Posts Tagged ‘lt early reviewers’

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: 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: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel is a contradiction of a book: a taut, fast-paced thriller that spans 1,000 pages and took me a month to read.

Richard “Dodge” Forthrast is the creator of the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) T’Rain. We first meet Richard at the annual Forthrast family reunion in Iowa, and the book starts out slowly as we meet certain of Richard’s family members. We’re introduced to his niece, Zula, and her boyfriend Peter. We meet Richard’s brothers, Jacob and John. There are stories of Richard’s days as a smuggler crossing the border between Canada and Idaho. And lots and lots of information regarding the creation of T’Rain.

Stephenson takes his time kicking the plot into gear. 100 pages slowly pass before it really arrives, but it’s never a chore; Stephenson has a gift for being highly readable, and is somehow able to make reading about firearms or midwestern cuisine or the creation of a geographically-plausible video game world consistently entertaining.

But then the titular, brilliantly-conceived “REAMDE” virus makes its appearance, and suddenly Zula and Peter find themselves abducted by a Russian mafioso. While they head to China to root out REAMDE’s creator, back in the western hemisphere Richard is left to try and piece together what has happened to his niece. And still that’s just the tip of the iceberg: when things finally throw down in China about a third of the way through the book, a bevy of new players are introduced and only then do you realize that the real story is just starting. What’s left is 700 pages of straightforward globe-hopping thriller, filled with spies and terrorists, not to mention the occasional hacker and militant libertarian.

Sadly, the books started to drag a little for me around the halfway mark. If you read many thrillers, you’ll know that they’re not particularly long books; 300-400 pages on average, perhaps. But the thriller portion of Reamde runs a solid 700 pages, and though there’s plenty of action, there’s also a lot of what feels like downtime. It got to the point where I had to force myself to pick the book up every night, but the funny thing is, once I started reading, I’d get sucked right back in. The pages didn’t exactly fly by, but I was absolutely riveted all the same.

Still there’s an advantage to Reamde’s length, and it’s that events and characters feel that much more real. The story itself takes roughly three weeks, and lengthy and copious amounts of detail make it feel like three weeks. (That it took me four weeks to read probably has something to do with it as well.) And Stephenson’s created a diverse cast of well-realized characters that you come to love, or come to love to hate. The day after I finished reading, I looked over and saw the book sitting on my nightstand and was actually saddened that I wouldn’t be reading it anymore. I already missed Richard and Zula and Csongor and Sokolov and Olivia and Seamus and… well, you get the picture. If you had asked me at the halfway mark, I would have told you I’d consider Reamde a “read once” book; but now I’m fairly certain that, years from now, I’ll be picking it up again to revisit some old friends.

If I had to come up with one real beef about the book, it would be that the title is pretty misleading. It hopefully doesn’t spoil much (and if so, I’ve spoiled far more already!) to say that the book has very little to do with the REAMDE virus—nor with the T’Rain game, despite the numerous pages devoted to detailing its creation and inner workings. Put plainly, T’Rain exists mainly for REAMDE to exist, and REAMDE is there to kickstart the plot, and little else. You could probably drop a bare minimum of 50 pages from the novel just by trimming away the T’Rain infodumps, and lose little from the story besides some of its “Stephensonesque” quality—but then, those random asides and tangents have long been part of Stephenson’s charm.

Despite being somewhat overlong (I didn’t even mention the drawn-out—and by “drawn-out” I mean “Michael Bay in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen drawn-out”—final climactic showdown) Reamde still manages to be a fantastic book. In a nutshell, it’s “What if Neal Stephenson wrote a thriller?” and I absolutely loved it. [4 out of 5 stars]

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Book review: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

So yeah, it turns out I’m not a big fan of L. Ron Hubbard. But that didn’t stop me from requesting a copy of L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I always enjoy a good sci-fi/fantasy anthology, and I was at least subliminally aware of the Writers of the Future program, and figured this’d be a good bet for some high-quality SF/F short fiction (SFFSF?).

I love it when I’m right.

The Writers of the Future contest seems a fairly reputable program, with contest entries judged by such esteemed SFF writers as Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, and Frederik Pohl, among others. And past contest winners include such notable names as Stephen Baxter, Patrick Rothfuss, and Dave Wolverton. So right off the bat, this book showed the promise of some good stuff inside.

