The Drowning City

THE DROWNING CITY, by Amanda Downum, is the opening act in The Necromancer Chronicles sequence. The plot follows a number of characters, but Isyllt Iskaldur (how do YOU think this is pronounced?) is the main protagonist. She is in the island-city of Symir, in the capacity of a spy/government agent. Her mission, should she choose to accept it? Spread dissent, foment chaos, and generally wreck the status quo. Cool eh? Well, read on...

Let's talk setting. We have read books that run the gamut on interesting settings, however we have very rarely seen anything that resembles the Far East. After reading this book we wondered why we haven't seen it more before now. (Before your get your panties in a bunch, we know there are other novels that have this style of setting. We are just saying, there seems to be a shortage.) It is such a cool place, and provides Amanda Downum with a lot of source material to create her own unique world. The landscape gives us familiar vibes, yet remains extremely exotic due to being filled with Demons and Ghosts. A tropical environment gives plenty of fantastic opportunities for the author to exploit and satisfy our imaginations. But here also we have a problem. We were left...wanting. This was a chance for Downum to really blow her reader's minds with something unique and creative, and yank them from the comfort of common pseudo-European fantasy settings. THE DROWNING CITY didn't deliver as much as it should have. We were disappointed...kinda like a fat person eating a small salad.

The characters. Oh the characters. THE DROWNING CITY has some very intriguing characters with real potential and depth to them. Their histories and character traits are fairly unique in a genre that has been saturated with the familiar fantasy archetypes. However, as will be a theme throughout this book, the execution was somewhat lackluster. What do we mean by that, you ask? Well consider this. As we mentioned above, the plot is one of intrigue, political maneuvering, and guerrilla warfare, etc. So we get a lot of the fun, "Who is really good or bad?", "Is there such a thing as either?", "Where is the line, if there is one, that can't be crossed to achieve a goal?" and "Where do this person's morals fit?" kind of stuff. (Are you sensing that we completely dig that attitude yet?)

Part of the problem is that the transitions between character PoVs can ofter be pretty bad. In addition, some disappear for huge chunks of the books altogether. Some of the characters who could have been really, REALLY interesting aren't given enough, if any, screen-time. Not to mention the naming syntax Downum uses is downright confusing at times. And what the crap was she thinking naming a dude, in this book, Adam? A tad inconsistant? Yeah, especially considering the fact the rest of the names are so foreign, that we felt like we were unwrapping a Starburst with our tongue (something else, like most things, that Nick is way better at than you--he practices daily) as we tried to sound them out. And really, characters didn't do a whole lot. We kept asking ourselves, "When is the character development going to happen? When are these people gonna do something cool?" They also do things that are in direct contradiction with their established personalities and back-stories. This is perhaps the single most unacceptable flaw in the entire book.

The plot, with all its intrigue, was simply not what we wanted. This really isn't even an issue of our preconceptions not being met (as if anyone would possibly think we would be capable of weakness like that). It just lacked movement, or rather, a pointed movement. The flow of the story seemed more like a trickle of a muddy stream than the deafening roar of rapids that we want.

THE DROWNING CITY is not quite a dark fantasy, despite having a lot of those gritty qualities that tantalize us so. It is also not quite a horror book either, even though it has a lot of the horror qualities as well. This is good news for you folks, because people who enjoy either will find something they enjoy here. It was bad news for us since our egos are taking a slight hit due to our inability to squish it into a genre. Don't worry. We'll recover. If you send us Christmas presents the process will go quicker.

Looking at the meat of the review we want to say that THE DROWNING CITY wasn't bad. In fact, for a debut author it was actually pretty impressive. It is a great concept with tons of future potential. But it didn't dazzle us either. That said, we look forward to the sequel, and Amanda Downum's continued published work. With a little more effort on her own part refining her craft, and her editor polishing the writing, Downum may become a household name for fantasy readers.

Our final note is something that we haven't agreed on between the two of us (yeah, it happens occasionally). Downum frequently uses made-up words for common vernacular (replacing phrases like 'greetings', 'good morning', 'mother', 'lady', etc.) without any sort of warning, glossary, or explanation. Steve thought this was a blunder because it can really pull the reader out of the story. Nick agreed, but was also pleased with Downum for not beating the reader over the head with out-of-story information, and expecting that they will be able to catch on. Also, in the typical artsy analysis that has become his habit of late, Steve was pretty happy with Orbit's (the publisher of the novel) art direction of THE DROWNING CITY, and it's sequel THE BONE PALACE. High-five, Orbit. It almost makes up for your crappy production quality of the UK edition of THE GATHERING STORM. Almost.

Note: Don't confuse this series with Gail Z. Martin's, The Chronicles of the Necromancer. It seems to us that either these two authors are in cahoots to inundate our immense brains with Chronicles and Necromancers, or they both need to open up their eyes the next time they are at their local bookstore. What gives ladies?

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Nothing that we imagine could be of concern to anyone.
Violence: Not as much as we hoped, but it is there.
Sex: Its present, with a couple scenes, but nothing explicit. Its mostly alluded to, or briefly introduced.

Go check out Downum's website. Let her know that she is on the right track.

Scenting the Dark & Other Stories

During our adventures at World Fantasy in October, we had a chance to meet and chat with Campbell Award winner, Mary Robinette Kowal. If any of you are listeners of Writing Excuses (and if you aren't, you really should be), then you may remember Mary from her guest appearances on the podcast. They were some of the most entertaining and insightful episodes that the podcast has put together.

As it turns out, Mary has a short story collection being published through Subterranean Press (we love them). Needless to say, we were excited to read a review copy of the collection.

First, let's discuss short stories a bit. No, you don't have a choice but to indulge us. As we stated when we reviewed the novella collection, METATROPOLIS, short fiction is hard for us to review. Simply put, we don't care too much for it. We've made our attempts to read the Writers of the Future anthologies, and we just get bored. We've read short stories in magazines, and in other various anthology collections, and they are really hit-or-miss...much more so than long fiction. Perhaps this is due to authors not writing that much short fiction anymore. It just doesn't pay the bills like a novel does. Authors don't practice it, so when short stories are published, the quality seems to suffer. Once again, these are our general observations and opinions.

So what does it take to write a short story that doesn't suffer like the majority? Well, if we knew for a fact, we'd have a bunch of stories published ourselves...but that's neither here, nor there. In Mary's case, her collection SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES seems to do all the right least for us. And we are picky. So when we say we liked Mary's collection, that should tell you something.

SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES contains eight (8) short least we think it does. Confused? So are we. Our review copy only had seven of the eight listed in the Subterranean Press book listing. Heck if we know. Anyways, of the seven stories we read, we realized that we do indeed like short stories when they are done right. The story "Death Comes but Twice" is a great throw-back to Victorian SF. "Scenting the Dark" is a fantastic study on fear. Every story has some great material and inspiration in it.

We could go on about the individual stories, but really, we've decided that going into short stories blind is the best way to read them. Think about it. A short story usually takes one, single idea and makes a scene out of it, so if you read it without prior information, it becomes MUCH easier to enjoy. With regards to that one idea that make a short story, perhaps this is why Mary's collection succeeds where others fail. With her experience in the puppeteer (how awesome is THAT!), Mary seems to have a better grasp on how to express things with a single expression, or with a single word. Her experiences have allowed her to tell short stories in a most effective manner. This kind of quality just isn't seen too often in short fiction anymore.

The major problem we had with this short story collection is that it was too...uh...short. With only seven (or eight...whatever) stories, we finished the collection in an extremely short amount of time. If the quality of the stories hadn't been so high, this would have been a serious deal-breaker for us. Though, to be fair, Subterranean Press is only charging $25 for a signed and numbered copy of the collection. You decide if it is worth it. We certainly thought it was. Though we do also think the cover is on the weak side.

Before we finish, there is one last thing we want to mention. At the end of every story in the collection, Mary has a brief paragraph or two describing what gave her the idea behind the story. Ladies and gentlemen, this should be done at the end of EVERY short story published. Not only do we get further insight into the story, but we gain a similar measure if insight into the author and her (or his) creative process. If you are and developing author trying to write short stories, Mary's collection SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES should be on your bookshelf. You won't get any better instruction at a better price.

We are now officially WAY excited to read her novel, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, which comes out next year. High-five, Mary. You made us like short stories again.

Recommended Age:
15 and up. If you like short stories, or want to write them, you should pick this up regardless of your age. This would also be a good place to retry reading short stories in general.
Language: A little.
Violence: Not really.
Sex: Some is alluded to, but nothing is shown.

