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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Emperor's Knife - Mazarkis Williams

One of the most important decisions an author has to make is how much to tell, how much to imply, and how much to show.  In fantasy this even more true in creating a secondary/alternate world.  For a debut fantasy author it's triply difficult, because no one (editor or consumer) is going to buy an 800 page book from a total unknown.  An author, looking through the world he's created and the plot he's weaving, has to start bailing water to offer a manuscript that's tight enough to sell and verbose enough to be clear - no mean feat.

I bring this up because I think Mazarkis Williams had more water to bail than the average fantasy debut.  Not a criticism, I say that because The Emperor's Knife is incredibly ambitious.  Heavily flavored with Persian, Arabic, and Asian influence, it is a riff on epic fantasy with a deep magic system, complex political intrigue, and a complete story arc all contained in well under 400 pages.

There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire.  Geometric patterns spread across the skin causing those who bear them to become Carriers - mindless servants of the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the marks is put to death by Emperor Beyon's law.  Now the pattern is running over the Emperor's own arms. His body servants have been executed and he ignores his wives - soon the pattern will reach his face. While Beyon's agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor's only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a windreader from the northern plains. Unused to being at court Mesema has no one to turn to but an ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor's Knife. As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the Pattern Master appears. The only people standing in his way are a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes.

That's a complete and utter hatchet job on the plot in an effort to briefly summarize the general direction of Emperor's Knife.  I went over to read the blurb on Goodreads and it was six paragraphs long.  Is it becoming clear why I said Williams' had a tough road ahead of him?  Somehow, the novel comes together in in 346 pages - a commendable accomplishment.  Unfortunately, on my second point - making sure everything was adequately explained - I'm not sure it was as successful.  Having finished the novel I still don't fully understand the motivations and actions of the novel's primary instigator - the Emperor's vizier Tuvaini.  Very little time is spent on the primary system of magic whereby a mage is a vessel for an elemental living side them, and while more time is spent on manipulating "patterns" the why or how of it isn't addressed at all.  So the question becomes, is that a problem?

The truth is... not really.  At the end of the day, Emperor's Knife is a big success, largely on the back of interesting characters and a compelling plot.  Williams engages his readers in the early moments posing mysteries that demand to be uncovered like a carrot dangling in front of a donkey compels him to walk.  The plot is brisk to start before leveling off where we're given an opportunity to come to care about each of Williams' pieces before he brings them back together in devastating fashion.

As I mentioned before the tone of the world is very Middle Eastern in a time period reminiscent of the Crusade Era.  Through Masema, Williams also brings in a steppes culture that would fit well in a Henry Sienkiewicz novel and hints at far more beyond the borders of his map.  Naturally, when an author walks into a culture grounded in male chauvinism he runs the risk of being labeled as such himself.  Character's opinions are often attributed to the author, almost always unfairly.  Williams manages to avoid this, crafting three very enjoyable female characters only one of which comes off shallow and reliant on the support of men around her.  Masema, the central female character, comes off far stronger though some of her romantic entanglements felt rushed - something I again attribute to a need to keep things tight in a novel whose scope would seem to predicate otherwise.

Reading through the novel and being an active tweeter lead to a conversation with Williams and fellow 2011 debut author Mark Lawrence (Prince of Thorns) about Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy.  Williams admitted it was one of his favorites so I hope he takes it as a compliment that I saw elements in Emperor's Knife that reflected Hobb's influence.  Sarmin (the closest thing to a protagonist) is a character of some similarity to Hobb's FitzChivalery.  He disbelieves in himself and struggles with understanding his place in the events that rage around him.  Farseer fans will also notice that the Pattern Master's Carriers call to mind Prince Verity riding along through others' eyes to interact with and bear witness to events far from him.  If it is an homage, it is well done, although I suspect mere coincidence is more likely.  Had I not had the conversation prior to reading the novel, I doubt very much I would have made the connection.

Despite some unevenness that manifests in the form of esoteric scenes and absent or unclear foreshadowing, Emperor's Knife is a well imagined, well plotted, and [mostly] well executed addition to the epic fantasy codex.  While it's satisfying as a standalone work, the fact is well advertised on the book's cover that The Emperor's Knife the first installment in The Tower and Knife Trilogy.  If Sarmin returns he has an opportunity become an iconic character and I hope he gets that chance.  More emphatically, I hope that Williams will continue to explore some of the details that were left out in his debut; the lack of which will hold me back from putting this near the top of my best of 2011 list.

I said it at the beginning, and I'll say it again, this is an ambitious debut novel.  Thankfully, it's also a novel that demonstrates great deal of promise in its author.  I for one very much look forward to the sequel and Mazarkis Williams' continued growth as a writer.

The Emperor's Knife will be published in the UK on October 27 by Jo Fletcher Books and in the US on December 6 by Night Shade Books.

Follow Mazarkis Williams on Twitter @Mazarkis_W and visit his blog

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hilarious Cover Art Juxtaposition

Time for Justin's weekly session of bad jokes, bad covers, and questionable writing.  Enjoy!


Wow, I didn't realize butter (fly) faces were so in... here I'd been avoiding them for years!  Get it?  But-her-face.  Oh God, I'm hilarious.  In all seriousness though, to Casi McLean, if you get a butterfly tattoo on your face the only kinds of guys you're going to attract are jerks.  I feel like this is a self fulfilling prophecy.


Alright, I may have edited this one slightly, but I felt compelled to include Split Infinity which might be the most awesome and simultaneously awful cover I've ever seen.  Personally I feel that unicorns have had a free pass for far too long.  It's time our government did something about it.  Piers Anthony was truly ahead of his time.


