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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Goblin Corps - Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell's most recent novel from Pyr (at least for a few more weeks) is predicated on the notion of the 'bad guys' as heroes.  This is not Joe Abercrombie's morally gray characters, or Stephan R. Donaldson's antihero.  Instead, Marmell takes the stereotypical villains of D&D fantasy -- liches, demons, orcs, goblins, trolls, and ogres -- and makes them the heroes in a war against the righteous.  The Goblin Corps ends up as a hilarious and subversive novel that struggles a bit to engage the reader beyond the absurd fun of well drawn set pieces.

Morthul, the dreaded Charnel King, has failed.  Centuries of plotting from the heart of the Iron Keep was fiuked at the last by the bumbling efforts of a laughable band of heroes, led by the half-elven wizard Ananias DuMark.  When news reaches Morthul that the Allied Kingdoms are assembling a counterattacking army unlike any seen before, he sets a plan in motion to secure his future.  The lynchpin to that plan is a Demon Squad -- the best and "brightest" that Morthul's own army has to offer.  Consisting of a few fighters, a mage, a rogue or two, and a shapeshifter, the Demon Squad exhibits all the classic characteristics of the ideal D&D party.

Structurally, the novel reflects this same homage to the D&D model.  Goblin Corps is divided into a dozen long to very long chapters, each of which represents what amounts to a new adventure for the party.  These adventures are comparable to a night of D&D and the novel at large consists of an entire campaign.  In that regard, Marmell's novel is best read a chapter at a time as each offers some resolution and a lead-in to the next.  For someone who tends to read 200 pages in a sitting, I found it to be somewhat labor intensive as there's not a natural story arc with tension building to a grand conclusion.

Instead the focus is on the characters and the clever dialogue that goes between them.  If this is sounding a little bit like my review of Sam Sykes's debut novel Tome of the Undergates, I'm not surprised, because the two novels are very similar in their tone.  Marmell is having fun with Goblin Corps and it's transferred to his reader in smirks, snickers, and outright laughter as the bumbling Demon Squad goes about its nefarious business.  Occasionally, the novel bogs down in the running gag, sacrificing both pace and storytelling to accomplish the punchline.  Taken in the right mood and frame of mind, these gaffs are ignorable, and the black, slapstick, and pun laden humor shines.

My major complaint about the novel, beyond the minor niggles mentioned thus far, is that Goblin Corps is just too long.  Clocking in around 550 pages, with chapters as long as 50 pages, the novel just doesn't have enough under the hood to sustain itself.  By the time I got to the main story arc, which isn't for several hundred pages, I found myself counting chapters to the end.  Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed almost all of it, but I would be recommending it with much higher praise if Marmell had tightened things up a bit.  I don't see a reason why a few of the "episodes" couldn't have been pruned, or some of the setup chapters shortened, to accomplish a better paced novel.

As far as comedic novels go, Goblin Corps is one of the better ones I've read in recent years.  It has a great deal of charm, and even the blackest member of the Demon Squad finds a special place in the reader's heart by the time that final page is turned.  This is the first novel I've read from Marmell, but it certainly won't be last.  I've got a copy of The Conqueror's Shadow in my office, and I'm looking forward to acquiring his newest novel from Pyr, Thief's Convenant.

The final word on Goblin Corps?  It's the perfect follow up to something like Malazan Book of the Fallen's (Erikson) grim outlook or Little, Big's (Crowley) dense undertones.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Seven Princes - John Fultz

Around these parts I commit myself to finishing everything I start.  Why, you ask?  Because I think it's important for me to help my reader make decisions about what they should buy and what they should avoid.  If I only read things that I enjoy, how will I ever fulfill the second half of that commitment?  I'm also loathe to spend 800 words eviscerating someone's baby.  Thus, Cheryl was born.  Cheryl is my imaginary personal assistent who helps me "review" novels I really did not like.  Instead of just doggedly attacking a novel's failures, I try to have some fun with it and get some laughs.  Hopefully it's taken the way I intend it.

What follows is the conversation I had with some figures of legend about John Fultz's debut novel, Seven Princes.  It's a novel I really wanted to like, but didn't.  Cheryl urged me hold the post until after Christmas, I agreed.  This is my third installment of posts featuring Cheryl.  If you enjoy this one, I suggest finding the Cheryl tag on the right sidebar for the others.


Best fake personal assistant that
fake money can fake buy.
Justin: *buzz* Cheryl, what's on today's agenda?

Cheryl: It's Christmas, Mr. Landon.

Justin: Right.  So it is.

Cheryl: You're doing it again, aren't you?

Justin: Huh?  What do you mean -- "it"?

Cheryl: You're going to make fun of someone's book.

Justin: I'm a reviewer Cheryl.  My intellectual integrity demands that I represent things as I see them!

Cheryl: It's Christmas, Mr. Landon!  Christmas!  Do you want your little blogger friends to call you the Grinch?  They will.  In fact, I heard Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen call you an abecedarian!

Justin: A what?

Cheryl: I had to look it up.  That guy's a real windbag.

Justin: Oh who cares what he thinks.  I need to get this review for Seven Princes written.

Cheryl: Oh poor John Fultz... I really should send him a fruit basket or something....

