Monday, April 29, 2013

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry's name has been popping up on my Twitter feed for months, so I decided to take a look at the first of his Joe Ledger series. Maberry delivers a fast paced, high tension yarn with a memorable protagonist and a compelling supporting cast. Fans of World War Z and television's Burn Notice will likely find Patient Zero right up their alley.

When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week there's either something wrong with your world or something wrong with your skills... and there's nothing wrong with Joe Ledger's skills.  And that's both a good, and a bad thing.  It's good because he's a Baltimore detective that has just been secretly recruited by the government to lead a new taskforce created to deal with the problems that Homeland Security can't handle. This rapid response group is called the Department of Military Sciences or the DMS for short. It's bad because his first mission is to help stop a group of terrorists from releasing a dreadful bio-weapon that can turn ordinary people into zombies. The fate of the world hangs in the balance....
The real selling point for Patient Zero is the voice of Maberry's protagonist, Joe Ledger. Surprisingly, Maberry chooses to write in third person rather than first, which seems to be a necessary evil since our hero never really shares screen time with the real villains of the piece. But the strength of Ledger's chapters is evident in my exasperation any time I was forced to spend too much time with anyone other than Ledger. Ledger has a lot in common with another popular suspense hero, James Patterson's, Alex Cross. But while Cross seems almost too perfect, Ledger is much more the every man in spite of being perhaps a bit too competent. But I suppose a high degree of competence is required when facing hordes of the walking dead with nothing more than a hand gun. But it's not the sheer amount of Ledger's bad-assery that makes the book, though Maberry has a deft touch with action sequences. It's his particular blend of pissed off sarcasm that really sells the character for me. Joe's a guy you'd be more than happy to have a beer or six with after work.

Ledger's fellow soldiers are cut from the same supremely competent cloth, all top-tier operators, real heart breakers and life takers to a man. But despite these similarities, Maberry manages to give just enough depth to make these characters more than simple window dressing. Only Ledger's love interest, Grace Courtland, gets enough quiet character moments to make her more than just another gunslinger. The growing attraction and eventual hook up, while inevitable, is handled with enough class and real world subtlety that it was actually a welcome change of pace from the relentless suspense and violence of the main plot thread. Maberry handles it much more deftly than I would have expected from a novel so full of machismo.

The non-combatants receive even better treatment, particularly Ledger's psychiatrist and close friend, Rudy Sanchez and the head of the DMS, the enigmatic Mr. Church. Sanchez' role as the mouthpiece for Maberry's thoughts about the nature and effects of violence on the psyche give him some of the most thought provoking bits of dialogue, and a real sense of a bystander's react, ion to the horrific nature of both the threat of the bio-weapon and the severity of the necessary response. Church is also a real standout, enigmatic, calculating and ruthless in his pursuit of the terrorist responsible for the virus. Maberry keeps Church a mystery, but allows just enough glimpses of the behind his aloof facade that readers can't help but want to learn more about the head of the DMS.

Despite the masterfully orchestrated action scenes that populate the seeming majority of the novel's pages, I felt the pacing left something to be desired. Though I suspect my own fondness for the Ledger chapters may have contributed to this view. I still believe that the space between the more active and central thread and the more minor thread featuring the antagonists and their plans could have been managed better. But it's a minor quibble really. Especially given the fact that each of the principle characters in that secondary thread are given simple yet complete character arcs. A lesser writer wouldn't have invested the space, but Maberry knows better. This secondary plot line, while not as compelling as that of Ledger and Company, is crucial enough that to hide it behind the scenes would have been criminal.

The action is gritty, rapid fire, blood on the walls violence preceded and followed by longer moments of gripping suspense and the psychological horror that is left in its wake. Maberry doesn't shy away from the trauma faced by soldiers and those who experience horror their minds are ill equipped to process. These explorations into the psyches of the characters and the questions they ask of themselves and each other were the best part of the novel for me, transforming what could have been a simple piece of 'brain candy' into something more satisfying with a far richer and more rewarding flavor. There's a better flavor of brains for this zombie novel and I definitely will be back for seconds.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Lovers of books, especially science fiction and fantasy owe it to themselves to take a look at Jim C Hines' Libriomancer. Hines manages to take the bibliophile's love of books and the omnipresent wish that genre fans everywhere express, if only we could take the wonderments of fiction and bring them into our dull and mundane world and make it the central theme of not only his magic system but of the novel itself. The result is an overpouring of love for the written word and science fiction and fantasy specifically, that practically drips from the page. Despite some minor bobbles, all but the most cynical of readers will be hard pressed not to be infected with Hines' obvious joy in telling this tale about the magic of a true and well loved book.

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of the secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg.  Libriomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects. When Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world, he barely manages to escape. To his horror he discovers that vampires have been attacking other magic-users as well, and Gutenberg has been kidnapped.

With the help of a motorcycle-riding dryad who packs a pair of oak cudgels, Isaac finds himself hunting the unknown dark power that has been manipulating humans and vampires alike. And his search will uncover dangerous secrets about Libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic...
Hines' sticks to the tried and true urban fantasy format of a first person narrator, but his choice of Isaac Vainio is inspired. Isaac is rapidly shown to be a small fish in a very large pond, full of sparkling vampire piranha. Vainio is the bumbling, earnest sort that is instantly recognizable to his intended audience. Isaac is no Harry Dresden, but his love of books and the steady stream of pop culture references make for a likeable narrator. The rest of the principle cast consists of the dryad, Lena and Vainio's pet fire spider, Smudge. The fire spider is especially well done, providing far more nuance than any reader could expect from a character with no dialogue.

The pacing is robust and the action well balanced with quieter character moments. Hines' world building is fantastic, full of in jokes about the varieties of vampires, plenty of good natured pop culture references, and interesting use of real world historical figures. The magic system allows for a lot of creative applications and Hines' showcases some ingenious choices along with ones that demand inclusion. There's plenty that will resonate with the daydreamers that have turned into voracious lovers of genre.

I had some trouble with the romantic subplot. Hines goes to fairly impressive lengths to sell the unusual situation between Lena and Isaac, and I admire his not taking the easy route given the specifics of the dryad's personal history. Isaac's hesitation is well done, but I think it could have played for a good bit longer. That being said, the romantic subplot is not so heavy handed or ill-conceived as to detract from the overall ambition and execution of the other elements. It wasn't to my tastes, but what fictional romance tickles everyone's fancy?

Hines and Vainio's love of books is the real star here. From the 'so ingeniously simple, I can't believe no has done this before" magic system, to the omnipresent references both overt and subtle to so many genre titles that there is an appendix for them in the back, to the loving depictions of archives, bookstores, and libraries, there is hardly a page where love for the written word doesn't shine through. And that is the real strength of both Hines' writing and the novel as a whole. Its none of the things that serve as the sound bites of book reviews or marketing material.  It's not cinematic, epic, grimdark, steampunk, or genre bending. Libriomancer is made of simpler and perhaps more powerful stuff than any of those handful of those labelling adjectives. It's a tale made out of youthful joy and the miraculous daydreams of genre lovers since the very first fairy tales. Which is a different sort of sound bite all together.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Interview: Robert Jackson Bennett

I love interviews, but I have to admit I approached my interview with Robert Jackson Bennett with more than my usual level of trepidation. After reading The Troupe which is currently at the top of my rankings for the best novel I've read this year, and perusing his blog for what felt like hours, I was convinced I might not be up for the task. But I put my big boy pants on and soldiered on. The results are, in my opinion, one of the best interviews I've done to date. Robert's answers are revealing, thought provoking and I am grateful that he took the considerable amount of time necessary to do this interview in the longer, more conversational format I prefer.  I hope you all enjoy reading this interview, half as much as I enjoyed conducting it. 

