The Sword & Sorcery sub-genre is currently the most important facet of my reading life. This is the sub-genre that got me back into Fantasy after a five year hiatus where I read nothing but Science Fiction. With that in mind, I take the authors and novels of this genre very, very seriously. At first glance SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER by Jeff Salyards failed to catch my eye. I didn't find the cover immensely appealing (don't give me that look, we all judge books by their cover) and the synopsis sounded like somewhat standard fantasy fare. At second glance, however, one might notice a quote by an esteemed fantasy author, comparing this novel to the works of Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan. Name dropping of that caliber is the surest way to stroke my curiosity.
With that single blurb, SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER was elevated to Must Read status. This quote has also set the bar almost impossibly high for poor Mr Salyards. Abercrombie and Morgan? Yeah, good luck buddy! Oh, wait...
Small town scribe Arkamondos finds himself in way over his head when he accepts a commission from the enigmatic Captain Braylar Killcoin and his rugged band of Syldoon warriors. As the company of battle hardened killers embarks on a secretive mission at the behest of the Empire, Arki discovers there are far worse things in life than the mundane histories of millers and merchants...
Enter Arkamondos the scribe, more commonly known as Arki. The tale is told from Arki's first person perspective, putting a less world weary and more naive narrative to the adventures of bunch of professional soldiers. This is the first wise move on Salyards' part. I've read plenty of books about bloody-minded anti-heroes, but few from the point of view of an inexperienced bystander. Arki's understanding of the world in which he inhabits is limited to his fairly limited travels. This allows readers to jump right into the story with a minimum of world building. What world building can be found is handled deftly. Salyards tantalizes with suggestions and remarks, allowing readers to puzzle out the bigger picture for themselves.
Back to the characters. I found Arki immediately relatable and likable. Up until the point in which he meets Captain Killcoin, Arki leads a relatively comfortable life. Recording the deeds of merchants is a safe enough prospect but deep down he is bored. Salvation from boredom is just what Captain Killcoin offers, even if Arki is too naive to comprehend exactly what that means. Which brings us to the aforementioned Captain Braylar Killcoin. What a complex character we have here. With a surname such as "Killcoin" one might expect an abrasive sort of brute with no incentive in life but money. This could not be further from the truth. Though Captain Killcoin is a rough and bristly protagonist, he is hardly one-dimensional. Killcoin's general demeanor could almost be considered manic in a lot of ways. One never knows whether to expect a friendly joke or a cruel barb. The deeds of the past way heavily on this man who is as skilled with his flail, Bloodsounder, as he is with his sharp wit.
At one point Arki declares that he has no love for the man but he would be loathe to see him die, and I can associate with this sentiment. Killcoin is the sort of man you are unlikely to become friends with but he is precisely the type to trust your life with. He can inspire even the most craven of scriveners to feats of courage. Of the members of Killcoin's retinue, Lloi abruptly became a favorite. Much like Arki, Lloi is an outsider to the Syldoon, though that does little to lessen her loyalty. It is rare to find such a pleasurable female protagonist in the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre. Much of the time they seem to fall under one of two extremes. Either they are powerless sex objects or warriors with a serious chip on their shoulder. Lloi manages to be a strong female lead without developing a "screw the world" mentality. She is essential to the company and unnaturally upbeat given her lot in life.
I enjoy the rest of the Syldoon nearly as much. The camaraderie of the group rang true at heart. These are profane professionals who earn their money on the battlefield and spend it on prostitutes and hard drinking. It doesn't matter whether they are swapping stories over watery ale at an Inn or fighting side by side, the Syldoon are quite obviously a family.
The world SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER takes place in is of the pseudo-Middle Ages European bent but not without variation. Salyards nails all the important details, making the world seem real enough. The story is kept to a deliberately smaller scope than what most would expect. There is a much larger world to explore in future entries to the series. The plausible nature of the locales and people that inhabit the world are crucial when it comes time for Salyards to introduce the more mystical elements. The mundane makes the supernatural appear that much more awe-inspiring and intriguing. As with George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, a little bit of magic goes a long way and I can't wait to learn more about the Deserter Gods, Memoridons, and the Godsveil.
SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER is fraught with danger and deception. The conflicts are extremely personal. The violence is brutal and terrifying. No one escapes a battle unscathed, be it physically or mentally. This is the bread and butter of Sword & Sorcery. This story deals with a small component of what I assume will be a wide and sweeping campaign of tremendous proportions.
At first I had intended to make some snarky remark about SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER being "fantasy debut of the year" as it is so frequently described by critics on Amazon. After reading it I have to grudgingly admit that yes, this very well could be the fantasy debut of the year. Night Shade Books had best cut a massive contract with Jeff Salyards because this author is a significant contender for the Sword & Sorcery throne.
Recommended Age: 16+
Langauge: Heavy and frequent.
Violence: Yes, flails aren't the most elegant of personal combat weapons but they sure are effective...
Sex: Yes, and plenty of sex-talk besides.
Want it? Buy it here.
