Elitist Classics: Citizen of the Galaxy

Robert A. Heinlein is a god in the science fiction world, and for good reason: he brought literary quality and high scientific standards to a growing genre, as well as attention-grabbing controversy. I'm sure you all know about his classics including STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, and STARSHIP TROOPERS. But did you know he also wrote juvenile fiction?

Written in 1957, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY is about the boy Thorby who's taken to a strange planet as a slave and is purchased by an old beggar for a pittance. But Baslim the Cripple isn't everything he appears, and treats Thorby as a son, teaching him not only how to beg, but also mathematics, science, history, and several languages--and how to gather intelligence from the errands he's sent on. Before he's grown, however, everything goes awry and Thorby's life changes.

CITIZEN deals with themes of slavery, and how having an education ends Thorby's slave status. There's also questions of loyalty and the cost of doing the right thing. This is a great book to start kids out on science fiction.

CITIZEN should be available at most libraries and is almost always in print. Also worth reading for kids and adults is Heinlein's fun HAVE SPACESUIT--WILL TRAVEL.

In August 2010, Tor released the first of a two volume biography, ROBERT A HEINLEIN: IN DIALOGUE WITH HIS CENTURY, and are holding an online symposium discussion by current science fiction authors. Learn more about it on Tor's blog.

Recommended Age: 10+
Language: None.
Violence: Minor.
Sex: None.

The Bird of the River

When a job goes fatally wrong for their mother, teenage Eliss and her younger half-brother Alder find themselves orphaned and marooned on the barge Bird of the River. The crew takes pity and lets them stay on and the pair hope to have finally found a 'home' that welcomes them. They've lived a rough and itinerant life as a result of their irresponsible mother: Alder is half Yendari, and Eliss has had to make up the difference when their mother was wasted from smoking yellow weed.

Eliss takes to sailing on the Bird as though born to it, and quickly distinguishes herself as a look-out, calling out the lay of the water as they travel upriver. One day while at port, a mysterious young man, claiming to be a lord's son, seeks refuge on the ship. Then the Bird and its crew finds port town after port town in trouble from marauder demons wreaking havoc on the citizenry. And Eliss watches events unfold from her perch on the look-out.

I'd never heard of Kage Baker before EBR handed me this book, and it felt like finding a buried treasure. Then I discovered that THE BIRD OF THE RIVER was published posthumously. Fortunately, however, this is one of three books written in this same world, and Baker has a repertoire of a dozen others, as well as novellas and short stories.

Baker's prose is lovely and simple, every word placed carefully (even the few instances of profanity), the imagery giving the story just the right tone. The pacing is consistent and works for the story she's telling. It's a pleasant and fluid read.

Eliss has never spent time on the river before, and as the PoV character we discover it through her eyes. And what a sharp and observant girl she is. This makes her an excellent look-out, but it's also inconvenient at times as there are people on board with secrets to keep. The world around her is varied and fascinating, from the quite-real gods, to the 'demons', to the Yendari race who live among the trees, to the port towns and their individual quirks. She sees it all. At first she doesn't really understand what it is she's seeing, as she's still coping with the loss of her mother, and experiencing what the world is really like for the first time. Eventually, though, she does understand, and it's tempered with her increasing maturity.

Baker draws her characters with a deft and gentle hand. THE BIRD OF THE RIVER is the story of Eliss' coming of age, and how she must not only forgive her mother's trespasses, but also allow young Alder to learn about his father's people. Krelan comes a little later, but plays an important role in helping Eliss to discover her gifts and that her life has meaning and value. I enjoyed Eliss and Krelan's blossoming friendship, as they found comfort in their companionship, and are able to see each other's strengths despite their flaws. The Bird's crew are a fascinating mixture of old and young, educated and coarse, mundane and supernatural.

The story begins benignly enough, but then there's the mystifying demon attacks on the port towns, as well as Krelan's assignment to find the murderer of his master's son that leaves a trail of clues across several port towns. The story darkens, and like the characterization, the plot unfolds carefully, until they reach their final destination and everything culminates to a satisfying conclusion. But THE BIRD OF THE RIVER is not only an adventure-mystery. It's a commentary on duty, prejudice, how wealth doesn't necessarily equal happiness, and a host of other themes worth contemplating.

This isn't a big, fat fantasy book. But it doesn't have to be. While it's perfectly suitable for a YA audience, adults will enjoy it too. It's a thoughtful, enjoyable story about how just living one's life is the best healing balm for loss.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: A mere handful of uses near the end of the book.
Violence: A little, and it isn't graphic.
Sex: Just shy of implied.

Interview with Larry Correia

We've had the privilege of chatting with Larry Correia a number of times. As an author, he is fantastic. As a person, he is even more awesome...and we promise that Larry doesn't have any heavy weaponry pointed at us as we type this introduction. So, kick back and enjoy the interview.

Elitist Book Reviews: Larry, welcome to Elitist Book Reviews. Tradition here at EBR states that you have to introduce yourself to the readers by explaining why you and your novels are awesome. And don’t start with that “I’m not the guy to do that,” because we know you.

Larry Correia: Well, I’m a novelist with Baen Books. I’m currently writing the third book in the Monster Hunter series, have a new series called The Grimnoir Chronicles beginning in 2011, and I’m collaborating with John Ringo on a new sci-fi series. Before that I’ve been a military contractor, machinegun dealer, firearms instructor, and an accountant. Which I suppose is a really strange combo.

Why am I awesome? Because EBR said so. And everyone knows that they are never wrong.

EBR: Who do YOU think your novels appeal to (besides Elitists like ourselves with impeccable taste)?

LC: People who like big, explodey, fun without having their intelligence insulted.

My first novel, Monster Hunter International, was specifically written for anyone that had ever watched a horror movie, and found themselves wondering why the protagonist didn’t just get a gun and shoot the monster. It kind of just evolved from there.

You’ll hear a lot of writers give the advice to write what you’d like to read, and I enjoy fast, fun, action-adventure, but not dumb action. Action-filled books can still have great characters. Even though I write fantasy and sci-fi, I try to keep my tactical/technical aspects as accurate as possible. The best kind of compliment I have received is when somebody in Iraq sends me an e-mail saying that if monsters we’re real, that’s exactly how they would take care of business.

EBR: Alright, it seems like everyone always asks what it is like to get that first novel published. That’s neat and all, but what we want to know is what it is like to write that second novel on your contract—for you, MONSTER HUNTER VENDETTA. Was it easier/harder? Were you worried about the expectations riding on the sequel?

LC: Both. It was harder in some ways and easier in others. The easy part was that I’ve gotten better with each book that I’ve written, so I think MHV was a little tighter and smoother that its predecessor. It is really just practice and experience. I’ve got 5 novels done now, and I’ve learned something new from each one.

The hard part was living up to expectations. MHI was a huge hit. Four printings in its first year, bestseller lists, great reviews, etc., so I really wanted MHV to be just as good or better that its predecessor. So far though, so good. The early e-book of MHV released a few months ago, and the reviews have been extremely positive. (plus EBR liked it, so the matter is settled).

Another hard thing about a sequel is that nerve-wracking part where you have to decide how much recap to squeeze in so people who read out of order aren’t completely lost but your existing fans aren’t bored. Nobody wants to read a few pages of “in our last exciting episode—“ so I had the main character give a brief recap of how he ended up where he is while being interrogated in a Mexican prison. I do believe that worked out pretty darn well.

EBR: What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

LC: Butt in seat. Hands on keyboard. I’m easily distracted.

I love to write. I’d do it for fun anyway, (though it is really awesome to get paid for it!) but it takes an effort to stay focused and to put in the consistent hours necessary to produce. Some nights you just want to be lazy and play Call of Duty, but you need to set a schedule and you need to keep writing. Writing is a job. Luckily, I’m a workaholic, which means I feel guilty if I’m not taking on a stupid number of projects, so that helps.

