Mon, 16 Dec 2013 21:34

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]


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Thu, 02 May 2013 13:49

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]


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Thu, 28 Mar 2013 11:27

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]


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Mon, 04 Mar 2013 09:01

imageForge of Darkness
Steven Erikson
(2012)

When I hear the word “prequel”, I think comfort. Give me more of the same stuff that I loved in the original series, just set a little earlier. We mostly know how it goes anyway, all you have to do is just flesh out the particulars. When Steven Erikson hears the word “prequel”, he must think, “Ha-ha, screw you guys!” because this is the kind of crap he pulls: Sworn enemies are now BFFs. Total jerks are now namby-pamby goody-goodies. Titles and relationships, even the geography turn out to be different than we thought! So it’s set a half a million years before the main series; who cares? There’s a reason dudes say things like, “I’ll never betray you in a million years!” Erikson, you’re doing it all wrong.


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Fri, 01 Mar 2013 09:01

imageThe Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli
(1532)

What a bunch of garbage. This is AMERICA, we don’t even have princes here! Geez lou-eez, get with the times, Nick.


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Wed, 27 Feb 2013 10:35

imageScourge of the Betrayer
Jeff Salyards
(2012)

So I’m clipping through this enjoyable, if mysterious, military fantasy, when suddenly, out of nowhere: BLAM-O! right in the feelings! This is a macho manly-man’s book, and there’s nothing macho nor manly about the tears that are most definitely not welling up even now, no sir, no way. Oh, God, someone hold me.


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Tue, 05 Feb 2013 12:27

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]


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Mon, 07 Jan 2013 16:33

Books read in 2013, listed by month finished. Books in italics are still in progress. As always, you can follow along with my reading journal @ LibraryThing, where you can also see my complete reading list, or just my 2013 reads.

January

Shardik by Richard Adams
Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin

February

Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder by Walt Kelly
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont
Cold Days by Jim Butcher
The Devil Delivered by Steven Erikson
Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie by Steven Erikson
Revolvo by Steven Erikson

March

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
Archimedes’ Claw by Theodore Morrison Homa
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg
The War Hound and the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock
Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont

April

The City in the Autumn Stars by Michael Moorcock
Ex-Patriots by Peter Clines
The Dragon in the Sword by Michael Moorcock
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

May

Star Wars: Apocalypse by Troy Denning
The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto
Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe

June

The Standing Dead by Ricardo Pinto
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

July

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Ex-Communication by Peter Clines

August

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
Shakespeare’s Memory by Jorge Luis Borges
This River Awakens by Steven Erikson
Star Wars: Crucible by Troy Denning
Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

September

Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

October

The Third God by Ricardo Pinto
Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

November

Runner by Patrick Lee
The Illearth War by Stephen R. Donaldson

December

The Power That Preserves by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Lurking Fear & Other Stories by H. P. Lovecraft


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Wed, 02 Jan 2013 21:15

I was quite pleased with how last year’s Salty Awards turned out, so let’s do it again! Again, this is stuff that I read for the first time last year, even if it was published earlier (and usually it was.) Here’s a link to my 2012 reading list for reference.


Statistics

Look out, here come some stats! Quickly now:

Total books read: 41
Re-reads: 8
Non-series reads: 8
Novels by female authors: 1
Short story collections: 4
Ebooks: 2
Reads that were also acquired in 2012: 13
Borrowed (unowned): 0


Best Short Story Collection 2012:

I only read four short story collections last year, and only two of them would even be worthy of a top five list. But I have to give props to:

Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe
Another year, another Gene Wolfe short story collection. This one is particularly large, with 30 stories. Some of them didn’t quite grab me, but there are still plenty of amazing stories in here. It’s been close to a year since I read them, so I don’t remember much, but just looking over the table of contents, I can recall the following as being standout stories: “The Map” (taking place after The Book of the New Sun), “The HORARS of War”, “All the Hues of Hell”, “Procreation” (very Borgesian), “The Tale of the Rose and the Nightingale” (this one has lingered the most), and “Silhouette”. I’ve got one more collection left to read this year, and I can’t wait!


Best Comic Book 2012:

I didn’t read a ton of graphic novels this year, besides the collections of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 that I got for my wife (which were very good, by the way.) But no self-respecting Best Of list can omit this:

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
This book is considered such a classic in the field that it’s a miracle I put off reading it for so long. And it’s so absolutely mind-blowingly amazing that I actually feel bad for not having read it years ago. It is not a light undertaking (I was all but useless for two days straight) but it is so very, very worth it. The absolute pinnacle of superhero comics.


