Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
Book 1 of Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne
The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

It's hard to escape the "dark" descriptor on currently published books.  While optimism can be seen glimmering here and there, it seems pragmatism and doubt are more common.  The same cultural cynicism driving the surge of young adult dystopian novels contributes to the rising pervasiveness of Grimdark fantasy on adult shelves.  Obviously adults read YA, too, and experience the same rebellious thrill of fighting a corrupt system, but Grimdark reveals a harder (though no less applicable) truth:  the system is cruel and corrupt because its people are cruel and corrupt.  The system did not come from nothing.  In this harsh setting, a character is never happier than when using that system to exploit or demean others. 
Some people might consider labels an oversimplification, but I'm just lazy enough that I like the convenience.  Therefore I'm going to call this "Grimdark" and roll with it.  As this has been christened a Grimdark story, here are some truths about it:

1. Everyone will be horrible to someone .  Or someone will be horrible to them.  Constantly.
2. If someone dies, it will be in a horrible way.  Nobody dies in their sleep here.
3. If someone becomes happy, it's because something horrible is about to happen that will create stark contrast between the "before" and "after."
4. Nature is horrible and full of monsters.

Grimdark in a nutshell.
And that brings us to the wonderful world of The Emperor’s Blades.  Honestly, despite my cold reptilian heart and general misanthropy, I do not tend to seek out Grimdark books.  I might be cynical, but I’m not secretly wishing more despair on myself.  I like my sci-fi spacey, my historical fiction fully of Giant Quote Marks “History” and my fantasy heroic.  I don’t need to watch a Grimdark world pound out every soft fiber of humanity from the characters to empathize with them.
This might be why I found myself rather amazed that I liked this book. Honestly, I was about halfway through before I realized that I was reading a book that some might classify as dark fantasy.  Partly, I attribute this to the characters.  

There are allegedly three main characters (one of which is female – 10 points to the author), but just two of them get 90% of the screen time (and both of them are men, so I’m taking back 3 points).   Each brother is entangled in their own particular mess of problems (in a suitably Grimdarky way), and no matter how bad things seem, they're always about to get worse.  Somehow this comes off less as "life is dark, man, dark" and more "dangerous times ahead" which is more tolerable.  People get murdered, scary monsters stalk the night, more people get murdered, people get beaten up, mysterious people have ulterior motives, and finally even more people get murdered.  Oh, and there are gigantic people-carrying hawks.  It's practically a fairy tale!

One bright spot - if you want to call it that - is that when the female protagonist appears in one of her four POV chapters, she totally rocks the house.  This is one woman who can give as good as she gets and isn't about to let some stupid a-hole ruin her family.  I love her and I hope that the subsequent volumes have more of Adare in it.  (Oh yeah, this is the first book of a series.  Because the Cardinal Rule of Fantasy is "Thou shalt always write a series.")

So I've been a little nitpicky on the dark-front, but this book was entertaining - if you can look past the tone of despair and malice.  I'm honestly surprised this is Staveley's first book for how well I liked the characters and for how well the world held together through the plot arc.  If you don't mind dark fantasy, or you don't mind starting yet another series, this is a worthy book to read.

4 dark and malicious stars!

Will I continue to read the series?
Probably, if I remember to look for the next volume.  (This is why I should never start a series until at least the next book is announced.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Girl With All The Gifts

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite. But they don't laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.

Zombie stories, we need to talk.  It's not you; it's me.  This isn't working out.  We've had some good times, and you're going to make someone else very happy.  It's just not going to be me.  I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.  

At first I thought this was going to be a more dystopian book, or something with a surprise twist in it.  But once it was revealed that the world "ended" in a zombie-pocalypse, I knew things were going to be rough going.  Now, that being said, it isn't fair to judge a book poorly just because it didn't match my preconceived notions.  

So let's get into the things that I liked:
1. The characters.  Carey does a fantastic job of creating characters with their own goals and fears and forcing them to stick to character.  The nearly-sociopathic doctor doesn't suddenly grow a conscience, nor does the hardened soldier spout sonnets.  Once you've figured out the characters, there are no mysteries.  They all behave they way they should according to their current wants, their past mistakes and their backgrounds.  It might sound like damning with faint praise, but it's hard to find a book where the characters are so consistent and logically written.

2. The mood.  There is almost always a vague unease around every new location.  There is almost always a fight simmering below the surface between parts of the cast.  The hungries (zombies) are everywhere, always waiting for their next meal.  The atmosphere is bleak, the characters are barely clinging to hope and pretty much everything else is consistent with the end of the world.

3. The ending.  I'm not going to spoil it because I'm not 100% a jerk, but basically I did not expect the ending to be as true-to-form as the rest of the book.  To write the ending that he did requires some brass balls and kudos to Carey for doing it.

However, this was a zombie book at heart and no matter how well-written, I have troubled investing myself into a zombie book, which is somewhat ridiculous because I'll happily read about talking animals or space battles or dragons.  Hell, I love the Oz books.  There's something about zombie tales, along with steampunk, that just falls flat for me.  

Trying to extract my "ugh, a zombie book" attitude out of this one, I'd still say this book is very well-written and a fun Fallout-style post-apocalypse adventure that most people would like.

