Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review of the Week: Unclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover

I really wish I didn't know M.L.N. Hanover was actually Daniel Abraham. Unclean Spirits was a birthday present and an apt one given my love for Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. Looking at the cover we have all of the usual suspects for urban fantasy with a female lead. Scantily clad woman wielding a weapon? Check. Obligatory tattoo on said scantily clad woman? Check. Look at my tight and revealing ensemble pose? Check. Based on that, I expected to find a fairly paint by numbers urban fantasy novel. And if the author wasn't a favorite of mine masquerading under a pseudonym, that would have been just fine. I tend to be slightly less critical on debut authors. After all, they are just getting started and I have found several excellent series that started out with less than stellar opening volumes including the adventures of the only wizard listed in Chicago's phone book. I suspect this first book of The Black Sun's Daughter will likely fall into the same category. But knowing that this novel came from the author of The Long Price Quartet and the excellent The Dagger and the Coin series, I, perhaps unfairly, expected better.

Which is not to say that Unclean Spirits isn't a good book, because it definitely is. You just have to take a closer look to see discover how good it really is. On its face, the concept doesn't seem anything earth shattering but in true Abrahamian fashion, Hanover manages to make it somehow more than your father's urban fantasy story. If that's not enough to get your attention, it definitely should be.

Unclean Spirits is the story of Jayné Heller, who when settling the estate of her suddenly deceased uncle, finds herself thrust into a world that she doesn't understand. While she is the inheritor of her uncle's surprisingly vast fortune she also inherits his problems and, it seems, his occupation. And as an exterminator of those possessed by evil spirits that turn them into things out of nightmare, her deceased Uncle Eric's problems are extremely dangerous. Making things worse, her uncle's murderers have decided that anyone poised to inherit their greatest enemy's estate is a threat best eliminated. Jayné has to adapt to these shocking revelations quickly, or she'll never have the chance to enjoy or understand her strange inheritance.

Even looking at that synopsis, it isn't really obvious just how far from the urban fantasy norm Abraham is straying. He puts his own unique stamp on genre tropes is everywhere. His unifying explanation for the supernatural elements of the setting is a thing of pure genius. In essence every type of supernatural creature can be explained by a variation of the same possession mechanism. I have a strong suspicion that this ground level change in the common premise will lead to some very interesting world building, but sadly there seems little time for this as Abraham sets up the pieces of this inaugural tale. But in a first volume that is so expected as to be forgivable.

Another more subtle point is that our protagonist is actually quite different from that staple of urban fantasy that the cover art suggests.While she has some small protection granted to her as the heir to whatever supernatural gifts her uncle obviously possesses, Jayné has no idea how any of it works. In addition, she is caught completely unprepared for the circumstances the author hurls her into. This is a college drop out in water far over her head. Understandably, Jayné has almost no control over her own trajectory for at least the first two thirds of the novel. That lack of agency makes her a definite change from the Anitas, Harrys, and Mercys that seem to clog the genre. One might think that choice would lead to a boring protagonist, especially in the unsurprisingly first person narrative. But Abraham wisely makes Jayné likeable enough that her lack of aptitude is endearing and sympathetic rather than frustrating. Hints at her back story, including her unexplained exit from college and her adversarial relationship with her overbearing and parochial parents leave us with questions about Jayné that we want answers too.

The supporting cast is motley assortment of cliches turned on their heads and completely unexpected and refreshing choices. The stand out for me is Midian, the vampiresque epicurean who dispenses much needed world building while preparing meals that actually made me hungry as I read about them. As her uncle's last client Midian is much more than just one of Jayné's eventually band of merry men, but a potential antagonist whose goals only temprorarilly coincide with her own. Throw in a couple of decidedly ordinary folk who are pressed into service after Jayné narrowly manages to save them from the spirit that shoved the husband's mind into the family dog before possessing his body, and you are in for a wild ride. Abraham gives plenty of glimpses of potential for character depth and exploration, but most are not exploited to anything resembling the level of any of his other novels. We are often left seeing the ripples of something interesting in the undercurrents of the largely predictable plot, but very rarely does the author do anything other than tantalize.

My largest complaint with the characterization is that the villains of the piece, get an embarrassingly minuscule amount of development. Which is what leaves me hoping that Midian comes back in an antagonistic role. All of the baddies we meet are straight from central casting, including the big bad himself. When contrasted with the attention to detail we see in the Jayné and crew, it was terribly jarring. It seemed as if the author had no real intentions of these villains being anything more than glorified cannon fodder as he set up the characters he really wanted to write about.

The plot is full of the things you would expect in urban fantasy, increasingly difficult opposition as the heroes move up the pyramid of villainy, best described by Midian as something like Amway, but with possession, wounded allies, reversals of fortune, and victory through unexpected means. Its entertainingly familiar and the people going jumping through the hoops are fare more compelling than the hoops themselves. The pacing is tight, but leaves room for quieter character moments without ever dredging itself in seemingly needless tedium. Nothing to brag about per se, but definitely not unsatisfying either.

I'd say Unclean Spirits definitely has the ingredients to be a refreshing re-imagining of the urban fantasy genre, but it has yet to deliver on that potential. My personal opinion, a little more Abraham and a little less Hanover will go along way to establishing Jayné Heller as contender for membership in the heavyweight division beside the Dresdens and Blakes of the genre.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review of the Week: Partials by Dan Wells

Imagine my surprise when I see a familiar, yet unexpected name on the cover of promising looking dystopian sci-fi tale in the young adult section of my local book store. And here I was, ready to pigeonhole Dan Wells into the supernatural horror category. Since I loved the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy, I had no problem bringing Partials home.

The human race is on the verge of extinction. Eleven years ago, genetically engineered soldiers called partials revolted and decimated the human population, releasing the RM virus that killed not only 99.9% of the population of the United States, but also kills every new child brought into the world. The partials have withdrawn leaving the remaining forty thousand humans trapped in the isolated community of East Meadow in what was Long Island, New York. The humans have rebuilt as best they can, forming a new government, education system and defense force, but the looming spectre of RM infected babies threatens to extinguish all hope for long term survival. The senate institutes the Hope Act, requiring all women under sixteen years of age to have as many children as possible in hopes that a RM resistant child will be born, and a cure can be developed. Predictably, the Hope Act is unpopular giving rise to a revolutionary group known as the Voice who are determined to force its repeal along with other unpopular policies.

