Friday, May 31, 2013

Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead

Richelle Mead apparently has quite a following. Having discovered Gameboard of the Gods on Netgalley, I did a little research and found out about Mead's other works, falling squarely in the paranormal romance/urban fantasy category along with her young adult offerings. The reviews were very positive and the publisher's blurb sounded promising, so I bit. The meal was more fast food than fine dining, largely empty calories but flavorful nonetheless.

The back cover copy follows:

In a futuristic world nearly destroyed by religious extremists, Justin March lives in exile after failing in his job as an investigator of religious groups and supernatural claims. But Justin is given a second chance when Mae Koskinen comes to bring him back to the Republic of United North America (RUNA). Raised in an aristocratic caste, Mae is now a member of the military’s most elite and terrifying tier, a soldier with enhanced reflexes and skills.

When Justin and Mae are assigned to work together to solve a string of ritualistic murders, they soon realize that their discoveries have exposed them to terrible danger. As their investigation races forward, unknown enemies and powers greater than they can imagine are gathering in the shadows, ready to reclaim the world in which humans are merely game pieces on their board.
Sounds pretty promising doesn't it? And for the most part, Mead delivers on that promise. The 'uptopian' world that she's created for her characters is intriguing and poses some thoughtful questions about what happens when religion is outlawed. Sadly those questions get short shrift in favor of world-building and the obligatory romantic entanglements between our two main protagonists.

With that said, there is still plenty to like about Mead's first foray into a new subgenre. The pairing of the super analytical Justin March, with the genetically superior and technologically enhanced soldier Mae is a welcome one, with a faint shadow of Holmes and Watson running throughout. Both are conflicted but obviously destined for each other, due not only to authorial fiat but the actual will of meddling gods. Not that either March or Mae make the pairing especially easy, fighting the magnetism between them almost every step of the way. As far as romantic subplots go, Mead crafts one that is compelling enough that it outweighed my general dislike of the trope. That's no small feat, and I was pleasantly surprised. It's ironic that the aspect of the story that I expected to like the least ended up being the highlight of the novel for me.

Which brings me to the parts of the novel that left me wanting better. While I really like the premise of the novel and the interesting questions such a setting asks of the characters and the society, I felt that the exploration of the setting left something to be desired. While there was no real info dumping, and Mead does an excellent job of showing rather than telling, I felt the world building could have been better explained through the narrative. All the puzzle pieces are there, but they don't quite fit together into a coherent picture.Most of that is the delayed pace that Mead uses to deliver important information about nearly everything. She just throws it at you, and you are left to wonder until she gets around to explaining it, sometimes after a hundred pages have gone by.

In addition, I felt that the murder investigation should have been the focus of the storytelling, but was really nothing more than a vehicle for the romance of March and Mae. There was so much more that could have been explored that was sadly left on the shelf. It seems that everything took a back seat to the romance, and that weakened what could have otherwise been a much better novel. Sex sells, I get that, but there needs to be more, and Mead teases us with hints of what could be a very compelling series, but never quite gets there.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Weekly Webcrawl: YA, More Women in History, and More

With an unexpected move and equally unforeseen medical issues, I have had precious little time to read let alone review. But I have still managed to collect some interesting links for this week's webcrawl.

Kameron Hurley's guest post at A Dribble of Ink has generated a lot of buzz on the topic of women in the historical narrative and in speculative fiction.
Additionally, here are some other items I found of particular interest.

  • This excellent piece tackles hetero romance in YA, and the need for more non-het relationships in dystopian YA.
  • Justin Landon of Staffer's Book Review has some interesting thoughts on what constitutes a YA novel in this review.
  • Tobias Buckell has some interesting thoughts on damsels in distress in the video game world.
  • Blake Charlton's op/ed piece from the New York Times on "Defining My Dyslexia" and a video of the presentation that led to the piece.
Hopefully you'll find these articles as thought provoking and entertaining as I did. My next review should be posted by the weekend.

Friday, May 24, 2013

No Return by Zachary Jernigan

Continuing my trend of genre bending novels and stretching my boundaries as a reader, I approached Zachary Jernigan's debut novel, No Return with no small degree of trepidation. Its compelling cover and back copy coupled with Night Shade Book's reputation for finding excellent new authors, I was excited at the prospect and simultaneously puzzled. Is this fantasy or science fiction, or some hybrid of the two? As it turns out the answer to that question is irrelevant in the face of Jernigan's powerful examination of faith, lust, and personal responsibility.

On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists—only what his intentions are.

Under the looming judgment of Adrash and his ultimate weapon—a string of spinning spheres beside the moon known as The Needle—warring factions of white and black suits prove their opposition to the orbiting god with the great fighting tournament of Danoor, on the far side of Jeroun’s only inhabitable continent.

From the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits comes Vedas, a young master of martial arts, laden with guilt over the death of one of his students. Traveling with him are Churls, a warrior woman and mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter, and Berun, a constructed man made of modular spheres possessed by the foul spirit of his creator. Together they must brave their own demons, as well as thieves, mages, beasts, dearth, and hardship on the perilous road to Danoor, and the bloody sectarian battle that is sure to follow.

On the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the travelers, Ebn and Pol of the Royal Outbound Mages (astronauts using Alchemical magic to achieve space flight) have formed a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet. But Ebn and Pol each have their own clandestine agendas—which may call down the wrath of the very god they hope to woo.

Who may know the mind of God? And who in their right mind would seek to defy him?