Justin: *hanging up on Cheryl* John Fultz's Seven Princes is an attempt to write a modern myth in the spirit of....


Justin: Jesus Chri... er... Yes, Cheryl?

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

Justin: I'm sorry, did you say Gilgamesh?  Like the ancient hero of Mesopatamia who's been dead for 4,000 years?

Cheryl: How am I supposed to know?  He just said Gilgamesh.  He said you'd know what it's about.

Justin:  Better put him through...

Cheryl: Mr. Gilgamesh, I have Mr. Landon on the line.

Justin: Uh, Merry Christmas?

Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill some baddies
Gilgamesh: *grunt* Me English not so good.  Have Beowulf here, too.

Beowulf: Greetings peasant.

Justin: I'm actually a professional, King of the Geats.  Not som...

Gilgamesh: I not care.  We talk about book.

Justin: Uh, Seven Princes?

Beowulf: My grunting compatriot and I have heard that someone has tried to write a modern novel in the style of the ancient epic.

Justin: You could say that.

Beowulf: I did say that.

Justin: It's an expression.

Gilgamesh: Argh! Enough wordplay. Enkidu smart, but no here.  Gilgamesh smash.

Beowulf: Calm yourself my ancient friend.  We called yon' Professional to ensure our legacies as kings of the ancient epic are intact!

Justin: Right.  Well, as I said, Fultz certainly tried to interpret the ancient epic into a modern story.  All of his characters are infallible.  Super-strong, full of magic, seemingly invulnerable, and entirely unchangeable.  Incredibly convenient things happen time and again in a contrived manner that benefits these heroes...

Gilgamesh: What wrong with that?

Beowulf: Seems like my kind of tale, yon' Professional.

Justin: Hmm, I suppose it would.  Fultz never pays any attention to non-heroes because, well, just about everyone in the novel is a full blown hero.  Additionally, the consequences of their actions on the wider world are ignored.

Beowulf: Stories make legends!  My deeds are known throughout the centuries!  Why should anyone care about the man who cleans my mail?!

Justin: Yes, right.  That's the thing... modern readers are looking for deeper, more intimate, stories.

Gilgamesh: Ah, deeper and intimate... Gilgamesh see.  Like when Enkidu and me turn off the lights...

Justin: Oh good lord, no... bad Gilgamesh, bad!

Beowulf: I must agree with yon' Professional, friend Gilgamesh.  For the nonce, please refrain from further mentions of lights.

Justin: What I meant is that telling a story about supermen running around bashing things without any conception for cause and effect or character building just isn't something that I want to read these days.  The only reason your epics hold a place in the pantheon is because of what they tell us about the past.  Fultz's epic of a made up world with uninteresting made up characters doesn't tell us anything about the past, and because it's a shallow story about killing monsters it doesn't really tell us anything about anything.

Gilgamesh: Beowulf, did puny 'modern reader' call Gilgamesh story bad?

Beowulf: .... yon' Professional begins to resemble Grendel, methinks.

Justin: Uh.. ahem.. c'mon guys... what I meant was Fultz's novel is no threat to the stories of old.  While his sentences are well formed and he describes all the action superbly, he lacks the same gravitas of your epics which occupy a vital place in cultural history.  Furthermore, because the novel lacks any modern sensibilities when it comes to character or plot it falls flat.  Maybe this would be a big hit in the 80's, when fantasy was still nascent, but today?  I say resoundingly.... meh.

Gilgamesh: That better. *crashing noises*

This movie sucked. Don't
tell Beowulf!
Justin: Uh, did you just drop a rock?  You know we're on the phone right?  You can't actually hit me with a rock.

Gilgamesh: Heh, Beowulf... this guy no understand metaphysics, do he?

Justin: *grumble* Everyone's a critic.

Beowulf: Good bye, yon' Professional.  We'll be in touch if there are more threats to our legacy.

Gilgamesh: *grunt* Now, where Enkidu and tent?

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Monday, December 26, 2011

The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Debut of the Year (2011)

Debut authors.  My favorite thing to read because there's nothing better than discovering something brilliant for the first time.  This has been a very solid year for debuts, due in large part to Night Shade Books New Voices Program.  While my nomination list is only five novels, I can't stress enough how difficult it was getting down to five.  I read 26 debuts this year and 20 of them were legitimately in consideration to be nominated.  It should be noted that two debuts made my best book of 2011 list and thus are not included here in an effort to spread the love.

My nominees for Best SFF Debut of the Year (2011) are:

#5: Miserere: An Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock
This was hard.  I had around six or seven different books in this spot at some point over the last week including Winds of Khalakovo (Beaulieu), The Emperor's Knife (Williams), Among Thieves (Hulick), Seed (Ziegler), The Whitefire Crossing (Schafer), and The Quantum Thief (Rajaniemi).  All of them are well deserving of the recognition.  They're also all flawed in some way -- Miserere included.  I strongly suggest reading all of the above novels, but for me Frohock's was the best.

