Posts Tagged ‘3.5 stars’

Book review: Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Before Dark Intelligence, I had read precisely one story by Neal Asher: It was called “Shell Game” and was also set in Asher’s “Polity” universe—and I read it 6 years ago and remember nothing about it save that I enjoyed it. Over the years I’ve seen the announcement of numerous new Polity books, but never got around to picking one up, so when the publisher offered a copy of DA for review I jumped at the chance to finally dig deeper into the universe.

Dark Intelligence more or less follows two characters as they chase after a rogue artificial intelligence “black AI” named Penny Royal. First we meet former soldier Thorvald Spear—whose terrific name might be the best thing in the book (not even kidding)—as he awakens 100 years after his death, a feat made possible using recovered memory implants placed into cloned bodies. Spear returns dead-set on revenge against Penny Royal, whom he blames for the death of his squadmates back during the Prador Wars. But is Penny Royal truly to blame? And are Spear’s memories even trustworthy? Spear’s sections of the book are written in an engaging first-person, often jumping to flashbacks of his memories to give his background, and overall his POV does a good job of getting the reader up to speed with the Polity universe. So it’s a surprise when, a few chapters in, we cut from Spear’s first-person narrative to a more traditional third-person one. Because this isn’t just Thorvald Spear’s story.

Enter Isobel Santomi, who turns out to be the second protagonist of the novel. She’s a crime lord who once struck a deal with Penny Royal, the result of which made her a powerful figure in the underworld. But Penny Royal’s gifts always come with a price, and Isobel finds herself slowly transforming into a “hooder”, some kind of bizarre, carnivorous wormlike monster. Like Spear, she too desires vengeance on the black AI.

Much of the story consists of Spear and Santomi bouncing around chasing Penny Royal from world to world. Thorvald and Isobel cross paths early on, and then Penny Royal hijacks Isobel’s ship, with Spear just missing the black AI at each stop. (I’ll confess I got a little lost at this point, trying to keep track of who was where as they all bounced around.) Eventually, all the threads converge at the planet Masada for a big finale where everything gets wrapped up nicely.

First, the good stuff: This a really cool universe. Thorvald Spear is a great name, as well as a joy to follow around. Penny Royal is a terrifying baddie. Isobel’s transformation is well-done body horror of the most disturbing degree. And it’s nice to see all the plot threads get tied up by book’s end.

On the other hand, the promotional material that came with my book billed it as “an ideal entry point for new readers” into the Polity universe (which was fairly influential in my decision to accept a review copy.) But a lot of the stuff at the end of the book seemed to hinge on characters and events from earlier books—with one prominent creature having already had an entire novel dedicated to it—and if I wasn’t entirely lost, I feel like I missed out on a lot of the impact the end of book could have had. And speaking of the end: Story-wise, everything came to a nice tidy conclusion, and yet this is just the first book of what I assume is a trilogy. Having said that, though everything was resolved, very little was actually explained, which is where I’m figuring (hoping) Book Two comes in.

Make no mistake, though, Dark Intelligence is a good read: fun characters and great action, all set in a fascinating and highly-imaginative (and slightly horrifying) universe. I definitely need to read some more Polity stories, but I’m thinking I’ll want to pick up some of the older books first. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Dead Boys by Gabriel Squailia

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Dead Boys is a book I would have never picked up on my own. I’d never heard of it, nor its author, and a quick glance tells me it probably isn’t my sort of thing. But out of the blue one day I got an email from the publisher, saying there were review copies available, so I figured I’d go ahead and take a chance. By the next day, I had it loaded up on my Kindle and dove in.

I initially figured it was a book about zombies. I haven’t really consumed a lot of zombie media, so I don’t really know if I truly dislike it, but at the same time I have absolutely no desire to really try out the genre. But this book isn’t actually about the undead. It’s about the dead dead.

Dead Boys is a very surreal look at the afterlife, where the dead wash up on the shores of the River Lethe having lost the memories of their prior experiences in the living world. The zombie parallels begin and end with the dead’s physical forms: their bodies are in a constant state of decomposition, senses are dulled, and movement is slow and time-consuming. But the dead are always conscious, aware—essentially immortal in their new mode of existence. Squailia put in a lot of effort constructing the ground rules for the post-death life, and then spends the bulk of the book pushing that groundwork out to its logical conclusions.

