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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Storm of Swords - George R.R. Martin

This is one of the best books I've ever read and I think it's by far the pinnacle of A Song of Ice and Fire (thus far).  I read somewhere recently that the first three books in the series are really one long book - I totally agree.  What Martin sets up in the first three novels largely comes to conclusion in A Storm of Swords.  If I never read another page about Jaime Lannister, the Hound (could be I have), Cersei, or Tyrion, I would be satisfied.  Of course, I've read A Feast for Crows and there's a lot more to come from most of that list.

I think part of the frustration many readers had with Feast stemmed from the brilliance of its predecessor.  If I'm judging a novel by how many times it gives me the chills or ties my stomach in knots, then Storm would quickly be ranked as the best novel I've ever read.  The Red Wedding, Joffrey's wedding, Tyrion's escape, Littlefinger and Lysa, and all the rest just gave Martin's readers satisfaction.  Feast begins again a lot of the building of anticipation that's more associated with the first two books in the series.

Anyway, on to some quick thoughts on the novel:

  • Red Wedding. Red Wedding. Red Wedding.  What an incredible scene.  My stomach was tied in knots from the first sentence of Cat's chapter because I knew what was coming.  At the turn of each page I glanced at the bottom to see if it was going to happen on THIS page and breathed a sigh of relief every time it didn't.  And then it did.  Man.
  • When Jaime frees Tyrion and they talk about Tysha, how can someone not get a little emotional?  For the 2000 pages of the series before this scene Martin has exposed Tyrion time and again to abuse.  And then Jaime tells him that he had something real - or close enough - and it was snatched away by his father.  After Shae's betrayal (so appropriately good), Tyrion's emotions were so raw and Martin brought it home perfectly.
  • Varys, Varys, Varys.  Obviously this guy is the key figure in what's been going in King's Landing.  How much of what's taken place has been at his behest?  The juxtaposition of him and Petyr is very compelling.  I never quite realized that Martin was setting them up as opposing forces until I watched the HBO adaptation.  So much of the body language in their scenes together made a light bulb go on in my head.  For whatever reason I just never focused on them the first few times through.  I'm sure it has something to do with Martin keeping me so engrossed in the POV characters.

I'm going to try to read a few things between Storm and Feast.  If I'm lucky I'll time finishing Feast with the release of A Dance with Dragons.  It is an exciting time!

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

My A Song of Ice and Fire reread continues and let me say - A Clash of Kings is bloody depressing.  I mean really, does anything good happen in this book?  Theon's a self-entitled jerk.  Tyrion is a good dude (generally) who gets constantly dumped on because he's dumpy.  Catelyn and Robb watch their family get annihilated.  Melisandre squeezes out shadow babies.  Joffrey is a real asshole.  And Tywin needs to get laid - badly.  The funniest part is - I know A Storm of Swords is going to be even worse!

Since all of these books have been reviewed endlessly I'm just going to offer a few thoughts here and there about what I read:

A.  I never quite understood why Quoran Halfhand takes Jon Snow on his trek and why the Old Bear would let him go.  It doesn't really make sense.

B.  This book is filled with chapters that I just didn't want to read.  Sansa. Catelyn. Theon. Bran.  Yet wouldn't you know, by the end of each of those chapters I was totally sucked into the story lines.  It's a real testament to Martin as a writer I think.

C.  I'm continually intrigued by Martin's choice to not use Robb as a POV character.  I'm now halfway through A Storm of Swords and it continues to perplex me.  So many items like Whispering Wood and Jeyne Westerling are pivotal to the plot, but we only see them through his mother's eyes.  I'd love to ask Martin why he did that someday.

D.  The battle at King's Landing is pretty bad ass.  Tyrion riding out, Pod Payne doing his thing, and the look ins on Cersei and Sansa are so tense.  Brilliant battle.

I'm already about 60% through A Storm of Swords.  Looks like I'll finish my re-read well before A Dance with Dragons hits the shelves (for real).

