SASHA, by Joel Shepherd, was kind of a surprise for us. We knew Joel's work from his Cassandra Kresnov series, but we didn't quite know what to expect from the first novel in his A Trial of Blood and Steel. While there were a few issues we took with the novel, we actually enjoyed what was offered and look forward to the sequels. Read on, slaves and loyal followers, to find out why.
Sasha, the titular character, is a Lenayin Princess, who decided to embrace the culture and religion of the Goeren-yai, instead of the Verethane, studied the ways of the serrin, to become a psuedo Nasi-Keth. If you're wondering what any of that means, join the club. SASHA is full of foreign terms, which aren't really clarified. By about the middle of the book you'll probably have a grasp on what the terms mean, but it takes forever. It doesn't help that the naming syntax Shepherd used was extremely narrow, resulting most of the names sounding, and looking, very similar. We appreciate the cohesive nature of his naming scheme, but a little diversity really would have helped this book. For example, when a guy named Udys and a guy named Usyn are talking to each other, it gets muddled. While this has obvious drawbacks, it is also just as salient that the world Joel created is detailed, and he was very thorough (or at least it seems so) in his creation and presentation of it. There is a high learning curve here, but as usual with that kind of curve, it has its rewards.
Back to the story though, at it's heart, SASHA is about a princess, uninterested in her royal blood, that becomes an apprentice to one of the greatest swordsman ever known. Her experiences have colored her view on life, religion, and kingdom in a very different light than the rest of her family, and most of the nobles. Eventually this disparity brings her to lead an army against her father to resolve the political, cultural, and religious problems that have arisen.
For a book in a series called A Trial of Blood and Steel, there is actually very little violence. Most of the content of the book's narrative is the characters talking, arguing, yelling, etc., back and forth about their policies and beliefs. If you read Joel's SF series, this shouldn't really come as a surprise to you. In this fantasy series, rarely is all the talking effective either. We were reminded very strongly of the dynamic that would be created in a family divided between Democrats and Republicans, with both sides trying to convince the other they are right.
The only reason we were OK with this occupying the majority of the novel, was that Joel has made all of the characters incredibly detailed. Their beliefs and motivations are clearly understood and fortified with the real depth each of the characters show. Sasha may, at first, appear to be the cliched naive, hot-tempered princess, who loves nature, does things her own way, and spurns her background. We come to find out that while she is those things, there is so much more to her. She is a fantastic lead character. Similarly, each of the other characters start out as pretty ordinary, but Joel turns our expectations on their heads and makes these characters real, and easy to care to about.
In addition, the dialog is immaculate. Simply superb. Combined with the aforementioned character depth, SASHA is a paragon of what authors should do to make readers connect to the protagonists, and even the antagonists. We rarely get to see character development perfected to this level. This is the area in which SASHA completely shines and makes a more than worthwhile read.
However, since the majority of the book is the banter between the characters, some may find it to move slowly. In all honesty, SASHA was well past the obligatory time period that readers typically give a book for the plot to grab them. It was nearly 100 pages in before we really started to get into the book. Its pacing doesn't increase either. The book doesn't run at break-neck speed, instead it carries a measured pace and caters to the readers who don't mind slowing down to examine the political and cultural ramifications of two very different ideologies smashing into each other. Nick liked the book more than Steve did for this reason.
The resolution was very well done. Thank you Joel for giving us something to look forward to, yet wrapping up the novel nicely. The series is a quartet, and most authors, it seems, would use that as an opportunity to leave us hanging or only give us part of the story (As is becoming a recent trend. Yuck). SASHA wraps up the immediate plot threads and gives us plenty to anticipate in the sequel PETRODOR. This is another place authors could turn to as an example of a fantastic way to do things.
There is another item that we want to touch on that doesn't actually reflect on the writing at all. Though really, most of you have come to expect it of us anyway. The cover art. Really, we must admit that our expectations from Pyr are extremely high, and realistically can't be met all the time. SASHA is one of the rare occurrences where we were pretty disappointed. The cover, with all respect for David Palumbo the artist, was very bland. If we saw it on the shelves at a bookstore, it's not likely we would have picked the novel up for closer inspection. It just doesn't do anything to grab the reader's attention.
SASHA, while not a thrilling read, was extremely enjoyable and we can't wait to get started on PETRODOR. Don't let the slower pace of the book, and the bland cover fool you. Within this book is a brilliant story eager to be read.
Recommended Age: 16 and up content-wise, but realistically 18 and up for enjoyment's sake.
Language: About 1/4 of the way through we were surprised the characters started to curse. There wasn't much before that. After that there pretty much what you would expect from a Rated-R movie.
Violence: Surprisingly very little. What scenes there are, aren't very bloody or graphic.
Sex: Nothing really of note.
If you are looking for some pretty solid SF novels, give Joel's Cassandra Kresnov novels a try. Also, go check out Joel Shepherd's site:
China Miéville is like Dan Simmons in a way. No matter how odd or bizarre the idea or synopsis, the novel turns out well. Imagine Miéville's editor when China said, "So I'm gonna write this novel. It's a comedy. Kinda. In London. Kinda. Where a giant squid is stolen. And there are people running around with a giant hand in place of their head--Knuckle-heads, get it? And there is a Star Trek phaser that works. And there are cults of every kind whose gods are all legit. And they all have real and scheduled Apocalypses." With his track-record, what can Miéville's editor say but, "Awesome! I'll sell it tomorrow for a ton of money. Yay us!" (Note: This is similar to a post our friend, Larry Correia, did on the previously mentioned Dan Simmons. It was awesome, and it reminded us completely of how we feel about Miéville)
Yeah. This is China Miéville's KRAKEN. Billy Harrow is a cephalopod specialist at London’s Natural History Museum. He is leading a tour group to see a preserved giant squid, but it is soon discovered that the squid has been stolen. How? Well, that's the question on everyone--and everything's--mind, and they are all chasing Billy, whom they all think has the answers. Because, you see, the giant squid being stolen has caused the timetable on the impending Squidpocalypse to be dramatically sped up.
