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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The End Specialist - Drew Magary

The tagline for The End Specialist by Drew Magary is, "Who wants to live forever?"  My immediate answer is, well, I do.  Who would turn that down, right?  My review copy from Voyager differed slightly with the words, "Immortality Will Kill Us All (Except for me)."  Interesting how a few words could make me reevaluate my answer to the first question.  That's exactly what Magary's book is all about.  What would happen if we had the cure for aging?  Is it really a good thing or something we should even be pursuing?  End Specialist is a long form response to those questions, very much in the tradition of Marvel's What If? comics.

A cure for aging is discovered and, after much political and ethical wrangling, made available worldwide. Of course, all the cure does is halt aging doing nothing to prevent all the other fun and gruesome ways to die (think heart attack, cancer, torture, etc.).  And surprise surprise, not everyone wants the cure leading to extremist groups and zany religious cults.  Everything quickly descends into a downward spiral.

Told through the first person blog entries of John Farrell, the novel follows the cure's progression from lab tests, to illegal experimentation, to full-blown saturation of the population before then documenting the fallout and hinting at eventual recovery.  If that reads a bit like the plot line for a story about an outbreak of black plague then I may have painted the appropriate picture for how Magary's novel treats the cure for death.  Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters that include asides to the main story.  These windows into the world outside Farrell's view are vital bits of world building that provide haunting, and occasionally hilarious, examples of how the cure for death is failing.

I think haunting is the right word to use to describe End Specialist because it's a novel that going to stick with you for a bit.  I'm not sure how the general public reacts to death, but for me, I find it a generally distasteful line of thinking.  Whether one possesses religious conviction or not, the thought of losing the "now-ness" (boy, that was articulate) of life is frightening.  Magary taps into that fear capturing not only the raw desire for immortality, but the depths to which humanity is willing to sink.

Wrapped up in the novel is something that resembles a love story, albeit not exactly boy meets girl, marries girl, has kid with girl variety.  There is some of that, but more often than not it's about falling in love with the moment, and the realization of how stagnant such things are.  It's also about vanity, selfishness, and pride as tragic stories tend to be.

There will be parts of the novel that drag a bit as most of the first half is spent in the moderately mundane life of John Farrell the newly immortal.  In fact, the end specialist bit promised on the back cover doesn't really get going until about the two-thirds mark.  That's not a knock, as the pages flew by, but I was frequently asking myself when Farrell was going to be become a licensed U.S. government end specialist (which in my mind conjured up James Bond with a hypodermic needle).  Things pick up significantly in that last third and provide a satisfactory ending to a tremendous setup.

I have a feeling that most of the people who read End Specialist (especially in the UK) aren't going to have a clue who Drew Magary is.  The cross-over from U.S. sports humor blogger to international science fiction author isn't commonplace.  For the last six or seven years Magary has written at Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber, two blogs that somewhat resemble TMZ or io9 for sports enthusiasts.

Having read these sites off and on over the years I've been pretty exposed to Magary's writing.  I have no idea how he went from this to science fiction, but I'm sure glad he did.  The End Specialist is a top-notch novel that should have a great deal of appeal to a wide swathe of readers.  I've already ordered a copy for my mom.

The End Specialist is available in eBook now from and in hard copy September 29, 2011.


  • In the U.S., Magary's novel is being published by Penguin under the title The Postmortal.  It's should be available today in all formats.
  • The author will be at Politics & Prose in Washington D.C. tomorrow for a reading and I presume signing.  I may attend to learn more about immortal strippers.
  • Read this post from Magary today on Kissing Suzy Kolber. It's a detailed list of things you can expect in the novel. Funny, and informative.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge - Lou Anders

I don't read a lot of anthologies.  No particular reason really other than I tend to read them a story at a time in between novels.  Thus they take forever for me to finish, and oftentimes I've forgotten the less memorable stories by the time I actually finish the whole collection.  If I were smart, I'd do a quick paragraph on each story as I finish them.  In case you're curious, I'm not and I didn't.  So instead I'm going to do more of a short review about the overall tone of Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge edited by Lou Anders and give a few of my favorites.

Anders, in his introduction to the anthology, reminds us that, "To a very real extent, we live today in the science fiction of the past."  He's so right - just look at William Gibson's notion of cyberspace in Neuromancer (1984).  Fast Forward 1 is all about looking at the implications of technology on society, but not today's technology.  Anders and his all-star cast of authors are instead looking at the future of tomorrow and millenium from now to push the envelope not only about what technology we can expect to see, but how it will impact our lives.  Anders goes on to say that, "it is the future of science fiction itself (and that of science fiction publishing) that some have called into question, and lately it seems as if the very idea of the future has been under threat."  In his essay "The Omega Glory," Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon summarizes Anders' thoughts:
"I don't know what happened to the Future. It's as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date."
Interestingly, one of Anders' contributors, Paolo Bacigalupi said in an interview with Locus Magazine:
"Maybe science fiction lost its track a little bit, and got off on some lines of speculation which are pretty interesting but not necessarily connected to today’s questions, as previously it had been core to our conception of ourselves and where we were headed."
I think Bacigalupi's view and Chabon's desire to continue pushing the envelop are well blended by Anders.  Fast Forward 1 shows how the world will change just over the next hill in stories like Elizabeth Bear's The Something-Dreaming Game or Mary Turzillo's Pride.  It looks beyond and into the distant future with stories like The Terror Bard by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper or No More Stories by Stephen Baxter.

