Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Call me late for the party. I’ve never been a fan of traditional science fiction, preferring knights, wizards and dragons to aliens, FTL drives, and space stations. But as a genre book reviewer I’ve felt a certain amount of (internal) pressure to branch out.Leviathan Wakes kept coming to mind as I chose new books to review but I always managed to find an excuse why some other book was more appealing or would generate more traffic or what not. I should have known better.  I’ve read a good amount of Daniel Abraham’s work and have never been disappointed. His collaboration with Ty Franck, under the pseudonym of James S.A. Corey lives up to any expectations I had based on those excellent novels. Leviathan Wakes is science fiction for readers without advanced science degrees who are far more interested in plot and character than the actual science of our science fiction. This is space opera that eschews the usual trappings of the genre, and focuses instead on tight realistic world building and a character driven story that approaches the material from unexpected angles.

This is not to say, fans of space opera will be in completely unexplored territory. The world of Leviathan Wakes is infinitely familiar. Humanity has taken to the stars but remain limited to our solar system due to the limitations of the technology that has given them the planets if not the stars. By confining the characters to a smaller sandbox, Corey is able to overlay real world concerns and issues onto his interplanetary stage without getting lost in scads of exposition and explanation. The solar system is a world not far from our own once you scratch the surface. Divisive politics, prejudice, corporate greed and the small struggles of real people are the order of the day and readers will instantly feel at home in this zero-g landscape.

The novel opens with a mystery that feels so much like the “ice monster prologue” of A Game of Thrones that it feels impossible not to recall the connection between these authors and Martin. But it’s handled well and ties into the main plot thread quickly enough that I can’t begin to criticize the method.  The next two chapters introduce us to our viewpoint characters and this is where Corey’s writing really shines.

First, we have Jim Holden, the second in command of an ice hauler called the Canterbury. Holden is thrust into command of the remains of the Canterbury’s crew when his ship and most of his friends are murdered while on a mission of mercy near a small out of the way asteroid. Holden is an idealist, whose simple moralistic world view leaves him woefully unprepared for the consequences of his broadcasting evidence of the attack. Holden brings to mind the rough around the edges, good intentioned space captains from countless films and television shows in the genre, and Corey makes good use of the trope while subverting it by not having Holden stray into Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds territory at all. Holden is a man who wrestles with not his choices, but the consequences of them, all while trying to keep the remaining members of the Canterbury’s crew alive in a solar system on the verge of collapsing into war.

The second viewpoint character is Miller, a middle aged police officer on Ceres Station. Miller is in many ways the antithesis of Holden. With his career on the decline due to his depression and alcoholism, Miller is assigned to find the missing Julie Mao, who figures heavily in the prologue of the novel. Miller’s world weary, suspicious view of the world is in sharp contrast to Holden’s idealism and optimistic world view. Miller’s quest to locate Julie and his growing obsession with his quarry leads him to Holden and his crew in the middle section of the novel as the Belt and Mars inch closer and closer to out right war. It is quickly apparent that Miller is a damaged soul, the quintessential noir detective, and that finding Julie Mao is, at least in his mind, his last shot at redemption. When Corey brings Holden and Miller together the sparks fly as the two men’s conflicting world views lend the novel it’s most believable conflict. This unlikely pairing is the heart of the novel, and I often found myself wishing they could just get along, but knew that the story would be far weaker if Corey had followed the path of least resistance.

The crew of Holden’s ship, the Rosinante, is sympathetic and expertly drawn. In fact, they are in many ways more easily relatable than the two principal protagonists. I hope for viewpoint chapters from Naomi and Amos in the next volume. Each of the supporting characters, no matter how secondary to the plot have nuance and importance to the principal characters they orbit. While many of them can be easily described in terms of genre tropes, Corey’s delivery makes that familiarity a blessing rather than a curse.