Our main protagonist is Jacob Campbell, ten years a corpse, who’s on a quest to return to the living world. In death, Jacob is a well-regarded “preservationist”. In Dead City, the sight of bone is abhorrent, and as the dead’s physical forms are constantly decaying, Jacob and other specialists like him perform the services of keeping a body lifelike: filling deflated body cavities, replacing worn away flesh and skin with wood and leather, and similar cosmetic modifications. Jacob quickly picks up a handful of fellow travelers (the titular “Dead Boys”) and the quest begins in earnest: they must find the Living Man, rumored to have gained entrance to the Land of the Dead without having died himself, and who (Jacob hopes) holds the key to returning to the Land of the Living. That is, of course, just the beginning of their travels. Revelations await, and before anyone can regain the life they once lost, they must first come to fully embrace their new state of existence.

I definitely enjoyed Dead Boys. It’s not a particularly long book, and I read it in about a week. Jacob is an enjoyable protagonist, but is upstaged by almost all of the secondary characters, which is fine. It adheres very closely to the classic quest formula (travel to Place A, meet character B, travel to place C, meet D, etc…) of which I’m not a huge fan, and the plot stalls out for a bit in the second section, but overall it moves along at a nice clip. Some of the more surreal elements (of which there are a number) felt a little goofy to me, but there was a lot of neat stuff mixed in as well.

In the end, I think my expectations were a little off; I would have preferred a slightly deeper, more thoughtful or insightful novel. This book does have some good emotional beats, and obvious care was put into the characters and worldbuilding, but in the end it’s a fantasy quest story with a unique and interesting setting. Certainly there are a lot of readers out there who’ll fall in love with it. It’s by no means brilliant, but I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I took a chance on it. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

I’ve picked up a number of books through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program over the years. Some have been phenomenal, and some have been pretty good, but a lot of them have been pretty mediocre, if not downright bad. So when I signed up for a chance to win a copy of Gail Z. Martin’s upcoming novel, I had my fingers crossed: all I really wanted was an enjoyable, competently-written fantasy from an established author at a well-known publisher.

Ice Forged delivered exactly that.

The basic premise was an intriguing one: an arctic penal colony gets cut off from the rest of the world after the magical version of nuclear Armageddon. Has the post-apocalyptic scenario been done before in a fantasy world? If so, I haven’t read it yet, which isn’t saying a lot, other than that the idea here was new enough to me to be exciting. Anyway, the main character, a nobleman’s son by the name of Blaine McFadden, gets sentenced to Velant, the aforementioned penal colony at the top of the world. There’s some quick jumps in time as we see Blaine adjusting to his new life, while back on the mainland we’re introduced to a secondary protagonist, a functionary of the royal court named Bevin Connor. It’s through his eyes that we witness the magical strike which lays waste to the country of Donderath, while Connor himself escapes aboard a vessel headed for…Velant.

Martin’s an established author with a couple of published trilogies to her name, and it shows here. There’s nothing flashy, her prose isn’t noteworthy in the slightest, the characters aren’t particularly deep, and the book doesn’t make you think. But it is eminently readable; the pages and the minutes fly by in a blur. If nothing else, Martin shows herself to be a polished and professional storyteller.

Having said that, I can’t help but lament what Ice Forged could have been. Granted, this is just the first book in a series, so Martin’s laying the groundwork for future volumes, here, but. As much as I enjoyed Bevin Connor’s storyline, imagine if events on Donderath went unexplained and unwitnessed by the reader. Suddenly, the supply ships stop showing up in Velant, and Blaine McFadden’s got a mystery on his hands, and the reader is just as bewildered as he is. Suddenly, the mystery of the book becomes “What happened to Donderath?” instead of—well, that would be telling. But I think it could have been pretty amazing.

And while we’re on the subject of Blaine McFadden, one thing with him that bugged me: during his years in Velant, he adopts the nickname “Mick” to hide his true identity. Later on, his true heritage comes back to haunt him, and he’s forced to decide: is he truly “Mick” or is he “Blaine”? But it’s really a false choice, because the narrative has referred to him as “Blaine” for the entirety of the novel, and the only time the reader is reminded of the “Mick” persona is when a character (very rarely) calls him such. Instead, imagine a book that begins with the exile of Blaine McFadden, before switching to The Arctic Adventures Of Mick And Friends, and only after a large portion of the book is it revealed that Mick and Blaine are in fact the same character. Perhaps this is just a side effect of having read too much* of Gene Wolfe and Steven Erikson, two authors who thrive on strategically withholding information from the reader. But sometimes it’s worthwhile not to let the reader in on everything. (*I’m kidding, there’s no such thing!)

