Friday, January 25, 2013

Review of the Week: Trapped by Kevin Hearne

Most people would call Kevin Hearne's The Iron Druid Chronicles a kind of Harry Dresden lite. A less filling, tastes great kind of proposition, if you will. Initially, I would have agreed with such a comparison, but not any more. With the fifth installment of the series, Trapped, I am convinced that Atticus O'Sullivan is much more than Dresden's slightly goofier cousin and that those earlier comparisons were nothing more than a convenient pigeon holing on my part.

After twelve years of secret training, Atticus O’Sullivan is finally ready to bind his apprentice, Granuaile, to the earth and double the number of Druids in the world. But on the eve of the ritual, the world that thought he was dead abruptly discovers that he’s still alive, and they would much rather he return to the grave. 
Having no other choice, Atticus, his trusted Irish wolfhound, Oberon, and Granuaile travel to the base of Mount Olympus, where the Roman god Bacchus is anxious to take his sworn revenge—but he’ll have to get in line behind an ancient vampire, a band of dark elves, and an old god of mischief, who all seem to have KILL THE DRUID at the top of their to-do lists.
In that brief synopsis is found the secret to Hearne's success. The blending of countless mythologies into a cohesive mythology to serve as the backdrop to a high octane thrill-ride full of chases, classic sword and sorcery, and bucket loads of side splitting humor set the Iron Druid Chronicles into a class all their own. Some might say that Butcher did it first, but I think that Dresden is far more serious and relies more on the tropes of the pulp detective novel than Heare's Atticus. It's the lighter touch that separates the two, and Trapped is a worthy addition to the series.

While both Butcher and Hearne revel in placing their protagonists in nearly impossible predicaments against overwhelming odds, Hearne's series lacks the sense of darkness that is all but omnipresent in Butcher's work. There is a sense of optimism that permeates not just the character of Atticus but all of the supporting cast as well. I believe that is because Hearne's intentions toward his hero are different. Harry Dresden always manages to emerge victorius from his battles, but there is a much heavier sense of consequence. Atticus may face consequences for his actions but they never seem to have enough weight to burden his soul. I believe that is because of the strong and largely uncomplicated relationships he has with his supporting cast. Granuaile is an excellent example of this. While very similar to Dresden's teacher/apprentice relationship with Molly Carpenter, Hearne eventually allows this subplot to reach its natural maturity and in less than a third of the time. This allows Atticus a measure of real world happiness that lightens the mood of the series significantly.

Both series have a similar mythology blending elements of the supernatural with religions and dieties from other cultures. While Butcher usually focuses on a relatively small number of elements per novel, Hearne's stories seem to be more a free for all. All of this gives Hearne's stories a more frentic pace but a certain lack of depth to the setting. The pacing is tight and the story moves ahead at a clip full of chases, battles and reversals that keep the reader engaged.

Long term readers will doubtlessly enjoy this most recent addition to The Iron Druid Chronicles. Hearne delivers another fast paced, humorous yarn, with several long awaited resolutions and a changing of the status quo that will propel the series forward in new dirrections. For those who have yet to give the series a try thinking it a 'poor man's Dresden Files', I strongly reccomend that you give Hearne a chance on his own merits and set aside the convienent comparisons.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cold Days by Jim Butcher

It took several years to convince me to read Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series. The biggest stumbling block was my general disdain for urban fantasy, which at that time I had dismissed as books about chicks who sleep with dead things. But the other piece of my reluctance was that I had been told that it may take a book or two for me to be completely sold on the series. The idea that I would have to slog through multiple volumes to get to the good stuff simply didn't appeal to me very much. But eventually, I relented and picked up an omnibus edition of the first three Dresden  novels from the Science Fiction Book Club. What can I say, three books for the price of one was the excuse I needed and all but guaranteed I'd make it to the "good stuff" my friends were so wild about. Turns out my friends were right, and now I chase after Dresden novels like a junkie needing a fix. Butcher's most recent installment, Cold Days, is a speedball of a novel that is easily one of the most compelling novels in the series.

After being murdered by a mystery assailant, navigating his way through the realm between life and death, and being brought back to the mortal world, Harry realizes that maybe death wasn’t all that bad. Because he is no longer Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard.
He is now Harry Dresden, Winter Knight to Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. After Harry had no choice but to swear his fealty, Mab wasn’t about to let something as petty as death steal away the prize she had sought for so long. And now, her word is his command, no matter what she wants him to do, no matter where she wants him to go, and no matter who she wants him to kill.
Guess which Mab wants first?