Dan Wells has had quite the run. The John Cleaver series--starting with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER--was a fantastic blend of Horror and Fantasy with a YA tone (although it wasn't really marketed as YA in the US). His novel PARTIALS has been getting some really strong reviews. So I was pretty excited when I got my hands on an ARC of his latest work, THE HOLLOW CITY.
I'd heard him describe the basics: a story told from the point of view of a paranoid schizophrenic, Michael Shipman. A man who literally can't tell what's fantasy and what's reality. He's seeing faceless men, and is convinced they're trying to kill him. But no one else can see them, and he hasn't been taking his medication in months. To make things worse, there's been a serial killer at work in the area. Someone's been killing people and essentially destroying their faces, and Michael is a prime suspect.
I've always been a sucker for unique points of view. I enjoy the uncertainty that comes into play when you're faced with an unreliable narrator, and Michael Shipman is as unreliable as it gets. In fact, in a reading I attended, Wells explained that one reason the book has a prologue (not in first person, where the police find the latest victim) is that there needed to be something to give readers at least an idea of what was real and what wasn't before it transitioned over to Shipman's point of view.
The result is a delicious blend of paranoia, mystery, and action. This is like a book version of A Beautiful Mind, minus all the mathematics and relationship issues. If that sounds like something that's up your alley, then you shouldn't miss this. For most of the book, I was left wondering who was real and who was imaginary. Wells did a fantastic job keeping the mystery up.
This is One of Those Books--meaning, a book where the less you know about the plot and the characters, the better. So I won't go around spoiling anything for you in this review. Then again, a book like this falls apart if the ending fizzles. I'm happy to report that Wells kept it up all the way to the finish line. The ending was satisfying and--more importantly--managed to make sense of the chaos in earlier parts of the novel.
I also wanted to applaud Wells for handling schizophrenia as something more serious than a joke. He's clearly done a lot of research for this novel, and he took great pains to make sure that Michael was presented as realistically as possible (considering this is still a horror/fantasy novel).
Overall, it's a great book. A quick read that will keep you guessing and enthralled, right to the end.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Very little, all minor.
Violence: Quite a bit, some in detail. This is a Dan Wells book, after all.
If you've enjoyed any of Wells' novels, you will love this one. Here's your link:
THE HOLLOW CITY
Talyn the Dark, one of the immortal Vaerli (aka Breaker of Oaths), hunts the enemies of Caisah of Conhaero, Master of Chaos. As his Hunter, she rides her nykur on the Road or the Void itself to fulfill the bounty on Manesto, Ahouri, and Portree alike, to return them dead or alive to the city of Vnae Rae (aka Perlious and Fair). At the same time Talyn works to undo the Harrowing (aka the Great Conflagration) and fulfill her people's oaths with the Kindred.
When I joined my first writing group many moons ago one of the first things I was called out on is what Vonda McIntyre calls the Nouns of Doom. So when a novel's first chapter had such a freshman issue, it made me wary of the rest of the book. My worry was later confirmed.
HUNTER AND FOX is not Philippa Ballantine's first novel, surprisingly enough. I haven't read her others, and the cover even has a blurb from Felicia Day, which is why I initially picked it up so eagerly, since I follow her on Goodreads.
There are several PoV characters, but the main four are Talyn, her brother Byre, the talespinner Finn, and the mysterious Equo. They each have a unique viewpoint of the narrative. Talyn is one of a diminishing race, the Vaerli, whose magics were taken away by the Caisah--another immortal with mysterious origins and motives. She made a pact with the Caisah that forces her to do his bidding, but with the promise that he will help to redeem her people. The pact has left her guilt-ridden and scorned, but she is determined to see it through. Byre is the youngest of the existing Vaerli and discovers that perhaps Talyn's road isn't the only way to save his people. Finn loves Talyn, but must keep his distance, and it's because of his love that he risks the Caisah's wrath by spreading the truth about the Vaerli. Equo and his brother Si and Varlesh at first seem a superfluous trio, but become an interesting part of the story.
HUNTER AND FOX has quite the large cast, with several races, different magics, and various plot lines...all in an itty-bitty book of less than 300 pages. Clearly Ballantine plans on a sequel. But in the meantime every Capital Noun, magical tidbit, and terrain we can possibly journey across is thrown at us. Too ambitious for so short a book, HUNTER AND FOX comes across as rushed and feels contrived as a result of the lack of adequate foreshadowing. We're whisked from event to event, and even the transitional movements within a scene are abbreviated and had to be re-read. The plot itself is predictable, and the climax felt like Ballantine just wanted to finish the book so she could move on to the sequel.
Another problem is the semi-formal prose that is mixed with English colloquialisms and cliches, which makes for an awkward cadence that draws attention to itself. She's also fond of adjectives, her particular favorite being "wonderful," as in wonderful food, a wonderful night...you get the idea. There's the cliche fantasy events such as a torture scene, a masque, the tomboy being made-up and found beautiful--all stuff we've seen before. This is an author trying too hard to create high fantasy and falling flat. It isn't something an editor can fix, it's a skill an author will either learn on her own, or else switch to a different genre.