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but one of the other conceits of Ice Forged that was new to me in the genre was its use vampires. To the best of my knowledge, vampires have traditionally been used as a fantastical element in otherwise-contemporary settings. Here, Martin deploys more-or-less traditional vampires in a fantasy setting. Apparently, this is also true of her other series(es). I found out about this beforehand via the Author Q&A in the back of the book, and went in expecting to hate them. To the contrary, the vampire characters made for one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. Although I should say, Martin may have taken too much of her readers’ knowledge of vampires for granted, and not have explained them as thoroughly as she could or should have: I remember being jarred out of the story at one point when one of them was implied to be flying, and I couldn’t figure how that was possible, and certainly couldn’t remember it having been mentioned before.

But those are minor nitpicks. When you get right down to it, the end result is that Ice Forged is a well-written, enjoyable fantasy. Sometimes, that’s all you want. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

I’ve received, read, and reviewed review copies of books before, either won via random internet giveaways, or through dedicated early reviewer programs. But Scourge of the Betrayer marks the first time an author has personally reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you like a copy of my new book to review?” Normally, I’d be flattered, but also a little wary, having been burned more than a couple of times doing advance reviews of fantasy debuts. In this case, however, by the time Jeff Salyards had emailed me, I had already seen a handful of glowing reviews for the first book in the Bloodsounder’s Arc series, and so in this instance I was flattered and immediately said, “Yes, please!”

And I’m glad I did.

The first thing that jumped out at me when I removed the dust jacket (as I do before reading) was that Night Shade Books went all-out in making this a gorgeous-looking book. The silver inlay on the blue hardcover looks fantastic, and in addition to printing the author name and title on the spine, as per usual, they’re also printed on the front cover, along with the swipe from the dust jacket and a splatter of silver blood in the corner; a second splatter adorns the back cover. It just looks fantastic and immediately makes you think you’re holding something special in your hands.

The story inside is related in the first-person by Arkamondos (“Arki”), an archivist who’s been hired by the Syldoon captain Braylar Killcoin to chronicle the exploits of his mercenary company. The novel starts off with the bookish Arki first meeting Braylar and his crew, and assumes a leisurely pace as the gang gears up for their mission while Arki gets a handle on the company and his place in it. Some might say “slow” instead of “leisurely”—very little happens for the first half or so of the book; it’s mostly downtime at inns or travel across a wide sea of grasslands—but it’s never sluggish; Salyards spends this time developing his handful of characters and the world they inhabit, most of which is just as foreign to Arki as it is to the reader. There are some moments of action, certainly, but the far more numerous and quieter moments are just as compelling. It’s a wise choice by Salyards, I think: by the time the real plot kicks in with all the action and excitement you could hope for, you’ve become invested in these characters and the mysteries of their world. And when death comes—and this being the type of book that it is, death will come—I was surprised by just how hard it hits. That kind of emotional connection in a book that runs a scant 250 pages is a rare thing; kudos to Salyards for making each of those pages count.

I’ve seen a number of comparisons to Glen Cook’s Black Company books, and…I dunno, getting compared to Cook is kind of the default thing when you’re talking about first-person military fantasy. Salyards’ book is gritty and bloody and grunt-level and narrated by an archivist, yes, but it has a very different feel for a few reasons. First is Arki’s perspective as an outsider to the Syldoon group: he’s out of his depth in this new world of soldiery and intrigue right alongside the reader. Secondly, although this is very much a fantasy novel, the fantastical elements play little to no role in this book (though presumably they’ll be far more important later in the series.) There are no mages wielding powerful magic in battle here—it’s just swords and crossbows and shields, prowess and guts and determination, and luck. The action is decidedly mundane, and feels that much more visceral and real for it. Finally, though the Black Company is ground-level in scope, there’s still an epic war going on in the background; Scourge of the Betrayer is much more intimate, and though there are, in fact, long-range machinations going on behind the scenes, they feel far more subtle and less immediate.