There is no way to describe this book without it sounding completely bonkers.
And yet, this is China Miéville. We have come to expect stuff from him that would be completely "out of left field" for any other author (except Simmons and Gaiman). The first hundred pages of KRAKEN proceed fairly normally, and we feel that for this book to keep its readers, that small token measure of normalcy was important. But then things go completely bizarre. When Billy gets abducted partway through the novel, the transition from "normal" to "what the heck?" happens in a paragraph. Looking back on it, it would have been nice to have a cleaner transition. In fact, as the novel proceeds, it is the clarity of the weirdness that is lacking at times. This is odd for Miéville, as his descriptions are typically so disturbingly clear you want to take a shower after reading them.
The story in KRAKEN takes place in London, but not an overly familiar one. It feels more like an adult version of Miéville's YA novel, UN LUN DUN (which we reviewed a while back). Apart from a few recognizable buildings, it feels like a fantasy world. The characters, typical of Miéville, are oddly fascinating. We have, again, Billy Harrow the squid specialist. He is being chased by The Tattoo, a sentient (it's explained in the novel, don't worry) tattoo on a guy's back. There is the the FSRC--the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit--a branch of London’s finest that, well, investigates the multitude of sects and cults. An ancient Egyptian spirit known as Wati is the head organizer of an ongoing strike put on by the Familiar's Union. Seriously. We are only scratching the surface here.
Throughout KRAKEN, there is an odd kind of humor. Remember, this is a comedy. Kinda. It is that dark humor that has had its place in Miéville's Bas Lag novels, and it saturates this newest effort. There are moments that will make you laugh out loud, and others that will make you shake your head due to its...wrongness.
KRAKEN clocks in at just under 500 pages. We found that pages 100-200ish, and pages 300-375ish tended to meander a bit too much. The rest was paced terrifically, especially the crazy ending (which made everything in the book make all sorts of sense). We will note that this is one of our least favorite Miéville novels. Don't take that to mean it is bad--all of his stuff is awesome--but it just doesn't have the appeal that, say, PERDIDO STREET STATION has. Additionally, KRAKEN is probably the least accessible Miéville novel. If you had never read a Miéville novel, this would not be the place to start--start with PERDIDO.
All in all this was a terrific, albeit completely bizarre, read. If you are a fan of Miéville, you shouldn't miss this novel. However, if you haven't liked the one or two Miéville novels you have read, this one probably won't change your opinion.
Recommended Age: 18 and up
Language: It's Miéville. There is all sorts of language.
Violence: Somewhat, but nothing graphic.
So. Another Hugo nominated novel. Considering the luck we have had so far with the nominated novels, we weren't holding our breath for anything awesome with Robert Charles Wilson's JULIAN COMSTOCK. Thankfully, JULIAN COMSTOCK was an excellent and different read.
Wilson's latest novel is a a tale set in 22nd Century America, in and around 2172. That makes it SF right? This novel is written by Wilson, so is HAS to be SF. Right? Well...kinda...but not really. Get all your preconceived notions out of the way. COMSTOCK is not really SF, and perhaps this is why some people have been put off by it. This is not like Wilson's prior novels. Rather, COMSTOCK reads like a Civil War novel while simultaneously being a biopic of a famous "historical" figure: Julian Comstock.
We know, it is all a bit confusing at first. You see, in COMSTOCK the America that we know today had changed radically. The world has gone through an Apocalypse of sorts--the End of Oil--due to wars and oil consumption. Huge masses of the population of America (and the world) have perished--the Crisis of Infertility follows--and we essentially have hit the reset button. The "Secular Ancients" (us) were all heathens (like Nick) and such advances like Space Travel are now considered myth. The Presidency of the country (sixty states in this version of the future) works closely with the Dominion to create a Theocracy that governs everything. Our First Person PoV is Adam Hazzard (a would-be author who is almost as awesome as we are), and JULIAN COMSTOCK is told as if it were Adam's biographical work on Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current President of the US.
COMSTOCK is a Futuristic, Alternate Historical, Biographical, War, SF novel. Yeah. The events of the novel follow Adam and Julian as they are drafted into America's war with the Dutch. Some people will just not like this novel. After all, when you hear the name Robert Charles Wilson, you automatically think SF. This isn't SF. And yet there is something about COMSTOCK that will entertain nearly anyone. The prose used in the novel made us really feel like we were reading Historical Fiction. GOOD Historical Fiction. It lends charm to every sentence, and helps the readers "buy-in" to the dilemmas the characters face. Each character is well-realized and entertaining. If you speak a little French, you will get even more enjoyment, and even some great humor out of it.
The setting was absolutely fantastic. The idea of America falling to an oil-shortage-induced Apocalypse isn't a new idea, but Wilson's execution of the theme is so incredibly believable. Wilson does an amazing job of blending the familiar with the fantastic. The pacing of the novel was, in our opinions, perfect and the length of the novel seemed neither too short, nor too long. Really, we had no idea where the novel was going. It was as if we were along for the ride, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
Now, this isn't to say everything was jellybeans and gumdrops. There were a few instances where the way characters behaved forced us to suspend our disbelief a bit more than average (the section where Adam saves one of main female characters, Calyxa, is the main point of complaint here). In addition, it would have been nice to have a map of the altered layout of the US. Being that this novel was set up like Historical Fiction, a map would have been fitting. The ending also fell just a tad flat (a very small tad at that). There was a moment where we thought the future was going to follow Abraham Lincoln's life as the President, but instead the book ending more calmly than we imagined it would.
None of these items are deal-breakers. They are more than made-up for by Wilson's prose, setting, characters, and his depictions of war (which are truly fantastic). Of all the Hugo nominated novels we have read so far, is is a toss-up between Wilson's JULIAN COMSTOCK and Miéville's CITY & THE CITY for best novel.