The List of Important Links:

Mary's Website -
Mary's book at Subterranean Press - SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES
Subterranean Press' Front Page -
Writing Excuses -


Scott Westerfeld is perhaps currently best known for his YA SF novels. He recently decided to try his hand at Steampunk in an alternate version of World War I. LEVIATHAN is a good entry into the genre, but it isn't without drawbacks (depending on your point of view, of course).

LEVIATHAN follows the PoV of Alek, the son of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand (in case you didn't know before, now you know where the band gets its name--that's your useless piece of trivia for the day). In Westerfeld's story, the assassination of the Archduke and his wife incites World War I, just like in actual history. This differences are the Steampunk and Biopunk (this term will make more sense in a moment) settings. The two major factions are the Clankers (the Austrians, Germans and such), and the Darwinists (England and other "Allies"). The Clankers are based in machinery, and lend to the Steampunk stylings that the book promotes. The Darwinists, frankly, are much cooler. They manipulate biological creatures into war machines, ships, and anything else they have need of. As a counterpoint to young Alek's "Clanker" PoV, we have the PoV of Deryn Sharp. She is a fifteen year-old girl posing as a boy in the British Air Service aboard the Leviathan--a huge biologically created ship that resembles a flying whale.

The PoVs are both entertaining, if a bit juvenile. We had it in our minds that LEVIATHAN would be geared (no Steampunk pun intended) to the older end of YA. In reality, it is towards the younger end. Once we understood this small piece of info, any measure of initial disappointment faded quickly away. The characters, especially Deryn, won us over quickly. As we follow Alek's escape from Austria in his Stormwalker (think of it as a Steampunk Mechwarrior), and as we follow Deryn's adventures on the Leviathan, we are treated to a very imaginative, uh, re-imagining of WWI, and how the paths that Alek and Deryn each follow inevitably merge.

Where LEVIATHAN really shines is in the Steampunk and Biopunk elements. The way Westerfeld imagines warfare in this setting is nothing short of fabulous. The Steampunk in the novel is actually fairly light, with most of the focus on the Biopunk. Some may argue that this is bad, while others rejoice in it. We wish that we could have seen a bit more of the Steampunk area of the world, but we aren't terribly upset about the lack of it. The Darwinist ideas in the novel more than made up for the lack of more machinery.

Ultimately, the thing that most disappointed us was discovering it was a series. The next novel, BEHEMOTH, won't be released until Oct. 2010. Considering how quick of a read this novel is--the pacing is terrific, we should add--waiting another year for the sequel seems a long way off.

However, is it worth the $20 price tag? Oh yes. Allow us to gush with regards to the beauty of the book itself. Just seeing the cover in person made us both drool a little. It is one of the best designed covers to come out this year. It hints at a stronger Steampunk element than is really in the novel, but it is a stunning cover regardless. There are dozens of internal illustrations by Keith Thompson that give a fantastic visual aid for the beasties and machines described in the book. The production quality of this book is top-notch.

LEVIATHAN is a good book. Not incredible, but good. We liked it. We fully intend on reading the sequels, and buying them assuming they look as awesome as the first novel. LEVIATHAN is marketed towards a younger crowd, and serves as a good intro into the Steampunk genre. We still think that Philip Reeve's MORTAL ENGINES is a better introduction into Steampunk at the YA level, but Westerfeld has done a fantastic job. Let's face it, Steampunk is a genre that more people should be reading, and it is typically a pretty safe genre content-wise. Go out and pick up LEVIATHAN. You'll enjoy it, and it will make you want to read more Steampunk.

Recommended Age: 12 and up.
Language: Nope.
Violence: There is some, but it isn't a focal-point.
Sex: Don't be absurd.

So check out Westerfeld's website. He doesn't exactly need any help from us, but every author likes to hear they've done a good job.

Sandman Slim

There are beliefs, of sorts, in the writing business. A good author can take the most cliché, horrible idea, and make it work. A bad author, however, could have the most amazing idea, and make it seem second-rate drivel. SANDMAN SLIM, by Richard Kadrey, takes a little of both of those. Poorly written, clichéd drivel. Awesome huh? (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

There is a blatant attempt in this novel to have a Harry Dresden-style character be super dark and gritty. The main PoV, James Stark (a magician, of course), was sent to Hell by his "friends." He fought demons "Downtown," (as the character calls it) Gladiator style for eleven years, and then managed to escape. This is where the book picks up--Stark waking up in a graveyard in L.A. after escaping Hell. Stark wants revenge on the people that sent him down to Hell. Oh, and there is a war between Heaven and Hell that Stark is in the middle of (GASP!). Were there enough clichéd archetypes and motifs in that paragraph for you? That's just scratching the surface. Oh, and the title? It comes in randomly a little over half-way through the book.

Look, the whole going (or being sent) to Hell thing has been done. A lot. Even T.V. shows have done it. A lot. This isn't to say you can't do the "going to Hell and back" thing...well actually that is exactly what we are saying. Give it a decade of rest. If you absolutely MUST do it, at least write it well enough to make us not want to gouge out our eyes.

Back to our PoV. It's OK to want to have an anti-hero character. It's OK to make him gritty and dark. It isn't OK to accomplish this by having the First-Person narrative tell you "Hey, I'm dark and gritty." He needs to SHOW us through his actions and thoughts who he is and what makes him different. And no, swearing a ton doesn't make the PoV dark and gritty, it just shows a limited vocabulary. (Except in Nick's case, because we all know he is brilliant.) As readers, we were often subjected to long metaphoric monologues and commentaries on society, followed by Stark saying, "But I don't give a ****." If he doesn't care about anything, why should we the readers give a crap about him or his revenge story? Not only that, but half the time the metaphoric language and word choices don't mean a freaking thing. It is nonsensical garbage strung together to sound intelligent to the uneducated.

There are quite a few areas, like the poor wording above, that show Kadrey didn't research much. It may seem like a quibble, but at one point Stark spots an Escalade from a distance and says something akin to, "And I decided I wanted to steal that Escalade right there." One problem. Stark was in Hell when Escalades began to be manufactured. He wouldn't know what it is from a distance. Not only that, but he alternates between calling it an SUV and a van. "SUV" has been a common term since the early 90's, so he would know the difference. It's little things like this that can really pull a reader out of the story. Either Kadrey doesn't know the difference (doubtful), or he initially wanted to have the character steal a van, and never changed it. Bad editing...though to be fair, the editor probably was busy stabbing his/her own eyes out.

Humor is a difficult element to pull off in literature. Authors like Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, and Terry Pratchett get it right. Kadrey misses completely. We know what you are thinking, humor can be very subjective. It's true. If you think saying "F-you" is a hysterical comeback for all situations, then you will be rolling on the ground laughing. We, however, didn't think it was particularly funny or clever the first time, much less the hundredth. Once again, the main problem here is a show vs. tell. Show us funny stuff, don't have the main PoV tell us, "Look at me, I'm funny!"

Dialogue is terrible in SANDMAN SLIM. Steve listened to the book on audio, and it was worse than listening to Megan Fox say, "I'll drive. You shoot" in the first Transformers movie. MUCH. WORSE. Nick read a physical copy, and it was just as bad sounding in his head (at least that's what his voices told him...). If you, as an author, make one of your characters say, "I think I've been waiting for you all my life," then you need to rethink your approach your dialogue creation process. Yes, that line is in SANDMAN SLIM. It's like Michael Bay writing a novel...

Unnecessary info? We got that too! The author wastes the reader's time by explaining that vampires like to kill people and drink their blood (shocker!), and that without blood they will DIE! (OH NOES!) We know what vampires are, thank you. Don't act like you are original for including them in an Urban Fantasy story (There is one line where Stark tells the readers, "Yes, there are vampires. Try to keep up." Thanks for clarifying that, chief. Have you read any Urban Fantasy in the past decade?). And don't treat readers like they are 2-year old kids in need of explanation filler.

And that's not all. After the climax of the novel, it just keeps going. It was a little reminiscent of the end of The Return of the King movie (only much, much, much, much worse) where you just kept having more and more tacked on. Kadrey wanted to make sure we all knew there would be a sequel. Essentially, the author has his main PoV tell the reader "This book is better than ALL other Urban Fantasy because I SAY SO. And I will write SEQUELS that are already the BEST EVER!" Instead, the reality is this novel won't even be worth the paperback price when it comes out, and certainly isn't worth the current $23 hardback price-tag. And no, we won't be reading the inevitable sequels. We are confidant that the writing in them will suck (in a non-vampire way) just as bad as SANDMAN SLIM.

If you want a grimmer version of the Dresden series, go read Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels, the first of which we reviewed here. If you want a gritty revenge story DONE RIGHT, read Abercrombie's BEST SERVED COLD. Avoid SANDMAN SLIM. Like. The. Plague. (To be fair to plagues everywhere, SANDMAN SLIM is worse than any plague.)