As mentioned, this is a pretty short book. A lot happens, but not a whole lot happens, if you get my meaning. This is very much just the first act in what should end up at least a trilogy. The book itself doesn’t come to much of a resolution, and the ending is less a cliffhanger than it is “To be continued…” Had this been a 600-page doorstopper, I’d take issue with that; but you know what? I’m perfectly willing to accept it from a tautly-written, shorter book. Two or three more volumes like Scourge should make for a highly-satisyfing series, and should have people saying Salyards’ name like they do Abercrombie’s now. Sign me on for Book Two, because I can’t wait to see where he takes this story. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

featured on

Scourge of the Betrayer

Book review: Test of Metal by Matthew Stover

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

I’m not overly familiar with Magic: The Gathering. I know that it’s a fantasy card game in which players battle each other using custom-constructed decks. And it was a big deal back in high school. It originated the term to “tap”, or rotate, a card in play. And it was a huge influence on one of my favorite card games. That’s the extent of my knowledge.

I am, however, very much familiar with Matthew Stover. He happens to be one of my all-time favorite authors, and is the sole reason I picked up Test of Metal.

Now, tie-in fiction is a tricky animal: most of it just isn’t that good. I read a lot of Star Wars novels, but I enjoy them because they’re Star Wars, not because they’re necessarily well-written—and if I’m being honest, most of them really aren’t. So I read tie-in fiction primarily because I’m a fan of the larger shared universe it’s set in. But what about when I’m not? Can a favorite author make me care about a franchise I know nothing about?

Well, yes. And no.

From the (minimal) research I did after reading this book, I know that Test of Metal follows up directly on events in Agents of Artifice by Ari Marmell, another book in the Planeswalkers subseries. At the end of that book, the planeswalker (basically a type of wizard who can hop between different dimensions) Jace Beleren killed fellow planeswalker Tezzeret, ostensibly the “bad guy” of that novel. In Test of Metal, Tezzeret is not only resurrected, but is made the main viewpoint character. This is his story.

We start in media res with Tezzeret on an island made entirely of the magical metal, etherium. He is soon confronted by the powerful dragon Nicol Bolas, who, as it turns out, was responsible for recreating Tezzeret and sending him on a quest, of which this metal island is the end. Bolas then proceeds to trawl Tezzeret’s memories; subsequent chapters are the result of this mind-link, where the bulk of the novel’s story plays out in flashback, with Tezzeret as narrator.

Stover has loved playing with viewpoint and linearity in his Acts of Caine novels, and Test of Metal is no different. In addition to most of the chapters being flashbacks and narrated in the first-person by Tezzeret, we get additional first-person perspectives (one chapter each) from the other featured planeswalkers, Jace Beleren and Baltrice. And interspersed between those are the “present” goings-on at the metal island, related in standard third-person, from the POVs of both Tezzeret and Bolas. Alternating between the third- and first-persons is something Stover does extremely well, and its use suits the story perfectly. What I enjoyed perhaps the most, though, was how the book effectively begins at the end of the story. In fact, before I read the final chapter, I flipped back and reread the first chapter and had a couple of those great “Aha!” moments where the puzzle pieces start fitting together. But beyond just the structure of the novel, the story itself makes use of a limited amount of time travel in the form of a type of magic called “clockworking”; there’s a very nonlinear feel to entire book that’s simultaneously refreshing and bewildering, but Stover’s successful in keeping it all tightly under control.

If I had a main complaint, it would be that the story mostly boils down to a fairly-straightforward MacGuffin quest with powerful wizards throwing a bunch of magic at each other. And some of the dialogue is laughably juvenile—though as it more often that not also made me laugh in the good sense, I can overlook any quibbles there. In the end, it’s Stover’s handling of Tezzeret’s character and the internal journey he undertakes that elevate the book above the level of “mere” tie-in fiction. We get a bit of Tezzeret’s backstory, we come to understand his motivations, and watch as he undergoes both physical and internal transformations. He’s a fascinating character: highly intelligent, but not physically or magically overpowering, so he has to rely on his wits to get by. Plus, he’s also a bit of a smartass. Very much in Stover’s wheelhouse.

In fact, I enjoyed reading about Tezzeret so much that I really want to pick up Agents of Artifice just to get the first half (as it were) of the story. But I don’t think I really care enough about the Magic universe to bother doing so. Rather, I think I’ll just savor Stover’s contribution to it.