Once you understand this isn't really SF (though we are labeling it as such for technicalities sake), you won't be disappointed. JULIAN COMSTOCK is a must-read novel.
Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Perhaps 3 total usages. All of them mild.
Violence: The war scenes and the war "hospital" scenes can be brutal, and stomach-turning. Near perfectly done.
Sex: Some very very vague innuendo.
Nick & Steve here in a brief intro. Hopefully you, our faithful readers, are enjoying our Elitist Classics Series. One of our new reviewers, Vanessa, thought it would be a solid idea to occasionally write up a brief review of some of the Classics. We loved the idea, so here is the first one...
***Elitist Classics: DRACULA***
Before there was Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton, before vampires that glitter in sunlight, before even Anne Rice or Brian Lumley, there was Count Dracula.
If you haven't read the original Bram Stoker novel, it's possible when you think of DRACULA it is that the Victorian era novel is a prudish old fashioned fuddy duddy that couldn't possibly still be relevant today.
You couldn't be more wrong.
Today's explosion of vampire novels, movies, and TV began somewhere, and it was with Bram Stoker's DRACULA. It wasn't the first vampire book ever published, even though it was written in 1897, but Stoker's folklore research mixed with adventure made it the most relevant. And although Stoker didn't invent vampires, it's his version of the undead that has captured the imagination of readers, authors, and screenwriters ever since.
Told in letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles, DRACULA begins with Jonathan, a young solicitor who visits the count in his crumbling castle in the Carpathian Mountains to help him purchase property in England. From the moment Jonathan arrives it's obvious that things aren't quite right, and too late realizes he's a prisoner.
The story is bizarre, which I expected. But I didn't expect it to be so creepy, since I had assumed that a Victorian novel read by today's audience couldn't be that scary. But it's the creepiness that draws the reader in to the horrifying predicament that Jonathan, his fiance, and friends find themselves in. Stoker's novel is worth reading alone for the story and its fascinating characters--doubly so because of the influence it's had on the vampire stories that came after it.
DRACULA is public domain, so it should be easy to find a cheap copy to purchase or else it's readily available at even small libraries. There are also several editions with commentary worth looking at.
If DRACULA is still too old for you, check out INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice, which was first published in 1976. You can thank today's crop of vampires-with-a-conscience on her; but it's also a fascinating first-hand account of what it really means to become the monster that is vampire. And, like DRACULA, the content is relatively tame (especially when compared to a lot of today's urban fantasy).
Recommended Age: 14+
Violence: Your typical vampire staking and beheading, but nothing gruesome.
Sex: Some scenes could be interpreted as sensual, but on the whole the story is unexplicit and doesn't refer directly to sex.
Elitist Classics Part 2
Horror & Mystery
While Horror and Mystery typically have their own sections in a bookstore, we’ve heard it argued that Horror and Mystery are styles as opposed to genres. To an extent we agree, and certainly we see aspects of both across all the genres. After all, some of the best fiction involves blending genres and styles.
We are big fans of both Horror and Mystery. We are talking about Michael Connelly’s straight up Detective Mysteries, or even Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series that takes a detective-like element and throws it with some serious magic and mythology. We are referring to Brian Lumley’s pure Horror, or Monster Hunter International is an awesome combination of B-movie Horror and Urban Fantasy. The point is, all of these awesome stories come from somewhere. Keep in mind that the following picks are not an all-inclusive list. There are a ton more, and feel free to give your personal favorites a shout-out in the comments.
Sherlock Holmes--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Come on. You had to know this was going to be on the list. Holmes is one of our favorite characters in all fiction, and perhaps our absolute favorite in Mystery (Hercule Poirot is up there too though). Thankfully the new movie is causing people to get interested in Holmes again. Holmes is an incredible and flawed character that it is near impossible to grow tired of. Our best advice? Go do what Steve did and pick up the three-volume set of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. 3000 pages of awesomeness that have had subtle and completely obvious influences (you did read THE AFFINITY BRIDGE right?) throughout nearly all genres.
Bram Stoker’s DRACULA
Maybe you feel like this is too easy a pick. That’s OK, it was a no-brainer. We aren’t going to get into too much detail here since Vanessa is going to give us all an Elitist Classics Review of it shortly. Let’s be honest. Can you go anywhere without all sorts vampire tales jumping (or sadly, sparkling) at you? We have wondered if the method for the telling of DRACULA is partially what influenced the style of Christopher Priest’s THE PRESTIGE (one of the most awesome novels EVAH!!). Look to Vanessa’s review for what makes this story so interesting.
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson
One of our favorites. There is so much psychology that can be discussed here. Or Mystery. Or Horror. You’ve gotta love Victorian Horror. Written in the late 1800’s you’d be hard pressed to find a story that better describes the horror of a double-life. What’s even cooler is that Stevenson wrote it based on vivid dreams he was having. The characters of Jekyll & Hyde have been used as inspiration, and have literally been used in themselves in works of fiction. Fan-freaking-tastic.
We simply refuse to talk about the fathers of Horror and Mystery without mentioning Lovecraft. His works are bizarre, bleak, imaginative, depressing, scary, and SO unbelievably engrossing. Now we have mentioned Lovecraft before in our Fantasy 202 post, so we won’t keep beating the dead horse. Go grab The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, and treat yourself you one of our favorite all-time authors.
Alexandre Dumas’ THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO
Some of the best revenge stories you will ever read. We once heard Dan Wells (author of the Horror novels, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER and MR. MONSTER) talk about how people used to ask about the Horror novels that inspired him. He said that the Horror he read wasn’t what people expected, and specifically mentioned Dumas’ works. Think about the circumstances in those incredible novels. Those are some seriously horrific events. We also get some mystery and adventure in them. Full of win. They should be required reading in all schools.