Another highlight of Corey’s writing is the distinct sense of place that is evoked in the various locales in the novel. With the narrative spanning the solar system, it would have been easy for Corey to gloss over the specifics and focus on action, plot and character. Instead, every location has a distinct flavor. The casinos of Eros, slums of Ceres Station, and the more opulent environs of Tycho are all given equal time to shine with the details of the environment and its denizens woven so seamlessly into the narrative that the reader is in fact absorbing the material in a natural way. The characters experience their environment and we readers are merely along for the ride.  Even the ships that occupy so much page space have their own character and peculiarities. This attention to detail allows for a fully immersive experience that avoids info dumping in almost every instance.

With spaceship battles and pitched gun fights in the close quarters of space stations, Leviathan Wakes has more than enough action for genre fans. The choreography and emotional heft of these scenes is some of the best I’ve seen in any genre. Violence is never meaningless to those who are touched by it, and Corey never forgets that fact. Conflict always has repercussions to either the plot or the characters.

In conclusion, Leviathan Wakes is science fiction for lovers of story that like the science in the background and the human element front and center. If you want to explore science fiction but don’t care about astrophysics or the technical specs of every ship and firearm, Corey has written the book for you. Leviathan Wakes is poised to be a classic in the genre moving forward, a natural progression from the classics that came before with a decidedly modern sensibility.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

I'm confident that having a popular and well received series is the dream for most authors. Unfortunately, many authors of such series develop what I like to call "cash cow" disease, and their series drag on coming more and more bloated as the author milks every last drop of financial success from the property, diluting what was once a intriguing property by forgetting that sometimes less is more. When I heard that Michael J. Sullivan was releasing prequel novels to his excellent and completed Riyria Revelations, I worried that any return to the lives of Hadrian and Royce would pale in comparison to the completed series. Sullivan closed the door on these characters well and left almost no unanswered questions on the table, leaving my concerned that these prequel novels would be irrelevant to the series as a whole. I couldn't have been more wrong. The Crown Tower is a worthy addition to the Riyria property, full of the excellent characterization and light-hearted sense of adventure that made Sullivan such a success. More importantly it deepens the readers understanding of the protagonists and adds a richness to the preceeding books thus rewarding readers that have already devoured the preceding six volumes.

The books back copy follows:




A warrior with nothing to fight for is paired with a thieving assassin with nothing to lose. Together they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm’s most valuable possessions. But it isn’t gold or jewels the old wizard is after, and this prize can only be obtained by the combined talents of two remarkable men. Now if Arcadias can just keep Hadrian and Royce from killing each other, they just might succeed.
Sullivan begins The Crown Tower before his protagonists have met and allows the reader to spend quite a bit of time with Hadrian before he begins his association with Royce. This was a inspired choice, giving readers time to soak up the difference between this younger, and surprisingly even more idealistic version of the character they have grown to love. This becomes very important as the easy familiarity and friendship between the warrior and assassin are nowhere to be found in this volume. Sullivan doesn't take the easy route to establish the character's partnership. This is far less about their first adventure than it is about the process of forging the bond between them. The sparks fly and there is plenty of bickering replacing the banter of the Riyria Revelations. In a lot of ways the snark is even more entertaining when there  is real vehemence behind it, but the sense of humor that underlies it all hints at the partnership that readers know is coming. Sullivan does an excellent job of showing why these two loners need each other and how the pairing of their skills and world views will strengthen and eventually redeem them both.

Sullivan also structures the story so that it can be read either as the beginning of the series or in the order of publication. There are benefits to both approaches, as Sullivan seeds the narrative with nods to the events of his previous novels. These tips of the hat, give the long time reader a sense of being in on the process, and they rarely feel forced. Newer readers who approach the series through the prequel novels first ,will benefit of seeing the pay off, with Sullivan's careful attention to not spoil the tension and big reveals of the later books with his nods to his legions of fans.