Wells opens with our protagonist Kira Walker, a medical intern and virology expert watching yet another newborn die minutes after its birth from the ravages of RM. Kira fears that the Hope Act has little hope of producing an immune child. Convinced that the key to saving the species lies with source of RM, Kira puts together a group of other "plague babies" to travel outside of the safety of East Meadow and capture a partial for study.

With the massive success of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, there was a lot of the premise that felt like ground previously trod, but Wells' manages to turn enough elements on their heads that after just a few chapters I forgot about Katniss, Peeta and crew. Both books feature teen-aged female protagonists, a gritty dystopian future, and a shaky love triangle, but Wells grounds his tale with enough allusions to the world outside the reader's window that East Meadow feels much more tangible than Panem ever does. The political intrigue is well written and reasoned and even the villains both human and partial have a sensible rationale for their behavior.

Our protagonist, Kira, has very little in common with Katniss Everdeen. She is only passibly trained as a soldier and her real contribution to the action is that she is the one that is driving it. Kira's stubborn dedication to making a difference and curing RM is the glue that holds both the plot and her ragtag group of plague babies together. Wells does an excellent job of making Kira and her friends talk like the teenagers they are. They definitely have more adult functions in their society and more life experience than most teenagers in Well's audience, but they banter and moon over the opposite sex often enough that readers will have no trouble seeing themselves in the plague babies. As an adult, some of the more juvenile conversations seem to distract from the plot, but even then Wells keeps these character moments in their proper place, and the pacing never really suffers.

Partials tackles some pretty heavy themes in a way that is accessible for the YA market. The question of when the needs of the society outweigh the rights of the individual is front and center here. The Hope Act, while drafted to address a vital need of the human race, is vastly unpopular and impacts the rights of many of our young heroes. The opinions of Wells' cast are varied and he wisely doesn't pander to one point of view over the other, at least when it comes to the in narrative debates.

Partials concludes in a predictable manner but Wells manages to add more than a few twists and turns along the way, providing a feel good ending with room for future installments. A quick look at Amazon shows another full length novel and an upcoming novella. Based on his first installment, I'd say Wells has another hit series on his hands, and fans of the adventures of young Miss Everdeen, should definitely give this series a look.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fantastic Firsts: Control Point by Myke Cole

I'm going to start this review off talking about an elephant. I know that doesn't track well, but bear with me. I found out about Control Point on Facebook. I like, many of my readers(I hope) have been following the career of Peter V. Brett, author of the Demon Cycle. Like those fans, I was intrigued by the idea that one of Brett's closest friends was debuting his own genre novel. I'll admit, my first thought was something along these lines; "Wow, it would be nice to have an a connection like that". We all know about nepotism, especially in this economy, where it seems that you almost have to know someone to get a job. This was the elephant in the room for me. So, with my cynical point of view, I didn't expect Control Point to be very good. In fact, I was expecting to find some joy in criticizing it. Imagine my surprise, when Cole strode up to that elephant, rolled his shoulders back and put a stream of high caliber bullets through its skull. Myke Cole is an rising star of genre fiction because he deserves to be, and Control Point is a fantastic beginning to what promises to be a long and noteworthy career.

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out the cover blurb from, you guessed it, Peter V. Brett. More nepotistic shilling you say? Black Hawk Down and the X-men? Really? But, once again, Brett pitches and Cole hits it out of the park. The folks who promised me Lost and The Italian Job on the front of Parker's The Company should take note. This is 'blurbing' done right. 

With that sort of promise on the cover, Cole wisely gets right to it. We are thrown into the middle of military assault on a bunch of terrorists at a public school. Except these terrorists aren't teenagers with guns and an axe to grind. These kids are slinging magic not bullets. Our protagonist, Oscar Britton, is attached to a military unit responsible for bringing in rogue magic users. These kids are 'Selfers', who are breaking the law by not turning themselves in for mandatory conscription or suppression by the government's Supernatural Operations Corps the moment their magical abilities manifest. Official governmental policy is that 'selfers' are to captured if possible but any resistance is to be met with lethal force. Understandably, Britton questions his orders when faced with gunning down teenagers. In the heat of battle with his men in danger, he makes the call to follow his orders. Cole wisely keeps the moral agonizing to a minimum during the battle, that practically explode off the page with its mix of falling helicopters, whizzing bullets, and a magical firestorm just in case you were getting bored.

While Britton absorbs and reflects on the implications and consequences of the nearly failed operation at the school he is faced with an even more pressing and thorny problem. He manifests a supernatural ability of his own. This seems fairly simple on its face, with Britton already being a soldier. He will just become a member of the SOC, a soldier of the more magical sort. But rather than manifesting a approved ability, Oscar manifests a prohibited one. As a 'probe' he faces swift and certain execution, so he abandons his post and runs. But in the chaos of dealing with his wildly out of control powers, Britton is captured by the SOC and conscripted into the world of Shadow Ops. Swiftly, transferred to the extra-dimensional world of the Source, Britton is made a member of Shadow Coven a group of 'probes' who are serving as black ops unit. The Source is full of indigenous creatures that seem to be the basis for many of the myths of Earth. Some are friendly, some are decidedly not. This conflict leads to plenty of action and dazzling use of magic follow allowing Cole the opportunity to show off his magic system. Brett's name dropping of the X-men is absolutely spot on here, but Cole's layering of military tactics and superstructure give Control Point a much more unique spin. 

Cole's world building is top notch drawing heavily on his first hand knowledge of the world of military service. Having been both a member of the armed forces and a civilian contractor Cole handles the military jargon and bureaucracy deftly, lending an authenticity that doesn't never bogs down the narrative. The relationship between the invading humans and the people of the Source, seems to speak to his experiences in Iraq in some ways and the handling of the Native Americans by the United States in the colonial period in others. Sure this isn't new ground, but Cole handles the conflict in an interesting if not completely novel fashion. 