On last thing. Kadrey sets out to be irreverent towards everything religious. Angels and Demons are idiots, God is a screw-up, and Satan is inept. Aside from it being boring as Hell (lulz), there is a chance people may get offended by the made-up creation story Kadrey puts in. We found the whole religion aspect to be be very heavy-handed and forced, but others may very well be offended.

Recommended Age: If you absolutely MUST read this (into self-torture are we?), then be 18 years-old.
Language: Tons and tons. It really adds nothing of value to the story.
Violence: Yeah, but the word choices in action sequences make it all sound stupid.
Sex: Lots of innuendo and references, but no actual scenes.

Dead and Gone

Yes, we have read the full Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Short stories included. Call it a not-so-secret guilty pleasure. The fact of the matter is that Harris makes us laugh, and we enjoy it when an author intentionally makes us laugh through comedy rather than the alternative...

DEAD AND GONE, is the latest entry into the Sookie Stackhouse series about a girl (Sookie) who can read minds, and vampires who have come out of the coffin (Harris' pun, not ours) and have announced themselves to the world. You may not have read the books, but we can almost be positive that you have at least heard of the HBO series, True Blood. It's the adaptation of the novels. Unlike our recent discussion about Dexter, True Blood has yet to come close to surpassing the novels in terms of quality. The comedy that makes Harris' novels so enjoyable is all but omitted from the TV show.

Anyways. The book. DEAD AND GONE.

If you've been following the series, you know that all manner of supernatural beings exist in the world Harris created (adapted). This particular novel deals with the announcement to the world from the bajillions of were-creatures that they exist. It's their own coming-out party, and it includes the apparent and immediate consequences. Consequences in Harris' novels usually means someone (or something) being murdered. In this case, it's a were-panther being crucified.

Look, this series is marketed to females. We probably wouldn't have read the series except we know her agent, and we were interested in what all the hoopla was with the TV series. This is what TWILIGHT ripped off and watered-down to a pathetically safe and sucky (you knew we were going to throw this pun in sometime...don't act so surprised) level. This series (and thus, this novel) has all sorts of violence, swearing and sex in it, though this novel had the least out of all the books in all three categories.

Harris tells her stories in 1st Person, and it really lets the readers focus in on what Sookie is going through that she keeps hidden from everyone else. This is DEAD AND GONE's strong point, and gets us back on track after last year's disappointing FROM DEAD TO WORSE. Without letting loose and spoilers, stuff actually happens in DEAD AND GONE, and we get some very interesting revelations on Sookie's past. Not to mention, the ending to this book is actually pretty grim. People die...and they stay dead...and un-vampired (We can make up any words we want! We are WRITERS!). If feels even more grim when compared to the comedic tone that saturates Harris' novels. The contrast was extremely well done.

When all is said and done, this feels like we are going back up in quality. It isn't the strongest of the series, but enjoyable and satisfying nonetheless.

Our major quip here has nothing to do with the storytelling, and more with the format of the novel. DEAD AND GONE, like Harris' other novels, is a one-night read. Considering the $25 price-tag on this novel, we just don't know if we feel justified in seeing a person buy this novel for a quick couple-of-hours read. We are going to suggest you wait for the paperback, but if you need it NOW, go to the library, or buy the novel off Amazon for $14 (still a bit rich of our...blood...har har).

Charlaine Harris' novels are quick, entertaining reads that a majority of females will enjoy. Parts of them read a lot like romance novels, which will be enough to turn most guys off to them. We read them for the comedy, and as a stick-out-our-tongues gesture to the Twilight novels that so blatantly ripped off Harris' hard work. But yeah. These are definitely 'Books for Chicks,' though now we are invested, so we kinda feel obligated to keep on reading. We'll survive. Harris' characters and comedy are solid (especially her dialogue), so we don't feel too guilty.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Not anything close to what the TV series throws at you, but still a noticeable bit for a short novel.
Violence: Yeah. Harris' novels are thankfully (for us guys) high in violent content. Remember, these are actual vampires, so they rip out peoples throats and stuff.
Sex: Uh yeah. Harris' scenes are fairly graphic, though there was only one scene in this particular novel.

If you haven's started this series yet, you should definitely start from book one. In fact, check out this box set of the first seven novels:

Sookie Stackhouse Box Set

And also, go send Charlaine Harris some emails of love. She's a good author who thoroughly enjoys writing. The one time we met her in passing, she seemed like a genuinely nice person as well.

The Lost Symbol

Have you ever had that burning sensation in your chest? No, not heart-burn. More deadly (if possible) than that. We mean the feeling when you are reading a novel, watching a movie, or playing a video game and you get SO impatient for it to move along. You start clenching your jaw. You crack your knuckles again, even though you just cracked them two minutes earlier. And the feeling that is the perfect mix of annoyance and impatience burns in you. That's what reading THE LOST SYMBOL is like. It is excruciating. Yes. Excruciating...that is the word of choice to explain Dan Brown's latest "novel." (Dear Dan Brown: Thank you for kindly putting the words, "A Novel" on the front cover of your book. Without them, we would have mistaken this book for a slush-pile reject.)

What a terrible, terrible book.

Six years ago, Dan Brown caused all sorts of controversy with his novel THE DA VINCI CODE. It sold a bajillion copies, and forced the whole "Religious Conspiracy" sub-genre into focus. It was also a really poorly written novel. We have read all of Dan Brown's work. From DIGITAL FORTRESS to the newly printed THE LOST SYMBOL, Dan Brown manages to do one thing with remarkable consistency:

Become a worse writer with each novel.

Don't worry, this novel is totally different from the prior two Langdon novels. See, Langdon goes to a famous national building, and receives a cryptic phone call about how he needs to solve a mystery that only LANGDON can solve! He then discovers a bloody clue in the middle of the building. Following a train of interweaving clues about the Freemasons, Langdon is joined by his lovely companion Kathleen as they chase--or are they chased by?--the eeeeeevil Mal'akh. What they discover will change EVERYTHING! Nothing is as it seems...

Oh wait. Everything is exactly as it seems, because this is the same plot at ANGELS & DEMONS and THE DA VINCI CODE. America: what is wrong with you?

Robert Langdon. He marveled us with his professorial skills in, what we consider the only enjoyable Langdon book, ANGELS & DEMONS. A lot has changed since that novel. In THE LOST SYMBOL, Langdon in his third "adventure" has managed to become dense and narrow-minded. He seems incapable of putting his famed intellect to use during the novel, and is relegated to responding to ANY question or situation with a bewildered, "What?!" Now before you ask, yes, the "?!" is actually used in the novel at least two or three times per chapter (there are 133 do the math). If you have to use more than one punctuation type at the end of a sentence, the only thing you are showing the reader is that you have no real writing ability. Young writers take note.

Amidst the the endless repetitions of descriptions, we as readers are made to suffer and endless stream of telling instead of showing. The few times Brown manages to "show" us what is going on, he immediately precedes or follows it by telling us the exactly same thing. It became so infuriating, that by Chapter 9 we wanted to gouge our eyes out. To illustrate another example of formulaic writing that Brown has become famous for, here is his Dialogue Formula:

Person 1:
"Have you heard of [insert topic here]?"
Person 2: "No, what is it?"
Person 1: "[insert poorly veiled information dump here]"
Person 2: "I don't understand."
Person 1: "[insert the exact same explanation for a second time]"
Person 2: "So what you are saying is [insert 3rd identical explanation]"
Person 1: "No, you aren't listening. What I said was [insert 4th explanation-100% identical to the previous 3 explanations]"
Person 2: "Ah, I see."
Person 1: "Good. Now have you heard of [insert topic here]?"
Repeat all steps for as many filler pages as needed.

How about pacing? Brown is known for his pacing isn't he? Two things here. First, his pacing is false. In order to create this false sense of "Break-neck speed," he ends each chapter on a cliff-hanger. We felt like there should have been a voice over saying "dun-dun-DUUUN", playing as you turned the last page of every chapter. (Hey if greeting cards can do it, so can Dan Brown. Their writing abilities are about the same.) Now, when Brown finally manages to build up some sort of pace, he ruins it with a flashback.

In a particularly boring flashback early on (like the first few chapters), Langdon is RUSHING to give a speech (he only has THREE MINUTES TO GET THERE!), and he lapses into a flashback. In addition to bringing the pace to a screeching halt, we see, in an academic setting, that Langdon is supposed to be INSANELY smart. SO MUCH BETTER THAN EVERYONE! His students believe and hang on every word, no matter how ridiculous. So, if he is so smart, why is he such an idiot later, and so slow on the uptake? why does he have to be told everything like he is a mentally deficient high-school student? The answer? Dan Brown's writing is so poor that this is the only way he knows how to express himself, and serve as a vehicle for information dumps. It is also humorous that a security guard makes the exact same observation of Langdon. Pro Tip: If the characters you are writing think your main PoV is stupid, so will the readers. This will undermine your work.

