Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

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: The Fold by Peter Clines

Monday, April 27th, 2015

I’m a big fan of Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes books, so when I saw he had a new thriller out, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on a review copy. I generally like to go into a book knowing as little about it as possible, and in this case I didn’t even read the back-cover synopsis, so I was practically jumping in blind—Clines’ name on the cover was enough to get me excited. And my enthusiasm was amply rewarded.

The Fold starts out at a slow burn. We meet our protagonist, Leland “Mike” Erikson, who has a genius-level IQ and an eidetic memory, but prefers life under the radar, teaching English at the local high school. But he gets a call from Reggie, an old friend at the Department of Defense, who persuades him to fly out and use his special skills to observe a certain government-funded project. Reggie won’t tell Mike what the project is, but it works, and it’s amazing—but the project team appears to be stalling for more time and funding. Mike’s job is to make sure everything at the project is on the level, so Reggie can push the funding through. But of course, things at the “Albuquerque Door” project aren’t entirely what they seem…

The first half of the book takes its time setting things up: Mike flies out, meets the team, and gets to see the project’s success first-hand. He also spends a lot of time getting to know the individual team members and poring over the project’s logs and records. It reminded me a lot of a good Michael Crichton science thriller, with a lot of talking and science-y stuff, and only the occasional shock thrown out to deepen the mystery.

This goes on for the first half of the book, but the pace never flags: Clines keeps the tension high and the slowly-unfolding mystery intriguing. The short chapter-length and crisp prose work wonders, too. At about the halfway point, though, the Big Reveal hits and things start to unravel (in a good way!) at an accelerated pace, with the final act (after the Bigger Reveal) just going completely off the rails. It’s nuts. Maybe a little too nuts. But it’s frigging compelling reading. I read the whole thing in 24 hours: the first quarter Friday night (late Friday night), the second quarter Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and plopped down and cranked through the second half in a single sitting. I just could not put it down.

As I said previously, I’m not big on spoilers myself, and I also like to keep my reviews fairly tight-lipped when it comes to plot. But I mentioned Crichton earlier, and somewhere around a third of the way in I was very heavily reminded of his novel Timeline. If you took some of the concepts from that book and mashed them up with Patrick Lee’s The Breach trilogy (read that if you haven’t already, seriously) you’d get something very much like The Fold.

If I had to quibble, I’d say that the main premise (cool as it is) probably doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny (or if it does, there are a lot of coincidences going on) and that, despite Mike Erikson’s memory and intellect, I was able to arrive at a number of correct conclusions long before he did. And the end certainly does get weird. But really this book was just so much fun that I can barely bring myself to voice the complaints themselves, let alone delve into them. It’s just that good. And according to the afterword, it’s also tangentially-related to an earlier Clines book called 14. Shoot, looks like I’ve got a book to track down… [4 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: Runner by Patrick Lee

Monday, December 16th, 2013

A couple of years ago, I read Patrick Lee’s debut trilogy, consisting of The Breach, Ghost Country, and Deep Sky. It was a new breed of fiction for me: the structure and feel of your run-of-the-mill action/thriller novel, but wrapped around the chewy gooey center of a science-fictional premise/MacGuffin. I enjoyed the heck out of them, and when I heard that he was writing another novel (albeit one unrelated to the trilogy) I was sold, sight-unseen.

Fast-forward to October 2013, and while perusing the latest offerings from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, what do I stumble across but a new novel from Patrick Lee! I was excited, but even better, I was fortunate enough to land a copy for review.

The blurb was inoffensively generic, bordering on cliché: Ex-military man takes in a girl on the run from bad guys trying to kill her. I wondered if this was to be a straight-up thriller this time, or if Lee would manage to work in a SF angle; I assumed the former, but held out hope for the latter. All the while figuring it would be a wild ride either way.

I love it when I’m right.

Sam Dryden is an ex-special forces operative who lost his wife and child in an accident a while back. Recently he’s been having bouts of insomnia, and has taken up midnight jogs along the boardwalk. One fateful night, he runs into Rachel, a 12-year-old girl being hunted by a squad of armed men. Naturally, Dryden decides to help her. But Rachel is more than she seems: not only does she have the uncanny ability to read minds, but her drug-induced amnesia hides a terrifying secret.

