The Way of Kings

From the very beginning you know THE WAY OF KINGS is a novel by Brandon Sanderson—you would know it even if his name wasn’t imposed over a Michael Whelan cover. Sanderson has made a name for himself through his imaginative magic systems, and TWoK is no different.

He starts with the pacing set at a sprint. Following a series prelude (yeah, there is a prelude, then a prologue), we are put right into the action of things with a mysterious assassin, Szeth. Right from the onset of the novel we get hints of political intrigue, and of shadowy organizations pulling strings like puppeteers. What it seems to us is that Brandon is trying to start faster than his previous novels. His habit has been the slow burn in pacing followed by an explosion of craziness. Not so much here. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Really it will depend on your personal taste.

Ah but we get ahead of ourselves.

TWoK is a hard book to summarize. The worlds that Brandon creates are always well envisioned. Effort is made to make them stand-out. That said, there is usually a bit of familiar in them. The best way to describe the world in TWoK is to say it feels like a rich sea floor…but without the sea. Huge storms ravage the surface of the world of Roshar regularly, and that surface has adapted to them. Plants and animals retreat into hardened shells for protection. Cities themselves are built only where there is a measure of safety. There is a very alien feel to it all, and for the most part, Brandon makes it vivid and easy to visualize. It also helps that there are some seriously incredible sketches of the various creatures of the world come to life. We love interior art work.

As for the plot itself, we’ll give you the basics without spoiling the details. War. Lots of wars and battles that are treated almost as competitions, and an excuse for personal gain. For greed. It becomes quickly apparent the level of stagnation that pervades the armies through these motivations. Brandon does seem torn throughout the course of the novel. At times the story is purely setting based, and yet at others it focuses exclusively on the characters. A smoother blend may have been nice, but really this is just a quibble.

Characters. We know Brandon, and we know how much effort he puts into making characters unique and likable. While not quite as good as his MISTBORN trilogy (yet), the characters in TWoK are pretty solid. Kaladin is a promising general on the rise who ends up a slave. Dalinar is a commander of one of the various armies fighting for honor and riches, but he has begin questioning the motivation behind it all while suffering vivid dream-visions of the past. Shallan is an artist whose goal is the theft of a priceless magical conduit. All-in-all, they are great characters. Except…

Look, we like shades of gray. There is none of that with the main characters. They are all good guys, regardless of some of their misleading attitudes and actions. We just wish there were less black-and-white characters in his novels. This isn’t really a major criticism, just more of an observation. Brandon’s characters in TWoK tend to go pretty emo as well (if we are honest, it caused some facepalm moments). Either that, or they are tough as nails. There isn’t a lot of in-between. Most people won’t have issue with this, but we felt we should bring it up. We ARE honest after all. It’s our third best quality.

As we mentioned earlier, the pacing starts out at full-speed. It serves its purpose in hooking the reader—and it does that extremely well. Things are crazy early on. We get assassinations, epic battles, solitary heroic feats, dramatic failures, terrifying situations and awesome magic. We get all of this FAST. There is a full book’s worth of awesomeness in the first third of the novel (which we guess is the actual size of a normal novel…TWoK is a 1000+ page behemoth). The issue with this? The middle third of the novel. When you start the novel with a peak, and end it with one as well, there is bound to be a valley in the middle. That middle 400 pages, while extremely interesting, can drag for less-than-patient readers…especially when that first part is so fast and breathtaking.

As we mentioned, this is the first book in a series. A BIG series. Ten books big. As a result, there is a lot of set-up here. It is done as well as can be, but it is very noticeable that we are embarking on a long, long trip. Our personal hope? That it is broken up a bit like Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. What we mean is that the first few books become effectively a trilogy or quadrilogy. Then two more sets of three. Reading a straight ten book series feels daunting. Not knowing the end until at least 2020? Yikes! Again, just being honest.

We don’t want to make it seem like we are bashing TWoK. We aren’t. These issues are pretty small-time, and won’t matter a bit to the very large majority. So we’ll end with what we DO like. We love the learning curve. This has a much steeper one than any of Sanderson's prior novels. We like authors in the fantasy genre to challenge us, and to make us think for ourselves. Now this isn’t quite at the Erikson Learning Curve level, but it is still fairly high. We can’t stress how happy we are that Brandon is doing this. We’ve been begging him since ELANTRIS was released to go this route.

TWoK is also better than his previous novel, WARBREAKER. The writing is better, the story is better, and the characters are better. In our opinions, of course. Which are fact. Really, we liked this better than ELANTRIS too. TWoK is right there with his Mistborn Trilogy. We haven’t read a Brandon Sanderson novel we didn’t like (a trend unlikely to change over the next decade or two), and the Mistborn trilogy is high on our list of GREAT books. So when we say TWoK is almost (juuuuuuuust below really) as good as MISTBORN, it is a compliment. High praise indeed. And this was just the first book. This series has a HUGE amount of potential. This could very well turn into one of our favorite fantasy series ever by the time it finishes.

Brandon's chapter leads, though always great, are freaking awesome in TWoK. Once you get to the end of the novel, suddenly they take on a whole different meaning. This is how chapter leads should be done. We're not sure where they have been done better. Ever.

We love the clarity of the action sequences. The Bridge Crew scenes (especially the first few) are gripping, chaotic, and terrifying. The Shardblade duels and battles are artistic and flashy. Everything truly has its own unique flavor. While the very end seems like it is a little less than it could have been, the final section of the book (originally conceived as a series of epilogues, but now its own section in the novel) is fantastic. It really is a moment where, as the reader, you say, “Oh crap. Everyone is soooooooo screwed!” Love it (in truth, it may have been Steve’s favorite part…other than the Szeth scenes).

THE WAY OF KINGS, Book One of the Stormlight Archive, is a fantastic opening entry in a truly epic (in every sense of the word) fantasy series. Every reader of the fantasy genre should buy this book immediately. Fans old and new will enjoy all 1000+ pages, and will be anxiously awaiting the sequel. We sure are. Of course, we’ve already been waiting for the sequel for a year now…‘cause you know, we did read this last year. As Nick is fond of saying, “Neener neener.”

Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Not really. Made-up oaths and such.
Violence: YES!! Have we mentioned how much we love Brandon’s action sequences?
Sex: Noppers.

The Devil in Green

I like avocados. A good one will leave you longing for more without much effort. Soft, green flesh, that great nutty flavor, and all it needs is a bit of salt to provide, quite possibly, one of the finest snacks on the planet. Yum. I’m always on the lookout for some good Green.

So I’d heard all sorts of coolness associated with Mark Chadbourn before finally getting to read any of his books, and as it ended up, this one was my first. Chadbourn’s a novelist living in the UK that got picked up by Pyr recently, and if you’ve been anywhere near their booklist in the last year, you would have had a hard time missing his name. Seven books of his have come through the Pyr imprint in the last fifteen months and all of the covers have been absolutely full of win (Imitation being the best form of flattery, I thought I’d throw a bone in the direction of the overlords here). Thus, I gathered my salivating palette and dove into the book with great amounts of gusto.

The Devil in Green starts out with a bang and flash. Mallory, the existential hero of the story, is ripping down an old road in a Porsche with the hopes of finding someone alive in the next town, when he catches up to a man galloping down the road on a horse. The man’s being pursued by a pack of man-sized orangutan-looking beasts, with the faces of children and wicked sharp teeth, that speak lies to depress and demoralize you before ripping your head off for lunch. The man on the horse is Miller, and the two fight through these nasty freaks-of-nature, ending their flight within the ruins of a castle/church, high on a lone hilltop, where they are safe for some reason unbeknownst to them. The next day, they travel to a town Miller suggests, where a branch of the Catholic Church has supposedly taken over a cathedral and is recruiting people to become a modern set of Knights Templar. Or possibly just giving people free lunches.

As I mentioned above, I haven’t read Chadbourn’s previous trilogy, The Age of Misrule, but what I gleaned from the net was that it included beasts and mythology from Celtic legend that have come into the world we know and left chaos and destruction in their wake. With this kind of setup and the opening chapters of Devil in Green, I was ready for a seriously good ride. Like say, something akin to The Matterhorn or even Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, I didn’t get anything near either of them.

Chadbourn actually writes quite well. His prose pulled me in and had me swallowing things very easily. He has some relatively interesting side characters, a realistic feel to the setting, and enough sarcasm to outstrip Simon Cowell on a bad hair day. I love sarcasm, don’t get me wrong, but if there’s no other reason for me to like a character they get old really fast. Also, Chadbourn writes the mundane stuff very well. I never got tripped up by anything when the story was plodding along from one excitement to the next; it was only when things got a little crazy that I had questions. Like, for instance, throughout most of the climax.