For me the anthology works best in the stories that fell in between.  Not so esoteric as to be difficult to identify with, and not so near term as to be uninspiring.  These stories shined because they not only pushed the science fiction envelope, but found a way to use that technology to pull back the shades on the cultural and ethical dilemmas of today.  To me, and Anders who I quote, "science fiction is a tool for making sense of a changing world. It is the genre that looks at the implications of technology on society, which in this age of exponential technological growth makes it the most relevant branch of literature going."

Haunting stories like Bacigalupi's Small Offerings and George Zebrowski's Settlements confront our ability to sustain humanity.  A Smaller Government by Pamela Sargent parodies the U.S. government, while Jesus Christ, Reanimator by Ken MacLeod takes on faith.  Vanity is a popular subject reflected in p dolce by Louise Marley and The Hour of the Sheep by Gene Wolfe.  There are very few failures in the anthology.  Some are not terribly memorable like The Girl's Hero Mirror Says He's Not the One by Jennifer Robson or Kage Baker's Plotters and Shooters, but in the moment they are compelling and well worth the read.

Perhaps the most thought provoking work in the book is Anders' introduction which I have quoted from liberally.  He provides a thought provoking discussion about where the genre has been, is going, and will find itself in the years ahead.  It's well worth a read all on its own and can be read on-line in its entirety (here).  Anders was recently awarded a Hugo for his editing prowess and as far as I can tell from Fast Forward 1 and the dozens of other Pyr titles I've read, it is well deserved.

As I stated in the early parts of this review, I don't read many anthologies so rating this is one tough.  I can say that there was no story I rolled my eyes at or felt like skipping and there are certainly several stories I would hold up against any I've read.

In the mood for a science fiction anthology? Definitely pick this one up.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blackdog - K.V. Johansen

My wife and daughter were out of town this past week so I took the opportunity to really plow through some of my to read pile backlog.  K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog coming out this September is hard to justify as "backlog", but it's a title that’s called to me from the first time I laid eyes on it.  The cover is another one from Raymond Swanland who has done such good work for James Barclay, Glen Cook, and others. His covers always contain such tangible motion and barely contained violence, which appropriately describes K.V. Johansen's novel.

Long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, there were seven devils.  These devils, who deceived and possessed seven of the greatest wizards, were defeated and bound with the help of the Old Great Gods.  Now, some of them are free in the world, and some of are working to free themselves still.

In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog.  Driven from their home by the wizard Tamghat, the girl is the avatar of the goddess Attalissa and the dog is her guardian spirit in need of a host.  Possessed by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan leaves the desert road with the child in tow fleeing Tamghat and his thirst for Attalissa's power.

Moth was once Ulfhild, wizard and warrior of the north.  And she was once Vartu  Kingsbane, one of the seven devils of legend.  She cares little for the fate of a minor goddess like Attalissa, but she is compelled to hunt down her former comrades.  With her lover, the bear-demon Mikki, she is hunting and woe to anyone who gets in her way.

At first glance Blackdog is a traditional epic fantasy.  It has scope, powerful magic, gods, and demons.  There is a central villain and an obvious and vulnerable yet strong willed heroine surrounded by her stalwart cadre of allies.  Soon though, as the pages go by, things become more robust.  Johansen's world expands and what appears to be another hero's journey is instead a journey to humanity, an evaluation of the bonds of family, and an examination of divinity.

Blackdog's world is lush, in a cognitive sense, barren and arid in truth.  Shown only a fraction of the larger spectrum, the novel focuses on a caravan route through the desert to the mountain steppes.  Each city, or culture, is founded around a god of the earth who appears in both human and incorporeal forms.  Similar to novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin) or Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson), gods are very much active in the world, interacting with their followers and enemies alike.

Where Erikson is overly esoteric at times, Johansen has a knack for not getting off kilter.  Opportunities arise to wax on a philosophical leaning or delve unnecessarily into a facet of her world not relevant to her story and each time she resists the urge to be diverted.  In doing she captures some of the scope and majesty that Erikson so often does, but manages to avoid the trap of self indulgence.  While Blackdog lacks the genre commentary and philosophical meandering that Malazan excels at, I can't help be feel some kinship between the two works.

My only real complaint stems from complex naming conventions that often led to a sensation of reading one of the Russian greats.  Everyone has at least two names, and the devil/wizards have a minimum of three.  Cities tend to be 10-12 letters or more, and many of them have similar sounds.  Main characters even have names that run together with each other at times.  Given Johansen's education background (MA in Medieval Studies), I'm confident that phonetically and historically speaking all the naming conventions make sense.  For example, a woman raised in Attalissa's lands is likely to have a similar sounding name to honor her goddess.  However, for readability, I found it all a bit distracting; often pulling me out of the story to reevaluate who the hell she was talking about.

I read fast. Really fast.
If I was pulled out of things occasionally by confusing names, I was more often sucked in completely (I finished the novel at 2 AM). Blackdog possesses a dreamlike quality that lends itself to distorting time. Divination and soothsaying, inherently intangible pursuits, are prevalent themes in the novel. Magic in general is abstract with little no explanation as to why or how it works (Malazan again, anyone?) relying on deep concentration and meticulous preparation. Combined with the notion of body sharing demons, this all leads to long periods of time where Johansen finds herself describing non-visual events like meditation and internal battling. This would normally lead to periods of boredom, but instead she rescues the slower pace with often lyrical prose that shows and directs, but never tells.