And on the whole, it delivers. There are some weaker stories, but they’re merely decent, not bad. But beyond that, there are a few truly phenomenal entries. Here’s a (very) brief review for each story:

  • “The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts” by Jeffrey Lyman — Almost every story in this collection is a science-fiction piece; this is no exception. A lonely man goes on what is essentially a suicide run to the edge of the solar system, fishing for a miniature black hole, and finds something else besides. There’s a nice atmosphere to the piece, and if the twist at the end isn’t entirely unanticipated, well, it’s still a solid and oddly-moving start to the anthology.
  • “Maddy Dune’s First and Only Spelling Bee” by Patrick O’Sullivan — Maybe this fantasy story should have been held until the end of the collection, because it sets the bar impossibly high for everything that follows. I’m not going to spoil anything by going into any detail, but this is hands-down the best entry here; it’s worth buying the book just for this one. I would love to see someone pay O’Sullivan to turn this into a series.
  • “The Truth, From a Lie of Convenience” by Brennan Harvey — A reporter on the Moon discovers that a Crazy Conspiracy Theory just might be true! Shocking! Nothing really new here, though it is still mostly enjoyable, even if the ending is kind of weak.
  • “In Apprehension, How Like a God” by R. P. L. Johnson — Another strong story, this time a sci-fi murder mystery. I guessed the killer early on, but I never guessed the killer’s actual identity. Color me impressed.
  • “An Acolyte of Black Spires” by Ryan Harvey — Fantasy or sci-fi? I couldn’t tell, but it doesn’t really matter. This one felt fairly cliché and dry throughout, though the mild twist at the end made me appreciate it more.
  • “The Dualist” by Aaron Hughes — At this point, the trend seems to be that the even-numbered stories are my favorites. It wasn’t until the last couple of pages that I figured out where this story was going, and it wasn’t until the final paragraphs that I understood, and was thusly blown away. A surprisingly moving tale.
  • “Bonehouse” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli — An intriguing premise: hunting down people who’ve run away and fully immersed themselves in the internet. But it didn’t really do much with it. Enjoyable, if entirely forgettable.
  • “This Peaceful State of War” by Patty Jansen — A decent “first contact” story, and if the fact that mysterious alien biology is the culprit is fairly predictable, the truth of that biology is stunning.
  • “Sailing the Sky Sea” by Geir Lanesskog — A fairly-entertaining tale about survival in a gas giant’s atmosphere. I loved how they pulled off the rescue, though I wish it had been foreshadowed earlier, instead of just coming out of the blue as it did.
  • “Unfamiliar Territory” by Ben Mann — This might be my least favorite story here. It felt pretty clichéd, and didn’t really have a whole lot of plot, though it managed to tease at a larger story to be told later.
  • “Medic!” by Adam Perin — This story saves the collection from a comparatively-weak second half. We get the story of a crotchety battlefield medic as he attempts to save his 1,000th life and earn his transfer out of the service. The main character is entertaining, and the ending is nicely emotional.
  • “Vector Victoria” by D. A. D’Amico — Another weak entry, based on the otherwise-intriguing premise of a government-engineered virus and the protesters (terrorists?) that try to counter it. Unfortunately, the story is a ho-hum rehash of old government-is-good/government-is-bad arguments, with no real resolution. And I found titular protagonist to be incredibly naive (as intended, I’m sure) and irritating (likely not).
  • “The Sundial” by John Arkwright — This might be the second-best story here. If you pressed a gun to my head, I’d probably classify it as “fantasy”; it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the same book as the rest of these stories. I won’t spoil anything, though; you have to pick up this book to read “Maddy Dune”, anyway.

Also included are three essays on advice for writers and artists; I’ll be honest: I skimmed ’em. I was just there for the stories. On the whole, it’s decent collection, elevated by the presence of 4-5 particularly strong stories. If I had to rank the top five, I’d have to go with “Maddy Dune”, then “The Sundial”, with “How Like a God” and “The Dualist” tying for third, and “Medic!” bringing up the rear. It’s worth checking out just for those stories. And I’m going to have to keep an eye out for previous collections, as well. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Greed by L. Ron Hubbard

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Greed, published by Galaxy Press, is part of their “Stories from the Golden Age” series, which republishes all of L. Ron Hubbard’s old pulp magazine stories in book form. This volume contains three science-fiction stories: the titular “Greed”, as well as “Final Enemy” and “The Automagic Horse”. I’m always open to trying new authors, but I wasn’t about to dive into Hubbard’s massive Battlefield: Earth or his Mission Earth dekalogy; Greed gave me a nice entry point. The stories in this volume, however, were fairly lacking.

