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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The 2010 Arthur Clarke Award Shortlist

In a recent post I presented the forty one novels submitted and accepted by the organizers as well as my choice for a shortlist. Now the six novels selected for the shortlist have been announced and they are:

  • Spirit, Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)
  • Galileo's Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins)
I read five of them and browsed the sixth enough to know that I am not interested which was not a surprise since the prose of KS Robinson does not work for me.

My clear choice for a winner is Spirit - free pdf from the author HERE - and it has been my number one choice for the shortlist too. I liked Retribution Falls quite a lot but I think it's more fantasy than sf, while Yellow Blue Tibia is excellent too. I was not bowled over by Far North which I liked but somehow it did not resonate with me that much and the last part with its Strugatsky Brothers overtones just made me appreciate the original Roadside Picnic better so to speak...

I talked enough about why I felt The City & The City fell apart in the second half and is only half of a great book, but for a crime fiction fan the book is ok in the second part, though again it is very disappointing sf-nally.

All in all a great shortlist since whatever my reservations about the Mieville novel and my dislike of KS Robinson' style, both novels have the weight to be included. Congratulations to the six authors selected!!

"Guardian of the Dead" by Karen Healey (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit Karen Healey's Website Here
Order Guardian of the Dead from Amazon here

Introduction: Karen Healey is a New Zealand native and uses her background and culture that she's grown up with in her debut YA novel, Guardian of the Dead.

Overview: Ellie Spencer is an ordinary 17 year old girl who attends Mansfield, a boarding school in New Zealand. She is a bit awkward is social situations, has a handful of friends, and knows tae kwon do. After agreeing to help out a friend with her play Ellie begins to notice some strange things happening. First, a mass murder has been on the lose in New Zealand. It is rumored that he kills his victims and removes their eyes. Second, a very mysterious lady takes over the lead of the play, this lady is allergic to the smell of cooked food. Ellie's had one encounter with this mysterious red head before, and it appeared as though this lady had no eyes, but no one would believe Ellie's story even if she told someone.

A beautiful white mask calls out to Ellie, and strange things begin to start happening to her. She begins to get massive headaches after a chance encounter with the mysterious boy, Mark. Little does Ellie know that a secret magic has been awoken within her and soon she and Mark will be called upon to stop an ancient race from causing a massive disaster that could kill millions of people.

Format: Guardian of the Dead is a YA paranormal romance, with a bit of Maori mythology mixed into the story. This is a bit of an upper YA book as there is swearing, and some of the mythology stories while not graphic due have some sexual undertones. It is told from the first person point of view of Ellie. It stands at 333 pages and scheduled for release by Little Brown and Company, April 1, 2010.

Analysis: I don't read a lot of paranormal romance of any kind due to the simple fact that it all seems to be the same. Girl has latent powers, the powers mysteriously appear out of nowhere, handsome guy comes and guides her through all the tough spots, she saves the world from some major attack, The end. Lately, the use of vampires has been so overused in paranormal romance that it just seems the same template with name changes and a few different things. When I was presented with Guardian of the Dead, the use of Maori mythology in the story inspired me to give it a try.

There are parts of the book that stand out as exceptional such as the mythology and other parts that aren't so exceptional.

The part of the book that stands out the most is the use of mythology. The idea to use Maori mythology is both unique and a bit fascinating. Unless you've studied mythology or the like, it'd be virtually unknown about the legends and the stories told. Seeing as this book caters to the teen audience I think it could inspire many to look into an area of mythology that is unheard of.

With that the mythology does serve as a bit of a push pull. While it is unique due to the lack of knowledge on the topic a lot of time is spent "educating" readers on the mythology and stories and can be a bit dry and overwhelming. Coming from a lack of knowledge of the mythology I found it a bit confusing to keep the names and stories straight and therefor there were a few sections that I had to flip back to the explanation. However the unique use of this mythology did keep me reading the book to the end.

The main character of the book, Ellie Spencer, is the typical smart alicky, sassy at times girl that is popular in YA paranormal romance. The difference with this book is that the sassiness doesn't seem to be overused, and the comments that Ellie does throw out did result in a couple laughs here and there. Fans of paranormal romance will enjoy Ellie, and those that aren't can enjoy that she is a fairly strong independent character that can definitely stand on her own two feet.

The biggest downfall of this book was the length of time that it took before anything really happened. It was more then halfway through the book before the magic, powers and dire situation started to evolve. It'd take a lot of dedication to get to that point and many readers might give up before anything really happens. There is a lot of focus on Ellie, and her part in a play production. There wasn't really any mystery or suspense that really made me want to continue the book. However once the magic evolved and readers begin to learn more about the big plan of the mysterious race the book does pick up.

Although there is a mention of an "epic battle" on the back of the book. The battle does occur but it's more set in the background and readers are taken on a side trip and returned at the end of the book. This is definitely more of a paranormal romance then anything else.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. After the somewhat slow start of the book, it really did grab my attention. There was a little bit of everything in here from humor, romance, betrayal, and mystery. The unique use of a mythology that isn't used a lot in novels is nicely done and a great change of pace from other paranormal romances. A great debut for Karen Healey.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" by Stephen Hunt (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Stephen Hunt Website
Order Secrets of the Fire Sea HERE
Read FBC Review of The Court of the Air
Read FBC Review of The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

INTRODUCTION: "Secrets of the Fire Sea" is the fourth novel in the Jackelian series of Stephen Hunt. While the novels follow chronologically at relatively short intervals of time, each is a standalone and only one character appears so far in all as more than a cameo, while the main leads generally change from book to book.
I loved the debut The Court of the Air (FBC Rv Robert) which had some narrative problems but had so many "goodies" that I could forgive it almost anything, while the followup The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (FBC Rv Robert) was a top 5 fantasy of mine for 2008 and it's one of the most fun sff adventures I read in the last several years with a "for the ages" 60 page action sequence that ends it.

