Sunday, March 29, 2015

Books in the Mail (W/E 2015-03-28)

Just one lone title this week, but I know I will be reading this one.

Last First Snow (Craft Sequence #4) by Max Gladstone (Tor Trade Paperback 07/14/2015) – Fourth published novel in Max’s wonderful sequence, but the first chronologically. I’m a bit of a late-arriver to this series, but since this is the chronological first I’ll be jumping into this one. Just as great as Max’s fiction are his non-fiction essays ramblings. Dude is very smart and cool. (That guy on the cover looks like a morphing of Yul Brenner, Dave Bautista, and The Rock on the cover, which makes for a very intimidating dude.)

Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation—especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods' decaying edicts. As long as the gods' wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill's people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne's work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.

As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace—or failing that, to save as many people as they can.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Round Up McKillip, Cato, and Valentine

A few new things over the past couple of weeks from me SF Signal and SFFWorld from me. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Last week I posted my review of an super debut novel, Beth Cato’s The Clockwork Dagger

I couldn’t have been more pleased with The Clockwork Dagger. I was especially pleased that Beth Cato set the story in a secondary world, rather than an alternate past, which I think gave her much more room to breathe with the characters, setting and overall story. The setting of a secondary world, the supernatural elements, as well as Octavia’s stature as an orphan and the aforementioned hidden princess, give this steampunk novel a heavy and enticing dose of epic fantasy.

Cato did a spectacular job introducing Octavia in the first chapter; we see her motivations, who she thinks she is; her powers of healing; it adds up to a wonderful foundation/launch-pad for the novel and I was immediately in Octavia’s corner rooting for her and hanging in the background of her story to watch follow her journey. She is an empowered, engaging, progressive, proactive, take-no-shit character who has a great deal of agency even in her more dire circumstances. In short, Octavia is defined by herself in all the important ways and is just a fun character to follow.

My March Completest column was posted to SF Signal, which shines the spotlight on Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master Trilogy:

The trilogy is one of those “foundational” fantasy series; a lot of people who have been genre readers for much of their life have read it early in their lives and point to it as one that helped to put them or keep them on the road known as the fantasy genre. The three books in the series are The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979).

The story has some superficial elements/tropes closely associated with the genre like a secondary world, coming of age/Bildungsroman story, a hidden heir, as well as wizards, magic and strange/fantastical creatures. While those fantastical elements are the set dressings which draw the reader into the story, what makes the series so special is McKillip’s elegant, lovely and evocative prose that makes for a wonderful ‘conversation’ between reader and writer. Although the magical elements are ever present, McKillip is able to evoke these elements in such a way that they simply are a part of the world Morgon and Raederle inhabit.

Like many of the best fantasies, McKillip has provided a wonderful backdrop of history and a deep world these characters populate. There’s a great rd to the wizards of the world as well as the races which populate the many lands, including the long gone “Earth Masters.” Just the name alone – Earth Masters – is a great conjuration to spark the imagination. What works best is the amount of detail she provides. The reader isn’t overburdened by infodumps, rather, history is revealed in pieces throughout the narrative. As I indicated above, this rich world comes through as a conversation, between the reader and the narrative. It allows the reader to connect with the world and become something of an active participant in the story.

Earlier this week, I posted my review of one Saga Press’s launch titles, Persona by Genevieve Valentine:

Valentine intersperses the fast paced thriller narrative with flashbacks of Suyana’s past which led her to where we first met her in the beginning of the novel. When Suyana attempts to evade Daniel who reluctantly brings her to at the hospital to tend to her injuries she realizes he’s not going anywhere. So, she takes him underground when her handler falsely and very publicly reveals Suyana has been kidnapped. There’s no turning back at that point and Valentine manages to reveal multiple layers while keeping a frenetic pace. However, there were times the transition from present to flashback and flashback to present felt a bit jarring to me and it took flipping back a page or two for me to regain my footing in the story.

Persona has thin genre ties so readers should be more prepared for a political thriller with some near future elements. By no means is this a slight, because Persona is very effective as a thriller. The Twenty Minutes from Now setting and great characters very much reminded me of Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising. Of course, Valentine’s novel is doing some things differently and has some different goals, but the two novels could easily sit side by side as examples of science fiction crossing into the thriller novel.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Books in the Mail (W/E 2015-03-21)

Just one book this week, the second copy of Liu's debut novel

The Grace of Kings (Dandelion Dynasty #1) by Ken Liu (Saga Press Hardcover 04/07/2015) – This is quite possibly the most anticipated debut of 2015, Liu has written quite a few award winning stories and this opens a big fat epic fantasy saga.

Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Peter Brett's Demon Cycle - Preparing for The Skull Throne

One of the Epic Fantasy novels I’ve been looking forward to reading the most this year (2015) is Peter V. Brett’s The Skull Throne, the fourth installment of his Demon Cycle series.* I don’t think I’m the only reader excited for The Skull Throne, a good indicator of this is the fact that the third book The Daylight War hit the New York Times Bestseller list. With about two years since publication of The Daylight War, what follows is a bit of a recap / primer for The Skull Throne cribbed from the three reviews I’ve written of each book in the series.

Obviously, beware of spoilers.

A bit on the set-up of the world as an additional spoiler buffer...

Brett has indicated he’s a fan of Terry Brooks and much of that comes through in these books. Though I haven’t read the entirety of Brooks’ output, I’ve often likened these books to Terry Brooks’ Shannara series with more of an edge; more of a bite and maturity. The feel is almost like the Old West or even the Dust Bowl – these people eke out a meager living getting through their daily tasks and closing up the proverbial shop at night to hide behind the wards that keep away the Corelings, as the demons are referred to by the characters we initially meet in novels . In some horrific instances, the corelings manage to break through the wards and kill, burn, and destroy towns. The small isolated villages comprise the majority of human society we are first introduced to and there is a degradation to a level of technology equal to medieval. I also found a parallel tow the world of Stephen King’s Dark Tower – in many ways, the aura of a technological breakdown and even the Old West feel permeates Brett’s world. In many post-apocalyptic stories, and a case can be made for The Demon Cycle as a post-apocalyptic story, the trigger event marginalizing human society becomes window-dressing as Brett’s story progresses and the human drama and societal conflict takes center stage. Perhaps most popular current example of a human conflict against an apocalyptic backdrop is The Walking Dead (in both comic and TV format) where the threats take a backseat to the human drama. Enough set up for the world….on to the books.

Published in 2009 (wow, time flies), The Warded Man (or The Painted Man as it is known outside the US) is Brett’s debut and was for me a great mix of traditional Epic Fantasy, with definite touches of newer elements. Although the low-tech setting is familiar (almost Links to TVTropes, click at your own risk) in Epic Fantasy, there’s an early sense that things in this world are a bit different than we’ve read before. The world in which this novel takes place would best be described as harsh and unforgiving. People live in small towns in fear of the night, for as the sun sets, demons rise from the earth to wreak havoc. It is in this harsh desolate setting that Brett introduces the main character of Arlen Bales.

Del Rey thankfully
abandoned this design
Cover art by
Larry Rostant
Arlen’s family is torn apart by a savage demon attack and as a result, Arlen is forever changed. Rejecting his father’s cowardice in the face of his mother’s death, Arlen flees his village in the hopes of becoming a Messenger – those men with the honed skills and tools necessary to brave the more than a day travel’s worth of distance between villages to deliver goods and messages. In many ways, The Warded Man is Arlen’s journey from country bumpkin to man of the world. While Arlen’s story comprises a majority of the novel, Brett follows two other characters profoundly affected by demon attacks. Leesha is a young woman in another equally desolate and isolated village. Living under the strict rule of her whorish mother, Leesha wishes to escape the life she has and vows to be the polar opposite of her mother when she becomes an adult. As a result of all the pain and suffering she sees, Leesha’s goal in life is to become a healer, to help those wounded by corelings. Our third hero is the jongleur (minstrel), Rojer who is ‘adopted’ by a popular bard/jongleur at a very young age after his family is killed by corelings. He dreams of becoming a renowned musician and entertainer.

In both Leesha and Arlen, Brett gives us characters motivated to become the antithesis of their same sex parents; Arlen rejecting his dad and Leesha rejecting her mom. To an extent, Rojer even seeks to differentiate himself from his own mentor, who eventually becomes a drunk and is held in low respect from his peers. This theme of familial rejection is in contrast to one of the over-riding themes of Arlen’s journey, embrace of the past. Arlen is driven to seek out what hurts the demons. The hinted at past of this world, passed down both orally and literally, infers that 3,000 years in the past, man lived in a highly technological society only to be thrown off its throne of dominance by the demon uprising. Man slowly recovered only to be thrown into the decimated state we see in the novel 300 years prior to the opening of the novel. There’s a continual fluctuation from character to character on either embracing the now – that is merely defending against the corelings and looking to the past – when man stood on (at least) equal footing with the corelings and to take a proactive role in ridding the world of demons.

