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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Interview with artist (and author) Alastair Reynolds

Russell Crowe would totally 
play Al in a movie, right?
Some months back Strange Horizons held a fundraising drive to keep their doors open for 2011.  I made a small contribution which, to my surprise, entered me into a raffle for a boatload of prizes donated by authors, publishers, and artists.  I was even more surprised when I won my choice of these prizes.  One of those choices was a piece of original art by science fiction author Alastair Reynolds.

Wait, did I just say art?  Indeed, who knew?  Alastair Reynolds can paint!  I have plenty of books laying about the house, but an original piece of art?  Sign me up!  Couple days later Reynolds e-mailed me, asking me what I wanted.  Like any good non-artist I said, "I dunno dude, whatever looks cool to you!"  I did mention that I was a fan of a piece I saw on his blog called Chinese Mining Spacecraft.  And away he went.  A couple weeks later he e-mailed me this:

To say the least, I was thrilled.  I love the palette and who can say no to space ships and funky mountains?  Anyway, I liked the piece so much I invited Reynolds to the blog to talk about his art, and why he's doing it.  Enjoy!


Justin: You took some years away for drawing/painting. Why come back to it now after having had so much success as a writer?

Reynolds: It feels as if I've taken a break from it but when I look at the pictures and drawings in my collection, there's probably not been a year when I haven't done something. I was quite active right through the 90s, then I tailed off a bit. There's definitely been more of it in the last couple of years, though. I started getting back into it in a small way when my wife and I joined our local art society. My wife's also been taking classes in watercolour and drawing, so we've inevitably been spending more time in art shops. I've put art up on my website for years, though, on and off, so it's not a part of my personality that I've tried to hide away. I do a lot of non-SF stuff - watercolours of birds, oil paintings and so on - but that's really for my own consumption.

Justin: Your novels are science fiction, and you're an astronomer by trade. So naturally you seem to draw a lot from that in your art. You mostly do landscape (or the space equivalent). Any interest in doing more figure work? When can we expect your first unicorn piece?

Reynolds: I've always wanted to do figure work but the success rate is lower - doesn't mean I won't keep working on it, though. I can't see myself ever doing a purely fantastic scene, though - no interest! And I wouldn't even claim that my art is particularly informed by my background as a scientist. I'd much rather let rip with some crazy colours and improbable arrangements of stars and planets than try and do something realistic.

Justin: Your art is decidedly nostalgic. Most feel like they'd be perfect as covers for a LeGuin or Heinlein novel. Is this 'your style'?

Reynolds: In so far as I have a style, it's probably the natural outcome of trying to copy/emulate the great SF artists who inspired me. Most of them British paperback illustrators of the 70s - Chris Foss, Chris Moore, Jim Burns, Peter Jones, Peter Elson, Tim White, Tony Roberts. And a large dose of Roger Dean and Patrick Woodruffe, of course. I loved those guys and still do - and of course some of them are still going, and I've even had the pleasure of having Chris Moore do my covers. In the course of getting back into painting, though, I've been relearning a lot of techniques that were second nature to me twenty years ago - mixing paints for the airbrush, masking, and so on. To some extent the "nostalgic" look is a direct result of using fairly simple methods.

Cover by Chris Moore
Justin: Do you think you'll be experimenting with different styles as you continue to improve?

Reynolds: I'm all for experimenting and trying to improve, but generally the more complicated techniques require more time, and I don't want to lose enthusiasm for a picture. If I can't finish it in a couple of weeks, it's probably not going to get finished.

Justin: I am always intrigued that creative people are just creative. Not creative in one space, but in all spaces. You've made your living writing, but you're not half bad at this art thing. What else can you do?

Reynolds: There were only two things I was ever naturally "good at" during school - drawing and making up stories. Everything else has been an uphill struggle. I'm not even a natural mathematician. I'm very into my music these days - I spend a lot of time mucking around with guitars, and I can read music at a reasonable level - but I've no natural aptitude for it whatsoever. The only other creative thing I do is make models - I'm forever building and painting things, and it gives me terrific satisfaction, and to some extent plugs into the same area of the brain responsible for art. It's one of those "zone" activities - the time just flies.

Justin: So what are you working on now on the writing side?

Reynolds: I'm currently working on the follow-up to "Blue Remembered Earth", which will be my next novel, out in January. I don't have a title for the next one, but it's very big in scope, with an interstellar setting and a continuation of the main themes of the next book. Africa in space, elephants and so on. 

Not until June in the U.S.!
Justin: Any interest in making a go at illustrating your own cover for the next book?

Reynolds: I'd never want to do my own cover artwork, not when I get the chance to work with my heroes. The cover of the new book is by Dominic Harmon, who's both a friend and a very gifted digital illustrator.

Justin: Thanks for answering my questions, and more importantly thanks for this killer painting (and supporting Strange Horizons).

Reynolds: Cheers!

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Alloy of Law - Brandon Sanderson

I love Brandon Sanderson.  I've read everything he's written for the adult market, from his first novel Elantris to his printing press busting The Way of Kings.  His finest work to date is the Mistborn trilogy which contains one of the best beginnings and endings ever done in fantasy. So, it is with great remorse that I must say his most recent Mistborn universe release, The Alloy of Law, isn't very good, or rather it's not nearly as good as everything else Sanderson has written.