And hey!  It's not a new series!  Yay!

4 stars! (Unless you also don't like zombie books, in which case, probably read something else.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Page

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
I didn't ask for any of this. I didn't ask to be some kind of hero.

But when your whole life gets swept up by a tornado—taking you with it—you have no choice but to go along, you know?

Sure, I've read the books. I've seen the movies. I know the song about the rainbow and the happy little blue birds. But I never expected Oz to look like this. To be a place where Good Witches can't be trusted, Wicked Witches may just be the good guys, and winged monkeys can be executed for acts of rebellion. There's still the yellow brick road, though—but even that's crumbling.

What happened? Dorothy.

They say she found a way to come back to Oz. They say she seized power and the power went to her head. And now no one is safe.

My name is Amy Gumm—and I'm the other girl from Kansas.

I've been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.

I've been trained to fight.

And I have a mission.

First of all, I must confess that I have an abiding affection for the Oz books which started in late grade school when I discovered the set at my local library. The books are full of wonder and friendship, mixed with just the right amount of peril and the absurd.

When I saw an Oz-inspired YA book, I had to get it (thanks again, public library!). This book delivers exactly what it claims to: a dark, twisted reimagining of the Oz story, in which some of the beloved characters have been twisted into evil monstrosities and the carefree magic of the realm has been drained, leaving the country a shadow of what it was. Throughout the story, there are even cameos (and minor roles) for many of the characters who were written into the original series. It's abundantly clear that the author has read - and loved - the original series as much as anyone can.

The main character is about as typical YA fantasy heroine as you can get: teenaged girl with family and self-image issues learns that she is stronger than she knows. And hey, she has pink hair - at least for part of the book. Neat.

Here's my main gripe about this book: the entire narrative is designed to set up the series, but nothing is resolved within this book. Okay, maybe the protagonist learns "to believe in herself." Woo-hoo.

I guess this can be boiled down to a marketing decision. On the back cover of the book is what look to be the plot of this story: "Your mission: Remove the Tin Woodman's heart. Steal the Scarecrow's brain. Take the Lion's courage. And then - Dorothy must die."

Punchy, right? This book is going to be all rock 'em, sock 'em, let's-save-Oz.

But no.


That bit of promise on the back cover is what is discovered in the FINAL FOUR PAGES. The entire book leads up to a conclusion - post large as life on the BACK COVER - so close to the end of the book that it's practically on the end papers.


Overall, the book was fun. I love an excuse to return to Oz and experience the magic again, even if it's in a grimdark setting. I'm a little disappointed in the non-resolution of the plot and the Setting Up a Series Syndrome, but all in all this is a book well worth the read.

Will I continue reading the series?
Yeah, maybe. Depends how long between books and whether or not I'd just rather read the original series.

3.5 Stars!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - My Shelf-Filling Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly blog event sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.

Let me tell you something, folks:  this was a harder entry to write than it should be.  I have books in my house the way that many people have dust bunnies - they're everywhere, in every room (even under the beds from time to time) and periodically float through the air when company's over and land in your coffee.  Well, something like that, anyway.

Anyway, with books scattered through every room in the house, and even more in boxes in storage - there is no way I was going to hunt-and-count every book by every author.  Here's my gut instinct on the authors who take up more shelf space than others, but in no particular order.

1. Tamora Pierce.  Her books aren't long, but she almost always writes her YA books in quartets.  I have all of her Tortall series and several of the other ones.  This means a lot of volume on my shelves.

2. Mercedes Lackey.  Her earlier works are better - and if you missed it, her earlier works have touched a soft spot inside of me, but I still have many of her Valdemar series in mass market and more than a few of the other books (including the Joust series) in hardcover.

3. Lois McMaster Bujold.  She writes both fantasy and sci-fi, and her Vorkosigan series has been running for years now.

4. L. Frank Baum.  Yes, the author of the Oz books.  I have the entire original series in the Dover editions.  In the event I ever have a kid, these will be required bedtime stories.

5. David Weber.  His Honor Harrington series is even longer than Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, so...yeah.  There are a lot of his books on my shelves.

6. Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt.  Same author, different pen names.  I have a couple of Holt's historical mysteries for some reason, but mostly I have the prolific author's historical novels written under the name Plaidy.  And a LOT of them, too.

7. Elizabeth Chadwick.  This woman writes a lot of medieval historical fiction.  I own many of them. 

8. Piers Anthony.  For the same reason as Lackey, I was turned onto his Xanth series as a teenager and have never been able to shed my collection of his books.  I have a few of his other series, too, but I never got into them the same way I loved the Xanth books.

9. Rachel Caine.  She writes adult urban fantasy and YA vampire fiction, all of which are easily found and quickly read.

10.  L. A. Meyer.  Meyer's "Bloody Jack" series currently has eleven books in it and there's another one expected.  With no end in sight, I expect more black-spine-with-red-letters books on my shelf soon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

The Mote in God's Eye
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Blurb (courtesy of Amazon Reviews):
In the year 3016, the Second Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive. No other intelligent beings have ever been encountered, not until a light sail probe enters a human system carrying a dead alien. The probe is traced to the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud, and an expedition is dispatched. In the Mote the humans find an ancient civilization--at least one million years old--that has always been bottled up in their cloistered solar system for lack of a star drive. The Moties are welcoming and kind, yet rather evasive about certain aspects of their society. It seems the Moties have a dark problem, one they've been unable to solve in over a million years.

