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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Corrupts Absolutely? Dark Metahuman Fiction edited by Lincon Crisler (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read Meta-Morality Panel discussion between Authors (W. Ochse, W. Ligon, J. Tucker, E. Erdelac)
Read Meta-Misses Panel discussion between Authors (J. Strand, T. Wooldridge, A. Spencer)
Read the forthcoming schedule of Panel discussions

EDITOR INFORMATION - Lincoln Crisler was introduced to the occult as a child and learnt about the Tarot in his childhood years. He then joined the United States Army and is a combat veteran who has done atleast three tours and currently is a non-commissioned officer. He is also the author of two short story collections (Despairs & Delights, 2008 and Magick & Misery, 2009) and one novella (WILD, 2011). His work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, to include HUB Magazine, Shroud Publishing’s Abominations anthology and IDW‘s forthcoming Robots vs. Zombies anthology. He is also a member of the Horror Writers Association. He lives in Augusta, Georgia with his family. His interests include spending time with his family, listening to music, cooking, web design and politics.

ANALYSIS: Most of us have always been fascinated by superheroes. In this anthology Lincoln Crisler dares to ask the question why people with powers would always turn to good? Focussing on the powerful words by the first Baron Acton, comes an anthology focussing on the shadier side of metahumans. I'll be speaking about each story as it will be in line with the previous anthology FBC reviews and simply makes more sense.

Retribution by Tim Marquitz – The anthology begins with this exciting tale by Tim Marquitz. It’s about a person who has lost his family during the events of America’s biggest tragedy (9/11). The story then reveals as to what might happen to such a person who gains a certain type of power and decides to extract a certain kind of retribution. It’s not pretty and the author doesn’t really make any amends for the protagonist’s behavior. It is a stark story, which asks the reader to imagine what happens when a person’s reason to live is extinguished and they get a chance to do what their mind tells them. A rather good tale but on the shorter side and a good opener to this collection.

Hollywood Villany by Weston Ochse – This was a rather different story; it begins by shifting narratives and basically is about a boy who just “wants his two dollars back”. The story constantly keeps the readers on their toes and ends the story with a twist that might definitely get a lot of reader’s attention. I however didn’t quite the story as much, the constant narrative switches kind of ruined the read for me.

Mental Man by William Todd Rose – Mental Man is concept which has been explored in some horror stories and can be described as a cross between Dean Koontz's Hideaway and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. However the twist being in this story that protagonist never manages to see the killer’s face as the killer shatters all mirrors and reflective surfaces. The tale is quite an excellent one as it basically examines the relationship between a hero and his nemesis. This story basically works as it has a sixth sense moment in the end and for me this was first of the standout stories in this anthology.

The Real Church by Jeremy Hepler – The real church explores an angle which is very interesting to read about. Owen McKinney is the protagonist of this tale which has him exploring what it means to follow in Jesus’s steps however there’s a catch to this power. That’s what makes this tale so absorbing and the way it ends, it makes you want to know more about Owen McKinney and the world of Real Church. Another very good story with a angle which will be interesting to read about.

Ozymandias Revisited by A.S. Fox – Originally I thought that this tale was perhaps revisiting one of Watchmen most intriguing characters. However turns out that it has noting to do with that iconic book but it is basically about the poem "Ozymandias" by Percy B. Shelley. The original poem talks mortality and human arrogance, A.S. Fox takes the gist of the poem and then turns it around by showcasing an omnipowerful, narcissistic persona who talks about his way and his whims which continuously affect the way and remolds it. A fascinating story but one that ends in a weird way.

Enlightened by Sin by Jason M. Tucker – This is one of the better stories in the book which showcases Victor, an individual who goes after killers a-la Dexter however the difference being that his power allows him to know about the person’s intimate wrong-doing and sins. Convinced about his tract he soon encounters a superhero Captain Justice and a killer Red Dahlia that to might lead to his doom. An excellent short story that if made into a longer book will be something, which I would love read more about.

The Origin of Slashy by Jeff Strand – This is one of the darker tales of the book and deals with a rape survivor called Kaylee who soon discovers her power thereafter. Its what she does with it that leads to the darkness of the story. A story about a fall in to madness of sorts, it very well could be the darkest story of the book and one which highlights the central theme of the collection.

Conviction by Edward M. Erdelac – This is one of the weirder tales in the book which does not do much to explain the origin of the main character’s powers however showcases how much powerful an emotional connection can be. Set from the perspective of a young African-American boy called Abassi who goes on a rampage of sorts a la King Kong because of sentimental reasons. The way this story is written really draws a chord with the reader however the ending is a bit ambiguous.

Threshold by Kris Ashton – Simply put this was my favorite story of the entire collection, its about a person who is compelled to kill because of the building pressure in his head very similar to migraines. The story pursues a very interesting thread as it fundamentally asks the question in a struggle between the heart and the head, what would triumph? The ending is also a great one and I would love to see this story be transformed into a novel-length story simply to see what happens in the end.

Oily by A.D. Spencer – Oily is about a super heroine who seeks guilty people as Cat’s eye with the help of her father’s words. She however meets someone that befuddles her directives. A story, which has an interesting premise but after the previous stories with similar premises, this one simply doesn’t manage to reach the levels of the earlier ones. A decent effort but definitely could have been better.

Hero by Joe McKinney - This story is built around the Cassandra myth and set in modern times. Robert Hanover is the man who can see seven minutes and twenty two seconds in to the future. However akin to his mythological sibling no one really believes him. This story is set from the perspective of the physician treating him, an excellent story and one whose twist in the end manages to completely surprise the reader.

