THE DROWNING CITY, by Amanda Downum, is the opening act in The Necromancer Chronicles sequence. The plot follows a number of characters, but Isyllt Iskaldur (how do YOU think this is pronounced?) is the main protagonist. She is in the island-city of Symir, in the capacity of a spy/government agent. Her mission, should she choose to accept it? Spread dissent, foment chaos, and generally wreck the status quo. Cool eh? Well, read on...
Let's talk setting. We have read books that run the gamut on interesting settings, however we have very rarely seen anything that resembles the Far East. After reading this book we wondered why we haven't seen it more before now. (Before your get your panties in a bunch, we know there are other novels that have this style of setting. We are just saying, there seems to be a shortage.) It is such a cool place, and provides Amanda Downum with a lot of source material to create her own unique world. The landscape gives us familiar vibes, yet remains extremely exotic due to being filled with Demons and Ghosts. A tropical environment gives plenty of fantastic opportunities for the author to exploit and satisfy our imaginations. But here also we have a problem. We were left...wanting. This was a chance for Downum to really blow her reader's minds with something unique and creative, and yank them from the comfort of common pseudo-European fantasy settings. THE DROWNING CITY didn't deliver as much as it should have. We were disappointed...kinda like a fat person eating a small salad.
The characters. Oh the characters. THE DROWNING CITY has some very intriguing characters with real potential and depth to them. Their histories and character traits are fairly unique in a genre that has been saturated with the familiar fantasy archetypes. However, as will be a theme throughout this book, the execution was somewhat lackluster. What do we mean by that, you ask? Well consider this. As we mentioned above, the plot is one of intrigue, political maneuvering, and guerrilla warfare, etc. So we get a lot of the fun, "Who is really good or bad?", "Is there such a thing as either?", "Where is the line, if there is one, that can't be crossed to achieve a goal?" and "Where do this person's morals fit?" kind of stuff. (Are you sensing that we completely dig that attitude yet?)
Part of the problem is that the transitions between character PoVs can ofter be pretty bad. In addition, some disappear for huge chunks of the books altogether. Some of the characters who could have been really, REALLY interesting aren't given enough, if any, screen-time. Not to mention the naming syntax Downum uses is downright confusing at times. And what the crap was she thinking naming a dude, in this book, Adam? A tad inconsistant? Yeah, especially considering the fact the rest of the names are so foreign, that we felt like we were unwrapping a Starburst with our tongue (something else, like most things, that Nick is way better at than you--he practices daily) as we tried to sound them out. And really, characters didn't do a whole lot. We kept asking ourselves, "When is the character development going to happen? When are these people gonna do something cool?" They also do things that are in direct contradiction with their established personalities and back-stories. This is perhaps the single most unacceptable flaw in the entire book.
The plot, with all its intrigue, was simply not what we wanted. This really isn't even an issue of our preconceptions not being met (as if anyone would possibly think we would be capable of weakness like that). It just lacked movement, or rather, a pointed movement. The flow of the story seemed more like a trickle of a muddy stream than the deafening roar of rapids that we want.
THE DROWNING CITY is not quite a dark fantasy, despite having a lot of those gritty qualities that tantalize us so. It is also not quite a horror book either, even though it has a lot of the horror qualities as well. This is good news for you folks, because people who enjoy either will find something they enjoy here. It was bad news for us since our egos are taking a slight hit due to our inability to squish it into a genre. Don't worry. We'll recover. If you send us Christmas presents the process will go quicker.
Looking at the meat of the review we want to say that THE DROWNING CITY wasn't bad. In fact, for a debut author it was actually pretty impressive. It is a great concept with tons of future potential. But it didn't dazzle us either. That said, we look forward to the sequel, and Amanda Downum's continued published work. With a little more effort on her own part refining her craft, and her editor polishing the writing, Downum may become a household name for fantasy readers.
Our final note is something that we haven't agreed on between the two of us (yeah, it happens occasionally). Downum frequently uses made-up words for common vernacular (replacing phrases like 'greetings', 'good morning', 'mother', 'lady', etc.) without any sort of warning, glossary, or explanation. Steve thought this was a blunder because it can really pull the reader out of the story. Nick agreed, but was also pleased with Downum for not beating the reader over the head with out-of-story information, and expecting that they will be able to catch on. Also, in the typical artsy analysis that has become his habit of late, Steve was pretty happy with Orbit's (the publisher of the novel) art direction of THE DROWNING CITY, and it's sequel THE BONE PALACE. High-five, Orbit. It almost makes up for your crappy production quality of the UK edition of THE GATHERING STORM. Almost.
