2011 Hugo Ballot

Well, this Sunday (the 31st of July) is the deadline for Hugo voting. We cast our individual ballots (well, those of us eligible anyway), but we figured we should let you all know what we picked, why we picked them, and where there were differences of opinion if there were any. If you don't see a category on here, it's because we didn't vote in that category.

Here we go!

BEST NOVEL


Steve's Pick: FEED by Mira Grant
This was the only Hugo Nominated novel that I enjoyed from beginning to end. This is one of the best zombie novels out there right now, and I loved how self-aware the the world within the book is. Do I think this book is going to win? I kinda doubt it. I think Connie Willis is kind of an auto-win, which is a disappointment to me personally. I'm a tad bothered that BOTH of Willis' novels are lumped together. It seems a bit unfair to the other nominees. It isn't that Willis (or any of the other authors for that matter) aren't deserving, it's just that Mira Grant was able to create a single novel that was self contained (mostly), and that was so incredibly fun.

Differing Opinions? Shawn's Pick - Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis


BEST NOVELLA

Steve's Pick: "Troika" by Alastair Reynolds
I think Shawn's Novella post pretty much explains why "Troika" was so awesome. This was such a tough category, and really any of them could win. This was my personal favorite.

Differing Opinions? Shawn's Pick - "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang


BEST NOVELETTE

Steve's Pick: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone
Eric James Stone is one of the best short fiction writers out there, and this is one of his best works. Religion in the future that doesn't just say, "Ah, well, religion is stupid and so is everyone that follows it." Completely awesome.

Differing Opinions? Nope. We ALL liked this one the best.


BEST SHORT STORY


Steve's Pick: “The Things” by Peter Watts
This story was fantastic all the way around. One of the most fun short stories I have read in a long time. I did vote for Mary Robinette Kowal for 2nd place here...you know, for those keeping score.

Differing Opinions? Nope. I have them all brainwashed!


BEST RELATED WORK

Steve's Pick: Writing Excuses
If you are a hopeful author, there is a ton of really good information on this podcast. Run by Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Brandon Sanderson and (now) Mary Robinette Kowal, this is pretty much a go-to resource.

Differing Opinions? Nope. Considering we all want to be authors, this is an easy choice for us. And we're all still upset Elitist Book Reviews wasn't nominated...


BEST GRAPHIC STORY

Steve's Pick: Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel
This web-comic just does it for us. It's reliably funny and well thought out. Not much else to say...

Differing Opinions? Nope.


BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM

Steve's Pick: Inception
Yay for movies!! This is where I get to turn off the critical part of my brain and just relax. I could vote for any of the nominated works except Harry Potter and feel good about it. But I just love Christopher Nolan's films. All of them. Seriously though, the rest are all awesome too (except Potter. I'm just not anywhere close to being a fan).

Differing Opinions? None.


BEST EDITOR, LONG FORM


Steve's Pick: Lou Anders
In just a few short years, Lou Anders has taken Pyr to one of the best publishing houses for SF&F. not to mention he's a pretty good Art Director too. Lou Anders is a stud, and deserves this freaking award.

Differing Opinions? No, I didn't allow any on this one.


BEST EDITOR, SHORT FORM


Steve's Pick: Jonathan Strahan
Strahan and Anders edited SWORDS & DARK MAGIC, one of the best short fiction anthologies EVER. I wasn't about to pick anyone else.

Differing Opinions? Nope.


BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST

Steve's Pick: Stephan Martiniere
I like every artist on this list. Every single one. This was my second hardest category to make a decision in. I'll be honest here, I'll be stoked for whomever wins.

Differing Opinions? No one else had an opinion in this category.


JOHN W. CAMPBELL AWARD FOR BEST NEW WRITER


Steve's Pick: I'm not telling.
No, seriously. I will never tell anyone my pick here. I either voted for Larry Correia or Dan Wells. One was first, one was second. Why won't I just tell? Because I am very good friends with both of them. It just wouldn't be right for me to spill the details of my vote here. I wish I could vote for them both at #1, but the system doesn't allow it. I hope one of these two wins.

The Other Votes:
Dan Smyth: Dan Wells
Vanessa: Dan Wells
Shawn: Dan Wells
Nick: Can't say for the same reason's as Steve


And there you have it. I look forward to attending the Hugo Awards Ceremony at WorldCon next month.

List your votes in the comments section.

Never Knew Another

When you read a lot of novels, there comes a time when you need something...different. No farmboys who are destined to become the savior of the land. No elves or dwarves. No schools of wizards. No epic stories that plod along for 82 bajillion pages. Typically when the menu calls for something like this, Subterranean Press is the best place to go. But lately, it seems like Night Shade Books has the kind of story that is needed.

NEVER KNEW ANOTHER, by J.M. McDermott, is a fascinating story that centers on the themes of identity and prejudice. The city Dogsland, where the novel takes place, is a sprawling hovel, really, where the citizens hold extreme hatred and fear towards any person that has even a shred of demon-blood in them. The story follows two Walkers—odd, religious, wolf-like bounty hunter types—as they try to track down demons that have been running around the city.

The thing is, this novel is mainly a character study. One of the Walkers has an ability to look into people’s memories, and then leap into the memories of others from that memory. So what we end up with is a novel told in 1st Person, but relating the memories of the people she (the Walker) is tracking to us in a 3rd Person Omniscient narrative style. At first it was a little jarring, but as the novel progressed the style became completely awesome in its execution.

