Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Burning Sky (Halcyon #1 : A Steampunk Thriller - Joseph Robert Lewis

    2011; 331 pages.  Book 1 of the Halcyon trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genres :  Action-Adventure; Alt History; Steampunk.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Someone has blown up the Tingis airfield, killing dozens, destroying one dirigible, stealing another.  Lieutenant Taziri Ohana arrives to find only one remaining airship – the Halcyon – still operable.  She’d prefer to turn around and go back home to her husband and small daughter, but when her captain is stabbed in the face by one of the perpetrators, the issue becomes personal.

    So it’s up, up and away to chase the hijacked blimp.  But things escalate quickly and it becomes clear that the airfield sabotage is just the first step in a bigger plot.  With bigger and more dangerous foes to face.

What’s To Like...
    The action starts immediately and is nonstop.  The POV changes every chapter, which prevents the storyline from bogging down.  The Alternate World is kewl.  Essentially it is the Mediterranean area where the last Ice Age never ended.  This affects the history, the fauna and flora, and of course the climate.  Places like England and Germany are in deep-freeze, and the Saharan region of Africa (“Ifrica”) is lush, fertile, and temperate.  The story takes place almost entirely in alt-Morocco (“Marrakesh”), which is unusual for Steampunk.

    Women dominate the Marrakesh government, and that’s intriguing.  Overall, the Ifricans are more civilized that the Europans; that’s a pleasant change-of-pace.  Some good guys die, and some bad guys get away.  The Burning Sky is part of a trilogy, but it is also a standalone novel.

    Syfax thumbed his nose.  “She might have even shot the captain by accident.  Never forget your SCARF’s, lieutenant.”
    “Scarves?  What’s that mean?”
    “Stupid, Crazy, And Random Factors,” Kenan answered from the cabin.  “Crimes that just don’t make any sense.”  (loc. 396)

    Is that all?  Is that all you have to say over the body of a man who lived and died at your side?  A man who followed you half way around the world, who gave up his people, his country, his gods, even his language to stand by you, to put his flesh between you and death countless times?
    He swallowed and stared down at the weathered face lying still in the dust.  His own reflection stared up from the dark pool of blood under the man’s head.  Lorenzo nodded to himself.  Then that’s all there is.  (loc. 1785)
Kindle Details...
    The Burning Sky sells for $2.99 at Amazon. The other two books in the series, The Broken Sword and The Bound Soul are the same price.  Joseph Robert Lewis has penned two other trilogies set in the same alt-world, so you have lots of opportunities to immerse yourself in it and follow his fascinating characters.

“Where is a priest or a ghost when you need one?”  (loc. 1809)
    I’ve read Book 2 of the Halcyon trilogy; it is reviewed here.  The Broken Sword was more of a “quest” story, whereas The Burning Sky seemed to focus on some “larger” themes.  The scent of revolution hangs in the Marrakeshian air, and a worldwide conflict is not unlikely.

   The main characters are different – Taziri here; Don Lorenzo in Book 2.  Part of the backstory – Lorenzo and Qhora meeting in a disastrous invasion of the New World by the Espani is still not detailed.  Maybe that’s part of a different trilogy.

    8 Stars.  This really is a page-turner.  The third book is on my Kindle; we shall see how Joseph Robert Lewis wraps up the series.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Claus : Legend of the Fat Man - Tony Bertauski

    2012; 327 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Christmas Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It’s 1820, and Nicholas Santa has set out to achieve his life’s goal – to reach the North Pole.  His wife (Jessica) and son (Jon) are with him on his quest.  But none of them are experienced explorers, and they’re not well-equipped for an Arctic trek.  They’ll probably die, but at least they’ll die together.

    Unfortunately, when Nicolas falls down a deep, Wonderlandish hole during a blizzard, and his wife and son are carried away by the gale-force wind, it seems more likely they’ll just die separately.

What’s To Like...
    Despite that rather somber summary, Claus : Legend of the Fat Man has a feel more like a fairytale, albeit an epic one.  Tony Bertauski deftly blends in a number of holiday characters – Frosty the Snowman, elves, The Night Before Christmas story, Jack Frost, and Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer.  The latter don’t really fly, they’ve been bio-engineered to be able to leap hundreds of miles at a time.  Nicholas Santa and Claus are two separate beings.  Half the fun of the book is trying to figure out how that will resolve itself.

    The pacing is brisk, the chapters are short, and the story doesn’t get bogged down with excessive descriptiveness. The characters aren’t deep, but they are entertaining.  Even the bad guy has a certain charm about him.  The author has fun with fonts and font sizes, which I found amusingly neat.

