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Monday, October 31, 2011

The Traitor's Daughter - Paula Brandon

Happy Halloween! I figure since it's Halloween I ought to review a novel with some kind of horror element. Well let's see, The Traitor's Daughter, "is a dark, rich feast, rife with plagues, kidnappings, political intrigues, bloody crimes, bloodier revenges, arcane upheavals, and the threat of zombies.” Zombies! Perfectly Halloween or so the writer of that blurb would have me think.  Unfortunately, my quest to review something horror was a complete failure.  While there is something akin to zombies in the novel, albeit not in a traditional sense, they manage to only garner 10-20 pages of 'screen' time. As much of a red herring as 'zombies' are, it's nothing compared to the outward appearance of Paula Brandon's debut novel which reflects almost nothing of what she actually wrote.

See, Traitor's Daughter just doesn't look like the kind of novel I would enjoy.  I try not to read reviews before I pick-up a novel, it's hard to articulate my thoughts clogged up by other people's, but I wasn't going to read Brandon's novel blind.  To allay my fears I sneaked a peak at the Goodreads reviews to get a feel before giving it a shot.  Quite a few of the reviews were lukewarm or negative in large part based on the incorrect assumption that Brandon's novel was historical fantasy romance - which was music to my ears.  Looking at the cover and the overt Jacqueline Carey blurb, I think those expectations were reasonable.  So much so that Amazon filed it under Romance.

At first glance, Traitor's Daughter looks like Gone with the Wind at best and Fabio on the Plantation (pretty sure I made that one up) at worse.  The long flowing dress, the articulated 'D', and  soft blend of a house emerging from a cloud with star pinpricks all over, screams: this is a book for CHICKS!  Unfortunately the back cover (below) isn't much better:
On the Veiled Isles, ominous signs are apparent to those with the talent to read them. The polarity of magic is wavering at its source, heralding a vast upheaval poised to alter the very balance of nature. Blissfully unaware of the cataclysmic events to come, Jianna Belandor, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a powerful Faerlonnish overlord, has only one concern: the journey to meet her prospective husband. But revolution is stirring as her own conquered people rise up against their oppressors, and Jianna is kidnapped and held captive at a rebel stronghold, insurance against her father’s crimes. 
The resistance movement opens Jianna’s eyes―and her heart. Despite her belief in her father’s innocence, she is fascinated by the bold and charming nomadic physician and rebel sympathizer, Falaste Rione—who offers Jianna her only sanctuary in a cold and calculating web of intrigue. As plague and chaos grip the land, Jianna is pushed to the limits of her courage and resourcefulness, while virulent enemies discover that alliance is their only hope to save the human race.
So, other than the first sentence and the last clause of the last sentence, Traitor's Daughter sounds like a romance story between the kidnapped Jianna and the healer Rione.  It's not.  Brandon debut is high fantasy with a sprawling plot, political machinations, complex systems of magic, all of which manifest themselves in themes that both men and women will very much enjoy.  To someone looking for romance they're going to be sorely disappointed.

That's not to say there isn't a love story - there is sort of - but it's far more in-line with what a typical fantasy reader would expect in a non-Joe Abercrombie novel.  All told, it probably occupies a quarter of the novel leaving the rest of the time for Brandon to flesh out Magnifico Aureste Belandor, Jianna's father.  The fact his name isn't even mentioned in the novel's blurb boggles me.  Most of the novel is spent on his ongoing political struggle to rescue his daughter without destroying his tenuous position as a Faerlonnish lord ruled by the Taerleezi conquerors.

Maybe, Spectra and
Amazon mixed books up?
The society of the Veiled Isles is one akin to Apartheid.  An ethnic minority (Taerleezi) rules by way of conquest, oppressing the indigenous population (Faerlonne) and elevating those few willing to work for them.  Those elevated have become a lightening rod to their oppressed brethren diverting much of the unexpressed anger and resentment from the true oppressors.  Aureste, one of these 'betrayers' has spent his life securing his house's place under the Taerleezi government.  He has hidden his activities from his daughter, sheltered her, and now she'll pay for his crimes.  Brandon examines the lengths to which a father will go to protect his child as well as the sins a child's unconditional love can ignore.

A distinct lack of moral certitude permeates Traitor's Daughter.  Aureste and his daughter's captors both feel wronged and view there causes as right and just.  To them the ends always justify the means.  Jianna and Rione, representing the next generation, become Brandon's moral center, setup to become the reformer of their predecessors whom are stuck in the memory of past wrongs and outdated world views.  It all works spectacularly well creating an emotional investment not just in the characters, but in the political and familial structures Brandon puts in place.

If there's one black mark, aside from its marketing, it's that much of Traitor's Daughter feels like a prologue to a larger arc.  The novel is framed by chapters from Grix Orlazzu, an arcane practitioner who's clearly pegged to the larger story line of the world's wavering magic.  His chapters demonstrate a state of technological advancement that is far ahead of that present in the rest of the world.  Jianna and Aureste's narrative only tangentially touch on this framing, leaving me to wonder how everything is connected, a fact that's a little frustrating having finished a third of trilogy.  Given that the series is already completed and on an accelerated release timetable, I'm willing to give Brandon a pass despite my strong preference for every novel to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Now this I'd like to read!
None of this in Traitor's
This is a long review that does a bit of a disservice to Brandon's novel.  As a novel, I definitely recommend it.  It's unquestionably one of the better fantasy debuts this year and the series holds a lot of promise.  I compare it favorably to Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet (not quite that good) for its audacity to write a fantasy series that focuses on politics instead of war without relying on the crutch of romance and sex.  Fans of epic fantasy that enjoy a slow build, ambitious world building, and political intrigue will absolutely eat it up.