The novel jumps from the memories of several people. Rachel Nolander, a half-demon; Rachel’s brother Djoss; Corporal Joni, also a demon; and a thief named Salvatore. Each of the view points is unique, and through them you get a great feeling for how squalid Dogsland is, and just how prejudiced the normal human citizens are. On the flip side, you also get a good feeling for why people fear the demons so much. It all makes for a fantastic dynamic.

When reading, if it seems like you are just getting character back-story, you are. That’s the way this novel is. NEVER KNEW ANOTHER is light on a major story, and about average on setting, but is solid gold on character and social development. What’s the reason for pointing this out? Simply put, a lot of people may get turned off from this story if they don’t understand the way the book is told right from the get-go. From McDermott's blog: "Literary Walkabout is a good thing."

Apart from the characters and unique story-telling technique, the other thing McDermott’s novel has going for it are a few very cool ideas that will stick with you until the sequel is released. The way a demon’s physiology differs from humans (and how they hide it), and the harm they can cause just by touching another person. The way the Walkers can see into memories (which was already mentioned earlier). The methods for cleaning and purifying places where the demons have been. There are some seriously awesome nuggets here.

The main problem most people will have is thinking the story is underdeveloped, or having trouble with the narrative style. My main issue was that the book just kind of stops. It makes the novel lack some of the emotion impact a character-study novel should.

But whatever. This novel was solid. The characters acted in very different yet completely believable ways. The description was terrific. Need something new and fresh? Something very uniquely written? Give J.M. McDermott’s NEVER KNEW ANOTHER a try. Now I just have to wait for the sequel…

Recommended Age:
16 and up.
Language: Some, and it can get strong.
Violence: A little, but nothing shock value. Remember, the main thing here is the characters.
Sex: Nothing super graphic. A few scenes of sensuality.

Note: As an aside, this is easily one of my favorite covers this year. I just think it is absolutely beautiful. It was done by Julien Alday. Completely awesome.

2011 Hugo Novellas

Here we are with the Hugo novellas. In case you are wondering, a novella ranges from around 17,500 words and measures up to 40,000 words in length. There’s some beautiful stuff in this set of nominated works—in fact, it was a little hard to choose which was the best. In the end, this category will vary a lot from reader to reader. Anyway, let’s jump in.

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" by Rachel Swirsky

Wow! If there were an award for just plain coolness, of breathtakingly beautiful scenes and weird and wonderful magic, then this novella would win hands down. It’s the story of a female magician—males aren’t allowed to be magicians—who is betrayed and killed and subsequently recalled to life to help various rulers and magicians and teachers throughout the ages. Each scene is gorgeous, interesting, and wonderful. There was enough magic here to last through a couple of novels (at least) and I ate through it ravenously. Sadly, the ending kind of fell apart for me. The story just didn’t tie together very well. Some of the scenes that I had earlier hoped would come into play in the end turned out to be pretty useless, other than being cool. It was such a bummer, because if it had come together at the end a bit better, this would have been my favorite.

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang

This is a novella that puts a different twist on the emergence of Artificial Intelligence. The book posits that intelligence requires the time and experience that humans get by learning and growing and interacting to emerge. Thus the AI's in this novella are raised from infancy and we see their development over the years. I have a strange love/hate relationship with this novella. I actually read it first a year ago when it was published by Subterranean Press. I mean come on, this is a Ted Chiang story, which is reason enough to rejoice. I read it completely in a day and I was actually very disappointed. Chiang’s work is brilliant, and while I was reading this one I saw glimpses of brilliance. I saw pathways that I sorely wanted Chiang to explore, and then he never did. I was pretty bummed out. Then I started discussing it with my dad who loved it to death. He saw it as an allegory for God and his creations and thought it was brilliant. I realized that I had committed one of the cardinal sins for reviewers: I judged the work not based on what it was, but what I wanted it to be. Shame on me. I’m happy to report that I reread "Lifecycle" and found it wonderful. I still wish he had expounded upon some of the ideas introduced here, but it was still quite good. Was it my favorite of Chiang's work? Probably not. But even a middling work from Chiang is enough for a Hugo nomination in my opinion.

"The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand
Here is a weird story about a motley group of characters striving to recreate footage of McCauley’s Bellerophon that has been sadly destroyed by a fire. The characters were interesting, the plot was OK, and then at the end it had a chance to be great. I thought I saw where the ending was going and I was excited about it. Then the story stopped short, tied up none of its loose ends, and sputtered out into nothing. Just like with "The Lady" this one would have been great if it had been a tad more solid in the end.

"The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis

Here we have some good old-fashioned fun space opera. We have cities floating around Venus’ acidic clouds, weird alien family relationships, action, gadgets, and intrigue. It was a fun story with big fun ideas and I really enjoyed reading it. I'd say more, but short fiction gets completely ruined if you get more than a few details. It's awesome, enough said.

"Troika" by Alastair Reynolds

Can Alastair Reynolds write anything but top-notch Science Fiction? How is it that his short work can be singled out for the Hugos and yet his novels never seem to be nominated? We need to rectify this. STAT. "Troika" is a great first contact story that is told as a flashback as the main character is searching for a woman to tell his story to. I'm dying to tell you why it’s really more than that, but I won't let you all pull it out of me. We'll just leave it at that, and say that the first contact stuff is top notch. There are images here that are still in my head because they were so cool.

All in all I think the novellas were my favorite of the categories to go through (novels included). There’s enough time and space to really tell a top-notch story with cool ideas, but not so much as to get bogged down. If you read only one category, make it the novellas. There’s some amazing work being done.