Sadly the *highly, highly awaited* third installment "The Rise of the Iron Moon" was a major disappointment of 2009 being too pulpy for my taste and I found it very hard to suspend disbelief, though when I gave it another try about a month ago, it read better though still far short from The Kingdom Beyond the Waves; so while Secrets of the Fire Sea made my 2010 Anticipated Book List, it was not an automatic buy like the two previous installments and I waited a bit and looked at what other people said before getting it.

In the discussion below I assume the reader is familiar a little with the setup of the Jackelian universe of which there is a good overview in the FBC Review of The Court of the Air, but the salient things are steampunk and the associated paraphernalia including steam powered computers, cars, submarines and airships, various races of people including the "ursines" of Pericor and a race of sentient robots, "the steammen", a world in which electricity is generally unusable due to instability and in which there are various religions, including the godless mathematical and rational Circlist one of the Jackelian people - of which the inhabitants of Jago are an offshoot so are Circlist too - religion that comes with all the apparatus including an inquisition aptly named The League of the Rational Court and excommunication for actually believing in God or gods...

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" stands at about 460 pages and is divided into 26 chapters and an epilogue. The action takes place pretty much on the island continent of Jago surrounded by a magma sea, where electricity works and where thousands of years ago, civilization kept going in the ice-age and later under the savage Chimecan Empire domination.

Today all that is a memory, Jago is in possibly terminal decline with population so low that most of its underground cities have been abandoned and only the capital Hermetica remains, emigration is forbidden, while the hard navigation through the magma sea that once was Jago's supreme defense has become a hindrance since the Jackelians discovered an alternative route to their overseas Concorzian colonies across the Fire Sea and only the ursines of Pericor for which Jago is a sacred scriptural land still come to trade regularly.

There are two main threads: one that follows young Hannah Conquest, a Jackelian born who was left orphan at age three on Jago and was taken as a ward of the Circlist Church of Jago led by Archbishop Alice Gray another Jackelian as all leaders of the Jago Church have been for a long time, while the second one follows famous investigator Jehtro Daunt and bodyguard/assistant steamman Boxiron who come to Jago on Commodore Black's submersible to investigate a murder.

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" is grand style adventure sff within a deeper context than the previous three novels in the loose series, dealing with faith, religion, science, what it means to be "human", "godlike", "sentient", how much technology is too much and leads to all-out civilization ending war and how little is too little and leads to devolution and savagery...

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" returns to the form of "Kingdom Beyond the Waves" with a superb tale that has sense of wonder, great characters, twists, turns and a new setting in the Jackelian world, the island continent of Jago described above.

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" starts as a
relatively straightforward coming of age tale when Hannah Conquest and her ursine friend, young Chalph urs Chalph's musings about their uncertain future are rudely interrupted by an unexpected notice of conscription for Hannah in the valve guild which keeps Jago going at the fundamental level of both computing and power source but at the price of the guild's men and women physical deformities due to the high radiation environment. As a supposedly Jackelian subject by birth and destined for the Church by ability - let's remember that the Circlist Church is a church of mathematics and rationality and the ordination exam is a sort of math PhD exam equivalent with a strong moral component - and by her position as ward of Archbishop Alice Gray, the conscription notice is odd to say the least, though its subtext is soon revealed.

Later on, we move to the second thread of the story and for a short time we visit the Jackelian capital of Middlesteel to see Jethro solving a case in the classical manner of putting psychological pressure on the suspects in a room. Despite being a defrocked parson for "having personal gods" and hating the Circlist Inquisition which decades ago had expelled him and ruined his betrothal to a rising star of the Church, Jehtro has to accept the League of the Rational Court's commission for Jago and on he goes with Commodore Black who has been convinced by Amelia Harsh - the archaeologist heroine of Kingdom Beyond the Waves and now finally a university bigwig - to escort Amelia's star pupil Nandi to Jago to continue the work of Hannah's parents so tragically dead years ago after announcing some intriguing discoveries...

And so it starts, but the plot thickens very quickly with all the subtext of Jago, humans, ursines and crisis described above to which quite a few things get added soon. The author manages to keep a pretty complex plot under control and switching between the two threads allows both to explore more and more of the setting on Jago as well as advance the story sometimes in quite unexpected ways.

The main characters, Hannah, Jethro and Boxiron are developed very well though not necessary the way we may think based on their "roles", while the supporting cast that include the eccentric, almost mad first senator of Jago, the Pericuran ambassador, the Jago chief of police and an ursine mercenary leader that leads a sort of praetorian guard for the Senate, in addition to Alice, Commodore Black, Nandi and Chalph is just superb.

So a sophisticated story, great setting and world building as in all the series novels and a memorable cast of characters, but "Secrets of the Fire Sea" does not stop here since we have duels including one with a "god", assassinations and assassination attempts, battles, intrigue, cryptography and deadly dangerous secrets, sense of wonder exploration of the wild interior of Jago and discoveries galore, while in the last third of the novel almost each page throws something cool and mostly unexpected at the reader. And of course there is the deeper context mentioned above which also includes an examination of the Circlist religion, an illustration of how long ago happenings turn to myth and even sacred text and more.

The superb ending brings all threads together and makes "Secrets of the Fire Sea" a true standalone, while the epilogue is one for the ages. An A++ that made the next Jackelian novel another top 10 anticipated one.
Monday, March 29, 2010

Interview with Ed Erdelac (Interview by Mihir Wanchoo)

Mihir Wanchoo was lucky enough to be able to interview Ed Erdelac, author of Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter. To Read FBC's review of Merkabah Rider click here.

A big thank you goes out to Ed Erdelac for taking the time to interview with us.

For starters, could you tell the readers about yourself and your book & what's one thing that we wouldn't know about you?

