Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lately it seems I’ve been on a bit of an urban fantasy kick. I’ve read some pretty standard contemporary urban fantasy that simply appeals to me as low-level entertainment, I’ve read some high-end urban fantasy that invokes an old-school feel with a fair bit of the mythic and historical thrown in, and I’ve read some pretty awful urban fantasy, regardless of how you choose to label it. But none was something that felt ‘new’ to me. And while being something ‘new’ is not always a great thing and not always something to strive for, when it’s done right, it stands out. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) does that – it stands out.
In Buekes’ re-imagined modern world, there is a plague, colloquially known as the zoo plague. Basically, if you kill someone, you end up with a familiar animal attached to you through some unknown dark magic. The familiar grants you a magical ability, but it also must accompany you at all times, any pain the familiar feels, you feel, and if it dies…well, let’s just say death is the kindest part of what happens to you.
Zinzi December is a ‘zoo’ living in the Zoo City ghetto of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her animal is a sloth and her magic is the ability to find lost things. She’s a recovering drug addict working to pay off her drug-fueled debt and she makes ends meet by finding lost things and sending African spam emails. You know what happens next – a case comes along that she doesn’t want, but the pay it too good to pass up. The mystery is to find a lost person, something she tries not to do. She ends up over her head as she travels through the music/club scene of Johannesburg and things dive into the occult.
The brilliance of Zoo City is in the setting and what Beukes does with it. Africa is typically underrepresented in SFF, especially urban fantasy, so that alone makes it a breath of fresh air. But the atmosphere Beukes captures makes it great – we see the suffering of an African ghetto, but its hope and family life too. We get a hint of the truly terrible past of refuges. We see behind that spam email and see the person forced into writing it, and the pimp doing the forcing. We see the cost that is inflicted on the person who takes the life of another – some are the thugs we all envision, some regret their past, some are simply lost and scared. Beukes subtly opens our eyes to a world that most never see – intentionally and unintentionally.
Now, don’t get worried that Zoo City is some heavy-handed social commentary. It’s not, or it’s not just that and I certainly wouldn’t use the term heavy-handed. At its core is a standard hard-boiled missing person case, with a far from standard ‘private eye’ doing the digging. It’s an introduction to Johannesburg and life in South Africa, it has a truly unique magical ‘plague’ and it is populated by complex characters.
The book is relatively short and moves along at a generally fast pace, though I had trouble with some of the uneven pacing towards the middle. These pacing issues, in combination with the a dive deep into a rather confusing occult plot kept me from being as fully engaged in the book as I expected to be, which I find unfortunate.
Zoo City was a book that I had high expectations for, and for whatever reason those expectations weren’t entirely met. As I mentioned above, some of it is due to the pacing and some due to the direction it takes toward the end, but from the start there was something holding me back. It’s a good book, and in retrospect, a very good book that I find deserving of accolades it’s been receiving. It’s great to see something like this come along and be appreciated. So, maybe my expectations were just too high, or maybe there is some other level that it just didn’t quite meet, but for me I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much beyond the average. I feel like I should have enjoyed it more, especially in retrospect, but that doesn’t change how I feel. So, I do think that Zoo City is a great book and I think that it’s a brilliant addition to an often stale urban fantasy. But while I can see and appreciate what Beukes does with it, it didn’t entirely work for me, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. But, I’ll still happily recommend it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Review: Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