As part of my science fiction binge, I picked up The Mote in God's Eye as a frequent entry on "Best of Science Fiction" lists, knowing nothing more about it.  The blurb on the back of my edition makes it clear that this is a book about first contact, and that's the extent of the explanation.

Let's sum up:  humanity encounters another race that is unlike us both psychologically and physically - and yet there is a hope that we can learn from each other and live in peace.  As the story unfolds, the simple and gently charismatic "moties" reveal a darker side to their existence - which I can't really get into without giving away a big part of the story - and the initial thrill of deep space exploration and First Contact is overwhelmed by dread and fear.  A few scenes had my jaw on the floor while simultaneously shivering under my blanket from the delicious mix of "creepy" and "unforeseen."

This book has truly earned its place on the "Best Science Fiction" lists, and yet the ending leaves only questions.  Nothing is truly resolved and the authors leave it up to the reader to decide what the fate of these two species might be.  At least, that's what I thought until I realized this book is the first part of a trilogy.  Granted, it took the pair something like twenty years to finish the second and third books, but still.  Another frickin' series.  Great.

The plot is what drives this story.  There are a least a dozen named human characters (besides the moties themselves) and yet I don't think I could give a decent description of any of them, other than "token female" and "space captain."  However, that's probably okay, because this book is all about the questions it raises.  Knowing that humans are essentially animals - animals that must compete for survival or die - can we ever find a way to coexist with another sentient species whose very existence and competition might mean an end to ours?

This is not a warm-fuzzy book, nor is it really a shoot-em-up space opera.  It's a "thinking" book, in the sense that when you close it, you have to really think about it, to digest it, to absorb it.  I'm honestly not sure if I'll be continuing with the series because I don't know how the resolution of the raised questions could be better than the asking.

4+ stars!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Grimspace by Ann Aguirre

Grimspace by Ann Aguirre
Book 1 of Sirantha Jax
As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace-a talent which makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. Then a crash landing kills everyone on board, leaving Jax in a jail cell with no memory of the crash. But her fun's not over. A group of rogue fighters frees her...for a price: her help in overthrowing the established order.

Perhaps I'm sexist, but it feels like the sci-fi books I've read written by women are just better (for me) than those written by men.  Perhaps (and far more likely) my sample size has just been too small.  Whatever it might be, Ann Aguirre's Grimspace was far more enjoyable to me than the previous two books I've read.

The story starts with a prison break and jumps madly from one misadventure to another, never dwelling long on any one situation.  Though each scene has its own tension and excitement, there doesn't seem to be a logical arc to the story, tying the conflicts together.  There is lip-service paid to fulfilling the dream of a (deceased) character, but for the most part it's a lot of Sirantha Jax coming to terms with her past and making googly eyes and/or snarky comments at her copilot.

If you're looking for a drool-worthy ship, this probably isn't the book for you.  From the very first scene where March appears, there is no doubt that he and Jax will end up in the sack.  It's not even subtle enough to be a "definitely, but when" sort of thing, but rather a "before the first half of the book" sort of thing.  Protip:  when you have a heroine with emotional vulnerability, it's almost a given that the first guy who merits more than one sentence of description will be the one she becomes romantically entangled with at some point.  It's far more common in romance novels than others, but it's certainly true here. 

As for plot - this book reads like the novelization of a video game in the best possible way.  There is an initial "goal" suggested at the beginning of the book, but that pretty much flies straight out the window as soon as there are kidnappings and alien attacks and stuff like that.  The PC (in this case, Jax) keeps picking up party members, solving mini-quests for NPCs, and gaining experience points.  The overall story arc never really resolves the initial "goal" and that ends up not mattering.  Despite all of this aimlessnes, it's pretty solid.  I never really knew where the story was heading, but it was so fun it's hard to care.

Will I continue reading the series? 

4 stars!


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: The Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach

Series:  Paradox by Rachel Bach
  1. Fortune's Pawn
  2. Honor's Knight
  3. Heaven's Queen
Hey guys.  Ever have that one relationship that transcends your understanding of love?  The one that makes you realize that everyone you've met in the past was just a test run for this real thing?  That relationship that, once it ends, makes you realize you'll never find anything like it again - and are therefore slightly hollow for the rest of your life?

Yeah, me neither.

I have, however, read the Paradox trilogy by Rachel Bach, and that's almost as good.

This is the series of books that made me realize that I could, in fact, be interested in Science Fiction.  Before this series, I had only read a couple of the classics (most notably Dune), and while I enjoyed them, I wasn't inspired to love the genre as a whole.  This is the series of books that changed it all.

Why?  I don't have any definitive answer, but I suspect I have a few reasons.  

1. Deviana Morris herself
I love reading books with strong female characters.  They don't have to be sword- or gun-wielding, but being more than a damsel-in-distress is pretty great.  And Devi is the type of woman who names her guns (and her super-powered space armor).  She goes for what she wants without any apology - without being a complete asshole about it.  She's not afraid to pick a fight if that's what's necessary, and she knows that what's right isn't always easy - but worth fighting for all the same.  She has a healthy approach to sex and relationships...even if those relationships can cause problems in the future.  While she appreciates a fine masculine physique, she doesn't become a puddle of googly eyes and insipidity the second her man-love walks into the room - and gets incredibly pissed if he screws her over. You know, like a real person.  I want to hug her, but I suspect that she might punch me if I tried.

2, Adventures in SPAAAAAACE

Oh, man.  There is so much going on here.  Alien races.  Mysterious deaths.  "Invisible" monsters.  A secret society.  Twisted "magic".  Saving the universe. "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles!"  (Okay, that last bit is a quote from The Princess Bride but you know what I mean.)  There are a few calm moments throughout the series, but for the most part this is a driving narrative that Deviana drives through to the end.  Each book expands on something introduced in the previous volume, giving the setting depth and dimension, making it feel like a real place.

3. Mystery/Quest

Fortune's Pawn starts out with our dauntless heroine taking a job that is deceptively dangerous.  While everyone knows that the ship - and whatever its mission is - leaves a trail of dead bodies behind it, it's not clear why.  By the time the real reason for the wake of corpses is revealed, the stakes have been raised so high it's hard not to inhale the next chapter...and the next...and the next, right up until the series is over and you're left feeling spent and satiated.

This isn't to say that the series doesn't have problems:  Devi gets into and out of scrapes faster than any twelve normal people and rarely has anything to show for it other than a few bruises.  Also, the entire ending of the series gets wrapped up a little to neatly for my taste - including a cameo by a Super Important Person that borders on deus ex machina.  It's a bit more of a fairy tale ending rather than a super space epic war-for-all-life type of ending, but I suspect that most people don't mind a happy ending.

To sum up:
Read this series.  Read it right now.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Things I Never Knew I Desperately Needed

Every now and then I stumble across things on Ye Olde Internette that tells me that people are making some amazing things out there.  I love it when I see the perfectly absurd next to the perfect quintessence of craft.
Here are some things that made me smile.  And want.

1. Coloring Books That Aren't Just for Children
(Best Coloring Book)
Sometimes, I don't want to be an adult.  But usually at those times it's still possible for me to enjoy the finer - and sillier - things in life.

2. A secret passage into/from my library.
Because sometimes you just want to be alone, you know?  Because sometimes my books are my favorite people in the world.
"What's that?  It's time to go to work?  Hmm, I appear to be stuck in my super secret cubby hole.  I guess I'm not going in today."
If you don't think this is great, you are wrong.  Sorry.

3. Poetry I Can Understand
Poetry and I have never really gotten along.  I think it's because my soul is dead and I have a reptilian heart.  Or something like that.  However, I think I can get behind these.

4. Ridiculous leather journals
For your ridiculous viewing pleasure, here are:

The Most Gigantic Leather Journal Ever.

Lotsa pages, man.  Lotsa 'em.
A Crazy-Thick Leather Journal
I feel like, if I started writing in either of these, I would start growing a glorious flowing beard, and feel inclined to wear robes.  Next, I would learn the secret language of the animals and be able to summon unicorns.
Such is the magic of a fine leather journal, which is why, if you can afford one, I highly recommend picking one up - but probably one that's significantly less than $1500.

For context. Look at that thing!
5. Fandom-based stuff
I am not ashamed of liking the things I like.  As I approached 30 a few years ago, most of my hang-ups sort of evaporated.  I have a unicorn messenger bag.  Yes.  I used it every day...until the corners of my notebooks/books started punching holes through the fabric.  If I like a TV show or series of books, I have no problem advertising my love through apparel or accessories.  
This is sort of my "Postage Stamp Theory of Life."  Yes, you can get a whole boring roll of plain ol' American flag Forever Stamps.  But they cost the same per stamp as the Pixar ones.  Take the extra 15 minutes to stop into the post office and buy the Vintage Circus Stamps.  It'll make paying bills a little more fun.
To that end, why not have a Game of Thrones-inspired dragon egg cookie jar?  And wouldn't you meals be every so slightly more fun when you salt and/or pepper with the TARDIS or a dalek?

6. This horse...for reasons
I have no explanation.  I just know that my Halloween costume ideas just became far more ambitious...
Some days it's hard for me to convince my cowlick to not stand straight up.  And this horse has this for a haircut.
Anyone discover anything totally awesome that's share-worthy?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey

Caliban's War
Book 2 of The Expanse

We are not alone.

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .

Alright, I gave the first book the benefit of the doubt, mostly because the intriguing-yet-not-thrilling plot picked up to a frenetically awesome pace toward the end of the book, setting the stage for Caliban's War to have a thrill-a-minute adventures.  (SPOILERS from book one) After all, when an alien-created protomolecule is absorbing humans and their characteristics, and then making inanimate object sentient, surely the next book is going to be amazing, right?  No?  You human will realize we're not alone....and there will be adventures...No?  We're not going to have a "first contact" story?  We're going to have backroom politics instead?  And lovers' spats?  Really?  Okaaay.  If you insist...

