Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: The God Engines

book cover for the god enginesCaptain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It's what he doesn't know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely

"It was time to whip the god."

Now that's an opening line! It grabs hold of the reader (this one anyway) and immediately begs the question: What the hell is going on here? Aspiring authors should take note. Actually, I've noticed that some established authors should make note of it as well.

Scalzi is noted for writing science fiction. Although this story mostly takes place on a starship, it's dark fantasy. There are no sci-fi elements other than the starship and a bit of interstellar travel. Space fantasy, perhaps. It is a distant cousin to the Barsoom saga in terms of genre. But don't go expecting a Burroughs-style adventure; this is much darker.

Being just a novella, the pace feels a bit rushed. Backstory for the characters is hard to come by, so every tidbit that Scalzi shares is valuable. If the page count had been doubled, Scalzi could've gone into more detail about this strange universe where faith powers technology, maybe revealed more detail about the setting and how things work. But maybe that's a good thing as Scalzi just sticks to the molten core of this story, and more detail might slow things down too much.

The conflict between Captain Tephe and Priest Andso is well done. The two are locked in a power struggle and clash often to see who will come out ahead. All the while, the aforementioned god taunts Tephe, assailing his faith. Both interpersonal relationships maintain the tension until the first contact meeting with a heathen people, when Scalzi reveals his hand (I must say, I was caught off guard). From there it's a mad dash to the book's bloody conclusion.

It was nice to see Scalzi break from his established style and go dark. I can see why the novella was nominated for a Hugo. 4.5 stars.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears on Goodreads.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: Echoes of Avalon

book cover for Echoes of AvalonPatrick Gawain knows monsters. He's seen plenty of the human sort in the Holy Lands, and as he sails home from The First Crusade, a hooded apparition begins to stalk him. Convinced that he's lost his mind, he holes up in a monastery to convalesce and, if recovery proves impossible, to hide his demons from the world. But a stranger comes to find him and presents a barely credible invitation: travel to Avalon and serve with the Avangarde, an order of knights sworn to protect young scholars from around the world.

Thinking it will be a fresh start, Patrick agrees, and soon discovers that Avalon is more than a myth; it is the site of a vibrant secret academy - and it's also full of ghosts, goblins, and talking wolves. He can capably protect the castle from the island's supernatural beasts, but in the relative peace of the academy life, his hooded demon returns and his troubled heart causes him to sabotage the love of a young woman, Katherina. When an ancient being with sinister designs for the island infiltrates the academy, Patrick is the first to suspect its true nature when it begins its quest by seducing Katherina.

Patrick soon learns that before he can defeat monsters, he must first defeat his personal demons.

This was a tough book to finish, but after taking a break midway through, I was able to get it done. It could've used a developmental edit to whittle out 150-200 pages. Why is that? Well, as someone complained in the Goodreads comments, nothing happens for the longest time. This isn't epic fantasy. There's no great quest. It's clearly not Arthurian legend. It took forever to even learn who the villain was. This is a character driven story, and that's generally incapable of supporting a 500+ page novel.

At first, I thought this was going to be a story about a knight with PTSD, suffering from what he witnessed during the Crusades, but then the hooded apparition and Gawain's dwelling on the war disappeared from the story. It was replaced by day-to-day life on Avalon, which turned out to be rather mundane given the mysterious opening regarding how one gained access to the island. It all seemed like so much soap opera: Which knight is courting which lady? Will Gawain ever realize the affections of a certain handmaiden?

The villain arrived late and was more annoying than threatening. His relationship with his minion, Minion, was like watching a Saturday morning cartoon in the 70s. I won't say his name as that would certainly spoil it for future readers, but it's a name that carries a lot of literary baggage. The villain's origin story in the middle of the novel was wholly unnecessary as it didn't change my opinion of him nor enlighten me to his motivations. A shorter version could've worked as a prologue in a shorter novel, but randomly dumped in the middle of the book was too much, too late.