Sullivan also introduces Gwen DeLancey as a point of view characters for the first time in The Crown Tower. With the majority of the female protagonists not appearing until much later in the series' timelines, it makes perfect sense that Gwen would be used in such a way. This choice also adds depth to a well loved supporting character and makes Gwen's later relationship to one of our heroes make much better sense. These sections were some of my favorites, not just because of the newness of them but due to expert way that Sullivan portrays Gwen. Though she starts the novel as a prostitute in a hole of a brothel, she never lacks agency and Sullivan handles the more adult themes of her circumstances with a touch that is light, but yet not so squeaky clean as to become unrealistic. Gwen is just as much the hero of her story as Royce and Hadrian and the fact that she stays far removed from their exploits only strengthens her as a compelling protagonist. I certainly am looking forward to more of her story in the rapidly approaching The Rose and the Thorn.

The Crown Tower is Sullivan doing what he does best. As I've said in other reviews of Sullivan's work, if you are looking for a return to the fantasy of your youth that manages to still feel relevant without burying itself in the grit and blood of Abercrombie, Martin, or Morgan, then you should look no further. Snappy banter, desperate stakes, pulse pounding sword play, and good old fashioned heroics are all on full display here. Everything you've come to expect from the adventures of Hadrian and Royce is contained within the pages and with the addition of Gwen's chapters there is a richness that I certainly wouldn't have expected in what so easily could have been a "cash cow" add on to a beloved series. I hope that there are many more novels to fill in the twelve year gap between The Crown Tower and Theft of Swords, especially if they are half as good as this one.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview with Jay Posey

Jay Posey's debut novel, Three, was a pleasant surprise for me as a reader. I was surprised by how what appeared to be a by-the-numbers tale transformed into a compelling meditation on self isolation and the bonding of a surrogate father and a troubled child. Posey's approach to world building was refreshingly minimal and his bleak prose reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. With that said, I approached this interview with far more relish than I had originally expected when I agreed to do so before reading the novel. There were a few hiccups in getting the interview in (though not due to any lack of response of Jay's) and given the rapid turn around from Jay, I can't say I am anything but impressed with the answers. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. 

52 Reviews: What can you tell us about the genesis of Three? Did the idea come to you fully formed or was there a germinating process? How different is the finished product from what you initially envisioned?

Jay Posey: I had the seed of the idea for a good couple of years before I ever found the setting that I was happy with for the story.  But once I found the world for it, I think that had inevitable impact on how the story itself developed.  I knew I wanted to explore a story about surrogate fatherhood, but when I wrote that first scene that introduced Cass, she instantly became a crucial third piece to the story puzzle.  In the very earliest days of conception, I’d actually expected Cass to die in that opening scene, leaving Three with Wren.  But she had other ideas, and I’m really glad she did.

It’s kind of strange, because in some ways Three is exactly the story I wanted to tell.  I was really pleased with the characters and the relationships that developed over the course of the book.  But there are plenty of things that surprised me about how it turned out.  Some of the settings felt a lot more like I was discovering them than creating them, like Greenstone and the Strand, and several of the characters had much deeper histories than I was expecting, like jCharles and Mol, or Dagon.  So from that standpoint, I think the world turned out to be much larger and deeper than I had anticipated when I started out.

52 Reviews: I see from you author bio that you have worked extensively in the video game industry. How has that professional experience deepened your understanding of story mechanics, and was it difficult to make the leap into prose? 

Jay Posey: Working in games has definitely forced me to work very hard at understanding the fundamentals of storytelling.  In a lot of ways, storytelling in games is almost fractal … you can have a story line that you expect players to take 12 hours to get through, but then that story can be broken down into, say, four hour arcs, which can each be broken into one hour missions, each broken into fifteen-minute segments, each broken into five-minute game play loops.  Working to understand story beats and how to play with pacing, and trying to deliver satisfying beginning-middle-end experiences repeatedly gave me a lot of practice with the fundamentals.

