James Dashner's THE MAZE RUNNER has garnered a lot of attention since it's release. It is a novel filled with really cool and unique ideas, so on that end, its attention is completely understandable.
The plot centers around a group of amnesiac teenagers, stuck together in a foreign, hostile, and deadly maze, where bizarre creatures roam. These creatures are called Grievers, and they hunt the Gladers--as the kids call themselves--while the walls of the Maze are constantly changing. They are in marginal contact with their "captors" who send them supplies and new kids. However, the schedule of "one new kid a month" is broken the day after the main character Thomas arrives, when Teresa, the first girl Glader ever arrives with a message that "Everything is going to change." We should mention hate this over-used phrase.
We both froth at the mouth for a good dystopian story, go into convulsions for a post-apocalyptic story, and one of Nick's favorite topics is social experimentation. With all of that going for it, you would think this good would be a shoo-in for a recommendation for us, right?
Uh...hesitantly so. Kinda. The first conclusion that we both came to after reading the book, was that it was a fantastic book, completely entertaining, and ridiculously annoying. It's probably the most irritating good book we have read.
The first thing to mention about our irritation is that it has all the bad parts of the TV show Lost, and the irritation of WoT. None of the characters will communicate! We think it is cheating to fake adversity because the characters act like idiots, when it behooves them not to. Maybe we give too much credit to humanity, but when there is a problem to be solved, usually people will, at least eventually, come together to solve it. While the Gladers do cooperate to create a kind of Lord of the Flies hierarchy and governance so that they can survive, they don't cooperate when it matters most.
It seems like Dashner just included zero communication simply for the sake of adding conflict. So many times it made sense for the characters to talk to each other, but instead nearly all of the dialog devolves into "You're so dumb for asking that question. We aren't going to explain anything to you because you're a newbie. We get really upset and irritated when you ask questions, but we sure aren't going to answer them so you will stop asking. We'd prefer that you just keep asking us questions so we can call you names and stay in this awesome Maze forever. Let's go eat, so you can ask me more questions that we won't answer so we can call you more names, that you don't understand, because we won't answer your questions."
OK...we exaggerate...barely. Some quotes from the book:
"Why do you come in here asking stupid questions? It's really annoying." No, Dashner, what is annoying is your way of avoiding having to answer questions.
"Thomas wanted to scream. He knew he had a lot to learn. That's why he was asking questions." We wanted to scream too.
Another thing that bugged us, more than just a little bit, were the logical inconsistencies in the book. Yeah, we know it is a YA book, and perhaps our expectations were a bit too high. Admittedly, when we read a book like this we want our minds blown, not mildly stirred.
Example? For over TWO YEARS the Gladers were mucking about in the Maze, and they couldn't figure it out until Thomas and Teresa came to the Glade. The solution was obvious from close to the beginning, and we both were hoping it would be something a bit more inventive. It wasn't, which made us mad because we couldn't believe it never occurred to the characters to try it.
Then there is the fact that if the characters get stung by a Griever, if they get back to the Glade in time, they are given Grief Serum which briefly, and violently restores some of their memories. But if they talk about them, something happens they wind up doing crazy stuff like trying to kill themselves. Well a certain character (we don't want to spoil it) gets stung, gets the Serum, and then proceeds to disobey all the rules Dashner has set on how characters react to this...with no repercussions.
So yeah. Logic holes. They bother us.
Also...the book hamstrings itself. The aforementioned problems keep the throttle in idle instead of letting it roar, and the ending happens a few chapters too early, making the climax actually pretty boring.
We guess we should throw in a mention of what we actually thought of the characters themselves. Honestly, it was somewhat hard for us to care about them. Dashner's focus on denying information to both the characters and the reader was 100% successful, but had the side effect of denying us a connection to them. When any of them died, it was with no drama, for us, whatsoever. We didn't care at all what happened to any of them. Even when a certain character dies that was supposed to be a big deal...well, it just wasn't.
OK, that's a lot of negative...and normally would be enough for us to put the book down. However, it was a short read. Just a couple hours, which helped it out immensely. We both, despite the irritation, liked the book. When we talked about it, it was much harder to define why we liked it than why we didn't but we kept coming back to the conclusion that we did enjoy it. How's that for vague?