Early on I felt myself digesting Blackdog in small chunks. A chapter here, a chapter there, I wrapped my mind around Johansen's complex world building. Like a runner in a 5K, I found my pace, easing into a rhythm before unleashing my Usain Bolt like speed in the stretch run. By the novels end I was breathless, winding down from a tremendous dénouement, and a heartfelt ending.

It's unclear whether or not Johansen has a sequel in store, if so, there's no indication on the copy I received to review.  The final pages complete the story, but leave enough hanging to warrant future installments.  The world building alone surely invites future exploration.  In either case, I should think lovers of epic fantasy, particularly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, will devour Blackdog with vigor.  I definitely did.

Click here to read an excerpt.  Blackdog is due out in stores this September, but apparently Amazon already has it in stock.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thomas World - Richard Cox

I read Thomas World by Richard Cox while on a plane to San Francisco.  It wasn't my first choice.  I fully planned on sitting down to read God's War by Kameron Hurley.  When that didn't totally grab me, I tried Necropolis by Michael Dempsey (both are also Night Shade titles and both have subsequently become more compelling).  It didn't get me either.  After about ten paragraphs of Thomas World, I was hooked.  That's not to say it's an exciting read.  In fact, it's a little slow and lacks any action to speak of.  So what made it so hard to put down?  It's a first person look at a man losing his mind wrapped around an ode to Philip K. Dick.  In other words, it's just super cool.

Thomas Phillips knows he's losing his mind. He's been losing it for as long as he can remember. And yet, when a strange old man asks him to consider that he, out of everyone in the world, knows the real truth, Thomas' life begins to spiral out of control. He loses interest in his job and is fired. He refuses his wife's suggestion of psychiatric care, and she leaves him. In the end, Thomas is alone.

Except he's not, because someone seems to be following him. What if you were Thomas? Where would you go? What would you do? What if you realized every person in your life had been scripted to be there? What if you were haunted by the idea that you'd lived all these encounters before, hundreds or even thousands of times before? And what if the person watching all this time was you? Thomas World explores what happens when the borders of reality start seeming a bit porous... when things start bleeding through the edges, challenging ones perceptions of the universe.

For those considering reading Thomas World, my only caution would be to make sure you don't mind reading a book written inside the head of someone losing his mind.  Blackouts, alcoholism, drug use, and paranoia are just a few of the hoops Cox makes Phillips jump through.  He walks a fine line between convincing his reader that Phillips is insane and providing enough information to think we might be wrong.  A few times throughout I asked myself, "Why do I care that this guy is bat shit crazy?"  Cox answers that question with compelling pace and prose that urged me forward in learning the root of Phillips' psychosis.

The novel's narrative is relatively straight forward, if not always linear.  Things are occasionally disjointed but mostly as a necessary plot point (i.e. blackouts) rather than a symptom of Cox's writing.  Much of the novel is spent with Phillips going in circles as he comes to grips with reality disintegrating around him.  At times I wondered if Thomas World started off as a short-story or novella before becoming a novel.  The novel's conclusion only takes a few dozen pages and it's possible the concept might have been more powerful in a shorter format.  Of course, no one buys novella's, so I find its length perfectly defensible.

Thematically, the use of Philip K. Dick's work is incredibly prevalent.  Cox explores how we conceptualize reality and identity.  He uses mental illness and drug use as plot devices.  All of these are notions that Dick explored extensively in his catalog of work.  Specifically mentioned throughout are novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and VALIS.  In this sense, Thomas World is an homage to Dick and should probably be read a such.

To a reader who has only read a little Dick (A Scanner Darkly and some short fiction) - did I get more or less out of Cox's novel?  Had I read more of Dick's work would I have found myself drawn into the intertextuality of it all?  Or because I was only somewhat familiar with Dick, was Thomas World fresher than it might otherwise be?  Since I can't answer these questions, I will say this - Cox made me want to read more Philip K. Dick.  I guess that's a rather back-handed compliment, but it should elevate Dick more than it denigrates Cox.

As a 6'4" man I'm going to give a pretty ridiculous compliment - Thomas World made me forget I was on an airplane.  Cox communicates his plot beautifully interlacing heartwarming scenes with the bleakness of a man's life coming down around him.  In fact, the book's final line is so divorced from the rest of the novel, that I wondered if I'd understood what Cox was doing.  Was this really a novel in the mold of Dick who questions what's real?  Or instead is Cox saying screw reality, find happiness where you can?  I don't know!  But it's pretty fun to find myself pondering these questions after reading.

To fans of Philip K. Dick, or films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I think Thomas World will be right in the wheel house.  To everyone else, check out some sample chapters and see how it goes.  It's a cool experience, but I have a feeling it's not everybody.

Sidenote: The novel includes an Afterword from Richard Cox about an experience he had in his life with regards to "on-line reality."  It provides a great deal of context to what steered him toward writing Thomas World.  I can't recommend this section highly enough.  It's very well done.

Thomas World is due out August 30, 2011 according to Amazon where it is already in stock.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What I did this weekend...

I haven't posted in six day, but I have a good excuse.  I flew to San Francisco to spend a long weekend with an old friend (also, the best man at my wedding).  He moved to San Francisco about a year to take a job with LucasArts.  I had to sign a NDA to even get in the building.  What follows is my video essay of a trip to Skywalker Ranch and LucasFilm in the Presidio.  Sometimes it pays to have friends.