EBR: So far we have two Monster Hunter novels. We know you have a prequel in the works, but where else do you see yourself taking this franchise?

LC: The next book is Monster Hunter Alpha. It is about MHI’s head honcho, Earl Harbinger. Fans love Earl. No spoilers, but Earl is one hardcore dude. MHA isn’t really a prequel, though it does have a lot of background info about Earl and the experiences that made him the man he is. It is the first MH novel written in the 3rd person, and it jumps around to some other characters that will become important in the MH universe.

After that is Monster Hunter Legion. It gets back to the main story-line and PoV character, Owen Pitt. Then is another standalone called Monster Hunter Nemesis, about everyone’s favorite fed, Agent Franks. Officer Friendly, he is not. The fun part of the MH universe is that there is so much story potential. There is a big overall arc involving Owen, but in the meantime I’ve got a bunch of MH stories I want to tell.

EBR: What many of our readers don’t know is that Monster Hunter isn’t your only franchise. Give our readers the HARD MAGIC pitch.

LC: The Grimnoir Chronicles is an alternative-history/epic-fantasy/pulp-noir/adventure. That’s a lot of genres, but TGC turned out great. It takes place in a time-line that diverged from ours when magical abilities began to randomly appear in the 1850s. Nobody knows where this power came from or how it works, but it only seems to bond with a small portion of the population.

HARD MAGIC is the first book set in the TGC universe. It takes place in 1932, during the end of prohibition and the early part of the Great Depression. A secret society of magic users, led by Blackjack Pershing, is trying to keep a Tesla designed super-weapon from falling into the hands of Imperial Japan.

EBR: We’ve read HARD MAGIC. It’s freaking awesome. But if you start doing all sorts of cross-overs between your franchises, we will send all manner of zombies and assassins after you. Please, calm our fears here.

LC: No crossover. There are monsters in TGC, but there are only a couple of variations resulting from certain specific types of magic. I tried to keep a very ‘30s pulp vibe to the creatures and to the technology. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous showing the rough draft of Hard Magic to you guys, because you are tough but fair. I’m really glad you liked it.

Basically, TGC originated because I wanted to write an epic fantasy, but I didn’t want to put it into a normal, been done before, kind of setting. So I made a list of the things that are the usual staples of epic fantasy, complicated world building, lots of characters, big storyline, magic system with rules, etc. So I took this epic fantasy story, and I stuck it into what I thought was one of the most interesting periods in history, i.e. when men wore hats. I’m also a history geek and research nut, so this gave me an excuse to read lots of history books, and then I populated it with all of the retro-cool things I thought would be fun to write about.

Hard Magic is the only book I’m aware of that features a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible, played straight, and it works. Being honest, it is the best thing I’ve ever written.

EBR: We totally need John Ringo/Larry Correia collaboration details. This is a pretty big deal, so tell us what you can.

LC: I met John Ringo at LibertyCon. He’s a really great guy, and one of the top writers in science-fiction. We hit it off, and he asked me to collaborate on a new series with him. Of course, I said yes, because this is The John Ringo we’re talking about here. We are still in the early stages, but it is a new setting/idea that John has come up with. It is definitely space-opera. I love space-opera, and this is my first opportunity to write something in that genre.

EBR: What’s it like collaborating on an idea? How do you make the ideas mesh? Also, just cause we are curious, when should we expect you to collaborate with us (surely that is on your checklist of “Goals Towards Global Domination”)?

LC: If I was to collaborate with you guys... Well, I don't know if the world could withstand something like that. We might have a liability issue from the books spontaneously combusting on bookstore shelves because of the sheer power of awesome.

There’s different ways to collaborate. The standard Baen junior/senior writer method is that the senior writer does the majority of the world building and provides a really detailed outline to the junior writer. (that would definitely be me). Then we go back and forth to hammer things out. The junior writer does the first draft and the senior edits it, back and forth until you’re done.

This will actually be my second collaboration. I’ve written a thriller called Dead Six with another author named Mike Kupari. We just finished that recently and are in the process of selling it now. That collaboration was a little different, since both writers had one first person PoV character, and the story switched back and forth between us, alternating scenes, so there are two totally different voices. It is a kick-butt thriller.

EBR: Let’s say you are at the bookstore, browsing for the latest novel that the awesome reviewers at EBR are raving about (besides your own). Another book browser passes by your hulking mass (most likely wondering—correctly—if you are going to pull a pistol on him), and asks timidly what book you recommend. You can’t recommend your own, because obviously the store has sold through your entire stock. You can only recommend one novel. What is it going to be?

LC: Oooohh… Hard one. I don’t know if I could narrow it down that much. I don’t really have a single favorite book. There’s just too many good ones to choose from. I know which work of fiction I’ve reread more than any other, though, so I’d have to cheat and pick two books (since they really should be read together) and say HYPERION and FALL OF HYPERION by Dan Simmons.

EBR: Usually we ask what we have to do to have cameos in people’s novels. But, well, you already promised us this. Hmm. Uh, what do we have to do to get recurring roles? Yeah, that will do.

LC: I was going to redshirt you guys in MHA, but I’m doing a charity thing for the Misha Hintze kidney transplant fund, where I auctioned off redshirts. We called it: Give the gift of kidneys so Larry Correia can murder you for charity. We actually raised a nice little chunk of money, so now many of my readers can be devoured by werewolves, so it is fun for the whole family. But now all the characters in the book have been named for charity, so I’m going to squeeze you guys into the next one. You’ll have to decide if you want your alter egos to exist in the modern day, in the ‘30s, or in the future.

EBR: Alrighty, Larry. We are thrilled that you took time to answer our completely random and self-serving questions. Anything you want to say to our readers before you shoot them—err, have to go?

LC: I’ve got an absurd number of sample chapters for all my books and other fiction posted for free over on my blog, http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/ Just click on the Sample Chapters & Short Stories tab.

Monster Hunter Vendetta

We like our books with thought put into them. Characters in shades of gray. Plots that are epic, yet deeply personal. We like novels where the author challenges our minds, and makes us ponder humanity.

And after we have read all that, we LOVE to read books that involve explosions. And zombies. And exploding zombies. And zombie elephants. Did we already mention explosions? How about heavy gunfire?

Thank you, Larry Correia, for giving us another novel full of exploding monsters, and incredibly detailed gun-play: MONSTER HUNTER VENDETTA.

You readers DO remember Larry Correia, right? It would be in your best interests to nod your head in agreement regardless of your actual answer. Larry has lots of guns. And he knows how to use them all. Apart from that, he is a good friend of ours, and a terrific storyteller. His first published novel, MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL (MHI), was completely awesome (read the review here). More importantly, it was FUN. Larry is the kind of writer that if his novel doesn't make you smile with giddiness while reading, he isn't satisfied with his work.

With Larry's latest novel, MONSTER HUNTER VENDETTA (MHV), we are happy to report that it is indeed full of win. Now, no one will ever say that Larry has written the Great American Novel. Why the heck would he want to? Guns and monsters are WAAAAAAY more better. (Yes, that bad grammar was intentional. Deal with it.) What Larry provides is lots of action, lots of guns, lots of explosions, and lots of fantastic characters. And we get it all at a lightening pace.


MHV is essentially the consequences of the events in MHI. You know, when our stud of a PoV, Owen Pitt, thwarted a Cthulhu-esque God. An evil death cult, known as the Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition, took exception to that whole thing, and they want the Old Ones to come back and take over. Owen seems like the ideal sacrifice.

Queue destruction and mayhem.

Look, we can go on about how fun MHV is for days. It really is completely awesome. But what people don't seem to think of when you read a book "like this" is that there will actually be some great character development. MHV's characters are much deeper than than they appear on the cliché surface. Really, seeing the growth these characters have forced upon them, and the heart-wrenching steps they willingly take is where the book's true pillars are found. From Owen, to Julie, to Earl...they all are distinct characters. You readers may think that Larry Correia is just blowing $%^* up, but that's just to hide that he is actually very, very good at crafting characters.

