Book Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

For someone who considers themselves a fan of Elizabeth Bear's work, I sure haven't talked about her work all that much on this blog.  Two of my favorite science fiction novels -- Carnival and Dust -- were written by Bear, so it should come as no surprised that her latest novel, Karen Memory, would entice me equally as much as her much earlier work.  This novel, of course, is not the same kind of thing as Carnival and Dust, both more connected to a long and storied tradition of science fictional writing.  Karen Memory is delicious late 19th-century pulp pastiche steampunk! Read More

Novella Review: “Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

First, I must apologize for the lateness of this review.  Mr. Sales has been remarkably patient with me and my repeated promises about getting it done.  I'm a notoriously slow reviewer for the simple fact that I find it incredibly difficult to say what I think.  A less cautious reviewer might simply speak from the heart and let the language be damned, but I think my academic side gets the best of me and demands I relate something more than a simple "I liked it."  And that means I get stuck for long periods of time on any work of art.

In any case, I have a lot to say about Sales' novella, "Adrift on the Sea of Rains," the first of a quartet of interconnected novellas called the Apollo Quartet (released by Whippleshield Books).  Set in an alternate history where the Cold War ended with the destruction of the Earth, a group of astronauts conducting experiments on the Moon struggle to survive long enough to successfully test an experimental machine that may save everyone.

It's a deceptively simple premise.  Sales' hard SF narrative of scientific discovery at times gives way to a character study of Peterson, Sales' primary protagonist.  Peterson's past is interspersed throughout the novella in italics, providing a thorough account of a military-pilot-turned-astronaut and gifting astute readers with details of the American/Soviet conflict -- a more educated reader might recognize details here that went over my head.  The narrative shifts between the present, in which Peterson and his fellow astronauts attempt to conduct a successful test of their machine, and Peterson's past, in which we we are given a glimpse into the man Peterson used to be.  This device, however simplistic in design, provides the novella a comparative element that rounds Peterson as a character.  Far from someone stuck in a seemingly hopeless situation, Peterson is humanized as an individual whose past complicates our understanding of his present.  I wouldn't call the format wholly successful -- largely because I couldn't quite discern the specific "pattern" in mind -- but it did give the text a certain depth that would otherwise have been lacking, since the frame narrative, if one could call it that, is fairly straightforward by design.  Short fiction, I find, benefits from some degree of narrative experimentation.

On a related note, Sales' prose is never so overwhelmed by the technical, nor overly sterile -- a formal quality I have noticed in my pitiful amount of reading in the hard sf field.  An apt description of the prose would be "economical," providing the right level of character depth, technical detail, and tension to keep the narrative from being dragged under by gravity.  Sales' pension for littering scientific detail throughout is largely responsible for this balance, though a less tech-friendly reader may not appreciate this balance.

For example, this brief passage from the middle of the ebook provides a combination of narrative elements:
They were trapped, but now there is an escape. All but Kendall gather in the wardroom to discuss their options, squeezing about a single table but, unlike at meal-times, confidently, keenly, meeting each other's gazes. It occurs to Peterson that he has lived with these men for two years but he barely knows them. He sees seven men he knows chiefly by their reputations and the psychological profiles in their records. Their faces are as familiar to him as his own, but they might as well be the gold visors of spacesuit helmets for all their expressions tell him what each is thinking. Not once since they became isolated on the Moon have they worked together... 
The Moon has changed them all; despair has made strangers of them... 
Hope:  half a dozen modules in Low Earth Orbit. An elusive hope:  they need to find a way to reach the space station. They have one ALM ascent stage left -- and Peterson gives thanks it still remains, not launched out of desperation by one of them during the past two years.
There are certainly more dense passages throughout the novella, but Sales' style is perhaps deliberately careful with its science.  Here, Sales establishes Peterson's character in relation to his colleagues and provides snippets of technical detail as part of the mechanism for the emotional undercurrent of the entire narrative.  Sales never quite lets that emotional element take over, which seems a reasonable product of the setting and the people involved.  Unlike other "save the world with science fiction" narratives, Sales doesn't indulge in melodrama to heighten the stakes (see The Core or 2012 for a prime example of this poor narrative practice).  There's an almost passive quality to the character development, which I can appreciate simply for my perceptions of realism in this case.