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Ex-Heroes - Peter Clines

How awesome are superheroes?  Uh, super awesome.  How awesome are zombies?  Uh, not as much.  Of course, anyone who has read my blog in the past is aware that I'm not exactly pro-zombie.  Why am I reading more zombie fiction then?  It's simple - I love post-apocalypse fiction and in this day and age that's pretty much synonymous with zombies.  So, here I am reading Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.  Turns out another tired zombie novel can be really entertaining and not so tired as I might have imagined.

A year ago society collapsed when a virus struck, turning its victims in unthinking, shambling, and voracious zombies.  It fell to the Mighty Dragon, Stealth, and their other hero companions to protect the thousands of survivors in their film studio-turned-fortress.  But, zombies hordes are not the only threat left in the world, and the people of the Mount are not the only survivors left in Los Angeles. Across the city, another group is coming and they have "heroes" of their own.

Ex-Heroes at its heart is a straight forward zombie novel.  Zombies roam the streets.  Humanity keeps them at bay, but barely.  What sets Clines' novel apart from the shambling hordes is how he uses his superheroes as catalysts.  Where most focus on human stories to juxtapose the gruesome inhumanity of zombies, Clines tells of super-humans, possessing powers ranging from super-strength, to vampiric gaze, to a couple tons of exoskeleton badassery.  It's unfortunate that in using characters that are nigh invulnerable he loses something of the novels empathy.  This leaves the emotional content of the novel to rely solely on the disassociation of reality (horror of zombies) and the equally bereft superhero guilt (Why can't I save everyone?!).

In place of the emotional content that might be found in zombie novels like Feed or World War Z is a smorgasbord of comic book action.  Clines' superhero characters pop off the page and by novels end are nearly as iconic as the Justice League or the Avengers (ok, not quite that iconic).  Each chapter reads like a standalone book as though it were meant to be released as a serial.  He divides the narrative into a Then and Now structure where several chapters in a row focus on the novels overall plot punctuated by "flashbacks" to before the apocalypse.  These lookbacks provide functional prequels to each of the heroes and ex-heroes headlining the novel.

For the most part Clines prose is adequate, but occasionally repetitive.  I can't begin to count the number of times the sound of zombies was likened to "clacking".  Yet every time the heroes lurched into action the descriptions were terrific.  One of the "prequel" chapter was of particular note when a magician dons a medallion to become a crime fighting demon.  The entire chapter is written as a one sided conversation where the reader is only privy to the narrator's responses but none of the questions.  It's a brilliantly written chapter that really displays Clines comedic chops and talent as a writer.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the deft use of cultural references throughout Ex-Heroes.  It is rare to find something in the speculative fiction genre that makes a genuine attempt to connect with popular culture.  Clines uses internet memes and television phenomenons that put me inside the story and made it all the more real.  This was my world that had been torn asunder not some second world fantasy constructed by an author for his own devices.

In all, I very much enjoyed Ex-Heroes.  It's a fun post-apocalypse romp that refuses to get bogged down in the standard zombie woe-is-me malaise.  Instead it focuses on being cool.  For comic fans, the novel would be an excellent transition to more long form novels and for anyone who's read Deadpool the use of pop culture and humor will be familiar.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Last Dragon - Jane Yolen

I can't write a review on this graphic novel until I exorcise my excitement over another anything titled The Last Dragon.  This is because The Last Dragon (1985) is one of my favorite movies of all time bar none.  In the film, a young man searches for the "master" to obtain the final level of martial arts mastery known as the glow. Along the way he must fight an evil martial arts expert and an rescue a beautiful singer from an obsessed music producer.  It's an incredible homage to the 80's, martial arts films, and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince proteges (in this case, Vanity).  The movie should be required viewing for anyone interested in those three things.

Similarly, the graphic novel of the same name written by Jane Yolen and drawn by Rebecca Guay is an homage to times gone by. The plot swirls around the honored fantasy tradition of family caught in the battle to save their village from a rampaging dragon. Its art is very reminiscent of the animated film, The Hobbit (1977), with more whimsy and maturity (being as there are no cute halflings running around).  While that description is apt, it really doesn't do justice to what is an elegantly drawn book. Almost like watercolor the images flow together and create a dreamlike quality. In many ways reading the book feels like remembering - nostalgic and evocative.

