Friday, October 30, 2015

SupersymmetrySupersymmetry by David Walton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this more. I really did.

Anything that brings to life the littlest of particles and turns them into living, breathing macrocosmic entities has got my fourteen thumbs of flipped approval. I thought the action sequences were quite out of a superhero movie, with teleportation, flight, and even a Doctor Doom blowing up cities from safely behind another dimension while the rest of us contemplate the wonders of time travel and decide how to get around all the timey-wimey stuff.

Great ideas going on here, and I don't even need to look too carefully at the math to know that transposing the micro world matrix into the macro, (the one that's defined by tricky concepts like gravity and planar time,) is an awfully lost proposition, especially since our bits and pieces oughtn't fit together as we obviously think they do. My fingers aren't really slapping these keys, after all. And that's kinda the point. We're in this for the story and the introduction or reintroduction of a wild quantum zoo come to play with us silly mortals and our short-stop near-future mental computers that can be programmed to do a whole suite of nifty things.

Great setup. The world is pretty much ours, only more future. Unfortunately, we were inundated with gag reflexes and cracks about how unsafe airplanes are, super-stupid military types and a comic-book rock-em-sock-em plot knockdown that only happened because the wonder-twins were available.

Wonder-twins? (view spoiler)

I should have gotten over that. They're a decent pair and not at all like the SuperFriends kids. Really.

Okay, so at least we don't have a long and drawn out court battle in this one. That's a plus. But it's gets dragged back into police drama. (One of the wonder twins joined the force.) Papa's dead right off the bat, even though he was the main freaking character of the previous novel. I get the feeling we were supposed to think of this as a pathos moment, but it flew right over my head during the game.

Unfortunately, we have a problem with common sense when it comes to the plot. You do not. I repeat. Do Not enlist the help of the ultra-powerful psychopathic mommy who's willing to let Cthulhu into the world to change her baby from an unfortunate into a superfortunate version of itself. If she's locked up in a maximum security prison shielded with faraday cages, JUST LET HER BE. I don't care if the story needed a baddy to propel the conflict. Bring in someone new. Someone with a history of Not Screwing Over Your Family. *sigh*

At least the cities were all blowing up. That's a plus. Unfortunately, it was all second-hand. That's a negative.

Last but not least: the dialog. I have read worse, but usually it hinted at being sarcastic and/or satire.

I know this sounds a bit harsh, and it's not really meant to be that rough, I just believed that we both had something going on that was pretty special when I took both novels out on dates. I tried to ignore the buck teeth because of the PHD, I ignored the cliche-speech because of how the novels lit up with big superpowers on occasion. I didn't even have too much of a problem with the insistence that police and courtroom dramas were truly the height of all literature, even though we were both on the same wavelength for most of the night, geeking out over great SF. I just didn't get it. This one decided that lame cliches were funny and a valid excuse to pad the plot. I tried to smile and make nice.

Why was it going so wrong?

I've decided that I'm going to remain friends with the novels. They're not bad folks. They just don't quite seem to know what they really want to be. Perhaps it will get better with time? Someone else will pick them up and take them home? I wish those someones all the love in the world.

:)

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Taken (Alex Verus, #3)Taken by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Solid read that's building on the precognition premise, this time revolving around missing mage apprentices from both the light and dark camps. All are taken without a trace.

What can go wrong?

Well, for starters, Alex can pick up a few stragglers who might just want to go just as independent as he, for one. And we can do it all in the middle of a mage tournament he would never have considered attending, if he hadn't been forced to do it for the investigation.

Oh, and Luna is getting beast. Gotta love girls with bullwhips.

I think I'm gonna like these new characters. Or at least, I'm going to like Ms. Life Mage. Quite a few beasts in the book. I'm looking forward to the kinds of plots twists this is going to bring us.

Fortunately, Mr. Jacka knows how to set them up and knock them down. Quick and enjoyable reads, all of them.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Wytches, Vol. 1Wytches, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very enjoyable story, and not just because it's scratching my itch for something scary for halloween.

I love the gloriously messed up main characters, with all their anxiety-battling, creatively destructive descent into madness... or is it madness? Of course not! There's always something out there in the dark forest, after all, and the mirror world is very dark indeed. I'm good to start pledging and getting my wishes on!

The story is surprisingly emotional and visceral from start to finish, and I think I like its coherency better than another horror comic I finished not too long ago. (Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft had a much more complex story and a wonderful magic system, but as for just plain hitting me in the gut and writing a scary map of veins on my skin, Wytches, Vol. 1 is superior.)

It helps that I'm a weird daddy with a daughter that I love to death. This kind of thing calls out to some people more than others, and crazy protectiveness is kinda my thing, too.

So Top-Marks for grabbing me and shaking me until I cried mercy! It's exactly what the doctor ordered. Hugely entertaining. And best, there's MORE to come. :)

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Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Extraordinary MachineBitch Planet, Vol 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series is SO DAMN REFRESHING. It is an absolute indictment against all kinds of double-standards, it reads like a play-by-play scrapbook of everything that's wrong with PEOPLE. It's not just men versus women. It's everyone against everyone, with the heroes being only those people willing to live by the "I just don't give a fuck anymore," standard. Good for them!

Is this a book about modern feminism? Hell Yes. Is it skewering in bright satire everything that's wrong with us? Hell YES.

Men are the obvious targets, of course, but the commentary about women who are complicit in the system is truly scathing.

Add all this to a damn brilliant script and effortless character development and fearless willingness to show real women with natural bodies that are nude over practically every other page and equally IJDGAFA because they're on a prison planet designed for women, and you've got yourself a beautiful pink brawl of a graphic novel well on the way to becoming a personal favorite across any genre.

Yeah. I'm white and I'm a guy. So the fuck what? It's like I've been waiting for this comic all my life. I've hated the way women are treated and treat themselves ever since I could even think for myself.

I hate all the fuckwits that reduce people into tidbits and object lessons and self-reinforcing shamebarrels of defeatism. Most of my issues with YA literature revolves around the way it turns girls and women into the nightmare versions of themselves instead of just REAL PEOPLE.

This here comic is putting all the crap thinking on a spotlight, and I love it. Love it. Love it. Love it.

If you think I'm joking about the message, then sit down and read the short essays at the end. I'm so fucking proud of these women. All I can really hope for at this point is that it becomes a runaway global success that crushes the patriarchy by the sheer weight of Penny. Or it's own hollow ideals. One or the other, it doesn't matter.

It's a WIN, either way.



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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Empress Game (The Empress Game Trilogy #1)The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, seriously, this took a long time for me to start caring about the characters, but it finally happened well after the half-way point of the book. That's a real shame, because I was frankly bored out of my skull by most of it.

Best Space Opera? Please.

We got ourselves a bit of knife fighting in a tournament and then a road trip with blackmailing spies and a con job to put an empress on the throne of a multi planet empire. If that isn't bad enough, we've got the old trope of princess-in-disguise right out of standard fantasy fiction. (Or even Shakespeare, if you want to go there.) We've got the way overdone psi schtick and a throwaway nanoplague, too. What the book really needed were solid characters to pull a tired and not-so-fresh landscape into a vibrant and interesting novel.

And we did. Very, very late. It saved the book in full estimation, but if we'd had the glories of that character vibrancy and depth and the hint of a great plot twist or two brewing at the beginning, I wouldn't have had any problem slogging through the meh roadtrip or the throwaway battles. I would have seen them as build-up and atmosphere enhancing, not just a page-filler that did oh-so-little to propel the actual STORY.

