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Sunday, March 31, 2013

RE-REVIEW: Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines (by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE 
Read the prologue and first chapter HERE 
Read Fantasy Book Critic Interview with Peter Clines 
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Ex-Patriots
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Junkie Quatrain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of 14 

INTRODUCTION: In the last three years, Peter Clines has gone from a small time author who was published by zombie specialist publishers Permuted Press to a guy whose wonderful books were bought over by a big time publisher. I had previously blogged about these things over here and here. Suffice to say I’m extremely glad that Peter has taken this step.

Previously when I reviewed the book, I quite loved it and so when I got a chance to read the new edition, I was very much looking forward to it. This edition basically has the same story line with almost very little differences. There are of course some editing changes that help the story and which are to be expected. Overall though I would say that these differences are very minor ones.

When I re-read the story I found it to be as mesmerizing a read when I first read it nearly two years ago and so I would like to present my review from 2011 as I think it covers all the salient features of the book that made it feature so high in my 2011 year end list. I've made some changes in my review as well to reflect the new edition. So go ahead and be sure to pick up the "mainstream" debut of this terrific book!

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Original 2011 Review of Ex-Heroes:

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Peter Clines was born and brought up in Maine, he moved to California when he grew up and worked in Hollywood for a number of years. He has also been a prop master for several movies and TV shows. He has written reviews for the Cinema Blend website as well as for the Creative Screenwriting magazine. He has previously interviewed many famous film personas such as Frank Darabont, Paul Haggis, Kevin Smith, George Romero, Akiva Goldsman, David Goyer, Mark Herman, Nora Ephron and many others. He lives in Southern California and this was his debut.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes, using their superhuman abilities to make Los Angeles a better place. Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Billions died, civilization fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions protect a last few thousand survivors in their film-studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. Scarred and traumatized by the horrors they’ve endured, the heroes fight the armies of ravenous ex-humans at their citadel’s gates, lead teams out to scavenge for supplies—and struggle to be the symbols of strength and hope the survivors so desperately need.

But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the city’s ruins. And just a few miles away, another group is slowly amassing power . . . led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.

FORMAT/INFO: Ex-Heroes is 312 pages long divided over a prologue, twenty-seven numbered/titled chapters, and an epilogue. All chapters are either divided into “Then” or “Now” sections. Narration is in the first-person for all “Then” chapters and in third person for all the “Now” sections. The POV's both first person and third person are via Stealth, Gorgon, Cairax, Regenerator, Cerberus, Zzzap, The Mighty Dragon, Lady Bee, Banzai, St. George and a few minor characters. Ex-Heroes is self-contained and is the first book in the Ex-Heroes series.

Ex-Heroes was previously published on February 25, 2010 in the paperback and e-book format via Permuted press. It was re-released in paperback and e-book format on February 26, 2013 via Broadway Paperbacks (Crown Publishing) in the US. Del Rey UK will be releasing it paperback form on July 11, 2013 while it has already been released as an e-book on March 29, 2013. US Cover art is provided by Jonathan Bartlett.

CLASSIFICATION: Mixing zombies with superheroes in a desolate Los Angeles. Peter Clines’ world of Ex-Heroes can be best summed up as George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead meets David Gemmell’s Legend meets The X-Men.


ANALYSIS: I had been noticing Ex-Heroes since last year (2010) but it kind of got lost in my “Books-to-be-checked” list. However Amazon’s recommendations made sure that it was never really out of my mind, as it always used to pop up every now and then. After the release of Ex-Patriots the sequel to this book, I contacted the publisher (Permuted Press) for review copies and they graciously sent both the books over promptly. I was hugely excited to see that the story was focusing on superheroes coupled with zombies and I was hoping that it would not disappoint.

The author has quite cleverly divided the book into the past “then” and present “now” sections and thereby maintaining the tension in the story while going forward as well giving us the crucial back story. The “now” begins in the current where a sizeable portion of humanity is holed up in Paramount Studios which has now been renamed “The Mount”. The humans within are surviving from the horror outside wherein zombies freely roam and look for fresh human meat, the zombies in this world are called “Exes” as in Ex-humans. The human population though has an upper hand with the super heroes who are protecting them.

Stealth, Gorgon, Regenerator, Cerberus, Zzzap, Lady Bee, St. George and a few others have shepherded humanity and are doing their best defeat the zombies while also searching for a cure. The “then” sections focus on each superhero separately and we are given a clear look into their beginnings, this leads to a very precise picture about each of them while differentiating their personas in the reader’s minds. The story then begins as the heroes forage on almost a daily basis and try to retrieve as many tangible goods as they can with a few normal volunteers however they have been noticing that some one is competing with them and also leaving booby traps which creates further problems. The story then escalates as the people of the Mount find out who it is that has been hindering their survival and what do they want which leads to the question “what will they do to survive?”

I completely loved this book and while it was a debut book, it didn’t feel so at all. With a very clever but not wholly original premise, the author unleashes a very exciting story, which grabs the reader’s attention and then proceeds to charm the reader in a variety of ways. Firstly the plot is a great one as the story begins with a scenario that should appeal to most zombie/apocalypse enthusiasts. From then on the author keeps the story moving forward with some great twists as well as the past recollections of each superhero. This tactic keeps the twin story strands; the past and the present constantly entwined while delivering the clues about the enemy and also illuminating the mistakes of the past. I was thrilled with the way the story was presented and how in the end the author managed to pull it off by coalescing all the threads and resolving all the questions arising in the readers minds.