Pride by Wayne Ligon – Probably my second favorite story in this collection, Pride shares characteristics with the X-men storyline of the 90s and a bit with the recently released Myke Cole debut. This story is set in Detroit and focuses on Calvin Carmichael, a metahuman who is forced to be a sub-human because of his past. This story deals about personhood, freedom and the right to pursue happiness, with an ending that definitely matches the premise of the story, Pride is one of the standout tales of this myriad collection.

G-Child by Malon Edwards – This tale is about a girl superhero who is team mates with a stronger hero and who is having a nervous breakdown. Set in the past and present, the story follows twin threads to show the readers why Aieesha is the way she is. The tale didn’t quite work for me as I couldn’t connect with the narrator or her can of woes. The ending, which tries to salvage the story doesn’t do enough.

Static by Jason Gehlert – Static is a story which begins on a bridge and the reader is immediately dumped into the happenings of the world. It has to do with why people are acting strange or killing themselves and its upto Licoln Carter and John Buchanan to figure out why. This story feels more of a part of a larger tale and the way it starts and ends might leave several readers with an acute sense of vrtigo or unfinished business.

Illusion by Karina Fabian – Illusion is another dark story in this collection and focuses upo Daryl Stephens, a teenager with an acute issue. Heart breaking in its execution and premise, this story dwells upon what happens to those who are given power and are yet unready to wield it. The story opens up with Daryl who chants a mantra to help him but often fails and yet it provides him with an illusion of sorts. An interesting story but again one which perhaps ends too starkly.

Sabre by Anthony Laffan – Sabre is a tale, which examines the Iron Man/Tony Stark story mode as it focuses upon Sabre the hero. However as an investigative reporter finds out to her chagrin what the hero’s presence has been actually doing. With a very neat twist inserted in the end, the athor quickly closes off this tale by showcasing what a Tony Stark-like persona might really aspire to. A highly entertaining story and one that makes the reader sit up and take notice.

Crooked by Lee Mather - Crooked is another interesting story dealing with mobsters and vendettas. The protagonist is a person looking to escape his past life with his loved ones however what happens when the past catches up with him and how de face it is the crux of this story. A bit Machiavellian in its premise, the story ends up with a strong twist and the protagonist has shades of Glotka from the Joe Abercrombie series, a good tale but perhaps could have been fleshed out better.

Fixed by Trisha J. WooldridgeFixed is a tale about a working woman Victoria Cheetham who has to decide on her priorities, sandwiched between her professional work and personal life she strives to strike a balance between her demanding boss and her family. The story was a bit of a hodge-podge effort for me, on one hand it had a comedic sheen to it and on the other it strove to be serious as well. The end result being that it managed to be neither, one of the weaker stories in the book for me.

Acquainted with the Night by Cat Rambo – Acquainted by Night is a tale of a person pushed to the very limits of his humanity and is told through a series of vignettes about the main character. What follows is a tale that might not sit lightly with some readers and follows a Greek tragedy of sorts. A dark tale which though powerful feels a bit incomplete.

Gone Rogue by Wayne Helge - The penultimate story in this collection is a quirky light hearted one, which pretty much surmises what the plot is going to be about. Focusing on a sidekick who plays the man Friday to Zooster the superhero. He pretty much finds out that the superhero biz isn’t that cracked out as its made to be. Hilarity and zany situations ensue thereby giving us an ending which very well surmises that for every hero to be one, there needs to be an arch-nemesis.

Max and Rose by Andrew Bourelle – This tale ends the book and does so with something of a damp squib, focusing on the two titular characters it recreates and evening and perhaps acts as a spiritual prequel to the earlier tale “Ozymandias Revisited”. While the author cleverly shows the signs of trouble in the couple’s life, the tale overall doesn’t do much to impress the reader, it ends up being a decent effort.

CONCLUSION: Lincoln Crisler has taken pains to choose this myriad collection of stories exploring the theme of Metahumans acting out inhumanely and there are quite a few zingers to this collection. Some of the stories like Threshold and Pride are the jewels in this collection that perhaps should be further explored in the longer format IMHO. This is a collection very much in vein of “Masked” by Lou Anders however with a tenebrous and twisted bent to it. Give it a try and see what it feels like to be Corrupted Absolutely!
Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 2012 Arthur Clarke Shortlist and the Critical Response from Christopher Priest (by Liviu Suciu)

Since the 2012 Arthur Clarke Award shortlist has been announced a few days ago, I thought of discussing it here, comparing it with my prediction post etc. But as I thought the list a bit meh and my reaction was "this is a Hugo Award-like list" - as it is not a secret that I have quite a low opinion of the Hugo though sometimes it manages to surprise me with an ok shortlist - and time/energy have been in quite short supply recently I thought the post on Announcements will be my last here at least until mid-April.

The 2012 Clarke shortlist is:
  • Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
  • Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
  • China MiĆ©ville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
  • Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
  • Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
  • Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)
One huge omission, The Islanders by Christopher Priest and another surprising one, Osama by Lavie Tidhar, while I still do not see why the women author quota could not have contained something that is at least 2010's in sensibility and style like Bringer of Light if say Mr. Fox was deemed un-sfnal - though considering some of the past winners like Perdido Street Station for example, sfnality is very fungible and I can think of at least two ways in which Mr. Fox - which I started and is quite good - could be thought of sf, using for example a Tegmark like argument about the Multiverse and what it contains - btw I highly recommend everyone interested in sf to read Is the Theory of Everything the Ultimate Ensemble Theory?, the semi-technical paper of Max Tegmark published in The Annals of Physics and available free at arXiv that classifies possible universes and think about how this relates to sff - or using the convention that makes alt-history sfnal in most cases.

Instead we got the latest Sheri Tepper and while the author wrote some memorable sff in the 80's and 90's when her perspective was fresh and different - I remember enjoying a lot Grass, Beauty and a few others - this reads like shortlisting the latest Connie Willis (see the Hugo analogy again) though of course considering Ms. Willis' very bad mangling of London that one was clearly off the table here, but the sense is the same.