I can see where Sales might have turned the wrong way and made his deceptively straightforward narrative into something dull and lifeless.  But that never happens.  Rather, the narrative's deceptively lackluster opening -- a bunch of guys doing science on the Moon -- is built up in slow, deliberate motions into a massive, world-changing conflict.  The end of that conflict came as a surprise, and unexpected though it was, I was happy to have caught the minute details which gave away what had actually happened.  Sales' narrative seems to fall into a kind of rhythm in which the scientific "narrative world" becomes what Delany might call a reading practice or protocol; it invites attention to detail on the part of the reader, and that jolt to the brain actually saves me from getting stuck in a reader mode of one form or another.  I admit that this doesn't happen all that often for me, particularly not with stories which are, if one is to look at the appendices, meticulously researched and detailed -- a space science nut will certainly pick up details I simply missed (one of them needs to review this).

Overall, I quite enjoyed "Adrift on the Sea of Rains."  If you're looking for a hard SF novella to munch on, this BSFA winner is well worth reading.  Sales is certainly a talented author, and I expect more excellent work from him in the future.  

(You hear me, Ian?  Write more stuff or else.)


P.S.:  I really love this line:  "So Peterson put one hand on his stick and the other to the throttle, and stared so hard at the TV screen his vision blurred until he was looking at an impressionist landscape of clouds lit by a pointillist sun."  Is that not a beautiful description?  Maybe my Monet-loving side got the best of me...

Book Review: All Those Vanished Engines (2014) by Paul Park

"It occurs to me that every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down, of organizing something in a line of words, involves a clear betrayal of the truth." -- All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park (Pg. 173)
Of the novels I've reviewed in the last year, this is by far one of the most difficult.  All Those Vanished Engines (2014) by Paul Park is not your typical SF novel.  It is layered, divergent, and postmodern.  If I were to describe this book in a single phrase, it would be "a destabilized metanarrative about art and history with mindscrew tendencies."  Though I appreciate the ambitiousness of Park's narrative styling and prose, All Those Vanished Engines is a somewhat cold work.

All Those Vanished Engines (ATVE) is essentially a collection of three novellas.  The first is the most mystical of the bunch. Set during an alternate post-Civil War America, it follows Paulina as she attempts to make sense of her past by way of a fictional journal about a science fictional future.  As the narrative progresses, however, the journal and the real world become increasingly closer to the same thing, destabilizing the reality with which the novel opens.  Of the three narratives, this is by far the most compelling, not only because of its deliberate meta-ness, but also because of the way that meta-ness manipulates the actual reality of the text.  The interaction between fiction and a fiction-within-a-fiction produces a chilling effect that is somewhat absent throughout the rest of the book, in no small part because this is the only section which seems dedicated to uprooting the reader's grasp on something "real."  What became apparent as I continued reading, however, is that each individual section might have been better served as its own novel.  The first narrative clearly connects to the second and third, but the first narrative's closing moments leave too much wide open -- too many questions unanswered.
The second narrative is the first seemingly autobiographical section, drawing upon Park's actual writings to examine the writing practice (a supposed postmodernist trait) and a (initially) fictional account of a dying man's confessions about a secret project conducted during the Second World War (presumably some variation of the Manhattan Project, but with a distinctly 50s nuclear-monsters quality to it).  Much of the section follows the narrator as he tutors another writer in the literary art, but it jumps between the narrator's personal relationships and his efforts to write a novel (Park's only Wizards of the Coast contribution).  Though I am a fan of the postmodern tendency towards self-awareness of the processes of fiction, the second section seemed to me a tad overindulgent, drawing so much attention to the narrator's writing process as to shove the remaining narrative elements into the background.  In particular, I found myself more interested in the bizarre Manhattan-style project and the narrator's relationship with his family than the long digressions into the fictionality of fiction.  Unfortunately, much like the previous section, this one doesn't offer any sense of closure, leaving much to be desired.

