Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite authors, and to date I must have read more than a dozen of his books. But whenever someone asks what I think is his best work, my mind always comes back to Miriam Black.
Oh Miriam, Miriam, Miriam, “my fair fuckin’ lady” Miriam. From the very start she had me with her snarky spitfire devil-may-care ways, though in truth it is her secret power that makes most people sit up and pay attention. With no more than the slightest touch, she can tell you when you’ll die and how it’ll happen. All she needs is a bit of skin-on-skin contact, and the visions will trigger and she will know.
But is such a power more of a gift or a curse? Very few people actually want the knowledge Miriam can glean, and her abilities have brought her more pain than anything else. Imagine foreseeing hundreds of deaths, many of which can be pretty disturbing or gruesome—accidents, car crashes, illnesses, murders, and suicides. Imagine seeing how those closest to you will die, but knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it or change it.
So Miriam has decided that she doesn’t want anything to do with death anymore. Thunderbird is the fourth novel of the series in which our protagonist begins to take the necessary steps to get rid of her powers. Last we saw her, she had just gotten a name of a person who might be able to help, so now she’s on her way to the Southwest to find the psychic known as Mary Scissors. Unfortunately, Mary is proving to be a hard woman to find, and soon Miriam and her friend Gabby are getting mixed up with the Arizona drug gangs and crazy militia cults.
Technically, it is possible to read Thunderbird on its own without having read the previous novels, though I have to say it’s probably not ideal. The story here is a culmination of everything that happened before, and knowing Miriam’s past will make it easier to understand why she has come to a point where she feels she has no choice but to get rid of her curse. There are also characters and references to events from the first three novels, and the significance of some of these appearances and mentions are going to be confusing if you haven’t read them yet. Even I had a few stumbles along the way because I couldn’t remember all the details of what happened; after all, it has been about three years since the last book came out, and it was a wait that felt like an eternity at times, given how much I adore this series.
Still, a part of me also has to wonder if the long hiatus affected my experience with this book, because there are certain aspects that feel a little different about it. One thing that first made me fall in love with the Miriam Black series was the sheer horror aspect of it; I still remember certain scenes from Blackbirds and Mockingbird that were so violently and gut-churningly graphic that I almost couldn’t bear to read anymore. And yet, I also once wrote how Wendig’s writing can make you desperately want to keep turning the pages and be scared to do so at the same time, and that is why I love these books.
Thunderbird, however, probably didn’t hit me as profoundly or affect me as viscerally. Is Miriam Black getting soft? I certainly hope not! But this book did strike me as being a little more conventional and having fewer sharp edges as the first three. One simply has to compare the villains in this story to the likes of those that came before (Ashley Gaynes? Shudder! The Mockingbird Killer? GAH!) and it’s easy to see why this one felt less terrifying and lacked a certain punch in that regard. I also had some mixed feelings about the interludes. Let’s just say they can be…tricky. Time jumps can be tough to pull off, and personally I didn’t think they worked all of the time. I enjoyed those flashbacks that dropped at appropriate moments, giving us important details or building up the atmosphere, but I didn’t like them so much when they disrupted the momentum and took away from the developing suspense.
That said, while this probably wasn’t my favorite book of the series (that distinction still belongs to The Cormorant, the previous one) I still think it’s great because of what it does for Miriam. Wendig has done an exceptional job developing her backstory and personality in Thunderbird, and in spite of all her faults and damaged psyche, I just love everything about her character. Beneath that sarcastic badass persona is a woman with a bigger heart than she would probably like to admit, and over the last couple installments we’ve been able to see that part of her emerge.
There really is no one else quite like Miriam Black, so if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet, what are you waiting for? I highly recommend picking up this series, and if you can, definitely start her story from the beginning. I promise you won’t regret it....more
I fucking loved this book. The Grey Bastards went down like a shot of good top-shelf tequila: warm and smooth, but with one hell of a spicy kick. If SPFBO has taught me any lessons, it’s that you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a self-published novel, but many stars aligned to make this one work immensely well for me. It happened to perfectly fit my tastes, for one. With a title and cover like that, you can be sure this dark epic fantasy will have plenty of grit and violence. Throw in some breakneck pacing and a dash of that crude and vulgar brand of humor, then you’ve got yourself a recipe for a good time.
The story follows a half-orc named Jackal who is sworn to the The Grey Bastards hoof, one of the eight brotherhoods of former slaves that now live on the land known as the Lots. Shunned by humans but also hostile to the orcs, the mongrel bands are all that’s left standing between the city of Hispartha and the forces that want to see it fall.
Life among the hoofs has its own trials, however. Long has Jackal wanted to challenge their warchief Claymaster for leadership of The Grey Bastards, but because a failed bid can mean his own death, our protagonist is prepared to wait until he has more support beyond that of his good friends, Oats and Fetch.
Still, that was before their so-called allies started turning against them, or before the Claymaster started sparing their orc enemies instead of swiftly dispatching them, and certainly before before a wily wizard named Crafty managed to weasel his way into the warchief’s good graces. More and more, Jackal is noticing erratic behavior in their gnarled and plague-ridden leader, reaffirming his beliefs that the old half-orc should be deposed. The final straw finally comes in the form of an elf girl named Starling, whom Jackal rescues from a terrible fate. Vehemently disagreeing with the Claymaster on their next course of action, Jackal feels he has no choice but to throw down his ax—thus declaring his challenge and sealing his fate for the inevitable course of turmoil to come.
So yeah, I liked this book. I liked it a lot. And thing is, there isn’t any one aspect of the story that I can single out and claim that I liked the most, since it was the culmination of all of its parts—and all at once—that made The Grey Bastards such a memorable and spectacularly good read. I enjoyed how the plot started small before snowballing to become something much bigger, and at no point did it take a step back or even pause for a breather; there was only aggressive forward motion, constantly driving forward.
I’ll also admit a love for reading dark fantasy featuring raw, gritty, foul-mouthed and violence-seeking characters—call me old softie, but I reserve a special place in my heart for these kinds of anti-heroes. However, an author can wind up with a whole cast of virtually indistinguishable characters if they’re not careful, which is a common pitfall for books in this genre. Fortunately though, French manages to avoid this problem in The Grey Bastards, giving all his half-orc characters their own unique and individual personalities. Jackal is our main protagonist, with his lofty ambitions which can sometimes blind him to other perspectives around him. In part, this book is the story of how he finally opens his eyes to see the big picture, but the journey to get there is a tough one indeed. Lucky for Jackal, he has his friends to back him up. Oats is a thrice (so called because they are three-quarters orc, making them physically larger than their half-orc brethren) who is as loyal as they come, and rounding out the inseparable trio is Fetch, the only female in the Grey Bastards who had to fight tooth and nail for her position in the hoof. Like all friendships, the three of them have their ups and downs, but the well-developed relationships between them made these dynamics very convincing.
In terms of story, The Grey Bastards was a book that pulled me in straight away. It’s fun and exciting, full of unexpected twists and turns, though I feel I have to warn prospective readers that this is not one for the faint of heart. If you are easily turned off by brutal graphic violence or crude and offensive language, then this is probably not for you. French pulls no punches in this vicious and no-holds-barred world full of orcs, humans, elves, halflings, and even centaurs all fighting one and another, with scenes of skirmishing and great battles punctuating the narrative every few chapters. This sets a very fast and readable pace with rich world-building that is not so much inserted as it is integrated into the story, often done in a seamless way that is in context with the events playing out on the page. This has got to be one of the most interesting and fleshed-out fantasy worlds I have ever read, and the author made it all seem so effortless.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond impressed with The Grey Bastards. In reading it I got to experience a strikingly vivid world come to life before my eyes, populated by characters who are at once wild and wonderful. Jonathan French is a fantastic writer and talented storyteller who has created a very special gem here, and the story even ends with potential for our characters to engage in more future adventures. Here’s hoping Jackal and his fellow Bastards will get a sequel soon, because you can bet I’ll be all over that....more
As you know, I’m quite a fan of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, and so I was thrilled when I discovered he was planning to write a new series called Gods of Blood and Powder set in the same universe. Sins of Empire is a return to this world of magic and war, taking place approximately ten years after the end of The Autumn Republic. While the main cast may contain a few familiar faces, this novel is in fact a new story taking place in a new setting, so whether you are an old fan looking to dive back into the world or a newcomer contemplating this as a possible place to jump on board, this book is accessible to all. (However, a small caveat: if you haven’t completed the Powder Mage trilogy yet and do intend to at some point, keep in mind Sins of Empire may contain some spoilers especially for how that series ends.)
The story begins by depositing us in Fatrasta, a relatively young nation that recently gained independence through a violent, bloody war. Still, despite its turbulent political landscape, the country is booming—travelers from all walks of life are flocking to its borders looking for new opportunities, from criminals feeling prosecution from their nations of origin to intrepid settlers that see this new land as fresh start for their families. Then there are the mercenaries, come to Fatrasta to enjoy the patronage of Chancellor Lindet who governs her land with an iron fist. Among them are the Riflejack army, led by Lady Vlora Flint and her partner Colonel Olem, veterans of the Adro Revolution which took place a decade ago. When an insurrection threatens to destabilize Fatrasta even further, Vlora and Olem are called back to the capital city of Landfall to help put down the rebellion and root out its leader, a mysterious rebel known as Mama Palo.
Meanwhile in a high security labor camp, a convicted war hero who helped win Fatrasta her independence fails to make parole. Angry and demoralized, Ben Styke is just about to accept that he will never taste freedom again when a strange visitor claiming to be a lawyer shows up and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Somewhere else, an ambitious spy named Michel Bravis receives a dangerous assignment to track down the individual or groups responsible for printing and distributing an anti-government publication called “Sins of Empire”. Even though he feels woefully unqualified for such detective work, Michel has no choice but to accept the mission. After all, this may be the path to earn him the promotion he’s always wanted…though on the other hand, failure could mean much more than his downfall.
Together, these separate threads make up the story of Sins of Empire. In classic epic fantasy fashion, we follow and bounce around between the perspectives as the narrative builds, until all the plot lines converge. Those who have read the Powder Mage books will already be familiar with Vlora who was a supporting character in the original trilogy, but now it’s her chance to be a main protagonist in her own right. I must confess, it was a real treat for me to catch up with her again. Thinking back to when Promise of Blood first came out, one criticism I had of the book involved the underutilization of the female character POVs, and even when compared to Nila and Ka-poel, Vlora received relatively little attention. Oh, how the tables have turned now. Despite the popularity of Ka-poel, it is Vlora who I’ve always had a soft spot for, and it was a joy to watch her take charge and shine bright in this series opener.
Credit must also go to newcomers Ben Styke and Michel Bravis, since they too helped make Sins of Empire a strong introduction. While neither of their stories are as interesting to me as Vlora’s at this point, the good news is I can easily see their roles expanding beyond what they are now with future books, and hopefully in time they will become more than just “violent brute with a heart of gold” and “neurotic spy” respectively. However, it’s important to note as well that both their sections provided a bit of mystery to this novel, adding to the suspense as little by little the characters uncover more secrets behind the rebellion in Falastra, not to mention a few shocking revelations. I loved the unexpected twists and game-changing surprises, and I have no doubt these will also be greatly appreciated by other Powder Mage fans!
In addition, the author has clearly learned a lot from completing his debut trilogy. Sins of Empire is solidly written, and as the first book of a series, I feel the plot is also more compelling and better constructed compared to Promise of Blood. All in all it is a great introductory volume, accomplishing its goal of setting up a strong foundation, at once familiar but also different enough from the original trilogy that I find myself excited to see where McClellan will take us next. The ending teases much more to come, and I can’t wait for more answers in the sequel....more
I picked up A Crown of Wishes after the fantastic read that was The Star-Touched Queen, and I’m glad I did. This is despite the book being a companion novel rather than a true sequel, because while the two may feature different stories and characters, they are the same in all the ways that count – in their creative vision and excellence.
Once upon a time in a kingdom called Ujijain there lived a prince named Vikram. Known as the Fox Prince, he was offered a chance to compete in the mysterious Tournament of Wishes held in the otherworldly realm of Alaka, city of Treasures and Wealth. It is said that winner will be granted any wish they desire—and being the adopted son of the emperor and merely regarded as a puppet prince, Vikram thinks he knows what it is he will ask for should he prevail. But first, he’s going to have to find a partner.
Enter Gauri, a warrior princess who attempted a coup against her tyrannical brother and failed. Now she is in exile and a prisoner of war, captured by her kingdom’s enemies and facing death. In Vikram’s eyes, however, she is the ideal teammate—fierce, strong, and powerful, she’s the perfect complement to his wit and cunning. Gauri, on the other hand, is less than impressed with Vikram’s naiveté and lack of fighting ability, and yet, if it’s a choice between execution and going off on a wild goose chase with some strange fool prince, she knows which option she’s going to pick. So together they team up and head off to Alaka, with every confidence that they will emerge victorious. But upon their arrival in the otherworld, Gauri realizes that the two of them may have gotten in way over their heads. Things work differently here than in the real world, with dangers taking new forms. Curses and other magical or supernatural threats abound, twisting their aspirations into desperation and destruction.