The author has also aced the characterization department as we are given access to many characters and all of them have vastly different personalities and agendas. This was what differentiated the characters from being comic book clones. And even though most of heroes have their own issues a la the X-men, the author has conveniently provided the back stories which clue the reader in to these issues. Another tremendously exciting point was the humor which is present in all forms through out the story, from the black humor laced conversations to the celebrity zombie hunts; the author manages to make the darkness of the situation a little lighter. There also tons of references to various comic book characters, movies, SFF shows, books etc. making it an interesting read in addition to all the previous plus points.

Lastly this book’s climax draws parallels with David Gemmell’s classic debut Legend, in the sense, the reader gets a sense of claustrophobia as the holed up survivors try to defeat an enemy who has massive strength in numbers while also facing problems from within. Granted that David Gemmell’s book was built on that single premise whereas over here the book’s climax is a one long drawn out fight, which will have the readers flipping pages to see who survives & who doesn’t and what is the final outcome. For me I got that overall Legend-like vibe and kudos to the author for making the climax that much exciting. I really loved this book for all of its good points which made it such a fun read, however the parts combined together make it an excellent book all together.

I would have point that I really couldn’t find any deficiencies or things to nitpick. One can point out that the author utilizes various tropes among the superheroes like the all invincible hero with the heart of gold, the secretive hero who stays alone even among the hero ken, etc. But with all the tropes being utilized Peter has still managed to put his own spin to these characters and the story thereby making it his own and one which can stand all amongst other wonderful debuts. After all almost all SFF novels utilize tropes in one form or the other and it is up to the writer to make them seem seamless within the confines of the plot. To his credit Peter Clines passes with flying colors in his debut by giving the readers a tale that they can cherish for a long time to come.

CONCLUSION: An excellent debut that spans many sub-genres and has a little bit of everything to satisfy most of its readers. Ex-Heroes is a standout debut in the superhero and zombie genre. Simply put I was completely floored by this book’s ingenuity and charm; I definitely hope that Hollywood never ruins this one by making it into a movie. Heartily recommended for all fantasy, thriller, horror fans who would want to read a book which best exemplifies the real meaning of a page-turner. Peter Clines’ debut easily makes him the most under-appreciated author of 2010 and now I can’t wait to read what he has done next in Ex-Patriots.

Three Recent SFF Books of Interest, Steven Amsterdam, Aidan Harte and Chris Beckett (with comments by Liviu Suciu)

I thought about presenting three recent apparitions - or to be more precise two first editions (one UK only, one US/UK) and a first US edition of a book published in the UK earlier - as all are books of great interest for me and of course I have just bought all when I found out about them a few days ago, while I have not really seen any mention of either on the sff sites and forums I look at. 

Since this year until mid-summer at earliest my presence here at FBC will be quite unpredictable so to speak, I may not get to do a full fledged review of any of them, though of course you always can find my opinions (in a rawer, much less edited form) on Goodreads.


"In this incandescent novel, a family’s superpowers bestow not instant salvation but the miracle of accepting who they are.

“Okay, tell me which you want,” Alek asks his cousin at the outset of What the Family Needed. “To be able to fly or to be invisible.” And soon Giordana, a teenager suffering the bitter fallout of her parents’ divorce, finds that she can, at will, become as invisible as she feels. Later, Alek’s mother, newly adrift in the disturbing awareness that all is not well with her younger son, can suddenly swim with Olympic endurance. Over three decades, in fact, each member of this gorgeously imagined extended family discovers, at a moment of crisis, that he or she possesses a supernatural power.


But instead of crimes to fight and villains to vanquish, they confront inner demons, and their extraordinary abilities prove not to be magic weapons so much as expressions of their fears and longings as they struggle to come to terms with who they are and what fate deals them. As the years pass, their lives intersect and overlap in surprising and poignant ways, and they discover that the real magic lies not in their superpowers but in the very human and miraculous way they are able to accept, protect, and love one another."


Loved the author's debut, Things We Didn't see Coming and What the Family Needed seems to be a similar episodic sfnal novel which was recently published in the US. After trying a few pages, the same style from the first book decided me to get this one and I should read it sooner rather than later.

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Aidan Harte's The Warring States (UK only for now) is the second book in the Wave trilogy after the debut Irenicon which Mihir liked a lot but about which I was mixed as my Goodreads review shows.

However as  time passed, I still remembered Irenicon while other series I enjoyed the first book more on first read dropped from my interest, while the blurb - not included as it is very spoilerish for Irenicon, so read it at your own risk if you have not read the series debut yet - of The Warring States decided me to give it a try. I expect I will enjoy this much more and maybe even reconsider my opinion about Irenicon too!

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"In 2009, Chris Beckett’s first short story collection The Turing Test won the prestigious Edge Hill Prize, becoming the first, and to date the only, genre collection ever to manage this. In doing so, the book triumphed over a very strong shortlist, including collections by one Booker Prize winner in Anne Enright and two authors who have been Booker shortlisted in Shena Mackay and Ali Smith (the latter a winner of the Whitbread Prize).

When announcing the winner, one of the judges – James Walton, journalist and chair of BBC Radio 4’s The Write Stuff – said, “I suspect Chris Beckett winning the Edge Hill Prize will be seen as a surprise in the world of books. In fact, though, it was also a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand.”

In 2012 the Sunday Times named Chris’ latest novel Dark Eden the best science fiction novel of the year, and it is currently shortlisted for the BSFA Award in the same category. NewCon Press are delighted to be publishing The Peacock Cloak, the latest collection from one of Britain’s most distinguished and accomplished genre authors. Contains twelve stories (85,000 words) all previously uncollected."


Dark Eden (the novel) by Christopher Beckett is another book that improved a lot for me with time and rereading from it, so it jumped to a place on my top 25 of 2012 despite my "very good but a bit too familiar to be outstanding" original take on it, showing once again that some books have more staying power than others, but only time decides which...