In the end, my difficulties with the story boiled down to two big issues. The first was the fact that it felt like nothing happened for the entire book. Nothing. This was because the main characters didn’t do anything significant of their own volition. They were forced out on a few forays by their religious superiors, and some people got killed in messy ways, but it never felt like there was a real plot or point to the book--no forward progression that I could see. The fairy people get introduced, though they’d supposedly already come into play in the first trilogy so this was nothing new. There’s a dragon that attacks the cathedral a few times (Though it’s only ever referred to as a “fabulous beast”. Why? No idea. Call an elf an elf, I say), but the thing makes minimal impact to the structure before [***Censored***] (Seriously, guys? Oh yeah. No spoilers. Umm...) There’s some kind of love interest for Mallory, a girl from outside the complex that communicates somewhat with the fairy people, but there’s no real progression there either--just some sort of vague sense of romantically jumping from one step to the next until [***Censored***] (Aww, come on. That wasn’t such a big one to give away...). About 250 pages in, Miller asks the main character, “What’s your motivation, Mallory?” I thought this a very appropriate question, and one I would have liked an answer to. Unfortunately, there was no answer to be had.

The second issue I took with the story is the excessive harping on the stupidity of those that ascribe to any particular religion. I could understand if there had been some bashing. I could even have put up with lots of it if said bashing would have been specific, or added something of value to the story or the characters. That’s not what this was though. This was simply a blatant generalization of all religions as being bad and those involved with them as being incompetent morons for believing. So, I did a little research, and it looks like something on the order of 85% of people in the world believe in giving worship to some kind of greater being through the religion of their choice. That's an awfully large majority to be preaching against, and that's exactly what it comes over as. There did seem to be some small part of the story that tried to show how following church leaders (or anyone for that matter) without thinking for yourself, would lead to destruction, chaos, and death. This I can see. This I could have sympathized with. But I couldn’t swallow everything I got fed here. Not by a long shot.

In the end, I can’t say that I liked the book very much. It was empty; Green, yes, but empty. I waffled over my thoughts about it for a long time because there was so much potential to be had. There’s still potential for the next two books, I think, based on the material he has, if he'll just use it. If there's another book like this though, I might just have to bail on the series altogether. So for you, instead of reading this one, I’d suggest trying a different book of his (A reliable source has suggested that some of his other books are much better), or that you buy an avocado. Nice, dark skin; gives slightly when pressed upon; not too soft; lots of nutty goodness. Plenty of Green to satisfy your craving there, I’d say.

So let it be written.

So let it be done.

Recommended age: 16 and up
Language: Some, across the range, scattered.
Violence: A little. People fighting with swords. Someone loses a hand. A few brief descriptions of two people that die messily.
Sex: One scene, fairly quick. Not much else.

http://www.markchadbourn.net/

Elitist Classics: A Princess of Mars

First written as a serial in 1911, A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs was soon after published in novel form in 1917. While the story is more adventure than science fiction, it was this Mars-based pulp that influenced the men and women who would later fuel the SF renaissance of the mid-Twentieth Century--writers like Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, and Arthur C. Clarke.

PRINCESS follows the adventures of John Carter, Confederate War veteran, from his mysterious transportation to the planet Mars, to being captured by the green men, to meeting the lovely Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium. The storytelling itself compared to today's standards is nothing spectacular, and in fact the 'science' is pretty silly, but you have to admire Burroughs' imagination. At the time he wrote it, there was scientific speculation about the potential for life on Mars, and it must have captured his attention because he came up with some wild ideas about the people and cultures who could be inhabiting the red planet.

PRINCESS was Burroughs' first published work, even before the original TARZAN OF THE APES (which is also worth reading). He went on to write ten more Mars books, but PRINCESS is the one that started it all, and fortunately it's a quick, fun read. It doesn't hurt, either, that John Carter is a likable swashbuckler.

The Kindle edition is free, but it's easy to find a print version at your library or at most booksellers.

Michael Whelan did cover art for the '80s mass market reprinting of the Mars series, including one of A PRINCESS OF MARS that I love, not only because it's beautiful, but because it evokes the feel of the book and its setting. You can see it on his website at MichaelWhelan.com, and I did find the version you can buy with his cover. (Warning: Whelan's ERB art does have semi-nudity.)

Recommended age: 12 and up--the content is tame and readable by younger audiences.
Language: None.
Violence: Scattered here and there, but nothing intense or very graphic.
Sex: People on Mars wander around unclothed, however Burroughs doesn't reference naked body parts or sex.

Elitist Classics: The Martian Chronicles

Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury! He turned 90 on August 22nd (just this past weekend), and what better way than to celebrate one of his classics? A prolific writer of novels, short stories, essays, and other works, Bradbury originally published THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES in 1950. It's a short story collection about the human colonization of Mars--but it's not your traditional collection.

Originally published in magazines as shorts, Bradbury gathered the stories in one book by stringing them along chronologically using brief vignettes to tie them together. At first it will seem disjointed and odd, but Bradbury's crisp prose and sense of humor is engaging, and good enough reason to continue reading until the story finally grabs you. If you've read A PRINCESS OF MARS, then you'll have a few laughs when you recognize Bradbury's nods in Burroughs' direction.

Bradbury claims that THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES isn't science fiction, instead calling it fantasy because it depicts events that would never happen. If I were to label it, I'd be tempted to call it horror because of its psychological elements, fantasy for the ludicrous situations, and science fiction for the warnings about the future that this genre often portends. Even then, if you read beyond the surface you'll see Bradbury's post-war social commentary, and fortunately his satire still feels relevant today.

There are a few different versions, including reprints that change the first Mars landing from 1999 to thirty years after (the dates really are irrelevant, except in relation to each other) and some additional stories written after the first printing. No edition is better than the other, so it's up to you whether you prefer to read the original or a 'complete' version. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES should be easy to find at even small libraries.

Recommended Age: 12 and up for content, although most kids won't get the social commentary and humor until their late teens.
Language: Some, but it's minor.
Violence: Very little, and when there is violence it's not graphic.
Sex:
None.

Elitist Classics--Part 3

Science Fiction & Steampunk

It seems like we neglect SF a tad on this site. We treat it, generally, like that little kid on the playground that follows you around like a lost puppy. The thing is, SF has some pretty solid roots, and many of the great, early writers of SF also have huge influences in Steampunk.

H.G. Wells - THE TIME MACHINE
Time travel machines. If this doesn't scream SF to you, you probably need to get your head examined. Published in 1895, THE TIME MACHINE is a prime example of early SF that doesn't seem to ever grow old. Oh sure, writers now days have come up with slicker looking versions of time travel; it's a theme that won't go away. From Connie Willis' BLACKOUT, to the TV show Lost, time travel is always being tinkered with. So why is THE TIME MACHINE still good? Because it deals with a character's reactions to traveling through time and witnessing the future rather than focusing on technology for technology's sake. Wells is known as one of the "Fathers of Science Fiction," but he also is a heavy influence in the realm of Steampunk. Much Steampunk relies on machines that have drawn inspiration from those that Wells describes in his work. Heck, even WoW borrows the aesthetic values of Wells' imagination.

Jules Verne - TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
What is SF if not the imagining of the future? Verne wrote about space, air, and underwater travel before practical applications of those technologies were even realistic. Considered another of the "Fathers of Science Fiction" along with H.G. Wells, released TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES in french in 1869. Again, what makes this story a Classic is it's focus on character, and motivations. Why does a person do what he/she does? Verne has inspired countless works. From THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, to Steampunk novels that use his ideas of submersibles, Verne should be read by everyone.

Ray Bradbury
Where do we start? The Martian Chronicles? FAHRENHEIT 451? We could go on to describe why his works are great and awesome, but we'll leave that to an Elitist Classics review of the the Martian Chronicles coming shortly. All anyone needs to know is that the guy is nothing short of a Science Fiction giant, and legend. Of course, Bradbury doesn't consider himself an SF author. At one time he said that the Martian Chronicles was Fantasy, not SF. Hmm...maybe that's why we like his stuff so much more...

Edgar Rice Burroughs - The Barsoom/Mars Series
Come on, you knew this was coming. Pulp SF? Burroughs? They are practically synonyms. The first Mars novel was was published in 1917, and starred the now famous John Carter. Burroughs is credited as inspiration for a few people you may have heard of; Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, and Moorcock. To us, what Burroughs represents is the SF that is full of adventure, and far-flung ideas of exploration. It seems that some SF is all about making the reader feel like they need a Physics Degree to understand the first page. Burroughs was about giving readers an adventure they could sink their teeth into.


We could go on, and on, and on. Philip K Dick anyone? We could talk about Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and Simmons. We could even talk about Mark Twain. Or how about Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo awards are named? Edgar Allen Poe? Yup, he could be included here too. When you look at modern Science Fiction, and also Steampunk, realize that it all was inspired by someone. It might just change your views on the genre, knowing its roots.

It certainly has for us.