Of course, it won’t be an ordinary, everyday assassination. Mab wants her newest minion to pull off the impossible: kill an immortal. No problem there, right? And to make matters worse, there exists a growing threat to an unfathomable source of magic that could land Harry in the sort of trouble that will make death look like a holiday.
Beset by enemies new and old, Harry must gather his friends and allies, prevent the annihilation of countless innocents, and find a way out of his eternal subservience before his newfound powers claim the only thing he has left to call his own…His soul.

 As you can see, Butcher takes great delight in tormenting his protagonist with impossible odds, antagonists that easily out class him, and temptations that would bring any normal person to their knees. For long time fans of the series, this is nothing new, but Butcher continues to increase the stakes chapter after chapter to levels so far beyond what has come before that we are left wondering not if Harry will succeed (because he always does) but what terrible cost will he or his loved ones have to pay?

When writing a character or series for an extended number of volumes there is always the risk that the formula or narrative voice will become predictable and or stale. That familiarity will breed contempt, if you will. But too much change can swing the needle in the other direction, and fans can depart because the series is not close enough to what they know and love. Butcher doesn't  walk through this mine field so much as he dances through it with a maniacal glee. Harry is faced with change after change, both in his personal circumstances, his relationships, his responsibilities, and even in his personality. And yet through it all, he is still the same wise cracking wizard trying to do the right thing under increasingly impossible situations, and like always he manages to screw it up more often than not.

Butcher wisely shows us more of Harry's supporting cast than he did in Ghost Story, while also introducing some new characters on both sides of the conflict. Butcher's take on a certain red-suited fat man was particularly satisfied. Plot threads from the previous volumes get some progress and some long standing questions are answered and new mysteries are revealed laying ground work for many more adventures with Chicago's premier wizard and his motley crew of allies and adversaries.

The plotting maintains Butcher's breakneck formula to good effect with the last quarter of the book taken up with a battle royale that rivals anything that has come before both in its stakes and effects to the status quo. If you thought killing Harry only to bring him back from the dead was something Butcher couldn't top, I'd advise you to think again. The novel's conclusion has the potential to change things more than any other revelation in the series so far. I only had one complaint with Cold Days. It ended, leaving me with that familiar itch I'll have to wait another year or two to scratch.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review of the Week: Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein

Daughter of the Sword has been on my radar for a while now. As a martial artist who loves Japanese culture and swordsmanship and a long time reader of crime fiction, the premise of Bein's debut novel was near irresistible. A Japanese themed crime story with magic swords, you say? From a expert on Japanese history and a twenty year martial artist to boot? Well lets just say that there was little chance that I wouldn't give Daughter of the Sword a try. And I'm glad that I did. Bein turns in a story that is captivating, authentic, and full of history, character, and mythology that is handled with the delicate artistry of a the warrior poets of old. 

And here's the story summary from the publisher:

Mariko Oshiro is not your average Tokyo cop. As the only female detective in the city’s most elite police unit, she has to fight for every ounce of respect, especially from her new boss. While she wants to track down a rumored cocaine shipment, he gives her the least promising case possible. But the case—the attempted theft of an old samurai sword—proves more dangerous than anyone on the force could have imagined.
The owner of the sword, Professor Yasuo Yamada, says it was crafted by the legendary Master Inazuma, a sword smith whose blades are rumored to have magical qualities. The man trying to steal it already owns another Inazuma—one whose deadly power eventually comes to control all who wield it. Or so says Yamada, and though he has studied swords and swordsmanship all his life, Mariko isn’t convinced.
But Mariko’s skepticism hardly matters. Her investigation has put her on a collision course with a curse centuries old and as bloodthirsty as ever. She is only the latest in a long line of warriors and soldiers to confront this power, and even the sword she learns to wield could turn against her. 

Bein's protagonist, despite the somewhat stereotypical female bad-ass pose she's placed in on the cover has very little in common with the much maligned urban fantasy heroine. Sure Mariko is tough, as any women working in the misogynistic environs of the police force in Japan would have to be. But she never uses her gender as a weapon, wanting more than anything to be seen as an equal to her male counterparts. Her strength comes not from supernatural gifts or even from her eventual training from a renowned sword master, but from her dogged determination to see things through despite the obstacles placed before her. The genre needs more female characters like her.

The supporting cast is equally well rounded. Professor Yamada, while certainly falling into the trope of wise mentor and teacher, never chews the scenery, even when he's easily dispatching a quartet of murder-minded yakuza. He's more Miyagi than Kenobi, and injects every scene he graces with a quiet dignity and dry humor.  He's every sensei I've ever had, and all the ones I wished for all in one. Even the villian of the piece isn't as two dimensional as he appears at first glance, though he is serves more like a force of nature than an actual character.