Logic flaws aside (if we stop to mention all of them, we would be transcribing the full novel), and forgetting the PoV switching problems, one of the main problems is the plethora of cliches. We have the super-secret division of the CIA, and she is a four-foot tall Asian woman with a superiority complex. And she is deformed. How about the damsel in distress that is the target of a hideously disfigured super-villain? Yep, THE LOST SYMBOL has that too. Even James Bond movies have finally moved beyond these cliches.

We would be remiss if we didn't talk about the villain of the novel. Never-mind that his big reveal at the end of the novel is telegraphed from the moment certain characters are introduced. We don't want to talk about that. We want to talk about this:

How To Build a Cliché Villain the Dan Brown Way
1) Fall for every trick that the dumb hero/heroine throws at you.
2) After being outwitted somehow, point menacingly at the hero/heroine.
3) If you can manage, be a religious fanatic of some sort.
4) Tell the hero/heroine all your secret plans and/or your secret past in a dramatic moment.
5) Think--at least 3 times early in the novel--that destiny is guiding you. Feel free to think this up until the moment you are killed due to your stupidity (see point #8 below)
6) Make the hero/heroine think that they killed you years ago. It makes your entrance much more dramatic...especially when combined with point #4 above.
7) When given the opportunity, study yourself naked in a body-length mirror.
8) Don't actually kill the hero/heroine when you have the chance. Leave them to be discovered so they can come kill you later. Be sure to act surprised later when the show up.
9) Have a super-secret lair within your home--preferably hidden by a secret door. However, the key element here is to leave obvious evidence for people to find so they can enter the lair and discover all your plans in case they didn't catch them in point #4 above.

No seriously, this all happens in THE LOST SYMBOL.

Don't worry citizens, Robert Langdon is here to save the day. Will he stun us with his intellect? Of course not. He WILL however use his experiences from prior novels to solve everything with the trusty anagram. And when that fails, blind luck will do, as will an epiphany--nothing will trigger the epiphany other than Brown deciding it is time to move the story along to the next idiotic conversation (see above formula).

Are you getting the drift here? Dan Brown's THE LOST SYMBOL should never have been printed. The writing skill is sub-6th Grade level, and his story is contrived and cliché. An interesting observation: When you talk to most people who have read Brown's Robert Langdon novels, the almost always like the first one they read most. Why? Because it is the same plot over and over again. It is like the mystery version of a Harlequin Romance Novel. So, it shouldn't be any surprise that this third novel is even worse. IT'S THE SAME NOVEL...AGAIN! Of course, when you stop to think about what the "Big Problem" was that everyone in the novel was trying to prevent, you realize just how terrible the "novel" is. So. Absurd.

Don't read this book. Ever. Wait for the inevitable movie. It has NO CHOICE but to be better than the novel. If you really want to know about all the Freemason stuff, go get a non-fiction book or two about them. They will be better paced, and more entertaining than THE LOST SYMBOL.

Recommended Age:
None. Remember, we don't recommend this book to ANYONE. Except maybe criminals. It may kill them or induce a coma that will save the tax-payers some dinero.
Language: Here and there. Nothing terrible.
Violence: Oh please. Just us beating our heads against a wall.
Sex: Nope.

P.S. You may have noticed the lack of links in this review. Simply put, we refuse to direct you in any way to a place where you might buy a novel that Dan Brown has written. The End.

The Gathering Storm

THE GATHERING STORM. We know that you have all been waiting for us to write this review. You know what this book is, and you likely had some sort of strong feeling when you found out that Brandon Sanderson would be completing the late Robert Jordan's epic series. Some of you felt as though demon's had taken over Tor and killed Santa, and some of you felt a profound sense of relief just knowing the series would be finished.

Truthfully, we weren't in either camp. Oh we were glad when we heard our buddy Brandon was finishing the series--we tend to consider him a great writer--but we wondered if anyone stood a chance at making this series enjoyable again.

Before you get your panties all twisted up, let us explain. This IS going to be a rather long review, so go to the bathroom before continuing.

For us, part of the difficulty in reviewing THE GATHERING STORM was treating it as a separate novel, and not letting our feelings for the prior eleven novels (and a novella) get in the way. It shouldn't be much of a secret that we don't care for The Wheel of Time--specifically, anything past LORD OF CHAOS. Yeah, that's half the series ago. We both grew up in the fantasy genre reading Jordan's series--Steve started the WoT back in 1993, and considers it the series that really got him into fantasy. Nick started even earlier. But with book seven began a long list of problems--most of which consist of "Nothing Happens." So when we read THE GATHERING STORM (TGS), we had to wonder if our feelings were real and geared towards TGS, or if they were nothing more than a reaction to the series itself.

In some ways, we can't--and won't--keep them separate. So, we are going to endeavor to give you our honest PoV. We liked some of the novel. We disliked some of it. You want details? Of course you do...especially if you are a "Jordan Fan."

TGS mainly follows Rand and Egwene, and honestly, their portions feel pretty spot-on. We don't know which parts of the story Brandon wrote as opposed to the sections Jordan wrote/dictated. Frankly we don't care.

What we will say is that Egwene was easily one of our least favorite characters from the very VERY beginning of the series. However, her sections in TGS were the highlight of the novel, and we found ourselves coming to the realization that Egwene was no longer a carbon-copy of all the other female characters. She grew into someone stronger. In the scope of this one novel, Egwene goes from being one of the worst characters in the series (In our opinions, mind you. All you Egwene lovers keep your pitchforks stowed away.) to one of the best.

As for Rand? He actually manages to interest us. Rand, out of necessity, has been a fairly flat character over the last few novels. We see him falling further into madness, and for the most part it is well done. Not to mention, Rand actually LEARNS stuff in this book. No more "Yay! I solved it on accident!" Thank-freaking-goodness. The main issue we had with Rand deals with a certain part of the novel where you think Jordan and Sanderson are going to change the "danger" aspect of the series...and then they don't. In what should have been a heart-wrenching scene with Rand and Min that turned our stomach, instead we ended up feeling cheated. If you've read the book, you know the scene. If not, you'll know it when you get there.

Let's talk about Mat. It's pretty safe to say that he is most people's favorite character--we include ourselves in this group. We are going to be blunt here. Mat's sections are poor. It's not that they are just "off," which they are, it's that they feel like filler. Remember when you used to skim other sections just to get back to Mat? Why did we find ourselves skimming the Mat sections to get to other PoVs--namely Egwene's. In fact, the one section of Mat's--where he is coming up with fake back-stories--feels a lot like he was getting ready for an RPG session. It just feels pointless. It really is disappointing. Seriously, just leave him out of the book. It's been done before. It would have been better than the meaningless sections included in TGS. Perrin managed to stay off screen just fine, why not Mat? Don't include him if there is no cause to. It just ends up serving as needless filler and taints our view on the character...and really, Mat was the only reason Nick was even still reading the series.

Other characters? Well, this is really a mixed bag. For many of them, the tone is off. We'll include Elaida here--who went from being slightly unstable to almost laughably bonkers (laughably in a bad way). Cadsuane seems like a waste of a character, and we wish Rand would have executed her. Sheriam? It's no secret that she is losing it due to the strain of being Black Ajah. And yet she goes completely out of character at the end of the novel--it felt rushed. Siuan's sections are painful to read at the beginning due to the insistence that she throw in random sailing/fishing references EVERY SENTENCE. At the end, it isn't as strong, and her character begins to "feel" right. Gawyn is terrible. His dialogue is so forced, and we really don't get to see the full potential of his conflicted loyalties as we should. Really every other character felt solid (from Nynaeve, to Min, to Perrin, to Silviana), and the problems with the other characters can mostly be overlooked since their sections are relatively short. There was only one character (besides Mat) that was beyond infuriating.


Seriously? WTF (What The...err Frak)? Her character is turned into a magic bullet so we could get the plot moving? How convenient. Gee, it's a good thing she came along to reveal herself (Not THAT way. Get your heads out of the gutter). Now, the WoT has made a career of using coincidence and convenience to solve issues and further the plot. Generally, you could over-look it and say, "It's the Pattern!" The section with Verin is beyond that. There may as well have been an annotation saying, "This section was included for the sole purpose of redirecting a meandering plot and forcing the story towards the end without having to get into much detail." If this was the intention of the character all along, then it should have been a big deal early on in the series.

All in all, the main differences here from prior novels are the characters being extremely introspective. In addition, the conversations they have are extremely blunt and to the point. Was this an addition of Brandon's? The introspection very strongly suggests him, but we hesitate to point a finger. And you know what, maybe it was a good thing. It certainly freshened up the series for us.