The Last Stormlord

Call me spoiled if you want. After the likes of epic fantasy writers Erikson, Sanderson, and Butcher (and others), I've gotten used to the current trend of jumping right into the middle of the story. You could say I'm a girl who likes her some action. Ahem.

Alas, not all epic fantasy writers have gotten the hint. THE LAST STORMLORD, by Glenda Larke, reminds me of the epic fantasies of 20-odd years ago because the pacing is similar in its devotion to world-building without a visible purpose. There's the standard young boy being trained whose abilities will change the world. A girl on the verge of womanhood, trapped in a life not of her choosing. I probably wouldn't have minded STORMLORD if I haven't already read it, like, one thousand times before in its various incarnations.

The Quartern is a land where water is life. Inhabited by four different cultures, they rely on stormlords--men and women who can manipulate water--to bring the needed water to the cisterns they use for drinking, bathing, and irrigation. Only instead of the usual dozen stormlords to bring water, there's one, and he's dying.

Terelle is a young girl, sold into slavery in a brothel, and when she's old enough she'll begin earning her water tokens like the other girls. But she doesn't want that life, and makes plans to escape. Shale is a water sensitive in the middle of the desert, where magic is considered dangerous, and does his best just to survive. The rainlords of the main cities of the Quatern have spent years trying to find more water sensitives among the populace, but none of them are strong enough to be stormlords. Time is running out, for when the last stormlord dies, there be will be a return to the time of random rain and millions will die as a result.

There's enough action that STORMLORD shouldn't have been boring, but the pacing, flow, and expositional dialogue negates the spurts of excitement--the 670 pages could have been pared down by another 100 to make the novel a smoother read. But despite this wordiness, periods of time are glossed over during the six years the book covers as Slate and Terelle grow up. Larke also glosses over important interactions between our characters, and lacks realistic insight when describing her characters and their interactions. For example, when Slate and Terelle finally cross paths three-quarters into the novel, they develop a relationship, but we never actually see this happen, we just have to take the narrator's word for it. And when the PoV characters do think about their relationship with the other, it's cheesy, which makes me sad because I'm a girl who likes some mushy romance, but this was just lame.

The most fascinating character is Highlord Taquar, one of the city rainlords, whose motivations are twisted and yet just. You aren't really sure if he's doing what he must for power, or a real desire to save the people of the Quatern from a horrible fate. Too bad the protagonists aren't as interesting, and instead the other rainlords are cliche in their dialogue, actions, and personality.

Larke tries so very hard to create a gritty and dark setting, but her writing lacks the subtly necessary to pull it off without sounding corny. In the last hundred pages we're treated with revelations using melodramatic dialogue so cliche I laughed out loud.

STORMLORD has a clever setting and a culture that revolves around a lack of water: it affects what is planted, how people live, what kind of animals exist among them. The magic is a large part of the culture, affecting who rules the Quatern, which could be anyone as long as their water sensitivity is strong enough. There's a lot of potential for the magic with the way it's set up, and I sincerely hope there are big plans for future installments. Unfortunately, spending an entire book devoted to world-building is boring, and could have been better executed.

World-building is important, but so is plot--and it's even better when story and setting intertwine to enrich each other. Unfortunately Larke doesn't really have a story to tell here...not one with an end, anyway. Nothing resolves, and instead we're left with cliffhangers and are forced to continue the next book, STORMLORD RISING, if we want to see any satisfaction. It remains to be seen whether an entire book dedicated to world building and plot set-up is worth the time it has taken to read it.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Mild.
Violence: Yes, when there is some action it can be bloody, but there aren't many violent events.
Sex: Implied and some innuendo.

A Taint in the Blood

Shadowspawn used to rule the Earth as gods. But you can get kind of lazy when you're immortal and nearly indestructible. After thousands of years of cross-breeding with humans, today's Shadowspawn posterity isn't as pureblooded, making for all kinds of problems. Even worse, humans have over-populated the Earth and kind of taken over things. By the time you get around to dealing with the issue, you have to do something drastic, say, another plague to wipe out all the extra humans so you can reestablish yourself as the one in charge.

Adrian Brézé may not be pureblood Shadowspawn, but he's got enough that his ability in the Power is stronger than most, and he's decided that the blood is no excuse to treat the human race as sheep. The only problem is that the other almost-purebloods not only outnumber him thousands to one, they would never agree with him to leave humans alone. After years of trying to help the Brotherhood, a group dedicated to the eradication of Shadowspawn, he retires from the civil war. Unfortunately, his sister Adrianne decides to yank him back into Shadowspawn politics by kidnapping his ex-girlfriend. As he works to save Ellen, Adrian discovers the dismaying plans the Council has for the human race.

I'm not sure why, but S.M. Stirling decided it was his turn at a vampire urban fantasy series starting with A TAINT IN THE BLOOD. His successful Change Series has garnered him a well-deserved following, the post-apocalyptic stories grim yet hopeful. Now, instead of a retro Dark Ages setting, he tries his hand at magic and demons. Most of us are getting tired of all the blood-sucking out there (Gaiman thinks so too), but if it's going to stick around, the writing might as well be decent--and fortunately Stirling will force those vampire wannabe writers to step it up a notch, especially in showing how much vampires really are monsters. It's about time.

Stirling's big strength in all his books is world building. Here he takes the traditional vampire lore and twists it into a shape that's more interesting than most urban fantasy. There's the history and origins of modern-day 'demon cannibals' who are born not made, mix in Shadowspawn proclivities and lifestyle, add a pinch of killing methods and details about warfare, and fold in the rules of the Power and how to work around it. Then you bake it into something that looks like a regular cake, but is actually a lava cake filled with chocolaty goodness (couldn't help myself, the novel is filled with all sorts of foodie details).

This book has all the clichés. There's the main character Adrian, the wealthy and brooding immortal who's trying to break away from his evil family and their 'humans are only good for food' attitudes. There's the grizzled mentor Harvey, thrice divorced, who carries around his sawed-off shotgun with silver bullets and used to work with Adrian for the Brotherhood. There's the plucky heroine Ellen with the body of a goddess (she's a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe...), who endures torture at the hands of Adrian's sadistic sister while she awaits rescue. Have we read all this before? Sure, but not written with this much tongue-in-cheek and depth at the same time.

Yet, while TAINT is better than your average urban fantasy, it has its flaws. The most petty being that Stirling is italics happy--between all the telepathy and PoV character thoughts it got to be a little ridiculous. If you want me to get more serious, then I could complain about how poor Ellen must suffer Adrienne's sadist tendencies, and unfortunately we end up having to watch, including one incredibly unpleasant S&M scene. While Adrienne is a deliciously evil villain, the constant sexual abuse witnessed first hand and talked about among her blood herd of 'lucies' got redundant and overbearing.

One thing that starts out as a strength but ends up becoming a problem later is the pacing. Like his other novels, Stirling starts TAINT at a sprint, and blabs about back history along the way, hoping you can keep up. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't, but the action is enough to keep you reading even if you don't 100% know what's going on. The action does get breakneck enough that readers will stumble and have to re-read when transitions are light on explanation; on the other end of the spectrum is a big gap of time that's glossed over, and even includes a hokey 'Rocky trains for the big fight montage' reference. It kind of felt like Stirling rattled off this book one weekend and had a lot of fun writing it, throwing together interesting concepts along the way, but didn't bother to go back and smooth it all out. What starts out as interesting world building by the end leaves some holes about how the magic works, which is pretty crucial to the plot. Add to that some contrivances, and you read the climax thinking, "What the..." or "That should not have worked."

I really wanted to like TAINT because I enjoyed Stirling's Change Series novels, but while it's well written and interesting, its over-the-top cruelty was difficult for me to read. The novel could give romantic vampire urban fantasy the jump start it needs, forcing realism and excellent writing into a usually fluffy and melodramatic sub-genre, and could attract readers who usually wouldn't pick up this kind of book.

Recommended Age: 18 and up, this book is for adults only.
Language: Yes, and it's relatively frequent.
Violence: Between the fighting, sexual abuse, and torture there's a lot and it's graphic.
Sex: There's quite a bit and the talk can get crass.

The Dervish House

THE DERVISH HOUSE is Ian McDonald’s latest near future SF tale set in an up-and-coming country. Recently he has covered the near future of India in RIVER OF THE GODS and then Brazil in BRAYSL. Both of those books made the Hugo Award shortlist for their respective years and I have no doubt that this one will too.

The book begins with a suicide bombing aboard a bus. From there the story follows six individuals over the course of the next five days as events spiral around them and bring them together in unexpected ways. I would tell you more about it but the plot lines are many layered and finely woven together and I’m afraid I would just muddle it up. More than being about the characters, the book is about Istanbul and Turkey. Indeed at times it seemed like the six people you follow throughout the book were secondary characters to the future city and its complex history. Like both of the previously mentioned books by McDonald you get the feeling reading them that McDonald has done exhaustive research and gone to great effort to make the book feel real, feel authentic. Indeed I’ve read reviews of his work that have praised McDonald for writing a book that feels like it was written by someone from Istanbul.