Set some 300 years (about?) after the events of The Hero of Ages, Waxillum is a lawkeeper from the Roughs who happens to be a member of one of the richest families in Elendel.  When his Uncle dies in an accident, Wax is called home to administer the family fortune (or what's left of it).  Of course some trouble has followed him from the Roughs and he'll have to stop it with the help of his snarky partner, Wayne.  Yes, you read that right - Wax and Wayne.  If this paragraph sounds a bit lighthearted, then I nailed it.  Much like in Warbreaker, Sanderson is testing his limits in humor and levity to varying degrees of success

The novel starts with a prologue featuring Wax in the Roughs, six-shooter in hand.  The tone in these opening scenes conjures up rolling tumbleweeds and Danny Glover saying, "I'm too old for this shit," Assuming Sanderson would allow Danny Glover to say shit (he wouldn't).  While most of the rest of the novel feels more Victorian than Wild West, the plot items are recognizably Western.  Train robberies, good guys and bad guys, a protagonist with a personal code of honor, all conjure up the whistling theme of Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

That said, thematically Alloy of Law isn't a Western. The Western, as a genre, is about 'civilizing' the wilds, whether that's the natural element or the people that live there is inconsequential.  None of that is present.  Additionally, the Western world is organized around codes of honor and personal justice - not abstract law.  Some of that is there, but only through Wax, and to a lesser degree Wayne, whom represent the ideals of the Roughs.  For those in Elendel, where the entire narrative is housed, the social order is not only rigorous, it's set down and fundamentally abstract.

That sounds a bit like I'm being negative because Sanderson didn't deliver a Western.  Not the case.  I'm being negative because he didn't deliver substance.  Alloy of Law is shallow.  It has moments of entertainment - action packed sequences and witty back and forth.  Of course, Sanderson excels with his world building and magic system concepts and applications.  He shows how Scadrial has evolved since Vin and company triumphed over Ruin.  Sazed (now Harmony) is not only mentioned, but present.  All of that adds up to a fun little story designed to be a pallette cleanser as much for the author himself as for his readers.

Sample of Alloy of Law Audio Book, courtesy of 
Macmillan Audio

Given the beginning of the novel, and the flexibility to use the koloss and/or kandra (who are both functionally absent) to represent the 'indigent people', I saw many ways Sanderson could have engaged a deeper level with the novel as he does in nearly everything else he writes.  Am I being unfair?  Am I demanding a novel that Sanderson didn't want to write?  Is this reader entitlement?  Maybe.  Probably.  But expectations are a part of the game, and given Sanderson's past work I have an expectation of what I'm getting when I pick up a book with his name on the cover.  For me, Alloy of Law under delivered, offering what was essentially an adventure short that lacked any of the thematic support necessary to sustain a novel.

Now, the real question... was I entertained?  Yes!  I enjoyed Alloy of Law.  It interrupted my read of Never Knew Another (McDermott) and The Winds of Khalakovo (Beaulieu), two novels from Night Shade Books that are dense and full of nuance. Distracting me from these two titles was a surety as Sanderson's new novel is both bite sized and breakneck in its presentation.  I would read it again, although not a second time and therein lies the rub.  Visceral enjoyment is not enough, for the same reason that Independence Day is not a good film.  Alloy of Law fails at a basic level to engage me as a reader beyond the words on the page.

In an interview with Nethspace, Sanderson was asked where Hoid was in the novel.  His response was to say:
Hoid is in the book, though his name doesn’t appear. But the things happening here during this interim are not of deep interest to Hoid like the things happening in the original trilogy, so he is playing a much smaller role here than he was in the original trilogy.
Well, that's because they aren't that interesting.  There's nothing epic here, in plot or in intent.  It's just a guy named Wax and his buddy Wayne, fighting off a criminal who may or may not be part of something larger (admittedly the end of the novel hints strongly at the former).  If Hoid isn't all that interested, why should I be?  Alloy of Law is an aside for Brandon Sanderson, a break from his tireless schedule of his Stormlight Archive and Wheel of Time commitments.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what it felt like when I read it.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, What's Coming, and a Giveaway Winner

Hey everyone, Happy Thanksgiving!  If you don't live in the States, umm... happy late November!  I'm posting this on Wednesday because I'm not going to be anywhere near a computer tomorrow.  Instead, I'll be stuffing my face and watching football.

So, the year is almost over and that means it's time for the 'Best of 2011' lists to start trickling out.  We've already seen some of the major review groups (Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, etc.) put out their lists, and the Goodreads fan vote is ongoing.  This year I'm planning on doing a series of awards.  I'm going to call them the Juice Boxes.  See if you can keep up here... so there are the Hugos.  My name is Justin.  Put those two words together and you get Jugos.  Jugo in Spanish means Juice.  The Juice Awards sounds like something O.J. Simpson would bestow on someone, so I added the box.  After all, who doesn't like Juice Boxes?

I'm going to be doing a short list (5) for each of the book awards and then just pick a winner in the industry categories.  I'll be doing a separate post for each category with a goal of having them all done before Christmas (we'll see).  My award categories are as follows:

Best eBook Press
Editor of the Year
Cover of the Year
Best Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011
Most Disappointing Book (2011)
Debut of the Year (2011)
Book of the Year (2011)

I reserve the right to add nonsense awards at any time.  I'll probably also be doing a 'summary' post breaking down the 'stats' of this years collection of reading.  Stay tuned!


I am pleased to announced the winner of my most recent giveaway of Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son and Shadow's Lure courtesy of the fine folks at Pyr:

Tim Lewis, OR

Congrats Tim!  They should be winging their way into your home, or heart, or hearth very soon.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Interview with Low Town author Daniel Polansky

Last week I reviewed Low Town, a new fantasy novel by debut author Daniel Polansky.  Doubleday was also kind enough to donate 5 copies of the book for me to give away on the blog (Click Here).  Long story short, Polansky's novel is a ton of fun to read.  Part crime fiction, part second world fantasy, it's a tight narrative told through the mind of a drug addicted former cop trying to get by in a shitty part of town.  It's unapologetically dark and grim, not at all incompatible with the kinds of stories written by genre luminaries like Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and Brent Weeks.