So what am I saying? Oh, perhaps a bit of editing would have been in order. Do a time twist in the story. Bring some later events to the front end then let it back up and build again. Show us the love, the important action, the heartache and the epic, and do it right off the bat. Maybe then I wouldn't have been yawning and asking myself why I was reading this.

It didn't end with a whimper, at least. But it sure started with one. Yes, Yes, the first scene was a fight, and yes she kissed the boy who would be hers in front of a whole stadium, and yes she was kidnapped and blackmailed almost right away... but that's no excuse for not grabbing me by the heart and insuring my interest from the very start. It didn't happen until much, much later, and that's my problem.

And then there was the growing suspicion that the book was entirely about the teenage boy. So much revolved around him, and little about it was even interesting. The MC was a superstar, for heaven's sake, and I was wondering why the hell I was stuck in a boring cul-du-sac with this mute boy who's oddly a mary-sue. Huh? Huh? Why?

Oh, it's only meant to give the MC something we can relate to? Some human charm and heartstring-pulling? No. It was too little and too drawn out and threatened to consume ALL of the momentum of the tale.

I was also a bit annoyed with all the orphaned place-and-name-dropping that meant very little to me as a reader. Not even a two-word descriptor to placehold them for me or give the rest of the world a bit of depth and color. Though, to be honest, I'd be just as annoyed if I was just given some map that I'd never refer to as I read the book. I've seen WAY too many wonderful examples of incorporating names with beauty and verve, and it was all sadly missing from this novel. Zoom zoom idc zoom zoom.

I know this sounds a bit like I should be giving the novel a one or a two star rating, but in the end, it did affect me. It was redeemed, even if it was very flawed. There were a lot of standard tropes and ideas that really required a first class talent to bring to life even though they're rather standard, OR it required such glorious characters and development that everything else receded into the background. We eventually got the latter, but it only half-worked as a great piece of writing and only late did it succeed in its characters.

Not sure if I'd really recommend this to anyone, unless:

You've never read about nano plagues happening off-screen and mostly out of mind unless you need a plot bogeyman.
Or:
You don't need anything more than a skimpy and almost inexplicable reason for holding a tournament designed for females to fight single combat for the right to become the Empress.
Or:
You've never gotten tired of the omnipresent hidden-princess trope.

If you fall into any of these categories, then dive right in, friends. :) Fair warning, though, it'll take a while before the action becomes good and decent and not just a fart in the wind.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Children of TimeChildren of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's something wildly giddy welling up within me, and I blame it entirely on this book.

There have been a couple of brilliant SF titles to come out this year and I would swear belong on the Hugo list, and this is yet one more. Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora was one, as was Scott Hawkins's The Library at Mount Char, but if I had to break down the individual merits of each, I might wind up saying that this one deserves it the most. For pure SF, it hits the heights of ideas, memorable characters, exploration, and message, although the message is definitely not one that is apparent until the end.

It has all the hallmarks of a good classic SF tale, and I was reminded every step of the way of John Brunner's The Crucible of Time, with the bringing up of an alien society from its primitive roots to space exploration, the wild quest of humanity trying to survive it's own stupidity in over ten thousand years of desperate Ark travel, and throw into the mix a great mad cyborg/AI god/scientist who's belief system gets sorely challenged.

If all that isn't enough to perk you up, then how about a society of biopunk spiders learning to tame themselves and their world with the propelling help of a nanovirus designed to uplift an entirely different species, but lacking those poor monkeys, had to make due with some jumping spiders from old Earth?

Oh yeah. Now we're talking. From page one we get a precious nod to David Brin for his wonderful Uplift series, but right as we begin to suspect that it's a rip-off, everything goes to hell. I call that an auspicious beginning.

And then we get slices of alien life complete with great self-contained stories, with nothing worthless to the grand over-tale being spun, including the war and eventual domestication of deadly intelligent army ants, the fight for the poor male spider's rights (who don't appreciate being eaten after mating), and the eventual discovery that the original scientist that had seeded the world with the nanovirus, who still lived as a cyborg, was not, in fact, a god.

And if that isn't enough, let's get to know the human side of the equation. They've had a rough time climbing back out of a dark age only to discover that the Earth is a complete shit hole and there's nothing left to be saved. They rose on the backs of the dead society that had brought humanity to this pass and went out to search for a new home. Unfortunately, everything has gone to shit except this one little paradise that's defended by a mad cyborg god who thinks that humans are shit. (And she's right.) She'll protect her precious project from anything that dares disturb it.

Great conflict ensues.

My god this was a great book. I had a bit of a learning curve in the first few dozen pages getting over the somewhat sparse writing, but there's a purpose to it. A hell of a lot has to happen to build such an enormous tale without stretching it out into a dozen equivalent and impoverished books. In this one novel, we get everything. It's brilliant.

I'll revisit this review at a later time and see if it still captures my imagination as much as the other Hugo Possibles, but my mind wants to put all my bets on this one. The flaws in Aurora, despite the brilliant setup, message, and end, are just enough to push it down a rung for me. Library at Mount Char was mostly dark fantasy with a damn huge nod at turning it into a real SF title, and I still think it's awesome and mythic, but if I had to choose between something that's obviously SF to the core and beyond and a great book that has more in common with American Gods and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, (both of which won Hugos in their years despite being fantasies), then I'd choose Children of Time.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to sit on the fence. Having to choose between two novels that are very different in scope, writing, and characterizations is a hell of a thing. Both are fantastic at what they do. I cried during both. I'll just have to revisit my memories later to be certain.


Oh, there is one more thing I need to mention.

I hate the title.

It does absolutely NOTHING to enumerate how fucking awesome this epic SF is. Fans of any classic SF need to read this gem. It has a hell of a lot more flow to it, and just as much idea exploration as anything written by Alastair Reynolds. Go get it. Now.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Outside (The Hallowed Ones, #2)The Outside by Laura Bickle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, yeah, we were out of sparkly vampires at the store, but as we traveled through Pennsylvania we saw these really cute bonnets walking around, and WOULD YOU KNOW IT? They were all lit up inside and sparkly, so I thought to myself, what an interesting light display! So when I got closer, a few men with military grade hardware came out of nowhere and started threatening poor little me. I kept asking, "What is it, what is it?" And they just told me to mind my own business.

I grabbed a beer down the road and fortunately, some really drunk locals told me that they were the AMISH. I was shocked. No sparkly vampires anywhere? They said no. Apparently the genre ran out of ideas for vampire fiction, thought throwing the Amish into the mix would be AWESOME, but instead of thinking up something original, it just reverse-engineered the sparkly bit with a bit of science mixed with Handwavium and turned people into glowsticks that frighten little children and vampires alike.

I said to my new friends, "Oh, Thank God. I thought for a moment that some radioactive spider had bit the cows and now the whole community had gone Super Cheese."

They reassured me. They also prayed for me because of my blasphemy.


*Grand Silence*

I'd like to say that this was a super corny and funny B-Movie that me and I my friends could heckle over copious quantities of alcohol, but the novel takes itself too seriously. I was amazed at the amount of mythology research that was expositioned at me. I like classic mythology, of course. I like it when there are intelligent characters that can incorporate the classics into any conversation, or at least when they do it wittily. I especially like it when mythology is submerged into the text so no one absolutely has to focus on it just because its there. You know, like having the choice to read a novel for its subtexts? Or how about when religion is pushed upon an unsuspecting reader for the sole purpose of converting them? Same thing. I can enjoy either when they don't go all didactic on me.