52 Reviews: The Troupe definitely defies easy classification into any one genre, feeling as if it would be equally at home on any number of bookstore shelves. And reading through the synopsis' of your other work, the lack of easy labels seems to be a theme. Is this genre blending a conscious decision on your part from the planning stages, or is it a natural extension of your writing process?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I would say that I definitely don't go into anything planning for it to be a specific mix of things. It's not quite like a cocktail recipe, with 2 parts horror, 1 part family drama, 1 part fantasy, shake and add a dash of bitters. 

On the whole, it never really occurs to me to write my books to be anything than what they wind up being. And it never occurs to me that a book shouldn't try and be as much as it can - and sometimes the genre system seems to be more about what a book isn't rather than what it is. Any denial-based system isn't going to produce anything that's very much fun, I don't think.

At times, I sometimes think of the genre system as a soda machine at a fast food restaurant, with lots of nozzles, each with their own brand and label: only some are labeled MYSTERY, others FANTASY, others SCI-FI, and still others HORROR. This is all very efficient, but the real issue is, when someone walks up to the machine and pulls the lever on that nozzle, they know exactly what they're going to get - and that's really no fun at all.

But at the end of the day, genre isn't in the hands of the writer. There's an Orson Welles quote I like to reference for this: "I'm the bird, you're the ornithologist." Why ask me what my genre is? That's up to you, the market, and the critical community.

52 Reviews: Given this lack of attention to genre and seemingly organic writing process, take us through the process by which a story seed grows into a full fledged RJB novel. Do you start with characters first, or plot, or something completely different? Do the various elements of the story simply present themselves, or do you get to that place authors talk about where the story seems to tell itself? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: That's a pretty tough question. Writing is like building a house from the inside out: you don't know how it actually looks to people on the street, and you usually have to fix a bunch of stuff once you're done. So it's not quite a surgical procedure, nor is it as highly planned and coordinated as, say, a military strike.

Writing, for me, is more or less like making a stew from scratch: what I do is get water bubbling, then go around finding things I like, figuring out how to prepare them for the stew, and throwing them in. I considered writing a very long post for all the things that went into making American Elsewhere: various types of architecture, exotica music, Edward Hopper paintings, Mad Men, Cheever, and so on and so on, until the list got so long and so burdensome that eventually I wasn't sure what actually inspired American Elsewhere, and what I just sort of liked. But I'm not sure if there's a difference.

So I more or less just grab things that really strike me. A lot of these are images - I tend to be very visual. What I do is string together a series of images I like that feel connected by mood, ambiance, and tone. Then, usually, I start thinking about them in a way that dovetails with an idea that's been concerning for me - for The Troupe, it was the nature and purpose of art, art as a way of looking at the world and at each other. For American Elsewhere, it was the poignant, invented nostalgia that is the American Dream. For City of Stairs, the novel I'm working now, it's history, and how it makes us - and how we also make history, tampering with it and editing it, so we so often make ourselves. 

Then it's a matter of simply writing it. That's the fun part.

I draw inspiration less and less from fiction, unfortunately. Part of it is the time investment: between a baby, a job, and writing, I have less and less time to read. When I do read, I'm chiefly looking for technique. Content can come from anywhere - see the list above - but technique is something that you can only find in reading. So if I pick something up, and it's not showing me a new way to tell or story, then there's a very good chance I won't finish it.

52 Reviews: The Big Idea seems to be a large part of your writing process. Would you say it informs every other aspect of the novel? And if so, how do you balance the needs of your chosen theme with the plot, characters, and all of the other usual suspects?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I'd say the Big Idea probably does dictate everything I do in a story. Every aspect of the novel should explore the Big Idea in some fashion. Usually, this isn't hard to do. A character that's fun or has a purpose in the plot can usually be bent or expanded so that, like a lens, they're redirected to focus on the Big Idea.

I usually sketch out the plot at the start so it's a road leading right into the middle of the Big Idea. But it's never solid - part of what I do when I write is figure out how I feel about things. Characters and plots are like nets I cast into the sea, trying to catch the way I feel about a thing. If I do it right, it's still plenty engaging.

52 Reviews:  Can you give an example of an instance where you bent and expanded a character's arc to better focus on the Big Idea of the novel? And how much or little do those changes end up affecting the plot you have laid out?

Robert Jackson Bennett: Sure. In City of Stairs, the work I'm currently editing, the primary friction is between history and the present. How much does history affect what's happening now? How much of history is invented or rearranged, right now, here in the present? And I realized I had one major character who didn't quite have a goal, or a purpose - he didn't have an argument one way or the other on the Big Idea. 

So I thought about it, and realized, "Wait, my main character is fighting for the present way of life, and her opponents are fighting for the past - so who's fighting for the future? Who's the big picture character with the long term view that wants to see things change for the better?"

And right away, I realized it was him. So I completely rewrote his story line so that he's the one who's the voice of change, the voice of the future, which neither the past nor the present really wants to listen to.

52 Reviews: Earlier, you mentioned not finding inspiration in fiction but rather finding technique. What single aspect of writing do you think is most important for your particular brand of storytelling? And what technique or techniques would you recommend fledgling writers attempt pay particular attention to? 

Robert Jackson BennettI would say that voice is by far and away the most important part of my storytelling, and it's probably also what I look for in other people's stuff. Voice has the most immediate effect on the reader, more than any other quality: plot, character, and theme all take time to have an effect, but voice is right there on page one, waiting for you. And a great voice can make readers feel enchanted even when reading about an aimless plot, unbelievable characters, and dull theme, believe it or not.

Voice is the hardest thing to develop, naturally. It's also the most vague and abstract quality of fiction: you can pinpoint where a character or plot goes wrong, but voice is much more insubstantial, existing between the words. The only advice I can give on voice is that it takes time to develop, and mimicry is quite important: try writing in a variety of styles, hone your instincts, and figure out what's working, and when it works - because it won't work all the time.

52 Reviews: I have to ask, if mimicry is so important to finding and developing your voice, which authors' voices did you try and emulate in the process of finding your own distinct narrative voice? What lessons did you learn through that process and was there any one author you found that influenced you more than others?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I would say that initially the first voices I tried to mimic were Cormac McCarthy and John le Carre. The former is so obvious in some of my earliest works that it threatens to become parody. In later works, I think I tried to fold in a little bit of Neil Gaiman, John Crowley, David Mitchell, and so on.

52 Reviews: Tell me more about the process of creating characters for your novels. In The Troupe, I was most impressed with the layered portrayal of each and every principle character. They felt like real people, a little rough around the edges and world weary like so many of us. I know that you've said you often bend and refocus your characters to have them better highlight the Big Idea, but what steps go into their creation? Do you base them on real world figures from your own experiences or historical figures, or some psychological archetype? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Well, I usually start with an image, like I do for most things, and then I have to nail down the voice of the character. A lot of this is decided in the first scene with the character, which often serves as the introductory scene for me, the writer, just as much as it does for the reader. For readers, they need to know as much as they can (or need to know) about a character from their very first interaction, so when a writer writes that first scene, it's usually (or for me at least) a crucial decision point about this character's perspective, their bearing, the way they react to things, etc. This is reflected both in how they carry themselves, how they're revealed to the reader (sitting, standing, aware of the attention of the narrator, etc), and then I need to figure out how their voice engages with this reveal.