I was going to publish my review of Alloy of Law today (maybe tomorrow?), but I wanted to get this interview out before everyone disappears for Thanksgiving.  Somehow I don't think a lot of people read blogs while gorging themselves.  So here's the blurb:
In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its cham­pion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent. Forgotten war hero. Independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.

The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his dis­covery of a murdered child down a dead-end street . . . set­ting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investi­gated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psy­chotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted. 

Justin: So, your first novel - congratulations!  Are you officially a professional writer?

Polansky: Thanks! I am a professional writer, though I have a sideline in arms dealing. That's a lie if you are a federal agent, hahaha, aren't I a kidder?  Actually I quit my day job before I became a writer and just started bumming around foreign countries until they throw me out.

Justin: Who do you talk to about celebrity gossip with no co-workers?

Polansky: I talk about celebrity gossip with my old friend, the wind, walking down the boulevard and screaming things about Snookie into his face. He takes it well.

Justin: I know you're traveling in Asia right now. Just a fun trip or are you shopping for an Asian agent (this is not a euphemism for the sex trade)?

Polansky: Just a fun trip. Bumming about, eating things we don't eat in the west. Pig's blood cake. Bird's nest. Human flesh. That last was a joke, hahaha, but maybe not.

Justin: Talk to me a little bit about the two different titles of your book. I love The Straight Razor Cure (UK) after reading the novel - it's perfect. It's a bit esoteric to someone who hasn't read the novel. Low Town is certainly more accessible. Which do you prefer?

Polansky: The Straight Razor Cure is what I had initially, and I suppose it's still closest to my heart. At the end of the day I'd name it Captain Fitzgerald's Cabaret Extravaganza if I thought that would get me a few more sales. It probably wouldn't, though. That's a bad name.

Justin: Somehow I don't think Cabaret Extravaganza captures the right image.  There's a lot Abercrombie's grit in Low Town.  Since you're from Baltimore I have to imagine you've seen The Wire. Does Warden have a little Stringer Bell in him?

Polansky: You know I hadn't made that specific connection, but I'm happy to run with it. They're both ruthless sorts of people, willing to do whatever is required to see to their own ends. I could see Idris Elba for the movie.

Justin: Gritty fantasy has become a pretty significant part of the market. Why do you think these kinds of stories resonate so much with readers?

Polansky: We don't all live in the Shire? I'm not sure. If I was to make a broad generalization, I might say something about the recent economic collapse, and bleak future forecast, and etc, but it's pretty late here in this hostel I'm in in Malaysia, and I don't really think I have the energy. To be honest, I typed most of this answer while I was making eyes at the cutie across the way. Hey cutie, how you doing? She's got a stupid tattoo but what are you going to do, it's a hostel.

Justin: I've made a decision to not sidetrack the interview to discuss your attempts at an amorous rendezvous however tempted I might be.  And I am very tempted.  Was Low Town a first person novel from the get go?

Polansky: It was very much a first person perspective from the opening, though I'm not sure that I'd draw any general conclusions about the state of the industry from that fact.

Justin: Did you feel limited as the story went on not being able to flesh out certain plot elements or world building items because you'd locked yourself into Warden's head?

Polansky: No, not at all. Limiting the perspective in a certain way allows for a tighter story, and makes the reader a little uncomfortable. I think first person stuff works particularly well for fantasy -- it limits the amount of exposition you provide. Exposition is the enemy of decent writing.  Tattoo girl says she was an environmental studies major. That's a huge surprise -- wow. Never saw that coming.

Justin: Urge to sidetrack rising.  Was this a one book deal? If so has the publisher reached out to your agent for subsequent novels?

Polansky: It's different country by country. We're very much hoping to release a few more volumes about the Warden. I think if you, the person reading this interview, really wants to make sure they can get the next book in the series, the best thing to do would be to break into the office of your favorite publisher and just start yelling. That sort of thing generally works out well for everyone.

Ray Rice in your face!
Justin: NFL season is in full swing.  Are you secure in your knowledge that the Ravens have by far the coolest uniforms in all of pro sports?

Polansky: I am an NFL fan, and following the Ravens ups and downs from across the world is always fun/horrible. We do have the best uniforms, that's true. Also we have the best state flag -- it's just way above everyone else's, I dunno why.

Justin: Thanks for taking the time! I've really enjoyed the first book and hope to read more.  Oh, and you will be coming back to the blog to answer a question about tattoo girl.

Polansky: Thanks for the questions! It was a pleasure to be here, digitally speaking.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Low Town - Daniel Polansky (Giveaway & Review)

U.S. Cover and Title
Tell me if you've heard this one before, ok?  Joe Abercrombie walks into a bar, sits down and orders a whiskey.  He takes a shot and looks down the bar where he sees fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson sitting at a table.  Sanderson is laying out a Magic: The Gathering deck and drinking a glass of milk.  Abercrombie, seeing his comrade in arms, stands up and walks over.  They get to talking about this and that, of course Abercrombie tries his best not to swear or talk about sex, an admittedly difficult bit of conversationlism.

Before you know it, the two of them start writing.  Sanderson is handling the outline, plotting things just so and building the world.  Meanwhile Abercrombie is writing the scenes, adding his grit and authentic dialogue to Sanderson's framework.  He decides to try first person this time, change is a good thing, right?  Somewhere along the way Sanderson wins the sexytime argument.  They finish the novel and agree on the pseudonym Daniel Polansky.  And so, Low Town was born.

That's just a legend.  To the best of my knowledge Daniel Polansky is a real person, and not some amalgamation of two bestselling fantasy authors.  But it could be true because Low Town is the love child that Abercrombie and Sanderson (probably) will never have.  It's well paced, richly textured, and demonstrates all the rawness that the genre has come to expect from the modern fantasy writer.