But then I have just seen Christopher Priest, Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3, quite scathing but entertaining take on the shortlist and while I thought it a little bad form as this could easily give the impression of "sour grapes", the actual content of the post is very to the point and presents quite a few alternatives to the actual list including making me wanting to check out Simon Ings' novel Dead Water which I previously dismissed as thriller-ish; also not being available in the US directly, jumping through the needed hoops to read a sample seemed a waste of time and energy anyway.

*Edit Later - I managed to buy at a good price Mr. Ings earlier novel The Weight of Numbers from Kobo as I really enjoyed the Amazon sample (comparison shopping goes the other way too as Kobo has a better price and there are coupons available online too - oops, just checked and Amazon lowered the price to 5.67$ from earlier when it was in the 8-9$ range, but still Kobo's better as long as the 40% off code still works!) and I think I will try and get Dead Water too soon even with reading time/energy low, as I strongly believe in Darwinian competition for books to attract my reading time, while of course I am addicted to buying books anyway...

Mr Priest's post linked above contains quite a lot and I strongly recommend to check it out. I thank the always dependable Larry from the Of Blog from bringing it to my attention. I think this post is a pitch perfect example of how to be critical, even scathingly so, without being nasty and insulting in language, just in its implications. A quibble maybe, but one worth pondering as I think good manners vs bad manners makes all the difference in the quality and usefulness of such attacks.

As it happens I agree with what Mr. Priest says about Rule 34 and Charles Stross in general - his writing is mediocre at best but as long as he would write something cool and with sense of wonder, I would not really mind that, however near-future, Lovecraftian pastiche and alt-histories make most of his novel length work the kind you would have to pay me well to wade through and even then I may have to return the money so to speak as not being able to overcome the "I'd rather read cereal box labels" syndrome.

I also agree in some ways with what he says about Hull Zero Three which I quite liked but I never thought would make the Clarke shortlist as it is a 50's novel. Done very well and with modern sensibilities, but again something I can see on the Hugo but not on the Clarke.

The criticisms of China Mieville are spot on too but where I disagree is that I think Embassytown remains close to the top of the sff of last year, flaws and all, as it combines literary level writing - quite rare in sff though this is not necessary a bad thing as imho sff first satisfies other itches so to speak - with enough sense of wonder to compensate for the lack of originality in the general storyline - sure Mr. Mieville can do much better and hopefully he will shake again the genre like in his first two superb novels and I wish Embassytown would have at least destroyed its world like Mary Gentle or John Barnes did in similar novels which remained in my memory for longer than Embassytown most likely will despite its higher literary qualities.

I also agree with Mr. Priest that The Testament of Jessie Lamb, again flaws and all is the only credible winner outside the Mieville, especially considering that turning the Clarke into the "China Mieville appreciation award" is not desirable imho either, however much I admire the author.

As for Mr. Priest's take on the judges and his suggestions, I am not sure that they are either practical or useful as ultimately it comes down to personal and collective taste and there are worse lists that could have been produced - think Connie Willis, Robert Sawyer or the surprisingly bad UF Straight Razor Cure for example...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blood Skies by Steven Montano (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order the book HERE
Read an extract HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Steven Montano attended college at University of Colerado wherein he graduated with distinction with a degree in creative writing. He however currently works as a certified public accountant. He lives with his wife and children in Washington. Blood Skies is his first novel.

OFFICIAL BLURB: In the time after The Black, human survivors of the Southern Claw Alliance clash with vampire legions of the Ebon Cities in a constant war for survival. Earth as we know it has been forever damaged by an arcane storm that fused our world with distant realms of madness and terror. Things that once existed only in our nightmares stalk the earth.

Now, humanity is threatened by one of its own. Eric Cross, an enlisted warlock in the Southern Claw military, is part of an elite team of soldiers and mages in pursuit of a woman known as Red -- a witch whose stolen knowledge threatens the future of the human race. The members of Viper Squad will traverse haunted forests and blighted tundra in their search for the traitor, a journey that ultimately leads them to the necropolis of Koth.

There, in that haven of renegade undead, Cross will discover the dark origins of magic, and the true meaning of sacrifice...

CLASSIFICATION: Steven Montano’s Blood Skies series can be thought of as Glen Cook’s Black Company meets Andy Remic’s Clockwork Vampire Chronicles meets Kate Elliott.

FORMAT/INFO: Blood Skies is 265 pages long divided over twenty-four numbered and titled chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Narration is in third-person by Eric Cross. Blood Skies is the first book of the Blood Skies series and has quite a few threads, that are left hanging.

June 4, 2011 marked the e-book and Paperback publication of Blood Skies and it was self-published by the author. Cover art is provided by Syd Gill.

ANALYSIS: Nowadays with so much being written in fantasy and its multitude of sub-genres, readers can often get perplexed as to what sub-genre a book fits into or how many genres it flirts with. Steven Montano’s Blood Skies is one such title that I came across in Goodreads and its blurb immediately struck a chord with me. The book’s details make it out to be a fantasy but also is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

The book details an Earth wherein an event called “The Black” has wiped out most of humanity. What it also did was blur the dimensions thereby populating the Earth with many creatures that were thought of as figments of lurid imagination. The tale which is set on the remains of the North American continent features the cities of the Southern Claw and the tale is set about 20 years after the occurrence of the Black. Eric Cross is the main protagonist of the story who is introduced as a warlock in lieu with the Southern Claw military; he is part of the viper squad that battles the vampires of the ebon cities. The Southern claw alliance is a group of human cities that have banded together under the titleage of the White Mother who acted as a shepherd immediately after the apocalyptic events of the Black. No one knows much about the White Mother except that she acts only through her emissaries and without her support humanity wouldn’t have existed.