Unfortunately, both the myth classics and uber-christianity (Or at least a handful of different faiths, with discussion,) were the primary focus in this by-the-books vampire explosion novel. Don't get me wrong. I like anything that improves my knowledge of anything, and I love diving into religion and myth. But to be honest, I don't think it belonged here.

Religion was set up to be equally powerful against the vamps as science, and the two had a nice long discussion throughout the novel as to which would do better in the apocalypse. The problem is, it's obvious that this is social commentary, and it's not buried deeply. We know that the author is sitting dab-center of the argument and doesn't want to commit to either science or religion. She gives us portents and signs and lab results. Magic versus Reason. And all the while, she makes it feel like both are equally valid, and maybe they are, but the discussion is too complex and interesting to be surfaced to death in a novel about happy shiny people and the undead.

"But," you say, "It's a YA, and we can't expect children to go that deep into the thinking!"
And I say, "Bullshit. Anyone who believes that kids don't eventually get *everything* eventually are idiots. Telling someone to sit in the middle of the road and have faith in both sides of the argument is just as bad as going religious nutso or an asshole atheist. That isn't to say that there are no balances that can be had, but no one is going to come out of this novel thinking that they had a great revelation."

*sigh*

Was I entertained with the novel? Meh, middling. It wasn't a horrible read. I still think, as with my previous review for book one, that it would have been served SO much better with a bit more creativity. Sure. Glow=Immunity. Odd and believable if you squint real hard and shut down your nervous system and stop yourself before you ask questions like, "So if I'm radiating enough light to scare the vamps, does that mean I'm full spectrum? Can I help my friends up north as winter sets in to prevent an onset of Seasonal Affect Disorder?" or, "Can I harness myself to charge my Ipad? Make myself a solar panel coffin and sleep nude to charge all the batteries in my house?"

It is, after all, the apocalypse, and infrastructure is probably a distant memory. How else am I going to read my ebooks?

Ah, well, welcome home, wayward daughter. You look well from your little journey outside our community. What is that glow about you?

It's ok. Wouldn't really recommend it to anyone, though, unless they haven't read much of anything or just want a direct cure for Twilight.

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Friday, October 23, 2015

The Hallowed Ones (The Hallowed Ones, #1)The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The novel showed promise through the beginning. An Amish Story meeting non-sparkly vamps meets a coming of age story. Promise.

I enjoyed the expectations things going very wrong, and waited with baited breath. The immersion in Amish society was a pleasant diversion and I really didn't have any problems with the many references to godliness. It was what it was.

And then I became a bit annoyed with the rather one-dimensional reactions of the Bishop. The whole Amish became a caricature of itself instead of remaining human. Or, I should say, the only one who remained human was the main character. And that is so very typical for YA titles that it might as well change its title from trope to tripe.

There was, and is, still a ton of room to grow as characters while NOT falling into a Silent Hill trap. And even Silent Hill had character progression for its villains.

The vampires were all one-dimensional bogeymen. The Amish elders were pretty much the same. Which was rather sad, because, like I said, the novel showed a lot of promise in the beginning. We'd have enjoyed a thoroughly immersive look into a society-next-door who thinks very different from most of the readers who'd pick up this book, plus we'd have an adventure/survival horror so in tune with the modern bildungsroman surrounding zombiepunk.

Without zombies, of course, but the trope is part of the current zeitgeist, and I can roll with it. Still, along the same lines, I'd have preferred to roll out the man eating plants from Day of the Triffids or perhaps a plague of Hulks a-la what was implied at the end of 2008's Incredible Hulk. Alas. That would have been pretty cool surrounding an Amish community. *sigh*

The development of the novel was ultimately average and predictable. It wasn't bad, per-se, but it might be rather forgettable. I'll read its sequel out of a sense of duty, but at least the first wasn't boring.

Of course, this would have been an AWESOME book if we were dealing with a crossover-like story that used the Amish as established from TV's Banshee. Then we'd have some truly kick-ass and bloody over-the-top adventure that might just push back the vampire menace. *shiver* That would have been freaking awesome. :)

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Daughters unto DevilsDaughters unto Devils by Amy Lukavics
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay. It might be YA, but to me, it's horror all the way, baby.

I may not care all that much about old-tyme american settlement, little house on the prairie - type fiction, but there's a goodly number of creepy frontier horror out there in the wide world, and I seem to be stumbling upon them a bit more in the last few years. As I was reading this one, I was reminded about how much I like my Rasputina collection, and a special little song in the Violent Femmes collection, too, but more than anything, I felt like I was sitting down to a good homemade meal by one of my favourite authors. Was I reminded of SK? Yes. Pleasantly so. And I was gratified at the end to see him in the acknowledgements. :)

So, first of all, most of the story is all character development, slow reveals, creepy setup, and then we get the zinger in the last quarter that puts me at the edge of my seat. It was a perfect execution. Nothing was out of place. The story flowed so very nicely. We knew something had either gone very wrong in the past or something was going to go very wrong in the future, and either reveal would have been perfect, but we were sandwiched between both the entire trip and they both love to feed on the reader from both ends until everything goes to hell.

Ah, so lovely. It feels like a very old ghost tale done with modern sensibilities because that's exactly what it is, although it doesn't matter a whiff whether there are actual ghosts in it. It draws us in from all the angles it had set up, made us care, and then slammed us up against the wall. I love horror. I seriously love horror when it's done right, and this was done right.

The taste of a moral message nearing the end was probably just a passing glamour. The real end made everything just right.


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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Murder of Crows (The Others, #2)Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So. Tainted Meat. Got it. It's a novel about making hamburger, right?

Okay, so I liked this novel a lot more than the first because it actually felt like an editor got a chance to flip some red at it. There was more mainline story and less of the mild and rather boring "getting to know you in such a mundane way" build. Of course, there was plenty of sitting around and watching movies and hoping that the doggie would get to lick her fingers, and while that has a fairly charming place to sit in a story, somewhere, I don't believe it really needed to be in THIS one. Repeatedly. At least I can be thankful that there was less mail sorting and more drama, even if it was bird watching. Bird watching? Oh, sorry, I meant crow.

*sigh* Believe me, I *want* to like this urban fantasy, but despite the fact that I *know* that the story really and truly has some actionable moments like raiding a compound or diving into a murder mystery or even just trying to find jobs for fresh meat that dared to be un-racist, well somehow we got a novel that managed to make all of even THAT boring. Action was muted and distant in favour of being in unsatisfied out-season heat, sappy friend-first-too-shy-to-try messages on phones, and endless pages and pages devoted to dog biscuits.

Is this charming? Are you not entertained?

I'm sorry, if I'm going to be diving into the close, close intricacies of a daily life, I want to at least get something like the Stephen King treatment, filled with frightful intimacy, warts and delusions and all, taking me on a path of deep character development for 4/5ths of a book to set me up for a huge metaphysical explosion. That would have been fine. I wouldn't have minded the mundane so much in that case. But no. We get all the cutting and some drug overdoses that were conveniently glossed over and made ordinary and acceptable and shall I say it? Yeah. Boring.

The bones of the story was fine. It suffered from being muffled and blanketed in mild cuteness and removed conflict. There were way too few moments of blind terror. The teakettle and broom was fine. The exploding trash can was fine. But where was the frantic and ever-present danger?

In exposition. Expect cities to be wiped out. Oh yeah, and do you remember when....? GAAAaaaaaahhhhh.... I wanted immediacy! I didn't want to have to pinch myself awake every 10 minutes in sheer daylight.