Science fiction it is, then—and Lee even throws some pseudo-scientific explanations for Rachel’s telepathic powers (but then, I’m no biologist.) But beyond that, he teases out the ramifications of such an ability: if telepathy actually existed, how would the military-industrial complex seek to utilize it? Lee’s answer is both horrifying and depressingly realistic. Most importantly, it’s wildly entertaining.

The pace Lee sets for the book is a breathless one. The action starts right on page two, and hardly lets up from there. The entire first chunk of the book is an extended chase sequence, and even when you think you can stop and take a breath, there’s a massive twist or turn on the next page to keep you reading. In fact, the only criticism I have of the book is those sections where the pace actually does slow down: these sequences shift away from Dryden and Rachel to show what is essentially the “bad” guys’ side of things. Much of the insight into the military’s use of telepathic powers is revealed in these sections, and though they all end up tying together at the end, they don’t do a lot to advance the plot at that moment. In any other book, it wouldn’t bother me like it did here; but in a book this relentlessly-paced, such a noticeable slowdown is harder to forgive. But this is a minor gripe for a book that is still nigh-impossible to put down.

Probably what most impressed me, though, was the emotional layer Lee was able to squeeze in. I got a hint of it in his Breach books, but here…well, here it may have seemed a bit manipulative at first (guy loses his own child, then takes in a young girl on the run? Where do you think this could be going?) but Lee totally makes it work. The ending does much of the heavy lifting in this regard: instead of wrapping everything up all happily-ever-after like you might expect, Lee goes for the truer, more realistic approach, and the whole work is the more powerful for it. The last page in particular not only made me mist up a little, but actually had me flipping back to the first page to reread how it all started. Great stuff.

Runner will be out in February. Get it. Read it. And whatever Patrick Lee decides to write next, I’ll be in line for that, too, no questions asked. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Superheroes versus zombies. That’s Ex-Heroes in a nutshell. Don’t like superheroes or zombies? Well…that might not be a problem, actually.

Ex-Heroes is about a group of super-powered heroes trying to protect a last enclave of humanity in a Los Angeles movie studio-turned-fortress following the zombie apocalypse. I will admit that I’m a bit of a superhero guy, but I couldn’t care less about the current zombie trend. It’s okay, though, because the zombie apocalypse featured in Clines’ books is just the setting; the real show is the larger-than-life yet all-too-human characters: St. George, Stealth, Zzzap. Gorgon, Cerberus, Regenerator. You could draw some easy parallels between Clines’ creations and the stable of popular DC and Marvel Comics heroes, but it doesn’t matter because Clines makes his so engaging.

I loved the structure of the book, too. The chapters alternate: two “Now” chapters set in the present day, told from your standard third-person perspective; then one “Then” chapter set in the past and told in the first-person by one of the superhero characters. The Then chapters move forward chronologically, slowly building up the history of the zombie apocalypse (including an ingenious superhero-related origin for the zombies) as well as fleshing out the backstory of the characters involved. And the way they interact with the ongoing plot of the Now chapters works brilliantly.

If there are any real flaws in the book, it would be that one of the heroes seemed way too powerful, and the hasty explanations given for why he wasn’t more effective didn’t really satisfy me. Also, the main bad guy has huge question marks in his background that (thankfully) are mostly cleared up in the sequel, but still drove me nuts for most of this book. Those are minor nitpicks, though. This book is just too much fun. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Robert Silverberg is a prolific and award-winning science fiction author, of whom I’ve read only a handful of short stories. They didn’t leave me much impressed, but when I found out he had written an historical fiction novel that was being reprinted for the first time in thirty years, I was intrigued, and I was fortunate enough to win a copy for review.

The new edition of Lord of Darkness by Nonstop Press contains a great introduction by Silverberg about how his book came to be. Long story short, it was inspired by the true story of 16th century English mariner Andrew Battell, who was captured by the Portuguese while pirating in South America and shipped to Africa as a prisoner, where he spent twenty years of his life—including some time living in the African interior with a cannibal tribe and their powerful, dangerous leader, Imbe Calandola, the titular “Lord of Darkness”.

The book did not do well domestically, due to the fact that bookstores shelved it alongside his science fiction works; sci-fi fans weren’t interested in a historical fiction novel, and historical fiction fans (who didn’t know to look for an historical novel in the SF section) never discovered it.