First we went to Skywalker Ranch which is located across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.  After a long drive up a windy mountain road, we arrived.

Welcome to Skywalker Ranch. This is the "Main House" where
the executive offices are located.  Going to the second floor will
get you an official reprimand.
This is the reverse view from the front door of the "main
house."  I think this guy George Lucas has some money.

But not enough to afford a more current phone?  Seriously,
these phones were all over the place.  And they weren't props,
I checked for a dial tone!

Considering this is a book blog, I had to check out George's
bookshelves.  Mostly classics.  There's also a reference library
filled with books about visual mediums.  I didn't photograph it
because there was a librarian giving me stern looks!

Is that the original model of the AT-AT?
Yes, yes it is.  And some Willow armor.

A close-up of the AT-AT foot with inscription from the crew.

Is that the REAL crystal skull?
Yes. It's a good thing it's behind
glass, or I would have found out
if it was glass - by dropping it.

So these are the original lightsabers.  Coolest thing I've
ever seen?  It's quite possible.  I actually hopped around.

Skywalker Sound.  This is the primary working building on
the Ranch.  All of the film (except Clone Wars) and video game
work is done at the Presidio properties.

Francis Ford Coppola has vineyards on the Ranch.  He and
Lucas are old homies.
The THX guy tried to scare me by jumping out of the bushes
inside Skywalker Sound.  C'mon.  You're not Darth Vader, bro.

This is Ewok Lake.  The guy in front of it is the largest Ewok
EVER!  I didn't think Ewok's could swim.

This is the Archive.  Inside these barns are all the relics
from Lucas' projects.  In the event of a fire on the Ranch
all the oxygen is sucked out of the buildings.  To enter the
Archive requires super sekret approval from the boss.

Skywalker Ranch is a working ranch.  These are some of the
horses.  Big, medium, and little.
Then we went to LucasFilm.  The campus is broken up into different parts - ILM, LucasFilm itself, and LucasArts.

Me and LegoGeorge.  He whispered sweet nothings into my ear.
I responded by asking, "Are you fucking serious about Binks?"
The answer was, "yes."  I disagreed vehemently.
However, I do love Han Solo who was available for high fives.
Then R2-D2 was all, "Don't leave me hanging
Justin!"  But he doesn't have any hands.
Me and my boy Yoda chilling outside of the LucasFilm campus.
He was all like, "Muscles don't matter Justin." And then I was
like, "Oh yeah? Flex in your face Yoda!"
Obviously, I didn't photograph everything.  As someone who works in a building that is a tourist attraction, I'm particularly aware of the difficulties of having visitor's running around with a camera.  I tried to be sensitive to that.  Thus I do not have pictures of any of the working rooms that I saw (they're amazingly awesome ).  Nevertheless, it was an awesome indulgence of my nerdom.  Thanks to the Lucas folks and my friend.

I now return this blog to its regularly scheduled books reviews.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A novel about J.R.R. Tolkein?

Over at Bleeding Cool there was an article on Monday about a novel called Mirkwood, by Steve Hillard.  I'd never heard of Mirkwood and Hillard, but apparently the novel features J.R.R. Tolkein as a main character.  Earlier this year it was reported that the Tolkein Estate was in a legal battle with Hillard to have all copies of the novel destroyed.  The estate was demanding an immediate halt to further sales, and threatened legal action to obtain damages.

It's now being reported that Hillard has reached an agreement with the protective estate that will see the novel make it to publication.  He also signed a deal that will see the book adapted to a movie.  The 450-page work recounts a young woman's quest to find her grandfather after discovering documents given to him by Tolkien.  Here's the blurb:
Mirkwood, re-invents J.R.R. Tolkien as a man haunted by the very myths he rewove into his famous works. As much literary criticism as boisterous epic, this episodically-driven plot explores the blurred borderlands where ancient tales, lost heroines, and epic journeys are stalked by dim monsters that will not be still. In 1970, Professor Tolkien makes a little-known visit to America-and sets in motion elvish powers embodied in a cache of archaic documents. Destinies are altered, legends become real, and two heroines must race for their lives in vastly different worlds.
It's currently available on Kindle for $2.99 and will be released in hard-copy August 18.  Anyone else interested in checking this out?  Seems very intriguing.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

I had a feeling when I finished Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline that my review was going to be a personal one.  This can happen when the protagonist has a painful resemblance to my teenage self.  It's common for me to connect with a book on an emotional level or an intellectual one, but personal?  That's pretty rare.  Cline's novel really hit home with me and I don't know how to talk about without talking about myself - weird that.

Ready Player One is all about a teenager named Wade, although to everyone he knows he's Parzival, a level 3 warrior in OASIS.  OASIS is something akin to World of Warcraft meets Second Life meets Windows.  It's equal parts game, alternate reality, and operating system.  As far as Wade is concerned it's his entire world.

Set in a dystopian Earth some thirty years in the future, OASIS has become the primary means by which the population interacts with one another.  When not working or consuming food, nearly everyone puts on their gloves and goggles to disappear into a virtual world that outshines the slowly dying world around them.

When OASIS founder James Halliday dies, he initiates a contest to determine the heir to his fortune and ownership of OASIS.  The contest, to find an Easter Egg within the game, will require an intimate knowledge of Halliday and his passions - the 1980's and 8-bit video games.  Parzival is a gunter (egg hunter) and might be the preeminent expert on 80's culture.  For the last five years he's done nothing but study hoping to uncover the meaning of the Halliday's first clue:
Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for Worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these traits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.
Now he's decoded it and the race is on to find the egg with the future of OASIS at stake.