Delving into Christian myth, Miserere is the logical sequel to John Milton's Paradise Lost.  It tells the story of an eternal struggle between Heaven and Hell and the role humanity plays in keeping Earth safe.  At heart, it's a redemption story that's as eternal as... well.. the Bible.  I can't stress enough though that there's almost nothing 'religious' about the book and almost all of the iconography and setting could be replaced with second world fantasy simulacrums and the novel would remain unchanged.  However, by grounding things in concepts and terms the reader is already familiar with frees Frohock to focus solely on telling a beautiful story which she does -- expertly.

#4 God's War/Infidel by Kameron Hurley
Ok, I'm cheating a little by using both of Hurley's 2011 novels.  I call it the Connie Willis rule.  Regardless, Hurley's first two installment in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series are some of the gutsiest novels I read this year.  To quote myself:
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. 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.
In addition, Hurley tackles larger issues like gender roles and the impacts of war at home.  She does it all with incredibly authenticity.  Despite all that, there's no question Hurley needs to improve as a storyteller.  She sets up dynamic set pieces, but often lacks when it comes to sewing them all together.  The fact she's fourth on this list with that criticism shows that once she figures it out the sky's the limit... seriously.

#3: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Hi, my name is Justin and I was born in 1981. To anyone who's read the novel that last sentence is enough of an explanation as to why I loved it. The only way I could have loved it more would be to change the 81 to 75.  Even at 30 years old, I'm a little young to grasp all the references and homages sprinkled throughout Ready Player One.  Regardless, the adventure aspect of the story will be equally appealing to anyone as the whole thing reads like a concoction of The Wizard, Tron, and Stand By Me.

To be fair, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ernest Cline's novel had a larger impact on me as an individual than it may have on the general reading populace (especially the high school bullies, like any of them read anyway).  Still, to video gamers and the Science Fiction community at large there are more than a few who had similar paths to adulthood. To those I say - read it.  Ernest Cline wrote this novel for you.

#2: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
I think I undersold Prince of Thorns in my review a few months back, largely because it's not a book I finished feeling good about.  The protagonist is hard to identify with and he does a lot of horrible things.  Lawrence didn't even try to make me feel sorry for him.  Sure, I understand why he did what he did (as much I can understand a sociopath), but there's no redemptive story line, at all.

Looking back now, I neglected to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the novel.  Lawrence is a tremendous writer and his prose hasn't been mentioned enough.  The fact that I enjoyed the novel as much as I did, in spite of disliking everybody in it, is a testament to his skill.  Based on the reviews at large, I feel confident in calling Prince of Thorns a love it or hate it novel... I loved it.  I maintain though, that its long term place in the world will be largely determined by the next two novels in the trilogy.  I'm not sure the same level of despicable can continue ad infinitum.

#1: Winner of the Juice Box Award for Best SFF Debut of the Year (2011) is...

by T.C. McCarthy

Follow me on Twitter or read my posts on some of the popular genre forums, and this selection should come as no surprise.  McCarthy's interpretation of the war novel floored me when I read it way back in June.  Some are calling it military science fiction.  Maybe, although it is not a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi).  Instead, it's the incredibly dark coming of age story of Oscar Wendell, a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.

Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissist.  Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence; but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.

It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming.  Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind).  He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line because he has no idea what that life is worth.  He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.

This novel isn't for everybody.  It'll remind some readers of Hunter S. Thompson and others of Michael Herr's Dispatches.  For me, it's immediately went into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front.  Germline is the best debut of 2011, period.


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm 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'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 SFF Press for eBooks
SFF Editor of the Year
SFF Cover of the Year
Most Disappointing SFF Book (2011)
Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011
SFF Debut of the Year (2011)
SFF Book of the Year (2011)


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not From 2011

I read something like 90 books this year (as of writing this) and somewhere around a third of those weren't published this year.  When it comes to end of the year awards I prefer to talk about what came out this year.  To expand it would mean pitting classics against modern stuff and I find that doesn't work that well.  So every year I'll be doing this -- talking about the best book(s) I read published in prior years.

Here are my nominees for Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011:

#5: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Classic, right?  Haldeman's seminal novel about a futuristic war is, like all great science fiction, as much about the time it was written in as the time it's written about.  In this case, Haldeman's future war was a commentary on Vietnam and what is was like for soldiers coming home.  The message is still relevant today, although some of the novel's idiosyncrasies , especially those related to homosexuality, don't really conform to a modern perspective.  It's also a dynamic novel on the surface, dealing with the actual scientific hiccups of faster than light travel and what warfare might look like a thousand years from now.

#4: Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
These days there's a lot said about gritty fantasy.  Names like Abercrombie and Martin are defined as the trend setters.  I think we forget Matthew Stover because he hasn't done much (except Star Wars) outside the The Acts of Caine series.  Not to mention his sequels to Heroes Die haven't been near as good.  Published in 1999 (8 years before The Blade Itself), Stover's novel is a commentary on consumerism, imperialism, and BestWaysToKillSomebody-ism.  In other words, its a gruesome, dirty, sword and sorcery inspired, Sci-fantasy with some similarities to the Mojoworld story line from X-Men.  If you haven't read it, what are you waiting for?

#3: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ok, this is a good novel and a great piece of social commentary.  I'm not sure how to separate the two when rating it and that's why it's here at #3 instead of #1.  As a novel, I'm not convinced it's the best thing I've ever read.  In using science fiction as a mirror into the real world?  It's about as good as it gets.