In its favor, the characters are an interesting bunch--what we could see of them through all the short scenes and quick transitions. The setting and magic, while both with some new concepts on old ideas, lacked any real depth because Ballantine tried to cram so much information into the story, there was no time to flesh out her ideas. Unfortunately, most readers won't be patient enough to pick up a second book if the first is too frustrating to read. If she's lucky, her characters will help her to pull off a sequel.
Recommended Age: 14+
Violence: Yes, including a vague torture scene, but not gory or overly bloody
Sex: Referenced without detail on several occasions
Here's your link should you want to give it a try:
HUNTER AND FOX
At first glance THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff struck me as irreverent and offensive. I was offered a chance to read the book for free through the Amazon Vine program and I passed it up. A couple weeks later I ended up coming across a review of THE MIRAGE that made me pause and think. From there the desire was planted and I ended up purchasing a copy, reasoning that even if it turned out to be a terrible novel at least I could write a scathing condemnation of it. As it turns out, not only is THE MIRAGE an excellent novel, but it is also everything a thriller should be.
On November 9th, 2001 four jetliners are hijacked by Christian fundamentalists. Three find their targets: the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Centers and the Arab Defense Ministry. The passengers of the fourth prevent the terrorists from reaching Mecca. This attack ignites a War on Terror, led by the United Arab States. Years later Mustafa al Baghdadi, agent for Arab Homeland Security, captures a suicide bomber. The man claims that the world they are living in is a Mirage, and in the "real" world it is America that is a superpower and the Middle East that is a third world country. So begins a thrilling investigation that will uproot the very foundation of everything Mustafa knows and believes.
So you can see where I may have been a little hesitant to read THE MIRAGE. The very concept is audacious and twisted and more than a little intriguing. At first it seems like a delicious sort of heresy, an act of adolescent rebellion. As it turns out though, THE MIRAGE is anything but adolescent and heretical. Though bold and original, Ruff's thriller turns out to be introspective and thoughtful, and at times even humorous.
The story is told mainly from the perspective of Mustafa al Baghdadi, though there are also chapters that follow his Homeland Security partners Salim and Amal as well. Mustafa is a likable lead, a dedicated law enforcer with somer serious regrets. Salim and Amal are also decent characters with fleshed out back stories but they do seem to lack a little in the personality department. Really though, it's the supporting cast that makes THE MIRAGE such a colorful and fun book. In this alternate reality Saddam Hussein is gangster, Osama bin Laden is a Senator of the United Arab States, and al-Qaeda is an ultra covert counter terrorist unit. There are more fun cameos throughout but I won't ruin their appearances by announcing them here.
The investigation is well handled, giving readers a guided tour of a world that is a delight to explore. Ruff's alternate reality is clever and colorful. The pop-culture references are particularly witty, specifically the television crime dramas and punk rock bands. Things are foreign but still recognizable and much of the time I found myself smirking as I read. Another sharp technique Ruff utilizes to tell the story is the inclusion of excerpts from the Library of Alexandria (the alternate reality Wikipedia). These excerpts are superb world building tools that offer background knowledge and set the stage for the chapters that precede them.
The aspect of the Mirage itself is handled very well. I had wondered how Ruff would pull off the alternate history explanation but he did not fail to disappoint. The investigation leads Mustafa and his friends from Baghdad to Sadr City, all the way across the Atlantic to the D.C. Greenzone and surrounding territories. The adventure is full of non-stop thrills and world shaking revelations. I regret to say that the finale turned out to be a letdown.
THE MIRAGE is a ballsy thriller the likes of which you have never read. Thoughtful and witty, Ruff crafts a novel experience that is sure to make you stop and reconsider your place in the world.
Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Some words but very minimal
Violence: Shooting, nothing extra gory
Find this great book here:
Several times now I’ve sat down with my wife and have attempted to explain a China Miéville book. I’ve tried to tell her how cool it is and how amazing the ideas are.
I tried to tell her about THE CITY AND THE CITY and how it was about two cities that occupy the same space, and how you weren’t allowed to look at the other city. How you could be identified by the way you walked and talked as being from one city or the other. I once tried to tell her about a special kind of magic in KRAKEN, where you were able to fold large, three dimensional objects as if they were a piece of paper down into small pieces of origami. I even tried to tell her about a cool race of cactus like people that lived in the Bas-Lag novels (PERDIDO STREET STATION, THE SCAR, and IRON COUNCIL).
Each and every time I tried to tell her about these things, I failed miserably. My wife is a loving person and she tried her best not to laugh in my face (she even succeeded a few times) as I miserably explained these amazing ideas. And that’s the difference between China Miéville and most other authors I read. There are stories that sound ridiculous--they sound absurd and absolutely should NOT be cool--and yet when Miéville talks about them, you get it. You really understand the idea and it makes sense and it’s wonderful.
So I’m going to talk to you for a bit about RAILSEA, and as I explain it you might laugh. You might think it sounds silly. And you’re right. It does sound silly, but again, when Miéville writes about it, you get it. It’s cool.
