unique worldbuilding Rather than being dark epic fantasy, Written in Red is an urban fantasy, and utterly unique in that genre. Meg’s world isn’t one step off from ours, it’s five or six. Bishop has taken what other authors in urban fantasy have done, and taken it much, much further. Most authors have had vampires, werewolves, demons, and more living alongside humans for centuries... but usually hiding from the humans for most of that time. Here, these peoples have never hidden from humans, and have in fact dominated human history. The United States doesn’t exist because early settlers didn’t find Native Americans here... they found more terre indigene and had to deal with the native population in a far different way. This subtle but profound change is unique, and I like how Bishop was able to take this and create something so complete. While I dislike her use of place names that are just a step or two away from ours (such as Atlantik rather than Atlantic), it did serve as a way to designate that this world that isn’t ours is still shaped like ours.
Why should you read this book? Because Bishop seems to have found her ability to write again (sorry, I really had issues with A Bridge of Dreams). In Written In Red you can once again see all the talent that was showcased in Daughter of the Blood, even if the tale isn’t as sweeping or as dark. Bishop has left plenty of room for further installments while still giving this novel a satisfying ending. Overall, this is a good read, and I am so happy to see Bishop back in the game and growing again as an author.(less)
Age of Voodoo is the fifth book in the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove. While remaining true to the overarching themes of the burgeoning Godpunk genre, it also marks a bit of a departure from the usual style we've come to see from these immersive worldbuilding action novels.
Scaling back the scope The hallmark of the Pantheon series thus far has been the element of overarching difference in the world of each book from ours. In each one, the featured religion is present in every aspect of life in the world. Each religion is the dominant religion of the planet, under the heel of very real, very present deity-like figures. It is the struggle against the oppression of these religions that provided the main plot points of the books.
In Age of Voodoo, our protagonist, former British assassin Lex Dove, doesn't even believe in Voodoo. The scope of its practice seems to be pretty much exactly as it is in our modern world: limited to various parts of Central America and the Caribbean. While its efficacy, like the spiritual powers possessed by the antagonists in the other books of this series, is undeniable, the presence and power of Voodoo in this book is absolutely downplayed compared to that in Age of Ra or Age of Aztec.
The name is Dove, Lex Dove This scaling back of the religiosity compared to earlier books in the series isn't necessarily a bad thing. Among other things, it allows us to concentrate more on the characters than the setting, and the character of Lex is pretty awesome. There's just something about the retired former special-ops agent that always makes for such a compelling character. I think a lot of it has to do with the struggle to put aside the old instincts that never quite go away in the name of trying to have a "normal" life that it seems is never actually possible. Being put in a position to reveal to their new friends just what they are capable of creates a lot of excellent dramatic tension, and Lovegrove takes full advantage.
I don't know why everybody in the history of media has given in to the lure of "one last job" but it's a trope to the point of having its own entry on TVTropes.org. I can only assume it comes down to simply missing the thrill, the rush that their previous life (criminal, cop, detective, assassin, whatever) held for them that no amount of distraction in their retirement can possibly cope with. The fact that their "one last mission" inevitably ends up being the most dangerous and threatening one they've ever faced is something you'd think would make the rounds among those circles, but we the readers are glad it hasn't.
You do the Voodoo that you do I feel it is important to at least touch on the magical elements of novels like this, and the way they are handled and portrayed. Voodoo is one of those systems of belief that is presented by its practitioners as a very subtle and unassuming art. This is one of the things that makes it difficult to disprove, if such is your aim. When you put a curse on somebody, you can simply be non-specific and take credit for the next really bad thing that happens to them, and it's pretty much unfalsifiable by definition.
In Age of Voodoo however, we see a much more distinct and clear portrayal of Voodoo working exactly as advertised. Voodoo dolls, hexes, Husband spirits, the whole shebang, complete with the Light and Dark sides of the magic being practiced. Voodoo has always fascinated me more than any other kind of spiritual belief that includes the practice of magic. There's just something so primal and basic about it that lends it an air of reality that other forms of magic or paranormal abilities lack. I definitely looked forward to this book more than the others in the series.
Why should you read this book? Lovegrove has really settled into his groove with this series. He has a working formula, and he's executing on it every time with a great deal of success. Anybody who has read one of the previous books in the Pantheon series will continue to enjoy it with Age of Voodoo. If you've yet to read one of these works, I strongly advise you to start with the one whose theme you have the most knowledge about and interest in. It will give you the best ability to gauge what you think about his style and portrayal of these religions. And if you aren't as big a fan of the actual style of storytelling, it will give you a sense of whether the religious elements bring enough to the story to counteract any dissatisfaction with the style.
As much as these books have made me personally think about a lot of things, with regards to religion and its place in society, you don't need to read them at that level to derive enjoyment. These are some great action-oriented, tense, well-paced adventure stories even without any of those thematic elements. Engaging characters, great and swift worldbuilding, and excellent action and battle scenes make any of these books an excellent choice for fans of the genre. And the particular theme of Voodoo in Age of Voodoo only added to my appreciation of the style.(less)
The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood in 1985. Winner of the Governor General's Award (one of Canada's most prestigious awards for literature) as well as the winner of the very first Arthur C. Clarke award, the title was inspired by Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Handmaid's Tale tells the story of Offred, essentially a concubine in a near-future monotheistic dictatorship. It is a story of subjugation and the struggle of one member of this society to retain some small measure of agency and will.
A rare narrative style It's rare, it seems, to find the first person limited narrative in modern fiction. It presents a number of challenges as well as benefits. Atwood uses this style to wonderful effect in The Handmaid's Tale, and it seems like a very good choice for this kind of dystopia in general. The primary double-edged sword of this narrative is the severe limits of information that we the readers have access to. We are exactly as aware or in the dark as our protagonist, and Offred is in the dark indeed. We make it through the entire book with pretty much no idea where she is, what's happening around her, or even the state of the world at large. It builds the exact sense of tension and isolation that Offred feels throughout, and really nails the vision of a monotheocratic society where an entire class of people are kept deliberately ignorant in order to maintain the social order.
We don't even know what Offred looks like beyond a short simple description of her height and hair colour. Even that comes many chapters into the story. For the bulk of the narrative we know essentially nothing whatsoever that is not happening, right now, in Offred's sight, or some rememberences of her past that she even freely admits are likely not how those events actually occurred.
Another dark vision that ages uncomfortably well It's always a good gauge of the progress of a society to see how poorly the going version of the terrible future ages, when examined in modern times. By those standards, The Handmaid's Tale is still pretty concerning. We live in a world that is, thankfully, becoming increasingly liberal over time socially and morally, but we also live in a world where gay rights, women's rights, and even basic civil liberties are still under regular attack even in the most "enlightened" nations in the first world. There are many people throughout the West who would have no problem with a world like the Republic of Gilead coming to pass. Indeed, Atwood states in interviews that there is not a single element of Gileadan society that has not literally happened somewhere in the world. She draws many comparisons to Iran and other theistic dictatorships, but it's not much of a stretch to put some of the words of the Aunts and the Commanders into the mouths of the Religious Right in America, let alone the more conservative elements of France or the UK.
The truth is that this kind of world, based in ignorance and abuse, is still a very real threat in today's world. As I've mentioned in other articles in the Dystopia series, the increased level of technology we have today acts as a great stopper on these kinds of abuses because it is incredibly difficult to silence a society in the Internet Age. But we still need to be vigilant against this kind of suppression and oppression.
Perhaps the ignorance is a little too deep My one critique of the story is just how quickly the women in this society descend into ignorance. While I have (thankfully) no experience with any kind of systematized oppression or subjugation, these are women who were living normal free lives less than a decade earlier. If this book had picked up the tale of a woman a generation or two into the system, it would be much more believable the extent to which they've already lost the ability to read or to remember things that would have been trivial and frequently accessed things.
I'm sure that on the balance, the problem is less with Atwood's presentation of the descent of women in this society, and more to do with my own inaccurate impression of just how long people would be able to resist this kind of systematic enforced ignorance. I probably delude myself into thinking that it would take a lot longer than 5 or 6 years to break me down to that point, but the truth of the matter is that very few of us with the luxury to read this book have or will ever face anything even remotely similar to this kind of situation.
In all honesty, the degree to which this bothered me is really a testament to how effective it was at showing this kind of society, and an even more effective caution for the dangers of this kind of society. Atwood seems to be saying, "Watch out. You think this can't happen, you think this is unrealistic, but this is already happening in the world, and could happen anywhere." And it's pretty chilling.
Why should you read this book? My usual admonishment accompanying all the reviews in this series applies: "Every reader and free person should read each and every future dystopian novel they can, if simply to inform themselves of the kinds of risks that could lead us down these paths."