While I was reading, I just couldn’t help but think this is the book I wish Caraval had been. Thematically they are very similar, each novel featuring an otherworldly, magical competition at its center. The difference is, The Crown of Wishes does it so much better. In contrast to the frenetic, almost random structure of Caraval, this one instead features an organized, well thought out plotline which gradually expands beyond the two protagonists’ personal stories. In some ways, it reminded me of a series of integrated folk tales, focusing on Gauri and Vikram as they discover more about themselves and each other with the completion of each challenge. Not surprisingly, the end result is a book that feels significantly more impactful and emotionally complex.
Ultimately I gave The Crown of Wishes the same rating as I did The Star-Touched Queen, because I enjoyed both books equally. But just as the original does some things better, there are likewise areas where the follow-up tops its predecessor. Those who thought the pacing was too slow in the first book will probably find this to be less of a problem in The Crown of Wishes, for example. It is a much more action-oriented and plot-driven book, with sustained high levels of excitement as the tournament progresses through its various stages.
I also preferred the relationship dynamics between the main characters here, over the one between Maya and Amar in The Star-Touched Queen. In a word, Vikram and Gauri were adorable. While a love story like theirs is in no way unique in YA, I feel Roshani Chokshi deserves a tremendous amount of credit for her gift in dialogue writing. On not once but several occasions, I found myself smiling at the cleverness and sharp humor in the characters’ back-and-forth banter, and that is a rare thing for me indeed. There’s a sense of real chemistry between them, making this a more satisfying YA romance than most.
The world-building was also wonderful. If you enjoyed this aspect from The Star-Touched Queen, then you’ll be even more thrilled with the level of detail here, as it is another step up from the author’s debut efforts. I loved Alaka, and the aura of myth and mystery that surrounded it. In fact, at times it felt like an information overload, simply because the strange and magical descriptions would keep coming and coming. The deluge got to be a little too much at times, but overall I appreciated the introduction to this rich and beautiful setting.
When all is said and done, A Crown of Wishes delivered everything I hoped for in a follow-up to one of the top YA novels I read last year, and I highly recommend both books in The Star-Touched Queen sequence. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the author’s future projects.
Audiobook Comments: Narrator Priya Ayyar did a fantastic job on the audiobook production of The Star-Touched Queen, which was I was so happy to see her reprise the role for the sequel. Her strong performance was one of the reasons why I decided to continue with this format for A Crown of Wishes, and I was not disappointed. Her reading was even better this time around, and once again she did great with the inflections and accents. I would not hesitate to recommend this series in audio....more
A crew of a compromised ship wake up to confusion and murder, with no memory of what came before. It’s not exactly a new premise, which is why when I first picked up Six Wakes, I thought I knew what I was in for—a mindless space adventure-thriller, with a bit of mystery thrown in perhaps. Turns out, I was wrong. Oh sure, the book had a little bit of this and a little dash of that, but it was also more than the sci-fi popcorn fare I had expected. Far, far, far from it, in fact.
The story begins on the Dormire, a generation starship carrying a cargo hold full of sleeping humans to the unspoiled paradise planet of Artemis. On the four-hundred-year journey it would take to travel to their destination, their lives would be safeguarded by IAN, the onboard AI. Six clones also make up the ship’s crew, all of them reformed criminals who are hoping to scrub their pasts clean and start their lives anew on Artimis: Katrina, the captain; Wolfgang, her second-in-command; Maria, the junior maintenance officer; Hiro, the programmer; Joanna, the medical officer; and Paul, the ship engineer. The opening scene is one of blood and terror when the six of them suddenly find themselves waking up in their cloning vats, with their minds downloaded into their new bodies—something that only happens if a clone’s previous incarnation has died.
Indeed, when they have recovered enough to find their bearings, they discover their old bodies floating around the ship in zero-G, all showing signs of violence. IAN has been knocked offline, explaining the lack of artificial gravity as well as the fact their ship is now off-course. To make matters worse, the cloning bay has been sabotaged so that the clones’ most up-to-date mindmaps cannot be accessed, and the food printer has also been reprogrammed to churn out poison. Since all the passengers in the hold are still in stasis, the implications clear: one of the six crew members had killed the others including themselves. And because their latest memories were retrieved from back-ups made decades ago from around the time they left earth, no one can remember what happened right before their deaths, so the killer can be any of them.
The more I think about it, the more I begin to think there are actually two sides to this novel. First, we have the obvious mystery aspect, which combines the suspense of a sci-fi thriller with the elements from a classic whodunit. Throw in the madness-inducing claustrophobia of knowing you are trapped on a spaceship with a group of criminals, any of whom are capable of murder—one of them has already killed you once, in fact—and the stage is set for a gripping psychological drama. To keep things interesting, the narrative also shifts between our six main characters, exploring not only who they are but also who they were in their past clone lives. Impressively, the tensions of the central mystery plot were kept up despite these frequent interludes and flashbacks.
Which brings me to second aspect of the story. While the publisher’s description might have sold us the idea that Six Wakes is nothing more than a murder mystery in space, the true nature of it is much more complicated and layered than that. Lafferty imagines a future in which humans can choose to clone themselves and transfer their mindmaps from iteration to iteration, effectively achieving a sort of immortality. Not surprisingly, this process is regulated heavily by a body of laws and a number of attached codicils to ensure that it is not abused. In exploring the characters’ pasts, the author not only addresses the ethics surrounding the cloning controversy, she also raises astute questions about our humanity by looking at the political and social ramifications on an individual as well as a societal level.
Personally, I love sci-fi stories like these, the ones that engage both the heart and the mind. I initially picked up Six Wakes expecting a straightforward mystery—some light entertainment, maybe a few twists and turns—but the book ended up being all that and more. Beneath the surface of its central premise, you’ll find a thought-provoking narrative that’s cleverly presented and well-crafted. Ultimately, Mur Lafferty has written novel that is more than it seems, engaging readers with a cast of unforgettable characters and a richly imagined plot. Six Wakes was a fun and rewarding experience all around and I cannot wait to read more by the author....more
4.5 to 5 stars, I haven't decided to final rating yet but holy shit, this fantasy western tale of revenge was amazing. The protagonist is a witch and4.5 to 5 stars, I haven't decided to final rating yet but holy shit, this fantasy western tale of revenge was amazing. The protagonist is a witch and the book is written in the form of a letter (addressed to the unborn child she is carrying) chronicling her travels across the frontier as she hunts the men who killed her husband. Full review to come closer to release date....more
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a girlfriend or wife of a superhero? The answer is not so glamorous in The Refrigerator Monologues, a new book containing a series of linked short stories by Catherynne M. Valente. Inspired by “Women in Refrigerators”, a term used to describe a trope used in many comic book plots involving the deaths, disablement, and disenfranchising of female characters to forward a male superhero protagonist’s storyline, this clever collection offers both a darkly humorous commentary on the subject as well as a vicious lampoon on these kinds of story arcs as a whole.
Meet the six women of the Hell Hath Club, all inspired by well-known characters in the DC or Marvel universes so that even passing fans of comics should recognize some of their origins. There’s Paige Embry, the brilliant and driven college student who saw her bright future snuffed out when she was thrown off a bridge by her superhero boyfriend’s arch nemesis. Gwen Stacy anyone? Or how about the powerful telepath and telekinetic, taken away at a young age for a school for special powered people to fight another group of special powered people by an ostensibly well-meaning professor, who later puts Jean Gre—I mean, Julia Ash on an otherwise all-male superhero team called the “Millennial Men”? And of course there’s also Samantha Dane, based off of Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Kyle Rayner whose gruesome manner of death in the Green Lantern comics is what inspired the “refrigerated” term in the first place.
The tales go on like this, each one exploring the background of a female character who has been killed, depowered, or generally dismissed in favor of the male superheroes (and in one case, a supervillain) in their lives. Now the six of them meet regularly in the afterlife, hanging out at a quaint little joint called the Lethe Café where they share their stories, support each other, and listen to the gargoyles bands play punk rock.
The Refrigerator Monologues was a quick read, offering brief but plentiful examples to illustrate the concerning trend in comic books of having bad things happen to female characters as merely a plot device. While these are entertaining stories, I’m afraid there’s also very little lightness to them. After all, the women portrayed here are meant to represent the victims of “lazy writing” and “stock storylines”, most of them reduced to playing second fiddle to their male superhero counterparts or as pet causes for their romantic partners. Valente shines a harsh, subversive light on the injustice and absurdity of these situations, from Gwen Stacy whose death has somehow become an inextricable and defining moment in the life of Spider-Man, to Harley Quinn who is forever standing resolutely by the Joker even after the bajillionth time he leaves her to rot in Arkham. The short vignettes here capture both the tragedy and comedy of the women’s fates by putting readers in their shoes.
I also thought the length and format of the book was perfect for the author’s vision. It is clear anything less would have failed to deliver the same level of poignancy, while a longer book containing more stories would have run the risk of being repetitive. The writing style here is very distinctive, aiming for biting humor and as much as snarky finesse, though after a while I found it difficult to distinguish the different voices of the women for they all seemed to speak with the same mannerisms. By the end, I was also feeling a little weary and heartsick from the underlying tones of sadness and dejection. For you see, this isn’t a book that “fixes” things, nor was it ever meant to be—I think Valente put it best in an article I once came across where she said (and I’m paraphrasing based on memory), “I might not be able to swoop in to save the damsel, but I can turn on the mic to let her scream.” You might read these stories expecting more anger and indignation from the characters, but ultimately the Hell Hath Club isn’t so much about fury than it is about a place where its members can come together to vent, grieve, commiserate, or simply to tell their personal stories and be heard.
In closing, I also want to give special mention to the world-building of Deadtown. Aside from being the most unique and interesting aspect of the book, this brilliant setting ties all the characters’ stories together and gives this collection a special touch. Being dead isn’t easy—you’re basically stuck wearing whatever god-awful outfit you were buried in for all eternity, and there are bizarre rules like how all food can only be made from plants and animals that have gone extinct, or that the only books available are those that have been forgotten to time, etc. Still, it isn’t all bad. Residents of Deadtown share the afterlife with a population of friendly gargoyles who sure know how to have a good time!
Finally, you certainly don’t need to be familiar with comics or comic book characters to appreciate this book, but knowing some of the context would probably help. Sharply droll and acerbic, The Refrigerator Monologues offers a look at the superhero genre from a rare but important perspective. Whether these stories make you laugh or cry, pound your fists or roll your eyes, at the end of the day they’re bound to evoke emotions and start some conversations. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters....more
Infernal Parade by Clive Barker is a novella containing a series of short stories which, including the illustrations (by Bob Eggleton), comes in at under 100 pages and probably took me less than an hour to read. For such a slim volume though, it held a surprising amount of fascination for me. Thing is, out of context, the half dozen or so tales in here might seem a little random until you know a bit more about their history. Back in the early 2000s McFarlane Toys put out a couple lines of horror action figures which came distributed with portions of fictional pieces about them written by Barker as an added incentive. “The Infernal Parade” was one of these toy lines, inspired by a nightmarish circus filled with monstrous attractions and other gruesome curiosities. It included six figures.
Things kick off with the tale of our ringmaster, the convicted killer Tom Requiem. Hanged for his crimes, he nonetheless returns from the brink of death to head up a literal freak show spotlighting the terrifying and the tortured. From all across globe and even into the mythical realms, Tom scours through time and space for creatures to join his macabre parade, starting with the woman he murdered, Mary Slaughter the blade swallower. The two of them are next joined by Elijah, a bloodthirsty golem that killed the master who created it; the tormented members of Dr. Fetter’s family of freaks; the Sabbaticus, a monster out of the wilds of Karantica; and last but not least, Bethany Bled, the prisoner in the Iron Maiden.
These are their stories, brought together in this one handy collection. They don’t form a single overarching narrative per se, since each tale can be read as a standalone, in any order, as they were meant to accompany their individual action figures. If you think about it, it’s actually rather ingenious, because having glimpsed the actual Infernal Parade toys on comic book and game store shelves over the years, it’s not hard to see why some might be repelled by their disturbing and grotesque nature (as striking and gorgeously detailed as they are)—but if you happen to be a Clive Barker fan, a horror buff, or perhaps you are simply curious about a particular figure’s backstory, I can understand the appeal behind these shorts. The stories in here are each around 6-10 pages long, but there’s a world of imagination packed in every single one. They feel very much like creepy little fables or grisly tales you would tell around a campfire.