The story begins when Eric recently begins his mission which is to track down a renegade witch called Red who has betrayed the human alliance by stealing some important information and now is heading towards the vampire holds. The magic contained by warlocks and witches is by the presence of a spirit that is of the opposite gender which powers them. Eric and his sister Snow are two such powerful magic wielding siblings who have figured out that life is forever changed and now they will have to do their best to survive. The opening chapters of the book are set three years and twenty years after the Black and finally begin again twenty three years later when Eric is a two year veteran of the southern Claw alliance but still hasn’t figured out his exact role. He feels more akin to a tool than an actual human warrior, his relationship with his sister is strained due to the age gap between them as well as his military life. Suddenly spruced and faced with problems due to the chase of the witch Red, Eric will have to figure out his life soon and at the same time figure what lead one of humanity’s strongest defenders to turn traitor.

The book is set in a very dystopian world wherein the presence of magic has affected history, geography, society and almost everything on Earth. The author has very effusively described the settings and the way the characters see the land around them. Consider this as an example:
The fields of snow and rivers of ice are reflective white and blue, like steel and bone, a mirror a thousand miles long. In the middle of this nowhere stands a massive mountain as black as coal, it pierces the sky and penetrates the heavens.”

The above lines along with many more in the book are the hallmark of the author’s work, a strong sense of description perhaps approaching Robert Jordan in his heyday. However as in the above example the author is also guilty of repetition. The sense of the world being in its twilight phase is never lost on the reader and as the tale is a quest. The author vividly sets about describing the landscape wherein the characters travel about and each new place even more scary and stranger than the previous one. Since the only POV is provided by Eric Cross the readers don’t get much of a look into the other characters and Eric who is a young man but also a solo narrator is often not the best one. The other characters that are present don’t get much time to make their presence felt as the author deals with a gruesome hand. Many of the characters are often introduced and meet their demise by the end of the chapter, this uncertainty about the character life certainly made the read bit more interesting.

The negative points about the book are that the readers will often a sense of vertigo as the author slowly doles out information while describing certain events, places and characters thus making the read a bit uneven. The description-heavy prose is also good but at certain points just seems a tad hyperbolic. The author could have definitely eased up on that aspect. The biggest draw of the story is the quest aspect to it and while the author does make the story as fast paced as possible, at certain points however the story takes quite some weird turns which do not add up totally. The biggest drawback though is perhaps the author doesn’t reveal much of the world and while this is a perfectly reasonable act on the author’s part, I as a reader would have loved to dwell a bit deeper into the psyche of the common man of this world perhaps also seen a part of the current human cities. Again this is a very subjective thing and many readers would be fine with the way the book is set up. Also since this is the first book, I’m jumping the gun a bit and the author definitely could have revelations planned for later books.

CONCLUSION: Steven Montano tracks a different path and showcases a different sort of world, the setting as well prose is what sets it apart from many in the post apocalyptic genre, riffing a bit on the black company books, the author crafts an interesting debut which if it overcomes its shortcomings will be a series I can look forward to.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Twilight Forever Rising" by Lena Meydan (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit Lena Meydan's Official Website Here

OVERVIEW: Darel Ericson of the Dahanavar clan is a rarity among his vampire brethren: he's an empath, strong enough to occasionally read thought as well as emotion. For centuries, his power has given the Dahanavar a significant advantage against the machinations of the other vampire families, an advantage which makes Darel both a powerful tool and a highly visible target.

Fortunately for Darel, it is more useful for the heads of the other clans to maintain the centuries-long peace between the houses than to remove him. But, the cunning and violent head of the House of Nachterret is tired of the truce, and of hiding his presence in the world. The Nachterret would like nothing more than have free reign over the helpless human cattle upon which they feed.

Darel, and the human woman he loves, become central to the Nachterret's scheme to plunge the Houses into all-out war. Darel is ultimately forced to face the question: is one young woman's life too high a price to pay for peace

FORMAT: Twilight Forever Rising is a paranormal/urban fantasy. There are elements of mystery, drama, and a little adventure mixed in. Twilight Forever Rising stands at 400 pages and the English translation was published by TOR on September 28, 2010.

ANALYSIS: I finished Twilight Forever Rising over a year ago, and kept meaning to review it but forgot. A year later, here I am sitting here and what should pop into my head; yup, you guessed it Twilight Forever Rising.

Don’t let the term “Twilight” fool you, there are no sparkling vampires or sappy overly angsty love story here. If you want that, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Twilight Forever Rising follows the life and times of several vampire houses, and the politics that goes along with these houses. The best way to describe it is a mob-like mentality, but with vampires in the year 2000. In addition to the political wheeling’s and dealings of the house, readers are treated to an inside look at the struggles and lives of what it would be like to be a vampire in the year 2000.

Each of the vampire houses or clans have some type of unique ability or magical attribute that sets them apart. Some can read minds, others are “fighters”, and others are artistic. There are good houses, and bad houses, but no matter how it is viewed all the houses believe they are superior to humans; it’s just a matter of who is better fit to rule over the humans.

The story revolves around the main character, Darel Ericson, who is an empath at the center of the vampire house war. Darel falls in love with a human, Loraine, and quickly drags her into the midst of the vampire house war, and so our story starts.

Vampires are a topic that I think most readers can agree has been over-done in the past few years. While Twilight Forever Rising doesn’t offer a completely new take on vampires, it does present a thrilling, captivating story that is beautifully written. Not in the sense that it’s flow-y or flowery, but it works. It’s quick, short chapters that keeps flowing along with ease.

All of the characters, even the most trivial characters, seemed to be fleshed-out and developed. The vampires love and hate, they fight and socialize, they strategize and plot against other houses and humans. All of which I found absolutely fascinating.