I criticize it as a novel for two reasons.  One, I didn't really click with any of the characters which is a personal problem and may not be an issue with Bacigalupi's work.  Two, there's something about the way the novel reads that's a little disjointed.  Not the prose so much as the way it all comes together... I never could put my finger on what it was.  Sometimes a style just doesn't totally work for me, and I guess that was the case here.  Still, it's a very good novel and a must read from a cultural perspective.

#2: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Grossman's protagonist, Quentin, is morbidly unhappy with his life and looking for an escape.  Go to any fantasy message board right now and ask, "Why do you read fantasy?"  The common answer is - escapism.  That's what fantasy is all about (or at least, was about).  Quentin wants to turn the page and go away.  He keeps chasing a carrot for what will make him happy.  When magic isn't enough, he tries love and then ultimately he pins all his hopes on Fillory - a magical land imagined in his youth.  Want to guess how that works out?  I guess I'm saying Quentin is a metaphor for fantasy readers and that's just scratching the surface of all the things Grossman is doing in The Magicians.  Go check out my full review because a paragraph isn't enough to describe the awesome.

#1: Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011 is...

The Folding Knife
by K.J. Parker

The Folding Knife is a second world setting that approximates Athens or Rome at some point in ancient times.  In this case, Athens is Vesani and I have no idea where it is in relation to the so-called Eastern Empire that exists as the elephant in the room. I don't care and seemingly neither does K.J. Parker who cuts away all the extraneous items that make up a standard epic fantasy.

In the prologue Parker hits the reader with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN as her protagonist Basso leaves Vesani in poverty on the top of a wagon. What it holds back is the why. Parker relishes filling in that blank with a brilliant tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and Euripides.

Finance is the device that Parker uses to move the plot from Basso's role as head of the Charity and Social Justice Bank.  I couldn't help observing a parallel between the Vesani (read: Basso) economy and America's. Leveraged, always betting on future profits, never cutting back.  On a more personal side, namely the human story of Basso beginning with the murder of his wife and brother-in-law, Parker sets up scenes of loss and heartbreak that resonate time after time.

For all that Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages.  Why is there any list of the best fantasy novels out there without The Folding Knife right near the top? I can't explain it.  It's one of the five best books I read this year and cemented K.J. Parker as one of my buy on sight authors.


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm 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'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 SFF Press for eBooks
SFF Editor of the Year
SFF Cover of the Year
Most Disappointing SFF Book (2011)
Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011
SFF Debut of the Year (2011)
SFF Book of the Year (2011)


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Empire State - Adam Christopher

One of the most highly anticipated titles of early 2012, Adam Christopher's Empire State has been billed as superhero noir.  Angry Robot, recognizing the broad appeal of such a pastiche, has marketed the novel along with their WorldBuilder project.  WorldBuilder invites readers to create their own works based in the world of Empire State, which Angry Robot may publish (if they get anything good).  That's neither here nor there, but I thought it worth mentioning.  As a novel, Christopher's debut is wildly entertaining in a tradition Angry Robot fans have come to expect.

Set in New York City during prohibition, Empire State starts with a street tough named Rex witnessing the final battle of the superhero Skyguard and his nemesis the Science Pirate.  Make note of this, because it's the last real super-superhero action you're going to get (mostly).  The story quickly jumps out of New York and into the Empire State (don't worry, you'll be back) -- a parallel-universe, where prohibition continues unfettered and a never ending war with an unknown enemy keeps the populace in constant fear.

The narrative centers around a private dick named Rad Bradley, a divorcee who at 40 years old can only remember the last dozen years or so.  Beautiful women and newspaper reporters soon get him embroiled in a murder mystery that crosses space, time, and dimension.  Sound a little complicated? It is and it isn't.  At its core, Empire State is a standard mystery novel couched in the noir tradition. Rad is a straight forward down on his luck, hard-boiled P.I. working his way through a murder and the conspiracy behind it.

So, that's what the novel is about? Not really.  Near as I can tell, it's really about social inequality.   Existing as a poor copy of New York, down to the people themselves, the Empire State is an isolated and oppressed pocket of humanity.  At its edges, reality blurs, and across the Hudson River exists the Enemy, a nebulous entity of government machinated fear.  The conceit exists on two levels, both within Empire State and in New York.  Internally the authoritarian government rations its populace living large at the top, while those below struggle to subsist.  Externally, those without would sooner see it forgotten or destroyed all together because the implications of Empire State call into question self-realizing notions of identity and existence (draw what parallels you like from real life).

Alright, I might be pushing it a bit with that breakdown, but it's certainly there, whether the author intended it or not.  As for the prose and tone of the novel, Christopher does a bang-up job of conveying the State's bleakness.  The lament of lost memory and the hopelessness of constant war hangs over everything.  It's tangible and permeates all of his characters most especially Rad and heretofore unmentioned trapped explorer, Captain Carson.  Christopher channels a certain dark humor as well that kept me smirking in the face of the unrelenting gloom.