The book is called Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter.'It's the first of a planned series of weird westerns from Damnation Books featuring 'the Rider,' a Hasidic gunslinger hunting the renegade teacher (a man called 'Adon') who betrayed and destroyed the American enclave of his mystic Jewish order, The Sons of the Essenes. His travels take him across the American Southwest of 1879, where he faces off against various supernatural enemies (demons, sacrificial cults, at one point, a brothel of antediluvian succubi), and gradually becomes aware of a sinister and far-reaching plot to bring about 'The Hour Of The Incursion' - this devastating infernal cataclysm. The Rider is an aescetic scholar and a master of astral travel, but he's also something of a fighter, having left his order to join the Union side in the Civil War after perceiving the conflict as corresponding to a greater battle being fought among the forces of light and darkness on the heavenly and infernal planes.

As for me, I was born on the Indiana side of the Illinois state line, was educated in Chicago, and moved out to the Los Angeles area about nine years ago to pursue a career in screenwriting. In 2008 I wrote the back stories for three different minor characters from the Star Wars films via Lucasfilm's ongoing What's The Story contest, and that led to my first professional work, writing fiction for I've since published a zombie horror novella 'Dubaku' (also out from Damnation Books), and one of my stories (another weird western about Indians fighting vampires) wormed it's way into Murky Depths magazine over in the UK. I produced and directed my own film 'Meaner Than Hell,' last year. One thing you wouldn't know about me? I cook amazing pork and shrimp egg rolls. It's about the only thing I can cook well.

What was the spark of inspiration which lead to the genesis of these stories?

I've had an abiding love of westerns since a family vacation to Deadwood, South Dakota when I was in middle school and I had dabbled in weird western stories in high school after reading Robert E. Howard's excellent 'The Horror From The Mound' and 'Old Garfield's Heart,' plus Joe R. Lansdale's Jonah Hex series 'Two-Gun Mojo.' But, my own forays into the genre never really came together, so I shelved them. Then a couple years ago I came across the term 'merkabah rider' in an angelology book, and the image of a Hasidic man with blue glass spectacles embossed with the Seals of Solomon, riding a fiery ethereal horse and wearing a gun belt just jumped into my mind. I'm also a fan of the TV show Kung Fu, and love the idea of a totally foreign and unassuming protagonist rubbing elbows with and being underestimated by gunslingers and desperadoes. I sketched the character out both visually and historically, and once his mythology came together, I went back to all those situations I'd put on the back burner so long ago and revisited them with this more interesting character.

You are a prolific personality with many books out as well as a movie, how do you manage your time & could you tell us about how a general day looks like for you?

I read once in Stephen King's 'On Writing' that he puts aside four hours to write daily. I wish I could be that prolific! I've got two kids though, aged seventeen and five, with a new addition due in the next few days so my time is pretty precious. However, I've been blessed in the last year with a work from home job, so it's helped me out a great deal. I'm up at seven in the morning every weekday. I get my daughter ready, walk her to school, and when I get home, I open up my laptop, open and minimize my work window, and barring any other distractions, I get in all the writing and research I can, usually about two to three hours' worth before the work comes in. I do that until two o'clock rolls around, then it's off to get my daughter from Kindergarten. I'm occupied until nine 'o clock at night. The rest of my night depends on work again, which comes in sporadically all day long, but I usually hit the hay by midnight. Weekends I sometimes write into the wee hours, but my writing schedule is sort of chaotic. For some reason I often wind up finishing stories at three or four in the morning. One habit I seem to have is I write all I can, and then the next session I go back over everything I did previously and tweak it before moving on. Time is pretty scarce, but I'm only human, so there are days where I just stare at the screen for two hours and then feel guilty. You can't force things though.

Your series The Merkabah Rider is bound to be compared to the Dark Tower series and the Jon Shannow series because of the similarity in the supernatural themes & surreal western settings, what would you say is different about your tales?

Well, I can't comment on the Jon Shannow series - I've never read them. I read up to The Wastelands in the DT series when I stopped because I was afraid at the time that King was going to die before he ever finished it. Since then I've gradually started picking up the others and am planning on getting back to them. That being said, I think that there probably are similarities between Roland and The Rider in that they both use a gun and and are solitary members of an ancient order, but The Rider is more of a scholar and a mystic. He's very often outmatched in a physical fight, but turns into Clint Eastwood on the astral plane. He's well traveled, but aside from his pack animal, he's operating entirely alone, whereas Roland was able to gather a surrogate family around him. Also, I think Roland in his pursuit of Marten was chasing an outsider menace, but Adon is almost family. Adon taught the Rider his skills and brought him along from an early age, nurtured him, became a father figure, then turned out to be a real bastard. The Rider's pseudo-monastic order, the Essenes, basically turned their back on him for being Adon's student, for sticking up for his mentor's dangerous teachings, his 'alternative paths to God.' Then in the Rider's absence, Adon proved them right. The Dark Tower is very allegorical, surreal and otherworldly. Merkabah's grounded in this world, but it's a world interwoven with spirits and cosmic forces. It skirts actual history too, which is the kind of stuff I love - like when Jonah Hex faces an undead Wild Bill Hickock, for instance. Tip Top, the town in 'The Nightjar Women,' the last story in the book, is a real ghost town in Arizona - you can visit its ruins, and some of the people, like 'Sadie' the prostitute and her pimp, those are real people from the Old West who were there at the time the story's set. I put a lot of Easter eggs in my work for people who know western history, who read the things I do (like Kelly, the ju ju man from 'The Dust Devils'). The Dark Tower uses western iconography, but Merkabah Rider is a western. It's a western with animate windmills that try to kill you, and it's got a lot of nods to Lovecraft and Howard, but it's a western nonetheless. You probably won't see a lot of dimensional hopping or evil subway cars, and the only time it's going to go past 1879 is when New Years 1880 rolls around.

What attracted you about Jewish mysticism and the occult to utilize it so extensively in your stories?