If the background and history of the vampire houses/clans seems confusing, it is best to just plow through, because it really does all fall into place later in the book. In fact, I didn’t even notice that I was bogged with information because it just worked later in the book.

The story is fairly slow to start out. A lot of time is spent describing the vampire houses, dropping hints on how the vampire society is structured, and such. The combination of what could feel as information over-load and the sluggish start might turn away some readers, but the book picks up about one-fourth of the way through, and after that it’s smooth sailing. It just grabbed my attention and never let go.

There are a few, and I mean very few, parts of the novel that seem to have lost its meaning and context due to the translation of the novel from its original Russian. However, it is nothing that can’t be overlooked as it only came up a handful of times, and will probably not be noticed by many readers.

While I absolutely loved the whole book, and can’t get enough of it, there is one thing that keeps bugging me. The book just ends. I mean literally it just kind stopped, leaving me with what feels like a billions questions that I want answered. It was just as if the book got to the part it built up to, and it ended. There are more stories in the series, and I really hope that someone out there brings the rest of the series to the US.

Twilight Forever Rising is a wonderful book, despite its faults. I think it should have gotten more attention, and maybe the attention would lead to another story. If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, but not way out there, or just looking to try an urban fantasy that isn’t the standard sassy heroine this is the book for you
Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Few Announcements and Lists (by Liviu Suciu)

Due to a recent heavy workload as important deadlines approach, I will have only sporadic posts here at least until mid-April and the few reviews I was planning - full review for Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright by Justine Saracen and shorter reviews for The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta, The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar and The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett, may or may not be done till then, though you can read my raw thoughts on Goodreads for now.

I will also keep posting on Goodreads raw thoughts about any book I finish; recent English language novels read include China Mieville's superbly inventive Railsea, Alan Furst's ultra-atmospheric Mission to Paris and the very good but lighter than expected The Black Opera by Mary Gentle, all upcoming later in the year and all hopefully to have full reviews here in due course.

I also revamped a little my ranking shelves on Goodreads with three - all positional - annual recommended categories (starting from 2008 of course when Goodreads appeared) and I added a few more authors/titles to my all time favorite list that now contains 49 entries. The entries selected are mostly for the respective author's body of work and/or a series, with very few standalone novels as such and covering 48 authors with the one exception for two very different series by David Weber that both rank in my top three ongoing ones.

As an aside, sff occupies 22 of the 49 entries, 16 sf series/author's oeuvre and 6 fantasy series/author's work, with the first one being Use of Weapons (and the Culture series) by IM Banks at #7, while the first fantasy and 4th sff overall being A Game of Thrones at #11; the Honorverse is #9 and Night's Dawn (and generally Peter F. Hamilton's work) #10.

The other fantasy authors included are Jacqueline Carey, China Mieville, Adrian Tchaikovsky, K.J. Parker and Sean Russell, while in sf, Alastair Reynolds, Christopher Priest, Greg Egan, William Barton, Adam Roberts, Jules Verne, George Turner, Jack Vance, Eric Flint, Lois Bujold, Neal Asher and Neal Stephenson are in there in addition to the three mentioned above.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine with Bonus Q&A with the author (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read an excerpt HERE
Order the Book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: David Constantine is a pseudonym of David J. Williams, who is a history graduate from Yale and has also some experience being a spoke in the wheel of corporate America. He also worked as games designer for Relic Video Games and then was inspired to write his own twisted version of the future, the Autumn Rain trilogy is the final product of that attempt.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Alexander, Prince of Macedon, is the terror of the world. Persia, Egypt, Athens . . . one after another, mighty nations are falling before the fearsome conqueror. Some say Alexander is actually the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the living incarnation of Hercules himself. Worse yet, some say Alexander believes this . . . . The ambitious prince is aided in his conquest by unstoppable war-machines based on the forbidden knowledge of his former tutor, the legendary scientist-mage known as Aristotle. Greek fire, mechanical golems, and gigantic siege-engines lay waste to Alexander''s enemies as his armies march relentlessly west--toward the very edge of the world.

Beyond the Pillars of Hercules, past the gateway to the outer ocean, lies the rumored remnants of Atlantis: ancient artifacts of such tremendous power that they may be all that stands between Alexander and conquest of the entire world. Alexander desires that power for himself, but an unlikely band of fugitives-including a Gaulish barbarian, a cynical Greek archer, a cunning Persian princess, and a sorcerer''s daughter-must find it first . . . before Alexander unleashes godlike forces that will shatter civilization. The Pillars of Hercules is an epic adventure that captures the grandeur and mystery of the ancient world as it might have been, where science and magic are one and the same.

FORMAT/INFO: The Pillars of Hercules is 396 pages long divided over twenty-four numbered chapters. Also includes an Appendix and map of the Mediterranean world of 330BC. Narration is in the third person via Lugorix the Gaulish barbarian, Eumenes, Leosthenes an Athenian general, Matthias the archer and a few other minor characters. The Pillars of Hercules is self-contained, concluding the novel’s major storylines, however the author might write a sequel to it.

March 6, 2011 marks the Trade Paperback publication of The Pillars of Hercules via Night Shade Books. Cover art provided by Daren Bader.

ANALYSIS: The Pillars of Hercules was a book which I was itching to read simply based on its blurb details. A tale of Alexander the great and with major steampunk elements, it seemed too good to be true. Lastly I also learned that David Constantine was a pseudonym for SF writer David J. Williams. I had previously enjoyed his Autumn Rain trilogy and so I was very much enthused to how he would fuse alternate history with his brand of octane action sequences.