Best Novel 2012:

It was a down year for me, for novels, probably on account of how a few of them were quite long (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin) but also because of a number of weeks that saw me spending my nights playing video games, instead of reading. Of course, when I say “a down year”, I’m talking quantity, not quality; it was a very good year for those books that I did manage to read, and here are the best of them:

Runners-up:

5. Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover
I’ve loved all of Stover’s previous Acts of Caine novels, and this was the long-awaited fourth and (for the foreseeable future) final installment. Like the books before it, it is totally unlike any of its predecessors. Stover abandons entirely the conventional linear narrative and goes for something Completely Different, and the result is almost incomprehensible. And unequivocally kickass. As always.

4. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kinda funny that this made the list, when I had to set it aside for a month because I just couldn’t get it into it. But when I dove back in again, I was surprised how it felt like I hadn’t been away from it at all. In a good way. It’s a slow burn of a novel, but it’s very worth it. There’s a beauty to the thing that I have a hard time putting words to. And the end caught me quite by surprise. I will definitely be reading more of Kay’s work in the (hopefully near) future.

3. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings back when I was 10 or 11, and then again in my early 20s, but I was always wary of this one. It was supposed to be dry, textbook-like. Boring, in other words. So I avoided it. But this year, when I decided to do a full Middle-earth re-read, I planned for The Silmarillion, and was both excited and apprehensive to try tackling it. The full re-read never happened, but I did read The Silmarillion, and wow. Now granted, my reading tastes have evolved considerably over the past dozen years, but why did I never read this before? Yes, it was a little slow in a couple of spots, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a work of staggering imagination and beauty.

2. A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
Yep, I’m slow, I finally got around to reading the Song of Ice and Fire series just now. (Funnily enough, the waiting list at the library for a fifteen-year-old book is hundreds of people long, thanks to the current TV show.) Anyway, the first book in the series was great, but it didn’t quite make the cut for this list; it was well-written and engrossing, but it was just one downer after another. The second book, though…oh, this book. Besides the fact that it doesn’t have a proper beginning or end, this book is practically flawless. It was hard to imagine how Martin could even improve on this installment, but…

The best novel I read in 2012 was…

1. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
I suppose it might not seem fair for Martin to take the top two spots, but shoot, he almost had three books make my top five. Up to the very end, I didn’t think there was any way this book could surpass A Clash of Kings, but then Martin started tying some arcs up in such satisfying ways. And then the epilogue hit, and left me breathless; I still get chills thinking about it. It was the perfect spot to end the book: at a place where the story can pause and take a breath, but with that edge that leaves you thinking, “Holy crap, what happens next?!” Absolutely brilliant.

Honorable mentions: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, The Eternal Champion by Michael Moorcock, Ghost Ocean by S. M. Peters, When She’s Gone by Steven Erikson



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Thu, 20 Dec 2012 16:53

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]


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Mon, 24 Sep 2012 13:23

A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin
(1996)

This is a book about terrible things happening to good people. It’s a book where decency is punished, and the bad guys win. It’s depressing and horrible…and I loved every minute of it. And now I hate myself.


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Thu, 13 Sep 2012 14:04

Deep Sky
Patrick Lee
(2012)

The concluding volume of Patrick Lee’s “Travis Chase” sci-fi thriller trilogy literally made my brain explode. Yes, I said literally. Now I’m dead, and can only blog from beyond the grave. And you know what’s hard? Typing out these posts with ghost fingers, that’s what’s hard. Thanks for nothing, Patrick Lee.


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Mon, 28 May 2012 11:00

The Book of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe
(1980)

So I’m starting in on this one, and it seems very much like your standard sword-and-sorcery fantasy. And then weird stuff starts bleeding in… Is—is that a raygun? Are those…aliens? Waitaminute, is the Matachin Tower actually a grounded rocketship? No no no no, science fiction and fantasy are two distinct genres for a reason! Gene Wolfe, you got chocolate in my peanut butter! You got peanut butter in my chocolate!


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Thu, 24 May 2012 10:56

Caine Black Knife
Matthew Stover
(2008)

Matthew Stover is a f***ing fantastic writer, and his Acts of Caine are awesomely, brutally violent. But Mr. Stover has a fatal f***ing flaw, and it is this: he doesn’t use the word “f***” f***ing often enough. Is it too f***ing much to ask that every f***ing paragraph be seasoned with no fewer than 10 “f***“s? F*** no, it isn’t! Stover tries his best, but f*** if I still can’t help but hold this f***ing failure against him.