Are there flaws? Duh. But they are all so minor, that it would annoy us more to have to even write them down. Look, Larry cheats when he writes. He refers to it in the novel. If Larry isn't cheating, he isn't trying hard enough. If Larry wants something to happen, he will make it happen. If he is told, "Dude, you CAN'T put Deus Ex Machina into a novel!!" he will purposely put it into the novel just to spite you. Twice. And he will make it work. He is that awesome.

It still shocks us how BIG these novels are. MHV clocks in at over 600 pages of pure adrenaline. Instead of giving adrenaline injections to patients, doctors should just beat them with MHV. It would have the same effect, and is significantly cheaper.

MONSTER HUNTER VENDETTA, like MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL before it, is worth every monster-gore-soaked penny of its cover price. Larry has again brought extreme fun back to reading.

And if you don't like MHV, Larry will just shoot you. So there.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Heck yeahs.
Violence: Seriously? There is literally a character NAMED Violence in the novel. What do you think?
Sex: None.

What's that you say? You want to know more about Larry Correia? Well, you are in luck. Tune in tomorrow for an interview with the author.

From Hell with Love

James Bond meets Harry Dresden--except with a much bigger family--in Simon R. Green's newest urban fantasy mystery, FROM HELL WITH LOVE.

Our hero, Eddie Drood, is devoted to the family cause: keeping humanity safe from the real horrors that threaten it. He's spent his entire life saving the world from one danger after another, and the needs of the Drood family has always come first. Now he has to protect Earth from Hell itself, even at the expense of the life of the woman he loves.

Doctor Delirium, who usually isn't taken very seriously by the Drood family, has stolen the Apocalypse Door, and threatens to open it and let all Hell loose if his demands aren't met (these demands include rare postage stamps...). But not everything is as it appears. As Eddie works to track down the semi-evil mad scientist, he discovers that the real power behind this threat are the Immortals--a kind of anti-Drood family who think of humanity as their playground, rather like a mob of high-strung gradeschoolers set loose at Chuck E. Cheese.

Eddie and his complicated 'family' are an interesting bunch. Eddie himself is driven and determined, but also sentimental; he's got a history and it flavors the choices he makes. While he prefers being a field agent to a former role as head of the Drood family, he's known for leaving a path of destruction everywhere he goes, which rather ruins the 'secret' agent part. Another main player is his uncle the Armourer, whose inventions make it possible not only for Drood field agents to kill people in strange and unusual ways, but also makes their activities undetectable. He used to be a field agent, himself, and has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Or there's the half-lucid librarian William. Or the ruthless rogue Drood, Tiger Tim. Or the Bride of Frankenstein. Yes, she happens to be an old friend of Eddie's. The characters in FROM HELL are more caricatures than people with depth; if anything, you could say that they all have too much personality.

If the characters are any indication that this novel is slapstick cheesy fun, then you should also be expecting it from the action. Eddie walks into fights with brazen disregard for subtlety, over and over again--he appears to be a fan of dramatic entrances and even more dramatic finishes. Witness: Eddie, as he fights a self-healing dragon, in order to defeat it because he can't hack it down fast enough to kill it, lets himself be intentionally swallowed and turns the dragon from the inside out. Yeah, and that's just in the first forty pages.

The plot is often random, as Eddie reacts to a varied and dazzling assortment of events, from half-crazed Droods, to an army invasion, to monsters at a convention. At times it's predictable, other times events don't at first appear to have any connection with each other. But Green sprinkles enough clues around that when the next curve ball shows up, the twist does make sense. Then something else random happens.

Eddie's PoV narration is entertaining and often silly; unfortunately it includes a liberal dose of cliches and emotionally prosaic musings when he's fighting or thinking about his enemies. When the story gets dark, it's the humor that keeps the themes from bogging down readers. The pacing moves pretty well, but the flow could have used some streamlining as well as the addition of better transitions. The wordy dialogue adds to the uneven pacing and makes the story feel over-padded with information because every character loves to talk. A lot. And it's not only verbose, it can get grandiose. I'm a sap for good dialogue, but this got annoying when I just wanted to get on with the story.

Technology and magic together are integrated into the Drood way of life. And like Q's inventions for James Bond, the Drood field agents have some nifty gadgets to make their job easier (my favorite is the Merlin Glass), like the golden torc they use to armor themselves while in battle. While this indestructible armor does have limitations, Green tries to create concern for Eddie's well being with questions about how much the armor can handle, only to have it always work out. That happens a lot actually, seeing questionable limitations not become limitations at all, which affects suspense and makes problems too easily resolved. But since this story is all about the ridiculous, Green gets a pass, otherwise it would have been a sticking point with me.

FROM HELL WITH LOVE is the fourth volume of The Secret Histories series, but Green explains the back story without confusing new readers, so this book is fine as a standalone. However, this book isn't for everyone. It's a popcorn-fun kind of read, so don't be expecting anything with depth...or logic for that matter.

Recommended Age: 18+ for themes and violence.
Language: Scattered here and there.
Violence: It's plenty gory and bloody...and it can get pretty wacky, but it's fun to see what Green comes up with.
Sex: It happens off camera and there's some innuendo.


Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series has created a buzz in the Young Adult world. Her version of a future American dystopia is grim and disturbing. And compelling. The final novel, MOCKINGJAY, was released in August with great anticipation...but was it worth getting all worked up about?

The series begins with THE HUNGER GAMES, an exciting, brutal, and clever story. The setting is well done and artfully displays a society that's rotting from both ends. HUNGER GAMES explores the themes of an influential propaganda machine and an extravagant Capital at the expense of the people, then takes it the next frightening step.

The second novel, CATCHING FIRE, is the weakest in the series because not only is it a rehash of THE HUNGER GAMES, the entire first half is a distanced narrative that doesn't advance characterization and only minimally advances plot. It was as though Collins wanted to get the start out of the way so she could set up even more over-the-top Games for this round (which, I have to admit, were decidedly clever, the new characters interesting), and set up the events for the final novel.

In the third installment, MOCKINGJAY, the aftermath of the 75th games can now finally resolve book two's cliffhanger ending. District 13, the name the rebellion has given itself, has taken over the former District's underground bunker and created a new life for Panem's refugees--one that's startlingly similar to the Capital in it strictness and control. District 13's leader, President Coin, wants to use Katniss Everdeen as the face of the revolution, call her the Mockingjay (a reference to the Capital's past failed manipulations), and use the rebels' own propaganda to garner support from the other districts. If they succeed in taking the other Districts, then they plan to invade the Capital itself. But will Panem only be trading one tyranny for another?

MOCKINGJAY expands the themes from the first two novels: Is war the best way to resolve conflict? Is revenge justifiable? Is controlling people ever reasonable? Collins succeeds in building on the the setting as she explores District 13 and its own distinct culture, and creates a world we'd be afraid to live in--a world frighteningly similar to the Games itself. Katniss must deal with Peeta's imprisonment by the Capital, Gale's romantic frustrations, and decide whether being the Mockingjay is the right thing to do. She has a hard road ahead of her.

Collins is consistent with Katniss' character, her first-person present tense PoV clean, straightforward, and engaging. Katniss starts out the series strong and capable, if cynical; but when we reach MOCKINGJAY, instead of growing as a character, she stagnates. This is supposed to be a coming-of-age story and instead of growing into a woman she continues being a whiny and indecisive teenager who, despite a few bursts of independence, gives up. The only thing she's truly decisive about is her desire to kill President Snow, but at the same time is ambivalent about the war. It doesn't help, either, that she spends half the novel in the hospital or recuperating from injury, which was too much downtime. Katniss has spent her life taking care of her family in the absence of her father and has even survived the Hunger Games twice, so she's earned the right to claim her adulthood--but instead fails to take the next crucial step. This alone will disappoint readers. But wait, there's more.