A few other notables we won’t talk about too much, but that we really felt like we should mention:
FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelly
THE TELL-TALE HEART by Edgar Allen Poe (and really most all of his poetry)
Robert E. Howard’s Horror
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde
HAMLET & OTHELLO by Shakespeare
I came across THE RED WOLF CONSPIRACY for the first time a few months ago at the library. It caught my eye because the cover was striking, the title intriguing, and it had some good quotes from people I actually recognized. At the time, I was in the middle of another novel and ended up forgetting about the encounter. Interestingly enough, I was given the chance by our illustrious Overlords to once again get this book in my hands, and this time to say something about it.
CONSPIRACY is the first in a planned trilogy (of course, it IS fantasy after all…) of books by Robert V. S. Redick and is his debut novel as a published author. As such, I expected going in that there would be some decent world-building, a fairly direct plot, possibly some good characters, and more than likely some horrible “new author” errors that would make the experience a less-than-shining example of perfection.
Of course, that’s exactly what I found.
Pazel Pathkendle seems to be the main character of the story. An orphan of sorts that makes his life as a tarboy on ships from the Kingdom of Arqual, Pazel has lived and worked as he made his way from one great vessel to the next. (Think old-school, pirates, cannons, bilge rats.) He hails from a small country and everyone instantly hates him for it. His father was a captain before disappearing from Pazel’s life, though it seems like just about everyone the boy talks to has heard about his father, the traitor. Another reason to hate or suspect him. Eventually, Pazel finds himself hired onto the Chathrand, the last of a fleet of massive ships made long ago, on which sails the peace-offering bride of the Arquali kingdom to their enemies from Mzithrin, Thasha Isiq.
Emperors, rulers, mad-men, kings, Benegeserit-like nuns, Brownies (though not named as such), and yes even a sentient rat or two, take part in this fairly straight-forward story that has come together after four decades of Arquali planning and intrigue. (Why so long? Honestly, I’m not quite sure. Yes, even AFTER reading the whole thing.) The Arqualis and the Mzithrins finally want peace. Or do they? Certainly not everyone does. And thus, comes the story to us.
The first few pages easily passed my test. Redick writes fluidly and with great control. He pulls you into the world of Pazel and his friends and we’re instantly transported into his world of ship-life. Though quickly, on comes the world-building. For the most part, this is handled decently-well. There are certainly long passages of semi-pertinent information, great chunks of history passed onto the reader, and several sufficiently-long-that-they-bothered-me bits of dialogue that would have made the book much more difficult to get through if the writing hadn’t been quite so good. After forty-five pages (ten percent, my typical allowance for a new author) it hadn’t really caught my interest, and I probably would have given up on it right then if I hadn’t been reading it for a review. But I persevered. Jogging through mid-scene jumps in character perspective, slogging down significant summaries of interim story, and even past being addressed directly as a reader several times (this is almost an unforgivable sin in my book). The characters seemed pretty one-dimensional, mostly due to the fact that we spend so little time getting to know them because the dang pacing of the story is so fast, and because of this I repeatedly found myself asking, "So what?"
In the end? There were definitely parts of CONSPIRACY that I liked. There were a few “Yes, finally!” moments that came...and quickly passed. The ending left a whole lot to be desired, skewing from the Chathrand completely, wandering through lots of extra world-building touches, and then devolving into about fifty pages of confession and explanation. Though the tale was very fast-paced and had some great potential, the execution was bad enough that I don’t think I can recommend the book very heartily. Lots of good reviews have been garnered by Conspiracy , focusing mostly on Redick’s great world-building, which is good but not spectacular--being mostly a bunch of single pieces and not one interlocking puzzle-riffic whole. (You didn’t know that was a word, did you? Now you do.) If you’re looking for the “Ooh! Aah!” factor more than a story/character-oriented tale, this may just be the book for you. But it wasn’t for me.
I can’t emphasize enough though just how much I liked his writing/words/language. It really did pull me in and drag me along. If Redick’s story had just been put together better, presented better, I could easily see myself liking this book. My suggestion would be to skip this one and try picking him back up again after he’s written a few more. Maybe he’ll have learned the whole trade a bit better by then. We can only hope.
Recommended age: 14 and up
Language: Little to none that I remember
Violence: Very little until the end and then some but not heavy, just…surprising
Sex: Discretely addressed in a few conversations/situations, mild
We had the very distinct pleasure of meeting Jon Sprunk and his wife this past World Fantasy (coincidentally both Jon's wife and son have the same names as Steve's wife and son). We had already heard a lot about him, and had emailed back and forth a few times. It was obvious we would like him, and we did. So when his book came out we were nervous about reviewing it. Jon is a friend, and this is his first book. Luckily we don't have to hate on his book! It was a very fun book to read.
SHADOW'S SON follows the exploits of Caim, an assassin who does what he does to survive, not to mention he is really good at it. However that isn't all there is to this anti-hero. His best friend, Kit, is imaginary. OK, not really imaginary, because she knows stuff, but no one can see her. She is a spirit. Also...he can wrap himself in shadows. Are you jealous yet? Jon does an amazing job of describing what happens when Caim disappears into the shadows. This is such a cool effect.
The plot revolves around a hit Caim agrees to do, just because it was his friend who begged him to do it, and then things start to go awry. For the first 2/3 of the book, Jon is very sneaky about the tone of the writing. It is very light, action-packed, and almost popcorn style. But in the last third Shadow's Son gets quite a bit darker (We thought about making the obvious joke about shadows here), when Jon throws a major sucker-punch at the reader, however the book still retains its fast-paced and fun delivery. It seems like in order to keep the tone from a free-fall Jon only briefly touches on the traumatic implications instead of going full-bore into how the events affected one of the main characters.
We have heard a few people compare this to Brent Weeks novels. We are here to officially say, with emphasis, we strongly prefer this. Shadow's Son is what we are looking for when we read about assassins. Assassins in a fantasy setting? Yeah it's a pretty popular thing right now, and it's hard to go wrong. Jon, however, goes above and beyond just doing it right. He does it right, and does it well.