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Mon, 21 May 2012 12:12

The Shadow of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
(2001)

This is a brooding, atmospheric novel full of mystery and suspense. It’s beautiful and it’s captivating. But it’s also all about the love of books and stories. F*** that s***. What’s the name of this blog, anyway?


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Thu, 17 May 2012 10:53

A Princess of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs
(1917)

So this book is basically a rip-off every sci-fi action flick you can think of. It might as well be called “Star Wars on Mars Starring Superman.” Perhaps the most ridiculous part is the weapons the characters use to fight: swords. And not even lightsabers or laser swords or anything cool, just plain old metal blades. No rayguns or anything! This is supposed to be “classic” science fiction? Please.


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Wed, 16 May 2012 22:36

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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Mon, 14 May 2012 10:57

The Crippled God
Steven Erikson
(2011)

Steven Erikson has got a gift: if you want bleak, depressing fantasy, he’s got you covered. Killing off characters you’ve become attached to? Check. Utterly destroying your faith in humanity? Check. Thinking your life and your actions have any special significance in the scope of history? He can fix that for you. It’s fantastic! And then comes the concluding volume of his 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen, and…what’s this? I better get my eyes checked, because this looks suspiciously like a happy ending. Steven Erikson, why have you forsaken me?


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Mon, 07 May 2012 11:01

Embassytown
China Miéville
(2011)

I get that Miéville’s trying to write a book about communication and language here, but why does there have to be so much talking? The only languages I care about in my science fiction are foul language, and the language of violence. Actions speak louder than words, right? So gimme some friggin’ action. I even punched the book a few times to try and make up for Miéville’s lack, and though marginally therapeutic, it wasn’t nearly as effective as I’d have liked.


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Mon, 07 May 2012 11:01

The Princess Bride
William Goldman
(1973)

Mr. Goldman is a fantastic storyteller, and his classic tale about tracking down forgotten books, working in the publishing world, writing for Hollywood, hanging out with Stephen King and Andre the Giant, and stealing stuff from museums is by turns both charming and compelling. BUT. I just don’t understand his decision to have this ridiculous fairy-tale story keep intruding on his narrative. This is supposed to be the “good parts” version, after all!


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Thu, 03 May 2012 11:14

John Dies at the End
David Wong
(2007)

This book scared the s*** out of me. No, literally: I made such a mess, my wife kicked me out of the bedroom. Now I get to spend my nights on the downstairs couch alone with a pair of Depends. F*** you, Dave Wong.


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Mon, 30 Apr 2012 11:00

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis
James Luceno
(2012)

Okay, so I know the book is titled “Darth Plagueis”, so of course I get that it’s gonna mostly be about that guy. But I sure would have liked to see more of this Palpatine character. Maybe he could get his own “Darth Sidious” book down the line or something. Also, I felt the pacing of the book was off; if Luceno’s editor had pushed him to cut even half of the extraneous action scenes, it would have worked much better. I don’t read Star Wars for the action; gimme more of that engaging political intrigue.


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Sat, 07 Apr 2012 14:26

Caine's Law

Date: April 07, 2012 14:26


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Wed, 04 Apr 2012 21:53

Dark of the Moon

Date: April 04, 2012 21:53


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Tue, 03 Apr 2012 21:25

Theft of Swords

Date: April 03, 2012 21:25


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Sun, 25 Mar 2012 13:02

The Dragon Never Sleeps
Glen Cook
Trade Paperback
Date: March 25, 2012 13:02


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Wed, 21 Mar 2012 15:53

I don’t usually write about movies. Which mostly has to do with the fact that I don’t see a lot of movies. Even the ones I see, my thoughts can usually be summed up in a Twitter post and don’t warrant a blog entry.

This past weekend, though, I went and saw John Carter. I loved it. It was great. Not perfect by any means, but perfectly enjoyable despite its flaws, and a lot of fun. I want to see it again, a rare feat.

When it opened, though, the critics quickly went in for the kill, and now Disney has declared the movie a flop that it lost $200 million on. The film cost $250 million to make, but apparently they also ran a marketing campaign that cost around $100 million. The surprising bit is that they spent so much on advertising, when the overwhelming opinion seems to be that Disney did the worst possible marketing job that they possibly could have.