My initial research into the merkabah rider phenomenon, which is this ecstatic mystical ascendancy experience dating back to Ezekiel's chariot vision in the Bible, just sort of opened up the world of Jewish folklore to me. It's very surprising, interesting stuff, with rich, detailed beliefs and it's own extensive catalog of folk practices and monsters. I think it's something I haven't seen tapped into a lot either. Everybody knows about Catholics being able to repel vampires with holy water and crosses and all that, but I'd never heard that for instance, the spit of a fasting man is like acid to a demon. When you read about Western occultism, a good chunk of it goes back to Judaism. Judaism had prescribed ways of dealing with demonic forces thousands of years before the crucifixion. I feel writing is a learning experience, of course in your craft, which evolves until you die, but also in what you choose to write about. My library has necessarily grown a good deal since I started writing about the Rider, both in folkloric works and in books on everyday Jewish cultural practices.

What are your plans for the future?

More Merkabah books, definitely. I'm pleased that people who've read the first book enjoy it, because it's the kind of story that entertains me. Pulpy, amalgamated horror adventure. There's an overall storyline for the series that was only hinted at in this one but will come out more in the sequel 'The Mensch With No Name,' which I'm working on now and hope to get out in the latter half of this year. It'll still be episodic in nature, but the conflict with Adon and The Hour Of The Incursion intensifies in this one. I've got a e-book novella called 'Red Sails' coming out in April from Lyrical Press - that one's got a vampire pirate captain and a crew of werewolves. The heroine is a cannibal. I had fun with that one. More Star Wars stuff, and a short Mythos story about a Robert Johnson-type blues player that I'm pretty proud of. That's also coming from Damnation I think in September. I'm in talks with a publisher in Texas about putting out a straight no-zombies western novel too. My screenplays, well, they're all over the place. Chances are somebody's always reading one somewhere.

Who would you say have been your biggest influences?

On my writing? Robert E. Howard is my all-time favorite writer. I like anything by Richard Matheson as well. After that, Cormac McCarthy, Ambrose Bierce, Larry McMurtry, Mickey Spillane, Mishima Yukio, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore and Kazuo Koike. Movies have had a big impact on me as well. John Ford, Anthony Mann, Michael Mann, Michael Curtiz, anything with Tatsuya Nakadai, Sterling Hayden, or Vincent D'Oonfrio. John Martin, Frank Frazetta...staring at their paintings always gets me in the mood to write. I take a lot of Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson and Howlin' Wolf music to heart. I think that actually covers three of the five senses. Four, if you count the smell of old books.

In the end is there anything else you would like to mention?

Come and see me on Facebook (Link to Facebook here)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"The Sorcerer's House" by Gene Wolfe (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Gene Wolfe at Wikipedia
Order "The Sorcerer's House" HERE

INTRODUCTION: In my 2010 Anticipated Books post I said:
it's Gene Wolfe, it's at least a try; recent novels have not been quite on my taste though I loved some of his new short stories, but the author of the various "Sun" series is in a class of his own so I will check out each of his novels asap. The blurb of this one was very exciting and the sample available on Amazon through the Kindle edition made me want to read "The Sorcerer's House" immediately, though to my surprise I looked in maybe ten big bookstores in three major urban areas (NYC, DC, Greenwich/Stamford CT) without finding it so I finally got it from Amazon.

"The new Gene Wolfe fantasy novel is told entirely in a series of letters. Only Wolfe could have made this so gripping, a surprising page-turner of a book.In a contemporary town in the American midwest where he has no connections, an educated man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke even to buy furniture. He is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Sorcerer's House" stands at about 300 pages and consists of 44 letters and an epilogue.
Most letters are addressed by main hero Bax(ter) Dunn to his twin brother George or to George's wife Millie, with several addressed to a former cellmate and several addressed by others mostly to Bax.

The novel belongs to the "isolated urban fantastic" category set in the present day, where weird things happen to a small number of people in usually a restricted geographical area, without any connection to the rest of the world. Recent novels like this that I loved are Jasmyn by Alex Bell, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, though
"The Sorcerer's House" is the "cheeriest and most pure fun" of all.
All of them are of the type "accept the premise and enjoy the ride".

"The Sorcerer's House" was super-fun; now "pure fun" and Gene Wolfe is something that is usually incongruous since his books like the awesome three Sun series are dark and demanding, but this one is just a zany novel end to end.

A holder of 2 PhD's - for reasons to be discovered reading the novel - Baxter Dunn is just out of prison for defrauding George and several of his business partners of as he puts it, insignificant sums for them, but it was the pride of being taken in by a seemingly unworldly scholar. Living at a motel in the middle of nowhere he sees a house that seems abandoned but with some little work could me made livable; soon he actually finds out that the house is his, deeded by a mysterious, disappeared and presumed dead Z. Black and actually even sooner he finds out that the house is much larger inside that it seems and that it has lots of mysteries, some that could be deadly.

Later the mysteries thicken and we meet a cast of ultra-eccentric characters among some more normal ones, though slowly it is clear what is going on and some of the revelations are easy to guess.

The letters that form the novel work very well as a narrative device and Bax' voice is perfectly rendered. From trying to survive as a penniless and jobless, ex-con with two doctorates, to becoming rich almost overnight but at the price of the weirdness and even personal danger, Bax just goes with the flow and does not really stop to question what's going on, though he proves very adept at making friends and dealing with everyone from the strange characters of his house, to local real estate agents, cops, reporters and even a "psychic consultant" that comes to "exorcise" the house or maybe Bax himself. While the rest of the characters are mostly seen through Bax' eyes, the few letters addressed to him change the pace and style to differentiate some of them quite well.

The main attraction of the novel is the zaniness, the flow of non-stop action that twists and turns and the "what weirdness will come next?" that continues almost to the end. Once the major revelations are done and we seem to achieve closure, the novel takes one more unexpected turn and ends with a superb epilogue that makes one reread at least the last half of the book.