The Last Dragon is decidedly female centric in a pretty exciting way. I read a post last week from Adam P. Knave (here) that discussed the notion that there aren't enough women in comics. He said:
Let’s be honest. The majority of American Comics (again mainstream stuff etc) is full of women being used and abused, discarded and ignored as actual characters. Imagine you love drawing comics. Now imagine you’re told to draw stuff that marginalizes and tosses under the bus the people in the stories that represent you. How long would you do it? 

Dark Horse Books has taken that perception and said, not here. Written by women, the book features strong female characters and pokes fun at the hero archetype.  It embraces the notion that women can not only produce outstanding comics, but that there are women out there to read them.  Fantasy as a literary genre has undergone some these same realizations in recent years with the phenomenal debuts of female authors like Catherynne Valente and N.K Jemisin (among many others).  Novels are now being released that portray strong women and they're being read by both men and women in great numbers.

There's no doubt that speculative fiction as a genre has a long way to go to reach some measure of gender equality.  I believe strongly that more titles like The Last Dragon will continue to push that needle further along inspiring young female readers to keep reading and young female writers to keep writing.  Clearly, The Last Dragon is a young adult title and should be read through that filter.  I know, as a father of an 18-month old little girl, I would be proud to read it to her one day (when she's no longer scared of anything that breathes fire).

For an adult reader the plot will be extremely straight forward and won't provide anything new beyond the refreshing perspective on gender roles.  I found myself a little bored early on before things really got going toward the end.  Still, it is a wonderful addition to the young adult market and any parent looking to find something "fantastic" to read to their children would be well served by taking a look.  Additionally, it would be a stellar entry point for a young reader into more novelized fantasy like The Chronicles of Prydain or The Chronicles of Narnia.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

In recent weeks there have been no end of blog posts about George R.R. Martin's iconic A Song of Ice and Fire (which by the way, I've called the Song of Fire and Ice in my head for the last 15 years) - none better than the brilliant duology (Part 1, Part 2) posted by Adam over the at the Wertzone.  With A Dance with Dragons due out in three weeks I knew I had to join the club and starting rereading the series.  God damn I forgot how good it was.

Seriously, I forgot.  Most of the fantasy I read from the ages of 15-20 that I've subsequently picked up in my late 20's and now early 30's have left me disappointed.  My memory of the novels have outstripped how good they aren't.  The incredible work being done today by authors like Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, N.K. Jemisin, and a host of others have far exceeded their predecessors (not in all cases, but still).  So I picked up A Game of Thrones again with some trepidation - would it be as good as I remember?  It was, and more.

Just in case anyone reading this has *not* read Game of Thrones or has not seen the HBO series, let me give a brief synopsis... yeah right.  Go read it.  Stop now.  Go to Amazon or your local library or local bookseller and get it done.  Then come back and read my ramblings.  Back now?  Great.

  1. Bro.  There is some serious foreshadowing in this bitch.  I've read a lot of epic series in my day - name it and I've probably read it.  No one has more command of his world and story arc than Martin does.  I have no doubt that Martin has plotted every nook and cranny of his story and his world from the moment he put pen to paper on a Game of Thrones 20 years ago.
  • Tyrion Lannister is the most iconic character in fantasy.  Gandalf?  Please.  Drizzt?  Pfft.  Pug?  Elric?  Belgarath?  Thomas?  No. No. No.  Tyrion is the cats pajamas, ok?  He's tortured, and callous, but also tries to do the right thing.  Or does he?  Is he only doing what he does to pay back his shitty father?  I have no idea!  That's what makes him so amazing.  That and he's a killer limbo player.
     B. Is Ned an anti-villain?  
So we hear all kinds of talk about anti-heroes, right?  A protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero, and is in some instances its antithesis.  Tyrion is clearly an anti-hero, for example.  An anti-villain would be someone who acts contrary to good, but does so with heroic intentions. 
Sure Ned was acting with honor - Stannis is the heir - yet if he had bent either in support of Joffrey or placed himself and/or Renly on the throne he could have stabilized the realm and kept his family alive.  He wouldn't do it and thus brought the evils of war to every doorstep in the realm.  Yes, Ned fits all the heroic stereotypes, but he's not a hero - just as Stannis isn't a hero in the later books.  Martin hammers the notion that honor and justice are not in themselves "good". And boy does he do it well.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts I had after my reread of the first book.  I've already started A Clash of Kings.  More thoughts in the days ahead leading up the release of A Dance with Dragons.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Dragon's Path - Daniel Abraham