Polansky's protagonist is Warden, a 30-something drug dealer, and user, with a checkered past. He used to be more, but now he haunts the streets of Low Town peddling his product and trying to stay alive (sort of).  Low Town reads like crime fiction that wouldn't be at all out of place shelved among James Ellroy and Ellmore Leonard.  There's an urban feel to it all, and Warden is very much a noir protagonist, past his prime and world weary, but committed to doing what needs doing.  In this case, that's solving the mystery of a murdered girl which the powers that be have no interest in doing.

He doesn't look like Joe
or Brandon!
It didn't surprise me to learn that Polansky is a Baltimore native.  Anyone who's watched HBO's The Wire will find some familiarity. Warden is reminiscent of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), a drug dealer with intelligence, ambition, and a desire to see less violence on the streets, if only for the sake of profit.  Themes from The Wire like corruption, institutional dysfunction (or disinterest), and poverty are also reflected in the novel through Warden's colored perceptions.

Beyond the Mystery Machine (overt Scooby Doo reference), Low Town is also a second world fantasy that provides a mystery of its own, heightened by the limitations of a first person narrative.  Unable to provide any direct exposition, Polansky dribbles out the world through Warden's encounters, memories, and dreams.  He creates a mystery within a mystery within a mystery.  Who killed the girl?  Who is Warden and where does he come from?  How does all this fit into the larger world?  In choosing the first person, Polansky gave himself free reign to control the reader's perception.  Carefully choosing the order of encounters, and the types of encounters, he creates a perfectly paced novel that kept urging me forward without frustrating me (always a risk when the narrator has knowledge the reader does not).

It's not all roses though.  I think there's a fair criticism to be levied related to one-note characters that are archetypal for the genre.  Gregarious and burly innkeeper, go-getter gutter rat, malicious police chief, and kindly wizard are a few of them that are recycled here.  Additionally, I saw the 'twist' coming from early on (although there were enough red herrings throughout that I questioned my confidence) and given the tradition of intricately plotted fantasy novels, this one is fairly mundane (more like urban fantasy in that regard).  Polansky does leave enough dangling about Warden's past to warrant a sequel, but there's nothing epic about the plot itself that would call for future volumes.

Stringer Bell will mess you up, mofo!
That said, when asked, what did you think of Low Town, Justin?  I'm going to gush.  It isn't the best novel I've read this year.  It's not even the best debut.  It is, however, the most entertaining.  Polansky grabbed me in the first chapter and never let go.  Last I checked authors are in the story telling business and Polansky tells a great story.  Much darker than Sanderson, and not as authentic or well put together as Abercrombie, Low Town takes elements from each of them, turning out a debut novel that will appeal to fans of both.  I hope to see a lot more of Daniel Polansky in the future.

You can find Daniel Polansky on Twitter (@danielpolansky) or at his website.  He's currently working on the sequel to Low Town (when he's not bumming around foreign countries).  Check back next week for an interview with the author.


Low Town by Daniel Polansky

book to winners courtesy of Doubleday.

Giveaway Details:

This giveaway is open to North American residents only (alas).  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveaway, just place a comment in this post and declare intention to participate.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Make sure to provide an email address or Twitter username at which I can contact you.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on November 25, 2011
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be 5  winners, who will receive 1 book each.
  • Winner will have to confirm by email/DM to be considered a winner within a week after November 17, 2011.
ONE additional entry may be had by doing the following:
If you do either of the steps above, or you are already following me, you'll receive ONE additional entry.

Thanks, and good luck!

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interview with Shadow Saga author Jon Sprunk

Last week I reviewed Shadow's Lure, the second installment in Jon Sprunk's Shadow Saga series from Pyr.  After finishing Lure I asked Sprunk to answer some questions for me, which he was kind enough to do.  He's also currently moving into a new house, so I'm even more appreciative that he found time to do this during that awful process (wish him luck!).

Also, Pyr has contributed a copy of both Shadow's Lure and Shadow's Son that I'm giving away this week (click here).  Here's the blurb from Shadow's Son, Sprunk's debut novel and first installment in the Shadow Saga:

In the holy city of Othir, treachery and corruption lurk at the end of every street, just the place for a freelance assassin with no loyalties and few scruples.

Caim makes his living on the edge of a blade, but when a routine job goes south, he is thrust into the middle of an insidious plot. Pitted against crooked lawmen, rival killers, and sorcery from the Other Side, his only allies are Josephine, the socialite daughter of his last victim, and Kit, a guardian spirit no one else can see. But in this fight for his life, Caim only trusts his knives and his instincts, but they won't be enough when his quest for justice leads him from Othir's hazardous back alleys to its shining corridors of power. To unmask a conspiracy at the heart of the empire, he must claim his birthright as the Shadow's Son . . .


Justin: So, two books in Jon - congratulations. A lot of great response to both so far. Are you officially a professional writer?

Sprunk: Hey Justin, thanks a lot. I'm quite proud of the reception that first two books have gotten. Yes, I'm officially a professional writer.

Justin: Do you miss the day job?  I know my wife did the stay at home mom thing for a year and greatly missed human contact. I mean, who do you talk to about the Kim Kardashian break-up? 

Sprunk: I don't miss my old job in juvenile corrections, but I do miss the people. Mostly, I talk to myself these days. Bad for my sanity, I'm sure, but good for my writing. 

Justin: You've got a great story to tell in that you sold your books to Pyr without an agent, or being relegated to the slush pile. For those that haven't heard the story, can you relate it.

Sprunk: Sure. I had just finished Joe Abercrombie's First Law series (loved it) and I saw that Joe acknowledged this guy, Lou Anders at Pyr. On a lark, I shot Lou an email complimenting him on the series and mentioning that I had written a book in a similar vein and did he want to see it. I was actually shocked when he told me to send in a portion of the manuscript. He liked it and eventually bought it along with two more books in the series. He also introduced me to my agent. So, yeah, it was amazing. I'd been doing the writing/submitting thing for years, so to finally accomplish my dream was wonderful and a little scary.