Whew. Onward!

The Story Itself:
It's pretty good, especially the last 150 pages. The beginning was typically slow with a ton of set-up. In this case, it isn't a problem. Remember, this is essentially the first third of a huge novel. We need a little set-up that doesn't go all CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT on us. TGS does the set-up well, while introducing plot elements (or furthering previously introduced elements) that will be crucial to 'The End', but won't take too long to wrap up.

We can't really say a lot here--the whole non-spoiler thing--but we will say that epiphanies come like crazy throughout the story. Most of them are good. The final "battle" scene came up a bit short...but maybe that just has to do with us expecting Steven Erikson-like battles at the end of a book. Brandon had to end this novel somewhere, and TGS ending was aptly picked. There should be some serious and immediate consequences--something that has lacked in prior novels of the series.

One thing we did notice: TGS gave us the first REAL feeling that the series was coming to an end, and if felt GOOD. In any other series, this could have been the final book. It really feels like Jordan and Sanderson are seriously wrapping up plot threads. Once again, this is a good thing. A really good thing. We have the movement that we have been lacking for five novels, and a goal in sight. This is what made the novel for us.

There is one thing that bothers us, and it has been a problem for the entire series. At one point in TGS, an Aes Sedai says, "What does it matter, we are going to win anyway right?" This is the same impression that we have had for a while. There is no danger. We don't worry about any of the main characters. We know the good guys are going to win, and at this point we figure it will be all neatly tied with a pink (maybe yellow) bow. We don't even really care who gets killed during the last battle, since no one stays dead in this series. We are praying that this doesn't happen. Please, let it end messily.

This was the big concern most people had. Could Brandon fill in the spaces Jordan left open and tell a WoT story? Not only that, but could he tell wrap up the story WELL?

When this whole scenario was first announced after Jordan passed away, Steve had a nice, long chat with Brandon. Brandon was understandably nervous. He worried that he wouldn't be able to do the series justice. Steve told him, "Look, it's not like you can do any worse than what happened with the new Dune novels. I'd say you are in good shape." Yeah. That was Steve's idea of a motivational speech. There were no "Huzzahs!" to be found. But really, the principle was sound. We know Brandon, and we knew how serious he was taking this opportunity. He is a great writer, and we knew that if anyone could take a series that was--excuse the WoT reference--floundering like a silverpike on land, and use Jordan's outline to get it back on track, it was Brandon. He is a professional.

And really, all the drama and doubts amounted to nothing in the end. Brandon did fine. In some cases there were word usages that were distinctly un-Jordan. The WoT swearing was off for the entire novel. Oh well. There are worse things that could have happened (once again, see the new Dune novels for a reference on how to destroy a series). We've been reading some other reviews around the internets, and some claim that TGS reads like fan fiction, and that Brandon's writing is terrible. They are idiots. The writing is just fine (not that they really know for sure which parts Brandon wrote and which parts were Jordan's). In fact, some of the subtle (and not so subtle) changes that we did notice were welcome. It pulls WoT a little into the modern style of fantasy.

One last thing: We liked how the annoying "all men are idiots" mentality was all but removed. It was old, repetitive, and added nothing to the plot. In addition, we liked the toned-down description of meaningless objects. There was a lot of repetition in description and dialogue, but nothing too major.

The small writing problems we did see can easily be fixed. We have faith in Brandon, and so should you. These small problems will resolve themselves over the last two books.

Overall Impression:
We thought the book was pretty decent. Not great, but not bad. We'd put it on par with book 5 (coincidentally our 5th favorite--book 2 is our #1), and a far cry better than books 7 through 11.

We didn't just feel book was decent because "stuff happens," because really not a ton does happen(or what does happen is wrapped up in a few pages). Dumai's Wells, the ending wasn't. The book was decent because we have movement. Because actual plot-lines were somewhat wrapped up.

We both had the same two thoughts after finishing the book:
1) Yeah, this makes me look forward to the next novel--especially since it is only a year away.
2) It was a quick read, and now I'm ready to move right on to something else. This wasn't the book that makes me want to read it again as soon as I've finished it.

In short, it seriously felt like the series has taken (or was given) a major course correction. Some of the plot-lines were delicately guided back on course and back into focus, while others were yanked and forced. The end goal is the same in all cases--getting the meandering story back on track, and ready for the final two novels of the series. If this was indeed the preparatory goal of the novel, then it succeeded.


We aren't even going to bother putting our rating systems on this review. Novels in the WoT don't need it. It is one of the cleanest fantasy series in the market, and can be read by all ages.

What we are going to mention, however, is how thoroughly pissed off we are at the UK edition of the novel.

While the UK edition may have the superior cover, it is counter-acted by extremely poor binding - thinly glued instead of stitched. Orbit UK dropped the ball here. By the end of Steve's reading (a very GENTLE reading), he could already see where pages were looser. Nicks US version didn't have this problem in the least--it just had the worst cover in the history of fantasy novels (who knew that Rand looked like Freddie Mercury, and had Celene Dion as a backup singer?).

This feels like Orbit UK trying to squeeze every penny out of TGS rather than making something of quality.

The solution for you serious fans? Import the UK edition, buy the US version, then put the UK dust-jacket on the US novel.

The last thing we want to reiterate is that we feel Brandon did an excellent job. He didn't try to be Jordan, which would have been a disaster. Consider what he accomplished. Not only did Brandon finish up this WoT novel, but he also wrote his own HUGE novel, THE WAY OF KINGS in the same year. Having read THE WAY OF KINGS already (yes, it is awesome), we feel like Brandon grew up a lot while writing TGS. This has really become a win-win situation for readers. WoT readers get to see their fav. series finished up in a competent--if different--way, and Brandon's own writing ability has grown tremendously.

Relevant Links:
The Gathering Storm - US Edition
The Gathering Storm - UK Edition - A Wheel of Time Community - Brandon Sanderson's Website
WoT Encyclopaedia

The Affinity Bridge

If you are like us, when you go to a bookstore you let your eye wander. If you already know what you want to buy, and you walk right to it and pick it up, you've missed a golden opportunity. When you let yourself browse the bookstore, you get the opportunity to let books choose you, in a sense. This is how we discovered THE AFFINITY BRIDGE by George Mann. The art design on the cover is incredible--some of the best we've see this year, in fact--and we knew right away that we wanted to read it. So, we each picked up a copy...

...and remembered that, unfortunately, we are poor. So we put the copies back, and went to the library. It was a bummer.

The second anyone sees this cover, they will know that it is Steampunk. For the uninitiated, there is only one thing you need to know about the sub-genre. Steampunk = awesome. THE AFFINITY BRIDGE is no exception. Airships, automatons, steam-carriages, tea, and zombies (wahoo!!!). Yeah, this has all the good stuff.

But you know what really made this novel great for us? The feeling that it was a Sherlock Holmes novel. In a Steampunk setting. Where Watson is a chick. And the Queen is a Steampunk monstrosity.'s exciting and cool just thinking of it.

There are several plots afoot (we've always wanted to say 'afoot') that are happening all at the same time in Mann's novel. A mysterious glowing policeman is killing people. There are zombies running around the streets of London (once again, WAHOO!). However, the main investigation taken by our PoVs Newbury (the Holmes character) and Hobbes (the female Watson character), is an airship that crashes Hindenburg style, killing all of its occupants. The plots, and their resolutions, are completely fantastic. In all seriousness, THE AFFINITY BRIDGE is a standard mystery novel, yet...if feels so fresh. Maybe it is the nostalgic Sherlock Holmes feel, or maybe it is the Steampunk setting. Perhaps it is even the simple added possibility that the supernatural actually exists in this world created by Mann. Whatever the cause, we loved every minute.

This story would have failed terribly without good characters. Newbury, the main PoV, is perfectly written in our opinion. From his drug addiction to his obsession to the occult, he his a flawed and real character. Hobbes--Newbury's assistant--is a strong female character who really deserved more "screen-time." And just wait until you read the epilogue. It really made the Hobbes character awesome for us, and we imagine it will give her more PoV time in the following novels. The side characters were well done, as are the villains (thankfully, the villains weren't crazy over-the-top like in most mystery-like novels). One of the side characters, The Fixer, was fabulous. His small section in the story illustrated perfectly how to show off "cool-stuff" in a story without it feeling tacked-on. Budding authors, take note.

There were a few issues we had. The PoV switches were very poor in some places. There were times where you had two or three different PoVs in a single paragraph. It didn't happen all the time, but often enough to make note of. In addition, setting description was very light at times. We would have liked some time dedicated to showing us the differences in this London from the real historic one. But hey, all of the good plot and character made up for these small problems.