I would give this 2.5 stars if that were possible on Goodreads. I rounded up to three as Copeland shows that he firmly grasps characterization (I stuck with the story because I cared about Gawain). He's also capable of fine world-building and garnishing it with the proper descriptive prose to render the scene, even negative ones—the opening scene on the boat stirred up a recent seasickness memory. He just needs the right editor to tighten the narrative and make it less tedious.

This review previously appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: The Dreaming Void

book cover for The Dreaming VoidTo read the book blurb, click here.

I don't give up on books; I always see them through to the end. I came close to quitting Rainbow's End, but I stuck with it. But not this time. 80 pages in and I'm done.

When I ran an indie book review blog, I had a simple system set in place. If the blurb piqued my interest, I'd read the first chapter to see if I was hooked. It was a good system, but not perfect. Some clunkers got through. Apparently, I need to apply that same system to traditionally published books. Blurbs (and Goodreads recommendation engines) aren't enough.

The opening sentence was a dud. The Prologue was dull. Every single bit of writer's advice that I've heard and read states that you have to hook your reader with the first sentence, the first paragraph at the very latest, but this doesn't do that. The first sentence:

The starship slipped down out of a night sky, its gray and scarlet hull illuminated by the pale iridescence of the massive ion storms that beset space for light-years in every direction.

Pretty, but not exactly hook worthy. The rest of the Prologue describes this guy's arrival at an scientific observation post and then his attendance at a party. When he's tired and had his fill of socializing, he goes to his quarters to sleep. And then he has "the dream." End of Prologue. I think "the dream" was meant to be the hook.

The book blurb says that said dream was of a paradise that lies within the spatial anomaly that the observation post has been studying for centuries. This is the fantasy setting that people have referred to in the Goodreads comments. Apparently the dreams spawned a religion and everyone wants to migrate there. But why? Magic? These people already benefit from FTL spaceships that reduce travel time to distant stars to mere hours and have all the body modification abilities that transhumanist wannabes could possibly desire. I found it lacking. Maybe transhumanists in the future are bored (spoiled?) with centuries long lifespans and want more.

There wasn't any action until page 57, and it came out of nowhere. Everything was character introduction and gee whiz fantastic tech. The character who participated in the action scene never revealed any indication in his previous scenes that he was anything more than a pilgrim just chillin' before the big trip. I had trouble forging any sort of connection with the characters. I felt lost and bored, struggling to read more than five pages at a time.

If I'm reading Hamilton's bibliography correctly, this was his 11th novel. His publisher must figure that he's got his audience. No need to mess with the formula; it works. No hooks necessary. The man is the hook.

Even though I didn't like the book to this point, I'm giving this at least two stars for world building, pretty prose, and—I'm going to make an assumption here—an intricate story. With the right audience, it works. However, I'm not that audience. And that's a pity. I'd read "Blessed by an Angel" and I was keen to explore the worlds he created. Now, not so much.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Skullcrack City

book cover for Skullcrack CityLife as a corporate drone was killing S.P. Doyle, so he decided to bring down the whole corrupt system from the inside. But after discovering something monstrous in the bank's files, he was framed for murder and trapped inside a conspiracy beyond reason.

Now Doyle's doing his best to survive against a nightmare cabal of crooked conglomerates, DNA-doped mutants, drug-addled freak show celebs, experimental surgeons, depraved doomsday cults, and the ultra-bad mojo of a full-blown Hexadrine habit. Joined by his pet turtle Deckard, and Dara, a beautiful missionary with a murderous past, Doyle must find a way to save humankind and fight the terrible truth at the heart of...SKULLCRACK CITY

It's been five years since I read We Live Inside You, JRJ's second collection of short stories. I'd forgotten how much he can get under your skin—I won't go any further with that metaphor. He has this wonderful ability to get you to care about his characters (with exceptions of course), be silent witness to their suffering, and re-assure them that they're still human no matter what.