RAILSEA (when you really boil it down) is basically a weird-fiction rehashing of Herman Melville’s classic novel, MOBY DICK. But instead of hunting for the great white whale on an ocean liner, in RAILSEA we travel on large trains that hunt down giant moles that burrow under the ground and occasionally breach up to the surface. In Miéville’s latest, we are hunting for the great white mole, Mocker Jack.
Sounds ridiculous right? And yet the book is an absolute blast.
This is the book I was hoping Miéville would write when he gave us UN LUN DUN. I liked UN LUN DUN, but it didn’t have the particular brand of Miéville-weird that I so love. Well this book has that weirdness in spades. Along the voyage, there are various encounters with moles (giant mountain sized moles) and huge antlions and other creatures. Anything. Everything. People are afraid of touching down on bare earth for fear of some creature coming up and killing you (a rational fear in this world).
As usual the writing is top notch. Miéville is a wordsmith and wields his words like a painter does his brushes and paints. It’s certainly streamlined a bit more here, making it more readable for younger audiences, but there are still moments of pure poetry in the way he writes.
The one complaint that I have with the book really is the way it was marketed. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. It was presented to me as a YA book, but it still never read like one. I know the language was never too much, but I just don’t get the YA thing at all. IF someone were to come up to me and tell me there favorite books were Harry Potter, HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT…well, RAILSEA isn’t exactly the book I would recommend to them next. If I knew a young adult who was a bit more advanced, slightly in to weird things, then sure. I would give them RAILSEA, but I would also give them a bunch of other regular SF and Fantasy. There’s really no sense in making it, and marketing it as YA if its primary audience is going to be the adult Miéville fans that already exist.
Like I said, that’s a small thing. This book worked for me. It’s weird and it’s absurd, but it wears those things on its sleeve, proudly. It’s a book that knows it’s ridiculous and revels in it. I did too.
Age Recommendation: 12+ really nothing wrong here, just a bit of violence
Language: Not much, just a few scattered words, and nothing too harsh
Violence: A few images. One scene of cutting up a mole corpse.
Sex: Not really. Want this book? Here's your link: RAILSEA
I have a kid that has a blanket. Anyone with kids (or who can still remember their "blanket") totally knows where I'm going with this. This raggedy piece of purple stitching gets dragged around everywhere. Actually, it only used to be a blanket--these days about 12 square inches in size--but it's still the only source of comfort that works every time.
DOWN THE MYSTERLY RIVER is a novel written by Bill Willingham that contains an amalgam of other author's characters caught up in a young-adult adventure story right out of the storybooks. The main character, Max the Wolf (originally written by Lawrence Swift) is a scout's scout that teams up with a number of talking animals (from the minds and imaginations of several others) after waking up in a forest with little to no memory of how they got there.
First comes the honorable badger Banderbrock. Next, McTavish, is a ratty tabby cat with a superiority complex. Last is Walden the black bear, previous sheriff of his demesne. All of them are at risk because of the Blue Cutters, a local group of medieval-ish castle-living bad guys that want to "cut" everyone up with their special blue knives. Being "cut" makes a person/animal completely ignorant of their past life, and essentially turns them into a complacent resident of the new world. The only way to get away from the Blue Cutters, is to find the Wizard. And so...We're off to see the Wizard!
Oh, come on. You knew that one was coming.
The core of this story is a typical adventure yarn. Unfortunately, there's not much more to it. The introduction of the characters, and running away from the Blue Cutters, make up the bulk of the plot movement. The pacing felt really slow and I got tired pretty fast of the wandering, and eating of wild raspberries, and continued wandering. Characterization was mostly informational. We know that Max is a "Scout", McTavish is a "Monster", and Walden is a "Sheriff". Actual character was found in considerably less abundance, although the resolution of Walden's story arc was at least satisfying, if not surprising in any way, because he was constantly talking about what he wanted. A detriment to the real characterization present was the scattered POV time amongst Max, the animals, and even a couple of the Blue Cutters. This scatter among the characters made the book feel loose and unformed, and led to some annoying (and sometimes mildly confusing) transitions.
Those that have journeyed with the borrowed characters in this book may find this story something like an old blanket. Just like finding a favorite, old book, finding a new one with familiar characters can sometimes be just as comfortable. Prior to reading this one, I hadn't come across any of these characters though. So, for me, this story was more like the old, raggedy strip of used-to-be-blanket that my kid drags around with her, instead of the warm, fluffy one that I remember toting around myself when I was a kid.
As an homage to the work of others, I take my hat off to the author.
As a stand-alone? I'm afraid I just have to pass.
Recommended Age: 12+
Language: Mild and infrequent
Violence: A couple deaths. Some blood.
Want to give this book a try? Here's your link: DOWN THE MYSTERLY RIVER
I get asked on a weekly basis about my method for reviewing. Why? Heck if I know, but I like to think that all the questions mean I'm doing something right.