Like so many novels lately, this one has been out in the UK for a bit now, and the sequel already came out as well. If the price for importing wasn't so high, we would consider sending for the second one. But once again, we are poor. It makes us sad pandas. That being said, we fully intend to read everything that George Mann releases. He has his next Newbury & Hobbes novel coming out next year (book 2 for the US, book 3 for the UK), as well as another novel titled GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN coming out through Pyr SF&F in April (looks like the UK gets it in May). Go grab a copy of THE AFFINITY BRIDGE (it is worth every penny of the cover-price), and while you are at it, preorder Mann's next novels.

The Affinity Bridge - A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation Book 1
The Osiris Ritual - A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation Book 2 - UK EDITION
The Immorality Engine - A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation Book 3 - UK EDITION
Ghosts of Manhattan

Simply put: we can't wait to read more George Mann!

Recommended Age: 13 and up. This novel is perfectly accessible to all ages.
Language: Nope.
Violence: Yeah, there is some, especially towards the end with the zombies and such. It's great.
Sex: Nope.

Steve's Note: I'm a big sucker for mystery novels, and I tend to read quite a bit in the mystery/thriller genre. Lately, however, the genre has gone stale, and I've looked for my mystery fix in other areas--namely horror or classics. Mann's THE AFFINITY BRIDGE was picked up strictly based on its cover, but the mystery novel inside really made me excited for mystery again. It also made me pick up the Complete Annotated Sherlock Holmes collection. Three huge hardbacks with every Sherlock Holmes short story and novel. They look pretty, but my wife won't let me read them until Christmas.

Seriously, give Mann's Steampunk novel a try. Not only will it give you an appreciation for the awesomeness of Steampunk, but it might restore your belief in mystery novels again.

Diving into the Wreck

Every now-and-then a novel surprises us. For whatever reason, we have preconceptions about a novel before reading; it could be we've read the author's previous novels, it could be the cover-art, or really anything else for that matter. What we love is when a novel shatters all of our unfounded notions, and completely sucks us into the story (if this were a vampire novel, we would insert a mandatory pun here, but alas...).

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been writing SF for a while now (not to mention every other genre under various pen-names). You may have heard of her, and you may have even read her Retrieval Artist series. It is a decent series, and good for beginners in the SF genre, but nothing that made us squeal and say, "Wow!" That was our exposure to Rusch, and really the basis for our opinions of her writing. We figured that her new novel, DIVING INTO THE WRECK, would be more of the same.

Wow! (See what we did there?) We were seriously mistaken. Take a screen-shot of that last sentence, ladies and gentlemen, because it rarely happens.

DIVING INTO THE WRECK is essentially deep-sea wreck space. It's an interesting idea, but not completely original. However, as is becoming the case lately, it's all in the execution. Also, not only does Rusch throw in the wreck diving in space idea, but in addition she throws the ever-prevalent theme of stealth technology into the mix. We know what you are thinking. We thought it too. "Oh noes! More unoriginal stealth ideas!" Remember, it's all in the execution.

The story begins with the main PoV, Boss (a female), finding a wreck in the depths of space that is of old-earth design. The wreck shouldn't (as is fairly typical with these types of discoveries) be there--in fact it should be impossible for the ship to be in this section of space. What follows in the story is essentially the consequences Boss faces for finding and trying to explore this wreck. The setting and history of the galaxy is revealed piece by piece, and we really felt like it added to the mystery of the situations. Authors frequently play the "withholding information" game from the readers, and it can be absurdly annoying. Not so with Rusch's DIVING INTO THE WRECK.

The characters are quite good in this story. Each of them have their own pasts which lend well to the plot and to the conflict. The novel is actually fairly grim in places, which pleases us (big surprise right?). The dangers the characters face feel real, and the PoV, Boss, makes many observations about her profession that really emphasize how badly things can go (which they do, and often). While the entire story is told from Boss' PoV, we get some great moments of character development for the secondary characters that truly fleshes out the story.

We really want to tell you why the stealth technology in this story is great, but that would spoil a lot of the fun. Look, we know you trust us. The idea here isn't as cliched as you expect it to be. Go grab the book and see for yourself.

Now, no book is without problems. DIVING INTO THE WRECK does suffer a tad from feeling more like three connecting novellas. To be honest, it wasn't until the end of Part 2 that we realized there were connections between the sections. This could be a real turn-off to readers. Also, the very end feels convenient and coincidental. It solves the situation perfectly...but it is WAY too coincidental (you'll know it when you read it).

However we can forgive these faults due to the awesomeness of the book as a whole. The characters are great. The story takes ideas that are typical of the genre and makes them interesting and entertaining. The writing, in our opinions, was much better than her normal fare. The story is told from the 1st Person perspective, but it is entirely present tense--and it is refreshing.

Are you getting the common thread of this review? What you should have noticed by now is that Rusch takes tired or unoriginal concepts and somehow executes ALL of them in the best possible way (with the ending being the one small detractor--but hey, it probably won't bother most people). Like Patrick Rothfuss' NAME OF THE WIND, it is the WAY that the ideas are expressed that makes them so good. DIVING INTO THE WRECK might be the best use of the specific SF ideas it contains.

We are going to be completely candid here. You know what the Hugo Awards are, right? Well, DIVING INTO THE WRECK should be nominated for one. So often recently the SF novels nominated for Hugo awards are extremely inaccessible to the masses. It has become a contest of "who can be the most bizarre," or "who can pander to fans the most," or even "who can make you feel the dumbest while reading." Having read a lot of the recent Hugo nominated novels, it's our opinion that books that are actually GOOD are left off the list. DIVING INTO THE WRECK is a novel that is a fantastic read, and can be enjoyed by the mass SF enthusiasts and newbies alike. Call us crazy--actually, don't, because we aren't--but we think the novels that are nominated for the Hugo Award should get people INTO the SF&F genres, not drive readers away. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's DIVING INTO THE WRECK is exactly what the SF genre needs to get more readers...and to keep the readers the genre already has.

Buy and read this novel. It is easily worth its cover-price. It will surprise you with its depth, and its enjoyment factor. If it doesn't get nominated for the Hugo, we will be disappointed in WorldCon attendees everywhere.

Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: There isn't a lot, but where it does show up, it is almost always the F-word.
Violence: Not really. We know right? No violence and we were still crazy impressed? This should grab your attention and make you want to read it even more. It is the sense of danger and suspense that really impressed us.
Sex: Nope. No shock value stuff here. Just great story-telling.

List of relevant websites that you have come to expect:

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Website --
Pyr SF&F --

Skinwalker Review and Faith Hunter Interview

We have another special treat for you all today. One of the absolute highlights of WorldCon 2008 was our encounter with (actually repeated encounters with...she may have been stalking us) Faith Hunter. She is one of the most down-to-earth, witty, and genuinely warm people we have met. So of course we wanted to keep in touch. When our website went live one of the first things we wanted to do was set up an interview. So, here it is. Enjoy.

Faith: Oh my. Nick. Please don’t loose your will to live or your soul! Get a good book to read and relax a bit! (May I suggest one of mine???) (This in response to Nick mentioning the crushing weight of school and it's effect on his soul and will to live. Faith's response was too good to leave out.)

Well, it's simply a pleasure to talk to you again Faith, thanks for coming to do an interview with us. As you may have noticed from the last time we met, we aren't burdened by an abundance of humility, and would like you to join us unfettered by it. We know why you're so great, but want you to tell our readers what makes you so awesome?

Faith: Ummm…me? Awesome? No way. But I am a workaholic, have written as many as 2 books a year for total of 19 books (so far), my books have been sold/published in 25 countries (Russia is the newest!), I have a short story in one anthology, and Role Playing Game still in the works. Oh – and a screenplay that has been in hiatus for 2 years!

Will you tell us a little bit about your writing history, and how you came to be a published author?

Faith: I had no talent when I was growing up, an unhappy tomboy who didn’t fit in anywhere. Couldn’t draw, sing, dance, flirt, and if it had been today, I’d likely have been on antidepressants. And this sounds sooo freaking depressing! I have to say I wasn’t miserable. I had friends and found solace, calm, and joy in the woods out back of my house, near the creek that ran through the most amazing rock formation. I’d hug a tree and talk to it, as if it were God; I was a tree hugger when that wasn’t cool! Trees gave me peace. And then a tenth grade writing teacher told me that I had writing talent and that I should direct my future toward a life as a writer, and my life took a turn that brought a lot more joy than bark under my cheek! No insult to trees, but pouring angst into a story is so much more satisfying.