Not only that but the reason for the jump was the prose of Mr. Beckett - as the subject of Dark Eden is still something that an experienced sf reader has seen many times - so any new book of the author became a must try at the least. 

On the other hand I am generally slow in reading collections and for example I bought The Turing Test a few years ago and still have read only about half the stories there, so The Peacock Cloak which was a buy on publication more or less as in digital form it is priced very well for a collection, may be another book I will fully read only in time. The first few stories I tried are quite interesting and I definitely urge anyone interested in Mr. Beckett's work to take a look at this collection too.

In a related note, Gela's Ring, the (two centuries later) sequel to Dark Eden, is serialized in the new digital magazine Aethernet and will be published in 2014 in book form, but that is the subject of another post, once I will get the first issue of Aethernet and read it...


Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Quintessence" by David Walton (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Casey Blair)




  

"Imagine an Age of Exploration full of alchemy, human dissection, sea monsters, betrayal, torture, religious controversy, and magic. In Europe, the magic is thin, but at the edge of the world, where the stars reach down close to the Earth, wonders abound. This drives the bravest explorers to the alluring Western Ocean. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who cares only about one thing: quintessence, a substance he believes will grant magical powers and immortality. And he has a ship."

LIVIU’S ANALYSIS: Quintessence is an oddly engaging novel which kept me turning the pages despite being in many ways standard action-sff with cliched villains that have been common in English language genre for a long time, namely inquisition Spaniard who burns heretics at breakfast, lunch and dinner and English treacherous helper who licks the Spaniard boots and informs left and right for advancement, compressed-time action where a main character spends his life seeking stuff, only to find it in a jiff so to speak, hair-rising dangers which you know the heroes will overcome etc etc.

But there is narrative energy and there is sense of wonder galore, not to speak of a superbly consistent alt-physics based on the quintessence of the title; strange creatures, strange people - just to start there is a beetle that passes through almost any material but not wax and always moves west - and inventiveness galore and for that I highly recommend the novel despite the lack of subtlety in all its characters, heroes and villains alike. 

While billed as fantasy - and technically being an alt-history fantasy at the end of the reign of boy king Edward VI and the beginning of the reign of Bloody Mary - the novel is very sfnal in its qualities and work best as such. The ending is good as it closes well the novel's storyline with a promise for more.

Here is a quote with the investigation of Dr Parris and alchemist Sinclair about the beetle, where Parris - personal physician of dying king Edward, and natural scientist who dissects cadavers at night, Sinclair, adventurer and alchemist looking for immortality and Catherine, Parris' 16 year old daughter who wants to "lead a man's life and decide things for herself" are the main characters though there quite a few important others:

"1. The beetle could walk through every material they tested except for wax and earth.
2. The table was not special. Once Parris scraped away the waxy resin that had been used to treat the tabletop, the beetle fell straight through it to be caught in the box he held underneath.
3. The pale wood of the beetle’s box had not been treated, but the inside was covered with a natural waxy oil that imprisoned the beetle just as effectively.
4. The beetle could pass into the box, but not out of it— which didn’t make any sense at all, but made an effective trap. Sinclair could slam the closed box down on top of the beetle, or slide the box along the table into it, forcing it to pass through into a prison from which it could not escape. Sinclair tried it several times, apparently pleased with the theatricality."

CASEY’S ANALYSIS: Quintessence really came together in the pages leading up to the climax, but until that point there were some inconsistencies that bothered me. More than one character who believes something very strongly then inexplicably acts in a way that goes completely against that belief; humans do, of course, do this from time to time, but it seemed accidental when it happened in the book. The POV characters kept behaving in ways that didn't make sense given what we knew of them, and it drove me a little batty. There were some straw man arguments that annoyed me, too, for much the same reason: they served the plot but didn't make sense given the character. I think the climax worked so well because by then, characters' risky decisions no longer seemed arbitrary: their individual stakes were driving them to life and death decisions.

I did appreciate how the author treated both science and religion: each had proponents with different opinions, and neither was portrayed as inherently more worthwhile than the other, nor necessarily mutually exclusive. I was surprised to see a noble lady knitting, but since David Walton nailed so many other historical realities (scurvy, medicine, alchemy, etc.), I was willing to believe it. In fact, he really nailed the spirit and mechanics of the profession for both alchemists and physicians of Renaissance England. Overall, I think David Walton created a fascinating world with some incredibly nuanced issues, and I would read Quintessence again for that alone.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

No Return by Zachary Jernigan (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE 
Order NO RETURN HERE 
Read Zachary's guest post The Debut Novel: A Series of Intentions  
Read Civilian Reader's Interview with Zachary Jernigan 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Zachary Jernigan was born and brought up in the United States and has lived for most of his life in the western half of the country. He has a BA in Religious Studies from Northern Arizona University (2005) and an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program (2011). His short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod. He has previously worked in a variety of fields and avoids seeking management positions. He currently lives in Northern Arizona and No Return is his Debut novel.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists--only what his intentions are.

Under the looming judgment of Adrash and his ultimate weapon--a string of spinning spheres beside the moon known as The Needle--warring factions of white and black suits prove their opposition to the orbiting god with the great fighting tournament of Danoor, on the far side of Jeroun's only inhabitable continent.

From the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits comes Vedas, a young master of martial arts, laden with guilt over the death of one of his students. Traveling with him are Churls, a warrior woman and mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter, and Berun, a constructed man made of modular spheres possessed by the foul spirit of his creator. Together they must brave their own demons, as well as thieves, mages, beasts, dearth, and hardship on the perilous road to Danoor, and the bloody sectarian battle that is sure to follow.