That said, even knowing the origins behind Infernal Parade might not not take away the clipped and disjointed feeling of this collection, though in all fairness I don’t typically do well with the super-short fiction format, so this might actually work better for others than it did for me. To their credit too, each story left me wanting more—in the good way. As intended, they feel like snippets in a character’s life story, specifically the circumstances around how they joined up with Tom Requiem and became a part of his parade. As much as I enjoyed these individual tales though, they often left me with the sense that the best is yet to come. For example, I probably had just as much fun imagining in my head everything that would happen in “the after” once this hideous crew got on the road. Where would they tour? Who or what would come out to see them? Think of the sheer potential behind all these crazy scenarios.
Bottom line: those looking for a more substantial read or something that feels more “complete” might not find it here, though if you’re a Clive Barker fan or a collector of rare fiction, it doesn’t get much cooler than this. Infernal Parade is a very special opportunity to get your hands on a unique collection of his short stories that might be tougher to find these days. Even if you’re reading Barker for the first time (like I was) I feel this book would be a wonderful introduction to his dark and distinct style....more
Last year I had the distinct pleasure of reading The Damned, a chilling psychological horror that immediately landed Andrew Pyper on my must-read authors list. It was thus with great excitement that I approached his newest novel The Only Child, which sounded like it would be a very different experience—which just made me even more curious.
When the story opens, we get to meet protagonist Dr. Lily Dominick, a doctor at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center whose job involves working with some of the country’s most dangerous and disturbed criminals. Lily, however, is battling a darkness of her own. Growing up, she has always been aloof, keeping others at a distance so that few people know about the traumatic experiences in her childhood and the details surrounding her mother’s violent death. But the past has come back to haunt her now, in the form of a new client at the clinic—a man whose only identity is a patient intake number and a police report detailing his horrific crimes. In spite of herself, Lily is drawn to the stranger, even before he tells her that they have actually met before, a long time ago before she was old enough to remember. He also claims he knew her mother…and the truth behind how she died.
At first, Lily is dismissive of the client’s statements. After all, he did not look old enough for any of his wild claims to be true. But then Michael, the name the man has chosen to call himself, has an explanation for this too, declaring that he is more than two hundred years old and was in fact the inspiration for many of the monsters in classic literature. At this point, Lily is almost sure the clinic’s newest patient is just another deranged psychopath suffering from delusions of grandeur, only there are few things about her he couldn’t have known—unless he is telling the truth, of course, which should be an impossibility. Unfortunately for Lily though, she doesn’t realize Michael is the real deal until it is too late. To free herself from this real-life monster, she will need to embark on a dangerous journey over oceans and across continents to unlock the secrets of her past.
Lately, I have been reading a lot of books that make references to or are inspired by the classics. I have to say, little did I expect to find this as well in The Only Child though. In a way, it was a pleasant surprise, as who doesn’t love a little Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Pyper managed to incorporate three of the greatest gothic horror novels of the 1800s into this strange tale, and he did it in an interesting and clever way.
On the flip side of this, however, there are the lengthy sections in the middle of the book detailing how Michael inspired these classic works, told mainly via flashback chapters in the form of letters to Lily. While the ideas were generally good, I was not as pleased with their execution. At best, they were a distraction from the main mystery plot, and at worst, it sometimes felt like I was reading an entirely different book. Rather than blending seamlessly with the rest of the story, the “classic monsters” angle felt like it was tacked on like an afterthought—almost gimmicky, in a way. That said, I enjoyed the added literary atmosphere immensely, which elevated this novel beyond your usual suspense-thriller. Other than that, though? The references to Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson and their works admittedly made very little impact on the story, which was kind of a shame.
Still, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did. While it was not quite as mind-blowing as The Damned, the plot was addictive all the same, and I blew through the entire novel in about two sittings, a reliable sign that this was a enthralling read. At times the story seems confused as to what it wants to be (a portentously gloomy horror? Or a modern supernatural thriller?) but to its credit at no time does the pacing let up. The clues and developments come at you fast, punctuated by brief glimpses into Michael’s riveting history. While some of the plot points feel patently over the top, the possibility has crossed my mind that this is merely another one of Pyper’s nod to the classics, which would be a very clever touch if that’s the case. The characters were also genuinely compelling, if somewhat flawed, especially Michael whose presence is at once eerie and fascinating.
Overall, I thought The Only Child was a good read, if a little overambitious, resulting in a story that is not as focused as I would have liked. Still, for fans of the gothic horror tradition, it may be well worth it to take a look. I also felt this novel was an interesting direction for Pyper, one that I felt was bold and different, making me excited to read more of his future work....more
I really wanted to like my first venture into the military sci-fi of Jack Campbell, but sadly it was just not meant to be. To be fair though, Vanguard is the first book of The Genesis Fleet, a new prequel series to Campbell’s The Lost Fleet which I have not read, so it’s possible that I may be missing some of the context required to fully appreciate this book. Still, to the novel’s credit, I also think it was set up to be a perfectly fine jumping on point, so that, at least, was not a source of my issues. It actually took me a while to gather my thoughts and put my finger on what didn’t work, because after all, the book had an interesting premise, the characters were awesome, and the writing style was as good as I remember from the author’s fantasy novels, but ultimately I think it was the execution of it all that failed to hook me.
As I said, Vanguard is the start of a new prequel series, meant to explore the founding of the Alliance, one of the two major human powers involved in the interstellar war featured in The Lost Fleet books. While the technology for faster-than-light travel is still relatively new at this point, Earth is already no longer the only major hub for humanity in the universe, with new colonies springing up on more and more worlds. That also means, however, that the old order of law and protection has ceased to exist. Earth forces no longer have the will or resources to police the systems, and as a result, space piracy and corruption are on the rise.
In other words, it’s everyone for themselves as the rules start to break down and a lawless frontier mentality quickly takes hold. As aggressive worlds begin to prey on the weak, a new pacifist colony called Glenlyon is one of the first to fall victim to this rash of unruliness. Threatened by an enemy warship in their system, the desperate colony has little in the way of defense and thus are forced to turn to a group of former Earth soldiers for help.
At first, things were great with this book. I really enjoyed how it began. Something about the idea of wild space really appeals to me, and humanity’s uncontrolled spread through the universe was a good backdrop to the chaotic events taking place in this story. Life in the new colonies is full of danger and uncertainties, and the writing really gets that point across. In addition to the attack on Glenlyon, we also get to see how settlers traveling to new worlds face the risk of being captured and enslaved by pirates, or how new colonies can be the targets of sabotage or persecution. Only a few are willing to stand up for justice and do what’s right.
Which brings us to the characters, who are all compelling at least on paper. Heading up the main cast is former junior Earth fleet officer Robert Geary, whose name should be significant to fans of The Lost Fleet, since the character is supposed to be an ancestor of the main protagonist from the original series. Up next is a onetime enlisted Marine named Mele Darcy, a strong and capable woman trying to follow her own moral compass. Then there’s Lochan Nakamura, a disgraced politician who has left his old life behind for a chance at a brand new start, and he was probably one of the more interesting of the main characters. And finally, Carmen Ochoa was my favorite—an Earth official from Mars who was in charge of “conflict resolutions”, she has her own reasons for getting into this mix.
Everything was going well for the first few chapters, but then everything fell apart. One of the problems, I think, was pacing. I couldn’t help but feel much of the first half of the book could have been compressed because so much was the story here was filled with aimless back-and-forth between the characters, resulting in a narrative that kept spinning its wheels in place. The characters themselves I found intriguing, but my disinterest in their individual plot threads made it a struggle to connect with them on any deeper level. If I were in the habit of abandoning books, I might have thrown in the towel right then and there, but I pressed on in the hopes things would get better. The good news is, the story did pick up again after a while, but by then it was too late to turn my disappointment around, and I’m afraid even the superb action scenes at the end could not save the book’s lackluster and forgettable middle sections.
In the end, I suppose the potential of the story was there, but it was presented in a way that tried my patience and wore me down. This is not my first experience with the author, but this is my first time trying his military science fiction and admittedly I was tempted by the promise of a new series, new characters, and new stories when in retrospect I probably should have started with The Lost Fleet. You can be sure that’s in my plans now, and who knows, perhaps I will even revisit this series once I’m done to see if it gives me a new perspective. For now though, I’ll probably set The Genesis Fleet aside....more
Normally I tend to skip the novellas and short stories that authors are always tacking onto or in between books of their series, but believe me when I say all bets are off when it comes to Rivers of London. The instant I learned about The Furthest Station, I just knew I had to read it. Chronologically taking place between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree, the story is probably meant to be a fun little side episode to help us Peter Grant addicts curb our appetites while waiting for the next book, but ultimately I found it so entertaining that I’d readily recommend it to newcomers and old fans alike.
As a city with a long history, London is also home to a lot of ghosts. Many of them even ride the Underground each day along with—and unbeknownst to—the thousands of living Londoners on their work commute, but rarely do these spectral passengers make any trouble. So when the police start receiving a number of reports about frightening, aggressive, and disturbing ghost sightings on the Metropolitan Line, the situation is worrying enough to get PC Peter Grant and his supervisor Inspector Nightingale on the job. After enlisting the help of Peter’s aspiring magician cousin Abigail and Jaget Kumar of the British Transport Police, the four of them take to the trains in order to try and get to the bottom of this ghostly mystery.
The problem though, is that none of their witnesses can recall much of their haunted encounters. Interviews with the ghosts themselves are also out of the question, after it is found that their incorporeal bodies quickly dissolved after the sightings—a rather unusual sign. Gradually though, Peter and the others are able to collect enough clues to piece together an explanation for the ghosts’ strange behavior…and the prognosis is not good. A very real person’s life maybe in imminent danger, and it is up to the Folly as Britain’s only paranormal investigative unit to save a kidnapping victim before it is too late.
While it might help to be familiar with the series before starting The Furthest Station, it is absolutely not required and this novella can be enjoyed just fine as a standalone. In fact, the story actually features little to no mention of the overarching plotlines in the main series, so don’t expect to see anything about Lesley or the Faceless Man, and even Beverley Brook and the other aspects of the genius loci play only a small role here. In essence, this book reads like a compressed version of a normal Peter Grant adventure, without all the side dramas and extra flavors that usually flesh out an urban fantasy series. For those of us who want to see Peter and Nightingale get back to some good old fashioned sleuthing, this compact mystery tale contains an irresistible case with all the ingredients to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Likewise, The Furthest Station is also perfect for someone who just wants to dip their toes into the world before deciding to take the plunge into the novels. Everything I love about the main series this novella has in spades, including the sharp witticism, rich history and world-building, and of course the diverse and charming characters. With the cast being reduced for this shorter installment, we don’t get to meet as many of the usual contacts to whom Peter goes for advice or consulting, but we do get a couple of new faces as well as larger roles for characters who deserve more attention. Abigail for one is a treasure and I certainly hope her position as the Folly’s summer intern isn’t going to be a one-off because I would love to see her play a bigger part of this series (and given the discussion between Peter and Nightingale in the final chapter, something tells me there’s a good chance I’ll get my wish). Speaking of which, Nightingale fans are also in for a treat. I’ve always bemoaned the fact we hardly ever get to see Peter’s governor in action, even though Aaronovitch is always teasing his immense magical power. Well, this time I’m pleased to say Nightingale gets involved with a lot of the police work, and also gives us many reasons to be in awe of his wizarding skills.
All in all, this was a wonderful book and a nice break from the usual routine. I typically shy away from novellas that supplement a series because I often find I don’t gain too much from them, but The Furthest Station is actually one that I’m glad I got to read. This is the way to do it, in my opinion, by offering a complete standalone story that is both substantial and fun, as well as featuring elements that appeal to those who love the series while also being newcomer-friendly at the same time. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting PC Grant yet, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so. And if you’re a fan of the Rivers of London books, I think you’ll be pleased as well, and if nothing else, this novella should help make the wait for the next novel just a tad little easier....more
Well, the question of whether M.R. Carey could catch lightning in a bottle twice has been answered. Not that I had doubted it much, but while The Girl with All the Gifts was met with much acclaim, I’d made sure to temper my expectations for its follow-up companion novel in the months up to its release. Given the infuriatingly vague publisher description, and with the newness of the whole idea, there were just way too many unknowns.
Thankfully, The Boy on the Bridge came through with flying colors. It might not have been quite as fresh as the original, simply because we know so much more about the world now, but the book still had plenty of surprises in store. Here’s what I can tell you: The Boy on the Bridge is something of a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts but it can be read as a standalone (though I still highly recommend reading the books in their publication order). The world has been ravaged by the Cordyceps plague, turning much of its population into “Hungries” — effectively just another term for the walking dead. And yet, humanity still has hope that it will find a cure, sending scientists and other brilliant minds into the wild to see if they can bring back any helpful information.
