Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You Should Be Reading: Ken Scholes

Let's get this right out in the open, I think Ken Scholes is an awesome human being. With that said, I read Ken's first novel, Lamentation before I made this discovery. I stumbled upon Ken's series, The Psalms of Isaak though the Science Fiction Book Club. I was so impressed with the novel that I looked the author up, found his blog and wrote a short note congratulating him on the novel and letting him know how much I had enjoyed it. Much to my surprise we exchanged an email or two. He shared writing tips and other pleasantries and seemed a humble and friendly fellow. I felt lucky to have shared a bit of correspondence with an up and coming author who's work I had particularly enjoyed. Fast forward a bit, and I friended him on Facebook not expecting anything more than updates on his writing and other such things. But on a whim, I messaged him when I saw him online, and he took the time to chat with me briefly and encourage me in my own writing. We've corresponded a bit more since then and I always walk away from the keyboard feeling uplifted and encouraged. He's even commented on a few of my status updates regarding my work in progress.

Since then I've read the next two novels in his series, Canticle and Antiphon and my enjoyment in the world, characters, and story he's created has only increased. I recommend them frequently, always with the addendum that Ken is a awesome guy on top of being an incredibly talented writer. I've been disappointed that it seems that Ken doesn't get the recognition of some of the other authors I enjoy that are up and comers. I know that Ken still has a day-job, and twin girls to raise, and I would love to see him gain enough popularity to be able to write full time. I'm being selfish, it means more books for me. So here I am plugging the series. Take a gander at my thoughts on the books and then if you like what you see, pick up Lamentation and join the tribe.

The Psalms of Isaak starts off with the destruction of Windwir, home to the great library of the Androfrancine Order who protects the world from the knowledge that predates the last great apocalypse that nearly destroyed civilization. The population of Windwir is wiped off the map by an act of terrorism that is perpetrated by a mechano-servitor named Isaak who has a secret all his own.

Scholes' cast of characters is sizable and their reactions to the destruction of their worlds greatest city are varied and reflect their places in the world. I found something to relate to with every point of view character and was surprised to find myself identifying with characters I have absolutely no common ground with. Petronus, an aging former Head of the Androfrancines is a definite stand out as are Jin Li Tam and the titular Isaak. Scholes has the ability to write a wide variety of characters with an even handed skill that reminds me of no other author so much as George R. R. Martin.

The political fallout and machinations of the various factions seeking answers and retribution for the destruction of Windwir, while not as labyrinthine as those in A Song of Ice and Fire are complex enough that you'll be kept guessing and fans of that wildly popular series will not be disappointed.

Another stand out feature of Scholes' world is the fact that he blends traditional sword and sorcery with science fiction and some elements of steam punk so well. The result is a world unlike any other I have encountered in the hundreds of other world fantasy novels I've read. The elements of science fiction are gradually introduced over the course of the published books and I was quite surprised with the direction the series seems to be headed in. Much like Lamentation the series as a whole promises to take readers to places and directions they'd not expected.

I won't risk any more spoilers, by reviewing the other two books in the proposed five book cycle, but hopefully this will whet your appetite enough that you'll give Lamentation a try. I guarantee you won't be disappointed, and like I said in the beginning Ken Scholes is an awesome guy and in a perfect world that should mean something.

See he even looks like a nice guy!

Audio-Files: Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

I spend a lot of time in my car. Rather than listen to NPR or the radio, I tend to listen to audio books on my e-reader. So while, I haven't technically read these books, I still have discovered more than one gem that I would like to share with my readers. So with out further adieu my thoughts on Douglas Hulick's debut novel  Among Thieves. 

Let me just start out by saying that Among Thieves is told in first person. And in some ways, this places Among Thieves more in the camp of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, than Brent Weeks' Night Angel series. As a fan of Harry Dresden, I was excited to see a traditional other world fantasy told in similar fashion. But Drothe, Hulick's protagonist is no Harry Dresden. 

Drothe is not a man of any exceptional talents. He is clever enough, a proficient swordsman, and is good at his job. As a "Nose", he is responsible for gathering information for the bosses of the expansive network of Ildrecca's criminal empire. It's his work on the side, selling religious relics to the highest bidder that gets him in trouble. Luckily for Drothe, he has a wide network of friends who prop up the inadequacies in his skill set. Hulick does an exceptional job of fleshing out these secondary characters, none of them are there simply for the benefit they provide for Drothe's increasingly difficult situation as he manages to be at odds not only with his own boss, the volitile "Upright Man" Nico, but the mysterious Gray Princes who manipulate the underworld from behind the scenes, and the Empire that rules the city of Ildrecca where the story is set. Each character is framed by their relationship to Drothe and feel like real people with personalities and prejudices beyond their contribution to Drothe's attempts to recover the stolen relic. 