On the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the travelers, Ebn and Pol of the Royal Outbound Mages (astronauts using Alchemical magic to achieve space flight) have formed a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet. But Ebn and Pol each have their own clandestine agendas--which may call down the wrath of the very god they hope to woo. 

Who may know the mind of God? And who in their right mind would seek to defy him?

FORMAT/INFO: No Return is 292 pages long, divided over five parts which is further divided into twenty-three chapters and a prologue and epilogue. Narration is in the third-person primarily via Vedas Tezul, Churli Casta Jones, Berun, Pol Tanz Et Som, Ebn Bon Mari and Adrash. This book can be read as a standalone and has resolves most of its plot threads.

March 5, 2013 marked the publication of the US Hardback and e-book edition of No Return by Night Shade Books. The cover art is provided by Robbie Trevino.

ANALYSIS: Zachary Jernigan’s No Return is a debut that drew my attention to it like a moth to a flame. The blurb detailed a foreign world and races that was simply too enticing for a fantasy fan like me. The author was kind enough to send me a copy and I started reading it with high anticipation but not knowing what to expect.

The story is set on the world of Jeroun wherein a single habitable pan-continent is the focus of the entire tale. It is a world wherein a God named Adrash has existed for eons and now has left humanity and other races bereft of his divine presence. The world since then has developed in interesting ways after Adrash nearly destroyed it by causing two of his artificially created spheres to slam onto Jeroun’s surface and caused an ice age of sorts. The two main religions that have arisen due to these actions are Adrashi and Anadrashi that espouse either rule of Adrash or rule of man. Both these factions have long clashed with each other causing further rifts and doubts to arise. Adrash since then has created several spheres that he aligns in a fashion of sorts, which has been titled “the Needle” and threatens to wipe out Jeroun’s inhabitants. This has lead to an interesting development and now we find ourselves in midst of the story wherein all the characters are trying to achieve what they think they should.

Vedas Tezul is a warrior of the 13th order of Black Suits who is also the most adept fighter amongst them and is chosen to be their representative for the decennial tournament at Danoor. Churli Casta Jones is a warrior who has her own reasons to travel to the Danoor tournament but she’s not alone and will have to learn to trust other warriors again. Berun is a constructed man and therefore not entirely human but he shares within his mind, memories of his creator and will have to decide whether he is his own person or just a creation. Pol Tanz Et Som and Ebn Bon Mari are royal outbound mages who regularly make trips into space to observe Adrash and the Needle. They however have their own plans to accomplish and they will do anything everything to get their way. These are the main POV characters and the reader will have to ascertain what each and everyone wants.

This book is one of the weirdest and simply terrific fantasy-SF hybrids that I have ever come across. Firstly kudos to the author for coming up this plot and ensconcing a complex world, races, and magic system within such a slim volume. The author also retains a certain simplicity to his tale by not making it overtly obtuse a la Erikson or R. Scott Bakker. This was one aspect that I liked a lot, not that the author has made this story an overtly simplistic one as there’s a lot going on and packs quite a wallop within its pages.  It focusses on religion, group mindsets and the way of life as evolved due to circumstances (as seen uniquely on this planet) and all of which makes for a very fascinating story.

His world and storyline are definitely unique in the sense that they combine different genres and themes to give us a story about finding the truth (be it about life, religion, one's role, etc). The author has to be lauded for his effort in undertaking such a different story as he also tackles various issues brought forth by religious viewpoints that differ drastically, ethnic and racial tensions and much more. He however has managed to combine all these difficult queries within the folds of his story in spite of the single volume nature of the tale. The author also takes a very vivid view towards the sexuality of his characters and writes some exotic scenes featuring alien anatomy. For a few readers who aren't used to such frank scenes, might not be able to fathom it entirely but again it will be upon the reader's perspective in regards to the judgment of these scenes.

If there is a drawback to this story then it would be the way the story ends, the reader will want to know more about the world and the characters introduced within. In this regard while the story ends on a climatic note, certain threads left open will cause some consternation for readers that are engulfed within the story. I was one among them and therefore I would very much like to know more about the future and past of this strange alien world. Zachary Jernigan has spoken about this aspect in his guest post a bit as well in his email correspondence. Hopefully most of the questions about the world and its history will be answered in a companion volume and so I’ll among the first to grab it whenever its written.

CONCLUSION: Zachary Jernigan writes with a flair for the weird and makes it endearing enough for readers to feel familiar with it. No Return is a magnificent debut that straddles fantasy and SF genres seamlessly and makes itself into a jewel faceting both fields. I completely loved this debut and will have very high hopes from Mr. Jernigan for all his future works based on the raw talent that is showcased within. Make sure you don’t miss this one as this book will be definitely featuring highly in my year end lists.
Monday, March 25, 2013

“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “River of StarsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Under Heaven

I came to Guy Gavriel Kay's work through his historical fantasy novels. He has some novels out in other genres as well, including a book of poetry (Beyond this Dark House), and he helped Christopher Tolkien compile The Silmarillion.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Kay is the greatest fantasist of our generation. You can tell he's a poet from the incredible sense of pace and lyrical prose; some authors misuse rhetorical repetition and sound pretentious, but never Kay. A whole book of his can read like a poem, and River of Stars certainly did. He has an understanding of what isn't said, the spaces between things, the moments where everything can change, or nothing. There are a number of poems within the story itself, too, and while normally I don't think it's a wise approach to try to write the supposed great art that defines moments of a story, he can pull it off.

I'm still reveling in the post-read trance, but I think even with time this will prove to be among my favorites of his works, along with The Lions of Al-Rassan and the Sarantine Mosaic.