The story follows one such expedition, made up of the scientists and soldiers of the Rosalind Franklin. Affectionately nicknamed Rosie, the armored tank/motor home/mobile laboratory is specifically built for many months of travel through the Hungries-infested wasteland that Britain has become. The key characters include Dr. Samrina Khan, the team epidemiologist, as well as an autistic boy named Stephen Greaves who is ostensibly accompanying her as her assistant. Though Stephen’s presence is unorthodox to say the least, none of the other scientists are about to question Dr. Khan’s insistence that the young man is special or that he can bring invaluable insights to their mission. Six soldiers are also along for the ride, charged with protecting the Rosie and her precious cargo of civilians, scientific equipment, and biological samples.
However, just a few weeks after their departure, Dr. Khan receives some life-changing news. But it’s too late to turn back now; she and her colleagues have a job to do, and the future of everyone—including the next generation—rests upon any useful data they can bring back.
If you were like me and found yourself completely in awe of the world in The Girl with All the Gifts, then you’re in for a treat. This prequel explores many aspects that were only lightly touched upon in the original book, and with the Breakdown still fresh enough on people’s minds, there’s a noticeable difference in the overall attitudes of the characters. While it would be a stretch to call this a happier book, the prevailing mood at the beginning is arguably still one of hope and measured optimism, and that despite the horrors the world has seen, humanity believes it can save itself and make everything right again. After all, this is what the Rosie was meant for, and in a strange way, the armored vehicle almost becomes a character in its own right, symbolizing that conviction.
Gradually though, the hope fades, followed by a stifling sense of desperation. Confine a group of scientists and a group of military personnel into the same claustrophobic small space for months on end, and you’re guaranteed to get some kind of friction. Throw in the pressures of their mission and the threat of Hungries and junkers, it’s a wonder that the team has survived together this long at all. While Dr. Samrina Khan and Stephen Greaves may have gotten the most attention simply based on amount of page-time, the ten other characters on board the Rosie also have their own personal background stories and fleshed-out personalities, leading to a lot of interesting dynamics. This aspect sets The Boy on the Bridge apart, enhancing the story with side-plots dealing with complicated friendships and enmities and details of secret alliances and betrayals.
Keeping in mind that all the events in The Girl with All the Gifts are still in the future, there’s also a lot the world doesn’t know yet, so the fears of the Rosie crew are understandable. If you’ve read the first book, this is where the mystery loses a bit of its grip, but it’s still easy to see how the stresses caused by the strange happenings can start to take their toll, once you put yourself in the characters’ shoes. The real shockers are all left for the end, because even though we already know that the Rosie will bring home no cure to save the world, it’s the whys and the hows of it that will ultimately be the most revealing. In fact, in some ways this makes the ending feel even darker and more unsettling, especially once the realization hits that everything we know about this world had rested on the outcome of this novel.
Whether you’re picking up The Boy on the Bridge as a newcomer or because you’re a fan of The Girl with All the Gifts, this one will be a fascinating tale guaranteed to pull you in. Highly recommended....more
The Last Iota is definitely one of those awesome and rare instances where a sequel surpasses its predecessor. All the elements that made The Big Sheep such a rollicking good read are back, and this time the mystery is even bigger, better, and more impressive than before. The humor has been cranked up a notch as well, thanks to the often witty, sardonic back-and-forth exchanges between the two main characters. Just to give you an idea of how much I enjoyed myself, I was still wiping away the tears of laughter as I sat down to draft this review.
It is the year 2039, eleven years after the great Collapse which decimated the world’s economy and caused a large chunk of Los Angeles to be abandoned by the American government, turning it into the Disincorporated Zone. Picking up shortly after the end of the first book, the story once again follows Blake Fowler as he struggles to keep his and his partner Erasmus Keane’s private investigation firm afloat following the fallout from their last assignment. Things have gotten so desperate that they are forced to take a job from an old adversary, the famous actress and movie mogul Selah Fiore. The Hollywood star is paying them a large sum of money to track down one of the nine rare commemorative collectible iota coins that were minted post-Collapse, back when the dollar was tanking and the powers-that-be were pushing hard for the use of a new virtual currency. But since the iota coin itself has little value, as it is only a physical representation of the iota currency which is all virtual, why would Selah be putting so much of her effort and resources into recovering just one? Even without the prospect of a large paycheck, Fowler knows that Keane will agree to take the job, if nothing else to satisfy his own curiosity.
Meanwhile, Fowler’s missing girlfriend Gwen has recently resurfaced, claiming to have been hiding in the Disincorporated Zone for the last three years. After finding out about his new case, however, she suddenly takes off again, presumably back to the DZ. Perhaps not coincidentally, her re-disappearance also occurs simultaneously with a series of online auction sales for iota coins, all to the same anonymous buyer. Someone else is out there is snapping up the coins, and they’re going to great lengths to do it. The mystery deepens further when Selah turns up dead, and Keane and Fowler are framed for her murder. Soon it becomes clear everything is linked to the coins, and our protagonists must somehow decipher the puzzle of the nine iotas before their enemy can get their hands on the last one.
Besides being hilariously funny and full of exhilarating plot twists, the premise behind The Last Iota is also incredibly fascinating. If you told me last week that I’d be on the edge my seat reading about the dollar index and currency markets, I would have laughed in your face. And yet, Robert Kroese has managed to make these concepts a huge part of his story, while at the same time making it easy for a complete banking and finance noob like me to understand. Most impressively, he made everything sound so exciting. After all, I’ve always asserted that the best reads are not only fun and satisfying, but they also leave you feeling like you learned something interesting and new. I found myself enthralled with the mechanisms and potential behind virtual currencies, and the events described in this book inspired me to read further on the subject after I was finished.
As well, the characters continue to be very well drawn, and I love the dynamic between Keane and Fowler. With the former’s genius and the latter’s tactical knowledge, together they make a formidable team. Still, while it’s hard not to compare their relationship to that of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Watson, the complexities behind their partnership go far deeper than that. Calling them friends would be stretching it, and sometimes they even feel like opponents who are sticking together simply because they both need something from the other. And yet, neither is it strictly business. Keane may be an eccentric, and Fowler may be keeping secrets, but at the end of the day a strange kind of trust exists between them, and against all odds they make it work. As a reader, I can hardly complain about the clash of personalities either, not when their interactions often result in such amusing banter and scenarios.
Compared to the first book, The Last Iota also features a tighter, more logical plot, and the twists are even more shocking and unexpected. My attention was gripped by the intensity of the story as the hunt for a simple coin gradually snowballed into a life-or-death race to unravel a conspiracy threatening to throw the world into another Collapse. Within this narrative Kroese has injected all the central features of classic noir and then some, combining mystery elements with imaginative world-building and social ramifications to create something that is entirely unique and stands on its own.
The result is a truly fascinating and unforgettable novel, one that was a distinct pleasure to read. I have a feeling the author has a lot more in store for us now that a strong foundation for the series has been established, and it will be interesting indeed to see what Keane and Fowler will be up to next. To the last line of the book, all I have to say is: Hell yes, I’m ready for another round!...more
Fun fact: The hippopotamus is widely considered to be the most dangerous mammal in Africa, responsible for more human fatalities there than any other large animal. Although they don’t look very threatening, they are extremely moody and territorial, often known to attack boats in the water or people on land with little to no provocation. Another fun fact: Back at the turn of the 20th century, U.S. Congress actually considered a bold initiative to import these animals to the bayous of Louisiana, in the hopes of creating these “hippo ranches” to solve the nationwide meat shortage as well as the growing ecological crisis caused by the invasive water hyacinth.
Obviously, this wild scheme never came to pass. But you just have to wonder, what if it had?
Happily, author Sarah Gailey was awesome enough to oblige us in River of Teeth, her alternate history novella envisioning an America that might have been if the “American Hippo Bill” had been passed…along with an added few hitches, of course—like, say, if about a hundred hippos had broken loose somewhere along the way, resulting in an out-of-control feral population making safe travel along the southern waterways nigh impossible. Taking place in the marshlands of Louisiana, the story follows a diverse group of hippo riders who come together to pull off a caper—or rather, I should say, an operation—to help the U.S. government rid the Mississippi River’s Harriet section of its feral hippo problem once and for all.
However, as the leader of the group, former hippo rancher Winslow Houndstooth has other plans. Gathering a team that consists of Regina “Archie” Archambault, a corpulent master thief; Hero Schackleby, a gender-neutral demolitions expert; Adelia Reyes, a very effective (and very pregnant) killer-for-hire; and Cal Hotchkiss, a hard-drinking, cards-cheating gambler who just so happens to be the fastest gun in the west, Houndstooth is prepared to pull a few strings in his contract in order to accomplish his true goal of revenge. Floating somewhere on the Harriet is the riverboat casino where he will find Travers, the ruthless businessman who took everything from him. Houndstooth means to see his enemy pay—that is, if only he and his allies can somehow survive the never-ending barrage of obstacles, including double-crossing backstabbers, huge explosions, and a river full of killer hippos.
Hands down, the best part of this book is its concept, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just so damn cool! To me, this is what speculative fiction and especially alternate history is all about: taking an idea inspired by a real event—in this case, Congressman Robert Broussard’s proposal of the hippo ranching bill in 1910 (that fell just short of being passed, alas)—and running with it, creating a wonderful new world full of potential. I simply love picking up books like these, knowing that anything is possible. Not to mention, hippos are a great subject; for one thing, they’re fascinating creatures, and two, many people underestimate just how dangerous they are, but Gailey does both these points justice by highlighting the environmental, cultural and societal impact of these animals every chance she gets in her story.
My major complaint, however, is one that I often have with novellas—River of Teeth was just too short, preventing anything from being fully developed. World building, plot elements, and characters all felt a little sparse, leaving me worked up by the end, yet still feeling strangely unfulfilled. Part of me wishes that the story had provided more background information behind the process of hippo farming, or hey, maybe even a mention from someone on what eating hippo might be like (I’ve heard that hippo steak is delicious, but don’t take my word for it). I was also disappointed in the characters. Save for maybe Archie, whose charm I found irresistible, I felt no real connection to or interest in the rest of the cast. Thing is, while I love diversity in my books, I am less enamored with “diversity for diversity’s sake”, which often leads to characters becoming defined by labels and not who they really are, leaving their personalities themselves paper thin and forgettable—especially in the case of this book, where a good number of them are killed off or taken out of the picture rather quickly in a short period of time. It’s worth keeping in mind too that we have a relatively large cast for a novella, so opportunities to get to know each of them well were already limited.
However, as you can probably tell from the positives I highlighted, River of Teeth was still a book I enjoyed. While it didn’t draw me in as much as I thought it would, at no point did I find the story slow-moving or boring, and I can also see the world and characters becoming more fleshed out as more books are added to the series. Sarah Gailey has written a fun little adventure with lots of potential, and already I am eyeing the sequel Taste of Marrow with great interest....more
I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. Let me just start by saying I adored the last two novels I read by Claire North, which is how I know firsthand her reputation for writing unique and fascinating stories. I never know what to expect when I pick up a book by her—only that it will be innovative with a good chance of being a bit weird. Well, it seems my luck with those experimental qualities finally ran out. The End of the Day didn’t work nearly as well for me as The Sudden Appearance of Hope or Touch did, and I believe there were several reasons for that.
But first, I’m going to attempt to brief summary of the novel, which is harder than it sounds. The End of the Day did not have a story per se, and if it had a plot, it was disjointed and muddled. There was a another review I stumbled across recently that likened the book to sitting on a park bench people-watching or something to that effect, which is actually a pretty accurate description. Literally, there are pages just filled with nothing but snippets of quotes from conversations featuring random people talking about current issues. In between, what we get is more of a character study rather than a true story.
Our main character is Charlie, and he has a very interesting job from a very interesting employer. His official title is the Harbinger of Death. He’s the guy everyone meets once, before his boss comes a-knocking. Charlie’s visits are sometimes a warning but more often a courtesy, and he usually comes bearing gifts to the people he’s scheduled to visit. From a small village in South America to Greenland to New York City, he also never knows where he’ll be or who he’ll see next. Wherever Death arranges to send him, he just goes, whether or not his employer ultimately decides to “follow up”. Not surprisingly, Charlie has seen and learned a great many things from his experiences traveling around the world and meeting people from all walks of life. Eventually, he starts to question his own existence and the role he performs, gaining a new perspective on death and the meaning of life.
The premise of the book is interesting, I’ll give it that. The execution, however, left much to be desired. I think one of the reasons I loved Touch and The Sudden Appearance of Hope was because, in a way, those could be considered thrillers, with both books featuring the same inventiveness and ingenuity that is pure Claire North, yet they were still fast-paced and exciting reads. In contrast, The End of the Day is more of a slow-burner, and did not contain any overarching conflicts or high stakes.
Instead, what we get a lot of is food for thought. One thing I can say about North’s books is that they’re always discussion-worthy, and indeed, there’s a wealth of clever themes and ideas in this one, not to mention plenty of social issues to explore. And yet, none of this really makes a good story, especially since we spend so much time with Charlie and in the end I still feel like I know so little about him. While I sympathized with many of his points, his character often came across as somewhat shallow and uninformed about a lot of the topics that come up in the novel, given the number of generalizations and strawmen arguments littered across the narrative.