My order? Man, picking the top three was tough. He's what I voted:
1. The Lifecycle of Software Objects
2. The Sultan of the Clouds
3. Troika (Steve informs me that this was his pick)
4. The Lady Who Plucked Flowers from Beneath the Queen's Window
5. The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon

Hellhole

Everyone has prejudices. I don’t care who you are or what your background is, we all have things that just irk us to no end. As a reviewer it can be difficult sometimes to put those prejudices aside, to try and read a work based on it’s merit alone and ignore everything else. I have a secret for you readers. I’m not a fan of the latest Dune books put out by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson. I haven’t read them, but I have read the original Dune and it’s one of my favorite books ever. I don’t like the new books because it feels like they are trampling on something sacred to me. Who are they to tell me what else happened in the Dune universe. Only one person has that right. Frank Herbert. And since he is dead we are just going to have to content ourselves on what he left for us. Now I know, Brian Herbert is Frank’s son and maybe they even have some old notes and things. I don’t care. It still feels wrong and I don’t like it (plus the other reviewers here at EBR all assure me that the new Dune novels are freaking terrible).

So when I received HELLHOLE by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson, I thought it was a cruel joke being played upon me (and who knows, it may have been), but I decided to put aside my prejudices and read the book and judge it on it’s own merits. And then something funny happened, something strange and utterly unexpected.

I started to like it.

I know, weird right? But I did. I was having fun reading it. And despite the cast of characters that appeared to include hundreds of viewpoints, I was able to easily keep track of the story and enjoy it. The story takes place on a backwater planet named Halholme (nicknamed Hellhole by it’s citizens) where a defeated General Tiber Adolphus is exiled. He there attempts to undermine the core planets, start a rebellion and organize a new government of deep zone planets. Really it’s more than that, but the rest of the characters and story all hang off of that basic framework. I was surprised how all of those stories interwove and brought out new and interesting details.

And then aliens showed up.

Now, I’m an SF nerd, no apologies. If there’s an SF book to be read and reviewed here at EBR, I’m usually the guy to do it. I love aliens, I really do. I love weird planets and alien cultures and all of that, but these aliens killed this story for me. They put a gun to the novel's head and blew it to messy chunks of confetti. The aliens felt forced, unimaginative and all-powerful/wise in that Yoda way, yet cryptic in that zen master way. It all felt so over-done that I wanted to throw up. Which is a bummer, cause I was enjoying it up to that point.

So all in all, the book was a surprising roller-coaster of a read. I just wish that it had ended on an upswing instead of a down. There’s good stuff to be had here, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing to pick up the next book in the series. In the end, the total package was mediocre.

P.S. Can you believe I made it through this whole review without making a reference to reading a book entitled HELLHOLE and being forced to review it. SO MANY JOKES!

Age Recommendation: 16+
Language: Not much
Violence: Nothing remarkable
Sex: Alluded to but never shown

2011 Hugo Novelletes

It’s been a while since I read these novelettes, but I wanted to sit on them for a bit to see which ones stuck with me, which ones disappeared from memory and just see when I came back to it, which ones were the best compared to the others. The question I hear a lot is, "What the heck is a novelette?" Simply put, it's a work of fiction ranging from 7500 words to around 18,000 words in length. It is that piece of fiction that takes up the space between the short story and the novella.

There were some pretty good pieces of of fiction in this year's Hugo nominated batch of novelettes. So here we go:

"Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen — The basic premise of this story follows a balloonist living in Victorian times who is hired by an eccentric scientist to fashion a balloon that will take him up eight miles into the air. The scientist is in possession of a strange creature that becomes lucid and coherent only in thinner atmospheres. What started out (in my mind at least) as a steampunkish fantasy tale actually turns into a weird first encounter story set a hundred years ago. That turnaround really drew me in and made me smile. I loved realizing that I was reading a different story than I had thought and that discovery made the story great. It was weird, it was different and it surprised me.

"Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly — A bunch of young kids are on a space ship heading home. Something goes wrong with the space ship and they need to figure out how to survive the long trip. Great premise. The characters were well thought out and interesting. The situation was great. Overall it was a great story. I just wish it wasn’t so open to “Why didn’t they just __________?” I won’t fill in the blank, but in the end I thought there were several more obvious solutions than the one that happened. Other than that, it was a lot of fun.

"That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone — Wow! What can I say but Wow! I actually read this story on a recommendation from a friend a few weeks before Hugo nominations were due and I was blown away by this story. I was happy to see it on the Hugo ballot when it was released.This is a great story guys. It’s the story of a man living on a space station near a star who has a theological dilemma involving one of the members of his church. The problem is that member of the church is an alien life form (and not just a Star Trek alien, who are mostly human with weird bumps on their head—this is a weird and strange and almost impossible to comprehend type of creature). The story goes through the man’s attempt to solve the theological debate and answer some difficult questions. The great thing about this story is its take on religion in the future. Most SF that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) portray religion in SF as either gone--because in the future we’ve totally proven that religious is bogus for some reason--or else they portray religious folk as imbeciles and zealots who just don’t know better. Not this story. Here we see real religion in my opinion, full of people looking for truth and doing the best they can. They don’t have all the answers and are willing to take some things on faith. They are flawed but trying. I loved the implications of religion in an alien context. I loved the struggles and the questions. This is a great story. I nominated it and after everything else, I think it’s still my favorite, and there's a reason why Eric James Stone won a freaking Nebula.