Perhaps it was the fact that it truly was an attempt at something very unique. Yes it took things that have been done, but blended them into this cross-genre tale. If you took ENDER'S GAME and LORD OF THE FLIES, and smashed them together, you would get something a lot like this. Which, is more than just one point in the win column.
We suppose our final conclusion is that if you like to read YA a lot, and you can forgive the lack of communication in the novel, you should give this book a try. If you like dystopian stories, then you will find something to enjoy here.
Recommended Age: 13 and up.
Language: Well it is obvious that Dashner wanted some vulgarity in the dialog, but he replaces all the words with something else. We know what he is saying, but it doesn't actually swear at all.
Violence: There are a few scenes but it is really tame.
Sex: None. At all.
WARRIORS is an extremely cool idea for an anthology. It is a collection of multiple stories, from various genres, written by some of the biggest names in speculative fiction. Martin, in his preface talks about how he wanted the book to have no specific genre attached to it (though the cover makes it seem as if it is an epic fantasy anthology), and in this sense the anthology succeeds magnificently. There are short stories from genres spanning fantasy, historic fiction, SF, WWII, and even western. Each of them tells a tale of a "warrior" in that particular setting. Martin's thought here is that books should broaden our reading perspective, and WARRIORS specifically should show us something new. In this anthology, there truly is something for everyone, and any reader would be hard-pressed not to enjoy it.
Let's get on with the name-dropping. The anthology was edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and contains short stories by Tad Williams, Robert Silverberg, Cecelia Holland, Naomi Novik, S. M. Stirling, David Weber, James Rollins (or James Clemens for you fantasy-only readers) and a bajillion others.
With anthologies it is usually the expectation that there will be a few gems, a majority of average stories, and then a few puke-worthy filler pieces. Warriors goes ahead and throws that expectation in your face, with the force of a 733 page book. Yeah, this is a large anthology. Very nearly every story in the collection met our expectations, and entertained us completely. Some noteworthy mentions:
Cecelia Holland continues to write magnificent historic fiction (we have loved her writing since we picked up VARANGER at World Fantasy 09, and then read the rest of her novels). Her short story is gritty, immediate, visceral, and wholly entertaining. What else would you expect from a tale about viking warriors?
Robert Silverberg gives us the most interesting (to Nick anyway) tale. While being slower paced than some of the other entries in the anthology, it is much deeper and much more engrossing. Silverberg's characters are soldiers that have been left out of contact with their superiors for a long time, and who struggle with how long they should continue in their task. The naming syntax used in this short story was also pretty ingenious. It was nothing done new, but it was especially evocative in this specific case.
Carrie Vaughn's story is probably the most thought provoking, and gives us a glimpse into a fairly unknown part of our own history. During WWII there was a group of pilots called WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots. The story is powerful, engrossing, and illuminating. Not too shabby from the chick who writes Urban Fantasy.
George R. R. Martin gives us a new Dunk and Egg story. This is where we had our biggest problem with the anthology. It took immense, god-like, control on our parts to not let the name George R. R. Martin color our review of the rest of the anthology. This was not easily done, especially when he not only has a novella included in it but, his name is on the cover as one of the editors. We have both (but Nick especially) begun nurturing the beginnings of resentment and general loss-of-respect for GRRM. It seems like he is doing absolutely everything within his power to do everything he possible can...other than write anything worthwhile in the A Song of Ice and Fire sequence. We have Wild Cards stuff coming, an HBO series, and this anthology (among other works), while we sit and wait for the next ASoIaF novel--a novel which isn't even anything close to bringing to story to a close. Its just the second half of the incomplete 4th book. He has repeatedly stated he doesn't owe his readers anything, but his is false (not to mention absurd). When you write a story, you make a promise to your readers. So...while The Mystery Knight (the novella by GRRM) is well written, as we have come to expect from George, we hated what it represented. Its like being promised a new car for Christmas and getting a Hot Wheels. Yay...
On the other hand--speaking of editors--Gardner Dozois' story delivered and was suitably dark and entertaining for us. Not only that, but it mentions Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Lindsay Lohan, Facebook, and World of Warcraft. Sadly he neglected Elitist Book Reviews. We emailed Dozois about his oversight. The story is extremely bizarre and foreign, but shows just how weird things can get if you are a good writer.