It’s not great literature, but it’s still better than most tie-in genre fiction deserves to be. It makes you use your brain. And it’s got all the classic Stover touches (warning: violence and strong language), plus plenty of twists and turns and double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses. It’s great fun, and I’d recommend it to any fan of fantasy. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

Book review: The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Brent Weeks is one of those authors I’d been hearing about for a while. I’m sure everyone’s got a similar list of writers they plan on eventually checking out when they get around to it. I’d heard about his Night Angel trilogy, three fantasy doorstoppers published back-to-back-to-back: some people loved it, some hated it, but the overall consensus was that, hey, it’s not great literature, but it’s an enjoyable story, and besides which it’s a completed series that you don’t have to wait for the next book to be published. Well, it happens that one day I had a coupon at the Science Fiction Book Club, so I went ahead and picked up the entire trilogy in one massive 1,400-page omnibus edition for under $8. It made its way onto my 2011 SF Reading Challenge list, and whaddaya know, it was one of the few challenge books that I actually got around to reading.

The Way of Shadows is the first book of the trilogy, and it’s a bit of an odd duck in that, on the one hand, it’s fairly standard Cliché Fantasy 101 fare. Written in a rather straightforward and plain style, it takes place in a quasi-medieval land divided into numerous countries ruled by various lords and kings. There’s prophecy, lost magical relics, and invaders from the north. The protagonist is a young boy without any magical talent who grows up to become someone extraordinary. It’s the kind of story David Eddings would write, the stuff you’d enjoy the crap out of as a young fantasy fan.

On the other hand, it’s more or less rated “R” for violence, language, and sex.

And on the whole, it ain’t half bad.

So the story starts out following Azoth, a child in the slums of Cenaria City whose dream is to gain the attention of, and become apprentice to, the legendary “wetboy” assassin Durzo Blint. (For those who’ve read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow, this section of the book totally reminded me of Bean growing up on the streets of Rotterdam; not a big surprise, then, that Weeks specifically mentions Card as an influence in the author interview at the back of the book.) Eventually, of course, Azoth does indeed become Durzo’s apprentice, adopting the new persona of “Kylar Stern” and developing into an efficient assassin. But the difference between an assassin and a wetboy is that a wetboy employs the use of magic to do his job, and as I alluded to earlier, Azoth-now-Kylar has no magical Talent. In Fantasy Cliché land, this merely means that Kylar is a supertalented mage whose abilities don’t readily manifest themselves…and of course that’s what happens here as well.

What keeps the story from bogging down in predictability is, well, it’s unpredictability.

Much of that comes from the way Weeks treats his characters. You’ve heard the expression “No one is safe” with regards to certain fantasy authors or series? Well, Brent Weeks invented that saying. (And before you ask, George R. R. Martin is another of those authors I haven’t gotten around to reading yet.) Weeks does a good job staying true to his quasi-medieval world, because people die. If some rival lord decides to wipe out your family, he wipes out your family. If the monarchy gets overthrown in a bloody coup and character X (who you thought was a pretty important character up to this point) is right there when it happens, guess what, expecting him to miraculously live through it isn’t terribly realistic. Which is not to say that Weeks indiscriminately kills anybody and everybody off, but shoot, if he thought that was what the story demanded, I totally believe he’d do it.

The book does have other issues. Prominent among them is Weeks’ tendency to have side-plots that only crop up once every hundred pages or so; there are a couple of characters who only show up in the story this way, and every time they do I have to rack my brain for who they are and what they’re doing. But for every element that lessens my enjoyment of the book, there’s something that makes up for it: the Vir of the Vürdmeisters is visually very cool. Weeks’ names can be pretty groan-worthy; Durzo Blint is one of the worst offenders here, but he develops into a fantastic character.

What it boils down to is that, despite the warts, Weeks writes a story that is compellingly readable. The chapters are short, and you always want to know what happens next. And often you’ll be surprised. I was surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. A solid [3.5 out of 5 stars].

featured on

The Way of Shadows

Book review: Jericho Moon by Matthew Stover

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Jericho Moon is the second of Matthew Stover’s books featuring the Pictish mercenary, Barra Coll Eigg Rhum, and makes up the second half of the Heart of Bronze omnibus.