It actually wasn’t too tough to transfer those skills over to the prose world.  There’s a ton of writing for games that doesn’t ever actually show up in the finished product … documents about character backgrounds or world events, for example.  When you’re creating a video game world, you’re often working with a lot of other creative individuals who want to understand, say, the political motivations and level of professional training of the enemies you face, so you end up writing a lot of that background material that influences the game without necessarily ever showing up where a player can see it.

I think in a lot of ways, it was really freeing to write a novel, since I had a lot more control over the story and world than I do in my day job.

52 Reviews: One of the hallmarks of speculative fiction is world building, and authors often spend copious amounts of time detailing all of the things that make their settings different from the real world. In Three you use a very sparse almost minimalist approach to world building, providing very little detail about how the world came to be in its current state. What led you to this decision and should readers expect more of the same in future volumes?

Jay Posey: There were a couple of reasons for that.  The biggest reason was because I really wanted to keep the story small and focused on the characters.  I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I tried to give people all the information they needed to understand that story without getting bogged down in trying to explain the state of the world. 

On another level, though, I genuinely wasn’t sure how much people were going to be interested in the world itself, and I didn’t want to give people a huge info dump about things they might not care about at all.  Moving forward through the series, I’ll definitely be answering more questions about the world, though I suspect there’s a good chance I’ll leave a few gaps for readers to answer for themselves.

52 Reviews: One of the larger themes of the novel seems to be the loss of humanity through isolation. Three begins to see himself in a completely light once he allows himself to be drawn into the problems of Cass and Wren. What in your own experience contributed to the overall character arc of your protagonist?

Jay Posey: I think a lot of this came out of my own personal journey.  I’m highly introverted by nature, and I was very much a nerd growing up (and continue to be), so I think I got used to feeling out of place.  There have been times in my life where I just found it a lot easier to do my best not to get noticed, and to try to do everything on my own so I didn’t have to rely on others.  I think there’s a natural tendency for all of us to do that at some point, particularly after we’ve been hurt by someone we trusted.  There’s a temptation there to withdraw and try to avoid letting anyone get too close.

When I became a father, though, I think it helped me realize how important it is to stay connected, how much we really need other people to help us be our best, and how to try to operate beyond ourselves.  My children have taught me a lot about myself, and I think have really brought me a lot of healing over some things I’d come to believe about myself.
52 Reviews: Another aspect of Three that I found fascinating was your use of technology in such a way that it was less of an outside force and more of an internal part of everyone's make up. The fact that your protagonist's lack of this bio-tech was what made him such an effective hero, seems to be a veiled statement about our growing dependence on gizmos and gadgets. Was that an intentional statement or something that grew organically in the telling of the tale? 

Jay Posey: It was an intentional decision once I’d settled on the setting I wanted to use for the story, but it’s really an essential part of the character.  It’s not really an attempt at an anti-tech morality tale or anything, because I love technology and think there’s a lot of awesome stuff going on out in the world.  But I definitely think a lot about the implications of how much we’ve let technology into our everyday lives, and how that can be potentially used against us.  It really had more to do with the nature of the character though, about how Three built his entire life around this idea of being entirely untraceable.

But I might have a little bit of the tinfoil hat thing going on.  I like to think I have a healthy skepticism, but I’m sure all paranoids think that about themselves. 

52 Reviews: I was really impressed by your handling of Wren. Writing children is incredibly difficult and few author's show the level of authenticity in their portrayal of the very young that I found in your handling of Wren. What was your approach to this very crucial character? What challenges and rewards did you experience in writing a character of such a tender age?

Jay Posey: Wren was really tough for me, though it probably helps that I have children around his age.  I think writing him came from a combination of observing my own children, and reflecting on the memories I had of my own childhood.  There were some moments that I was able to draw on myself, like when your parents are trying to pretend like everything’s fine, but there’s clearly something wrong … and sometimes knowing your parents aren’t telling you everything is scarier in its own way than whatever the something wrong might be. 