Still, in spite of my disappointment, this is not the end for me and Claire North. The End of the Day might have fizzled for me, but I’ll keep reading her books because when all is said and done, North is an incredible writer and I can always count on her imagination to come up with plenty more fresh and creative ideas for stories. One of my favorite books is Touch, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a taste of what the author is capable of. On the other hand, The End of the Day might not work so well for pleasure reading; it is heavier on commentary and lighter on story and character development, and coming from a couple of the author’s more plot-driven stories, I simply cannot say I liked the style and tone of this one as much....more
I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, but admittedly I went into Dragon Teeth with reservations. After all, posthumously published works tend to make me a little wary, and the last two novels published after Crichton’s death have not exactly disabused me of this bias, reinforcing my belief that most “found manuscripts” are doomed to disappoint. So you can imagine my surprise when I finished this book and found that I really enjoyed it. Granted, I love paleontology and I love Westerns, but unlike Pirate Latitudes or Micro (completed by Richard Preston), both of which I felt were unpolished and sloppy in their execution, Dragon Teeth actually felt solidly put together and complete.
It all began with a not-so-friendly wager. The year is 1876 and William Johnson, a Yale student and the son of a wealthy shipping magnate is goaded into traveling west by a rival student, who bet a thousand dollars that privileged and sheltered William would not have what it takes to visit America’s wild and lawless frontier. Fueled by his pride, our protagonist impulsively signs on with a bone-finding expedition to the western territories, claiming himself to be a professional photographer, not realizing just how far in over his head he’s gotten himself. For you see, the expedition is led by renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who is embroiled in a bitter rivalry of his own. Notoriously difficult to work with, Marsh is unscrupulous and paranoid, convinced that his arch nemesis, the equally distinguished paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope is always on his trail, ready to swoop in and steal his research.
Unfortunately, that paranoia ultimately leads Marsh to abandon William in Wyoming, believing him to be one of Cope’s spies. In an ironic twist of fate, however, Cope himself finds our poor, confused protagonist and extends an invitation to join his own expedition, to which William has no choice but to accept. To his pleasant surprise, he winds up finding Edwin Drinker Cope to be a rather pleasant fellow, with a fearsome temper to be sure, but still nothing like the monster Marsh made him out to be. Their expedition might also be smaller and less organized, but on the whole William is much happier since he switched sides, his enthusiasm for the work increasing the more he learns. Then one day, their team stumbles upon a huge find. But in the paleontology field, the discovery of a lifetime often goes hand in hand with plenty of dangers. From the moment William decided he was going to go west, he had known he would be facing all kinds of challenges, but little did he expect just how far he would go for a pile of dusty old bones.
Unlike Crichton’s other novels about dinosaurs, Dragon Teeth is pure historical fiction, its premise based on a frenzied period of fossil research and discovery in the late 1800s known as “The Bone Wars” or the “Great Dinosaur Rush”. It’s a fascinating topic, and I was impressed to see how deftly all the seemingly mundane details were woven into such a tight, thrilling and intense page-turner. That said, this is also a story that just begs to be told. In a time when explorers, settlers, and gold seekers were heading their way west in the hopes of striking it rich, paleontologists were instead scrambling all over the rich bone beds of the western territories, searching for fossils. Both Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were real, and so was their feud where they infamously sought to destroy each other’s’ careers and reputations, often resorting to underhanded tactics like theft, slander and outright sabotage. While William Johnson himself may be a fictional protagonist, through his bamboozled and mystified eyes, readers are given front row seats to witness the full extent of their roaring rivalry.
In the end though, the plot of Dragon Teeth comes down to a journey of personal growth. William is a stuck-up entitled jackass when we first meet him, used to power and money getting him whatever he wants. But the West changes him, stripping away his privilege and hardening his spirit. Far from home where no one knows or cares who he is, William quickly learns to pull his own weight and ultimately finds that there is more to life than empty materialism and shallow pleasures. Reading about his fraught adventures is just as enjoyable as reading about the history of the time and place, especially in the novel’s second half which sees the story evolving into something straight out of a Spaghetti Western. After a run in with a notorious outlaw, William even winds up allying with none other than Wyatt Earp.
Still, I must warn that while Dragon Teeth feels very much like a complete, articulate novel, the level of detail is nowhere near that of some of Crichton’s best works. In some ways the book reads like a highly polished draft with the finished framework in place, simply waiting for the author to put more meat on its bones but of course he never got the chance. Despite characters and descriptions being a bit sparse though, the story itself does not suffer much, nor is the overall novel less readable because of it. In fact, it’s possible some readers might even prefer this straightforward and pragmatic approach and appreciate the novel’s swift, no-nonsense pacing.
In sum, Dragon Teeth was a lot better than I thought it would be, and unlike Pirate Latitudes or Micro, I would actually recommend it. That being said, you still shouldn’t go into this expecting an epic adventure with the level of research and detail on par with the author’s more famous novels that he wrote in life, but as far as posthumously released publications go, this one was pretty damn decent....more
Put on your chefs hats and smocks, because it’s time for another crazy adventure starring the ragtag crew of New York’s most exclusive kitchen and catering company. And if the first three books of the Sin du Jour series can be considered the early courses of a meal, then with this fourth installment we have come to the entrée—the meat of this story arc, so to speak.
The last we saw these characters, Lena had just dropped the big news on everyone that she was leaving Sin du Jour. As we would soon discover at the start of Idle Ingredients, however, her so-called bombshell of a decision ultimately led nowhere, for it didn’t take long for Bronko to track her down, pluck her up from her new place of work, and unceremoniously drop her right back into his kitchen line. That’s because it’s all hands on deck again for their next big assignment, catering a series of campaign events for the underground supernatural community’s upcoming elections. Bronko has even brought on a new liaison named Luciana Monrovio to help him streamline Sin du Jour’s operational processes and salvage their reputation after their last few disastrous gigs.
But instead of improving things around the place, Luciana ends up driving a wedge between Bronko and his staff. Jett, the event planner, is one of the first to be pushed out. Then Ryland loses his home as his trailer is towed away. Boosha ends up comatose in the hospital after a mysterious accident. Lena becomes infuriated after she is banned from the kitchen, reassigned to work with Nikki on deserts and pastries. Darren and his new boyfriend James are inexplicably sent off on vacation in the middle of this busy time. The Stocking and Receiving department, a mainstay of the company, gets ordered off the premises and put on call. Worse, the women seem to be the only ones noticing these odd changes, since the men seem to be unnaturally smitten with Luciana, like they’ve all suddenly come under a spell. Something is seriously wrong at Sin du Jour, and it’s up to the ladies to figure it out and put a stop to whatever’s happening.
While it’s true that Pride’s Spell was an improvement over Lustlocked, this installment might finally be the one to bring the complexity and substance I feel has been sorely needed since Envy of Angels. Granted, the introduction was a bit weak due to the considerable time spent getting the team back together again (cycling through all the characters in order to catch up with every single one of them took up the entire first quarter of the book) but still, it’s probably safe to say Idle Ingredients is my favorite addition to Sin du Jour so far.
For one thing, I like how this series has settled into a rhythm—and no, that does not mean things have slowed down or become stuck in a rut. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We seem to have found what works, and now Matt Wallace is building upon those foundations with this fourth installment. Apart from the intro, the story in Idle Ingredients was fast-paced and consistent, focusing on some of the most interesting characters like Lena, Bronko, and Nikki. The plot was tightly woven and we didn’t waste much time with distractions, instead diving straight into the main conflict. Even though there wasn’t as much cooking when compared to the previous three books, I thought Sin du Jour’s catering job in this one—providing food for a party of elementals during a Sceadu candidate’s campaign speeches—was their coolest assignment yet.
I hope we’ll keep seeing these “big picture” plots, because as much as I’m enjoying reading about Sin du Jour’s action-packed and insanity-fueled adventures, I think I like following the characters’ relationships even more. As their personalities continue to grow and develop, the books also seem to be getting better, and Idle Ingredients is evidence of this upwards trend. Besides, with a teaser like that in the epilogue, how can I not feel excited for the future of this series? Thank goodness the next book Greedy Pigs is already on the horizon, because I can hardly wait....more
This book isn’t your typical ghost story. While it includes a significant number of urban fantasy elements, there is also a darkly profound, rather despairing thread running beneath its surface. Thematically it is also on the weightier side, dealing with topics like suicide, survivor guilt, and emotional trauma. Fans of Seanan McGuire are still going to love her engaging storytelling style and loveable characters, but if you’re used to more offbeat and quirkier UF, I think this one may leave you with a heavier heart.
The story begins with the funeral of Jenna’s older sister Patty, who left for New York City with big dreams but ended up taking her own life instead. Grieving with the loss and blaming herself, a stricken Jenna runs off into the night during a bad rainstorm and tragically slips into the river, drowning in the raging current.
Because Jenna’s death was an accident, however, she died too soon according to a ledger of cosmic checks and balances which states a person’s soul cannot pass on until they have served their full time on the mortal plane. When Jenna died, she found quite a hefty debt still on her record, so like everyone else before her who died before their time, she became a ghost and must remain among the living until that balance is repaid.
Fast forward forty years, and Jenna is living in New York City leeching off a little bit of her debt each day on living strangers, with every minute she gives being another minute added to their youth. However, because Jenna sees “time left” as a form of currency, her gift of life in fact becomes an act of theft in her eyes. In order to earn back what she has stolen, Jenna also volunteers at a suicide prevent hotline trying to save others from Patty’s fate, hoping that when her time finally does come she will rejoin her beloved sister with a clean balance and conscience.
This is probably my third or fourth foray into McGuire’s work, and while overall I have enjoyed her books, I confess thus far I’m still waiting for “the one” which would blow me away. I started Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day with the hopes that this would be it, but ultimately there was just something about it that didn’t quite click for me. Like I said, this is a story with some heavy, tragic themes to it, so it might simply be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. Admittedly, the whole thing left me feeling kind of worn and heartsick by the end of it, even though I was hooked by the intro with its fascinating look into this world of ghosts and their concept of “time owed”.
Looking at this from another angle though, it clearly speaks well of the author that she can so successfully convey emotional impact with her writing and portrayal of her characters. My personal reaction to this novella aside, I can recognize a good story when I see one, and this has all the elements of an engaging tale full of imagination and feeling. Jenna is a narrator with a unique perspective, yet the care and attention to detail paid to her backstory makes it easy to sympathize with her decisions when all around her are other ghosts that do not share her same views or values. She’s a genuinely good character who not only extends her kindness to people in need as evidenced by her goal to rescue as many aging cats from shelters as possible, giving them love and a comfortable place to live out their final days. Death is a theme that infuses every page, but sometimes its oppressive presence is lightened with compassion and scenes like that.
The ideas in this book are also mind-bogglingly original. It took me some time to wrap my head around ghosts and their ability to give and take time, but I eventually came to appreciate the ingenuity behind the concept. As well, McGuire paints an interesting picture for her ghosts’ existence, linking them to special relationships with mirrors and witches. For a novella, the world-building is surprisingly robust.
Ultimately, I feel the ending could have been handled better, but since I can’t elaborate without giving away details, I’ll just say that it didn’t come across as eloquent or consistent as the rest of the story. That said, there is no shortage of feeling, and at the end of the day I think the conclusion manages to achieve its desired impact. If this book sounds like something that might interest you, I highly recommend giving it a try....more
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the biggest fan of short fiction, but I genuinely enjoy reading Brandon Sanderson novellas. Honestly, I have no idea how the guy does it. Whether his books are 1000 pages or 100, they’re always fun to read, not to mention creative as hell. As you’d expect, this was definitely the case with Snapshot as well.
Davis and Chaz are investigative partners with an interesting job, working out of a town called New Clipperton where law enforcement has access to a very special facility that helps them solve crimes. The police there have access to a technology that allows them to create a “Snapshot”, a perfect reconstruction of a day recently in the past right down to the smallest detail. Knowing exactly what’s going to happen beforehand, investigators like Davis and Chaz can be sent through into Snapshots to gather evidence or to witness the actual crimes that take place, which may then lead to arrests and charges in the real world.
There are a lot of rules, though. While Snapshots are perfect recreations of a day in time, real people who are sent through can affect the world just like it is their own. Any changes are called deviations, and they can be large or small. People are also recreated in Snapshots, called dupes. They are not real, but they might as well be for all intents and purposes—after all, they are flesh and blood, they retain the same personalities and memories as their originals, and most importantly, they also have no idea they are in a Snapshot. The only way they would find out is if they are confronted by a Snapshot agent, who is the absolute authority while he or she is on the job. Snapshot agents can still be hurt and even die while they are in a Snapshot, but they also carry special badges that allows them to overrule the civil rights of any dupes around them, which gives them access to places and information that they likely wouldn’t have gotten back in the real world.