Unlike the previous book, the plot here is rather—or maybe (since this is Stover) I should say, incredibly—straightforward: Barra and her compatriots—Leucas, the Greek warrior, and Kheperu, the Egyptian alchemist—take a job to rescue Agaz, Prince of Jebusi, from the clutches of the Israelites. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that they succeed (though it’s not such a simple task) in getting Agaz home. The thing is, once they do, they discover that the nation of Israel now plans to conquer Jebusi, which they call “Jerusalem”. So Barra has to decide whether to take her money and run, or to stand and fight against the Israelites and their god, Yahweh. (Guess which option she chooses.)

At times, this was an…uncomfortable book to read, on account of my own Christianity. I’ve read about fictionalized versions of “God” before, and generally taken little issue with any of it. (In particular, Piers Anthony’s Incarnations series comes to mind: his take on God could be seen as blasphemous to some, while I found myself amused more than anything.) But Stover is going for historical versimillitude in these books; it’s not necessarily historically accurate, but he intends it to feel that way, and indeed, it generally does. So it’s frankly disconcerting to see Yahweh portrayed as a bloodthirsty god that thrives on death and destruction. I was nervous going into the book because I knew (to some small extent) the direction that the story would take; yet I read on anyway, because Stover likes to make you think, and I didn’t want to shy away from that. And indeed, his depiction comes almost straight out of the Old Testament: we (and Barra) see firsthand the devastation that was once the city of Jericho, where at God’s command the Israelites slaughtered every living creature there. It’s not pretty, and I know many Christians who have difficulty reconciling the God of the Old Testament with that of the New Testament.

We get the Israelites’ perspective on this, too, as much of the book is told from the viewpoint of Joshua, the leader of Israel. Via his inner monologue, we find that he sees his job as being that of protecting his people from the wrath of Yahweh. I don’t necessarily agree with the thought, but it is an interesting one. As is the question that comes up: what if the Israelites didn’t want to be God’s Chosen People? If Stover’s portrayal of the relationship between Israel and their God didn’t quite agree with me, his depiction of the Israelites in general was well done. Joshua in particular is an extremely well-written character, and many of the “background” Israelites are seen to be men of strong faith and decency. There’s a somewhat slimy priest, Eleazar, but even he’s given moments of empathy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “fantastification” of all of this otherwise-Biblical subject matter is Stover’s handling of angels. They are, in fact, demons, which threw me for a second until I remembered that “angel” simply means “messenger”, and in most fantasy (as here) a “demon” is merely a powerful creature summoned from some outer realm. As such, Stover’s angels are rendered akin to Lovecraftian monsters, and the first glimpse we get of one is perhaps the most vivid and awe-inspiring depicition of an angel in fiction that I’ve ever read.

Of course, this book is about Barra and company, right? Well, okay, but there’s not too much to say about that. Of course she stays to fight for Jebusi. There are some political machinations going on there, and one of the local gods wants to adopt Barra as her champion. Barra fights. Leucas fights. Kheperu does his thing. These three characters are great; it feels like they’ve developed a deeper bond as a result of the previous book, and their interactions are always fun to read. Unfortunately though, they spend much of the book’s latter portions separated. Prince Agaz is also a great character and gets some good moments, but really, the book is about Joshua and the Israelites as much as anything. Beyond that, it’s just a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure, but all of the historical details certainly raise it up a notch. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

featured on

Jericho Moon

Book review: Iron Dawn by Matthew Stover

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

I became a pretty much diehard Matthew Stover fan when, based on the strength of his amazing Star Wars tie-in novel, Traitor, I decided to give his original fiction a try. The result was falling in love with his Acts of Caine series. I also snapped up and read the rest of his SW work (if you read only one SW book in your life, make sure it’s Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith.) And for a few years now, I’ve had a SFBC omnibus edition titled Heart of Bronze that contains the first two books Stover got published: Iron Dawn (1997) and Jericho Moon (1998).

I’m sure everyone has one of those books that you always intend to read, but every time you’re about to get to it, you find yourself drawn to something else. This was that book for me. I dunno why; I’ve loved everything else he’s written. So this past December, when I decided to join in on the Speculative Fiction Challenge 2011, I decided that I would finally read this as part of the challenge.

Iron Dawn is the first book, and introduces the three main protagonists: Barra, a red-headed Pictish princess-turned-mercenary; Leucas, a huge Athenian boxer, and veteran of the Siege of Troy; and Kheperu, a cunning Egyptian alchemist/sorceror. When Iron Dawn kicks off, the three have only recently banded together as a small mercenary company, and are still getting to know each other, and the interactions between the three are great fun to read.