On the downside, the novel does struggle at times with clarity (here's where things get complicated), mostly in breaking down how and why Empire State exists.  Christopher would probably have benefited greatly from an astrophysics degree, and the whole setup reminded me not a little of Mark Hodder's Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack in that the novel itself isn't science fiction, but the device that makes it possible is.  How it all ties together with the plot makes for an obscure ending that doesn't jump the shark as much as it detours around it.  All that adds up to an ending that relegates Empire State to great noir instead of a great novel.

Utlimately, Christopher does a lot more right than he does wrong in his debut.   It seems that Lee Harris and the Angry Robot team have a clear editorial direction in publishing these pastiche novels that don't fit neatly into any sub-genre -- a trend that looks to continue well into 2012 with Empire State at the fore.  I don't put it in the same class as Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, but Adam Christopher is another great new voice in the genre.   It'll be interesting to see where he goes next.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Juice Boxes - Most Disappointing Book of the Year (2011)

Well, this is the one and only Juice Box Award you don't want to win.  Although I suppose it speaks to an author's or publisher's cache that I'm putting them on the list, meaning the selection bias is going to be toward novels that have high expectations.  There either has to be a copious amount of buzz around a novel, and/or the author has produced high caliber work in the past.  My nominations include five novels -- three of which are decidedly the latter given that they were written by the three best selling authors in fantasy today.  The other two were pushed heavily by their respective publishers, but failed to deliver on the promise in any meaningful way.  Without further ado, here are my five most disappointing novels of 2011, with the winner (loser?) at the bottom.

#5: Den of Thieves by David Chandler
There's two primary reasons why this novel made the list.  First, it's not very good.  The characters are shallow, the plot is boring, and the writing, if effective, doesn't carry it.  Second, it's one of the primary 2011 fantasy titles from Harper Voyager.  There have been literally dozens of novels about the thief/assassin archetype since Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora.  I've read nearly all of them and this is among the poorest of the bunch.

And God, that's a bad cover.  Just a poorly packaged novel from front to back.  I expect a lot more from a big-6 house whether they're committed to genre or not.

#4: Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
Unlike the previous one on this list, Alloy of Law isn't a bad novel.  I had a bit of fun reading it.  Unfortunately, what makes Sanderson such a compelling, and best selling, author, is his inventiveness.  Magic systems, world building, and twisty plots are his strengths, compensating for his characters and prose usually come off archetypal and efficient.

Alloy of Law doesn't do any of what he's good at.  The magic system is no longer new, the world wasn't nearly as interesting without Ruin, and the plot is tremendously straightforward.  What's left is a fun little steampunk adventure romp.  The end result  is me bummed out and wanting more.  Bad? No. Disappointing? Absolutely.

#3: Robopocalyse by Daniel H. Wilson
Hype machine!  This was a big push novel from the first half of 2011 by Doubleday.  Again, not a bad novel, but after about 30 pages in I was pretty sure I'd read it before.  And I pretty much had, three years ago, when I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.  Wilson's debut novel is a near copy of Brooks's in terms of structure and theme.  Replace robot with zombie and we'd be looking at some odd form of fan fiction.

Of the two novels I read this year that had announced film deals prior to publication, I could not be more struck by the difference between them -- Night Circus, one of my best novels of 2011 (see list later this week) and Robopocalypse, one of my most disappointing.  It goes to show that Hollywood isn't exactly looking for the same things we are as readers.

#2: Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss's debut, The Name of the Wind was a tremendous novel that cemented him as one of the most prominent authors in the genre.  I suspect that given the massive success of the first installment there was added pressure to get this one right.  No doubt that contributed to the extended timetable of its release schedule.  I fear it also contributed to an apparent paralysis in the novel's progression.

Kvothe, the novel's protagonist, wanders all over the world doing this and that, getting no closer to his ultimate goal.  He has sex, kills some baddies, and ends up back at school still pitted against his rival student Ambrose and confused about his relationship to a host of women.  Rothfuss continues to be an exceptional story teller and prose stylist, but without a direction, I just don't know how this all going to come together.  I barely made it through Wise Man's Fear and I'm concerned I won't want to start the third novel at all.

#1: The Most Disappoint Novel of 2011...

A Dance With Dragons

George R.R. Martin

It is no coincidence that the last two novels on this list both spent some time at the top of the NY Times Bestseller List.  That only goes to show how much people wanted to read them.  The excitement around A Dance With Dragons was especially high on the heels of the HBO TV series.  My personal excitement was so high that I reread the first four installments in the weeks leading up to its release.  I was even refreshing my Kindle at 12:01 AM on release day hoping to squeeze in the prologue before bed (I did).  Obviously, this anticipation was only magnified by the continual delays in Martin's release schedule for the past half dozen years.

That delay, to hear Martin tell it, was all about the  "Mereenese Knot." This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany's character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.

This untying is why, as a novel, Dance is a failure. The book's pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travel logs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his "Mereenese Knot." For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King's Landing crew coming to fruition.

Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn't a very fun book to read.  A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are the functional equivalent of the The Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he's got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess pieces before he can go on the attack.  If I were a new reader, I'd want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.

While I call Dance a failure as a novel, as a fifth installment I remain hopeful that it'll be viewed as necessary component to a greater story.  A Song of Ice and Fire remains my favorite series of novels, and I'm very much looking forward to The Winds of Winter.