Too few fantasists—though increasingly more, the last few years—work with the history and mythology of places besides Europe. Kay worked with China's Tang dynasty in Under Heaven, and he now returns to the same world, about 400 years later, to approach the Northern Song dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng. As always, the depth of his research helps him evoke the mood vividly, and the characters, the story, grow out of that.

Those familiar with the history of the period may recognize characters inspired by General Yue Fei and the famous poets Su Shi and Li Qingzhao. The Li Qingzhao-inspired character is one of the most fascinating characters I've read, and she's a fascinating female character to boot. There were many characters I loved in this book, some whom earlier on I didn't expect to.

I'm not an expert on Chinese history, yet even when I could see the shape of how events were moving, the journey and Kay's treatment of it made all the difference. You may think that knowing the history means you will already know the plot, but the plot isn't really the point, and this is one of those books that really reminds me that plot and story are not the same.

There are references to events and characters in Under Heaven, which I enjoyed, but River of Stars isn't a sequel, and it stands fully on its own. I enjoyed this book, in particular its pacing, a lot more than the last. It's hard for me to quantify how much I enjoyed River of Stars, but I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.

I would recommend digesting River of Stars in multiple sittings, because, while riveting, it's also not a light read. For a while, though, it was easy to find stopping places, because there are a lot of POV shifts. It took me a couple hundred pages to get used to the introduction of so many, especially from characters we were never going to see again, and new POVs continue to pop up throughout the whole book. In the broader context of the novel, I appreciate them, but they did frustrate me for a time. Only the first few paragraphs of each, though; Kay doesn't need longer than that to pull me in.

The beginning felt more like an introduction to Kitai (analogue-China) than to the story, setting the stage for a much later time period than Under Heaven for those of us who read that book, and giving us a sense of how thinking and perspectives of the time have changed and shifted. From the beginning, though, I was struck by how Kay seems to switch between narrative modes, going between character POVs and pulling back for a more universally omniscient voice. I thought it might become jarring later on, but it never did. I loved it, particularly in light of his exploration in this book about the differences between story and history.

There are so many things going on in River of Stars, and I don't want to spoil anything with specifics. The author raises so many questions without giving the answers, but considering the possibilities thoroughly. Teaching how to think, maybe even like Teacher Tuan. He explores the price of peace, and security; what defines civilization, in communication, records, and accumulated learning, in the dichotomy of the arts and warfare; how sometimes small occurrences can shape the future, and sometimes they really are random happenstance; the value of life, or a life; paths not taken, futures cut off, what is and what could have been and the impossibility of knowing anything for certain except when somehow, inexplicably, you do; how legends are made, how an invented story can sometimes be truer than history, and sometimes not.

I love how the ambiguous endings can be interpreted so many ways, that Kay has even outlined the ways, really, and left it to the readers to think about the story arcs and what they say about us. Because writers do things like that sometimes.

NOTE: River of Stars will be published in North America on April 2, 2013 via Roc/Penguin Group. The UK edition will be published July 18, 2013 by HarperCollins UK.
Sunday, March 24, 2013

GUEST POST: Word of Mouth: Or Just Let Me Be Read by Shawn Speakman


When Terry Brooks published The Sword of Shannara in 1977, he wanted one thing.

To Be Read!

He didn’t want awards. He didn’t want accolades. He didn’t want to win critical acclaim from book reviewers—even though Dune author Frank Herbert wrote one hell of a New York Times book review for Sword. No, he just wanted speculative fiction fans to pick up the book, read it, enjoy it, and spread the word to other readers.

Remember the time period. 1977. No internet. No social media. No smart phones. There was no simple means to effectively market Sword to the masses of fantasy readers who might be interested. There were reviews in newspapers; there were articles in magazines. That was it.

Instead, editor Lester del Rey relied on booksellers. He knew if booksellers liked the book that they would recommend Sword to their customers—and those customers would tell their friends.

Word spread. Did it ever! For The Sword of Shannara, word of mouth is responsible for making it a bestseller. The debut novel sold 125,000 copies in its first month of publication and remained on the New York Times trade paperback bestselling list where it stayed for five months.

Skip to 2013! Word of mouth is as important as it was in 1977 — maybe more so. More fantasy is published now than ever before and it is hard to choose between the hundreds of new books released every year, all vying for our attention. Most of us have fixed incomes and we must discern what to buy and what not to buy. We rely on fantasy blogs like Fantasy Book Critic to help us. We rely on publishers giving us exclusive excerpts. We rely on authors offering giveaways.

But word of mouth… word of mouth is still the most powerful driving force in the industry. 

I have been Terry Brooks’ webmaster for almost fourteen years. It has been a pleasure. Terry is one of the nicest writers in the field and has a fanbase to match. His wife Judine is fond of saying he has the best fans in the genre. Since I’ve been responsible for his website/ social media and been surrounded by those fans for over a decade, I have to agree with her whole heartedly. 


When I began work on The Dark Thorn, my urban/epic fantasy hybrid novel, Terry fully supported me. He even edited my debut, mentoring me in the craft of writing. Some of it stuck thankfully and I soon had a finished book he said I should be proud of. I am. And during the entirety of the process, many of Terry’s fans followed my progress, their curiosity and need to read the book growing over the last year.

The Dark Thorn is now finished and published. It is available in a beautiful hardcover with Todd Lockwood cover art and a Russ Charpentier map. I am happy with the story and its presentation and I’ve received dozens of compliments from readers and even bestselling authors. The reviews have also been strong. Having access to Terry’s marketing platform, I have had stronger sales that I had hoped. But having a meaningful writing career that lasts longer than a year still comes down to three things:

 1) Is The Dark Thorn a good book?
 2) Will readers give The Dark Thorn a chance?
 3) Will word of mouth sell The Dark Thorn?