The story starts out fine enough, but it progresses slowly with spurts of action. By the end the rebellion contradicts its goals, the battle's high body count has no clear purpose, the PoV character Katniss doesn't witness the climax, and then at the end there's ambiguity as to what life will be like for Panem after the war. "But," you say, "Collins is showing us how the powerful will control and hurt innocents to get what they want. And Katniss' ineffectiveness is simply a result of their control!" My reply: Collins' points could have come across just as well with a clearer resolution and more complete character arc. However, Collins is true to her story, and as a result the characters don't emerge unscathed--for a story like this it's difficult to have other than a bittersweet ending. This hard reality may leave readers ambivalent about how Collins chooses to end MOCKINGJAY.

If you haven't read the series, perhaps you're wondering if all three are worth reading. The up-side is that the novels are short so it's not a huge time commitment to read all three. If you have teenagers, they'll likely want to want to read the series, and you'll need to know how to discuss its disturbing themes with them. But beyond that, what do I really think? Only read THE HUNGER GAMES and call it good enough.

Recommended Age: 12 and up, or older depending on your kids, due to themes and violence.
Language: None.
Violence: Quite a bit, actually, for a YA novel. While most of it does happen off-screen, it's still disturbing and frequent for its target audience.
Sex: Katniss is frustratingly oblivious to romantic overtures. There's kissing, falsely implied intimacy, and references to sexual abuse.


There are very few female Urban Fantasy authors who are able to draw in male readers as Kat Richardson is able to. You see, she writes more like a guy than her female counterparts. For us, this is a good thing. Because we are guys. LABYRINTH marks the fifth entry into Richardson's Urban Fantasy series following the adventures of Harper Blaine.

Here is the thing with this novel: you shouldn't be reading it unless you have read the rest of the series. Guys like Jim Butcher and Simon R Green tell stories that have more enclosed story arcs. We don't recommend it, but you could read them out of order and still have a pretty good idea about the landscape of the story and series. Not so with LABYRINTH. It picks up right after the events in London from book 4, VANISHED. There are terms you won't know. There are people you won't know. There are relationships you won't know. Get our meaning? Don't read this novel unless you are already a readers of the series.

The plot of this novel revolves mostly around Harper attempting to free the imprisoned ghost of her father. Really, that's about it. There are other sub-plots--mostly dealing with vampire politics--but the focus of the story is on Harper trying to free her father's ghost while she evolves more fully into a being of great power.

First of all, we didn't quite like this novel as much as the rest of the series. While the plot was narrower, it didn't feel as tight, and the pacing was up-and-down. While reading this novel, we should have been feeling a deep sense of dread, paranoia, and worry. There are moments where those came through, but we felt the pacing undermined it. We questioned why this was so apparent, and came to a conclusion. LABYRINTH feels like a great novella with lots of filler to give it the length of a novel. If a majority of the wandering around the characters do was cut out, the pacing would flow better, and we would have a pretty tight novella. But see, there's no real place for a novella as this stage of the series, so a novel was required. It bothered us, but we could see why it was done.

Additionally, the relationship between Harper and her "geeky" boyfriend Quinton was a bit flat here. It is mentioned several times how "geeky" Quinton is, and we keep being told that a "geek" like Quinton would normally never get a hottie like Harper...but Quinton just seems like a heroic gadget-whiz in this novel. No real geek this time around. We would have liked a tad more "show" here instead of "tell."

If you are a fan of Kat Richardson and this series (like we are), none of this is going to bother you too much. The supernatural P.I. type stuff isn't as prevalent in LABYRINTH as it was in the earlier novels, and whether you like that or not is a matter of opinion. Personally, we like less vampire, and more ghosties. You may be different.

You are reading this series for the unique premise, the well-described action, its humor, and its ability appeal to either the male or female audience equally. For the most part, that will all be here in this fifth novel. This novel is noticeably used to tie off some small threads from the earlier parts of the series, and also to set up the next novel. It's one of those books. That is neither good, nor bad. Richardson's writing is sharp, her execution of different ideas is well done as always. We liked the novel for the smaller idea that was there, and for what it promises us for future assignments. If you're already a reader of the series, this book should be on your reading list.

If you haven't already, you should give this series a try. It isn't for everyone, but Kat is a great person, and a great author. Go pick up GREYWALKER and see if it does you some good.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Yeah, some. Usually Urban Fantasy has tons, but Richardson doesn't rely on profanity like other authors.
Violence: Not really. Lots of action, like usual, but hardly any bloody violence at all.
Sex: Nope.

A Star Shall Fall

By now all you readers have probably figured you have us all figured out. You know what books we will like before you even read the review. More importantly, you know what books we will hate. We aren't going to argue much. We wear our taste in novels openly, and to be honest we have a good idea of whether a novel will be awesome/yucky before we even read it.

We receive quite a few ARCs every month. We sift through the tilting stacks of them and get excited when we see something from one of our favorite authors. Likewise we tend to feel a little nauseated when we see another "original tale of a human who falls in love with a deadly vampire." You see, some novels just don't interest us at all. Yet we read them. For you. Because we are inexplicably full of awesome.

Sometimes, a novel surprises the heck out of us.

A STAR SHALL FALL, by Marie Brennan, is an Alternate Historical Fantasy about London in the 1750's. With faeries. Uh huh. We enjoyed a novel with faeries.

Here's how the story goes. A while back, in 1666, there was a crazy fire in London. It gutted nearly the entire city. This is historic fact. What Brennan does is put a fantastical explanation to the historic event. Psycho dragon. Yup. He got hungry and angry and nearly killed everyone and everything in London. Luckily, the fae managed to exile the dragon into a comet that was passing by a bit (1682 after they had temporarily imprisoned the dragon) after the devastating fire. Problem there? It was Haley's Comet. You know, the one that comes by every back every 75 to 76 years? This is the part where all the fae realize how screwed they are. The premise alone made us sit back and say, "Huh. That is way cool."

It wasn't until we were partly through the first bit of the novel that we realized this was the third book in a series. It was a bit of a bummer, but really we didn't feel lost at all. Brennan does SUCH a great job with the clarity of her writing that we picked up meanings, and back stories of characters with ease. Our main PoVs are the Fae Queen of the Onyx Court, Lune. Apparently she has been a character throughout the entire series. Lune wasn't the main focus of the novel, but he characterization was fantastic. You could see the pain in her past, and her desire to do anything to protect her Court, and the humans in London. Irrith is another of the fae PoVs. Her fascination with all things human is described with such an alien way of thinking, but also in a very endearing way. Our main PoV belongs to a human Lord named Galen. He has some issues. In love with Lune. Bedding Irrith. Betrothed to another human. Oh, and resolving the whole "dragon coming to eat everyone" thing has been placed on his shoulders.

That, dear readers, is how you introduce conflict.

The thing about this novel is that it would have been easy for Brennan to focus on the event of the dragon returning, and then ignore any real character development. Brennan doesn't do this. A STAR SHALL FALL is a character drama. It is about how all these wonderful characters deal with the dragon's return, a potential coup of the Onyx Court, and love. This story is all about character development, and we loved it.

Before we go any further, we should mention that this book most definitely isn't for everyone. If all you read is action novels, you won't find that type of content here--though when we do get action in A STAR SHALL FALL, it is extremely well described. Brennan's novel is slow paced. There is a lot of people standing around talking about possible solutions for the various problems present. In a way, it feels a little like if Brandon Sanderson had written Historical Fantasy. We mean early Brandon Sanderson. ELANTRIS. You know, where people stood around and chatted for the majority of the novel. For us, in this particular case, it was a good thing. Will it work for you? Hopefully. But we realize that it just may be too slow for some people.

