Book Review: Taken (Alex Verus, Book 3)

This is a solid, but not spectacular third entry in the Alex Verus Urban Fantasy series. Alex is a diviner who lives in London, though more of this story takes place outside his home city.

The strong point of the book–and the series in general–is the characterization of Alex and Luna. Alex is a very good voice and interesting narrator. Luna is a believable non-romantic apprentice with a fascinating hook. The secondary characters in this book are also quite good. The villains, don’t receive a lot of development. And I think the plot suffers for that. Hence my rating this a 4 star. The story isn’t bad, it’s just a tad thin.

If you’ve liked the series, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read the series, start with Fated, which is, IMHO, a stronger book anyway. A lot of people say this series is for people who like Dresden. Yes and no. Yes, in that Alex’s character has a lot of Dresden-like quirks (though nowhere near the snark), and he’s a magical-investigator. No in that Alex is more studious, more serious, and as a diviner, doesn’t do a lot of flash-bang. Harry outclasses most single mages he fights. Alex is outclassed in power by just about everything. But because he can see futures, he can chessmaster his way out of stuff.

Still, it’s a good read in its own right. Especially for fans of Urban Fantasy.

Book Review: Islands of Rage And Hope

The third book of John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising Series marks the time the series should drop the “Rising.” The Zombie infection is now officially being pushed back, and the push to make large scale vaccine for the sub crews and others is on.

Though the blurb focuses on Guantanamo Bay, the clearance of the Cuban military base is only one–and indeed a lesser–highlight of the book. The characters gained from that clearance recur throughout, and there is friction between them and the “Iwo” Marines of book 2, let alone the Wolf Squadron proper. For those who have not followed this series (and you should), it’s worth noting here that Ringo’s zombie apocalypse is considerably less anti-military than either Romero or The Walking Dead is. That’s not to say he doesn’t critique elements of the military, as in most of his works, he does with vigor. But unlike those others, Ringo’s take on the people who serve recognizes that most are more flexible and capable than the Hollywood and New York elite give them credit for. So why did the Apocalypse happen? Because someone created the perfect storm disease.

New characters like Walker get considerable time in this book, and his arc is a fascinating journey which makes what could have been an overly convenient climax in other hands believable in Ringo’s.

If I had any reservations about this volume of the series, it’s that the pacing at times felt a little off. That perhaps we spent too much time pointing out Faith’s shortcomings (Why doesn’t her sister’s get lampooned nearly as often, for example?). And that at this point, even those appear ‘cute’ rather than ‘dangerous.’ That said, the finale is a flat-out brilliant action scene, matching some of Ringo’s finest. And it both gives a glorious end to this book and points to a potential powder keg in the future.

I believe I rounded up on an earlier volume of the series, so this is probably a slight round down. It’s not perfect. But a solid, and enjoyable, entry in a unique take on zombie lore.

I Am Neither GrimDark Nor PollyAnna

While reading the ever-amusing Ace of Spades Book Thread http://ace.mu.nu/archives/352551.php, I followed a link to this article, where it seems that some have had their fill of Sci-Fi Dystopias. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathryn-cramer/speculative-fiction-book_b_5916266.html

This does not surprise me, as I suspect Dystopias grew popular in science fiction for the same reason that GrimDark rose to rule Fantasy. (A fact the author of the above article misses completely.) That is, that anti-heroes have grown from a once legitimate literary device to complement the hero/villain structure, to turn all of writing into a gray ammoral world where the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is who the primary point of view indicates we should root for. A fact Sarah A Hoyt commented on in her Human Wave manifesto (indicating this is no new concern):

5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, I’m not flinging my kindle.)