I think too I tried to keep in mind that kids are usually a lot more aware of what’s going on than we as adults tend to give them credit for, and so I tried to make sure I treated Wren with respect.  I think the biggest reward was getting to the end of the book and feeling pretty content with the way he’s portrayed and the way his relationship develops with Three.
52 Reviews: I found the descriptive passages in Three to be full of an elegant bleakness. While you certainly gave enough information for readers to get the gist of the setting, I found my own internal imaginings taking up the space between the sparse details you provided. How important do you think the symbiosis between the reader and the work is to making novels of this style successful?

Jay Posey: I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear you say that.  I think it’s absolutely critical that readers are able to fill in those gaps in ways they find satisfying.  It can be scary as a writer to think someone might be picturing a scene differently than the way you do, but I think it can be a more fulfilling experience for the reader when they can contribute to their own experience that way.

I think that’s one thing that working in games has taught me.  Working in video games, you’re so often surrounded by incredibly gifted creative individuals, and I’ve had numerous experiences where I’ve written a scene, or a character, or whatever, and then handed it off to a concept artist, and what they’ve come back with is not at all what I was imagining, but it’s about ten thousand times better, and I find that once I’ve seen it, I can’t imagine it being any other way. 

It really helped me realize that I as a writer don’t have to make sure you as a reader are seeing the exact same picture that I’m seeing, as long as the essentials are there.  And I think that personalization for the reader is incredibly powerful.  It’s one of the reasons I try to avoid answering the question of who I would cast for Three in a movie … I know what he looks like to me, but I don’t want to rob anyone else of what they think he looks like.

52 Reviews: I found the action sequences in three, particularly when the protagonists battle wave after wave of the Weir, to have very much the feel of video game action sequences. Was the cinematic aspect of writing for a visual medium such as video games instrumental in helping you learn how to construct such compelling cinematic set pieces?

Jay Posey: Definitely.  I also have some experience with screenwriting, so having written for primarily visual media has had a profound impact on how I approach prose writing.  I don’t think I was necessarily picturing a gameplay moment, but I undoubtedly was reaching back to that writing experience to find my way in those scenes.

 52 Reviews: I found your decision to leave so many questions unanswered throughout the narrative to be a interesting choice. Was it nerve wracking to know that you may have unintentionally alienated some of your potential audience by taking a 'more questions than answers approach'? 

Jay Posey: I honestly didn’t give it a whole lot of thought while I was writing the novel, though that might be because I wasn’t sure anyone else would ever read it.  I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to keep it as streamlined as I could.  A lot of the people who read the early manuscript commented on how much more they wanted to know about the world, but they also tended to agree that they didn’t necessarily need to know those answers to be able to enjoy the story, which made me feel like I’d hit my target on that.

Of course, I definitely didn’t have any desire or intention to frustrate anyone, and I really want everyone to like everything I do, so I always feel sad inside whenever I see someone commenting on how they were upset by how little the book explains.  But ultimately, I feel comfortable with where the novel is.  I think I would’ve been sadder if I had added in a bunch of backstory and heard people say I over-explained and the world is boring and dumb.  At least now if people say it’s boring and dumb I can say it’s because they didn’t imagine it better.
52 Reviews: What can we expect from the coming sequel to your excellent debut? What lessons did you learn from writing Three that helped in the process of crafting the next volume, and has the sequel provided even more education for the what comes next? 

JP: Well, without giving too much away, I’ll say the sequel continues the story of a few returning characters and builds on the events of Three, while also introducing several new characters.  I’m hoping to give readers more of a look at the world, and I’m really trying to give each book in the series its own personality, without straying too far from what people might come to expect.  I’m not sure if that’s actually a useful answer or not.