Note: Don't confuse this series with Gail Z. Martin's, The Chronicles of the Necromancer. It seems to us that either these two authors are in cahoots to inundate our immense brains with Chronicles and Necromancers, or they both need to open up their eyes the next time they are at their local bookstore. What gives ladies?
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Nothing that we imagine could be of concern to anyone.
Violence: Not as much as we hoped, but it is there.
Sex: Its present, with a couple scenes, but nothing explicit. Its mostly alluded to, or briefly introduced.
Go check out Downum's website. Let her know that she is on the right track.
During our adventures at World Fantasy in October, we had a chance to meet and chat with Campbell Award winner, Mary Robinette Kowal. If any of you are listeners of Writing Excuses (and if you aren't, you really should be), then you may remember Mary from her guest appearances on the podcast. They were some of the most entertaining and insightful episodes that the podcast has put together.
As it turns out, Mary has a short story collection being published through Subterranean Press (we love them). Needless to say, we were excited to read a review copy of the collection.
First, let's discuss short stories a bit. No, you don't have a choice but to indulge us. As we stated when we reviewed the novella collection, METATROPOLIS, short fiction is hard for us to review. Simply put, we don't care too much for it. We've made our attempts to read the Writers of the Future anthologies, and we just get bored. We've read short stories in magazines, and in other various anthology collections, and they are really hit-or-miss...much more so than long fiction. Perhaps this is due to authors not writing that much short fiction anymore. It just doesn't pay the bills like a novel does. Authors don't practice it, so when short stories are published, the quality seems to suffer. Once again, these are our general observations and opinions.
So what does it take to write a short story that doesn't suffer like the majority? Well, if we knew for a fact, we'd have a bunch of stories published ourselves...but that's neither here, nor there. In Mary's case, her collection SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES seems to do all the right things...at least for us. And we are picky. So when we say we liked Mary's collection, that should tell you something.
SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES contains eight (8) short stories...at least we think it does. Confused? So are we. Our review copy only had seven of the eight listed in the Subterranean Press book listing. Heck if we know. Anyways, of the seven stories we read, we realized that we do indeed like short stories when they are done right. The story "Death Comes but Twice" is a great throw-back to Victorian SF. "Scenting the Dark" is a fantastic study on fear. Every story has some great material and inspiration in it.
We could go on about the individual stories, but really, we've decided that going into short stories blind is the best way to read them. Think about it. A short story usually takes one, single idea and makes a scene out of it, so if you read it without prior information, it becomes MUCH easier to enjoy. With regards to that one idea that make a short story, perhaps this is why Mary's collection succeeds where others fail. With her experience in the puppeteer (how awesome is THAT!), Mary seems to have a better grasp on how to express things with a single expression, or with a single word. Her experiences have allowed her to tell short stories in a most effective manner. This kind of quality just isn't seen too often in short fiction anymore.
The major problem we had with this short story collection is that it was too...uh...short. With only seven (or eight...whatever) stories, we finished the collection in an extremely short amount of time. If the quality of the stories hadn't been so high, this would have been a serious deal-breaker for us. Though, to be fair, Subterranean Press is only charging $25 for a signed and numbered copy of the collection. You decide if it is worth it. We certainly thought it was. Though we do also think the cover is on the weak side.
Before we finish, there is one last thing we want to mention. At the end of every story in the collection, Mary has a brief paragraph or two describing what gave her the idea behind the story. Ladies and gentlemen, this should be done at the end of EVERY short story published. Not only do we get further insight into the story, but we gain a similar measure if insight into the author and her (or his) creative process. If you are and developing author trying to write short stories, Mary's collection SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES should be on your bookshelf. You won't get any better instruction at a better price.
We are now officially WAY excited to read her novel, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, which comes out next year. High-five, Mary. You made us like short stories again.
Recommended Age: 15 and up. If you like short stories, or want to write them, you should pick this up regardless of your age. This would also be a good place to retry reading short stories in general.
Language: A little.
Violence: Not really.
Sex: Some is alluded to, but nothing is shown.