The setting (as one might deduce from Leucas’ description) is the Late Bronze Age, with the Trojan War only 10 years or so in the past, and the destruction of Jericho at the hands of the Israelites about twice that old. And most of the action is confined to the city of Tyre. It sounds like historical fiction, though it’s definitely fantasy; Stover fills Tyre with numerous different peoples and languages and political powers, but there’s also magic and gods and demons and all of those great fantasy staples.

The story is relatively-straightforward sword-and-sorcery stuff; Barra and her companions are looking for mercenary work, but they (naturally) get in over their heads, and wind up having to take down a despotic prince with plans to enslave all of Tyre. Those familiar with Stover’s Caine books will know what to expect here, including strong characters, great action, and a plot with some twists and turns in it, as well as lots of profanity and graphic violence. It’s obviously an earlier work, though, and reading it, it’s hard not to think, “I can tell this is the guy who’ll go on to write Heroes Die.”

I had some problems with the pacing; especially in the first half or so, where it felt like every chapter consisted of Barra and company heading out into town to investigate, then reconvening back at their lodgings. It was hard to get a grasp on what the overall plot was, and I have to admit I had to force myself to pick the book back up more than one night. But once the plot finally kicked in, once the big threat finally began to emerge, it was much easier going. Stover knows how to write action, after all, and I especially liked how his heroes are not immune to miscalculation, nor to being surprised or overpowered. Barra alone with her axe, versus half a dozen professional mercenaries? In a typical fantasy story, of course Barra would whup ’em all, but Stover’s fights are always more realistic, as are the results.

The other issue I had (and which probably affected my perception of the pacing) was Stover’s tendency to overuse the flashback device. For example, one chapter would end with the heroes fleeing. The next would pick up the story a number of hours later, with Barra reflecting on what they’re going to do now; and after a page or two of this, we get a flashback that picks up from the end of last chapter and catches us up to the beginning of this one. It’s not an uncommon device in fiction, but Stover just seems to use it far too much.

So I had my issues with it, but overall I enjoyed it. Barra, Leucas, and Kheperu are some of Stover’s best characters, and I found the setting to be fascinating and unique. Not his best novel by a long shot, but come on, it’s Matthew F@#$ing Stover. A must-read for those who are already Stover fans, but also a solid sword-and-sorcery fantasy worth checking out just for the unique setting. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

featured on

Iron Dawn

Book review: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

How do I say this politely? Orson Scott Card’s writing has been in decline for the past decade or so. I like to use the turn of the century as a general cutoff between “good Card” and “bad Card”. But wait, I’m talking about one of my favorite authors, here. The guy who wrote a half dozen of my favorite books, whose work so moved me that at one point I decided I would own everything he’s written. (I’m working on it.) The problem is, he hasn’t written a truly good novel since 1996’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, and he’s had far more misses than hits since then.

And yet, I keep hoping against hope that maybe one day he’ll somehow manage to recapture the magic that made me fall in love with so much of his work from the 1980s. So I slap onto my wishlist every book that he’s got coming down the pipe, and the first name I check at the used bookstore is his. And when I see the chance to get a review copy of his latest book, The Lost Gate, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, I jump at it. (And maybe I do a little fist pump when I find out that I’ve won one.)

So is The Lost Gate, a book (according to Card’s afterword) thirty-three years in the making, the beginning of a new series called The Mithermages, a return to form for the master storyteller who won back-to-back Nebula and Hugo awards? In a word: no. But that’s okay, because The Lost Gate is an enjoyable romp of a novel regardless.

Danny North comes from an interesting family. You see, all of the gods of myth and legend from throughout Earth’s history have in actuality been superhuman mages from another world called Westil. Through the might of their aspected magery (be it windmagic or stonemagic, or beastmagic, etc.), they got human beings to worship them, and enjoyed lording it over their followers and exerting their power against the other Westilians, basically living long lives of luxury. Until one day the trickster Loki closed the gate that led from Westil to Earth, cutting them off from their source of power. So now what remains of the Westilians are a handful of Families scattered around the globe, their lines diluted by interbreeding with humans, their powers but a fraction of what they once were. Each Family desires the same thing: to breed a gatemage who can open a Great Gate back to Westil, giving that Family power over all of the others.