Ready Player One is Wade's coming of age story, a frequent and not unexpected character arc.  He is a social pariah - poor, unattractive, out of shape - and an orphan with little to no prospects of future employment.  His only escape from this miserable existence is OASIS which he accesses through a scavenged laptop and his school issued gloves and goggles.  In OASIS, Wade is Parzival and all the things that make him awkward in the real world allow him to stand out in OASIS.

Given today's obsession with World of Warcraft in the U.S. and China, Everquest in Korea, and the soon to be release Star Wars: The Old Republic there isn't a great deal of imagination required to make the leap to what Cline portrays in Ready Player One.  What's special about the novel is his treatment of Parzival/Wade.  Written in the first person, Cline takes us inside the head of a young man suffering from a host of disorders - social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and paranoia (not all at once of course, poor kid isn't certifiable!).  This introspective look connected with me in a way I never expected.  I saw myself in Wade, identified with him, and wanted for him the same conclusions that I came to myself as I grew up.

I still don't know why the ladies
weren't all over this!  That sweater
kicks ass. (Click to make bigger, it's
worth it!)
By the end of the novel, I had relived my teenage years and admittedly a few years there in my early 20's.  I suppose this is something every young person goes through to some extent as they try to find a niche.  Like Wade I turned to the internet although in my day AOL Wheel of Time message boards, MUDs, and Air Warrior On-line weren't quite as sexy as OASIS.

I never wanted to be someone else, not really.  Rather I was trying to show the parts of me that I was proud of and stick the rest of them in a box that didn't have a modem.  The fact that I was overweight, awkward, and painfully shy around girls was completely inconsequential on-line.  I could be witty and smart.  I could place at the top of the leader boards for kills or run a MUD and ban people that pissed me off. And more importantly, for a 16 year old boy, I could talk to girls and be charming (they were girls, ok?)

As I moved from high school to college I started to notice there would be some of my peers who wouldn't leave this phase.  On-line without the judgement of the "real world" was too easy.  They made a choice.  Most of them didn't finish college or never got there in the first place, and who knows where they are now?  I found my escape (from my escape, oh the irony) in fitness.  Much like a smoker gives up cigarettes only to transfer their addiction to food, I channeled my energy into a new endeavor and soon reality was easier (and c'mon, like I gave up geeking out?).

In Ready Player One, Wade/Parzival has to make that same choice albeit his impetus to do so is significantly more robust than my own.  That's really what the book's all about.  He, and his friends, come to a point where to win they have to break down the barriers they walled themselves inside.  It's touching and given the heart underlying all of it I can only imagine that Cline himself has some experience (according to his website he too once wore "husky" jeans).  Through his characters he leads us to recognize that the excuses we use to hold us back - weight, skin color, gender, unfortunately placed birthmarks, acne, questionable hygiene (ok, maybe not that one) - are just that, excuses.  Sure living in a fake reality is easy, but nothing good should be that easy.

So in all that crap, I may have made Cline's novel sound a little sappy.  It's not.  That's entirely my own filter.  What Ready Player One has going for it is gobs and gobs of fun.  To anyone alive in the 80's or who's spent some time in syndicated television, this novel is a pneumatic piston of awesome.  It reminds us of Family Ties, Back to the Future, Pac-Man, text based adventure games, and Duran Duran (curiously Super Mario Bros. is conspicuously absent, copyright issue?).  Even to a younger generation the adventure aspect of the story is equally as appealing.  The film rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers and that's not surprising. The whole thing reads like some amazing concoction of The WizardTron, and Stand By Me.  Puzzle solving, giant robot battles, exploding trailers, and indentured servitude as a customer service representative, it has everything someone could want from their friendly neighborhood best-selling adventure novel.

To be fair, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ernest Cline's novel had a larger impact on me as an individual than it may have on the general reading populace (especially the high school bullies, assholes, like any of them read anyway).  Still, I would bet that among video gamers and the Science Fiction community at large there are more than a few who had similar paths to adulthood.  To those I say - read Ready Player One, you won't be sorry.  For everyone else, if you don't want to read it (you still should), buy it for your kids.  There's a lot to learn here and who knows?  Maybe they'll start asking questions about the 80's.  Safety Dance is looking for the next generation of fans.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack - Mark Hodder

Wait, solid covers in the UK and the
US? Poppycock I say!
I love historical fiction.  Shogun by James Clavell, Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham, and Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, are a few of my favorites off the top of my head.  What I love about the genre is how it stimulates me to learn about historical events or individuals that I haven't had an opportunity to pay much attention to.  If an author is clever enough to take this historical fiction element and blend in some science fiction the end result is something I can't help but want to read.  After finishing The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder I feel a great deal of conviction in saying, "Please sir, can I some more?"

Set in London, 1861, Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne stand at a crossroads in their lives. They are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.

The two men are sucked into this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, commissions Burton to investigate why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End and if there's any connection to the assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack.  Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist.