Fortunately, I did somewhat enjoy the care put into the worldbuilding, but because that was the only really interesting thing going on besides the Elementals, I kept asking myself really unfortunate questions. Like if the Others are a whole society of magical Native Americans in fact and feel, only with the entire upper-hand when dealing with the peeps from across the sea, and they treated and traded with the fresh meat for hundreds of years to make the alternate near-identical world we have in our reality, then why, in all the names that are holy, are we ignoring all the things that actually happened in real history that made the technological revolution not only viable but a necessity? From the gin mill to trains to the damn necessity of mining... if the Others had control over all the resources, then where was the pressure to build the trains in the first place? Let alone the advancements or the dreams required to build aircraft, cell phones, or movies? If normal humans were so smart, why didn't they take a page from the Romans and just find a way to control all sources of water and let everyone else believe they controlled what they controlled? Elementals could always ruin that control, but after they saw how everyone else relied on it, they'd hesitate out of fear of hurting their own kind, too.

I could go on and on and on, because I like discussions of power and societal pressures and history, but these world-holes are annoying, especially since the main tale relies so heavily on it to keep an illusory conflict going for us, the readers. If one domino is missing, the rest seems to all fall apart. Of course, this isn't the main focus of either novel, so I'm forced, reluctantly, to give it a pass. And then I return back to my first concern. Writing with Immediacy.

Where was the ongoing tension and conflict keeping the reader's interest alive. It was just too mild, and it didn't need to be. The story was there to be coaxed into high flame. Instead, it was banked low and kept behind a big finely-meshed grate so all we could do was get hints of some far-away lick of fire. The concern with the crows kept some of it going, but then the rains came and all interest in helping those idiots petered out. I got the impression that once they gave up their vigil and blew themselves to smithereens, the rest of the Others just threw their hands up and said, "Yeah, well, they got what they deserved. Let's hide that hand for a while and see what the other hand is doing... oh, look! Shiny conflict over there! Let's go rescue us some prophets."

Hmmmm. No, I'm not giving this a higher rating, even though it was superior to the prior novel. I'm also not going to drop a star, either, although I'm annoyed enough to want to. It's still a competent novel. I just wanted a damn lot more out of it.

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KrakenKraken by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had my ups and downs with this title, but in the end it's mostly all ups. The language was the biggest thorn, though in my other frames of mind, I also really enjoyed it at the same time.

What this book is not, is a quick and light read meant to delight and float through your mind like a cloud of ink.

It deserves to be savoured and gloated over, perhaps even stopping a bit to roll the cadences of copspeak off your tongue to feel its beat. I had to do it, too, before I realized that it sounded just fine. It's the reading of it that seemed jarring, almost as if it was a mirror to the jarring concepts that butted heads all throughout the maze of the story.

I was reminded, very pleasantly, of Perdido Street Station, which I also had an almost identical problem with. The worldbuilding on both of these are so damn rich and weird and well thought-out. The feel of the societies is ripe and bursting with flavor. Of course, Perdido was fantasy stationed in an alien landscape that just happened to be modern-human flavored, while this one just happened to be dark-fantasy mythospunk plopped right into the heart of modern London. The two aren't all that different. English=Alien. I watch Doctor Who. I know what I'm talking about.

Seriously, both novels weave a complex tapestry of groups and individuals with brightly colored lives that I could never forget, carrying burdens and gifts that made up for a hell of a lot of plot stretching and twists that made perfect sense in the end. The problem is in the getting there.

I had to be patient. Repeatedly.

I had to tell myself to have faith in the Kraken, but what I really wanted was to pick up the bottle.

I jest... or do I?

We got a major turf war of gods and their believers ravaging London. The prophets all agreed that the universe would end in fire, and end very soon. We've got a bumbling test-tube nerd who preserves specimens turning out to be the big hero, and we've got a security guard sacrificing his live to ink.

Was I pretty much amazed by the inclusion of so many fascinating characters? Oh hell yes. I'll never look at my fountain pen the same again, and I'm still thinking of the stitches in the mouth of a certain tattoo. And who needs lsd if you've got a dram of mollusk ink? And these are just a few of the many interesting tidbits that show up throughout the novel. It's littered with orphaned ideas and pretty turns. I mean, really, Buddhist-Jesus monks pulling a West Side Story? Talking Kirks, statues, and the patron of all fair-wage picketers, *Oh Wadi, Wadi,*.

And cold fire. What a fantastic SF twist THAT one turned out to be.

Truly, it was a satisfying wrap up. So many threads came back together to pack one hell of a punch, just like Perdido Street Station.

If I ever read this a second time, I'm going to do it slowly, savoring each turn and hint and phrase very carefully. I'm certain I'll get a lot more out of it. In the meantime, though, I can't honestly give it a full five stars. It was slow to develop, and some of Billy's blindness was a bit annoying, but it was all a matter of falling down the rabbit hole, anyway, so I decided to take the ride with him. Marge, on the other hand, was a breath of sanity throughout the text that proved to be the best steadying factor for me. Dane was a solid and thorough plot-mover, and he grew on me, too. Collinsworth? Oh, well, she's unique. :)

I did really enjoy this novel. It wasn't so much a Lovecraftian tribute as it was a Mythos tribute. Practically everything that the mythos built was pretty original. We got pieces of chaos nazis, a bit of Read Or Die, but everything else was pure extrapolation and imagination, as far as I could tell. I liked the Londonomancers and the Krakenites. Honestly, the Mythospunk was probably the very best part of the novel.

Not perfect, but there's so much to enjoy that I was very willing to see it through and I'm very glad I did.



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Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance, #2)The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel was easily and truly better, imho, than the first in the trilogy.

From start to finish I loved the gentle rolling cadences of the story, the hope for a better life in the middle of so much poverty, even when it was the godlings and a certain shiny god that was experiencing the poverty. I originally thought this might actually turn out to be a mainline tale of redemption, and it was, for the most part, but I was even more surprised to enjoy the fact that it was a tale of demons, or the progeny of gods and mortals, if you prefer, and I don't mind either way. I thought it was a very beautiful story. I've got a really huge soft spot in my heart for tales like this.

Even if it's a redemption tale for the biggest asshole in the first book. Oh, but let me be clear, here: Shiny hardly gets anything that he desires, and the briefest of tastes of happiness is still going to have to last him for the next two thousand years, if twilight and darkness continue to have any say in it, but it's the glimmer of hope that I choose to focus on.

I'm certain that Oree would agree with me. I really love her. She's the consummate observer, strong in will and understanding, and never lets her blindness hold her back. The little gift she holds makes her very interesting and gives the reason and impetus of the story, as well, but more than that, it throws us into the middle of the lives of the godlings without ever being truly a "part" of it. Such a nice balancing act. The realism and the humorous beginnings, aside, the plot was nothing to sneeze at, either. The direct implications may not have been as grandiose as the first novel, but the long term definitely was.

The complete assassination of all the gods? Wow. And the ignorance was just as staggering, giving me a great time yelling at the bad guys, saying "No, don't! You idiot! Don't you know...?"

Too funny. I really enjoyed this novel. Jemisin is a master storyteller. I'm going to be running through her entire catalog before long. :)

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Paladin Caper (Rogues of the Republic #3)The Paladin Caper by Patrick Weekes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And the third one's the charm.