Honestly, Book Two has been much more painful than I was expecting.  I thought having written Book One that I was an Old Pro now and that I’d be able to sit down and knock out Book Two at a leisurely pace while sipping sweet tea.  But I think each book is probably its own beast that needs to be slain in its own special way, once you discern its predictable pattern and find its weak point.  That might be my background in video games talking though. 

I think the biggest takeaway from Book One has been that I can in fact actually finish a long form novel and not expire in the process.  And also that I can trust my creativity to see me through to the end, even if sometimes it seems like I’ve written myself into a corner.  As much trouble as Book Two has given me at times, it’s definitely unfolded some moments that will contribute to future endeavors, so I’m grateful for the adventure, even if some of it has seemed occasionally unpleasant.

Each stop on this Blog Tour of Three by Jay Posey has a unique question.  Be sure to enter your answers into the giveaway by dropping by My Shelf Confessions  and enter your answers in the rafflecopter widget! You can answer as many or as few as you like as each answered question gets you an extra entry!

Here's the questions for my stop: Question #6 - In what kind of world setting does Three take place?"

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Three by Jay Posey

Post apocalyptic novels have fascinated me since I first read Stephen King’s The Stand, What can I say? There is something about watching the collapse of society as we know it and the trials and tribulations of characters as they navigate their way in a drastically changed environment. Jay Posey’s debut novel, Three, has little in common with King’s magnum opus on its face, though I would say that it falls into a subset of the post apocalyptic genre. Posey does share with King an ability to inject his prose with a strong sense of place and characters that linger in the minds of the reader long after the last page is closed. Those attributes coupled with sparsely elegant prose make Three an exciting offering from a debut author that fans of the genre would do well to keep their eyes upon.

The publisher’s back copy follows:

The world has collapsed, and there are no heroes any more.But when a lone gunman reluctantly accepts the mantel of protector to a young boy and his dying mother against the forces that pursue them, a hero may yet arise.

It’s sparse to be fair, but it gets the point across. Three is the story of a loner, surviving by his wits and strength on the fringes of a world destroyed by an unknown apocalypse that has left the world plagued by what appear to be a sci-fi riff on zombies called The Weir as he finds himself saddled with a mother and child on the run from persons unknown and the change he sees in himself when he finally allows himself a respite from his self inflicted solitude. Will accepting the mantle of protector and hero cost him his life in the process, and is that possible sacrifice worth the risk of letting himself feel again?

Posey’s narrative is full of mystery, and most of the questions genre fans will want answered are left either completely unanswered or only given the lightest of attention. This approach is likely to leave readers either impressed with the subtle world building and exposition or frustrated with the almost absolute lack of answers. Personally, I was impressed by Posey’s minimalistic style, finding an elegant bleakness to his prose. Posey leaves much to the reader’s imagination, only providing what is vital and necessary to the tale he wishes to tell. Readers who want in depth explanations to every facet of the setting will be sorely disappointed, but those looking for a character centered tale of sacrifice, heroism, and the warming a stony heart should look no further.

Posey’s protagonist, the enigmatic Three, whose name provides the novel’s title is an obvious heroic stereotype; a mercilessly efficient survivor, possessing skills almost unparalleled in the setting, but it’s not these features that make him compelling. It’s his humanity rather than his superhuman competence that speaks most clearly from the page. Three is a man who has avoided human connection, finding himself endangered not just physically but emotionally as he takes up a role of protector and guardian to the ailing Cass and her surprisingly gifted son Wren. Three’s gradual return to empathy and community is the real point of the story in my mind. No man, no matter how exceptional, can remain alone and find meaning in his life.

Posey also manages to write Wren, a young boy of six years just as convincingly, reminding me of writers such as King and Martin who are often lauded for their ability to portray children well. Wren is an exceptional child, with gifts he neither understands nor can control, but Posey manages to write him with a complex mixture of innocence and matter of fact weariness that makes tugs at the reader’s heart strings. His bond with Three will bring a smile to fathers and step-fathers everywhere.