The books strength however is, in my opinion, also one of its weaknesses. The book is so wrapped up in being authentically Istanbulian, (Is that a word? It is now...) that there were many times that I felt apart from the characters I was reading about. The book often deviates from the plot and the minds of its characters to paint you a picture of one of the various facets of Istanbul culture, sometimes for pages at a time. I would often turn the page to see that the next few pages were consumed with only two paragraphs of long description, instead of plot moving dialogue.

It’s a minor fault however. The book is beautifully written and packed with more ideas that you usually find in ten novels. Some of the ideas from this book were just mind boggling. I literally put the book down on a few occasions just to savor the ideas being presented here and think them through. My wife got sick of me throwing these ideas out at her with my “isn’t that so cool?” face. She usually responded with her, “you are such a nerd” face, but I get that a lot.

THE DERVISH HOUSE is Ian McDonald’s most accessible work by a long shot.. The characters and story here are easier to keep track of than some of his other works and the book subsequently moves along at a much better pace. The conclusion to the book brings all the characters to the climax of their respective stories, and it’s a thrilling thing to watch unfold. If you enjoyed any part of Paolo Bacigalupi’s WINDUP GIRL then THE DERVISH HOUSE should be right up your alley, only much better. I didn’t find this one quite as good as I thought RIVER OF THE GODS was, but this would certainly be the best place to start if you wanted to give Ian McDonald a read.

Recommended Age: 18+ and only because, although this is McDonald’s most accessible, it’s still darn complicated and complex.
Language: Yes. I don’t remember there being a ton of foul language, but there is a bit.
Violence: A little, but not much.
Sex: One scene, and a bit of suggestion, but not much.

Lesser Demons

Since starting this review blog, we have noticed a huge increase in the amount of short fiction that has made its way onto our bookshelves. This is a good thing. We have held the opinion for a long time that short fiction was evil, and in many cases this is still true. However when Subterranean Press puts a collection together, the results are always (at least so far!) fantastic. We got our hands on the recent release of the collection LESSER DEMONS by Norman Partridge, and absolutely loved the Horror stories inside.

LESSER DEMONS collects some of Partridge’s stories from the past few years, as well as a brand new one. Here are a few of the highlights:

“Second Chance” is a doppelganger story, and the leading story of the collection. It was quite enjoyable, though if you are looking for a concrete explanation as to the “how” and the “what” at the end you’ll probably be disappointed. Stop thinking so hard. Geez.

“The Big Man” is a story about the after-effects of nuclear testing. Naturally from the title, the main point of the story is a giant man. Like a lot of Partridge’s short fiction, there is an Old West feel to them (regardless of the actual era when the stories take place). A solid story that feels like it belongs in an old pulp Horror magazine.

“Lessor Demons” is, obviously, the story the compilation the story was named after. It is also perhaps the best story of the collection, and one of our favorite entries into short Horror fiction. We’d kill for a full-length novel set in this world. It feels like a zombie novel, but these things aren’t zombies. They are WAAAY better. Completely awesome.

“The House Inside” feels like the Horror version of Toy Story, only where all humans are dead. It was one of the most fun stories in the collection.

“The Iron Dead” is a bizarre Horror/Diesel-Punk hybrid that had our imaginations racing. We wish we’d thought of it. We also wish there was a novel based on the ideas here. This story, along with “Lesser Demons”, were the A+ stories. Phenomenal.

Now, like all collections, there was one or stories that just didn’t click for us. “The Fourth Stair up from the Second Landing” was that story for us. It just didn’t work in our opinions. But neither was it enough to hurt the overall collection of works.

At the end of the collection is an explanation by Partridge about writing short stories, and a “where these stories came from” detail. It seems like Sub. Press includes these in a lot of their compilations, and we love them. They should be required in every short fiction publication.

Now, one thing you have to understand about LESSOR DEMONS is that many of the stories leave a lot of questions open. For Horror, we think this is important. We don’t want all the questions answered. We don’t want all the mysteries uncovered. Don’t show us the monster. Partridge does this extremely well. He wants the imagination of the reader to take hold. Just keep that in mind when you are reading; the mystery is a lot of enjoyment.

This was our first exposure to Partridge’s work, and we are impressed. At 280 pages, this collection is completely worth your time and money. You may want to head over to Subterranean Press and grab a copy before they are all gone.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: There is some, and it can be strong, but it doesn’t saturate any of the stories.
Violence: Yeah. It’s pretty well done too.
Sex: None shown, but some hinted at.

The Digital Plague

THE DIGITAL PLAGUE is the second book in the Avery Cates Series by Jeff Somers. The previous book, THE ELECTRIC CHURCH has already been reviewed on this site and I highly encourage you to read that review because everything said in it could apply equally well to this volume.

The basic premise of the book is that Avery Cates lives in a bleak future where he takes jobs killing people. It’s not personal, it’s just business. In the beginning chapters of each book Avery gets caught up in something big, whether it’s the formation of a robotic church bent on world domination, or the end of humanity as we know it through a deadly nanobot virus. You know, the usual. He then spends the rest of the book barely surviving and killing lots and lots of people. I don’t say this in a bad way at all. On the contrary these books are a riot. Following Avery Cates on his violent and gruesome adventures is the equivalent to a summer blockbuster movie. There are gunfights and explosions enough to satisfy, and the action keeps moving throughout the book at a breakneck pace.

This time around Avery Cates finds that those around him are dying horrible deaths from a mysterious disease (a digital plague perhaps?). Only for Avery himself, he’s not dying from it. He is the host, the originator of the disease and in his case the digital plague he carries is suppressed in him and in a small area around him by a small suppressor field. The book follows Avery and a group of government workers who can never stray farther than 20 feet away from Avery, lest they die, as they search for who is responsible for this plague in the first place and why.

Like I said the book moves along at a brisk pace. One of my favorite aspects of these books is the short time frame in which they happen. When Avery realizes there is trouble, he goes about to solve it, fast. The book happens in the space of a few short days (bloody, violent days). Towards the beginning of the book I was a bit worried that these adventures would become a bit formulaic. Avery Cates gets in trouble, he gets beat up, he wins, the end. I’ve seen it before. Then in the last third of the Digital Plague Somers throws a twist into the plot and turns the book into something else entirely. Did I see the twist coming (and no, I won’t tell you what the twist is. Read it for yourself.)? Yes, the twist was a bit obvious. That doesn’t change the fact that it was a fun, fun read. I read through the end of the book with a smile on my face, satisfied that I got a big fat dose of Avery Cates violence and that Somers had decided to take it up a notch in this book. The violence and fun of the Electric Church, already turned up all the way to 11, had reached new heights in the Digital Plague.

This is not a deep book. This book will not go on to win major awards and be talked about through the ages as a landmark in Science Fiction. It is, however, a really fun book. Somers seems to have perfected his recipe for fast exciting SF and I’m glad I could come along for the ride. I’ll be picking up the sequels to this one. Do yourself a favor and pick up either THE ELECTRIC CHURCH, or THE DIGITAL PLAGUE and give them a shot.


Age Recommendation: 18+ for a whole lot of language and violence
Language: Somers characters all use about as much colorful language as is possible
Violence: Yeah, maybe you caught that a lot of people die in these books. I’ll say it again here. A LOT OF PEOPLE DIE IN THESE BOOKS.
Sex: Surprisingly none. Usually if an author has violence and language they throw some sex in for the whole trifecta. Not so here (which I was grateful for)


Note from Nick & Steve: First of all, yes, we impose our will everywhere. Why? Because we CAN. Second, the covers to this series are freaking awesome. Third, if you take Richard K Morgan, remove the shock-value sex, add more death and destruction, you get the idea of what to expect from Somers in the Avery Cates Series. The end.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Introduction: Before you read the review Dan Wells has crafted for you, there is something we at Elitist Book Reviews need to make clear: Dan Wells is a jerk-face. We mean this in the nicest way possible. He is an amazing author, a terrific friend, and a cylon (what's not to like?). And yet, he is a jerk-face. We let him borrow the ARC to SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY with the intention of guest-reviewing it for us. He then promptly read, loved, and reviewed it on his website. The problem? It was supposed to be posted here first. We were given strict instructions that we could not post the review of Mary's novel until it was released...and then Dan stole our copious amounts of thunder. Like we said: jerk-face.

It's OK though. Why? Because Dan's review encompasses everything we could possibly say about Mary's debut novel. We hate Jane Austen, but even we were entranced by this novel.