One could say that Skullcrack City is an outgrowth of "The League of Zeroes," the opening short story in JRJ's first short story collection, Angel Dust Apocalypse. But while the body modification elements of "The League of Zeroes" factor into Skullcrack City (it's not a novel for the squeamish), the novel is so much bigger. "The League of Zeroes" is actually the origin story for Buddy the Brain, a minor character in the novel—the two doctors from the novel appear in a limited fashion in the short story.

JRJ's writing style shifts fluidly in Skullcrack City as the protagonist, S.P. Doyle, changes. The Doyle we meet in the Prologue struck me as sinister. He hardly seemed like the guy we were supposed to be rooting for. But then the story proper starts and we meet the Hex-addicted Doyle. The guy is a total mess, spiraling out of control with paranoid fantasies, and it shows up in the narrative. You're not sure what's real and what's hallucination as one sentence runs head on into the next. And just when you think he can't go any further, he crashes as his paranoid fears are confirmed. But we're only a third of the way through the book.

In the middle third, the Hex is purged from his system, but Doyle struggles like a newly hatched chick as his body returns to normal and he awkwardly tries to grow into the would-be hero role. The narrative slows down to a manageable pace with periods of introspection, letting the reader catch their breath. But it's also punctuated by episodes of violence to prevent reader complacency and prod Doyle out of episodes of navel gazing.

In the final third, Doyle is forced to adapt or die. His struggle to survive forces him to shed the awkward persona and stand for something. As certainty of purpose kicks in, a calm settles over Doyle. There's a sense of purpose now. As the world teeters on the edge of insanity and terrible monstrosities, it is Doyle who's now the rational one. We recognize the guy from the Prologue as the story has come full circle.

While this is standalone novel that eliminates any chance of sequels, I'd still like to make a request for more JRJ novels. Please.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 vs TV Show

Book cover for Walking Dead Compendium #1I have never been a fan of zombie fiction, but several years ago, a friend of mine—who is very much into both horror and comics—highly recommended The Walking Dead TV show. My wife and I binge watched season one just before season two came out, and we loved it. Now I knew from watching Talking Dead that the show differed from the comic in several ways, most notably the absence of the Dixon brothers from the comics. But I wondered in what other ways the two differed, so I decided to check out the source material.

Wow, I had no idea.

Sure, the TV show hits on the main places and events (Rick waking up in the hospital, the camp outside Atlanta, Hershel's Farm, the prison, Woodbury), but the nature of these places, how they're encountered, and the events that play out there are very different.

More drastically though are the differences in the characters. Except for Maggie, Hershel's kids are completely different people. No Beth. Tyrese shows up much earlier, but with a daughter and her boyfriend. No Sasha. And there are characters in the comic that don't exist on the show, though none of them are memorable enough to be missed.

But I'm not just talking about the absence of characters from one world to the other, the characters that exist in both worlds are different. Nearly every character shows some degree of difference, some more than others. I think it's really noticeable with the female characters. If you liked Carol in the TV show, her version in the comics is completely unrecognizable. You probably won't like her, too obsessed with how others perceive her. Lori seems to nag Rick all of the time. Michonne is underdeveloped. Maggie and Glen are ok, but still inferior to their TV versions. Except for Andrea, and to a lesser extent Tyreese, I found that I preferred the TV show version of the characters over the comic. And that goes double for the primary villain here in volume 1: the Governor.

The TV version of the Governor was a far more complex character than the comic version. On the TV show, the Governor is out to woo newcomers and attempts to be a gracious host. He seems to be wrestling with caring for the people of Woodbury while doing terrible things to hold onto power and keeping his secrets hidden. Not so the comic version. The latter was just a maniacal sadist with sick hobbies. Demonstrating why he was such a charismatic figure to the inhabitants of Woodbury, the true source of his strength, seemed more of an afterthought.

So I give the producers of the TV show credit for recognizing the potential here, and I give Kirkman credit for being humble enough to work with other writers as they rearranged and revised the characters and events of his beloved work. I can see why the fans of the comic, who were there from the beginning, don't like what the show has done. However, I'm glad that I watched the show first. Not too sure I need to keep reading the comic.