    But there is also a darker edge to the story.  This may be a “once upon a time” tale, but the bad guy was made, not born, that way; and he is not to be trifled with.

    “There you go again!”  The fat man threw his hands up.  “That’s the problem with you warmbloods, you’re always complicating things with thinking, thinking, thinking!  You’ve got reality covered in layers of thought, how do you even tie your shoes?  Just be present, just be here, AND STOP WITH THE MONKEY MIND!”  (loc. 832)

    “He’s not real,” Jon muttered.  “It’s just an illusion.”
    “He’s as real as you and me.”
    “He’s made of snow, Tinsel.  That’s not blood and bone.”
    “Is that what makes someone real, blood and bone?  A body?  Please, Jon.  You’re not your body any more than Frosty is snow and ice.”  (loc. 2090)

Kindle Details...
    Claus : Legend of the Fat Man sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Tony Bertauski offers nine other e-books, all presumably of the fantasy genre, ranging in price from free to $2.99.

“The North Pole is not a place, the natives said.  It is not land.  It is ice.”  (loc. 240)
    CLotFM is another one of those YA stories that adults will enjoy too.  There’s no sex and I don’t recall any cuss words.  There’s a hint of romance and a tinge of science (e.g. : helium-filled bladders in the chests of the reindeer so they can "fly").  There are a couple fatalities, but they occur offstage.

    I found this book to be festively twisted, just right for the Holiday season.  7½ Stars.  Add another star if The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is your kind of Yule story.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Wrinkle In Time - Madeleine L'Engle

    1962; 203 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : Newbery Medal (1963); Sequoyah Book Award (1965); Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1964); #23 on the ALA’s “Most Frequently Challenged Books” for 1990-1999 .  Genre : Science Fiction; YA.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s been a year since Meg Murry’s father disappeared.  Supposedly, he was on a secret government project, but people are whispering it was for another woman.  Now Meg struggles in school, worries that she’s ugly, and gets in trouble defending her precocious-but-weird little brother, Charles Wallace.  Her mother carries on with her scientific work, but Meg’s beginning to wonder if she’ll ever see Father again.

    Ah, but things are about to change.  Calvin O’Keefe doesn’t think she’s ugly, and he’s on the high school football team.  A strange lady – Mrs. Whatsit – has moved into the nearby haunted house, and Charles Wallace says she’s a great friend.  And one night, when  Calvin, Charles, and Meg find themselves drawn to the haunted house, they are both surprised and excited when Mrs. Whatsit announces that they will all be going out to rescue Mr. Murry.  Immediately.

What’s To Like...
    A Wrinkle In Time is a YA novel – bordering on Juvenile – yet introduces Quantum Physics concepts to the reader.  It features a high school girl as its protagonist, which was almost unheard of for sci-fi in those days.  It promotes science in general, and chemistry in particular : in order to stop the UE from hypnotizing her, Meg recites the Periodic Table.  How kewl is that?!

    There’s no sex or cussing, and only a hint of puppy-dog romance developing.  The fate of the world hangs in the balance, yet no one gets killed.  Madeleine L’Engle takes you – and the kids – to several fascinating worlds with equally fascinating creatures.

    There is a happy ending, but there’s also a strong message delivered about the danger of conformity.  The pacing is crisp (a must for a YA book), there are riddles to solve, and some thought-provoking scenes, such as when Meg tries to explain “seeing” to sentient creatures that have no eyes.  Last but not least, there is both time-hopping and dimension-hopping.

Kewlest New Word...
    Swivet (n.) : A panic or extreme discomposure.  Well, tesseract is probably the kewlest new word, but it’s a made-up one, at least in the sense that it’s used here.

    When they got back to the house Mrs. Murry was still in the lab.  She was watching a pale blue fluid move slowly through a tube from a beaker to a retort.  Over a Bunsen burner bubbled a big, earthenware dish of stew.  “Don’t tell Sandy and Dennys I’m cooking out here,” she said.  “they’re always suspicious that a few chemicals may get in with the meat, but I had an experiment I wanted to stay with.”   (pg. 36 )

    “What do you want?” she asked.  “It isn’t paper time yet; we’ve had milk time; we’ve had this month’s Puller Prush Person; and I’ve given my Decency Donations regularly.  All my papers are in order.”
    “I think your little boy dropped his ball,” Charles Wallace said, holding it out.
    The woman pushed the ball away.  “Oh, no!  The children in our section never drop balls!  We haven’t had an Aberration for three years.”  (pg. 101)

“There is such a thing as a tesseract.”  (pg. 20)
        I decided to read A Wrinkle In Time because I was curious how a multiple-award-winning YA book could also end up high on the Banned Books list.  ANAICT, it stems from one short passage where the kids are naming the “great fighters against the darkness” in history, and Jesus is listed as just one of a number of enlightened people who did that (pg. 85).  Heavens to Betsy.