I have to be honest; I struggled with No Return, almost setting it aside to dive into familiar, more comfortable worlds. Jernigan has crafted a complex and original world in Jeroun. With Adrash orbiting Jeroun holding the entire planet hostage to his capricious judgment for eons, a variety of races and religions have developed. In this sandbox, Jernigan sets no limits on his creativity. Jeroun is a diverse and complex place with the long dead elders, an alien-esque race whose remains have become the basis for the world's economy and a powerful weapon in the hands of two diametrically opposed religious sects whose violent confrontations over the supremacy of god or man are the tent pole of the main plot. Adding to the exotic flavor of the setting are magical constructs, half breeds with powerful magic and strange physiology that use these gifts to slip the bonds of earth to better understand their aloof and terrible god. Jeroun is a complex cocktail of the familiar and the strange with a dash of audacity for an extra bite.

Jernigan's characters are equally complex and well drawn. Even the more alien of the principle characters are rich with conflict and depth, Ebn and Pol are master mages who both consumed by their insatiable lust both for flesh and for power. As utterly inhuman as their physiology and politics are, their motivations are so intensely relatable I could myself forgetting their alien nature, at least until tongues start slipping out of their palms. Jernigan's absolute refusal to shy away from the violence, sex, or any other topic that might make his reader uncomfortable makes for characters that are reflections of us, rather than mere caricatures. The rest of Jernigan's cast is just as diverse and complicated.

The trio of Berun, Churls, and Vedas is a refreshing break from genre tropes. Vedas, for all of his martial prowess, is uncomfortable in his own skin, more boy than man. Berun is similarly childlike, struggling to find his own identity away from the control of his creator. The most realized of the group is Churls, haunted by her past and full of violence, vice, and lust. The relationships that develop between these travelers is excellently handled, developing naturally over the course of their adventures with a point of view chapters for each well balanced against the others. The amount of character growth that takes place in this slim volume is astounding, which each taking stock of their place in the world and taking steps to assert their own independence.

Jernigan's combat sequences are vicious and unflinching, as are the sex scenes that are liberally sprinkled through the narrative. There are moments where I was taken aback by the directness and candor of these scenes, but true to life sex and violence are often disturbing and uncomfortable by turns. Jernigan leaves it all on the field every time, showing absolutely no timidity at any topic no matter how bloody or sweaty it may be.

The only complaint I have is that the twin storylines never really manage to converge in a meaningful way until the very end of the novel, and I felt a strong sense of disconnection that made reading some segments an exercise in perseverance. Jernigan manages to pull it all together nicely in the end, even adding a coda that explains the enigmatic Adrash's role in a possible sequel. With the collapse of Night Shade Books, I'm not certain if we will see a return to Jeroun, but I am certain that what ever Jernigan's next project might be that I'll be in its audience.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

t's safe to say that my tastes as a reader are changing because of this blog.  In my pre-blogging days, my reading followed the same well worn and predictable path. The mix was fairly predictable; epic fantasy, urban fantasy, with an occasional highly recommended curiosity thrown in for flavor's sake. Well those days are over, with books like The Troupe, The Blue Blazes, The Lives of Tao, and now Zoo City taking over my reading space.

Zoo City is one of those rare novels that instantly adds the author to my 'must read' list. Lauren Beukes packs her sophomore novel with wildly vivid metaphors and prose that pops with a unique mix of desolate beauty. Add the unique pastiche of genre trappings ranging from literary fiction, crime thriller, and magical realism and the resulting novel is a beautiful monster that defies easy classification.

Since the back copy does a poor job of impressing the particulars of Beukes' setting I'll extrapolate a bit. Zinzi is a 'zoo', a criminal mystically saddled with a animal companion as a penance for her crime. She and her sloth are bound until death, and more important her status as a Zoo has removed her from her life of relative privilege and dropped her square into the squalor of Zoo City. The only upside to being animalled is her 'mushavi', a magical talent for finding lost things. Zinzi uses her ability to earn a meager living, while paying off her debt to her former criminal associates using her journalistic talents writing letters for their 419 scams. When a client dies mysteriously, Zinzi is a suspect and without a paycheck. This causes her to take a missing person's case, tracking down one half of a teen-pop duo for their eccentric producer. This task quickly embroils Zinzi in a complex web of corruption, magic, and intrigue. 

Beukes' first hand knowledge of her setting, Johannesburg South Africa and her experience as a journalist are in full display from the opening chapters. While Zinizi December is the defined protagonist of the story, with the entirety of the novel being told from her perspective, I would say that Zoo City itself is Beukes' most important and fully realized character. Since Zinzi is animalled, and automatically considered a second class citizen and pushed to the fringes of society, Beukes is focused on the seedy underbelly of her alternate Jo-burg. And she pulls absolutely no punches, never flinching from the despair, poverty, and pall of hopelessness that hangs over the marginalized fringe that reside within its borders.

Beukes shows a deft hand with characters as well. Zinzi December is everything I am not. African, female, criminal, addict, etc, and yet I came to not only understand but identify with her quest to re-imagine herself and to take her life in a completely new direction. With all the talk about writing strong female characters that is bandied about the internet, one could easily point to Zinzi as an example of what the genre needs. Zinzi December is complicated, conflicted, capable, cunning, foolish, flawed, and fierce. She is not a collection of 'kick ass female' archetypes, and Beukes never tries to turn her into action hero with breasts. And Zoo City is better for it. 

Beukes brings her journalistic chops to the forefront in the form of chapters that mine background information from newspaper and magazine articles, emails, and even YouTube videos and their comments. These asides while disconnecting the reader from the narrative voice of Zinzi's point of view, really do add a level of realism and richness to the novel that far outweighs the possible inconvenience to the reader.