"The Sorcerer's House" is a strong A that will entertain and enchant as long as you do not question it too much, but accept its premise and just turn the pages and get immersed into it.
Saturday, March 27, 2010

And They Say SF is Dying - Forty One 2009 Novels that Show the Fallacy of That Meme

The Arthur Clarke award for *science fiction* novels published in the UK in a given year has made public the list of novels submitted for consideration and accepted as such for the 2010 edition of the prize. As the only criteria besides publication date are publisher submission and being a "science fiction" novel, this is not really a "long list" but it offers a great glimpse of the state of the genre.

The six novel shortlist will be announced next week on March 31 and I will post it asap, but in the meantime I will present the list of 41 novels to show again the fallacy of the "sf is dying meme" that has been around for 50 years and counting and has been recently making the rounds of the blogoshpere again. You may quibble about the "sf" label of some of the novels here but the 26 I read and 9 I browsed and decided are not for me definitely can be included in the sf field though indeed some can be regarded more as fantasy or mainstream... But all have clear sf-nal elements.

In a related note Mark Chitty from Walker of Worlds will host a "science fiction appreciation month" in April and I hope to contribute a post too so you will see more showcasing of sf authors and their work.

Here is the list courtesy of Niall from Torque Control and from where I got the cover collage above too. I will link to the 19 (!!) reviews done here at FBC - though one novel got two reviews and one got only a mini-review so there are only 17/41 novels fully covered - and I will present my choice of a six novel shortlist after. Note that since these are books with *first UK edition* in 2009, you may see some books published in the US some years ago as well as some notable 2009 sf novels that are missing not having been published in the UK last year, but by and large the list is representative of 2009 in sf.

Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers (Solaris)
Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher (Tor)
Orbus by Neal Asher (Tor)
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)
Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne (Tor)
Transition by Iain Banks (Little, Brown)
Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
The Accord by Keith Brooke (Solaris)
Xenopath by Eric Brown (Solaris)
Seeds of Earth by Mike Cobley (Orbit)
And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer (Penguin)
Makers by Cory Doctorow (Voyager)
The Babylonian Trilogy by Sebastien Doubinsky (PS Publishing)
The Wild Things by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton)
Consorts of Heaven by Jaine Fenn (Gollancz)
The Stranger by Max Frei (Gollancz)
Concrete Operational by Richard Galbraith (Rawstone Media)
Nova War by Gary Gibson (Tor)
Winter Song by Colin Harvey (Angry Robot)
The Rapture by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury)
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)
Journey into Space by Toby Litt (Penguin)
The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove (Solaris)
Halfhead by Stuart B MacBride (HarperVoyager)
Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
The City & The City (Rv FF) + (Rv LS) by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Red Claw by Philip Palmer (Orbit)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager)
Chasing the Dragon by Justina Robson (Gollancz)
The City of Lists by Brigid Rose (Crocus)
Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer (Gollancz)
Wake by Robert J Sawyer (Gollancz)
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (Tor)
The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber)
Far North by Marcel Theroux (Faber & Faber)
Before the Gods by KS Turner (Ruby Blaze)
The Painting and the City by Robert Freeman Wexler (PS Publishing)
This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit)
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

My shortlist is as follows:

1: Spirit by G. Jones
2: Transition by IM Banks
3: The Babylonian Trilogy by S. Doubinsky
4: Heart of Veridon by T. Akers (more fantasy-nal than sf-nal but on merits it ranks here)
5: Gardens of the Sun by P. McAuley
6: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

As a runner up if I disqualify Heart of Veridon as fantasy, I would then add Nova War by G. Gibson; also The Year of the Flood is a very good novel as literature goes imho but its sfnal aspects are a bit quaint so I did not include it here, otherwise I would rank it at #4.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Merkabah Rider: Tales of A High Planes Drifter" by Ed Erdelac (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order Markabah Rider: Tales of A High Planes Drifter from Amazon here

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ed Erdelac is the author of 2 previous titles and is also a regular contributor to the Star Wars canonical universe. He is an independent filmmaker who has released his film “Meaner Than Hell” last year. He’s also an award-winning screenwriter, an independent filmmaker, a chain reader, and a closet gamer.

BOOK SUMMARY: Set in 1879, the tales follow the adventures of The Rider, a Hasidic gunslinger, the last of an order of ancient Jewish mystics capable of extraplanar travel, as he tracks down the renegade teacher who betrayed and murdered his enclave. Along the way he encounters a cult of Molech worshippers bent on human sacrifice, a murderous possessed gunman, a powerful ju ju man holding a boomtown in his sway, and a bordello full of antedelluvian succubi.

This tale is a mystical western coupled with Jewish mythology. Think of it as David Gemmell’s Jon Shannow series meets Stephen King’s Dark Tower meets H.P. Lovercraft

FORMAT/INFO: This book is 294 pages long divided into 4 novella sections and comes with a glossary of various Jewish esoteric terms. Narration is via third person omniscient and consists of various characters including the Rider. It is a self contained story with pointers to future stories .

December 1, 2009 marked the paperback publication of the book via Damnation books.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In Ed Erdelac’s Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter readers are presented with a world wherein the time is of the late 19th century and the setting of the stories have a western flare. The authorial twist to this tale is that the protagonist is a Jewish gunslinger of sorts. The setting of this story and the main character potentially seem very Dark Tower-ish and the main character also seems akin to the character of Jon Shannow[that is in search of someone]. The book is made up of four different novellas which seem to progress in a serial order. The titles of the four stories are:

- The Blood Libel

- The Dust Devils

- Hell’s Hired Gun

- The Nightjar Women

The first story opens up and shows the Rider riding into a town wherein a heinous crime has been committed. A recent child kidnapping has lead to a mob building up its nerve for burning down a Jewish settlement. The Rider has to face enemies on dual planes both physical and spectral as he investigates the happenings. This story was a nice introduction to the rider and his story however it just scratches the surface of the world and its Protagonist as it offers small clues here and there.