In terms of marketing, I have to give it a big F.  It's not romance, or horror (zombies, ha!), or steampunk, or science fiction, or pure fantasy - it's a mix of all them making Traitor's Daughter a genre novel, but one that's hard to pigeonhole in a business that demands the opposite.  There's a possibility the next two installments are a lot more romance that the first.  But somehow the skeptic in me thinks that branding the novel as romance was a conscious choice and I find it a bit intellectually dishonest.

Long story short: buy the book, read it, and ignore the cover and the reviews that have a lot more to do with a poorly conceived presentation than any failing of Paula Brandon's.  The sequel, The Ruined City, is due out in early 2012 with the third installment to follow before year's end.  I look forward to spending a lot more time in the Veiled Isles.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shadow Prowler - Alexey Pehov

What a novel!  This is the most entertaining piece of SFF comedy writing I've seen since The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  Alexey Pehov had me absolutely laughing out loud for page after page.  He cleverly poked fun at the genre by including every cliche built up over the past 70 years.  I might even go so far as to say that NBC should consider a Shadow Prowler sitcom for a midsea....


What the..?

[What follows is a complete fabrication.  There is no Cheryl.  She is a figment of my imagination.  Furthermore the purpose of this review is to have fun with reviewing a book I really did not like.  It should by no means be viewed as an attack on Tor Books who I think, for the most part, does a tremendous job.  They're the industry leader for a reason.  Any failure here is with the material itself, not with the work done by the publisher to bring it to market.  Obviously, Tor Books has never contacted me about a review I was writing, have written, or will write in the future.]
Me: Yes, Cheryl?

Cheryl: Mr. Landon, Tor is on the line...

Me: Ok, I'll pick it up.  This is Justin.

Tor: Mr. Landon, it's come to our attention that you're writing a review of Shadow Prowler.

Me: I'm actually writing it as we speak, how did you know?

Tor: We're Tor.

Me: Oh... right.

Tor: It seems you think Shadow Prowler is a comedy.

Me: It had occurred to me.

Tor: It's not.

Me: You mean Pehov was being serious?

Tor: Yes.

Me: Are you fucking with me?

Tor: We'd appreciate it if you'd take this a bit more seriously, Mr. Landon.

Me: You've read this thing right?

Tor: Not me exactly.  It sold millions of copies in Russia.

Me: We've certainly seen eye to eye with them in the past.

Tor: Are you being droll?

Me: Who me? Come on, you're Tor.  You're the Politburo of fantasy.

Tor: You're being droll.

Me: Maybe a little.

Tor: In any case, I've been asked to see if I can help you understand Pehov's vision a little more clearly.

Me: Vision?  This is going to take some adjustment of perspective.  I have a hard time figuring out how 'vision' can include pages of exposition every time a new term is mentioned.  Or how using every fantasy trope possible is 'subversion of tropes'.  It's only subversion if you use it to set up expectations and then knock them down.

Tor: The elves have fangs, Mr. Landon, and they're swarthy.  Fangs!

Me: .......

Tor: You clearly weren't able to keep up with Pehov's wonderful prose.

Me: Good Lord man!  The first person narrator frequently refers to himself in the third person.  The narrative switches tense for no clear reason!  And this is just the low hanging fruit!  I'm not even going into my notes here! (!!!!)  See, I thought this was comedy.  You know, like Deadpool comics where he's such a nutbar he thinks he's got people reading about his exploits.  But now you're telling me this is a serious novel...

Tor: There are moments of levity along with heart wrenching emot...

Me: Harold calls his home a "SECRET LAIR!"  I was laughing on every page until the last 50.  I'm not going to tell you the last 50 pages weren't good.  I rather enjoyed them although there isn't anything even remotely resembling an 'end point'.  It's just the first 350 were a constant stream of consciousness that provided absolutely no movement to the plot.  I felt like I was sitting on the toilet with a pendulous turd just waiting to fall into the bowl, but no matter how much I wiggled it just wouldn't let go!  You can imagine what a relief those last 50 pages were, can't you?

Tor: I'm speechless.

Me:  Good.  I'm not done.  When I thought Pehov was being a smart ass like Lev Grossman's The Magician I got quite a kick out of it in a 'I'm not going to pay attention to this ridiculous section on nothing because Pehov is just making a point that epic fantasy is full of crap' way.  But it's not.  I was supposed to be worried about the characters, fearing impending doom.  Emphasis on supposed to.

Tor: There may be some translation issu...

Me: Oh probably, but Andrew Bromfield is a pretty widely recognized translator.  I find it hard to believe that he decided that 'The Nameless One' was a particularly choice name for the villain or that Harold should spend an entire chapter buying weapons and magic items from a dwarf shopkeeper.  Not to mention discussing them all in fantastic detail.  Did I mention that there's another chapter where Harold is introduced to every member of the 15 members of his adventuring party?  I don't mean, hey-how-you-doing. I mean full biographies on all 15.

Tor: *pursed lips* I never.  Is there anything you liked about this book, Mr. Landon?

Me: I'm so glad you asked.  The goblin jester - Kli-Kli - is absolutely brilliant.  He's like a mash-up of Tasslehoff Burrfoot from The Dragonlance Chronicles and the Fool from The Farseer Trilogy.  Frankly, he's almost worth the price of admission.

Tor: Well, see, there we are... something to build off of.

Me: Oh, yes.  If I were you I'd absolutely build off him.  In fact, I'd write an entire series with him as the protagonist.  As far as I'm concerned Pehov has a real talent for writing comedy.  Maybe you should think about changing your marketing strategy, do a few re-writes, make Harold the straight man...

Tor: *fuming*

Me: Look, it was just a suggestion.  So, I'll be looking for the review copy of the sequel Shadow Chaser in my mailbox then, ok?

Tor: ......

Me: No? Uh... right.  Bye now.
[Again, this was merely for fun.  I admit wholeheartedly that it is snarky and a little mean.  But I hope it made someone laugh.]