I loved this. I thought I loved the second novel, but this one pulls me by my heart strings just as much as it pulled my absolute gushing love of plot and twist. It turned out to be much less of a heist novel than the previous two, but that's okay because what we've got instead is a truly evolving team up against a truly, magnificently difficult enemy.

The best part is how all of it ties so very tightly to the previous two novels. From the spoiler spoiler spoiler in the first novel, to the spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler in the second novel, to how each and every one of those wonderful bits and pieces wove together to make spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler, when even a fantastic Now/Then sidebar that illustrates exactly how the spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler worked out, and even then, I still can't figure out if Loch's plan worked because she's just that good or that she's relying on only a hella-huge pool of luck and goodwill.

I could give you a breakdown of all those spoiler bits, but I'm not. It's not fair to any of you sitting on the fence about picking up these novels, because YOU really NEED to READ them. You'll know exactly what I mean and be just as fucking delighted as I was.

The writing is damn fine. Everything is super crystal. The action scenes are absolutely fantastic, quick, colorful, and always in the service to the story. Even the character development twists flow like water, both contrary and obvious in retrospect.

And while I'm on about that: Having a love/death priestess on the team IS really and truly a GOOD REASON why there's so many damn hookups happening all over the place. It was never overboard, but it was definitely delightful and so damn necessary to the plot. My heart jumped into my throat, damn it. There were way too many serious reversals for our loveable heroes, even ones that I couldn't quite stomach. (I couldn't stomach one just because I loved his character too much.) Still, keep reading, because I'll tell you now that it is a cry-worthy ending.

Saying that this novel is satisfying just isn't cutting it. It's more of a fist-pumping gushfest of an ending that remains, even now, so bittersweet that I think I want to go lay down and cry.

Thanks, Netgalley!

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Friday, October 16, 2015

The Prophecy Con (Rogues of the Republic #2)The Prophecy Con by Patrick Weekes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. I liked the first book in the series. I loved the second.

Right from go, we've had great action scenes directly in the service of both story and character development. I can't tell you or anyone how much I love it when great action actually and truly does service to the story.

In this case, we have yet ANOTHER manuscript that needs to be procured, and as a reader I'm wondering how it's going to be twisted in comparison to the surprises we had in the previous book, but soon enough I'm satisfied that such preparations weren't needed, nor did we need to introduce a full cast of characters. Instead, we are lovingly plopped right into an adventure with people we already love and who have (mostly) worked out their differences, and a few who have either moved on or have been the subject of some rather major changes in the previous tome.

What I wasn't prepared for, and what I was thoroughly amused by, was the never-ending dance of fighting and bad decisions masquerading as the perfectly plausible. We had so many reversals and amusing enemies in the first half of the novel, all of which included planes, trains, and automobiles, all of which was lovingly visual and visceral, that I swore that I was watching one of the best heavy-action heist movies... ever. I mean, I don't think I'll ever forget the Elf or the Hunter. Even Veiled Lightning was pretty damn amazing, and the end of the train-scene was pretty epic, including the funny-as-hell reversal.

I really wasn't prepared for the whole book turning into a fantasy scene of the Gambler, either, with high stakes poker getting only higher when all the current gods and the old gods started staking claims. Oh, and we can't forget mutually assured and instant destruction of the Empire and the Republic.

I was enthralled by the story and was tempted to stay up all night to read it, but damn it, life kept intruding on my enjoyment of this great book!

The final surprises, (and yes, there are multiple surprises,) have solidified my adoration of this author. It has graduated from mind-candy (even though it's a fast and easy read,) into an awe-inspiring tour of goodness. I can't recommend this enough!


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Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Palace Job (Rogues of the Republic #1)The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my estimation, Heist novels never get old. I love the feel of outsmarting wicked, pompous, and the ideologically Wrong. The constant jabs and Republicans were very funny. I never once forgot that this was a fantasy novel, but I was constantly reminded of how idiotic certain IDEAS are. I giggled, chortled, and even guffawed a few times. Heist novels area always about upsetting the status-quo. That means we need an extremely clear world to be built in order to break it. The Palace Job delivers on all counts.

It gets even better when the novel studded with shiningly clear characters borrowing from and defined perfectly by a long list of fantasy tropes. They don't sit still, either, developing nicely by non-standard trope reactions between each other and all the oddball situations they get themselves in, making a solid team to take on such a huge job. Remember, it's a Heist novel. Teamwork and conflicts within the team are bread and butter, as are reversals, reversals, reversals, and we get all of that here. Very fun stuff.

Fantasy, like SF, need a lot more novels taking on the Heist. Sure, there are already a lot out there, but it speaks to something within us all. Something fundamental and gleeful always seems to alight within us. Maybe it's just the boredom of our stolid lives that need a good shaking up, and maybe it's pointing a searchlight in the eyes of all the people who annoy the shit out of us. Fortunately for us, both the Fantasy and SF fields excel in showing us ourselves in their own right, and so this turns into a seriously relaxing and fun romp.

Did I say there were reversals? Oh yes.

The plan is solid. What in the world could go wrong?

It's just a magical incantation written into a song. It's the original! It's my birthright!

We're just hiring a death priestess for a bit of muscle. Her sentient Maul can only help us.

He's just a kid! Do NOT leave him alone with that pervy unicorn!

It was a funny novel. I'm putting this mostly in the category of mind-candy and light reading, but serious events do happen in the world and in my growing concern for it. Everyone might begin as a cardboard cut-out, including the land, but it doesn't stay that way. I like that a lot. It reminds me that this is also a solid fantasy. I'm really looking forward to the next in the series. :)

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Written in Red (The Others, #1)Written in Red by Anne Bishop
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm rather surprised that I didn't get into this nearly as much as I had hoped I would. Something wasn't clicking with me, and as I kept reading, I spent way too much attention on other things. Like little things like why I ought to care. I expected Urban Fantasy, and to me, it doesn't even remotely equate with sparkly vampires or huggable monsters of any stripe. I like grit. I love plot. Characters are everything, but if I had to place all my hopes upon one thing and one thing only, I'd say it had to be conflict.

For way too long in the novel, there was no real conflict. Sure, we have the Others and the Monkeys. We have Meg running from her past and her late-revealed ability. That's all out there as potential conflict, but in the meantime, we've got growls and innuendo and something that smells entirely of a different kind of novel.

Like I said, it took me a long time to figure it out. But it dawned on me: this isn't really an UF novel. If you ignore all the light fantasy elements, what we've really got is a novel about an awkward girl from a bad home that ran away and took up living with a gruff immigrant community, and specifically with a mean-sounding bookstore owner with a heart of gold. She gets bedazzled into being a jack-of-all trades and she eventually gets adopted by the enclosed community.

Mary-Sue syndrome? Yeah. Self-esteem issues boiling down to cutting, but magic making it a useful trait? Yeah, there's that, too.

If there hadn't been magic in the novel at all, it might have been a rather heartwarming tale about a kid finding a community to belong to, with other heartwarming elements like befriending the abused puppy, discovering that sorting mail really is interesting as long as you can use REAL PONIES... oh wait.. I mean elemental steeds... and getting that heart-in-throat moment when, against all odds, your new friends go way out of their way to protect you when your official family tries to drag you back to your old hell.

And you know what? I might have been more at home in this real life setting kind of tale. I'd likely have attached to each character more deeply.

And you know what really scares the living shit out of me? I'm A HUGE FAN OF SF/F, almost to the exclusion of all other genres. I NEVER say this kind of shit about any book. I never pine about how a tale might have been better served vanilla. And yet, I just did.