In the 2nd tale we come across the Rider as he arrives at a town wherein foreigners die and the town is being governed by a violent gang. The Rider discovers that the town has a sorcerer whose powers seems equal to himself. The story shatters the invincible nature of the rider and shows that he can be overcome. This adds a further zing to the story when you know the main character is indeed fallible. This story was a bit longer and shows a bit more of the mythological background of this world as well.

The third tale was a very atmospheric one and was the first in which we are shown connections with the previous episodes. Also showcased in this story is why the rider is constantly on the move. The villain of this piece Medgar Tooms is one who begins as a monster but in the end we realize has more to him than just plain brutality. This tale also gives a bit of the Rider’s past and was the tale which truly hooked me onto this book much more so than its predecessors.

The last tale is my favorite one as it is the one with the least amount of action, however it unveils the most background story about the Rider; his life, his mission and the over all back story. The story has him finding solace in a town with a stranger. However he comes finds that the town’s whorehouse is providing much more than simple human pleasure. This piece was the clear winner for myself, as after finishing it, the future becomes very enticing and the reader will be very compelled to see what the rider does next armed with the information he has gleaned in this tale.

Ed Erdelac has written a very straight forward story which at an earlier glance might not offer much appeal. However, on reading the entire collection, these stories come together and give readers a nicely detailed world, that shows us that this is much more than a simple mystical western. The book also has a bigger story going on in the background as there is talk amongst various characters referring to the “Hour of incursion” and also thrown into the fray is the Rider’s search for his wayward master, Adon, which fuels his resolve. This book was another surprisingly good read and definitely has me hooked for the further adventures of the Merkabah Rider and the weirdly dangerous world which he abides in.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Secrets of the Sands" by Leona Wisoker (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Cindy Hannikman)

Official Leona Wisoker Website
Read a Sample of the novel at the Mercury Retrograde Press Website
Order "Secrets of the Sands" HERE

INTRODUCTION: "Secrets of the Sands" is a novel I found more or less by chance since I saw the cover on another review site and it intrigued me and then I checked and really loved the excerpt as writing goes though I expected a reasonably standard story. To my surprise the novel turned out to be quite different from what I expected and much better as storyline goes, while the prose kept the same quality that attracted me to the book first.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Secrets of the Sands" stands at about 400 pages and is divided into twenty nine numbered chapters. There is a map at the beginning and a glossary at the end. The novel consists of two main threads that follow three main characters, Cafad Scratha, a disgraced desert lord from a clan that was mysteriously massacred some years ago , Idisio, a young street thief with an uncanny intuition that becomes Cafad's unwilling servant and Alyea, a young protegee of new king Oruen who is sent on a mission that may be her downfall.

While "Secrets of the Sands" starts as a traditional adventure fantasy within an epic context, it twists and turns quite a lot and it goes into quite unexpected directions, becoming darker and much more interesting than I expected. To start with the novel reminded me strongly of Maria Snyder's superb Study and Glass series but then "Secrets of the Sands" moved towards "new gritty" territory and I would strongly recommend it for fans of both traditional 90's fantasy and the "new 00's" genre.

"Secrets of the Sands" has two threads: one that follows the semi-exiled desert lord Cafad Scratha and his accidental servant and former street boy Idisio as they try to do a good faith accounting of their mission from new king Oruen to research the history of the northern non-desert and dominated by an intolerant religion part of the kingdom until they stumble on unexpected happenings, people, facts and conspiracies that will change a lot what we think we know about the world of the novel. This one is a traditional picaresque adventure to a large extent, though the twists and turns make it quite unpredictable

The second thread follows Alyea, a young girl of mid-nobility who happens to be a one time lover of the king and current protegee but with a dark and violent past in times when the Northern Church was dominant in the capital too and she was branded as a "heretic"; she is sent to administer the Scratha domain in the name of King Oruen; her two mysterious and seemingly at odds "advisers" Chaq and Micru are supposed to "instruct" her in the way of the desert until another mysterious character, ultra-rich merchant Deiq makes his interest in her known too; this thread is just superb end to end, a thread of exploration, intrigue, magic, initiation rites and much, much more.

Of course the two threads converge though again not quite in a conventional way and the novel gets to a satisfying conclusion with the big picture to be explored further.

"Secrets of the Sands" is also quite dark with a world in which slavery, rape, and killing are facts of life and it all depends on "whom does it to whom" as "justice" and the "law" are concerned.

Highly, highly recommended as a haunting novel and a page turner and an A+ as an average of a solid A thread and an A++ one, while the announced sequel became another asap novel for me.

When I read the book description for Secrets of the Sands I was very intrigued. The dessert setting and lord system seemed interesting and I thought this was going to be just another fantasy title that was middle of the road for myself. However Secrets of the Sands surprised me and was a lot more then I expected.

The beginning of the book didn't seem to have anything really outstanding. There was the thief and he steals something and gets caught. At about page 80 or so something really snapped and I was hooked on this book. I couldn't put it down, I took it everywhere with me, I just had to know what was going to happen.

There are many elements of Leona Wisoker's work that made this book such an enjoyable experience: the characters, the creativity of the world, and the writing style.

The characters that came about in Secrets of the Sands all had a bit of mystery and mystic about them. There was just enough information to grab the readers attention but lead them to keep wondering, "What will happen" or "What about this". It's hard to keep that bit of mystery going without appear as if the writer is purposely not telling readers something just to keep them reading. Wisoker knows how to reveal information at just the right pace to keep the reader in the loop yet allow them not to know every single bit of information in the book.

I also found that as the reader went along with the novel, they grew with the characters. Both main characters completely change and transform before the readers eyes. So by the time the novel ends, it's almost as if the readers have two different characters before them. It was really amazing to see this with the characters in such a short time, and by the end of the novel I was completely hooked on almost every character to the point that I cared what happened to them.