That’s a shame, because it’s an absolutely amazing book.

Much of the appeal comes from Battell’s story, which is fascinating in itself; though obviously by the time Silverberg had expanded it to novel-length, it had become more fiction than fact, but still true to the events detailed in Battell’s original account. But perhaps more than even that, what kept me engaged from the first page to the last was the narrative voice employed by Silverberg. It’s a first-person account, naturally, but Silverberg attempts to present it as if it might have come from the pen of a 16th century English Protestant man, while still keeping it comprehensible to the contemporary reader. It’s done masterfully, with an old-fashioned biblical cadence that is just wonderful. Here’s the opening paragraph:

ALMIGHTY GOD, I thank Thee for my deliverance from the dark land of Africa. Yet am I grateful for all that Thou hast shown me in that land, even for the pain Thou hast inflicted upon me for my deeper instruction. And I thank Thee also for sparing me from the wrath of the Portugals who enslaved me, and from the other foes, black of skin and blacker of soul, with whom I contended. And I give thanks too that Thou let me taste the delight of strange loves in a strange place, so that in these my latter years I may look back with pleasure upon pleasures few Englishmen have known. But most of all I thank Thee for showing me the face of evil and bringing me away whole, and joyous, and unshaken in my love of Thee.

I don’t know a thing about Silverberg’s own beliefs, but Battell’s come through clear as day; his dialogue is full of philosophical asides on almost every conceivable subject. This is a thoughtful book. It’s also not an easy one. Battell makes choices of a questionable moral nature, from working in the employ of his captors and nation’s enemies, to living as a member of a cannibal tribe. This is not a book for the squeamish: there are some disturbing scenes here. At one point Battell, determined to leave nothing out of his narrative, remarks that what he is about to reveal will make the reader hate and condemn him, and certainly that’s an option. Battell’s awareness of his choices and actions, and his analysis of them at the time as well as after fact, add depth both to said scenes and to his character.

A final word of warning: There is a lot of sex in this book, and it’s fairly explicitly described, though couched in sixteenth century language as it is, it loses a little of it’s, shall we say, vulgarity. If that’s the kind of thing that’ll turn you off a book entirely, you might want to give this one a pass.

That said, part of the triumph of the novel is bringing you, the reader, to places that make you uncomfortable (sometimes extremely uncomfortable) and then bringing you through them—not entirely unchanged, but perhaps now seeing the world around you in a different light. That’s one of the marks of Great Literature, and Lord of Darkness is an absolute masterwork. Kudos to Nonstop for bringing it back into print. [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: Vale of Stars by Sean O’Brien

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

I’ll come right out and say it: Vale of Stars is a frustrating book. It’s not well-written. It’s heavy-handed. It tries to do to much. The characters are obnoxious. The science is laughable.

And yet.

In a nutshell, the story follows four generations of women, with each woman being the protagonist of her quarter of the book. It begins aboard a generation ship as it approaches its destination world, skips ahead in time to the planetbound colonies, and then expands out from there to the wider world beyond the colony domes.

From the very beginning, the characters drove me crazy. The bad guy(s) are bad guys just to be bad guys; sure, we get more insight to their motivations as the book progresses, but it turns out to be nothing more sophisticated than “I hate these people, so I’m going to be evil.” The good guys (or gals, as it were) are just as unsubtle, always interpreting every action or opinion taken by the bad guys as this totally evil thing—not because it would make any sense to do so, but simply because these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and this is the thing that needs to happen for the plot to go, and also because the author has his points that he needs to hit you over the head with as unsubtly as possible.

There is so much in this book that doesn’t make any sense, beyond the non-existent character motivations. At one point, there’s a biological transformation that’s completely ridiculous. A little girl gets banished to the planet’s surface, where she somehow founds a complete society including technology and infrastructure.

But buried inside all of the ridiculousness are some genuinely-interesting sci-fi novel concepts, including a halfway-decent first contact story, and the exploration of the worship of more advanced beings as divinities. And that’s the most frustrating thing about this book: it takes three-quarters of the novel to get to the truly interesting stuff, but those ideas feel like distractions simply because of the way they’re shoehorned into the rest of the story.

I would love to see some of these concepts expanded into their own proper novel (or novels) but I can’t actually recommend this one. [2 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]

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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]