I wrote from tenth grade through technical school, through several years working in a hospital lab …um… seemed like a long time! But that call… Well, back-story first. I had written a book and shopped it around for years. I had a stack of rejection letters tall enough to paper my bedroom and then some. While shopping that one, I met a cop named Gary in the ER at 2 a.m. He wanted to write, I wasn’t having any luck, so we tried it together. It took us a while to finish that book (hence the time to shop the first one) but when we did it went out to my dream list of editors at 8 different companies on a Monday. Yes, unagented. It was 1989, the last days of the slush-pile reader, and a brand new editor was working in Warner Books. He took it home with a pile of others that Friday. He called me the following Monday morning. Seven days after the novel went out. Yeah. Still is a shock. That doesn’t happen, right? Never has since, but that one time….

I was in bed after working a 16 hour shift (afternoon and graveyard) during the weekend-from-hell at the hospital. I had just gotten to sleep. This man calls and asks if I am Gwen Hunter. I was so rude. Then what he said penetrated my sleep- and stress-clogged brain. He wanted to publish my book. I broke out into a hot sweat. When the call was over I screamed. Then the phone calls started. And *no one answered*. No one! I hopped into my car and raced to moms and stood in the yard jumping up and down like a frog screaming, “I sold a book! An editor called! I sold a book! Come to the house! I have a call in to Gary! Can’t stay. I sold a book!” Still makes me smile. Hugely!
We sold that book, a police procedural, under the name Gary Hunter. Then followed thrillers and mysteries under my first name, Gwen Hunter, , then the fantasy books under my middle name, Faith Hunter .

Let's start with the Rogue Mage series. What challenges did you face in writing a book with so many biblical references? Did you find it limiting or liberating to use that as source material?

Faith: The nice thing about writing fiction, and future fiction at that, is being able to change things from what is to what I want it be for the book’s and story’s sake. Ancient scripture of all religions is *very* vague about the end-times and the *angels*, so it was easier than you think to incorporate the info from Judeo-Christian-Moslem religion and twist it all up into my Rogue Mage world. The hardest thing was finding scripture for Thorn to use as spells to fight and destroy evil! I had to do a lot of research for that.

You have been working on a Rogue Mage RPG. Tell us a little bit about that. What opportunities did that afford you as a writer? What problems, if any, did it present for your writing?

Faith: I can’t say it has opened any doors or provided any opportunities yet, as it has taken waaaay longer than any of us expected to get it finished. I do hope when it is (finally) published that it will provide some benefit to career or pocketbook, but even so, it has been loads of fun writing it. The game creators had questions (thousands of them) that made me rethink the world, the magic, even the races, and that rethinking will be a part of the fourth book, which I hope will be sold in 2011. Fingers crossed that the published will buy it!

So there are plans to return to the Rogue Mage world?

Faith: Yep. Lots! And I am hoping that the pub will be willing to buy that fourth book. It is plotted out but not really started yet. I have all these stories and plot-lines in my brain, I seem to drift off a lot in conversation. It’s *rude* but I can’t help it!

Without spoiling too much, tell us a little bit about your new series that kicked off with SKINWALKER.

Faith: Here’s a version (I changed it a bit) of the back cover.

A year ago Jane nearly lost her life taking down an entire blood family of deadly rogue vampires that preyed on the helpless local populace of an Appalachian town. Now, after months of recuperation, she’s back and ready to fight again. Except this time, she’s hired by those she’s trained to kill—vampires…

Jane Yellowrock is the last of her kind—a skinwalker of Cherokee descent who can turn into any creature she desires and hunts vampires for a living. Back from hiatus, she’s hired by Katherine Fontaneau, one of the oldest vampires in New Orleans and the madam of Katies’s Ladies, to hunt a powerful rogue vampire who’s killing other vamps.

Amidst a bordello full of real “ladies of the night,” a hot Cajun biker with a panther tattoo and a sexy blood-servant who stir her carnal desire, Jane must stay focused and complete her mission—or else the next skin she’ll need to save just may be her own… For an excerpt:

What ignited the ideas for creating this new series?

Faith: I was having tea with Kim Harrison and the idea came into my mind with the words “Katie’s Ladies.” Within 20 minutes I had the basic format of the character—who she was and what she did for a living. It was wonderful! Fast story-lines don’t happen to me much. It is usually a lot more work!

Do you find your personality coming through while writing your protagonist's point of view?

Faith: Not so much, and when I do, it’s something I catch pretty quickly. Jane Yellowrock and Thorn St. Croix aren’t much like me. Not in any way! I have way better verbal communication skills. I don’t fight at all. I don’t eat near as much meat as Jane Yellowrock and, unlike Beast, I like it cooked. And I’m not a vegetarian like Thorn St. Croix. Neither are like me at all!

Have you noticed any particular trends in the SF&F genres, and where do you see these genres heading?

Faith: Urban Fantasy is the fastest growing genre, with the foreign markets opening up to it in a big way. My agent just sold Skinwalker to Russia! Also, vamps are on the way out as main characters, with other supes taking the giant’s share. I expect to see a *lot* of weres and witches as main characters with vamps as minor recurring characters.

The Urban Fantasy genre has been dominated by female readers, so that is obviously the target market, but do you do anything specific to draw in male readers for your books?

Faith: (covering eyes and laughing) Lots of fighting, a little sex thrown in, and the covers of Skinwalker and Blood Cross are booblicious. Also I have strong, masculine male secondary characters. I have a lot of gay and lesbian readers who are intrigued with both Jane’s and Thorn’s worlds, and quite a few soldiers off fighting in various wars.

If you had to recommend one Urban Fantasy novel to our readers (aside from your own, of course), which would it be, and why?

Faith: Diana Pharaoh Francis has just started a new series with Bitter Night as the debut novel. I read it in manuscript form and it was splendiferous! Very different, yet appealing to any Urban Fantasy Fan.

Aside from the obvious of purchasing your books, what role do your fans play in your life?

Faith: Fans play a very big part in the picture of my life. I blog 5 times a week or so on my website, where I give snippets of upcoming books—there have been 4 snippets from Blood Cross up there in the last month. I go daily to the yahoo group, and several times a day to FaceBook where I post bits about my life and books. (website info at bottom of interview) My fans knew when my dogs died, when I adopted two new rescue dogs, the state of my writing, my family’s health and my health; I share with them photos of my life, and I answer questions all the time. I have found great new friendships that started out as fans, and have shared time with fans/friends as they went through life crises. Plus they give me suggestions for my characters’ love lives!

How about a quick teaser of what's to come in BLOOD CROSS, the next Jane Yellowrock novel?

Faith: Ohhhh, fun! How about the first two paras?

Molly and the kids and I were eating lunch when the lightning hit. The bolt slammed into the ground only feet from the house, throwing brilliant light through the windows, shaking the floor beneath us. I grabbed the table and looked up to see Molly questing with her senses to discern if the lightning had harmed her wards. She had inactivated them because lightning and wards don’t play well with each other, but even a quiescent ward can be structurally damaged. She gave me an “it’s fine” look, but I could tell she was uneasy. Without the wards, the house where I lived while I fulfilled my current contract with the New Orleans vamp council was unprotected.

Molly—a powerful earth witch and my best friend—and I are used to the summer storms in the Appalachian Mountains. Though they can be violent and intense, they had nothing on this monster. Outside, Hurricane Ada was pounding New Orleans, the category-two storm bringing with it wind and torrential rain, though none of the might and tidal surge of Katrina and Rita, and much less of the damage. Human memory is short; most of the natives had elected to ride out the storm, dependent on the new levies to hold, and trusting in the improvement in the city’s infrastructure, courtesy of Uncle Sam. The only unanticipated aspect of the storm was the intense lightning and two tornadoes that had set down in the middle of the city’s electric grid, resulting in the loss of power. The wind died for a moment and then slammed the house like a giant fist, the walls quaking. A fresh burst of rain drummed against the windows.

When do our cameo characters appear in the Jane Yellowrock series? We are waiting with bated breath!

Faith: How about Mercy Blade, the 3rd book in the series? But you’ll have to remind me what they are. I’m having a blond moment. Did I tell you I died my hair to reflect my true nature, blond moments and all? It’s true! Really!

Thanks again for chatting with us, Faith. Do you have any parting words, or anything you would like to add?

Faith: Nick, it’s been fun being here with you! Thank you for having me (waves to fans!). Parting words are twofold.
1.Remember, it’s only fiction, except when it ain’t.
2.Have stakes will travel!

--Faith Hunter (for writers of fantasy)

With BLOOD CROSS only a couple of months away we wanted to give our readers a glimpse of the Jane Yellowrock series. It opened up a few months ago with SKINWALKER. As Faith said above, the story follows a unique vampire-hunter's exploits.

As an entry into the hugely popular Urban Fantasy genre we had to ask ourselves, after finishing SKINWALKER, what made this book worth reading instead of the hundreds of others. Since we know you are probably holding your breath waiting for that answer...we decided not to give it. OK fine. You win. Here we go.