One of the biggest reasons for this, is that Jon has some really great characters that are really easy to love (and hate), and care about. This is quite the feat considering the book is only 279 pages, so we don't get to spend a lot of time with them. It's a testament to Jon's ability to give us good character development, and interesting characters with just as interesting motivations. Now...that being said, let's get the caveat out of the way. Caim, the main character, is probably the most one-dimensional in the book. He is a very good anti-hero, and kind of hard to like, despite being uber-cool. Kit, his imaginary friend, disappears for a good chunk of the book which was disappointing. Josey started out very bland and then quickly took turn for the intriguing.
So how can we say Jon is so great with characters? His villains. They are magnificent! Who they are, where they come from, why they are doing what they are is fun to find out as we go along. They are all believable in their actions. They have depth and personality. They aren't just knife-sport for Caim (though he does use his knives on a few of them). All of the villains are satisfactorily despicable and likable at the same time. Two thumbs up Jon.
As we said earlier, the page count is very low. We didn't really expect this. The book could have easily been 100 more pages, and could have really benefited from 50 or so more pages of setting. Not only could the book have benefited from being a bit more lengthy, we felt it really needed it. The scale of Othir was lost on us (seems like it should be huge, but it seemed really small by its lack of description). The religion was underdescribed. We wanted more information to give a solid foundation for the world the Jon has created. The book currently is "Good", but with that added depth, it could have been completely excellent.
The lack of description of the setting was offset somewhat by the extra description in the action scenes. There is an unusually clear and large amount of information that avoids bogging the scene down, and still creates a frenetic series of events. This book IS action.
The set up for the next novels is well done. We get some closure here in SHADOW'S SON, with obvious set-up for the trilogy.
The pacing, action, and characters are all well written, and really that is what the focus is on for this novel.
If this is an indication of what Jon is going to be having published, we are excited. We'll read his stuff readily, every time. So should you.
Recommended Age: 16 and up. The book, for the most part is pretty light. And a teenager should be able to deal with the trauma that comes later in the book.
Language: We can't remember anything terribly explicit. One word at one time.
Violence: Well, yes. Actually, there is. Quite a bit of it. Caim is an assassin, remember? Try to pay more attention next time.
Sex: There is one scene, but it is handled with the utmost of tact.
Wanna drop Jon a line? Here's his website:
We love Adrian Tchaikovsky. There really is no way around it. It can be an inconvenience at times, seeing as we stare at other novels and wish that they were another novel in the Shadows of the Apt series. It turns out Tchaikovsky just keeps putting out novels that continually feel fresh, and that are immensely fun to read. Now the third book of the series, BLOOD OF THE MANTIS, could have been awful. Tchaikovsky could have tried to go even bigger than DRAGONFLY FALLING. That would have been a terrible mistake. There was such huge-scale warfare in book 2, that to try to one-up it would have been nearly impossible. And yet we see it all the time.
BLOOD OF THE MANTIS didn't do this. In fact, there was no real large-scale war at all in this novel. No, rather Tchaikovsky went MUCH smaller scale, but also went MUCH more personal. The result is an extremely character oriented novel with more a more distinct focus on the sinister, political and spy-ish aspects of the world.
The plot of MANTIS is essentially the search for the Shadow Box introduced in book 2. Tchaikovsky does a fantastic job keeping this item mysterious while at the same time giving the reader a good idea as to how dangerous it is. Mostly this is done through the attitudes of the characters. When someone like Tisamon or Achaeos becomes frightened over the possibilities the Box brings, the readers naturally feel the same way. This is truly a tribute to how well Tchaikovsky writes his characters. Again, as in previous novels, new characters are continually introduced. Somehow we are interested in all of them. We were anxious follow their adventures, and feared for them during their plights. The world is legitimately dangerous, and that sense is transferred onto the characters.
In this third novel, the evolution of warfare is continued. The character Totho--one of our least favorites during the majority of books 1 and 2--suddenly becomes extremely interesting due to changes in his attitude. An assassin is introduced that has almost no screen-time, yet has us giddy with his prospects. Entire races and their circumstances (specifically the Bee-kinden) were so effortlessly made important and interesting.
Really, all of these things are Tchaikovsky's strengths. Does he have weaknesses? Sure, but they seem to be slowly vanishing as each book progresses. His PoV jumping is far less noticeable. His clarity has improved, as has his pacing.
BLOOD OF THE MANTIS ends in a cliff-hanger...a very, "Holy crap, what happened!?" cliff-hanger. As intelligent and awesome as we are, we still have no idea how this particular story-arc is going to end. BLOOD OF THE MANTIS was a fantastic novel, and in many ways the best of the series thus far.
In Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt, we have one of the most interesting worlds created by a modern fantasy author. This is a projected (at least) 10-book series that will be broken into segments. If you aren't reading this series, you must have eaten paint-chips as a child. Or someone terrible like Goodkind has you under some form of Stockholm Syndrome.
Unfortunately for all you, SALUTE THE DARK isn't released until September. Fortunately for us, Steve has the ARC for it in his greedy hands. WEEEEE!
Again, we love Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Not so much.
Violence: Yeah, but nothing graphic, and well described.
Sex: Mentioned, but not focused on or shown in any detail.
Also, the cover for this book is awesome. John Sullivan really is an incredible artist.
I was first introduced to Connie Willis about five years ago when, during the summer, I read both of her Hugo winning novels THE DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG. Since then I have been an avid fan of her work. When I heard about her latest work, BLACKOUT, I knew it was a must read.
In BLACKOUT, Willis returns to the world of both THE DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG. In this world Willis focuses on a group of historians who, through the use of time travel, are able to go back in time to witness and experience first-hand certain events in history and get accurate data on them.
In Willis’ world time travel is an inaccurate science, never allowing the time travelers to approach a point in history that would alter significant historical events, thus you could never go back and kill Hitler before his rise to power or stop American Idol from ever airing. Instead the time travelers often arrive to find themselves either miles away from their wanted destination, or else arriving days or months later than they thought they would.