Dennis Schmidt and Kameron Hurley both seem be into floaty people in white coming out of a circular gate thing with a sword in hand.  I wonder if Wanderer also features dismemberment and emasculation - somehow I doubt it.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Necropolis - Michael Dempsey

I'm starting to feel like a fan boy with all these Night Shade titles, although surprisingly this is only my fifth review from them this year (well under 10%!).  Of course, I'm already reading The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams (Night Shade/Jo Fletcher Books) not mentioning the huge stack of their back catalog next to my bed. This shouldn't be surprising. In 2010 Night Shade changed their mission statement to provide a space for new voices and authors in genre fiction.  Since then they've aggressively scheduled debut novels many of which are coming out this year.  It's become self evident that Ross Lockhart and his editorial team have the pulse of the genre community and continue to target novels that not only meet demand, but anticipate it.

In Necropolis, Michael Dempsey's debut novel, death is a thing of the past. NYPD detective Paul Donner and his wife Elise were killed in a hold-up gone wrong. Fifty years later, Donner is back, courtesy of the Shift - an unintended side-effect of a botched biological terrorist attack.  The Shift reawakens dead DNA and throws the life cycle into reverse.  Reborns like Donner are not only slowly youthing toward a new childhood, but have become New York's most hated minority.

With the city quarantined beneath a geodesic blister, government services are outsourced to a private security corporation named Surazal. Reborns and norms alike struggle in a counterclockwise world, where everybody gets younger.  Elvis performs every night at Radio City Music Hall, and nobody has any hope of ever seeing the outside world.  In this backwards-looking culture, Donner is haunted by revivers guilt, and becomes obsessed with finding out who killed him and his still-dead wife.

I was rather torn on Necropolis at first.  It reads like it was written by a screen writer, something I always struggle with.  That's not a criticism of the prose which is actually quite good, but rather an observation that nearly every scene in the novel is written with an eye for the visual medium.  Dark and stormy nights, lightning flash illuminations of the villain on the hill, fuzzy eyes awakening from a coma, are just a few of the techniques Dempsey employs that hearken to film.  In a written novel an author isn't limited to the visual to set mood and yet it felt like Necropolis frequently relied on these "establishing shots" to convey just that.

Cybill? Really?  I didn't see
that coming!
After writing that paragraph I decided to look up Dempsey's background.  His "About the Author" note at the end of the book mentioned his background in theatre.  That was significantly understating things.  In the 90s, Dempsey wrote for CBS’s Cybill -which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series in 1996 (bet you'd forgotten that!).  He has also sold and optioned screenplays and television scripts to companies like Tritone Productions and Carsey-Werner Productions in Los Angeles.  His plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and regionally in theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville.  He's also a past recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship for playwriting.

Given all that, it shouldn't be any surprise that his novel reflects his connection to visual mediums.  In fact, I applaud him for sticking with what he knows.  At the end of the day Necropolis is a science fiction novel deeply couched in noir and that's why Dempsey wrote the novel the way he did.  Noir is a visual classification that's grounded far more in film than in the written word. Smoky rooms, long legged dames, and that understated black-and-white visual style, are all components that distinguish noir.  Sure it's based on the hardboiled depression era detective novel, but what we call noir is fundamentally a visual effect.  I ended up asking myself, how can I be torn about something that worked so well?  Short answer, I can't - high five to Dempsey.

I don't stand in smoke for just any 
dame, see!
While the tone and mood of the novel worked wonderfully, I did find myself struggling a bit with Dempsey's choice of narration and points of view.  Donner's chapters are told from the 1st person while all the others are done from a 3rd person limited.  This was a technique also employed by Night Shade author Courtney Schafer in The Whitefire Crossing.  Unlike Schafer who limits her points of view to two characters, Dempsey spreads his around more liberally with a half a dozen or more leading to frequent shifts that don't always make a ton of sense.  Generally, when an author chooses to tell the story from someone's point of view he's telling the reader this is someone important.  There are at least three characters that receive this treatment in varying degrees who while interesting, in a I'd-like-to-read-a-short-story-about-this-person kind of way, provide nothing essential to moving things forward.

Relatively speaking that's a pretty small complaint.  The novel moves at a brisk pace and Donner is an interesting character with loads of demons to deal with - internal and external alike.  His partner, a smarty (think holographic AI) named Maggie, provides a great juxtaposition to the revived Donner.  As he struggles with why he's alive while Maggie is the epitome of life albeit in someone whose "life" is entirely artificial.  The plot itself is overtly melodramatic (again another theme of noir) leading to a pretty predictable ending and an eyebrow-cock-worthy coup de grâce.  In this case the journey is good enough to trump the destination allowing me to give Dempsey a pass for the lack of a cleverly disguised big twist.

Ultimately, Necropolis strikes just the right pastiche of genres and themes.  Demsey successfully takes components of film, science fiction, melodrama, and crime fiction and puts them together in what is another excellent debut from Night Shade.

Necropolis is due out in stores on October 4 and should not be confused with the similarly titled Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner from Angry Robot.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Going to the Fair and Giveaway Winners Announced

I went to the National Book Festival this weekend.  It's a pretty impressive event and something I suggest to everyone who meets the following criteria: likes historical or biographical non-fiction, has children, and doesn't mind crowds.  The Mall was set up with a tent for each section - Fiction & Mystery, Graphic Novels, Poetry & Prose, Contemporary Life, et. al.  Making up the largest part of the event was a robust Childrens section.  Penguin Books, Scholastic, and PBS Kids all had a huge presence   It was great to see so many kids out at a reading event or maybe more importantly so many parents bringing their kids to it.