If asked I wouldn’t consider myself a big fan of urban fantasy. Sure, there are plenty of urban fantasy books that I like, and the last 5 books I’ve read could be considered urban fantasy, but generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of urban fantasy as it’s generally defined at this time. However, I tend to love ‘old-school’ urban fantasy – the stuff Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint and others. As often as not, you’ll hear that sort of urban fantasy called mythic fiction or something similar.
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is urban fantasy in the style of old-school urban fantasy that leans toward mythic fiction. It’s also has a strong historic feel to it being set in the early 1970s Northern Ireland. Unlike much of the urban fantasy of today, Of Blood and Honey is not some mixture of up-beat, gritty, humorous ass-kicking protagonist discovering dark supernatural powers with cardboard characters. Of Blood and Honey is a deep, moody, truly dark, melancholy, tragic tale. Characters are constructed with depth, realistically flawed and realistically heroic. There is pain and despair with fleeting hope. This is not a book to lift up, entertain, or escape – at least in the most common thought of context. It is the story of humanity, the cruelty of humanity, love in the face of adversity, the horrors of war and oppressive government and resiliency when most of us would have rolled over and died.
Of Blood and Honey takes place at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s. Liam is a young man who gets caught up in things beyond his control and ends up in the IRA. He’s also the son of shape-shifting fey right out of Irish myth, though he doesn’t know it. Throughout the book he’s a son, husband, prisoner, wheel man for the IRA, and drug addict. 
Of Blood and Honey is an unusually strong debut. The prose simply excels – at times it’s poetic, at times it captures a feel consistent with contemporary urban fantasy, and it always maintains the tone of Northern Ireland. The time isn’t happy, some truly horrific things happen to Liam and any decent tale of Irish fey must invoke melancholy and tragedy. Throughout Leicht seamlessly weaves the supernatural threads of her tale into the real world of Northern Ireland. 
Liam is the perfect character for Leicht’s story. He’s strong – but not strong in the ‘I kick your ass while making witty remarks’ of most urban fantasy. Perhaps strong is not the correct word – resilient fits better. Liam is that typical older teen/young adult looking to step out and find his place in the world – only he has no clue. He has a girlfriend that he thinks he loves, he has a loving mother, but an abusive stepfather. He longs to know who he is, but with his ongoing confusion and frustration comes anger. And there isn’t much that a young Irish Catholic man could do in 1970s Londonderry. He gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he spends time in prison, while unknown to him supernatural forces are making his life harder and the Catholic Church is watching. Betrayal hits him from the closest quarters and everything he thinks he knows is turned inside out. As Liam struggles, it’s the strong arm of government that turns someone with no political aspirations towards the IRA.
It’s really a fascinating thing to watch Liam evolve through this book. We literally see him grow up – of course it’s aging through tragedy. At the end I can’t say Liam is left with hope, but it is at least acceptance of a sort.
This is a book set in violent, political time that many still alive experienced first-hand. This book focuses on one side of the story – that of repressed Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. The IRA is shown in a somewhat positive light and in a basic sense, the Loyalists and British Government are bad guys. The horror of the times is well expressed. The violence and loss on both sides is shown. But, this is one side of the issue. Inevitably those who experienced the other side will have issues with this. But, on the whole this book does not glorify any position and shows the horrific, unjust nature of the times, regardless of positions.
Of Blood and Honey is powerfully good book – easily one of the best I’ve read in the past several years. It strikes the right balance as a work of urban fantasy, (recent) historical fiction and mythic fiction as it invokes an ‘old-school’ feel while holding on to a contemporary relativity. Liecht shows the horrors of humanity alongside its resiliency in way that we can all relate to in one way or another. The sequel to Of Blood and Honey  and next Book of the Fey and the Fallen is available and from what I’ve heard, just as good – And Blue Skies from Pain (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon).

A Few Odds and Ends of Christmas Cheer

So, my last post was back in November and at that time I was predicting a review in about a week. Well, that obviously didn’t happen. There are reasons of course, there are always reasons. I could blame it on the near constant sickness in the house for several weeks and my total lack of sleep during that time. I could also blame it on crazy work scheduled before the holidays begin. As well as the onslaught of our usual December visitors. And each is certainly true. Though the most true reason is that I received my copy of A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and it consumed me during my sickness-weakened state. I still managed to read all 900+ pages of it in a week, but it took a lot out of me doing so. I’ve been waiting for this book since I first picked up The Eye of the World (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) back in 1994 and I must say that it ended well and appropriately. I’m still digesting that and I have numerous posts that I’ll write about A Memory of Light and The Wheel of Time, but not until January 8 and later.
Anyway, here are a few odds and ends to show that I’m still alive.
  • Amazing Stories is getting a reboot and is going live soon. There will be a bunch of different contributors, ranging from well-known authors to bloggers who never seen to get much attention (I’m referring to myself, though my involvement won’t be huge – just an occasional post). The press release is below.
The latest round of books received:
Books Received: November 26 - December 23, 2012
I should probably figure out a way to list books I get digitally since I’m getting quite a few that way these days. But don’t expect it soon.
Amazing Stories Press Release:
Amazing Stories, the world's first science fiction magazine, opens for Beta Testing of Phase 1 on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013.
Fifty+ Writers Sign On to provide genre-related content! 
Experimenter Publishing Company
Hillsboro, NH
December 20, 2012
On Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013, I will be joined by more than 50 other writers from around the blogosphere to help launch the Beta Test of Phase 1 of the return of Amazing Stories.
Amazing Stories was the world's first science fiction magazine.  Published by Hugo Gernsback, the Father of Science Fiction, the magazine created the genre's first home and was instrumental in helping to establish science fiction fandom the fandom from which all other fandoms have evolved.
The magazine itself ceased publication in 2005; in 2008 the new publisher, Steve Davidson, discovered that the trademarks had lapsed and applied for them.  The marks were finally granted in 2011.
Phase 1 introduces the social networking aspects of the site and the Blog Team, more than 50 authors, artists, collectors, editors, pod casters, designers and bloggers who will address 14 different subjects on a regular basis SF, Fantasy & Horror literature, anime, gaming, film, television, the visual arts, audio works, the pulps, comics, fandom, science and publishing. 
Those wishing to participate in the Beta Test should request an invite by emailing the publisher, Steve Davidson.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Books Received and Update