I am pleased to see those who hailed the arrival of these ‘ambivalent heroes’ now finally come to the ground we have held for most of a decade. I find it amusing that of all people to blame for no longer envisioning big futures, ASU’s president picked Neal Stephenson. Whose Anathem was probably his biggest and most optimistic future, set well after the more dystopic cyberpunks that made him famous. And even his retro-futures, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle provide optimistic glimpses of science, finance, and the progress of society. There are MUCH better targets to aim this charge at than Neal Stephenson. Also, at this point, I remind you of my posts on dystopic Sci-Fi’s mystic cousin, Grimdark fantasy here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/how-grim-is-too-much/, and here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/i-am-over-grimdark/. Blatant pessimism, moral ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, and no attempt to even FIGHT for a better world does not make for an entertaining story. Not fantasy, not sci-fi. And the prevalence of this nonsense is a large part of the reason for Mysteries being the big genre fiction for profit today. At least in those, there is closure, resolution, and a knowledge that justice has been done.

I don’t like them, by and large. As they are too formulaic, and the contrivances of the genre do nothing for me. However, their elevation at a time that Speculative Fiction is screaming ‘Diversity” and “realistic characters,” and hemorrhaging readership all the while, probably hints at a problem in the mindset. A problem that runs through the love of Dystopias, antiheroes, and an unwillingness to embrace a true heroic journey. You see, if you’re committed to moral relativity, there can’t be heroes. Everyone is just a different point of view. We can’t accept that some things are legitimately beyond the pale. A mystery gets around this by having a protagonist who is only judging the ‘facts.’ But what speculative fiction writers have to realize is that sympathetic aspects to a culture, or a villain, don’t make them heroic, as such. Just like flaws in the hero don’t make for anti-heroes, as such. A hero seeks to overcome their vices via their best qualities (and often they have the vices of their virtues). A villain makes a virtue of his vices. A hero admits there is darkness and accepts a measure of (gasp) hypocrisy in any moral creature is unavoidable. A villain spreads his arms like Don John and says, “At least I am plain dealing!”

Yeah, that doesn’t commend him much. This isn’t to say villains can’t be redeemed (over time), or that heroes won’t fall. This isn’t to say people can’t die trying to change the world, and the villains maybe even win. It means that we accept that morality exists outside of who wins or loses. And that the true hero may calculate the odds, but that doesn’t mean they refuse to do the right thing because of them. Or for comparison, let me leave with this:

A hero: The Iron Code of Druss the Legend: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

An Antihero: Jayne Cobb from Firefly: “Like my Daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t do the smart thing. Do the right thing.”

A Villain: “Kneel Before Zod!”

Book Review: Hounded

A fun read, with a fascinating set of characters and an ‘all myths are true’ premise. Atticus o”Sullivan is the last of the Druids, and the narrator of this urban fantasy set in Tempe, Az. It’s not as gripping as Dresden or Kate Daniels, but it certainly got me turning pages.

Pros: The narrator is witty and enjoyable to listen to, a must in any 1st person story. The setting is lived in without being loaded with extraneous details. The secondary cast is filled with characters who are enjoyable even when they’re only scenery for Atticus to bounce his thoughts and stories off of. And when they have their own motives, they’re believable and twisted, without constituting unbelievable obstacles. Nobody trusts anyone. But everyone knows what they need, and are willing to help whichever horse advances their cause. Also, the Druid Magic is described believably and very sensible.

Cons: That same magic seems a bit too overpowered. As a result, there’s never any serious threat level to Atticus. Not only didn’t I doubt he was going to get out of the jam, I never really wondered *how* he would do so. Second, Atticus seems a bit too modern nerdish for a guy whose 2100 years old. Really, he acts like he could be the stoner in the comic book store (a combination of HIS characterizations, btw). It seems rather incongruous for a guy who’s been creeping around longer than the Highlander.

That said, it’s still a fun read. And a very good start to a series I was honestly had some trepidation toward.

Book Review: The Widow’s House, Daniel Abraham

The latest entry in The Dagger and Coin series by author: Daniel Abraham finds the strong point of the series where it has been: Exceptional Characters. No one makes living, breathing, flawed, believable, and yet sympathetic figures like Daniel Abraham.