Ok, fair readers.  Tell me what I screwed up.  Cast me down from my high horse of criticism!


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm 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'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:


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Heroism in Lord of the Rings, its Character Structures, and Aragorn's Relationship to Strider

My response to a conversation on Twitter regarding heroism, its conceit, and Aragorn's relationship to Strider (see Stina Leicht's post.)

Heroism is one of the most unifying themes in fantasy literature.  Even those stories that reject it do so in recognition of it.  This tradition begins with Joseph W. Campbell's monomyth, a term borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, that he expanded on in his 1949 treatise The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this seminal text he sets out what the hero's journey is:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
If this is the accepted definition of The Hero, and I would argue that it is, who then is The Hero of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings?  By my estimation there are four candidates -- Frodo, Samwise, Gollum, and Aragorn -- and only one answer.  Aragorn.

While Frodo and Samwise are heroic hobbits, neither are The Hero of the story.  In the end, Frodo yields to the ring, putting it on his finger in triumph instead of casting it into the pit.  Only through Gollum's intervention is the ring destroyed.  This failure doesn't diminish the trials Frodo suffered, but it invalidates him as The Hero.  Likewise, Samwise does not bear the burden that Frodo does, despite his attempts to share it.

Obviously, an argument exists that there are many types of heroes, both in literature and reality, beyond that proscribed by Campbell.  I would agree, and I think there's a case to be made that Frodo, Samwise, Gollum, even Arwen, are part of Tolkein's heroic conceit.  However, under Campbell's definition, The Hero is Aragorn.  He consciously chooses to set forth from a common world into a conflict with supernatural forces.  He wins a decisive victory and returns to his people with the power to set right the wrongs wrought by Sauron's influence on the world.

From a structural perspective, Tolkein wrote his series with two protagonists who operate independently of one another beginning mid-way through The Fellowship of the Ring until the series' conclusion.  Frodo and Aragorn drive the two pronged narrative.  Both suffer from the same antagonist, Sauron and his minions, and both have distinct foils that serve to couch all that they do.  In Frodo's case, the foils are obvious in Gollum and Samwise who both reveal Frodo's strength and weakness respectively.  Aragorn's is not so simple or perhaps too simple.

It's my contention that Aragorn's foil is himself, or rather his alter-ego Strider.  Aragorn is surrounded by other characters in the story, but none that challenge his value as The Hero.  Only he can do that as Strider.  His fears, his acceptance of the inevitable, and the loss of Arwen, are all tied to Strider.  Strider never manifests himself completely once Aragorn accepts his legacy, but the remembrance of him and what he represents never leave entirely.  My argument isn't that Aragorn has a second personality, or that Strider isn't part of who Aragorn is, but rather from a structural perspective Strider and Aragorn exist in the heroic conceit as separate and distinct characters.

Is the entire discussion semantics? Probably.  If I accept my argument is true though, I begin to look at things differently, specifically Gollum's relationship to his former self which is probably an actual multiple personality situation.  He too suffers from many of the same fears exhibited by Aragorn/Strider, but reacts quite differently.  I wonder now if there's a case to be made that Gollum is as much a foil to Aragorn as he is to Frodo.  Something to think about anyway.

Now, feel free to tell me I'm full of shit.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Some of the Best Blog Posts of 2011

Not a Juice Box Award, but nevertheless these are some of the most interesting posts I read this year.  I wish I'd kept a better record of everything I enjoyed this year.  This will have to suffice.  You could do a lot worse than spending this weekend reading each of these and/or savoring them over the holiday season.  Now, start reading!

My favorite post of the year, bar none:
I think Erikson's series is the most significant work in mainstream fantasy since Tolkein. Ken over at Neth Space does a tremendous job of encapsulating why that is. Synopisis: Malazan is post-modern and that's awesome.

Larry's well put together take on William Morrow letter fiasco:

I largely agree with him. While publishers have the right to tell us all to go to hell to suggest there is a quid pro quo, or that we work for them, endangers the very model by which we blog.

Aidan gets silly, but oh so funny and true:
There's a very real discussion of gender in WOT and perhaps this map speaks to that. Even in humor, Aidan may have touched on something significant.

Ari Marmell talks word choice in fantasy:
This is a particularly interesting discussion. I commented on it in my review of Bradley P. Beaulieu's Winds of Khalakovo. When an author chooses to use languages that are not English, how does that change Marmell's point?

Discussions of SFF, why we read it, and what it does:
The meat of this post is in the comments.
One of the commenters gives a longer form response.
Author Col Buchanan (Farlander) talks about escapism and what it means to him. Nice Tolkein quote to finish it off.
Ya, I wrote this one. Sue me. I think it's a good post.

Two honest pieces, from honest authors:
This is just an incredibly personal post from an author I've got a lot of respect for. His debut novel Germline is one of the most impactful things I've read. The post he did for Scalzi talks about some of the emotional motivations for his novel. Hard to read in spots.
Another debut novelist, Ziegler talks about living through the Cold War and what it meant for his psyche.

Weeks takes on Gaiman:
Short and to the point, but it speaks to the larger issue of a contract between author and reader. I think Weeks is right on, except writing is more than just an end product. Something to be said for an artist being given the time to produce what needs producing.