As well, The Handmaid's Tale really is an exemplar of the genre. The storytelling is wonderful. Offred is courageous in the face of a level of systematic oppression that challenges any that have ever existed. She is in many ways worse than enslaved, worse than oppressed, because the level of societal force dictating that not only is this how it is, but this is how it should be is overwhelming.
As a character study alone, this work stands a cut above. As a dystopian world, it fills one with the kind of unease that challenges you to resolve to never allow such a thing to happen. It deserves every accolade it has received and then some.(less)
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel written in 1953 by one of the most well-regarded speculative fiction authors of the past 100 years, Ray Bradbury. He was the author of hundreds of novels, novellas and short stories covering a huge range of subjects. He almost seemed to be trying to create so much writing within his lifetime that he could've kept pace with the destruction of books in this, one of his most classic pieces, of a future world where books are banned, everything comes to the people through attention grabbing screens, and any knowledge of the past is irrelevant compared to the encouragement to simply have fun, not worry, and not think.
One of the more realistic futures A common flaw of many of the older dystopian novels is predicting a future that turns out to be sufficiently unlikely, so that they don't age very well as cautionary tales. Conversely, Fahrenheit 451 remains topical today. We already live in a world where the physical book is beginning a slow decline. Everything is becoming electronic, breaking things into smaller and smaller bites. Anybody watching children's television today will see the parallels to the screens in the Montag household, blasting short little bursts of activity, wrecking the attention span, making it harder and harder to say anything worthwhile.
Socially, similar things are happening. In the age of memes, of Twitter and Facebook updates, we start to say more and more about less and less until the world is awash in a sea of nonsense. Nobody sits around and talks any more. They sit around and chat with each other on their smartphones. We may think this is bringing the world closer together, this ability to communicate in real time to people all over the world, but it's also making our interactions more shallow, the consequence facing Montag as well. Nobody has time for anything meaningful anymore.
Bradbury does an excellent job in so few pages with communicating the level of unease this can engender. Realizing what you're missing and finding nobody around you willing to engage with you is a dark feeling, and he really puts you in those shoes. When Montag tries reading poetry to his wife's friends and one is left in tears and simply cannot comprehend why, it really drives home that it's not even about being moved in spite of herself--it's about being confused and afraid that these words are supposed to have meaning, but her ability to comprehend that meaning has eroded away until only the pap coming through the walls can penetrate.
But it's not an inevitable fate While the general themes of Fahrenheit 451 remain a potential danger for our society as technology pushes us more and more into quick and short exchanges, carrying less and less meaning, that same technology is going to be one of the primary ways this fate can be prevented. While it encourages shouting every stray thought no matter how meaningless from the rooftops of the Twittersphere, the internet's function as a repository of knowledge also helps insulate us from the ability of totalitarian regimes to suppress knowledge.
With things like Project Gutenberg and the fact that the internet doesn't really exist in a physical place where it can be destroyed or removed, more and more of our collective knowledge is being moved into a medium where it has a life that far outstrips the ability of war or oppression to destroy. It would take the kind of catastrophe that puts us more in line with 1984 to bring about. And that would bring its own separate set of problems.
Why should you read this book? Aside from the obvious answer that Fahrenheit 451 is unarguably a classic of speculative fiction that everybody should read simply for a good sense of the history of SFF, this is a great book. The story is excellently paced, fascinating, and ages very well in a way a lot of 50+ year old SFF doesn't. It stays topical to today's world and has a lot to say about societal development and the advance of technology.
Most importantly though, the reason you should read this book is spelled out in the book itself: the truth is that the Firemen weren't the driving force for the destruction of books, it was the people themselves. They stopped reading, stopped caring about the kinds of things books can tell them. Fighting against that drive, as hard as we can, is reason enough.(less)
Breaking Point is the second installment in a young adult trilogy that started with Article 5 by Kristen Simmons. The final book has not yet been scheduled for release.
The United States as we know it has not survived a brutal civil war followed by widespread economic turmoil. For some Americans, the answer to deep factionalism is to unite the country under a single conservative state religion, and the Constitution is replaced by a series of Articles which ban things like gay marriage and children out of wedlock, enforced by a militaristic government. Though Ember Miller was born over a decade before the War, her status as the underaged child of a single mother is viewed as treasonous. She and her mother were arrested and Em was sent off to a rehabilitation center in Article 5. Instead, she escaped and joined the resistance movement.
A strong follow-up to a great debut I adored Article 5. While the series bears some resemblance to Atwood’s classic A Handmaid’s Tale in the deeply conservative religious dystopian concept, in execution it’s vastly different. Em’s society is still in transition from the world that we know to a grim new reality. Women remember a time when they could work outside the home and wear jeans. Men remember when their best option for employment was not as a soldier for the Federal Bureau of Reformation. As such, Em doesn’t feel that she or her mother have done anything to even be ashamed of, much less arrested for, and does not accept the reality that the FBR is trying to impose. There is a lot of visible friction between the populace and the government. Breaking Point picks up three weeks after Article 5 closes, hits the ground running, and never looks back. All of the things I liked in Article 5 (world building, characterization, pacing) are present in Breaking Point.
On the note of characterization: Simmons is flawless at it. She has her masters in social work, and that means a lot of time spent studying psychology. This is evident in her characters. Chase has one of the best presentations of post-traumatic stress disorder that I think I’ve ever read. Em’s grief cycle is impeccable. Even secondary characters have believable backstories that deeply inform their behavior during the story, and the changes they make during the book are fully supported on all counts. Even the masses of society follow well documented psychological norms for people going through deep economic stress in a totalitarian regime. If you’ve bought into the idea that young adult fiction is filled with characters that are superficial a la Twilight, I need refer you no further. The craft Simmons brings to her characterization is on a rare level, regardless of target audience or genre.
Not all roses That’s not to say that Breaking Point doesn’t have its issues. This is the second book in the trilogy, and Em is figuring out how to move on now that her original plan from Article 5 has reached its conclusion. However, events in the wider world are moving faster than she is, forcing her to react faster than she can effectively plan. While Em is definitely moving in a single direction and acting as a distinct protagonist, the urgent drive from Article 5 is lessened. Breaking Point is really about Em reassessing who she is, what she wants, and what she’s prepared to do to get it, rather than about Em actually doing anything. I am confident, however, that this means that we’re going to see Em really blossom and come into her own in book three. I would warn you, however, that if you dislike book two of three dark endings, leave this one alone until the final book is published.
Why should you read this book? Breaking Point doesn’t take place hundreds of years in the future; the roots of its potential reality are all around us. More so than many dystopias, its message is an active warning of things to come. Simmons is a strong writer with some real talent I look forward to enjoying in the future. Best of all, her work stays away from a number of young adult tropes that have cropped up lately, making it feel fresh and unique. I can’t honestly think of a reason you shouldn’t read this book or Article 5.(less)
River of Stars is the twelfth novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay and is based loosely on twelfth century China during the Song Dynasty. Like many of his works, Kay weaves historical names, places and events into a fictional tapestry that still retains the feel of historical work, while engaging the reader in the intensely character-driven style that makes his works so engrossing.
Nothing happens, and everything happens It's been my experience with fantasy lately that more and more things are becoming plot and action driven. Battles, conflicts, direct interactions seem to be the name of the game. Read any book that takes place during or around a war or invasion, and you'll find a solid percentage of the text dedicated to the action scenes: sword fights, army maneuvers, deaths, escapes. Such makes for a very attention-grabbing read, trying to keep you involved by constantly throwing something intense in your face.
In River of Stars, the opposite is true. This is the story of an invasion, of a general rising up to bring his armies to victory against a foe that seems overwhelmingly strong. And there's almost no action at all. Instead, Kay does an absolutely stunning job communicating the state of the action through implication and suggestion, concentrating instead on the characters. He shows you what these people are like, makes you come to know them, to understand them. And through this understanding, we need only see a few lines of dialogue or a short paragraph describing the action around the characters. Our knowledge of who they are fills in the rest.
It struck me about halfway through the book that more time had been spent discussing poetry than warfare, and that not only did this not detract from the work in any way, I found myself more deeply invested in what was going on than I would have been if this had been an action-oriented war novel. My connection to the characters made me care so much more about what they thought about the events happening off in the distance than I did about the events themselves.
Small stones make large ripples Another common element to most modern fantasy is that the heroic protagonist and their group makes many sweeping changes to the world around them. They are larger than life, and nobody can doubt the influence their actions (and generally only their actions) have on the world around them. Kay instead presents a world where the actions of every character, even ones of obvious societal importance—generals, emperors, ministers—really feel... not so much small. What I mean to say is that each character feels like they are just living their lives, in their world, making the decisions that they would make, guided by their beliefs and the realities of their situation.