"The Emperor of Mars" by Allen Steele — This was a story that right from the get-go really sucked me in. There’s a guy talking to you about going crazy in space. (Side note, the whole going crazy in space theme hasn’t been used near enough for me in books movies whatever. It’s just cool.) The guy then proceeds to tell of a specific incident that happened on Mars when one of the workers goes completely bananas. It was fun, it was cool, it was intriguing, and then it just kind of fizzled out in the end. If it had built to something really big and cool I would have loved it. The ending was OK, but I was expecting more. Still a "good" story, I was just hoping for "great".

"The Jaguar House, in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard — This is the story of a break-in to a temple complex in a future where (for some reason) everything has been modeled with Aztec names and sensibilities in mind. There are flashbacks to the past to kind of reveal why the break-in is happening in the first place and then a resolution where the villains' motives are explained. It didn’t really stick with me. The names and Aztec stuff, for me at least, instead of being really cool and adding depth to the story, just muddled it up and made it confusing. Sorry. Didn’t do it for me

In the end I’m going to go with:
1. "That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made" (Steve informed me this was his pick as well)
2. "Eight Miles"
3. "The Emperor of Mars"
4. "Plus or Minus"
5. "The Jaguar House, in Shadow"

So which ones are you all voting for? Enjoy.

Monster Hunter Alpha

There comes a time in nearly every series where the side characters of the first two or three novels become so interesting that they take on a life of their own. The readers beg, plead and offer bribes to the author for more information or more "screen time" for their beloved side-character. A lot of times we see this in the form of some short stories or novellas. But if we are lucky (sometimes), we get a full novel with that chosen side character as the main focus.

This was the case with Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series. From the moment the character Earl Harbinger was introduced in MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL, fans pleaded for Larry to write more about the werewolf. Larry relented, and we have MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA to show for it.

This novel will easily please Correia's legions of fans. So often the danger in writing a full story focused on a side character is that it doesn't feel natural or full developed. More often than not the story feels like a money grab. MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA, fortunately for everyone, never falls prey to those problems. In fact, the novel succeeds at feeling very fresh and different from the previous Monster Hunter stories.

It starts following the events of MONSTER HUNTER VENDETTA with Harbinger deciding to write down his crazy past. So what we have is a series of journal entries describing how Harbinger became the werewolf he is today. The entries ride a fine line of almost overpowering the actual modern-day story without actually managing to do so--yeah, they are completely awesome. The current portion of the story deals with Harbinger being notified that his nemesis (an ex-KGB werewolf) is running around the woods of Michigan. The novel plays out a bit like the isolation horror tale of 30 Days of Night, but using werewolves instead of vampires.

The action of the novel is, of course, extremely well done. There aren't too many people that pull off action in Urban Fantasy as well as Correia does, and he doesn't disappoint here. From the accurate gun-play to the brutal claw-to-claw werewolf battles, it will have you grinning ear-to-ear.

It's mentioned in every review of Correia's novels on this blog, and it will continue to be mentioned until people wise up. Correia doesn't just write mindless action novels. His characters are what keep the readers interested. This side-character story succeeds because Harbinger is a great character with a detailed past. All the other characters of the novel are new, and they all manage to entertain. Deputy Heather Kerkonen is a fantastic new cast member. As usual there won't be any spoilers in this review, but it's worth mentioning that Kerkonen doesn't come off as a copy of the other female characters in the Monster Hunter series. And truthfully some short stories about her adventures would be awesome (probably not a full novel, but a series of connected short stories would totally be great). You'll understand once your read ALPHA.

So were there any issues? Of course. No novel is perfect. The thing is, most of the issues are kinda supposed to be in the novel. This isn't Cormac McCarthy. It's a B-movie monster killing novel with lots of guns. Expect a ton of silly one-liners. Expect over-the-top feats of strength and awesomeness. That's the way Larry Correia writes his novels, and they are more fun for it. Look, if you aren't having fun while reading MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA, you're taking it too seriously. MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA is pure, undiluted fun.

Now, whether or not you like this more or less than the previous Monster Hunter novels will be up to you. Some people really like the main-line Owen Pitt novels. Others will welcome this change of pace. Pretty much everyone is waiting for the Agent Franks novel (soooooooo excited!). To each his (or her) own. Just go buy the freaking book and decide for yourself.

Recommended Age: 17 and up.
Violence: Oh man. This book was brutal. There's a scene with a giant wood-chipper thing that is just messed up.
Language: There is more in this novel than previous ones due to the cast of characters.
Sex: Nope.

Seed Seeker

A few generations ago, the sentient Ship found the planet Home, and seeded a human colony there. Ship promised to return one day to check up on their progress after it finds more planets to colonize.

Now Ship has returned to Home, and the people there aren't sure they want it to come back.

There are two different groups of people living on Home, as represented by their PoV narrators. There are the 'dome dwellers' who remain at the initial settlement and live off the technology and supplies that Ship provided when they first arrived. Safrah is one of the four young adults who still live there, helping to raise the children grown from the mechanical wombs; all older adults have died. They consider themselves 'true humans' because they haven't integrated with the alien biology of the planet. However, the majority of the population moved away from the first settlement, and now live along the river, including the young woman Bian. Unlike the dome dwellers who live among deteriorating technology, the agrarian river people are thriving and growing.

The characters, particularly the main PoV characters are an interesting assortment of people, with their problems, wants, and fears. The switches between PoV was smooth and easy to follow. The cultures of the dome dwellers and the outsiders was sparsely drawn, but was well enough done to not overwhelm a YA audience with too much information.

On first glimpse the concept of SEED SEEKER is really interesting. And the first quarter of the book sets up the story nicely. But then niggling problems became apparent, and by three-quarters of the way through they became full-blown annoyances.

A good portion of important information that affects character choices and behavior isn't given sufficient foreshadowing; it's not explained until we're in-the-moment, which makes the resolutions feel contrived. For example, the dome dwelling children are too afraid ever go outside. However, near the end of the novel we learn that one of them has been sneaking out on increasing forays for the past several months...which conveniently helps the river people gain entrance to the domes they would otherwise be lost in.

The prose could have been more fluid, and as a result it slowed the pace, making the book almost tedious to read. The dialogue was particularly awkward, mostly because the characters provide information that was hard for me to believe real people would share. The creative naming convention, especially when referring to people who don't have a direct bearing on the plot, cluttered the narrative unnecessarily.

The most important of these problems is the eventual realization of the contrived plot. Bian and Safrah spend the entire novel afraid. Afraid of their own lives. Afraid of the other community's culture. Afraid of Ship's potential 'judgment' on the colony. Afraid of what's going to happen. Fortunately they stumble forward in their lives despite this fear—even if it's not clear why they're afraid of everything around them. It got overbearing at times, because their fear and fear-based actions were important to the plot's forward momentum...which meant the momentum was slow and stilted.

Despite the interesting premise, the execution lacked any real strength. YA readers who really enjoy science fiction may likely enjoy this book for the themes of colonization, quasi-religious judgment, technology vs pastoral, opposing cultures, and a sort of "first contact" with Ship. However, others with a passing interest in Science Fiction may find it dull.

Recommended Age: 12+
Language: None
Violence: Brief scene near the end, and not particularly graphic.
Sex: Several of the characters have romantic intentions which lead to marriage, including one same-sex couple who must overcome cultural obstacles.

SEED SEEKER is the final installment of the Seed Trilogy, after EARTHSEED (1983) and FARSEED (2007). However, it's easily readable as a standalone.

The Girl Who...

The first thing I want to do is apologize for shortening the title of this review. The full title of Cathrynne M. Valente's latest novel is THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING. A title like that--though completely fantastic--just doesn't fit well on the title line of our blog entries.

This was my first foray into the works of Cathrynne M. Valente. It seems like whenever I would turn around someone (usually our resident reviewer, Shawn) would be saying how incredible a storyteller and writer Valente is. A guy like me can only take so much of that kind of hype before he gives in. Unfortunately reading an author's work based off that kind hype can also lead to letdowns--it has happened to me more times than I can count. I was worried. Luckily for me (and for all you discerning readers out there), it seems that everything people are saying about Valente is true. She is amazing.

With THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING (originally an online-only work), I knew within two pages that I was going to love the book. It's just one of those things, and I know that other people have experienced this just like I have. With THE GIRL WHO..., I automatically felt like I was reading a comfortable, classic fairytale. I was reminded of Grim's Fairytales, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland all at once.

THE GIRL WHO... is about a twelve year-old girl named September who is whisked away to Fairyland. Her initial quest is to retrieve a witch's spoon from Fairyland's new dictator, the Marquess. As the story progresses, however, September questions what kind of fairytale she is actually in. She questions what part she is actually playing in the story.

I'll be honest here, I feel completely inadequate even attempting to explain how amazing of a writer Valente is. After the first page, I wanted to read this book aloud--just the style of if makes me want to rush out and buy an audio version. Not only does Valente's writing make 95% of the other authors in the world seem downright average, but the voice she gives to the narrator of the story is absolutely perfect. I am still a bit stunned by just the way the novel was told, and by how clever the writing is in THE GIRL WHO... She can switch effortlessly from whimsical to disturbing. This Fairyland isn't all gumdrops and kisses. It has that Grim's Fairy Tales dark undercurrent.

And the thing is, this is supposedly a YA novel.

If THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING really is YA, it is probably the most well written YA novel ever, and probably the best YA novel I have ever read. I personally felt like this was an adult novel hiding behind the best YA disguise ever created. And really, doesn't that kind of appeal make this novel even better? This is a novel that instantly makes you want to curl up in your favorite chair, drink some hot chocolate, and completely lose yourself.

I wish more than anything that I could talk about the ending of this story. I think it is the ending that really shows Valente's skill for writing. This isn't just a fairytale. It is so much more than that. Treat yourself to a hardcover copy of THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING, and put it right next to those classic works of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum.

Will I read another novel by Valente? Yes. All of them.

Recommended Age:
15+
Language: None
Violence: True fairy tales have some grim and disturbing stuff in them. Valente's fairytale is no different
Sex: None


Drop by Valente's site and let her know how awesome she is:

http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/


Also, I'd be doing the novel, Valente and her illustrator a disservice if I didn't mention the amazing Ana Juan illustrations. A fairytale like this deserves illustrations, and Ana Juan's are absolutely spot-on. Every chapter of the novel begins with a new illustration. The inclusion of illustrations make everything about this novel better.

http://www.anajuan.net/

Will Power

The first thing you should know about William Hawthorne (aka Will) is that he's an actor. He's unabashedly self-serving, considers himself more clever and charming than he is, and profoundly enjoys his creature comforts.

Unfortunately, those character traits get him into trouble more often than not.

In ACT OF WILL, PoV narrator Will joined a small mercenary group after being branded a rebel, and they had some wild adventures (even if it did focus more on the traveling than the adventure part...). In WILL POWER, their story continues; however you won't have any trouble jumping right into the action without having read ACT OF WILL.

Right off the bat our friends find themselves on the run from the local authorities, and separated from each other—because of Will's ineptness. When a mysterious ambassador offers escape from town, Will is suspicious, but his friends take the offer at face value. However, it isn't long before they find themselves magically transported to another place and time. We don't know why or how or even the ambassador's motives. All we know is that this place is hostile, and crawling with goblins.

Part Elizabethan, part Gothic, and part high fantasy, the blending of genres into a twisted farce has a potentially large audience. Hartley pokes fun at high fantasy tropes and his prose is engaging and clever—which makes up for what the book lacks in plot and flimsy world-building. Will's narrative is funny without being over-the-top goofy; unfortunately it was sometimes a little distanced and the use of modern colloquialisms threw me off, so I initially had a hard time getting into it.

There are six people in the main group, all from the first book. Renthrette and Garnet are brother and sister with a mysterious past who've had to live their lives by the sword in order to survive. Orthos and Mithos are both cool guys who are handy to have in a fight, but unfortunately we don't see them for the majority of the novel. Lishe, the group leader plays a key, but brief role. You'll have to go back to ACT OF WILL to really get to know those three. And then there's Will: instigator, troublemaker, whiner...potential savior?

When they arrive in a strange new world, they're saved from a pack of wolves by Sorrail, the too-good-to-be-true warrior of the 'Fair Folk'. The Fair Folk are blond, blue-eyed humans who live in the white city, and are trying to protect their people and land from:

Goblins, who are are pretty much anyone not one of the Fair Folk, with a few distinguishing characteristics and abilities. They have wolf and bear mounts. The lands they live in have turned from beautiful forest into dismal swampland. It's pretty obvious they're the bad guys...but is it?

Don't forget the high fantasy trope twisting. That pretty much sets up the plot for you right there. Hartley drags it on and on, although not without charm. Will unravels the inconsistencies of the Fair Folks' behavior, and it takes too long, but his antics and witty observations are their own amusement. Assuming he won't completely annoy you as the main character (he seems like the kind of guy you'll either love or hate).

Is WILL POWER super duper good reading? Well, the prose is fun and the situation is interesting and the genre twisting is entertaining; but the pacing issues, absent main characters from the first book, and lack of explanations almost gave it a mediocre rating. So don't look at the story too closely. It's fun and fluffy and good clean fun, but sometimes that's just what you need.

Recommended Age: 15+ for comprehension more than content; YA male readers with discerning parents may particularly enjoy it
Language: Other than some colorful insults reminiscent of Shakespeare, nada
Violence: Briefly here and there, but decently done
Sex: Will wishes he had more success with the ladies, alas for him, nothing more than innuendo

Deathless

I actually finished reading this book quite a while ago and have been trying to think of how I would review it. Is it a good book? Of course it is. It's written by Catherynne M. Valente, and I'm convinced now that she has some sort of magical pen that turns everything she writes into gold (and if she doesn't use a pen then it must be a magical computer. Wish I knew where to get one like it). Does it contain beautiful writing, weird and wonderful characters and imagery that makes you weep it's so gorgeous? Yes and for the same reasons as above. Yet still I'm not sure how to talk about it.

So let's just dive right in, shall we?

DEATHLESS is based on old Slavic folklore. I was interested enough in what Valente was playing with that I tried to learn a bit more about Koschei the Deathless. According to Wikipedia (the source of all wisdom) Koschei is an archetypal male antagonist that runs off with the hero's wife. The only other information that it mentions is that the only way to kill Koschei the Deathless is to break a needle, which is hidden in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest buried under an oak tree on an island in the middle of the ocean. Sounds perfect for Valente to go to work with. And she does. The story centers on Marya Morevna who is stolen away to be Koschei's bride. She learns to live in the land of the dead, deals with the Babba Yagga (another delightful folktale) and various other exploits. All of this is set against war-time Russia. I know I'm missing several things about it, but you get the idea.

Let's get this straight from the start. Like all of Valente's work, it's gorgeous. It's not a book (for me at least) that I would get so lost in the story that I lost track of time and suddenly it was four hours later. This is the type of book that you read slowly, delicately, savoring and devouring each sentence. You are very conscious that you are reading, but you are enthralled with the beauty of it.

Second, Valente's imagination is second to none. The images and characters on display in any of her books are like candy for the brain. For a living I draw characters for video games. It's what I do day in and day out, draw draw draw (when I'm not reading that is), and every time I open a Valente book I'm tempted at each page to visually bring to life the weird and wonderful creatures Valente describes. Go ahead and try it. Open one of her books to a random page and you'll be hard-pressed not to find something fantastical, whimsical, and wonderful.

Something that I found strange about the book was the way it was written. It started at the beginning of the story and went sequentially until the end. Why is that odd? Because it's Catherynne M. Valente writing it. In all of her previous works that I have read the story meanders, in the past and present, sliding sideways or off on tangents altogether. It was an interesting experience to be told a story so simply by Valente.