The List of Important Links:
Mary's Website - http://www.maryrobinettekowal.com/
Mary's book at Subterranean Press - SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES
Subterranean Press' Front Page - http://www.subterraneanpress.com/
Writing Excuses - http://www.writingexcuses.com/
Scott Westerfeld is perhaps currently best known for his YA SF novels. He recently decided to try his hand at Steampunk in an alternate version of World War I. LEVIATHAN is a good entry into the genre, but it isn't without drawbacks (depending on your point of view, of course).
LEVIATHAN follows the PoV of Alek, the son of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand (in case you didn't know before, now you know where the band gets its name--that's your useless piece of trivia for the day). In Westerfeld's story, the assassination of the Archduke and his wife incites World War I, just like in actual history. This differences are the Steampunk and Biopunk (this term will make more sense in a moment) settings. The two major factions are the Clankers (the Austrians, Germans and such), and the Darwinists (England and other "Allies"). The Clankers are based in machinery, and lend to the Steampunk stylings that the book promotes. The Darwinists, frankly, are much cooler. They manipulate biological creatures into war machines, ships, and anything else they have need of. As a counterpoint to young Alek's "Clanker" PoV, we have the PoV of Deryn Sharp. She is a fifteen year-old girl posing as a boy in the British Air Service aboard the Leviathan--a huge biologically created ship that resembles a flying whale.
The PoVs are both entertaining, if a bit juvenile. We had it in our minds that LEVIATHAN would be geared (no Steampunk pun intended) to the older end of YA. In reality, it is towards the younger end. Once we understood this small piece of info, any measure of initial disappointment faded quickly away. The characters, especially Deryn, won us over quickly. As we follow Alek's escape from Austria in his Stormwalker (think of it as a Steampunk Mechwarrior), and as we follow Deryn's adventures on the Leviathan, we are treated to a very imaginative, uh, re-imagining of WWI, and how the paths that Alek and Deryn each follow inevitably merge.
Where LEVIATHAN really shines is in the Steampunk and Biopunk elements. The way Westerfeld imagines warfare in this setting is nothing short of fabulous. The Steampunk in the novel is actually fairly light, with most of the focus on the Biopunk. Some may argue that this is bad, while others rejoice in it. We wish that we could have seen a bit more of the Steampunk area of the world, but we aren't terribly upset about the lack of it. The Darwinist ideas in the novel more than made up for the lack of more machinery.
Ultimately, the thing that most disappointed us was discovering it was a series. The next novel, BEHEMOTH, won't be released until Oct. 2010. Considering how quick of a read this novel is--the pacing is terrific, we should add--waiting another year for the sequel seems a long way off.
However, is it worth the $20 price tag? Oh yes. Allow us to gush with regards to the beauty of the book itself. Just seeing the cover in person made us both drool a little. It is one of the best designed covers to come out this year. It hints at a stronger Steampunk element than is really in the novel, but it is a stunning cover regardless. There are dozens of internal illustrations by Keith Thompson that give a fantastic visual aid for the beasties and machines described in the book. The production quality of this book is top-notch.
LEVIATHAN is a good book. Not incredible, but good. We liked it. We fully intend on reading the sequels, and buying them assuming they look as awesome as the first novel. LEVIATHAN is marketed towards a younger crowd, and serves as a good intro into the Steampunk genre. We still think that Philip Reeve's MORTAL ENGINES is a better introduction into Steampunk at the YA level, but Westerfeld has done a fantastic job. Let's face it, Steampunk is a genre that more people should be reading, and it is typically a pretty safe genre content-wise. Go out and pick up LEVIATHAN. You'll enjoy it, and it will make you want to read more Steampunk.
Recommended Age: 12 and up.
Violence: There is some, but it isn't a focal-point.
Sex: Don't be absurd.
So check out Westerfeld's website. He doesn't exactly need any help from us, but every author likes to hear they've done a good job.
There are beliefs, of sorts, in the writing business. A good author can take the most cliché, horrible idea, and make it work. A bad author, however, could have the most amazing idea, and make it seem second-rate drivel. SANDMAN SLIM, by Richard Kadrey, takes a little of both of those. Poorly written, clichéd drivel. Awesome huh? (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
There is a blatant attempt in this novel to have a Harry Dresden-style character be super dark and gritty. The main PoV, James Stark (a magician, of course), was sent to Hell by his "friends." He fought demons "Downtown," (as the character calls it) Gladiator style for eleven years, and then managed to escape. This is where the book picks up--Stark waking up in a graveyard in L.A. after escaping Hell. Stark wants revenge on the people that sent him down to Hell. Oh, and there is a war between Heaven and Hell that Stark is in the middle of (GASP!). Were there enough clichéd archetypes and motifs in that paragraph for you? That's just scratching the surface. Oh, and the title? It comes in randomly a little over half-way through the book.