I’m guessing based on the basic blurb and genre contents of the book, many bloggers were interested in it. However as I was reading it, I came across several reviews which didn’t draw a favorable picture of the book and they were from reviewers whose opinion I do admire. They all made various valid complaints about it though. I was a bit confused by it all as while I was reading the book, I did come across several of the issues however didn't find them to be that much of a bother. To begin with the alternate theory postulated in this tale is that Alexander never died in his Eastern campaign and decides to conquer the west and the Athenian empire. Philip the king of Macedonia and mortal father of Alexander is alive and distraught at Alexander’s plans. He has spies among Alexander’s crew and Eumenes a loyal greek general is the person who supplies us with a POV into the Alexandrian camp. The team of individuals that are trying to stop Alexander and his party from reaching their objectives is a motley crew consisting of Lugorix the Gaul barbarian, Matthias the Greek archer, Barsine a Persian princess and Eurydice, a person of great interest. Things get hairy when Alexander’s invasion of Alcibiadia coincides with the first meeting of the princess and the mercenaries however things are never what they seem and thus begins the journey which will see many parties try to reach the Pillars of Hercules as no one actually knows what lies beyond but everyone wants to be the first to find out.

A couple of pointers about the book since I knew it was written by the same mind that produced the Autumn Rain trilogy, I anticipated the type of prose, style of the book and its cliff hanger twists. The book begins quietly however this docile period extends for only a few pages until the mayhem begins on every page and in almost all POV chapters. The action similar to the author’s previous books is on a scale which belied belief. Adding to the epicness is the presence of mechanical gargoyles, armors, submersible ships, etc things which basically have no reason to exist in that specific time period however this is not the same world as ours and while we share certain characteristics, it has its own unique flavor. I for one was completely enthralled by the book’s scope and the author’s imagination. It did not disappoint me at all and so I was a bit stumped as to why the other reviewers disliked this book so much.

I’ll be first to admit that all the points raised by the reviewers are valid ones and I share their concern in regards to their presence. So let’s begin with the litany, one of the major ones which was brought up was the choppy prose mode with which the author operates. I believe this is the author’s quintessential style and previous readers of his books will agree with me about this. However it’s a style which requires complete focus and attention from the reader as the author slips in lots of stuff in between which makes sense and helps build the overall picture. It works for some and doesn't for many, if you fall in the latter camp then this book is not for you. The second point that was brought up was the language and swear words used by the characters is very 21st century and it seemed out of place amid the Mediterranean world and this is a very valid point, the author doesn’t give any justification for it and this sticks out more than once. This however is something which can ruin the read for many readers and is purely subjective as it didn't completely hinder my read. Lastly there was a point bought in a review from one of my favorite blogs about the absence of female POVS and this one is absolutely dead on. The book would have been so much interesting from the POVs of Barsine, Eurydice and even Olympias (had she been alive), the author though is not one to shy away from the female perspective considering the main protagonist of his debut books was a female however his decision is surprising and ultimately one can chalk it down completely to authorial decision.

Now on the parts as to why I’m so enamored by the book, for starters the scope of the tale and the sheer imagination of the author is brought to the fore during the climax of the book when a lot of details are revealed to the reader and therefore certain things in the story (such as the level of technology) make a lot of sense. I quite LOVED this aspect, the absolute coagulation of various myths with scientific theories which totally point to a different conclusion. The author manages to out do himself with this effort, if the readers were astounded by the ending of “The Machinery of Light”, then “The Pillars of Hercules” does its absolute best to blow one’s mind away with its revelations and so the author has to be lauded for writing this tale. I don’t know what or how he does it but when it comes to imaginative plot threads, David Constantine aka David J. Williams has few equals among his contemporaries or even his peers. The prose pattern is one which I expected and yet I sensed it was done in better than the previous books. Readers will have to be cautioned in regards to this book as they might have to read some excerpts to get a proper handle about the type of book this is. There's also the action sequences which are numerous and scattered though out the tale, one thing about them is that they can be a bit disorienting as the author frequently changes perspective in between. Lastly I would say that ending is what thoroughly made this book stand out for me and won me over inspite of its faults. So I would ask all readers to at least read all the way to the ending and see the full scope of revelations to make their mind about the book.

CONCLUSION: David Constantine makes an exciting entry into the field of Alternate history and does his best to blow all assumptions about steampunk out of the water so as to speak. I enjoyed his take on Alexander and a Macedonian world which never existed. Brimming with SF edges masquerading as fantasy this book is a weird amalgamation of several genres that makes the end content a unique hybrid. Not everyone will be enamored by this effort, however readers looking for a different style and narrative energy might find a book which challenges them and provides an ending which can be only described as mind-blowing. Welcome to the wild world of the Pillars of the Hercules, and as the characters discover for themselves, so will the readers that things are never what they seem to be!

BONUS Q/A with David Constantine

Q] I have to say, I was completely floored by the scope of your imagination. How and where did the kernel of this story arise from?

DC: I've always been fascinated by the ancient world in general, and by Alexander the Great in particular. But the problem with history is that one knows what happens. So I started to envision an alternate history, and things came together from there...

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that “The Pillars of Hercules” is set in and some of the book’s major characters?

DC: PILLARS is set in a version of the world of 330 B.C., in which Alexander the Great has just conquered Persia, and now turns his attention to the last remaining world power that stands in his way, the Athenian Empire. We focus on a small group of adventurers--a Gaulish barbarian, a Greek mercenary, a Persian princess, and a sorceror's daughter--who are all that stands between Alexander and his uncovering of the lost artifacts at Atlantis that will allow him not only to conquer the known world but to uncover the secrets of the ancients..secrets that will allow him to acquire powers beyond the reach of man.

Q] With your previous trilogy, you imagined a futuristic world wherein warfare has taken a new guise, with this book you presented an alternate ancient world. Can the readers hazard a guess that you love to postulate alternative world scenarios and then cause destruction on a mass scale in them, any thoughts about this?