Danny North (whose family once posed as Nordic gods) leads a miserable life in the North Family compound in Virginia. He has no magic of his own, and his relationships with his cousins and other family members suffers for it. Until one day he discovers that he is, in fact, that rarest of mages: a gatemage. But while each Family desperately wants a gatemage, they know that to have one would mean war with the other families, and so Danny contrives to escape from the compound lest he be killed by his own family. Once away, Danny must find a way to survive on his own, discover how to work his gatemagic, and maybe even find out more about being human.

The Lost Gate is gripping storytelling. Even when I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at a piece of forced dialogue or contrived plot coincidence, I couldn’t stop flipping the pages. I’d read in bed at night, only putting the book down when I’d dropped it due to nodding off from lack of sleep.

The writing itself is nothing special; I never got that sense of Truth from the text that I get from his early work, those passages where it feels that a certain is wisdom is being imparted. In fact, I felt very removed from the text for quite a while at the beginning; there’s a lot of infodumping early on, and the first few chapters are almost entirely “tell” with hardly any “show”. Card’s “contemporary” dialogue is still painful at times, but it’s a vast improvement over his disjointed Magic Street.

I should mention that Danny North’s is not the only tale in this book; occasionally, a chapter will materialize that takes place in the land of Iceway, on Westil, following the story of a mysterious boy who earns the name “Wad”. These chapters read much more like traditional fantasy, and in fact are probably the best-written sections of the book, but I found that, enjoyable as they were, their appearance always broke up the narrative drive of Danny’s story; something I was not usually grateful for. Wad’s story does tie in with Danny’s by the end of the book, of course, but the revelation that comes with it is one that I had figured out far in advance.

Even though it’s the first book in a series, the story has a good arc to it, culminating in an exciting (if rather clumsily set-up) climax with a satistfying resolution, while planting the seeds for subsequent books. Books that I will be reading without hesitation.

So in the end, The Lost Gate doesn’t reach the heights of Card’s 80s work, but it’s still the best book he’s written in a long time, and an enjoyable one at that. And on top of that, it’s the beginning of what is looking to be a promising new series. [3.5 stars out of 5]

featured on

The Lost Gate

Book Review: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

The Left Hand of God starts off intriguing enough: Thomas Cale is a young acolyte in “the Sanctuary” of the Redeemers, where religious zealot leaders preach love and redemption before beating the boys and feeding them rotten food. There’s some adventure with Cale and a couple of his friends discovering a hidden door, among other things. And despite the despicable Redeemers (who are obviously some twisted, alternate-universe Catholics) the first quarter of the book is actually quite gripping.

Then Cale and his friends make an escape attempt, and the book takes a turn for the cliche and forgettable. Cale is revealed to be a perfect, unfeeling killer, a military genius, and more knowledgeable in medicine than the finest doctors of the largest empire in the world. He clashes with aristocracy and falls in love with a princess. Ho hum. Only at the very end of the book (more or less a cliffhanger; this is only the first volume in a projected trilogy) did the story grab me again, redeeming the book for me, if you will. Until the last ten pages, I had no intention of seeking out any of the sequels; now I just might have to.

Besides the been-there-done-that of the central portion of the book, the author made some bizarre and/or questionable choices in his worldbuilding. This is an obvious fantasy world that includes: God, the Holy Spirit, the Ark of the Covenant, Jesus of Nazareth, Norwegians, cities named “York” and “Memphis”, and more. The religion of the Redeemers is very much a twisted version of Catholicism, where their personal Redeemer (not necessarily Jesus; he is mentioned as someone who lived in the belly of a whale) was hanged instead of crucified. The inclusion of such real-world names and ideas really distracts the reader right from the start, though by book’s end one has mostly built up a tolerance to it. But perhaps the re-use of real names was preferable; some of Hoffman’s made-up names are quite groan-worthy: IdrisPukke and Arbell Swan-Neck, for example. Mention should also be made of Vague Henri, which I actually thought to be a cute nickname, but which grew more than a little tedious when almost every single time he was mentioned it was by the full nickname.

For a book about which I have so many complaints, it was an awfully hard book to put down. That in itself, coupled with the unexpected ending, inspires me to give The Left Hand of God a higher rating than it likely deserves. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

featured on

The Left Hand of God