The Crimson Pact, Volume 1

Short stories. Seems I’ve been getting through my fair share of them lately, between the Nebula nominees, Hugo nominees, the most recent Writers of the Future anthology, and more. The hard part with anthologies of short stories is that it’s usually such a mixed bag. There will be some that’ll knock your socks off and others that make you feel like someone’s licking the butter between your toes. It isn’t often we get an anthology that stands really high overall, though sometimes you can find em. Most end up just left or right of middle.

THE CRIMSON PACT, VOL 1, was edited by Paul Genesse and based on a framework short story written by Patrick Tracy--it is the lead story of the anthology, "The Failed Crusade". The basic premise revolves around a set of knights pledged to fight against a horde of demons that has decimated their world. They are The Crimson Pact. The tone of the piece is grim, and though the story itself felt more like the portrayal of several journal entries than a complete story, it sets the stage really well for the short stories collected in this anthology.

Each of the pieces purportedly addresses these demons after they’ve entered some kind of interdimensional portal and been sprayed across the multiverse to wreak their havoc. Some of the stories deal with the knights directly, others only with unconnected persons and their interactions with the demons. With twenty-five stories in all (twenty six, if you count the premise), the anthology hosts a wide range of pieces. There's fantasy and science fiction. There's urban. There's flash fiction. There's epic. There’s a lot of great writing, and a few where it's pretty poor. Mobsters and private investigators and fairies and machine guns and yeah. Just a bundle of stuff to enjoy.

There were four stories in particular that I really liked.

“Solitary Life” by Donald J. Bingle was about a king's new head jailer who finds documentation of a prisoner that has been neglected for so long that he expects the man is dead and those servicing his cell to be hoarding the supplies for themselves. When he commands that the cell be broken open, however, he finds much more than he anticipated. This was the perfect opener for the anthology.

“Hidden Collection” by Sarah Kanning is about the exploits of a new library intern and some of the trouble that she gets into by sticking her nose into closets and sealed crates that she shouldn’t be. This one was fun and terrifying at turns. When the demon makes his entrance (and no that’s not a spoiler. Demon anthology, people) it seriously creeped me out.

“Bull King” by Larry Correia is essentially a chapter ripped out of his new book HARD MAGIC. There are gangster types and dames up against a group of baddies that just happen to be able to summon a big mother-killin' demon to fight for them. Although the story took a bit to get into because of all the characters thrown at me, this one was loads of fun. Fast-paced, funny, intense. Weapons out the yang, both magical and mundane. Getting a taste of Larry’s stuff in this way should totally make readers want to go out and buy some of his books. Especially the one that this came from.

“Of the Breaking of Stars” by Chris Pierson deals with a scientist living in a world where the stars are exploding when some fascinating technology falls into his hands and the Eater of Worlds is rapidly approaching. Smart and engaging, this one was a great ending for the anthology.

Of course, there were some that just didn’t agree with me, and one or two more that were really tough to get through. For the most part though, I really enjoyed them. There were two things in particular that I think would have helped the anthology immensely.

The first was an understanding that some of the stories are only partials. Although the editor points this fact out in a note at the end of the anthology, I had no clue that there were several stories that would have continuations in Volume 2. There were more than a handful of times where I got to the end of a story and said to myself, “So where’s the rest of it?” I was a bit annoyed, honestly, but it’s good to know now that some of those stories do continue. Also, some kind of notification at the end of the stories that will continue in a subsequent volume would have been nice.

The second issue I had was that there were another handful of stories that really didn’t seem to have any kind of direct connection to The Crimson Pact at all. I can see how including stories with a wide range of demons would open up the pool of possible entries, but I would have liked to see something that wasn’t just another collection of demon stories. Even if the connection is really faint, like the way a particular demon looks or what a given demon is trying to accomplish, would have made me more interested in the anthology as a whole. In that way, the stories would be populating a universe, instead of just being one-offs.

On the whole, I liked THE CRIMSON PACT, VOL 1 quite a bit, and I think you readers will too. Not only am I interested to read some more demon stories THE CRIMSON PACT, VOL 2 when it is released shortly, but I'm also a tad excited for one of our illustrious overlords who has actually written two short stories that will be in VOL 2.

The collection is huge at more more than twenty stories and more than 140,000 words in length. For $5, this is a great deal. Go grab it.

Recommended age: 16+
Language: For the most part, no, though there are a few stories that get kind of vulgar
Violence: Demon-killing, but nothing very graphic is focused upon
Sex: Some talk, but no scenes

The Crimson Pact Website

The Goblin Corps

If you enjoyed THE CONQUEROR'S SHADOW by Ari Marmell, then THE GOBLIN CORPS is more of the same. Only sillier. I know, I didn't believe it was possible, either, but just read the cover blurb: "The few. The proud. The obscene." Yes, yes he went there.

The source of said hilarity are the main characters, an "elite" group of goblinesque creatures formed by the evil Charnel King for a special mission: there's a troll, a kobold, an orc, a gremlin, a shapeshifter, an ogre, and a bugbear. Put them all together in their various levels of stupidity and prejudices, mix up a few stereotypes, drop them in the middle of a fabricated training mission with no defined leadership, and out pops a big, crazy mess. But then that's the point. They're supposed to be an elite military squad, but it's really just a bunch of bumbling around. It's funny. It's goofy. Eventually everything gets straightened out and they surpass all expectations. Yadda yadda. Until, at last, they learn the real mission they were assembled for.

THE GOBLIN CORPS has some of the same problems that CONQUEROR'S did, the least of which being the unnecessary adjectives cluttering the narrative. There's also the inconsistent PoV switching, which is usually the result of Marmell attempting to cram as many gags as he can into one scene. The characters of the demon squad sound a lot like humans with few cultural and physical details thrown in to differentiate them. The setting is your usual sword & sorcery world, the magic standard fare. The plot could have been pared down, the middle drags on, and the conclusion lacks real punch. As a result, this book bordered on a mediocre rating. However, despite these flaws, either Marmell is growing as a writer, or his new publisher (Pyr) provided him a good editor to help smooth out his storytelling. Whatever the reason, the result is a marked improvement.