Look, the whole going (or being sent) to Hell thing has been done. A lot. Even T.V. shows have done it. A lot. This isn't to say you can't do the "going to Hell and back" thing...well actually that is exactly what we are saying. Give it a decade of rest. If you absolutely MUST do it, at least write it well enough to make us not want to gouge out our eyes.
Back to our PoV. It's OK to want to have an anti-hero character. It's OK to make him gritty and dark. It isn't OK to accomplish this by having the First-Person narrative tell you "Hey, I'm dark and gritty." He needs to SHOW us through his actions and thoughts who he is and what makes him different. And no, swearing a ton doesn't make the PoV dark and gritty, it just shows a limited vocabulary. (Except in Nick's case, because we all know he is brilliant.) As readers, we were often subjected to long metaphoric monologues and commentaries on society, followed by Stark saying, "But I don't give a ****." If he doesn't care about anything, why should we the readers give a crap about him or his revenge story? Not only that, but half the time the metaphoric language and word choices don't mean a freaking thing. It is nonsensical garbage strung together to sound intelligent to the uneducated.
There are quite a few areas, like the poor wording above, that show Kadrey didn't research much. It may seem like a quibble, but at one point Stark spots an Escalade from a distance and says something akin to, "And I decided I wanted to steal that Escalade right there." One problem. Stark was in Hell when Escalades began to be manufactured. He wouldn't know what it is from a distance. Not only that, but he alternates between calling it an SUV and a van. "SUV" has been a common term since the early 90's, so he would know the difference. It's little things like this that can really pull a reader out of the story. Either Kadrey doesn't know the difference (doubtful), or he initially wanted to have the character steal a van, and never changed it. Bad editing...though to be fair, the editor probably was busy stabbing his/her own eyes out.
Humor is a difficult element to pull off in literature. Authors like Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, and Terry Pratchett get it right. Kadrey misses completely. We know what you are thinking, humor can be very subjective. It's true. If you think saying "F-you" is a hysterical comeback for all situations, then you will be rolling on the ground laughing. We, however, didn't think it was particularly funny or clever the first time, much less the hundredth. Once again, the main problem here is a show vs. tell. Show us funny stuff, don't have the main PoV tell us, "Look at me, I'm funny!"
Dialogue is terrible in SANDMAN SLIM. Steve listened to the book on audio, and it was worse than listening to Megan Fox say, "I'll drive. You shoot" in the first Transformers movie. MUCH. WORSE. Nick read a physical copy, and it was just as bad sounding in his head (at least that's what his voices told him...). If you, as an author, make one of your characters say, "I think I've been waiting for you all my life," then you need to rethink your approach your dialogue creation process. Yes, that line is in SANDMAN SLIM. It's like Michael Bay writing a novel...
Unnecessary info? We got that too! The author wastes the reader's time by explaining that vampires like to kill people and drink their blood (shocker!), and that without blood they will DIE! (OH NOES!) We know what vampires are, thank you. Don't act like you are original for including them in an Urban Fantasy story (There is one line where Stark tells the readers, "Yes, there are vampires. Try to keep up." Thanks for clarifying that, chief. Have you read any Urban Fantasy in the past decade?). And don't treat readers like they are 2-year old kids in need of explanation filler.
And that's not all. After the climax of the novel, it just keeps going. It was a little reminiscent of the end of The Return of the King movie (only much, much, much, much worse) where you just kept having more and more tacked on. Kadrey wanted to make sure we all knew there would be a sequel. Essentially, the author has his main PoV tell the reader "This book is better than ALL other Urban Fantasy because I SAY SO. And I will write SEQUELS that are already the BEST EVER!" Instead, the reality is this novel won't even be worth the paperback price when it comes out, and certainly isn't worth the current $23 hardback price-tag. And no, we won't be reading the inevitable sequels. We are confidant that the writing in them will suck (in a non-vampire way) just as bad as SANDMAN SLIM.
If you want a grimmer version of the Dresden series, go read Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels, the first of which we reviewed here. If you want a gritty revenge story DONE RIGHT, read Abercrombie's BEST SERVED COLD. Avoid SANDMAN SLIM. Like. The. Plague. (To be fair to plagues everywhere, SANDMAN SLIM is worse than any plague.)