Renna fighting a wood demon © Lauren K.Cannon

Story elements and character types will be immediately recognizable in Brett’s novel – youthful protagonists with parental issues and an overreaching struggle of humanity against a perceived evil. The thing with this book and Brett’s skill at weaving everything together is that despite recognizing some of the clichés with which he flavors the story, it all works in a way that makes such tropes a blip on the radar. In fact, it allowed me as the reader to revel in those tropes and see how Brett twists them to his own designs.

Brett follows his debut with a novel that is at least the equal of its predecessor in The Desert Spear and in other cases, improves upon the foundation he initially laid. In the early section of the novel, Brett follows a similar path in The Desert Spear to the one he followed in The Warded/Painted Man; that is, a large part of the novel can be considered a coming-of-age tale. Whereas the previous novel focused on Arlen’s growth into a destroyer of demons, The Desert Spear focuses on Jardir from the nation of Krasia who endures a harsh life as he grows to assume the role of leadership amongst his people. Jardir’s people inflict their harshness on themselves as a reaction to the nightly demon attacks. They take the fight to the corelings and go through extensive, violent rituals (both in secret and in the open) to prepare themselves for fighting the night-time monsters.

Despite the structural parallels between Jardir’s “origin story” and Arlen’s “origin story,” Brett manages to make Jardir’s story just as enthralling and perhaps even more tension with the added pressure of coming to power amidst a group of older bullies. Part of why Jardir’s story works so well is the supporting cast surrounding him – his friend Abban; his seer wife Inevara; as well as those young men who bullied him only to turn around and serve Jardir as he rises to power and anoints himself the Deliverer – the prophesized saviour.

Cover art by Larry Rostant
One thing about Brett’s depiction of the desert dwelling Krasians is that despite their harsh ways and questionable acts, he doesn’t paint them as evil people. Jardir could be a character that one could easily hate, but Brett gives him a sense of compassion that balances his outward arrogance and the incredibly unforgiving environment in which he was raised. In an interesting move, Brett retells a crucial encounter from the first book from Jardir’s point-of-view – and seeing this scene in a different light gives Jardir a greater sense of humanity and casts him a bit more sympathetically.

More is revealed about the demons/corelings in The Desert Spear, that they are more than merely monsters with very little intelligence and were akin to a force of nature. The scope of world-building widens; the details are not overwrought and come through the characters themselves, giving the world a more rich and vibrant feel. We see more of civilization with the people of Krasia and just how divergent people have become as they’ve effectively lost the ability to live at night.

With The Daylight War, we follow the “origin story” of another character, Inevera, Jardir’s First Wife. While the demons are most definitely a present challenge and threat by the third volume of the story, the character’s struggles against each other is what drives the story as competing ideologies and beliefs define character’s reaction to the threats. Inevera’s “origin story” is intertwined with the current conflicts, namely the looming threat of Waning when the position of the moon gives rise to a greater number of demons in the night. This time the ‘secret origin’ of Inevera’s past, her growth as a sorceress-priestess and eventual self-maneuvered union with Jardir parallels and directly relates to the ‘current’ action of the novel. While Brett has worked within the same framework of the story for the first three volumes (Arlen and to a lesser extent Renna, Rojer, and Leesha in The Warded Man and Jardir and Abban in The Desert Spear), for me, this parallel storytelling allows for ample dramatic tension on multiple levels.

Cover art by Larry Rostant

The mythology/world-building behind the demons hinted in the previous volume is revealed slightly more here in The Daylight War. Brett peppers in chapter passages from the POV of the demons, providing readers with a glimpse of their society and race as a whole. While the demons are still very present in The Daylight War, humanity’s remnants need to get their collective heads together before the demon threat can effectively be vanquished.

The characters of Rojer and his two wives Amanavah and Kikvah; Leesha; and Inevera become caught up in the ideological clashes between the two cultures. Rojer becomes even more closely entangled with the Krasian people. Leesha has a very intense sexual relationship with Jardir, so much that Jardir wishes to marry her; and Inevera continually pushes Jardir to ensure Arlen is dead so that he may without doubt be appointed the Deliverer. Rojer also comes more into his power with his music. Renna also takes more of an active role in The Daylight War both with her own grown powers and in her relationship with Arlen. …and Abban, what to say about Abban. He is a man who knows his limitations, but is extremely crafty, mischievous and at times devious. It is never 100% clear what his motivations are. 

Brett’s three Demon Cycle novels thus far have showcased humanity and its most extreme reactions to the demon apocalypse which took place before the start of the series. Violence, sex, violent sex, attitudes towards fear, destiny, and greed are all amped to eleven in The Daylight War.