I have written what I think is a good book. Early reviewers have agreed so far and said The Dark Thorn is a cross between Terry’s Word/Void series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Even though I hate comparing in such a manner, I mostly agree with that assessment. If you haven’t read it, feel free to try an excerpt HERE.

And, so far, readers have been giving my debut novel a chance. As I said, sales have been strong despite the limited avenues one can get a copy. Now it largely comes down to word of mouth.

Word of mouth is key. Readers trust other readers and it is the best way to find a new favorite writer. So I give you a challenge today. I want each of you to share with your friends—in person and/or online—what new writers you have enjoyed reading recently. Right now. Open Twitter. Start Facebook. Send a text message, write an email, or make a phone call.

The recommendation doesn’t have to be The Dark Thorn, although if you’ve read it and liked it that would be nice. I would rather see people actively sharing. Ultimately, readers decide whether a writer has a long career or not.

So be a part of that! And share!


Official Author Website 
Order The Dark Thorn HERE 
Order Unfettered HERE
Read an excerpt of The Dark Thorn HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Shawn Speakman is the author of The Dark Thorn and editor for the forthcoming fantasy anthology Unfettered. When he isn’t writing, he maintains the websites for authors Terry Brooks, Naomi Novik, and David Anthony Durham, as well as runs The Signed Page and writes for the Random House sci-fi/fantasy website Suvudu. Learn more about him and his work at www.shawnspeakman.com!

NOTE: Shawn Speakman picture courtesy of the author himself. Watch out for FBC review of The Dark Thorn next week.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

“The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater (Reviewed by Lydia Roberts)

Order “The Raven BoysHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE (PDF)

The Raven Boys, written by New York Times Bestselling author, Maggie Stiefvater, was published September 18, 2012 by Scholastic PressStiefvater is the author of the previous bestselling YA series, the Shiver Trilogy. The Raven Boys has earned top accolades itself, such as being named one of Amazon.com's Best Teen Books of 2012, one of the 2013 American Library Association YALSA Top Ten Fiction Books for Young Adults, and a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. The Raven Boys is the first in a new four-book series.

The Raven Boys is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time, and once I started it, I could not put it down. Fans of Stiefvater's Shiver Trilogy will recognize the superb “show-don't-tell” quality of her writing, and it gives a sense of what I cannot help but describe as a fullness. Many books— not just those that fall in the YA genre—have adopted the post-Seinfeld, fragmented way that we often speak to one another. Personally, I don't want to spend time reading a book that sounds like a text-conversation. Stiefvater takes her time with her language, and that fits in perfectly with the sleepy Southern setting of the book. “April days in Henrietta (Virginia) were quite often fair, tender things, coaxing sleeping trees to bud and love-mad ladybugs to beat against windowpanes” (p. 7). Various Southern tropes, such as restless spirits,  local psychics, and blue bloods dripping in old money, make appearances, and in Stiefvater's deft hand they offer a welcome feeling of familiarity instead of banality. Also, the story is fleshed out gradually, requiring the reader to do a little work to figure out how things fit together instead of being taken by the hand and led from point A to point B.

The books starts with a prologue which introduces Blue Sargent, a 16-year-old who comes across as very sure of what she does and doesn't  like, who she is, and what she isn't. Blue is the only daughter of a psychic who has both a solid base of clients and an array of equally psychic female family members and friends that keep their small house just a bit hectic. The scenes that show Blue interacting with the women of the house reveal several colorful characters that are more than flat personas (Hip Mom, Crazy Aunt Type, Hostile Aunt Type, Creepy Aunt Type, etc.) at their roots. While Blue herself is not psychic, she acts almost like a battery for those with the gift; when she is present, magic is stronger, visions are clearer, etc. Another aspect to Blue's unusual life is the fact that from the time she was born, every psychic she encounters makes the same, oddly specific prophecy:  When Blue kisses her true love, he will die. Since she doesn't believe she will fall in love, Blue is not concerned about the prophecy. But, when she sees the spirit of a young man named Gansey who is destined to die in the coming year, a spirit that should be invisible to her non-magic eyes, she knows enough to worry, either because he is her true love or because she is the one who kills him—and in her case it just might be that both of those are true.

The not-yet-dead Gansey is a student at the prestigious private boys' school, Aglionby. Aglionby students have the school emblem, a raven, printed on their sweaters, thus leading to the nickname of Raven Boys. Raven Boys are seen by many—including and especially Blue—as spoiled, aimless rich kids who wreak havoc and have powerful parents to clean up their messes. While Gansey is careless regarding issues of money (a trait he is reminded of by his friend, Adam, who attends Aglionby on scholarship), he does have a goal: he wants to find evidence of magic, real magic, in the world, and that has him on a quest for the legendary tomb of Glendower. Gansey has earned the fierce loyalty of his best friends, Adam, Ronan, and Noah (all of whom have their own significant plotlines that will be further explored, no doubt, in later books), and though they do not always agree with one another, Gansey and the quest are the glue that hold them all together. Two chance encounters with Blue (at the pizza shop where she works and at her home when the guys go in for a scheduled reading) do not show Gansey in his best light, though, and also makes it clear that this isn't simply going to be a “boy meets girl; boy gets girl” type of story.

The murder mystery portion of the story played out in a very unexpected way. There were other story elements that also took me by surprise (one of which had me flipping back through the book to check for missed clues), but I won't spoil them for you by writing about them here. The plot of the story is wrapped up, so this book is a solid stand-alone; at the same time it left me very much in anticipation of the next book. According to Maggie Stiefvater’s website, the next installment in the series, The Dream Thieves, will make its appearance on September 17, 2013.