Control Point really showcases Cole's love for comic books slammed against his experience of real world combat. Every action sequence is full of inventive and sometimes disturbing use of magic, frenetic pacing, and  generous helping of chaos. It practically begs for a big screen adaptation based on the set pieces alone. Cole wisely dips into this seemingly bottomless well just enough that readers are left wanting more, while balancing it nicely with character moments. The action sequences serve the plot without much in the way of gratuitous action disease. 

If you are looking for action without consequences and characters who know and accept their place in the world, this is not the book for you. Oscar Britton questions everything, from the motives of his government to his own choices. While many have listed Cole's choice of protagonist as a flaw in the novel, I disagree. Oscar Britton is flawed, and while I often wished Oscar would just make a decision about his moral trajectory and be done with it at times, watching him struggle with his decisions and fail spectacularly because of some of them was a nice counterpoint to the plentiful action.

Sadly, the sharp focus on Britton's first person narrative at times causes the secondary characters to become a little more two-dimensional than I would have expected. But they are by no means dull, in fact the majority of the cast are painted in vibrant colors and never feel like mere window dressing. It's just that Oscar seems so much more real, that they suffer by proximity. Confirmation that the sequel, Fortress Frontier will feature a new POV character in addition to Britton, fills me with joy.  

The best thing I can say about Myke Cole as an author is that he has something to say. Britton's conflicts between his duty to his country and his personal values, and the bigger question of what is his responsibility when he feels the government he swore to serve is no longer worthy of that service are the heart of this novel. Oscar's examination of these questions is never one sided and never certain. Oscar's attempts to choose a path vary and are all laden with consequences both great and small. Like the real world, there are no easy answers in Control Point, and I commend Cole's choice not to take the easy way out by giving them. This combination of style and substance will keep me coming back for more. That and I secretly hope we can have at least one "Aquamancers" joke. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The 52 Preview

Since, I'm facing a few weeks of furious activity in other areas of my life, and have fallen a bit behind in posting I thought I'd take moment and talk about some of the exciting things coming up for 52 Book Reviews. 

Interviews: I'll be posting my first interview within the next few weeks with more to follow. I've been amazed at the generosity of so many industry professionals, willing to give of their time to talk with me in this small but growing space on the interwebs. Coming soon we'll have interviews with Ken Scholes, Stina Leicht, Peter V Brett, and Douglas Hulick. Based on some early conversations we are all in for a treat, as I try to go deeper into their excellent books and their own thoughts on writing, the genre, and more. 

You Should Be Reading: Brent Weeks is a definite, and I have a few other authors in mind as well. 

Audio Files: Larry Correia's Hard Magic featuring the incredible narration of Bronson Pinchot. You'll forget you've ever heard of Balki. (Supposing you are old enough to get the reference, of course.) 

Books in the Queue: These are books I've already read, you can expect reviews on: A Canticle for Leibowitz, Partials, Unclean Spirits.

I saved my favorite category for last. In Fantastic Firsts we will be covering the debut novels of Erin Morganstern, and Myke Cole. Here's a preview of my review of Myke's excellent novel; Control Point. 

"I'm going to start this review off talking about an elephant. I know that doesn't track well, but bear with me. I found out about Control Point on Facebook. I like, many of my readers(I hope) have been following the career of Peter V. Brett, author of the Demon Cycle. Like those fans, I was intrigued by the idea that one of Brett's closest friends was debuting his own genre novel. I'll admit, my first thought was something along these line; "Wow, it would be nice to have an a connection like that". We all know about nepotism, especially in this economy, where it seems that you almost have to know someone to get a job. This was the elephant in the room for me. So, with my cynical point of view, I didn't expect Control Point to be very good. In fact, I was expecting to find some joy in criticizing it. Imagine my surprise, when Cole strode up to that elephant, rolled his shoulders back and put a stream of high caliber bullets through its skull. Myke Cole is an rising star of genre fiction because he deserves to be, and Control Point is a fantastic beginning to what promises to be a long and noteworthy career." 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Review of the Week: The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

I want to love Daniel Abraham's books. Really, I do. I discovered Abraham through his good friend and genre legend, George R. R. Martin. Martin's sterling recommendation sent me directly to the book store to pick up the first book in The Long Price Quartet and immediately dove into its pages. Abraham's epic fantasy debut was intriguing with a world unlike anything I'd read in the genre, and with nary a trope in sight, full of unique characters and a deeply personal story arc.  It was like an exotic dish from a culture I knew absolutely nothing about; I savored and enjoyed every bite. I read the rest of the series as they were released. While I enjoyed them just as much I realized that Abraham's novels, like exotic food, would never replace my love for an old fashioned cheeseburger. I like these novels, but I wanted to love them. So when Abraham's next novel, The Dragon's Path debuted I was excited. Maybe I'd love this one.

 The Dragon's Path is definitely a departure from The Long Price Quartet, introducing readers to a world that is infinitely more recognizable. Tropes of the genre are very obviously present this time around. Abraham has filled this world with dragons, strange new races, political upheaval, ancient tomes that promise to reveal mysterious secrets, and even some swordplay. The magic is minimal, at least thus far, which could be the influence of Abraham's good friend and eloquent pitchman, Martin. Abraham is setting the table for a familiar feast early on, and I found myself ready to settle down for a meal. However, Abraham's choice of utensils led to a little fumbling.

The characters of The Dragon's Path are a quartet of seemingly easily recognizable archetypes. A troubled, yet capable soldier, Marcus, is charged with guarding Cithrin, a young apprentice of the Madean bank, as she attempts to smuggle its treasures out of the Free City of Vanai before enemy troops can occupy the city. In addition, we are introduced to two noblemen who are embroiled in a political conflict that is poised to shake the halls of power throughout the realm. Dawson, the childhood friend of King Simeon, is a man of vast influence and power who stands at the head of a faction desperate to protect the rights of the privileged noble class against a growing cry for substantial political change. Geder is the awkard bookish minor lordling who finds he must take drastic measures to stay afloat in the shark infested waters of his birthright or be drowned under the weight of their machinations.