Justin: Did you send Lou a box of chocolate or is he more of a roses guy?

Sprunk: Lou prefers beer (note from Justin: take notice queriers!)

Justin: The Shadow Saga is a dark, not-quite-Abercrombie-gritty, fantasy with an assassin/thief protagonist. Looking around the genre landscape this is a fairly well used 'starting point'.  What drew you to it?

Sprunk: I've always been drawn to the darker side of things, so an assassin protagonist was a natural fit. Basically, I like exploring how and why people do things which place them outside the normal parameters of society. How do they survive on the margin? What would they do if offered a chance to re-connect with the mainstream? Those kinds of questions.

Justin: Given how many publishers are putting dollars behind these kinds of stories, they're clearly resonating with readers.  Why do you think that is?

Sprunk: I think dark, or gritty, fantasy is a response to the traditional high fantasy. I love high fantasy, but after a while you get tired of reading about kings and queens and knights. I think there is a natural curiosity about what's happening on the other side of the proverbial tracks.

Justin: Shadow's Lure is significantly longer that Shadow's Son and, as I commented in my review, it takes a little longer to get going. Was this a conscious decision?  Did you try to bring new readers up to speed?

Sprunk: I try not to do that at all, but it inevitably slips in. Shadow's Lure was a completely different style of novel for me. The journey into a character's past while simultaneously moving them forward into the future. I hope readers didn't expect me to keep up the break-neck pace of the first book all the way through the series. That kind of repetition doesn't appeal to me. In fact, I'd much prefer it if every book I wrote had a different feel and style than all the rest.

Justin: Word on the street is that the final volume is titled Shadow's Master.  When's it set to be released? 

Sprunk: The third book is due out next spring, perhaps even as early as March.

Justin: Can we expect a definitive conclusion to Kit, Josey, and Caim's story or are you going to leave things open to come back here in the future?

Sprunk: Yes, there is a definitive conclusion to the entire story, but that doesn't mean I can't return to this land and these characters. Well, the ones who survive.

Justin: Now that this trilogy is finished (for now), what's next? Care to divulge any tidbits?

Sprunk: I'm working on the 'construction phase' of an entirely new series. Still fantasy, but more epic in scope. It takes place in a fictional amalgamation of several ancient cultures, blended up and advanced to a Dark Ages time frame, and adding in a heaping mound of sorcery and demonology. I'm going much deeper into the worldbuilding this time because it directly relates to the story. (I'm not a big fan of worldbuilding just for the sake of itself.)

Justin: NFL season is in full swing. If I remember correctly you're a Jags fan. Did you move to PA so you could see Jags games given they black out every weekend in Florida?

Sprunk: Ugh, yes, I'm a Jags fan, and this season has been brutal, but at least their defense is looking better. I've been living in PA since I was two or three. Don't ask me how I got hooked on Jacksonville. Or better yet, find me at a convention and ask me over a beer.

Justin: You said beer.  I'm in!  Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  I'm also going to ask for some stories about how punk juveniles detentionites influence your writing over that beer too.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Restoration Game - Ken MacLeod

Looks like cyberpunk, 
right? Nope!
I'm not sure The Restoration Game is science fiction.  Sure, it's technically based on a speculative what-if, but does that make something a science fiction novel?  Science fiction, I believe, is all about a discussion on humanity's relationship to technology.  I feel a lot more comfortable thinking of it as a Dickian (Philip K.) novel that grapples with issues of human perception more than one looking at our relationship to technology.  Or maybe it's just a thriller.

Other than a prologue and an epilogue, the events in Ken MacLeod's most recent novel take place in 2008, leading up to the South Ossetia War (or at least a fictional simulacrum there of).  The narrative is recounted by Lucy Stone, an Edinburgh expat from the former Soviet controlled Krassnia.  In that troubled region of the former Soviet Union, revolution is brewing.  Its organizers need a safe place to meet, and where better than the virtual spaces of an online game?  Lucy, who works for a start-up games company, has a project that almost seems made for the job: its original inspiration came from Krassnian folklore.  As Lucy digs up details about her birthplace, she finds her interest has not gone unnoticed.

The main narrative is endemic to spy fiction.  Lucy's mother, and great grandmother both have some connection to the CIA and their machinations have compromised their progeny.  Mystery's abound.  Who is Lucy's father?  What are the motivations for the revolution?  Who stands to gain?  This thriller mentality works well as MacLeod revists the how and the why of the fall of the Soviet Union.  Through Lucy the reader is exposed to documents detailing KGB investigations, and commentary on Stalin's purges.  Ultimately these commentaries become a demonstration of the prevailing power of capitalism and the inherent expression of it in the human spirit.

Early on, Restoration Game seems to be more about how the story gets told than the story itself.  MacLeod layers Lucy's narration, starting near the end and backtracking.  She reveals things about her life in her own time, often referencing things like 'The Worst Day of My Life' without describing the day until several chapters later.  While this technique can be occasionally frustrating, MacLeod is mostly successful in using it to maintain a constant tension.

Additionally, the main plot is bracketed by an prologue and epilogue that set up and conclude the twist that makes the novel "speculative" and not simply an alternate look at Russian foreign policy.  Much like the M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, once the twist becomes clear, the entire narrative changes - was I reading what I thought I was reading?  Unfortunately, this is also one of the novel's weaker points as the 'twist' is fairly obvious from the prologue... wait maybe it is an M. Night Shyamalan movie!  The problem isn't so much that MacLeod does a poor job of concealing it, rather it's a twist I've seen used a hundred times.  I recognized it early on and kept hoping there would be more to it.  Alas.