One of the best reviews I read this year (and I haven't even read the book):
First off, Jared's site is one of the best around. He covers a wide range of topics including film, books, and random crap. He doesn't write a boatload of mainstream fantasy reviews, but when he does they're usually right on. He totally nailed this one and does Sykes a great service.

K.J. Parker can have my babies, even if he's a man:
It's Parker, how could it not be awesome? Just read this. It'll whet your appetite for next year's Sharps like a mofo.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Juice Boxes - SFF Cover of the Year (2011)

The Winner: The Magician King
Illustration by Kai and Sunny

Some people (cough A Dribble of Ink cough) do frequent posts about cover art. It's not really my bag, largely because I never get the news first. However, I too love covers. My short list for Cover of the Year is six books long (see below). There's not really a connective thread between them except that none are photo realism -- a trend I loathe. Additionally, you'll see no hooded men because hooded men are lame and tired. For authors with hooded men on your cover, I apologize. If it's any consolation, hooded men sell books.  There's no accounting for taste.

So what is my criteria? I'm so glad I asked. I have four basic tenets in evaluating cover art. First is relevancy. A cover must relate to the book. Second it has to evoke something -- wonder, mystery, fear, awe, movement, whatever. Third, I like things that are different. I'm sick of the same old covers going for the same old audience. Give me art, not RPG manual doodles. Fourth, turn me on. Physically. This is only partly a joke.

No cover met those four criteria (especially the fourth) better than Kai and Sunny's work on Lev Grossman's UK edition of The Magician King.  Beautiful use of color and imagery, with just enough relevancy to the novel without being literal.  It isn't just the best cover of 2011.  It's one of the best covers I've ever seen.


Short List:

The Unremembered by Peter Orullian
Illustration by Kekai Kotaki

The Magician King by Lev Grossman 
Illustration by Kai and Sunny

Towers of Midnight (eBook) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Illustration by Raymond Swanland

Seed by Rob Ziegler 
Illustration by Cody Tilson

Le Prisme Noir (The Black Prism) by Brent Weeks
Illustration by Miguel Coimbra

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
Illustration by Charles Keegan


Comments and Honorable Mentions:

I was surprised that no title from Pyr made my list.  They consistently turn out quality covers.  If I'd gone to ten books, I think a few of their titles would have made it -- especially some of the covers done by Stephan Martiniere and Jon Sullivan.  Blackdog by K.V. Johansen gets an honorable mention as well, although I felt Raymond Swanland's work on Tor's Towers of Midnight was better.  

As it turns out, MacMillian imprints (Tor, St. Martin's) had a pretty great year with three of the titles on my list.  I should make mention of two other Tor books that were my favorite science fiction covers this year: John C. Wright's Count to a Trillion (cover by John Harris) and Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (cover by Kekai Kotaki).

It should also be noted that artists aren't the only one's who make covers.  For all the type setters, layout specialists, and art directions, cheers -- you're equally important to making these kick ass covers.  I apologize for not adding all of your names beside your work, but my GoogleFu and PublicityPester +14 skill aren't omniscient.

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright
Illustration by John Harris

 The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Illustration by Kekai Kotaki

Blackdog by K.V. Johansen
Illustration by Raymond Swanland

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Illustration by John Picacio

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod
Illustration by Stephan Martiniere

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
Illustration by Jon Sullivan


Am I wrong? What did I miss?  Set me straight Internets!


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm 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'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:

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Faith by John Love

Heard of this one?  Probably not.  It's been pretty under the radar for book due out in less than three weeks.  Seriously, go Google it.  Now try the author's name.  What'd you come up with?  Not much, I bet.  All I could find was an erudite i09 piece and the corresponding and pages.  The page doesn't even have cover art for crying out loud.  All of that goes to say, more people need to be talking about Faith.  Jove Love's debut is tremendous science fiction that blends literary traditions with space opera and all the various subgenres therein.

The basic premise is that 300 years ago an unidentified ship visited the Sakhran Empire and left it devastated.  One Sakhran recognized the ship for what She was and wrote the Book of Srahr.  When they read it, the Sakhran's turned away from each other, sending their Empire into a slow but irreversible decline.  They called Her, Faith.  Now She's back, threatening the human Commonwealth and the only thing standing in Her way is the Charles Manson.

Aegrescit medendo. A latin medical phrase that means, 'The cure is worse than the disease,' is appropriate here.  The Charles Manson isn't the Enterprise.  It's an Outsider, one of the Commonwealth's ultimate warships, crewed by people of unusual ability -- sociopaths whose only option is to serve or die.

I mentioned the Enterprise because the main plot is somewhat reminiscent of the Star Trek model.  Deep space encounters, prolonged stand-offs, failed diplomacy, synthesizing the unknown, and eventual escalation of force are all eminently present in Faith.  The bridge of the Charles Manson, where the vast majority of the novel takes place, has a captain, a first officer, an engineering officer, a pilot, a weapons officer, and all the other parts normally associated with a Federation Starship.  Of course, Captain Picard wasn't a sexual deviant (notice I didn't say Kirk!) and Commander Riker wasn't an alien with claws for hands.