So, I hope that everyone had a nice holiday weekend last week (at those of you who had holidays last week). It was good for me, though it's always hectic with the kids home. As I alluded to in this post (read it anyway, it's always good to give a little - or a lot) last week, life has been crazy lately, so posting has been sparse (though not much moreso than usual). However, I have had a bit more reading time come up, so I've managed to read quite a few. I need to write reviews for Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), Zoo City by Laurne Buekes (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), and Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Of Blood and Honey was probably the best book I've read in 2012, so I expect it'll be a very positive review (I have a draft started so I hope to have a review posted this week), my thoughts on Zoo City were surprisingly mixed, but overall positive, and Fortress Frontier continues the excellence of Control Point (My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) - I'm not sure if I'll post a review of Fortress Frontier until January.
Anyway, the holiday is over and now I've got to play a ton of catch-up at work. So, I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep up my reading pace. And I'm still unsure of what to read next - I have lots of good options.
Anyway, on to the books I've received in the last few weeks.

Books Received: November 3 - 25, 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

One thing that enjoy in life is the opportunity to travel, see the world, meet the people, eat the food, and drink the beverages (not necessarily in that order). I’ve been lucky enough in life that I’ve gotten to experience a lot of travel in many parts of the world. While it would be difficult to ever pick a favorite place, or even a favorite type of place, I will say that Europe is high on that list. And the part of Europe I’ve spent the most time in is central and eastern Europe, specifically the Czech Republic and Romania. So, when I saw that the  urban fantasy thriller that’s earning a bit of buzz, City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), is set in Prague, I thought that it was a book I’d probably enjoy.
City of Dark Magic starts with its author – Magnus Flyte, whom the description makes out to be a rather mysterious rogue of man who took the publishing world by storm. In truth, Magnus Flyte is the pseudonym for writers Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, a much less interesting truth than tongue-in-cheek mystery of the description. And this is a telling framework for the book itself.
I could write up a description of what the book is about, but really I think the best thing to do is take a brief 2 minutes to watch the book trailer below. It sums up the plot of the book well enough and again, sets a framework from which to judge the book itself.
Did you watch it? Good. First, were you intrigued to read the book? Did you laugh out loud? Did you stop in disgust 20 seconds into it? I really can’t understand how anyone thought this book trailer was a good idea. It’s laughably bad and its tone does more to mock the book than I can possibly do in the course of this review. Maybe I’m just not the core audience they were trying to attract with this trailer, but the best reaction to this trailer I can imagine is that ‘it looks so terrible that it might be kind of good’. That may work for something like Dude Where’s My Car, but a book that isn’t a satirical joke but a legitimate attempt at a magical suspense thriller in the vein of urban fantasy and paranormal romance? Bad idea. [EDIT:  and if this book actually is supposed to be satirical joke, then it completely failed in my opinion]
I wasn’t expecting a SFF masterpiece with this book, but at worst I was hoping for a fun urban fantasy and travelogue of Prague that would have me fondly reminiscing about my times there. At best I was hoping for a suspenseful and scholarly feeling book with an immersive atmosphere – such as The Historian or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Unfortunately, it was far worse than my hopes. Instead of some minimally entertaining thriller in the darkly magical setting of Prague, City of Dark Magic is little more than a 'gritty' version of Disney’s Princess mythos – and that description makes it sound more interesting than it actually is. And by gritty I mean sex, often from behind, in public and involving religious monuments – truly you would think the author of this book really is a man rather than two women.
The set-up for the plot is a formulaic wreck that checks pretty much all of the boxes. An attractive young women with a checkered past who is extraordinarily brilliant [check], an eccentric and even more brilliant mentor [check], who is killed in mysterious circumstances [check], a rich benefactor emerges [check], an all expense paid trip with salary to boot to someplace darkly exotic [check], where she meets a prince [check], who was a drummer in a rock band before he was a prince [check], she uncovers an evil government conspiracy [check], and travels in time [check], … I refuse to go on, but could.
Somehow, I continued the book, though I very nearly stopped reading it many times. I’ll be honest, it does improve a bit once the plot gets rolling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not good unless you’re a Hollywood blockbuster writer, but it’s at least tolerable (helped out by the setting).
As a travelogue for fond memories it unfortunately didn’t quite measure up – with Prague being such an interesting place, their descriptions come off as flat. Almost as if they haven’t ever been to Prague, walked its streets, or talked to any Czechs over half a dozen beers. But they at least had a good map and got it right with the cab driver.
The historical connection to Beethoven was also a relative failure of the novel. In the beginning I could have sworn the author was some Princeton graduate mentally masturbating bragging about all they learned about the real Beethoven. But even the authors got bored with that and very nearly forgot about it. City of Dark Magic could never decide if it wanted to be a magical/historical mystery or a contemporary government thriller – as a result, it’s neither and the result is an unfocussed mess.
In this review I go into detail on (un)reliability of blurbs and I find that a blurb is yet another telling truth about this book. The big blurb for City of Magic doesn’t come from an author or even a critic, but a pop culture icon.  
“This deliciously madcap novel has it all: murder in Prague, time travel, a misanthropic Beethoven, tantric sex, and a dwarf with an attitude.”
-Conan O’Brien
Really now. Combine O’Brien’s blurb with the book trailer above and you didn’t need to read this review to know that you shouldn’t waste your time with this book. Which is unfortunate, because I do love Prague. 