And all of this doesn't even touch the secondary story lines that run through out the novel. Bein tells the stories of the Inazuma blades at varying times in history ranging from the feudal period to World War II. Even the characters who are "throw away" are well drawn and engaging and I was often sad to see their stories come to end. Bein does a fantastic job of making the blades themselves characters in the story. Not in the awakened blade tradition of table top role-playing games, but through the subtle  and some times terrifying influence they exert on their bearers. The layering of the present and the past is deftly handled and I never felt an ounce of frustration or anxiety when the story shifted away from the present.

The plot while largely unremarkable was nonetheless effortless and entertaining, with a few twists that I didn't see coming. But the lack of jaw-dropping revelations and unexpected twists didn't hamper my enjoyment in the least. Bein's prose is understated and almost invisible allowing me to escape into the story almost as if I were watching it unfold. But at certain key moments I found myself transfixed by a bit of imagery or simple elegance in the prose that showcased just how much the culture of the novel was woven into its physical substance. Bein's knowledge of the setting and themes in play really shines, giving the novel an authenticity that the reader can feel as early as the first few pages. His proper use of terminology and excellent handling of the customs and language of Japan elevate the writing far beyond the Wikipedia and anime driven research methods I've seen in some novels set in the Land of the Rising Sun. Bein's Tokyo is rich with detail as are the different historical periods visited through the course of the novel.

I wholeheartedly recommend Daughter of the Sword to all fans of urban fantasy, crime procedurals, and historical fiction. Bein is a talent to watch and I am anxious for the next installment in the Fated Blades series.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Spec. Fic. Writer's 101: Plotting with Michael J. Sullivan

I know I've been conspicuously absent from the blogsphere and I want to take a moment to sincerely apologize to everyone who has been reading and commenting on my ruminations since I started this little vanity project. Real life and my own tendency to over-extend myself got the best of me for a while but I'm back and here to stay, though I doubt I'll be as prolific as I once was. With that said, I am happy to continue the Spec. Fic Writer's series with this entry on plotting by Michael J. Sullivan. Michael's a real genre success story one of the first to go from self publishing into the wider acclaim enjoyed by those who follow the more traditional road. He's a gentleman and scholar and has been a joy to read, interview, and work with on this subject. I trust you'll find his advice as enlightening as I did. Enjoy.

In various online forums I’m usually surprised when someone new to writing asks for advice as to whether to outline their plots or is it better to be a “pantser” (develop the story as you go – named for flying by the seat of our pants). The notion that anyone would ask such a thing, as if they could will themselves into one or the other based on popular opinion, shows that people are struggling to develop techniques to help them find their way. But there is no right answer to this question, and each author needs to find what works for them. For some, outlining will destroy their creativity. They prefer to discover as their characters do. The downside is you can write yourself into a corner, which could result in abandoning the book or at least having to do significant rewriting.

I’ll share my technique, as it might be helpful to those haven’t yet found what works for them…do both.  I always start a book with a “light outline” this may mean just a few sentences per chapter, or a listing of a number of scenes that I’ve already thought about before beginning. I don’t start writing until I know where I’m heading, but, and here is the important point, that doesn’t mean you can’t change direction as the story begins to unfold.  I look at the process much like a road trip.

If I’m traveling across country I’ll start with a given route and make plans where to stop to get a bite to eat or to spend the night. Along the way I’m not so focused on the trip that I ignore something interesting that I may happen upon. I’ll take that unplanned exit, and explore that back road. Perhaps I’ll be rewarded by a really cool covered bridge or a breathtaking view. It may even give me an idea at a different destination…and that’s fine. 

Characters and plots grow naturally out of plausibility and creative bursts that redirect the story. Fighting these opportunities can result in a stiff, contrived book. The trick I found was to take those unexpected paths, but then reorient the outline to accommodate for it. The idea is to always be able to see the end from where you are in the story. If at any point you make a turn and you can’t see exactly how your story ends, then you have to stop, take an hour or so and work out the problem before starting again. Once solved, you resume until the next unexpected turn. The worst thing you can do, is push on blindly writing tens of thousands of words and find yourself in a locked room that your character can’t possible escape from.

So my outlines are pretty fluid things, and little more than skeletons with some chapters having only the single bullet point "something happens here." Here is an example of how I might have outlined the start of The Wizard of Oz.

The Farm (Depression era Mid-west)
  •          Gulch arrives with court order to take Dorothy’s dog Toto
  •          Dog escapes returns to Dorothy
  •          Dorothy fearing for Toto’s safety runs away from home

 On The Road
  •         Dorothy runs into circus performer/seer/wizard
  •          Old guy scares Dorothy into going home

You can see a lot of potential problems already. There are a lot of unexplained questions. Why is Gulch upset with Toto? How does Toto escape? Who exactly is the old guy and how does he scare Dorothy into going home? And these are just plot issues. What about setting and characterization? Where does this story take place? Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma? Who is Dorothy living with—parents? What are they like? Does she have brothers and sisters? Farm hands? Neighbors?