There are no obvious moments you can point to and say "This is when the hero's destiny is revealed" or "This is when the defining moment of this character's life happened." Everything just happens. And it feels so smooth and natural and realistic that it pulls you in and keeps you there. Not a single solitary thing in this entire novel broke immersion, reeked of deus ex machina, or fell afoul of any tropes of lazy storytelling.
Historical fantasy's Daniel Day-Lewis I've always maintained, and will likely continue to maintain, that Daniel Day-Lewis is among the greatest actors of all time. While he doesn't always pick roles that have a wide-ranging mass appeal, he only picks roles that meet his incredibly high standards. His dedication to research and to method acting, completely burying himself in a role in a way that few people can even really understand, is what has led to him being the only person to win three Best Actor academy awards. His rate of appearances in movies is low, only twelve films in twenty-four years, but I've yet to see a performance that didn't utterly blow me away.
I include the above to really communicate what I am saying when I compare Guy Gavriel Kay to Daniel Day-Lewis. He is similarly non-prolific, with twelve novels in thirty years, and similarly dedicated to his craft in a way that few people seem to be. Each of his books contains an afterword which talks about the research conducted, works referenced, and experts consulted, and it just flabbergasts me. I've read his entire bibliography and not only was I not disappointed, I was hard pressed to find a single thing to complain about.
Why should you read this book? The only reason I can think of why you shouldn't read this book is if you just finished reading another book by Kay. These novels need some digestion time, to really sit down and think about what you just read. I've read several of his novels multiple times each, and the idea of reading two in a row just seems like too much. You need to relax and unwind a little with something a little lighter before you dive back into the immersive worlds Kay creates. You should read this book if you have an appreciation for expertly crafted, character-driven fantasy of the highest order; if you want to really get to know characters, to get a deep sense of them, and their place in their society and their role therein; if you want to close a book's back cover, take a deep breath, set it down, and not even consider picking up another book until you've had time to just appreciate the raw artistry you've just witnessed. That is why you should read this book.(less)
Across the Universe is the debut book by Beth Revis. A sequel, A Million Suns, followed in 2012, and the trilogy finished with Shades of Earth in early 2013.
Hundreds of years in the future, the spaceship Godspeed is en route to a new planet awaiting human colonization. At its launch, 100 military, medical, and scientific personnel are cryogenically frozen. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew creates its own society as generations pass during the trip. Seventeen year old Amy joined her military commander father and biologist mother as one of the cryogenically frozen, scheduled to awake once the Godspeed reached the new planet. Instead, she wakes fifty years early. Confronted with a wildly different society than the one she left, Amy must also figure out why she woke early and uncover Godspeed’s close-kept secrets. Her life, and those of her parents and the other frozen crew, depend on it.
An ambitious debut Across the Universe isn’t just one genre. There’s a heavy dose of hard science fiction in place with not only a fully functioning spaceship, but advanced communications technology and genetic manipulation. Revis has done a good job researching these technologies and making them function realistically and believably within the environment she’s created. Mixed in with this is a highly dystopian society that has come about as the pressures of having several thousand people live in a highly contained space for generations take a massive toll on the non-frozen crew. Finally, this is a young adult novel with the requisite love story, though thankfully without the overdone love triangle. The execution of the novel fulfills the promise of the concept. The technologies in place inform the dystopia, and vice versa. These in turn shape the relationship between Amy and the seventeen year old Elder, as well as Amy and the entire rest of the ship. While Godspeed is a highly isolated world, it’s highly interconnected within itself making for a rich and detailed story. In fact, this really didn’t feel much like a debut for me. Revis had taken such care with her craft that many of the sharp edges often found in first books weren’t obvious here.
Crafty dystopia Some dystopias come about because of a power hungry dictator. Some come about because of religious fanaticism. The third major theme of dystopian creation is massive internal strife within a society. On an enclosed spaceship, where such strife can spell the end of the mission and the lives of everyone on board, you can imagine that such a situation cannot be afforded. On top of that, limited space and resources have also placed a cap on overall population. However, because that population is so small, having a large enough genetic variety to avoid birth defects becomes an issue. Revis has really put thought into her dystopia, adding in how the advanced technology of a space age society will shape the eventual dystopian result. While not exactly subtle, the effect is much more multifaceted than many other dystopias I’ve read.
Why should you read this book? Because it’s unique. While it is a young adult book, there’s a lot of depth to the characters and some really top notch world building. There also aren’t a lot of newer hard science fiction books out there, especially when you look at the youth market. While in no way would I really compare Across the Universe to a Golden Age classic, it has enough merits to stand its ground with ease in the modern market. The addition of the dystopian society within the science fiction world really makes this book shine, and the execution leaves very little to be desired. So if you enjoy hard science fiction, dystopias, and/or teen fiction, this book belongs on your to-read list.(less)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a short novel written by Philip K. Dick, and was the inspiration for the cult classic Ridley Scott film Blade Runner as well as possibly one of the originators of the cyberpunk genre of speculative fiction. It tells the story of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, on a mission from the San Francisco police department to "retire" a number of escaped androids, and in the process face a number of troubling realizations about himself, society and the dangers of advancing technology.
Android, know thyself One of the strongest images in this book is the scene where Deckard is tasked with making sure that the test his department has been using to determine whether or not someone is an android will actually work on the new Nexus-6 model he is being sent to hunt. He tests this on one of the employees of the corporation that manufactures the androids, and determines that she is, in fact, artificial. After being assured that she is not, and believing the test to be inaccurate, he tries one last time and determines that he stands by his results. The revelation from this scene is that she is in fact an android, but does not, herself, even know it. She has had false memories implanted and believes herself to be human.
This scene is the impetus for most of Deckard's internal conflict throughtout this work, as he comes to doubt even his own humanity. This is a significant problem for a society like ours, where technology is expanding in leaps and bounds. We already store most of our memory in electronic form now (what need do we have for a dictionary, encyclopedias, history books when most of it is stored online now?) and it's not long before we're at the point where this information can be modified without our knowledge, and then who are we to doubt what the systems say? A perfect enough simulation is indistinguishable from reality, as we all saw with The Matrix, and the idea that we might already be living this world and not knowing it is a troubling one indeed.
Empathy is everything The primary message in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of empathy and the importance of empathy to humanity. Every human owns and cares for a pet. The owning of an animal is seen as such a mandatory sign of humanity that those who can't afford one will buy electronic replacements that even mimic illnesses to disguise malfunctions. The test Deckard uses to measure whether someone is an android is measuring empathic responses to morally strong imagery. Most importantly, the worry that Deckard is becoming empathetic towards androids causes him to doubt his ability to do his job.
We're left with the internal message that his developing empathy towards androids is a problem that needs stamping out, that it prevents him from doing the "right" thing by "retiring" the androids whose primary crime is wishing for freedom equal to that of humans. And this in spite of the fact that empathy in general is one of the highest requirements of humans. There's a certain element of power and control. If at any point humans lose the ability to tell an android from a human, they swiftly lose their moral justification for continuing to enslave them in untold numbers. Essentially, the androids would become human.
Dick does a truly excellent job setting up these moral quandries in the character of Deckard and in us, the readers. Even as the androids are setting about murdering people, plotting in secret, we feel sympathy for them. They really are very human characters. There are several moments where we the readers are left feeling sure that Deckard is himself an android even after we've identified with him as a human, and it really creates some brilliant tension.
But is this a dystopian future for us? Aside from the obvious dystopian element that Earth has been largely destroyed by nuclear war (mitigated by the fact that most of the people who survived with their health intact have emigrated to colony worlds) and the degree to which people left on Earth live poorly, conceptually I don't really find this to be a credible cautionary tale. While our technology has advanced in many ways past the world of Deckard, we've yet to even come close to that level of artificial intelligence, and honestly, I don't think we ever will. I believe that our advances are going to be by way of improving human lives through machinary and appliance, rather than simply replacing human labor with artificial human labor.
Why should you read this book? Phillip K. Dick, as evidenced by the nearly dozen major motion pictures based on his novels and short stories, spins a great yarn. He has a great skill to build a world around you in very few words in a way that you can see and feel and touch. He understands the human mind in a way a lot of science fiction writers don't. He has more of the sense of a psychologist than a scientist or engineer, and he pulls you in very quickly. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a great entry in Dick's bibliography and in the cyberpunk or dystopia genres overall.(less)
1984, written by George Orwell in 1949, remains to this day one of the paramount examples of dystopian fiction. Whether in the tropes and images found within its pages, or the very real threat it presents of a dark future, it resonates even decades later. The story of Winston Smith, Big Brother, and Ingsoc has featured on many lists of the greatest books ever written, chosen by editors, authors, and readers alike as one of the best pieces of fiction ever created.