Geder is by turns bloodthirsty and compassionate, and believable in each role. When he makes his confession at the end of the book, my heart felt for him, despite everything. Cithrin goes through despair to find a weapon to use against the enemy. But one entirely different from that Marcus Westin and Kit sought. Even the Dragon, Inys, proves to be both more and less than expected.

Despite this, I found it slightly slower going at first for this book than the previous installments. It felt like a lull until the first battle. And then the plot begins to move, but never at a pace that even matches the 2nd and 3rd books of the series. This isn’t a bad thing, as this leaves room for the internal machinations on each side. It also allows a fascinating and intelligent discussion of markets and currency that most fantasy writing, even literary fantasy, would not be learned enough to indulge in. And it’s done entirely in character, and with legitimate character conflict, so it never feels like a ‘lecture.’

What knocks this book from 5 stars for me has nothing to do with the author as such. But the editing. It is, frankly: Slipshod. Duplicated words, misspellings that *spellcheck* would have caught, but the editors were too lazy to fix. After all the time Orbit (through their Overlords at Hachette) has spent telling us how important authors find their editors, and professional editing is, to turn out a work as POORLY edited by this in a major release is frankly pathetic.

I can always tell when a series has changed from ‘Investment’ to ‘cash cow’ in the eyes of the publishers. Because they stop caring about editing, since they know it’ll sell no matter what. Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones both contracted this illness, and both bloated, with WoT in particular becoming error-filled in the middle volumes. The errors Orbit let through are as bad as anything I found there. And it was only the skill of the author, over their incompetence, that makes this a Four Star book instead of one I angrily tossed across the room.

I Am Over Grimdark

It’s Official. I’ve picked up three straight “Grimdark” books in a row. Two of them highly acclaimed, near-5 star books on Amazon, and failed to finish ANY of them. I just can’t take the unrelentingly unsympathetic characters, the idea that somehow modern profanity in a Renaissance context makes for ‘deeper’ writing, and how no one is capable of doing the right thing for the right reason. EVER. Unless they are there to die like the rube they are.

Look, I get it. Grimdark started as a subversion of traditional fantasy. And the Heroic Journey NEEDED subverting. I’m not saying we need to go back to two-dimensional heroes that don’t face doubts or have flaws. I *like* flawed heroes. But there’s a distinction between flawed hero and slightly-off-black anti-hero. Sure, I have Baron Camuel in my Aurori series. And everyone loves the badass vampire who has no problem leaving a trail of blood in his path to accomplishing his ends. But the guy gets his fair share of thumpings too. Of course, I torture my heroes as well. So *everyone* gets it.

I believe in Earning Your Happy Ending. That’s a GOOD thing. But frankly, Grimdark has become the Dark Age Comics of Fantasy. An annoying cliche that is nothing more than glorying in the inverse of the heroic journey. It’s boring. And the practitioners have every bit as much an obligation to liven up the subversion as the traditionalists did to twist their own stories.

Even Steven Erikson, who frequently gets lumped into the Grimdark writers, saw this. The Parans and Fiddler represented tortured heroes, with real flaws. But they were legitimate heroes, and they represented–with Itkovian and Whiskeyjack–the moral center of the series. For all the glory of Rake, Karsa, Apsalar/Sorry, and yes, Quick Ben and Kalem, the world may have been Grimdark, but it was shot through with hope. It wasn’t gleefully crushing every moment of joy the reader could find.

I’m tired of the soul-sucking, darkness where the only difference between any of the characters is who the protagonist is and perhaps some hint of modern sensibilities that’s supposed to ‘tell’ us who the ‘good guy’ is, even when in the context of the story, they’re all bastards of the 1st rank.

Really, it’s over. Start subverting what you created with the abandon you took to hacheting traditional fantasy.

Like a Second Helping of Dresdencrack This Year

That’s what Magic Breaks was like. I did not *read* Magic Breaks as much as *Devoured* it. It was every bit as addictive as Dresdencrack, and I have no hope of an ‘objective’ review of this.