The Dragon's Path marks the sixth book I've read from Daniel Abraham and
the first time I've reviewed an author twice. Abraham has been a favorite of mine ever since his Long Price Quartet. His more recent science fiction debut, Leviathan Wakes, under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey was also impressive. Although Abraham's first series never garnered wide spread popularity, I never doubted he would one day put himself among the bestselling authors in the speculative genres. The Dragon's Path, Abraham's first installment in The Dagger and Coin Quintet, is the first step on the road that will lead him there.

Unlike the Long Price Quartet, which eschewed a lot of genre tropes that permeate fantasy, Abraham embraced many of them in The Dragon's Path. The setting is decidedly European medieval. It has dragons, magic (albeit minimal thus far), swordplay, and religion. While the setting is... expected... how Abraham tells his story is anything but.

Abraham ignores the genre tendency to use the heroes journey (monomyth) as the primary narrative force. Instead, he takes his artful, yet familiar world, and uses it to tell personal stories. The plot is built around four point-of-view characters - Cithrin, Marcus, Dawson, and Geder. It all begins when the free city Vanai comes under attack sending Cithrin on a mad dash to escape the city with the riches of the Medean Bank (think Goldman Sachts) in tow. With Marcus and his crew as her only protectors the pair represent Abraham's coin.

In contrast, Dawson and Geder - noblemen of great and no repute respectively - are the dagger. Interestingly, this side of the story has almost no connection to the other, sharing at most 25 pages of "screen time". Dawson, the King's childhood friend, is at the head of a coalition that would reject social reforms (think Magna Carta) and maintain the status quo of a class based society. Caught in the middle of the political wrangling, Geder must overcome his reputation as a laughing stock scholar before he gets trampled by those jockeying for position.

One of the reasons the novel has been met with such mixed reviews is that not one of these characters is terribly likable. They all exhibit admirable traits at times, but not one escapes Abraham's unique ability to color his characters with shades of gray. Even Cithrin and Marcus who are most definitely trending (to steal a twitter term) hero have character flaws that are difficult to see past. For me, this made it too easy to put the book down in between chapters.

Similarly problematic is that the story itself underwhelms with very little action. I don't mean in a swashbuckling sort of way (there isn't that either) but there's just not a ton that happens over the course of 550 pages. Nothing that resembles an "epic" arc gets going until the conclusion and it's quite clear that The Dragon's Path is all about moving Abraham's pieces into place. Unfortunately, for a first book in a series that's a difficult place to start. Abraham is asking his readers to invest considerable time into a story that hasn't even really begun.

However, it's easy to make the mistake of disliking a book because it isn't what it "should" be. Like Pulp Fiction or Get Shorty, The Dragon's Path is a character study more than epic fantasy. While I am certain future novels in The Dagger and Coin series will have a more epic scope, this is a novel about real people in an unreal world. Each of Abraham's primary characters have their own story that could have been self contained novellas. He stitches them together in a coherent way and drops hints about how they'll come together in the future.

As a character study, I think The Dragon's Path is incredible. Geder and Cithrin are extremely compelling and I fully expect one or both to become iconic characters in the fantasy pantheon by the series conclusion. For a reader who's looking for a traditional epic fantasy adventure, this may not be the best choice right now. Moving forward, I have faith that Abraham will produce a series that exceeds his brilliant Long Price Quartet and sells a few more copies too.