Big Brother is watching you When it comes to evaluating dystopian fiction, one issue I always raise is the idea that the information age acts as a very effective stopper on the ability of a totalitarian regime to come to power. It is very hard to keep people ignorant and make movements in secret when information travels so freely through the internet. 1984 however, is the one world that is likely being helped along rather than hindered by the spread of technology.
We have a GPS in our car, and in our phone. We agree to terms of service and end user license agreements without ever reading them. We have CCTV appearing on every intersection to monitor traffic. Most of us have technology with the ability to actually track our movements and gather information about us we barely understand.
The true danger from Big Brother that is usually not shown in other instances of dystopian fiction is the constant and progressive revision of history. To make it so that what is true now will have always been true, for every instance of "now" you might consider. This is where our reliance on technology is hurting us. We've offloaded most of our memory of the past onto Wikipedia and our e-readers and iPhones. The takeover could be much more subtle in this kind of system that we usually see from coups and military dictatorships.
An enduring example As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, 1984 is one of the most enduring books of all time. Many phrases and images have long since entered the common parlance. Even the author's name itself has given rise to "Orwellian" as an adjective, to mean totalitarian especially with elements of constant surveillance and monitoring.
While 1984 isn't the founder of the genre of dystopian fiction, it is absolutely among the most widely read and well liked. It is a testament to Orwell's treatment of the concept that his book is still on the reading lists of many high schools. At once stark and accessible, it paints a very dark future while keeping Winston Smith the protagonist every bit the Everyman he was designed to be. You can identify with him throughout the entire story, and the strength of that really makes the climax of the book hit home. While the casual hedonism of Brave New World loses impact as our own society becomes more liberal and the suppression of thought in Fahrenheit 451 fades as our reliance on the physical printed word wanes, the dark vision of doublethink and doublespeak and the Ministry of Love still looms.
Why should you read this book? It is pretty hard to argue with a book that was on Time Magazine's Top 100 books of all time, voted 16th by editors and 6th by readers on The Modern Library Top 100 Best Novels, and 8th on the BBC's Big Read survey. 1984 is a classic of fiction, and one of the originators of dystopian fiction in the modern age. Chances are, if you grew up to be a science fiction and fantasy reader, you've already read this. But if the last time you read 1984 was in high school, you should absolutely give it another look. It gains a lot being re-read with a little more life experience and maturity.(less)
Insurgent is the second book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. The trilogy will complete with an as-yet-untitled third book in fall 2013, followed by a movie of the first book, Divergent, due out in 2014.
The world as we know it is gone, replaced by a strictly caste-based society in the ruins of Chicago. Tris Prior was born into Abnegation, a faction that believed that the old world fell due to unending selfish acts. She has now survived to be initiated into the Dauntless faction, which believes in courageous action and a military lifestyle. But even before the ceremony and ensuing celebration, Tris Prior's new world is torn asunder as the factions fracture into civil war. In order to save her friends, Tris has to embrace the things that make her different from everyone else she’s ever known, as well as answer questions about why her society was built the way it was.
Twisting, turning action As in Divergent, Roth’s mastery at action scenes is apparent. There are a lot of tightly written action scenes that really drive the book, and they start almost immediately. Tris is not given any time to recover from the last of her trials as a prospective member of the Dauntless faction before the civil war breaks out. This moves action from the stronghold of Dauntless into several different parts of this dystopian Chicago and allows both Tris and the reader to get an inside look at the factions that have remained a mystery thus far (Amity, Candor, Erudite), including a group of Factionless living in the ruins between the faction strongholds. Everything is very tightly plotted, with lots of details to keep track of and a lot of decisions for Tris to make.
Breakneck Pacing My major issue with this book was the sheer speed at which the action happened. Tris was given very little time to stop and think about what was happening around her. She has people dying around her, sometimes as a result of her actions. She receives a lot of new information about not only what it means to be Divergent, but about her own family. And the action never lets up, almost forcing her into making the typical decisions of a sixteen year old rather than allowing her to grow to meet her challenges more fully. Tris is personally targeted by the Erudite faction and has trouble dealing with the incredible stress she is under, which causes her relationships with other characters take a huge hit as the book goes on.
Why should you read this book? Second installments in trilogies tend to be the darkest, and Insurgent certainly follows that pattern. The momentum from Divergent is increased, with an edge of your seat cliffhanger at the end of Insurgent. If you enjoyed Divergent, or like dystopian literature in general, Insurgent is a good bet. However, if young adult literature leaves you feeling annoyed, you may want to pass this by; both books are filled with YA tropes. If you don’t like to be left hanging at the darkest moment in the story, I might advise waiting to pick up this book until the final volume in the trilogy is published.(less)
Divergent is the debut book of Veronica Roth and the first book in a trilogy. A movie version of the book is tentatively scheduled for a 2014 release. The sequel, Insurgent, was released in 2012 with the untitled conclusion to the trilogy scheduled for a late 2013 release.
Beatrice "Tris" Prior lives in a futuristic world where society has been divided into factions. Everyone is born into a faction, and around age 16 they get a chance to change factions if they so choose. Beatrice was born to Abnegation, a faction that believes that our current society fell apart because of the selfish actions of individuals. They spend their time in service to others, foregoing all forms of entertainment, adornment, and ambition. During her aptitude test, Beatrice shows compatibility with three different factions, not the normal one or two aptitudes all other members of her society show. She must choose the path her future will take, while not being able to confide in anyone just how different she is.
A carefully crafted high octane read One of the first things I noticed about Divergent was its attention to detail. Each of the factions are thoroughly different from each other. Even though we only get an inside look at two factions (Abnegation and Dauntless), we get enough of a sense of the remaining two that we understand what they stand for and how they are fundamentally different from the two that we do see firsthand. Roth has done a good job of not cluttering the work up with unnecessary detail. If she’s drawn your attention to something, there’s a reason. Roth is also very good at action scenes, keeping the tension taught and the pacing through them just right. The fact that Tris is in constant danger is never lost, and the points in which she is in greater or lesser danger are nicely paced for a satisfying read.
A few words of caution There are a few weak points in Divergent, as I expect in a debut novel. Roth’s biggest stumbling block is characterization. She’s focused so much on the action of the book that the characters doing the action have gotten lost. Tris is a strong protagonist, but there’s room to deepen the reader’s understanding of her. The secondary characters are all much more two dimensional than I care for, making them little more than accessories to Tris’s journey. While Tris’s love interest, Four, does play a huge role, his motives are deeply hidden. Part of this is the fact that Divergent is very strongly from Tris’s point of view, and she has no idea why Four does many of the things he does. But the fact remains that too many secondary characters are lacking in good characterization.
Divergent also suffers some from the genre that it’s in. Young adult literature tends to be shorter than its adult counterparts, and so the scope of Divergent is smaller than I would have liked. While this book is dystopian, not a lot of time is spent dealing with the dystopia. Instead, Tris is struggling to define who she is and to earn her place in the Dauntless Faction. The questions of why society has changed to this model, how Tris is going to deal with her inability to entirely conform to society's demands in the long run, or how Tris might change her society all go unanswered. Some young adult literature challenges its readers with content, and is only young adult because of the age of the characters involved. Divergent isn’t one of those books, and is very much only Act I of III.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoyed The Hunger Games or dystopian literature in general, this is a pretty safe bet. While very much teen fiction, Roth has a good grasp of pacing and is a strong hand at action. For all of its understandable flaws, I was quite eager to pick up the next installment when I finished Divergent.(less)
Brave New World was written by Aldous Huxley in 1932 and remains, to this day, one of the shining examples of the utopia as dystopia style of speculative fiction. It tells the tale of a futuristic world where society has been stabilized through strict social conditioning, a regimented caste system, and wide availability of mood-altering drugs. The principal characters of Brave New World are Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne, two in the upper echelons of the World State’s society, and John the Savage, a child born in a reservation of “savages,” those unchanged by the systems in place in the World State.
One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments The principle element of Brave New World is the stunning degree of operant conditioning and caste division upon which their society is built. From well before birth, the caste of a child is determined based on the needs of the state. Those destined to be at the bottom are starved of oxygen, given what is essentially Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and are conditioned to be most happy and comfortable while staying firmly in their place. Everybody’s clothing is color coded based on their caste, and hypnopaedic moral and behavioral rules are so ingrained that they come out with all the droning of a mantra rather than a free thought.
If at any time someone should find themselves unhappy or worried or troubled, there is always soma, the drug that has all the benefits of an upper with none of the side effects. It is freely available and frequently used. The majority of the implanted sayings we are exposed to deal with the taking and enjoying of soma.