As an American, I didn't have a great deal of historical attachment to any of the characters in Strange Affair.  Before cracking it open the only two characters I had any real conception of were Burton himself (only barely), Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale (cameo appearances!).  As for the many other historical characters in the novel I was largely blank - although Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a sad oversight on my part.  I can't begin to describe what a pleasent sensation it is to finish a novel and immediately adjourn to wikipedia.  Who knew Spring-Heeled Jack was a real figure? Mark Hodder reminded me that life is stranger than fiction, and life with a heavy dash of fiction is even stranger.

The central figure in the novel is obviously Richard Burton whom represents the paragon of English maleness for the Victorian era.  He is rugged, overtly sexual, and excessively educated.  It's unfortunate that he often seems to possess some incredible powers of deus ex machina.  He always has the answers and manages to be in the right place at the right time regardless of the circumstances.  Faced with a sword wielding panther man, well wouldn't you know it, Burton is a master swordsman!  This is a minor complaint as Burton's renaissance man capabilities were well established early on and it did little to take away from Hodder's plotting which is - if I'm being frank - masterful.

Most of the novel's early going is spent introducing Burton and "Victorian" London now powered by all kinds of incredible contraptions.  There are message delivering robot dogs, street sweeping crabs, armchair helicopters, and some form of early botox to name a few.  Once all that's out of the way and Burton gets his assignment the novel begins to read a bit like Sherlock Holmes before descending into a paradoxical mind trip.  Paradoxical I say? Yes, not everything in Strange Affair is steampunk and I think calling the novel anything but science fiction obscures the truth.

The real Spring-Heeled Jack!
If what I write here is a bit obscure, I apologize, but it's in an effort to avoid spoiling any of Hodder's twists.  While the novel's early parts are historical urban steampunk, the latter half goes in a disparate direction culminating in a lengthy section told from the point of view of a character other than Burton or Swinburne.  Things very much slow down as this point and scenes become somewhat redundant as Hodder runs through the reasons why in 1840 history as we know it ceased to exist.  I don't begrudge the time spent as the explanations are necessary to unravel his dense plotting.

By the novel's conclusions everything makes sense, which for anyone reading the middle section described above may seem like quite an accomplishment.  None of that would have been possible without some brilliant writing.  I don't mean that Hodder is some kind of wizard of metaphors like Lauren Beukes or an efficient wordsmith like K.J. Parker (although he does write a fine sentence).  Nor has he put together a layered narrative like Lev Grossman.  Instead, what I mean by brilliant writing is that he's written something that feels Victorian, but reads modern.  Compare it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which feels Victorian and reads the same way leading to an occasionally frustrating experience.  I think it's quite an accomplishment to write a dated voice but make it so easily readable to modern sensibilities.

I've been making up sub-genres lately.  In my Zoo City review I coined urban noir magical realism and now I'm forced conjured up historical science fiction steampunk.  Whatever.  Regardless of what I call Strange Affair it's a premier example of how to do historical fiction through the specfic lens.  Hodder has given readers a tremendous trip into the history books, a dynamite adventure to keep things lively, and a science fiction twist to get the mind working.  Consider me a big fan of Mark Hodder moving forward.  I can't wait to check out the sequel The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

New Cover Art from Angry Robot

Angry Robot Books, a publisher becoming slightly renowned for urban/historical fantasy, announced the addition of Anne Lyle to their stable of authors earlier this year.  Her new series titled Night's Masque will begin with the first installment The Alchemist of Souls next April.  Today, they unveiled the cover for Lyle's debut.
Hi-Res Version
I think it's quite good and the overall tone reminds me of the cover from The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  It should since both were done by artist Larry Rostant.  There's definitely a photorealism theme afoot right now in the cover art world.  I'm not sure I love the general trend, but this is one of the better ones.

Personally, I'm a sucker for historical fiction, especially when it's historical fantasy fiction.  Currently, this fancy is being tickled by Mark Hodder's The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (a rather good read, review to come soon).  Here's the blurb for The Alchemist of Souls from Anne Lyle's site:

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods—and a skrayling ambassador—to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally—and Mal his soul.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tomes of the Undergates - Sam Sykes

Super cheesy cover, but
it makes sense right?
Who is Sam Sykes?  Parts of Tome of the Undergates would suggest he might be to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction or what Christopher Moore is to whatever the hell genre Christopher Moore writes.  Other parts make me think he's a glorified AD&D Dungeon Master who decided to write down his most recent campaign in painstaking detail.  And still others make me think he might be the next great voice in epic fantasy.  So I guess my answer to my opening question is - I don't have a freaking clue, but I really want to find out.

Tome tells the story of a band of six adventurers (pejoratively) none of whom particularly like one another or themselves.  Led by Lenk, a charismatic warrior with some sanity issues, the group is hired by Lord Emissary Miron Evenhands to recover a stolen tome that has the power to return the demon goddess Mother Deep from the depths of hell (or its reasonable approximation).  To accomplish their goal all they have to do is kill a few fish-men, a couple demons, and some purple longfaces, while not killing each other in a fit of pique.

Most seriousest map EVAR!
Now does that sound like a AD&D campaign or what?  Making up Sykes' party of adventures are the aforementioned Lenk, Kataria the shict (elfish) archer, Gariath the dragonman barbarian, Daenos the craven rogue, Dreadaelion the powerful yet sleepy wizard, and Asper the whiny cleric.  I do believe that's the perfect mix.  Healer? Check!  Tank? Double check!  Backstab and traps? Check!  Ranged Damage? Check!  I'm not being remotely critical either because I actually think AD&D shenanigans is what Sykes was trying to do.  Tomes is a caricature of a pen and paper role playing game with six players, a deranged DM, and maybe a few bong hits in between battles for comedic purposes.  I mean, look at the map Sykes gave to his German publisher and tell me I'm wrong.