Zoo City is full of narrative distractions. Beukes fills the pages with smaller character moments between Zinzi and various other denizens of the urban sprawl she calls home, as well as a wide variety of other characters from both her former life, and those she encounters during her investigation. Frequently I found myself wondering if all of Zinzi's meandering was ever going to arrive somewhere, while simultaneously finding myself entralled with her astonishing use of metaphor and concisely poetic prose.

They say, and rightly so, that the destination is far less important than the journey one takes to arrive. Zoo City could have been a fine example of this principle if Beukes had failed to deliver on the unspoken promise of her setting and characters. The final fourth of the novel is a breakneck demolition derby of adrenaline and anxiety as all the players collide and all is revealed much to the reader and Zinzi's surprise.

While Beukes layers more than a little social commentary into the narrative but it never takes away from the novel or preaches. These elements are part and parcel to the culture of Beukes imagined Jo-burg and are as ever present as the drug dealers and animalled prostitutes. They are setting more than story, with Zinzi’s personal journey to steer her life in a new direction against a society that is determined to keep her in a neatly zoo-labeled box. Zoo City and Beukes seem to be on a similar trajectory, tearing off genre labels and setting out into unexplored territory. That journey is one that lovers of nuanced and beautifully crafted fiction would be wise to undertake, especially in Beukes’ capable hands.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Weekly Webcrawl: Libraries, Women in History, Special Needs, and Amazonian Fan Fiction

While cruising my Titter feed, I came across this little jewel of fluff journalism. The author, seems to think that libraries are nostalgic places for old people, and there is little use for libraries in the modern age of a search engine in every bit of personal electronics. He even riffs on Farenheit 451, making an assinine parallel that would likely enrage Bradbury's ghost. There are numerous obvious fallacies in his arguments, that the internet is free, and more. I love libraries, and discovered many authors and genres that I never would have if I'd not haunted libraries as an adolescent and teenager. The two Stephens, King and Donaldson, to name just a few. Rita Meade, over at Book Riot, does a great job at pointing out the various and sundry flaws in the arguments presented in the article, so I'll refrain from treading the same ground.

Another post that caught my attention was a guest post from the supremely talented Kameron Hurley at A Dribble of Ink that challenges our the lazy acceptance of the historical narrative that marginalizes women, people of color, etc. This is a fantastic article and it would criminal of you not to take a look.

And then along Chuck Wendig comes to steal my thunder and manages to mash up the library controversy and his thoughts on Hurley's post. Read his thoughts here.

Lastly, I wanted to link to a post by Peter Orullian over at the excellent Bookworm Blues. Peter's call for compassion as part of the Special Needs in Strange Worlds series is incredibly moving and has guaranteed to touch a nerve for all of the parents out there. After reading this, I resolved to rectify my lack of exposure to Orullian's work. There are other posts in this series that beg for your attention as well, but this one is the one that spoke most directly to me.

And since Twitter is all abuse about Amazon's foray into publishing fan fiction, here are a few excellent examinations of this development.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Coming Attractions: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan

While I'm perhaps a bit late for the party, those who enjoyed Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood, will be pleased to see that cover art and the synopsis have been released by Orbit. Based on the strength of McClellan's debut, I'm already anxious to return to Tamas, Adamat, and Taniel's adventure and really hope that McClellan has some new POV characters to add to the mix.

The publisher's synopsis follows:

'The hounds at our heels will soon know we are lions'
Tamas's invasion of Kez ends in disaster when a Kez counter-offensive leaves him cut off behind enemy lines with only a fraction of his army, no supplies, and no hope of reinforcements. Drastically outnumbered and pursued by the enemy's best, he must lead his men on a reckless march through northern Kez to safety, and back over the mountains so that he can defend his country from an angry god. Tamas's invasion of Kez ends in disaster when a Kez counter-offensive leaves him cut off behind enemy lines with only a fraction of his army, no supplies, and no hope of reinforcements. Drastically outnumbered and pursued by the enemy's best, he must lead his men on a reckless march through northern Kez to safety, and back over the mountains so that he can defend his country from an angry god.

In Adro, Inspector Adamat only wants to rescue his wife. To do so he must track down and confront the evil Lord Vetas. He has questions for Vetas concerning his enigmatic master, but the answers might come too quickly.
With Tamas and his powder cabal presumed dead, Taniel Two-shot finds himself alongside the god-chef Mihali as the last line of defence against Kresimir's advancing army. Tamas's generals bicker among themselves, the brigades lose ground every day beneath the Kez onslaught, and Kresimir wants the head of the man who shot him in the eye.

I vastly enjoyed Promise of Blood, and strongly feel that McClellan is poised to join the ranks of authors like Weeks, Brett, and Cole who get better with each new release. The Crimson Campaign looks to be a step in that direction if the marketing materials are any indication.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Weekly Webcrawl: Defining the Strong Woman in Fiction

Having recently review Brian McClellan's highly entertaining Promise of Blood, I've been looking at other reviews of the novel for curiosity's sake. As I noted in my own review, I would have liked to see more female POV characters, but suspect that McClellan will likely correct this oversight with the forthcoming The Crimson Campaign. But I never felt that the novel was populated by weak female characters, a criticism I have seen leveled in other reviews. Some reviewers stop just short of claims of misogyny, and I found myself questioning my own interpretation of McClellan's characters and angry that anyone would use such a hot button word so casually. But this is the Internet, where the old adage about opinions and assholes is all too apt. With that in mind I'd like to offer the following.

In my opinion we need to reevaluate our definition of what constitutes a strong character, regardless of gender. Does being the victim of abuse, crime, or even rape make a character weak? Or is it a lack of agency? Or is it something even more complicated and difficult to define? I'm not sure, but I think it is worth noting that statistically almost every person you know has been the victim of some sort of abuse or crime. Does that victimization make them a weak person? What if it were your mother, your wife, your child, rather than a person made up entirely of an author's imagination and words? Would you feel the same way? I would like to hope so.