A lot of it is talking out loud like the character. I do this in my head all the time when I'm doing menial tasks, like sorting laundry. If you can mimic your character's voice and attitude, then it becomes less a process of artifice and invention, and more akin to, "Well, of course Colette would say that, that's who Colette is."

52 Reviews: You've talked a lot about images in terms of your creative process. Can you give us a more specific answer about how an image or series of images influences the creation of a character? Take Harry Silenus for example. What can you tell us about the images that led to his creation and development?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I had two images in mind for Silenus - in one, he's in performer mode, with his dark red coat, black top hat, and white gloves, taking up every inch of the spotlight. He's every bit the veteran performer, bringing such stage presence that he seems to fill up the entire theater.

This is essentially a stock image: there are countless films, paintings, and books about the stage that feature someone like this. One could simply label it the "show leader" image, and it would work pretty well as an archetype for exactly who this character is.

But, then there's the other image for Silenus: sitting behind his desk, smoking, drinking, slouching, and casting a leery eye on whoever happens to be sitting across from him. I have a fascination with this room setting - I notice I have a lot of scenes in my books with desks, and a quiet struggle occurring between people on opposite sides of them. It's a very theatrical, very clear arrangement. But for Silenus, this scene is played in direct contrast to who he is on the stage: he's filthy, truculent, and foul-mouthed, a far cry from the mannered performer we see in the theater, a cut-throat wheeler and dealer who isn't ashamed to voice his darkest, nastiest thoughts. There's a lot of Al Swearengen in Silenus, really.

However, it's worth noting that though the scenes play in conflict with one another, there's some parallels: a desk is often like a stage, a platform one person uses to address an audience.

52 Reviews: I'd like to circle back and ask about something you said in our first question about genre being more about what a book isn't than what it is. Would you agree that genre is really more of a subtle marketing ploy than anything that makes a statement about the books content? One also wonders if being pigeon holed as a writer doesn't help in increasing sales in some way, except in the rare cases where an author's popularity is so profound as to become its own demographic. To piggy back a question on to that statement, would you classify writing in such a way as to include so many disparate elements that are often synonymous with genre as an attempt to achieve the later by gaining a reputation that crosses genre lines? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: I'd say that genre is, at heart, just a simple tagging system that allows readers to pull from a select pool of work knowing that whatever they get will align with a pre-determined, codified set of expectations. The only difference is, frequently the authors are complicit in delivering what's promised. 

This can be unintentional - authors, after all, were readers first, and they draw on what they read, so if what they read was created within the genre system, then what they write has already been molded by the genre system, to whichever extent; or, it can be intentional, where an author actually sits down and says, "I'd like to write a detective novel, so I need to go over my checklist of what people expect of that," and then they write within these rules. The latter likely occurs with the writer's expectation that giving readers exactly what they want is good for sales.

In either situation, when you really think about the genre system, the issue is one of authority: who's in charge? Is it the reader, who's coming to the shelf with a set of expectations for what they want to see? Is it the marketer, for perpetuating fixed ideas of what certain types of books are, in order to capitalize on a fixed market? Or is the writer, who has the option of either writing whatever they feel, or writing within the system in order to give everyone what they want? It's unclear.

However, I do feel that, in terms of creating a devoted audience, you don't want to think poorly of your reader. In other words: most readers have a nose for horseshit. If what you're making isn't genuine, if it's all artifice and contrivance, if it doesn't come from someplace real, then, I think readers will detect it, and either toss it aside, or read it and forget it.

52 Reviews: One of the things that I liked best about The Troupe is it never pandered its message to the reader. I was left to determine my own interpretation about the overall meaning of the story. Only now after some comments I've read both on your blog and during this interview do I have any real sense of your intentions as a storyteller. In many ways, what I have experienced personally colored my reaction to George's quest for a father and the revelations about family and identity that were revealed to him along the way. Were there bits of your own personal experience that wound their way into the characters and narrative along the way? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Well, when I wrote The Troupe, I wasn't a dad yet. I think my wife had maybe - *maybe* - just become pregnant somewhere in the middle of writing The Troupe. (I remember the dates of the pregnancy far more than I do writing stages - writing is a vague, never ending fog) And I usually get a strong idea for my arcs in the story well before I actually write it, so in regards to the big framework I had planned, my own fatherhood actually might not have been a big factor.

However, it might have been a big factor in rewrites. Rewrites is the real action of writing - sculptors need raw stone to chisel away at, but for writers, what many don't realize is that the first draft is that big hunk of raw stone, self-produced. Then you see a thing in that stone, the thing you want to see, and there's a matter of chipping away at it until you see what you want.

In regards to messages, I find the most writing inspiration comes from subjects about which the writer feels intensely ambiguous. A book shouldn't be a clean statement about anything anymore than a single life should. There should be enough material in the book that resonates with enough readers in such a way that they should be pulled in multiple directions at once.

If you do a good job, that is.

52 Reviews: For my last question, I'd like to try something a little something different. Let's call it a Writer's Soapbox. Here's your chance to pontificate on your topic of choice, promote an upcoming project, or speculate on the significance of the Pope's hat in relation to crop circles. The floor is yours, do your worst. 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Sure. Here's a fun game that translates how a writer hears a few example questions, each of which I have heard at some point in time:

"What sort of writer are you?" is translated as, "How would you sum up the whole of your career, some of which you can't even remember, in a handful of words?"

"What do you write?" is translated as, "How do you think a multitude of other people you've never met in your life would categorize your work?"

"Is there a movie deal?" is translated as, "Are you aware that you picked the wrong medium to work in?"

"I have a story for you to write!" is translated as, "I would like you to use your time and experience for my own ideas, which I just assume are wildly original!"

"Should I have heard of you?" is translated as, "I will now arbitrate your self-worth, as well as how you will feel for the rest of the day."

"I've never heard of your book, but is it like THIS book which I really like?" is translated as, "I am uninterested in you and the things you've done, and wish I was speaking to someone else right now."

"I want to be a writer. I hate reading, though," is translated as, "I don't know anything about anything, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't do everything!"

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Trending Ten: A Year In Review Thus Far

Every year I attempt to read a minimum of a book a week, hence the title of the blog. So far I'm well on track to meet that goal with seventeen books under my belt. At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, I saw quite a number of "Best of" posts on the review blogs I follow, and thought to myself, I should do that. But I never managed to get around to it, life intrudes and all that rubbish. So in celebration of being ahead in my reading I'm going to provide a list of the ten best novels I've read this year, so far. A trending ten, if you will. These books may or may not be books published in 2013 and I may or may not have reviewed them, but there are my best guesses thus far for that hypothetical "Best of" post, I intend to write this year.

10. 14 by Peter Clines

Despite some of the more Lovecraftian elements of this horror store, Clines turns in a fine character study with plenty of authenticity and depth. I'd love to see more with this setting and characters, but I think in the end, such treatment would likely blunt the impact of the story as told. Clines continues to be a go to read, since my discovery of his excellent Ex-Heroes series.

9. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer is the only book on this list that I haven't reviewed. Its placement in this list should make it clear that the lack of review in no way reflects upon the quality of Hines' story.  Rarely have I encountered a more engaging magic system and Isaac's journey is something that mirrors the daydreams of book lovers everywhere. I eagerly await the next installment in this excellent new series. My review will be coming soon.


 8. Fragments by Dan Wells
As noted in my review, I don't really do YA novels. Wells' Partial Sequence is a rare exception to that rule. While the first installment, was a bit too reminiscent of the Hunger Games for my tastes, Wells really ups the ante here, turning in a sequel that is more compelling and successful on almost every level. There is a level of complexity and suspense to the mysteries Wells spins that rivals many similar adult novels. Fans of dystopian post apocalyptic novels, should not miss this series, regardless of their age.

7. God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Another of the sub-genres that typically occupies my no-fly list, is steampunk. And by all appearances, Locke's debut sits solidly in the realm of the growing number of Victorian steampunk novels crowding the shelves in my local bookseller. Add in the vampires and werewolves and the elements of paranormal romance and God Save the Queen should have been a novel I avoided like the plague. But I'm glad I gave it a chance. There is an authenticity to Locke's alternative take on London and her protagonist, Xandra gets under your skin in the best possible ways. 

6. Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein

Daughter of the Sword is an intertesting mix of police proceedural and historical fiction with a splash of urban fantasy. Steve Bein brings his first hand knowledge of both swordsmanship and Japanese history to the forefront of this engaging novel. With its interesting format of telling not only the present day tale of Tokyo detective Mariko Oshiro but delving into the history of the mystic swords that give the series their name, Bein manages to give the weapons a personality of their own without resorting to the talking sword trope so over used in 80's fantasy. Bein turns in a story that fires on all cylinders and stands on its own, despite being the opening volume of a series.

5. Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

Myke Cole is another author on the list who has upped his game with the sequel to his massively popular Control Point. With the addition of a new protagonist in Col. Alan Bookbinder, Cole avoids many of the complaints that centered around the star of the previous volume, Oscar Britton. Bookbinder is much more relatable than Britton and Cole uses his point of view to further explore almost every aspect of the setting to rousing results. Cole's real world experience in the military is once again in full display here, but this time the focus is more on the nature of leadership and Bookbinder's ascent from paper pusher to a true leader of men. Cole's star is definitely on the rise, and Fortress Frontier is a big part of that.

4. Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Its a testament to just how good some of the books in this list are, that the titan of urban fantasy comes in fourth with his latest Harry Dresden novel. Butcher is the master of keeping what could easily become a bloated series tight and action packed. Cold Days is a great example of everything that Butcher does well, high stakes, impossible odds, razor sharp banter, and beloved characters that are contantly grow and change. This novel is a bit of a paradigm shift for Harry but Butcher does an excellent job of keeping his protagonist the same smart mouthed, hard charging, knight errant we know and love.

3. The  Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

The newest book in the list, scheduled for release next month, The Blue Blazes is a departure for me falling solidly into the noir wheelhouse. But Wendig sells his dysfuntional family drama by always keeping the real emotional heft of the story just below the surface of the bombastic violence and ingenious world building. Mookie Pearl and his teenage nemesis Nora are as perfect a pairing of protagonist and antagonists as they come. Couple that with Wendig's sparse and brutal prose and you're left with a story that will resonate beyond the close of the final page.

2. The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

Peter V. Brett's star has been on a rising arc for years. While I love his books, I never quite thought he was one of the heirs apparent in the genre. With The Daylight War, he's put all of my doubts to rest. This third volume in his Demon Cycle has all of the trademarks of his earlier work, great action sequences, powerful magics, compelling and realistic characterization, and a penchant for turning tropes on their ear. But in addition, Brett levels up not only the power level of his characters but the intricacies of their story arcs. All of Brett's cast have an unprecidented level of agency, and the result is a story that thunders along to a conclusion that readers will be talking about until the next installment, The Skull Throne.

1. The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

As I've said earlier, The Troupe is a novel that should be pushed on every lover of books. Bennett's intricate plot contains elements of suspense, fantasy, historical fiction, and family drama all woven together to create a rich tapestry of a novel that almost defies description. Bennett's command of character and dialogue is pitch perfect. The cast of The Troupe are all memorable with their own role to play in Bennett's rumination on art and how it effects and is effected by both the performer and the audience. There is less bombast in The Troupe than in most genre fiction, but there is a level of quiet undestated magic to the story that will resonate with readers for far longer than epic battles or inventive magic systems. Robert Jackson Bennett has graduated to the list of authors that I must buy immediately.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fragments by Dan Wells

Dan Wells is the only YA author that I read with any regularity. Sure I read the Hunger Games so I could be conversant with the throngs of acquaintances and friends who thought Collins' trilogy was the second coming. Honestly, I much prefer Wells' work, though there are shades of Collins' formula present in his Partials Sequence. I found the first volume, Partials, to be a good if not stellar start to the series, but decided to continue the series based on my experiences with the excellent John Cleaver books. Wells doesn't disappoint at all, with his second installment. Fragments succeeds on every level, easily ratcheting up the momentum from Partials and improves by leaps and bounds leaving me anxious for the continuation of the series.

Kira Walker has found the cure for RM, but the battle for the survival of humans and Partials is just beginning. Kira has left East Meadow in a desperate search for clues to who she is. That the Partials themselves hold the cure for RM in their blood cannot be a coincidence--it must be part of a larger plan, a plan that involves Kira, a plan that could save both races. Her companions are Afa Demoux, an unhinged drifter and former employee of ParaGen, and Samm and Heron, the Partials who betrayed her and saved her life, the only ones who know her secret. But can she trust them?

Meanwhile, back on Long Island, what's left of humanity is gearing up for war with the Partials, and Marcus knows his only hope is to delay them until Kira returns. But Kira's journey will take her deep into the overgrown wasteland of postapocalyptic America, and Kira and Marcus both will discover that their greatest enemy may be one they didn't even know existed.

The second installment in the pulse-pounding Partials saga is the story of the eleventh hour of humanity's time on Earth, a journey deep into places unknown to discover the means--and even more important, a reason--for our survival.
Wells ups the ante with this volume, immediately removing Kira from the familiar surroundings of East Meadow and her circle of friends. Away from familiar surroundings, Kira begins her exploration of the unsettled areas of Well's post-apocalyptic setting. While the landscape offers very little new to genre readers familiar with similar dystopian settings, the internal monologue that accompanies Kira's exploration is fresh and revealing. Even with the problem of the RM virus, partially solved Kira is surrounded by mysteries both about her own history and the history of the Break that left both the humans and Partials on the edge of extinction.

Removed from the medical setting so prevalent in Partials, I found Kira to be a much more relatable character. Her youth made her proficiency in virology a bit of a strain of credibility, though Wells' manages to shore that up with the revelation of Kira's heritage at the end of that novel. As she explores the mysteries of her own identity and faces not only the perils of travelling in the blighted remains of post-Break America but the complications brought on by her travelling companions.

And what companions they are. Between the mentally unstable tech wizard, Afa and the Partials; Samm and Heron, Kira is pulled in multiple directions for most of the narrative. Afa, in particular, provides an almost bottomless well of story beats and complications. Samm is far more well developed here, as the attraction between he and Kira is further explored. Wells' wisely gives him more screen time, and develops him beyond the more machine than man archetype that he filled in Partials. Heron is an excellent foil for the idealistic Kira. Her pragmatic, 'the end justifies the means' attitude is often at odds with the rest of the companions, and comes to head in the final chapters.

Wells' wisely keeps readers abreast of what is happening in East Meadow, with almost all of the secondary characters from Partials making appearances. Marcus gets the most screen time, and he seems to benefit from being out from under Kira's shadow. I found his deadpan humor and his complete averageness, much more appealing this go around. The twin plot lines, keep the tension well balanced and give Wells plenty of room to explore the various mysteries of both the nature of the Break and the organization and motives of the Partials. I never felt the urge to rush to get to the other section of the novel, with Wells balancing the action and suspense equally over the various plot threads.

The slowly unfolding mystery of the Break and Kira's role in the schemes of ParaGen is the real strength of Fragments. Through this plot device, Wells reveals more and more details not only about the world the cast travels through, but the events leading up to the Break and how those events shaped the current landscape. We are treated not just to New York and it's immediate environs, but to the whole of the Midwest, which is now toxic due to the after effects of massive fires in the Texas oil fields. But more important than the trials of the road, are the moral and ethical puzzles that permeate Kira's internal monologue and much of the conversations between her and her travelling companions.

All in all, Fragments barely feels like a YA novel, especially in terms of its handling of the subject matter. Wells' never turns away from the hard questions, and resists the urge to provide the pat answers. Sure there is a definite lack of realistically described violence, so fans of Abercrombian grit need not apply. There are a few places where I found the sheer young-adult friendly dialogue a bit cringe worthy, as real teenagers would have cursed a blue-streak, but these quibbles are largely forgivable. Wells continues to mature and the intricacies of his plot and nuance of his characterization promise more rousing adventures in this fascinating setting.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has been on the periphery of my to read list for a while. I'll admit, I'd mentally placed him in the same category as Richard Kadrey, whose Sandman Slim I'd enjoyed, but decided against devoting anymore time to. Grindhouse urban fantasy just isn't my thing. I probably wouldn't have ventured into Wendig's fiction, if I hadn't run across a EARC on Netgalley. After deciding to give The Blue Blazes a run, I'm happy to report that Chuck Wendig has a new fan. The easiest way to describe The Blue Blazes is to imagine Sin City after doing an 8-ball of mystic cocaine. I know that makes no sense, but Wendig's blend of pulp noir sensibilities with an interesting take on urban fantasy tropes defies conventional description. Unless awesome is descriptive enough for you.

The publisher's blurb is pretty basic, but I'm including it because it echoes Wendig's writing style fairly well.

Meet Mookie Pearl.

Criminal underworld? He runs in it.

Supernatural underworld? He hunts in it.

Nothing stops Mookie when he's on the job.

But when his daughter takes up arms and opposes him, something's gotta give...

Wendig's protagonist, Mookie Pearl is cut from the same cloth as other noir heroes, but the closest comparison that comes to mind for me is Warden from Daniel Polanski's Lowtown. These two are no choirboys, both violent and conflicted men with complicated histories. But unlike Warden, Mookie is actually a very sympathetic character. I wouldn't go so far as to say he has a heart of gold, but Wendig does an excellent job of showing that even the brutal and vile among us, still have families and people that they love. In spite of his violent nature, Mookie is a character that readers can cheer for. He may be a leg breaker and a poor excuse for a father, but he tries and there is value in the attempt.

The secondary cast is also well drawn, especially Mookie's wayward daughter Nora. Her tough as nails facade is deeply rooted in her psychology and Wendig does an excellent job making her far more three dimesional than she initially appears. The other denizens of Wendig's fictional New York are as varied and unique as you would expect, if a bit more outrageous in response to a world were goblins and naga prowl the streets in human guises. Between low level mobsters, roller-derby themed gang members, city maintenance workers, and an undead stunt driver Wendig keeps the cast well rounded and always entertaining.

The pacing is just short of break neck, but Wendig gives readers a well placed moment or two to catch their breath. But don't be shocked to find yourself reading well into the night. The action sequences are bombastic, brutal set pieces that leave the surrounding landscape in reduced to gleefully described rubble. It's all a hair's breadth from over the top, but Wendig manages never to lean on the gas enough to send the story into a tail spin. It's a blancing act to keep from slipping into parody  but Wendig manages it deftly.

The plotting is a bit predictable at times, but Wendig overcomes that with the character and panache of his prose, and the insightful characterization of his principle cast. I may have seen some of the concluding plot threads coming, due to Wendig's own foreshadowing, but the emotional resonance of those moments was no less palpable with foreknowledge.

As I've said, the real star of The Blue Blazes is the prose. Wendig writes with blunt force choreography, full of brutally disturbing descriptions, and wrecking ball action. Noir sensibilities are in full force here, and Wendig uses them brilliantly to craft a portrait of a New York that is at the same time instantly recognizable and disturbingly alien.  The staccato rhythm of Wendig's prose fits beautifully with the story he tells, and I've rarely seen such an usual voice used so effectively.

Fans of noir fantasy and urban fantasy with a bleeding edge should definitely explore the world of The Blue Blazes. I'll definitely be checking out Wendig's back catalog while I wait anxiously on a possible continuation of Mookie and Nora's dysfunctional family drama.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I really enjoy books that can bend genre into something entirely new. I've read several novels that manage to do this remarkably well, Robert Jackson Bennett's The Troupe and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife both spring immediately to mind. So when I read the blurb for Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store I had high hopes that I had found another such novel, something I could recommend to my non-genre reading friends that might bridge the gap between their tastes and mine. Sadly, despite showing a lot of promise in it's premise and characterization, Sloan's novel seems to be a bit too clever for its own good and tuned out to be something of a disappointment.

The synopsis from the publisher is as follows:

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.
My disappointment aside, there are some interesting things going on in Sloan's story. The protagonist, Clay, certainly typifies the over-educated, inexperienced twenty-somethings that have suffered from the economic downturn and find themselves adrift with little sense of direction. Clay's dissatisfaction with his life's trajectory is palpable, and his decision to throw his energy into the mysteries of Penumbra's bookstore and its odd collection of clients seems like the act of a man desperate for something to grab hold of. The romantic subplot suffers from a similar sense of desperation, where Clay is content to allow Kat to run hot and cold while he simply drifts about her in a loose orbit awaiting her pleasure. It might not be the most fulfilling plot line, but the authenticity of its architecture is undeniable. The banter between the cast is easy and natural and full of pop culture references that genre readers will find engaging. As a character study, Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore is a success. It's only when his plot starts intersecting with his big idea, that some holes become apparent.

While going to great lengths to provide an air of mystery to the true purpose of the bookstore and the mission of Penumbra and his acolytes, Sloan fails to deliver much more than some compelling stage dressing. The puzzles are far too easily solved, with out much in the way of actual cost to any of the protagonists. The juxtaposition of ancient methodology versus the technological path is obviously the big idea that Sloan is fixated on, but that comparison, while interesting doesn't provide enough real conflict to the plot. Sloan seems to be saying why can't we all just get along, but gives little real reason that we should do so.