So, that said, enjoy the review that Dan (the jerk-face cylon) Wells originally wrote for our blog. 'Cause, you know, he owes his awesomeness to us. The End


**The Review**



Here's the problem: Mary Robinette Kowal is too good. Not only is she famous, and gorgeous, and brilliant, she's also a really good writer. This cannot be allowed. I tolerated it before, when it was just award-winning short stories, but her new book SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is too much: clever and simple at the same time, with an unerring sense of historical yes-that's-exactly-right-ness, and a mastery of craft and form belying the fact that she, like her characters, pretty much created the form out of nothing. To write a book I enjoyed this much, in a manner so talented I could never hope to recreate it, can only be considered a personal insult. Next time I see you, Mary, you're dead.

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is a Regency fantasy—a sort of subgenre mash-up of Austen and Tolkien, positing a world where affluent young ladies go to balls and takes walks in the country and try to get handsome, wealthy bachelors to woo them, while simultaneously weaving complex magic spells. Where most Regency fantasies fall down is in introducing a story too filled with swashbuckling adventure, which works great in most fantasy but clashes brassily with the subdued social conflicts of the Regency style. Kowal's story works—and this is going to sound backward—by making the arcane mundane. Her magic system, an intriguing power of illusion, is used in precisely the way a group of Austenites would use it: as an art form for accomplished young ladies (and the occasional traveling artist) to practice on long summer days, beautifying their homes and amusing wealthy patrons. The conflicts in the story are similarly authentic to the Regency style: magic or no magic, these girls want to get married, and that's going to require a lot of dinner parties, social balls, and witty dialogue.

The simple story is straight out of Jane Austen, by which I mean that it feels like it could have been written by her despite being primarily new and original. Two sisters, one young and gorgeous, one well into her 20s (very Old Maid-ish by Regency standards) spend a summer chastely fantasizing about the various men in the neighborhood, including both standard Austen tropes (a wealthy landowner and a handsome captain) and original ones, such as a gruff artist specializing in “glamour,” Kowal's intriguing system of illusory magic. One of the great pleasures of the book is how she weaves the magic into everyday life, keeping a consistent Regency vibe; one of the neighbor girls, for example, uses glamour to improve her beauty artificially, resulting in inordinate fatigue and the occasional fainting spell which, naturally, attracts even more male attention. Glamour is used on the fly, both to enhance music and to create mini portrait-plays called tableau vivants, and it can also be made permanent, adding wind or light or other special effects to the ubiquitous paintings and murals. Our heroine and narrator is, of course, an expert with glamour, and uses it to impress the men, comfort the women, and discover the truth behind the inevitable bounder who tries to take advantage of her naïve younger sister. By the end of the book love has been won and lost, ties have been made and broken, and questions have been resolved in a way both true to Austen yet surprisingly Kowal-specific.

What few faults the book has are minor. In capturing the feel of Austen she has hewn too closely, in parts, to the specific conflicts of Pride and Prejudice; if you're familiar with that work you will recognize the core premise immediately, and when the villain arrives you will know it several hundred pages before any of the characters. I was also far more curious about the cultural impacts of the magic system than the book allowed for (for example, since glamour can alter temperature, how has society changed by the addition of cheap, convenient refrigeration long before its advent in the real world?), but I recognize that these kind of questions are well beyond the scope of a book about subtle summer romance. The good news is, you know everything about the magic that you need to know, and the story, while beginning initially similar to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, diverges hugely by chapter three or four, and becomes a thing wholly its own.

What I liked best of all about the novel, in the end, was it's incredible artistic accuracy—the story, the characters, and especially the language are exactly, perfectly Regency. In many ways the book works as a historical thought experiment: it's more than just “a fantasy book in a Jane Austen style,” it's “the book Jane Austen would have written if she'd written a fantasy.” Word choice, diction, even the cadences of the sentences are dead-on for the period. It's really kind of amazing, and adds immensely to the Regency feel Kowal creates.

Good fantasy is hard. Good historical fiction (my favorite genre) is hard. Good period fantasy, combining the best of both styles, is a holy grail very rarely achieved. With Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal has found that holy grail and made it shine.

And for this insult, she will pay.

Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Nope.
Violence: Not so much.
Sex: Sex?! That would be improper!

Mission of Honor

We noticed something the other day when browsing over our history of reviews (all of them awesome, of course). We didn't have hardly any reviews of books published by Baen. We attribute part of this to us not reading a lot of their novels. Now, this isn't because Baen books are bad (as one misguided soul insinuated in a comment to one of our earlier reviews), we just have a lot of books on our plate, many of which are Fantasy (which we prefer over SF). The few Baen novels we have read have actually been pretty solid (looking at you Larry Correia). One of the main Baen authors is David Weber. He practically has his own section at bookstores. His main series follows one Honor Harrington, and the latest book in that series, MISSION OF HONOR, was just released.

Here's the thing with David Weber: you either like his books, or you don't. There isn't a whole lot of middle ground. Luckily with us, we like him despite his flaws. Upon typing this, we have to wonder why we cut Weber slack. If a fantasy author did the things we are about to mention, we would be put off. But not with Weber. Oh we notice them, but they don't bug us near as much. Maybe it's because we have different expectations about SF vs. Fantasy. Perhaps we'll make a blog entry about this later...

Anyways...

Weber is either writing about Honor Harrington being a military genius (the Honor Harrington series, obviously), or he's writing about humanity struggling to survive (basically all of his other series). When you read his stuff, especially lately, it gets wordy, and conversations are twice as long as they need to be. Descriptions go on for pages. Segments are repeated from different points of view. Yup, it sounds like a SF version of Robert Jordan.

MISSION OF HONOR has all of the above issues, but somehow we still enjoyed this first main-line Honorverse story in several years (since 2006's AT ALL COSTS). MISSION OF HONOR picks up in the aftermath of the Battle of Manticore. If you've read the series (MISSION OF HONOR is the 12th main-line book), you know how crazy that battle was. What we have now is the diplomatic and political intrigue that comes following that major conflict. This is also where the overly long and repetitive conversations come into play. It seems like the first half of the novel is all meetings where the conversations loop. Honor Harrington is sent to Haven to initiate peace talks under the threat of "Let's get this done, or we will systematically wipe out your entire Republic."

Going much more into the plot will majorly spoil the last half of the novel, so we are going to be fairly vague. Let's just say that the first half of the novel, as slow as it is, suddenly goes into "everyone is screwed" mode. When devastation happens, Weber pulls no punches. We couldn't help but mutter, "Holy crap..." every chapter in the latter half of this novel. The tension of the political situations are handled very well, and then the tension in the space battles is excellent. Weber's success, in our opinions, is inherent with his ability to make conflict palpable. You feel the fear people have. You feel power behind people's threats. Stand-offs (whether political or in battle) make your heart pound.

But really, what made this novel good was the consequences. Bad stuff happens. The body count is very high. This happens in pretty much every Military SF novel. But in MISSION OF HONOR we see how it effects those who survive. This is how you handle mass-scale death. So. Well. Done.

There are a few little quibbles we have. The passage of time goes by so unevenly. Between chapters you could have months pass, or only a few seconds. But there is never really any time anchor at the start of a chapter. The progression of the novel, with regards to the plot, is pretty straightforward. If you can't figure out what is going to happen at the very end, you must not be paying attention while reading. The first half of the novel is recap of the whole series (at least that's how it seems), then the last half is in a completely different gear; almost as if it is two books put together. The ending is a cliffhanger with all sorts of doom on the horizon. Most of this stuff won't bother a fan of Weber's work, but it won't win over new fans either.

It's pretty essential that you don't read this book if you haven't read the series. You'll be totally lost, and none of the tension will come across. We know what you are thinking (Hellllooooo? Psychics here), "Ah man, I have to read 11 other books before I can read this one? Do you know how expensive that is?" Actually you have to read more than 11 books, and yeah we know how expensive it is to buy into an existing series.

[sales pitch]However, what if we told you that you could have EVERY book written by Weber for Baen (28 in all) for the price of one hardback? Hopefully that got your attention. Included with MISSION OF HONOR is a CD. This CD has every Baen published novel written by David Weber (including MISSION OF HONOR) in various ebook formats. So, let's say you go to Amazon.com and buy MISSION OF HONOR for $15 like we did. That's $15 for 28 novels. Unfrakkingbelievable. No other companies do this sort of thing. You should already be online buying a copy of this book to support Baen and their awesomeness. [/sales pitch]

MISSION OF HONOR, despite its flaws, is a terrific novel. We don't read a ton of SF, but Weber is always on our list of favored authors. He brings amazingly clear and complex battles and politics, and gives readers tangible emotion in a genre that typically lacks it. When we want good, new Military SF, we go to Weber, and we go to Baen.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: It comes and goes. Sometimes very heavy, sometimes none at all.
Violence: We wouldn't say this novel is violent, but more that it is absolutely filled with destruction. There's a big difference.
Sex: Nope.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

Professor Amelia Harsh has lost her tenure at the last university in Jackals that would hire her (after being fired by the other seven...). Why? Because instead of studying and writing papers like a normal university professor, she's out hunting relics of Camlantis, which everyone knows is a myth.