    There are some witches who turn out to not be witches, and a crystal ball that is more like a remote camera than a fortune-telling device.  Compared to Harry Potter, this is very tame stuff.  And good luck on getting HP banned.

    Adults may find the storyline to be too simplistic, particularly the “method” used to overcome the darkness.  But we are not the target audience.  When you keep that in mind, AWIT is a light, delightful read, and a book that really isn’t just another cookie-cutter 1960’s sci-fi story.

    8 Stars.  Highly recommended as a book for kids, but sufficiently entertaining for adults as well.  Add another star if you happen to be YA and are interested in science.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The City and The City - China Miéville

    2000; 312 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Detective Noir; Dystopian Fantasy. Laurels : 2009 Kitschies Award, 2010 Locus Award, 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2010 World Fantasy Award, 2009 British Science Fiction Award, 2010 Hugo Award (tied).  It cleaned up, man.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Ul Qoma and Beszel are sister cities.  In fact, they occupy the same space, just kinda sorta in different dimensions.  Their inhabitants can see each other, but to do so is a serious breach of the law.  So they’ve all been taught to “unsee” and “unhear”.  Kinda.  Sorta.

    Inspector Tyador Borlu has a problem.  A body was dumped in his jurisdiction, Beszel.  But she was apparently murdered in Ul Qoma.  Did the perpetrators breach?  And how does one go about solving the case when half the crime scene is in another dimension?

What’s To Like...
    The City & The City will make you work.  You get dumped into the story from Detective Borlu’s perspective.  He’s lived in Beszel all his life, so he’s used to  the  double-city and “unseeing”.  The reader isn’t, and part of the fun is trying to catch up to Borlu as to how the whole thing works.

    At its core, this is a murder-mystery, but it’s a lot more complex than that.  There is a fantasy element – there are legends of a third dimension, Orciny, hidden in the shadows of both cities.  And there’s a dystopian element – the Breach enforcers who appear out of nowhere when citizens neglect to “unsee” or illegally cross over from one city to the other.  Offenders simply disappear.

      The City & The City is also a vocabularian’s delight with both real words like encomia, carytids, and tendentious to challenge the reader, and made-up ones, like abhistory.  It would feel “forced” if done by most authors; China Miéville makes it flow smoothly.

Kewlest New Word...
Alterity (n.) : The state of being different; “otherness”.

    It may or may not have been Beszel, that we built, back then, while others may have been building Ul Qoma on the same bones.  Perhaps there was one thing back then that later schismed on the ruins, or perhaps our ancestral Beszel had not yet met and stand-offishly entwined with its neighbour.  I am not a student of the Cleavage, but if I were I still would not know.   (pg.42 )
    It was not a soundless dark.  It was not without intrusions.  There were presences within it that asked me questions I could not answer, questions I was aware of as urgencies at which I failed.  Those voices again and again said to me, Breach.  What had touched me sent me not into mindless silence but into a dream arena where I was quarry.  (pg. 241)
“(W)hat if we inherited, shit, Ul Qoman sense of timing and Beszel optimism?”  (pg. 161)
    The City and The City is an ambitious novel, what with multiple genres, complex writing, and deliberately making things confusing at the start for the reader.  Indeed, at the end, a number of things are still “hazy”.  But China Miéville makes it work.  This is not something for lesser writers to try. 

    This is my fourth China Miéville book, and they’ve all been superb.  Assuming he has a long writing career, I predict Miéville will be mentioned in the same sci-fi/fantasy company as Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, and Robert Heinlein.  Yeah, he’s that good.  9 Stars.  And if you want something from Miéville a bit lighter and less challenging, may I suggest Un Lun Dun (reviewed here), which is still my favorite book of his.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Apocalypse Collection - The Eclective

    2012; ? pages (not listed, but short).  New Authors? : No.  Genre : Anthology.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Seven short stories from the fantastic writing talent called The Eclective, and just in time for the Mayan Apocalypse.  There are androids and asteroids; exes and goddesses; big waves and big bangs; and last but not least – rednecks and butt plugs. 

What’s To Like...
    Two of the seven tales aren’t technically apocalypse-themed, but that’s just fine.  The writing is strong and the editing is superb.  The variety is nice and so are the stories’ tones – some are spine-chilling, some are heartwarming, one’s a cliffhanger, and one’s hilarious.  Yeah, guess where the butt plugs fit in.  Each author gives a kewl closing comment about the Apocalypse, one of which is given below.

    The stories are :
01.  The Shifting Sands Tara West
02.  LightEmma Jameson
03.  Alien Butt Plugs – P.J. Jones
04.  SeedsM. Edward McNally
05.  CleaversHeather Marie Adkins
06.  The Last Christmas Alan Nayes
07.  CombustionR.G. Porter

Kewlest New Word...
Integument : a tough, outer, protective layer; especially that of a plant or animal.

    Never let it be said a thermonuclear warhead was ineffective except as a deterrent.  Turns out, in practice it worked pretty well.  If human beings had still mattered, the 5-10% radiation that followed and remained for the next thirty years would have been a significant issue.  Zombies, however, didn’t mind radiation.  Since, like me, they did not breathe, the damage – greater than 44% - to their lungs was meaningless.  (loc. 452)

    ”Did ya hear a sound?” Randy asked, before casting his line back into the placid water.
    “Yep,” Jeb nodded.  “Kinda like a thwump.”
    “Yep,” Randy said matter-of-factly, as if dealing with space fellas was an everyday occurrence.  “Thems aliens.  ...  Better get a cork.”  (loc. 589)

Kindle Details...-
    I bought The Apocalypse Collection for $0.99 at Amazon, which is the usual price for any of the Eclective’s anthologies.  I think all of them have been offered for free at some time or another, except for this new release.  But if you wait long enough...

“Tara West likes eating organic foods, so that when the apocalypse comes, she’ll be the healthiest one to die.”  (loc. 296, kewl closing comment)
    Different readers will find different favorites in The Apocalypse Collection.  Mine happened to be stories 02, 03, 04, and 06.  But the other three are worthwhile too.

    All seven will entertain you.  Each is a compelling tale with an end-of-world or paranormal setting.  Which, when you think about it, is amazing for a short story – you have to build a world, introduce a disaster, develop one or more characters, and garnish with a memorable lesson or message.  All within a dozen pages or so.  Wowza.  7½ Stars.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Written - Ben Galley

    2010; 460 pages.  Book 1 of the “Emaneska” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Someone has stolen a recently-discovered elven Summoning Manual, and butchered the five mages that had been examining it.  It is up to a young mage, Farden, to retrieve the book and defeat the UE (Ultimate Evil) before something terrible is unleashed upon the world of Emaneska.

    Farden has his work cut out.  He doesn’t know who the thief is, where the book is, when the summoning spell might be invoked, and what exactly might be loosed upon the world.  And the fact that the various nations of Emaneska are at each other's throats doesn’t make the task any easier.

What’s To Like...
    The setting has an Arthurian feel; indeed, one of the nations is called Albion.  For the most part, we are dealing with humans and dragons, although there is also a vampyre and a werewolf.  Elves are hinted at, and we encounter both good and bad mages.

    The vampyre is one of the good guys; that’s a pleasant change.  Farden is anything but your perfect hero – he’s got a drug habit, is short-tempered, and frankly is not the smartest mage on the block.  I like that.

    The world-building is nicely done, and each chapter starts with a neat pseudo-quote.  There aren’t any slow spots, the UE is a worthy foe, and Ben Galley throws in a couple twists to keep you on your toes.  The ending is satisfying – the theft of the spell book is resolved.  The next book of the series is also set up, which means you shouldn’t expect all loose ends to get tied up.

    Farden patted the sword resting against his shoulder-blade.  “Politics can run a city, or define a nation, but men and magick are still what counts.  You can’t hammer in a nail with words.”
    “No but you can start a war with them, that’s why we have to be careful with the Sirens,” said Vice, and he slowly came to a halt.  He looked at his friend.  “Can you handle this, Farden?”  (loc. 1558)

“Beware the monster behind the door, watch out for
The spiders all over the floor.
Be brave like your father, proud warrior and all,
Something is gnawing at bones in the hall.
Maybe you’ll run, or maybe you’ll fight,
Or maybe  you’ll sleep soundly all through the night.
Never you mind, now close your eyes,
Pray you sleep well, not be food for the flies.”  (loc. 5164)

 Kindle Details...-
    The Written sells for $3.99 at Amazon. Its sequel, Pale Kings, is the same price.  I haven’t read the second book, but I’m guessing this series is going to be more than a duology.