SFF and Helping Those in Need

So, it’s that time of year when it’s all about getting stuff for you or others – or essentially spending money. But there are plenty of opportunities to put your money to a more charitable use, and various places around the world of SFF authors and bloggers can help you do just that. So, this post rounds up a few charitable enterprises around the SFF blogosphere that I'm aware of - there are probably more, so feel free to comment and link if you know of others. Some are big global campains and others are simply the author's themsevles in need. Please consider giving if you are able - I know money is tight for a lot of us. I know that in my own life I've had many thousands of dollars of family medical expenses, time away from work as a result, and a looming likelihood of the need to take more time off, which will impact our income. Thankfully it hasn't been anything that we can't handle, but it does make things tight. Anyway, the point is that even with all this going on I stretch for the additonal donations to those that need help more than I do and I hope that many of you can as well (and my experiences have certainly shown me that a lot of people really need help more than I do).
Patrick Rothfuss and Worldbuilders: This has become an annual tradition where Patrick Rothfuss sponsors a campaign to gain donations for Heifer International, an established charity that provides sustainable food for parts of the world that really need it. Last year the campaign raised over $310,000! The bonus – authors, publishers and various others have generously donated hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of items that can be won. Other items can be purchased (with the funds going to the cause) and there are auctions for some really special products/services. And Rothfuss hase many other goodies that unlock with increasing revenue. It’s a great cause that I happily contribute to every year now (and I've typically won books as well).
Triumph Over Tragedy: A few authors and bloggers have joined forces to create a charitable anthology to benefice the victims of superstorm Sandy. It's a great lineup and good cause.
Unfettered: edited by Shawn Speakman came about as a project to help Speakman pay off debts from a serious medical condition he has struggled with. Speakman is a bit of industry insider since he runs The Signed Page and many authors volunteered stories to help. Early inidcations had me excited so it was an anthology that I had my eye - good cause or not, it has a great lineup.
Ronald McDonald House for Neth Space: I’ll go ahead and throw this into the mix. Over the last couple of years I’ve dealt with a number of health challenges with my very young daughter. There have been multiple surgeries, hospital stays and on-going therapy. As a result, my family and I have been beneficiaries of the Ronald McDonald House of Phoenix, and as a result I plan to become essentially a life-long donor. It’s a great cause, a needed cause and one that has touched me and my family directly. So, please give if you are able to the Ronald McDonald House of Phoenix or your local Ronald McDonald House.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Let's Talk about ME!