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Miserere: An Autumn Tale - Teresa Frohock

Religion is a touchy subject matter, isn't it? Focusing on subjects of faith and belief can easily become unhinged. Preaching or flippancy are equally likely and this is especially true when the a novel is told from only one sect's point of view (in this case, Christian). I've been caught unawares by 'Christian fiction' masquerading as fantasy a time or two and I pretty well irks me every time, although erotica masquerading as Urban Fantasy is worse. It's not that I'm trying to avoid all things Christian, I'm just saying I want to know what I'm getting into beforehand. Thus I approached Miserere, Teresa Frohock's debut novel, with some trepidation.

I shouldn't have worried.  Miserere while grounded in Christian myths isn't really about religion.  Frohock is just more overt in her use of forms and traditions than the average fantasy novel.  Go pick up any epic fantasy and there are sure to be dozens of ideas pulled from the Bible.  The very notion of the prophesied savior is about as close to a Jesus Christ parallel as it gets.  Instead of covering up her use of religious myths by changing the names and places Frohock just goes with it, grounding her story and world in a familiar form that is instantly recognizable even to antireligionists (which is actually a real term, who knew?).

In a city ruled by Hell's vicars, exiled exorcist Lucian Negru has been crippled and imprisoned by his sister, Catarina.  Sixteen years ago, he deserted his lover in Hell to save Catarina's soul.  Instead of salvation, she wants Lucian to help her fulfill a dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by opening the Gates of Hell into Woerld, Heaven's first line of defense in the war for Earth's souls.  Knowing the evil in what she asks, Lucian flees, lamed but not broken, to the last place he thought he would ever go back to - the Citidal, home of God's chosen warriors.  Rachael, the lover he spurned, will judge him, holding his life in her hands.

War between Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, with mortals caught in between makes Miserere something like a sequel to John Milton's Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained written with modern understanding of character and plot.  While the novel itself is a fairly tight story of redemption for Lucian and salvation for Rachael, there is a larger arc at play that hints at some final conflict between the Fallen and God's Kingdom.  Very traditional in narrative voice and structure, Frohock utilizes several points of view from the limited third person.  It's briskly paced and never lets up the tension.  The bad guys turn stomachs and the good guys are all that holy warriors should be albeit with a surfeit of chinks in their armor.

All of that sounds pretty run-of-the-mill of the mill now that I actually write it and that's wrong because Miserere is anything but run-of-the-mill.  A tight plot, an interesting world, and something much like the Dan Brown knack for the religious 'what if', makes Miserere an absolute pleasure to read.  From the moment Frohock revealed her world as one grounded in our own, she captured me, driving forward with a desire to fit all the pieces together.  How does Woerld work? What purpose does it serve? How do people get there?  She doesn't answer all the questions, thankfully leaving many unanswered even as the novel came to an end.

I say thankfully because any exposition would have only served to drag down the carefully cultivated pace.  Miserere is a first installment and I appreciate Frohock's patience - show me now, tell me later.  This is a mantra becoming more and more prevalent in fantasy especially among this year's crop of debut authors, perhaps most notably those coming out of Night Shades New Voices Program.  I've read 8 of them (out of 15) so far and all seem to have made a commitment to telling a story first, a fact I think 'big fat fantasy' forgot somewhere in the early 90's.  At times it can make me page flip to figure out whether or not I missed some explanation, but when choosing between pace and story or didactics and world building I'm going to choose the former every time (as long as the latter is sufficient).

All that amounts to Miserere being a very, very good novel, but I feel compelled to hold back from calling it a great one.  And the reason is quite simple - Frohock never asks why.  As her characters undergo trials and tribulations not one, even the most tortured, asks: why is God putting me through this?  Why should I serve a God who would steal me from my home, kill my brother, and pit me against the hordes of Hell?  My one true love betrayed me and sent me to Hell, why shouldn't I turn my back on all that's holy?  None of these kinds of questions are asked, or answered, and I think the novel is worse off for it.

Still, I absolutely devoured it.  Finished in two nights of reading, Miserere is a tremendously successful fantasy novel.  Frohock's characters are interesting and fleshed out, with decades of history behind them.  She puts them in a setting that is as strange as it is familiar striking a beautiful balance between the fantastic and the mundane.  I don't hesitate to call it one of the best debuts I've read this year (although that list is getting long) and I highly recommend it regardless of genre predilections.

The next installment, Dolorosa: A Winter's Dream, is supposedly due out next year and will pick up right where Miserere left off.  However, it appears the author is currently working on The Garden, an unrelated novel set in 1348 on the Iberian Peninsula.  In either case, I'm eagerly looking forward to Teresa Frohock's future work.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Giveaway - The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

Courtesy of the author, I have two signed copies of Courtney's Schafer's The Whitefire Crossing to give away.  One of Night Shade Books' New Voices, Schafer is an electrical engineer and an avid climber.  The latter features heavily in her novel and  I remain hopeful that we'll see some electrical engineering in book two The Tainted City (not really).

When I read the novel way back in June I called it 'one of the best novels I've read in 2011.'  Up to that point I'd read 38.  As of now that number is somewhere around 75 and that statement is as true now as it was back in June.  You can read my full review here.

Here's the blurb from the back cover:


Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He's in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it's easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel - where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark - into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.

But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution - and he'll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.

Yet Kiran isn't the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other - or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.


Giveaway Details:

This giveaway is open to residents of all Nations, States, and Planets.  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveaway, just place a comment in this post and declare intention to participate.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Make sure to provide an email address or Twitter username at which I can contact you.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on October 31, 2011
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be two winners, who will get one prize each.
  • Will have to confirm email/DM to be considered a winner within a week after October 31, 2011.
ONE additional entry may be had by doing the following:
If you do either of the steps above, or you are already following me, you'll receive ONE additional entry.