We really don't have many issues with A STAR SHALL FALL. It was just so refreshing to read. It didn't get bogged down in "Let me tell you all our history." No, she seamlessly integrates the story into the time period, and into the actual events in history. Our personal opinions? This is how Alternate Historical Fantasy should be done.

A STAR SHALL FALL is a terrific novel. It stands solidly on its own two feet despite being the third novel in a series. You should be reading this novel. Seriously, like, right now. If you are reading this review, it will take you a whole five minutes to order this book from Amazon. While you are there, do what we are about to do: pick up copies of the other two novels in the series. MIDNIGHT NEVER COME and IN ASHES LIE. If they are even half as fantastic as A STAR SHALL FALL, they will be excellent reads indeed.

Marie Brennan: Thank you for giving us one of the surprises of the year so far. If we were standing next to you, we would totally be giving you high-fives.

Recommended Age: 14 and up.
Language: We can count on one hand how many times characters swore.
Violence: Not a ton, but there are some decently shocking scenes. Extremely well done when included.
Sex: Mentioned tactfully, but never shown.

Tome of the Undergates

Holy freaking bottle rockets, people! This book ROCKS!

So let’s get this out of the way. Sam Sykes is awesome. He’s young, he’s hip, he’s soon to be part of the growing Overlord's Elitist Movement. Let’s forget for just a moment though that he lives in one of the hottest places on earth (Phoenix, AZ), and the fact that he’s obviously named one of his big baddies after Yours Truly (more on that later), and instead do our best to just focus on the book he’s written. Whadd’ya say? You game?

TOME OF THE UNDERGATES is by far one of the fastest, funnest books I’ve read this year. Mr. Sykes debut novel is a knock-your-socks-off, hit-em-hard, what-in-the-name-of-all-that’s-good-and-holy blast of a great read. He’s got a varied cast of interesting characters, a megalithic backdrop, and a veritable maelstrom of chaos that erupts within its pages, all leading to the outcome that I never for a single moment wanted to put this book down after opening the first page. Man, was it fun.

Lenk, a young human and quintessential leader of a band of Adventurers, are on a large boat to... somewhere (honestly, it doesn't even factor into the story), being paid to play the part of faithful mercenary guards (cough...hack...sputter...) by the captain of said ship. His companions are many and varied: Kataria, the sarcastic Shict (elf on steroids) and archer extraordinaire with a driving passion to kill all humans; Denaos, a cowardly cockroach of a rogue with not a drop of moral fiber or backbone to be found within him; Gariath, a massive dragonman looking for any and all opportunities to kill and/or be killed (if you think Abercrombie’s Logan Ninefingers with dark red skin, massive bullhorns, and always in a rage, you won’t be far off); Asper, a priestess and healer who wants to pick up a sword and help in the fighting, but absolutely sucks at it and has been cursed by her God anyhow; and Dreadaeleon, a young magic user with the annoying penchant for accidentally setting both friend and foe on fire.


The fight is off and running on page one and already the ship has been boarded by pirates of the loquacious and muscle-bound kind. The battle has ensued! While Lenk crosses swords with one of the swarthy attackers, his boss/captain is screeching at him to: kill, kill, kill! Kataria is gathering back a number of red-streaked arrows from various corpses, and (of course) Denaos is nowhere to be seen (although he soon arrives and quickly suggests that they bail). Gariath makes an appearance, ripping pirates into several gruesome pieces, leaving heaps of blood and carnage in his wake. Even Dredaeleon comes up for a bit to torch a person or two. Ooh! But the massive pirate ship has fallen back after having dropped off the first raiding party and now seems to only be tailing them. Things don’t stay like this for long though. Oh my goodness no, because the pirate ship comes back and this time it’s filled with frogmen and even more cranky pirates, and pretty soon there’s a fifteen-foot beast of a bad fish-man, an Abysmyth, crawling up onto the ship and tossing Gariath around like he’s last week’s newspaper. Then when the thing starts talking though and the zombie-seagull chorus chirps in... What’s that you say? What about the Tome? Am I going to mention it? Certainly not. If I did, I could very well carry you through two-thirds of the book, and I wouldn’t want to go that far. Sheesh. I didn’t even get to the psycho purple warrior maidens...

So seriously, I had a really good time with this book. Sykes does an amazingly good job at description, and character interaction, and dialogue, and...yeah. The way he’s written this book makes it easy to burn through pages faster than a greased pig down a waterslide. There are a few things that readers might have a difficult time with, there were definitely a few for me, though I only ended up coming to these conclusions after all was said and done.

Part the first: Timeline. Three days. (Well, the last 30 pages or so could be construed as an additional three days, so...) Yeah, okay, this one totally threw me. The whole book, all 480-odd pages, describes essentially three days of said Adventure with Lenk and his "friends". As such there’s not a whole lot of time for Sykes to delve into politics and social structures and economics and...are you getting the picture here? Very little world-building. Does that bother me? With the way it’s been written, absolutely not. If Sykes is anything like other fantasy authors this’ll be a trilogy (though personally I'm hoping that will end up being one of the very few ways in which he satisfies the definition of such a person). For me, he’s done a great job of setting the hook (Fish? Frog? Ocean voyage? Hehehe. They’re rolling in the aisles...) but in order to keep my attention I’m going to need to see a lot more of this world of his before the end.

Part the second: Character development. I loved his characters. I think he did a great job of showing just what each one was about, who they were, what they wanted; but their overall development felt a bit disjointed. I admit that most of this feeling comes from the fact that there was so little downtime in which he could do it. There is a bunch of navel-gazing that happens during Day Two, and a bit more immediately following Day Three (which I really enjoyed, as an aside, especially Gariath’s fairly emotional scene). Maybe there wasn't another way to do it. Given the amount of stuff that these characters went through in such a short period of time, I’m almost temped to say that Sykes did the best job he could. Regardless, I loved the interaction between them--the banter, the threats, the sarcasm. Give me more! I want more!

Part the third: Unanswered questions. In a way, this ties its fingers intimately into the first two. There were just so many that came up that are never really approached. Why doesn’t Lenk worry more about the voices in his head and that they occasionally take over his mind/body? And, seriously, how much punishment can one guy take before just being done? What keeps Kataria from putting one of her long shafts right through the head of our illustrious leader? How come the cowardly Denaos sticks with this batch of Adventurers when there’s so much direct violence that seems to follow them around? Why does Gariath only punch and kick his compatriots, instead of tearing them into three pieces when he gets mad? We get some explanation to these, but seriously what’s the real reason that all these people stick together? Forget the beef, where’s the glue?

This is absolutely one author that I think fantasy readers should check out. Was the book perfect? No. Regardless, this is one awesome debut novel and I can't wait for the next one to hit my currently-twitching fingers. Huzzah to Pyr for finding him and publishing his stuff. They deserve every laud in the book.

Recommended age: 18+, due to violence but so little else.
Language: Incredibly absent. Yeah, I know.
Violence: If you didn’t read the part about Gariath in my review, then you don’t deserve anything from me at this point.
Sex: An attempted seduction cut short, though detailed enough to warrant mention.

Sam Sykes Official Website

P.S. -- Just wanted to make sure you caught the homage Sykes made to me. (AbySMYTH? Get it?) I can’t help but love this fact. You should view this as concrete proof as to his level of awesomeness. Now go read his book.

The Conqueror's Shadow

Ari Marmell has been writing freelance for years, including short stories, co-authored shared-world fiction, and RPG manuals for Wizards of the Coast. THE CONQUEROR'S SHADOW is his first solo novel, and he attempts to shake things up, with a twist on the standard sword and sorcery.

Corvis Rebaine is happily married to a loving and clever wife, Tyannon. He's got two rascally kids. He's living a simple life among small-town villagers. Everything's all peachy keen.

But his sordid past catches up to him when bandits attempt to assault his daughter. However, this is no random attack, its very deliberateness to bring Corvis out of hiding, because he has something everyone would kill to get.