There were a few elements of magic and history that were promising, such as the drowned city. Maybe if a little bit of the plot had revolved more around the implications of the magic rather than just being bad ass and driving away all the bad monkeys, I'd have at least had that to point at, but as it was, almost the entire novel was mundane this and mundane that. Getting Sam to trust anyone, let alone quasi-human Meg, was all very nice, but he was just a hybrid abused boy/abused dog.

I wanted to like this more. I really did. The end action was, unfortunately, too little, too late. The magic and the UF elements were too bland. I couldn't even taste them through the mundane. Needs more spice.

I'll read the next in the series later this month because I've already promised that I will, but I really hope it picks up with more real conflict than this.

Mundane conflicts are mundane conflicts. They appear larger only as long as there's nothing else to compare them with. Once you add some truly breathtaking conflicts, the rest of it just fades into the background.

Maybe for some readers, all this mundane buildup served the function of complex character building, but I haven't seen that much in the way of character development or change except in how Meg is no longer prey and is accepted. Of course, all of that could have been accomplished with some severe editing out of 300 or so pages until we were left with an actual interesting story with all the fantastical elements not being drowned out.

Here's to hoping it gets better!

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cursed (Alex Verus, #2)Cursed by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series is rapidly becoming my latest favourite mind-candy, doing wonders to cleanse my palate between heavy tomes of fiction and generally getting me rearing to go. It's entertaining, solidly written, thoroughly character-grounded, and the magic system, while slightly unoriginal, is very fun. Seeing the future is rather beast.

I could probably read all of these in a single sitting, as long as I had all the proper plumbing hooked up. Saline solution, waste ejecta, etc., I'd almost be willing to be a test subject for one of those chairs from Idiocracy. What can I say? It's just one of those hugely addictive series.

I should have known better before picking them up, but oh well...

:)

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Cuckoo SongCuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was rather impressed with how much I could feel and relate for our heroine, but then I wonder if this is more a feature of good YA or just a feature of excellent writing.

In the end, I am forced to admit that my peer-pressuring buddies who twisted mine arms to read another YA title outside of my so-called comfort zone were all very right in their decision to do so. I feel as if I learned something very important in this book, even if I didn't discover anything new about myself or through the messages within the text. I *did*, however, think this would be a great book to introduce to my daughter once she gets to a certain age. The dark fantasy should appeal to any kid of any age, and the serious under and over-tones of both emotions and the intensity of the choices being made should make for a great tale to reread many times over, as children are wont to do.

And for those fans of Neil Gaiman, for either The Graveyard Book or Coraline, I think this one is a bit more accessible and readable. Yeah, I'm saying that, even though I'm a huge fan. I actually got into all of the characters in a way that's fairly uncommon for me. I usually fall back on plot or ideas or themes to carry the crest of the novels I read, and think it's a real lark and a surprise when a character is able to get under my skin and tear my stuffing out. (Not that I would go this far for this book, but the characterization was way above average.)

If I were a new reader, questioning or still questioning my identity, I might think this novel might rank as one of my absolute favourites of all time.

But since I feel like I can identify fine with all the bits and scraps that make up this poor girl's troubles, and since I saw through them and guessed at the end solution, sans "time", and because it harkened to all the old myths, it came across as truly beautiful example of wonderful writing, reintroducing a sense of wonder and fae in our world, I was more than merely pleased by the technique. I truly enjoyed it.

Plus, it was a delightful setup to be placed in 1920's England. I felt like I was living in a Twilight Zone episode of Downton Abbey with the idea-fantastic grace of The Anubis Gates, and the creepy ambiance of all the classic Stephen King horror, keeping us in the horrible now as dolls chitter at us.

Beyond all that, and beyond seeing what the character needed to become, I was quite surprised with a number of the magical scenes, so don't start assuming you'll guess everything in this novel, you horror fans. I'll definitely be reading more of Frances Hardinge.

(On a side note, I was absolutely convinced that the author was obese. All that HEAVY insistence on being HUNGRY all the time made me think of either an eating disorder or Audrey Two. So of course I checked out the GR page, and no, she isn't. She looks positively skinny. I scratched my head and wondered at the power of human imagination. The author is either POWERFULLY empathetic, or I'm a complete moron. Have fun with that, peeps. :)

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Friday, October 9, 2015

Heroes Die (The Acts of Caine, #1)Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was recommended to me because of my devotion to The Fortunate Fall, and not without good reason. It's a fantastic tale that requires patience at the beginning, but with each domino piece it sets up, it delivers one of the most exacting and brilliant payoffs I've read in any SF or F work.

That's saying something.

The novel is long and the crappy cover is off-putting, but the length does the tale very excellent justice, so I recommend that ya'll just ignore the eyesore and pick up this classic. Because it is a classic. It shamelessly picks up the best features of both a great worldbuilding SF 1984 land and a rather awesomely detailed and rich fantasy world full of people I like.

What is it? Think quantum teleportation to an alternate world where magic works. Give that technology to a nearly omnipresent and restrictive government that's controlled by an all-powerful Hollywood that doesn't care what it does to this alternate reality as long as it gets ratings. Send actors over, or as they're called in the alternate world, "Aktirs", and we've got a political hotbed of revolution brewing on both sides of the veil. Our SF world is quite the hell, and the world of magic is pretty damn nice if it wasn't for all these Aktirs murdering and fomenting tons of conflict for, get this: "Their amusement." I think they're right to distrust and hate the aliens.

Of course, Hari, also known as Caine in his Aktir persona, is one of the most beloved top-performers, and oh so deadly. He also happens to be rather bright when he isn't falling into his well-cultivated bloodthirsty persona.

When he finally begins to take off the shackles of his mind, then that's the point where this novel seriously takes off and spins in my mind. Before that point it was pretty much a standard action fantasy with a pretty damn cool assassin with a pretty cool SF twist. Afterwards, well, I was flabbergasted to discover that he could think as well as he fought, and with his estranged wife, they caused so much damn havoc on both sides of the veil.

The best part of this novel was watching all the pieces line up and then watch them all fall.

It was glorious. Absolutely glorious.

The length shouldn't daunt anyone. It really lends itself to us getting to know everyone in depth. The characterization is fully of the show, don't tell, variety, with an absolutely wonderful grip on internal monologue. I really enjoyed exploring all the moral ambiguities in everyone, and I'm pretty damn certain I'm going to love re-reading this.

But first, I've got to find the time to read the 3 sequels, eh? :) It's going to be a very fine pleasure.



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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1)Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

OMG that was a rather difficult book to get into. I mean, most of the time I had keep re-shifting the gears in my head to see what might be valuable and good about this book, and for a great 200 pages I was wondering if I had stumbled into another Eddings slogfest full of completely predictable situations and heroes, with only the main character being a bit out of the ordinary.

And then I had to remind myself that this came out in 1977 and the cult fantasy favourite (as opposed to the mainstream fantasy favourite) was LOTR. We've been inundated with Lewis and Beagle and who knows what else in the fantasy field. The time was ripe for a change, and all the big fantasy fans have all declared this fantasy cycle as a major turning point with a textual breakaway into new territory that has stuck with us all the way to modern fantasy, (which I have to say, I now adore).

But did I really get into this book? Is it even possible? The answer is yes, with a pretty huge caveat.

It's pretty obvious that the entire book is an exploration of a quote by John Milton in Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

Putting that firmly in mind, now read our self-hating Thomas Covenant in his American home being treated as a Leper, because he is one, and see America as Mordor. He's in hell. And then he gets sent to heaven.