Thanks, and good luck!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Midnight Riot - Ben Aaronovitch

U.S. Cover.
Diana Gabaldon said, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz.” I think that's sort of a red herring. I get it, Harry Potter is wildly successful and the quote targets a massive audience that will enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's novel. However, if I was asked to write a more accurate blurb, it might read, "Midnight Riot is what would happen if Shadow from American Gods was an apprentice wizard with a wry sense of humor who wandered around London waxing poetic about it and solving crimes under supernatural circumstances." Ok, so that probably wouldn't sell as many books, but it's a lot more descriptive.

Peter Grant is a rookie copper working the streets of London. As he nears the end of his probationary period and decisions are being made about his long term position in the force, a ghost gives him a lead in a case of mysterious murder. Next thing Peter knows he's in up to his ears in the arcane, assigned to the department's in-house wizard Thomas Nightingale.

Most of Midnight Riot is spent with Peter wandering around London trying to solve a murder and/or settling a long standing dispute between the river gods. When Peter isn't doing either of those things, he's learning magic or trying to get laid both of which are endlessly entertaining.  And that's sort of the heart of what Aaronovitch's debut novel is all about - entertainment.  It has wit, action, and charm in spades.  Unfortunately the one thing it really lacked was a compelling plot which ultimately left me feeling a bit flat.

Don't me wrong, the novel itself is rather compelling and exceptional readable.  Aaronovitch takes his readers on a guided tour of the city and her rivers, building into it an occasional history lesson and cultural what's what of modern London.  All that's very fun and more than a little cool, but much of it ended up feeling like a smoke screen covering the aforementioned average story.

U.K. Cover. Looks like
it belongs on a Martin
Amis book.
I won't to get into details on why the plot underwhelmed me.  There are twists and turns I don't want to spoil.  Suffice to say, the story itself would fit nicely into a TV procedural without too much grief.  And I don't mean a season finale level episode either, more like the last episode before sweeps start.  The secondary plot, negotiating peace between the river gods while more interesting lacked any sense of impending disaster if Peter failed in his mission.  In other words, I just didn't care that much.

Now that I've panned the novel as 'uninteresting', I'm going to backtrack a bit because all the other things I mentioned like characters, setting, ambiance, and wit make Midnight Riot a pleasurable reading experience.  Because of the importance and emphasis Aaronovitch places on the city of London I have to think that Londoners will get more from the novel just as readers from Tempe, Arizona get a little something extra from Kevin Hearne's Hounded.  Still, there's a lot here to enjoy laying the base for, what I imagine will mirror Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, steady improvement with each installment.

I admit I'm not exactly Midnight Riot's target audience.  I'm not a huge urban fantasy fan, nor am I particularly ensnared by the police procedural.  Nevertheless I'm glad I was exposed to Peter Grant, Aaronovitch's London, and his excellent first person voice, all of which caught my interest and held it for 300+ pages. I absolutely recommend it to fans of the subgenre, and fans of fantasy in general with the caveat that the plot won't leave you out of breath.

I read a lot of Midnight Riot in-between sets at the gym. Rawr!
Midnight Riot is available anywhere books are sold in Mass Market Paperback. Aaronovitch's sequel Moon Over Soho came out earlier this year and has received strong reviews thus far.  It's available in both Hardcover and Trade Paper Back in the UK from Gollancz and in Mass Market Paperback in the U.S. from Del Ray.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interview with Night Shade Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Lassen

I've been pretty open about my praise for the 2011 Night Shade line-up of debut authors. Having positively reviewed The Whitefire Crossing, Seed, The Emperor's Knife, Necropolis, God's War, and Infidel, I was interested in finding out what Night Shade's plan of action was with all these tremendous new authors. Night Shade Books Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Lassen was kind enough to trade e-mails with me to talk about their New Voices Program, last year's royalties controversy, 2012 debuts, and some great news about their web presence. Hope you enjoy!

Justin: What prompted me to ask for this interview was a comment Mazarkis Williams made on Twitter about the Night Shade New Voices Program. I had no idea that Night Shade had gone so far as to actually institute a 'program'. First off, what is the New Voices Program?

Jeremy: The program will consist of a branded landing sight on our web site that spotlights upcoming releases from this new generation of writers. The Night Bazaar group blog is one component of this... a regular revolving conversation amongst our authors.

Our print advertising will feature our "New Voices" Branding with links and promotions that tie back into our New Voices web site.

There will be promotoins and giveaways (full books, and exceprts) that group these authors together, so that people get a sense that something bigger is happening, then "Just One New Book" that got some good reviews, or awards or critical accliam.

Brad Beaulieu's The Winds of Khalakovo IS related to Mazarkis Williams' The Emperor's Knife (review), which is related to Courtney Schafer's White Fire Crossing (review), which is related to Teresa Frohock's Miserere... These are all examples of what we think Fantasy Fiction can and should aspire to in the 21st century.

Likewise, Paolo's The Windup Girl is related to Will Macintosh's Soft Apocolpyse, which is related Revolution World by Katy Stauber, which is related to Rob Ziegler's Seed (review). These are Night Shade's vision of what Science fiction can be in the 21st century -- painful, and painfully relevant.

New Voices exists to draw a circle around, and bring attention to this exciting new generation of writers. It is going to exist in print, online, and will be central to Night Shade's branding, marketing and publicity going forward.

Justin: What prompted creating the New Voices program? What are you trying to accomplish?

Jeremy: Our New Voices program came about because we wanted to highlight the new direction that Night Shade is going in, editorially. We have 15 first novels coming out in 2011. We realized that a lot of people have a fixed image of what Night Shade is, and what kind of books we do, and many people just didn't realize the kind of focus and commitment we were making to new writers. The New Voices program is meant to let people know about our new writers, and how this is part of an overall editorial strategy.

Justin: One of the things I'm most impressed about is that none of the 2011 Night Shade debuts sound like anyone else. All of them (that I've read) have felt not just new, but unique. Has it been part of the 'mission' to steer clear of the thief/assassin, western medieval, and space-opera tropes that are so prevalent genre wide?