BLACKOUT follows three such time travelers who are all going back to study England during the bombing raids of WWII. I won’t go into the specifics of the characters and their own troubles when they arrive. Half the fun of Willis’ novels is getting to know the characters, each of whom is well thought out and real. Indeed these time travelers are a perfect vessel for the telling of these historical stories. Through their eyes we are able to see the little details that they see, and the small variations in life that are so interesting. The time travelers are new to the world of WWII England, as are we, and we get to live the experience with them.
And that’s the other fun thing about Willis’ books, the details. Willis is known for being an avid researcher before she starts writing, and it shows. After having read this book I feel like I could visit London and recognize streets, shops, parks and pavilions based entirely on the world Willis has shown me. If History teachers were half as entertaining as Willis I would have attended their lectures much more often. BLACKOUT is an SF novel that reads like Historical Fiction.
THE DOOMSDAY BOOK dealt with similar issues as BLACKOUT, except instead of WWII England it was about a small town during the spread of the black plague. TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG dealt with a light adventure in Victorian England. Where THE DOOMSDAY BOOK was very bleak and dark and heartbreaking, and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG was light and funny and whimsical, BLACKOUT is a perfect blend of the two. There are terrible things happening in England; it is a hard time to be alive and Willis conveys that beautifully. But we also are able to see the moments of joy that each person is able to find amidst the ruins. Willis toes the line between comedy and tragedy beautifully and the end result is her best book yet.
In the end, BLACKOUT looks like Connie Willis has perfected her design. The book was fun, serious, gripping and ultimately very entertaining. The only thing that would keep this one off of next year’s Hugo ballot is if people are put off by the fact that this is only half a book. I am not one of those people. I thought it was brilliant and I can’t wait for more. ALL CLEAR, the other half of the story begun in BLACKOUT, comes out this October. Do yourself a favor and pick up BLACKOUT now so you’re ready for ALL CLEAR when it comes out.
Recommended age: 16 and up
Language: Maybe a few words but nothing big at all.
Violence: Mostly after effects of war violence, no gore.
With luck, intellect, and an innate skill with strategy on his side, Basso is a powerhouse of ambition. His goal: to take everything he can and control the rest. Just because he can.
Well, at least that's what he'll tell you. But, as Basso would say, there's always another reason.
Set in the ancient Rome-like city of the Vesani Republic, THE FOLDING KNIFE follows the life of Bassianus Severus, First Citizen, from the odd circumstances surrounding his birth, to his meteoric rise in the banking industry, to becoming the elected leader of the most civilized city of the known world. It's a story of politics and business, of love and hate--and how little it takes for one to become the other. But mostly it's about Basso, and no matter how great a man becomes, and how pure his intentions are, when everything finally crashes the sound can be deafening.
Parker has a big story to tell and likes telling it quickly; for example, the first forty years are covered in three chapters. Then it's during the events following the author's engaging set-up that we can finally begin to unfold the motivations and back story. You have to be patient, because despite the story's quick pace, Parker seems to enjoy telling the important bits out of order, so you won't often understand the 'why' until later. As you read it's hard to say exactly where the story is headed, as it dashes this way and that, or takes the occasional turn. (Basso himself would approve of this method, since he takes great pride in the bait-and-switch tactics he uses on his political and business rivals.)
However, readers will be fine with swiftly moving from scene to scene because Basso is such an interesting character. It's easy to be caught up in the details surrounding his relationships and the choices he makes. He's a likable mixture of self-interest and soft-heartedness who will do what's ugly for sake of what's right, and is unapologetically aware of the kind of person he is. The people around him are as interesting as he is, such as the clever General Aelius and Basso's earnest nephew Bassano.
Parker's writing is fluid, fun, and fast-paced, the dialogue between the characters engaging and hilariously candid. The use of modern lingo, however, is oddly incongruous with the novel's era of carriages and swords, and it took me a couple of chapters to sync with the prose's flow. But once I did, the story flew by.
Easily the best part of the book is Parker's droll sense of humor, occasionally bordering on the downright silly. Basso and company see situations for how ridiculous they really are, which makes what could have been a too-serious story instead easy reading because of the way they poke fun at themselves and the world around them.
The majority of the novel takes place in the city of the Vesani Republic, but we also learn about the surrounding nations, their customs, and the eccentricities of their peoples. The author attempts to build a world of complexity, but overreaches so the world-building lacks focus. And while humor is great for dialogue, the frequently quirky descriptions of other nations makes it hard to give them significance when the author is inconsistent about whether we should take them seriously or not.
Parker spends 400 pages setting us up for...something. I'm not really sure what. As the novel progresses, it gets bogged down in the business, political, and wartime maneuverings. Where the climax should be are events we don't get to witness directly except through Bassano's idiosyncratic correspondence. After spending so long in the day-to-day goings on surrounding Basso, this jumbled summary of the culmination of events doesn't match the rest of the novel and takes the reader painfully out of the story. By the end, the plot completely disintegrates, with characters doing the inexplicable, Parker's attempts at being philosphical falling flat, and the story resolves into a wandering meaninglessness.
Is THE FOLDING KNIFE worth reading? Sure, on a Sunday afternoon when you're in the mood to enjoy fun to read prose and likable characters...but at the same time don't want to think too hard about the point of the story.
Recommended Age: 16 and up since most of the business talk would get tedious and confusing.
Language: Little worth mentioning.
Violence: A handful of briefly detailed scenes, but the majority of it is glossed over.
Sex: One brief scene with few details, the rest is implied.
Yes. Another one. Already. Don't even pretend you're not just giddy with childlike excitement.
This one is easy. If absolutely every one of you don't enter, Steve's ninja-zombie-assassins are going to come after you and Nick will blow up your shoes. You may be able to take the beard off the terrorist, but you can't take the terrorist out of the beard....wait...that doesn't work... Crap! You get the idea. Just be afraid.
