Review – Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (2006)

910863

Mass Market Paperback, 458 pages
Published February 7th 2006 by Tor Science Fiction (first published April 2005)

I don’t venture far out of my comfort zone often. I’ve been burnt a few too many times, and been left feeling like I needed to stick to what I knew and loved. However, in books as in life, you never know what new passion you’ve been unintentionally avoiding – much like finally trying pho a decade ago, finally listening to proper European metal music, or more recently finally reading Dune, I did not know what I’d been missing by operating on preconceived notions of what something was, or what I personally thought I liked. I’d been dodging what I viewed as more ‘traditional’ sci-fi works; the type of novel that I interpreted as too stuffy, too focused on the science and less focused on traditional story pillars: people and events.

Sometimes, as I was with Dune, I am very, very wrong in making these assumptions, and the payoff when I finally wake the hell up is more than worth it. As it was true with Dune, it is more than true in Spin, a novel that I – spoiler alert – fucking adored.

I picked Spin almost by coincidence – I’d added his Hugo-nominated novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America to my to-read list a couple years ago, around the time I played the eerily-similar Bioshock Infinite, and was in the mood for that kind of thing. I’d seen RCW’s name around – if you pay any attention to the SFF world, you can’t really miss him, and his Hugo nominations had given me some reason to pay attention. After noting that Spin had won best novel Hugo – beating out George Martin’s A Feast for Crows and John Scalzi’s utterly brilliant Old Man’s War, I kind of wondered whether there was something fishy with this kind of vote, or if RCW really had chops.

Reading Spin answered all of that for me.

27276

Spin follows Tyler Dupree. At 10 years old, Tyler, along with his best friends – twins Diane and Jason Lawton – witness as the spin occurs. A sudden shade appears over the world, and blots out the sky. Before long, the scientists of the world determine what has occurred – a mysterious ‘membrane’ has encapsulated earth, and while time passes as normal within said membrane, outside the membrane in space, 3.17 years pass for every second within the membrane – 100 million years per earth year. Tyler is quickly wrapped up in the drama when childhood friend, and genius, Jason, brings him along as a special campus physician to the NASA-competing Parahelion, largely run by Jason’s cunning father, E.D. Lawton. Jason’s twin sister, Diane, was Tyler’s love interest since they were children, and following the introduction of the Spin, goes the opposite direction of her brother – enlisting in a radical Christian sect called the New Kingdom.

The novel follows Tyler as he works with Jason, slowly discovering more and more of the secrets surrounding the spin, as well as slowly continuing to pursue Diane, whom he loves but has moved on to a different mindset and lifestyle. As more and more details of the spin emerge, Tyler watches as Parahelion launches a project aimed to terraform Mars in an attempt to turn it into a habitable world for humans to escape to, taking advantage of the advancing speed of time outside the spin membrane, and eventually are visited by a Martian represntative, Wun Ngo Wen, a product of the terraforming of Mars that is hundreds of thousands of years old, despite being only a few years old in earth years.

The spin situation continues to evolve and change over time, as do the interpersonal and political issues that Tyler is wrapped up in, the least of which being his relationship with his beloved Diane, who has latched herself onto her husband Simon, a firm and devout follower of the New Kingdom and it’s various iterations. As things begin to erode and the seeming-end of the world approaches, Tyler scrambles to help where he can, assist Jason in his fight to push towards progress and fight against his father, E.D., who is more inclined to a conservative approach and align with the more conservative politicians regarding the approach to the spin.

spin-banner

As someone who does not read an excessive amount of scifi, Spin was innovative, creative, and very well thought out. I am not one for the hard-science of books – I noticed a lot of my mutual friends who read this novel gave negative marks for the book not focusing more heavily on the science and repercussions, but for me that was a benefit. The novel had brilliant characters, and a creative and interesting view of the consequences and repercussions, and a more than adequate amount of science, whether that be regarding the logistics of the spin, the cause-effect on the world, and the limitations of the science surrounding the actions earth could take. I’m obviously not a PhD in any science field, but everything seemed to pass the sniff-test for someone who is educated but not particularly versed in this area.

The characters in the novel were brilliant, as was the interplay between them – there were an indescribable number of heart-wrenching scenes, of moments of drama, heartbreak, desire, love, hurt, loss, humor, growth, of humanity. People acted predictably in the face of unexpected horror and unknowing future, and the main characters were no different, facing the oncoming end of the world as well as their own interpersonal issues, both relating to their proximity to the people “in the know” about the spin and not.

In the end, Spin was one of the few novels I’ve read in recent years to hook me as hard, to move me as much, and to get really any kind of emotional reaction from me. I was hooked from the early parts, unable to stop reading, unable to stay away from this world for very long. I was shocked by how interesting I found the scenario, how fascinated I was by the characters and dialogue, and surprised how upset I was when the novel ended, despite the more-than-satisfactory explanation at the end.

Spin was, simply put, one of my favorite novels that I’ve ever read. It’s probably the first true entry into my top 20 in two years, and a novel that I feel like I will recommend to many friends. I’ve read many reviews of the book, both positive and negative, both strangers and people I trust, and views on this novel seem to vary wildly. For me, it was every bit deserving of a Hugo win, as I felt it was a revolutionary novel, executed brilliantly, with a problem and story backbone to stand the test of time, and the writing chops to back it up.

Rating: 5 / 5

Advertisements

Classic Review – Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

234225

Paperback, 604 pages
Published June 1st 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton (first published June 1st 1965)

I know, I know.