The mystery isn't solved immediately! The plot moves for quite some time before we, as readers, can solve the mystery. Which is fun, because we are tired of thrillers or mysteries being solvable 20 pages into a book (As the resident reader of mystery novels, this is Steve's big pet-peeve. Look at Michael Connelly's SCARECROW for an example of this done poorly.). Not to mention the way Jane Yellowrock goes about hunting and solving the mystery, using her unique set of skills, is entertaining. Hunting vampires is fun, engaging, and stylish when Jane Yellowrock shows up. A HUGE part of the draw is the power balance of Jane's abilities and how they work. Without spoiling anything, it made us both think of how we would handle situations if we had a shape-changing ability like Jane's.

We have agreed that one of Faith's strongest traits in her writing is her ability for description. The imagination doesn't have to work too hard to see when Faith is describing for us. The words are vivid and immediately come to life. From detailing equipment, to Jane's surroundings, Faith paints a very visible picture. Faith has created a believable world in which Vampires and Humans coexist, and not in any hokey or cheesy way. It has a structure to it, with politics, culture, and society that lend this fictitious world credit. We have seen this idea before, a lot, but Faith gives it dimension with the interactions between human and vampire that are pretty cool.

We were initially disappointed in the fact that Jane has an unknown past with lots of blanks she desperately wants to fill in. Its not an original idea in the slightest and is getting kind of boring, in general. Relief flooded us when we saw that Faith handled it well, made Jane an interesting character without the unknown history. Which makes those blanks in her history even more interesting. Jane is a likable protagonist, though we can't really say the same for Beast. Beast, but kind of a pain to read because of the way that point of view is written.

Our biggest complaint was with some of the real world stuff in the book actually. Mainly the science used for certain aspects of the story. Urban fantasy can use real world knowledge to great effect, and using science to explain the paranormal is a cool mechanism if done well. But, sadly, we think SKINWALKER needed a little bit research done for the science used. There are multiple instances of real world stuff being slightly wrong, and is distracting for those of us with some knowledge in that area. However, if you don't know about it, then it isn't a big deal at all so its hard to subtract too many points here. We aren't going to go into specifics, because if you don't notice it, we don't want to spoil that section of the novel for you. Yep, we are extremely considerate to you, the reader.

It also has to be mentioned, that this is the exposition novel for a new series. Which means, as we have all come to expect, there is...uh...exposition. While the book is fast-paced, there is some slow down for the introduction of the world, culture, and setting. We think this is more than OK. The plot still moves at a rapid pace, and we aren't bogged down by world-building or info dumping. The book succeeds in great measure as setting up a foundation for a very cool, very suave, new Urban Fantasy series. The level of action, violence, and gore in this novel was pretty surprising. The novel had a surprising lack of sex and abundance of violence. Urban Fantasy is a hugely popular genre, but it also has the stigma and reputation for being fairly sexually charged. SKINWALKER doesn't follow that model very closely. While, yes, there is some sexual content, it wasn't near as much as we had thought (especially after reading the Rogue Mage series by Faith, in which the main character was in heat for the bulk of the story) and it was a lot bloodier than we surmised. As you have come to expect, Steve was excited about this.

All in all, SKINWALKER is a fun vampire-hunting, paranormal mystery romp. Fun filled, with a few flaws. While it feels geared towards the female audience, it is worth a read for anyone looking for something in the vein of the Mercy Thompson or Anita Blake series but with Faith's unique spin on the genre.

Recommended Age: 16 and up. The violence is very graphic.
Violence: Holy crap yes. Grisly, gruesome, and gory.
Language: Nothing in memory that is explicit.
Sex: Innuendo and such. Mention of acts, sometimes in some detail. Nothing near as graphic as we expected.


Remember that guy, James Barclay, who's book DAWNTHIEF we reviewed a few weeks ago? If you don't remember, shame on you! Go here for that review of a terrific novel. That first novel was one of the higher quality novels we had read all year, so we had some fairly high expectations for NOONSHADE. Do we ever not?

The story of NOONSHADE picks up, literally, minutes after the first book, DAWNTHIEF, ends and throws us right back into the exploits of the mercenary band, The Raven. In the first few pages we are given a brief, "Hey, look! There's a big-A hole in the sky as a consequence for saving the world in a dangerous way in the last book." summary. Then BAM! (Emeril, not only are we more attractive, we even say your catchphrase better. Eat your heart out.) we get right into the events of the current book. Salvation brings its own can of worms in this worms. Actually it isn't a can of worms, so much, as a rift in the sky through which all manner of destruction can manifest. By, "all manner of destruction" we mean interdimensional dragons that want nothing more than to obliterate everything, and kick your dog. Twice.

Yes we know what you are thinking, its not an entirely unique premise, and if it sounds familiar, it should. The creation of new problems by the method of solving the old is a well used mechanism for fantasy stories. However Barclay takes this trope and does it right (unlike one of the members of the authors-who-shall-not-be-named club).

Hold on you say? Dragons? Yes well, let's address that. One of the first things that astonished us both, while reading NOONSHADE, was that within the first few pages there are elves, a dragon, (actually more than one), and they weren't obtrusive in the slightest. In fact they are really cool.

A very good friend of ours, you may have heard of him, Brandon Sanderson, once wrote an article entitled Kill the Elves. While Dark Fantasy (AKA Gritty or 'Realistic' Fantasy) is certainly trendy right now (We aren't afraid to say, especially to all you mainstream critics, that we love this trend.), it has been around for decades but has, previously, been overshadowed by the more traditional High Fantasy. You know the fantasy we all grew up with that had Dwarves, Elves, Mages, dragons, etc.

Well, back to the point at hand... In the Kill the Elves article Brandon Sanderson talks about how the time of these fantasy tropes has passed, and the genre is in search of the new successor to the throne. We agree with him, and not just because he is our friend.

However, James Barclay shows us in his Chronicles of The Raven series that perhaps Brandon's depiction of the death of the elves is perhaps not always correct. For us to be saying this means that these elves were done very well. Its not about their pointy ears, or hoidy-toidy attitudes (we are the ones that are supposed to have that attitude), or even their ubiquitous racism. They are characters just like everyone else.

This leads us to perhaps the most important part of our review. While completely full of action, (Seriously, we were well sated on the action aspect of this novel.) James didn't forget that Fantasy stories are about the characters and character growth. The emotions, ambitions, concerns, and thoughts of each of the characters are as tangible to us as the book in our hands. We know and understand what each of the characters are feeling. No small accomplishment in a book with dragons, eh? Oh speaking of dragons, as if making elves cool again wasn't enough, James does it with the dragons who are strong characters themselves!

Multiple plots are detailed and woven together in an incredible fashion. The story yanked us along and we loved every minute of it--all the way up to, and including, the satisfying conclusion. At this time we would like to remind you all that this is, in fact, the second book of a trilogy. So let us repeat this. There is a satisfying conclusion. Let there be much rejoicing in the land!

Typically when you read the middle novel of any series (especially trilogies), the first half of the book is telling you what happened in book 1 while the last half tells you what will be important in book 3. It gets real old, real quick, and we figure that is why many authors are getting away from traditional trilogy set-ups. You know why Barclay is swiftly becoming one of our favs? His novel doesn't suffer "middle-book syndrome." It doesn't have a stand-alone feel by any means, but it certainly doesn't succeed on the coat-tails of it's predecessor and the promise of it's successor.

We'll admit that we worried about how this book would read. Would the style get old? Would NOONSHADE suffer the 2nd Book Slump?

The answer to all those questions is a resounding, "No!"

In NOONSHADE, we are given everything that made DAWNTHIEF incredible, with added layers of detail of the world and its characters. We are positively thrilled that we finally have these novels here in the US! Seriously, if Barclay's next novels continue to be this enjoyable, we may have found the guy that tops our Heroic Fantasy list of favorite authors. NOONSHADE bears a cover-quote from the late and great David Gemmell. It is one of the few novels that actually deserves those words of praise from the Legend.

Whatever it is that draws us all to stories about the exploits of mercenary bands, James Barclay knows what it is. This a group of mercenaries that we don't see ourselves tiring of. Go buy Barclay's US releases of his novels RIGHT NOW!

DAWNTHIEF - Chronicles of the Raven Book 1
NOONSHADE - Chronicles of the Raven Book 2
NIGHTCHILD - Chronicles of the Raven Book 3

James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven sets the standard for Sword and Sorcery Fantasy. Anyone who is writing about a group of mercenaries needs to read these books and ask themselves, if they can do it half as well.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Nothing explicit.
Violence: This book is action packed. With swordplay aplenty, this is a definite yes.
Sex: Nothing of note.

You know the drill. Go give James Barclay and his US Editor Lou Anders some love: