Double Dip – (Reviews): The Builders by Daniel Polansky (2015) // The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (2013)

The Builders by Daniel Polansky (November 3, 2015)

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Those who follow me know that I’ve been, traditionally, a fairly big fan of Daniel Polansky’s work. His Low Town series was a blast – dark, gritty as hell, harsh, and very vividly written. I enjoy his prose, the way he forms his characters – specifically the gruff type – and the unforgiving nature of his works.

The Builders is one of the flagship novellas for the new Tor.com imprint, and getting a heavy hitter like Polansky is a great step for them. The book itself is gorgeous and high quality, and I really like the look and feel of the end product. It definitely excites me for future works.

The book is billed as, and essentially is, Redwall meets…well, Polansky. A wide array of small-species animals function as if they were humanoids; they drink, they fight, they shoot guns, they talk amongst themselves. The animals themselves act with characteristics of their races, which are pointed out quite plainly at times, as well as their own unique personalities.

The story itself is a fairly straightforward, movie-western-style revenge plot, surrounding The Captain, and his group of uniquely-skilled critters. The Captain himself fits the archetype present in all of Polansky’s novels – the gruff, straight-talking, often brutal male lead that he writes so well. There are a lot fun little bits to the characters themselves, quirks, personality traits, but there is little time in the novella to explore these.

Overall, the story is quick, dirty, and fun. However, I had a few qualms with it – the mere premise of Redwall for Adults seemed to be what I took away from the previews of the book, but was not totally true in practice. It’s hard to really feel like a book with talking, acting wildlife critters is really as dark or gritty as Polansky’s writing usually is. Even beyond that, the book seems to be a bit unsure as to it’s target audience – it’s written in a more YA style overall, with talking animals, no profanity to speak of, and a generally simple storyline. However, there is rampant drinking of booze, some graphic violent scenes, and some overall themes that you would only find in the most aggressive of the YA category. I really was left feeling confused as to who this book was targeted at – is it a YA? Is it for adults? Somewhere in between?

The writing structure itself was a bit odd too – I have been very open about being a fan of shorter chapters, meaning I prefer a book with a ton of chapters, with hard breaks instead of just mid-chapter breaks (think the 150+ chapters of Name Of The Wind). However, Polansky took that to a new level in this book – it’s 215ish pages (very short, double-spaced, small book pages mind you), but has 53 chapters, some of which are little more than 2-3 sentences. While I kind of like this segmented, succinct style, it also just felt a bit strange to be hitting chapter 40+ when you’re 1.5 hours into a reading session. Additionally, there was an odd choice in viewpoint – the book was presented in a normal, third person style, however there were odd spots where it suggested a narrator. Example would be a line like (this is made up, not an actual quote); “The mouse hit the owl hard – hard for a mouse, I mean.” I could dig up actual quotes, but this is the gist – this happens multiple times during the book, and made me go “Wait, huh?”. Maybe I’m missing some literary device here, but it just felt a bit off.

Overall, I didn’t dislike the book, but it was not my favorite Polansky piece. I think if he intends to write more in this setting, it would be a nice setup piece, but a lot more needs to happen to round out the story. I recommend it to people who enjoyed Redwall, but are looking for a more edgy version, however I think it lacks the overall polish of some of it’s similar counterparts.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (July 2013)

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I tend to be a fairly narrow reader as far as genres go – I seem to be more in the 75% fantasy range, and 25% “other”, most of which are sci-fi. Unlike most nerds I know, I’ve never been a huge sci-fi guy; sure, I love Star Trek and things of that ilk, but I’m not hanging around quoting Star Wars, or even watching Cosmos for fun. When I do read sci-fi, well, I much prefer the people-centric variety, a more laid back version rather than the hard-science.

At a recent event, Jason described his writing/idea process as, paraphrasing, “realizing the world needed more books like John Scalzi writes”. I couldn’t agree more – Scalzi is hands down my favorite sci-fi writer. Why? He’s fun. You’re not getting much hard science (some, sure), and some of the items are downright “what?”-worthy, but the books have great characters, just enough science to be interesting, and are a blast to read. The Darwin Elevator lives up to this in every way.

The book follows captain Skyler Luiken and his crew; a group of specialized scavengers who are immune to the alien disease that has turned the world into, essentially, zombies (more like feral ghouls from Fallout). Very few “immunes” exist in the world, and are therefore highly important. The entire world has been infected with this disease except for a small area near Darwin, Australia, where the alien “elevator” appeared, giving an odd immune effect in the area of the elevator that the infected subhumans, or “subs”, cannot get past.

With the world in collapse, the fortunate survivors flock to Darwin to try and scrape by with what’s left, and the affluent few who are lucky/rich enough get to live up the ladder, in orbit, away from the plague afflicting earth. Due to lack of resources, items from the old world are highly valued, and therefore there’s a very high need for these items in order to continue surviving as a race, producing food and other necessities, repairing equipment, etc. It is, however, a very dangerous job, as the subhumans are prevalent in the old world areas, making every recovery mission one of life or death. Luckily, Skyler’s crew of immunes are skilled in this kind of thing; excellent planners, killers when necessary to be, and very practiced in their recovery missions. However, when a special mission involving a new scientist goes sideways, things begin to unravel…

The Darwin Elevator is, largely, everything I look for in a sci-fi book. It’s fast-paced without being breakneck; it has engaging, funny, visceral, ‘real’ feeling characters and dialogue; the overwhelming problems are epic in scale, effecting everyone and with very real consequences; and it’s unique and original enough to be exciting, without feeling the need to be too outlandish. There’s a bit of a feeling of ‘seen it before’ (similarities to the Beanstalk from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War come to mind, as well as, obviously, the subhumans from just about everything), however the book doesn’t feel derivative or cheesy. It’s got a bit of a comforting familiarity level, enough new things to keep you on your toes, but enough familiar things to allow you to focus on the story and the characters.

The writing itself is great – Hough has a very approachable prose style, without being simplistic. I enjoyed blasting through the book with relative speed, never feeling bogged down by unnecessary sentence structures, info dumps, or anything of the like. The dialogue was excellent – characters had their share of snappy one-liners and quips, but overall their conversations were very believable. The worldbuilding was well done – I felt like I really understood the condition the world was in; the squalor for those living in Darwin, scraping by; the fear of death or disease; the struggle to find supplies, food, etc needed to get by. When things started going downhill in the story, the concern for life and limb, as well as the status of earth, was apparent and gripping – I feared for my character buddies, both good and ‘bad’.

The Darwin Elevator is a book that gets better as it goes, that grows in quality as it grows in quantity. Speaking of – the length of the book was ‘just right’ to me; it was not an epic doorstopper, yet had enough length to flesh out the worldbuilding and characters, not skim over any aspects, but also not draw out any pieces unnecessarily. As you come to understand the setting and pieces, you come to appreciate them more and more. I’m excited to dig farther into this series, being as it feels very much like the type of book that is sorely needed in my sci-fi schedule.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

 

Throwback Thursday Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014)

I’m currently very busy, and making very slow progress on the novels I’m reading, so I figured I would fill the space by doing a Throwback Thursday review. Coming out in early 2014, Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a book that caught my attention early on – less due to hype, and more due to the staggering cover and presentation. When I did pick it up, it blew me away – the prose, the cohesion of the story, the way Brown pulled pieces from other notable works and mashed them together into a brilliant Frankenstein’s Monster of a book.

Simply put: A gods damned masterpiece. One of my new favorite books of all time.

Red Rising is the story of Darrow, a “red”, the lowest ranking caste in a color-coded society. He is essentially a slave/indentured servant, toiling away as a laborer with no real hope or aspirations. After the brutal death of his wife unfolds a chain of events that results in his rise to an artificial “gold” – the ruling caste – Darrow enrolls in a school/competition which will weed out the best golds – the ones fit for rule.

While this seeps of “been there, done that”, this book is so, so much more. One could say that it is a combination of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Harry Potter and Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, all rolled into one. And by that, I mean the absolute best parts of all of those series, compiled into one near-perfect novel. And, in the way that all of those series/books grabbed me, held me and changed me, so Red Rising has shocked, awed and inspired me.

Myself and Pierce Brown, February 2015

The book is a first-person narrative of a young man, albeit not a child or preteen as some similar books contain, fighting his way through a faction-oriented brutal test of strength and cunning to prove dominance – one that is riddled with corruption, interference, politics, sabotage and a whole lot of violence. Let me get this out of the way: I’d seen that his book is considered YA, or that some people classified it as that. THIS IS NOT A GODDAMNED YOUNG ADULT BOOK. Having a younger protagonist does not automatically make a book YA. This novel is chock full of violence, adult themes and some profanity, and is certainly not something most in the YA category should probably be reading. It feels like a very, very “adult” book in a lot of ways, in a setting that is sometimes associated with the YA genre. This is a good thing, as it gives a new light to a setting that is often relegated to kids books.

Let me begin with the absolute #1 thing that grabbed me: Pierce Brown’s staggering prose. The closest thing I can compare it to is Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire novels – which I have called my favorite prose of any author, ever, not just the SFF genre. It’s succinct, restrained in the use of commas, and packed with short sentences that jump off the page. Quotable, edgy and marvelous. I can’t say enough about Pierce’s use of words, his style, his gumption. Much like Jorg Ancrath in the Broken Empire books, this style of prose is just PERFECT for Darrow, who as the novel progresses gains a ton of similarities to Jorg. Perhaps part of the reason I loved this book so much. This prose is what I would want if I had any talent at all and wanted to write a novel. It’s inspiring to me.

The details are fantastic, from the focus on language and appearances to the effects of injuries that don’t just magically disappear. The way Brown makes the importance of these details apparent while keeping in line with his prose and story – not making it obvious he’s going “LOOK AT THIS DETAIL!” all the time.

The characters are superb – they grow through the novel, endure trials, act fairly realistically, have excellent emotions, dialogue, and shades of gray. There’s no black and white evil empire; there’s always a catch, always that next hitch, the next twist to keep you on your toes. Every time I thought Pierce was heading down a familiar road, he took a sharp left turn away from it. Aside from the protagonist, there was no feeling of plot armor, no characters who were impervious to either death, maiming, or of turning on someone. Brown captures the fear, anger, lust, anguish and excitement of every situation brilliantly.

Very rarely do I come across a book that I find nigh-on impossible to put down, almost physically difficult to cease the consumption of. This rivals any of the best books I’ve read in that category. I sincerely regret that the next book will not be out until next year, as I’m desperate for more. More of Darrow, more of the golds politics, more of that glorious prose.

As a side note: Tim Gerard Reynolds is SPECTACULAR doing the narrating this audiobook – a signature performance that I would put up against ANY audiobook I’ve listened to thus far. Just a marvelous piece of reading on his part.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review: A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms by George RR Martin (2015)

After reading any George Martin book, my instinct is always to rate it as high as possible, give it 5 stars, praise it to the moon and back. And why not? Westeros is one of the most fulfilling, creative, and rich worlds ever created in fantasy – the history, the families, the geography, the politics – it’s all incredible. And Martin’s prose is always fluid, keeping the reader interested, leaving just enough to the imagination to fill in the blanks, while also being thorough and robust.

These shorts, of course, are no exception – they are some more of the Westeros history and backstory that is hinted at, but this time put into full prose, and given a set of lively characters as well. It gives an especially nice look at the Targaryens during their time of rule, including a look at some of the wars leading up to their current ownership of the throne, and the rippling aftereffects.

Many of you know my undying love for novellas and short stories. I really do enjoy backstory books, side-adventures, and any piece of in-world filler pertaining to stories and series that I love.

And yet, A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms still left me feeling a bit unfulfilled.

For those uninitiated, A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms is not “new” work from Martin, per say – rather, it’s a collection of three short stories he’d written previously; “The Hedge Knight” from the Legends anthology, “The Sworn Sword” from the Legends II anthology, and “The Mystery Knight” from the Warriors anthology. They follow Ser Duncan the Tall (or “Dunk”) and his squire, Egg, whose identity is revealed in the first story, but for which I will not spoil here.

Dunk is a hedge knight – essentially, a sellsword knight, free to pledge his allegiance to whoever lord he desires/pays the most/is convenient etc. After the knight he was squire for passed away, knighting him just before his death, Dunk set out on his own, with dreams of grandeur and glory. He stumbles across Egg, a small boy with a shaved head, at an inn he is seeking to stay at. Unbeknownst to him, the boy follows him, appearing at his next destination. One thing leads to another (understatement of the century) and Egg ends up as Ser Duncan’s squire.

Illustration by Marc Simonetti

The stories themselves varied quite a bit as far as length, content, and overall quality. The first is an intro story, where the characters are introduced, they meet, and they begin being locked up in a small bit of political intrigue and general knightery. The second and third are individual stories of the exploits of Dunk and Egg, including large knighting tournaments, and a handful of life lessons that Dunk The Lunk is forcibly dealt.

The stories are undeniably Westerosi – the relevant families from ASOIAF are present, the locations, the cultures. Bits of history are dropped, and a lot of current events are filled in throughout the three stories. They do, however, have a slightly different feel to them than the full novels. There’s still plenty of gory violence, sexual themes, “OH GOD” moments. But the relationship between Dunk and Egg is at times humorous and lighthearted, kind of a Royce and Hadrian or Egil and Nix kind of thing, with intelligent and witty banter back and forth, and lots of threatening of clouts on the ear.

The hardcover of this book is actually gorgeous. They did a really nice job making this into a nice package, and keeping it from feeling a bit anemic, which is always a risk when you’re putting together three short stories into a novel-sized package (at novel prices). The book feels robust, with a very nice textured dust jacket, and nice construction on the book itself. The inner covers are gorgeous full color illustrations, and Gary Gianni’s illustrations on every 3rd or 4th page are very nice, relevant to the stories, and really give a lot of feel and atmosphere to the stories.

Overall, the presentation is nice, and the stories are decent. However, I’d heard a lot of good things about these stories, and they didn’t fully live up to their hype for me. They were good but not necessarily great, though each had moments of greatness. I feel as though I’m rating it down because it wasn’t quite up to Martin’s full potential, which is largely unfair. In the end, I wish each of these had a bit more to them, and that there was more overall cohesion to this small storyline. As it is, it was a nice distraction from the wait for Winds of Winter, and I’m glad I put off reading these stories until they were gathered in one package.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Review: Without Light Or Guide by T. Frohock (2015)

Note: ARC provided by author/publisher, but I’ma buy this anyway 🙂

A couple years ago, I went through a phase where I was trying to broaden my reading horizons (away from my steady diet of exclusively epic fantasy). A friend personally recommended Teresa Frohock’s Miserere to me, while chatting at a book signing. I was intrigued by his description, and his enthusiasm towards the merits of the book sold it to me. Needless to say, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Teresa’s writing rides an interesting line, and one that I was not previously accustomed to – dark fantasy. Hers in particular tends to blend aspects of horror, fantasy, and religious fiction (sorry, T, I had to). She wrote an extremely interesting piece on the topic, which can be read here. I encourage everyone to read the article!

I left Miserere hoping for more similar stories from Teresa, and luckily she’d filled in the space with some brilliant shorts, which I eagerly ate up. I was more than excited when she announced a new serial series, beginning with In Midnight’s Silence this spring. The series intro was gorgeous – it was dark, magical, beautifully written, and very moving at times.

When Without Light or Guide was announced, I began a mental countdown, while eagerly awaiting the release – luckily, Teresa was kind enough to send me a copy early, which I devoured as quickly as I could, while filling her poor inbox with unsolicited feedback. The book continues where In Midnight’s Silence left off – lovers Diago and Miquel, along with Diago’s previously unknown son, shelter with Guillermo, a leader of Los Nefilim. Diago makes the difficult choice to invest his loyalty fully in Los Nefilim, which is a decision questioned by many of the members of the faction, due to choices made in Diago’s past.

Guillermo, however, has faith and trust in Diago, and welcomes him into the fold. He gives Diago his first mission as a member of the faction, which leads to it’s own set of troubles. Much of the book reads almost as a noir crime mystery, intermingled with the personal dramas of not just Diago and Miquel, but also Los Nefilim. Diago is untrusted by his new companions, and there is a growing faction who distrust him to the point of doing anything to prove his lack of allegiance. This is further complicated by one of Los Nefilim’s most loyal members not being what they seem…

Fallen-Angel

This distrust is only further fueled as many things seem to point towards Diago being involved in a series of grisly murders, as many of the mortals he knows in Barcelona begin to turn up dead. Already under heavy scrutiny for being part angel and part daemon, Diago is continually targeted by certain members of the Nefilim as they try to prove/frame him as disloyal and corrupt.

The relationships and personalities found in the previous novel was just as present, and are often the driving force behind the story. Teresa writes fantastic characters, and the interactions and dialogue between them are incredible and moving. Miquel, who at first struggles with his lover having betrayed him and fathered a child, bonds with Rafael throughout the book, their relationship growing ever stronger, largely in the name of Diago. There are some of the most touching family moments I’ve ever read in a book surrounding this trio – an untraditional family to say the least, but one that figures out how to function despite the drama and adversity around them, and one that’s fueled on love. The soft, beautiful chapter snuggled in the middle of this book where the family truly bonds, in a home environment, broke up the otherwise dark and often depressing nature of the book in an incredible way, and I found it to be the perfect chapter at the perfect time – exactly what was needed to bring the reader back to the reality of what’s truly important, not just in life, but in the lives of these characters.

Diago is haunted by many things in this novel – his family problems, his entry into Los Nefilim, the members of Nefilim fighting against him, his own father essentially haunting him, as well as his chromesthesia – a condition he’s suffering from his injuries and events suffered in In Midnight’s Silence. This leaves him in spells of confusion, overwhelmed by his senses, and unable to correctly function and defend himself. However, even while his entire world is seemingly caving in on him, overwhelming him with problems, Diago’s friends and family rally around him.

As with the previous novel, the shorter length leaves little time for elaborate worldbuilding – however, Teresa does a brilliant job of filling in the gaps via dialogue and events conspiring, without ever feeling like any infodumping was occurring. I’ve felt through these two novels that I understood the settings, every house, every street, every dark place. Atmosphere is an area of expertise for Frohock, and she deftly gives dark places a haunted feeling, and home a comforting feeling, with an economy of words.

Without Light or Guide is a wonderful piece of this story, and leaves me craving more of these characters, more of this setting, and more of the moving love between Diago and Miquel.

Rating: 5 / 5