The Fantastical Librarian, Mieneke, has a nice little interview series where she interviews bloggers. Today, she features and interview with me. So, if you have any desire to learn more about me and Neth Space, enjoy. Otherwise, move along, this is not the post you are looking for.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disney Buys Star Wars – New Movies in the Works

A big bombshell exploded today in the SFF world – Disney purchased LucasFilm and allthe rights to Star Wars. The press release includes a reference to Episode 7, which is already in the early stages of development and is slated for a 2015 release. It sounds like it’ll be a trilogy format with Episodes 8 and 9 to follow. They say they expect new movies after that to come out every 2 – 3 years.
Fandom has gone ape-shit. Most of the people I follow are presenting this a bad thing. Presumably they want to preserve the magic of the original trilogy they experienced as kids (or younger people) while forgetting about the prequels. They don’t want any further missteps with the franchise and don’t want to see the Expanded Universe of the books and comics thrown out the window. I can see that, part of me agrees. But it’s a small part.
First, I’m excited about new movies. Truly, honestly, and happily excited. I was raised on Star Wars and I want to see more. I’ve read much of the Expanded Universe and I think that will be a great place to mine for ideas. What if the new trilogy is Thrawn? Throw in the development of the Jedi Academy. Or perhaps the X-Wing adventures. Those could be awesome! And we could get a whole new set of heroes to love.
But, as excited as the geek in me is, I’m more excited as a father. I have a 5-year old son. He’s only seen small bits of Star Wars so far (we feel the movies are still a bit to violent for him to watch – though, admittedly, I was only 3 the first time I saw Episode IV), but he’s already a fan. He plays lightsabers at school. He obsesses over his star wars legos. He can’t wait until we let him watch the movies. And he knows that I’m saving boxes full of EU books for him to read. What I’m most excited about is watching that new Star Wars movie with him. Disney says that they are doing Star Wars for the next generation – my son is that generation. And I can’t wait share it with him.
Note: I speak of my son because of that special father-son bond that is so important. But, I also have a 2-year old daughter. I certainly hope she’ll be a part of all this too - after all, there is a wonderfully special father-daughter bond to consider as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mini-Review: Trapped by Kevin Hearne

Trapped is the fifth book in the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and it pretty well follows in the footsteps of the four that have come before. Atticus is still kicking after 2000+ years of life, his faithful companion Oberon (an Irish Wolfhound) is equally long lived (well close-enough in dog years) and he is still managing to dance a jig between pissing off gods and creatures of various pantheons, running for his life, kicking a bit of ass and generally getting in way over his head. The only real difference in Trapped is that it takes place 12 years after the previous book, Tricked*. In those twelve years Atticus’ apprentice, Granuaile, has continued her training is ready to undergo the ritual that have become a full-blooded druid.
Trapped is pretty well a constant stream of action as Atticus, Oberon and Granuaile attempt to complete her training as a druid, dodge death and dismemberment from various creatures, eventually decide to kick some ass, with things leaving off with a cliff hanger of an ending where the situation is rather dire.
In Trapped, Granuaile becomes much more of a character than in previous books – her training is complete. Her magical abilities are coming on-line. She’s hot, witty and she kicks ass (remember this is major wish-fulfillment writing). And Granuaile and Atticus are finally forced to confront the feelings they have for each other. The other fun little improvement is with Oberon – the banter between Atticus and Oberon only gets better, and then Granuaile is thrown into the mix.
Trapped continues with the fun, wish-fulfillment fantasy that I’ve come to expect from Hearne. These books are a comfort read for me and I’m always anxious to read the next one – it’s like candy corn – I know it’s terrible for me, but I still can’t help but eat more and more of it.
*Hearne wrote a novella called Two Ravens and One Crow (Amazon) that is set in between the events of Tricked (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)  and Trapped – I’ve seen him refer to it Iron Druid 4.5. I read it before reading Trapped. It’s more of the wonderful fun and wish fulfillment that all the others are. The Norse come looking for Atticus and he and the Morrigan oblige.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Books Received and an Update