Another area that Wisoker excels in is the world building. Secrets of the Sands takes place in a mostly dessert world that has lords, and a huge political system. The political system is complex without being so confusing you lose the reader. I was impressed with the depth of the world that was created. Not only the political system is developed nicely, there are also customs and rituals that are explained and described throughout the novel. All of this adds a bit of personality and made me fell as if I could completely envision the world that was created.

A part of the world that Wisoker created was that this complete world wasn't perfect. There is the temptation of sex, drugs, and thieves living in the streets. It's a dark and hard world but not so overly dark that it got depressing. In a way it was telling the readers the truth of the world and not hiding anything but yet not going into such detail that it turns into a gritty novel.

The last element that tied the whole novel together was the style of writing. First, Wisoker choose to alternate chapters of the book between the two character threads that were going on. This makes the novel fly by as it's hard to get bored with a plot line as the story is jumping at just the right moment to keep the reader wondering what is happening yet continuing on with another plot. It constantly kept me wondering what was going on with one part or the other at all times. Another area, and probably the most enjoyable part of the novel was the humor element that was added to the story line. The characters use humor or wise cracks occasionally in the book, but it all comes across as very natural and it's not so often that it's over used in the novel. There were a couple times I found myself chuckling or laughing with a joke that was told. This brought a refreshing approach and it just appeared very natural to the story.

In the end, I was highly impressed with this novel. There is something about this book that makes me want to reread it again. I completely agree with the comparison to Maria V Snyder, Leona Wisoker has tremendous talent and I can't wait to see what she brings to the table with the second novel of this series. The hardest part is going to be the wait for the second novel.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Terminal World" by Alastair Reynolds (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Alastair Reynolds Website
Order "Terminal World" HERE
Read FBC Review of "House of Suns" HERE

INTRODUCTION: As my number one sf writer of the 00's, any novel or story by Alastair Reynolds is both an asap and a must and based on the exciting blurb below, "Terminal World" had been one of my top 5 anticipated novels of 2010 and the one I would have given the best odds to be my top sf of the year.

"Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different - and rigidly enforced - level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric trains . . . Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon's world is wrenched apart one more time, for the angel is a winged posthuman from Spearpoint's Celestial Levels - and with the dying body comes bad news. If Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint's base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever imagine. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon's own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality - and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability . . ."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Terminal World" stands at almost 500 pages and is divided into three parts and thirty chapters. The main character and POV of the novel, (literally) "fallen angel" and current pathologist in the moderately advanced technologically Spearpoint zone of Neon Heights, Dr. Quillon, will take an unplanned tour of the whole world, going way beyond Spearpoint as fate has it.

"Terminal World" mixes steampunk adventure - a sort of hard sf-version with airships instead of sailing ships of China Mieville's The Scar - with the sense of wonder, essential-sf idea of "zones" with different physical laws. The short classification would be "new weird hard sf" if this makes sense.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Terminal World" has been a frustrating read for me for several reasons. I will try to be as spoiler free as possible, but be warned that there are some spoilers ahead.

The main conceit of the novel is that some 5000+ years ago, the world of the novel passed through a cataclysmic event that gave birth to "zones" - areas in which physical law is different and that range from places where no complex biochemical activity is possible, hence no life, like The Bane, to places where you can have a pseudo-feudal culture, then simpler steam based engines and then increased complexity up to sophisticated blood based nano-machines at the "celestial levels" where the meddling angels who are not really liked by anyone else live.

The zones seem to "emanate" from the equatorial spire-like city of Spearpoint where the action of the novel starts and ends. For a thousand years if not more, Spearpoint is described as relatively stable, divided into various zones which we visit following our main character Quillon. But now a big "zonal storm" seems to be brewing in the air.

There are anti-zonal medicines that help with zone transitions at a cost, but the implications of this zone division at a fundamental subatomic level, so at cellular level including in formation of nervous tissue and whatever else defines a "human", are quite deep and disturbing and as with the rest of the novel Mr. Reynolds alternates between talking about them and glossing over them.

The ambivalence - "see what a weird world is here" and some of the implications of that, contrasted with, "well things have been like this for a long time and we take them as they are"- which extends to everything from characters, cultures and actions struck me as very implausible. Leaving on the edge of reality- and that is "real reality" as in hard physics not as in metaphor - just does not fit with the sort of normal, business as usual societies described in the novel, and Quillon reflects that too with attitudes that alternate between common sense and ridiculous.

The way "Terminal World" read for me was like Mr. Reynolds failed to truly consider the implications of the "zones" idea and just wrote a good hard-sf adventure with steampunk overtones that would have been superb with a stronger lead character, but from time to time he decided to explore the world he built in detail and the two modes of the novel conflict, even quite badly here and there, rather than mesh in a balanced whole.

So ultimately I think that is the main flaw of the novel - the balancing act between a sense of wonder exploration of a brilliant conceit like the zones and a steampunk adventure, chase and shoot them up novel - is not achieved and the novel bounces between this two modes more or less randomly. I also think that from here it follows why the execution of the novel seems so slapdash with scenes that just feel contrived at best, not to say silly like when the heroes discuss/declaim before shooting the villains in what's supposed to be a surprise attack so Terminal World reads like a draft that needs a lot of editing and tightening.

Another problem with the book is the main hero Quillon who just does not have the weight to carry the ultra-ambitious Terminal World as an adventure, while he is not really given the chance to carry it as a sense of wonder/idea sf - the author tried to compensate with stronger characters like Fray, Meroka, Curtana and even Ricasso, but they are all supporting characters that seem to come and go as the script requires rather than in a natural way. If Terminal World would have gone all steampunk adventure with the various conflicts between The Swarm, the factions of Spearpoint, the Skullboys and whomever else, a lead character like Curtana would have made it excellent but Quillon is just not suited for the role.

There are lots of moments of brilliance which show how awesome the novel could have been and the exploration of The Bane and what is found there, or the Spearpoint tunnels and what lurks inside are memorable, but for me all that added to the "how brilliant and awesome this novel could have been" feeling. For once the ending is excellent but I would have loved the novel to start there so to speak and skip most of the rest or just be "most of the rest" and forget about the "zone" details...