Simply put, this is the 7th book of the Kate Daniels series. And everything that’s happened, everything that was promised, pays off in large here. If you’ve followed to this point, you are rewarded in spades. And yet, it’s not the end. Three more books are promised, and one can easily see the series continuing to grow Kate’s character.

Things I loved: Well, as I said. It’s a fantastic payoff. Without spoilering the whole thing, the promise of Roland becomes reality in this book. The way Ghastek gets served a massive dose of crow, and yet doesn’t get depowered in the process. And the way the choices Kate and Curran have made pay off here.

Things I liked less: There’s one bit before the Great Escape, where Kate doesn’t act terribly Kate-like. She’s been forced to wait for rescue before. But she was nearly dead that time. This seemed too easy a surrender to being caged. Also, Hugh’s choice is even lampshaded as out of character for his strategic mind. Unfortunately, he was rather out-foxed by Curran in the last book, and so it makes him look something like the Worf Effect (TV Tropes will ruin your life: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php…).

Neither of these niggles are capable of dampening my enjoyment for this one whit. But fairness demands they be noted. Still, this is absurdly good. Easily the best in the series, IMHO.

I Had Promised A Lengthy Post On Pubbing

But I had a seriously hosed night last night, and I don’t have the motivation to do the full-fledged link research that requires. I say that, but this post has six open links. I also have a new pair of bifocals, and adapting to them is making me tired a little quicker than usual. Though I’m reading well enough.

I’ve been busy with Camp NaNoWriMo this last month, and things have been going well, 39800 words so far, and 14 chapters of Book 3 of the Hellenistic Fantasy. It’s been fun, with two huge battles so far. Fun Fun.

There is a lot of Hugo-related nomination sadness and madness this week. The most balanced post, ironically enough, is John Scalzi here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2014/04/19/the-2014-hugo-nominees/

In it he acknowledges what his friends on the left like here: http://www.donotlink.com/framed?26218 cannot. That is: 1) Yep, he’s been reminding his readers he’s eligible for awards all the time. And 2) He’s encouraged his readers to check out works nominated by his friends and those he respects. So all Larry Correia did was box up a whole slate of said nominees and encourage his readers to find and nominate them.

Furthermore, unlike the assertions of some, I’d read enough of the “Sad Puppies” slate formation to know that these were works they actually read. The name was meant as a sly bit of goading. But please, don’t tell us the Left of SFWA doesn’t goad its opponents. Really. Not buying it. And the responses in the above no-link show full well they do. The one thing I’m not crazy about is The Wheel of Time being boxed as a single work. But try to tell me Memories of Light wouldn’t have merited nomination by itself. No really. I’m not even a WoT fan, and I can recognize that was easily the work of the year. So on the list of things to be upset over, that just doesn’t merit consideration. And I do get why they did this with WoT. A lot of voters, like they did with LoTR in the Oscars, WANT to wait until the full work is out to vote for it as a complete unit. So in the end, whatever. Either way, MoL merits consideration. And probably winning by a landslide.

That said, having read Warbound, and enjoying it thoroughly, anyone saying it didn’t merit consideration for best novel of the year is letting their feelings regarding Larry get in the way of the work. Is it action fantasy? Sure. But Faye and Jake Sullivan are fascinating characters, and there was a strong supporting cast, with the motivations of the presumed Book 1 villain being explained and to a large degree, made sympathetic. Not excused. But sympathetic.

Most of the hatred I saw dumped on Warbound came from it’s negative portrayal of FDR. Well, why didn’t Scott Westerfeld get dumped on for turning Churchill into a 1 note behind-the-scenes villain? And yes, FDR did have some rather unsavory elements to his Presidency that historians have whitewashed. Including the incarceration of the Nissei, which Correia highlights with the fate of Actives quite well. As a story, Warbound is coherent, well-paced, and has solid character and narrative arcs. It doesn’t do the nearly impossible, of pulling together a hundred threads and making a coherent story out of them as Sanderson did with MoL. But that’s why Sanderson is, with Steven Erikson, Jim Butcher, and Daniel Abraham, on the shortlist for premiere prolific fantasy authors of our generation.