Unlike the inconsistent characterization in CONQUEROR'S, THE GOBLIN CORPS has some characters you'll enjoy rooting for, whose motivations make sense. Sure they're the bad guys, and not only do they work for the Charnel King, they aren't very nice people, either. And yet, Marmell's characterization is consistent for most of them, and they progress over the course of novel with his signature campy style. It's kinda hard not to like someone who makes you laugh. Even if said goblin is a jerk.

By the time I got to the climax I looked back over the book and realized something. It feels like one, long dungeon crawl—and a really exhausting one at that. It includes quests for our adventurers to pick up and deliver magical items. Big, bad bosses who seem impossible to kill, who often require unconventional solutions. The group itself consists of a thief, a mage, an idiot with a club...you get the picture. And, of course, no dungeon crawl would be complete without mocking everyone in typical RPG fashion.

All of this could be stuff you've seen before, and therefore THE GOBLIN CORPS may sound like more of the same. And in some ways it is. Except Marmell really is clever. He comes up with some ingenious situations, locations, and some downright sinister bad guys. Of course, don't forget the twist: our "heroes" are not handsome elves, noble humans, or punt-worthy gnomes. So, maybe, this twisted version is another dungeon worth crawling through.

Recommended Age: 16+ for content
Language: Unlike his first book, which was pretty clean, this one has ubiquitous profanity, including many anatomically impossible threats
Violence: From simple knocking each other around, to a wizard's gruesome magical experiments, to battles with blood and gore, and lots of mean bugs
Sex: Referenced a couple of times

Deadline

Full disclosure. I loved Mira Grant's novel, FEED. I didn't think I would because I was a tad tired of zombies, but FEED was still awesome...especially the ending which was absolutely incredible. Sure there were some things that made me say "meh", but I personally thought the characters were fun (specifically in the latter half of the novel when the story got really grim and bleak), and the setting was fantastic. Not to mention, Mira Grant's writing appealed to me with its accessibility and her sense of pacing. If was my personal pick for the Hugo this year. I bought copies of her books and lugged them to WorldCon so I could stalk Mira down for signatures. Yeah, I'm a fan.

After I read FEED, I knew immediately that's I'd gobble up the next book in the series, DEADLINE. But I was worried. WAAAAAAAY worried. If you've read FEED, you know how the book ends. How the heck to you follow THAT?

DEADLINE is told from Shaun Mason's eyes, and the change in tone is really what helps set this apart from the prior novel. Shaun is an angry, angry guy. As the reader, you get to see his grief and complete lack of faith in anything. For the most part this is all executed extremely well. However, during the novel he has a penchant for wanting to punch anything and everything. It gets old, and feels unneeded.

Luckily neither Shaun nor the reader is given much time to dwell on the tragic ending of FEED. Things happen fast and furious to start out. Again, Mira Grant perfectly illustrates that in a world of zombies, the humans are still the biggest danger to humanity.

You may be asking yourself, "Self, why hasn't the reviewer talked about what the book is about?" You see, FEED is still relatively new, and the ending is one of those endings that MUST NOT be ruined. If I talk about DEADLINE with very much detail at all, it will hurt your reading of FEED. Here's what I can give you. Shaun and the crew are investigating a conspiracy that was introduced in the first book. The conspiracy is even bigger than anyone realizes, and Grant does a great job of illustrating the danger our protagonists (not to mention the world) face.

One thing I've noticed about zombie novels in general is how much it bugs me when the world introduced in the novel isn't self-aware. What I mean is that our culture has been exposed to zombie-related media for so long now, that we will have a grasp of the situation when the zombie plague runs wild (note: when, not if). Mira Grant's novels address this so well, that it makes reading other zombie novels that don't take it into account feel unrealistic. This world feels legitimate.

There is one thing that I should mention that did kinda nag at me a bit. Middle novels are hard, and not only is the author trying to set up the third novel in the series, but he/she is also trying to refresh the reader on the events from book one. DEADLINE suffers the effects of this in certain areas. There are certain bits of information that just don't need to be fully explained again. The pacing can get bogged down a bit due to the over-explanation (or repeated explanation) of details that the author feels essential the reader understand completely. This isn't a huge deal for the most part, but it bothered me enough to notice and to bring up.

That said, this book has some moments that are just freaking awesome. And I don't just mean action scenes, though the book does have plenty of those as well that had me giggling with horrific glee. DEADLINE has some terrific character scenes that show just how crazy things are getting for people.

Now, depending on how observant a reader you are, you may catch one of the major twists (there are a few). I caught it very early on in the novel, but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the novel (at least I don't think it did...it's not like I can test it). If you don't catch the twist, the ending is a serious "HOLY CRAP!" moment. Like FEED, it was the ending to DEADLINE that won me over on loving the novel.

Here is the question you need to ask yourself. Do you want to read a zombie novel that pulls in Science Fiction sensibilities without losing the Horror aspect of the sub-genre? Do you want a zombie series that shows just how much more horrible humans can be as opposed to the zombies? How about a series with good characters? If you answered "yes" to any of the questions, you need to pick up FEED and DEADLINE by Mira Grant. If you answered "no", too bad, read the books anyway. They are completely awesome.

Recommended Age: 17+
Language: Lotsa swearing.
Violence: If there WASN'T violence in DEADLINE, it really wouldn't be a conspiracy-filled, zombie novel would it? Of course there is a ton of violence.
Sex: One short, but fairly detailed scene. It's mostly used to show how much psychological and emotional baggage a character has.