On last thing. Kadrey sets out to be irreverent towards everything religious. Angels and Demons are idiots, God is a screw-up, and Satan is inept. Aside from it being boring as Hell (lulz), there is a chance people may get offended by the made-up creation story Kadrey puts in. We found the whole religion aspect to be be very heavy-handed and forced, but others may very well be offended.
Recommended Age: If you absolutely MUST read this (into self-torture are we?), then be 18 years-old.
Language: Tons and tons. It really adds nothing of value to the story.
Violence: Yeah, but the word choices in action sequences make it all sound stupid.
Sex: Lots of innuendo and references, but no actual scenes.
Yes, we have read the full Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Short stories included. Call it a not-so-secret guilty pleasure. The fact of the matter is that Harris makes us laugh, and we enjoy it when an author intentionally makes us laugh through comedy rather than the alternative...
DEAD AND GONE, is the latest entry into the Sookie Stackhouse series about a girl (Sookie) who can read minds, and vampires who have come out of the coffin (Harris' pun, not ours) and have announced themselves to the world. You may not have read the books, but we can almost be positive that you have at least heard of the HBO series, True Blood. It's the adaptation of the novels. Unlike our recent discussion about Dexter, True Blood has yet to come close to surpassing the novels in terms of quality. The comedy that makes Harris' novels so enjoyable is all but omitted from the TV show.
Anyways. The book. DEAD AND GONE.
If you've been following the series, you know that all manner of supernatural beings exist in the world Harris created (adapted). This particular novel deals with the announcement to the world from the bajillions of were-creatures that they exist. It's their own coming-out party, and it includes the apparent and immediate consequences. Consequences in Harris' novels usually means someone (or something) being murdered. In this case, it's a were-panther being crucified.
Look, this series is marketed to females. We probably wouldn't have read the series except we know her agent, and we were interested in what all the hoopla was with the TV series. This is what TWILIGHT ripped off and watered-down to a pathetically safe and sucky (you knew we were going to throw this pun in sometime...don't act so surprised) level. This series (and thus, this novel) has all sorts of violence, swearing and sex in it, though this novel had the least out of all the books in all three categories.
Harris tells her stories in 1st Person, and it really lets the readers focus in on what Sookie is going through that she keeps hidden from everyone else. This is DEAD AND GONE's strong point, and gets us back on track after last year's disappointing FROM DEAD TO WORSE. Without letting loose and spoilers, stuff actually happens in DEAD AND GONE, and we get some very interesting revelations on Sookie's past. Not to mention, the ending to this book is actually pretty grim. People die...and they stay dead...and un-vampired (We can make up any words we want! We are WRITERS!). If feels even more grim when compared to the comedic tone that saturates Harris' novels. The contrast was extremely well done.
When all is said and done, this feels like we are going back up in quality. It isn't the strongest of the series, but enjoyable and satisfying nonetheless.
Our major quip here has nothing to do with the storytelling, and more with the format of the novel. DEAD AND GONE, like Harris' other novels, is a one-night read. Considering the $25 price-tag on this novel, we just don't know if we feel justified in seeing a person buy this novel for a quick couple-of-hours read. We are going to suggest you wait for the paperback, but if you need it NOW, go to the library, or buy the novel off Amazon for $14 (still a bit rich of our...blood...har har).
Charlaine Harris' novels are quick, entertaining reads that a majority of females will enjoy. Parts of them read a lot like romance novels, which will be enough to turn most guys off to them. We read them for the comedy, and as a stick-out-our-tongues gesture to the Twilight novels that so blatantly ripped off Harris' hard work. But yeah. These are definitely 'Books for Chicks,' though now we are invested, so we kinda feel obligated to keep on reading. We'll survive. Harris' characters and comedy are solid (especially her dialogue), so we don't feel too guilty.
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Not anything close to what the TV series throws at you, but still a noticeable bit for a short novel.
Violence: Yeah. Harris' novels are thankfully (for us guys) high in violent content. Remember, these are actual vampires, so they rip out peoples throats and stuff.
Sex: Uh yeah. Harris' scenes are fairly graphic, though there was only one scene in this particular novel.
If you haven's started this series yet, you should definitely start from book one. In fact, check out this box set of the first seven novels:
Sookie Stackhouse Box Set
And also, go send Charlaine Harris some emails of love. She's a good author who thoroughly enjoys writing. The one time we met her in passing, she seemed like a genuinely nice person as well.