Once again, the authors (yes, "authors" - the pen name is for two people) alternate perspectives by chapter.  Only one narrator has returned from the first book:  Holden, the naive yet good-hearted captain. Our now-cranky-instead-of-hopeful captain is joined by three others:  a scientist looking for his kidnapped daughter, a marine who saw her entire platoon get killed, and a feisty and foulmouthed grandmotherly politician.  While I give props to Corey for having female protagonists this time , I can't say that any particular POV was engaging.  None of the characters truly had their own voice - except for maybe Avasarala, who swears almost every sentence she utters.  Prax, Bobbie, and Holden all have the same voice which is about as interesting as plain oatmeal.

Once again, there is the same problem with the prose being dull.  Normally I am not one to notice writing unless it's really bad.  However, this isn't bad writing, it's just bland writing.  There is no life in it, and unfortunately the characters add nothing, so once again absurd action sequences are shoe-horned into the story to, ahem, "keep the tension up."  I don't need to dredge up the "If Michael Bay directed Titanic" gif again, do I?

Just as with the first book, the narrative slowly reveals the actual drama and who is behind it, but by that point of the final reveal I was so uninterested that I just want to speed read clear to the end.  I mean, for the love of corn, the very first sentence on the blurb is "We are not alone" - so why does it take until the FINAL page - yes! the last page of a 624 page book - for any indication that the alien protomolecule is genuinely doing something?  There are a few passing mentions of its activity, but mostly the alien thingamajig is shunted aside for Avasarala to swear at someone or for Holden to moon over his girlfriend.  Blergh.

As I've said before, there are very few books over 350 pages that couldn't benefit from some severe editing.  Knowing I could have read almost two other paperbacks for the same amount of pages hurts my soul a little.  The fact that this book flares into Super Awesome Space Adventure in the last 20-30 pages doesn't really make up for having to read over 500 pages first.  The story ends on a massive cliffhanger and while I want to know what's going to happen next, I'm leaning toward "I'm not falling for that again."

3 stars!

Will I continue reading the series?   
Eh.  *avoids eye contact*

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
Book 1 of The Expanse

Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, "The Scopuli," they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to "The Scopuli" and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

Ah, the quest for another satisfying science fiction epic carries on...
If you're looking through current Sci-Fi publications, you're sure to stumble across James S. A. Corey's "The Expanse" series.  So far it seems well-received, and with three books of the series already released, it can be a good bet to place your chips on.

The story itself easily falls into the "space opera" category, with many adventures in the greater reaches of space - but only our solar system.  While that in itself is, of course, a miracle by modern standards, I suppose I'm used to science fiction having a bit farther of a reach.  Even though space is incomprehensibly big, limiting the story to just our solar system gives it a deceptively small sensation, like having tea in a closet next to a ballroom.  I dunno.

The plot of the book, once it becomes apparent, hinges on the strained inter-human politics of the solar system.  Earth and her colonies have a mutual mistrust.  Even the colonies themselves aren't exactly simpatico.  Mars feels a certain camaraderie with the Belters - but only as long as the Belters are supplying them with the minerals they need.  Not only are the politics of each group different, but spending lifetimes in low gravity is starting to change the physiology of Belters, making the two groups stand out from each other even more than their differing politics would indicate.

The real driving force is the underlying mystery of "who is trying to orchestrate a solar system-wide war?"  No one seems to gain from the chaos and everyone seems to lose, yet everyone is eager for war.  However, the horrors of war are a pale shadow of what is truly happening, which is only revealed in small chunks as the story progresses.  Miller is seeking a lost daughter of a rich magnate, while Holden is hell-bent on revenge for whoever was responsible for killing his crew and blowing up his ship.  The plot is interesting:  who is responsible for starting this war?  What happened to Miller's target?

Unfortunately, where the narrative loses most of its momentum is with the two main characters.  Holden and Miller alternate chapters, taking the reader at their sides as their uncover darker mysteries than seem possible.  But it's the mysteries that are interesting, not the characters.  Miller is a disgraced detective who's trying to prove that he's not washed up.  Holden is a sometimes-angry, sometimes-chivalrous former navy officer out for revenge - and sweet lovin' with the only woman around.  Sure.

Here's the thing:  "James S. A. Corey" is actually the pen name of two authors.   Each author took on POV character and wrote the chapters.  This isn't a terrible idea, really.  However, the chapters are written in third person, not in first, so the "voice" of the narrator has to be more generic 3p-Limited, a camera following the characters and reporting.  No two people write the same way, so the style they settled on is so bland that only the Michael Bay-esque action sequences keep the story lively.
"Things might be getting boring..!"    "Add an explosion!"

I'm generally not a stickler for "Show, don't tell," but even I started to notice things in this book.  We are told how the characters feel.  We are told that they are honorable (or angry).  We are told how they're changing.  (I can't decide what's worse:  that the reader is told that "this is a character arc btw", or that they reader can't tell that with the prose alone.)  When I think "Oh, he's being honest?  That's what that conversation is supposed to mean?  Really?" or "He changed?  When did that happen?  Was I supposed to notice that," it's hard to take it as a good sign.