Enter Abraham Quest, the richest man in Jackals, who has been doing his own archaeology on the sly, and found proof that Camlantis exists. Unfortunately, the clues point the way into the heart of darkness itself, the source of the Shedarkshe river in the wilds of a jungle from which no explorer has returned. Camlantis was a utopia, with untold engineering feats, a society of pacifists, and Amelia and Abraham are convinced that it holds the key to making their own war-torn society a better place. But it means risking lives in order to see that goal realized.

Hunt spends the first half of THE KINGDOM BEYOND THE WAVES setting up the story, and because there's a lot going on, several characters to introduce, and a world to build, the time it takes to do this isn't unreasonable. However, it does make the first half slow-going. His prose can be dense, which also slows down the pacing and flow, but does make for a richer world. I love Hunt's metaphors. He is truly clever with his descriptions, adding depth to the world at the same time.

Finally at about the halfway mark everything goes wrong for our protagonists. And not just wrong, I mean horribly, how in the heck are they going to get out of this without dying, wrong. It's a series of life-threatening events that lasts the entire second half of the book. Hunt spins threads between all the characters deftly, so that when everything begins to collide, the weaving stories makes sense despite the chaos. Awesomeness on many levels.

Set in an Earth that could have been, Hunt mixes machinery, magic, and a dizzying assortment of races with alacrity. There's the race of mechanical steammen, who, while they have no country to call their own, still have autonomy wherever they live. There's the amphibian craynarbians, which unfortunately don't get as much face-time as the others. Also, the flying lizard lashites, who turn out to play an important role. In a story like this the races could have been gimmicky, but the cultures of humans and non-humans alike were all integrated into the plot in satisfying ways.

Hunt's steampunk world is ambitious, and while he does an excellent job of introducing it without overwhelming the reader, about 5% of the time I didn't remember or understand a name, race, or piece of equipment. On the whole for such a steep learning curve, only forgetting a small percentage is a petty complaint, and says a lot about the author's world-building, which is complex and fascinating. KINGDOM is Hunt's second book about this particular world, and while it isn't a sequel, I wonder how much more I would have retained if I had read the first. Trust me, I will go back to read THE COURT OF THE AIR. Even then, KINGDOM is readable as a standalone.

Magic plays a secondary role to the mechanical, which made me sad because Hunt hints at interesting possibilities he simply doesn't have time to explain or explore. Also, while the pacing is consistent, the flow of action can be jarring, and sometimes I had to re-read a few paragraphs to grasp everything that happens when the action switches. The biggest problem I saw, which could be minor considering the other strengths of the novel, is that with such a large cast it is difficult for the main characters to have any real depth. While the characters have their interesting quirks and motivations, there's no question that for KINGDOM, it's the setting here that's on display--and what a vision it is.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Only made-up words.
Violence: Plenty of it, but not excessive or over-the-top.
Sex: None.

Stephen Hunt founded http://www.sfcrowsnest.com/, a fan-run science fiction and fantasy website. You can also find information about the author and his books there.

Interview with Ed Greenwood

Really, if you don't know who Ed Greenwood is, you've been living under a rock somewhere. In the Antarctic. Now you may or may not read his books. You may or may not like what you have read. It doesn't matter in the end. Ed, as it turns out, is one of the nicest people we have ever interviewed. He is also one of the most honest about his own work. Check out the following interview with him and we triple-dog-dare you not to be impressed with this guy. Also check out the text after the interview to find out how to win a SIGNED copy of Ed's new book ELMINSTER MUST DIE

***The Interview With Ed Greenwood***


Whenever we have the chance to interview authors, the first thing we like to do is give them a chance to brag little (or a lot). Ed, we want you to leave humility at the door, and tell us and our readers why they should be reading your works. What makes you awesome?

Hmm. I’m more humble than braggy by nature, so I’m not going to be very good at this, but here goes...

I’ve written (and published) more than 130 books, so I’m either doing something right or fooling a lot of editors. I’ve won awards and had bestsellers. I’ve designed probably THE most detailed fantasy world-setting ever (yes, bigger and deeper than Middle-Earth) and detailed a lot of it, working for forty-some years on it thus far. I love characters and my tales focus on them, witty dialogue and all. I enjoy writing scenes of defying evil or misplaced authority, and LIVE to describe wild spell battles.

Most importantly, I LOVE writing fantasy, sf, and pulp adventure, and I think it shows in the writing. Why read something that the writer hasn’t had lots of fun creating for you?

You've written 30+ novels, campaign settings, articles...how do you keep it all fresh?

It’s that spirit of fun. I approach everything as a challenge: I have this much time to get from Here to There, or to create This effect; what’s the most fun way to do it? Or, how can I do it involving this character and a mad thinking castle and a drunken dragon, or making sure the fat guy slips on the banana peel in a way that surprises the reader? Right, here we go, and wheeee!

THAT’S how I keep it all fresh. If I’m collaborating with someone, I want to do it differently than any other collaboration I’ve done. If I’m using a place or characters I’ve used before, what can I do with them that’s new, or at least different? And so on. I’m going to die someday, and I’ve got SO many tales still to tell! So let’s get this show back on the road!

With your latest Elminster novel, ELMINSTER MUST DIE, you've returned to one of the most iconic characters in the Forgotten Realms. Give our readers a brief blurb of this latest offering, and if you will, is there anything different you do when writing in a shared/established Wizards of the Coast setting as compared to something outside the Forgotten Realms?

The Spellplague has come to the Realms, and almost a century has passed. Elminster, Storm, and The Simbul have all lost their goddess, their status as Chosen, and something else: Elminster – his eagerness, vitality, a lot of his magic, and his hold on his sanity; Storm – almost all of her magic; and The Simbul – ALL her sanity. El still loves The Simbul deeply, and is trying to make and keep her sane by feeding her magic, which he’s stealing wherever he can. Notably in Cormyr, where his thefts have made the War Wizards fed up with him and determined to destroy him. Weak and desperate, hoping to find someone else to take over his cause of “saving the Realms” by spreading use of magic to everyone, high and low, so no one can survive as a tyrant by using magic on others or by brute force of arms if no one has magic, he doesn’t even notice that old, old foes are hunting for him, intending to take revenge by killing him at last...

Now that’s the chords-of-doom setup, but the story also has a young and flippant noble, lots of other and more dastardly nobles, deadly slayers, a nearly nude “mask dancer,” an angry ghost, and some infamous thieves. Oh, and one very rude fat old man.

When writing in the shared world setting of the Realms, I’m always mindful of “not breaking the toys,” which means not killing or altering characters other writers and designers might use, and not narrowing down gaming or writing possibilities by making too many definite, clear statements and eliminating people, places, and things.

When I’m writing in my other settings, such as Falconfar, Castlemourn, Niflheim, or others, I don’t have to hold back. I can make big changes during a story, and kill and blast to my heart’s content. Yet at the same time, I have to do more explaining. Unlike the established, very detailed Realms, I can’t rely on readers knowing anything from previous books. The entire impact and coherence of scenes depends directly on my setting it all up for the reader, right then and there within the same story.

We hear from our readers, and have noticed ourselves, that your characters often seem so tough, and nearly invulnerable at times. Why do you think there is this perception, and how have you learned to balance this in terms of creating situations where your characters actually seem in danger?

Shining invulnerability, or an established perception of it, is a big problem when writing about iconic characters. If the reader thinks Elminster (or any other character in a story) is never going to be in real danger, it robs the tale of a lot of excitement.

The only exception to this is when I’m writing pratfall scenes, where the attraction is to see what sort of mess the character (such as, say, Mirt the Moneylender) gets himself into THIS time.

Much of my Realms fiction (which is work-for-hire, so I’m agreeing with editors and designers about what stories to tell, not riding off freely to write whatever comes into my head about new and uncharted territory) has dealt with powerful wizards, rulers, and other “fixture” characters, people who have a lot of power and throw it around, so they can seem very powerful.

Yet if you read The Temptation of Elminster or Elminster in Hell or this latest book, Elminster Must Die, Elminster makes a lot of mistakes and some very bad things happen to him; he goes through agony, he doesn’t always emerge victorious, and often pretty much accomplishes only one thing: he survives, and outlasts some of his foes.

In Death of the Dragon, Troy Denning and I killed off a very popular character (King Azoun) that most Realms fans never expected us to touch, and were quite surprised when we didn’t just resurrect him at the end of the book or in an immediate sequel. And the body count of lesser characters in my books is immense (to the point that editors often tell me to tone down the killings), so my characters are nowhere near invulnerable.

For those wondering what will happen to Elminster in Elminster Must Die, let me say this: the title is NOT false advertising.

One of the reasons Elminster may SEEM invulnerable is that he often acts as if he is, bluffing his way through a situation with drawling arrogance when he’s really “flying by the seat of his breeches,” like the old Saint character of all those mystery/thriller tales.