So yeah, I think those works, and most of the Sad Puppy slate in general, merited inclusion. Just because Larry Correia campaigned for his friends doesn’t exclude their right to consideration. Anymore than it did with Scalzi and others before. This is how the interwebz works. Like minded people can get their ideas together. On both sides. We may think it would be better if these things were done without fandoms and ideology. But that’s expecting robots programmed by a single ‘impartial’ observer to do the voting. Because the only thing more visceral than ideological confrontation is fandom wars.

Chugging UpGrade

I’ve spent all week on one chapter of the Sword & Sandal. It’s admittedly a long chapter. But not that long (about 6000 words so far, and climbing). To be fair to myself, I’ve spent a lot of work editing. On that front, I should point everyone to this little side project: http://fav.me/d5ylwfa

The Crux is probably best described as my own response to The Dark Tower and Six Gun Tarot. It’s something I did more or less completely for fun, with knowledge that even Weird Westerns set on post-apocalyptic future worlds are still not really marketable. So I don’t have any problem sharing it there. But I love Westerns. And I hated what the second of the books above, in particular, did with the genre. I think there’s enough room to be “punkish” without going all PC. And of course, if you’ve followed me long enough, you know I despise Message Fic.

I wrote this last year. It grew out of a short story character concept that sprang into my head a while before that: http://fav.me/d48a92f which earned me a Daily Deviation on dA. I couldn’t come up with a good story for Phoebe right off, after that. But she wouldn’t leave my head. So I turned back to the Wastes, and mashed up magic, western, post-apocalyptic adventure, steampunk, and a dash of potboiler (though much less than usual), to make what is probably my most straight-out adventure story. It started out with its own magic system, but wound its way into my Auroriverse. I’m not sorry for that. There are plenty of messed-up worlds to write about in it. Even if the current project and my Space Opera are distinct. 😉

It’s the story of a gambler, a gunslinger, and a cannibal (yes, he’s a good guy) in the last bit of civilization for a thousand miles in any direction. And ‘civilization’ is a loose term, when you speak of a world forsaken even by its gods. When one gets out of sight of the city’s gaslamps, anything goes. Really, I had as much fun as anything I’ve written outside my Urban Fantasies.

I tossed aside Brett Weeks Night Angel the other day. I’m fairly certain that establishes me as having fallen out of love with true GrimDark. Especially since I devoured Ringo’s Princess of Wands in 3 days. Yeah, I know, there’s a message in it. But contrary to dedicated message-fic masquerading as speculative fiction these days, there’s a STORY first. And Ringo isn’t Anvilicious about the message.  Besides, some people do need to know that not every believing Christian is the stereotype of a Bible Thumper. I’ll concede faith often plays an important part (and usually positive) in my stories. I don’t think you can be honest to historically-based fantasy without making it so. But that doesn’t mean I either have to make every hero ‘jaded on religion’ and a modernist in disguise. Or a bigot either. Those two character types have become a veritable cliche in modern fantasy, and not even the reviewers call it out. So yes, when Ringo makes a character who isn’t one of either, it’s nice to see. Much like the Carpenters in The Dresden Files.

Maybe this is why I’ve gravitated to Urban Fantasy for my reading these days. Epic Fantasy has been overrun by dark, depressing places I don’t care to visit, with characters that have few, if any, redeeming features. Glen Cook was never as depressing as the people who’ve come after him. Look at his Instrumentalities of the Night series. Sure, there’s a lot of darkness involved. But Piper is far from an unsympathetic character, even as a mercenary. It’s ironic we have to descend to the grime of the cities to find characters we can believe in anymore.