But rather than tell a comfortable if predictable story, Abraham delves into these characters with an eye for the intensely personal and through that unflinching lens we find that while all of these characters seem poised for heroics, none of them are entirely likable. Even the most likeable of the four, Marcus and Cithrin, display traits that make it difficult to see them in a wholly favorable light. When these stories are viewed as a study in character, Abraham shows a genius for uncovering what really motivates and impacts these characters. Even when they make foolish or questionable decisions readers can easily understand why. But without a standout character that readers want to cheer for the novel's lack of a true hero is keenly felt.

Another of Abraham's numerous strengths is his ability to make elements that might seem boring at first glance very compelling. The exploration of commerce and the inter-workings of banking are explored through Cithrin's character arc. Abraham does this with a deft hand that manages to fascinate with its depth of detail while always moving the plot along. The political maneuverings of Dawson and Geder get similar treatment though the political angle is not so unique and startling as the economical one. Sadly, Abraham's strengths plays a part in the novels weakness once again. The Dragon's Path, while always entertaining, lacks any real sense of action. That is not meant as a criticism for a lack of sword waving or epic battles, though both are glaringly absent. It's more pervasive than that. There are few places where the story has a real sense of momentum. I waited desperately for a tipping point where the narrative picks up speed and feels in danger of running away with our characters, but it never came.

With that said, it seems that The Dragon's Path is more about declaring the combatants and defining the field of battle than anything else, which in a projected quintet of novels is no small feat. I have every hope that the newly released The King's Blood will up the ante on the action, while still delving deep into what makes these so wonderfully drawn characters fit to be the heroes of this epic tale. And given the growth in Abraham's writing since The Long Price Quartet, I'm confident that I'll eventually find the story I'm meant to fall in love with. I'll definitely keep reading until I do.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Coming Attractions: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Fans of the Dresden Files, need not wait much longer. With Roc announcing a November 27th release for Jim Butcher's Cold Days, it looks like this fall with be full of highly anticipated books. I know I'll be in line to pick this one up on release day myself. Unless ROC wants to send me a review copy before then.

You Should Be Reading: Dan Wells

I don't usually read Young Adult fiction. I occasionally will check out something that has captured some level of zeitgeist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and  Percy Jackson have a space on my shelves. I hope to  recommend these to my children when they are old enough to start reading these kinds of books. Dan Wells has earned a place on the shelf with Rowling, Collins, and Riordan with his fantastic John Wayne Cleaver novels, though I will probably wait until after Rowling and Riordan are familiar names to my children before I introduce them to young John Cleaver.

John Wayne Cleaver has all of the characteristics of a serial killer, and he knows it. He is an expert on the subject. Even his name seems to condemn him to a predetermined fate. His therapist has diagnosed him as a sociopath, and John now lives by a set of rules designed to keep his darker urges at bay. When a killer begins using his small town as a killing ground, John's macabre fascination and the urge of the hunt send him into conflict with just the kind of monster who John seems destined to become.

If this immediately makes you think of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter series, you aren't alone. But John Cleaver isn't Dexter Morgan any more than Dumbledore is Gandalf. Despite the similarities at the surface of the concept, Wells makes it something all his own with the unique, first person voice of his protagonist. The addition of a twist part way through the book this story steps even farther away from Lindsay's wheelhouse.

The main difference between John Cleaver and Dexter Morgan is that while Dexter is a serial killer, albeit one who only kills the guilty, John is determined not to give into his urges. While those who have read beyond the first novel of Wells' series might call that a gross oversimplification, there more concrete differences. We must also consider the difference between the code of conduct that each character follows. Dexter's rules stem from his desire not to be discovered for the monster that he is. John's rules are designed to prevent him from becoming the monster he fears he will eventually become. Also unlike Dexter, John doesn't always succeed in following his code. Like any teen-aged boy, John has to test his limits and Well's wisely chooses to show the consequences to these lapses in judgement. Whether it is continuing to assist in the family-mortuary business, allowing himself to pursue his crush, or putting himself on a collision course with an actual killer, John's flirtations with his darker impulses always complicate matters for our young protagonist.

Through his attempts to stave off his inner monster, we are introduced to a stable of interesting characters who only serve to highlight the problems John's condition causes. By allowing us to view John's fractured relationship with his mother and sister, his awkward courting of his crush, to his tactical choice of a best friend, Wells manages to create a character that is at the same time alien to readers while keeping a him likable and sympathetic narrator. John's lack of empathy coupled with his awareness that he needs to at least try to hide his lack of feelings from everyone around him, makes the young killer in the making a compelling character that readers want to see succeed.

While initially I Am Not A Serial Killer seem like a crime novel, Well's takes us into genre territory by introducing a twist when the killer's identity is revealed. There is not much exposition about the specifics of the sudden game changing revelation, but I think that serves the story well. Teenage killers in waiting, are probably not prone to playing twenty questions with their prey, and John is no exception. What questions he does have prove hard to answer, and Wells feeds the information to us slowly over the course of the series. It keeps the narration honest even if it may frustrate some readers.

While no slouch in the pacing and plot categories, it's Well's gift for character and the uniqueness of John's narrative voice that propels  I Am Not A Serial Killer and it's sequels into the ranks of books that I think you should be reading, young adult classification or not.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Coming Attractions: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

I've been anxious for the sequel to Myke Cole's excellent military fantasy debut since reading Control Point early this year. The cover for the next book in the Shadow Ops series has been making the rounds recently and I thought I'd share it. My review of Control Point will follow soon.

And here is the blurb. It appears that our cast is growing and perhaps we'll have a new point of view character as well.

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began to develop terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Overnight the rules changed... but not for everyone.

Colonel Alan Bookbinder is an army bureaucrat whose worst war wound is a paper-cut. But after he develops magical powers, he is torn from everything he knows and thrown onto the front-lines.

Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.

Now, he must find the will to lead the people of FOB Frontier out of hell, even if the one hope of salvation lies in teaming up with the man whose own magical powers put the base in such grave danger in the first place—Oscar Britton, public enemy number one...