Telling a story in this manner takes an extremely capable writer. The jumps through time, and back again, into source documents, and then back into Lucy's head, are all done with a deft hand, highlighting MacLeod's command of his story and the language. But, I would be remiss if I didn't say that my opinion of Restoration Game would be loftier with the extraneous bits cut out, which, in this case, means all the science fiction stuff. Most of it comes off as tangential to the larger plot of Lucy and her family's history, making me wonder if the idea for the science came after the idea for the fiction.

Despite a frustratingly transparent and common twist, Ken MacLeod has written a wonderful story about Lucy Stone against the Russians.  While it blends history and current events in compelling fashion, the science fiction framing doesn't wash.  It's a thriller, that would stand out in the spy fiction market, dressed up as science fiction.  All of that makes The Restoration Game a novel worth reading, although not necessarily one that demands to be read.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Five Great Veterans Day Reads

Today is Veterans Day here in the United States.  It's also celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other parts of the world in memory of the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.  Regardless of which country you're from, today is a sacred day where we recognize the sacrifice men and women in the armed forces, and their families, make to keep us safe.  So from me, to all of you, thank you.  Seriously.

To commemorate the day, I thought I'd put together a list of five of the best Science Fiction & Fantasy reads that give us an insight into what our soldiers go through.  Sure, you'd be better off reading All Quiet on the Western Front or Dispatches, but we like our SFF, right?  Without further ado:

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Where most war novels are about the conflict, or the individual, Abercrombie's latest novel is about the ties that bind the men and women together on the front lines.  The brotherhood in arms is on full display here.  He also grapples with concepts of bloodlust, cowardice, and ambition.  Craw's story is particularly difficult to read as an aging veteran who can't walk away.  His obligation to his commanding officers and his squad are the excuses he uses to justify continuing to do the only thing he's ever been good at.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I'm sure you're saying, "No shit, Justin."  And you're right.  Forever War is about as obvious as it gets in this category, but that doesn't make it any less true.  This is sort of the seminal novel of military science fiction.  Haldeman tells his futuristic war story through the lens of his experiences in Vietnam.  It's about the institutional support to produce productive soldiers, but the lack of same for those who return home alive.  It's also a pretty killer early hard science fiction novel that looks at what faster-than-light travel really means.

Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Rarely have I been so moved by a novel as I was reading McCarthy's debut.  Germline is about an embedded reporter who finds himself broken by war, subsequently addicted to it, and his journey to rebuild himself on the other side.  Despite some first time author hiccups, McCarthy writes with an emotional rawness that screams, 'I know what I'm talking about.'  Although not a Veteran himself, the author is a former CIA analyst and has suffered from PTSD.  All of that adds up to it being the most personally poignant "war" novel I've ever read in genre fiction.

The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker

First of all I steadfastly refuse to ever make a list on this blog that doesn't include a Parker novel.  So there's that.  Beyond that, this is the 10,000 foot level war novel.  It's not about war really at all.  It's mostly about economics and politics, but that's what going to war is all about, or at least that's part of what Parker is trying to say.  Pessimistic perhaps, but a reality more often than any of us would like to admit.  Parker is talented writer of the highest order, and all of those powers are on full display here.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Alright, so this is kind of cheating since it's really 10 books, but no one asks questions like Erikson does.  His books explore the human condition better than any others I've read in genre fiction.  From Deadhouse Gates where Erikson reminds us that there are things worth fighting for that are bigger than ourselves, to The Crippled God where he shows that sometimes the only thing we have to fight for is each other, I can't think of a better message to send on Veterans Day.

Honorable Mentions: Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield (not SFF), Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole (hasn't been released)

What did I miss? I'd love to hear feedback on what everyone else thinks would make for great Vet Day reads.

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Shadow's Lure - Jon Sprunk (Giveaway & Review)

Earlier this year I reviewed Jon Sprunk's 2010 debut novel, Shadow's Son.  While I very much enjoyed it, my review was less than glowing.  I felt some things were sacrificed to the novel's breakneck pace and that Caim, Spunk's protagonist, was a little too one-dimensional. In a not so stunning development, Shadow's Lure corrects many of these deficiencies and in so doing demonstrates tremendous growth in Sprunk's craft.

Without spoiling too much of what went on in the first novel, Lure picks up right where Son left off.  Caim (what?! the main character survives? no way!) leaves his home in Othir behind, heading north to discover the truth behind the murder of his parents and his power over the shadow.  He leaves Josey behind, now Empress of the Nimean Empire, to consolidate her power.

The nature of the two stories, which could be read completely separate from one another, blunt the pace that was such a hallmark of Sprunk's debut.  Much of the slowdown (never slowness) is affected by much more extensive character development and world building, an almost always welcome and, in this case, necessary inclusion.  That lack of frenetic energy shouldn't be taken to mean it's inferior.  Quite the opposite.  In taking his time to build the narrative, Sprunk has written a different kind of novel that succeeds because of what it doesn't have, almost as much as because of what it does (Yes, that was an awkward sentence, screw it).

Lure is divided primarily into three points of view - Josey, Caim, and Kit. While Sprunk occasionally dips into other characters, it's these three who comprise the bulk of the narrative.  He separates them from one another in the novel's early stages, providing him the opportunity to drill down to a level that the structure of the first novel never allowed him to.

Josey's point of view is very political in nature, subject to plots and machinations of factions within the Empire. Through her, the world is capably fleshed out without resorting to information dumps or poorly concealed exposition. Similarly, Kit becomes the defacto spelunker who delves into the Shadow, revealing the world behind the world that is only tangentially touched on prior (for fans of Kit she gets significant page time). In contrast, Caim's sections remain highly kinetic, often going from fight to fight. Moments of rest in between allow him to develop into a textured character and not a simple archetype.