When the story begins, we learn that Davis and Chaz are in a Snapshot of May 1st, ten days in the past. Originally assigned to do routine evidence gathering for a case they’re working on, the two of them end up accidentally stumbling onto a crime scene of a mass killing. To Davis and Chaz, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch a wanted murderer, but their precinct orders them to stand down and walk away instead, giving our protagonists no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
What follows next is a pulse-pounding hunt for a serial killer as our two able investigators uncover even more gruesome details about the perpetrator’s crimes. If you’re even passing familiar with Sanderson’s work though, you’ll already know that things are never so straightforward. Yes, Snapshot is a mystery, but there are so many layers to this novella that I believe even non-fans of crime and detective stories will be able to appreciate it. For one thing, there’s the fantastic premise which adds several extra dimensions to the mystery plot, and our characters are thrown into situations that will really make you think. Basically if the concept of using Snapshots to solve crimes sounds fascinating to you, then you’re going to love all the thought and creativity that went into this story.
I was also floored by the ending, which for me was definitely one of those bug-eyed “What the hell just happened?!” moments. I had to playback my audiobook several times just to make sure I heard everything right. That too, is classic Sanderson. He has this way of leading you down a garden path, making you think everything is going one way, and then BAM, he’ll show you just how innocent and naïve you were. Looking back, I guess I should have seen it coming, but in the end that twist still managed to knock me for a loop.
I don’t often hand out such high ratings for a novella simply because so few have impressed me to this degree, but I’ll happily throw my full recommendation behind Snapshot, which I thought was a truly imaginative and brilliant read. One final thing to note, this novella apparently takes place in the same universe as the Reckoners, though any links are very minor and aren’t even all that easy to catch, so reading the series is definitely not a prerequisite. This story can be enjoyed entirely on its own, so if it interests you, I would say go ahead and jump right in.
Audiobook Comments: Snapshot was a very short listen, perfect for when you need an audiobook to entertain you for a couple of hours. I’ve had experience with William DeMeritt as a narrator one other time only (for Underground Airlines by Ben Winters) but he has impressed me once again. His voice really is quite perfect for a book like this, with his deep tones enhancing the story’s crime noir vibes by bringing them to the surface. If you’re considering this one in audio, I highly recommend it....more
Unpopular opinion time: I never cared for the Thrawn trilogy. Though to be fair, I was late to the party and only started reading Heir to the Empire after college sometime in the mid-2000s, about 15 years after its original publication. In my eyes, the books did not age very well, and I think many tended to view them through nostalgia-tinted glasses.
Still, setting my personal critique of the books aside, as a character I do maintain that Thrawn is one of the best to come out of the Star Wars universe. And I suspect the powers that be agree as well, explaining why Thrawn was canonically reintroduced in the third season of Star Wars Rebels, despite the original trilogy having been classified “Legends” along with much of the old Expanded Universe. Timothy Zahn was tapped to reprise his role as author to a new novel about the titular character, which is intended to chronicle his early life and meteoric rise to power. It’s a rare opportunity for any reader to revisit a favorite character like this, and thus far I’ve really enjoyed Thrawn’s appearances on the show, which is why, come hell or high water, I knew I was going to read this book.
Like many origin tales, Thrawn begins with our Chiss protagonist in humble circumstances, alone and exiled on a planet at the edge of known space. For those familiar with Zahn’s Mist Encounter, this first section is essentially a fleshed out and updated retelling of the events in that short story. A good chunk of the novel is also told through the eyes of Eli Vanto, a lowly Imperial cadet who is taken along on an investigation of this jungle world because of his knowledge of these backwater systems. When the crew encounters Thrawn, they are immediately impressed by his survival skills and knowledge of military strategy, traits that are said to be valued by the Chiss Ascendancy. Obviously, these skills are also highly sought-after in the Empire, leading the Imperials to bring Thrawn to Coruscant so that Emperor Palpatine can decide his fate.
Despite being an alien, Thrawn manages to impress the Emperor with his eloquence and persuasiveness, and immediately gets assigned to a military academy to hone his skills and knowledge of the Imperial Navy. Eli Vanto is sent along with him, in order to be translator and guide to all things related to the Empire’s culture and society—a role that the cadet resents at first, but in time he learns to respect Thrawn’s intelligence and personality, especially when after graduation, the Chiss starts getting promotion after promotion.
Meanwhile, on a mining planet called Lothal, another origin story for a Rebels character is beginning to unfold. Before she became the governor of her planet, Arihnda Pryce was a young company heiress, forced to watch everything her family has built fall into the Empire’s hands. Secretly vowing her revenge, Pryce agrees to work for an Imperial Senator, already making plans to worm herself inside the political machine where she will bide her time until she has enough power to take what she wants. Along the way though, she’ll need some help—and Thrawn, who is making his own way up the ranks at this point, may prove to be the perfect ally.
Not surprisingly, Thrawn is a very character-focused novel, detailing how the Chiss became so successful even in the face of the Empire’s xenophobia, as well as to put readers into his head. The first is accomplished by simply by giving examples of Thrawn’s genius and describing the processes that led to his victories. It didn’t matter that many in the Empire held anti-alien attitudes; the Emperor saw potential in Thrawn and he only cares about results. It is clear that Thrawn eventually achieved Grand Admiral status on his own terms and merits, and his leadership skills naturally drew others to him despite what they might think of his origins.
However, putting readers into Thrawn’s head is another, more subtle, matter. Zahn’s writing has always struck me as rather stark and clear-cut, in a whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done kind of way. I daresay without the glimpses he offered into Thrawn’s mind, this book could have been a very dry read indeed. Fortunately, peppered throughout the novel are brief looks into what makes his character tick, from his journal excerpts at the beginning of each chapter to his furtive observations on how others are behaving and reacting around him (though there must have been at least a couple dozen mentions of “facial heat” or “cheeks tightening”, making me wish there’d been more variation in the descriptions). A lot can also be gleaned from Thrawn’s interactions with the other characters. Through Vanto’s and Pryce’s eyes, we see how much Thrawn values and rewards hard work and loyalty, and he puts just as much of both into the men and women who work under him. In many ways, Thrawn serves as a counterpoint to a lot of traditional Star Wars villains as well. For one, he does not possess the Force, mainly relying on thinking rather than fighting to win his battles. He also views unnecessary loss of life as a waste, a point that I think earns him a lot of sympathy from readers. While it’s true Thrawn may be a symbol of the Empire, Zahn nevertheless makes it so easy to root for him.
All told, Thrawn isn’t among the best novels I’ve read from the new canon, but neither is it among the worst. It’s actually quite a decent book, and in my eyes, “New Thrawn” certainly beats out “Old Thrawn” hands down. In theory, you’d think Thrawn would also appeal most to fans of the character, the original trilogy, or Star Wars Rebels, but I would urge anyone—even if you do not consider yourself to be a hardcore Star Wars fan—to give this one a look. There’s a reason why Thrawn as a character is so beloved, and this is his story.
Audiobook Comments: At this point, I think anything I say about Marc Thompson will sound like a broken record. But if all of my praise for him happens to sound the same, it’s only because it’s true! The guy is great at voices, and I love his Thrawn, the way he made him sound similar to the Rebels version. Do yourself a favor and listen to this one....more
Get ready, because it’s time to enter the arena again. Gauntlet is everything a reader dreams of in a sequel—bigger world, higher stakes, and even more dangerous and violent challenges. I had a really good time with the first book, but at the same time I was also curious to see how this follow-up would build on its potential and whether or not it would improve on a few of the weaknesses.
Quite a lot has happened since the end of Arena. With her RAGE tournament winnings and money she made from her new found fame, our protagonist Kali Ling has returned to buy out Defiance, becoming the captain and owner of her gaming team. When the story begins, Kali is troubled by a new development that has been sweeping the virtual gaming world—a house. Though in truth, this “house” is more of a colossal mansion. Nicknamed “The Wall”, it sits nestled on a sprawling estate sealed away from the public. For weeks, rumors have been flying around that the best gaming teams from around the world have been invited inside, but no one knows what goes on during these visits. Wild parties? Drugs? Not knowing is driving Kali crazy, and yet she can’t help but keep up with the coverage to see which gaming superstars will show up at the mansion next.
Little did she expect, however, that soon her own team would be getting their chance to visit The Wall. The elusive owner of the mansion turns out to be the CEO of Tamachi Industries, a tech giant which has developed a new kind of gaming pod which, if effective, could change the face of virtual gaming forever. Now the company is on the cusp of revealing their product to the world, and they’re planning to do it with style—by organizing a huge tournament where the best teams from around the globe will be competing for prestige and the grand prize in the form of a nine-figure check. Like all the others before them, Defiance has been asked to meet with Mr. Tamachi at his mansion so he can extend an invitation to join his tournament. Would Kali wish to accept? Well, I think we all know the answer to that.
To start, there were some nice improvements over the first book, and probably the biggest one is the characterization of Kali herself. She is noticeably more mature in Gauntlet, having taken over the responsibilities of being Defiance’s owner. In the aftermath of her recovery with drug addiction, she has also made it her personal mission to keep herself and the team clean, happy, and healthy—even if it means she has to play the mother hen once in a while. Still, on the whole I enjoyed seeing these changes to her personality because they made her a much more likeable protagonist. No longer is she the angry and impetuous teenager she was in Arena; now her thought processes have shifted towards being more level-headed and rational, as well as much less self-centered. As a bonus, for all the scenes we get to watch Defiance kicking ass in-game, we also get to spend plenty of time outside the virtual world watching them grow closer as a team and a family. These were all changes that pleased me.
That said, this book still has strong “Young Adult” vibes attached to it, which if you did not enjoy in Arena, chances are you will also find this sequel problematic. Again, the logic behind the premise is a little shaky and may require a bit of a stretch in imagination. There’s also a romantic side plot that takes up a lot of the focus, and I felt that many of the story’s conflicts are inflated when they are actually very trivial or easily solved. In addition, we did not see an expansion in the scope of storytelling; everything is still seen through the limited sphere of the gaming world behind Kali’s eyes, and as much as she has matured, this bubble is apparently still all she knows. Gaming is like the only thing that exists to her, i.e. in her mind, the only news worth following is gaming news, no one else in the world has any interests besides following virtual gaming tournaments and their players, gamers are the gods of the human race, etc. On a character level, it made her feel somewhat shallow, and on a world-building level, it also meant less of what I’d hoped to see in this sequel.
Still, the story was loads of fun. Just like Arena, the plot was a bit simplistic and predictable, but it also had a lot more action and grit. If you enjoyed the feverish, frenzied tone of the RAGE tournaments in the first book, then I guarantee you’ll love how Holly Jennings has stepped up her game (no pun intended) in Gauntlet. And if you’re gamer, you’ll probably get even more out of the book’s atmosphere and references to games and gamer culture.
Overall, I was very satisfied with this sequel. While a few of the stumbling blocks from the first book have carried over, in general I felt there were many more areas which have been improved. Gauntlet once again fits my perfect definition of pure entertainment—dynamic, fast-paced, and gripping. I sure hope we’ll be seeing more of Kali and Defiance, because it would be so cruel of Holly Jennings to leave us hanging with that ending! I can’t wait to catch up with the team again in the pages of the next book....more
The Night Ocean is not my usual genre, I confess, but its subject matter was simply too enticing to resist. While it’s true that I’ve always been drawn to books inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps just as interesting—if not more so—are the stories about the man himself. A pioneer of weird fiction, his lasting influence on the horror genre can be seen all around us, and yet, there is also a darker side to his legacy. In life, Lovecraft held some repugnant views, and in many fandom circles his racism and bigotry are still discussed almost as much as his work today. Still, love him or hate him, there appears to be a fascination with HPL’s work and personal life which cannot be denied.
Perhaps I should back up a bit, though. While indeed The Night Ocean explores the life of Lovecraft, it does it in a most unconventional and bizarre manner (which I’ll talk more about later), weaving fiction and history into a far-reaching chronicle that also ties in the lives of many other characters. Some of these names will even be familiar to Lovecraft and Horror/SFF aficionados, but first we begin this story with the tragedy of Dr. Marina Willett and her husband Charlie.
It all started with The Erotonomicon. Said to be the erotic diary of H.P. Lovecraft but later claimed to be a hoax, almost all copies are said to be destroyed back in the 50s, but somehow Charlie manages to track one down. As a life-long speculative fiction fan and a writer by trade, Charlie wants to make his next book an investigative piece about the diary, a decision that ends up plunging him into an all-consuming obsession with Lovecraft, much to Marina’s dismay. At the heart of Charlie’s project is a particular entry written in The Erotonomicon about a summer in 1934 involving Lovecraft and his friend Robert Barlow, a gay sixteen-year-old fan with whom the author stayed for a number of weeks while on a visit to Florida. Later known as the author and anthropologist R.H. Barlow, Robert also ended up collaborating with Lovecraft on several stories including “The Night Ocean”, which this book is named for.