With a projected release date in early 2013, Fortress Frontier is definitely a contender for my top after Christmas purchases. Do yourself a favor and read Control Point now, so you can pick this one up as soon as it hits the stands.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Audio Files: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has been described as a "nerdgasm" by John Scalzi, and has garnered the kind of ardent praise and outright love from the genre community that most authors can only dream about. Cline's novel is a love letter to pop culture and those of us who revel in it. But unlike many other works that only appeal to a specific audience, Cline layers his tale with plenty of vintage goodies for geeks and non-geeks alike. Add in the pitch-perfect narration of Wil Weaton, no stranger to the subject matter, and an already fantastic story is elevated to something akin to a nostalgic trip to geek Valhalla.

The year is 2044, and we find our protagonist Wade Watts living a grim existence. The age of excess and plenty has passed, and all but the rich live in squalor and soul crushing poverty. But this dystopian cloud has a silver lining, the OASIS. Like most of the world's populace, Wade spends almost every waking minute of his life inside the simulation, escaping the harsh realities of his real-world existence.

The OASIS is a bleeding edge Internet that is free for all. It is equal parts MMO, virtual reality simulation, and operating system. Created by James Halliday, a reclusive, anti-social genius, the OASIS is now the primary means for communication, commerce, education, and entertainment. Anything the imagination can create can be found and explored by putting on your gloves and visor and logging in. Upon Halliday's death, his will proclaims that his entire fortune, including control of the OASIS will pass to the winner of the Contest. The Contest is a quest for an Easter Egg hidden within the his creation. A series of keys and gates have been scattered throughout the countless worlds of the OASIS. The secret to succeeding in this quest is hidden in Halliday's passion for the movies, television, music, and video games of his childhood in the 1980's.

Five years after Halliday's death, not a single key or gate has been found. Egg-hunters or 'gunters' as they come to be called, obsess over every obscure reference in Halliday's journal determined to find the first key. Corporate hunters employed by communications giant IOI, called 'sixers' are also in the search, to gain control of the OASIS so that their masters can turn the once free platform into a commercial theme park for the rich. Everything changes when Wade finds the first key. A deadly race ensues where Wade must not only deal with the dangers and mysteries of the Contest within the OASIS but finds himself on the run from IOI agents who are not afraid to bribe, threaten, or murder if it means finding the key.

The story is told in first person through the eyes of Wade Watts, high school student, third level warrior, and gunter known as Parzival in the OASIS. Wade's extensive knowledge of all things 80's is on full display as are his quick wit and intelligence. Wil Wheaton brings it in the audio presentation, personifying the snark and vulnerability of the teenage Wade with ease. His own experiences as a self-proclaimed geek and growing up in the 80's himself lends his narration an undeniable air of authenticity. We are treated to references about everything from Family Ties, War Games, Dungeons and Dragons, and 8-bit video games. A spirited argument about the cinematic value of Lady Hawke was a highlight, complete with the perfect mix of good-natured ribbing and absolute seriousness. Wade and Wheaton are such a perfect match,  it is hard to imagine anyone else as the voice of the gunter.

Cline wisely doesn't ignore the psychological issues stemming from Wade's life of  isolation or those common to teenagers everywhere. His social anxiety is best mined through his budding romance with fellow gunter and eventual ally Atr3mis. Their conversations are among my favorite passages in the novel; awkward, earnest, and all too true to life. As the hunt for Halliday's egg grows more dangerous, and Wade is forced to spend more and more time out of the OASIS, he begins to experience a growing sense of agoraphobia, showing the dark side of the glittering escapism of the virtual world.

The supporting characters are handled well, particularly Aech, Wade's best friend, and Art3mis, his love interest. Interactions between the trio are among the best passages of the novel and Wheaton handles the banter well. It is easy to imagine that he has similar conversations with his own circle of friends. Cline plays some expected games with the concept of persona versus reality when the action moves out of the OASIS in the last third of the novel, but manages to avoid being pedantic or throwing previous characterization out the window as nothing more than lies.

The OASIS is simply genius as a setting and is almost a character in and of itself. Cline creates a world where the constraints of genre are obliterated, allowing him to mine popular culture with impunity. Imagine a place where you can have armor clad knights and spell slinging mages fighting side by side with thirty foot tall robots against the lions of Voltron and Godzilla. The OASIS is that place and any other place you love from movies, video games and literature. Cline wisely chooses to show a little bit of everything, and never has to bother disguising it.

While full of vast cinematic battles full of spells, bullets, and mechanized warriors and lower key ones like playing video games against a lich (my personal favorite), Ready Player One is a story about growing up. Wade finds that despite all the flash and spectacle of the OASIS that he must become more Wade Watts than Parzival in order to achieve his goal of finding Halliday's Egg. As it turns out, the real world is not so bad after all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fantastic Firsts: Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

How to describe Stina Leicht's Of Blood and Honey? Imagine, if you will, a single delicate flower thrusting up from the cracked asphalt of a derelict alley in a war zone. Of Blood and Honey is that flower. Stina Leicht has penned a haunting and complex tale of urban fantasy set in the turbulent time of the Troubles in 1970's Ireland. But this first installment in The Fey and the Fallen series, is not your typical urban fantasy novel. There are no wisecracking detectives with magic crackling from their fingertips or ass kicking heroines with a taste for supernatural sexcapades here at all. Sure, there are fallen angels, fey warriors, shapeshifting, and a secret society operating under the auspices of the Catholic church but even these elements take a backseat to the meat of Leicht's tale. For all the wonderful flavor they add to the telling, it is the heart wrenching story of a young man battling against a world he hardly understands that makes Of Blood and Honey a strong contender for this year's Campbell Award, not the special effects.  

Sorry for the Amazon pic blurb but this was the best image I could find.
Amid the turbulence of violent conflict between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, Liam Kelly is becoming a man. Raised by a violent and brooding stepfather and a mother who never speaks of his natural father, Liam seems set adrift in those all too critical years for a boy approaching manhood. When he falls victim to a senseless act of persecution by the British Army and finds himself in prison he finds himself nearly buried under the weight of the sins of his presumably dead father.

Liam's father is Bran, a Fey warrior, who fell in love with Kathleen Kelly many years ago, but abandoned his mortal lover and their child to wage war on the Fallen. These fallen angels were brought into the Fey's lands with the spread of Christianity and the war for dominance had waged ever since. Bran's enemy, the Redcap has sworn retaliation against Bran's loved ones and young Liam is his unwitting victim. Bran may only warn Kathleen about the potential dangers, because of an oath he swore forbidding him from contacting his son. But Kathleen's fear of telling Liam the truth about his heritage leaves her half-breed son exposed and woefully unprepared for what he finds in prison.