Jeremy: It's about good writing, first and foremost. The second thing we always ask is "Is it something that WE can market, and find an audience for?" Since we are a smaller company, with our marketing and publicity resources basically customized for each book, we don't have to have every book be a round peg that fits into the predefined round marketing whole. So when we answer that second question, we often are able to say yes to books that might not get a yes at a larger publishing company.

Justin: Are you looking to create a stable of authors to build Night Shade around? Or do you anticipate continuing moving forward with the New Voice concept as a niche?

Jeremy: We feel that our new voices will grow into, and become the mainstream, over time. We've made many multi book commitments, and are dedicated to building up a new generation of writers. The Giants of tomorrow, whomever they end up being are the first novelist of today. We're committed to trying to find tomorrow’s giants. That’s really what our new voices program is all about.

Justin: In looking over the Night Shade catalog it seems prior to The Windup Girl you were bringing a lot of known authors' work to market combined with lots of anthologies. Was Windup Girl as seminal a moment for Night Shade as it appears to us on the outside? Is that sort of when things started to change?

Jeremy: We had done SOME first novels prior to the publication of The Windup Girl, and in a couple of cases, we had some success. But in this industry, success builds upon success. We worked really hard to get Windup Girl out there. We pressed our sales reps and buyers at the chains to really support that one. When they were rewarded for the risks they took on our behalf, we were able to point to that past success and say "we know how to promote first novels... so you should get behind our books." Basically, we leveraged that success into more support from buyers and chains... The same goes for reviewers, and blog coverage and everything else. A whole lot of people are paying attention now – post Windup Girl – that weren't paying attention before. This type of expectation is what we want to build on. That we ARE the place to look for new and exciting authors.

Justin: Last year there was quite a bit of negative skuttlebutt about Night Shade in reference to some missing royalty payments. It led to you being put on probation by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to comment on it now that the probation is, or will soon be, lifted.

Jeremy: Most of our problems were the result of growing too fast, and not having the organizational infrastructure to communicate to people quickly and clearly. Unsurprisingly, a few of our authors were upset by the state of things, and went public with their frustrations. When this happened, we went straight to SFWA, and brought them into the discussions we were having with some of those authors. We've been working very closely with SFWA, to show both SFWA, as well as our current and past authors the kinds of organizational changes we've made so that royalties and communication happens in a timely manner. All current royalties are being paid on time, and royalty statements are going out on time, etc.

Last I heard, SFWA was going to be taking us off probation in the wake of the last royalty period, but I don't want to speak for them... I understand it requires a full vote of the board, and not just a decision by the officers, so clearly they have an organizational process that needs to happen.

Justin: That's great news. For what it's worth, I hear the new crop of Night Shade authors singing your praises. We've talked a lot about the New Voice program, so here's your chance - who are the debut authors in 2012 that we should be getting excited about?

Jeremy: We've got a new space opera in January called Faith, by John Love. It's a bit different from your average space opera, and I think it’s going to definitely turn some heads.

In February, We've got a second novel coming from Will Macintosh that I'm very excited about. Will's short fiction was always very diverse and challenging, and his debut, Soft Apocalypse was stunning, but I'm happy that his new one, Hitchers will demonstrate his range. It's not simply "Soft Apocalypse 2".

February also has a novel called Enormity by W. G. Marshall that I'm very excited bout. It's a very funny/ironic near future adventure story.

And in March we have an Alternate History /ancient Greece steam punk adventure novel called The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine that is a perfect example of one of those books that there's not exactly a defined marketing category for it, but its damn fun.

Justin: Awesome. I'm already penning my 2012 schedule (I just received the eARC for Faith)! Any plans on adding a FORTHCOMING section to the website? Avid readers and bloggers want to know!

Jeremy: We are in the process of redesigning our website, and a forthcoming section is definitely a category we should have. I'll make a note. :) In addition to this feature, we will be integrating the Night Bazaar group author blog into our site, instead of it being a separate stand alone site, and we will be announcing a very exciting new original web-fiction project as part of this redesign.

Justin: Jeremy, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Congratulations on a great 2011 line-up, I've very much enjoyed everything I've read. Good luck in 2012!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More Hilariously Similar Covers

While I'm traveling around California for work, I thought I'd take a look at some covers that seem too similar for mere coincidence!  Check in later this week for reviews of The Traitor's Daughter by Paula Brandon, Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov, and Miserere by Teresa Frohock.  If I have a particularly productive flight home there might also be a review for Robert Holdestock's classic, Mythago Wood.  You never know!

Would you like an apple?  It will attract supernatural creatures and help keep your husband from wandering.  It also keep you from starving last time I checked.  I have absolutely no idea what the apple represents in either of these ridiculous covers.  Given Myers' background I imagine it has something to do with the "forbidden fruit".  Really?  Give me a break. #TooLiteral


So, let me see if I've got this straight.  We've got two guys sort of straddling a rocket.  The title of one is Manseed and the other is The Secret of Saturn's "Rings".  Ok, I added the emphasis quotes around rings, but still... I think I see what's going on here.  Salt Lake City and the FCC do not approve!


This items have wolves on them which makes them intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I really look at it, that's when the magic happened.  I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the books in my hands and was immediately approached by women. The women knew from the wolves on my books that I, like a wolf, am a mysterious loner who knows how to 'howl at the moon' from time to time (if you catch my drift!). The women that approached me wanted to know if I would be their boyfriend and/or give them money for something they called meth. I told them no, because they didn't have enough teeth, and frankly a man with a wolf-book shouldn't settle for the first thing that comes to him.