Posey’s experience as a game designer shows itself primarily in his action sequences which are well choreographed and rife with dismemberments and broken bones. There is a casual brutality to these scenes and it fits well with both the characters and the setting. In a world where the dead prowl the night with glowing eyes, there is no room for sentimentality and survival by any means is the only rule that matters. But even with action aplenty, Three is a novel about redemption and the return to humanity and Posey injects every character interaction with meaning and pathos to spare.

In conclusion, Posey has delivered a tale that despite its minimalist approach to world building and exposition has real depth of character and resonance when it could easily have been nothing more than exercise in over the top action scenes, and post apocalyptic set dressing. With more volumes to come in this series, I look forward to see where Posey takes us next, and I’m confident that Three will find itself included in many ‘Best of’ lists by years end.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Trending Ten: Midyear Update

It's that time again. With thirty three books read and slightly over half a year gone by, I thought it time to update my Best of 2013 list again. We have some new faces and old favorites here. I'm sure with this many excellent novels already on the list and so many highly anticipated new releases coming before years end this list will go through more changes and I'll keep you all updated as we move forward. With that said, enjoy and I hope you find some additions to your bookshelves here.

10. Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

I’ve read more Chuck Wendig than any other author this year, in spite of my normal policy not to read any one author too often. But the profanity laced siren song of Wendig’s prose keeps me coming back, even if it leaves me feeling cheap and dirty when it’s through with me. I chose to include Wendig’s foray into YA over his more mature Blackbirds because it seemed like such a departure from his usual work, and because it still managed to have that very unique voice that I enjoyed in Wendig’s more ‘mature’ offerings. Under the Empyrean Sky is YA done exceedingly well and I am anxious for the continuation.

9. Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein

Daughter of the Sword is an interesting mix of police procedural 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 overused 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.

8. The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu: 

I usually don’t go for books with a strong sense of humor throughout. I find humor to be exceptionally difficult to do well and sight gags and satire alike just leave me cold. But The Lives of Tao managed to blend the very best elements of a buddy comedy with an espionage thriller and coming of age story in such a way that I found myself laughing aloud on a regular basis. The combination of a compelling every man protagonist and a unique take on the alien body snatcher tropes of classic science fiction makes Chu’s debut something genre fans won’t want to miss.

7. Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole: 

Myke Cole 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.

6. Joyland by Stephen King: 

The master of horror and a genre all to himself, King’s novels occupy almost a third of my personal library. His latest offering, Joyland is full of all the best that King has to offer; achingly real characters, a strong sense of place and time, a touch of the otherworldly, all tied together with a protagonist so well realized that he feels not only like an old friend but a reflection of us all.  Fans of The Body and The Green Mile should hurry to experience Joyland.

5. Cold Days by Jim Butcher:  

It's a testament to just how good some of the books in this list are, that the titan of urban fantasy comes in fifth 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 constantly 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.

4. The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig 

The start of my Wendig obsession, The Blue Blazes was a departure for me falling solidly into the noir wheelhouse. But Wendig sells his dysfunctional family drama by always keeping the real emotional heft of the story just below the surface of the bombastic violence and ingenious world building. MookiePearl 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.

3. 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 magic, compelling and realistic characterization, and a penchant for turning tropes on their ear. But in addition, Brett levels up not only the power of his characters but the intricacies of their story arcs. Brett’s entire cast possesses an unprecedented 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.

2. No Return by Zachary Jernigan:

It's highly unusual that I find myself liking a novel more over time. But Zachary Jernigan's debut novel, No Return, is an exception to that rule. A mash up of serious themes about spirituality, religion, violence, and sex populated with believable characters and not a stock player in sight, No Return  was a novel that wouldn't let go of me. I pondered the themes and questions it presented for far longer than it took me to read its scant three hundred pages, and that is a rare feat indeed. I'll be watching Jernigan with rapt attention because with chops like these he's certain to be going places. 