The magical land is just that. It's magical, people CAN live on beauty, alone, and there are honourable seafaring giants reminiscent of the Ents, horse riders with much more magic in the horses, just like Rohan, only more like Valdemar, and the Council, who are mages who have lost much lore over the centuries.

Covenant is skeptical of everything he sees, now, for although he used to be a best-selling author, he's now given up on all things imaginative in the wake of the hell of being diagnosed as a Leper and to learn he has no hope whatsoever. So when he is miraculously cured, and the wedding ring of his divorced wife has turned into the receptacle of the mystical Wild Magic that could either restore or destroy this wonderful fantasy world, he just Can Not Believe any of it. He's hallucinating. He's dreaming.

Too bad for him, it's all too real to his senses, and even his nerves have regenerated, which he knows is impossible. Oh Dear.

Honestly, the ideas come across as much more interesting than the execution. Like I said, it was a slogfest.

It's also too bad, because he's rather an asshole.

After reading so much modern fantasy, I ALMOST wish he'd done something other than rape the wide-eyed girl that was doing her damnedest to help him, like murder a cute puppy or an innocent child. Maybe he'd have had an easier time making me believe he really did regret the act later, or even right after the passion had been spent. Jesus. What a fucking prick.

Okay. Moving along. And that's another thing. It was just a very, very long travelogue. At least LOTR had it in service of excellent secondary or tertiary goals. The most we can say about Covenant is his gradual slide into belief and eventual realization that he's been a major asshole.

At least there was lots of dancing! And the initial metaphor and how it changed each time was not lost upon me. That was one of the nicer aspects of the novel, other than the realizations of Covenant, himself.

Okay, now here's my biggest nut and bolt complaint: Lord Foul is both a pretty damn interesting strategist and uber-powerful magical villain. I wish it hadn't taken so damn long for us as readers to GET THAT POINT. Practically anything else would have been a better introduction to Drool and Foul. They came across as an actual snivelling idiot and a minor house lord, and not the wielder of a staff fashioned by the Creator, himself, to right the corruption being spread throughout the fabric of reality, or the source of that corruption, itself: Lord Foul. It was all properly epic and I loved the ideas once I was finally INTRODUCED to them.

I saw the influence of Zelazny's Amber series right away, and I've always loved it when authors did that. You know. Uber Reality and the lesser realms, with Earth being one of many minor realms. It was a nice addition to the book.

And oddly enough, I got a lot more out of the novel's spoken-aloud tales, campfire style, than I did with the entire "let's go get that damn Staff" storyline.

It's not a bad novel. Don't get me wrong. I'm not jumping off the deep end and slamming this as I would with a modern fantasy that tried to pull this off. I'm trying to respect it as a product of it's time and place, and as such, I'd probably give it a 5 star rating, too, or perhaps a 4 because Zelazny's was better. Or at least I remember it more fondly, and since I haven't read the other Covenant novels, I really shouldn't judge just yet.

But the language in this novel wasn't up to Tolkien's high standards, and the worldbuilding didn't leave all that much impression on me, either. Maybe that's a personal failing, and the fact that I couldn't get into the groove and kept falling out of whatever groove I eventually got... well, it certainly didn't help.

I'll keep going, because once I invest in a thing, I like to maintain the investment, especially when others tell me it only gets a lot better, but as of right this moment, I'm a bit weary. Maybe a few novels before I sink into the next might be best.
*sigh*



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Monday, October 5, 2015

The Player of Games (Culture, #2)The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Starting my second read today, for a group read with a great group of people.... and I've finished my second read.

I'm much more impressed with the novel on the reread than I was the first time, so I've bumped my stars up from 4 to 5, and I don't think I'm being generous at all. It deserved it.

My main problem with either reading was that I just didn't quite care with the whole overt premise of a game player. I'm a game player, myself, but reading about games that are completely foreign and strange with rules only obliquely intersecting any that I've ever known strikes me as pointless and strange. It strikes as much interest in me as, say, reading a novel about Hockey or American Football. My boredom is so palpable that even my dog can smell it on me.

And then, there's the other side of this book, the one that reads like a jousting tournament, full of heavily laden knights with shifting alliances and champions for opposing kingdoms. That part is quite exciting. It only gets better because it's set in the Culture, the ultimate let's-all-get-along mega-spanning galactic anti-empire filled with all types of aliens and machine minds living with (pretty much) no coercion, unless, of course, a bit of finesse is "Really" required.

And that's where we come into the story, and we get to play and be a piece on the board at the same time, feeling all the ups and downs, the close-calls, the frustration, the elation and the triumph. Often all in a single night, oft repeated, but never dull, and this is true for me even though, as I said, the idea revolves around a freaking game with which I have no real stake.

Well, that's true, I guess, until later, but by then the stakes take on a completely different flavor, and the fall of galactic civilizations are at stake. (Well, one is at stake, anyway. If you're reading this for the first time, I'll let you discover which one I'm talking about.)

I paid closer attention to the descriptions of settings and people, this time, and was pleasantly surprised to see how they matched pace with the games this time, especially the one with the Big Guy on the Flaming Planet. And of course, no author can beat the wonderful names of the Culture Ships.

I am glad I read this a second time. I actually forced myself to really try and imagine the game, or at least make up some heavy approximation of it, and in the end it became just another worldbuilding exercise. A lot of us readers like to fill in the blanks and use our imaginations to build a living and breathing world out of the hints and implications of authors, and I think I failed to do that last time. I focused on the world and enjoyed that plenty, but then I forgot to focus on the game. If you don't read this novel with the explicit intent to get into the game, itself, rather than just the interesting characters, then you're missing out on more than half the novel.

That might turn some people off, just as it threatened to turn me off, but I feel better for sticking with it. The novel became really quite awesome by the end, and not just a clever plot.



If you're really interested in what I wrote a few years ago about the novel then, here's what I threw together:

"The novel is surprisingly deep for a character to start out so shallow. A very different novel from the first Culture novel and a much more direct plot-line with just as much of a great touch when it comes to the ebb and flow of the story. Very amusing satire that is only given a light touch, thank goodness, and used primarily to raise the tension. All in all, great writing, even if I won't put the novel among my top 100, but definitely a good read."

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Fated (Alex Verus, #1)Fated by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I was just falling off the wagon and wetting my whistle with a bit of Urban Fantasy that was recommended to me recently, and I can honestly say that I got really drunk. (Not alcohol, alas, but on magic.)

I'd just been sifting through all the wonders of the Spacing Guild from Dune and the minor predictive powers of the Jedi recently, so imagine my surprise when I get to read about a Dresden-ish mage in London who can augur himself through all the twisty paths of time to answer important questions like, "Who's going to be killing me in the next fifteen seconds, and how can I get out of this damn mess?", or "This is a pretty nasty puzzle placed before me. If I can walk all the paths and figure out how to solve it without becoming a crispy critter, then go, me!"

I admit I laughed loud when Mr. Jacka gave an explicit literary nod to a certain mage in Chicago. It warmed my cockles. And it also set the tone for the mind-candy treat that I was about to gobble up.

The trick with these kinds of books is how to balance powerful magic against natural limitations and/or outside mitigations while keeping in the reader enthralled with a good tale, and he did it. The plot put this poor neutral mage into the leading roll of a ping-pong ball between the white mages and the black mages of London, all of whom want him because of his powers of Divination and the fact that he was the only Diviner stupid enough to have not headed for the hills when the storm began to rise.