I arrived at Wal-mart, mounted my courtesy-scooter (walking is such a drag!) sitting side saddle so that my wolves would show. While I was browsing tube socks, I could hear aroused asthmatic breathing behind me. I turned around to see a slightly sweaty dream in sweatpants and flip-flops standing there. She told me she liked the wolves on my books, I told her I wanted to howl at her moon. She offered me a swig from her mountain dew, and I drove my scooter, with her shuffling along side out the door and into the rest of our lives. Thank you wolf covers.  (Credit to B. Govern's brilliant review of the 'Three Wolf' T-Shirt')

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seed - Rob Ziegler

My self imposed hiatus on Night Shade Books failed miserably this past weekend when I couldn't resist their latest novel, Seed by Rob Ziegler.  I was going to try to take a few weeks away from Night Shade to get at some of my rapidly overwhelming back catalog.  While I did finish Diving Into the Wreck and started Midnight Riot and Shadow Prowler, they all fell to the side once I dug into Seed.  Zeigler's novel is as haunting as it is believable.

Much like Night Shade flag bearer The Wind-Up Girl (Bacigalupi), Seed is a near term science fiction novel that centers around the impacts of climate change and over population on the world's environment.  The Hugo Award winning Wind-Up Girl focused on Thailand, but hinted at the problems ongoing in America.  In many ways Seed could be that story of America.  That's not to say it's derivative of Bacigalupi, but there's certainly similarities in tone and texture to the world playing to the current fears that Earth is reaching 'critical mass'.

Seed is set at dawn of the 22nd century, the world has fallen apart and a new corporate power has emerged: Satori. More than just a corporation, Satori is an intelligent, living city in America's heartland. She manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, and bio-engineers her own perfected castes of post-humans. What remains of the United States government now exists solely to distribute Satori product.

When a Satori Designer goes rogue, Agent Sienna Doss is tasked with bringing her in to break Satori's stranglehold on seed production.  In a race against genetically honed assassins, Doss's best chance at success lies in an unlikely alliance with a gang of thugs and Brood - orphan, scavenger and small-time thief scraping by on the fringes of the wasteland - whose young brother may be the key to everything.

What struck me most about Seed is the poignancy.  Right away Ziegler jumps into Brood's nomadic life as he migrates from Mexico to the Mid-West with the imminent arrival of summer temperatures.  With his special-needs brother, Brood lives just on the edge of survival.  His imperative to protect crackles with emotion and his willingness to do anything to survive is heartbreaking.  These threads continue into other parts of the story from the Satori lamenting the loss of their defective sibling to Agent Doss remembering her crippling childhood.  Beyond the characters the world itself is bleak and desolate.  Ziegler capably takes the small kindness of a drink of water and makes it a seminal moment of compassion.

Despite this being an 'American' novel Ziegler does a great job of integrating Hispanic culture into the pastoral fiber of the country.  A pretty good amount of the dialogue is in Spanish often laced with Mexican slang.  Elements of Hispanic culture are prevalent in the migrants and in many ways makes Seed not only a glimpse into the future of climate change and overpopulation, but a glimpse at the integration of culture on America's horizon.  Juxtaposing this is the Satori which is so disturbingly self-interested and antiseptic as to be reminiscent of William Gibson's cyberpunk corporations.

Ziegler drops a pose in front a
pick-up truck!
My only real complaint stems from the lack of scientific underpinning to Satori.  For a post-apocalyptic novel the science fiction felt very magical (not in the Arthur C. Clarke sense) in large part because Ziegler never takes the time to ground any of it in science.  While he introduces the brains behind it all, they're never given the opportunity to expound upon how or why it all works.  In that sense the novel 'reads' more like a fantasy than science fiction, something I believe is becoming a trend in the post-apocalypse sub-genre.  Instead, Seed never lets up in its pace, keeping a constant tension throughout that eschews any need for exposition.

As a narrative, Seed is a multi-view point third person novel that I believe stands alone and should continue to do so.  Interestingly, I realized none of what I liked about it had much do with the actual prose.  I didn't find myself highlighting passages or even taking note of particularly nice turns of phrase. This isn't a negative. Rather than flowery descriptions or particularly evocative metaphors, Seed compelled me forward with... wait for it... a great story. And a great story told well.

Seed is Rob Ziegler's debut novel and another very good one from Night Shade's 2011 crop of new authors.  Reading this review it might seem that this is a slow and morose novel.  It's not at all.  Woven in between scenes of migration and self-reflection is tons of action that culminates in a conclusion that's both explosive and cathartic.  This is one you don't want to miss.

Seed is due out in the U.S. on November 1 (here).  Follow the author on Twitter @Rob_Ziegler

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Diving Into the Wreck - Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Science fiction as a genre has always been based on what if.  What if we brought a man back to life?  What if we gave a computer control of a space station?  What if robots had the ability to reason?  Diving Into the Wreck is very much in this tradition, asking what happens when we start to forget technology?  Kristine Kathryn Rusch's answer is: nothing good.  Refreshingly old school, Wreck calls to mind the horrors of cramped space craft, the bleakness of space, and the depravity of human greed.

Boss loves to dive historical wrecks, derelict spacecraft found adrift in the blackness between stars. Sometimes she dives for salvage, but mostly she's a historian.  Once she dives a ship, she either leaves it for others to find or starts selling guided tours. It's a good life for a loner, with more interest in history than the people who make it.

When she comes across an enormous spacecraft, incredibly old, and apparently Earth-made, she's 
determined to investigate. It's impossible for something built in the days before FTL travel to have journeyed so far from Earth. Boss hires a group of divers to explore the wreck with her, but some secrets are best kept hidden, and the past won't give up its treasures without exacting a price.

Diving in space is a lot like diving in the ocean.  Instead of being worried about something snagging the air hose or running into a shark, sharp edges and nebulous ancient stealth technology are the fear du jour.  Rusch does a brilliant job of communicating the claustrophobia and paranoia that seem inimical to creeping through a derelict space craft far from any safe haven.  Stealth tech is the macguffin, a lost technology that promises untold wealth and power to the person(s) who can bring it back, that promises a horrible death to anyone who comes in contact with it.