Sloan makes some excellent observations about the modern world's dependence on technology. For example, readers are treated to an awkward virtual date between our protagonist and his love interest, and an otherwise brilliant character cannot operate something as low tech as a copy of the New York Times. But rather than make any real statement about how technology may not be the cure all for all the challenges faced by the protagonist in his search to unlock the mysterious knowledge that Penumbra seeks, Sloan simply allows technology to provide the answer time and time again. While real paper books do play a role in the eventual uncovering of the grand mystery that Penumbra and Gannon's band of investigators, most of the riddles Sloan presents are too conveniently solved with the aid of modern technology. Dues ex machina play far to great a role in the solving of problems. Need to copy a book in a secret library with incredible security, look no further than the Internet for plans for a an easily smuggled scanner made of cardboard and portable cameras. Can't decipher the book, well why not have the vast computing power of Google at your disposal. Answers come far too easily to Sloan's cast, and because of that there is little satisfaction when the ultimate goal is achieved.

Make no mistake, Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore is a quick, light and ultimately enjoyable read. But with so strong a premise, I expected far more than I received. Those looking for something with a little more substance and less magical hand waving should stick to Robert Jackson Bennett and the like. There's little water beneath Sloan's albeit appealing mirage. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

14 by Peter Clines

I've always enjoyed Peter Clines' work, finding his Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots to be wildly entertaining mash-ups of the post-apocalytic, horror, and superhero genres. So when I found this title on Netgalley for free, I snatched it up. It's a bit of a departure from Cline's previous work, but as a long time fan of Stephen King, I found the premise interesting.

Padlocked doors. Strange light fixtures. Mutant cockroaches.
There are some odd things about Nate’s new apartment. 
Of course, he has other things on his mind. He hates his job. He has no money in the bank. No girlfriend. No plans for the future. So while his new home isn’t perfect, it’s livable. The rent is low, the property managers are friendly, and the odd little mysteries don’t nag at him too much. 
At least, not until he meets Mandy, his neighbor across the hall, and notices something unusual about her apartment. And Xela’s apartment. And Tim’s. And Veek’s. 
Because every room in this old Los Angeles brownstone has a mystery or two. Mysteries that stretch back over a hundred years. Some of them are in plain sight. Some are behind locked doors. And all together these mysteries could mean the end of Nate and his friends. 
Or the end of everything...
I think the biggest challenge to reviewing 14 effectively is avoiding spoilers. So much of the action and plot of the story is tied to its many mysteries, that to seperate them makes such examination largely meaningless. There have been comparissons to Lost and these are apt, though I also see similarities to other standout genre shows such as Sanctuary and Warehouse 13. There are secrets, both great and small in almost every aspect of the story, from the motivations of Clines' large cast of characters, to the mysteries of the Kavach building and its history. Much like Lost there is a strong current of misdirection as some mysteries that may seem important are more for flavor than any real plot movement. But the sheer amount of questions and speculation that Clines wrings from the reader are a testament to his skills as a writer.

But the mystery elements are not Clines' only strength. His characterization is the main draw. 14 has a fairly sprawling cast, and Clines gives us a very clear and detailed characterization of each. The banter between characters and the romantic subplots are handled with a deft touch.  The realism of these portrayals help ground the otherworldly and often bizarre revelations that are a result of the slow reveal of the building's mysterious purpose.

Being so familiar with the frenetic pacing of Clines' other work, the slower pace of 14 was distracting at first, but the growing suspense as more and more mysteries were answered more than made up for the slower build up. And the last third of the novel definitely stepped on the gas, delivering higher stakes and tension.

In the last fourth of the novel, things take a Lovecraftian turn, and Clines almost lost me. I've never been a big Cthulu fan, but his care in character developments kept me engaged despite my misgivings about his choice of principle antagonists. I'm glad I stayed with it, because the closing sequences were particularly satisfying for me and tease at the possibilty for further exploration of the Kavach building and its residents.

While I enjoyed Ex-Heroes and Ex-Heroes more, I can't deny that Clines knows how to tell a compelling horror story. His gift for characterization makes up for any reticence I felt with regards to other elements of the tale, and I'd definitely come back for more. If you are a fan of big mysteries, full of more questions than answers, then 14 is not a book you should miss. Clines crafts a compelling mystery, populated with characters that feel like the neighbors you wish you had. Think Friends meets The Outer Limits without the laugh track.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rise of the Neo-Geek: Pro or Con?

Geek culture is everywhere it seems. We have more genre movies and television shows in the public eye this year than the entirety of my painfully nerdy middle and high school years put together. Comic books are cool, there is a National Table Top Day, and everyone and their mother knows what "Winter is Coming" means. We as geeks, nerds, or as I like to think of us, the entertainment enlightened, should be ecstatic. After all, suddenly it's cool to be exactly the kind of people we actually are. The geeks have inherited Hollywood and they've finally succeeded in showing everyone what we've known all along; Genre is Cool.

But are we happy about this groundswell of popularity for the books, comics, and movies we love? Not too long ago, I saw a tweet that suggest that at least some of us are not. I apologize for not having the exact tweet to post here, but by the time this idea had brewed long enough to send me to the keyboard that inspirational tweet had vanished. To put it less succinctly  the author was purchasing a copy of the first season of A Game of Thrones, and the cashier was gushing about how awesome the series was and asked if she had seen it, and she felt the need to "#bitetongue".  I understood the sentiment immediately, my fandom, too, is being invaded by all manner of genre noobs. And yes, it occasionally can be frustrating. But, it's never really bite tongue worthy, at least not for me. And yes, I do realize that this nameless tweeter is probably not some fantasy nerd brimming with misplaced fan rage. It's the sentiment that fascinated me.

Are we as a genre culture so used to being insular and marginalized, that any reversal of that position is automatically seen as an infringement on our comic book and Doritos strewn territory? Is this sudden influx of neo or quasi geeks weakening what it means to wear the badge of geekdom? Or does it simply make it difficult to identify members of our tribe? Or could it be something else?

I imagine that it's probably a combination of these and other factors. But of course I have my own pet theory, drawn from my own experience. Prepare for some personal revelations here. I've been labelled a geek and nerd since I was small. I read comics religiously even in high school, and was ridiculed even by some teachers for my reading choices. I remember being specifically told that Stephen King was trash. Of course, I read him anyway, and in open defiance of any English teacher that would discourage reading in any form. But regardless, I've endured the derisive looks from aquaintances, co-workers, and even potential relationship partners for most of my life. I'm sure many of you have had similar experiences. So it's not surprising that we might view these new entrants into geek culture with skepticism and some touch of disdain.

This is where I believe we have a choice to make. Are we going to judge these newly minted pseudo-geeks as secondary citizens, mirroring, even if only internally, the marginalization we experienced? Odds are, we will to some degree. It's human nature, after all.

Perhaps the wiser response is to celebrate the fact that we as a demographic are growing. Perhaps, as our passions become more popular and visable in the mainstream then perhaps those people who looked down on us will see that we didn't choose these books, movies, and comics because we were odd, socially awkward, and strange but because of their high quality and engaging stories. I'm under no illusion that the popularization of geek culture will prevent the bullying of our youth, bullies will always find a reason. But perhaps they'll need a reason other than Dungeons and Dragons or the latest issue of the X-Men.