The Raven Boys: 5 stars
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

“Etiquette & Espionage” by Gail Carriger (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “Etiquette & EspionageHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Etiquette and Espionage—published February 5, 2013 via Little, Brown Books for Young Readers—is the first of Gail Carriger's new YA Finishing School series, set in the same world as The Parasol Protectorate, but 25 years earlier. If you've read The Parasol Protectorate, you'll recognize a couple of characters; if you haven't, don't worry.

Our protagonist Sophronia is essentially drafted into a finishing school that is nothing like what a proper finishing school should be—where the girls are being trained to “finish…everything…and everyone…as needed.” That is to say, they don't just learn proper curtsies and quadrille technique; they are also taught poisons and covert operations. Sophronia, not being the passive sort, adapts to her new circumstances, assembles cohorts, and sets about unraveling a mystery.

Of course, there are mechanimals, flywaymen, evil genius societies, werewolves, and vampires, to name but a few complications. Unlike in The Parasol Protectorate, the main characters are not endowed with any kind of magical abilities, and so Sophronia's perceptiveness, quick-thinking, and daring are the most powerful tools in her arsenal, and she applies them with aplomb.

Etiquette and Espionage has the same lighthearted whimsy, fascination with etiquette and steampunk technology, and stroppy lady protagonist that I loved from Soulless. Although the tone is light, Carriger nevertheless sneaks in commentary on and subversion of first impressions, racial generalizations, gender roles, and social hierarchies. It's a fun, fast-paced read, and it looks like there will be three more books in the series, the next of which, Curtsies and Conspiracies, we can expect this November.
Monday, March 18, 2013

“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (Book/Movie Review by Sabine Gueneret)

Order “Cloud AtlasHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Liviu Suciu’s Review of “Cloud Atlas
Watch the Movie Trailer HERE

AUTHOR/DIRECTOR INFORMATION: David Mitchell is an English novelist born in January 1969 and has lived in Japan—you can really feel the Asian influence in his writing. He has written five novels including Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and other awards. His latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was published in 2010.

Tom Tykwer is a director, writer, producer and composer born in Germany in 1965. His filmography includes Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and The International.

Lana & Andy Wachowski were born in Chicago in the 1960s and are best known for writing/directing The Matrix Trilogy. Other works include V For Vendetta, Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin.

FORMAT/INFO: Cloud Atlas the novel was first published in 2004 by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK and by Random House in North America and is currently available in Paperback, Hardcover and eBook.

The film adaptation of Cloud Atlas was released in North America on October 26, 2012 and in the UK on February 26, 2013. The film is 172 minutes long and stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, et cetera.

OFFICIAL PLOT SYNOPSIS: A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified dinery server on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilization—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each others’ echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small…

INTRODUCTION: When I learned that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was going to be adapted into a movie, I was intrigued. Could this subtle, complicated story really be translated into a film successfully? The book definitely had potential for a screen adaptation, but would the fragile link between the different parts survive? Would it be possible to condense so many time periods, characters and stories in just two to three hours? It was a major challenge, and just for making the attempt, I really admire Lana & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, but what did I think of the movie? Find out below as I review Cloud Atlas as both a novel and a movie.

ANALYSIS (Cloud Atlas—The Novel): Cloud Atlas is certainly one of a kind to say the least, and it is definitely “intense”, which is how my friend who recommended the book to me described it as. The six stories composing the novel are beautifully and intricately linked together, while Cloud Atlas asks two critical questions that is a wonderful reflection about humanity: Where might our hunt for more—more power, more materialistic comfort, etc.—might drive us to, and whether humans are reborn again and somehow linked to their past and future self? Yet Cloud Atlas is not a piece of Marxism or an esoteric essay, and only two of the six stories possessed SFF elements, and it is from these very characteristics that David Mitchell’s novel takes its strength from.

NOTE: Click HERE to read Liviu’s more comprehensive review of Cloud Atlas and its six individual stories.

ANALYSIS (Cloud Atlas—The Film Adaptation): In Cloud Atlas the movie, the directors decided not to keep the (relatively) linear construction of the book which separates each story into two parts but Zachry’s. Instead, the six stories are fragmented and run simultaneously to one another. This can be confusing for those who haven’t read the novel and do not understand who the characters are. Despite this, I think that overall the movie is really good: good acting and good pacing, especially once you get used to the alternating stories. In general, I find that the necessary (but painful for fans of the novel) cuts are for the most part justified or understandable, including the suppression of minor characters such as Arys’ daughter in Robert Frobisher’s story for instance.

Yet I felt the book’s message had been slightly distorted in the movie. This is partly due of course to the nature of movies itself—showing instead of telling—but this still disturbed me a bit. For example, I felt the romantic elements in each story were given too much importance compared to the part they played in the book. This is classic Hollywood, fair enough, but it seems to me that this focus on love only confuses the meaning of the original story: instead of six characters linked together somehow, the movie became the story of two lovers finding each other again and again (which was a possible interpretation of the book, but not the main one…again in my view!). All this while, the link between the individual stories—how each character heard about their most recent alias—practically disappears, which was such an important part of the novel’s construction.

Also, there is the fact that the same actors play more than one character in the film. There is no indication whatsoever of such resemblance in the book, except for the comet birthmark, and in my opinion this made the film more confusing than anything for someone who has yet to read the novel.