Really the major problem I had with the book were the characters, and it was mostly the regular old humans that I couldn't relate to. When weird creatures enter the story I don't expect to relate to them, they are creatures. But when a human is in a book, I expect to understand them, to understand their decisions and I really didn't get that here. Maybe I just don't get the Russian mindset. I don't know. For whatever reason, there were several instances where Marya would do something and I had no idea why she did it. Her actions were as random as any of the wild fairytale creatures that populated the rest of the story. It made it hard for me to care for Marya or get too attached to her.

It's a small quibble really. Thinking about it, and writing this review I realize just how much I enjoyed DEATHLESS, like all of Valente's work. Sorry this took so long to get to you guys. Let's all make up for it by reading some of Valente's work. Pick one, they're all good.

Recommended Age: 16+ for some sexual situations and really high vocabulary level
Language: Honestly don't recall. Which means it probably wasn't much or I would remember
Violence: A little, not much
Sex: A bit of sexual talk, a few situations. Nowhere near as much as PALIMPSEST

Ghosts of War

There's a reason we like George Mann's work. It's all fast-paced, fun, and can be read without having to work at it. GHOSTS OF WAR is Mann's second Ghost novel, and follows up immediately after GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN. It has pretty much all the elements that made MANHATTAN fun, yet also seems to have more flaws than the first entry.

Mechanical, bat-like constructs are terrorizing the city of Manhattan. They swoop down and abduct random people off the streets, and those people are never found. The Ghost does what any good vigilante hero would and tries to solve the mystery. He is helped once again by Detective Felix Donovan—one of the few who know the Ghost's real identity.

There is something you have to understand about the Ghost novels. They aren't meant to be the pinnacle of literature. They are pure leisure reads and will be enjoyed by those who dig novels with pulp sensibilities. GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN was steampunk Batman with some Lovecraft thrown in at the end. We loved it. Others don't because they seem to be taking it far to seriously. GHOSTS OF WAR is the same thing. When describing this book (and really while writing this review), we feel like we should do it in that old-fashioned TV personality way. You know, with dramatic music and everything. Will the Ghost survive this encounter? Dun dun DUNNNNNN!!!

The good here is that Mann tries to give a little more weight to the Gabriel Cross/Ghost dynamic. Which one is the real personality, and which is the mask? It's the same question explored in every superhero comic/book/movie. Overall we felt Mann did a good job here. Cross/Ghost is still a good character, and Donovan remain excellent as well.

Unfortunately the other main character, Ginny, doesn't fare as well. We kept waiting for her to be revealed as someone important: a spy, a supernatural hunter...something. But she never was. She was oddly good with guns, and was kinda a love interest, but she never really took on any personality. She was more of an object that was made into a person. We still aren't really sure what her point was in the novel. She appears, does a couple things, then vanishes. Will she have a bigger role (and a more explained and less coincidental role at that) in future novels? She better, or what was the point?

There are also a few logic holes in the novel, mostly with how certain creatures are destroyed, and with how TOUGH the Ghost is. We lost track of how many times he was stabbed, battered, and bludgeoned...and yet he was always good to go. Normally these things get overlooked in long novels, but GHOSTS OF WAR isn't long. It's really short, so every flaw stands out and seems more glaring.

If you liked GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN, you'll like GHOSTS OF WAR. It's really that simple. The setting is a fun as ever. The extended information on the conflict between the British and the U.S. is pretty awesome. The action scenes are thrill rides of entertainment. This isn't Mann's best work, but it serves its purpose. It's fun, fast, loose, and action-packed.

We definitely look forward to the next one in the series.

Recommended Age: 17 and up.
Language: There is a bit of strong language, though it didn't seem like there was as much as in the first novel.
Violence: Well duh. You read the first one right? Flechettes, guns, explosives and monsters. This series is pretty violent. Again though, the pulp-nature of it kinda makes that a must.
Sex: No detailed scenes, but some conversations about it.

Hounded

Atticus O'Sullivan is older than he looks. By about two millennia. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to lead a normal life in Tempe Arizona.

Unfortunately, when a human has lived for 2000+ years one is bound to make some enemies, and his archenemy is none other than the Celtic god of love, Aenghus Óg. For a god of love he's actually a pretty nasty guy.

A while back—a long while back—Attitus got his hands on the magical sword Fragarach from one of Aenghus' military generals. The god has been trying to get it back ever since; he's been sending his minions to do his dirty work, and Atticus has been doing a pretty good job avoiding trouble. But now Aenghus is finally coming to finish the job himself.

The first thing you'll notice in HOUNDED by Kevin Hearne is Atticus' first person narrative: it's quick-witted, clever, and (this is important) not cliché. Life can get a little crazy for Atticus, with gods trying to kill him, but fortunately he's got a sense of humor. His repartee with his Irish wolfhound Oberon was pretty hilarious, and it proves to be an interesting relationship beyond sidekick/comic relief. The humor was a little too nerdy sometimes, with all of its pop culture references mixed with mythology and old-fashioned colloquialisms, but that's a minor complaint.

The first couple of pages sets up our hero Atticus and the kind of guy he is—and then leaps right into the story. He's attacked outside his store by a group of Fae sent by Aenghus. We get to see what this Druid can do, what his brand of magic means, and how he uses it to preserve his life. From there on out the tightly written plot flows quickly, moving forward without hardly a hiccup. He uses his magic in realistic ways, with its own limits. Although, to be honest, it really didn't feel like Atticus wouldn't get out of his predicaments—Hearne needs to work on the story's sense of peril.