I work against the perception of invulnerability by bringing the reader close in to the action, so they can see just how dangerous situations are, and how the characters handle peril and pressure. WHY they do what they do.

Heroes and villains, however flawed, are inherently more interesting than terse, expressionless spear-carriers, of course, so there’s a fair bit of emoting and running around and saving the world. It’s more fun when the stakes are high.

Fans of your work have been following it for decades now, and have become pretty dedicated. How much attention do you pay to their feedback, and do you ever sneak in any "fan service" into your works?

When I started writing about the Realms, back in 1966 (yes, well before there were any fantasy roleplaying games), I was writing just for myself, and my big drive was to explore this place, peek around every corner to see what was there, and describe describe describe in a mad rush to see it all. When D&D® came along, it was a new “language” to describe the Realms in, and I adopted it, writing many Realms articles for THE DRAGON, as the magazine was known back then, starting in issue 30, but my drive was still to detail and explore it all and share it with the rapidly increasing ranks of fans.

The editors and designers at TSR (Jeff Grubb, first and foremost) were my first “tell me more about this” and “explain that” feedback, and then the fan feedback started. Which I’ve paid close attention to, ever since. Not to steer WHAT I put into the world, because I was still busily getting down into print what I’d already imagined, but to steer HOW I described it, and what I explained more of. So I don’t “take ideas from fans” and put them into the Realms, but I pay close attention to what they want more of, what they didn’t like or didn’t “work” for them (fans of course often have very different likes and dislikes from each other), and what seems to be misunderstood or complained about most often. Yes, I sneak fan service or “Easter Eggs” into my Realms writings, and always have, but I’m not going to give any examples. The fun lies in spotting them, or being the people they are aimed at and having that warm private smile or explosion of laughter or moment of tears, when they find those little touches.


Thank you for taking the time to drop by, Ed. Any parting words for the fans and readers?


My pleasure. I always love talking about the Realms. I’d like to tell the fans: the Realms is very much alive, and there are still LOTS of Realms stories to tell! I’d like to tell my readers: with every Realms book I write, I think I get a little better, and Elminster Must Die is probably my best book yet. Well, except for its sequel...

You don’t have to love Elminster to have lots of fun with this book. Heck, you don’t even need to know much about the Realms, because the “timejump” starts the story off afresh. Yet if you’ve loved the Realms for years, the post-Spellplague world, at least where Elminster is, in and around Cormyr, isn’t all that different. Same suavely annoying nobles, same even more annoying War Wizards, same whiff of treason around the Court...

Heh. Let the adventure begin!

****

What did we say? Ed is a complete class act. We are so thrilled that he took the time to answer our questions so completely.

We are just the first stop on his blog tour. The next leg of it picks up next Monday. Go run buy the following blogs to see what else Ed has to say!

Monday, August 9th - Sci-Fi Fan Letter

Tuesday, August 10th - Flames Rising

Wednesday, August 11th - Suvudu

Parting Note: We have five (5) SIGNED COPIES of ELMINSTER MUST DIE to give away to US and Canadian residents (sorry everyone else! We still love you!). You want a copy? Well, you know how it works for these things. Either post a comment/question below, or send us an email telling us your best Ed Greenwood story or asking an awesome question.

Also, WotC is running a contest:
Should Elminster really die? Should he live? Tweet your case (in 140 characters or less) for a chance to win a trip for two to Gen Con Indy 2011. Complete the official entry form first, then include @WotC_Novels and #elminster in your tweet. The judges will review all eligible entries and will select one grand-prize winner based on originality/creativity (50%) and sense of humor (50%). Entry form, complete details, and official rules at: www.wizards.com/dnd/promotions.aspx

Masked

We know Lou Anders, and we know his style and what he is capable of. So when we picked up MASKED, a superhero story anthology, we already knew we were going to have to reevaluate our appreciation for the genre. Superheroes, to us, have only ever been as interesting as their villains. Villains, in actuality, are the driving force behind the superhero tale. The reasons for this can be boiled down to the fact that the Heroes are almost always reactionary, waiting around for something bad to happen, and the Villains are the ones who have the grand plan or scheme.

It's because of this that neither of us are big comic book gurus, or even fans. Did the two of us, a couple of hard-sells in the genre, enjoy the anthology? You bet your Bat-Mobile!

It's par for course for anthologies that not all the short stories will shine, and MASKED is no exception, there were a few of the 15 that just didn't strike home with us. The majority of them were fantastic though.

To start off, we would like to address the introduction written by Lou Anders. As we read it, we knew that he was taking this project very seriously. It wasn't a joke to him, or the authors involved. Through the intro, and knowing a bit about Lou in the first place, we could really tell he has a passion for the subject matter and wouldn't settle in the compilation of this anthology. He was looking for the best. It's safe to say he largely succeeded. To do so, many of the authors Lou grabbed are comic book writers. They know their stuff, and it shows in the stories they tell. And here are our thoughts on some of them:

The Non-Event - Mike Carey
This is easily one of our favorites. The focus on the "mundane" superheroes/supervillains, and their goals was refreshing. Not every Hero is out to save the world, and not every Villain is out to destroy or rule it, and not every plan goes smoothly. The short story is told as a confession from a villainous lock-pick after a job going awry...which was a neat touch. The part that really hit this story out of the ballpark for us is that in its climax it showcases what it is to be human and how those threads tie us--Villains and Heroes alike--together.

Downfall - Joseph Mallozzi

This entry is quite possibly the shining star in the anthology. In what might seem, at first, to be standard reformed Villain fare, we are given an amazing tale about identity. With plenty of twists and surprises, this story turns its seemingly vanilla-flavored premise into a deep and engaging tale. We were both surprised by the depth we found here and agreed this was easily a contender for the best entry in the anthology.

Cleansed and Set in Gold - Matthew Sturges

One of the darker stories, and (predictably) another of our favorites. It's more difficult to talk about why we liked this story so much without including spoilers. Let's suffice it to say that the theme explored here is sacrifice, and what it truly takes to be heroic. A bonus point to this story is that its exploration of morals asks the question of whether what happens in the story is actually heroic at all. It was a bit surprising that the anthology started off with this story, but it certainly kicked everything off with a bang.

Message from the Bubblegum Factory - Daryl Gregory

If you have been following EBR you know that Daryl is one of those authors that we have only recently discovered and really liked. Upon finding he had an entry in MASKED, excitement to read his take on superheroes is an understatement. In true Daryl Gregory style he takes the tale for a spin. The narrator is insane. Off to a good start here, and it only gets better!

Thug - Gail Simone
A comic book heavyweight delivers the story with the emotional impact of a freight train. At first the writing is distracting, as it is full of misspelled words, bad grammar, punctuation issues, etc. All of this is done on purpose of course, and after the first page or so becomes less of a distraction as the emotional weight of the story starts to get noticed.

Secret Identity - Paul Cornell
The reason we didn't like this story was that it just felt so rough. It was more like a brainstorm session, chalking up the important points in a vague semblance of order, to remember for later. It bounced back and forth, and in the end we were just left shrugging our shoulders with a "Meh!" as we turned the page to the next entry. We will give him credit for an extremely unique idea, and something that could have been very cool had it not been for the presentation. As it is the metaphor we think he was going for here about identities, and hiding yourself, is almost lost in translation.

Vacuum Lad - Stephen Baxter
Is this really a superhero story? By far this is the weakest entry in the anthology. There is a lot of discussion of science, and not much else going on here. While the rest of the authors are reveling in the opportunity to tell a superhero tale, Baxter seems to only have the vaguest sense of willingness to participate.

"Where Their Worm Dieth Not" by James Maxey, "Tonight We Fly" by Ian McDonald, and "By My Works Shall You Know Me" by Mark Chadbourn were all easily worth mentioning as fantastic entries, each bringing a different emotional vibe to it and dealing with various human experiences. They explored death and punishment, remembering the past, and friendship and betrayal respectively.

What you may have noticed from our comments was the common theme of the stories. Heroes or Villains were used to tell a story that goes underneath, or perhaps beyond, the "superhuman", and is strikingly--sometimes hauntingly--human.

This is the greatest strength of MASKED. All the authors brought their A-game to tell us stories that, in the end, strike home so forcefully in their theme and presentation it is impossible not to be impressed by their work, entertained by the stories, or enthusiastic about the genre. The "Redemption Arc" is one of the most typical superhero/supervillain story arcs in the business. For us, MASKED itself was a redemption for the entire genre.

Recommended Age: 18 and up.
Language: Yep, there is cursing.
Violence: Well of course. There is plenty of fighting and gore, but in such short prose there isn't a lot of time to dwell on it, so the descriptions of it come and go quickly.
Sex: It is included in a couple stories, alluded to in others. Nothing to be too terribly concerned about.