The third narrative (the Nebula-nominated novell, "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance") is also autobiographical in form, appearing to take place both in the future of the first narrative and during the period in which Park wrote A Princess of Roumania (2005).  The cover copy identifies this third narrative as occurring in a near-future U.S., though this must be a remarkably subtle shift forward, as I failed to notice what identified the narrative's events as "in the future" (I may have forgotten, since each of Park's sections contain multiple intersecting narratives and time periods).  Regardless, here, Park's marriage to the metanarrative and the seemingly deliberate memoirist focus settles around the history of Park's grandfather, Edwin, and an unsolved murder in the Park-McCullough House -- a real historical house from the 1860s, which I assume was once owned by Park's actual family; the narrator returns to the house on his journey through his family's history, unpacking some of the house's "secrets."  The third section is less abstract than the second, in part because the metanarrative focuses on a multi-layered examination of Edwin Park's "real" writings (real in the fictional world, at least) in relation to the writing process of the narrator (presumably, Paul).  

Though this third section returns to the uprooting of reality present in the first narrative (as a form of closure, it seems), I must admit to being somewhat frustrated with the structure and direction.  By the time I arrived at "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance," I think I had gotten to the point where I wanted the ATVE to stop with its literary games and get to a "point" or "root" that would tie everything together.  This became especially important to me because my own knowledge of the manipulated materials is inadequate, a problem which may not bother fans of Park's work.  ATVE is primarily an alternative history with a heavy dose of what appears to be autobiographical material.  Much of the shifts in history revolve around the Civil War, a period which I am woefully uneducated.  While some of Park's shifts are obvious (aliens in the first narrative), the other shifts are less so, such that references to characters and moments were, for me, somewhat abstracted.  This is made more difficult by the fact that many aspects of the novel seem to refer to Park's real life and his family, particularly in the second and third narratives, which focus on writing (with references to Park's work) and family (presumably Park's actual family members, or analogues thereof).

The abstractness of the novel, in other words, became too overbearing for me.  For me, it seemed as though the novel lacked a grounding element, something to tie the reader to a solid reality.  A time period doesn't seem like enough to me, especially since the novel is split across three narratives set in what seem to be different versions of reality.  I could tell that there was a purpose behind this narrative strategy, but what that purpose was never quite materialized as I read the novel.  It may be that this is the kind of book that demands additional readings; certainly, one would be hard pressed to suggest this is traditional SF, as Park's style and delivery are far more in tune with the literary vein of the field than with the more public face of the genre.

Abstraction is not necessarily a bad thing, however.  ATVE's abstractness -- or my perception thereof -- or unrootedness, perhaps, needed to be facilitated by some sort of closure which would clearly tie things together so that an additional reading would not only seem immediately valuable, but also necessary.  That closure, however, doesn't really exist for any of the individual narratives.  I always got the feeling that Park felt compelled to stop in media res.  It immediately made me think of Margaret Atood's Surfacing (1972), which has no discernible plot and engages postmodern metanarrativity in a less pronounced manner than ATVE.  But that novel ends up "somewhere."  That "somewhere" may be unexpected -- the main character has a mental breakdown which some have interpreted as a feminist social break from the patriarchal standards of society -- but it is still a "somewhere."  Surfacing's plotless ending also leaves an opening, as what we learn about the main character's almost violent rejection of society doesn't close off the character's possible narratives; the novel's narrative, as the title might suggest, does end.  But ATVE seems to lack this closure -- or, if such closure exists, it didn't read as such to me.  