While jailed in Kesh, known for its harsh conditions and brutal treatment of Catholic inmates, Liam is singled out by guards in the employ of the Redcap. The harrowing victimization that Liam experiences at their hands awakens Liam's otherworldly heritage. It emerges with a savagery that protects Liam from the immediate danger but is both terrifying and a cold comfort to the demons his prison experience leave behind.

Once he is released from prison, Liam sets out to build a life for himself. His hatred for the British army leads him to join the IRA, which promises steady employment and a chance to avenge himself against the injustices committed against both himself and his neighbors. He finds support through a surprisingly diverse group of fellow IRA members, his new wife Mary Kate, and surprisingly his long time priest Father Murphy, who has known about Liam's true parentage for years.  But Liam's troubles are far from over. The Redcap hasn't given up, and Liam's involvement with the IRA promises its own dangers, and all of those pale to the voice of his primal self that batters at his mind in time of stress. Add in a secret branch of the Catholic church, that has been tracking and watching Liam for years and Leicht has quite the pot boiler on her hands.

Be forewarned. In spite of a premise that seems rife with potential action, Of Blood and Honey is a slow burn If I have any quibble at all with the book it is this. I felt a little cheated that things never seem to quite boil over. But it's a minor quibble, but largely forgettable because the pacing of this novel is pitch perfect and manages to make the lack of a more pronounced crescendo of an ending the only way the tune could possibly end. Something tells me the next novel in the series will more than address this possible criticism.

Now on to the good stuff, and there is lots of that. Since the story is set in setting not so different from our own, Leicht's world building is almost invisible. Better yet, she wrings as much atmosphere as possible out of the setting. From the constant mentions of check points and continuous harassment by the police to the threadbare descriptions of the living spaces of every character we see, we are reminded of how tense and desolate Liam's world can be. The image of Bran appearing from behind a gravestone in the shape of Celtic Cross saves the reader from being taken out of the story with misplaced exposition, using context instead. Even the bits of Gaelic thrown in, add a sense of realism and are well placed so as to merely remind readers of the setting without being the least bit jarring.

The diverse cast is exquisitely drawn with no one-note characters making an appearance. Liam runs the gamut of human experience and emotion, from moments of heartbreaking love to the darkest depths of grief, loss, and despair. Father Murphy is torn between his need to assuage his anger and his conscience. Kathleen has her own regret and guilt as constant companions. Even Liam's criminal cohorts in the IRA are nuanced and sympathetic. The rare exception to this rule are the supernatural elements to the story. Both Bran and the Redcap seem more like forces of nature than anything else.  In contrast, the police and other more mundane threats are shown to be viscerally dangerous and loathsome than anything seen from their supernatural counterparts, serving to point the reader's focus onto the more human heart of the tale.

Leicht handles the fantastic elements in her story with very little exposition. My favorite example of this is the subtle way she conveyed the ill effects of iron on the Fey. Especially when you see it through the experiences of Liam as he navigates the unknown waters of his supernatural parentage. I get a feeling that this series, like George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, may see a slow revelation of more and more magical elements as the series continues. I enjoyed having to keep a keen eye out for clues, since I couldn't just wait for Bran to tell Liam all about the benefits and limits of his Fey blood.

Leicht's prose is sparse yet busting with character with surprising bursts of unexpected imagery. I find that to be my favorite aspect of this excellent novel. Leicht has a strong authorial voice that is part Neil Gaiman and part Cormac McCarthy. An elegant bleakness, not unlike a flower bursting forth from war shattered stone. I'll be anxious for the sequel and the chance to spend a few more hours with Liam Kelly and friends.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia

One of the most common bits of advice for aspiring writers is to write what you know. Larry Correia took that bit of wisdom and ran with it like Jesse Owens. Correia knows guns and b-horror movies and he combines his passions into a novel that reads like a mix of Supernatural and The Dirty Dozen. Monster Hunter International is the first installment in Correia's Monster Hunter series, that as of this writing has two sequels, with a third due out this year. There is also some talk about a role-playing game featuring both the characters and setting of the series. There may not be lots of critical acclaim for the series, but Correia tells an engaging, frenetically paced tale packed with humor, action and memorable characters.

Owen Zastava Pitt is an accountant. Not the typical profession one would normally associate with the protagonist in a book with "hunter" in the title, let alone the word "monster". But when Pitt's boss at his accounting firm turns out to be a werewolf, our protagonist produces a concealed firearm and takes the fight to his insufferable boss. When bullets have no effect, he manages to throw the beast out a window killing it in the multiple story drop. Due to his injuries Owen wakes up in the hospital. he finds out that monsters are real and the government is taking great pains to keep it covered up. The two men in dark suits that come to visit Owen make it absolutely clear that pain is the operative word. But another visit has something else in mind for Owen. His survival against all odds has brought him to the attention of Monster Hunter International, and they have a job for him.

Sounds just like a B-movie, doesn't it? Correia, wisely doesn't try to make the story something that it's not. The cliches are out on proud display. The monsters are for the most part just what you'd expect, there is a prophesy, some dream-walking, and psuedopod who is the really big bad. Corriea doesn't take himself too seriously and it shows. This is a book about killing werewolves and vampires with lots of guns and explosives. It's the side order of cheese that makes it, and Corriea milks it without ever evolving into unintentional satire. Some elitist readers might complain, but I doubt even that. In my experience there aren't many people that don't deep down really love cheese.

In spite of that, Correia manages to elevate his story above its B-movie roots. The characters are surprisingly well drawn. Our narrator, Pitt is a likeable and quirky narrator. While his capabilities are a bit over the top, Correia manages to tie that fact to his back story in a way that in spite of being a little forced doesn't make you groan. The Monster Hunters, who remind me a little of what would happen if Blackwater was staffed by the A-Team, are full of black humor and gung-ho bravado. Many of them seem fairly one note at first, but as their back stories are fleshed out it is easy for readers to find someone to relate to. There are burgeoning friendships, camaraderie, jealousy and grudges aplenty. There is even a significant romantic plot thread that is handled well, even if the object of Owen's desire is something of a go to fantasy for almost every geek out there.