These kinds of questions can often be explored while writing. In doing so, you can still have the fun and excitement of discovering things about the story and yet, feel secure that the story will work out in the end.

Building an outline is pretty simple. You just start with a few ideas: where the story starts; something that happens in the middle; and then the end. This gives you three bullet points. You run the story though your head a few times and you get more ideas—more points. If you’re lucky you know the anti-climax and the climax. Imagine telling your idea to someone. What questions might they ask? (Exactly how old is this Dorothy? How are you going to account for Oz?) Answering these questions add more points to the outline. After a while these bullet points work like one of those draw-by-number pages. You can sort of see the story taking shape. Still it isn’t until you begin writing, that you draw that line that connects the dots and the whole thing comes alive. A few dots might need to be moved, some erased and some added, but in the end you have a well constructed story ready for polishing.

I hope this is helpful to those trying to find their own approach. Remember, there is no single right answer (and probably why it’s asked so often).  Bottom line, the more writing you do, the closer you’ll come to developing your own system that gives you the right balance of the “fun of discoverability” and the “satisfaction of completing” a novel that follows a given story arc.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review of the Week: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

Myke Cole's debut effort Control Point was one of the standouts of 2012 for me. So I was pumped to get an EARC of its sequel, Fortress Frontier, late last year. I dove in, getting about a third of the way in before finding out that reviews needed to be held until January. I had other books in queue, so I set it aside and didn't get back to it until shortly after the holidays. I was afraid that breaking up the reading might hurt my enjoyment of the story but my fears were quickly proved groundless. With Fortress Frontier, Cole dodges the sophomore slump and turns in a sequel that not only builds on the momentum and success of its predecessor but surpasses it in almost every way.

Here's the story summary provided by the publisher: 
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…

Cole's choice to start with a completely new viewpoint character instead of jumping directly back into the story of Oscar Britton, the protagonist from Control Point, was an unexpected surprise. Cole has taken a lot of criticism on the character's constant waffling and poor decision making and deftly dodges that hot button by introducing readers to Col. Bookbinder.

While I didn't find Britton's character in the least bit as objectionable, I instantly found Bookbinder to be more relatable. As a officer with no combat experience who has risen through the ranks for his organizational skills and military bureaucracy, Bookbinder was a man who is more like the rank and file reader than the battle hardened soldier, Britton. This fact made his underlying conflict of trying to navigate not only his new found magical gifts but his place as a leader of men of violence much more intriguing than Britton's angst of duty versus personal ethics if for no reason that the answers are much easier to navigate. Bookbinder, like Britton, doesn't always make the right decision but the results are in some ways a bit more satisfying in their conclusion.

Which is not to say that Oscar Britton is left behind. Cole catches us up with Oscar as he tries to make amends for the destruction his escape from the FOB wrought, before he can attempt to find his place as a fugitive from the nation he served for so long. Britton comes off better here, as he has a clearer course of action and I believe he is much more sympathetic as a result.

We also catch up with some of the secondary characters from Control Point, including Downer, Swift, and Truelove with some surprising additions that I, for one, never saw coming. Which is welcome, because I felt the new supporting cast was a bit weaker than those from the first novel.

The only thing I felt was missing was a truly compelling antagonist. With Fitzy removed at the end of Control Point, I had hoped that Cole would provide another foil for Britton to fill the gap, but with Fortress Frontier being more Bookbinder's tale than Britton's, I was left wanting.

Cole also expands the world itself, showing us not only more of the magical world of the Source and the workings of other nations within it, but also introduces a subplot of a resistance movement on the home plane against the impressment of magic users into military service. I found the differences between the U.S. and India's operations in the source and their reactions to the Great Reawakening interesting and hopes that we see more of other cultures represented in future volumes of the series. The resistance angle, while definitely nothing new was also welcome, reminding me of classic comic story lines of my youth. I think Cole could do new things with this subplot and would welcome more in this vein.

As before the actions sequences are visceral and chaotic showcasing Cole's real world knowledge of the subject and if anything they've improved from Control Point. I followed along a bit better this time, but whether or not that was due to my experience with Cole's style or a subtle shift in the writing, I couldn't say. The prose and dialogue has improved as well, showing Cole's growing maturity as a writer. While it could still be called workman-like, I don't think of that as a criticism. Every sentence propels the reader forward to the action packed conclusion, which makes setting the book down a challenge. Not a damn thing wrong with that.

If you were on the fence about Control Point, you should definitely give Fortress Frontier a go. Cole delivered a rousing sequel with all of the high stakes action and drama of the original all while expanding the world in new and exiting ways. Myke Cole is here to stay and so should you.