We could go on about all the fantastic stories, because most of them were, but instead we urge you to pick up WARRIORS and see if George R. R. Martin can convert you to his spinner-rack idea. When all is said and done, WARRIORS is the kind of anthology that everyone should be reading. It is the kind of quality anthology that readers have been waiting for. Instead of buying some anthology of beginning writers, most of which won't write anything else of value in their futures, how about you pick up this mammoth 733 page anthology written by proven professionals so you can learn from the best. It is well worth the cover price. This is perhaps one of the best anthologies we have ever read.
Recommended Age: 18 and up
Language: Its a mixed bag. Some stories don't have any. Others (like James Rollins-who wrote a brilliant short story) have quite a bit.
Violence: The title of the anthology is called Warriors...
Sex: There are various depictions of sex, from adultery in the Lawrence Block story, to the Carrie Vaughn story which has sexism is one of the central points.
If there was one 2010 fantasy series that had us chomping at the bit, it was Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt. Finally, after salivating over its inevitable US release, we finally got to taste the dish that the UK has enjoyed without us; EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD.
How about we start from the outside? The cover art on EMPIRE is simply unbelievable (and yes, the covers are as awesome on the two sequels we also have in our hands; DRAGONFLY RISING and BLOOD OF THE MANTIS). You know we judge books on their covers all the time. The cover of EMPIRE lends perfectly to its content, and gives the immediate impression of war and chaos. It is in our personal opinions that our US covers for this series are far superior to their UK counterparts. About time, right?
So, after gazing lovingly at the cover for a good long while, we opened up EMPIRE hoping the unique premise we had read about was delivered. It could have gone wrong. Horribly wrong, even. It wasn't perfect, but it was a far cry from bad, or even mediocre.
Just think about it. Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, human races have taken on aspects of different insects. You know as well as we do that this could have been sooooo bad. Instead what we are really given is a slightly more unique take on dwarves and elves. Honestly, we were a tad disappointed initially. Too many of the different cultures in EMPIRE were far too reminiscent of the races we have already read about a thousand times. One of the aspects that a culture takes in EMPIRE is that of the Beetle. They may as well have been called dwarves. The Mantis? Elves. Thankfully, things didn't go much further than that. We were given enough unique ideas to balance the thinly veiled similar ones--like the Ants, who are incredibly cool warriors that, obviously, think collectively--that the presentation was fresh enough to keep us involved. Realistically, the majority of the readers won't immediately identify the disguised clichés, and really even when we realized what was going on, we were still swept along by the story. This, dear readers, is the mark of a good storyteller.
Now, one thing we didn't know going in, was how full the world would be. In EMPIRE, we are introduced to a whole lot of world. A world where the melding of technology, industry, and the traditional fantasy elements we are familiar with is at near perfection. There are complex machines used, and all are well designed and described, as well as their relationship to the culture created in EMPIRE. The moment the quasi-steampunk elements began being introduced, we began to genuinely be sucked into the world.
With a multitude of races (insect-aspects), naturally comes a multitude of conflict. Fear, ignoring danger for profit, crucifying religion for reason, racism, etc. It makes for a very engaging fantasy book. The issues are tangible and real, without feeling arbitrarily political. At it's core, EMPIRE is an extremely thoughtful book while telling an entertaining tale.
What is the book about? The easy answer is the Wasp Empire is on a conquering spree, Alexander the Great style. Our main PoVs, basically, are spies. In the first chapters, Tchiakovsky gives a real sense of threat. No, not during the initial attack by the Wasp Empire in the first chapter (which is really more of a prologue, and is quite awesome in itself). It is after, when the main character Stenwold realizes he has spent years and years preparing, and has still run out of time. When we are introduced the other four main PoVs (naturally each being of a different insect aspect to fully showcase the diversity), we are treated to their attempts to fully grasp the magnitude of what an invading Wasp Empire means.
Tchiakovsky is a gifted writer, but perhaps his biggest failing was with PoV. We both had frustrations with the swapping of multiple PoVs on the same page. It was almost an omniscient perspective, but...not. He would stay at an omniscient level, but then delve down into 3rd Person Limited when it suited...and then back to omniscient. The other big problem was description during fight scenes. It was all very generic and drawn out. We have come to expect and want, especially from UK authors, a certain sense of immediacy and danger to the violent scenes. EMPIRE just didn't have it.