Under Heaven

A soldier-poet in a world where connections and subtly are everything, Shen Tai expects to lead an ordinary life. After the death of his father, he spends the required two year mourning period burying the bones of a twenty-year-old conflict in the mountains. His father was the former general of the Kitai army, and had spent many an evening lamenting that fruitless battle. No one else could be bothered to bury the dead because the angry ghosts of a hundred thousand men scared them away, but Tai is doing this to honor his dead father, despite the danger, and works those years easing the spirits of the former soldiers into their eternal rest.

Tai's efforts, however solitary, do not go unnoticed. The White Jade Princess of Cheng-wan (seventeenth daughter of the exalted Emperor Taizu and now consort of the Emperor of Tagur) sends him a gift as appreciation for his courage and persistence: horses. But these aren't just any horses. They are the best cavalry horses in the world from Sardia, coveted by kings. And does she send him a couple, which would make him rich? No, she sends him 250, which will make him not only fabulously wealthy, but also a target for assassination among his own people. For a man who commands 250 Heavenly Horses in Kitai can sway emperors and armies.

Guy Gavriel Kay is known for his historical fiction, and Under Heaven is his most recent contribution, this time creating an alternate Earth for his version of the ancient Chinese Tang Dynasty. The story starts out slow and doesn't ever really speed up, although the tension is enough to make it feel like it's faster than it really is. The pace isn't unlike James Clavell's SHO-GUN, since he has a big story to tell, and a large cast, but still wants to keep a usually epic story on a personal level.

Kay is a beautiful writer, but he's also a poet at heart, which can be a good-bad thing when writing fiction. It means that he's very careful with his prose, and it flows superbly with lovely metaphors and imagery; his switches between viewpoints is subtle and elegant. But it also means that there's poetry in UNDER HEAVEN. Usually this irritates me. I'm the kind of reader who will skip songs and poems in fantasy books because although they add 'flavor' to a setting, they're usually pointless and slow down the story. However, poets and poetry in Ninth Dynasty Kitai are apparently very important (ok, I admit, it's probable he didn't make that part up, but still...). In fact, a student taking examinations for the civil service has to be able to write answers in poem form, whether they be military, policy, or social commentary, with the scores based not only on the answer but also the quality of the poem and calligraphy. I rolled my eyes at that one. But by the end I had to admit that it really added a lot to the story.

Tai starts out unassuming, but as we get to know him, we learn that he's no ordinary man. And he must use all his skills to traverse the deadly maze he finds himself in when he's gifted a treasure that only royalty would dare to give. There's the famous poet, the Banished Immortal, an unlikely friend during Tai's crisis--master of not only poetry, but also of wine and women. There's Tai's sister Li-Mei who's sent as an unwilling bride to a northern barbarian chieftain, whose story takes a surprising turn. And there are so many other equally fascinating and complex characters, who have depth despite their periphery.

Kay builds a world of complexity and beauty, writing on the verge of pretentiousness, but without quite falling over the edge. His themes of shaping one's own destiny coupled with how decisions affect our lives is explained rather blatantly, but he does it with such suave charm you can't help but allow it despite the obvious philosophical attempts. Another downside, Kay hints at magic, showing the results without ever giving any real information. There's a lot of potential there, but he wastes it on a side-plot that doesn't have bearing on the story as a whole.

Then we get to the last fifty pages and everything turns into a big narrative malarkey.

Like my review on K.J. Parker's THE FOLDING KNIFE, I don't care how beautiful your prose is, how fascinating your characters, how amazing your world, if you mess up the ending you mess up the entire novel. Kay spends 500 pages painstakingly building a world and its characters, the intrigue and plot, but it's pretty much washed out by the time we get to the resolution. It doesn't bother me that the climax takes the plot in a different direction--Kay makes some twists that completely change the landscape and it's brilliantly done. But then Tai turns apathetic. Other characters make choices that don't quite jive with how they're written. Yet other characters' stories disappear without explanation. It was more irritating than poetry.

By the end Kay must have gotten to a point where he was ready to finish the novel, so he did, wrapping everything up in a tidy little bow. There's no real conclusion. No exploration about the consequences of events that matches the care he took with crafting the rest of the story. Instead, there's an aloof summary with a 'and thus we see the results when we choose to stay the night at this town's inn instead of the next, and completely miss an opportunity at a different life.' Philosophical indeed. UNDER HEAVEN should have spared a few more pages so Kay could make good on his promises; unfortunately, he couldn't be bothered.

Recommended Age: 18+
Language: Some but not much.
Violence: Yes, and it's moderately graphic.
Sex: There's a fair amount throughout the novel.

Leviathan Wept

Daniel Abraham is, quite possibly, my favorite author. It’s awfully difficult to pick one amongst the masses, but he regularly goes head to head with my other faves (yes, even Ms. Parker) and so I can’t help but place him amongst the elite. After reading his Long Price Quartet, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to put my hands on another series of fantasy books I’ve enjoyed more. So naturally, when I heard that he was going to be releasing a short story anthology I was completely on board. Hook, line, and sinker. Does that mean that you should take this review with a grain of salt? Absolutely not. Please, if you will, follow me down this road of awesome, into the mind of a great. And though you need not swallow the gravy, it will certainly make the colors more magnificent.

I don’t know if I can count the number of times that I’ve read about a “new author” that has finally made it onto the publishing scene only to quickly release a short story compilation with a bunch of mediocre, pre-publishable mess that scares off potential readers. This was certainly not the case here with Abraham's LEVIATHAN WEPT AND OTHER STORIES (just released through Subterranean Press). Right off we get "The Cambist and Lord Iron", a hilarious piece about the value of things that made me both laugh out loud and think in silence. A great combination. Follow that up with "Flat Diane", a gut-punch of the horrific that deftly plucked the strings of my paternal instinct, which was made all the more intense by reading it immediately after "Lord Iron". These were both stories that I had consumed through online media prior to buying the anthology, but I still completely loved reading this time through.

One of the coolest things about this anthology is that there’s something for everyone in it. Science-fiction romps about removing the switch in our mind that controls our level of attraction in "Best Monkey", or having the ability to remove from our physical perception certain individuals that we don’t want to deal with in "Exclusion", showcase some of the great ideas that Mr. Abraham brings to the table. Woven throughout each of these stories are worlds colored by individual perception. Strong character is one of the reasons that I love Mr. Abraham’s work so much. "Hunter in Arin-Qin" gives us the fear and self-recrimination of a single mother that has lost her child to a beast and the journey she makes with a strange, foreign hunter to reclaim what they both wish to regain. Then a woman in "As Sweet" struggles with the concept of monogamy when so much of what she teaches to her students, and feels in her heart, deals with passion and wild abandon.

The first time that I read through the book, I was surprised by the endings of most of them. I’d get there and say, “Hmm. Probably not where I would have ended that one.” Yet despite this fact, I continued to think about those stories and what they were really about. On the back end, I’m quite impressed with where the endings landed me. The one that hit this most strongly was the title story, "Leviathan Wept". In it, Abraham posits the idea that as cells and neurons are a small part of what makes up us, so we might be a smaller part of something larger as well; and in the way that there is very little interaction between us and our neurons, even to the extreme that such neurons could not be cognizant of our own existence, so too might we not be cognizant of this larger thing of which we are a part. Like so many other science fiction stories, it pulls into it concepts and thoughts of deity, of that something that is greater than us, and what kind of interactions we have with it. Extremely interesting stuff.

Now, did I like them all? Not the entirety of each individual story, no; though I do have to admit as to being pulled in by every single one. Mr. Abraham has a great way of telling stories and a keen eye as to the development of his characters. He cares for all of it, and it shows.

Before I go, I have to give you a vision as to what this guy is doing too. Not only can he write amazingly well, but he does quite a lot of it too. And he’s not restricting himself to a single arena either. He’s taking his ability all over the place, and I think that’s a grand idea. The Long Price Quartet is done, alas. Man was it great. Go and buy this whole thing, as two omnibuses from Orbit, as soon as possible. Next up on the fantasy line? First book of five for The Dagger and the Coin, The Dragon’s Path, is now being drafted and should be released from Orbit in mid-2011. He does urban fantasy as MLN Hanover: The Black Sun’s Daughter series--two books done, a third near finished, and a fourth up and coming. Comic books? Yup. Writing for a couple of those too, one associated with GRRM’s Wild Cards series. Science Fiction? Of course. Here he’s James S. A. Corey with Leviathan Wakes, coming in mid-2011 from Orbit as well. And then there’s the short stories. Always the short stories.

He’s putting out for us people. Take advantage of this. You will NOT be disappointed by his work.

Recommended Age: 18 and up. Intense thematic content is what made the call here.
Language: Yup. Not a ton, but it’s there and can get fairly strong at times.
Violence: Not really.
Sex: Some dialogue that ties into the Language content, intense themes associated with "Flat Diane" specifically.

Daniel keeps a blog at http://bram452.livejournal.com/ and you can find some love for him at Orbit, his current publisher, as well: http://www.orbitbooks.net/