I mean, here you have the first big-screen production of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ precisely-100-year-old science fiction saga that inspired an entire century of sci-fi and fantasy. Not once did Disney go to the historical and literary importance of the source material. Imagine a trailer that starts out with the following text:

Before STAR WARS
Before THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Before CONAN THE BARBARIAN
There was
JOHN CARTER
From the creator of TARZAN
And the director of WALL-E and FINDING NEMO

Come on, right? But no, nobody could possibly want to know about any of that stuff. And then Disney adds insult to injury by giving it the blandest, let’s-convey-the-least-information-possible title they could come up with. It was originally “John Carter of Mars” (the title card actually shows up as such at the end of the film) but because apparently movies with “Mars” in the title have historically done so poorly, they decided to leave that part off, even though the entire point of the movie is John Carter’s adventures on Mars! Heck, just use the instory native name of “Barsoom”. Something—anything—else! When the Super Bowl trailer aired, my friend Tara asked, perhaps only half-jokingly, “Why are they making a movie about Noah Wyle’s ER character?” (She would be amused to find out, as I later did, that ER‘s creator, Michael Crichton, was a big Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, and named the TV character after ERB’s hero.) The point is, the average modern moviegoer had no knowledge of John Carter or his pedigree, and Disney spent $100 million doing their best to not tell them. Is it any wonder it failed so miserably?

But it doesn’t deserve to. It’s maybe a little overlong, and unevenly paced, but it’s compellingly enjoyable. It’s complicated and sometimes less than easy to follow, but it doesn’t dumb anything down; it respects its audience enough to expect them to keep up and piece things together, and by and large, by the end, you will. It takes large and numerous deviations from the original text, but is somehow still unfailingly faithful to the spirit of the source material; how often does that happen? It’s gorgeous to look at, it has heart, and it’s just plain fun.

So I say: Screw the critics. Screw Disney declaring it a flop. If you like having any fun at the movies, you need to go see this movie while it’s still in theaters.


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Mon, 19 Mar 2012 20:57

Riptide
Paul S. Kemp
Star Wars
Mass Market Paperback
Date: March 19, 2012 20:57


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Mon, 19 Mar 2012 20:18

The Thousandfold Thought

R. Scott Bakker
Prince of Nothing
Trade Paperback  

Date: March 19, 2012 20:18


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Sat, 17 Mar 2012 22:59

In the Sorrows
One of my favorite authors, Matthew Stover, wrote this story, but it’s sadly not available in print. I wanted my “own” copy, so I formatted it into an eBook for my Kindle. But it needed a cover, and so I made this.


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Thu, 09 Feb 2012 17:48

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]


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Tue, 31 Jan 2012 13:50

2012 Family Portrait

Date: March 25, 2012 12:50


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Thu, 19 Jan 2012 00:04

SFBC Malazan bindings


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Thu, 19 Jan 2012 00:04

SFBC Malazan spines


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Thu, 19 Jan 2012 00:03

SFBC Toll the Hounds pages


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Thu, 19 Jan 2012 00:03

SFBC Deadhouse Gates closeup

Date: January 18, 2012 23:03


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Thu, 19 Jan 2012 00:03

SFBC Deadhouse Gates pages


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Tue, 10 Jan 2012 17:20

Welcome to the first annual Salty Awards! I liked how last year’s “Best of 2010″ post turned out, so that’ll pretty much be the template for these awards. The main difference being, I’ve got a shiny new trophy now! Like last year’s Best Ofs, this is stuff that wasn’t necessarily published in 2011, just what I read the past year. And first reads only; re-reads don’t count. (Here’s a link to my 2011 reading list for reference.)


Statistics

First off, let’s start with some numbers, because who doesn’t love numbers?

Total books read: 51
Re-reads: 7
Non-series reads: 14
Nonfiction reads: 1
Novels by female authors: 3
Short story collections: 9
Reads that were also acquired in 2011: 21
Borrowed (unowned): 10

Interesting stuff, maybe, but not the real reason you’re here. Without further ado:


Best Short Story Collection 2011:

Runners-up:

5. Side Jobs by Jim Butcher
In the first half of 2010, I tore through the entirety of Jim Butcher’s fantastic Dresden Files series. I had to wait until fall of 2011 for the next installment, and decided to check out this short story collection (that I had skipped out on previously) in the meantime, particularly since it contained a story that took place between the previous book and the upcoming one. I’m glad I did, because Dresden shines in the short story format, and it was fun to read about the “side jobs” that take place before and between the books of the series. “The Warrior” might be my favorite Dresden story of all time.

4. Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds
The Revelation Space universe is an amazing place, and a large part of what gives it its charm is the sense of history with which Reynolds has imbued his books. This collection is a bit of an eye-opener in when you get to see just what the scope of his created fictional history is. Copious references to characters and events from his series make these stories mesh perfectly with those books, and perhaps the most impressive part is that main of them were written before the books. Beyond that, though, this is still a solid collection of awesome sci-fi stories.