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 understated 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.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Shift By Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey's Wool was one of the first books outside of epic fantasy that I reviewed, and I was blown away by his claustrophobic tale of the remnants of humanity living below the earth in silos for so long that their inhabitants had forgotten the world above. Howey's blend of science fiction and literary realism was a standout of 2012 for me, so as I approached the first anniversary of this blog, I decided to delve into the second offering in the world of the silos.

While Howey still turns in an atmospherical tale within the pages of Shift, I found it underwhelming in comparison to his earlier work. There was a, pardon the pun, a shift from the sci fi elements into a stronger lit fiction feel, and I found the result well written, but ultimately a trifle unsatisfying.

The publisher's synopsis follows:

In 2007, the Center for Automation in Nanobiotech (CAN) outlined the hardware and software platform that would one day allow robots smaller than human cells to make medical diagnoses, conduct repairs, and even self-propagate.

In the same year, the CBS network re-aired a program about the effects of propranolol on sufferers of extreme trauma. A simple pill, it had been discovered, could wipe out the memory of any traumatic event.

At almost the same moment in humanity’s broad history, mankind had discovered the means for bringing about its utter downfall. And the ability to forget it ever happened.

Not the most exciting synopsis, is it? I would have passed on this based on the cover art and back copy, if I hadn't been so impressed by Wool. But poor marketing aside, Shift is, on it's face, a welcome addition to Howey's flagship franchise. With it's structure following the same format as it's predecessor, made up of sepearate novellas all connected either through events of reoccuring characters, Shift will feel comfortably familiar to those who devoured Wool.

The first novella introduces us to Donald, a freshman Congressman, who is swiftly entangled in the construction of the silos and the conspiracy behind their true purpose. While Donald is sympathetic and well drawn character, I couldn't help but be appalled at the over all lack of agency he seems to have in this opening novella. I know this is intentional, as Donald is embroiled in circumstances so far beyond his understanding and control that he is simply swept along on its currents. Donald seems to react far more than he ever acts and because of this I found his initial character arc, which is the core of the first novella less than satisfying. I realize that the entire purpose of Shift is to fill in the origin of the silos, but with the foreknowledge that comes with having already read Wool, I couldn't bring myself to care enough about that origin with a protagonist that comes off as milquetoast as Donald.

The second novella, which splits time between Donald and a young porter named Mission Jones, is far better and I found myself wishing that his story was the central thread. Mission's tale centers around the collapse of one of the silo's and shows not only Mission's growing understanding of the silo politics and his questioning of the 'survival of the fittest' philosophy that is at the crux of the silo project. Donald appears here as well and we learn first hand what measures that the architects of the silos will go to keep their experiment going. It's a chilling and poignant tale and in my opinion was the strongest of the novellas included in the omnibus.

The final novella shows what happens when Donald, who by all appearances is the moral compass of the overarching plot of the collection, is placed in charge of the silos. Donald's decent into petty revenge is, while understandable and realistic, largely unsatisfying. The secondary plot, which takes us back in time to follow young Jimmy Parker, who appears in Wool was more palatable at least to me. Seeing the youngster adapt to the crushing lonliness and sporadic violence of the collapse of his silo was both heart wrenching and beautifully executed. This is what Howey does best, creating characters that his readers can empathize with and that manage to survive with nothing more than their strength of character. Jimmy's encroaching madness is well handled and makes the boy's survival all the more heart wrenching. Howey also teases the intersection of Donald and Juliette's story lines for the final volume of the Silo saga, the upcoming Dust.

While I found Shift to lack the suspense and surprise of Wool, there is no denying the emotional heft and deft examination of survival and community in Howey's work. I suspect that the challenges of writing a prequel to such an engaging property are monumental and probably contributed to what felt quite a lot like 'middle book syndromwe' to me. Nevertheless I'll tune in for Dust because I suspect the showdown between Juliette and Donald to be far more satisfying than this look back at the origins of the Silos.