“It’s not even noon yet and a man has to deal with dragons.”  (loc. 240)
    There are some weaknesses.  The overall plotline is predictably straightforward, and the aforementioned twists are for the most part telegraphed.  Farden retells events to his colleagues that we’ve already read, and Ben Galley has a penchant for certain words, like “leant” which appears 53 times.  The storytelling is interesting, but not compelling.

    Still, for a first effort by a 23-year-old author, this is very good, and in the blurb to the sequel, Galley writes, PALE KINGS aims to leave THE WRITTEN quivering and whimpering in the shadows.  If he achieved that goal, then this could develop into a very memorable series.  7½ Stars.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mendoza In Hollywood - Kage Baker

    2000; 334 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #3 of the “Company” series.  Books 1 and 2 are reviewed here and here.  Genre : Science Fiction; Time Travel.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The title is only half-correct.  Mendoza is where Hollywood will be, but it’s 1862, the greater Los Angeles area is little more than a dusty collection of shacks and saloons, and the movie industry is non-existent.  The Company has sent Mendoza there to collect a number of plants that will shortly become extinct.

    But the climate is changing, the plants are dying out faster than Mendoza can collect them, there is jealousy among Mendoza’s colleagues, and worst of all are the troubling nightmares she’s having about her lost love from the 1600’s.  There are even hints that the Company may not be as beneficent as they claim.

What’s To Like...
    For those who are not reading this series in order, Kage Baker gives the backstory in a handy 3-page prologue.  There are new Company agents to get to know – Einar the zoologist; Oscar the anthropologist, Porfirio the Company overseer, and Juan Bautista, a young ornithologist who gets way too attached to some of his work.  Joseph is absent, but Imarte is back to spice things up.

    The setting – 1860’s California is superbly done.  There isn’t much of a plot for the first 2/3 of the book, but it’s fun to be immersed in the lives of Mendoza and company – taking field trips for specimens, ducking from the occasional gunshot, and eating crappy food.  Einar is a film enthusiast, and he smuggles some early movies in for entertainment.  Those are a joy to “watch”.

    There is some humor – Juan Bautista’s pet birds are – well – a hoot.  Imarte’s role is that of a saloon girl, and she collects several love-struck “clients”, who tend to not appreciate others vying for her attentions.  Oscar’s efforts to sell a “Criterion Patented Brassbound Pie Safe” are subtly hilarious.

    The Alt-History and Time Travel aspects are well done.  And Romance wheels its way back into Mendoza’s life, something she’s been missing for a couple centuries.  As always, Kage Baker’s writing is excellent.

Kewlest New Word...
    Shigella (n.) : A bacterium that is an intestinal pathogen of humans and other primates, some kinds of which cause dysentery.

    If I had only stayed...
    “You couldn’t have, man,” Einar said.  “You know that.  You belong to the Company.  First time Dr. Zeus had a job for you somewhere else, you’d have had to go.  And even if you stuck around, do you think you could have kept on micromanaging their lives forever?  We may be immortals, but we can’t control mortal destinies.  We can help them when they want help, but that’s it.  When they want to destroy themselves, not even God can stop them.   (pg.194 )

    “There are those, sir, who might construe your detestable negligence as the next thing to treason, which, let me remind you, is a hanging offense.”  Ingraham brandished his cane.
    The driver explained where he was minded to put that cane if Mr. Calliman shook it at him one more time, and added that Mr. Calliman was going to find it uncomfortable to sing or, for that matter, dance in any shows with the cane in that particular location.  (pg. 212)

“We are the actors on a stage where the curtain hasn’t risen!”  (pg. 13)
        I’ve made my peace with this series – more than anything else, it is Science Fiction.  There is some Action-Adventure in Mendoza in Hollywood, but it’s towards the end, and is there mostly to advance the “big picture” plot of the Company’s manipulation of the cyborg protagonists.  This isn’t Xena, Warrior Princess; this is Mendoza, Immortal Botanist. 

    I’ve been reading this series in order, and MIH does advance the overlying storyline.  We discover that snafus can occur in the Company agenda, and that there may be dire consequences for Immortals who the Company no longer wants around.  Still, this is beginning to feel like Robert Jordan’s WoT series – there are a lot more questions being raised than being answered.  7½ Stars.  I’ll probably read at least one more book In the series, but I don’t feel compelled to read all 9 books.