So, life is particularly busy and I'm not sure how much I'll post in the next month or so. Probably the same amount as I have been lately. I did manage to get out two reviews last week which was nice. I still need a review for Trapped by Kevin Hearne (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). I'm currently reading and really enjoying Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). The stuff that Night Shade Books is publishing these days is very impressive - or at least it aligns well with what I want to read now. More news to come later. Anyway, on to the books I've received in the last month or so...
Books Received: September 8 - October 16, 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

 “What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese Steampunk novel with mythic creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist? I’m afraid I missed everything you said after “Japanese Steampunk.” That’s all I really needed to hear.”
#1 New York Times best Selling author

The quote above adorns the cover for Stormdancer, the debut from Jay Kristoff and book one of The Lotus War trilogy (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Rothfuss’ blub above is what initially grabbed my attention for this book, months before its publication and months prior to my receiving an early copy. I’ll be honest – it got me excited. It sounded cool and while I know people have mixed opinions on Rothfuss’ books, I can say that I really enjoy his story telling ability and find him to be a genuinely entertaining person – just the sort of person who could get me excited about a book through a short blurb.
And so I fell into the trap. You see, if you asked me I’d tell you that blurbs don’t mean much to me. That they often can’t be trusted and you really need to carefully parse the words to make sure you’re not being bamboozled. So, let’s do that with Rothfuss’ blurb. To me, it looks like he’s commenting on a summary of the book, and not really the book itself – in fact, a careful read of the blurb makes me think that he had not read the book prior to giving it. And this is the best part – he flat out admits it all – saying that the term Japanese Steampunk is the only thing he was really interested in hearing.
So, I’m lead to the conclusion that this big and enticing blurb by Rothfuss is actually quite meaningless and not representative of the book itself since he hadn’t even read it. And since I’ve already admitted that it was this blurb that piqued my interest in Stormdancer, I must admit to blurb bamboozlement – and that is an embarrassing admission for me, a ‘respected’ review blogger of 6+ years. But, let’s not dwell on that and get to some discussion of the book – because I did actually read it and what I have to say about it is a bit more than a blurb.
In brief, the Japanese Steampunk angle has already been covered by Rothfuss. And yes there is civil unrest, at least one mythical beast (a griffin), and a strong female protagonist (at least surficially). I’ll go ahead and add that the society is completely dependent on the refined product of lotus flowers, which has lead to a sort of industrial wasteland full of pollution and drug addicts with an endless war distantly persecuted and dwindling natural places and creatures all under tyrannical rule.
The plot of Stormdancer follows a standardized checklist for epic fantasy – it’s an autocratic political system with overly cruel leadership, there is a mysterious resistance movement, a young teenager is the hero (Yukiko), one parent is dead, there are issues with her father to be overcome, Yukiko has magical abilities, impossibly a mythical creature appears, Yukiko promptly develops a magical bond to said creature, and then Yukiko sets out to topple the government. Anyone who is well read in epic fantasy will easily know the outcome of this book – right down to who dies and who lives. Now, this isn’t necessarily a big flaw – someone who has not read a lot of epic fantasy may think that this is a wonderfully unique book, though to me, the plotting was tiresome at best.
On to the writing – as we all know a really well told story from a great storyteller can make it easy to overlook a lot of flaws. Kristoff comes off rather mixed here – at times his writing is really good, surprising good for a debut author and showing lots of potential. However, there are some pretty bad pacing issues – particularly with the beginning third of the novel which essentially serves as poorly presented infodump that lays out all the details of the rather cool world he’s created. However, there is no subtlety and no nuance. And while I really enjoy the world that Kristoff has created, he lost a fair be of credibility by bludgeoning the reader continually with the horror and injustice of the environmental and human tragedy at hand.
And all this adds up to an overall criticism of the book that I hate to make – it’s too YA – in all the bad ways it can be. To further explain, YA books can be very powerful and rather more complex than many people give them credit for. And the best of them often cross over with great success beyond the traditional YA market. Stormdancer doesn’t do this – the lack of subtlety, the lack of nuance, the strait-forward plotting – it has been done over and over again and only reinforces the common criticisms YA books get from more mature audiences. This isn’t to say that Stormdancer won’t work out well for the traditional YA audience, only that I don’t see it moving far past it.
The Japanese-inspired setting is probably thing that got me most excited initially. I am really enjoying the trend of late for (epic) fantasies to be set in worlds that are not inspired by medieval Britain (or Europe at all). And though curious, I’m rather under-read in when comes to Japan-inspired settings. So, I rather enjoyed this aspect of Stormdancer. However, I have seen some pretty harsh criticism of the Japanese-like culture and language that Kristoff creates. And having read those criticisms, I’m much less excited about the Japan-like world than I initially was. So, read them if you’d like to see some analysis of where Kristoff (mostly) gets it all wrong.
Likewise I have some issues with Yukiko, the strong female protagonist. The truth is that I generally find her annoying – perhaps it’s due to an (accurate?) portrayal of teen angst (I mean what teenager isn’t annoying when it comes down to it). And it certainly doesn’t help that the bonding/taming of the griffin was done so unconvincingly. But mostly, I think it’s because Yukiko as a character is completely framed from a male point of view (even though it’s supposed to be her story). It’s all about her falling in love with this guy, her relationship to her father, her hatred of the (male) Shogun, her bonding with the (male) griffin, etc. After thinking on the book for a while, I think this maybe one of the biggest flaws and could be the underlying explanation for why it just never comes together as it should, in spite of some rather fun storytelling that occurs along the way. Even though I’m not a huge fan how she frames her arguments, I’d be pretty curious to see what Requires Only Hate would say about this book – evisceration comes to mind.
So, this has turned out to be a pretty negative review, beginning with the admission of being hoodwinked by a well-written (from a certain point of view) blurb. But, that’s not the full story. A truth is that baring some of the big pacing issues that occur mostly in the first third of the book, the storytelling was strong enough to keep me interested. It’s not a book that I ever considered not finishing. However, I doubt I’ll be reading the sequels either. It was after reflecting on my thoughts of the book for a while (which I do with pretty much every book I read) that I realized that I had some real issues with it. I think that most fans of epic fantasy probably will too – and that means most of the people who read this blog regularly. But, for someone who is new to epic fantasy, particularly someone who is a teenager, this book will probably work very well and I expect that they would enjoy it a lot. So, while in the end I would say this isn’t the book for me or most of the blogger tribe I run with, it probably is a book for a lot of people browsing the YA section at a bookstore (or equivalent).

Monday, October 08, 2012

Review: Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick

Prior to reading Dancing With Bears (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) I had only read one novel by MichaelSwanwickThe Dragons of Babel (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon, my review). At that time I raved about how much fun the book was, how subversive it was and simply how well it was written. Dancing With Bears is no different in that respect, though the subject matter is, which serves to highlight the versatility of Swanwick and as a rebuke of my neglecting to read more Swanwick until now.
Dancing With Bears is set in a future that is described as ‘post-utopian’ where a pair of classic highwaymen, Darger and Surplus, journey to Moscow. The world is a striking mix of future technology and genetic engineering and the regression to pre-industrial times in the aftermath of a great war with artificial intelligence (ala Terminator). A few remaining machines of the internet hive-mind have designs on a new war with Moscow as their first target while Darger and Surplus simply set out to make a lot of money. Of course chaos ensues (as it always seems to in the wake of Darger and Surplus) in the wonderfully competent and satiric style that Swanwick pulls off so well.
The first and most obvious subversion that Swanwick employs is the concept of a post-utopian world. Science fiction is awash in post-apocalyptic ideas, so the slight tweak to make it post-utopian is clever, though it could easily fall flat in the hands of a lesser writer. The difference between post-apocalyptic and post-utopian is one of perspective more than anything – the focus is not on the apocalyptic, but on the near-utopia that precedes it. That in itself is not enough, for Swanwick completes the subversion by setting this story in Russia, where the culture and history combine to a prevailing attitude that questions whether or not Russia ever actually experienced the utopia of their post-utopian world.
The post-utopian Moscow that Swanwick creates is a curious mixture of regency style class structure, crazy genetic engineering, and heavy-handed secret police with a lot of sex, a drug that makes everyone have even more sex, an underground world of outcasts, and the plotting of a resurgent technological enemy. Throw in a few genetically engineered virginal concubines gifted to the Duke of Muscovy, a Byzantium spy and the designs of Darger and Surplus and the term boiling point becomes outright explosive.
While I’ve continually thrown around the term post-utopian in a way that would suggest that is the main point of the book, its focus. Which is not really correct – the book really does rally around the classic highwaymen, Darger and Surplus (one is an English gentleman and the other a genetically engineered dog-man from the Vermont). The rogue-ish adventures as these accomplished con-men confidently undermine the entire Russian aristocracy in attempt to profit could almost be considered a fun take on sword and sorcery if Dancing With Bears wasn’t so obviously pointed at post-apocalyptic science fiction. It’s simply a whole lot of fun as Swanwick continuously fuels the satirical funeral byre with an underlying wry humor.
Everything I’ve written above only hints at this uproariously weird novel of the future with designs on the past and present. Nothing is immune to satiric wit of Swanwick and his enigmatic duo of confidence men, one whom is literally a dog. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll cybernetic wolves in human clothing combine in a drug-fueled rave of political revolution under the iconic sway of a resurrected Lenin and religious fervor as a couple of con-men make off with the gold – that’s one hell of a description for a book. This is not a novel for everyone, but it certainly was a novel for me. And once again I’m left feeling that I really must read more Swanwick.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Unfettered Anthology with New Wheel of Time Story (and others)