The antagonists while largely straight out of central casting, are more than mustache twirling villains largely due to Corriea's wise use of Pitt's ghost fueled dreams. The monsters are far less interesting than the members of the government's monster control task force charged with policing the hunters and keeping all knowledge of the supernatural from the general populace. The contrasts between the "true believers" in government service and the professional hunters who make scandalous amounts of cash for bringing down monsters of all kinds make for an interesting dichotomy.

The violence is plentiful as are guns of all shapes and sizes. Corriea's knowledge of the subject take center stage here, but he manages to do so without bogging those readers who have little to no knowledge of firearms in the an excess of minutia. Choosing to tell the story from Pitt's viewpoint makes it feel fairly seamless, because the his knowledge mirrors the author's so closely.  Action sequences are in your face, loud and flashy, with spent shell casings and explosions in abundance. Many of these sequences would translate well to a summer block buster, and I for one think this story is begging for a translation to a visual media. Readers of the series can feel free to e-mail me to discuss dream casting.

Monster Hunter International excels in all the areas it should, and never makes the mistake for trying to apologize for it. Corriea more than delivers the goods on action, likable characters, and humor while still adding more depth than a reader would have any right to expect given the roots of it's premise. I'll be looking forward to reading more adventures from Pitt and the rest of Monster Hunter International's wild bunch.  For now I'm going to whistle the A-Team's theme song and start thinking about my dream movie cast.

Friday, August 3, 2012

You Should Be Reading: Peter V. Brett

Much like Ken Scholes, I discovered Peter V. Brett's debut novel The Warded Man through the Science Fiction Book Club. To be honest, I almost passed it by because the cover didn't grab me right off. But after a second look I was taken with the synopsis, as it vaguely mirrored an idea I had been playing with for a  roleplaying campaign. Reading the book destroyed the campaign idea, because my ideas paled in comparison to the setting of Brett's engaging novel. By my reckoning, I came out ahead because both The Warded Man and its sequel, The Desert Spear, provided many hours of enjoyment. Throw in the Subterranean Press novels set in the world of the Demon Cycle along with the projected sequels and I have hit something like a book lovers lottery. I decided to only review The Warded Man in detail here, so as not to spoil the other entries in the series. But a review of The Desert Spear and the forthcoming The Daylight War are all but guaranteed.

The world of the Warded Man is a bleak and dangerous place. Through their own arrogance, humanity has fallen from power having lost a war against the demons of the Core, called corelings. The magic that had once allowed them to combat their monstrous enemies has been all but forgotten, save for the defensive wards that protect their homes at night when the corelings rise. Travel is too perilous for all but the bravest of souls. Cities of any size are few and most people live in small isolated communities afraid of the day when a ill-maintained or damaged ward fails, bringing horrible death at the hands of the savage corelings. Fear is a constant weight on the souls of the remnants of a once thriving civilization.

Brett has said in interviews that the effects of and reactions to fear was his intended theme for the book, and it is firmly entrenched in the setting. Travel, limited by the need to be beneath the protection of magic by dusk is perilous, generating the need for the Messengers. These men who live nomadic lives as they take the risks necessary to keep both commerce and trade alive, figure prominently in the story arc of one of our heroes.

Brett's trio of POV characters are young when we are introduced to them, placing The Warded Man in the coming of age category familiar to long time genre readers. Each of these characters is shaped by their choices when faced with things that frighten them and challenge their expectations for their lives. The first is Arlen Bales who is living the simple life of a farm boy in the small village of Tibbet's Brook. While he excels in painting the wards that protect against the corelings he is a prisoner to them.  Even as a youth Arlen yearns for the freedom to travel far from the familiar confines of his isolated home than the nightly coreling attacks will allow. After a coreling attack leaves his mother at death's door while his father watches in terror from behind the protecting curtain of their wards, Arlen has a mission. He will not be a coward, he will learn how to bring the fight to the corelings even if it means leaving his old life behind.

We meet thirteen year old Leesha next. Her home life is bleak, with a verbally abusive mother and hen pecked father whom she loves dearly. Leesha expects her life will turn out like any other young woman who has come before her. She will marry and raise a family, helping to grow the struggling seed of humanity. But those plans are swiftly ended when her fiance starts a rumor that leaves her ridiculed and ostracized by her neighbors. Leesha finds a new path as an apprentice to the crusty village Herb Gatherer, Bruna, whose knowledge of nature gives her the ability to heal and to harm.

Rounding out the trio is Rojer. His story begins with his narrow escape from a coreling attack that leaves him an orphan at the tender age of three. He is rescued and raised as an apprentice by a jongleur, a travelling jester. Disfigured by the corelings, he lacks the dexterity for many of his master's tricks but shows remarkable talent with music, especially with the fiddle.

Brett makes use of a non-linear narrative, jumping not only from character to character but often skipping large chunks of time between each visit with our heroes. It was jarring at first, but most readers should adjust fairly quickly. This technique serves Brett well, allowing him to have his heroes connect at the end of the novel, without needing 1500 pages to get there.

On the way, we get the opportunity to witness the moments that prepare and propel each character into the sometimes reluctant heroes they seem destined to be. We follow Arlen from frightened yet determined boy to the titular warrior who finds a means to fight against the creatures who destroyed his family. Leesha faces the trials and victories of independance, as her spunk and intelligence help her find a place in the community that once spurned her. Rojer's journey is the most drastic, largely because of the amount of time covered. The young jongleur's apprentice discovers not only a magic all his own, but a secret that changes the trajectory of his life.

The pacing is steady, never running down the rabbit holes that seems to plague many epic fantasy novels. All of the events depicted seem to move the characters forward to the expected goal. The magic system fits nicely against the setting connecting in a way that makes perfect sense. The corelings are surprisingly varied in both their temperament and capabilities and Brett wisely leaves himself plenty of freedom to bring fresh ideas to the concept as the series continues.The corelings even manage to show some personality beyond the sterotypical predatory insinct especially in the cycle's subsequent volumes. Combat sequences are fluid, written in a way that hints at some first hand knowledge of the subject. Surprisingly there is not a sword fight in sight, and more martial arts sequences than most genre novels. The thing that struck me most about Brett's writing is that he had a fairly light touch especially considering The Warded Man is his first novel. I found myself too engrossed to bother with the critiquing that often happens when I read a fledgling author.