A slightly shorter version of this review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Visit from Red Fox

On cloudy days during the week, we sometimes get a visit from a red fox that lives in the neighborhood. He/She usually just trots past my office window and is gone before I can get my camera or my phone. Four weeks ago, I finally got my chance.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox

Those first five photos were taken with an Olympus Camedia C-3020, a 16-year-old digital camera with a resolution of 3.2 Megapixels and a 3X zoom lens. The next four photos were taken with my Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini with a 5 Megapixel resolution. However, the zoom sucks. I think the pictures are grainier, the color more washed out.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox

That last picture should've been the money shot, but it's blurry. My wife got me a zoom lens attachment for the S3 Mini, but I haven't tried it out yet. It's going to require me to remove my phone's armor—it triples the phone's thickness—in order to attach it.

Anyway, the fox is one of the more interesting critters we have the pleasure of sharing our yard with. The moles, chipmunks, and squirrels don't think so, and I'm not sure my cats will be too keen when they find out.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: Dreams Before the Start of Time

Book cover for Dreams Before the Start of TimeIn a near-future London, Millie Dack places her hand on her belly to feel her baby kick, resolute in her decision to be a single parent. Across town, her closest friend—a hungover Toni Munroe—steps into the shower and places her hand on a medic console. The diagnosis is devastating.

In this stunning, bittersweet family saga, Millie and Toni experience the aftershocks of human progress as their children and grandchildren embrace new ways of making babies. When infertility is a thing of the past, a man can create a child without a woman, a woman can create a child without a man, and artificial wombs eliminate the struggles of pregnancy. But what does it mean to be a parent? A child? A family?

Through a series of interconnected vignettes that spans five generations and three continents, this emotionally taut story explores the anxieties that arise when the science of fertility claims to deliver all the answers.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Anne Charnock takes a look at how scientific advances lead to the technological cure for infertility and birth defects. With the introduction of the artificial womb and genetic engineering, anyone can become the parent of a healthy baby. But rather than dwell on the tech itself, Charnock chooses to write about the impact of these developments on the very definition of family.

The novel follows a pair of families across five generations and is told through a series of vignettes. Each one is a snapshot into a character's life when familial decisions are made or pivotal character development is revealed. There are arguments across generations regarding the nature of relationships and reproductive choices. There are contrasting scenes where sperm donors are forced to confront the fruits of their offerings. There are passages where genetic tinkering beyond curing maladies is debated. But all of it is coaxed in the language of everyday life.

While Charnock's characters treat these choices as eyebrow raising, we don't get to see the public's reaction to the technology's development. The whole of society is largely kept in the background, but every now and then there are hints and passing mentions of rules and regulations meant to maintain reproductive integrity. Again, this is all kept in the family as it were. I don't know if this is an American vs. European cultural difference, but I believe that there would be a raging wildfire of debate in the States over this development along the lines of the decades-long argument over reproductive rights.

But that's not the point of this work: Charnock is here to focus on the impact on families. She plots a course straight down the middle, neither praising nor condemning choices. Pros and cons to the choices her characters make are deftly shown and presented without judgement. That is left up to the reader to make. Some characters only have one or two opportunities have their stories told before retreating to the background, but other characters in the spotlight refer to them and how they've fared.

Pacing may come as a surprise to some readers. There is no dramatic rise and fall. Instead, the book moves steadily through the characters lives like a river, the occasional dramatic point emphasized like rocks in the riverbed. One generation after the next, families go on. They change just as a river meanders through different terrains, but on it goes.

We've already seen how the definition of family has changed over the last several decades, Charnock suggests that it will continue to evolve as science comes to a greater understanding of how human reproduction works. All in all, there's plenty of food for thought on how it could all play out in Dreams Before the Start of Time. If you're looking for a book that makes you contemplate how breakthrough technologies could affect our lives, then this is the book for you.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.