Go check out Mira Grant's website:

http://www.miragrant.com/

And in case you didn't know, Mira Grant is a pen name Seanan McGuire uses. Seanan is best known for winning the 2010 Campbell Award for best new writer. She writes Urban Fantasy under that name which I hope is as good as her zombie books.

http://www.seananmcguire.com/

Last note: Seanan is an awesome person. I was able to chat with her for a bit at WorldCon in Reno, and she is one of the nicest people even...when she's not planning to kill you. As an author, being nice is a good thing. It impacts what people think of you and your work. Seanan's personality made me like her work even more.

The Word for World is Forest

Before there was Avatar there was Ursula K. Le Guin's THE WORD FOR WORLD IS FOREST. Written in 1972, and the winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for best novella, Tor decided that the current furor over sustainable ecology would make this novel a timely re-release. At the very least it's an entertaining comparison to Cameron's blue-peopled visual extravaganza.

The similarities will be obvious from the start: humans can now travel to the stars and will take other planets' natural resources for their own use; the nature-loving natives who just want to preserve their way of life; the racist Army dude who is willing to do anything to fulfill his objective.

If this story reads as predictable, it's because, well, it was written 40 years ago, and the story has been used in many different incarnations since then. Le Guin was a trailblazer with not only her stories and characters, but with her ecological and race-relation themes. It's worth it to see the origins of some of these ideas (see also Shawn's review on LITTLE FUZZY). Here it starts off with the interesting dilemma: the planets were all seeded thousands of years ago by a main race, so the 'aliens' are actually distant cousins who evolved differently from the same stock. So, how different are the three-foot, green-furred Athsheans from Earth's humans? The answer to that is actually very important.

A quick read, TWFWIF is told from the PoV of our three main characters: Captain Davidson, Captain Lyubov, and Selver. Davidson is running a remote logging camp on the planet New Tahiti and is having trouble with the natives he calls 'creechies', which they've been using for menial labor, but they're lazy and incompetent. Not only that, but the landscape gives them trouble: after logging an area instead of making it farmable for soybeans, the land turns into mush. The scientist Lyubov, however, doesn't see things the same way as Davidson. The natives' tribes are named for the different trees which makes the forest an important part of their culture. Their 'laziness' stems from a culture with vastly different sleep cycles--in fact dreaming is an important and revered ability among the Athsheans. Then there is Selver, the native Athshean, who despite being raised in a pacifist culture, realizes that force will become necessary in dealing with the invading humans.

Le Guin explores the issues of a clash of cultures, despite a shared origin and how genocide can be caused by ignorance or greed. Another dominant theme is the importance the environment has on the Athsheans and how the humans' interference will have horrifying repercussions.

As a result of a short story with a focus on the themes, setting, and storyline, the characters, while interesting, didn't have enough time for an in-depth study and will feel like stereotypes. But that's not really the point of Le Guin's story, her intent is to make the reader reconsider the importance of culture vs environment.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Minor references and racist lingo
Violence: Yes, although not in-depth scenes
Sex: Rape is referenced, but not shown

The Nebula Awards Showcase 2011

Good short stories in my opinion are those that get in, get memorable, and then get out. They’re quick, they’re sharp, they’re efficient. Sometimes you can’t help but come out a little dirty. Others catch you with your back turned and give you the once-over of your previously boring life. And then there are the stinkers. Ugh. Let’s not talk about those though.

THE NEBULA AWARDS SHOWCASE 2011, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, is a relatively short (under 400 pages) anthology of works nominated for the award by authors wide and various through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Contained within SHOWCASE are all of the short stories and novelettes that were nominated in 2010 (including the winners) and the winning novella, along with a few extras from long-standing authors in the field that were given special honors. As with many compilations of short fiction, there were some stories that worked for me and others that didn’t. I’ll mention a few of them specifically.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the short stories. Perhaps there’s something about the short form and Science Fiction that just works for me. Maybe it’s the fact that authors are forced to get to the point instead of wandering around aimlessly with their beautiful prose. Then again, it could be that the short story realm is just so darn ruthless when it comes to those stories that make it and those that don’t. Whatever it is, essentially all of the short stories that were nominated here were pretty good.

Saladin Ahmed’s "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" is a story about a physician and his interaction with an old man and his not-so-typical wife that totally made me open my eyes and look at this guy for real. This was one of the few Fantasy stories, with great storytelling and twists a-google. He has a book coming out in Feb 2012 that I was pretty meh about before reading SHOWCASE. But no longer, my friends. No longer.

"I Remember the Future" was mostly awesome, only falling short for me because the end took a turn for the cheesy instead of dealing with the real-world issues it had built on concerning family, paternal presence, and the call of a writer's muse. Granted, the story is Science Fiction, but it really shouldn’t have been, in my opinion. It could have been so much more.

"Bridescicle" by Will McIntosh was a really interesting take on the post-life dating scene and quite well written. There was a lot in this one that really pushed my buttons.

"Spar", the winner of the Nebula in the short story category, is not for everyone. I should probably repeat myself here. This story is not for everyone. And definitely not for kids. In short, it’s an extremely explicit portrayal of a space-faring woman that is captured by an amoeba-like alien. It is disturbing in so many ways, and then just ends with nothing significant to make all the shudder-inducing horror worth the read. Why did this one win? Because it was gritty? Because it pushed the boundaries of what people will read? Honestly, I haven’t the first clue, and I’d almost suggest that readers just skip over this one. It’s really short, and they aren’t going to miss anything worthwhile by not reading it.

Unfortunately, the stories from the novella nominees didn’t garner any of the same surprises. In fact, this was the point where everything devolved into what I’ve come to expect from Science Fiction: bloated prose, wandering plots, and literary pontification. Very well-written all, of course, but really nothing that I cared to read in the slightest. There was, however, one exception.

And it was a big one.

"Divining Light" by Ted Kosmatka should have taken this award home without even a blink being tossed in the direction of any of the other stories nominated. This story was Awesome with a capital A. Intensive science revolving around the particle-wave theory of light but twisted slightly to great effect, simple explanations, and all relayed to readers with a pretty faulted character at its core. I could easily say that this entry alone would make the anthology worth buying...except for the fact that Asimov's has posted it for free on their website. In fact, I’d suggest going there to read it, because the two small pictures that have been included in his story were inadvertently swapped in the SHOWCASE version. It's stories like these that give me hope that there is still something in Science Fiction to love, and I’m now eagerly anticipating Mr. Kosmatka's debut novel that is coming early next year. If you do nothing else, read this one. It’s the goods.