The most charming aspect of the novel for me was the author's commitment to wreck diving.  Not the plot, but rather the nuts and bolts of the profession.  She considers all the pitfalls and realities of the job - what kind of person Boss would have to be, how she would make a living, and why she would put herself through it all.  By the end of the novel nothing in Wreck lacked authenticity.  So much so that if I didn't know the novel was set in the future I might find myself looking in the yellow pages for wreck divers.... you know, if I had to venture into deep space to recover something.

The novel is divided into three parts corresponding to the two novellas and a third part that weaves them together.  Taken on their own the first two parts are incredibly dynamic with pace, tension, and all the hallmarks of great science fiction.  It's unfortunate then that the connection of the two comes off a bit disjointed as though they weren't necessarily written with each other in mind.  This is pervasive throughout the novel where in order to tie the two novellas into a connected arc with a shared conclusion Boss spends a great deal of time talking, and talking, and talking to members of her team.  While these scenes are excellent opportunities to character build, and believe me the characters are tremendous, they leave quite a bit to be desired when it comes to pace.

Told entirely in the first person, Wreck is very introspective .  Boss spends a great deal of time humming and hawing her motivations in the midst of coming to grips with relationship to her father.  This deep introspection combined with the need to tie together the disparate story modules led to an unfortunate lack of world building.  Although not entirely necessary for the kind of story Rusch was telling the world itself is very bare bones.  I never got a great feel for the 'space' her lush characters were inhabiting and I'm not sure if the final product wasn't a little harmed as a result.

Nevertheless, Diving Into the Wreck is a worthwhile investment of reading resources.  Although the novel as a whole has some hiccups with an overly tidy ending there are parts here that hold up against the best science fiction on the market.  City of Ruins, Rusch's sequel, was released in May of this year.  I've already got a copy on my bedside table and look forward to getting to it soon.  I'm very confident that lacking the need to integrate two novellas into a larger arc City of Ruins can only improve over a very solid first installment.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Cover Conumdrum: Staffer's Musings and The Qwillery Talk Covers

Sally (The Qwillery) and I were on Twitter the other day - hard to believe I know - when we struck up a conversation on the relative crappiness of U.S. covers to their U.K. counterparts. Admitting there could be some selection bias afoot, we endeavored to discover whether or not the art direction across the pond is truly superior. Over the course a few posts we'll be discussing various groups of covers arbitrarily selected using some nonsense criteria. For this first installment we're looking at some of the more hyped 2011 Science Fiction and Fantasy releases that had covers worth discussing. You will not see A Dance with Dragons (AKA: Most Boring Covers on Earth) here.

Justin: This is tough one. The title embellishment on the U.S. cover is beautiful. It’s unfortunate that the tents in the palm look like Shiva the Destroyer was hired as a candy striper at a local hospital with rollers in her hair. In contrast, the UK imagery is much stronger with the red scarf really popping off the page. It much more clearly identifies the themes of the novel. If I were Doubleday I’d have dumped the hand all together and gone with the stark night snowfall.
Winner: UK
Sally: I like the UK cover a bit more. While the colors and styles are very similar, I don't really like the hand in the US cover. The tattoo reminds me too much of hair! The hand holding the circus is really not germain to the the story. "The Night Circus" on the US cover shimmers and changes color, which is kind of cool. Both covers convey the circus and the dominant colors of the book, but I think the UK covers captures the theme of the book much better.
Winner: UK


Justin: The U.S. cover says: 1) This book is the next installment in the Highland television series. That’s Duncan MacLeod back there in his trench coat. 2) This will be made into a movie starring Tom Hanks where he finds ancient relics to uncover a conspiracy. The U.K. cover says: 1) This book has ninjas with glowing swords who are also gingers. 2) There is lightning coming out of the trees. Ya, lightning. Buy me.
Winner: Nobody.
Sally: I prefer the US cover. The style of the UK cover makes me think this is a YA novel - vines, cartoony character, glowing sword. While the US cover is somewhat formulaic, it still appeals to me much more than the UK cover. The US cover says moody and dangerous to me. Perhaps a real winner would have been the UK cover in the style of the US cover.

Winner: US, but barely.


Justin: My choices… Black with what looks like an Apple icon of a document. Or, a city skyline with choppy seas that gives meIndependence Day meets thePoseidon Adventure vibrations. I want to like the U.K. version, I really do, but it’s so generic. It also strikes me as a publisher trying to look like anything but a science fiction novel. Ultimately, the stark black with the document icon works for me with Reamde which looks a lot like Read Me.
Winner: U.S.
Sally: Neither of these covers tells me much about this book. There is more to see on the UK cover of course, but even those images really don't give you much to go on. It's hard to tell what that mess of images is beneath Readmeon the UK Cover. The US cover is simply stark and boring. Neither of these covers spark any interest in this book for me. I don't like either of them.

No Winner.


Justin: I can’t decide if the skeleton puked on the cover or whether it’s a cleverly constructed ruse to distract me from the fact that stabbing something with a scythe is really freaking hard. Either way, I guess if the goal is to be eye catching I have to give Penguin a thumbs up. I suspect the point though is to make this look as little like a science fiction novel as possible. As for the U.K version, under a different title, I guess it’s cool. It’s also exceedingly boring.

Winner: U.S.
Sally: I'm having a really hard time with the color of the US cover. I know it's green but what color is that exactly? The Grim Reaper being stabbed in the back by his scythe is ok. The yellow face screams cartoon to me. While there are moments of levity in The Postmortal, I don't think this cover really does the book justice. The UK cover is better in my opinion. It reminds me of the plague that swept Europe in the Dark Ages. I think that makes sense in the context of this book.
Winner: UK




Justin: Here’s the thing… I thought the U.S. cover was pretty weak until I looked closer and saw the little man inside the O reaching for the key. That’s pretty sweet. He looks like thePitfall guy from Intellivision (look it up people under 30). Throw in the cool C’s that look like Pacman and my nostalgia is adequately piqued. On the other hand, the U.K. cover has pixels. Lots of pixels. But it all feels like 80’s video game generic. I don’t get nostalgic, just sad about how crappy video games were back then.
Winner: U.S.
Sally: The UK cover looks pixelated, it also looks like a needlepoint to me. Pixelation makes sense in the context of the book, but it's just a really boring cover. I like the eye catching colors of the US cover. The "O" also has a couple of little embellishments (a little man and a key) that I like a lot. In addition the C looks like Pacman. I think the US cover clearly conveys more about the book.