It's in this activity where Sykes frequently calls to mind Douglas Adams or Christopher Moore.  His dialogue is snappy and clever.  He makes fun of the misuse of the term irony, and then displays lots of proper irony.  Embracing the unexpected, Sykes' barbarians have a gentleman's courtesy and a professorial vernacular.  Half of his main characters hear voices, hinting at best mild schizophrenia and at worst full blown demonic possession, while the other half are chicken shit or oblivious.  Even his most hard-boiled killer at one point dances a jig while teasing someone about being a pansy.  The whole thing reeks of satire and frequently induces belly jiggling laughter.

While the satire works (for the most part) that doesn't mean there aren't significant flaws in the narrative. Most noticeable are the first 160 pages of the novel which consist almost exclusively of an extended fight scene that left me cold and more than a little bored.  Excising, shortening, or perhaps relocating the entire section would have done a great deal for the novel's first impression on this reader.  Beyond the early struggles Sykes also frequently falls into the trap of allowing his band of adventures to break character for humorous asides.  Sure the humor nearly always hits the mark (Sykes is a funny dude), but I found that oftentimes it took me out of the story and reminded me I was sitting in my living room reading a book.  All in all the novel's missteps felt like a debut author finding his way into his characters and the story he wanted to tell.

German cover is cooler,
but not as... apropos?
And then... the strangest thing happens.  Sykes puts the laugh track away and closes out the novel with 100 pages I'll hold up against anybody in the genre.  Wouldn't you know it, Sam Sykes has heart.  I won't go into detail here about these pages because they are frankly a gem that should be enjoyed without any expectation placed on them.  I will say though that one chapter in particular featuring Gariath could be an award winning short story.  In addition to these later pages, Sykes divides the novel into three acts beginning each of them with an entry into Lenk's journal.  Similar in style to his concluding pages these entries set down the opportunity to explore more serious themes should he choose in future novels.

Tome of the Undergates is a difficult book to rank.  I purposefully don't give ratings as a reviewer (on the blog anyway) because I think they're misleading and any star rating on this novel wouldn't do it justice.  Strictly as a narrative, I didn't particularly enjoy it.  For it's comedy and irreverence toward the AD&D paradigm, Tome is a breath of fresh air.  In terms of being able to watch a potentially brilliant, and wholly unique voice in the fantasy genre come of age? It's priceless.  And I mean that in the least lame way possible.

I look forward to reading Sykes' sequel Black Halo soon.  To anyone reading this, who is not following Sykes on twitter @SamSykesSwears stop right now, open up another window, and follow him.  He's better than Shark Week (not really).

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Monday, August 8, 2011

Prince of Thorns - Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns, by debut author Mark Lawrence, has been within the "buzzosphere", as Carles at Hipster Runoff might say, for the last eight months. Of course, hype doesn't always make right and recent hype-machine bull riders such as Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and The Unremembered by Peter Orullian have met with reviews that trend negative. In Lawrence's place I may have been a bit nervous given how long the reviewing community has had their hands on the novel. As it turns out, Me-Mark would have been wrong. Prince of Thorns has been almost universally praised as one of the best debuts of the year and I don't disagree.  

When Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was nine, he watched his mother and brother killed before him. Three short years later he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs on the run from his responsibilities as heir to the throne.  Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar's men slaughter his family, Jorg has done little but vent his rage.  Under the tutelage of his Brother's, he's become a psychotic killer with little regard of anyone or anything.  Now the time has come to return home and face his demons, but treachery and dark magic await him in his father's castle.

My first reaction while reading Prince of Thorns was how much it reminded me of Fallout.  Remember Fallout?  It was a computer role playing game from the late-90's on the PC.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world it allowed for a lot open ended decision making by the player.  The first time I played through it, I was a hero, making all the good guy choices and enjoying the plot Interplay put together.  Great game.  Where things started to remind me of Lawrence's novel was on my second play through.  I decided, fuck it, and I just killed everything that got in my way.  Talk my way out of a situation? Nope - minigun!  In Prince of Thorns, the answer is always - minigun!

There are other similarities to the game, most notably that the setting is not second world fantasy and is instead post-apocalypse Earth.  This is hinted at in the early going as Jorg refers to philosophers like Nietzsche and Plato and places like Roma and Normardy (sic).  Still, most of the novel reads like a second world fantasy with knights, horses, and some as yet unexplained magic.  Technology does rear its head a few times, and I can only suspect that will continue in future installments in the planned trilogy.  For this reader, it worked well.  While things occasionally get close to the shark's event horizon (one scene in particular) they never clear it and with a modicum of suspension of disbelief everything makes sense.

As the short summary indicates the plot itself is rather humdrum - if not overtly simple.  As a result the novel succeeds (or fails) on the back of Lawrence's protagonist Jorg, a fourteen year old would-be-king of a fractured Empire.  Telling the entire story from inside the head of a deranged individual leads to some difficult moments.  There seems to be a trend in Science Fiction/Fantasy right now to produce first person narratives.  If I'm right and there is a trend, I think it stems from a movement to have more character driven stories.  The trend would fit right in Prince of Thorn's pocket.  Among the few bad reviews out there, most of them seem to center on the fact that they just couldn't read about an extremely troubled teenage killing machine who objectifies women, glorifies nihilism, and is willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to accomplish his goals.