In the end, I think my issue with ATVE is that I found it more frustrating than anything else.  I recognize the strategies at play -- and even appreciate them -- but the destabilizing effect of the three vaguely-connected narratives continuously pulled me out of the reading process.  I became too self-aware that I was reading a book which seemed determined to force me to think about the narrative process through an autobiographical funnel.  But without either a grounding narrative (a plot, for example) or a ground frame of reference (a singular, clear "setting"), ATVE fell flat more often than not.  Ambitious it may be -- as the cover copy enthusiastically declares -- but its success is questionable.

Based on what I know about Park's other work, I suspect this will be a novel best appreciated by his dedicated readers.  For me, it was a miss.

Book Review: RedDevil 4 by Eric C. Leuthardt

I didn't come to this novel with many expectations.  The cover description didn't exactly entice me, but I figured I could give it a shot to surprise me.  And surprise me it did.  This is by far my least favorite read of 2014 thus far, though the Hugo Award packet may offer a few surprises in the near future.  From the first chapter, I knew I would hate this book, and by page 100, I gave up because it showed no signs of improving.  If there's one good thing to say about having picked up RedDevil 4, it's that I learned never to read anything written by Douglas Preston or Steve Berry, both of whom provided cover blurbs; if Preston found anything here that "blew [his] mind," he clearly doesn't know a cliche when it smacks him repeatedly in the eyes.  And if Berry thought I'd "[savor] a peck into the psyche [and] one into the future as well," I'd just assume he doesn't know what words mean.

In short, this is going to be a mean review.  Prepare yourself.

Here's the cover description:

Renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Hagan Maerici is on the verge of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that could change the way we think about human consciousness. Obsessed with his job and struggling to save his marriage, Dr. Maerici is forced to put his life’s work on the line when a rash of brutal murders strikes St. Louis. 
Edwin Krantz, an aging, technophobic detective, and his ex-Navy SEAL partner, Tara Dezner, are tasked with investigating the horrifying killings. Shockingly, the murders have all been committed by high-profile citizens who have no obvious motives. Seeking an explanation for the suspects’ strange behavior, Kranzt and Dezner turn to Dr. Maerici, who believes that the answer lies within the killers’ in-brain computer implants. 
Soon Tara Dezner begins to suspect that the doctor himself is a key piece of the puzzle. As the investigation turns to Dr. Maerici’s own work, it threatens to expose the doctor’s long-buried mistake–a mistake that now stands to endanger the lives of millions. 
With time running out, this trio of unlikely allies must face a gauntlet of obstacles, both human and AI, as they attempt to avert disaster. Ultimately, the key to survival may lie in the boundary between man and machine…a boundary that is becoming more ambiguous by the minute.
Almost all of RedDevil 4's problems are a result of its structure.  Billed as a thriller, Leuthardt's novel follows the typical structure of a James Patterson-esque novel.  This might not be a problem if the novel remained focused on a title character, as Patterson mostly does in the first of his Alex Cross novels, Along Came a Spider; RedDevil 4, however, shifts between multiple characters:  Hagan, Krantz, Trent (a seemingly random virtual reality user), Reverend Elymas (who uses special drugs to enhance his "performance"), the Chameleon (a drug dealer), and some other mostly irrelevant figures.  There are so many POVs in the first 100 pages that the novel's main plot points -- mysterious murders and Hagan's invention -- make little to no progress.  This is a 300-page novel, and yet barely anything of note actually occurs in the first third.  Even when things do happen, they are painfully cliche and hopelessly detached from anything resembling actual people.  These are the second and third biggest problems with this novel.