CONCLUSION: I completely agree with Liviu when he said that “Cloud Atlas is considerably more than the sum of its parts and a novel that deserves all the acclaim it got.” The film adaptation of Cloud Atlas has been well received as well—it has been nominated and won several awards so far—and certainly serves justice to the novel in many ways (the beautiful sceneries for instance, especially in Sonmi’s story) and is a worthy complement to the book, even if it allows less place for imagination, but the movie doesn’t possess the subtlety of the novel and guides (too much in my sense) the viewer on how to interpret the whole story. In short, Cloud Atlas is a good film adaptation, but between the novel and the movie, I prefer the book version of Cloud Atlas...
Friday, March 15, 2013

Winner of the “River of Stars” Giveaway!!!

Congratulations to Brian Dupuis (North Carolina) who was randomly selected to win an ADVANCE READING COPY of Guy Gavriel Kay’s upcoming novel, River of Stars, courtesy of Wunderkind PR!!! River of Stars will be published in North America on April 2, 2013 (Order HERE). More information on Guy Gavriel Kay and River of Stars can be found at the Official Guy Gavriel Kay Website and at Bright Weavings: The Worlds of Guy Gavirel Kay.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Shadow of Freedom" by David Weber (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

 

Official David Weber Site/Forums
The Honorverse Wikipedia
Order Shadow of Freedom HERE
Read Chapters 1-9 from Shadow of Freedom HERE
Read FBC's An Invitation to David Weber's Honorverse
Read FBC Review of At All Costs
Read FBC Review of Storm from the Shadow and Mission of Honor

Read FBC Review of A Rising Thunder
Read FBC Interview with David Weber



"Wrong number? There are two sides to any quarrel . . . unless there are more.

Michelle Henke, Queen Elizabeth of Manticore's first cousin, Honor Harrington's best friend, and the commanding officer of Manticore's Tenth Fleet, is just a bit surprised when a messenger arrives from the Mobius System to inform her that the Mobius Liberation Front is prepared to rise in rebellion against the hated regime President Svein Lombroso. She can understand why anyone would want to rebel against someone like Lombroso, but why tell her about it? After all, she has problems of her own, like the minor matter of a life-or-death war against the Solarian League.

Michelle has just handed the "invincible" Solarian League Navy the most humiliating, one-sided defeat in its entire almost thousand-year history in defense of the people of the Star Empire's Talbott Quadrant. But the League is the most powerful star nation in the history of humanity. Its navy is going to be back – and this time with thousands of superdreadnoughts. 

........

She knows that . . . and she doesn't care.
No one is going to send thousands of patriots to their deaths, trusting in Manticoran help that will never come.
Not on Mike Henke's watch."


For a short discussion of the series' structure up to book 16, Mission of Honor, see my Invitation to the Honorverse post linked also above, while I discussed book 17, A Rising Thunder HERE.

Billed as "#18 in the multiply-bestselling Honor Harrington series" and with the blurb above, Shadow of Freedom follows the recent Honorverse tradition of separating multiple action theaters into a few books taking place in roughly the same timeline and containing fragments and even full chapters from previous novels, both for reference and for additional perspective. 

So to a large extent the place of this book in the series tapestry will not be seen until future installments put what happens here in perspective and I would argue that one's reaction to it depends partly on how one feels about this way of writing the series - while I had some reservations in the beginning when the books were either too disconnected (see Crown of Slaves and The Shadow of Saganami) or too repeating (see Storm from the Shadows first 200 hundred pages), I think that with Shadow of Freedom, David Weber has started doing the multiple books/same timeline stuff really well, though of course one occasionally would love a mammoth 1000 page novel to cover all events in a single volume.

The other qualifier about Shadow of Freedom - which applies to any series in which the same timeline is split into several books - is how much one likes the action and characters from this particular split. As I tend to really like the Talbot Sector part, while for example not particularly caring for the Zilwicky/Cachat stuff as that tends too much towards superhero pulp, Shadow of Freedom was a true pleasure to read end to end in one sitting and I reread it a few times since I got the earc last fall as noted in this post.

Below are a few specifics without (hopefully) any spoilers:

Length, yes very short; I discount David Weber's books to about 2/3 size due to repetitions and the info dumps - here there is a Detweiler chapter and other stuff that is c/p from earlier work - so the book at about 420 pages felt like an under 300 page one, but those ~300 pages were really, really good, better than 4-500 pages from almost anyone else.

Lots of new beginnings and new characters which I actually like; gives one the idea of both how big the Solarian League and its "protectorates" are and why the series will last another 10 novels or more and this is again a positive.

Lots of great moments both funny and sad; the desperate resistance movements and the "now we have stopped trying to get you to see reason and it's five minutes to abandon your ships or die" were highlights, but the most I enjoyed the last part with the two "rats" and their escape attempt(s) and the "Of course, at the moment I haven’t found anything that wasn’t your fault, but I’m sure if we keep looking long enough we’ll find someone else who screwed up almost as egregiously as you guys" which is another Weberian quote for the ages. After reading this last part of the novel, I would suggest re-reading chapter 5 of The Shadow of Saganami and enjoying it even more!

Another great quote was when they were asking Helen (Zilwicky) about the Mesan allegation that her father blew up Green Pines with a nuke - Shadow of Freedom starts after the Crandall hammering, goes through Yawata, the revelations, Filareta and Beowulf and ends at a great tbc point somewhere around the end of A Rising Thunder - and after giving the usual reasons why she does not believe it, she ends with the "if he was in a city-killing mode..., trust me, the hole would’ve been a hell of a lot deeper!”

Regarding the ending, I actually have a belief that it signifies quite dramatic developments soon as such would really amplify its already pretty emotional content.
Overall I found Shadow of Freedom an excellent series installment that will become even better when the next few books are released and it will be one of my top 25 novels of 2013.

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