Bringing up the rear was Kage Baker’s "The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, which was a pretty solid effort. Good prose. Good characters. Interesting premise and humorous development. Kind of like a Victorian-era Charlie’s Angels, if the Angels all had a day job in a brothel. The ending did get a bit confusing for me, and felt like it got wrapped up a bit too quickly, but on the whole a good effort by the late author and well-deserving of the award.

On the whole, this was a decent read, though I’ve placed it in the mediocre category because the bulk was simply just mediocre Science Fiction. It’s interesting to see what other authors think is good. The other side of the card, of course, comes from us, the reading public, through the Hugos. Apparently, Mary Robinette Kowal edited a Hugo anthology for the award last year, but it didn’t sell well enough to garner a return this year, which mostly just confuses me due to the nature of the award itself. Didn't the readers pick these stories as the good ones? Really? Such is the way of things, I suppose. Although, you do have Shawn presenting all the goods from an EBR perspective of the Hugo nominations this year anyhow. So how can you complain?

Recommended Age: 18+
Language: Most stories are pretty mild, but there are a few that go overboard ("Spar" being the largest offender)
Violence: No gore really, but some that hit it hard ("Spar"...again?)
Sex: Three stories have fairly strong ratings here, and one ("Spar"...surprised? Nah) completely blew the top off the lid

Embassytown

My dad and I have an ongoing argument. My dad seems to think that PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Miéville is a superior work to THE SCAR (also by Miéville, set in the same world as PERDIDO). While I know better. THE SCAR is better, better plotted, cooler stuff. In one thing we are agreed, however. In my opinion THE SCAR is a 10 (on a scale of one to ten, ten being perfect) whereas PERDIDO is a 9.9. For my dad it’s PERDIDO that gets the 10 and THE SCAR the measly 9.9. They are both good books. Fantastic books, genre-altering books.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because EMBASSYTOWN, the latest novel by China Miéville, is probably a strong 9.8 in my opinion. Easily my favorite of Miéville's books since THE SCAR.

EMBASSYTOWN was what I expected from THE CITY AND THE CITY. It’s a brilliant novel based on a very cool central premise surrounded by vivid weird imagery that only Miéville can provide on this scale

Now how do I explain EMBASSYTOWN? Every time I felt I was getting a good grasp on the novel, Miéville would change directions and throw me another curve ball. I could say it’s about a girl named Avice who lived in Embassytown and showed that she could become an immerser: one who could travel the immer between worlds awake and transport starships. But it’s not about that. I could tell you it’s about an alien race who speak simultaneously through two mouths. These aliens are unable to understand their same speech spoken back to them unless it is through a conscious being (computers don’t work) and even are unable to understand it unless a mental link exists between the two speakers. They are unable to lie and unable to speak in the abstract. They create living breathing metaphors for concepts they long to describe. But it’s not really about that. It’s about addiction. It’s about politics. It’s about language and truth and meaning.

IT IS WONDERFUL!

I raced through this book. I loved the ideas and concepts. I found myself going over and over again, in my mind, the ramifications of the dilemmas of the characters. I found myself thinking back to experiences in my own life. This book is amazing. It was everything I wanted it to be and then a little more.

This is Miéville writing straight up Science Fiction for the first time (you could argue technically that the Bas-Lag novels are SF, but they are something else altogether), but it’s not SF like you’ve ever seen. Mieville isn’t worried about explaining the cool technology of the world so much as the aliens, and even then it’s not the outward appearance that counts but the utterly alien viewpoint. The Hosts, as they are called in the book, are something truly extraordinary. They are alien beings in every sense of the world offering a different way of looking on life, the universe and everything. These are not Star Trek aliens, these are real, different, intelligent beings.

As with most of Miéville’s books, the city, Embassytown, shows itself as almost another viewpoint character. That might be one of the reasons I love Miéville’s work so much. I feel like these are real, living, breathing, gritty places. Not necessarily places I want to live, but real, nonetheless.

If I were to find a flaw with the book it would be the narrator, Avice. She goes through the plot of the novel, experiencing and even engaging in the major events, yet I got the feeling that she was merely a vehicle to drive the story forward. I never got a handle on her, or her character. She was there to tell the story, to show it to us, but nothing more.

But what a story it is. Several times I felt the book coming to a crescendo only to have another twist and another problem thrown in my face. The book explores the implications of language and truth and humanity expertly. I can only hope that Miéville writes more in this world. Given his track record however, whatever he writes will be worth picking up and reading.

Recommended Age: 16+ It’s a complicated book with some deep concepts.
Language: Surprisingly light for Miéville. Still a bit, but not a ton.
Violence: A few deaths and other things, but it never seemed graphic to me.
Sex: It's Miéville. Of course sex is talked about. It doesn't get too graphic in this one, but it is definitely mentioned...as are threesomes.

How to Survive Safely...

I read about this book awhile ago. It was a story about a time machine repairman, who owns a non-existent dog. It also happens that his mom is stuck in a one-hour time loop, living the same Sunday dinner over and over and over. Also the protagonist's (who just happens to be named Charles Yu just like the author) dad may have invented time travel. Oh, and Charles also killed his future self, so he's wondering when his present will catch up to the past, where he gets shot. I read that premise and thought, wow, that sounds like a book full of great fun ideas. It looked like a fun book. I need to read that.

Turns out the story, HOW TO SURVIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE(long title, I know), is really about none of those things. It was a more intimate personal story about the repairman, Charles, and his relationship with his father. I'd be OK with that too, if it worked. But it didn't. I read through the whole thing waiting for it to take off, waiting for something, anything to happen. Maybe the fun Science Fiction stuff would start happening and all kinds of wacky adventures would follow. Nope. Maybe the characters will leap off the page and I'll grow to love them and cry at the end when they reunite, or die or save the world or whatever (I'm not gonna give away the ending to you guys. There's a special punishment in the afterlife for people who give away endings). Wrong again. Instead the book was full of great promise that never reached maturity.

The book was a conundrum by all accounts. It's a short book, clocking in at a little under 250 pages, yet the author goes on as if he's writing a 1000 page door-stopper. There were paragraphs that were literally two whole pages long and seemed to repeat the same thing over and over and over again. And then it would repeat what it had said. And then it would say the same thing that it just said again. And then it would say something and it turns out you already knew what the author was saying. You see what I'm doing here, repeating myself? Now you know what HOW TO SURVIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE. Except you don't.

The other half of the book reads like stereo instructions. It was confusing to the point of total obscurity. Even with basics like how time travel works. There are plenty of books that at least give you an idea of how their theory of time travel works (for example, can you meet yourself and change your past, and if not, then why? Things like that). I'm really OK with a lot of SF mumbo jumbo to explain the quantum entanglement whatever you call it, but normally I also get a good explanation of what is happening. This book never did that. I don't know if the book was even supposed to make sense or if there were a bunch of science words in there instead of "and then something sciencey happened to make it all work". Actually come to think of it, I would have preferred that.

There were some moments of joy to be had in the book, no doubt about it. There are quite a few Star Wars and Star Trek references throughout to make me giggle. At one point the protagonist mentions a friend of his working on the Death Star and how nice the cafeteria is. Good stuff, right? Sadly those moments are few and far between. I was hoping for whimsy, something witty and clever. Instead the book was a dud. I didn't care as much as I wanted, I didn't laugh as often as I should have, and I was lost a whole lot more that was necessary.

Bummer, cause the premise sounded really cool.

Recommended Age: Not sure, cause I didn't get most of it, so uh, older than me?
Language: None that I can remember.
Violence: Dude shoots himself, but other than that nothing.
Sex: Minor innuendo.

Sword of Fire and Sea

I, like any decent purveyor of story critiques, am an author-hopeful. Once, about ten years ago and near the beginning of my writing “career”, I came up with the idea of evil monsters that could travel through shadows to get where they wanted. I thought at the time how creepy and cool something like that could be, and that I might actually use these shadow beasts in a story someday. That is, until a good friend of mine suggested that doing so might not be such a great idea because the bad guys could just wait until night time (or ANY time/place that it got dark) pop in on our heroes, slaughter the lot of them, and then take over the world. End of story. I’ve moved on since then. This novel felt like it hadn’t.

SWORD OF FIRE AND SEA is the first book in a trilogy named The Chaos Knight and is Erin Hoffman's debut novel. It is a story told from the perspective of a ship’s captain, Vidarian Rulorat, who has been called upon to fulfill a generations-old family promise to the fire priestesses of Kara’Zul. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to accompany Ariadel, a special fire priestess, from the temple of the fire priestesses in the north to a friendly temple of water priestesses in the far south. Along the way, he encounters rogue telepaths called the Vkortha, mighty gryphons, love, betrayal, and a prophecy or two, as well.

This one fell within my 10% rule pretty quickly, and if I hadn’t been asked to review it, I would have bailed really early. It wasn’t that it was particularly bad, there just wasn’t anything that really grabbed me. The prose is decent, though quite explanatory, and stays pretty high-level. Characterization, unfortunately, sums to essentially null. As the story progresses, and the main party amasses more people and more sentient gryphons, the names and references all got jumbled and difficult to tell from one page to the next who we were talking about now or really what was going on at all.

At times the story tried to get bigger, bringing in a trading company that dictates what the central government does. Then we're introduced to the prophecy of the one that is supposed to come and seal away the chaos magic forever behind an already closed gate. These scenes though were counter-balanced by others that just cripple the story—-the most memorable being the entire chapter devoted to the massage house, with its masseuses and their lotion. And there was a cat. I’m sorry, but I just hate finding cats in fantasy novels. I should probably write a fantasy story about a cat sometime so that I’ll hate them less.

On second thought, no, I shouldn’t.

The plot of SWORD is very linear and progressional, with one event/task leading the main party of characters to the next. In so doing, they travel quite extensively and visit many places that are quite difficult to discern from one another. Each trip is completed by gryphon, and so these legs of the journey happen on a very short time scale. This leads to a really vague sense of just how big the imagined world of the story is and how each of the individual pieces of the world-building fit together. I’ve heard complaints before about the horse being the “fantasy equivalent of a motorcycle”, and in this one the gryphons act as almost a perfect substitute for the "fantasy helicopter". They move the characters from one location to the next, flying through the air at fast speeds, and never seem to get any attention. At times they impart information. In others, they fight a bit, though those scenes are few and far between.

The two largest difficulties I had were the nebulous magic system and the lack of an impactful ending. The main character acquires the ability from a goddess to access the magical power of the world, and then starts using it with little to no training or effort as if he were a prodigy. At each of these times, he uses the magic "without thinking" or he just knows how to do what he wants, as the power is somehow tied to his will. At one point, the Vkortha use a wind-storm to swoop down on the main characters, steal Ariadel—the special fire priestess, in case you’ve forgotten—and then disappear. (Shadow monsters, anyone?) Later, the main character is given a magical power equivalent to that needed to move planets within the universe. (Sunshine…heroes maybe?) Every time the magical ability came up, the results seemed to get more and more preposterous. And then the big bang ending, which kept getting referred to throughout the book, passed like a puff of air and seemed to be forgotten entirely. At first, I totally thought that I had missed it, but no. The impact just wasn't there.