Accepting these neo-geeks with open arms gives us a platform to expand the reach of the genre by exposing them to more quality entertainment and breaks down the barriers of what has been a marginalized for far too long. It won't be too long before children are required to read The Lord of the Rings and Dune in school instead of just the Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby Stephen King has one his accolades much to the dismay of his critics and it seems we as geeks are getting some long deserved street cred as well. Let's accept it with grace and style.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Coming Attractions: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin Hearne

Fans of Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Chronicles, won't have to wait for the next installment to get their fix of Atticus O'Sullivan. Hearne is releasing a new novella that predated the opening of the series in Hounded. If this novella is half as good as the previous novella, Two Ravens and One Crow then fans will be treated to a further expansion to the world of the Iron Druid. The cover illustration and synopsis are provided below.

When he’s not vanquishing villainous gods or dodging demons, two-thousand-year-old Druid Atticus O’Sullivan can be found behind the counter of Third Eye Books and Herbs in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, literally minding his own business. But when an evil sorcerer—and amateur shoplifter—snatches an ancient Egyptian tome of black magic, The Grimoire of the Lamb, Atticus is not sheepish about pursuing him to the ends of the earth . . . or at least to the Land of the Pharaohs.
Unfortunately, Atticus already has enemies in Egypt—including cat goddess Bast, who wants her own book of mischief back from the Druid. In the streets of Cairo, she sends a feline phalanx after Atticus and his Irish wolfhound, Oberon. With fur still flying, Atticus must locate the sorcerer’s secret lair—where he will face killer crocodiles, spooky sarcophagi, and an ancient evil Egyptian who’s determined to order the sacrificial lamb special tonight.
So what say you, readers? Will you be pre-ordering Atticus' latest adventure?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Coming Attractions: Doctor Sleep & Joyland by Stephen King

I've been a Stephen King fan, since my freshman year of high school and have read every single thing he's published with the exception of one out of print novel. When I heard about his newest novel, Doctor Sleep, I was ecstatic. Few of King's novels are as beloved as The Shining and I can't wait to read the further adventures of Danny Torrence. The cover art and publisher's synopsis below seem to indicate that we might see a return to King's horror roots with this novel.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless—mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and tween Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival. This is an epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted readers of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon.

But wait, King also has a new release coming from Hard Case Crime, who published The Colorado Kid several years ago. The art and vague synopsis leave me cold, and I think Hard Case should probably consider giving more detail on their releases. But with a marquee name like King's they know the book will sell. Completists like me will definitely be forking over the funds regardless of the lack of details.

Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.

Which of the release from America's Master of Horror are you most excited about? Would more information on Joyland make your decision easier to make? Let us know, in the comments.

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

It's a pretty unusual for me to feel apprehension to review a book that I absolutely loved. But I've been putting off reviewing Robert Jackson Bennett's The Troupe for weeks. I'd read rave review after rave review, seen the novel on many "Best Of" lists, and finally decided to see what all of the fuss was about. And let me tell you, the critical buzz around Robert Jackson Bennett is well deserved. I haven't been this excited to find a new author since discovering Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. The only thing stopping me from running out and buying American Elsewhere is because I have other books in the "to read" pile, and reviews to do. Just in case you missed it, The Troupe is fantastic. Bennett delivers a world that is, on one hand, depressingly mundane, but on the other hand, profoundly magical, filled with characters that run the gamut between achingly realistic and utterly alien. If you are a fan of a beautiful prose and stories that linger in your thoughts for days after the last page is turned, The Troupe is a must read.

The blurb from the book jacket doesn't begin to do the story justice, but here it is for sake of brevity:
Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.

But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change.

Because there is a secret within Silenus's show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives.

And soon...he is as well.
The Troupe is a difficult novel to categorize; it's equal parts fantasy, mystery, historical and family drama. Bennett does an excellent job of weaving the divergent elements into a cohesive tapestry. If I were forced to make a comparison, Neil Gaiman would be the only author that has a even vaguely similar style. I was reminded of Neverwhere almost immediately in all of the best possible ways.

There is a subtlety to Bennett's prose that I found captivating. There is always a sense of something stirring just beneath the surface. Even scenes that are completely devoid of traditional action vibrate with potential consequences of the revelations and decisions made within them. I was both anxious for the trials that I knew were coming and hesitant to arrive at the final destination. I knew this was no lighthearted fairy tale. The world Bennett crafts is undeniably realistic, full of hope and disappointment in equal measure.

But the heart of Bennett's, dare I say, genius, is his characters. Each and every member of the troupe is complex, and completely drawn. Even characters that are, at best, secondary to the plot, have a complete and complex story arc that adds to the resonance of the novel as a whole. From the art wise, and world foolish, George, to the irascible and gruff, Silenus, each character has an essential piece of humanity that the reader can relate to. Even the many otherworldly characters, while often almost completely alien in the viewpoints and behavior, are mere reflections of the hidden parts of both the protagonists and ourselves. These powerful connections between the art and the audience are the real magic of The Troupe.

The plot appears to meander at times, falling down rabbit holes that seem to have nothing at all to do with the overall thrust of the troupe's or George's purpose. But I quickly learned to trust Bennett's muse, as these disparate departures began to braid together with one another, producing a more powerful and realized whole. In fact, some of my favorite and most revealing scenes in the novel come from these divergences. Bennett knows that the end result is no where near as important as how you get there and the wisdom and experience you gain along the way. His characters may not realize this fact as they try to pursue their own agendas, but they all grow and change in ways both expected and completely surprising.

In conclusion, Bennett has produced a novel that defies easy description, blending elements from genre and story into a rare hybrid that can appeal to all lovers of well crafted tales. When I recommend this book in the future, as I know I will, I will take an approach I save for only the most prized books on my shelves. I'll simply ask; do you like to read?

If the answer is yes, then you should read The Troupe. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Coming Attractions: The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

Fresh on the heels of the end of his Hollow World Kickstarter, Michael J. Sullivan has even more to crow about. Orbit has released the cover art and synopsis for the second of his Riyria prequel novels, The Rose and the Thorn. With the release of the first volume, The Crown Tower just around the bend, I'm excited to learn that the entire dualogy will be mine before years end. Fans of Royce and Hadrian are in for a good year, and Sullivan is yet again an author to watch.

Two thieves want answers. Riyria is born.
For more than a year Royce Melborn has tried to forget Gwen DeLancy, the woman who saved him and his partner Hadrian Blackwater from certain death. Unable to get her out of his mind, the two thieves return to Medford but receive a very different reception --- Gwen refuses to see them. The victim of abuse by a powerful noble, she suspects that Royce will ignore any danger in his desire for revenge. By turning the thieves away, Gwen hopes to once more protect them. What she doesn't realize is what the two are capable of --- but she's about to find out. 

So tell us, are you more excited by Sullivan's return to his fan-favorite stomping grounds, or his journey into new territory with Hollow World

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spec Fic Writer's 101: Action Sequences with John A. Pitts

They say all good things must come to an end. And with this final entry into Speculative Fiction, we've come to a close. John A. Pitts volunteered to take on a topic, when Ken Scholes recruited him to the cause. I have to admit, I'm a slacker. I haven't made the time to read John's books yet, but Black Blade Blues, is on my to read list. Plus he's a fellow martial artist, as his post on writing compelling action sequences shows. Without further adieu, let's get to the reason we are all here.