2. (tie) Storeys from the Old Hotel and Strange Travelers by Gene Wolfe
I chickened out and put both these books in a tie for second place. You know I love me some Gene Wolfe, and ranking two superb collections by a favorite author is always hard, but beyond that, each collection showcases a different form: Travelers features a number of Wolfe’s longer-form stories, 15 in all, while Storeys tackles the shorter form, with over 30 inclusions. They’re two totally different animals, but at the same time, they’re both totally Gene Wolfe. It’s like picking your favorite child (and sure, you might actually have one, but you’ll never tell!)


And the best short story collection I read in 2011 is…

1. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
I adore Gene Wolfe (see above) and one of his largest influences is the Argentinian author Borges. Allusions to Borges’ work abound in Wolfe’s, and I had recently read The Shadow of the Wind which had its own share of Borgesian elements, so I knew I had to eventually get around to reading the original. Holy wow. It’s easy to see the parallels between Wolfe and Borges; Borges is what you might get if you took Wolfe and removed all the sci-fi and fantastical elements, stripped it down to the raw, crystallized ideas. And concentrated it. Mind-blowing stuff, is what it is. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is one of my favorite stories ever.


Best Comic Book 2011:


This might be a one-off category for this year, but I read a fair number of comic book collections, mostly thanks to Half Price Books. There were three worth singling out, and they are…

Runners-up:

3. Last Stand of the Wreckers by Nick Roche & James Roberts
This series had been hyped beyond all belief by the Transformers fanbase, so I was excited to finally lay my hands on a cheap copy of the trade paperback. It did not disappoint. This is the kind of book that shows just how great this franchise can be when put in the hands of people who really care about and understand it. It takes place in IDW’s current series continuity, but besides a couple of scenes, it’s entirely self-contained, and it draws heavily on obscure characters from all throughout franchise history, meaning you don’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy this book. If you’re a hardcore fan, or just interested in seeing how good TF storytelling can get, you need to pick up this book. Besides the original 5-issue series, the trade paperback also collects a related prose story by Roberts titled “Bullets” that’s just icing on the cake.

2. Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher & Ardian Syaf
In the introduction to the graphic novel edition, Butcher explains that when writing the Dresden Files novels, he always pictured them in his mind as comic books. Which goes a long way toward explaining why this 4-issue original prequel series feels just like reading one of the novels. It’s pure unadulterated Dresden goodness, with all the trademark wit, magic, and monsters you’ve come to expect. And Ardian Syaf’s artwork is perfect: comic booky without being overly cartoony, and his characters—especially Harry Dresden himself—are spot-on.


And the best comic book I read in 2011 is…

1. Echo by Terry Moore
I have Tor.com and Stephen Aryan to thank for this one. After his write-up of this series, I just had to check it out, and was able to find 4 of the 6 available collections for cheap on eBay. Later I sold them and sprung for the Complete Edition containing all 30 issues, and let me tell you that is a beast of a book. And it’s amazing. Moore’s black-and-white artwork is gorgeous, his characters—their personalities and expressions and interactions—all fully realized, and he still manages to throw a bunch of slam-bang action into the mix. Almost impossible to put down.


Best Novel 2011:


Man oh man oh man this was tough; I read a lot of really good books this past year. (Titles link to my reviews.)

Runners-up:

5. The Crippled God by Steven Erikson
This was the big one, the final volume in the 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen, perhaps the most ambitious fantasy series ever attempted, and the series responsible for my participation in various book cataloging sites and online forums, and thus also for my reading habits for the past half-decade. In those 5 years I’d read all of the previous books, re-read most of them, and discussed them all ad nauseum, and this capped it all off. It was exhilarating and bittersweet at the same time, bringing the decalogy full circle and tying (most) things up eventfully, emotionally, and thematically. It wasn’t perfect, but then, that’s fitting, too.

4. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
This was on my “I really need to read books by this guy” list, and I finally picked it up over Christmas of 2009. I haven’t read any Heinlein—outside the fairly crappy The Cat Who Walks Through Walls but people compare this book to Heinlein’s work a lot. It reminded me a lot of Card’s Ender’s Game, but mostly in a “sci-fi you’d recommend to a friend whose never read sci-fi before” way. The first-person narrative is fabulous, hilarious, and moving, and the action is gritty and frantic and very very real. All around, a very enjoyable, very human book.

3. Peace by Gene Wolfe
Yes, I love Gene Wolfe. Shut up. It feels weird to write a book review that basically goes, “I don’t understand this book, but I love it.” So it is with this one. A book of Midwestern memoirs doesn’t seem like it would be my thing, but Wolfe’s writing is so gorgeous, so eminently readable, but also quite haunting; and the sinister undercurrents that never quite reveal their true nature (at least on a first read) make this an absolutely fascinating book.

2. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Scott recommended this one to me as his favorite book, and I trust his judgement, and hey, I found it for $2, too. It’s worth the cover price, though; this is one lush and luscious novel full of romance and mystery (and a tinge of horror) and absolutely dripping with atmosphere. It’s a book for book lovers, and for lovers of fine storytelling in general.


And the best novel I read in 2011 is…

1. Embassytown by China Miéville
Like Scalzi, I had never read any of Miéville’s work before, but that changed when I won a review copy of his upcoming Embassytown. Talk about being blown away; this book was amazing. All of my favorite sci-fi elements were present: well-developed, alien aliens, cultural clashes, intrigue, mystery, unconventional narrative structure, jaw-dropping revelations, and plenty of Big Ideas and musings on the nature of language and thought. I read a lot of reviews that basically gave it a thumbs-down, and I it’s like I can’t even decipher the words being written; it makes no sense at all to me. This was easily the best book of 2011, and one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading, period.

Honorable mentions: Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, The Breach by Patrick Lee, Reamde by Neal Stephenson



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Tue, 03 Jan 2012 17:21

In the next week or so, I’ll be writing up the first annual Salty Awards, looking back at my favorite reads of 2011, but right now I want to take a second to look forward to 2012.

My plans for 2011 didn’t entirely pan out, but that won’t stop me from making plans for the coming year! I’m scaling back considerably, with only four planned projects to tackle, but they’re not necessarily unambitious:

Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle

Since 2008, I’ve spent every December reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and this year is no different. I’m currently halfway through book #2, The Claw of the Conciliator, but I don’t plan on stopping with the BotNS this year; rather, I’ll also be reading the related Book of the Long Sun (4 volumes that I’ve read once before) and Book of the Short Sun (3 volumes that I’ve yet to read) as well as various related short stories. The full list (in my planned order, the order of shorter works subject to change) goes like this:

  • The Book of the New Sun
    • The Shadow of the Torturer
    • The Claw of the Conciliator
    • The Sword of the Lictor
    • The Citadel of the Autarch
  • “The Map” (short story in Endangered Species)
  • “The Cat” (short story in Endangered Species)
  • The Urth of the New Sun
  • “The Boy Who Hooked the Sun” (short story in Starwater Strains)
  • “The God and His Man” (short story in Endangered Species)
  • “Empires of Foliage and Flower” (novella in Starwater Strains)
  • “The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin is the Sun” (short story in Innocents Aboard)
  • The Book of the Long Sun
    • Nightside the Long Sun
    • Lake of the Long Sun
    • Caldé of the Long Sun
    • Exodus from the Long Sun
  • The Book of the Short Sun
    • On Blue’s Waters
    • In Green’s Jungles
    • Return to the Whorl

Tolkien’s Middle Earth

I’ve read The Hobbit and the The Lord of the Rings twice; the last time was about 10-12 years ago, and the first was about 10-12 years before that (I figure I was 10-12 at the time) so a reread this years seems in order. But I’ll be also be throwing in some of the ancillary material that I’ve never read before. I’m actually pretty excited about this one:

  • The Children of Húrin
  • The Silmarillion
  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings
    • The Fellowship of the Ring
    • The Two Towers
    • The Return of the King
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth

That Dang Song of Ice and Fire

I’ve slowly been accumulating George R. R. Martin’s infamous series from used bookstores over the years, and have really wanted to get into them, but I also refused to start in until the most recent volume had been published. It will (presumably) be out in mass market paperback later this year, which will be the perfect time to dive in.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire
    • A Game of Thrones
    • A Clash of Kings
    • A Storm of Swords
    • A Feast for Crows
    • A Dance With Dragons

Mistborn!

My wife has been on my case to read Brandon Sanderson’s acclaimed trilogy for a while, now. I keep telling her I’ll get to it next year. Now it’s in writing! I may as well stick the standalone sequel on as well.

  • Mistborn
    • The Final Empire
    • The Well of Ascension
    • The Hero of Ages
  • The Alloy of Law

Well, what do you think? Have I once more bitten off more than I can chew?


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Tue, 03 Jan 2012 16:29

Books read in 2012, listed by month finished. As always, you can follow along with my reading journal @ LibraryThing, where you can also see my complete reading list, or just my 2012 reads.