EMPIRE is a fantastic first book that opens up an intriguing series. Despite some of our problems, we really were easily caught up in the story that Tchiakovsky weaves. There were very few lulls in the pacing, and we can only expect this will get better later as Adrian improves his writing. Since we just put down EMPIRE, we can say that honestly, we are itching to pick up the sequels.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, after all was said and done, didn't let us down with EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD. Take our advice and go pick this book up.
Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Not really.
Violence: Yep, but as we mentioned before, sometimes the scenes are vague, and it hurts the action a bit.
Sex: There are some frank discussions on it, but nothing on an R Scott Bakker level.
When we first started Elitist Book Reviews, we set things rolling with a review of a (then) UK only release. It was a YA Urban Fantasy/Horror novel by Dan Wells that goes by the title; I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER--a story about John Wayne Cleaver, a young teenager who has all the markers of becoming a serial killer. Think of it as a young Dexter (the Jeff Lindsay character), but much better written, better paced, more character-driven, and containing borderline paranormal aspects done right. In short, it was, for us, one of the best novels released in 2009.
This is the part where we say how much we love Dan Wells, and the character he created in John Cleaver. Not only does the second book, MR. MONSTER, live up to the expectations of the fantastic first novel, it completely blows it out of the water. MR. MONSTER is better in every way than its predecessor. If I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER was one of the best novels of 2009, MR. MONSTER is currently one of the best novels of the past FIVE years.
We. Freaking. Loved. It.
Now, for your benefit, we should probably mention that we have read this book before. Like, a long time ago, in its draft form. If you haven't figured it out by now, we are good friends with Dan. We are test readers for him. And before you ask, no, we are not biased. We are friends with plenty of authors whose work we don't foam from the mouth over. Also, as a final point of interest, MR. MONSTER was just released in the UK, and won't be available in the US until October-ish.
Anyways, back to the review.
There are a lot of reasons why we loved MR. MONSTER. First of all, we just love being able to read another story about John Wayne Cleaver. MR. MONSTER takes place several months after the events of I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, and from the first page, we hit the ground running. The final events of the first book have taken a toll on our teenage protagonist. Why is that important? Because Dan shows us within a few pages that all actions have consequences in his story-arc. John Cleaver is a character undergoing a metamorphosis, and it is a measure of Dan's writing that he can pull it off so convincingly. His PoV is simply one of the best, and one of our favorites, in speculative fiction.
Another great thing about MR. MONSTER is its ability to stand as its own novel. Yes, it is a sequel. Yes, you should read the first book (to FINALLY be released in the US at the end of March). But really, MR. MONSTER is its own...uh...monster. Now what do we mean by this? Well obviously the book isn't meant to be a stand alone. In fact, pay careful attention to how we said it could stand on its own, not be a standalone. The plot feels fairly episodic, but not in the ridiculous serial drama sort of fashion where the character never changes. No really, a person, in order to appreciate what the protagonist is going through, needs to read the first book. The first is all about preventing the release of John Wayne Cleaver's inner turmoil. The second focuses, after all that trying to bottle it up, on what happens when it is released.
By setting up the book this way, in an episodic feel, Dan Wells neatly avoids the potential pitfalls of writing the middle book of a trilogy. This time around, John Cleaver is living with the consequences of his actions in book 1. He is dealing with an agent from the FBI. He continues his struggles with a dysfunctional family(Nick's psychology education takes issue with this phrase, but we will use anyway). And, of course, another killer is on the loose. The contained arc of this story--not to mention the perfect pacing--make this novel one of the best reading experiences you are likely to have...until book 3. Yes, we are cruel for even mentioning it. And yes, we LOVE being cruel this way. Did we mention we have already read book 3 too? Neener Neener.
MR. MONSTER (the name of the book, and also the name John Cleaver gives to his inner killer) is a YA novel, but it is easily better than a majority of "older" fiction. Its accessibility makes it a read that (nearly) everyone can enjoy. However, if we could mention one thing, MR. MONSTER is quite a bit darker than the first book. There are some parts that disturbed us...even on the re-read (Well Steve WAS disturbed by the content, Nick IS disturbed...so it didn't effect him.). It should in no way keep you from reading the book, but hey, our job is to keep you informed right?