Yes, this is a terrible picture of the
Fiction & Mystery tent. Heavy on the
old people.
Unfortunately, the only adult genre writer in attendance was Neal Stephenson (although there was a few more among the young adult crowd).  I picked up a copy of his new novel Reamde intending to get it signed and giveaway on the blog.  But, I couldn't justify leaving my wife and daughter to go wait in line.  I'm still probably going to give the book away though - I'm not storing this monster at my house.

As a side note, if you have plans to visit the District of Columbia in the next few weeks, I'd suggest waiting.  The Mall now looks like someone roto-tilled it and then sowed it with turds.  Just saying...

More important than my "zany" weekend (overstatement of the year), I have the result of my first giveaway - two signed copies of T.C. McCarthy's debut novel Germline are on their way to:

Richard Auffrey, Stoneham, MA
Nicole Osier, Ironwood, MI 

I have to admit I was hoping this would go to some international folks since so many giveaways are US/UK restricted.  Alas, the random number generator of doom has it in for my readers from South Africa, Australia, and exotic Canada.  There's always next time.  Maybe we'll make the next one international only - if your face America!

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Upcoming reading

Since I read a lot of eBooks and eGalleys I don't have quite the same opportunity as some others bloggers do with those sweet "Books Received" posts.  Instead, I'm going to give a taste of what's in my Kindle and iPad and what will be reviewed on the blog in the coming weeks.


Necropolis - Michael Dempsey

Paul Donner is a NYPD detective with a drinking problem and a marriage on the rocks. Then he and his wife get dead–shot to death in a “random” crime. 50 years later, Donner’s back – revived by the Shift, a process that reanimates dead DNA.

The Shift has turned the world upside down. This new “reborn” underclass is not only alive again, they’re growing younger.  In this retro-futurist world of flying Studebakers and plasma tommy guns, Donner searches for those responsible for the destruction of his life. His quest for retribution leads him to the heart of the mystery surrounding the Shift’s origin and up against those who would use it to control a terrified nation.

Due out October 4 from Night Shade Books


The Emperor's Knife - Mazarkis Williams

There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death. That is Emperor Beyon's law.

As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence and rebellion, the enemy moves toward victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.

Due out October 27 in the UK from Jo Fletcher Books or on December 6 in the US from Night Shade Books.


Traitor's Daughter - Paula Brandon

On the Veiled Isles, ominous signs are apparent to those with the talent to read them. The polarity of magic is wavering at its source, heralding a vast upheaval poised to alter the very balance of nature. Blissfully unaware of the cataclysmic events to come, Jianna Belandor, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a powerful Faerlonnish overlord, has only one concern: the journey to meet her prospective husband. But revolution is stirring as her own conquered people rise up against their oppressors, and Jianna is kidnapped and held captive at a rebel stronghold, insurance against what are perceived as her father’s crimes.

The resistance movement opens Jianna’s eyes―and her heart. Despite her belief in her father’s innocence, she is fascinated by the bold and charming nomadic physician and rebel sympathizer, Falaste Rione—who offers Jianna her only sanctuary in a cold and calculating web of intrigue. As plague and chaos grip the land, Jianna is pushed to the limits of her courage and resourcefulness, while virulent enemies discover that alliance is their only hope to save the human race.

Due out October 4 from Spectra


After the Apocalypse - Maureen F. McHugh

In her new collection, Story Prize finalist Maureen F. McHugh delves into the dark heart of contemporary life and life five minutes from now and how easy it is to mix up one with the other. Her stories are post-bird flu, in the middle of medical trials, wondering if our computers are smarter than us, wondering when our jobs are going to be outsourced overseas, wondering if we are who we say we are, and not sure what we'd do to survive the coming zombie plague.

Due out on October 11 from Small Beer Press.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Infidel - Kameron Hurley

I've posted a review of Infidel by Kameron Hurley from Night Shade Books at where I occasionally write.


There’s a fine line between dark and compelling and horrifying and off-putting. When a story comes right up to the line without crossing it a certain dichotomy comes into existence whereby I want to look away and forget about it, but can’t. No author in recent memory walks this line better than Joe Abercrombie (First Law Trilogy, The Heroes, Best Served Cold). After finishing Infidel, Kameron Hurley’s sequel to God’s War, I am convinced that Abercrombie now has company at the top of Mount Gritty...

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hilariously Similar Book Covers


I'm pretty sure these two novels were done by the same artist 15 years apart.  Floating head? Check!  Mustachio? Check!  Planets in or around head? Check! It's really a shame that Star of the Gypsies ran out of room the requisite starship battle.  As far as I can tell the only real difference in the art here is the invention of Adobe Photoshop.


Animal Cruelty:

I'm sure you're saying to yourself, come on Justin, these covers really aren't that referential to one another.  And Michael Moorcock is a pretty big deal so maybe you should lay off him.

You know what's a bigger deal? Being towed by around by animals while swinging a large metal object.  That's how you know you've made it as a raper and pillager.  Also, is it just me or is the Daggers of Darkness guy a pirate with two tigers instead of a galley?  Very strange.


Ummm, I think see where I'm going with this:

This is self explanatory isn't it?  Artists, I know you get a sick excitement out of hiding the male genitalia in images.  We've all seen the Little Mermaid.  But could you at least be SLIGHTLY more subtle?  I don't think this is too much to ask.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spellwright - Blake Charlton

US cover for Spellwright
Sometimes a book's title says it all. Spellwright. Spell means to write in order the letters constituting a word. It also means a verbal formula considered as having magical force. Spell in these two cases is considered a homonym because they share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Wright or write or right or rite all mean something different but sound the same. They're called homophones. A wright is a person that constructs or repairs something. Write means to form (letters, words, or symbols) on a surface. Right means to be correct. And a rite is a religious ceremony. What am I driving at? I'll come back to that.