You see, almost twenty years ago Corvis built himself an army of witches, humans, ogres, goblins, et al, with the purpose of conquering Imphallion. But in order to actually succeed he needed a book of spells, hidden deep within the catacombs of one of Imphallion's largest cities. He assaults the city, barely able to hold it while his enemies gather to dig him out, his entire plan hinging on finding that book and using it to conquer Imphallion for good. He finds the book...but he can't use it. All his plans turn to ruin, so he takes a hostage, young noblewoman Tyannon (yep, the one he eventually marries), and escapes, only to abandon his army and any dreams of conquest.

Now, nearly twenty years later, a copycat warlord is tracing Corvis' steps, using his old plans to start a new campaign of destruction, and find the spell book for his own use. So Corvis does the only thing a former evil warlord can do when someone steals his plans and threatens his family: remake his own army and fight back.

The best thing CONQUEROR has going for it is its serious-goofy-dark sense of humor. In fact, this story wouldn't have worked without it. Why? Because no reader would ever believe that Corvis, the Terror of the East, who strung up bodies in his conquered cities, and laid waste to the countryside, would eventually become a sentimental family man. It defies all rational characterization. The entire plot is crazily contrived. Yet the humor allows readers to suspend belief--for the story anyway, characterization is something else, altogether.

CONQUEROR boasts a big cast, but it revolves around the main three: Corvis Rebaine, former warlord, now husband/father trying to protect his own; Davro, ogre, former lieutenant in Corvis' army; and Seilloah, witch. Marmell paints these stock characters with a few goofy twists and even goofier banter. In fact the dialogue between the main characters is often worthy of an eye-roll. Perhaps it's the humorous take on these supposed dark characters that makes them less believable. Perhaps it's the RPG quality to the set-up. Whatever the case, the result was that I wanted to like Corvis, but never really understood his motivations and behavior. It's a nice idea that he repents of his ways and ends up with a happy family life, but it was hard for me to take seriously considering the circumstances. It doesn't help either that I don't believe Tynannon's behavior. I mean, really, the guy marries the girl he kidnaps and Tynannon never contacts the brother she saved from death? Whose life hung in the balance in the first place because of Corvis? Perhaps they deserve each other. Davro's constant griping was like a violin with one string, his characterization about as deep. Seilloah...I still don't know what I was supposed to think of her.

Marmell tries to help us catch up on the history with brief chapter openers that show us scenes from the past--they aren't chronological, but still relevant to chapter events. Between those and the exciting prologue, it's almost too much information too early in the novel. The PoV switches between several characters, frequently within a scene or to a random character who's never used a second time. Marmell also jumps from scene to scene to keep the pacing quick, but it made the narrative hard to follow when it left out gaps of information and plot. And the ending is a contrived mish-mash of events. All of these problems hurts the forward momentum of the story, which is often rocky. And since I seem incapable of writing a review without a petty complaint, here's mine for this novel: Marmell likes his adjectives/adverbs way too much, which makes for unnecessary wordiness and affects the flow of the prose.

The setting is your standard fantasy landscape, but it doesn't get in the way of the storytelling. Marmell's prose carries the plot along well enough, describes the fights without being too flashy, and adds a handful of new ideas to keep readers interested. The magic isn't anything special, it's used inconsistently, and when it is used it's convenient for the plot. This is too bad because the demon-inhabited items could have been more integrated into the story and really added some spice. Also hinted at are the different levels of sorcery ability, which isn't explained in much detail, but at the same time trumped by the special spell book that would allow the use of even 'higher circle' spells independent of ability.

THE CONQUEROR'S SHADOW is fluffy fantasy reading, despite the author's attempts to explore the theme of justifying evil actions for the sake of good intentions. The best audience is probably your teenage son, who won't get stuck on the unbelievability of it, will laugh with the snappy dialogue, and will like the idea of the villain being the 'hero'--plus it's clean enough for parents who like to keep an eye on content.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: It's relatively mild.
Violence: There's blood and gore and fighting. Nothing over-the-top, though.
Sex: Implied only, and not even much innuendo.


Is it just me, or is Ken Scholes getting better with every book? What’s that you say? You haven’t read his latest novel, ANTIPHON, yet? Well, then let me tell you. Ken Scholes is getting better with every book.

I won’t bother telling you the plot of the book. For one thing this is the third book in the series and the plot has gotten far too complicated to explain well here. Let’s just say that Scholes’ Psalm of Isaak series is a fantasy series set in a unique world full of well-rounded characters and more plot twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. The first book, LAMENTATION (which you should buy NOW), started out with the fall of the great city Wind-wir. And when I say fall, what I really mean is that it was destroyed in a giant pillar of fire killing everything and everyone in it. The rest of the series has dealt with the loss of that city. Mostly why it was destroyed in the first place, and who destroyed it. The first book ended with the reader thinking they figured out why the city was destroyed and the one responsible coming to justice. Book two, CANTICLE (reviewed HERE, opened up a much vaster world and new implications that the city may have been destroyed for other reasons. I’m not going to say much more except to say it just keeps getting better.

At each book the reader feels he/she has gotten a good grasp on the world and its major players. Everything seems to fit nicely together and then in the subsequent book Scholes makes his scope just a bit wider, and you see more of the true picture. It’s as if we have been staring at a beautiful painting standing two inches away. Now, with ANTIPHON, we’ve stepped back a few feet and can see more of the painting and how things are coming together.

I have a feeling Scholes has a few more tricks up his sleeve before the entire piece of art is revealed, and I can’t wait to see what it turns out to be. Ken, if you’re reading this, WRITE FASTER! I’m dying to know what happens next. Also, thanks for the ride so far. For those of you who aren’t Ken, go out and read these books. NOW! You’ll be glad you did.

Age Recommendation: 16+ Not much to object too here, a few gruesome scenes and a very complicated plot.
Language: None. A few curses that are made up for the world, but nothing else.
Sex: None in this book. A few scenes implied in previous volumes. Nothing graphic.
Violence: Yeah there’s some violence. There are some torture scenes that are crucial to the plot but I didn’t find them too gory.


Having Daniel Abraham withdrawals? Do you find yourself listless and antsy now that Abraham’s Long Price Quartet is over and we have no book from him to look forward to this year? Might I offer a suggestion? Pick up Ken Scholes' work. Start with LAMENTATION. Go ahead. Do it now. I’ll wait here while you go and read it.

Are you back? Wasn’t it great! There’s no need to worry. CANTICLE is just as good as LAMENTATION, possibly even better.

I’ve tried several times to tell friends and family about these books. It usually takes about half an hour for me to really tell them about the series and why it is so awesome. Upon first glance, you may think that the series is complex with several intricate story lines weaving in and out of each other in a beautiful tapestry that comes together at the end to create something beautiful. You would be right. You may also think that all of those stories and characters would be hard to keep track of. There, however, you would be wrong. Scholes seems to effortlessly weave well-crafted characters together laying them out in such a way that you are never confused as to who you are talking too or about. Even characters that I thought at the beginning were flat and two dimensional turned out in the end to have motivations that suddenly drew the character out and made them more sympathetic.

I just realized I haven’t told you anything about the series yet. All I’ve done is gush about how much I love it (get used to it). This is a fantasy series, CANTICLE being the second of a proposed five volumes. It’s a nonstandard fantasy series in the vein of the before mentioned Long Price Quartet by Abraham, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. This is a unique world with new magics, creatures and races to explore and enjoy. The series has an Arabic middle eastern feel to it, with turbans and tents and caravans and large expanses of desert, which gives the series a unique feel that I found refreshing. You can imagine the heroes fighting with curved scimitars rather than the standard medieval blades.