Looking back at this review, I’m seeing a whole lot of complaint and I apologize for that. Really, there’s nothing that was absolutely unforgivable about this story, it’s just that there was a whole lot of mediocrity and it was handled in a fairly poor way. If I could take back the time I spent on this one, I definitely would. And if you get the chance to read this one, and you think anywhere near like we do here at EBR, then I’d probably suggest that you pass on it as well.

Recommended age: 14 plus
Language: One reference to a swear word as being a "bedroom" word
Violence: Some fighting, but not really
Sex: A single reference to someone being naked

The Magician King

Many people have strong feelings about Lev Grossman’s 2009 book THE MAGICIANS. It’s inspired no small amount of passion—both for and against. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it tells the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a young man who’s about as diehard of a Narnia fan as you can get. (Except of course Narnia isn’t actually Narnia. It’s called Fillory—but the parallels are too strong for there to be any doubt in the reader’s mind.) He's a genius, extremely gifted, and kind of a major self-obsessed jerk. You know—like a lot of teenagers you know, except Quentin really is a genius. But he hates his life, and he wishes more than anything that Fillory were real, and that he lived there, instead.

Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t read THE MAGICIANS already: Fillory is real, and Quentin ends up living there, instead.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. THE MAGICIANS is best described as a realistic Harry Potter. Quentin goes to a school for wizards, he befriends a group of like-minded self-obsessed teens, and they end up kind of saving the world.

Some people loved the book because of the shot of realism it injected into a genre that usually has more than a bit of rose-colored tinting going on in it. Some people hated it because of how mean and petty the main characters can be. Full disclosure: I was a huge fan of the first book. It made me realize some of the assumptions so many fantasy books make—it asked important questions, and the answers to those questions weren’t always pretty. What if the magical world the main character discovers doesn't change his life for the better? What if the problems he had before—character flaws, unmet dreams, etc.—still exist? And when you think about it, doesn't that make sense? Why should walking through a wardrobe suddenly make everything else okay?

THE MAGICIAN KING picks up where THE MAGICIANS left off. Quentin is now a king in Fillory (much like the Pevensies are kings and queens in Narnia at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). And he and his fellow narcissists are off hunting a magical rabbit. Quentin has grown bored with how easy his life has become, and he’s wishing things would get a little less boring.

Wish granted.

He embarks on a quest that begins as more of a lark but takes a terrifying twist for him when it ends up dumping him back in the real world. (Yes, that’s fairly spoilery, but it’s also boldly stated on the book’s jacket flap, so I don’t suppose I’m spoiling too much for you.) That’s about all of the plot I want to give you, though. You don’t need much more, because you’re likely going to only read this if you’ve read the first book. In that case, you find yourself in one of a few groups.

First, you loved the first book. If that’s you, then by all means: full speed ahead. Grossman does a fantastic job bringing the story to the next level, and exploring the same world in a manner that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed or been-there-done-that.

Second, you hated the first book. If that’s you, then I’m surprised you’re even reading this review. There’s not much here for you if you absolutely loathed book one, as some people did. It’s still Quentin, and he’s still, well . . . Quentin. So move along, folks—nothing to see here.

Third, you were on the fence about the first book. You liked the literary feel of it, but the characters bugged you. If that’s you, then let me tell you a bit more. THE MAGICIAN KING introduces an important viewpoint character: Julia. She’s far less self-centered than Quentin, and her sections help to balance the book in a way that The Magicians could never quite reach. Instead of being bogged down in Quentin’s mind for unending stretches, you get the chance to see this world through someone else’s eyes. And while she has flaws and challenges herself, she is much easier to accept, identify with, and root for. (Really, it would have been disappointing if she didn’t have flaws—that’s one of the strengths of this series. The characters are real, with believable shortcomings that go beyond Hermione-is-a-know-it-all and Draco-is-snide-and-mean-and-evil.)

It also helps that this book starts with Quentin already having learned lessons from his experiences in the first book. You don’t have to relive that same journey again; he grows in different ways this time.

THE MAGICIAN KING is a quick read, well-paced, and intriguing throughout. It has a strong literary flair to it, but enough adventure, magic, and humor to keep it from feeling stuffy. As long as you didn’t hate the first book, you should definitely check this one out.

Recommended Age: 18 and up.
Language: Lots. Plenty of it plenty objectionable. This is an adult book. It would easily be rated R, for all the reasons you can think of.
Violence: Yes. Not pervasive throughout, but there are some very graphic, disturbingly violent scenes in the book.
Sex: Quite a bit, including one very specific, highly disturbing scene. Like I said, this would be a hard R movie if it’s ever adapted and sticks close to the source material.

Midsummer Night

Gill, former Olympic track hopeful, ends her running career after a life-changing car accident as well as a relationship with her trainer-boyfriend. Julianna, world-famous sculptor, is on the verge of bankruptcy as the result of not having sold a single work for the last fifteen years. It's at Julianna's remote British estate where their stories merge. Gill rents the little cottage on the grounds with the intent to recover in some peace and quiet. At the same time Julianna is hosting a summer art school, and plans to muddle through somehow and keep the creditors at bay.

It's during a stroll through Cairndonan Estate's extensive grounds that Gill inadvertently walks into the Otherworld—and a man follows her out.

From there on out it's a tumbling waterfall of story and information. Because, really, there's a lot of back story that has to be revealed. Fortunately Freda Warrington's deft hand weaves all the information without clunky exposition or contrivance (OK, maybe there is some contrivance, but the prose is so charming that you'll just go with it) into a complicated story that blends the magic of the Otherworld with Earth.

Gill and Julianna, our PoV narrators, are two very different women. Gill is still a young woman, but is broken body and spirit, and despite her assertion that she's recovering from her injuries, it's more like she's hiding. Julianna is in her 60s, although she looks much younger. She's driven by the need to make Midsummer Night, the sculptural group she's been working on, perfect before presenting it to the public. The supporting cast of ex-husband, housekeeper, art school teacher Peta, and others, are well drawn and interesting in their own right. There's Leith, the man who follows Gill from the Otherworld who is human, but has been gone so long from Earth he can't remember his former life. Then there's the sinister Rufus, the Aetherial man who first took Leith and will do anything to get him back.