None of that was particular problematic for me, but had Jorg been even an iota less compelling the book might have fallen flat on its face.  As it stands, Jorg is incredibly compelling and thus so is the novel.  Those who read the novel and paint Jorg as a sociopath or insane might be missing the mark.  Lawrence layers the narrative very well telling back story intermixed with current events.  As the layers peal away on the back story so to do the layers to Jorg's psychosis.  By the novel's conclusion there's a great deal of question about how many of his actions were his own.  On his twitter feed Lawrence mentioned that the novel was originally a stand alone before becoming a trilogy.  The questions left on the table about Jorg are very open to interpretation and as someone who loves to mull a book over after I finish it I almost wish this was the end of the story.

It seems to me that Mark Lawrence has accomplished something pretty extraordinary for a debut author.  His novel is functionally a psychological thriller of a young man walking a tight rope between insanity and genius.  None of this would have been possible without an incredible grasp of the language, how to use it to communicate complex imagery, and how to keep it all moving.  Lawrence has this is spades.  Many metaphors stick in my mind, most notably one discussing a swords sharpness as making the wind bleed (awesome, right?).  Additionally, the whole thing has a tremendous pace that had me finishing the novel in two relatively short sittings.

In an interesting a fit of parallel, I think Lawrence was walking a tight rope very similar to Jorg's.  Where Jorg's was a tight rope of sanity, Lawrence was walking one between authenticity and repulsiveness.  When someone gets that kind of finesse right, the end result is something spectacular and Prince of Thorns is that.  In a year of tremendous debuts, Lawrence deserves his place at the table.  I highly recommend anyone with a strong stomach read this immediately and I look forward to his sequel next year.

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Some fun deliveries...

Thought folks might get a kick out of a couple pictures from books I got delivered this week from various sources.

Uh, that's D.J. the Dinosaur. He's made of 
fondant and rice crispy treats.  In case 
you were curious.

Sam also apparently thought this would be educational for me.

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Zoo City - Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes is the Queen of Metaphors.  I capitalized and underlined it so it must be true.  I'll go into why this is an awesome novel in a second, but first let me treat everyone to one of Beukes' metaphors:
"I haven't drive in three years and the car handles like a shopping trolley on Rohypnol."
 I don't highlight much when I read, if at all, but I found myself marking sentence after sentence reading Zoo City.  Beukes writes with a rare vividness that would keep me reading regardless of what the hell she's writing about.  As it turns out, what she's writing about has the same zest and magnetism as how she's writing it.

Zinzi December is a Zoo.  Having committed an unforgivable act she has become animalled, cursed (blessed?) with a Sloth that's an extension of herself.  Unfortunately, to everyone who looks at her, Sloth is a scarlet letter marking her a criminal.  She exists on the fringes of Johannesburg in the slum known as Zoo City where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in fear of being separated.  A recovering drug addict, she owes money to some bad people.  She writes 419 scam e-mails to keep the mob off her back and in her spare time she finds lost items for cash.  When a client turns up dead before paying, Zinzi is forced to take on a missing person's case.  She's hired by the private and wholly odd-ball music producer Odi Huron to find a teenage pop star.  The case is her ticket out of life in the slums, but it might cost her the last shred of human dignity she has left.

Joining a masterful group of first person SFF novels written over the past few years (developing trend?), Zoo City is told entirely within Zinzi's head.  To some degree, Beukes' novel is a pastiche.  Scenes and plot devices referencing The Golden Compass and the film District 9 are obviously prevalent.  There are elements of noir, urban fantasy, psychological thriller, not to mention a bit of not-so-thinly veiled social commentary.  Somehow Beukes manages to pull all this together and instead of coming off as imitation of these various styles she instead finds something all her own.  Let's call it urban noir magical realism (that's gold baby, copyrighted!).

In telling the story, Beukes takes her readers on a ride through Johannesburg.  When I read Dervish House earlier this year I mentioned Istanbul as one of Ian McDonald's characters.  I think the same holds true in Zoo City.  Johannesburg, its music scene, and its abject class warfare, occupy significant space in the novel.  Beukes' flawed protagonist is in many ways reflected in this space - corruptible, decayed, and hopeless.  But she is also trying to be something else.  In many ways the city acts as her foil - its static nature contrasting Zinzi's desire to be better despite her frequent failures.

The most impressive accomplishment in Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction.  Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes' cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction.  The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope. released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel.  It's clear that Beukes' world isn't just an author's passing fancy.  Zoo City is the representation of a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg would be if our conscience had four legs and fur.

Sadly no novel is perfect, and there a few hiccups here and there.  Things get a little occult toward the end, more so than the early parts of the novel might suggest, and the villain's motivation is a tad esoteric.  There are also moments when the pace slows down usually as a result of not always brief asides.  It's easy to breeze through these moments to get back to the compelling story.  I strongly suggest reading them closely, not only for the key world building information provided, but for the fairly hilarious inter-textual Easter eggs scattered throughout.

Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy for her work in Zoo City, Lauren Beukes has established herself as someone to watch in the coming years.  Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zoo City is a novel that will stand up today, tomorrow, and for decades to come.  I'm going to be in San Francisco next weekend and I'm hoping to take a daytrip to Reno and WorldCon.  If I do, I fully plan to find my favorite South African writer and give her a big high five.

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