Making this accomplishment all the more impressive is the fact that much of Brett's novel seems like familiar territory. I have seen some critics who are put off by the numerous tropes that appear in the novel. But Brett uses the familiar to great effect, changing the flavors of your comfort food to a pleasingly different, but never jarring taste that will definitely leave most readers asking for seconds.

There have been many comparisons between Batman's origin and Arlen's story and and I find them pretty apt. In a sense, the Warded Man is meant to be a superhero, battling demons that have reduced humanity to a cowering shadow of their former glory. Brett goes for depth here, showing the sacrifices Arlen must make, and the heavy costs of his quest for the power and skill to reach his goals. Arlen's knowledge of those costs and the refreshing lack of stoicism in the face of his choices gives him a depth beyond the four-color variety.

There is the ever-present prophesy as well. The Deliverer will come and lead humanity against the Corelings.    This prophesy is well handled and doesn't seem to come complete with plot armor. It is my opinion that this prophesy is born from a populace desperate for hope, rather than a magical destiny that happens to belong to our hero. Brett further subverts this trope in The Desert Spear, by placing this mantle on a unlikely character, adding a fresh twist on this common theme.

Brett introduces a nation of spear-wielding desert dwellers in the last third of the book that may look familiar to fans of the late Robert Jordan, but their culture, while familiar, is intrinsically linked to Brett's themes on fear and our reactions to it, viewing it from a cultural rather than a personal level. This also seems to be informed by Brett's personal reactions to September 11th tragedy. This theme is also subverted nicely later.

Brett's later entries into the series only continue to showcase his growing talent. What at first may have seemed like merely one man's take on what has come before is quickly growing into a tale which stands on those worthy stories' shoulders to shout a tale all its own. Speculation that Brett's greater story is posed to be the successor to epic fantasy greats like Jordan and Martin are not unfounded.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fantastic Firsts: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I love discovering new authors and finding new worlds to explore. This year has been a good year for discovery with stand out debuts from Myke Cole, Erin Morgenstern, and Douglas Hulick to name a few. I've decided to do a series of posts on debut authors in addition to the regular reviews and other features on the blog. Deciding who to start with was quite the challenge but I decided to start with an author that may not have gotten as wide reaching attention as some of the others, due to the fact that his novel doesn't have the immediate appeal that some of the others may enjoy. Saladin Ahmed's novel The Throne of the Crescent Moon falls into a category I hadn't heard of until recently. Silk road fantasy is a departure from the usual faux-European settings of the majority of the books on the fantasy shelves. Ahmed's heritage gives him a fantastic springboard from which to launch into this exciting and engaging novel.

Sorry for the small size but enlarging blurs the image.

Throne of the Crescent Moon tells the story of aging ghul hunter Dr. Adoulla Makhslood and his protegee the young holy warrior Raseed bad Raseed as they investigate a series of brutal murders in the sprawling city of Dhamsawaat. Dhamsawaat is a city on the verge of open revolt as the charismatic Falcon Prince stirs up dissent against the unpopular and cruel Khalif and the tensions between these two factions is underscored in the world view of the story's twin protagonists.

In many ways it is the contrast between Adoulla and Raseed that makes Throne of the Crescent Moon such a pleasure to read. While both men are heroes fighting to protect the people of Dhamsawaat from the forces of Traitorous Angel, Adoulla with his knowledge of magic and Raseed with the steel and martial prowess gained from his time with a militant religious order they two men couldn't be more different in their world view and personality. Ahmed deftly juxtaposes the readers expectations by making the older ghul hunter more brash, cynical and quick tempered in contrast to the milder mannered, idealistic Raseed. This is a welcome change of pace that frames the heart of the book.

This is a story of idealism versus cynicism, the weariness of age versus the exuberance of youth, extremism versus tolerance. The dialogue between the Doctor and his protege are richly steeped in these themes and lends both personality and context to the actions taken by both. Ahmed manages to weave these thematic elements into the narrative smoothly making sure that they always serve the story first and foremost.

There are many other characters that play important roles as well. All are equally well conceived and serve as far more than window dressing or extra hands on deck for action sequences or sources of information necessary for advancing the plot. Some would likely say that they are protagonists on par with Adoulla and Raseed, and in at least one case they are probably correct. I'm sure the shape shifting tribeswoman Zamia will appear in later books in an even more prominent role. The important thing is that Ahmed manages to make even tertiary characters matter. Case in point, when a minor character dies late in the story I was genuinely sad. Not because that character was important to the story or to me as a reader, but because I understood through just a few brief interactions with one of our heroes the whys and hows of his importance to that hero.

Many fantasy readers will tell you that the most important character in any other world fantasy is the setting itself. The Throne of the Crescent Moon shines here as well. Ahmed's Dhamsawaat and its surrounding environs are described in lush detail. This is not a typical fantasy story dressing in flowing silks and replacing its longsword with a scimitar. The descriptions of foods, furnishings, architecture, and even the particulars of dialect feel authentic and after just a few chapters even the most myopic reader of Euro-fantasy will feel right at home. Compared to other fantasy novels steeped in unfamiliar real world cultures that I've read in the past, Ahmed makes it look easy.

The action sequences were well scripted with some high tension moments complete with excellent use of psychology that made even these scenes reflect the character of the participants. The magic system used was flavorful if not intricately explained. There is a real feeling of sword and sorcery novels, where magic systems and world building fade into the background and it is all about the characters and their journey. I'm certain all of those details are there, but they stay respectfully behind the curtain so as not to distract us. Ahmed's light touch makes it easy to forget you are reading at all.

The pacing is brisk, except for a slow section in the middle while injuries are allowed to heal and information is gathered, but it gave me room to breathe for a minute. The book is short, but the story is complete, engaging, and most of all fun. I eagerly await more tales from Dhamsawaat.