Given that the solar system is half female, it's also a disappointment to see so few meaningful female characters.  Essentially there are two:  Julie, the missing woman that Miller was told to find (aka "The Damsel in Distress") and Naomi, one of Holden's crew (aka "The 'Love' Interest").  Hardly anything legendary here.  More than once, I wished Devi Morris would show up and start shooting first, asking questions later.

On the cover of my edition, George R R Martin has a quote, "It's been a long time since we've had a kickass space opera..."  Now, one of the co-authors is his assistant, and while I'm not going to accuse anyone of nepotism, I would just like to point out that he isn't exactly saying that this is the next great "kickass space opera."  (Funnily, on later editions, the quote is pared down to simply "...kickass space opera..."  So yeah.  I"ll just leave that there.)

I know I'm sounding a little down on the book, but despite the watered-down narrator and intangible characters, I liked the story.  Liked it - didn't love it.  The final few chapters have enough genuine excitement and creepfest plot development to make a reader want the next book.  However, I would have enjoyed this book more had it lost about a third of its length and gained about more interesting - and possibly female - protagonists.

3 Stars!
Will I read the sequel?  Yep, doing it right now. 
More explosions!  Quick!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Top 10 Beach Reads for this Summer

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly blog event sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.

Hey!  Summer!  Reading for fun and edification!  Getting tan and mosquito-bitten while doing it!  YAY.

350Science Fiction
In the event you missed it, I've been having my own personal Science Fiction fiesta for the last few months, and I don't really expect that to change any time soon.  I have a lot of both "classics" to catch up on, and newer books to discover including:
Cordelia's HonorBujold's Vorkosigan saga is supposed to be terrific.

On Basilisk Station.  Yay for books written by men with strong female protagonists! in a Strange LandFrequently makes appearances on "Best Science Fiction" lists.

Beggars in Spain.  Recommended to me by a friend as an excellent example of the genre
"Lost Fleet" series.  I only read the first one, but it was enjoyable enough that I would like to continue/finish it.  None of the volumes are terrible long, all about 300 pages or less. 

Young Adult and Friends

14061957 between starship battles and clones dueling each other, it might be good to take a break and sip from the  the good ol' YA fountain.

The Secret of the Unicorn Queen series.  Anyone else remember these books?  10-year-old me is squealing inside with the excitement.  I won't even be embarrassed reading these in public, such is my love.

Gamer Girl.  This looks super cute - and like a quick read. 
11235712Cinder/Scarlet.  I appear to have missed the boat on reading these.  I

"Chronicles of Lumatere" series.  Elizabeth's reviews have convinced me that this needs to be on my "readthisreadthisomgrightnow" list.  So once I'm off my Sci-Fi binge, here I go!
Ruin and Rising.  I know that not everyone loves these books the same way I do, but for reasons currently defying my understanding, I love them.

Any suggestions that I missed?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: Under the Never Sky (Trilogy)

 Under the Never Sky trilogy by Veronica Rossi
1. Under the Never Sky
2. Through the Ever Night
3. Into the Still Blue

I started reading this series a couple months ago and thought I should write a review of the first book, but then I was reading the second one, "so maybe I should just write both reviews together" and then I was getting the third one from the library, so now I'm doing to ultra-lazy thing and writing all a review for the trilogy as a whole.

So, yeah.  This is a series of books.  I read them.

Perhaps it's a matter of going in with overinflated expectations, but the first book was  underwhelming to me.  Not that it was bad, mind, just not thrilling.  The little bits of technology and the world that Rossi invented is interesting:  Pod Dwellers have "Smart Eyes" (think super-futuristic Google glasses) and the tribes have individuals who have developed super senses.  It's a neat little setup, but most of it comes off as window dressing by the end of the story.  Interesting window dressing, but window dressing all the same.

Unless you didn't read any of the blurbs on the books, it's obvious from the get-go that this is going to be a YA romance in a sci-fi setting, and that's okay.  However - and perhaps this is my cold, reptilian heart speaking - the romance was nothing to swoon over.  There will never be a reader who isn't certain that Perry and Aria are going to get together.  But nevertheless, we have to dedicate the first book to "will they or won't they" and the entire second book to "the travails of a difficult romance" as if the audience should care more about a couple because they have to fight for their love.  It's not that the romance is unbelievable, it's just that it's not really enough to be the only motivating force in the narrative.

By the time the third volume finally arrived at my local library, I had forgotten enough of the first two books to make me less keen to finish.  However, I was just curious enough to see how the whole shebang ended to read through it.  As expected, the googly eyes and canoodling still are present throughout the final book.  This probably wouldn't bother me so very much except all the frickin' characters are so dang melodramatic about their lovelives.  One guy has lost the love of his life (at eighteen or nineteen) and pretty much becomes a walking a$$hole for the first chunk of the book, leading to some stupidities that could have been avoided.  The main pair are brought together and torn apart so many times - and yet they always have the energy to settle into a mope.  When a secondary character actually scolds the heroine for "Bella'ing" (my term, not the author's), I had to wonder if this wasn't some kind of a joke.