Hearne handles the world-building rather well, considering the short amount of time he has to explain it; he's done his homework and integrates the magic and mythology fluidly into a compelling story. This is present-day U.S., but where there are vampires, werewolves, and witches—and where gods of every pantheon exist (if I had to guess an influence, it would be Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS). Some of them still dabble in human affairs. Some of them even have a great deal of power at their disposal. Take for instance the Morrigan, the Celtic Chooser of the Slain and goddess of war, who's made a deal with Atticus to let him live as long as he continues to irk Aenghus, whom she doesn't much like. In order for Atticus to survive he has to know not only how to fight and use his magic, but also how to keep as many people on his side as possible, even if it means schmoozing. A guy doesn't get as old as he does by being stupid.

I finished the first page with a smile on my face. And I was a grinning fool clear until page 289 mere hours later. Sure it's fluffy stuff, but urban fantasy lovers will take great delight in Hearne's new world of magic, gods, and mayhem. Yep, Druids are cool.

Recommended Age: 15+
Language: Scattered profanity
Violence: Some blood and gore
Sex: References and innuendo, but minor compared to the genre as a whole

HOUNDED is the first book of The Iron Druid Chronicles; the sequels HEXED and HAMMERED were released this summer, as well.

Bitter Seeds

Why do all good YA novels have adults in them that are either incompetent, abusive, or otherwise inattentive to the point-of-view children? Easy answer: because any rational adult seeing children in such horrific and/or dangerous circumstances, would without a second thought step into the story, hide the kids in the basement, and call the SWAT team to take out the bad guys. How on earth does that even remotely apply to an alternate historical fantasy based on WWII German superhumans fighting magic-wielding Warlocks? Stick around and find out.

BITTER SEEDS is Ian Tregillis’s debut novel and the first in the Milkweed Triptych. Apparently when the guy isn’t working at Los Alamos National Labs, he chums around with writers like George R. R. Martin and Daniel Abraham. Smart people + smart writers = total coolness. To say the least, I was interested in this one before I ever found out what it was about. And after I did? Talk about upping the stakes.

The novel centers around World War II with POVs from both sides of the struggle. From England, we get Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh, former soldier and current member of the Secret Intelligence Service, who gets caught up in the workings of an uber-secret group named Milkweed after he recovers a filmstrip showing German super-humans flying, and disappearing, and levitating machine guns. His buddy, the wealthy Englishman William Beauclerk, has been lazing about trying to get into trouble when Marsh approches him with news of the supernatural. This isn’t totally off, as Will’s family is one of a long line of Warlocks, who can use their skills to engage the powers of the Eidolons, a magical race of uber-creatures that remind one of nothing more than mini-cthulus. From the German side we get Klaus. He’s one of the sought-after super-humans and can essentially turn himself into a ghost for as long as he can hold his breath and his battery, to which he is wired, has a charge. Klaus has contemporaries, however, that include a man that can incinerate pretty much anything, a nearly-mindless cripple that can smash armored tanks to bits, and his sister, Greta, who can see into the future. Throw all of this goodness together with crushed ice, shake, pour, and you can’t help but get awesome, right?

Right?

Well, I admit, there is some awesome to be had, but overall most of it just fizzled for me. First the good though.

The biggest thing going for this novel is the descriptions. Great setting, history, sense of place. Interesting and complicated concepts are easily understood. Not once did I get held up because I didn’t understand something. There are also a lot of pretty cool ideas that have been put into the story. Background and history and continual intrigue also factor into the works. Characterization was decent, though two of the main PoV character, Marsh and Will, were pretty much indistinguishable from one another. Prose is well-done and reads fast.

A large issue I had though was that it just didn’t feel like any of the main characters did anything of note. Marsh goes on a number of recon missions and feeds information back to his superiors. Will collects up all his Grandfather’s friends that are Warlocks and then let them deal with the Eidolons. Mostly what Klaus seems to do is run away from things. There were a few times that he made decisions, but they really didn’t lead anywhere. Most of these complaints can probably be boiled down to the fact that there really wasn’t a logical, progressive plot that I could follow. I didn’t know from one chapter to the next really what was happening, or what any of the individual groups were trying to accomplish. Most of the story is told from a very high-level summary-laden perspective, with infrequent character-centric moments, and on the whole just didn’t work very well to relay the story. You can probably chalk this one up to the fact that the guy is a new author though. He'll learn to be better.

Despite the good and the bad that I found here, the piece that really took all the tension out of everything for me was Klaus’s sister, Greta. She’s a pre-cognitive without a leash, and as such she pretty much just pulls everyone’s strings. They all dance to her whims, whether they know it or not, and though it's stated several times throughout the book that she’s most likely a sociopath, I didn’t really get that from the interaction I saw from her. For me, Greta was just like the well-meaning parent that swoops in to save the day, placing her children in the basement and taking care of everything herself. Granted, she does make one decision that questions my opinion in this regard, but I just couldn’t bring myself to see her as a sociopathic manipulator rather than a benevolent dictator.

In the end, this one was nearly a study for me in amazing potential leading to disappointment. I can’t say that it was bad, but it wasn’t great either. From what I understand though, due to some truly horrific circumstances associated with Tregillis's previous editor, the entire trilogy is essentially done and waiting for approval from his current editor. Not Rothfuss-done. Just done. So that can’t be a bad thing for readers. If you do pick this one up and find that you like it, at least you can be happy that they’ll probably be put out fairly fast.

Recommended age: 18+
Language: Infrequent, but strong
Violence: A few bloody fight scenes but for the most part, no
Sex: Very little, though there are a few direct references to necrophilia

Ian Tregillis's Website