The second book in the series, titled The King's Blood, is due out next spring. I'm literally counting the days.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

SURVEY: Has Digitization Increased Errors in Books? | Publishing Perspectives

Pyr Books threw this up on their twitter today and I thought it was pretty interesting. As a primary eReader I get pretty frustrated by all the formatting errors and typos that tend to show up in eBooks.

I'm not sure what the cause might be. I do think it's at least partially because of the conception that hard copies are still more important to a book's success than the eVersion.

Is this still the case? I know I won't even consider a book if it doesn't have an eVersion. For example, I'm a huge fan of R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, but have yet to pick up any of his subsequent novels due to lack of ePub.

Where's everyone else on this? Am I the aberration in replacing books almost entirely by an eReader?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Roil - Trent Jamieson

It seems like steampunk is the new vampire with a huge number of new titles claiming it as a sub-genre.  This probably shouldn't be surprising given the huge boom in the urban fantasy market in recent years.  For the most part steampunk tends to be more familiar to people than second world fantasy or space opera with no connection to the "real world".  It is traditionally set in a Victorian or Old West environment with historical elements that make sense to mainstream readers and don't require vast amounts of information dumping to understand.  I only mention these things because Roil by Trent Jamieson isn't that kind of steampunk despite the familiarity of airships and steam engines.

Existing in a second world setting, Roil reminded me of The Last Page, Anthony Huso's 2010 debut novel from Tor.  Since reading Huso earlier in the year, I'd been looking for something similar that captured his talent for world building but exceeded the uneven storytelling.  Roil did just that.

Shale is dying and the Roil is spreading.  A black cloud of heat and madness has crept through the land, absorbing city after city.  Where the Roil goes, life ends.  Once there were 12 metropolises, now only 4 remain.  Only the cold can stop it, but things are getting hotter.  A young drug addict, an orphaned girl seeking vengeance, and an Old Man are all that stand between total darkness and the annihilation of humanity.  Armed with cold suits, ice rifles, and the Old Men mysticism, the three begin a journey north to the Engine of the World - a force capable of beating back the inexhaustible Roil.

If it seems curious that I capitalized Old Men thus far, it should.  In Jamieson's world the Old Men are something akin to the Apostles of Christ if the Apostles had an insatiable hunger (use your imagination) and the ability to conjure ice at will.  In this bad analogy the Engine of the World would be Christ.  Throughout the novel who, and why, the Old Men are is of utmost interest.  It is clear from early on that the Old Men are a bastion against the Roil.  Where the Roil is hot as the sun, the Old Men are cold as hell.

Jamieson populates his worlds as much with "villains" as with heroes.  I put quotes around villains because to be frank, I'm not sure Roil has a villain.  It's clear Jamieson wants his reader to dislike Stade, the leader of the city of Mirrlees who begins the novel by murdering his rivals in the street.  He sees the Roil as an inevitability and he wants to protect as much as Mirrlees as possible (everyone else can kiss his ass).  Sure that's distasteful ends justifies the means kind of stuff, but does it make him a villain?  Even the Roil itself, which is about as evil as it gets on the surface, is more a force of nature than a malevolence.

Given that, it should be no surprise that Jamieson's heroes aren't particularly heroic.  David, a young man of privilege is addicted to a drug called Carnival (heroinesque).  He is often more concerned about scoring than he is about staying alive.  His companion, an Old Man named John Cadell, isn't all roses either.  In fact, he killed David's uncle a few years back.  He's feels bad about it though.  The list goes on and on.  If a novel's strength is judged on its characters, then Roil is She-Hulk.  Not the Incredible Hulk mind you (there isn't necessarily an iconic character in the bunch), but Jamieson has created a smorgasbord of captivating characters that bring everything to life.

That said, Roil is not without some fault.  For all his world building and lush characterizations, Jamieson's story arc is a quest fantasy that will be decidedly familiar to anyone who's read a surfeit of speculative fiction novels.  Additionally some might find quite a bit of frustration is the lack of information he provides about the world.  In the early goings Jamieson sets up scenes of emotional loss, but doesn't provide a great deal of history about why it's important.  He forces his reader to infer and imply a lot which is it at times charming and at others equally infuriating.