"But wait," you ask.  "If you didn't love them, why did you bother to read the entire series?"  An excellent question, young grasshopper.
I guess the storyline and the setting are just interesting enough that a reader will want to know the ending, even if they aren't thrilled with the books on the whole.
If you're wondering: the ending doesn't exactly blast open any new inroads into any genre, but it's satisfying enough for this series.

I suppose I was just interested enough that I hoped the books would get better.  Even though they never really take off, at no point did I feel like the story was floundering.  So there's that.  It's not terrible; it's not the best thing ever written.

3 stars across the board!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: Red Rising

Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Book one of the Red Rising Trilogy
Release Date: Jan 2014

Hello kids!
Let's get into the writing kitchen and write a Pretty Decent Book!
 Here's the recipe (as far as I can tell) for Red Rising:

Begin with a base of two parts City of Ember and one part the first chapter of The Hunger Games.
Let setting be "on Mars" for flavor, liberally using air quotes.
Include totally-see-it-coming injustice.  Toss well.
In a separate scene/bowl, shake a little of Uglies with the "makeover" parts from Hunger Games/Catching Fire.  
 Once mixture has reached desired tension, add the following:
  • Greek mythology references from Percy Jackson series
  • Attribute-based housing from Harry Potter and Percy Jackson
  • Brutal, allegedly supervised arena fights from Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Battle Royale
  • Complete batshit insanity, violence and social decay from Lord of the Flies
  • Downtrodden underdog becoming unlikely lord of death with his small-yet-feisty band from Dune - and pretty much every "hero's journey" story ever
Allow mixture to heat until it boils over.  And makes a very exciting mess.

For all the books that are rolled into this one, there should be something for almost every reader.  It's not a revolutionary new tale, but neither was The Hunger Games (purists will defend Battle Royale to the end, I guess), and that series did well enough for itself. There is enough drama and violence to sate almost any appetite, and enough power plays, survival dramas and political machinations to engage the mind.  Both young adult and adult audiences should find something in these pages.

I certainly enjoyed the book.  While I finished it a few weeks ago and have already forgotten the hero's name, the excitement of the story is still sticking with me.

Will I read the sequel?  Yeah, probably...when it's released.  Next year.  In fact, if you want to read this book, I might wait a bit so you don't have to do the Recollection Re-read.

4 stars for the engaging nature of the story.  3 stars if you're looking for a more original novel.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell
Book 1 of The Lost Fleet

The Alliance has been fighting the Syndic for a century-and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is Captain John "Black Jack" Geary-a man who's emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized beyond belief. Now, he must live up to his own legend.

Just as Fantasy has many subgenres (high, epic, dark, urban, historical, etc), so does Science Fiction have its subgenres: speculative, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, space opera, alternate history, to name a few.  One of the currently popular genres is "military science fiction" - which I sincerely hope needs no explanation.

The blurb on the back of the book is about as much setup as you need for this story.  A soldier has awakened from a century of cryogenic sleep to find the war that he almost died in is still raging on, that his fleet is in danger, and that he might be the only one that can rescue the Alliance fleet from a dilemma of their own making.  Bam.  Action.

Campbell doesn't pull any punches with getting the action started.  In fact, the whole book reminded me (favorably) of the early episodes of Battlestar: Galactica, in which thousands of lives are at stake and there is no time for careful contemplation.  Geary makes a decent protagonist, if not exactly a ground-breaking one (another white male soldier/space marine, anyone?), and his core decency gives the book a moral core, while his impatience and frustration with the decayed discipline among his fellows gives the book some emotional drive.

One thing that science fiction has traditionally excelled in is being rather egalatarian about gender and race issues, from Uhura on Star Trek to Lady Jessica in the Dune series.  While Campbell plays it safe with the race and gender or his protagonist, he isn't hidebound into forcing an all-white, all-male cast.  Two characters Geary brushes against regularly are female: a ship's captain and a civilian co-president.  The fact that the author was willing to place two women in places of authority - authority "Black Jack" Geary never questions - was good enough that I won't be too disappointed that the rest of the cast seems to have a Y chromosome.  Better than nothing.

The plot of the book reads like the pilot episode of a new smash-bang sci-fi roller coaster, with death and danger around every corner, followed by political machinations and power plays in rapid succession.  Adventure!  Schemes!  Heroes/heroines!  Sacrifice!  Excitement!

And since this feels like a pilot episode, absolutely nothing is resolved - not that it should be.  The initial encounter is teed up and the whole dramatic arc is plotted in front of you:  Will Geary be able to get the fleet home?  How many will survive?  What other adventures wait for our fleet before the end?

Not exactly the deepest book every written, but not disappointing, either.  If you're looking for a by-the-numbers military fantasy, then this is a solid book to pick up.  At 293 pages, it won't be a heavy read by any definition of the phrase.
3.5 stars!
Will I read the sequels?
Oh, yes.  Mm-hmm.  Yep.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gateway Books: When a Single Read Becomes a New Obsession

We've all heard of them.  You think "oh, I'll just try it once; it'll be no big deal."  But then one things leads to another and suddenly you're trying to convince yourself you don't need to buy food this week because you need your next hit.