With that as preamble, here are some articles I've found that discuss varying definitions of 'strong women' in fiction. I found them all very enlightening, but your mileage my vary.

  • SF Signal's Mind Meld has some interesting thoughts on Strong Women in SF/F: I particularly enjoyed the comments of Teresa Frohock, Lauren Beaukes, and Jaye Wells.
  • Chuck Wendig's thoughts on the matter from his excellent blog.
  • This post from Culturally Disoriented doesn't talk about what defines a strong woman in fiction, but I think gets to the heart of why those characters are so very important.
  • And last, but certainly not least, N.K. Jemison has this to say on the subject.
Let's hear from the peanut gallery. Tell me what your thoughts are on this topic. Have you found other articles worth sharing with the rest of us? Do you think I'm full of it? Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

I've noted previously that I'm not a huge fan of science fiction stories preferring blades and magic to aliens and spaceships. But when I read the synopsis for Wesley Chu's The Lives of Tao I knew I had to give this sci-fi tale a run. Some may classify Chu's debut as urban fantasy, and I can certainly see their argument, but genre hardly matters when talking about a book that is as much fun as The Lives of Tao. Chu's cunning and hilarious mash-up of comedy, coming of age drama, espionage thriller, and science fiction has something for everyone.

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…
The heart of The Lives of Tao is its protagonist, the tubby, socially awkward, and unmotivated Roen Tan. Tan is dissatisfied with his life as a cog in the corporate machine, but lacks the strength of will necessary to lift his tires out of the rut he's been travelling on for years. I'd venture we all know someone just like Roen Tan, or have been more like him than we are comfortable admitting in some time of our lives. That's the genius of Chu's choice of protagonist, he is instantly relatable. A true everyman  if you will. I'm strongly reminded of Zachary Levi's portrayal of Chuck Bartowski in the television series Chuck in all the best ways. Roen starts off the novel as a whining, slovenly, schlub of a man and the heart of the novel is about his transformation into something much more.

Chu shows us the direction Roen will be heading in, before we even meet our protagonist. We meet Edward Blair, a suave and capable agent of the alien Prophus in the opening chapter ostensibly to see how Tao comes to choose Roen as his next host. Chu certainly accomplishes that goal in short order, but showing the contrast between what Roen is and what he is expected to become is an excellent, if intentional, bonus.

Roen's path is not an easy one. While a great deal of the novel concerns Roen's training to be an agent of the Prophus, there are no uplifting training montages with a soundtrack by Survivor. Chu chooses to go the honest route and show Roen getting his head and ass handed for page after page. He doesn't learn kung fu in three months or become a crack shot. Instead, Tan gets beat up by women and senior citizens with impunity. Chu's decision to forego the allure of the secret agent lifestyle is an inspired one, allowing readers to focus on the journey of his unlikely hero.

And what a journey it is. Guided by the wisecracking Tao, whose taunts are so close to the schoolyard jibes that nerds everywhere will instantly recognize, Roen transforms before our eyes into a fitter, more confident, and more engaged person. Chu draws this element of the story out and strip mines the comedic gold from Roen's every bumble and misstep. The interplay between Roen and Tao, reminiscent of countless buddy cop comedies, is Chu's secret weapon. Between Roen's self depreciating sense of humor and Tao droll sarcasm, readers are all but guaranteed to laugh out loud as they read.

But don't let Chu's propensity for drawing laughs fool you. The more dramatic and emotional moments are handles with care that never feels forced or out of place. The action sequences are incredibly tight, effortless straddling the line between cinematic and realistic. Roen may not be the James Bond action hero that one usually sees in espionage thrillers, but readers will more than satisfied in his transformation.

There's a lot to love about The Lives of Tao. Ancient aliens playing chess with the human race as the pieces, first hand accounts about Gengis Khan and the Black Plague, historical Easter eggs for the sharp eyed reader, and so much more. It's easy to forget about all of that science fiction stuff when you are busy laughing at and cheering for Roen Tan. And that, more than anything else, makes The Lives of Tao one of the best debuts I've read this year.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Weekly Webcrawl: Art Reflects the Artist

I've been a reader of fantasy since my earliest memories. I was a fan of Kipling's Just So Stories before I could even read.  I vividly recall positively devouring everything Narnia and Oz that crossed my path. Then came comic books, and my life became consumed with longboxes, bags, and boards. To this day, my 9 year old likes to ask me questions like "What's Hawkeye's real name? And what about Mockingbird?" I answer them all, grateful to be able to share an interest with him that brought me so many hours of entertainment.

I graduated to more contemporary science fiction and fantasy novels when I was fourteen, when a friend of my parents introduced me to the Stephens. King and Donaldson to be more specific. And that my friends, was all she wrote. I've since devoured hundreds of genre novels almost to the exclusion of anything else. My fiance, who prefers non-fiction, doesn't understand why I love stories that are so "unreal". HBO's Game of Thrones has helped with that to some degree, but I'm often reminded how so many people turn up their noses or roll thier eyes when they discover that I prefer my books with swords, magic, dragons, and the like.

I've tried over the years to explain that fantasy fiction gives authors a platform to examine the real world in ways that traditional stories do not allow for. I've mentioned that The Lord of the Rings is more about Tolkien's thoughts on the corrupting influence of power, than it is about elves, dwarves and hobbits. I've mentioned that out of the twenty highest grossing movies of all time only two of those are not firmly planted in the fantasy or science fiction tradition. None of it seems to stop the eye rolling for long.

So I've decided to take a different tack. One that I never would have stumbled upon if it weren't for my decision to start blogging. My interactions with authors via interviews and twitter have led me conclude that the biggest proof that fantasy novels are worth reading is the character of the men and women that are writing these stories. Below are a series of blog posts and other items I've found in my weekly web crawling.

I challenge anyone to read the thoughts of these artists and continue to believe that the works that they produce can be marginalized as something without value, simply because those works have magic and monsters, fairies and fantasy in their make up. Art is a reflection of the artists that create it, and these men and women obviously cast something in the mirror that we would do well to investigate and examine. We might just find the some answers to the big questions we all face about love, death, justice, war, and more. And that's something that is relative to us all. 

Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin Hearne

Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Chronicles has been one of my favorite urban fantasy finds of the last few years. It like Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria series, has a lighter, more nostalgic tone that I find refreshing in between darker, more serious books. True to form, Hearne has released a novella to tide fans over until his next novel hits shelves. Having really enjoyed the last of Hearne's shorter work, the excellent Two Ravens and One Crow, I was excited to delve into this look into the early days of Atticus O'Sullivan.

The publisher's synopsis is as follows:

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.
Set before the events of Hounded, there is a certain amount of nostalgia to be found in seeing Atticus once again in his familiar stomping grounds. Readers are treated to characters and locals that have for the most part been abandoned as the series has taken Atticus far from the setting where the series began. While this is certainly a treat, the lack of fan favorite characters such as the Morrigan and Atticus' apprentice Granuaile is a bit of a let down. Oberon, Atticus' Irish wolfhound is present to provide his particular brand of canine hilarity, which is always a highlight of Hearne's work. The scene in which Atticus and Oberon are being herded by a literal phalanx of cats is a definite standout on the humor front.

All of the things you know and love about Hearne's work are present here. Pop culture references and sarcastic humor are everywhere, and the action sequences are as pulse pounding as ever. But somehow Grimoire of the Lamb manages to miss the mark some how. I believe the removal from the current time line and the absence of some of the standout characters of the series combined left me wanting something different from what I got.

That said, I don't fault Hearne for my disappointment. He delivers a rewarding story, adds mythos to the setting, made me laugh, and I enjoyed spending time with Atticus and Oberon again. At the end of the day, this novella is an appetizer when what I really wanted was a full course meal. Lucky for me, Hunted is slated for a June release. I'll be more than ready to pull up a chair at Hearne's table again.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews

I read a pretty large amount of urban fantasy, but tend to stay away from the paranormal romance sub genre. But I'd heard good things about Ilona Andrews so decided to give Gunmetal Magic a go, having been convinced that Andrews' novels were more urban fantasy than paranormal romance. I won't say I was mislead, because Andrews certainly has some good things going on in the novel, but the protagonist's preoccupation with her romantic entanglements and relationship issues diluted my enjoyment of what could have been, in my estimation a much better book.

The publishers blurb is as follows:

After being kicked out of the Order of the Knights of Merciful Aid, Andrea's whole existence is in shambles. She tries to put herself back together by working for Cutting Edge, a small investigative firm owned by her best friend. When several shapeshifters working for Raphael Medrano--the male alpha of the Clan Bouda, and Andrea's former lover--die unexpectedly at a dig site, Andrea is assigned to investigate. Now she must work with Raphael as her search for the killer leads into the secret underbelly of supernatural Atlanta. And dealing with her feelings for him might have to take a back seat to saving the world...
The novel opens well with Andrews using a flashback sequence to give some set up on both the protagonist, the were-hyena Andrea Nash and the setting simultaneously. All of this information is delivered in fairly large brush strokes, and I was initially disappointed by this approach, but once I determined that Gunmetal Magic is part of an ongoing series, I was able to get past the scarcity of details. Andrews actually does an excellent job of keeping the story self-contained, while making nods to the other books in the series. Gunmetal Magic may be a richer novel with knowledge of the previous installments, but I never felt like I was lost because of lack of relevant information.

The setting certainly compelling was missing a great bit of detail that I suppose was covered in the earlier books in the Kate Daniels series. I found myself wanting more information about certain elements of the setting and characters, but since Gunmetal Magic is Andrea's story Andrews wisely keeps the narrative tightly focused on her first person narrator. Which is where my disconnect begins.

Andrea Nash is in many ways the stereotypical 'kick-ass urban fantasy heroine', though luckily the novel's cover doesn't pander to the artistic stereotyping that plagues most other novels of its type. Andrea is a dogged investigator, capable warrior, and powerful shapeshifter. All of these traits are on full display within the opening scenes. But once the action dies down, this capable heroine immediately dissolves into a whining love obsessed teenager. All she seems to focus on is her failed relationship with Raphael, and the pair of them spend most of the book sniping at each other rather than grow up and handle their problems like the adults they appear to be in all other aspects of their lives. The pervasiveness of this material made the investigation plotline and the battles seem like a subplot more often than not, and it really limited my ability to enjoy the otherwise well constructed story.

Thankfully, Andrews is more than awareness of the childishness of her characters behavior. During a conversation with the star of the rest of the series, Kate, Andrea's relationship troubles are likened to a Spanish soap opera and I couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. That self awareness was was a treat albiet a temporary one. Becasuse immediately after that conversation, both Andrea and Kate play the mother of all childish pranks on Raphael. Thankfully there is growth at the end of the story for both Andrea and Raphael.

All in all, I can see why Andrews is one of the most popular of urban fantasy writers, she's created a memorable world, compelling characters, and plenty of action. I am curious enough about the world she's created that I may give the beginning of the Kate Daniels series a try. But I can only hope that the maturity level of the relationships in those books is higher than what I saw in Gunmetal Magic.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

My relationship with Promise of Blood is complicated in the way teen aged love affairs are complicated. Let me explain. I've been eyeing McClellan's debut from the first time I heard about Brent Weeks calling it "flintlock" fantasy and thus got my first look at the cover and blurb. Sounds promising right? Well like those aloof unattainable ladies of my teen aged years, Promise of Blood just wouldn't look back. I entered contest after contest, emailed the publisher, searched Net Galley to no avail. Then insult came to visit and added to my injury. A close friend had won a signed ARC! The nerve, the betrayal. But I was steadfast, finally managing to get a copy from NetGalley on release day. The object of my affections was mine. So what's the end of the story you say? Well, to put it like I might have 25 years ago. She's just as pretty as I thought. We had a good time, but I just don't know. Will I take her out the next chance I get? You bet your sweet ass.

And the blurb that started this mess:

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.
It's a bloody business overthrowing a king...Field Marshal Tamas' coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas's supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.
It's up to a few...Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.
But when gods are involved...Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should...

Pretty shapely little package, isn't it. Well have no fear, McClellan delivers on the promise of the concept and the fantastic cover. Promise of Blood is exactly what you'd expect, an action packed thriller full of bullets, bad-assess, and blood. But rated PG-13, like all teen aged girl-friends should be.

All kidding aside, McClellan tells an engaging story, with a surprisingly diverse cast (in most cases), multiple intriguing magic systems, and a pleasant mix of action, mystery, and old school fantasy. All of this set in an historical time period (albeit, a fantasy equivalent) that gets scarcely any love from the genre. It's a compelling setting too, with the tension of not only the political revolution but also a magical and industrial one. Those forces power the majority of the conflict in the novel, no battle ground left unsurveyed. There is plenty of military action, political espionage, gods, monsters and enough magical fireworks that you just might think it is Bastille Day.

That's where McClellan really shines. It's no coincidence at all that McClellan, as a former student of Brandon Sanderson, delivers a variety of intricate and well designed magical abilities for his characters to play with. It would be easy to write off McClellan as Sanderson 2.0, but that would be a mistake. While McClellan's powder mages do seem to be a slightly different take on the Allomantic coinshots from Sanderson's Mistborn novels, the pitting of this type of magic against the aristocratic elemental magic of the Privileged takes the mechanical and turns into something more thematic. The fact that gunpowder is also addictive, and one of the main viewpoint characters is definitely in the need of a step or twelve is another nice touch. There's even more magic at play as well. Lesser magical abilities such as the ability go without sleep indefinitely are possessed by another group called the Knacked, and there is the mysterious magic of the savage Ka-Poel and a mad god or two thrown in for good measure.  As settings go, this is one of the more interesting ones I've encountered in the category of epic-fantasy in quite a while.

His character choices are an interesting mix as well. With Field Marshall Tamas and the investigator Adamat both well beyond the age of the typical farm boy protagonist, McClellan manages to make compelling action heroes of both older men without resorting to stereotypical over the hill Hollywood style. Tamas is no Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, though I can detect an older, wiser Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Adamat is wisely more Watson than Holmes, but his dogged investigations prove to be a wonderful vehicle that McClellan uses to avoid heavy handed info-dumping. It's interesting that the most stereotypical character of the cast, Tamas' son, the legendary Taniel Two Shot, leaves me the coldest. McClellan packs his story line with interesting threads, the betrayal that ended his engagement, his strained relationship with his father, his growing attraction to the mute savage Ka-Poel, and his struggles with powder addiction and more. But try as I might, I always longed for more of the Tamas and Adamat viewpoints. Perhaps there was just too much going on in Taniel's chapters for any one element to really take hold. I'm not sure, but I hope that Taniel's chapters sharpen their focus in the sequel.

The only real miss I can find in McClellan's choices thus far has been in the almost complete lack of female voices in the novel. There is one small female focused point of view in the novel, that of Nila, a laundress who  has lost everything as a result of Tamas' coup in the early chapters. I felt that Nila's chapters were under used and developed in comparison to the male centered counterparts. I suspect that could be a result of fear of getting it wrong, a criticism often leveled at epic fantasy writers in the post GRRM era.  But I think McClellan would do well to face that fear head on. After all, he's placed several compelling female characters with definite agency in the background. Here's hoping we see some of them at the forefront with the boys in McClellan's sequel, The Crimson Campaign.

The action is well handled, with McClellan turning in the same kind of bullet time worthy fight scenes that you would expect from a Brett, Weeks, or Sanderson. I think a little more grit would do the writing some good, anchoring it more in the smoke and bloody faces of revolution, if you will. But that's nothing more than a matter of preference. The pacing falters later in the novel, losing the tension between the increasing action of some threads against the more sedentary pace of others. Something I have no doubt will improve as McClellan gains his own balance as an up and coming writer to watch.

McClellan's reputation as a fantasist to watch is well deserved. Promise of Blood has a lot going for it. Easy on the eyes, great personality, and can cut a rug with the best of them. I'm not convinced she's quite ready to take home to meet the parents, but I'll definitely be asking for a second and probably a third date. You never know she might just be a keeper.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Interview with Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig is a new discovery for me. I planted my flag in his upcoming novel The Blue Blazes not too long ago. Long story short, I loved it and I immediately went looking for more of Chuck's particular brand of word salad. I found his blog, the excellent Terrible Minds, followed him on Twitter, and picked up another of his novels for my "to read" pile. Then I asked him to answer a few questions for me. Those questions are below, I hope you enjoy the answers.