To say that The Daylight War found the characters on a cliff at the end of the story is both a metaphor and a what actually happened. It may frustrate and anger some, but regardless, I admire Peter’s gumption in not shying away from what – at this point – seems to be an ending to this novel that best suits the overall story he’s telling in The Demon Cycle. That leaves readers as we enter The Skull Throne on the proverbial cliff with Leesha, Renna, Rojer, his wives Amanavah [Jardir’s First Daughter] and Kikvah [cousin to Amanavah]; Inevera (Jardir’s First Wife), Abban, having just watched Jardir and Arlen fall over the cliff.

I’ll also note that there is a fairly helpful wiki for this series: 

*I was in the middle of reading The Skull Throne while I was writing this post and finished it the night before posting this.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Books in the Mail (W/E 2015-03-14)

Weavers (The Moirai Trilogy #1) by Aric Davis (Thomas and Mercer Paperback 07/07/2015) – First of what appears to be a paranormal thriller.

Nine-year-old Cynthia Robinson’s life was perfectly normal until the day she knew, without being told, of her parents’ impending divorce. From there, things got stranger, and now not only does she have premonitions, but she can also read and influence the minds of those around her.

Cynthia is not the only one with the ability to “weave”—all over the country, people with similar abilities struggle to balance their lives with their powers. Some with this gift are weavers with dark motives and grisly appetites who want to use people like Cynthia for their own purposes.

Meanwhile, a top-secret government organization, the Telekinetic Research Center, has been looking for telekinetics to use for its own clandestine agenda. When TRC agents learn of Cynthia and her dangerous pursuers, will they come to her rescue? Or will they capture her and take her power for themselves?

Lord of Runes (A Pathfinder Tales novel) by Dave Gross (Paizo Trade Paperback 06/16/2015) – This is the first Pathfinder novel to publish under the new agreement between Tor and Paizo/Pathfinder. Gross is (arguably) the top author of the Pathfinder milieu and this one continues the adventures of his popular characters. In the transition to Tor, the books jump from Mass Market PB to Tradepaperback.

Count Varian Jeggare and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan are no strangers to the occult. Yet when Varian is bequeathed a dangerous magical book by an old colleague, the infamous investigators find themselves on the trail of a necromancer bent on becoming the new avatar of a strange and sinister demigod-one of the legendary runelords. Along with a team of mercenaries and adventurers, the crime-solving duo will need to delve into a secret world of dark magic and the legacy of a lost empire. But in saving the world, will Varian and Radovan lose their souls?

From bestselling author Dave Gross comes a fantastical tale of mystery, monsters, and mayhem in PATHFINDER: LORD OF RUNES, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday Round-Up Mind Melds @SFSignal & Gannon and Williams @SFFWorld

A few new things over the past couple of weeks from me on Teh Intarwebs. Let’s go with oldest first, shall we?

Last Tuesday (the first in March), I posted my review of the final (for now, only I hope) Bobby Dollar novel from Tad Williams Sleeping Late on Judgement Day

Bobby is a cynic and hasn’t always fallen in line, at least philosophically, with the Almighty’s directives. Most blatantly, he fell in love and has relationship with a demon. His long-time friend Sam, also an advocate and an angel with whom Bobby fought in the many wars against Hell, presented a Third Way earlier in the series, about which Bobby was very curious. So after Bobby’s diversion in Hell in the previous volume, the Third Way returns front and center as the primary plot point in Sleeping Late on Judgment Day.

Throughout it all; though, the thing that drives Bobby the most is his forbidden love of the demon Caz, the Countess of the Cold Hands. Having bargained for her in Happy Hour in Hell, he managed to both give his nemesis the demon Eligor what the demon wanted while still failing to save Caz from his clutches. Despite her protestations (through a very entertaining communication “device”) that Bobby just move on, he doesn’t. After all, Doloriel is a stubborn git.

Also last week, the Mind Meld tables were turned on my by Paul Weimer Sequels We Want to Novels We Love.
I began my response with: “The standalone novel – That rare beast in the grand umbrella genre of Speculative Fiction; it is rarest in Fantasy, slightly rarer in Science Fiction, and even less rare in Horror. My friend Paul proposes we make this beast an even scarcer commodity with this topic. So, I’ll posit some sequels to standalone novels that “could be.” I think the key ingredients for readers wanting a sequel are one or a combination of (1) great characters and (2) great world-building to the extent that readers care about those elements and hope for more”

Tuesday I posted my review of an excellent SF novel, Charles Gannon’s debut Fire with Fire

Gannon parses out the novel in three sections, each with a fairly distinctive flavor: thriller/mystery with Caine at its center; political intrigue with Caine viewed more at a distance; and the final third back to the SFnal theme of first contact. The first third was exciting and completely pulled me into Caine’s plight and the future history Gannon is mapping. While the middle section moved at a slower pace, it was a good intake of breath between the bookend sections which were more exciting. That middle section set up some of the bureaucracy which sets the stage for humanity a century henceforth as well as the machinations operating behind-the-scenes of the bureaucracy which helps to propel humanity forward. That final third shows that regardless of the civilization, bureaucracy can be both an impediment for progress and a reason for conflict.