January

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Deep Sky by Patrick Lee
The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
The Tomb by F. Paul Wilson

February

Magic: The Gathering: Test of Metal by Matthew Stover
The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson
When She’s Gone by Steven Erikson

March

The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe
The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April

Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover
Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover
Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno
The Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany
John Dies at the End by David Wong

May

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards
Star Wars: Cloak of Deception by James Luceno
The Children of Húrin by J. R. R. Tolkien

June

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
Tales from Super-Science Fiction ed. by Robert Silverberg
The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson
Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

July

Crack’d Pot Trail by Steven Erikson

August

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Transformers Legends ed. by David Cian
Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

September

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Ghost Ocean by S. M. Peters

October

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer
Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson
A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

November

This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong
A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

December

Vale of Stars by Sean O’Brien
The Eternal Champion by Michael Moorcock
The Sundered Worlds by Michael Moorcock
Phoenix in Obsidian by Michael Moorcock


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Thu, 22 Dec 2011 11:32

The giveaway gods were smiling on me again when I won a copy of Courtney Schafer’s fantasy debut from the Staffer’s Musings blog. I hadn’t previously read any of the reviews in detail, but I got the sense that it had been favorably received overall—plus, I really wanted to find out just what was going on in that cover—so I threw my name in the proverbial hat, and viola! free book! Following some friendly correspondence with Ms. Schafer, a copy of The Whitefire Crossing showed up in my mailbox, complete with an encouraging personalized message in the front. Very lovely. Thanks, Courtney!

I had told her I wasn’t sure I’d get to reading it before year’s end; I was in the middle of Brent Weeks’ massive Night Angel trilogy, and having already let too much time pass between reading the first two books (you know how it is sometimes) I wanted to finish the whole thing in one go. Well, Thanksgiving rolls along, and the end of the second book is within sight, but man I really didn’t want to lug that massive omnibus edition up to my grandparents’ house, and The Whitefire Crossing had been sitting on my nightstand this whole time, with me (rather unexpectedly) itching to read it…

So I packed it and brought it up with me. Cracked it open Thanksgiving Day, and was immediately hooked.

Hooked bad.

Dev is a mountaineer and a smuggler who takes a job that’s a little out of the ordinary: smuggling a man across the titular Whitefire Mountains and into the country of Alathia. Kiran is the man being smuggled. He’s also a mage, on the run from an even more powerful mage. And magic is outlawed in Alathia…

The story is told in intriguing fashion: the narrative alternates between Dev’s and Kiran’s perspectives, but where Kiran’s POV is told from a third-person perspective, Dev’s is done in the first-person. It’s a fantastic device, as both characters have secrets they’re trying to keep from the other, and never truly getting inside Kiran’s head means the mysteries surrounding him remain tantalizing. However, the imbalance also means Kiran never quite seems as “real” a character as Dev, but that’s okay, because Dev makes for such a fantastic POV character. Saying he’s basically Han Solo seems kind of unfair, but it’s not entirely off the mark; he’s very much of the smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, though his gold is perhaps a tad tarnished. But he’s got a past history and well-defined motivations; Schafer makes him a very real, very three-dimensional person. (Which is not to say Kiran doesn’t have those things, as well—he does. But again, he’s got that slight feeling of removal from the reader that Dev does not.)

There’s plenty of magic in the book, and mages and charms and wards and everything; it’s very well done, nicely consistent, and integrated into the story seamlessly and effortlessly. There’s not too much else to say about it. The plot’s not nearly as straightforward as my (very) brief synopsis above makes it out to be; there are some fantastic twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions. But I don’t have much else to say about the plot. This is a book about relationships. Dev and Kiran. Dev and his fellow outrider, Cara. Dev and his former mentor, Sethan. Kiran and his master, Ruslan. I’ll stop there, but you get the idea.

The book is the first in a series, with The Tainted City due in late 2012. Don’t let that stop you from picking it up. This first entry more or less stands on its own, and comes to an acceptable (if not entirely satisfactory) conclusion. The future of the series depends on how well the first two books do, and they deserve to do quite well indeed.

I went into this review having given the book a 3.5-star rating. 3 stars is pretty much my baseline “I enjoyed it” rating; 2.5 would be “I enjoyed it, but” and 3.5 is a favorable “I enjoyed it, and…” 4 stars is another level entirely, and much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel like The Whitefire Crossing was quite at that level. But reflecting back on the book while writing and proofing this review, it’s become obvious to me that it is at that level. This is a really good book. [4 out of 5 stars]


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Thu, 17 Nov 2011 12:31

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].


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Tue, 08 Nov 2011 11:48

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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Reamde

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Sat, 29 Oct 2011 11:42

Toy Story alien collection

My collection of Toy Story aliens (“ooooooh!”) as of October 2011.