We were looking at our list of Like, Mediocre, and Hate books (and our new category Like...and Hate). There is a big disparity. We can't help but feel the need to set the universe in balance (It IS our duty as Gods to maintain order, and stuff).
So what does that have to do with you and the contest? Easy. Become an official follower of the blog, post here that you have done so, and recommend a book to us that you think we will hate and want us to tear apart. Also, don't be obvious and recommend the sequels to Twilight, or you know the drill...ninja-zombie-assassins and bombs.
This contest will end in one week from today. More than enough time for you to find the BEST worst book.
What do you get out of the deal? Other than the pleasure of knowing we chose your suggestion?
Well, Nick will buy and send you a hard cover book of your choice.
So start suggesting!
So. We had a contest. All sorts of people entered. We were expecting one or two good ones amidst several crappy ones. As it happens, nearly all the submissions were solid. However, some were just better than others. We ended up with three "winners" who are going to enjoy doing a couple reviews a month for us. So, here they are, along with reasons why we chose them:
Shawn Boyles--Turns out we know this guy. He is one of the lovely fellows over at Rocket Road Trip. He sent us over some thoughts on JULIAN COMSTOCK (which were near identical to Steve's) as well as some other reviews as a portfolio of sorts. His reviews were well written (you will see his review of Connie Willis' BLACKOUT shortly), and he tends to share similar opinions on novels with us.
Vanessa Christenson--She sent in a review of THE FOLDING KNIFE (as well as a half-dozen other reviews as her own portfolio). As Nick put it, "She like read my mind..." A scary thought, we know. She also proposed a solid idea for some specific reviews (you'll see what we mean). Elitist indeed.
Dan Smyth--We are going to be honest here (aren't we always?). Dan almost didn't make it. It was between him and two others (who it wouldn't be fair to mention). You see, Dan has this crush on KJ Parker. We don't share this sentiment. Even though he heaped far too much praise on THE FOLDING KNIFE, his tone was near perfect. He just fit. It also helps that he was able to recognize his own susceptibility to Parker's faulty charms (we all have them...mostly), and he supplied us with his opinions on other novels.
As you can see, we primarily picked people who wrote well, agreed with us (duh), and supplied us more than one review. Some of the problems other reviews had that held them back were not agreeing with us (duh), a propensity to only rehash the plot of the novel without talking about why is was GOOD or BAD, had stuff in their reviews that was incorrect, or it just wasn't written how we liked. It's our blog. We pick who we want, and we want to make sure they match with our general way of thinking.
With that, we want to thank everyone for their time and submissions. Congrats to the winners! This will truly be a way for more reviews to come out, and for all the readers of our awesometastic blog to benefit. In a change from the method mentioned in the rules of the contest, our new reviewers are going to write in First Person. Only we (Steve and Nick) will be writing in the Hive Mind style...cause that's how we really are.
If you are an aspiring author, we can guarantee you have heard this advice: write what you know. Now granted, for the most part you can come to know most anything via study and research. When it comes to disabilities, however, you simply can't know unless you've experienced it. We use this as a preface to Blake Charlton's SPELLWRIGHT, because Charlton took that bit of advice and ran with it.
Charlton grew up battling dyslexia and the stereotypes and difficulties that come with that disorder. He channeled that experience into his debut novel, SPELLWRIGHT, and created a magic based on language. Spells need to literally be spelled. His PoV, Nicodemus Weal, has the spark for magic, but is dyslexic (both magically and literally, which in this novel amount to the same thing). The ideas here are absolutely incredible. In most cases, when authors give their PoVs a disability, that disability is just a gimmick. Not so with the characters in SPELLWRIGHT (well, at least for Nicodemus, more on the other characters in a bit). Nicodemus' inability to "spell" is addressed as cacography, and it is vital to the plot. He may either be a herald of salvation or doom, the majority of the plot revolving around his (and others) attempts to figure out which. Again, the ideas here are great, and the magic system is creative and fitting.
There are a ton of problems with this debut. For many people they may be deal-breakers (especially those of you who would claim to be literary elitists).
The over-arching problem is clarity. From characters, to setting, dream sequences (ESPECIALLY bad and unclear), transitions, to visualizing the magic (at times)...it just lacks the needed clarity that would have pushed this novel into excellence. The characters didn't grab us at all beyond the main PoV, and not even he was all that gripping (he whines A LOT). His disability was handled well, and made important. But there is also a blind guy. And a seizure girl. And another girl who shouts out "obscenities" (they are lame) almost in parody of Tourette syndrome. Another can only say three phrases. It's over-kill, and other than the main characters dyslexia, the rest all feel like gimmicks or parodies, and are all basically pointless. There ARE reasons for the disabilities, though the explanations tend to make them even more frustrating and gimmicky.
The setting is mostly in a magic school/academy. Yup, seriously. And there is a prophecy about demons coming to destroy the world. Our main PoV, who is unsure as to his lineage, might be the savior or destroyer. But see, he is conflicted. He just wants to be a normal boy...Get the idea? Yeah, the actual story is pretty cliché. Luckily the magic system isn't, and really is the saving grace of this novel.
Another issue has to do with how information is presented to the reader. 90% of the time, it comes across in info-dumps layered in page upon page of exposition. 9% of the time we get it via class/teacher lectures (We don't need anymore school, thank you. We already suffered through the horridly inconsistent Harry Potter novels, and have forked over tens of thousands of dollars for REAL school. Less school, more imagination. kthxbai). What does this do? Well for one, it kills all pacing. There are moments where things start to move along beautifully...only to be undermined by fifteen pages of blatant info-dump. There is one section, approximately half-way through the novel, where we get a long-winded, repetitive conversation (see the numbered list below) mixed with flashes to an action sequence. The action sequence is ruined because if this obvious attempt to break up an extremely boring student/teacher discussion. Yawn. It happens like this.