There is present-day Earth as you know it, but there's also the Otherworld, a sort of fairyland where magic originates. There's crossover between the realms, with ley lines on Earth where Aetherials—the inhabitants of the Otherworld—travel from realm to realm. Some Aetherials have chosen to live among the humans, and as a result they've changed from those who still live in the Otherworld; Peta is one such Aetherial, which would explain her knack for art. In MIDSUMMER NIGHT the boundaries between the two realms blur, and we slowly come to understand that the Aetherials don't necessarily have the humans' best interests at heart.

The story ebbs and flows, so occasionally you come to a point in the novel where you feel like the climax should be any minute and story will wrap up...only a new event or information is tacked on. By three-quarters of the way through you'll start to feel that the story is being dragged on unnecessarily, and wonder if Warrington will just get on with it. But when the climax does come, then you realize that it couldn't have been any other way. It doesn't end like you'll expect it to, all tidy and happy. But that's what makes this story worth reading, because it would have been just another mediocre book if it had—Warrington stays true to the tone of the novel that she started with.

If you enjoyed Harkness' A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, and are impatiently waiting for the sequel, this may be the book to tide you over.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: A handful of profanity.
Violence: A sense of peril and some fisticuffs.
Sex: Referenced with some detail, including adult sexual abuse. Also, readers who enjoy romance and thwarted love will get their fill.

MIDSUMMER NIGHT is the loosely tied sequel to Freda Warrington's ELFLAND, but is readable as a standalone.

All the Lives He Led

Frederik Pohl’s GATEWAY is one of my favorite Science Fiction books from the Golden Years. I read it during a stint of trying to find out what made a good Science Fiction story. That was a tough row, let me tell you, but I definitely liked that book and remember it from all the rest. So, when I saw a new Pohl book pop up on our list of those available, I took on it—hoping that I’d find another instance of good Science Fiction.

ALL THE LIVES HE LED is the most recent novel of Science Fiction luminary Frederik Pohl. In it we are introduced to Brad Sheridan and told all about his life in the late 21st century. We are told about the eruption of the mega-volcano in Yellowstone and how it showered a majority of the United States in a blanket of ash, killing millions and devastating the economy and lives of those left alive. Appropriately enough, our narrator Brad takes the opportunity to travel to Pompeii, Italy, where someone had gotten it into the head that it would be a really cool to make that once ash-buried city into a place of celebration for the 2000th anniversary of the mighty blast of Mount Vesuvius. Brad takes a job as a grunt worker, trying to pay off a debt of indenture that he took on to be able to leave the slums of New York.Decent setup for a realistic, post-apocalyptic story—if somewhat benign, as there are no killer nano-viruses, nuclear-weapon fallouts, or mutant zombies with which to fight.

Most of the story though is involved in the details of Brad’s new job, the interests of his few friends, the past-lives of his family members, and a few adventures with the love of his life, Gerda. And there’s some terrorism stuff that sprinkled in here and there as well. And that’s about it. Except for the last 70 pages or so.

Mr. Pohl obviously knows how to write. The first-person PoV that he uses to display Brad Sheridan is engaging and easy to read. Brad comes across as an actual resident of that not-too-far future, with a bit of cynicism, a touch of humor, and a slice of his life to tell. The pacing of the book is quick, and things get moving pretty fast. They go and go and go and go...but don’t really lead us anywhere in particular. Instead, it’s more of a fly by the seat of your pants retelling of the life of Joe Schmoe. The characterization of the main character is good, but most of the other characters feel like fill-ins. There’s a security officer who's good at her job, but the rest could have had a tag slapped on their heads with a single word to describe them. Girlfriend. Teacher. Buddy. Crummy boss. (Okay, that’s two words. I admit.)

Then, near the end of the tale, Brad is given several data drives that have loads of documents and videos and information in general about all the people that Brad has dealt with over the course of his job in Pompeii and how they are definitely not what they appeared to be. We get about 60 pages of that, and then there’s an ending that I suppose was an attempt to be impactful, but really had little connection to the rest of the book and so it didn’t work for me, and then it’s done.

Leaving me not knowing what to think.

Except to lump this book into the rest of the mediocre Science Fiction mash-up and move on. I was quite disappointed. I can’t even say how much. I don’t even think I could recommend this book to those readers who like Science Fiction. The science here was very slight, very uninspiring, and even though it was necessary to the story, the tale barely felt like it belonged to the genre at all. And the relevance or the title? The one that actually screams Science Fiction? No idea. Grumble.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: A few strong references, intermittent
Violence: A few deaths, nothing big
Sex: Various and frequent references, but no scenes

Frederik Pohl's Website

Variant

Ever since we started this lovely little blog we've found our horizons broadened. Out of necessity--and due to our unwavering commitment to be being completely awesome--we read a pretty much everything that is sent to us. If we had to point at one area where our appreciation has grown significantly, it would be with YA novels.

That brings us to Robison Wells and his first major novel, VARIANT. It is completely awesome. Why? Because we said so.

Let's start with a brief little synopsis of VARIANT. The novel follows Benson Fisher, a perpetual foster care kid. He's given a chance to go to a super exclusive private school, Maxfield Academy. Within the first few opening pages of the novel, Benson is dropped off at the front gate.

And then everything goes wrong.

By the time Benson even has an inkling as to what is going on, it's far too late to leave. There are no adults at Maxfield Academy. Just students who can't even really recall how long they've been there. They are split up into three gangs, each of which try to recruit Benson. The real story here is the mystery behind Maxfield Academy. What is really going on here? That is what Benson tries to discover, and it is what makes this novel so incredibly fun to read.

Wells grabs your attention right from the beginning. This is important in any novel, in in a YA novel especially. The mystery is introduced immediately, and it's easy to share Benson's sense of bewilderment at the crazy circumstances of the school.