We were asked recently to give a little blurb about MR. MONSTER for potential press stuff. Here is what we said:
With Mr. Monster, Dan Wells has given us an intense, riveting, gut-wrenching dive into the dark world of the demons within us. His main character, John Wayne Cleaver, manages to thoroughly freak us out while simultaneously being one of the most sympathetic characters in the horror genre. Let your own inner monster free, and immerse yourself in this dark, page-turning adventure.
Pretty good eh? Well, now you know what we think.
Recommended Age: 15 and up. This is a tad higher than the rating we gave book one, but the content is a tad more intense in MR. MONSTER.
Language: A little. Nothing major.
Violence: Uh, yeah. Did we mention we were a little disturbed even though this was our second read-through?
Sex: None. This is YA Urban Fantasy/Horror, not effing Gossip Girl (not that we know what that is or anything...)
Before the list of mandatory websites for you to visit, we want to mention something really quick about book one, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. If you haven't read our review, or even if you have, make sure to go check out what we had to say, due to it's upcoming US release, and make sure you read IANASK itself.
Review for I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER -- click HERE (and the actual address for the clicking impaired: http://elitistbookreviews.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-am-not-serial-killer.html)
Dan Wells' Website:
Best Place to get the UK Versions of the John Cleaver Novels:
THE NEW DEAD is a zombie anthology (surprised?) edited by Christopher Golden, and it goes by the title ZOMBIE in the UK. Included in this collection are stories by Tad Williams (the guys is everywhere lately), Jonathan Maberry, Max Brooks, Mike Carey, John Connolly, Joe Hill, Kelly Armstrong, and a bajillion others. This was one of the few short-fiction collections that really had us excited, and we were lucky enough to get a copy sent to us by Jonathan Maberry's publicist for review purposes.
The short version? This was an excellent collection. Long version? OK fine, we'll give you that too.
Typically, short-fiction is hard for us to read, not to mention review. Most of the time we begin a short-fiction anthology, and can't even finish it. Of course, at that point, it isn't worth writing a review about, and it wouldn't be worth your time to read the review of the terrible collection. THE NEW DEAD, however, was quite different. While there were a few throw-away stories (like there are in every anthology), a majority of the stories were fantastic.
Now, what makes a good zombie story? Is it the fact that corpses are running around eating people? Or that "survival-horror" element? The way people deal with an apocalypse? The humor inherent in chase scenes involving slow-moving, animated corpses? Or is it the concept of resurrection? Well, the truth is ALL of these have potential. Luckily, since this is short-fiction, we get to see all of these ideas in action, and we get one of the most entertaining reads of the year thus-far.
The opening story by John Connolly, "Lazarus," is a different take on the resurrection of Lazarus in the Bible. Jonathan Maberry's "The Family Business" is a tale of a young boy trying to figure out his place in a post-apocalyptic zombie world. It was one of the standout stories, and thankfully, Maberry is taking it and expanding it/reworking it to be a YA series titled ROT & RUIN--the full length novel will be released later this year, and we are anxiously awaiting the advance review copy. Max Brooks, of course, give us a story from his World War Z creation, which was fantastic. We were surprised to find a story by Mike Carey (author of THE DEVIL YOU KNOW). It's about a stock trader who consciously becomes a zombie so he can keep working without needing rest. For a guy known primarily for Epic Fantasy, Tad Williams has the story that was Steve's favorite. It has an Urban Fantasy feel to it, with a slight Lovecraft stylistic approach. Yeah. It was fraking awesome. The most surprising story? Joe Hill's (if you didn't know, Joe Hill is Stephen King's son) story told in Twitter tweets. We initially figured it would just be to odd to be good, but it turned out to be surprisingly funny and simultaneously horrific. It follows a girl Tweeting from her family vacation, and their trip to The Circus of the Damned.
Look, if you a fan of Zombie stories like we are, you should go buy the collection. It will run you around $15, and it's a trade paperback (Nick's favorite format), though we would have happily paid a hardback price for it. Seriously, we didn't even talk about Kelly Armstrong's story, or David Liss' story (we have to leave you some surprises after all). This just has too much good Zombieness in it to be ignored. It is seriously one of the most entertaining anthologies we have read. Period. Good job, Christopher Golden.
Recommended Age: 17 and up.
Language: Yeah. Lots.
Violence: Seriously? It's a zombie anthology. What do YOU think?
Sex: Yep. Some stories have some, some don't. Some is graphic, some isn't.