52 Reviews: Robert Jackson Bennett talks a lot about the Big Ideas that drive his stories. What central theme or idea is at the heart of The Blue Blazes, and was this something that informed the writing from the beginning of your writing process, or did it develop more organically?

Wendig: I like to think that at the heart of many of my tales is family. What family means. How a family is ruined, and how it puts itself back together. The Blue Blazes, like with many of my stories, features a truly fucked up family: Mookie Pearl and his estranged daughter, Nora, who just so happens to be trying to steal a slice of his criminal operations right out from under his nose.

Family is fascinating. We all have it. And each of our version is a thing that is often equal parts love and dysfunction, and so I think one of the powers of fiction is to stick a thumb into that particular sponge-cake and see how it feels.

52 Reviews: I would agree that my favorite part of The Blue Blazes is the family drama between Mookie and Nora. What I found equally fascinating was the way you interposed the wholly non-existent character of Mookie's ex-wife into the tableau. While we know next to nothing about her role in the relationship between these two principals, she still manages to exert an almost tidal pull on them both. Mookie's arc with the ghost of his marriage is much more visible, but the reader can't help but wonder how she may have shaped Nora's character and choices. Was it your intention from the start to create this Unholy Trinity of Father, Daughter and Holy Ghost?

Wendig: Not an intention in the religious sense, but in a lot of my books you'll find that one parent is distant or estranged somehow -- Miriam Black's mother has been off the radar for years, her father long gone. Atlanta Burns is without a father. In my upcoming YA book, Under the Empyrean Sky, Cael McAvoy has both parents, but his mother is sick and bedridden with tumors. And here in The Blue Blazes we have the absent father -- Mookie Pearl -- actually being the protagonist of the book, and Nora, the poor daughter, becomes (in part) the antagonist. The disturbed, imperfect trinity is key, I think.

52 Reviews: Wendig does YA. I can't decide if I shudder with fear or quiver with excitement at that prospect. As someone who has only recently started reading your work, which of your other works would you recommend to someone who enjoyed The Blue Blazes and why? And just to get this out of the way early, are there plans for more novels featuring Mookie and Company?

Wendig: I'd like to think that anybody who likes The Blue Blazes will like anything I do because I try to inform all the work with my voice and whatever motifs and themes that obsess me and ALSO BECAUSE I HAVE THIS GUN POINTED AT THIS PONY.

But, really, if folks are looking for a next place to jump from The Blue Blazes, they might want to check out Blackbirds and Mockingbird, the first two Miriam Black books. Also by Angry Robot.

As to whether or not there will be more TBB -- well, hopefully. I have two more books planned to make it a trilogy. If Angry Robot says they want more, then the world gets more. If not -- well, maybe I'll still write them some day.

52 Reviews: As an author who has a very distinct voice, what would you recommend to aspiring writers who are struggling to find their own voice? Are there specific exercises you used or was your experience more organic?

Wendig: Here's how this works, I think:

Every author decides to go on a grand adventure one day, and that grand adventure is to find her voice. She leaves the comfort of her own wordsmithy and she traipses through many fictional worlds written by many writers and along the way she pokes through their writings to see if her voice is in there somewhere. She takes what she reads and she mimics their voices, taking little pieces of other authors with her in her mind and on the page.

Is her voice cynical? Optimistic? Short and curt, or long and breezy? She doesn't know and so she reads and she writes and she lives life in an effort to find out.

This adventure takes as long as it takes, but one day the author tires of it and she comes home, empty-handed, still uncertain what her voice looks like or sounds like.

And there, at home, she discovers her voice is waiting. In fact, it's been there all along.

Your voice is how you write when you're not trying to find your voice. Your voice is the way you write, the way you talk. Your voice is who you are, what you believe, what themes you knowingly and unknowingly embrace. Your voice is you. Search for it and you won't find it. Stop looking and it'll find you.

So, no exercises really teach you voice, I don't think, save perhaps for the exercise of simply writing.

52 Reviews: Speaking of 'simply writing' do you prescribe to the notion that success as a writer is more a measure of effort and dedication than actual talent? Creativity, in and of itself, seems to be pretty easy to come by while the tenacity to commit to the act of actually creating seems to be much more scarce.

Wendig: Talent is a function of excess desire. You really, really want something bad enough, you tend to manifest a "talent" for it. While I'm sure there's some argument to be made for the expression of genetics, I think mostly it's just -- if you really like architecture and have the desire to create architecture, you're probably going to manifest the "talent" as an architect.

Dedication and effort then turn that desire and talent into craft and creation. At least, in a perfect world

52 Reviews: If I can dig into your writing process a bit, could you tell us a little about the genesis of The Blue Blazes? Did you start with character, plot, or world building? Is your starting point the same for each novel, or does it change from project to project?

Wendig: The genesis for the book is remarkably ludicrous, but perhaps shows how long a story can gestate:

When I was a Wee Tiny Human, somewhere around 8-10 years old, I used to press my thumbs against my eyelids so I could see colors in the dark of my eye. Like, I dunno, elementary school hallucinogens or something. It's like, they tell you not to look at the sun and what do you do, first thing? Go and look at the sun like a dummy. Because all children are stupid.

One time I did it and received the most marvelous colors and then, just after and not coincidentally, I saw a lion in my backyard. I grew up in Pennsylvania so the likelihood of this being a lion -- in this case, a lion reclining as if after a glorious meal -- was nil. And yet it was so crisp, so clear, I was at the time convinced it was real, missing the connection that maybe, just maybe, I'd invoked the lion as a vision by thumbing myself in the eyes like a stupid person.