Action Sequences with John A. Pitts

Action Sequences are essential to writing any story.  A good action sequence drives the story forward, keeping the reader at the edge of their seat, holding their breath, while they flip the pages with urgent need.

Many writers assume that action sequences are synonymous with battle scenes.  This is a misnomer.  While fight scenes are definitely action, many things encompass a good action sequence.  Car chases come to mind, or a heroine running to safety, trying to avoid being eaten by a beastie. 
In my novel, Honeyed Words, I have one such scene that I'll use to illustrate.

Katie spun around, listening.  There were noises in the walls.  She glanced up at the windows; the black, swirling mass of spirits continued to spiral down toward the house from the sky.

Whatever was happening here was drawing in the spirits from all around.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw spiders crawling from the walls.  Eaters had breached the house.  Masses of them were pouring through the windows then, flowing around Sarah and Qindra, but coming right for Katie.

She ran.

Out in the hall, she bounced against the bedroom door.  The dead man sat up, opened his eyes and hissed at her.  She fell back against the wall, ping-ponging down the hall, past the laundry where the face spoke to her through the dryer door. 

Something scrambled across the tile of the bathroom, but it had not reached the door, and she ran on. 

Here young Katie is trapped in a haunted house which is being inundated with spirits, walking corpses and eaters, a spider like creature from a sideways dimension that parallels our own.  Notice while the sentences start out longer, setting the stage for the events at hand.  There is no fight here, just terror as she flees back to the front of the house, hoping to avoid the nasties that are coming for her.

Notice the short choppy sentences and clauses.  The point of an action sequence is to build tension and drive the story forward.  The horror aspect of this scene adds to the overall sense of urgency.
Another way to show action is in a fight situation.  In Black Blade Blues, my main character, Sarah Beauhall, has her first real battle.

No one stopped me when I careened through downtown.  I parked in front of a fire hydrant and jumped out, heading for Katie's door.

"'Ware, smith," Homeless Joe yelled at me as he hobbled around the corner.  "Flee, child, before it is too late."

I spun around.  Joe was nearly running with a large staff in his hand, limping along with a bad knee or hip, I never knew which.  I took a step toward him, curious about his sudden outburst when two very large bodies came out from the alley and hit Joe.  The first man, whom I recognized as Ernie from the other night, clipped Joe on the back of the head, sending the old man sprawling onto the sidewalk.

The second thug, Bert, kicked the staff away and stomped down on Joe's elbow.  I heard the pop from the street.  Joe let out a guttural cry, and Ernie kicked him in the chest.

"Leave him alone," I shouted, balling my fists at my side.

Ernie kicked Joe again, and Bert turned to me with a feral grin.  "You again," he said.  "I'll squeeze your head until it pops."

He took a step toward me, and Joe lunged forward, grabbing him by the ankle and causing him to trip.
I turned to the car, fumbled the keys a moment, and then got the hatch opened.  My hammers were in the back, along with the rest of my personal smithing gear. 

I found the first hammer, and at the same time, found the roll of pants and swords.  My left hand fell on Gram's pommel and the world shifted slightly.  The grunting and yelling of the two brutes took on a more rough and grinding quality, like the sound of a landslide.

I spun around as Bert ran up to me, and I stepped aside, swinging the hammer back to clip him in the elbow.  I didn't stop, but ran forward and launched myself at Ernie, hammer in my right fist, Gram in my left.

That was when I got a good look at them.  With Gram in my hand, the glamour that hid their true appearance fell away, and I saw them for who and what they truly were.

Giants.  That's what Rolph had said.  These guys were twelve feet tall and as wide as a bus.  How they managed to fit in even a Hummer astounded me.  I leapt at Ernie, landing to his left side, and brought the hammer around.  He dodged at the last moment, and instead of catching him in the head, he absorbed the blow on his shoulder.

If felt like striking a granite wall.

However, he felt something, because he stumbled away from Joe and grunted with the blow.

Bert rushed me from the rear, sounding like a freight train.  I spun, letting him come to me, and feinted with the hammer, only to bring Gram around in a short thrust, and then a quick flip of the wrist.

The blade by-passed his outstretched arm, and flicked against the side of his neck, sending a spray of blood into the cooling night.

He grabbed his throat and fell to his knees, his eyes as big as lamps.

Each step in the battle drives an emotional punch.  Sarah does not have time to think,  but acts and reacts without thinking.  She dances into combat with decisive actions and an urgent need to save the homeless man, Joe whom she's gotten to know.

Every motion is choreographed.   Each short sentence or clause raises the stakes and heightens the tension.  I treat these scenes with care, sometimes mapping out every sequence to insure that logical actions follow the one before it.

I've even gone so far as to draw maps of scenes so I can keep up with all the players.  This is especially important in the larger battle scenes that occur in each  book.  There are no limitations on the tools you can use here, just find the ones that work best for you.

Now that you understand rising tension and the use of action scenes, I think we need to look at the down beats.  There's a fine balance between rising tension and release.  This is a skill that takes much reading and practice to perfect.  You want the reader to feel their heart pounding, want their adrenaline to pump through their blood and if you are very good, they'll find themselves out of breath.  I've experienced this from high intensity action scenes. 

The key is pacing.  Drive the action faster.  The purpose of short sentences is to give the reader fast bits of information so they don't have time to catch their breath.  Long languid sentences slow down the pace, letting the reader relax, calm down.  These can be just as powerful if done correctly.

What you don't want to do is totally fatigue your reader.  Rising tension and exciting action sequences are great, but if your reader has to put the book down because they can't breathe, you've gone too far.
To have a fulfilling experience, you need to let them down from time to time.  Think of it like climbing a mountain.  Rising tension is the steep climb up, but every now and again you need a small plateau to allow the reader to catch their breath.

There are a couple of very handy ways to accomplish this without letting the reader put the book down and go wash their dishes.  First use humor.  Making jokes and funny quips is a great way to release some tension.  How many books and movies have you seen with a wise-cracking hero.  Think about the movie  Die Hard.  Bruce Willis's character is in a tight spot, injured and surrounded by bad guys who have him out numbered, out gunned and hold all the hostages. 

And yet, John McClane, Bruce's character, constantly uses smart ass responses and his quick wit to antagonize the bad guys and give the viewers a bit of relief from the incessant drum beat of violence.
There's no real point where John McClane is safe but we have moments where we can catch our breath and laugh knowing he has a moment's reprieve.

Then, the actions swings into full-force once again.

John McClane's antics bring us to the next way to give your readers a moment of reprieve.  Dialogue allows the readers to break up the action.  Now, again, we don't want to allow the reader to settle into complacency and security, but we can give them a chance to relax for a heart beat or two before we amp things back up.

Remember, for this to work, you need to keep the exposition to a minimum.  This is the antithesis of action sequences.  Long lovely scenes describing  bits of history or scenery are wonderful, and absolutely required to make a story or book work, but they will bring your pacing and tension to a grinding halt.

Use each sparingly, and as defined counter points to keep the story interesting and the readers turning those pages.

And one last word from our sponsors: In case you missed some of the excellent articles from the fine authors who have contributed to this series, you'll find the links to all of the previous posts below.

Research with Teresa Frohock
World Building with Ken Scholes
Plotting with Michael J. Sullivan
Characters with Stina Leicht
Prose with Myke Cole
Pacing with Courtney Schafer