 Drothe's likability really shines in his interactions with others. Whether it is with the "ears" that provide him with the information he gathers for Nico, or his hostile sister the countess, or his best friend Bronze Deegan who provides much of the muscle in Drothe's fight to stay one step ahead of the countless factions chasing the missing relic, Drothe's good nature, humor, and skewed sense of honor and generosity shine. Even the villains are well drawn and rounded. You'll find very little mustache twirling here.  

Drothe's relationship with Bronze Deegan is the high point of the novel for me. It felt very genuine and was full of the highs and lows that any real friendship possesses. Drothe like many of us, discovers the dangers and consequences of taking those closest to us for granted, and I look forward to more fallout from the conclusion. 

Well drawn characters, and a engaging protagonist are not all Among Thieves has worth recommending. The setting of Ildrecca feels like a real place, with a history and flavor all it's own. Hulick wisely chooses to limit his world building only when it serves to better inform the story and info dumping is usually so well placed as to be largely seamless with the narrative. 

After doing a little reading on the author's website, I discovered that the genesis of the story came in part from a book on Thieves Cant Hulick purchased years ago. That discovery is evident in the language used by the characters in the novel and lends an authentic feel that adds rather than distracts from the story as a whole. The explanation of the terminology was only used in service to the story and much like the aforementioned world building flowed naturally and never felt forced.

I could go on. The combat scenes were well written and informed by the author's knowledge of Western European Martial Arts. The magic of the world was consistent, mysterious, and never seemed thrown in just because this was a fantasy novel. Pacing and plotting were well considered and even with the myriad of twists and complications, things never got so convoluted that I got the sense that Hulick was trying to hard. 

My only quibble with the book was the protagonists over reliance on stimulants. Not that drug use doesn't fit with the world or the character, but rather that Drothe never seemed to pay any price for his dependency. I have a feeling this will be addressed in later installments in the series. Installments that I can't wait to get my hands or ears on.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Company by K.J. Parker

Many of the genre review blogs I frequent have recommended the work of K.J. Parker. The Folding Knife to be specific. So while perusing the shelves of my local bookseller, I went in search of it. Sadly, I found only a smallish selection of Parker's other works. The most recent, Sharps appears to contain a lot about fencing which I found intriguing, but another stand-alone novel caught my eye. Intrigued by the cover quote hinting at an amalgam of Lost and the Italian Job, I promptly made my selection and headed home to crack open this promising new find.

I'll admit the cover quote is what sold me, but the only thing this book has in common with Lost is that it takes place on an island, and the Italian Job reference doesn't hold much more water, but that is more a fault of the marketing department than any criticism of Parker.

The premise is a strong one; a group of former soldiers reunited years after the war is over decide to settle an abandoned island together confident that the bonds that held them together in their tenure as an elite military unit will sustain them in a new life. After all, war is surely more perilous than building a self-sufficient utopia with your closest friends.

Parker's story is rife with unexpected perils, reversals of fortune, the specters of a past, and the power of friendship to both heal and wound. Sounds pretty awesome doesn't it. Well sadly, the results are a bit of a mixed bag.

My initial problem is with the character names. Most feel like placeholders and are either so unimaginative as to be wholly forgettable or so unwieldy that they disrupted my reading experience. The five men who make up the company are easy enough to remember and differentiate between, but almost all of the secondary characters are not so lucky. This problem is aggravated when the protagonists arrange marriages for themselves before setting out for their new island home. The wives seem fairly two dimensional, with the exception of the hare-lipped wife of the leader of the expedition. This may seem like a quibble, but I found myself having to stop and reorient often to remember who each character was and who was married to whom. I normally read fairly quickly and this rather average sized book, took much longer because of such confusion.

The pacing also leaves something to be desired. In spite of the reversals of fortunes and the often unexpected ways that problems arose, the book never seemed to gather a head of steam and really move forward. The initial quarter of the book was understandably slower, as the protagonists were introduced, back story was inserted with well placed flashback sequences, and initial steps of setting out for the island were conquered. But even once landfall was made, things never seemed to speed up. The once informative flashbacks broke the pacing and the stakes never felt so dire as to make me need to read the next chapter right away.

My main complaint was the ending. Parker had an excellent opportunity to show these characters at their best, working as a team against insurmountable odds, but decided instead to allow them to fall to their own sins in a way that bordered on slapstick. I was left feeling let down. But even after all of that, I can't promise I'll never read Parker again.

Parker has important things to say, and the characters of The Company makes several halfhearted attempts to step onto their soapbox, but never quite manage to take a stand. Parker asks questions about friendship,  about men of war who no longer have an enemy to fight, about whether love can grow on stony ground, and about what happens to a dream set aside for so long that its tempting fruit turns to poison from neglect. I just wish that even one of these themes had been given enough room to shine.

I'm still considering Sharps. I'm a sucker for swordplay.