The title story, “Greed”, is the most boring of the bunch, and for all of its length there’s very little plot. Instead, the story reads much like a historical textbook entry regarding the main character. And where I’m able to (generally) look past the racism inherent in the old pulp stories of H. P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, Hubbard’s use of “Asians” as the go-to bad guys really put me off for some reason.

“Final Enemy” is mildly more successful, owing somewhat to its short length. There’s a nice twist at the end, and the Asians are presented in a better light here. It’s nice enough, I guess, but not enough on which to recommend the entire book.

The longest story by far—running as long as the other two combined—is “The Automagic Horse”, and is a vastly different animal. Where the first two are outer-space stories, this one features a group of Hollywood effects people whose special effects studio is a front for building a rocket ship. But the plot revolves around the construction and fate of a mechanical horse. I liked this one for the most part, too, though it turned fairly predictable halfway through. There was one rather sexist line that didn’t bug me as much as it probably should :) though it did stick out.

There is one aspect about this book that bugged the heck out of me, though I’ve tried not to let it influence my review, as it has nothing to do with the stories themselves. Rather, it has do with Galaxy Press’s presentation of the stories. The book itself is roughly 150 pages long; 100 of that is comprised of the three stories. The rest is basically devoted to praising L. Ron Hubbard and/or pimping the rest of the “Golden Age” series. There’s an introduction by Kevin J. Anderson, an absurdly-brief preview of another volume in the series, and a lengthy biography on L. Ron Hubbard. Oh, and did I mention that Galaxy Press is run by the Church of Scientology? According to Wikipedia, many of the “facts” put forth by the Church of Scientology regarding Hubbard’s life are either unconfirmed or just plain false, and the biography in this book is ridiculously hyperbolic. In short, the whole endeavor feels like a money-grab, right down to the “subscribe now!” postcard bound into the middle of the book. Preserving Hubbard’s old pulp stories in book format is a worthy enterprise, and it’s a good-looking little book, but $10 for 100 pages of mediocre story is milking it. (And there are 80 volumes!) Consolidating everything into, say, a dozen $30 hardcovers would seem like a much more honest approach.

Overall though, it’s just not a strong batch of stories. Certainly not worth the $10 cover price, but this and other volumes might be worth picking up used for a couple bucks if you’re interested in pulp-era stories. [2 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Let me just state right off the bat: this is a great book. I’d heard good things about this series, and with its impending stateside release I was fortunate enough to snag a review copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Retribution Falls is the first of the Tales of the Ketty Jay, which chronicle the adventures of Captain Darian Frey and his airship, the Ketty Jay, and its crew of mercenaries. The setting has a light steampunk flavor, and takes place in what I presume is the distant future (my own theory, based on the game of “Rake” being described as a variant of poker.) Or it could be some created fantasy world. It’s not important.

What’s important is this: Frey and his crew take on a job that seems too good to be true. Guess what they discover? Yeah, it is. Soon Frey finds himself framed for murder, and the Ketty Jay is on the run from both the Navy and the queen pirate of the Vardian skies herself, Trinica Dracken.

For the most part, the plot moves along briskly, focusing on the action. Indeed, the book starts off in media res with Frey and his companion Grayther Crake captured at gunpoint. And there are a couple of nice twists and turns to keep the reader on his/her proverbial toes. But it’s the characters that bring the story to life. All of Frey’s crew—and Frey himself—are each and all running from something. Everyone has demons in their pasts. Some are common knowledge, but doled out to the reader at a nice pace. Others are kept secret from both the reader and the other characters. Wooding does an admirable job of withholding these secrets, then waiting until the perfect moment to drop a bombshell.

In all, Retribution Falls is a blast; an action-packed tale with great characters. I’m definitely looking forward to future volumes. Recommended to all sci-fi/fantasy fans. [4 out of 5 stars]

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Retribution Falls