The first book in the series was excellent, and when I got to the end it felt like a tight controlled narrative. There were unanswered questions to be sure, but only enough to keep you interested in the world. The epilogue to the book sets up a larger more mysterious world to be explored in the rest of the series. Book two on the other hand felt looser. By the end of the book less questions were answered and only a hint of what is truly going on is revealed. I don’t mean this to be a bad thing, because it’s not. I figure that Scholes wrote the first book to hook you in and by the time you’re reading through book two you are so entranced by the world and the characters that there’s no chance of not finishing the series. Now Scholes can weave a bigger bolder and more daring story over the course of the rest of the series and thus far it has been wonderful (yes kids, this includes book three, ANTIPHON).

I told my wife that this series was turning into something special and I haven’t revised that statement. These are great books. They deserve to be read. They deserve to be talked about and enjoyed and passed to friends. So what are you doing reading this review. Go out and get it!

Recommended Age: 16+ It’s complicated and there is a few scenes of torture in this book, not graphic, but still a bit disturbing.
Language: None.
Violence: A bit. Like I said it’s never described very fully, but it’s still there.
Sex: A few references over the series but, again, not graphic.

WWW: Watch

WWW: WATCH is Robert Sawyer's sequel to his Hugo nominated story WWW: WAKE. It is the second novel of a trilogy that will end next year with WWW: WONDER.

I recently reread WAKE in order to vote for the Hugo awards, and again I found it to be a really entertaining novel about the spontaneous emergence of an Artificial Intelligence on the World Wide Web (WAKE, WATCH, WONDER. WWW. Get it?). Just to give you readers a brief recap (or you can go to the review of the prior novel HERE), the book is told through the eyes, mostly, of a 16 year old girl named Caitlin. Caitlin has recently gone through a medical procedure that helps her regain her sight through the use of a small computer device which interprets the signals her eye sends and then feeds them to her brain. The emergent AI finds those signals and together they learn about the new visual world around them. The story is interesting and thought provoking. Especially nice were the small side notes about Helen Keller's life and the parallels it drew to Caitlin and Webmind (the name the AI is given at the end of the book). I liked the book quite a bit. It was fun, it had a neat premise and interesting characters. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough that I decided to stick around for the rest of the series.

The second book, WATCH, sadly has me pretty worried. The story in the first book ended with the emergent AI and Caitlin finally making contact with each other. That story felt whole and complete. I still wanted to know what was going to happen next, but I was satisfied with the conclusion. WATCH feels like the further adventures of Webmind, only there are no adventures. The story continues as Webmind now starts to learn about morals and choices. Where previously Webmind had been intelligent, now he must learn those abstract concepts that drive human beings. That's the fun part. The other parts of the novel deal with an organization in the United States (aptly named WATCH) that finds out about Webmind and goes about trying to destroy it. Sounds interesting, right?


The whole novel shows these professionals trying to figure out what exactly Webmind is and how it came about (a concept that Caitlin our 16 year old figured out in like 2 seconds). There is never any tension because there is never any real danger. WATCH (the government organization) never knows what Webmind really is and so you never fear for him. When they finally do figure something out and attack Webmind, it takes Caitlin another 30 seconds to figure out how to foil the government's plans. There's no buildup, no tension, it all sort of just happens with less attention drawn to it than Sawyer spent on Caitlin thinking about her new geeky boyfriend.

The other thing that bugged me about the book was some of the character interactions. At times Caitlin acted like a normal 16 year old, and then all of the sudden when Caitlin needed to be an expert on Quantum hyper dimensional computing (a term I just made up but it serves the point), she is. She knows everything about it. I'm sorry I just don't buy it. I've met some smart kids in my time, but Caitlin knows everything; she knows things that paid government officials and professionals at the tops of their field don't understand. I don't think so. And her boyfriend? He's the same. It stretched my believability in the story a bit too much (and this is a story about a spontaneous AI rising up in the Web for Pete's sake). There were also several instances where the characters would start ranting and raving about various subjects, gay marriage, evolution etc...and it just felt like I was being preached too. It didn't have much of anything to do with the story except to extrapolate on various issues for pages at a time. Even when I agreed with what Sawyer was saying it felt blunt and heavy handed.

I don't mean to sound so harsh. I like Sawyer, and I like his books, and there is good to be had in this particular novel. Sawyer's writing makes it easy to get lost in the world and enjoy it. The characters (for the most part) were fun to follow and Webmind's journey in particular was very interesting. The book just didn't feel whole. It felt like a piece of a story, which it is. I'm too entrenched now not to pick up the final volume and I can only hope that it will be an amazing finish to the story. WAKE was good. WATCH, not as much. If you really want a great story by Robert J Sawyer with big ideas, I recommend MINDSCAN. It is by far my favorite of his works.

Age Recommendation: 14+ Nothing much to worry about here.
Language: A few instances, but nothing a 14 year old wouldn't hear in school anyway
Violence: Absolutely none.
Sex: Some suggestion and one scene of groping.

Salute the Dark

Adrian Tchaikovsky, we hate you…but in that way that results from loving you too much, and being jealous of your skills. Let’s start by saying how worried we were about Tchaikovsky’s fourth novel in the Shadows of the Apt series, SALUTE THE DARK. With three completely excellent novels released, isn’t it about time that Tchaikovsky had a misstep?

No. No it isn’t.

SALUTE THE DARK is the wrap-up of the four book arc that started with EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD. Here we have what is essentially the temporary conclusion of the wars with the Empire, and it is a very bloody conclusion. But really, at its core, SALUTE THE DARK is a novel about closure, sacrifice, and heroes who receive no glory, but dramatic loss instead.

It didn’t start pretty. It was slow out of the gates, and we were worried. Some of the PoV issues are still there. We had a huge cast of beloved characters, yet we felt that it was time for Tchaikovsky to get rid of a few. For a long time it looked like Tchaikovsky was going to just let all of his characters carry on into immortality. And then the end came. The body-count kept rising. It included characters we loved. We had asked for it, but when death(s) finally came, it shocked us. We have often stated how good Tchaikovsky writes characters. For whatever reason they are instantly likable, and we fear for them in every situation. Because of this strength, when characters die, the impact is felt so much more powerfully. It was a lot like reading the end of Erikson’s MEMORIES OF ICE. Yeah. Powerful, tragic and fitting.

This novel is about the Shadow Box, and how the Wasp Empire is at the utter brink of all-out domination. Uctebri, the Mosquito-kinden, has his own plans of vengeance an power. Pretty much every novel in this series has been about Stenwold Maker sending out his little band of agents and spies on secret missions. That isn’t the case here. In SALUTE THE DARK, each of these young agents have come into their own, and they each leave to see to tasks of their own making. Che goes to save Achaeos after his grievous wound at the hands of Tynisa. Tynisa herself is off to track down her father Tisamon who has exiled himself. Salma leads his mercenary force, and Totho continues to walk a moral line as he attempts to balance his love for his work and his horror at what his creations cause. Through all of this, Stenwold is left alone to manage another siege upon the Collegium.

It is all about character in this novel. Yes, there is war, and gladiator-styled personal battles. Yes we get to see the continued technological revolution of this incredible world. However this novel is really about some characters trying to gain some sort of closure and forgiveness. It is about the heroes who give up everything for the cause, and aren’t left with Ewoks celebrating over bonfires at their success. Once you read this novel, you will understand just how poignant the title of the novel really is.

This story arc is (temporarily) finished. But there are six more novels to come. It is everything we can do not to import book 5 from the UK where it was just released. We NEED to see how Tchaikovsky handles the political and emotional fallout of the climax of SALUTE THE DARK.

At the moment, this is one of our favorite Fantasy series. It has everything we could ask for in a story. We absolutely loved it.

Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Hardly any.
Violence: Oh yes. All sorts, and it is described soooo well.
Sex: Nope.

Office of Shadow

Progress is good. I always like to see progress when I read a book or follow an author. You get to watch them evolve from their rudiments to greatness not only through their characters and stories, but in their ability to deliver that story to the reader. Unfortunately, not all authors accomplish this. Some just stagnate. Some even regress. A sad but true tale, though completely opposite to the one I’ll paint for you today.