As one of those “FANTASY PEOPLE”, I’m supposed to have read Dune, right? Right? Everyone has? EVERYONE!

I hadn’t, so I finally broke down and took the plunge. Anytime there’s a book like this, a classic, a quintessential piece of sci-fi/fantasy, I can’t help but go in with some preconceived notions. I knew very little about Dune prior to the book, to be honest – I could name some of the quotes from it, I understood some of the ‘spice’ references, etc. However, I’d never read any of it, never seen any of the media from it, and had largely stayed ignorant to the story, which I think is a good thing.

With Dune, I had some odd expectations – I can’t say why, but I kind of figured it would be a bit more stuffy, a bit more in the classical sparse 60s sci-fi style, a book based more on great ideas than great content. To a large degree, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dune, in the end, is a book about people, focused on people, starring people – the world, while immensely creative, unique, and still holding up through the test of time, was a background mosaic for the driving force of the story – Paul, Jessica, and the rest of the cast were terrific, unique, strong characters with excellent dialogue, and strong convictions.

58

Dune surrounds the interstellar planet Arrakis, a desert planet whose importance lies in the fact it was the only source of melange, or the spice. Melange was a drug with many positive effects, one of which being providing a nearly clairvoyant sense to those with the ability to process it as such. The story follows Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke Leto Atreides, who was a flawed but well liked duke of the House Atreides. All planets in the system are controlled by the Great Houses, answering to the Emperor, the cunning Shaddam. Sensing a threat to his power, Shaddam hands control of Arrakis over to Leto Atreides, while plotting with the former ruler of the planet, the fairly black-and-white evil Vladimir Harkonenn, to use the opportunity to remove Leto Atreides from the picture.

One of the major values of the spice is the future-seeing and other mental stimulating effects it has, namely on the powerful Bene Gesserit, a powerful matriarchal group with distinct and trained mental abilities, as well as the capability of passing on all memories and knowledge to others. Jessica, Duke Leto’s concubine, is a powerful Bene Gesserit, and is mistrusted by nearly all due to those ties, as well as her perceived ulterior motives. The Bene Gesserit, as it is revealed, have been undertaking a long term breeding program to try and produce a single powerful male version of the Bene Gesserit, though this remains largely a secret to anyone outside of Bene Gesserit circles.

Upon arrival to Arrakis, the Atreides are immediately set upon in numerous ways, including traps and plots to attempt to kill the powerful members of the family. They are eventually betrayed by a member of their own house, and the family is splintered apart and struggling to survive. Eventually, Jessica and Paul find themselves in the company of the Fremen, the native people to Arrakis, used as essentially forced servants to harvest and distribute the spice to the Empire. The Fremen have adapted to the harsh living conditions of Arrakis, including the sand and sandstorms, as well as the sand worms.

Sand worms?

Sand worms. Like, big ones, huge ones. The sand worms, referred to as ‘makers’ by the Fremen in reference to the fact that they are responsible for the pockets under the sand that create melange, are a massive problem to the inhabitants of the planet, as they often grow to massive proportions and attack aggressively. With the aid of the Fremen, Jessica and Paul integrate into their society, becoming leaders, and as Paul’s powers begin to emerge, he takes his place as the Duke Atreides, and teams with the Fremen to eventually make a push at both Vladimir Harkonnen, and the Emperor Shaddam.

tumblr_oovcth1dxd1tpri36o1_400

Dune caught me a bit off guard, with the amount of deep political and interpersonal drama it contained, as well as the incredibly well-done method Herbert employed to present it. His prose wasn’t legendary, in my opinion, but it had a great flow, the dialogue was terrific, and his sense of atmosphere was exceptional. I felt like I was sucked into this world, scared of these worms, scared of the betrayals, nervous for the characters.

Dune was one of those rare occasions where I read something that was well established, very highly praised, and intensely popular, and found it to be everything it was claimed to be and more. I truly enjoyed this novel, start to finish, and while there were some lulls and slow periods, it moved along at a good pace, and was pleasurable throughout.

I suppose I should get around to reading more of these older, well-regarded novels.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Review – A Conversation In Blood by Paul S. Kemp (2017)

28250896

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 24th 2017 by Del Rey

I have a weird relationship with the Egil and Nix series.

On the one hand, I’ve got some significant criticisms with some of the aspects, writing decisions, odd resolutions, overused plot points. On the other hand, something about the buddy relationship of Egil and Nix, the comforting banter between them, the way their relationship makes you root for them always. The kind of lighthearted nature of the stories, the shorter format that makes them great ‘junk food’ style reads, the ones you plow through in a short amount of time because they’re so entertaining and a great quick reprieve from heavy doorstoppers.

A Conversation In Blood, the third in the series, is no different from my previous feelings on the series. Despite giving somewhat lukewarm reviews to the previous books, including some hefty criticisms, I had found myself eagerly awaiting this entry, a seeming eternity between it and the second edition, due to Kemp’s other writing obligations. When Goodreads showed it out last summer, I got extremely excited, and was very let down to find out that it was in error and not out until January 2017. There’s *something* about this series that keeps drawing me back, keeps me excited for the next edition, and keeps me intrigued as to where it will go. It’s ‘junk food’ for sure, but has a lot more serious aspect to it, an underlying story, a dark side that a lot of the other junk food series lacks.

32912

The novel picks up with a restless Nix eager for something to shake up his bland existence. Egil is in a depressive state after the happenings of the second book, drinking away his sorrows on a daily basis, in a funk he cannot seem to get out of, nor has any interest in such. Pushed on by mutual friends, Nix manages to snap Egil out of it, and with the help of a returning friend from a previous adventure, the duo embark on yet another of their serial adventures. This time, they find themselves in possession of some mysterious metal plates (straight up Mormon-style), of which they soon find themselves the target of the hunting of a mysterious creature hellbent on recovering the plates.

The story unfolds as the trio learn the unfortunate reality of the plates, and of the creature chasing them to recover aforementioned plates. There’s some depth to this storyline, as well as the creature – The Afterbirth – that slowly unfolds and becomes more and more intriguing. It also opens the door to take a bit more of a view into Nix’s past as a sorcerer in training, as well as into the true depth of the friendship between the pair (hetero life mates). I thought the majority of this was very well handled, and very interesting – the plates did not feel overly original at first, even when we started dealing with the history of them, and the magical school Nix was an outcast from. However, I felt no real sense of familiarity when it came to the actual details, especially when The Afterbirth was involved, as it was a fairly unique character to me, one which Kemp gives just enough depth to in order to keep it interesting, but also leave it mysterious until the unraveling of the story details at the end.

Oh, and what an ending. An emotional rollercoaster to conclude the book – even feeling as though Egil and Nix were protected by obvious plot armor, there was significant drama and excitement, and I found the conclusion to be very heartwarming. That said, it was not without flaw, which is part of my frustration with each book in this series. Jime (guessing at spelling, I did audio), the third character in the novel, felt from the very beginning as Ensign Expendable, an additional side character that served no purpose other than eventual sacrifice, and – spoiler alert – that is exactly what he was. As the ending was unfolding, I was riveted, but I knew that somehow he would end up being sacrificed for the sake of the story, and it went down almost exactly as I imagined. It was interesting, it was a fun ending, but it was VERY disappointing to have such an obvious sacrifice along the entire time, serving little to no purpose aside from dying while the main characters lived. It was almost frustrating that it played out the way it did, because I wanted MORE from Kemp in this instance.

Some of my criticisms are the same as previous books. I love the banter between the duo, their familiar nature, the jabs at each other that were so obviously well-meaning, despite seeming harsh. Kemp does a terrific job showing their appreciation of each other, the deep bond the pair share, and how their adventures have shaped and changed them. However, the whole Egil-as-a-priest-of-an-obscure-god thing is just as worn out and lame as it was before. It’s brought up constantly, he’s referred to as ‘the priest’, or Nix will make comments about how he’s the one who is a priest, etc. However, as with before, there is ZERO impact on the story related to his worship of this god, there’s just no reason for it to even be a thing other than to mention it constantly. I wish there was more substance to it, but there still is not, after 3 books.

That said, I could nitpick it just like I could with any book, but in the end I still enjoyed this one quite a bit. I blasted through it quickly, enjoying the ride and especially the conclusion, even with the Ensign Expendable aspects of it. The pair continue to be so endearing, the dialogue between them entertaining as hell, and there’s always multiple laugh-out-loud moments in the stories. I like Kemp’s style in general, and this series does fit a very specific niche for me, one that only a series like this can fulfill, and it’s my favorite of the junk-food-sword-and-sorcery style books. It’s what Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would be if they were more modern, I think. I enjoy that the series is fairly ‘adult’, not necessarily with graphic sex or violence, but with just enough profanity, dark plot pieces, and adult themes to separate it from some of the similar, but more lighthearted, stories of it’s ilk.

Overall, a flawed but fun adventure, the books continue to get better with each edition.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

Review – Clash of Iron by Angus Watson (2015)

22875122

Paperback, 560 pages
Published April 14th 2015 by Orbit

When going into 2014’s Age of Iron, I was not really sure what to expect, and despite several positive reviews, didn’t necessarily know how I’d feel about it. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement – I laughed out loud at times, couldn’t put it down, and adored the characters and presentation Watson had generated. I took off quite a bit of time before reading the second novel, though found myself having no troubles jumping right back in with little to no refresher needed.

I was thrilled to find that the characters I’d loved in the first were back, and exactly as I remembered them – namely Dug, Spring, Lowa, Ragnall, and…Julius Caesar?
Yeah. That Caesar.

2809894

Clash of Iron takes us back to 1st century era Europe, a fantasy-based take on a real time period, real places, and in a lot of cases, real events. Some items are changed for the story, or made up altogether, but the bits and pieces involving historical figures are largely fact-based, and with my meager knowledge of the time period. I felt fairly immersed in the book. A general competence was shown by Watson to transport the reader to the time period, which I think is a “must” for any historical-based fantasy. As with Bernard Cornwell’s books of similar ilk, if you’re using real settings, it’s important to get some details right, while you can fudge some others, and I thought Watson walked a very fine line to get it just right.

As with Age of Iron, the real stars of the story are the characters. The simple-yet-deep Dug, a relatable bear of a man, struggles to balance his duty to his new friends, his new lands, while finding a place to fit into the entire picture, unaware of just how important of a piece he is in the puzzle. Lowa is now queen of Maidun after the events of Age of Iron, and her life is that much more complicated because of it, not to mention her relationship with Dug, and some of the revelations to come between them. However, her scouts soon discover some very concerning items regarding the impending Roman invasion.

Oh, right, the Roman invasion – I mentioned that, right? We find another favorite from the first book, Ragnall, now in league with Julius Caesar, and also torn – between his homeland, which he feels increasingly bitter towards, and his new Roman compatriots, particularly the impressive Julius Caesar. He soon finds himself a close confidant and insider for Caesar, admiring the man in his own way, and enjoying the favor he was able to achieve by assisting him, even if he did not get the same courtesy from the other self-aggrandizing Romans around him. Ragnall finds himself ever more impressed with the Roman culture and diplomacy, and ever more jaded towards his former homeland, to the point of beginning to wish the Romans upon them as a way to civilize and modernize them.

The novel is a lot of fun – not nearly as funny as the first, in my opinion, but still very clever, and getting several legit out-loud laughs from me. It takes a much darker direction overall than Age of Iron, both in tone and events, but it was never oppressive or overly gloomy, as some grimdark novels can become. The characters are brilliantly written – each with unique characteristics and voices, each well rounded and deep, never bland or flat – there are many shades of gray in this book. The female characters, in particular, are very well-written, and given a place in the forefront of the novel, positions of power, and very competent attributes and skillsets to boot. There might be more page time for the male characters, but Lowa, Spring and co always felt well represented and integral pieces of the story.

It’s hard to talk about without giving any spoilers, but I will say that the ending of the book had me saying “WHAT THE EFF” out loud, and absolutely shocked by the direction taken. There were a few “WTF” moments through the novel, but the ending takes the cake. Where a lot of authors struggle to finish their novels, Watson hits an absolute home run in this piece, giving a gut-wrenching, moving and important tour through the final few chapters, leaving the reader pining for more, but also needing some time to recover and recuperate after what happened.

Clash of Iron has some very high points, a few flat periods, and in general a lot of positive attributes. I did not love it the way I loved the first, but it’s still a very good book, one I thoroughly enjoyed reading and a series that I will recommend to others – especially readers of Bernard Cornwell – and will continue reading myself.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

 

Review: Those Below by Daniel Polansky (2016)

27401264

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 10th 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

I have a fairly up-and-down relationship with Daniel Polansky’s work – I enjoy almost all of it, and for large portions of each (most, more accurately) of his books, I’ve experienced pure joy reading. However, as I’ve pointed out in numerous reviews of Daniel’s books, I’m consistently frustrated with his novels. His prose is, for the majority of the time, stellar – among my favorite of any author, an absolute pleasure to consume. I generally enjoy his characters, his worldbuilding, his creativity. However, in every novel, I’ve felt like he just didn’t quite put all the pieces together, whether it be flat spots in certain sections, making decisions in the story that didn’t make much sense to me, or even just overwriting chunks of the book. I’ve been quite upset with it at times, because I feel as though he could be one of my favorite writers.

Those Below threw all of that above criticism out the window.

While I will stop short of saying that I think Polansky has finally ‘put it all together’ (largely based on the fact I did not enjoy his newest novel all that much, but that was obviously personal preference, based on style and decisions), I will say that I thought Those Below was far and away the best, and most complete, of his works to date. The story arc, progression, characters and dialogue, story direction choices, misdirection, and of course the wonderful prose all worked, all clicked, all felt fulfilling and complete. As much as I wanted to see the resolutions, I dreaded reaching the end, though I thought the conclusion itself was very well done, very moving, and exceptionally impactful.

Those Below picks up not too long after where it’s prequel, Those Above, left off – following Eudokia, Calla, Pyre, and co at the Roost, the magical tiered city run by, well, Those Above, the Eternal, a species of nearly-immortal, godlike people, with some avian qualities. Additionally, we returned to my favorite character from the first book, Bas – the hero warrior of the Aelerian empire, one of the only known to have killed one of Those Above – as he marches his army towards the Roost in preparations for an invasion and war. The pieces have been laid for this, with Pyre and his Five Fingered brethren wreaking havoc in the lower – poorer and more oppressed – parts of the city, sowing the seeds of rebellion, disrupting trade and striking fear into the humans of the higher rungs, ever closer to the Eternal.

4475715

The twists involved in this story are not exactly the most shocking, however they were well set up, well presented, and as the pieces fell into place the story became more and more enjoyable. The understated, but incredibly powerful Eudokia mentally sparring with the leader of the Eternal, as well as several of his peers, and of course with Calla, the human servant and representative of the leader of the Eternal (as well as her involvement with Eudokia’s nephew), was one of the more enjoyable bits I’ve read. Calla and her relationship conflicts, being torn between seeing the human’s point of view, while still appreciating the Eternal for their greatness, and the great life her and her predecessors had lived due to them. Bas and his melancholy, his slow descent and acceptance of his purpose, his place in the world, and his inevitable end while his friends fall around him.

The setup is a bit of an anomaly – the book is definitely a slow burner, despite being relatively short, but does keep you engaged the entire time. I never had the periods of incredibly slow movement I experienced in most of his previous works, never lost any interest, never wanted to really put the book down once I was reading it. I always wanted to know what would happen next, how the impending battle would go down, whether we were going to be shocked in the end.

Those Below was certainly one of my favorite reads of 2016, and gave me that “all in” Polansky piece that I’d been desiring after reading his previous works. It was enjoyable front to back, and it was impressive just how much he fit into only two ~350 page novels, a rather refreshing dip from long-winded doorstoppers that have become so common in fantasy. Daniel does not waste words, does not fill space with nonsense, but the words he does use are wonderful and glorious in this piece, and I savored every bit of it.

Rating: 4.75 / 5

Quick Reviews: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal (2016), and Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis Chen (2016)

26114291

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 16th 2016 by Tor Books
Ghost Talkers is a WWI-era novel that follows Ginger Stuyvesant, a medium (yes, that kind of medium) from America, living in London during the war. Ginger is part of a mostly-secret group of magical seers, the Spirit Corps, who communicate with recently deceased soldiers, reliving their final moments and helping to assist them into the afterlife, while using the information they gather from these deceased soldiers as a form of intel for the army. Her fiancee, British soldier Benjamin Harford, is an intelligence officer for the British Army, and is lucky enough to work alongside Ginger periodically, when he isn’t being sent to the front lines.
After a fairly shocking turn leaves Benjamin deceased (mild spoiler, sorry), he finds himself unable to pass on to the afterlife due to the unfinished business of getting to the bottom of who killed him and why, and is able to assist Ginger with this mission as an incorporeal being who has some ability to interact with the real world, at the cost of his post-life sanity and energy. It soon becomes obvious that there’s more to the situation than there seemed on the surface, and Ginger, Benjamin, and Ginger’s peers find themselves on a wild goose chase to find traitors and murderers.
2868678
I’ve been a fan of Mary for quite some time, as much for her personality, wit, narrating ability, and other talents as for her writing (which I also enjoy thoroughly, mind you). Her regular series is a bit out of my “normal” reading genre, but is a wonderfully written set of stories, with a lot of really high quality characters – especially strong female characters. Ghost Talkers is no different, with Ginger being a force, a strong-willed, intelligent and persistent presence in the story, and the true powerhouse of the novel. The supporting cast vary greatly in background, attitudes, and actions, but work well alongside Ginger to complete their tasks.
The novel itself is a lot of fun. It’s quick and to the point, and a total page-turner – I found myself flying through it, and actually read it in one sitting. I had become excited by the prospect of this novel when Mary first mentioned it at a book signing something like 2 years ago, and have been eagerly awaiting it since, and it did not disappoint.

Rating: 4.25 / 5 

26114364

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Thomas Dunne Books

Curtis Chen is a local Portland author who I see quite often, and have hung around quite a bit (though much like David Levine, I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup), so I’ve had my eyes on this novel since he announced it some time back (last year?). Kangaroo is a spy, but one with a very particular and exclusive talent – he can open a “pocket” to a foreign bit of space, in which he can store anything of any size, for an indefinite amount of time, until he can return there and recover it. You can imagine that this would be pretty useful in general, but doubly so for a spy, as it allows him to have a variety of specialized instruments, weapons, etc for missions, as well as smuggling out important items without being caught with them. Neat, right?

Except Kangaroo is a bit of a loose cannon – too loose for his employers at times, as he finds a way to bungle some form of his missions seemingly consistently. So when Kangaroo yet again involves some collateral damage in a careless mistake, he’s asked by his boss to ‘take a vacation’, and walk away, specifically while their office is being audited, and there’s a chance he could blow it for them. However, as Kangaroo boards his cruise ship to Mars, he quickly finds himself unable to discontinue working, and is quickly entwined in a murder mystery on the ship, assisting the military-employee crew of the boat.

7303097

Waypoint Kangaroo is a blast. It’s fast-paced, intelligent, witty, and has a lot of twists and turns. Not the most complicated plot line I’ve ever read, but I appreciate that because it let me simply enjoy the fast pace and pleasurable prose. Kangaroo isn’t your typical wittier-than-thou, smooth-talking protagonist we deal with so often in male-centered first person spyish novels, which was a nice break; he’s certainly witty, but isn’t perfect by any means. I had a good chuckle – I was reading this while on vacation, but on a vacation in which I found myself working more than not. Often my boss and friends tell me I’m ‘terrible at taking time off’ because I never stop working, and never let myself reset and rest. The entire novel, Kangaroo is ripped on for never relaxing, not knowing how to turn off work, etc – it hit very close to home, and made me laugh quite often at the irony of it.

In the end, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and found it to be an encouraging and fun debut from Curtis. I look forward to the forthcoming sequel, and hopefully I’ll see Curtis sooner than later so I can tell him in person that I enjoyed the work quite a bit.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

25615226

Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published July 12th 2016 by Tor

I want to preface by saying that I know David a bit, as he’s a prominent figure in the local book scene, however I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. I’m a huge fan of his short fiction – I really have legitimately enjoyed pretty much all works from him I’ve ever read. Knowing that, I was more than excited to get my hands on his full novel, especially once the details on the plot and setting came out.

Arabella Ashby is a Martian. Actually, let me rephrase that: Arabella Ashby is a lady of English descent, who is part of a generation of colonists who were born and raised on Mars.

12717879_553898731443308_5358629870961458777_n

In the 1600s, leaps in technology allowed Captain Kidd to take an airship to Mars, and begin the process of colonizing the planet. Obviously, there’s some suspension of disbelief here, but this is a fantasy/steampunk novel afterall, so that’s expected. The sooner you get over those improbabilities, the sooner you can enjoy novels like this. Arabella’s family runs a wood plantation on the colonized Mars, however her mother is concerned with the danger Arabella faces on the planet, as well as her increasing levels of tomboyish endeavors that take her away from being a proper English lady. Mother packs up Arabella to head back to Earth, leaving Arabella’s father and her brother, Michael, behind to run the plantation. However, word comes back later of her father’s passing, and soon after Arabella is surprised by deceit within her family, necessitating her getting to Mars to protect her brother – as soon as possible.

Arabella then escapes her family (whose mother I don’t remember her ever actually getting a hold of, despite thinking about it at one point) and looks for passage to Mars, however without any money on hand. She steals some men’s clothing, poses as a boy, and joins the military. However, before she can leave, she’s approached by a private sailing cargo ship, who employ her as a captain’s boy. The book follows Arabella’s adventures on the trade ship Diana, a dirigible capable of space travel on coal/steam power, wherein she learns valuable skills and proves her worth, fights the French, and has to deal with a ship mutiny, while hiding her true sex, before negotiating with the native Martians to get her brother back.

There are a lot of pieces moving in this story, despite it’s overall straightforward feel. Levine’s writing is, as always, an easy and pleasing read, technically sound but not stuffy at all. The dialogue is intelligent, believable, and consistent, and the story flows at an excellent pace, without major stalling at any point, or unnecessary info dumps. The shorter format of the novel means it’s a quick read overall, which is superb as it’s a hell of a page-turner. All of the characters are diverse, with unique voices and traits, and I had no issues keeping people separated based on their actions and speech alone.

I really enjoyed the way the space travel was handled – hints at some of the various things that went into it occurring, but not going overboard in technical explanations, or using magic of some sort. The fact it was just “it is what it is” was a great touch for me, and helped keep me from thinking of unnecessary details, and just enjoying the story within the framework of the world developed. The ship scenes were well done, giving the intrigue and excitement of a long voyage, but without some of the boat-porn we get in other novels, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies. There were ample anxiety-inducing scenes, where I found myself actually concerned for what might happen or the consequences thereof. The ending of the book, while a bit expected, was a satisfying conclusion to this novel, leaving it open-ended enough to continue if desired, but closed tight if not.

There’s a bit of been-there, done-that for sure. Less so with the steampunk aspects, as I found the dirigible-to-Mars to be a fresh take, and really interesting. However, Arabella is similar to most teenage female protagonist in Regency-style fantasy I’ve seen; the proper lady who desires to do the things denied to her by her status as a woman. The girl posing as a boy and staying undiscovered while proving their worth. I could continue – however, this archetype works, this is popular, and people obviously enjoy it, being as I’ve seen it time and time again. Arabella herself is a deep character, who is intelligent and unique in her own way, despite meeting a lot of the characteristics I’ve seen time and time again. The cast of supporting characters are, however, quite vibrant and interesting, and help carry Arabella through her trials.

maxresdefault

However, what I missed in this entire process was that this is a YA novel, through and through – I’m sure this has been mentioned, but I missed the memo. While it does not appear to be directly marketed that way, it contained all the elements: teenage protagonist (bonus points for female), mild romance storyline, the proper-but-intelligent-and-full-of-ingenuity protagonist who goes outside their comfort zone to save the day, etc. The ending, while containing some fantastic writing and plot twists, also had a very feel-good-everything-went-ok feel to it that I associate with YA novels. While this is not a problem, it did catch me off-guard, as I was used to the much more adult feel and tone of much of Levine’s short fiction. He does a terrific job at this style, however, keeping the book interesting and complicated enough to keep anyone invested, while making it accessible and enjoyable to most reading age brackets.

Arabella of Mars isn’t perfect, but it’s a really great read, and a tantalizing taste of what David Levine can do when writing at novel length. If you’re the type who enjoys steampunk settings, even with a bit of Regency-era behaviors and dress, as well as space tales, this book is a home run for you, and a must-read.

Rating: 4 / 5

Double Dip: Zero World by Jason M. Hough (2015) and The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung (2012)

Zero World by Jason M Hough (2015)

23995290

Hardcover, 592 pages
Published August 18th 2015 by Del Rey (first published August 11th 2015)

While the largest bulk of my reading is in the fantasy genre, sci-fi is certainly the second largest part of my list. When I read sci-fi, I generally feel that I am not quite smart/nerdy enough to really enjoy ‘hard’ content, with focus on spaceships and math and realism and such – I often say I err towards the people-centric, ‘soft’ stuff, ala Scalzi. Beginning with his Dire Earth series, I certainly found that Jason Hough’s works fit enough in that mold to engage me, while also including some ‘harder’ elements that he makes very easy and unintimidating to consume.

Zero World is the story of Peter Caswell, a spy/assassin who works in a unique field – he does covert ops, assassinations and the like, however his memory of each of these missions is wiped afterwards, Men-in-Black style. His missions are received semi-anonymously, transmitted to him via a liaison from his employer, and at the end of the day, he has no idea what he did, who he killed, or even how many people he killed, aside from a clever but subtle method of leaving himself notes via beer bottles.

Peter’s world is flipped a bit when he’s given a new mission, to track down a missing crew member from a recently re-discovered ship. However, this crew member turns out to have found a way to travel through something similar to ‘tear in the fabric of space’, and Caswell soon finds himself on an alternate version of Earth – one with similar speech patterns, slightly outdated versions of Earth’s technology, and their own set of politics and problems. As well as Alice Vale, the missing crewmember from the ship, who in this world has made herself a super-scientist and celebrity, slowly introducing technology from Earth to this planet.

The book is an absolute blast – it’s very fast paced, and despite being quite long, it reads very quickly and easily. I found myself blowing through the pages, eager to find out what happens next, and caught up heavily in all of the politics and action. The book was never too predictable, and I found the twists to be surprising to me almost every time, including several “aww snap!” moments. The characters were unique and engaging, and I found myself feeling for Caswell as he felt his way through the isolation on this planet, the problems he faced, and his forthcoming memory wipe. As the story progresses, he’s put through more and more trials, and eventually has to come to terms with being forced to face all that he’s done in the past, which he was assured would remain anonymous and unknown to himself.

Zero World lived up to it’s hype as an action-film-on-paper, but despite that it never felt shallow or unfulfilled. The plot was unique enough (at least to me), very interesting, and did not feel cheap or easy. The politics felt very real, very realistic, and very plausible, and the way the characters interacted, adapted, and communicated was as well. Hough’s writing is incredibly approachable to almost anyone, while still being professional and well rounded – space is not wasted on unnecessary elements, while I was never left feeling like bits were skipped over, or shortcuts were taken.

I enjoyed this every bit as much as I did The Darwin Elevator, in fact I’d say I enjoyed it more. It was a great balance of substantial storyline and characters, mixed with breakneck action and exciting plot twists. A great read, and it was really nice to have a page-turner that also kept my mind stimulated throughout.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung(2012)

21946558

Kindle Edition, 210 pages
Published November 28th 2012 by Michael McClung

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids came fairly highly acclaimed as an independent novel, even winning Mark Lawrence’s self-published Fantasy Blog-Off. I heard quite a bit of buzz about it in the last couple years, enough that I felt it must be added to the reading list. When I finally got a chance to read it, however, I found it didn’t necessarily live up to all the hype.

Amra Thetys, a thief, finds herself in the middle of a quagmire, after her friend comes to her following a heist. He’s been hired to steal a set of artifacts, but feels the need to keep one of these for himself, for reasons unknown at that time, and asks his friend Amra to help guard it, as he’s being hunted in order to recover it. Shortly thereafter, he turns up dead, murdered in cold blood in front of his house, and Amra is quickly swept up in the investigations, and the many layers of drama involved.

While a bit on the sparse side, the worldbuilding in Thief is interesting enough, presenting an interesting city, full of vivid and unique characters and places, as well as some very interesting (and morbid) customs and supernatural problems. The characters are numerous, which can be a bit of a problem at times as there’s quite a bit to keep up with in a very short novel, but they are all distinct enough, with their own voices and habits, as well as their own ways of handling things.

There are tons of twists and turns in the story, as Amra fights off various forces, incarceration, contracts on her life, supernatural monsters, and various other obstacles in her quest to resolve her friend’s murder, as well as gain the revenge against his killers that she so desires. She enlists the help of a friend, a powerful mage, who assists her in her struggles, while at times feeling almost too powerful.

Wherein the crux of some of the book’s problems begin – Amra seems to be constantly in unbeatable situations, extreme danger, extensive bodily or mental harm, yet comes out just fine, often with very easy, simple solutions that seem too convenient for the situations she finds herself in. The main issue I had with the novel was essentially that – everything seemed so…underwhelming. So convenient. So undeveloped. The novel is short, yet a TON of things are wedged into it, so very little time and energy is spent on individual events.

It ends up leaving an anemic feel to things – situations get built up quickly, then resolved quickly, and on to the next thing. Lather, rinse, repeat. And at the same time, the writing lack a very distinct something – I could only describe it as “soul”. Everything is so matter-of-fact, so “this happened, it was ok”. Amra goes through an amazing amount of trauma, and each is just presented as a thing that occurred, with very little insight into the effects, very little “feel” to it. The entire book felt like a casual storytelling, with no heart, nothing to make me feel for the characters, or situations, or drama. It just came across so bland in presentation.

McClung’s writing and ideas are clearly good, but the execution in this novel is lacking. I found myself unable to “get into” the book very much, because it lacked anything to draw me in, any feeling to give to the story or characters. I love a nice short novel, but this book would have benefitted greatly from another 50 pages, wherein McClung could explore the emotions, and take some time to show some impact to events, rather than just saying “x happened”. There was a ton of potential here, but it just missed the mark for me. It was close to being a very good book, but yet very far away at the same time.

Rating: 2.75 / 5

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)

22544764

Hardcover, 438 pages
Published May 19th 2015 by Del Rey

Many in the fantasy community likely know Naomi Novik for her Temeraire series, a wonderful ‘if-dragons-were-like-horses’ kind of adventure that makes up the bulk of her published works. However, Uprooted hit with a splash last year, and amid nearly universally positive reviews, it made it into the finals of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, where it meets some stiff competition in The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (which I adored), as well as juggernaut big-name authors Neil Stephenson and Jim Butcher, and past champion and three-time finalist, Ann Leckie.

And, if you put a gun to my head right now and made me choose a winner, Uprooted would get my vote hands down. It’s that good.

8730

The story centers around Agnieszka, a young woman living in a quiet village; a village that is, however, bordering The Wood. They live in somewhat constant fear of the evil of the wood, of being corrupted or taken, of the terrible things living within the forest. Their solace lies in The Dragon, a powerful wizard who helps keep the deviltry of the forest at bay; be it magic, creatures, or corruption. The Dragon’s protection comes at a price – every ten years, he comes to the village and takes one girl, generally the most beautiful and outwardly talented, and holds them in his fortress for 10 years. Much mystery surrounds what goes on in the Dragon’s tower, but they all know that the girls who leave rarely will speak about their time there, generally move away from the area, and many believe that the Dragon is an evil force who forces himself upon the girls he takes.

None of this is a big concern for Agnieszka, as she is a clumsy, awkward youth with a penchant for getting dirty and getting into trouble. Kasia is the perfect one – beautiful, talented, level-headed, and dear to Agnieszka. Everyone knows Kasia will be the one the Dragon takes, and everyone has prepared themselves for it. However, when he comes to the village, it’s not Kasia he takes – it’s Agnieszka. It does not take long for our protagonist to discover the true purpose of the Dragon taking the girls, or even to discover why the girls leave his indentured servitude changed, and altered.

However, no matter how different from her expectations and fears the exile is for Agnieszka, nothing can really prepare her for what she’ll learn, what she’ll become, and what she’ll have to do in order to save her best friend, her village, and the Queen of the land.

Uprooted is, in a word, brilliant. The writing is superb – no wasted space, but no shortage of emotion, of imagination, of drama. The dialogue between the characters was so vivid, visceral, and impactful. Each character had a very unique and distinct voice, mannerisms, patterns, and Novik was superb in her use of all of these factors, adding characteristics at the right time, not overusing anything (there’s no braid-tugging or dress-straightening here). At almost any time, you could read a sentence from any of the main characters, and be able to say who it likely was without any other clues, which is a great talent.

The worldbuilding, while contained to a small area, is subtly magnificent. The Wood is so beautifully imagined, something right out of dark fairy tales and nightmares. The magic system is simple in it’s use, broad in it’s powers, but not overpowered or underpowered. The royal family and the politics involved are introduced very slowly, and the drama and characters found within the big city and the castle were very well done, unpredictable, and very ‘real’ feeling, acting in ways that make sense within the story, and within human emotions.

The action was frantic at times, but never felt out of control, or rushed. Battles small and large felt equally impactful, and there were some very stressful moments, even though I felt relatively safe for the characters. But the fact I cared enough about them to become nervous for their wellbeing is a great sign, as I don’t generally get all that invested into characters, even ones I love. But Uprooted kept me nervous, kept me engaged, and made sure that it tugged on every heartstring it could in the process.

The only downsides I can think of are a bit of jumpy plot around the ending, as well as some slightly awkward sex scenery – which was better than most, mind you, but I kind of feel like if those scenes were written by a man, people would roll their eyes a bit at them. Fair or not. However, otherwise, I was in awe the entire story, I was glued to it, and I devoured it in just a couple days while out camping. It was a great atmospheric story to be going through while alone in the forest, and I couldn’t recommend a better reading place for a book like this – it honestly added quite a bit to the experience.

For me, Uprooted fired on all cylinders, and absolutely lived up to the reviews, award nominations, and acclaim it’s been getting. I think it’s a genre-defying novel, the type I would heartily recommend both to fantasy readers, as well as those who aren’t too into traditional fantasy, and definitely to my female friends who aren’t big on the genre. It’s a great read all around, and I am incredibly happy to have read it.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review: The Whirlwind In The Thorn Tree by SA Hunt (2013)

22882007

Kindle Edition, 490 pages
Published February 22nd 2013 by Madman Press (first published February 21st 2013)

The Whirlwind In The Thorn Tree has been kicking around my ‘to read’ list for quite a while. I learned of the book, and it’s author, largely on r/fantasy, where he tirelessly promoted it, and it garnered quite a few recommendations from others. I’d actually bought the ebook while it was on sale, but opted to pick up the self-produced audio edition for easier listening. In general, the book came fairly highly acclaimed from many readers, though some folks I trust weren’t particularly high.

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work for me. Whirlwind is, essentially, an 80’s-style portal fantasy, through and through. Kid goes through random modern day life things, kid discovers object (in this case, a mirror – original) is a portal to another world he never knew existed, and gets wrapped up in the events happening in aforementioned world. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…namely like, a billion times. However, in a genre like fantasy, I’m not overly quick to begrudge folks for a bit of “been there, done that“, being as there’s only so many ideas to go with, and after a while everything gets a bit incestuous.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA
However, Whirlwind isn’t a particularly good portal fantasy, in my opinion. Hunt’s writing is, at times, quite enjoyable – engaging, economical, and free flowing. However, he at times suffers from the trap which many self-pub authors find themselves locked in – over exposition. Sentence after sentence of adjectives and metaphors, in an effort to sound sophisticated or talented as a writer. In my opinion, Hunt’s writing, when it’s not in this trap, is good enough that he doesn’t need the over-writing in areas, but it comes and goes in cycles, with a paragraph you have to trudge through that is completely unnecessary.

The actual world created is pretty interesting, and I enjoy the concept of author-writing-what-he-experiences-in-alternate-world, however everything is just a bit too convenient, almost lazy. Everyone in the alternate world all but immediately accept Ross and his friends as allies, believing their outlandish story with very little prodding. Ross and co, for their part, seem to take to this much much less futuristic world very easily, not struggling at all without their modern amenities, and adapting to everything with very little issue. It all felt too..easy. It left me saying to myself “…really?” quite often.

Overall, the novel was not bad, I just found nothing really original here, and periods of dodgy writing that could have used a bit more polishing up. I can tell that Hunt has talent, has some vision of where he wants this book and his writing to go, but the pieces aren’t all put together here. I can totally understand why some people would love this and immediately engage in it, however for me, I’ve just read this same thing too many times, and done with better execution, to really give it a big endorsement.

Rating: 2 / 5