On the strength of his setting and characters alone, I believe Jamieson has begun something that has the potential to be a standard bearer for Angry Robot while pushing the boundaries of steampunk as a sub-genre.  Roil is something I would recommend to all fans of epic fantasy.  The sequel, Night's Engines is due out next year and I'm very much looking forward to it.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Equations of Life - Simon Morden

The moment I saw the cover for Simon Morden's Equations of Life I was intrigued.  In a genre known for covers like S.M. Stirling's Rising, the art put together by Orbit Books screamed unique.  I have to give them credit for giving a new author something that differentiates him on the shelf.  Throw in a blurb that has Armageddon, jihads, and complex math and there was little doubt I was pumped to get my hands on it.

Morden's novel features a fairly standard protagonist named Samuil Petrovich - he's begrudgingly heroic and decidedly irreverent in the face of danger.  He's also an advanced theoretical mathematician who suffers from a degenerative heart condition.  On his way to the university, Petrovich witnesses an attempted kidnapping of a young girl.  Despite his best interests he intervenes, saving her from abduction.

Along the way he gets a hand from Maddy, a gun toting amazonian nun, who helps him return the rescued girl to her father - who just so happens to be the head of the Oshicora crime family (read Yazuka).  Caught between the Russian mob, the Oshicoras, the police, a couple of street gangs, and a mysterious entity calling itself the New Machine Jihad, Petrovich finds himself in a high stakes tug and pull for Metrozone's future.

Equations wasn't what I expected - at all.  The title, the cover art, the blurb all pointed in my mind to something a lot more akin to the film A Beautiful Mind.  Usually when my preconceived notions are blown apart I tend to be disapointed.  With Equations that wasn't the case at all.  While mathematics only lurked on the periphery of the story and Petrovich turned out to be far more Chow Yun Fat than Rick Moranis, the book whipped by at such a pace that I never had a moment to lament what it wasn't.  Rather, I focused on what is was - a first rate cyberpunk thriller filled with witty dialog and outstanding wizbangs.

Petrovich is the novels primary focus.  He's an onion-y character that reveals himself slowly and almost always accompanied by Russian epithets.  Who he really is and why he got involved are questions that permeate the early parts and drives things when the action slows down.  Unfortunately, the breadth of the story and the pace Morden chose to tell it left little time to explore the novels secondary characters or elaborate on the setting.  In particular Petrovich's nun companion, Maddy gets short shrift despite significant page time.

Additionally, there seems to be a bit of a trend developing to start series with narrower plots before expanding into a more epic struggle in the subsequent installments (Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk is a recent one that comes mind immediately).  I'd love to talk to someone on the decision making side of the industry at some point to see whether this is a conscious decision.  Telling more self contained stories precludes the need for information dumps, but also removes some of the wonder that's the lifeblood of the genre.  Equations walks a fine line of hinting at the larger world yet staying unencumbered.  It's largely successful, but I found myself very much wanting to know more about what's going on outside Merry ol' England.

In all, Equations of Life was an excellent first installment in Simon Morden's Metrozone Series.  While I found the lack of academia disappointing, the fantastic pace and action more than made up for it.  I'm sure I'll be diving into Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom soon.  And if the ending to Equations holds up there is sure to be a bigger dose of theoretical math ahead.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sam Sykes » All About eBooks

Sam Sykes, author of Tome of the Undergates and recently released Black Halo, wrote a blog post about eBooks and why they're occasionally slow to come out. It's probably not terribly clear from my blog, but I read eBooks almost exclusively and it is very frustrating when an electronic release is delayed.

Still, Sam makes a great point - who wants a crappy eBook? Not this guy. So publishers everywhere, take your time, and don't release crappy eBooks. Thanks.  Read Sam's post for a much better discussion on the subject.

I mean, if you’ve picked up any eBook by now, you’ve probably come across one or two that look less like a work of fiction and more like the disjointed, erratic manifesto of a madman. eBooks tend to be riddled with errors and formatting problems of all kinds, largely because a lot of publishers are content to throw a .pdf file out there and call it a day. 