A poorly structured novel is fully capable of transcending its limitations if it can provide adequate characters to distract the reader from the other issues.  RedDevil 4, unfortunately, doesn't have adequate characters.  Hagan, the apparent protagonist of the novel, is about as wooden and cookie-cutter as you can get.  Scientist working overtime to create some newfangled thing?  Check.  Is he pressured by corporate interests?  Check.  Does he have marital problems because he works too much?  Check.  Does he try to justify those problems by saying "but I is gonna make sumfin good, dood"?  Check.  One can certainly write a scientific cliche well, but Leuthardt provides so little actual emotion and depth to Hagan's character that you could have deleted him from the first 100 pages and not have noticed at all.  There's nothing new about Hagan's archetype.  We've seen this dozens of times before.  It's like being on autopilot.  When I see scientists in this situation, I desperately hope they won't be like Hagan.  In this case, I found myself utterly disinterested in what was happening with Hagan; I didn't care about his marital issues because they felt as common place and desensitized as breathing.

The other characters are equally as undeveloped.  Trent doesn't appear to have any real connection to any of the other narratives, nor are his internal emotions, motivations, or desires demarcated in any way other than the most basic sense.  Like Hagan, Trent (and most any other character here) could be deleted without causing any real damage to the existing narratives.  Additionally, none of the characters seem to be connected in any significant way, except for the Chameleon and Elymas, who have a "business" relationship (drugs).  It's as if Leuthardt started out by writing three bog standard genre novels, and then he shoved them all together and called it RedDevil 4.  I'm sure the dots are connected later on in the novel, but I couldn't get over the lifelessness of the characters to convince myself the rest was worth reading.  Even if I could get over the characters, though, the rest of the novel reads just as cliche.  AI inventions are not new to science fiction, nor are scientists with marital problems, virtual reality users who become obsessed with the virtual and unearth weirdness, etc.  The closest thing to "new" in this novel are the religious elements, but these are mostly stuck in the background.  A novel about the public's debates over the moral and ethical questions raised by artificial intelligence (with a side of terrorism) might actually make for an interesting read.  But, again, that's not RedDevil 4.

In short, I pretty much hated this book.  I'm not one to quit on a read, but I found Leuthardt's RedDevil 4 a pointless literary venture into familiar territory.  Wooden characters, overly simplified prose, shoddy structure, and eye-rolling cliches are not for me.  I'd rather read James Joyce's Ulysses again...


I've sat on this review for a long while.  There's a good reason for that.  First, I could only manage 100 pages of RedDevil 4; second, I knew I wouldn't have anything nice to say about it.  Given the recent conversation about negative reviews in the sf/f community, I decided I'd post the review in the interest of fairness.

Most of what I'm going to talk about in this review applies to this excerpt of the novel.

Book Review: Reflected by Rhiannon Held

I've read and reviewed all of Rhiannon Held's books, which means she's going to have to hurry up and write more stuff so I can read it.  I've been a fan of Held's work since Silver (2012), which was introduced to me for an interview on The Skiffy and Fanty Show, and have reviewed both Silver and Tarnished (2013).  Her latest novel, Reflected (2014), is a solid continuation of the series and the culmination of Held's slow move towards the social questions with which her werewolf society must struggle.

Reflected is set a few years after the events of Tarnished, in which Andrew Dare and Silver became the first mated pack leaders of every North American werewolf pack.  With Madrid's plot to manipulate the North American packs and use Dare's daughter against him exposed, the North American packs are experiencing a boom of confidence.  But all is not well for Dare and Silver.  Their new responsibilities mean they have to deal with complicated disputes that threaten to challenge tradition and contemporary custom.  Dare is called away to handle a custody dispute in Alaska, leaving Silver and Susan, a lone human in the de facto position as Silver's beta, to man the fort.  And across the sea, Madrid, humiliated and weakened in the world of European werewolf politics, plots to destroy Dare's reputation and tear apart the North American packs; to do that, he must use Felicia, Dare's daughter, once more -- this time by threatening to destroy her reputation, too.  Before long, they'll all find themselves in just a little bit over their heads...