Blake Charlton's novel is about a young man named Nicodemus. He's an apprentice to the Grand Wizard Agwu Shannon, an aged and blind, but still powerful member of Starhaven's faculty. At this out of the way haven young men and women are tutored in the language of magic. They learn how to compose elegant prose and cast it into the world to effect change. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is a cacographer - any magical prose he touches immediately misspells. There was a time when Shannon, and others, thought Nicodemus was to be the halycon - the savior of magic - who was prophesied to defeat the Pandemonium. But such a powerful being could not be cacographic for the prophecy also speaks of another who will bring chaos and destroy the halycon.

So back to my opening paragraph, what was that all about? I'm sure it's obvious that cacogaphy in Charlton's world is a parallel to what we call dyslexia. To a dyslexic Charlton's title is something of a mean joke. What the hell does he mean? One who creates spells? One who spells correctly? One who writes down spells? Or is it about spelling as a rite which I think adequately describes the burden the written language can be to someone suffering from dyslexia. In this regard the novel's title is nothing short of genius. To a fantasy fan reading through the shelves the first definition is perfect. Oh, this book is about someone who puts spells together (read: Wizard). Cool. It is, but not really. It's about a lot more than that and after reading the book I realized the title says it all.

See, Nicodemus speaks every magical language he's ever been taught fluently. He should be, for all intents and purposes, one of the most powerful wizards in Starhaven except for the little fact that he has a hard time spelling things correctly. He's ridiculed by his peers and looked on as someone who should never be allowed near magic. Were it not for Shannon and his desire to help cacographers, Nicodemus and his fellow misspellers would have magical language censored from their minds and be sent on their way. In the eyes of the wizarding community at large, they are defective and beyond recovery. To a more radical sect, they are a threat to stability and shouldn't even be allowed to live.

Is it a perfect novel? No, although it is very good. There are some first time author hiccups here and there. The magic system is a bit esoteric and the ending is both overly simplified and a bit confusing. Still, reading Spellwright, I couldn't help but be touched. My wife is dyslexic. She was diagnosed when she was 13. This is late in life so far as these things go. When she was in 8th grade she told her teacher that she wanted to attend Ursuline Academy for high school, one of the more prestigious private schools in Dallas, Texas. Her teacher told her, "you'll never get in there, and even if you did, you'd never be able to keep up."
UK Cover for Spellwright

She got in and worked her ass off. She did well and went to college where she listened to text books on tape, following along with the written words (to give you an idea how much dedication that takes a 350 page novel takes around 12 hours to listen to). It was never easy. She graduated on time with a degree in International Relations. My wife is very smart, but reading and writing will always be, to some degree, difficult for her. She's very aware of the fact and a little bit self conscious about it. I find it all rather inspiring and it makes me proud to be her husband.

Not surprisingly, given the treatment he gives it, Spellwright's author Blake Charlton is also dyslexic. His bio on his website reads:
"I was saved from a severe disability by two things: an early clinical diagnosis of dyslexia, and fantasy and science fiction novels. It took most of my twenties to discover it, but my life’s goal is to give back to the two art forms that saved me."
My wife didn't have that same luck. She still made it. A lot of kids don't. Dyslexia, as a disability isn't something we can cure. There's no pill that makes the connection between eye and brain work better. But, by identifying it early and providing specialized education to young people we can make sure that kids don't have to suffer thinking they're stupid.

George R. R. Martin wrote in his most recent novel A Dance with Dragons:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," said Jojen. "The man who never reads lives only one.”
Reading is the greatest gift I've ever been given. I believe that Charlton's novel is helping spread that gift. From me, from my wife, from my daughter, and from every child and parent out there struggling to make sense of dyslexia - thank you Blake. You should be proud to have written Spellwright. I know I was proud to read it.

The sequel to Spellwright was released two weeks ago from Tor Books. Titled Spellbound, it continues the story of Nicodemus as he comes to grips with his disability and how it will or will not define him. I look forward to reading and reviewing it soon.

I would strongly suggest that anyone who has read this review or Charlton's novels visit Formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, Learning Ally serves more than 300,000 learners – all of whom cannot read standard print due to visual impairment, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. More than 6,000 volunteers across the U.S. help to record and process the 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles in their collection. I can't thank them enough for the work they do.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Debris - Jo Anderton

I think I've mentioned this observation in the past, but it continues to prove out the more books I read from the 2011 catalog.  First person person narrators are hip in the publishing world.  I was listening to an Odyssey podcast the other day and Richard Sawyer was talking about point of view.  He made the remark that something like 80% of fantasy and science fiction is written in the third person.  In years past, I would totally agree.  Today it seems that more and more are being written in the first person.  This year alone the genre has seen dozens of debuts in the first person including Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns and Daniel Polansky's Low Town (obviously I could list a lot more, but will use those two as high profile examples).

Being a rather amateur writer and reviewer, I don't know exactly why this shift toward more first person narrators may be happening. It could be in response to the desire for more character driven drama. Or maybe the fact that it seems so many of them are from debut authors is significant? Does writing in the first person make it easier for the reader care about the protagonist? If so it would be a pretty small leap to assume that first person narrations suck in agents and editors at a higher rate.  Just looking at this years Hugo and Campbell Nominees I count five out of the ten as written in the first person and all of them are relatively new authors.  Regardless of the why (although I think it's an interesting question) Debris by Jo Anderton joins the ranks of 2011 first person debuts.