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Damned Busters - Matthews Hughes

So, this was an interesting and uneven novel.  I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike the novel.  I almost considered not writing a review at all because I was just so ambivalent.  Matthews Hughes' The Damned Busters is a wholly original novel from Angry Robot Books.  It is not however the novel I wanted to read.  Let me explain.

Filled with fun cartoony characters, Hughes pits Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary of no particular distinction, who accidentally summons a demon, against the hordes of the underworld.  Oops.  Everyone gets dropped into a bit of a pickle when he refuses to sell his soul thus sending Hell into labor negotiations from... Hell.  Shenanigans ensue as the denizens of Hell go on strike.  As part of the bargain that puts Hell back to work, Chesney gets the use of his own personal demon who he uses to become a crime fighter.
For the first third of the book the shenanigans are a rousing success.   Satan, a few angels, a televangelist, and Chesney all find themselves locked in a room hassling over a contract for Satan's overworked minions.  It's so absurd it's brilliant.  There is loads of snappy dialog and hilarious situations that could only come from unionized labor.  Hughes does well in the space creating a series of encounters that are often laugh out loud funny.

The unfortunate part is the brilliance only lasts for the first third of the book.  Once Chesney strikes his deal with Hell the book descends into a pretty boring crime fighter yarn.  There are awkward stereotypical encounters with women.  He is taken advantage of by a few not-so benevolent powerful people.  Not only was the novel less interesting by this point - a lot of Hughes wit seems to fall away as well.  What was a light witty novel that read more like a situational comedy, de/evolved into a metaphysical discussion about the meaning of existence.

By the end of The Damned Busters I was completely caught off guard by what was a very esoteric conclusion that left me unsatisfied.  Like the second half of the book, this ending wasn't what I wanted to read.  I felt betrayed by the promise Hughes made in the opening chapters when he failed to deliver the same level of wit and charm throughout.

I would almost recommend Hughes' novel based solely on the opening.  The idea is incredibly clever and he writes it with rare aplomb.  I can't help but wonder if The Damned Busters would have been better suited as a novella that ended when Hell went back to work.  If that were the case I'd be giving it my highest recommendation.  As it stands, I'm not sure it's a great investment of time and money.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Releases of Interest for the Week of June 6

It's a slow week for releases in general and an even slower one for ones that interest me.  But here are three.  I really want to get to Hearne's books soon.  I've heard good things.

Hexed by Kevin Hearne (#2 of The Iron Druid Chronicles)
Mass Market Paperback and eBook - Tuesday June 7.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (My Review)
Hardcover and eBook - Tuesday June 7.

Doorways by George RR Martin (My Review)
Hardcover - Tuesday June 7

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Feed - Mira Grant

Dear Ms. Grant,

My name is Justin and I write a speculative fiction review blog. I recently finished your Hugo nominated novel, Feed. First off, congratulations on your success. Before I go any further I want you to know that I enjoyed your novel very much. It was emotionally charged, suspenseful, and perhaps most importantly authentic. Still, I am compelled to ask, why on God's green earth did you write about zombies?

Don't get me wrong, who doesn't love a little zombie killing from to time? Like the Twilight series or a Dean Koontz novel, zombie killing is a time honored guilty pleasure that deserves to be explored every so often. Unfortunately, of late the publishing industry seems inclined to publish zombie killing about as often as John Grisham writes about snot nosed lawyers in over their heads. If zombies was the price you had to pay Ms. Grant, I say I understand, but I also must say this novel is better than zombies. You're better than zombies.

I read your afterward and the brief interview you gave at the end of the eBook. You obviously have a deeply rooted passion of epidemology and virology. This passion is one of the reasons Feed is so good. It comes through in your writing. You have obviously spent countless hours researching how to construct an outbreak. But in the end you wrote about an outbreak the public has read a hundred times over. Zombies eat people, bites bad, head shots good. You did it better than anyone else I've read. I feel more than comfortable calling Feed the quintessential must-read zombie book. But why, oh why, in all your research and passion did you choose such a tired idea?