Determined to find out the truth about Lovecraft and Barlow’s relationship, Charlie sets out on a continent-spanning journey to find out everything he can about what really happened between the two men that summer in Florida. However, Charlie’s obsession ultimately leads him to his downfall, and after suffering depression and anxiety, he checks himself into a hospital at the urging of his wife. Not long after that, he escapes into the wilderness and disappears without a trace. The note he left made it pretty clear to everyone that Charlie had planned and carried out his suicide, but Marina finds this difficult to accept. Holding on to the belief that her husband is still alive, she retraces his steps for the last two years, going to the places he visited and talking to the people he interviewed for his book, all in the hopes that it will shed some light on where she might find Charlie.
Quite frankly, describing the story any more than this would be a downright nightmare because I would be at an absolute loss as to how to keep going. The Night Ocean is one strange book, difficult to summarize and classify since it is made up of so many perspectives and interconnecting parts. The overall concept behind the novel is certainly ambitious and ingenious, but the way the story is presented will probably make it seem unfocused. Even though the entire book is told through Marina’s eyes, I would say the first half of the book is about Charlie—but also not—while the second half is about Marina—and yet also not. Yes, I’m aware of how confusing this sounds, but really at the heart of both threads is a man named L.C. Spinks, the publisher of The Erotonomicon. Is the diary really a hoax? Or if there’s some truth to it, then which parts of it are real and which parts are completely fabricated? The Night Ocean is an intricately woven web of fact and fiction, combining Paul La Farge’s rich imagination with the results of what must have been hours upon hours of painstaking research on his part.
And how does H.P. Lovecraft play into all this, you ask? Well, last summer I read and really enjoyed a novel called I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas, and even though it and The Night Ocean could not be any more different in tone and style, I still found it impossible not to draw parallels between these two books. Perhaps it is because they are both “Lovecraftian fiction” in the atypical sense; rather than playing directly off of HPL’s large body of works and the mythos he had created, they instead took an almost meta-fiction approach, both narratives coming up with a unique way to explore the author’s life and work through the lens of fandom. After all, one can hardly provide a full picture of Lovecraft’s legacy without recognizing the activities and creations of his highly dedicated fans, a cult following which has been growing since the 40s and 50s—fanzines, conventions, internet clubs and groups, etc. The Night Ocean is a book of many layers and components, and yes, there are parts of the story which deal with the nature of the fan community, presenting both its wonderful and ugly sides.
All told, I had a shockingly good time with this book. Because of its tangled nature, I doubt it going to be for everyone, but still, I highly recommend it if the description interests you. While I found the author’s writing style somewhat quirky and disjointed, I nevertheless managed to get into the rhythm of the story quickly, becoming mesmerized by extraordinary lives of these characters. There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak within these pages, but also a surprising amount of tenderness and beauty that I had not expected to find in a book featuring Lovecraft as a key figure. And even though there’s a lot of ambiguity in the story—a fact that often vexes me—in this case, I believe it might actually add to the book’s mystique.
At once frustrating and rewarding, The Night Ocean is alternate history on a completely new and innovative level. Easily one of the more clever, intense, and haunting books I’ve read so far this year, and its ending will likely stay with me for a long, long time....more
From the moment I first picked up this book, I knew I was walking into something special. After my experience with her novels The Mad Scientist’s Daughter and Our Lady of the Ice, Cassandra Rose Clarke’s name has pretty much become synonymous for me with some very cool ideas in sci-fi, and she has not disappointed me yet. Star’s End, I am happy to say, is another strong entry into the genre. And while it’s true that I did not quite fall head over heels for it like with her previous novels, I nevertheless devoured the story like there was no tomorrow.
Described as a space opera which takes place in the far-flung future, Star’s End follows a young woman named Esme Coromina, heir to her father Philip’s vast corporate empire consisting of four terraformed moons that orbit one giant gaseous planet. Together, the moons are known as the Four Sisters—and perhaps not so coincidentally, Philip also has four daughters. Of his children though, only Esme, the eldest, is in a position to succeed him and take over the company when he dies; the three younger sisters have long turned their backs on him and abandoned the family business, due to a falling out long ago caused by something terrible Philip did. Esme was the only one who stayed, partly out of ambition and partly because she plans on changing things for the better once she inherits the Coromina Group.
What follows is narrative that alternates back and forth between past and present, exploring the events that led up to Philip’s heinous act that drove Esme’s sisters away. But the biggest shock to our protagonist comes at the start of this book—her 300-year-old father, whom she has always thought of all-powerful and invincible, is dying. Afflicted with a fatal disease that not even his rejuvenation treatments can cure, Philip tells Esme that he probably has at most six months to live, but before he dies, he would like to see all his daughters one last time. Esme, skeptical of her father’s reasons for this request, agrees to help him regardless, though deep down, she knows the real difficulty behind his dying wish is whether or not she can even convince her sisters to come home. When they left, the three of them made it very clear that they wanted no more to do with Philip Coromina or their eldest sister—for in their eyes, by staying by their father and his company, Esme had betrayed all of them too.
As a result, Esme finds herself in a rather awkward and painful situation. It’s this that makes me feel so deeply for her character, and makes me want to applaud the author for once again setting up such a compelling and emotional premise. Tracking down her sisters one by one, Esme must confront her guilt and come to terms with her past failings in this heartbreaking tale. In a lot of ways, this makes Star’s End a lot less like your traditional space opera novel, and more like your familial drama about love and redemption. In fact, it makes me think that the publisher description is actually a little misleading, suggesting that there’s a lot more suspense in this story when there really is none. Sure, there are indeed the promised “sinister aspects” of the Coromina Group involving its work with alien DNA, not to mention the overall mystery of the “big bad thing” that Philip did—but when answers do come, it is not a shock, nor are Esme’s next moves really in question. Because of the way Star’s End is structured, i.e. alternating between the past and the present timeline, nothing that happens is really a surprise, though ultimately it might not matter so much since the novel’s strengths are clearly in the character building and in the poignancy of Esme’s quest.
Perhaps this is also why Star’s End reminded me so much of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. While on the surface the two stories have very little in common with each other, both are excellent in providing a deep analysis and portrayal of their main characters. Almost everything else fades into the background as Esme takes center stage in Star’s End, much like how the plot in The Mad Scientist’s Daughter took a backseat while Cat’s personality and her relationship with Finn came to the forefront. This, in my opinion, is where Cassandra Rose Clarke’s writing really shines. When it comes to the delineation of her protagonists, she is an artist; she’ll take apart a character’s entire life, deconstructing their past and present to show how their experiences influence their decision making and shape them as a person. This kind of in-depth character study is exactly we get to see in Star’s End with Esme.
Still, there were a few hiccups. The first time we jumped from the present timeline back to the past, I was really jarred by the change from third-person to first-person narrative mode, and unfortunately, I never truly got used to the switching. As a result, I always found myself feeling more sympathy for and in tune with “past” Esme, especially since older “present” Esme sometimes felt wishy-washy and inconsistent. One moment, she would be preening in response to her father’s praise and proud that she pleased him, but the next she would be flushing with shame if someone else complimented her on the exact same thing by comparing her to Philip. I was also frustrated that Esme didn’t stand up for herself more, considering how her heart was always in the right place. Given how much of the past was outside her control, I didn’t understand why Esme had to be so hard on herself either, and thought that a lot of her sisters’ treatment of her was grossly unfair.
Minor as they were, some of these flaws were admittedly distracting enough that I felt the need to rate this one slightly lower than the author’s other novels I’ve read in the past. BUT! In spite of that, I still want to make it clear—I had a really good time with Star’s End. This book was a powerful and enjoyable read, and even though it wasn’t exactly what I expected, I am in no way disappointed with the way things turned out. If anything, it just reaffirms Cassandra Rose Clarke as a must-read author; I honestly can’t wait to see what she’ll surprise me with next....more
It’s hard to be a fan of alternate history fiction these days without running across your fair share of alternate World War II stories, but from the start, it was clear to me that The Berlin Project was a different breed. With a heavy focus on the historical details and science behind the building of the atom bomb, I confess this would not have been my usual kind of read at all. That said, I’m glad I read it, and as you will soon see, certain revelations eventually came to light that made me see this book—and appreciate it—in a whole new light.
Like many of its genre, The Berlin Project offers a fascinating glimpse into a crucial point in our history and asks the question, “What if?” Because of its scope and significant impact, World War II is especially rife with these scenarios, but rather than approach the theme from a conventional standpoint, author Gregory Benford instead asks, “What if the United States developed the atomic bomb a year earlier, in 1944?” As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is more than just a tagline for the book; a viable bomb at that time could have potentially set the US on a different path, and changed history in a lot of ways.
Through the eyes of the chemist Karl P. Cohen, a junior partner of the Manhattan Project, The Berlin Project tells the story of what might have happened had the Allies developed the first nuclear weapons in time to stop Hitler from killing millions of people. The book begins in 1938, following Karl as he returns from Paris, bringing home his new wife to meet his family. War is brewing in Europe, and the next few years sees Karl becoming more involved with the scientific community at Columbia University where he works. By the time the Manhattan Project is born, a number of famous scientists—many of whom were refugees from Europe—have already graced these pages including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Harold Urey, Leo Szilard, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and more. With Karl’s discovery of an alternate solution for creating U-235, the uranium isotope needed to sustain a fission chain reaction, the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” became ready by the summer of 1944, and its intended target became Nazi Germany instead of Japan.
The publisher description markets this as a thriller, but in reality, all the gripping elements may be lost among the details. Rather than fast-paced excitement, I found instead an exhaustive narrative on the history of the early years of WWII, followed by an even more intimidating and lengthy account on the development of nuclear fission. The book’s first half covered events leading up to the formation of the Manhattan Project and the development of the bomb, a section which read more like a history textbook rather than science fiction novel (and the regular inclusion of historical photos and scientific diagrams did little to dispel this feeling, fascinating as they were). I didn’t dislike this part per se, but neither was I getting any sense that The Berlin Project was supposed to be a suspenseful thriller. Clearly a lot of research was put into this novel, with compelling pieces of trivia thrown in here and there, but I have a feeling readers with little interest in the historical or scientific subjects will have a rough time of getting into this story.
Fortunately, pacing improves in the second half. Let’s just say things don’t go nearly as smoothly as the Allies had hoped, following the bomb’s deployment in Berlin. Karl leaves the safety of the laboratory for fieldwork as a spy in Europe, and we finally come face-to-face with the horrors of war, which had been a background concern up to this point, happening far away from our protagonist’s life in New York. With this development, we are truly in unknown territory, as the war escalates and events spiral out of control. And yet, even with this change in tone, I still felt that there was a muted quality to the espionage and suspenseful elements, holding the story back from being a true thriller.
I did, however, mention in my intro about experiencing a turning point while in the middle of reading this book, and that was when I discovered the author’s connection to the protagonist and many of the other characters. As Benford writes in his Afterword, nearly all the people depicted in The Berlin Project existed. He met and knew quite a few of them. Karl Cohen was his own father-in-law! Suddenly, many of book’s idiosyncrasies which I’d noticed began to make a lot more sense, from its distinct tone of authenticity to certain quirks and habits attributed to the characters which sometimes struck me as too specific or out-of-the-blue to be made up. Every document featured in the novel is also authentic, including letters and other Cohen family correspondence. I found all this information to be extremely cool, and admittedly these revelations do have a way of lending a certain je ne sais quoi to this particular alt-history.
To be sure, The Berlin Project is different kind of book among its genre, and I think how you do with it will largely depend on your interest in its topics as well as a willingness to see the plot developments through to the end. All told, your mileage on enjoyment may vary, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating novel that I’m glad I got a chance to read....more
Humor can be a tricky beast, as I often say. What works for one reader might not work for another, and what works one day might not work the next. Picking up something labeled “fantasy humor” is therefore always something of a crapshoot because I never know how it’s going to play out, and unfortunately the last couple of years have seen more misses than hits. When I started Kings of the Wyld though, I had a feeling it was going to be special, and I’m glad that my instincts didn’t steer me wrong.
This book has it all: gritty anti-heroes and twisted villains, epic battles and heart-stopping fight scenes, exotic locales and all manner of fantastical creatures. If this sounds like your kind of story, then you’re in for a treat. Nicholas Eames has reworked the classic quest narrative and presented it to us in a fun and refreshing package. You might even find yourself laughing out loud along the way.
Kings of the Wyld follows a motley crew of aging yet charming mercenaries as they reunite to rescue a bandmate’s daughter trapped behind the walls of a city under siege. After years of questing and brawling, Clay Cooper is ready put his past behind him. He’s married now with a young child, and he’s looking forward to retiring to a life of quiet and leisure. Fate, however, has different plans. One day, his old bandmate Gabe shows up with a desperate request for help. It seems Gabe’s daughter Rose has run off and gotten herself into trouble again, only this time it’s a matter of life and death.