This is really the truly brilliant vision of Huxley’s future: The darkness is so bright that we can’t tell it from light. At one point it is put to the Savage by Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, that his objections seem to have no basis in reality. After all, everybody is happy. Nobody wants anything different than what their lot is, because they were born loving it. The Savage, attempting to be the voice of reason, demands the rights we ourselves hold dear: the right to choose, to suffer the consequences of our actions, to be free. In a cynical mockery of his own critical reaction to the World Society, Mustapha responds, ”In fact…you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
This is the real message of Brave New World and the one that still rings true today where so many books have failed to age well. We live in the age of entertainment, with faster and faster gratification of our desires. As our standards of living increase, as technology improves, and society becomes more and more liberal, we may soon find ourselves looking at the world around us thinking that we’re very happy in our place and having no desire to ever change it.
While that may sound nice, even ideal, the loss to society is the need to work for what we have, to fight to keep it, and to sometimes lose it so we can appreciate victory all the more.
A gram is better than a damn This idea of the cost being what makes something worthwhile is the same message that one gets from works like Fahrenheit 451 or the excellent Kurt Wimmer film Equilibrium where the pillar on which society rests is a suppression of any negative thought. Whether it is repressed as in Brave New World, replaced with good feelings, or oppressed as in Equilibrium, replaced with nothing but constant neutrality, the message remains the same. If we don’t risk anything, nothing is worth anything.
This is the realization that pushes John the Savage away from what could easily have been a life of luxury and popularity after a childhood of abuse and seclusion. His morals may seem staid even by our modern standards (raised as he was on a diet of Shakespeare) but modern society is much closer to his standards than those of the World State.
The truly insidious evil of the world displayed in Brave New World is the subtle substitution of happiness for contentment. The people all believe they are happy, would say so if asked, and in many senses, do utterly believe it—but we know better. Their lives are repetitive, unoriginal. The only reason they don’t lash out against the sheer monotony of their lives is that they were bred not to. A world like this would take a great deal of effort to bring about, effort that I’m not sure would be possible in this modern age of information exchange. But if it ever were brought about, it would be, as John found, nearly impossible to root out again.
Why should you read this book? This review was written as part of an event dedicated to dystopias. Brave New World is both one of the originals of the genre and one that has remained the most topical in the modern age. Of all the books I’ve read for this event, this is the fate I feel we’re in the most danger of falling into. It is a cautionary tale; there’s a reason it has been mandatory reading in so many schools for so many years.
I may toss around phrases like “You must read this book” to refer to books I’ve enjoyed a great deal, and I mean it to varying degrees of hyperbole, but all exaggeration aside—you must read this book.(less)
Sometimes when you read a new book, it can take the entire length of the book for the reader to develop an opinion of it. Other times, perhaps more rarely, you know within the first two pages that you’ll love it. Such was the case for me with Etiquette & Espionage, the opening of Gail Carriger’s new Finishing School series. I’m having trouble defining the exact genre this book falls into; it’s young adult, steampunk, paranormal fantasy. Finishing School is set in the same fictional world as Carriger’s other big series, Parasol Protectorate, but Etiquette & Espionage occurs 20 years prior to the events in that series.
Sophronia’s mother, Mrs. Temminnick, is at her absolute wits’ end in dealing with her youngest, least ladylike daughter. When Mrs. Temminnick has the opportunity to send the wild child off to become a proper lady, she leaps at the chance, and the reluctant Sophronia is whisked away to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality with barely a chance to pack her things or say goodbye. Sophronia soon learns that there’s more to this finishing school than curtseys and dancing—she has classes in espionage, diversion, and death as well. As she struggles to fit in with her classmates and master her lessons, Sophronia discovers that there is a lot more to the world than she ever knew and becomes accidentally embroiled in the big intrigue of the year.
Simply delightful Instead of chapters, we have lessons—a clever touch, I thought. Each lesson title indicates something Sophronia learns, and the lessons she learns aren’t always the lessons anyone tried to teach her. Often, her hands-on experience teaches her far more than she learns in the classroom, and she learns and develops as a character even before she reaches the school.
The writing throughout Etiquette & Espionage is simply delightful. The humor is droll and dry, invoking more giggles than I usually experience from a book. It set the tone for the book, and the characters definitely fit that tone very well. I knew and understood Sophronia within a few pages, just by reading the beautiful narration describing her actions.
Worldbuilding the prequel The world of these two series is a steampunk, paranormal version of our own world, with new and different technology and paranormal creatures. I read this book without having previously read the Parasol Protectorate series, and there were occasions where I wondered if things would make more sense to me with the context of that series. Our viewpoint character and plucky protagonist, Sophronia, was as in the dark as I was, though, so it didn’t feel like I was missing anything crucial.
I expect to learn more about the world throughout the continuation of the Finishing School series, as Sophronia herself learns more. Carriger’s worldbuilding was a definite highlight of this book. There were no infodumps; the reader was just thrown right into this new fantastical world, and the development of the world was approached entirely through Sophronia herself learning more about the world she lives in.
Why should you read this book? Etiquette & Espionage is a quick, very fun read and opens a series that promises to continue the fun. This young adult novel is suited for all ages, without the annoying tropes that have become common in the YA genre as a whole. Unless you cannot stand steampunk technology or paranormal creatures, I don’t see any reason why you should not give this book a try.(less)
n 2005, John Scalzi released his science fiction debut, Old Man’s War, to much critical and commercial acclaim. Now, Scalzi is one of the most beloved authors in the science fiction community.
When John Perry turned seventy-five, he decided to take to the stars and enlist with the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). Rumor has it that the CDF is able to give Perry a new life, a life free from his aging body and memories of his dead wife. Of course, life in the CDF will not be easy since many alien species want to destroy humanity. And so begins a space opera full of humor, sorrow, and all of the other intriguing facets of humanity.
A moving introduction Let me begin by saying that the first part of Old Man’s War is some of the best science fiction I have ever read. First, the characters are exquisite and believably human. I think that most science fiction misses that the people who participate in these intergalactic wars are still human and not some motley crew of princes and warlords. Complementing the wonderful cast of characters is the beautifully-spun space setting.
Since Old Man’s War is a space opera, the technology is fairly understandable because the focus is on the characters and the results of war. However, there are quite a few bits of tech that fetch attention, such as the space elevator. The technology is not enjoyable because of its complexity; it is enjoyable because of the clever ways the characters employ them.
Humor me Scalzi makes his mark on the science fiction realm with his infectious humor. There were multiple times when I was up late into the night eagerly awaiting Scalzi’s dollops of comedy, and what impressed me the most about it was how varied it is, ranging from giggle-inducing sexual innuendos to clever barbs pointed at the military establishment.
Not pulling their weight Not everything is quite so rosy in the latter half of the novel, however, and a slew of problems spring up like weeds in an otherwise beautiful garden. The main issue is that Perry begins to catch too many lucky breaks, and meets too many of the right people that stretches my personal sensibilities. Also, most of the characters become interchangeable and difficult to care about. I found the latter issue to be most bothersome because of how brilliantly wrought the characters were in the initial half of the book. This is not to say that the latter half is not enjoyable, as it does have a few compelling set pieces, plot twists, and surprising revelations, but they are not enough to completely salvage the tale.
Why should you read this book? Old Man’s War is an amalgamation of what makes science fiction novels such delights to read: thought-provoking ideas, interesting technology, and infectious bits of comedy. Although the journey through Old Man’s War comes with its share of bumps and bruises, it is well worth the price of admission.(less)
He must have had a full name, once, but now that he’s one of the Dead, the letter R is all he remembers of his past identity. He and his friend, M, with a few of their fellow Dead, go hunting for the Living, and, on one such hunting trip, R meets a girl. Julie who brightens his colorless life and warms his cold, Dead heart. Strangely, R doesn’t want to eat her; he wants to protect her. For him to truly keep her safe, though, the hopeless world in which they live must change.
On the surface, this novel may seem to be just another Twilight spin-off, but the reality is far more delightful. With an evocative, strangely poetic voice, Warm Bodies tells a story of zombies and of love—of what it means to be alive. It has certainly launched Isaac Marion into the spotlight, and the startling beauty of this gruesome story leaves no doubt as to why. A prequel, The New Hunger, is now available as an ebook, and an untitled sequel is expected next year. Warm Bodies has even been made into a movie, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Zombies I admit, I’ve never been a fan of zombies, except in such cutesy forms as in Plants vs. Zombies, so I don’t really know much about them. The monsters in Warm Bodies do seem to embody all the typical traits of zombies, though—they’re mindless, shambling, undead creatures in various states of decay who feed on the flesh—especially the brains—of the living. Yet R is different somehow; in some indefinable way, for some unexplainable reason, he’s not quite as mindless as his fellow Dead. He is, in fact, quite beautifully eloquent as he narrates the story, though, true to zombie form, he can’t actually express his grand thoughts vocally. This makes for the most unique viewpoint character I’ve ever read.