Tanyana, a talented artist and architect, was born the ability to see and control pions - the the building blocks of matter.  When she falls from the top of her newest project under mysterious circumstances the damage to her body leaves her stripped of her powers.  Bound inside a bizarre powersuit, Tanyana doesn't see pions anymore, only the waste they leave behind - debris.  Cast down to the lowest level of society, she must adjust to a new life collecting debris while figuring out who or what made her fall.

 Debris takes a familiar shape without being tired.  There's a character who's powerful, loses her power, ends up at the bottom, and has to claw her way back up.  A mystery is afoot as to how she ended up where she did and of course she's not as powerless as she's been led to believe.  Despite the fact that Tanyana is a grown woman, the arc of the character is a coming of age tale of sorts.  Being reduced in power and influence she becomes forced to reinvent not only how she is perceived by others, but how she perceives herself.

I find that the primary challenge an author has in pulling off a successful novel is making me care about the main character.  In a first person narrative this is doubly true.  Anderton achieves this beautifully, portraying Tanyana as a strong, but ultimately vulnerable woman.  She also successfully identifies a series of ancillary characters that manage to have depth despite their lack of focus.  I do wish that I could have spent some time inside the heads of the other characters recognizing the impossibility of that request given the choice of narration.

Replete with mythology and a strong sense of history, the novel demonstrates a commitment to place centered around the city of Movoc-under-Keeper. A stark divide exists between the haves and have-nots where those at the bottom of society struggle even to eat, while those at the top attend lavish balls and flaunt their power.  This world view is kept in place by a group known only as the Veche who employ human puppets to enforce order.  Order in this sense means making sure people like Tanyana and her crew keep collecting debris and don't focus on the why.

Dark tones run throughout the setting and I often found myself drawing favorable comparisons to Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn for that reason.  The similarities between the two don't entirely end there, but going any further down this road would end up spoiling quite a bit of Debris' reveals and I want to avoid that if at all possible.  I'm not criticizing Anderton for being derivative - not all.  In fact, the plots aren't all that similar and  trying to predict where Debris was going based on my knowledge of Sanderon's trilogy would have been erroneous.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear she hasn't even read Mistborn.  Nevertheless, as someone who has read Mistborn and loved it, the similarities between it and Debris stood out.

While I found some aspects a bit well tread in genre terms, Anderton's debut novel is well worth reading.  Tanyana is an engaging character and her supporting cast is well done despite the limitations of the narration.  Additionally, the plot and setting interact flawlessly and drive each other to their ultimate conclusion.

I should note here that the ending itself is a bit disappointing.  Tanyana never quite has her light bulb moment leaving me to wonder if Angry Robot bought the original manuscript and split it into two novels or their contract was for two books (or more) from the very beginning.  Given the latter (as in the case of Guy Haley, another Angry Robot author I reviewed here), I applaud them for having faith in their authors and giving them the space to take their time telling the story they want to tell.

In any case, I recommend Debris with the small caveats I mentioned above.  As far as I'm concerned, I find my appetite adequately whetted for the sequel, Suited, due out next year. Debris hits stores (and eStores) next week is the U.S. and the following week in the U.K.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Giving Away Two Signed Copies of T.C. McCarthy's Germline

I promised to hold a giveaway once I reached 100 followers on twitter.  After hitting the mark last night I realized I had to actually deliver.  Well, here we are.  My first giveaway on the blog are two signed copies of T.C. McCarthy's Germline from Orbit Books.  I've called this novel my favorite SF debut of 2011.

You can read my review here.

Here's the blurb from the back cover:


Germline (n.) the genetic material contained in a cellular lineage which can be passed to the next generation. Also: secret military program to develop genetically engineered super-soldiers (slang).

War is Oscar Wendell's ticket to greatness. A reporter for The Stars and Stripes, he has the only one way pass to the front lines of a brutal war over natural resources buried underneath the icy, mineral rich mountains of Kazakhstan.

But war is nothing like he expected. Heavily armored soldiers battle genetically engineered troops hundreds of meters below the surface. The genetics-the germline soldiers-are the key to winning this war, but some inventions can't be un-done. Some technologies can't be put back in the box.

Kaz will change everything, not least Oscar himself. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, Oscar doesn't find the war, the war finds him.


Giveaway Details:

Since this giveaway is coming from my personal stock, it is open to all participants regardless of locale.  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  One entry per person allowed.  Multiple entries will be disqualified.

Giveaway ends one week from today. (Friday, September 23)

What do you have to do?
E-mail me at with the subject GERMLINE.  Include your full name and a valid postal address.

What would I like you to do?
E-mail me at with the subject GERMLINE including your full name and a valid postal address.  Then, follow this blog with Google Friend Connect and follow me on Twitter @jdiddyesquire.

That's it! Good luck!

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hilariously Similar Book Covers

We Like Green:

Our friendly neighborhood wildebeest(?) looks very ashamed for having stabbed death in the back.  Thankfully Linda Lombardi is going to describe how to make sure it doesn't happen again.  My only hope is that we can all agree... this much green sucks.


Kvothe Do Me:

Is it just me or does our intrepid bard from Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles appear to be riding his instrument like a witch on a broomstick if the witch was on her way to a rendezvous with a warlock wearing red leather?  I hate to say this, but I would actually be less embarrassed reading Flowers from the Storm on the Metro than this androgynous sexed up fantasy cover.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Blood Rights - Kristen Painter

I recently finished a book that was completely beyond the scope of what I normally read.  The book?  Blood Rights by Kristen Painter.  I don't read a lot of urban fantasy and I read zero paranormal romance (and by zero I mean none).  Why in God's name did I decide to pick up this title then?  Well, I'll tell you - I trust Orbit Books.  The more I read the more I come to depend on publishers I trust to consistently put out quality books regardless of subject matter.  Not to mention Orbit and Nekro put together an absolutely gorgeous cover that appealed to me as a red blooded American male.  We're so simple aren't we?