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Fri, 28 Oct 2011 13:06

Do you ever have it happen where you hear a lyric or two from a song, and it recalls a passage or a topic from a completely-unrelated book? This is one of those deals, but in this case it was the lyrics from not one, but two different songs that always make me think of something from Gene Wolfe.

I’m presenting the quotes here in the reverse order in which I came across them. First up, a line from a They Might Be Giants song that I first heard this September. Next, a line from Jars of Clay that I first heard last December. Finally, the relevant passage from Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor (being the third part of The Book of the New Sun) which I’ve read each December for the past 3 years.

It’s my hope that you’ll read the lyrics first, then the book passage (I apologize for the length; I couldn’t bring myself to trim it down) then reread the song lyrics, and finally go, “Hunh.”


I am a dog walker
But someday
I’ll be a dog

—They Might Be Giants, Dog Walker

You can lose your mind
Maybe then your heart you’ll find
I hope you won’t give up
What’s moving you inside

—Jars of Clay, Sunny Days

“Severian, who where those men?”

I knew whom he meant. “They were not men, although they were once men and still resemble men. They were zoanthrops, a word that indicates those beasts that are of human shape. Do you understand what I am saying?”

The little boy nodded solemnly, then asked, “Why don’t they wear clothes?”

“Because they are no longer human beings, as I told you. A dog is born a dog and a bird is born a bird, but to become a human being is an achievement—you have to think about it. You have been thinking about it for the past three or four years at least, little Severian, even though you may never have thought about the thinking.”

“A dog just looks for things to eat,” the boy said.

“Exactly. But that raises the question of whether a person should be forced to do such thinking, and some people decided a long time ago that he should not. We may force a dog, sometimes, to act like a man—to walk on his hind legs and wear a collar and so forth. But we shouldn’t and couldn’t force a man to act like a man. Did you ever want to fall asleep? When you weren’t sleepy or even tired?”

He nodded.

“That was because you wanted to put down the burden of being a boy, at least for a time. Sometimes I drink too much wine, and that is because for a while I would like to stop being a man. Sometimes people take their own lives for that reason. Did you know that?”

“Or they do things that might hurt them,” he said. The way he said it told me of arguments overheard; Becan had very probably been that kind of man, or he would not have taken his family to so remote and dangerous a place.

“Yes,” I told him. “That can be the same thing. And sometimes certain men, and even women, come to hate the burden of thought, but without loving death. They see the animals and wish to become as they are, answering only to instinct, and not thinking. Do you know what makes you think, little Severian?”

“My head,” the boy said promptly, and grasped it with his hands.

“Animals have heads too—even very stupid animals like crayfish and oxen and ticks. What makes you think is only a small part of your head, inside, just above your eyes.” I touched his forehead. “Now if for some reason you wanted one of your hands taken off, there are men you can go to who are skilled in doing that. Suppose, for example, your hand had suffered some hurt from which it would never be well. They could take it away in such a fashion that there would be little chance of any harm coming to the rest of you.”

The boy nodded.

“Very well. Those same men can take away that little part of your head that makes you think. They cannot put it back, you understand. And even if they could, you couldn’t ask them to do it, once that part was gone. But sometimes people pay these men to take that part away. They want to stop thinking forever, and often they say they wish to turn their backs on all that humanity has done. Then it is no longer just to treat them as human beings—they have become animals, though animals who are still of human shape. You asked why they did not wear clothes. They no longer understand clothes, and so they would not put them on, even if they were very cold, although they might lie down on them or even roll themselves up in them.”

—Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor


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Thu, 27 Oct 2011 23:18

So, October is birthday month, which means books! Here’s what came into my possession this month:


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Wed, 12 Oct 2011 17:52

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]


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Mon, 15 Aug 2011 10:14

Kaylee with bubbles

Kaylee getting a little excited about bubbles on the Fourth of July. Photo  by Matt Armstead.

[2011-07-04]


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Fri, 29 Jul 2011 17:36

In which I rave about Terry Moore’s amazing Echo comic book series.

LISTEN:

SMZcast #2

NOTES:

Wondering where episode #1 is? It’s been recorded, but the quality is very poor. I haven’t decided whether to re-record it, or just release it as is. We shall see.


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Tue, 26 Jul 2011 22:44

Fighter-Bot sketch

This is a sketch I did during a meeting. I’ve decided that this guy’s a redeco of Aerobot, with “dogfighter” detailing on his nosecone (y’know, the teeth and eyes and stuff.) He’s a bit of a brawler, hence his name. I haven’t yet decided what color scheme he’d have, but I’m thinking maybe something in olive drab and orange…


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