Years later, that story reoccurred to me as an adult and I thought, there's something there, yeah? Something about the eyes, something about the blue blazes seen behind the dark of the lid, something about how it reveals things you don't want to or don't expect to see.

And even there the story lived with me for the last six, seven years. Slowly growing. There came a point in the last couple years where the most excellent Robin Laws was editing an anthology called The New Hero, Volume One, and he wanted a story of an iconic hero -- iconic meaning a hero that changes the world but is not in turn changed himself. I came up with Mookie Pearl, bad dude with a heart of gold, head-breaker, knee-cracker, goblin-masher, a man with a tricksy daughter, a man with an impeccable taste in charcuterie, a man ultimately alone. From there I envisioned a whole novel with him at its fore -- and so, THE BLUE BLAZES was born.

52 Reviews: With Mookie serving as the rock that all the other players in the novel break themselves against, was it much more important to show character growth in the supporting cast?

Wendig: I'm less concerned with growth and more concerned with depth -- and, to a lesser extent, change. At the bare minimum, supporting characters need to be compelling in their own ways. Supporting characters don't know they're supporting characters. They're the main characters of their own lives.

52 Reviews: One of the things that I noticed in The Blue Blazes was that the end of one of the principle character's arc was heavily foreshadowed and telegraphed without diminishing the reveal at all. How do you strike a balance between revealing too much through foreshadowing and being so vague that most readers miss the anticipation and the payoff?

Wendig: A great deal of writing is drunkenly threading a needle. Thankfully, for during those times you prick your finger like a fool you have power of editing and rewriting to pull back on the obvious and push forward on the all-too-subtle.

Writing is one of the only jobs where you get a nearly endless amount of do-overs and take-backs.

52 Reviews: Editing and rewriting are often the bane of the aspiring author. Some can never seem to finish a project due to the need to get things 'just so', while others are daunted by the task after putting so much on the page. What approach do you take to editing and what advice would you give to those who are facing this issue their own writing?

Wendig: The worst advice is also the most tried and true: just do it.

For those looking for more nuanced advice, I offer that one approaches editing the way one approaches eating an elephant: one bite at a time. Editing a particularly troublesome novel feels dire because it's OH SO MUCH, a big bloated behemoth of problems and errors and plot tangles. But it's like cleaning a messy kitchen: it all starts with one dish. You move one dish, then another, then another, eventually you start to see it get cleaned up.

In terms of editing, I write in the mornings, and edit in the afternoons. That way I can work on two projects separately.

Oh! One more little piece of advice for editing: give yourself as much time away from the thing as possible. The ideal scenario is coming back to it like someone else wrote it. When we edit too soon we're filled with love for things that don't work and hate for things that do. Have to get our head clear and come at it as objectively as possible.

52 Reviews: The Blue Blazes is what I would consider a genre bender of a novel in that it takes elements from more than one genre and performs a sort of mystic authorial origami on it, with the resulting work being more than the sum of its parts. With that in mind, what do you think about the genre system as a whole? Is it an important tool for getting the right books into the hands of the people who are apt to enjoy them, or is it a limiting system of pigeon holing that authors are forced to abide by due to editorial or consumer fiat?

Wendig: The genre system is theoretically useful to the audience -- I mean, hey, if I want an epic fantasy, I can go to that shelf. But it's also hopelessly restrictive and what happens is, some authors get stuck on a given shelf and can never leave. (This is why author "branding" can be dangerous -- let's remember that a brand is the symbol a cattleman burns into the hide of his steers to signify ownership.)

Authors of my age, I think, were raised on a steady diet of pop culture from across a variety of genres -- my mother will read anything with the words "Robert" and "Ludlum" on it, but people my age often read widely beyond a single genre. And that shows in our writing, too -- we blend and mix and mash it all up in some new pulp slurry.

I suspect that one possible future is that authors become their own genres. Hell, Stephen King is his own genre. He's not a horror writer anymore. He's just… Stephen King. Doesn't matter what genre his novels are, his voice, his style, they're his own.

52 Reviews: For my last question, I'd like to try something I started in my last interview. Let's call it a Writer's Soapbox. Here's your chance to pontificate on your topic of choice, promote an upcoming project, or give the alchemical formula of Patrick Rothfuss' beard shampoo. The floor is yours, do your worst.

Wendig: *dons self-promotional cap*

*which is actually just a beanie with a propeller on it shut up*

I'm a lucky little writer-monkey because, by some weird confluence of fortune and hard work I have four novels coming out in the next couple months. So, I'm going to gesticulate wildly and froth a little at the mouth and point at those.

Because I'm wearing my beanie, you see.

So, let us begin.

First up: Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. The gods fell to Earth. One man wants revenge on them for taking his family away from him. It involves various divine wangs and vaginas. No, really.

Next: The Blue Blazes. Which we have in part already talked about but hey, I'll entice with: mystical drugs! goblins! roller derby girl gangs! the criminal underworld! the mythic underworld! subterranean zombie town! charcuterie! family betrayal!

Then: Under the Empyrean Sky, which is my young adult novel in a sunny dustbowl cornpunk future where a scrappy scavenger named Cael finds a secret forbidden garden in a world where their floating Empyrean overlords only allow them to grow a bloodthirsty variant of corn. It's got young love and adventure and piss-blizzards and motorvators and an agricultural pro-farmer pro-food message nestled in all the trappings. John Hornor Jacobs called it Of Mice and Men meets Star Wars, which I quite like.

Finally! Beyond Dinocalypse, book two of the Spirit of the Century trilogy. Pulp heroes. Two-fisted jet-pack action. An apocalypse of psychic hive-mind dinosaurs. PROFESSORIAL APES IN KILTS.

*removes beanie*

I feel so dirty.