Since the novel is told from a First Person PoV, it's important that the main character is easy to get behind. This is one of Wells main strengths as an author. Maybe it's Benson's tone, or just the way he thinks a little differently about things, but he is instantly accessible. As a reader it is incredibly easy to just kick back and enjoy the mystery and the journey as seen through Benson's eyes.

The pacing of the novel is undeniably smooth. Not once did the novel get bogged down--an accomplishment for any novel. Again, this partially relates back to the accessibility of the main protagonist. We devoured this novel in one sitting. Now we know what you are thinking. "Don't you do that with a ton of novels?" This is true, but there are very different reasons for it from book to book. Sometimes the novel is just short. Sometimes the novel sucks so bad that we just want to get it over with. But sometimes it is because we literally couldn't put it down. VARIANT falls under that last category.

The first half of the novel will keep you interested in a general mystery...or at least what you think is the mystery. Then half-way through VARIANT comes the twist, and it will grab you by the neck and not let go until you have read the last half of the novel. Seriously, you should fully plan on devoting a few consecutive hours to this book. Otherwise you will look up at 3am like we did after finishing the novel and wonder how you are even going to function at work the next day. You won't just be interested in the novel, you'll by hypnotized by it's awesomeness.

You readers have no idea how badly we want to talk about the twist of the novel (which we are proud to say we guessed), or the ending. Just trust us on this, the ending will floor you, and you will absolutely beg for the next novel to come out immediately. This is how all debut novels should make a reader feel, but few actually manage to pull off.

Go buy this book.

Now.

Well, preorder it anyway...

Recommended Age: 14 and up.
Language: Don't recall any.
Violence: There is some crazy stuff in this book. It's disturbing, and completely awesome. If we say anything more, it will totally ruin the shock of the experience.
Sex: Nope.

Go take a peek at Rob's website. not only does he talk about VARIANT, but he also has an awesome series of posts about food.

http://www.robisonwells.com/

Perfect Shadow

Brent Weeks' immensely popular Night Angel Trilogy was published in quick succession. Readers had all three of his debut books on hand, devoured them, and then had to wait for his next novel. While imperfect, it was easy to see Weeks' potential for spinning a good yarn. THE BLACK PRISM has been released since then, but Weeks did take a little time to go back to the world he started out with, and gives us a novella about the assassin Durzo Blint.

Durzo is a character with a lot of back story, but since Night Angel wasn't about him, we didn't get to see much of it. "The Perfect Shadow" will give readers a glimpse into his life, specifically about how he became the man that is Durzo Blint. If you haven't read any of the Night Angel books you wouldn't know that Durzo is actually almost 700 years old, and has lived a lot of lives, in different countries, under different names.

As far as character studies go, it's too short and even disappointingly cliche. It's written much like Weeks' first book WAY OF SHADOWS, with its movie-esque action scenes and standard fantasy setting; the pace is quick and the prose easy to read. Unfortunately very little time is spent on Durzo actually learning the assassin trade and the rest of the time we're exposed to frequent wish-fulfillment sex. There's little to no setting, so those unfamiliar with the world will have a hard time creating a mental image of the time and place, especially since Weeks jumps around Durzo's memories.

It's only available on Kindle and Audible for pretty cheap, so if you loved the Night Angel world, and Durzo fascinated you, then you may want to pick this up. It's a quick read with details and insight about what makes Durzo an interesting character. But if you haven't read the trilogy, you'd best pass.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Quite a bit
Violence: Well, yes, he is an assassin, so there's blood and killing
Sex: Referenced. A lot.

Vortex

VORTEX is the latest novel by author Robert Charles Wilson. I've been a rabid fan of Wilson’s ever since his Hugo-winning SPIN. After that novel I went out and read four or five of his previous novels and I’ve read everything he’s written since. He doesn’t always hit it out of the park, like he did in SPIN, but he never fails to be entertaining.

I can happily report that Vortex is awesome. It’s not quite as good as SPIN, but it’s one of Wilson’s better books. There are two story lines going on in VORTEX. The first is that of Sandra Cole, a psychiatrist who is given the task of evaluating young Orin Mather. Orin is carrying around a journal, several journals telling the tale of...

Turk Findley a man taken by the hypotheticals (if you’ve read SPIN or AXIS you’ll know who/what the hypotheticals are) and now reborn ten thousand years in the future and living in a very different, very Science Fiction world.

There are other characters who appear in Sandra’s story, and others that speak in the journals of young Orin. The two tales alternate back and forth throughout the book coming to conclusions that tie the two together.

Honestly I wish I had not read AXIS (the second book in Wilson’s loose Spin trilogy) before I had read this one. It would have been far more interesting reading about Orin, and his journals, and wondering about the story told there. Is Orin making it all up? Is Turk’s story real, and if so, how is that possible? All of that would have been much more enjoyable. But I already knew the answer to it from reading AXIS.

Did it ruin the book? Heck no! Wilson is a great writer. I read JULIAN COMSTOCK, Wilson’s last novel before VORTEX, and wasn’t excited about the premise at all and it still managed to be a great book, based on Wilson’s ability to write great ideas with wonderful, believable characters. VORTEX is great. At the end of each chapter I wanted to keep reading about Turk and his adventures only to read more about Sandra and Orin. Then at the end of a Sandra chapter, I would be totally sucked in wanting to know what happened to her.

I didn’t only read this book, I devoured it. This was the type of book where if I had a spare ten seconds (literally I would open the book and read even just a paragraph if I could), I would read. I read it fast and I loved it. You should read this book. Read SPIN first (cause it’s awesome), and then read this one. You should read AXIS too. Heck just pick up some Robert Charles Wilson and enjoy.

Recommended Age:
14+ Nothing really wrong here, a scattering of language, I just think under 14 won’t appreciate it.
Language: A few words thrown in. Not a lot, but enough that I remembered there being some.
Violence: A few scenes. Nothing graphic.
Sex: There are characters who have sex, but I don’t think it was described at all, more alluded to.