And humans With our viewpoint character and narrator being a zombie, one could expect he doesn’t tend to associate much—at least on friendly terms—with the Living. One would be fairly correct. During a hunting trip, though, R saves the life of a Living girl, Julie, disguising her as Dead and then bringing her back to his hive in an abandoned airport. He promises to himself, and, when she’ll stop panicking and listen, to her, that he will keep her safe.
I certainly can’t imagine what it would be like to see my friends and associates eaten in front of me, only to be essentially kidnapped and held hostage by a zombie in a whole hive of zombies. But I found Isaac Marion’s portrayal of Julie’s behavior to be believable, certainly as realistic as anything in a speculative novel can be. The other characters, Living and Dead alike, are also generally quite believable in their actions and motivations.
Deus ex machina The ending was, unfortunately, the one weak point of this book. The narration, prose, and uniqueness of the story were all exquisite, but the ending just didn’t feel like it had enough oomph. It felt like the resolution came too easily, without really asking anything of the characters and without enough foreshadowing. I’m sure my expectations contributed to my feelings about the ending; I was expecting a more scientific and less supernatural approach to the resolution, and so it ended up feeling a little hand-waved. Though it wasn’t enough to dampen my overall enthusiasm for Warm Bodies, I was definitely a little disappointed by the ending.
Why should you read this book? Warm Bodies will show you a side of zombies you’ve never seen before. Read it because it’s unique in all the right ways: it’s got a unique protagonist, unique narration, and a unique take on the entire zombie mythos. On the surface, these are zombies as you know them already—mindless, shambling creatures who hunger for brains—but R is something more. And he makes something more of the rest of them.(less)
Joanne Bertin’s debut book, The Last Dragonlord, was published back in 1998. Two years later, the sequel, Dragon and Phoenix, was released and those of us who’d read them eagerly awaited more. And waited. And waited. And eventually I gave up hope of ever getting my hands on the third book that was promised when Dragon and Phoenix was released. Imagine my shock and glee this past November when I saw on the coming releases list a little-heralded title by an author many people have forgotten about, but whom I remembered very fondly. Finally, twelve years after I had read the previous book, I could have the next adventure!
Bard’s Oath is the third book in the Dragonlord series, and opens about a year after the end of Dragon and Phoenix. Linden, Maurynna, Shima, Otter, and Raven are planning to meet up at a large horse fair, the first time they’ve all been in one place since their last adventure. But what fun would it be for us readers if something didn’t go horribly wrong? Raven is framed for murder by someone wielding dark magic, and it’s up to his friends to clear his name and catch the true murderer before he’s handed over to the hangman.
A captivating world Bertin, even after her hiatus, is still a fantastic worldbuilder. The Five Kingdoms are richly detailed with a host of original characters and differing cultural values. The Dragonlords are a small group of were-dragons, and because of their magical abilities (including incredibly long lives), Dragonlords are considered to be a rank above royalty and serve as international arbiters in the Five Kingdoms. After all, who wants to argue with someone who can change into a dragon and eat you if you piss them off? Much of the action in this book takes place in a kingdom called Cassori, which is a hyper-rank-obsessed realm. So you can imagine how handy it is to have a trio of Dragonlords on your side when you’re a common man in legal trouble like Raven. More so than in previous books, Bertin takes some time to fill out the social mores and obligations surrounding the official rank of Bard in the Five Kingdoms, which was nice to see.
Writing is not like riding a bike! There are some issues with Bard’s Oath that I don’t recall being there in the first two books. At this point in the series, Bertin has a large cast of characters, and there are many points of view. For a book that’s 430 pages long, having eight or more characters who get point of view at least once is overboard (at least for me). As there was in Dragon and Phoenix, there’s a separate storyline in Bard’s Oath that only connects with the main plot fairly late in the book. However, where in Dragon and Phoenix the secondary plot was essentially a separate book that just happened to be bound in between episodes of the main plot, here the secondary plot is not terribly compelling. Its tie-in to the main plot line is fleeting and a thing of convenience, and for that level of convenience I’d say that you could have skipped the entire second plot and been just as content. The first half of both Bertin’s previous books tend to drag a bit as she sets things up in small pieces here and there. Bard’s Oath drags more than that. However, I will say that the second half of the book was tightly paced and well done. I’ll blame the initial clutter of the novel on the fact that it took twelve years to write. There are passages which are nice and fun but don’t really add to the plot. This is something I’d expect out of fan fiction, but when there’s such a gap between books, I can’t entirely fault the original author for doing it.
Why should you read this book? This is not a good book to pick up on its own. Bertin doesn’t go back and connect the dots or do any explaining for potential newcomers. Why can Linden shape shift into a dragon? What’s a Llysanyin? Without reading the first two books, you will never figure these things out. However, since the first two books are worthwhile reads, this is hardly a chore. For those of us who have read the first two books (albeit a few years ago) Bard’s Oath is a fun return to a well-loved world (at least, I love it well). While it’s not the masterwork I had hoped for after twelve years’ wait, it has certainly whet my appetite for more! Let’s just hope the fourth book doesn’t take another twelve years. But even if it does, I’ll still happily read it.(less)
It has been two years since Kameron Hurley shocked the science fiction community with her debut novel God’s War. Now, Hurley’s blood-soaked trilogy has come to an end with the novel, Rapture. Does Hurley end the trilogy with a flourish or a whimper? The answer cannot easily be heard under the rousing applause that Rapture deserves. Rapture is one of those rare beasts of a novel that marries together beautifully gritty characters, soul-stirring moral implications, and a complex world.
With a quaint ocean-side home, a doting lover, and a gaggle of kids to look after, Nyx thought she had finally found peace. But with all the blood that Nyx has spilt, she should have known that running away would not be that easy. The Bel Dames, a group of government assassins, have convinced her to come out of retirement and take on one more bounty. Nyx knows that she cannot do this bounty alone, so she hires a cadre of shifty mercenaries to help her. In the shadows of Nyx’s journey, revolutions are brewing and peace is on a knife’s edge.
The characters come full circle It has been a long and brutal journey for Nyx and her cohorts. Every friend killed and every corpse burned has taken a tremendous emotional and physical toll on the cast. Rapture is when each character must answer for both their triumphs and their follies; they cannot simply sweep their actions under the rug. The internal struggles the main characters have to go through elevate this novel above mere fiction into something we can all learn from, with the message of the past coming back to haunt you ringing true. Sometimes, when you mess up, there is not redemption waiting on your doorstop or a shoulder to cry on because you forsook it years ago.
Upheaving expectations One of the most enthralling things about Rapture—and the entire Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy—is how adroitly Hurley lays bare our own societal norms and expectations. All of the current hot-button issues are on transparent display here: same-gender relationships, female sexuality, religion, and morality. Although Hurley seems be on the liberal half of the political spectrum, she is more than willing to show both sides of the argument. Of course, this may ruffle a few readers’ literary feathers because she includes both the good and the bad. This is part of what makes Rapture such an engaging novel—it forces the reader to be uncomfortable with its fearsome honesty. It forces us to reevaluate our thoughts on various issues, regardless of which section of the sociopolitical spectrum we call home.
Those sure are a lot of viewpoints There is something to be said about being too ambitious. In this case, Rapture sports a rather large cast of point-of-view characters for a fairly slim novel. For the most part, this lengthy POV list is not bothersome when it comes to the returning cast, as they are already nicely developed from the previous novels. It becomes a hindrance instead with the new characters introduced in Rapture. Overall, the new characters are well-developed but at many times are their motivations muddled—and some characters just seem like walking plot conveniences.
Why should you read this book? Novels like Rapture only come every once in a while, piercing through readers’ corporeal forms and straight into their souls. That being said, Rapture, and the entire Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, is not for everyone. Its brutal slant on multiple subjects may rub some readers the wrong way, its cast is not likeable in the heroic sense, nor is there much closure. But for those who want to be challenged by the novels they read, I implore you to look no further than Rapture.(less)
Blood’s Pride is Evie Manieri’s debut novel, and the first in a proposed series. The Shadari people have been conquered by the Norlanders and are now slaves in their own land, mining ore that the Norlanders use to make magic blades. For twenty years the Shadari have dreamed of freedom while the Norlanders dream of escaping the desert and returning in glory to their homeland. From the sidelines a third people, the Nomas, watch. When the Shadari hire a famous mercenary known as the Mongrel to help overthrow the Norlanders, they get more than they bargained for. For the Mongrel has close ties to all three peoples and her own agenda that has nothing to do with anyone else’s.