At first, Clay is reluctant to get involved. He has his own fledgling family to think of now; no longer can he drop everything to traipse across the world on dangerous missions. But seeing Gabe’s distress, and recalling all the good times he’s had with his friend, he finally relents. Leaving the comfort of home behind, Clay joins Gabe to round up the members of Saga, their old band. This includes Matrick, their resident rogue who is now a drunken cuckolded king; Arcandius Moog, a wizard who has turned to a life of research trying to find a cure for a deadly disease; Ganelon, who has spent the last nineteen years trapped in his own private prison; and along the way, they even meet a Daeva named Larkspur who is in fact more foe than ally.
What follows is an entertaining, brilliantly crafted adventure that takes us across the Wyld by land and by air. If you’re a fan of video games or tabletop RPGs, you’ll feel right at home in this world with these characters who feel like they’ve stepped right out of a D&D campaign. Kings of the Wyld reads like a loving tribute to these types of classic narratives, while giving it heart—which I feel is the secret ingredient that sets this one apart. Somehow, Eames made it possible and even easy for me to relate to this band of mostly drunk, fat and jaded old men by turning their faults into endearing traits. These are genuine characters who have very real hopes and dreams, as well as values and principles that are important to them. After all, the entire premise of this story is driven by Gabe’s love for his daughter, and also by Clay’s loyalty to his old friend. You’ll fall in love with the members of Saga and want to cheer them on every step of the way.
And of course, humor is another huge selling point. Kings of the Wyld is a fantasy novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are elements in it that are unabashedly tongue-in-cheek. The author might have taken a gamble on the style, but in the end I think it paid off. Still, one of the more common criticisms I’ve seen when it comes to fantasy comedy is the use of modern language, slang, or pop culture references. Personally, it doesn’t bother me when it’s second world fantasy, but if such anachronisms aren’t your cup of tea, then you might find it problematic. For me though, what matters more is the tone of humor; I prefer my comedy on the subtler side (as opposed to more overt styles, like slapstick) and this is where Eames struck the perfect balance. Without going overboard, he kept the story light and entertaining while still adhering to epic fantasy traditions.
From the first page to the last, Kings of the Wyld is a rollicking fast-paced novel with just the right amount of grit and wit. Nicholas Eames is definitely on to something here with his impressive debut. Bottom line, read this book if you’re a fan of good old-fashioned quest adventure narratives, epecially if you think you might enjoy one as seen through a modern humorous lens. I’ve tried a lot of books that match this description in recent years, and I have to say this is the best. Already I find myself craving the sequel....more
It is no exaggeration when I say that a series like the Greatcoats only comes once in a lifetime, and now that it has come to an end, I am filled with a mixture of complicated emotions. On the one hand, I am extremely pleased with the conclusion, with our heroes and heroines getting the satisfying sendoff they deserved. On the other, I no longer know what to do with myself. Like many goodbyes, this one was bittersweet, and if it hadn’t been for the final words of the author’s postscript, I would be having a much harder time right now.
Picking up not long after the events of the previous book, Tyrant’s Throne sees Falcio val Mond and his allies continuing their efforts to put King Paelis’ daughter Aline on the throne of Tristia. To do so, he would need the support of the dukes, but unfortunately most of them would forsake their kingdom than to be ruled by a young girl. To make matters even more dire, talk of war is also brewing in the mountains. More and more, the penniless and starving common folk in the northern duchies are fleeing into neighboring Avares for their salvation, and in turn the Avareans are amassing their forces and weapons, taking advantage of the political turmoil in Tristia to launch an attack. As a tribal-based warrior culture society, the Avareans have never posed a real threat before because of their inability to organize, but a mysterious Magdan has risen up in recent years, uniting the war clans under a single cause. Worse, it is rumored that he is allied with Trin, the murderous traitor who has caused Falcio and his loved ones so much pain.
Traveling under disguise, our protagonist and his best friends Kest and Brasti embark upon a dangerous mission to the north with the intention to capture Trin and bring her back to Castle Aramor to face justice. However, in Avares, they encounter another unpleasant surprise—and this time, it’s a game changer that may bring Falcio’s dreams to ruin and jeopardize everything he has ever worked for. The Greatcoats now have to face a difficult choice, for unfortunately what is just and what is lawful does not always necessarily mean the same thing. But whatever the decision, what’s clear is that it needs to be made soon, for with Avares poised to attack, Tristia might not exist long enough for any of it to matter.
Still, even in the face of insurmountable challenges and impossible odds, the greatest foe Falcio val Mond will face in Tyrant’s Throne isn’t Trin or even the threat of a bloodthirsty Avarean horde. No, our protagonist’s worst enemy has always been himself, and now he faces the moment of truth. To understand the significance of this novel, one must also understand what makes Falcio tick, and while the first three novels have shown that he is a valiant and big-hearted person to his core, there is also a darkness and complexity in him that has been lying in wait to bring about his downfall. Let’s face it, as lovable as he is, Falcio is also be single-minded to the point of recklessness and can be infuriatingly prone to self-sabotage. Certainly, he’s made his mistakes, and now his demons have all come home to roost.
If you’ve been following this series, you’ll also know that Sebastian de Castell doesn’t go easy on his characters, putting them through all kinds of extreme situations. Only through this process though, do we get to see the true measure of his protagonist. Tyrant’s Throne is no different in this sense, and I’m warning you now, there will be several bombshells that will threaten to send Falcio over the edge—hell, they certainly nearly caused ME to lose control!—and there is no end to the shocking twists. At times, Falcio will be driven to think and do some despicable things, and I won’t lie, he even made me quite angry on several occasions. Yet at the same time, it’s hard not to feel for the guy. For as long as we’ve known Falcio, his character has been defined by his love for King Paelis as well as his respect for the rule of law. Now that those two pillars of his identity are at odds, his entire world has just been turned upside down.
As usual though, you can trust the author to have everything well in hand. I’ve heard that final books in a series are notoriously difficult to pull off, but dammit, he makes it look so easy. Everything I love about the previous novels can be found once again in this one, including the epic action, laugh-out-loud humor, daring heroics and inspiring gallantry. No one can make me flip between nail-biting despair and giddy fist-pumping exuberance the way De Castell can, sending my pulse racing with every high stakes plot development. The story is compelling and intense, featuring relentless pacing and an extraordinarily rich cast. All the characters I love (along with some dazzling new faces!) are back as well, ready to kick some ass and take some names, making Tyrant’s Throne a finale to remember.
As endings go, I really couldn’t ask for more. Sebastien de Castell is a rare talent, one of the most gifted storytellers to emerge in recent years and I hope he will continue to deliver more great books for a long, long time. It heartens me to know he has plans to return to the Greatcoats world, but even if this is the last we see of Tristia’s heroes and heroines, Tyrant’s Throne is the perfect ending to cap off this stellar quartet. The Greatcoats now sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf as one of my favorite fantasy series of all time....more
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading In Calabria is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
In a small village nestled in the peaceful and scenic countryside of Southern Italy, there lives a man named Claudio Bianchi. Becoming increasingly aloof and grumpy in his middle age, he prefers to keep to himself on his farm, tending to his crops and animals while writing poetry in his spare time. His only regular visitor is a postman who comes to his place twice a week to drop off his mail. Life is quiet, routine and uncomplicated, and it’s the way Bianchi likes it. But that all changes in an instant, when our protagonist looks outside one morning and spies an impossible creature gazing back at him from his fields. It is a golden-white unicorn—heavily pregnant too, if Bianchi isn’t mistaken—and for some reason, she has chosen his farm as the place to give birth.
All of a sudden, Bianchi is filled with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. He has promised La Signora, the name he has given the unicorn, that he will keep her and her baby safe. His poetry also come more easily to him now, with her in his life. That peace, however, turns out to be short-lived. Eventually, the rumors start spreading that unicorns have made their home on Bianchi’s land. His farm is sudden swamped by media, trophy hunters, and all manner of nosy busybodies. But worst of all, there are the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria who have come to Bianchi with an offer to buy his farm and the unicorns on it, threatening him with dire consequences if he refuses.
Magical realism fans are going to want to take note for this one. It’s a short and simple tale, but packed with some powerful themes. I’ve always loved stories with unicorns in them, especially those that portray them in meaningful ways, and if anyone can be relied upon to write a book that does just that, it is Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn has long been a symbol of purity and healing, and as we watch Bianchi’s life unfold, it becomes clear that he is in desperate need of some of that magic himself, as much as he may want to deny it. His character is taciturn, a little standoffish, but you can also tell Bianchi is a man who takes pride in his independence and accomplishments. Behind that gruff exterior is a kind heart and plenty of evidence that he cares about the people around him, which is why I found him likable despite his flaws.
There was also a romantic side plot in this that I didn’t see coming, nor did I expect to enjoy it so much. There’s a considerable age difference between the protagonist and his love interest, and while in general May-December relationships can be tricky to pull off, I thought the portrayal of Bianchi and Giovanna’s courtship was sweet, sympathetic, and subtle enough that it doesn’t take too much from the main story. It always warms my heart to read about two very different people coming together, finding an understanding and connection that ultimately leads to something more.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, In Calabria will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic....more
Cold Welcome was my first Elizabeth Moon, and what an excellent surprise it was! Knowing little about the book, I dove right in thinking it would be your run-of-the-mill military science fiction, so imagine my delight when I found out it was more of a survival adventure.
The star of the novel is Admiral Kylara Vatta, a space-fleet commander returning to her home world of Slotter Key where a hero’s welcome awaits her. But when sabotage brings her shuttle down over the most inhospitable part of the planet, what greets her instead is death and rough icy seas. With most of the shuttle’s passengers dead from the crash, Ky and all those who are left on the life rafts must do what they can to survive until the rescue crews can reach them.
However, as time goes on, the hope that someone will find them before the winter sets in begins to fade. So far Ky’s leadership has kept them going far beyond what they expected, but soon the survivors will need better shelter and a new source of food. And yet when they make landfall on a rocky beach, they find their conditions are only marginally improved. This continent, apparently abandoned because of failed terraforming efforts, has little in terms of resources, but what the survivors do find is a secret military base that certain shadowy groups have gone to great lengths to conceal. Now there is a new fear that those coming for the survivors might not be their rescuers at all, but in fact the saboteurs looking to finish the job. Meanwhile, there are those in Ky’s circle of loved ones who still believe her to be alive, and thus begins a race against time to unravel the conspiracy before more lives are lost.
Like I said, Cold Welcome was my first novel by Elizabeth Moon, so I had no background knowledge of the story or any of the characters prior to starting. But even though it is actually the first book of a new sequel series to Vatta’s War, I still found it perfectly accessible as a newcomer to the world. The protagonist Ky hails from a powerful family that runs a large interstellar shipping corporation. Seeking a life outside Vatta Enterprises, however, she had enrolled in the Spaceforce Academy, only to be forced to resign and driven back to captaining an old trade ship for the family business. As luck would have it though, the military training she received came in handy during the war that followed, and she was able to bring victory to her side. All this was revealed organically in the brief introduction with no need for any awkward info-dumping, and soon the story was drawing me deeper into the drama and action.
Personally, I love sci-fi survival stories. They pit characters against the harsh environment—not an enemy you can just shoot. Ky’s shuttle ends up crashing into a vast ocean in subzero temperatures, and from there it’s just one disaster after another as Moon throws all kinds of dangers at our characters, from failing equipment to shark attacks. Often, survival stories also go hand in hand with space disasters, so as a bonus you get a good mix of thrills and suspense. But above all, I enjoy reading about the courage and resourcefulness of those who find themselves in a tight spot, and tales of group survival are even more interesting because of the different personalities and social interactions. And in the case of Ky’s group, tensions climb even higher when she starts suspecting a traitor in their midst.
What follows is a tale of adventure, but also a mystery as Ky struggles to keep everyone alive while attempting to root out their saboteur. I thought she was an amazing character who was intelligent, capable, but also wise enough to know she does not have all the answers. One of her first acts, which raised my esteem of her even more, was to learn more about her fellow survivors and take in account all of their skills and knowledge. They say that a good leader knows how to lead, but also knows when to follow, which is a principle Ky subscribes to as she defers to those who know more than her in certain areas. I love the sections where she attempts to keep the group running like well-oiled machine, relying on the routine of duty to distract themselves from their predicament. This is, after all, a military science fiction story as much as it is a tale of survival.
Why do I love Mil Sci-fi? Well, action and political intrigue are very good incentives, but I was also pleased to find that Cold Welcome encompassed all that and a whole lot more. It’s always nice to get something unexpected, even better when the surprise turns out to be so much fun, and after this book I can’t wait to try even more by Elizabeth Moon.
Audiobook Comments: I was lucky enough to receive the audiobook of Cold Welcome for review, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The narration by Brittany Pressley, if not phenomenal, was well done and completely satisfactory. Overall I have no real issues with the production and I would recommend it!...more