That's right, people.  I'm talking about Book Addiction.
It starts out so innocuously:  just one little book, sitting so peacefully on a shelf, looking so harmless.  And then you have to have another.  And another.  And then you can discuss the merits of the classics and are greeted by first name when you enter the library or the bookstore.

It can happen to any of us, folks. 

The scariest parts of Book Addiction are those Gateway Books.  The ones that make you rethink your answer to the question "what do you read, mostly?"  Formerly you never would have thought that you were a reader of Science Fiction, but now you can describe in detail why it's such a big deal that Episode VII isn't going to use the expanded universe as canon. 

Here are the books that introduced me to various genres throughout my life.

As a young child, I read pretty much anything.  However, the first book that I remember fanning an obsession was The Gorgon's Head.  It had been sitting on a burgeoning bookshelf at my grandparents' house and I picked it up because of the picture on the cover.
I remember it looking so much cooler than this...
I remember tearing through this book and then through all of the children's books on Greek mythology...and then even into the adult non-fiction section.  Ah the 293.2 section...  Bless you, Dewey Decimal System!  I read so many books on the subject that when I took a class on Greek Mythology in college, I was one of two people in the class to score more than 100%.  No-so-coincidentally, the other over achiever was another girl who had fallen in love with these stories as a child.  As an aside, she was from Sparta, Wisconsin.  I didn't even have to make that up.

Ah, the tweens.  Such awkward years.  Fortunately for me, my forays into the adult shelves at the library led me to the SF/F racks, where I found a brand-new, shiny copy of Arrows of the Queen.  I know this book has some flaws, but I still get warm fuzzies when I re-read it.  Yes, the dialogue can be awkward and clunky, and yes, the plot is pretty obvious, and yes, the protagonist can be a Mary Sue but I DON'T CARE.  I love it and you'll never convince me it's a bad book. 
Horses and pink and purple and heroines and friendship and magic and OMG I LOVE THIS BOOK.
Arrows was soon followed by Piers Anthony's Demons Don't Dream.  This was the book that showed me that fantasy doesn't have to be serious all the time.  This books has video games and puns and fake Florida and puns and magic and puns...basically it's 360 pages of puns.  After realizing that this was only an installment in a larger series, I went back to the beginning of the series and read a whole bunch of them.
Did I mention the puns?

Dangerous stuff, here, people,  Tell your kids about the dangers of fun fantasy books.

Historical Fiction
I remember reading Clan of the Cave Bear in middle school, but no matter how much I loved that series, it never really kicked off a love of HF in general.  At the time, I'm not even sure I knew that was a thing.
Years later I would see The Other Boleyn Girl all over the place.  I didn't even want to read it.  Who would want to read about that horrible king who killed his wives?  Why would you want to read about Anne Boleyn?
...But I did.
And I was hooked.  I barreled through several of Philippa Gregory's other works before casting a wider net.  I don't read as much HF as I used to, but it's still a major player on my shelves. 
Putting the "fiction" in "historical fiction" for over ten years now!
The Classics
Had it not been for a couple girls I met when studying abroad, I might never have discovered that classics can actually be good books - and not just for people who want to look smart!
Pride and Prejudice was pushed into my hands and I reluctantly read it.
After that, it was a slippery slope to falling into Dickens (which, I admit, I have partially introduced myself to through BBC's miniseries), the Brontes, Tolstoy, Trollope, Gaskell and others.
The classics, man.  They're not just for boring literature classes!

Science Fiction
Yes, I read Ender's Game in college.  Yes, I enjoyed it.  But it didn't trigger the "I must read more of what this genre has to offer" reaction that a true Gateway Book will.
Yes, dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction technically fall under the Science Fiction umbrella.  (Hello, Hunger Games!)
The real "What else have I been missing" moment came late last year when I read Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach (aka Rachel Aaron).  From the tough-yet-feeling heroine (in her giant suit of space armor) to the adventure (in spaceships!) to men possessed by aliens (from outer space!) to invisible space monsters (!), this book made me desperately want to start cramming ALL THE SPACE OPERA into my face. 
Read this SPAAAACE.

Undiscovered Genres
If a book's premise sounds good, I will generally read anything once.  However, there are many genres that I feel comfortable saying "I don't really read that" because I have yet to have a really good hit of a Gateway Book from one of them.
  • Mystery.  This isn't to say that I haven't read a mystery book, or that I don't like mystery in my books. I just don't spend any time in the mystery shelves of my library or bookstores.  
  • Westerns.  My grandfather loved westerns the way I love fantasy or historical fiction.  I've just never really gotten into it.  I see the allure; it's just not for me.
  • Poetry. I have a tin ear for poetry.  I don't know or understand what makes poetry "good."
  • Biographies.  I love the idea of biographies, but with few exceptions I don't seek them out.
  • Steampunk.  Ah, the aesthetic without a purpose.  So many of the Steampunk books I've read are so similar it's hard to distinguish them from one another.  It's like this sub-genre is looking for a revolutionary to give it a direction.   
  • Horror.   In a way, I feel like Horror and Fantasy are cousins.  However, I generally enjoy sleeping at night and not being afraid of my own shadow.
 Any pointers for my next Gateway Book?  What were yours?