In any case Blood Rights is a vampire book set in the near future. I kept expecting some kind of science fiction action, but it never developed. The story follows Mal, a vampire living in exile, and Chrysabelle, a comarré (think vampire feeding device trained from birth to serve) on the run from vampire nobility. When Chrysabelle finds her vampire patron dead she feels sure the blame will fall on her. She flees into the human world chased by Tatiana, a noble vampire with a bad attitude and a craving for ultimate power. Naturally our intrepid comarré ends up in the hands of Mal who is trying really hard to not to eat people and has a grudge of his own to settle with Tatiana.  As might be expected the pair find themselves very attracted to one another and Mal ends up in the role of protector as Chrysabelle tries to stay alive and clear her name.

When I first started Blood Rights I really wasn't expecting to like it.  One of my twitter and message board friends (Bastard Books) is a big urban fantasy reader.  I tease him frequently about his love of tramp stamps and crossbow wielding broads, but I realized it might be intellectually dishonest of me to ridicule him without actually knowing what I'm talking about.  Picking up Child of Fire by Harry Connolly or Storm Front by Jim Dresden would have felt like a cop out.  So I consulted my trusty book catalogs and found Blood Rights which thankfully met all my criteria - publisher I trust (check), sexy girl on the cover (check), gothic feel (check), some sort of supernatural thingy (check), and written by a female (check).  For better or worse, I was committed.

Then something sort of funny happened, it ended up being for the better.  There is no question that Blood Rights is paranormal romance in the very well done disguise of urban fantasy.  That's not a criticism at all since Painter made her hay as a writer with covers that feature rock hard abs and curling smoke.  To ignore her experience in that genre would be a mistake and she integrates it well largely because the nature of the romance is so unexpected.  There are no heaving bosoms (alas) or comparing of bodies to chiseled works of art.  In fact, there's not really any sex that I can recall (well unless you count demons doing evil vampires) and only a smattering of kissing.  Instead Painter creates an entire culture of eroticism around blood sucking.  To a vampire sucking blood from a comarré is the equivalent of Kim Kardashian walking up to my desk right now and straddling me - irresistible and all together impossible to ignore.  There is tension and passion and it's all tied to self-denial.

Sure, things get a little bogged down in the early going as Painter dwells a bit on Mal's insatiable desire to chomp down on Chrysabelle's neck.  And by the third or fourth time I was definitely ready to move on and get to the action, but I never had to wait long before things picked up.  Additionally, the novel does an excellent job of dribbling out bits of world building within the romance to give me a reason to be there other than as the creepy guy in the closet (this would be a good time to include a link to R. Kelly's In the Closet).   And for me, it totally works.  So well in fact that after finishing the novel I tweeted the author with, "I can't look at my wife's veins without feeling 'dirty'."

As to be expected with an experienced author, Painter's writing style is very accessible and fits the subject matter well.  There isn't a lot of subtext, but who really wants any when it's time to kill vampires?  She has created a lush imagining of the supernatural culture replete with shapeshifters, demons, fallen angels, and others who all orbit around the vampire nobility.  The comarré - humans living among vampires - are far more than they appear to be much of which I believe remains to be revealed.  Interwoven among these races and humanity is a Biblical thread that promises much more to come in future books.  If I had to try to put a bet on what such a conflict might look like, I'd go pick-up John Milton's Paradise Lost and dust it off.

For someone who wants romance, vampires, and hot chicks with full body golden ink, Kristen Painter's Blood Rights is a great place to start.  While it hasn't convinced me to go commando on the urban fantasy wilderness, I won't be shy about picking more up in the future.  As for the rest of the House of Comarré series, I'm very much on board.

Oh, and I guess Bastard was right.

Blood Rights is available now in the U.K. and on September 27 in the U.S.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

ARC cover.
 You open up the packaging from Doubleday Books.  There's a certain anticipation that you expect as the novel within is revealed and this one doesn't disappoint.  A black and white starburst, alternating between matte and glossy, surrounds the title which is lettered in a fire engine red.  The pop of color amidst the contrasting blacks and whites entices you in a visceral way.  Your eyes run down it as your fingers trace the edges to the inscription at the bottom.

It reads:

The Advanced Reader's Edition
Entitles the Holder to Unlimited Admission
Not for Sale
Violators Will Be Exsanguinated

You quirk an eyebrow, wondering if any reading experience could be so rewarding as to warrant the desire for "Unlimited Admission".  Your fingers slide down the right edge feeling the separation between the cover and the coarse pages beneath.  The cover lifts and you pause the image of your body paling as the blood drains from it.  You shiver and assure yourself you have no intention of selling the book.  Shrugging it off you open the book and begin the journey knowing only that you have no idea where it will take you.


I wrote the above as a bit of an homage to Erin Morgenstern's beautiful asides that begin and end her novel, The Night Circus.  Written entirely in second person these asides (also interspersed throughout the novel) take you right into the circus - experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and wonder that accompanies a visit to each tent.  In that way the novel is both a narrative and an exhibition.  No matter how the novel is classified it is a spectacular work of fantasy that transcends genre, age, and gender.  I did not want it to end, but at the same time knew that it must.  Sound a bit like a kid at the circus don't I?