A vast array of details One of the first things you notice when reading Blood’s Pride is the attention to worldbuilding. All of the action takes place in a small city-state called the Shadar. The Shadar is set between the ocean and a soaring cliff face. At the top of the cliff is a desert. Sounds simple, right? Except that there are three distinct peoples living in this area. Each has its own religious beliefs, its own magic, and its own weaknesses. While in Blood’s Pride Manieri only gives us the history of the Shadari, it’s very clear that the Nomas and the Norlanders also have their own complex histories that will influence the series’ plot in books to come.
The characters are also complex and well fleshed out. We have major characters from all three cultures, and they all react to their situation in ways that make sense for someone in each of their positions. However, all of these major characters are in some way breaking away from their society. Sometimes it’s ideology that has made them an outsider, sometimes it’s circumstance, and sometimes it’s growing beyond the bounds of what is acceptable to one of the cultures. However, this makes it a bit harder to understand how each of these societies work because the characters through which you learn about them are busy breaking the molds.
Maybe too many details Not only is there a large array of major characters, but there are six characters who get point of view. Those points of view are also not neatly separated at chapter breaks, but sometimes change from one paragraph to the next with little transition to help the reader out. On one page I’m following Isa as she walks one way down a hallway, and then suddenly I’m following Rho going the opposite way, and I need to back up to figure out where Isa went and why I’m not with her anymore. I’ve said this before in previous reviews, and I’ll say it again: I hate bouncing in and out of so many characters’ heads. I’m also not a fan of transitions between points of view that aren’t smooth enough that they take the majority of the work away from the reader. I don’t like to have to think about which character’s head I’m in. This may not bother a lot of other readers, but it bothers me. So many details also meant that I was left with a lot of questions about all three cultures. Why do the Norlanders dislike physical deformities? I don’t know. There are a lot of things I don’t know because so many bases had to be covered relatively quickly.
I’d also call the sheer breakneck speed of the plot problematic. The entire 528 page novel takes place over the course of about a week, with the majority of the action taking place over two or three days. No one in the novel has time to take anything in and make a carefully considered decision. There aren’t a lot of relaxed points in the pacing. While those can make a book feel longer, they also provide good stopping points for a book that’s going to take even the fastest reader a bit of time to get through. There’s also not a lot of time for convincing character changes in that small of a period. Instead, the changes that do happen are not the result of the events of the novel but of events that have happened previous to the novel’s opening, which means the reader doesn’t get to really relish those changes.
Why should you read this book? Blood’s Pride is a strong debut, for all the problems I found with it. Many of my issues with Blood’s Pride stem from the fact that I am a very picky reader, and that I see enough talent in Manieri’s work so far to know that if she puts in the time and the effort she can become the kind of author that we at the Ranting Dragon are avid about. But she’s not there yet. However, with a richly detailed world and a lot of well done action, Blood’s Pride is still an epic fantasy well worth reading.(less)
Ice Forged is the seventh novel by American author Gail Z. Martin, and her first one to take place outside of the Winter Kingdoms, the world of the Fallen Kings Cycle and the Chronicles of the Necromancer. It tells the story of a young man’s quest to stay alive in a world turned to chaos. Blaine “Mick” McFadden finds himself struggling to restore order in the face of warlords, assassins, criminals and the threat of an invading army.
A new world and a new style I mentioned in my review of The Dread that I felt she filled a very useful niche in the transition between young adult and adult fantasy, melding the simpler styles of YA with the more serious and realistic themes of adult fantasy. With this new series, Martin seems to be pushing further into the world of adult fantasy with a much grittier and darker vision for her characters and her world.
In this book, we find that Mick has been sentenced to exile in the frozen penal colony of Velant for the murder of his own father, a nobleman and Lord who was also a vicious abuser and rapist. And so we’re already off to a dark start. When a war back on the mainland causes a catastrophic destruction of magic that may well encompass the whole world, Mick, who has earned his freedom and become a colonist rather than a prisoner, finds himself with a choice between living out his life on Velant or trying to return to the mainland and see what has become of everyone there.
In Martin’s previous works, while the stakes were high, everything else always seemed a little too safe—like everybody was still going to make it home for dinner in spite of the troubles. In Ice Forged, however, right from page one, you are left with the impression that everything is just one turn away from complete and total disaster and that this story could easily end with a world descended into utter chaos and violence. It’s a departure, but an excellent one with a great deal of potential.
With apologies to Larry Niven Ever since I read the 1978 short story “The Magic Goes Away” by Larry Niven, I’ve been fascinated by worlds that have magic and then suddenly find themselves without it. In Ice Forged, we see a world populated by a huge variety of mages, hedge-wizards, healers, and common folk who have some small magic powers. Magic is used everywhere, from making better beer to keeping fences standing up to winning at cards. So when the mysterious event that appears to make magic simply stop working occurs, you’re left with a very rapid, very serious deterioration in society. It is on the scale of what might happen in our world if one day electricity just stopped working. We wouldn’t all die, at least not right away, but an awful lot of people live in an awful lot of places that are only liveable because of such technology.
Martin does an excellent job of communicating just how great an effect this is having on everybody, showcasing the extreme degree to which magic is taken for granted in her world by nearly everyone, even those who lack it. For instance, while sailing the open ocean in a winter storm, you realize that the shipwright used magic to keep the hull sealed instead of solid construction, you find yourself in some very tense moments very quickly.
But what’s with the vampires? If you followed the link in the first section to my review of The Dread, you may have seen my discussion there of Martin’s use of vampires in a very interesting and engaging way in that world. Ice Forged has yet another variety of slightly non-standard but still fairly traditional vampires—the talishte, who seem to have most of the usual strengths and weaknesses of vampires. But where the Winter Kingdoms books also had spirits, werewolves, demons, and magical beasts, Ice Forged appears to only have humans and vampires. They don’t really detract from the story, and one of Martin’s vampires, Lord Lanyon Penhallow, is actually a very interesting and engaging character. That said, they also don’t really seem to add much to the story, either.
It seems as though Martin just has a deep and abiding love for vampire lore (and who wouldn’t? They’re pretty awesome) but there’s a time and a place for superhuman creatures with incredible powers, and it feels a little like a post-apocalyptic world with no magic and little technology where humans are immediately on the brink of complete societal collapse isn’t that place. Unless the second book in the series is going to be about vampires taking over the world, in which case, mea culpa.
Why should you read this book? I said in my last Martin review that you should read her because she is a very solid writer with a firm grasp of the basics of plot, pacing, and characters. I also said that she wasn’t really doing anything especially ground-breaking, but sometimes that’s what you’re looking for.
While the same holds true here, the real reason you should read this book is to watch an author grow and come into her own. It’s great to read a book and think to yourself, “That was well done, but what else can you do?” and then see, in their very next book, “Oh, that’s what else you can do… please continue!”
As an author, Martin has finished walking, and now it’s time to run.(less)
I’ve read a lot of Star Wars books by a lot of authors. There are many I’ve enjoyed, but nearly all my favorites are by one author: Timothy Zahn. When I heard he was writing a new standalone novel, I immediately knew I would have to read it! And, as a bonus, this novel is all about everyone’s favorite scoundrel: Han Solo. Scoundrels is no standard Star Wars adventure, though; it has no Jedi, nobody using the Force, no lightsaber fights. Instead, it is a heist story set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe and inspired by Oceans 11.
Han Solo is deeply in debt to crime lord Jabba the Hutt. The reward money from destroying the Death Star at Yavin—with which he planned to pay off his debt—has been lost to pirates, and the bounty on his head is causing no end of problems. So when Han receives an unexpected job offer from a mysterious stranger, the payoff is enough to tempt this smuggler into branching out. Han himself might not have the skills necessary to pull off an elaborate heist and break into a heavily guarded safe, but he knows plenty of shady people who do!
Genuinely stands alone—ish While I’m not sure what kind of person aside from a Star Wars fan would be reading this review or considering this book in the first place, it is readable as a standalone novel; you don’t even need to have seen the movies to make sense of it, though some of the more significant moments may lose some meaning. For the best reading experience, I do recommend familiarity with the original trilogy. And though no prior reading is really remotely necessary, a few other novels may help introduce or add background to some of the situations, characters, and organizations featured in this book: Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry and the Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command) by Timothy Zahn.
Star Wars: Scoundrels is set in the year 0 ABY (After Battle of Yavin), so in terms of internal chronology, it comes before those books I mentioned. Star Wars Expanded Universe books can usually be read in any order, whether it be publication chronology, internal chronology, or whatever other order or disorder you desire.
A varied cast Whether this is your first or fiftieth experience reading a Star Wars novel, there will be both new and familiar faces. Anyone who knows Star Wars at all will know Han Solo, of course, and his co-pilot Chewbacca and frenemy Lando Calrissian. Those more familiar with the Expanded Universe will recognize Winter. Most of the characters Han pulls together for this heist, though, are completely new, and completely fascinating to learn about! There is a ship thief, an explosives expert, a ghost thief and her reluctant assistant—her twin sister. Of course, a few Rebels get involved, as well as an Imperial Intelligence agent.
Despite the array of new, unfamiliar characters, they’re all fleshed out beautifully. There’s more history between Han and Lando to enjoy, and each of the new characters gets their own slice of history as well. Some get more than others, but they all feel believable; they all live and breathe and contribute uniquely to the group. This was one of Scoundrels’ biggest strengths, in my opinion.
And a fascinating new setting The “galaxy far, far away” has a plethora of varied and unique settings. In Scoundrels, we get to see Wukkar, a new planet with new customs, and we see it during the most interesting time of its year. The Festival of Four Honorings is being celebrated, providing a crazy, chaotic, colorful backdrop for the heist. To me, Star Wars has always been an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy, a subgenre many like to call science fantasy. I felt that the combination of a high-tech heist with this festival, which has more of a magical fantasy feel, definitely contributed to this overall quality of Scoundrels.
Why should you read this book? Timothy Zahn has done it again. If the Jedi are the coolest beings ever and you’re never happier than when you’re reading about the Force, Scoundrels might be a bit disappointing for you. However, if you love elaborate heists and consider criminals to be the best protagonists, you wouldn’t even have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciate this novel.(less)
The Hunger Games is still huge, two years after the trilogy reached completion. So it’s no surprise that dystopian fiction is all the rage in the young adult market, with a number of strong contenders for readers’ interests. Dan Well’s Partials series is one such, of which Fragments is the second installment.
In the late twenty-first century, the world is nigh unrecognizable. A war with genetically engineered soldiers, termed “Partials,” devastated the human race at the same time a virulent new plague, RM, ravaged the population. 35,000 humans now live on Long Island; as far as they know, they are the only humans left on Earth. To make matters worse, the survivors are all still carrying the deadly virus, which has killed every single infant born for over a decade. Kira Walker was only five when the old world fell apart, and she’s dedicated her training since to finding a cure for RM. The answer lies with the Partials, who are now facing their own extinction due to a built-in expiration date. It’s up to Kira to figure out how these two problems fit together and, at the same time, answer a growing list of questions about her own origins.
The stakes are high In Partials, it was clear from the beginning that humanity was in dire straights. However, the stand-off with the Partials on the mainland of North America is concluded, the Partial Dr. Morgan tearing apart Long Island in search of Kira, hoping that Kira’s genetic oddities may solve the Partials from extinction. This has exacerbated the problems of human and Partials not being able to live without each other, but not being able to live with each either. However, Kira isn’t on Long Island, having left on a quest for answers in the ruins of the world that was. Instead, it is her old friend Marcus whose point of view is used to show the conflict on Long Island as it heats up.
To me, what’s happening on Long Island is almost incidental. The real meat of the book is Kira’s journey, first to Manhattan and then cross-country to Denver. Joining her are Samm and Heron, as well as a new companion, Afa. Where Partials was a bit more dystopian than post-apocalyptic, Fragments is the opposite. Kira is outside of her society now, and traveling through a world ravaged by the sudden disappearance of humans. Wells does a fantastic job of painting what the world would look like when Mother Nature starts to take the world back from human interference, and just how detrimental some of our activities are. Overall, this is a book about consequences, and how there may not be any good choices to make.
A marked improvement While fellow reviewer Aaron loved Partials, I found it pandering and annoying. I will grant that a large part of my issue with Partials was that I did not agree with many of the pre-industrial elements of the society on Long Island. When I was constantly being thrown out of the book by how fast horse drawn wagons were zipping around the island, it was really hard to enjoy the story. Fragments breaks away from these annoyances for the most part, if only because most of the travel is not being described in distance over exact measurements of time. Marcus spends the book desperately trying to apply bandages in a war zone, and Kira is on a long distance trek where how far she travels in a day just isn’t that interesting or important. I also found Fragments to be paced better than its predecessor. The cast is smaller, and the relationships are more sharply defined. When, at the end of the book, Kira looks back on the decisions she made at the beginning of the book with regret, it’s because she’s matured and not because she’s had sudden insight into the fact that she may not be strictly human.
Why should you read this book? Fragments lives up to the promise that Partials made but didn’t quite fulfill. It’s a tightly written adventure with lots of grey areas and very few black-and-whites. For fans of The Hunger Games or dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature in general, this is a fantastic choice for your next read. There’s lots of lovely twists and turns to savor, and the ending left me on the edge of my seat, wanting the final book right now! However, this is a young adult book, so there is a bit of dumb teenager floating around as well as the ubiquitous love triangle.(less)
Orb Sceptre Throne is the fourth novel by Canadian archaeologist and writer Ian C. Esslemont. It is set in the world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a setting co-created by Esslemont and fellow Canadian Steven Erikson as a backdrop for role-playing games. Orb Sceptre Throne takes place in the city of Darujhistan after the events of The Malazan Book of the Fallen have concluded.
The world that keeps on giving Say what you will about other fantasy epics; Erikson and Esslemont have done more with their world than any other series I can name. Esslemont is doing a marvelous job filling in the gaps in and around the events of Erikson’s 10-book epic. With each new volume, we learn more and more about this huge world (larger than Earth, in fact, if the various cartographers are to be trusted) and the incredible depth of its characters, societies, and peoples.
While several of Esslemont’s previous forays into the world of Malaz served as back story and “meanwhile over here” narrative, Orb Sceptre Throne takes events forward, and we see a return of some of the series’ most engaging and fascinating characters: The Warlord Caladan Brood, High Mage Tayschrenn, and everybody’s favorite Malazan marines, the Bridgeburners—or, at least, what is left of them. As usual, the characters find themselves embroiled in events of both small and world-sweeping import. Esslemont has no problems at all keeping up with the high bar Erikson set for phenomenal characterization and dialogue, which continue to set this world apart from so many others.
Many irons in the fire One thing in Orb Sceptre Throne that might be taken as either a strength or a weakness, depending on your personal preference, is just how many different narratives are going on. I can count at least seven different story lines I’d consider distinct from one another in this book, which is only 600 pages in trade paperback. This can give the book a bit of a disjointed feel, like you’re skipping all over and never really settling into one story long enough to get invested. For people who have trouble keeping a lot of small details clear when they are being thrown at you quickly, that could really put you off this book and potentially the series as a whole.
Conversely, I, personally, really appreciate this writing technique because I feel it enables Esslemont to build to cliffhangers and climaxes way more often than is typical in a book. This gives it more of a serial feel that actually kept me reading more and longer, because I kept wondering what was going to happen next. Add in the way he tends to subtly interweave the stories as they approach their conclusion, and it reads more like a Guy Ritchie movie than anything else.
My new favorite fantasy culture Orb Sceptre Throne also spends a lot more time focusing on a people that are comparatively minor characters in the rest of the series: The Seguleh, a warrior people with an incredibly rigid societal structure. All members of Seguleh society that go armed have “taken up the sword” and are part of a ranking system that imposes a strict hierarchy upon them. Each Seguleh warrior will submit to the orders of any higher ranked, unless they wish to challenge that person for their rank. Battles of rank are almost never lethal, as their skill is so high that it is obvious almost immediately who is the superior warrior. The Seguleh warriors also wear masks displaying their rank, which become more simple and unmarked as they rise in authority. They are referred to by rank rather than name, so the fifth ranked Seguleh is named “The Fifth” or “Fifth.”
This kind of culture fascinates me, as does their portrayal as being almost legendarily skilled. Several characters who know very well what they are doing in a fight consider the possibility of an army of Seguleh to be absolutely terrifying. Fearless veterans come across the Third of the Seguleh and basically crap their pants. Readers of The Malazan Book of the Fallen may recall that Anomander Rake, the Son of Darkness, who is one of the most legendary and skilled warriors in the world, found himself ranked as only Seventh among these people.
It was so great to finally see a book that featured them more heavily, and this contributed quite a lot to my enjoyment and the accompanying high rating I’ve assigned this book. If, by some magical confluence of events, Steven Erikson or Ian Esslemont ever see this review: give us a whole book about the Seguleh!
Why should you read this book? There really isn’t much NOT to like in this book. The characters are fantastic, the story is fantastic, the world is beyond fantastic. You might find it a little confusing if this is your first book in the world of Malaz, though. It could be read as a stand-alone but would contain some pretty heavy spoilers for the parts of The Malazan Book of the Fallen that take place in the same part of the world.
For a continuation to a truly epic fantasy series, it lives up absolutely to the others, and is worth a read for anybody who wants to fall into a world and not ever want to come back.(less)