Recently, a friend of mine sent me an email detailing his thoughts on a book he had read based on an old review I'd written - SERVANT OF A DARK GOD by John Brown. Obviously, since he is an intelligent chap, he agreed with the review. One of his acquaintances, however, didn't. This isn't an unusual occurrence. Amazingly enough, people don't agree on everything - a shocker, I know. I don't have a problem with people not agreeing with me. Usually. Where my problem resides is when people think they are among the best of literary critics, and slam (or praise) a novel in defiance of any logical thought.
The disagreeable acquaintance - let's call him...Terry? - did a few things in his "review" that no reviewer should ever resort to (with very rare exception). I've learned a lot since I began seriously reviewing novels. I think I'm rather good at it, but all snark aside I recognize I have problems as well. Because I was whipped into a murderous frenzy over Terry's "review," I decided I should put down some rules that I (mostly) follow. Do with this what you will. If this helps the masses become elitist-level reviewers, awesomesauce. If not...uh...fine. Be that way. These rules are not laid out in any sort of order of importance. It was just as they came to me. Enjoy.
Rule #1: Regarding Contemporary Terms in Fantasy and SF
When authors write stuff, they often use words that are common and contemporary. It's just easier. I'm talking about everything from profanity to slang to completely modern terms. Guys like Martin and Abercrombie get fingers pointed at them for using our modern profanity in their works.
Terry Example: Terry had issue with a character using the phrase "breaking and entering" in SERVANT, which is a fantasy novel.
Good Reviewer Logic: When reviewing a novel, complaining about contemporary terms really only matters in novels set on our present world, or in our world's future or past. In other words, how do you know that the language in the fake, made-up universe of the novel you are reading didn't evolve to use the profanity/terms you are reading? Did you grow up there? No. By this rule, all fantasy set on our earth should be written in Old-English. You want to be really technical and in theme? OK. The fictitious novel you are reading is obviously translated from elvish or Malazan so that we can understand it. That's why we have similar terms. I can't believe I even went there...
Exception: Now, if you are reading a novel set in historical England, and the author used the term "I can't wait till I have a spaceship and fly to outside of our galaxy," yeah, that's a problem. Otherwise, deal with it.
Rule #2: Apples vs Oranges
Before this article continues, I feel I should mention that I am not going to post the full review that Terry wrote. Why? Because that just feels classless, and that individual doesn't know that it was shared with me.
You've heard the term before, correct? Apples Vs Oranges? Comparing two completely different things does not a good argument make.
Terry Example: To make matters worse, after Terry made reference to a fairly innocent term - "breaking and entering" - in a fantasy novel, he then compared its usage to Firefly. Because Firefly did it right. Or something.
Good Reviewer Logic: I love Firefly. To death. But what does a made-up SF TV show set in our world's faaaar future have to do with a fantasy novel in a made-up world? Good grief. "The fantasy novel should have used Firefly's method for terminology!" Uh huh. Instead, how about not condemning the fantasy novel for not using the phrase in your favorite TV show?
Terry Example #2: To take it further, Terry provided a grading scale.
GOING POSTAL - A
LORD OF THE RINGS - A
SERVANT OF A DARK GOD - C
GARDENS OF THE MOON - F
SERVANT OF A DARK GOD got a C. Why? Because not only was it not GOING POSTAL, it wasn't LOTR either. I'm not making this up.
Good Reviewer Logic #2: I have an idea. How about we compare similar genre/sub-genre novels to each other, not to stuff that isn't even really in the same genre/sub-genre? Don't ever say, "I didn't like this novel because it wasn't done by my favorite author." Seriously, don't compare Pratchett's GOING POSTAL to any fantasy novel. It's Apples vs Oranges. You may as well be saying, "I didn't like Orson Scott Card because he wasn't Jane Austin."
Exception: If you are going to compare across genres/sub-genres, you have to be extremely specific. Write specifically about character development. Dialogue. You get the point.
Rule #3: The Author vs. the Novel Itself
Are we feeling like maybe Terry (whose name was change to prevent you all from grabbing torches and pitchforks) has done everything bad possible yet? I'm afraid it only gets worse.
Terry Example: Terry mentioned in the review I was sent (on the sly) that he did research on the author, John Brown. Looked up the author's website. Looked up interviews. Terry apparently became very frustrated because the author never elaborated on where his inspiration came from beyond in general terms. He said his opinion of SERVANT OF A DARK GOD was lowered because of this. Right, because John Brown is obligated to write an epistle to Terry (because of how special he is) detailing his (Brown's) every motivating factor when writing a novel.
In the words of the ESPN Football Commentators, "C'mon man!"
Good Reviewer Logic: 95% of the time, the author's life should have nothing to do with your opinion of the novel. His life isn't your business. His thought process isn't your business. Where he gets his ideas (one of the STUPIDEST questions you can EVER ask an author) is...wait for it...NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. If he/she chooses to share that information, it will happen. Until then, stop being a tool.