The core of Night Circus is a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco.  Trained from childhood for this battle by their father and instructor respectively.  The circus, or Le Cirque des Rêves, is the stage where they will display the talents they possess in an exhibition that will ring throughout the world. But it is also a love story, and Celia and Marco despite their misgivings possess a deep, magical love that literally makes the world shake at a touch.  Bound by magic the game cannot be stopped.  True love or not the fate of the circus, and the thousands who adore it, hangs in the balance.
U.S. cover

Written from three perspectives in time, Morgenstern's novel oftentimes reads as a series of set pieces designed to dazzle the reader more than a continual narrative.  The aforementioned asides, the "present" that constitutes the meat of the plot, and the near "future" that features a young circus lover, are interwoven throughout differentiated only by a date printed in each chapter header.  If I have one complaint about the novel it is that these titles were subtly printed belying their importance.  Bringing these three lines together in the final pages cements Night Circus as more than a vehicle for lush prose and gorgeous imagery unveiling it as the fairy tale it is meant to be.

On the subject of prose Morgenstern made an interesting choice to write the novel from the present tense.  This choice, a brilliant one I might add, made me feel as though I was the narrator.  Night Circus is not a story related by some unknown omniscient entity rather I was a voyeur observing just off "screen".  Interestingly two characters in the novel also fit into this category.  While they do on occasion actively grace the pages, Hector (Celia's father) and Alexander (Marco's instructor) are functional voyeurs to the story as they watch their proteges battle in amusement.  I have no idea if there's a literary device at play here, but I found the comparison interesting.  Is Morgenstern hinting that maybe the "narrator" is an unseen magician watching all that goes on?

UK cover.
I think I want to stop here.  If I keep writing I'm going to give away parts of the novel that shouldn't be spoiled for anyone.  When a novel receives the kind of hype Night Circus has it's always difficult to live up to.  I think it's unfortunate that some have billed it as a young adult novel trying to cash in on fans of Harry Potter and Twilight.  I suspect those comparisons have largely come from the fact that Summit (producer of the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises) has already purchased the film rights. In reality the novel is far more in the mold of something from John Crowley, or Cathrynne Valente, or maybe Téa Obreht (who I've not read, but blurbs the book).  It is lyrical and atmospheric and not remotely young adult in any way I understand the classification.

Yet it is also a novel for everyone - young and old.  Readers of genre fiction, mainstream fiction, or even those who read infrequently will find themselves sucked into The Night Circus.  I seriously hope that come this time next year we're talking about how Erin Morgenstern won a major literary award or was robbed by weird voting and nominating practices.  Go read this.  Right now... well, tomorrow when it comes out.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

A Thief in the Night - David Chandler

If I told you this was 
the movie poster for 
Ladyhawke would you 
be surprised?
I am never excited to write a negative review.  Last month I reviewed the first book in the Ancient Blades Trilogy titled Den of Thieves.  David Chandler's first foray into high fantasy had its problems.  I regret to report problems have continued into A Thief in the Night albeit not always the same ones.  After finishing the novel I wondered why I didn't like it?  Harper Voyager liked it enough to purchase the entire trilogy and release them over three months.  Is it possible there's something fundamentally flawed in the way I read the novel?  Are my expectations out of whack?

I'm 30 years old and I've read a lot of fantasy over the last twenty years.  My first fantasy novel was in the 7th grade - Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain.  I moved on to The Sword of Shannara, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and every other book I could lay my hands on that was available at the Vista Campana Middle School library in Apple Valley, California.  I wanted sweeping epic fantasy with dwarves, elves, and all kinds of other fantastic constructions conveyed in straight forward no nonsense prose.  The farm boy prophesied to save the world was the end all be all for young Justin.

Somewhere along the road to adulthood I decided I wanted a little more from my fantasy and modern fantasy has delivered.  Of course, fantasy has always had ambition - Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, John Crowley's Little, Big, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, to name a few.  But, for the most part, the development of more ambitious epic/high fantasy is recent.  Authors like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, and Steven Erikson have brought a great deal more depth to the sub-genre.  Elves and dwarves are largely gone and the farm boy is more likely to get a sword through the stomach before he gets far enough into the game to impact anything.  Abraham has even gone so far as to turn the farm boy paradigm into a female alcoholic banker.  These authors led me full circle back to Holdstock, Crowley, and Beagle who have in turn led me to Gene Wolfe, Carthrynne Valente, and China Miéville.

And yet, I very much enjoyed James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven and Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations both of whom in terms of world construction and character archetypes bear close resemblance to Chandler's Ancient Blades Trilogy.  I guess what I'm saying is that while I may have developed tastes that take me beyond elves, dwarves, and straight forward narratives, it doesn't mean that I'm not up for a simple adventure romp from time to time.  If that's true, and my expectations aren't broken, then why didn't I enjoy the first two installments in Chandler's series?

I'm so glad I asked - because they just aren't as good.  The prose is fine and even quite good in places if a bit overwritten.  The stories themselves aren't terribly contrived, at least no more so than "comparable" novels like the aforementioned Barclay and Sullivan.  But, and it's a big one, I cannot ignore a novel whose plot and characers just aren't interesting.  It's unfortunate that Chandler has fallen into this category because I actually think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created - which is interesting.

Based on a serf/lord model of medieval Europe, it's a world where most folk are oppressed.  In the free-city of Ness, where Den takes place entirely and Thief begins, everyone is free to choose their own destiny - albeit options are rather limited.  Magic is based on the summoning and harnessing of demonic energy.  To combat this threat to the fabric of reality seven blades were created and seven warriors were chosen to wield them.  But demons have almost been exterminated and the ancient blades aren't quite sure to do with themselves.  Cool premise, no?  Once things move beyond world building though, the whole thing falls flat.