DC: I wish to plead guilty as charged.

Q] On your book cover, there’s a tagline “A saga of the ancient world – As it might have been!” I’m sure many readers would be curious as to know more about why and how this world shares more commonalities than imagined from actual reality.

DC: Well, the actual ancient world was far more "steampunk" that most people realize. From the Antikythera (the world's first analog computer, a device of more than 70 gears), to Heron of Alexandria's steam engine, to the weapons that Archimedes deployed at the siege Syracuse, this was a world that was a damn sight more fascinating than the usual swords and shields you usually see in historical depictions. So creating an alternative version of that merely involved amping up the volume.

Q] In your appendix you talk about Alexander the Great and how various historians have painted a rosy picture of him and his acts, but there’s also been a surge wherein the rosy picture has been scrubbed with the truth. What are your thoughts on him?

DC: The idealized view of Alexander popularized by writers like Mary Renault (which still ranks as some of the best historical fiction ever done) has been out of sync with Alexander scholarship for some time now. Alexander's ruthlessness didn't stop outside the battlefield; in fact, he didn't hesitate to conduct political murders, and--given the ruthless nature of the Macedonian court--he probably wouldn't have survived if he hadn't. We also have to take stock of the king's megalomania, which is pretty well documented, and overshadows the last several years of his life. So whereas Renault found Alexander to be an ideal protagonist, I found him to be a fascinating antagonist--all the more so as maybe the Alexander of PILLARS really might have had the gods whispering in his ear....

Q] I particularly loved how you incorporated a few regional mythologies within your story. Your story while seemingly fantasy had quite some SF tweaks to it. What lead to this choice?

DC: It's probably not too much to say that this is a book that looks like a fantasy novel, but is really science fiction. What many of the characters see as magick is actually tech-based, but of course they don't have enough scientific knowledge to realize that. In this world, scientists and sorcerors are the same thing. (Not that anyone save the reader needs to know that.)

Q] With the story ending the way it did, I have to ask will there be a sequel? Have you envisioned this book as a standalone or the start of a new series?

DC: The book operates as as standalone, but without question this is a world I'd love to revisit at some point. So stay tuned...
Monday, March 19, 2012

Winners of the Legend Of Eli Monpress Giveaway and Other SFF Tidbits!!! (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Congratulations to Megan S, Andrew C and Jan-Egil W. who were all randomly selected to win a copy of Rachel Aaron’s “Legend of Eli Monpress”—the omnibus edition—courtesy of the author!!! For more information on Rachel Aaron and The Legend of Eli Monpress series, please visit the following links:

Read FBC Review of "The Spirit Thief"
Read FBC review of “The Spirit Rebellion
Read FBC Review of “The Spirit Eater” and “Spirit’s Oath
Read FBC’s Interview with Rachel Aaron

Also here are a few things which I believe deserve attention, firstly over at SF Signal beginning in the end of February, they have held three big podcasts in which Patrick Hester and Jaym Gates have conversed with Editors, Cover Artists and Authors. The topic of conversation was “Sword and Sorcery for the modern reader”.

The first podcast which is available over HERE and has the following fabulous crowd featured in it:

The second podcast which is to be found over HERE, featured another awesome group:

The third podcast is the one (click HERE) which stands out due to the sheer talent of the writers focused upon in it and they are:

All the three podcasts make for some fascinating thoughts and so be sure to catch all three of them.

On to the next fascinating thing, Bradley P. Beaulieu in cahoots with Night Shade Books, is hosting an awesome giveaway that includes the following prizes:
- A first prize of a Kindle Fire or a Nook Color tablet (Winner’s preference)
- A second prize of a Nook Simple Touch or a Kindle Touch (Winner’s preference)
- A third prize of a signed ARC of the “The Straits of Galagesh
- Five fourth prizes of a SET of SIGNED TRADE PAPERBACK editions of The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh!
- Five fifth prizes of a SET of the ELECTRONIC editions of The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh! (Electronic editions can be delivered in epub, mobi, or pdf formats.)

This is an absolutely awesome giveaway and more information about how to enter for it can be found on Bradley’s blog. So head over there as the contest is open from March 13th all the way until April 3rd 2012. Best of luck to all those entering it.

(Picture Credit: Soul Smithy Blog)

And lastly a bit on two interviews, primarily I came across a terrific interview of R. Scott Bakker conducted by Adam “Werthead” Whitehead of the always interesting WERTZONE and featured on the Orbit Blog by James Long, who previously ran the blog Speculative Horizons. The discussion covers Scott’s entire career, from his original influences to the development of epic fantasy in recent years and much more, hop over to the Orbit blog to read more. The second one focuses on Myke Cole, the debutante who's carving a niche in the urban fantasy sub-genre, so head over to Bastard Books and read the in-depth piece done by B. mainly and with a few questions from yours truly and Tim Marquitz.
Friday, March 16, 2012

Steampunk Novella Thoughts: Omar The Immortal and Aladdin and His Wonderfully Infernal Device (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order the Novella HERE

Official Synopsis: In the exotic land of Marrakesh, Omar Bakhoum joins an airship expedition into the freezing north in search of a fabled country called Ysland, but howling ice storms, legions of ghosts, and a deadly samurai stand between Omar and his goal.

His journey has barely begun before the members of the expedition team are afflicted, and as the last remaining foreigner on board, Omar is accused of heinous acts. The one thing that can help him find the real killer is Omar’s ancient sword, haunted by the souls of thousands of dead sages and warriors. But this sword may be the very thing that dooms the entire expedition to a watery grave.