Exceptions: I once witnessed a Big Name Author scream at the kid behind me in line at a signing. The kid (probably 12 years of age) purchased eight-to-ten books at the bookstore, then got in line for the author to sign them. Mr. Big Name Author began screaming, because how dare a young fan expect him to sign so many books (never mind Big Name Author had said at the start of the event that he would sign as many books as you brought). I left my copy of a just-signed novel on the table the author sat at and walked out. I don't read stuff by him anymore
Sometimes you can't help but bring the author into a review. But try not to unless you are making a strong point. Does the book represent the author selling out? Does the book make the author a complete hypocrite? But don't bring simple crap in and say it made the book worse for you.
Rule #4: The Larry Correia Pet Peeve Rule
No strong Terry Example here, though I suppose it relates back very lightly to Rule #2. This was one of the many "other" rules that occurred to me while writing my rant. Plus I sit next to Larry Correia every day at work, so I hear this constantly.
Example (That I'm Sure Terry Is Guilty Of Somewhere): Don't ever say the author should have written it the way you wanted. If you think the novel would have been better with flying squirrels and giant robots, great. Yay for you. But don't say the author is crap for not doing what you wanted, your way. If you want a novel with that stuff in it, chances are you can find one. Or, go write one your-freaking-self.
Good Reviewer Logic: It's one thing to say you could have used more description in the setting, and that the novel was hard to follow do to that lack of detail. It's quite another to act like you could easily have done better. Right, because you are published where? No, Facebook status updates don't make you a good writer.
Rule #5: Judge Each Book on its Own Merits
This is a really hard one to not trip up on. I do it all the time.
Example (That I'm Positive Terry Is Guilty Of Somewhere): Look at it this way: the last book you read was awesome. Now the current novel you are reading gets judged harsher for not living up to the last, unrelated novel's awesomeness. The reverse also happens. The last book you read was bad on a Dan Brown level. Now your current reading material seems completely great in comparison. There's a little of Rule #2 in here.
Good Reviewer Logic: If you fall into this trap, your review won't be accurate. It happens. The best advice I can give is to write the review for a novel as soon as you've finished it, and before you read the next novel. Use the review to close off your experience with that book. This works for me 90% of the time, but it may not for you.
Rule #6: Careful With the Negativity
Example (That I'm Pretending Terry Is Totally Guilty Of Somewhere): It is easy to pick out where a book sucks. It really is. Steven Erikson is my favorite author, and even in my fanboy blindness it is easy to find things I hate. It is much harder to really judge a novel and find the good things in it that will appeal to different audiences. Remember, different strokes for different folks.
Good Reviewer Logic: I don't like KJ Parker at all, but I can see why other people do. Instead of saying I hate it, I'll either upgrade it to mediocre, or let a person who appreciates KJ Parker read and review further novels by her. Are you the target audience of the novel? If not, maybe you shouldn't review that book. If you have to review it, you should write your review with the target audience in mind. Who knows, maybe you'll gain a new-fond repect for that author.
One thing I learned when Joshua Bilmes (head of JABerwocky Literary Agency) was showing me how being an agent works, was that it's easy to be overly critical. It's hard to identify real promise.
Rule #7: Read the Whole Book - The Amazon.com Rule
Example (That Terry MUST Have Made At Some Point): Don't ever, EVER write a review on a novel if you haven't finished it. It doesn't matter how much you loved or hated it. If you didn't finish the book, you aren't allowed to review it. Period. You can't review the way a car drives just by looking at it. Imagine someone reviewing the movie Memento without seeing the ending. How stupid would you feel if you said how much you loved a novel, only to discover you hated the ending you hadn't reached yet.
You could also call this the Amazon.com Rule.
Good Reviewer Logic: Didn't finish the novel? Then you can't comment on plot progression or character development. Likewise, don't say everything an author does is awful based on a first novel of theirs that you didn't finish. A common occurrence with Steven Erikson's novels. Authors DO typically get better. You may have noticed that here at EBR we usually give authors a few novels before we quit on them. And we always finish the novel, no matter how much we hate it. True story: I quit on PERDIDO STREET STATION the first time I tried to read it. My tastes have changed over time, so I picked it up again and discovered I loved it. Until I'd actually finished it, I kept my mouth shut.
Those are the rules I typically live by. They get broken on occasion both by accident and on purpose. I feel slightly bad...oh whatever, I don't feel bad at all...for using "Terry" as target practice. Hopefully "Terry" learns from his stupidity. I don't care if he doesn't agree with me, I just want him to not be a complete idiot. Guys like him make the rest of us look bad. If Cthulhu judges us all by him (Rule #2!!) the apocalypse will be coming any day...
Are these rules absolute law? Heck no. This is an opinion based blog. We write whatever we feel like and leave the rest up to you.
EBR Founder, Lead-Reviewer and Head-Editor
Being a book critic is sort of like getting to experience Christmas at least once a week. Getting books from your favorite authors months before release is the gift that keeps on giving. Earlier this year I read GREATSHADOW by James Maxey, and despite my cynical reservations it blew me away. Now we have HUSH, the much anticipated sequel that I had to wait excruciating months for. Months! With great excitement I started reading about the most original and colorful fantasy world I have encountered in recent memory.