Of course, it should be no surprise that Sprunk continues to shine in his depiction of action sequences.  Sure, they compelled a raised eyebrow of disbelief from time to time, but they always left me with a crystal clear picture in my mind of how Caim whipped his opponent(s) - something that other writers (Weeks) in this sub-genre can struggle with.  By novel's end, the relentless action connects with the determined expansion of world and character, making Lure a much more complete novel than its predecessor.

There are some hiccups though.  Things are on occasion too neat and black and white.  At one point there's an attack on Josey where a single bite would kill (or seriously incapacitate) her.  Despite the creature being wrapped around her, she somehow manages to avoid such a fate.  Sprunk uses the annoying trick of handicapping his protagonist with wound after festering wound.  Someday, I would very much enjoy an author letting his protagonist face the final battle at 100%.  The series's villain is inherently evil and I never felt that her actions were righteous even from her perspective - something that modern fantasy has become very adept at doing.  Mostly these are small quibbles and Sprunk tells such a capable story that none of them remotely imperiled my enjoyment of the novel.

While elements remain decidedly couched in a common, and arguably overused, motif, the Shadow Saga remains a worthy addition to the fantasy Rolodex.   Once completed, Sprunk's trilogy will go on the shelf right next to the Night Angel Trilogy where it will compete for the hearts of assassin lovers for years to come.  For fans of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, and to some degree Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, this is a series that shouldn't be missed.  Shadow's Master, the third and final volume in the series, is already one of my most looked forward to titles of early 2012.

You can find Jon Sprunk on his blog, Fear of the Dark, or on Twitter (@jsprunk).


Shadow's Son and Shadow's Lure by Jon Spurnk

books to winner courtesy of Pyr.

Giveaway Details:

This giveaway is open to North American residents only (alas).  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveaway, just place a comment in this post and declare intention to participate.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Make sure to provide an email address or Twitter username at which I can contact you.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on November 17, 2011
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be 1  winners, who will receive 2 books.
  • Winner will have to confirm by email/DM to be considered a winner within a week after November 17, 2011.
ONE additional entry may be had by doing the following:
If you do either of the steps above, or you are already following me, you'll receive ONE additional entry.

Thanks, and good luck!

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview with Seed author Rob Ziegler

I reviewed Rob Ziegler's debut novel Seed a few weeks back (here).  It's a tremendous debut that's very much in the tradition of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.  It was released yesterday in hardcover from Night Shade Books and is available in eBook.  It also bears one of the most visually stimulating covers in recent memory.  I highly recommend it.

Here's the blurb:
It’s the dawn of the 22nd century, and the world has fallen apart. Decades of war and resource depletion have toppled governments. The ecosystem has collapsed. A new dust bowl sweeps the American West. The United States has become a nation of migrants—starving masses of nomads roaming across wastelands and encamped outside government seed distribution warehouses.

In this new world, there is a new power: Satori. More than just a corporation, Satori is an intelligent, living city risen from the ruins of the heartland. She manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, and bio-engineers her own perfected castes of post-humans Designers, Advocates and Laborers. What remains of the United States government now exists solely to distribute Satori product; a defeated American military doles out bar-coded, single-use seed to the nation’s hungry citizens.

Secret Service Agent Sienna Doss has watched her world collapse. Once an Army Ranger fighting wars across the globe, she now spends her days protecting glorified warlords and gangsters. As her country slides further into chaos, Doss feels her own life slipping into ruin.

When a Satori Designer goes rogue, Doss is tasked with hunting down the scientist-savant—a chance to break Satori’s stranglehold on seed production and undo its dominance. In a race against Satori’s genetically honed assassins, Doss’s best chance at success lies in an unlikely alliance with Brood—orphan, scavenger and small-time thief—scraping by on the fringes of the wasteland, whose young brother may possess the key to unlocking Satori’s power.

As events spin out of control, Sienna Doss and Brood find themselves at the heart of Satori, where an explosive finale promises to reshape the future of the world.
What follows is an interview I did with the author - enjoy!


Justin: In my review, I mentioned that in many ways Seed is a future glimpse, not just of a post-apocalypse world, but into the changing American culture in the Southwest - namely the integration of Hispanic culture.  Is this something you see on the horizon?

Ziegler: It’s something that’s already happened, and has been happening for generations. There’s still prejudice, of course, and some reactive bigotry in the face of rising Chicano culture (e.g. the “show your papers” law in AZ, and lots of rabidly vocal anti-immigration sentiment). But if you’ve ever been to Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Denver, Tucson—MexiAmerican culture is clearly integral to what these places are. So with that aspect of the story I wasn’t so much trying to speculate about the future as accurately reflect the present.

Justin: I'm a Californian originally, and you're absolutely right.  I think it gave the novel a lot of authenticity from my perspective.  I won't ask you to comment on our immigration policies (I'm nice aren't I?).  So lets talk about something less politically charged (or not).  Seed joins a new group of near-future science fiction couched very much in a climate change and/or resource depletion future. Why do you think we're starting to see more of these kinds of stories?

Ziegler: I think in part it’s because issues like climate change, resource depletion, the razing of our ecosystem—the cost of our Faustian bargain with tech and materialism, as a friend of mine loves to put it—are already a part of our present-day reality (e.g. This) As it becomes clear that these problems have real bearing on what our future will look like, and as we continue to fail to deal with them, it’s only natural that more writers explore such themes in their work.

Justin: Why did you want to write a story set in this kind of future?

Ziegler: Personally, I wanted to imagine a world that’s on the far edge of what current climate modeling predicts, but still plausible. (What’s frightening is that the dustbowl world of Seed isn’t even on the far edge of what’s now being modeled; it may be downright conservative.) But for me, building a world like the one in Seed was also an aesthetic choice, to cast the American west as a badland, full of hard characters and adventure, like westerns of yore.

Justin: You went pretty far into biotechnology, but also didn't go real deep into the weeds on the why and how either.  Was there a point where you decided to remove the info dumps and just let the story carry itself?