Unfettered edited by Shawn Speakman came about as a project to help Speakman pay off debts from a serious medical condition he has struggled with. Speakman is a bit of industry insider since he runs The Signed Page and many authors volunteered stories to help. Early inidcations had me excited so it was an anthology that I had my eye - good cause or not, it has a great lineup.
Now a full table of contents has been revealed that includes a few suprises. The biggest one that caught my mind is "River of Souls" by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Clearly it's a Wheel of Time short story/novella or similar and Jason from Dragonmount tweeted it was related to A Memory of Light (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) in some way. But right now any details are still haven't gone public. My guess is it's a short story set after events in A Memory of Light and the Wheel of Time series, but that's only a guess - I sure hope its not simply an excerpt (unlikely since the description of Unfettered calls them all original stories).
Anyway, I'm not more excited and have just pre-ordered my copy of Unfettered. You should do the same. And check out that table of contents - it's full of goodies that go well beyond Wheel of Time (there's Terry Brooks and Shannara, Patrick Rothfuss, Tad Williams, Daniel Abraham, Jacqueline Carey, and many more).

EDIT: The point of view for the Wheel of Time story is Demandred and it is a deleted scene(s) from A Memory of Light. Below is a quote from a Torchat event:

“River of Souls,” the forthcoming Wheel of Time short story featured in Unfettered is a collection of scenes that illustrate Demandred/Bao the Wyld’s story leading up to A Memory of Light.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mini-Review: Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Underground is the third book in the Peter Grant urban fantasy series by Ben Aaronovitch (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). These books have essentially become must-reads for me for a variety of reasons – they are short, they are fun, they are well-written, and they offer more than just the standard urban fantasy template, particularly with the police procedural aspect thrown in. And I suppose that being set in London is another big plus since it’s a city both foreign and familiar to me that I find immensely interesting.  

First – ignore the description on the back cover of the book. It’s one of the worst I’ve ever read – it does not in any way reflect actual events and feelings in the book. Yes, there is an American FBI agent and yes she seems to be a conservative Christian. However, that is a tiny tangent and not really much of an issue at all – in fact, she’s rather likeable and I wish the synopsis had not made me predisposed to disliking her. It’s really unfortunate that the publishers did such a disservice to the book with this synopsis.   
In Whispers Underground Peter is called to investigate the murder of an American art student and the son of a US Senator. The murder takes place in a subway tunnel, which of course leads Peter deep into the Underground, often guided by a particularly untrustworthy informant. The murder plot itself is not terribly interesting and the eventual solution is a bit unconvincing. However, the strength of Aaronovitch’s writing is more in the police procedure and the interlacing of the supernatural with the reality we all think we know as told from the point of view of a well-created and out-right interesting main character. In many ways the murder simply doesn’t matter as the main investigation and a few tangents further real the reality of Aaronovitch’s London. 
Whispers Underground continues in the direction that Aaronovitch has set for the series – it may be focused around a single investigation, but further groundwork is laid for growth of the Folly (the team of ‘supernatural’ investigators), for future confrontation with a particularly nasty bad guy, growth of Peter and Leslie’s (potential?) relationship, and more hints of the wider world of magic.  
In short, Whispers Underground is another great installment in the Peter Grant series. It may not be the greatest of the series, but it’s more than good enough to keep me coming back for more.  
And on a separate point, I’m quite happy that Del Rey has finally decided to abandon the white-washed covers of the first two books.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...