HUSH picks up almost immediately after the events of GREATSHADOW. If you haven't read GREATSHADOW please stop with this review and go buy it. Otherwise you may encounter some spoilers, though I will try to keep those to a minimum.
The great and mighty Infidel, minus her vaunted invulnerability and super strength, is determined to fulfill an oath made to friend, the late ice-ogress shaman Aurora. Infidel seeks to return a sacred relic to Aurora's people up North. Along the way Infidel blunders into a conspiracy to kill Glorious, the elemental dragon of the Sun and bring an unending ice-age to the world. Can Infidel defeat this insidious plot?
You may recall that I was unenthusiastic to begin reading GREATSHADOW. I quit reading fantasy in the first place because of dragons and magical quests and the like. It was only the new wave of gritty, ultra-dark Sword & Sorcery fantasy that brought me back to the genre. Ironically enough, as much as I love the works of Abercrombie and Martin, GREATSHADOW proved to be a welcome diversion from all the backstabbing and plotting. HUSH is no different in this regard, though perhaps the luster may have worn off a little.
The most striking thing about Maxey's Dragon Apocalypse series is the world he has created. GREATSHADOW was set solely on the Isle of Fire but HUSH expands on this, taking us across the Sea of Wine and up to the icy North. This is a world where magic is the rule rather than the exception. And you won't just find one kind of magic either. There are layers upon layers of different belief system driven magic. Everyone appears to have a super power of some sort or another. The half-seeds are particularly cool - humans bonded with animals through blood magic to create a sort of hybrid. There is a fair amount of philosophical introspection, musing on the nature of magic in a world where myth overpowers reality. HUSH is absolutely loaded with ideas and that may just be a hindrance as well as a selling point.
For the most part all of these conflicting viewpoints and magic systems mesh surprisingly well, but the overabundance can lead to shellshock. The Silver Isles are exotic and dangerous. I love that this is a fantasy novel in an island setting with a heavy dose of pirate swagger but sometimes Maxey seems to just make up the rules as he goes along.
The cast this time around is also noticeably weaker than that of GREATSHADOW. We are once more joined by the ghost of Stagger, impotent observer of doom. Stagger plays a much bigger role this time around and I would even hazard to say that he is the main protagonist as opposed to Infidel. I liked watching Stagger develop but I feel like he faced far too many death defying scenarios for an already dead guy. Then of course we have Infidel, lacking in super strength and invulnerability but armed with the Immaculate Attire and a hammer made of solid sunlight. I didn't enjoy Infidel as much this time around. She had room to grow as a character but failed to do so. Without her super powers she happens to get knocked out quite a lot. Joining our two lead characters is a crippled witch by the name of Sorrow. Sorrow will be taking the lead in the third book of the series, WITCHBREAKER, and I have high hopes for her. Sorrow is a materialist weaver with the ability to manipulate the very particles of matter. Then there is the Romer family...
To make the journey North, Infidel hires the notorious Wanderer ship the Freewind. This is a vessel crewed by a family with magical powers. The captain has a mastery over the wind. She has a son who can run on water and swim through air. There is a son who can control ropes with his mind. A third son is partially shark. There is a daughter who can control a person's taste buds and another daughter who can see unseeable things through a spyglass. Oh yeah, there is also a girl who can impart her inertia upon other people with only a touch but she appears only briefly at the beginning and then sort of vanishes never to return...I liked the Romer family, but I think they were sadly underdeveloped. Perhaps we will see them again in WITCHBREAKER as there are some minor plot threats involving the family that need tying up.
Perhaps my greatest problem with HUSH is that I had set my expectations too high. With GREATSHADOW my expectations couldn't have been any lower and that allowed Maxey to surprise and captivate me immensely. HUSH didn't have this same luxury, instead having to meet my ridiculous standards. Maxey has talent and just as importantly (and even more rare) is that he can generate truly novel ideas. As a sequel HUSH expands upon the world introduced in the first book, even if it doesn't match up in terms of quality. I still had a good time reading this novel, and fully intend to read and review WITCHBREAKER when it is released.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: I can't actually remember there being any foul language this time.
Violence: Dynamic fights stripped from the pages of a comic book it would seem, with the addition of some grisly deaths.
Sex: Hinted at but nothing more.
Want it? Here are you links to the whole series thus far:
DOLPHINS IN SPACE!
Doesn’t that sound exciting? Don’t you want to read that book right now?
OK I jest, but in all honesty if you have a problem with Dolphins crewing a starship and getting stranded on an alien planet than this book isn’t for you.
Which is a real bummer because David Brin's STARTIDE RISING is an excellent book. The central premise of this classic is what really pulled me in to begin with.
The idea is Uplifting. Basically no intelligence in the universe (and there are tons and tons of different types of alien intelligence out there) is able to gain sentience on its own without being “uplifted” by another race. Dolphins then (as well as monkeys) are a race of intelligent beings only because we as humans gave them a little genetic push. The only race in the known galaxy to claim to have risen to sentience through evolution is mankind.