Ziegler: I hate it when a writer halts the story for a big info dump, even though sometimes it’s necessary. The sci fi and fantasy writers I admire tend to be very good at building world apace with story, which can be extremely difficult. If it looks easy, that means it probably wasn’t. It’s definitely what I tried to do with Seed. So the short answer is yes, I cut a lot of info dump in later drafts. There are still a few “As you know, Bob” moments in the book I would love to scrap, but my trusted beta readers assure me these scenes are vital to the story’s coherence.

Justin: Knowing that the SF reader can be a bit finicky when it comes to science was it a conscience decision to not go down that road?

Ziegler: As far as the biotech goes, I went with the premise that this company, Satori, could build whatever genome it wanted, basically from scratch. This gave me carte blanche to pursue things that were fun and fascinating to me. You made an astute comment in your review that Seed reads in places more like fantasy than sci fi, which makes a lot of sense. The fantastical certainly appeals to me, and with the biotech I felt free to make the fantastical happen, in really big, almost cartoonish, ways. Even though some things in the book are already technically possible, a lot of it’s implausible. Would anyone really grow a living city from the ground up? Probably not. But it was a way for me to play with this notion of cities being, more than simply collections of people, kind of living things unto themselves. It was a way for me to have these scary, raptor assassins, and to have characters who are brilliant at pure mentation, but complete dunderheads when it comes to their emotions. All of which was a lot of fun to imagine, and I hope makes for a good story.

Justin:  While large parts of the world remain unexplored, Seed felt complete.  Having written a standalone in a genre that trends toward series have you had any or feel any pressure to try to push the story into multiple volumes?

Ziegler: Seed is definitely standalone. I don’t feel any pressure at all to make it a series.

Justin: My wife insists that we can only live in Washington DC where we currently reside or Dallas, Texas where she grew up. You're from Colorado. Give me a sales pitch I can use on my wife as I try to expand my options.

Ziegler: Dallas and DC!? I think your pitch should begin with you telling your wife she’s nuts.

Justin: You said it not me! I should mention my wife's parents immigrated from Colombia.

Ziegler: [Silence]

Justin: Sooo, Colorado.

Ziegler: Let’s see, Colorado: if you hate spending time in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, you will definitely hate Colorado. You can also tell your wife the economy here isn't bad, relatively, and neither is real estate.

Justin: I read somewhere that you got plugged into a writing group at some point and it really gave you a boost.  Talk to me a little bit about writing groups, and what they do for authors.

Ziegler:  It’s so important to get knowledgeable eyes on early drafts of a manuscript. I plugged in with a bunch of writers who are, by and large, more experienced than I am, both in terms of the craft and the business. We tend to meet about once a year for novel-writing workshops modeled after Charlie Finlay’s Blue Heaven workshop. They schooled me through Seed, pointing out the blind spots and big mistakes. Everything about the book is better because of their input. (The missteps are completely mine.) They also taught me how to navigate the business side of writing. I don’t think I would have sold Seed, or even finished it, without their help. If you’re in the beginning stages of writing and trying to sell novels, you should absolutely make connections with other writers. It will only help you. Plus, the writers I know make great friends. Writing novels is a weird and solitary pursuit, and they’re doing it, too, so whatever you’re going through, they understand. They’re your family. You should meet them.

Justin:  I think you just set a record for commas in an answer, good form sir!  And thanks for joining me.  I very much appreciate it and I look forward to whatever you're working on next!

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Dear Creature - Jonathan Case

I don't read a lot of graphic novels, not so much because I don't like them, but because I have no earthly idea how to pick them.  I mean just because I like the art doesn't mean the writing is any good, and I'm really not that much for art.  So when I won Tor's New York (Not at) Comic Con Giveaway I was excited to see several graphic novels included.  The first one I noticed in the bunch was Dear Creature and boy am I glad I did.

Drawn entirely in black and white, Jonathan Case's graphic novel tells the story of Grue - a sea mutant with a predilection for human flesh.  He's awkward, gangly, and carries three crabs around with him who act more like devils-on-his-shoulder than parasitic companions.  Surprisingly he also possesses a poet's heart.  Through pages of Shakespeare stuffed into soda bottles and cast into the sea, Grue has fallen in love.  Dear Creature is a love story of the oddest type between a monster and an agoraphobic woman.

Like every graphic novel I've read and loved (Watchmen being the standard bearer of course), the highlight is the writing.  Case is both hilarious, through his crusty crustaceans, and poignant, in Grue's wooing.  There is also a brilliance coming from Grue's dialogue which is written entirely in iambic pentameter.  For those without previous exposure to ol' Shakespeare's rhythmic writing style, Case went to the trouble of including a primer in the back that's laugh out loud funny and informative.

Art sample from Case's website.
The art itself has a very pulp quality that conveys some noir sensibilities in its use of light and shadow, but also a certain flair that's identifiable to me as Western.  Of course there's a mounted cop that has a thing for the local 'working girl', so I suppose the Western elements aren't all that inconspicuous.  My one complaint is in choosing the black and white palette.  While striking, some panels become difficult to follow especially in the under water scenes that lack the stark white contrast.

Nested within the larger arc, is a secondary story featuring the aforementioned cop and his 'working girl'.  While the response to Grue's love of his human soulmate is (perhaps) warranted given his history of violent crime and outwardly monstrous appearance, this secondary story demonstrates humanity's capacity for closed mindedness.  It also highlights an unwillingness to look beyond ourselves as the cop becomes persecutor and persecuted.

All told Dear Creature is wonderfully imagined.  The writing is crisp and quirky, complimenting the story, and its art, perfectly.  Although I'm a neophyte in the reading (and even more so in the reviewing) or graphic novels, I would strongly recommend this one to all fans of the medium.

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