I think what frustrates me most of all is that the book isn't even about zombies - not really. It's about people (the non-shambling, non-flesh eating variety) and how they communicate. It's about how humanity is developing digitally and how things will change whether we want them to or not. You didn't need the zombies. Your outbreak could have been syphilis on PCP or airborne HIV or some new disease you invented all yourself. All the zombies did is take a really brilliant novel and made it feel like a cookie cutter bestseller.

And that what worries me, Ms. Grant. I have a sneaking suspicion that zombies gained you more readers than it lost. How many people bought what they thought would be a nice airplane ride zombie book and got a lot more? Quite a few I bet. But how many never picked it up because they were just sick of zombies? We'll never know, but I can tell you I was one. I read Feed's blurb months ago and shrugged - just another zombie book I said. If not for your Hugo nomination I would never have picked it up. Feed deserves better than that.

Last year I read The Passage by Justin Cronin. It was pretty good. Before that I read The Strain and before that World War Z. I'm worried that these successes have prompted a rash of clones that will continue to flood the market. Just looking at release schedules in the months to come, zombie novels are on the rise and not slowing down. I hope that Feed won't find itself someday in the future lost among the pile of genre flotsam. I hope we look back on it and remember the glimpse it gave us into the future of human communication. I'll also hope that when you're done with the Newsflesh series you write stuff without zombies and I hope I haven't amplified too far to read it.



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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Shadow's Son - Jon Sprunk

I shouldn't like this book as much as I do. I should be writing about how many fantasy cliches it has and how unimaginative the narrative is, but I'm not. Instead I'm going to write a review about how damn fun Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son was to read.

Caim is a knife for hire and he's got the reputation as one of the best. Orphaned at a young age his only companion is a woman named Kit. Unfortunately, he's the only one who can see her. As an assassin, there's few who can match his skill. Along with Kit's extra set of eyes and a strange ability to cloak himself in shadows he has never failed an assignment.

Caim lives in Othir, the heart of what was once known as the Nimean Empire. Twenty years previously (or so) the Church ousted the empire and waged a pogrom against the nobility. When a rush job comes to Caim's attention he is plunged into a conspiracy that will shake the prelacy to its core.

Shadow's Son moves at a breakneck pace. Sprunk tells a straight forward story in less than 300 pages making it a very tight novel. The entire narrative takes place entirely within the span a few days save for a few brief flashbacks from Caim. Succinctness, an underused style in the fantasy genre, affords little time for waxing poetic or excessive world building. Still Sprunk finds plenty of time to hit just the right note in a series of action sequences that include superlative swordplay and Prince of Persia like break ins. These moments are written beautifully reminiscent of James Barclay - another member of Pyr's excellent stable of writers.

When I say the novel lacks excessive world building, I don't mean there isn't any. Quite the opposite. Avoiding information dumps Shadow's Son brings the reader along throughout the story dropping tidbits about the world Caim inhabits when the time is right. By the novels conclusion Sprunk's world building leaves quite bit still in the shadows (pardon the pun). Had an additional hundred pages of character development and setting made its way into the book it would have better for it. Characters died without the emotion that should have been present and the scope of the setting seemed smaller in my mind than Sprunk intended, I'm sure.

Furthermore, Caim as a protagonist felt very static. I imagine that he was intended to become less hard and more do-gooder as the novel wore on, but to me felt that way from the get go. Caim convinced himself that all his victims were bad men who deserved it. He never sees himself as a bad guy, nor does anyone else really. Hello?!?! He's an assassin! I think Sprunk has/had the makings of a much deeper character that he gave up on by making him sympathetic from the first minutes.

All told Shadow's Son is an excellent debut novel that avoids many of the debut pitfalls. It is not ambitious by any means, instead providing a great base for Sprunk to grow. I hope other first time authors can look to this as an example in not only how to get published, but how to ensure it happens again.

Jon Sprunks second novel, Shadow's Lure, is due out Tuesday, June 21.

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