I was unfamiliar with Matthew Sturges prior to being asked to review his OFFICE OF SHADOW. To date, he’s more well-known for his co-authored comics than his novels. This is his second novel though, published through Pyr, about a number of characters living in the world of Faerie and their adventures therein. Before diving into this book, I decided to avoid the possible conflict of interest inherent in trying to review a book for which I hadn’t read prior novels in the series. Thus, I picked up MIDWINTER first. (Yes, this review is a two-fer. Lucky you!)

In MIDWINTER, the story started off amazingly well. A disgraced army captain, Mauritane, is released from prison with his pick of any of the other prisoners and given the task of completing a mission for their queen, Titania. No one knows exactly what the mission is, but the other prisoners are raring to go based on the fact that they'll be pardoned after completing said mission. The only thing that they're told about it is, "They'll know it when they see it". A bit vague, but okay. There are a number of interesting characters presented in this book. Mauritane is just cool, the innocent army captain sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit, with the ability to speak with Leadership (a magical talent of his). Silverdun, a noble running from his past with a certain magical ability within him as well, though its more of the typical, under-described type. Raive, a fiesty female outsider that is hard and crass, but definitely still has her womanly charm. Brian Satterly, a human that somehow got stuck in Faerie and just wants to get home. There's also a secondary array of minor characters that are just as interesting as well. Essentially, this story is a romp across the world of Faerie.

It's very linear in nature, without much character development short of what we get to know during initial introductions. Sturges has a lot of interesting concepts and ideas in the book though. Shifting zones that blur space and time, an established type of human/faerie trade, message sprites with a hilarious penchant for being incredibly annoying, another pack of humans that have gotten caught in Faerie and are trying also to escape, and let's not forget the flying cities of the rival Queen Mab. In the end though, very little about any of the characters or ideas ever really come together coherently. There was plenty of source material, plenty of goodness, it just all felt so disjointed. Because of this, I ended up fairly dissatisfied when all was said and done. Given this preamble and the fact that OFFICE had more pages and an even smaller type font than MIDWINTER, I wasn’t extremely keen on getting into it. I did though, and I found that I need not have worried so much.

By the time I had finished the first two chapters of OFFICE OF SHADOW, I decided that Matthew Sturges hadn’t written this book. Nope. Just not possible. Try it. You'll believe me. It was too different, too much better than its predecessor. This one had this scope that just felt BIG. It had history, it had gods, it had complexity... it had world-building! I was completely blown away by the strides it seemed he’d made in character-development, and plot complexity, and in simple integrity to his point-of-view character from the last book. Why do these things matter? Because for me, reading a book is an experience to be savored. These pieces make up the sometimes invisible puzzle of how the book talks to us as readers. Trust me on this one. I’m an expert. Well, I'm an Elitist anyway...the Overlords even gave me a decoder ring.

The main story revolves around three main characters: Silverdun, the noble in exile, hero of the Midwinter final battle, and only character from Midwinter with any significant page-time; Ironfoot, an intellectual scientist (thaumaturge) intent on unraveling the mystery behind a great weapon unleashed at the end of Midwinter; and Sela, essentially the body-prison for a great and powerful creature from beyond anyone's understanding. These three are approached by a politician of great power and inducted into the Office of Shadow, a secret organization of spies and infiltrators meant to do the unsavory and unofficial work of "keeping the Queen’s peace". In a way, the book reads like a cold-war spy novel. Queen Mab, with her invading force of flying cities, have constructed a weapon of great power, which will let her forces decimate the armies of Queen Titania. It is the shadow’s job to infiltrate the enemies defenses and sift through gathered intelligence to know how their queen should react. Should they attack? Or should they fortify? How long do they dare wait before making a final choice? The wrong choice could mean death for them all. Then again, the "right one" could as well.

As in MIDWINTER, there’s a lot of stuff in OFFICE to love. In this case, Sturges does a much better job of making you care for and understand his characters. His writing for the most part is very well-done. The pacing does slow at times. There’s a vague sense of Silverdun’s training to be a Shadow, and a mission or two that they’re sent on. Somewhere near the middle of the book, they’re all just going through sheaves and piles of paper and intelligence, ultimately getting bored. (Hint: bored characters = bored readers; avoid) There’s an awful lot of flashback concerning the history of the three main characters. Nearly all of these pages are there to simply fill in what we don't know instead of leading to any kind of epiphany or realization or twist in the plot though, which is unfortunate. As I mentioned, there is a whole lot to like, but there's also a lot that just doesn’t come together satisfactorily either.

There’s still progress to be had for Mr. Sturges, but given the goodness of this book it is progress that I think he can justifiably make. OFFICE was soooooo heads and shoulders better than MIDWINTER that I can easily say I’ll be jumping into his next book when it arrives at the doorstep. Interestingly enough, the way OFFICE was written almost negates the need to read MIDWINTER. In that sense, it seems that the author might have some subconscious opinions of that first book that are akin to mine... Believe me? Ha! Thought you might.

Was this a book fun? For the most part. Did it keep my interest? At times, yes. Potential? Definitely. Thus, Mediocre. Regardless, keep your eye on this guy and hope, along with me, for greater things yet to come.

Recommended age: 14+
Language: very little, on the order of a PG movie perhaps
Violence: some, but nothing graphic or intense
Sex: a handful of references to various parts of the queen’s anatomy, used as a curse


The Black Lung Captain

Where to even begin? Chris Wooding's RETRIBUTION FALLS is one of our favorite novels (which we reviewed here). The mixture of piracy, SF, and retro-future adventure won us over within the first five pages. The main character of that novel, Darian Frey (part Han Solo, part Malcolm Reynolds, all awesome) is the captain of the Ketty Jay. He is a pirate. A smuggler. A womanizer. We finished RETRIBUTION FALLS a few hours after it arrived in the mail. We needed more. Luckily, the sequel was already coming out fairly shortly. Wooding's second Ketty Jay novel, THE BLACK LUNG CAPTAIN arrived in the mail (love you Book Depository!!!!), and everything else in life came to a screeching halt so we could read it.

It's every bit as good as the first novel.

THE BLACK LUNG CAPTAIN starts with Frey and the crew of the Ketty Jay in a bad spot. They are all restless. They are being over-taken by their pasts. Even the most simple of heists--robbing a defenseless orphanage--has gone completely wrong.

Then comes the job offer. It's too good to be true, but aren't all the best jobs? There is an artifact in the wilds, behind a magically sealed door aboard a thousands-year-old wreck. The artifact? Worth fortunes. The danger? Astronomical. Does anything go right? Please. The dramatic problems and failures are what make this novel unspeakably fun.

Really, that is what THE BLACK LUNG CAPTAIN is all about. Fun. Adventure. Character development...wait, what? Character development in a story like this? Oh yes. Mainly this story is about Frey's and Jez's individual developments amidst the crazy gun-fights, and air-ship battles. We get the complete and total story about what Jez is, and it is fantastic. We see a deeper look into Frey, and what makes him who he is. Closure for Crake. Cats get punched. This novel really is full of complete awesomeness.

The flow of the writing is perfect, as is the pacing of the story. From action sequence to action sequence, everything is tight. There is one bit of eye-rolling convenience that is telegraphed half way through the novel, but it is easily forgivable considering the strength of the rest of the story.

Look, there really isn't much out there that is like THE BLACK LUNG CAPTAIN. It is one of the best adventure stories we have read since, well, RETRIBUTION FALLS. The only downside here is that the physical books are UK only. Don't let that stop you. This novel will have you turning the pages with glee, and fist-pumping in the air after you've finished it.

Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: Here and there, but nothing extreme.
Violence: Holy crap, yes! Jez, as Wooding most likely intended, becomes completely and utterly amazing.
Sex: Alluded to, but never shown.