The two points of view Chandler writes from - Malden and Croy - undergo a shift in Thief where they betray the mores built up throughout the series.  To me, it all felt very forced as though the characters changed because the author needed them to. Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy and the bestseller The Black Prism wrote:
Other than looking like
an Indiana Jones travel
montage, this cover is
clearly superior to the
US  version.
"My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. "
For me, Chandler swung and missed at this.  I understand where he wanted to take his protagonists.  I just didn't buy it.

I also struggled with Chandler's use of magic throughout the novel.  Cythera - Malden and Croy's mutual love interest - has an ability to absorb curses.  This absorption manifests itself as tattoos on her body.  In the first novel Cythera cannot be touched lest this magical energy be unleashed.  Lo and behold, come Thief she can release such energy at anyone/thing she likes.  Brandon Sanderson in his treatise on magic (which I highly recommend) said:
"If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."
For example, Thief takes the merry band of adventures to an ancient city that's been entombed beneath a mountain.  The entrance is chained shut with magical chains that (it seems) will strike anyone dead who touches them.  Cythera, being magically cursed, touches them, absorbs their power, and channels it to burn a hole in the door.  Snazzy, right?  Of course, she couldn't do this in Den and I didn't see any explanation about this new found ability.  I suspect this scene was included to setup how a much more pivotal conflict is resolved in the novel's conclusion (actually, in EXACTLY the same way).  Instead, a few sentences about how Cythera has been learning to control her ability and using a well established capability of another party member to open the door (say... I don't know the master engineer of a dwarf maybe?) would have been more interesting and set up the later scene just as well.

Ok, so I think it's fairly obvious that I really didn't like A Thief in the Night (or Den of Thieves for that matter) and I don't want to further belabor the point.  The truth is, they're not bad books.  I read them both quickly and never cast them aside.  However, as a reviewer advising my readers about what is worth their time, or not, I believe there are far better options available.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hilariously Disturbing Similarity in Covers

Sometimes aimless internet trolling pays off.  I came across this cover...

It of course immediately reminded me of...

Long story short, Terry Goodkind prevents cancer.  Or not.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

God's War - Kameron Hurley

I salute Night Shade Books.  Starting with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl two years ago, they've been been pumping out quality debuts.  This year alone Night Shade released an incredible portfolio of new authors that have been consistently well received (you can visit a nice chunk of them at  God's War from Kameron Hurley is very much in this tradition albeit in a novel that ignores genre tradition with impunity.

God's War is a second world fantasy novel written in a technologically advanced society.  On her twitter feed last (@nkjemisin) week Hugo Nominated Author N.K. Jemisin asked about whether technology predisposed classification as science fiction in lieu of fantasy.  If I was making an argument that technology and fantasy aren't mutually exclusive, Hurley's novel would be the example I hold up.  She introduces lots of technology - firearms, cars, spacecraft, wireless communication, among others.  The twist is, nearly all of this technology functions through a "mystical" connection between gifted humans (called... wait for it... magicians!) who utilize insects as a power source.

Hurley's plot centers around a woman named Nyxnissa and her unlucky team of bounty hunters headlined by the not so talented magician, Rhys.  Set in a world where competing religious factions (both of which "feel" a lot like Islam) have been at war for generations, all men are required to serve at the front.  Those that refuse become fair game for teams like Nyx's to be hunted down, killed, and turned in for monetary reward.  When the queens calls Nyx's number for a very particular bounty she and her team drop everything to get back on top.

What makes God's War such an accomplishment has little to do with its plot.  In fact, the early going of the narrative is rather disjointed with blanks that could use filling.  Things are never real clear as to why Nyx's team is so loyal to her and the relationships between Nyx and the various arms of the government lack an equal amount of lucidity.  What rescues the novel and makes it such a great read are wonderfully drawn characters and original unexpected world building.

To the first point, Hurley's primary characters are the aforementioned Nyx and Rhys.  Her plot flows around these two as they struggle to survive, their relationship to the war-torn world around them, and ultimately their relationship to each other.  Nyx is about as hard boiled a female as I've ever seen - somewhat reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie's Monza from Best Served Cold.  Unlike Abercrombie's version of the tough female, Nyx comes off authentic; less a force of nature, and more irrecoverably broken by the life she's led.  Somehow she retains humanity and a modicum of vulnerability that strikes the perfect tone in her interactions with Rhys who functions as the literary foil to Nyx.  Where she is all hard edges, Rhys is softer and more vulnerable hiding the hard edges from view.  It makes for a poignant juxtaposition that excels from beginning to end.

The world Nyx and Rhys inhabit is just as poignant.  Couched in real world terms God's War provides a look not so dissimilar from what might go on in the Middle East if everyone gave up the hope of peace.  While both sides of the war worship the same God and read from the same book, their interpretations are night and day. Nyx's side has become matriarchal, sacrificing the entire male population as fodder on the front lines. The other remains patriarchal with a continued practice of marginalizing women despite the massive exportation of men to the front.

Umayma, the planet on which this all takes place, is an anathema to human life as the war itself.  Cancer is rampant among those lacking the means to prevent it and ethnic minorities are discarded.  But for a very brief scene in the middle pages, God's War never takes us to war itself.  The novel's focus is instead on the war at home - how it impacts those who come back broken and those who were never allowed to go.  Interestingly, this is not a sentimental book that beats the drum about the pointlessness of war.  Hurley sets the stage, moves her beautiful characters across it, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

While there are certainly some narrative hiccups indicative of its status as a debut novel, God's War is a clever reinterpretation of the war novel.  Hurley takes on issues of gender roles, violence, and religion and does it all with a deft hand.  I sincerely hope it receives some well deserved attention come award season and I strongly suggest my readers check this one out.

The sequel to God's War is coming out next month, titled Infidel.  I already have my hands on it so expect a review in a week or two.

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