Fun! Exciting! We've even got a bit of a love interest beginning to brew, and I think I like her problems a lot more than Alex's! Oh wait... this isn't her tale. But I'm guessing she's going to get a lot more screen time with a second book named Cursed. Goodie!

I have no complaints about this novel. It's light and fun and there's lots of action and even a bit of snark. Sound like UF? Wait! It's Good Urban Fantasy! I've only read one book so far, but it's shaping up to be as good as the best stuff of that little mage in Chicago. We'll see! I've got high hopes.




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Friday, October 2, 2015

Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a phenomenal classic of literature.

It's not just science fiction. It transcends science fiction, as a fascinating discussion of free-will versus inevitability. Can the Jihad be denied? Can Paul ever really avoid his own death, despite seeing every time-line play out with him as the butt of every cosmic joke? Can even cruelty or mercy even remain comprehensible after such knowledge?

Yes, I think this work outdoes Nietzsche. It certainly does a great job of making us care about the question.

Is this all? Is this just a work that pays great justice to philosophy of action and inaction?

Or is the novel merely a clever play at turning the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle into the physical embodiment of a man? It is that, of course. The Kwisatz Haderach can be many places at once, and he can be both alive and dead at the same time just like that certain cat.

Is the novel a coming of age tale, first set as a mirror against his father Leto, only then to mirror the whole universe that had just turned against him? Yes, of course. He was, after all, both the product of all his upbringing and his genes, embodying the question of nature versus nurture. He was taught within many schools of martial arts and assassins, as well as training the mind in both the schools of the Mentats with their pure logic and that of the mystics, the Bene Gesserit, that allows complete control over the body down to the cellular level. And if this training wasn't enough, he was deeply schooled in politics, leadership, and the meaning of loyalty. The boy was raised right. Of course, that is nothing without ninety generations of genetic bloodline tampering from the Bene Gesserit, right? To become the fulcrum between cellular memory, tapping the minds and lives of all your genetic ancestors as well as tapping the ability to fold time and space, to become the eye of a storm of time.

What a damn brilliant setup for one tiny character, no? His training links to the unlocking of his genes and to the life-extending and enveloping spice, Melange, to make him not merely aware of time in a theoretical sense, but eventually to be unable to discern what was in the past, the present, or the future. Here's a true Super-Man, well beyond Nietzsche.

And don't believe for one second that this serious discussion about what would make a superior man makes for dull reading. No. We've got PLOT that's probably some of the most exciting and visceral in all of literature, driving us right into the web of intrigue, vengeance, treachery, and galactic politics.

To quote the text, we've got "Plans within Plans," and it hardly stops there. We know the House Atreides is falling into a trap laid by the Emperor and House Harkonnen, and yet free-will and pride prevents any chance to avoid it. The setup is brilliant and extremely political, giving us character sketches of some of the most brilliant and memorable characters of all time.

Duke Leto, the Red Duke, the most honorable and beloved leader.
Duncan Idaho, the emotional and intuitive hero.
Gurney Halleck, archetypal loyalist and troubadour.
Lady Jessica, the woman who ought to have had all honor in life, but was unjustly reviled and set aside for political necessity. (Chani being both her mirror and her eventual glory.)

And of course, my favorite character of all time, Paul Muad'dib Atreides, the one that would prevent the greater evils he foresaw, and went to enormous lengths and sacrifice to achieve, but who eventually failed in his task because even a god cannot overcome destiny. (Or the will of so many minds set as one.)

So damn brilliant.

Frank Herbert spent five years writing this treasure, working and reworking it until he published it at age 25. None of his other works come close to this masterpiece, and there's little wonder. It was birthed, fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus's head, with enormous forethought and care.

The worldbuilding was just as carefully formed, from the ecology of Arrakis and the life-cycles of the sandworms, to the history and the creation of the Fremen from their mild beginnings as Zensunni Wanderers, adherents to the Orange Catholic Bible, to their history of oppression so like those of those who are Jewish, to their settling and hardening of their bodies and souls in the wastes of Arrakis, also just like the Jewish who carved out a place for themselves in Israel. (Current politics aside, this was a very potent idea before 1965 when Herbert wrote this, and indeed, the core is still just as powerful when you turn it back to Muslims.)

The Galactic culture is rich and detailed. The CHOAM economic consortium, with their monopoly on space travel and their need for the Spice to allow them to see a short period into the future to plot a safe course before folding space. The Empire is caught on a knife's edge between a single power and every other House who sit in the possibility of putting aside all their squabbles for the sole purpose of checking the Emperor, if they so desired. (And Duke Atreides was such a possible popular leader among all the Great Houses, which was the primary reason the Emperor wanted him dead.)

And of course, we have our Villains.

The Baron Harkonnen has always been a crowd pleaser. Brilliant in his own right, devious and able to corrupt anyone with just the right sorts of pressure, including a certain absolutely trustworthy doctor we might mention.

"The Tooth! The Tooth!" -- You can't handle the Tooth!

Feyd Rautha Harkonnen is especially interesting for the question of nature versus nurture.

The Bene Gesserit had intended him to mate with Paul, who should have been Leto and Jessica's daughter, and that offspring should have been the cumulation of ninety years of a breeding experiment to recreate the Kwisatz Haderach which had come about almost by accident during the Butlerian Jihad in the deep past, to overthrow the AI overlords.

He was practically Paul's genetic twin, or at least, his potential to be the "One who can be many places at once" was on par with Paul. But instead of fulfilling the kind of destiny that we get with Paul, we see him grow up under the auspices of his Uncle the Baron, becoming as cruel and devious as he was deadly. He was the argument of nurture in the conversation, of course, and having so very little of it eventually cost him his life.

I often wonder about the directions that Dune could have taken, all those little paths in time and circumstance that could have been. What if Feyd had been brought to Arrakis earlier and overwhelmed with Spice the way that Paul had? Sure, he wouldn't have been able to convert the unconscious changes into conscious manipulation, but he might have had enough glimpses of the future, the way that the Fremen did, to have given him the edge he would have needed to kill Paul.

And then there's a relatively minor character, Hasimir Fenring, the Emperor's personal assassin, who was nearly the Kwisatz Haderach, himself. Unable to breed true, he was still potent enough to be completely hidden to Paul's time-sight in the same way that Paul was hidden from the Spacing Guild's weaker time-sight. His training as a skilled killer was also superior to Paul. He was, by all the hints and tricks in the tale, Paul's perfect downfall. It always gives me shivers to think about, and it was only in a single instant of both recognition and pity from Paul that stayed Fenring from killing our hero. It was just a moment of whim.

The setup was gorgeous. Paul's pity, had it been missing at his moment of greatest triumph over the Emperor, would have meant Paul's assured death. I still wonder, to this day, what stayed Frank Herbert's hand from killing his most wonderful darling. We knew the pressure of religion and politics was going to have its way upon all the oppressed peoples of Dune. The return of a monstrous religious Jihad was going to happen one way or another, sweeping across the galaxy and toppling the Empire, regardless of Paul's frantic plans and desires. Paul's own death would only mean a higher level of fanaticism, and Frank Herbert's warning against unreasoning devotion would have been made even clearer with Paul's death.

Perhaps it was pity that stayed his hand. Who are we to say who lives and who dies?

If you really think this review is overlong, then I apologize, but please understand that I could absolutely go on and on much longer than this. It is a symptom of my devotion to this most brilliant of all tales.

And yes, it still holds up very, very well after twelve reads. I am quite shocked and amazed.




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