It is very evident to me why this was short-listed for the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Having been given a copy of the sequel Trial by Fire at New York Comic Con in October 2014, I’m pleased I have it on hand to read. Charles Gannon has been writing Science Fiction for a few years, despite Fire with Fire being his debut novel. He’s contributed to Larry Niven’s popular Man-Kzin milieu, Eric Flint’s popular 1632 setting, the Starfire shared world of David Weber and Steve White and David Weber’s mega-popular Honorverse. That all these milieus find their publishing home at Baen Books is no mistake in the fact that Fire with Fire is published by Baen. In other words, the publisher has done a great job of cultivating authors and Gannon is no exception considering both Fire with Fire and its sequel Trial by Fire have found themselves on the final Nebula ballot in back to back years.

As an adjunct to Paul Weimer’s recent Mind Meld, this one is about series and specifically, series that improved after book one. Maybe the first was just “good” but there was potential, then bam at some point a that series became either a great or your all time favorite. For bonus (imaginary) points, what book in the series leveled it up?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Books in the Mail (W/E 2015-03-07)

Only three books this week, but I’m not complaining.

Tin Men by Christopher Golden (Ballantine Hardcover, 06/23/2015) – Much of Golden’s oeuvre lies in the darker, fantastic realms of Speculative Fiction. This one is a slight directional change into a Military SF/Apocalyptic tale. I’ve read a book or two by him and I’ve always wanted to go back and read more.

Brad Thor meets Avatar in this timely military thriller for the drone age, which spins the troubles of today into the apocalypse of tomorrow. A rocket ride of a read packed with high action, cutting-edge technology, and global politics, Tin Men begins with the end of the world as we know it and takes off from there.

The Border by Robert R. McCammon (Subterranean Press 05/31/2015) – When I was cutting my reading teeth on the speculative fiction genres, I devoured a decent amount of Horror. At the time, from the mid 80s to early 90s, Robert R. McCammon was churning out terrific novel after terrific novel, including the landmark Swan’s Song as well as my favorite werewolf novel of all time The Wolf’s Hour. The Border, as the blurb below notes, is his big return to big awe-inspiring horror.

I called out this book in a “On My Radar” post for SF Signal and John DeNardo messaged me the day I submitted the post that the book arrived at his house so he sent it out to me. I’ll be posting a review of this to SF Signal closer to publication day.

World Fantasy award-winning, bestselling author Robert McCammon makes a triumphant return to the epic horror and apocalyptic tone reminiscent of his books ''Swan Song'' and ''Stinger'' in this gripping new novel, ''The Border'', a saga of an Earth devastated by a war between two marauding alien civilizations.

But it is not just the living ships of the monstrous Gorgons or the motion-blurred shock troops of the armored Cyphers that endanger the holdouts in the human bastion of Panther Ridge. The world itself has turned against the handful of survivors, as one by one they succumb to despair and suicide or, even worse, are transformed by otherworldly pollution into hideous Gray Men, cannibalistic mutants driven by insatiable hunger. Into these desperate circumstances comes an amnesiac teenaged boy who names himself Ethan--a boy who must overcome mistrust and suspicion to master unknowable powers that may prove to be the last hope for humanity's salvation. Those same powers make Ethan a threat to the warring aliens, long used to fearing only each other, and thrust him and his comrades into ever more perilous circumstances.

A major new novel from the unparalleled imagination of Robert McCammon, this dark epic of survival will both thrill readers and make them fall in love with his work all over again.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit Books 05/05/2015) – I have made multiple attempts at reading novels by KSR and I’ve never been able to connect with them, but I think I’m in the minority since many other genre readers seem to enjoy his work. This is a long departure for him, in that the story leaves our immediate solar system.

A major new novel from one of science fiction's most powerful voices, AURORA tells the incredible story of our first voyage beyond the solar system.

Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, it is the work of a writer at the height of his powers.
Our voyage from Earth began generations ago.

Now, we approach our destination.

A new home.