1) Here is 1 page of plot progression.
2) PoV says, "I don't understand."
3) 10 page info-dump explanation.
4) PoV says, "I don't understand."
5) Another 10 page info-dump explanation.
6) 1 page plot progression.
You can see where the frustration comes in. Mostly because the actual plot stuff seems like it could be entertaining.
Show vs. Tell. You all know the phrase. SPELLWRIGHT is 1% show and 99% tell. And the telling persists up until the last freaking page. No joke. Perhaps you heard a random scream the other night. That was Steve screaming, "STOP TELLING ME THIS CRAP AND SHOW IT TO ME!!!! FRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKKKKK!" That may or may not be a direct quote.
Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy here in spite of the many frustrations. The ideas behind language magic, and the evolution of it throughout the novel are fascinating. SPELLWRIGHT is a confusing novel in terms of "what the heck do we think of it." The more and more we digested it, we began to think of it in the same vein as the simpler fantasy novels. You know, like from our Fantasy 101 post. Had there not been such a nifty premise with the magic here, we may have put the novel down. However the magic itself, though unclear visually at times, really pushes this novel up several notches. We were very strongly ambivalent towards it. Will we read the follow-ups? Yes. With all the back-story, history and info having been dumped in this first novel, the following novels could be great (if simple) fantasy.
The question is, will you like it? Should you go out and spend the hardcover price on it? We are gonna say that you should borrow it, and decide for yourself. If you are in to the older feeling, simpler written fantasy, then give Blake Charlton's novel a shot.
Recommended Age: 12 and up. Honestly, this could almost have been YA.
Language: Not really. The made-up "swearing" in the novel feels very forced and mild. Like us saying, "crud." The actual swearing we are used to only happens maybe twice in the novel.
Violence: Not much. Extremely tame where it actually happens, and pretty random and unclear.
Sex: No. Some childish discussions. Again, kinda YA.
PROCESSION OF THE DEAD, the premiere book in a new series, The City, is Darren Shan's first foray into adult novels. We knew his Cirque du Freak novels were dark and creepy (if for a younger audience) and therefore were pretty excited to see what the guy could do with more adult content, and we weren't disappointed at all.
PROCESSION OF THE DEAD follows one Capac Raimi, and is told from his point of view. He is an aspiring gangster with some mysterious past he can't really remember, except in very vague glimpses and flashes (yeah we know, it's cliché, but it is handled well). Capac comes to The City and gets in the "good graces" of the man who owns and runs it from the ground up; The Cardinal. The Cardinal's reputation is horrendous, though that description barely scratches the surface of his actual personality. Speaking of which, Capac's isn't exactly a role model either. As Capac rises through the ranks of the The Cardinal's empire, he comes across a variety of strange occurrences and people and the mystery of The Cardinal and The City builds.
PROCESSION is a very cool mix of mystery, urban fantasy, horror, crime/drama and a gangster story. The City has plenty of bizarre things going on, and Darren uses Incan mythology to create a unique setting. Many of the names are Incan in origin, or actual Incan words. The City has a lot of secrets (of course), many of which stem from ideas built from Incan society. Part of the allure of this novel resides in this fresh and creative use of a fascinating and under-used culture.
The characters of the story are all very intriguing, even if they are a bit one-dimensional. Each of them seems to embody one very strong characteristic or emotion, and really don't deviate much from their paths. Capac is ambitious. Really ambitious. Really scary ambitious. Paucar is a violent freak. A very scary violent freak. Leonara is motherly. Ama epitomizes desire and love. The way characters were designed and presented reminded us very strongly of David Eddings in a more horror-centric setting. In this case it worked, and we ended up liked every character.
Take it as a positive or a negative, but book is very short--only 278 pages--and moves very quickly. The pacing was pretty good, though the first hundred or so pages did make us wonder when things were going to get really interesting. Thankfully the last third of the book rewarded us and made us glad we stuck with it.
We did, however, want a little bit more depth. PROCESSION was really a novel that could have done with another hundred pages. Especially regarding the Blink Monks who seem to be such an integral part of The City, but are left largely untouched for most of the book. The ending also made us wonder how the book would become a series (a proposed trilogy).
The finale and epilogue were sufficiently twisted for us, but could have used another 10 or so pages to avoid feeling so cramped and rushed. The final paragraph had a very heavy "Dun-Dun-DUUUN!" feel to it. Woohoo! However, (you knew it was coming) the climax did feel somewhat muted by the fact that we had figured out exactly how it was all going to play out, and the fact that Capac wasn't really doing anything but riding on rails, like a train.
As you know, gangster-like stories should have well-done violence, so it was something we looked at with a critical eye. The action scenes are brutal and bloody, but never approach slasher-movie feel. They are very clear and detailed, but never cross into wordiness. Kudos Darren. This part was very well constructed, and fit the theme of the book extremely well.
We did have a few issues here and there, but perhaps our biggest was with that the main PoV character had such a strong sense of ambition and propensity for violence is was hard for us to identify with him, and care about him as much as we cared about other characters. Capac was largely an anti-hero, with a few scenes of humanity that didn't do much to hide the fact that he was a "bad dude". There just simply wasn't a lot to like about this guy, and what little there is quickly dissolves. Though...without spoiling anything there is a very cool reason for this, and was really the saving grace of that character.
All in all, PROCESSION OF THE DEAD was tons of fun to read. Darren Shan is an author we will be following now. Thumbs up for buying this book. It's very light, but it's very worth it.
Recommended Age: 18+
Language: Plenty of cursing. It is a book about gangsters. D'uh!
Violence: There wasn't a TON, but what was there was bloody, and quite visceral. Again, it seemed perfectly placed in this setting.
Sex: There aren't any actual events depicting it, but there is a lot of talk about it.
Go by Darren's website:
Also, we would feel poorly if we didn't mention our like for the cover. Simplistic, yet extremely fitting.