What a great idea. It’s so cool and so teeming with possibilities. The plot for STARTIDE RISING is even more complex than that. The Dolphin (and some humans and monkeys) crewed ship Sunstreaker has crash-landed on a remote planet after having made an immense discovery. The crew and its ship are being sought after by various other races of the galaxy, and they need to find a way to survive and get the information they have back home.
Only that’s not it either. There are internal stories, and then interesting (and very important) things happening with the planet they are on. There’s another race of aliens on the planet. I could go on and on.
Guys, this is why I read Science Fiction. I’m a sucker for a big, thick novel with big ideas and cool galaxy spanning concepts. This book had it in spades. It’s not an easy read, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but it really hit all the right notes for me. It's why I consider it an Elitist Classic.
Recommended Age: 16+ It’s a tough, thick, read of a book.
Language: Not much, a word here and there
Violence: Nothing too graphic, a few instances.
Sex: Mentioned a few times. There’s a dolphin that has a crush on a human female that was both a little disturbing and pretty funny.
Want to read this oldie but a goodie? Find it here: STARTIDE RISING
Once upon a time I read OLD MAN'S WAR by John Scalzi and it became my favorite book of all time. That said, REDSHIRTS has much more in common with Scalzi's ANDROID'S DREAM than it does OLD MAN'S WAR. Sometimes a book is worth losing sleep over. Some books are basically begging to be read in one sitting. REDSHIRTS is one of these books.
Andrew Dahl, Ensign of the Universal Union, has a problem. He has been assigned to the capital ship Intrepid, a ship with an alarmingly high casualty rate for low ranking crew members. Recognizing a terrifying trend relating to away missions, Dahl and his friends seek to discover the origin of the trouble plaguing Intrepid. As death draws ever nearer, Dahl must race against fate to save himself and his friends from a most assuredly gruesome demise.
My review of REDSHIRTS will be purposely short for a change. I can't go too far into detail without giving away large pieces of the plot and to do so would be a crime against literature. REDSHIRTS is a self-aware science fiction novel, paying respect to Star Trek in the vein of Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest. REDSHIRTS is definitely a spoof but it is also a very thoughtful and well plotted homage. At first I had no idea how Scalzi would cultivate the idea into a full blow novel. The premise struck me as a fantastic idea for a novella but I had doubts about the ability to expand it any further. I need not have worried. This is a meta-novel of sorts, encompassing many trends and tropes of the weekly sci-fi television drama, filled with pop culture delights and snappy dialogue. Scalzi riffs on everything, from bad science plot devices to dramatically necessary deaths.
I remember being disappointed when ANDROID'S DREAM turned out not to be OLD MAN'S WAR. I was expecting another serious military science fiction thriller and what I got was a slightly funny satire. It wasn't fair of me as a reader but that's how it is. I didn't have that conflict with REDSHIRTS. I have grown as a reader but Scalzi has also grown as a writer. Though frequently laugh-out-loud funny this novel just comes across as more genuine. Scalzi never has to grasp for humor, lines are delivered wit comedic precision.
The characters exhibit wonderful chemistry, and despite no huge amount of effort spent on development there are some surprisingly touching moments. Dahl and Co. exhibit just the right amount of depth for "expendables". Most shocking of all is how much I ended up liking the super attractive and intensely unfortunate Lieutenant Kerensky. These characters are worth rooting for and you will find yourself firmly attached and wishing to follow them to the stars and the unknown.
The plot is largely twisted and philosophical. By the end you may find yourself asking if you are the protagonist of your own life's story or just an extra in someone else's. There are multiple surprises, especially regarding the characters themselves and the world they inhabit. Ironically the few problems I did have with the novel were solved by the time the conclusion came around. My minor grievances actually turned out to be deftly maneuvered plot devices. The ending is satisfying in a way that I have recently found lacking in my reading.
A fun Science Fiction adventure as well as an intelligent piece of contemporary fiction, this is exactly the sort of novel my fiction writing professor would have considered to be "literary". Generally when I declare something to be literary I sneer at the elitist arrogance of it. Those books frequently dubbed as such bore the hell out of me. The thing is, I think I have come to understand what the term truly means. REDSHIRTS transcends the genre, telling a memorable story within a story and earning it the instant status of a classic. REDSHIRTS is Scalzi's best novel since OLD MAN'S WAR, exhibiting his trademark sarcastic wit and nimble pacing while also telling a meaningful tale. Fans of Scalzi, Star Trek, science fiction, and good literature in general will find much to be pleased by here.
Recommended Age: 14+
Violence: Some but less than expected
Sex: Alluded to but nothing explicit
A Note on Codas: This is being sold as REDSHIRTS: A NOVEL WITH THREE CODAS. The first coda is absolutely essential and hilarious and adds to the overall experience. The two proceeding codas struck me as unnecessary, dragging out the book longer than I would have liked. Maybe I'm just being nitpicky because I was reading this early in the morning and desiring nothing more than sleep but I thought it important to mention my one legitimate objection.
Want REDSHIRTS? Here's your link: REDSHIRTS