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?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston

In her small early nineteenth century Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana, who has not spoken since she was a young girl. Her silence is a mystery, as well as her magic.  Concerned for her safety, her mother is anxious to see her married, and Cai Jenkins, a widower from the far hills, seems the best choice.
 After her wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving her mother, and wary of this man, whom she does not know, and who will take her away to begin a new life.  But she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the wild mountains that surround it. Cai works to understand the beautiful, half-tamed creature he has chosen for a bride, and slowly, he begins to win Morgana’s affections.  It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village.  A dark force is at work there—a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana.  Forced to defend her home, her man, and herself, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything.

The premise of this book took me as a light read, something just to while away the time with a dash of historical fiction and maybe some magical realism in it.  One reviewer quote claims the book is for lovers of romance and fantasy alike.
Alright, I suppose so.
A silent protagonist, magic, romance, history - what else do you need?
Well, as it happens, a lot.
For one the "Morgana hasn't spoken since she was a child" thing was just sort of a set piece.  It was never really used to any great purpose and, if anything, detracted from her characterization.  There are chapters written from her POV, which helps, but whenever the reader isn't in her head, Morgana drifts away emotionally.  What's worse is that there is never any explanation provided as to why she decided to stop talking.  It's alluded to once or twice, but never explained, thereby making the whole thing pretty much pointless.
There is a romance in it, but the relationship between the two never seems to develop organically, but appears because the author decided that they will fall in love.  It's hard to see what the two people have in common besides a love of the outdoors, but perhaps that's my cold reptilian heart.
On top of which, the overall conflict of the story was between two women - and even though the protagonist is inexperienced, there was never any doubt that she was going to win.  Sure, Villainess McEvil leaves several bodies in her wake- spoilers/trigger warning, including a dog and other animals - but not for one sentence did I ever consider that Morgana would not get her Happily Ever After. 

This isn't to say that this is a bad book.  In fact, it reminded me greatly of The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory in some ways, although Morgana is a much nicer person than Alys.  Both women have magic powers that can be a mark against them, in both books the women face adversity because of their gifts, and both books take place in a "historical" setting.  If you like this book, you'll probably like the other and vice versa.

All in all, it was a fine way to spend a few hours, but I certainly won't be going back for another read.

3 stars!