In many ways Faith is a satire of the model Gene Roddenberry exemplified in his iconic series.  To boldly go where no man has gone before was the mantra of the Enterprise, a ship that was the Federation's representative to all sentient life throughout the galaxy.  The Charles Manson is the ship the Federation would send in when a Romulan Warbird took a dump on the Enterprise.  It's the ship their embarrassed to have, unwelcome in every port, but tolerated for the service only they can offer.  Love gets into the muck with each of his deviants, connecting them one by one to the reader, never redeemed but always compelling.

Moby Dick starring Captain
Jean-Luc Picard. Freaky.
Not just a delinquent Star Trek novel, Faith is also a psychological journey akin to that of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  On the Charles Manson, Aaron Foord is Ahab, an unrelenting, obsessive, and meticulous task master who drives himself and his crew to the limits to defeat Faith.  And Faith, an enigmatic and worthy opponent who Foord both loathes and adores, is the white whale.  To someone whose read Melville's classic, many of the concepts that the whale represents are likewise present here.  By the novels conclusion Love has melded the space opera with the literary, providing a resolution to the conflict while initiating a conversation with his reader about metaphysical concepts at home in Plato's Cave.

If the novel has a weak point, and I'm not sure it does, it's that some of the early chapters -- incredibly well done in their own right -- seem unrelated to the main narrative.  This phenomenon leads to somewhat rhetorical beginning that doesn't engage at the same level as the time spent on the Charles Manson bridge.  There are also moments where Love delves into some of the more scientific details or finds himself caught in a logical loop.  For a novel that ends with more questions than answers, the fact that these explanations. both scientific and subjective, were allowed to slow down a brisk novel seemed a strange choice.

Given that it's the first 2012 novel I've reviewed, I'm hesitant to be as glowing as I'd like to be about Faith.  How can I call it one of the best debuts of the year?  I don't suppose I can.  I'll have to settle for this: John Love's debut is on par with Dan Simmons's Hyperion in its quest to pose questions and attempt to answer them.  It may not measure up to Simmons's classic space opera in terms of pure storytelling, but I have little doubt that the currents of the novel will ebb and flow in mind for years to come.  Not bad for a debut no-one's talking about.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Editor (2011)

Winner: Jeremy Lassen

Last week, I gave the Best SFF Press for Ebooks (2011) Juice Box Award to Pyr.  At the time, I said something like -- I can't award the best imprint because it's too big.  How could I possibly pick and what criteria would I use?  This is also true when it comes to picking the best editor.  In a typical year, I doubt I would be doing this award.  I only read a tiny scope of what the genre has to offer each year, and it should be impossible, and unfair, to judge based on only one or two pieces of work.

This year though, I thought someone stood out.  Not necessarily because of his physical editing, although I'm sure it's quite good, but for his editorial decisions that brought about a program Night Shade Books calls, "New Voices".  That person is Night Shade Books Editor-in-Chief, Jeremy Lassen (and his editorial team).  In his own words:
"Brad Beaulieu's The Winds of Khalakovo IS related to Mazarkis Williams' The Emperor's Knife, which is related to Courtney Schafer's White Fire Crossing, which is related to Teresa Frohock's Miserere... These are all examples of what we think Fantasy Fiction can and should aspire to in the 21st century.  
Likewise, Paolo's The Windup Girl is related to Will Macintosh's Soft Apocolpyse, which is related Revolution World by Katy Stauber, which is related to Rob Ziegler's Seed. These are Night Shade's vision of what Science fiction can be in the 21st century -- painful, and painfully relevant.  
New Voices exists to draw a circle around, and bring attention to this exciting new generation of writers."
I read eight "New Voices" novels this year and loved (or really liked) every one of them.  Later this month, when my best books lists come out, several Night Shade titles will make that list.  While other editors put out equally dynamic debuts (Anne Sowards coming to mind), no one committed more than Lassen to bringing new blood into the field.  These aren't just new writers.  They're writers bringing new traditions to fantasy and science fiction.  Night Shade takes a risk every time they publish something no one has seen.  I'm overjoyed they continue to do it.

It should be noted that in addition to the "New Voices", Lassen continues to publish titles like JM McDermott's Never Knew Another and reams of outstanding anthologies like Marty Halpern's Alien Contact and collections by Fritz Lieber and Clark Ashton Smith.  These books aren't best sellers, and never will be, but it demonstrates a commitment to publishing the best speculative fiction possible.  Throw out sales and hype and on-line presence, looking at just the value brought to market by Lassen's team this year, I can't think of another editor more worthy of this recognition.

Below are the list Night Shade's 2011 New Voices:

The Winds of Khalakovo, Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)
Necropolis, Michael Dempsey (Review)
Miserere: An Autumn Tale, Teresa Frohock (Review)
God's War/Infidel, Kameron Hurley (Review)
Southern Gods, John Horner Jacobs
Of Blood and Honey, Stina Leicht
Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh
The Panama Laugh, Thomas Roche
The Whitefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer (Review)
Revolution World, Katy Stauber
The Emperor's Knife, Mazarkis Williams (Review)
No Hero, Jonathan Wood
Seed, Rob Ziegler (Review)


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm 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'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:

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