Winner: U.S.


Justin: Is it just me or does the U.S. cover look like some homemade crap you’d find in the Kindle book listings. That thing screams self-published or at best small press (read: my fax machine). In contrast the UK cover is full of color and energy. It plays a bit on the cover of the preceding volume’s U.S. cover (The Magician), but really ups the volume. Sure it looks like a tree that fashions itself a new Doc Brown from Back to the Future, but I’m not going to be overly critical.
Winner: UK and it’s not close.
Sally: The US cover is so frighteningly generic I don't know where to start in my criticism. It also strikes me as more of a science fiction cover. You're in a cave and on another planet. Or you're in the middle of a solar eclipse. It doesn't work for me at all. I prefer the UK cover. I like the clock on the tree and the keys. The UK cover says 'fantasy" to me in lovely autumnal colors.

Winner: UK

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Various Works of Short Fiction

There aren't a lot of reviews out there for short fiction that isn't included as part of a published collection or anthology.  With the advent of eReaders more and more short fiction is making its way into the marketplace on it's own.  And that's great news!  So what follows are a series of 1-2 paragraphs reviews of a bunch of short fiction I've read recently.  I'm going to try to make this a semi-regular thing.  Hope you enjoy it.


Fingers by Marian Coman (read here):

I heard about Marian Coman from two sources - Bastard over at Bastard Books, who Coman "cold called", and Jeff VanderMeer, some author guy (blog post here).  Coman is a noted Romanian novelist and journalist. He is the editor of the daily lens – Voice Braila. He has two collections of stories published in Romania, and he won a prize from the European SF Society.

In an effort to get some traction with English publishers, he's taken it on himself to have some of his shorts translated.  I got a copy of four stories of which I successfully read one - Fingers.  Unfortunately, the translations of the other three were just too rough for me to get through.  I suspect the translator did a very fair translation, but ended up with a lot of awkward sentences that I couldn't force myself through.  I found myself restructuring the sentences in my head.  I realized that Coman is very talented and I have a feeling with a more experienced literary translator the results would be impressive.

Fingers though is very good even with some translating hiccups.  It's an interesting story about a young man with wart that seems to carry part of his personality inside it.  Haunting, eerie, and a little gross, it works beautifully as a psychological horror short.


The Stars and Rockets by Harry Turtledove (read here):

Meh. And that's surprising given that it's well written and contains baseball - my favorite thing in the world.  This is story about a minor league baseball player that operates a gas station in the off-season.  One day he's paid a visit by a rather unexpected visitor after which he goes on to have a historic season.

It's a little fun and a little quirky, but never quite asks the kind of questions I want to ponder at the end of this kind of story.  I will say the main character is really well drawn and worth the price of admission on his own.


Firstborn by Brandon Sanderson (read here):

Sanderson does two things so well in everything he writes - plot and setting.  Sometimes his characters are a little one dimensional and sometimes his prose doesn't leap off the page, but his stories - long or short - are always a blast to read.

In this one Sanderson tells the story of a young man expected to become a genius in the art of war.  He's not.  Despite his best efforts to convince his superiors that he isn't going to become the savior they expect, they force him into command.

This could easily have been a short novel.  Definitely recommended!


Travelers Rest by James Enge (read here):

This has been available for free from Pyr for a while.  It's a longish short story that introduces Morlock, Enge's protagonist from his novels.  Unfortunately, that's just how it feels - a story to give us a taste of what Enge is all about rather than a short story with a purpose.  For someone looking to find out if they want to invest some money into Enge's book, I definitely recommend it.  Otherwise? I could take it or leave it.


The Viscount and the Witch by Michael J. Sullivan (read here):

As far as I'm concerned Sullivan can do no wrong.  His Riyria Revelations is one of my favorite series.  They're just so much FUN to read.  For the first time, in a long time, none of Sullivan's novels are available for sale.  Orbit has bought the rights and will be releasing them over several months starting in November with Theft of Swords (which I'm reading right this minute for review).  He released this story to give us all something to read while nothing else is available.

To those who've read Riyria, this is a great little story about how Royce and Hadrian meet up with one of their friends for the first time.  To those who've never read Sullivan, it will be a great introduction to his style.  There's no action to speak of, but it reflects Sullivan's deftness with character and tone.  It's a sword and sorcery short without any sword or sorcery.  And it doesn't need either.

All that said, this is a lot more of a peep and a taste into Sullivan and his world than a true short story.  Recommended for fans of Riyria and to readers interested in what Sullivan is all about.  For everyone else it's not exactly a dynamic story.


The Nemesis Worm by Guy Haley (read here):

I read and reviewed Reality 36, Guy Haley's debut novel from Angry Robot Books.  It was a great science fiction detective buddy novel featuring AI private investigator Richards and his kick-ass ex-military cyborg partner Otto.  Haley also released a Richards & Klein novella (more a long short story) that gives the reader a look at his two protagonists working a case just before the start of his novel.

For someone new to Haley's world I'm not sure this would be a great introduction.  There's quite a bit of world building primer built into Reality 36 that the short fiction doesn't have the room to provide.  However, the story does delve into some larger questions about humanity, singularity, and what makes something human.  It's not heavy handed, but it is well done.

Beyond that, it's also a pretty action packed 'case file' story that provides some welcome history to Richards - the advanced AI part of the tandem.  Highly recommended to fans of Haley's novel and worth a go for SF fans in general.


I'm working on a another post including works from Saladin Ahmed, Felix Gilman, Peter F. Hamilton, and others.  Stay tuned!

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