An A- and a moderate disappointment
but a novel that should be read even only for the glimpses of awesomeness that are scattered everywhere.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Swords of The Six" by Scott Appleton (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit Scott Appleton's website Here

Introduction: When I was approached to review Swords of the Six I had mixed feelings about what to expect. However the fact that the picture on the cover was very intriguing and beautifully done and it had a dragon convinced me to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised with both the plot and the wonderful writing that I encountered when reading this book.

Overview: Over a century ago the great dragon prophet was betrayed by his most loyal and trusted group of warriors, known as The Six. They shed the blood of an innocent and the dragon prophet vowed to have justice sought for this evil deed.

It's been over 1000 years and the dragon prophet is setting into motion his plan for justice. He has chosen six new warriors, warriors that are of both human and dragons blood. They are his daughters and they are the ones that are to go into the world and seek justice for his betrayal.

All six of these daughters of the dragon are wielders of ancient rusty swords that were once held by the Six. They must go into the world and complete the quests that are given to them.

What follows is a story of love, betrayal, and of the ultimate sacrifice.

Format: Swords of The Six is the first in a proposed series of books following the tales of the Swords of the Dragon. It is a fantasy that stands at 304 pages in length.

Analysis: I was very surprised by my encounter with Swords of the Six. I have to admit that after I found out that it was a partially religious fantasy that I was unsure of what to encounter. Would this book be preachy? Would it have major religious undertones? Well the answers to both of those is no and really if it hadn't been mentioned before that it was a religious fantasy I probably wouldn't have thought twice about that.

With that said, Scott Appleton's writing is beautiful. From the prologue of the book I was hooked on his writing. There was something almost magical about this book. There is a lot of talent in Appleton and it really shows through in here. Every event in the book seemed to flow and despite the bit of a lag occasionally in the book, everything else was just so richly described that it grabs the readers attention.

While reading this, I kept thinking of the Narnia series. This book is very similar in set up to that series. It's dealing with a battle of good vs. evil. There's a mysterious white dragon who magically helps and dispenses advice when it's needed. While it does remind me of Narnia it also has it's own qualities that make it, it's own.

There are a few times where the story seemed to drag. This didn't happen often but there were a few times I found my mind wandering. This particularly happened towards the end. It almost felt as though this book could have been about 20 pages less and it would have been the perfect book, in that it held my attention and was entertaining.

In the end, this book is a very thought provoking book. Although in a way it was a bit predictable I found that Scott Appleton's talent overshadowed any of the predictability that was there. This was a perfect set up to a great series and I really look forward to seeing Appleton's talent grow and mature.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Ghosts of Manhattan" by George Mann (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official George Mann Website
Order Ghosts of Manhattan HERE
Read FBC Review of "The Affinity Bridge"
Read FBC Review of "The Osiris Ritual"

INTRODUCTION:George Mann has quickly become of my favorite authors with his wonderfully entertaining Victorian alternate history series "Newbury and Hobbes" of which I reviewed the first two installments as noted above, while "The Immorality Engine" is a highly anticipated novel of 2010.

When I heard that he will start a new series set in the same universe but somewhat later and in a different location, I was very excited and "Ghosts of Manhattan" became another book for my 2010 anticipated list; after all who can resist a blurb like this: "1926. New York. The Roaring Twenties. Jazz. Flappers. Prohibition. Coal-powered cars. A cold war with a British Empire that still covers half of the globe. Yet things have developed differently to established history. America is in the midst of a cold war with a British Empire that has only just buried Queen Victoria, her life artificially preserved to the age of 107. Coal-powered cars roar along roads thick with pedestrians, biplanes take off from standing with primitive rocket boosters and monsters lurk behind closed doors and around every corner. This is a time in need of heroes. "

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Ghosts of Manhattan" stands at about 240 pages and is divided into 22 numbered chapters. It follows three main POV's, the seemingly idle rich Gabriel Cross who is haunted by his war years in France, the steampunk superhero "Ghost" and the police detective Donovan. A steampunk superhero adventure in an alt-Manhattan around the 1920's is the perfect description for this very entertaining novel; "Ghosts of Manhattan" opens a new series set in the same universe as the "Newbury and Hobbes" one but taking place several decades later and in the "colonies" rather than in London.

ANALYSIS: "Ghosts of Manhattan" is a fast, furious, ultra-entertaining read and as pure superhero adventure as it gets with clear-cut heroes and villains, gadgets (steampunk here), non-stop action, high body count and minimal plot. It lacks the subtlety of The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual but the engaging direct style of Mr. Mann makes it work superbly and you cannot help but root for the main heroes "Ghost" (whose identity is clear on page 10 or so) and detective Donovan as they chase down the nasty mob boss "The Roman" whose signature is placing original roman coins on the eyes of his victims.

"Ghost" has a suitable day persona familiar from the superhero world, but it comes with a twist related to his army service in this world's version of WW1 in France. While we get only hints of this here, I believe this aspect of the hero's past offers a great way to expand the scope of the series in volumes to come.

In contrast, detective Donovan is the typical efficient, clean cop who is determined to do "the right thing" at any cost though as the novel progresses he also develops somewhat beyond the parameters above.

The world of the novel is of course another main character and here is another place where Mr. Mann shines with airships, jet packs, golems, steampunk versions of tv/video/phones and much more. The world of "Newbury and Hobbes" already featured many cool gadgets, but here we are going one step further as befits a novel set some 20 years or so later. There are also some hints at the complicated geopolitical situation that followed the Allied win in WW1 since now England is the dominant superpower and has the relevant "toys", so there is a sort of "cold war" going on with the USA.

I loved the book and could not put it down until I finished it so I rate it a strong A and an excellent debut to a new series that I plan to follow and read each volume asap

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