Overview/Analysis: Omar the Immortal is a novella in the Europa Series by Joseph Robert Lewis. I came across this book on Goodreads and wanted to know more about it so went to the author’s website wherein I was informed of his “Other Earth” series. This is a world wherein Europe never recovered from the last Ice Age and the world saga is more equatorial. The nations in North Africa, Middle East and Indian Subcontinent have progressed to different natures which might have been. This concept is something which has previously explored a bit, most recently done by Kate Elliott in her Spiritwalker trilogy.

When I had requested the books from the author, the author had specifically asked that I read his debut trilogy The Halcyon series which specifically establishes the world and begins the reader’s journey in to the exotic world created by the author. The chronological order of the books in the series is:
- Omar the Immortal [Europa 1]
- The Burning Sky [Halcyon 1]
- The Broken Sword [Halcyon 2]
- The Bound Soul [Halcyon 3]
- Freya the Huntress [Europa 2]
- The Dragon and The Lotus [Chimera 1]
- Wren the Fox Witch [Europa 3]
- Forthcoming sequel [Chimera 2]

Thus as is visible above, there are more books in the series and the author specifically requested that I start with the Halcyon books as that’s the way author intends for readers to begin with. I however chose to go the chronological order as this way I would get to read a standalone novella instead of three books and secondly somehow I enjoy books in the correct timeline (a personal quirk, I’m afraid).

The story opens four years before the events of the Halcyon trilogy and has our protagonist Omar Bakhoum arriving in Tingis, a city of Marrakkesh. He is on a mission as he seeks passage to a land called Ysland wherein he believes he will find answers about the mysteries of the world and perhaps the strange substance that is “Sun-Steel”. He finds that his footsteps are being traced and while he plans a quiet journey, troubles never leave his trail. The story packed into this novella is quite an exciting one as the reader gets frequently introduced to new lands, words and phrases which are a bit hard to follow but if one follows the map given in the start of the tale, a lot of it makes sense. This book perhaps mentions a lot of things which might have been familiar to readers of the previous Halcyon trilogy and this was my fault as I started reading this book first. However new readers need not be alarmed as the author does not emulate Steven Erikson and drop the reader into his world without any information. The minutiae and quirks are reveled slowly and surely and most readers can easily grasp the intricacies of the world.

Omar Bakhoum as a character is interesting however we do not get to know much of his backstory which causes a lack of empathy of sorts however it isn’t too much for the rader to become disinterested. What did hold my interest was the mention of Sun-Steel and the fascinating way several kingdoms seemed to have developed. The world-building is the true focus of the story and also its best feature, the reader will definitely be intrigued about the world presented and so the hook is quite cleverly inserted. I will definitely be reading the next installments of the Europa trilogy along with the Halcyon trilogy as well. The author is quite a fan of steampunk and so there are quite some elements of it in this book but they are rather smartly molded to fit the features of this world which gels with the story and makes the fit that much more cohesive.

The only drawback of the story is that the events fly by rather quickly and certain events happen a bit too easily but measured against the space constraints of a novella, they can be understood and overlooked. Lastly I was very much intrigued by this sneak peek of the Other Earth and so I can heartily recommend this series to all readers of the fantastic and alternate-earth stories. I’ll be also reading the other books to see how the author sustains and spreads the world showcased in this novella.

Order the Novella HERE

Official Synopsis: From the imagination behind the award-winning Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series comes a steampunk novella to a legend from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Aladdin is a street-wise thief that finds himself under the tutelage of a world-renown illusionist. He is escorted deep into the deserts in search of a treasure beyond his wildest dreams, and discovers instead something far more valuable—a destiny.

Overview/Analysis: Aladdin’s story is one which is quite popular and with the awesome Disney movie, I’m sure most readers are definitely aware of its particulars. Tee Morris is quite a steampunk fan and is also the husband of Philippa Ballantine and they together write the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences, an alternate-historical, steampunk laced series. Thus with such a background it is not so strange to see the author come up with this interpretation of this beloved fable. I was also alerted to the particulars of this book by Melissa’s review that really made me want to read it so I went ahead and bought it.

The story opens rather excitingly as we get to see Aladdin as mentioned in all stories, a thief of slight build but a quick mind and even quicker skills. We see him doing what he does best and then are given a small tour of his habitats via a chase a la the original story. However the twist being that he soon meets someone purporting to be his lost family. Glad on rediscovering such bonds, Aladdin soon gets shunted on to a journey wherein he will discover the stuff of legends and perhaps his fame as well.

The best part of the story are how the author moulds the framework of the original tale to the steampunk elements and yet manages to give a tale which is fresh and funny. The addition of the genie is something which was very cool as his presence is integral to the storyline however it might not be in the way readers think it will be. The twist of the sciences present in the world that cause things to appear as magic is something not quite properly explained and remains the biggest flaw of the story. The story however simply runs with this concept and if the readers can let go of that preface then the story is quite enjoyable.

Aladdin’s character is not tinkered with much and is present as most of us remember from our childhood tales. The main character is shown to be quite a smart thinker and this trait is nicely showcased through out the story within various situations. What I liked best was the author’s twist on the story about the Genie and the world settings similar to the novella mentioned previously, is something which will intrigue the reader. There’s also a passing nod to the legend of Arabian Nights and I would love to see the author explore more in this milieu and give us longer stories featuring Aladdin and the genie.

The ending while precise also seems rather packaged conveniently and this perhaps is again due to the novella structure, with both stories I felt that the endings didn’t really match up to the whole story but this might be perceived differently by readers. All in all Tee Morris’ solo effort is definitely an exciting one and I hope he follows though with this story as well as provide life to other steampunk fairy tales as the scope illustrated in this one points to a rather engaging and funny imagination. I would easily recommend this novella to all steampunk lovers and those wanting to try something new from a relatively new author, heartily recommended!


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