If there's one thing to be said about Reflected, it's that it really ups the ante when it comes to its examination of the position of women within Held's secret world of werewolves.  For a book which is deceptively just another urban fantasy novel, this one actually raises some brutally serious questions.  Does a pregnant werewolf have the right to keep control of her pack if shifting to were form might threaten her child's life?  How do werewolves handle custody concerns when the mother isn't a were and doesn't know her child isn't like her?  How well can a woman with a severe disability hold her own in a male-dominated field of power?  Held handles all of these issues without simplifying or taking a pure, hard-lined ideological stance.  That she does so is notable not because it avoids that annoying "eww, message fiction" canard, but because it adds a certain nuance to an issue which, for many, is almost always presented like a "yes" or "no" question.  Here, the answers have ramifications.  Whatever choice Silver makes, there will always be threats to her own power (and every other woman's) down the line, as each action has an opposite effect.

This has all been a long time coming, to be honest.  Each of Held's previous novels have slowly leaned the POV to the women in Dare's life, and here, the women are completely central.  They are the POVs.  They are the ones making decisions.  They are the ones dealing with the conflicts.  Dare isn't entirely sidelined, of course.  He is forced to return in the end to deal with the consequences of Madrid's -- and Felicia's -- meddling, which has put Silver in an emotionally compromised position.  Given Silver's past, it makes sense that Held would not opt for a new-and-improved Silver that can simple will her limitations away.  If her physical limits are not enough -- she cannot shift to were form -- then her fragmented personality certainly provides the necessary limits to keep her character realistic in the context of what happened in the preceding novels.  I have always loved Held's willingness to make her characters flawed and even weak in certain contexts; much of that still exists here, particularly for Silver, who must face a psychological trial that could destroy her fragile sense of identity.

Though the focus on women in this novel is solid, I must admit that I don't think Reflected is the strongest of Held's three novels; Tarnished may not be as tightly plotted as Reflected, but its character development is, with one small exception, better realized.  In Reflected, we're given a personal look into Felicia's mind, a place we haven't been before because Felicia didn't actually appear in the flesh until the last third of Tarnished.  Here, Felicia's past inevitably sticks its head in her business, putting her into a compromised position in relation to her pack.  But this also means the reader is left without enough anchoring material to really sympathize with her plight or to understand or respect her decisions.  Felicia makes so many obvious mistakes that it's difficult to think of them as simply a consequence of her age, particularly given her years of life with a North American pack and her father, which, you'd think, would have instilled some sense of loyalty or at least, in light of the fact that she knows Madrid manipulated her for most of her life, that European were are not trustworthy by default.  The novel is strongest when it is focused on Silver and Susan -- women who are determined, capable, but also flawed.  Felicia, however, is flawed only because she has no sense of judgment; this is not explored with as much depth as the other elements I have already discussed, even though it should have been.

That said, Reflected is tightly plotted -- more so, as I mentioned, than Tarnished -- and well paced.  Even as things become increasingly complicated by the convergence of multiple subplots, Held keeps things together and makes a beeline for a conclusion that, while expected, was mostly satisfying.  Some questions are left unanswered, but I get the impression that they are left as such to convey the immensity of this world-within-a-world (and, perhaps, to leave the story for further novels).  It's a world I'll keep coming back to.  There's one simple reason that I keep reading and enjoying Held's novels:  they are the kind of urban fantasy that I enjoy reading.  Tarnished and Reflected each give me everything I want without getting trapped in a formula that, to be honest, bores me.  Reflected fulfills the promises Held has offered in the preceding books and digs with a literary bulldozer into the inner workings of a werewolf society on the verge of major social change.  That's enough to keep me reading; I hope it's enough for everyone else.

Book Review: Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

Admittedly, I don't get a lot of opportunities to review literature for kids.  The occasional YA novel?  Sure.  Most of what I read for review, however, falls firmly within the "not marketed to kids" category (since "adult" means something else here).  This review may expose some of my weaknesses when it comes to this particular field, as N.D. Wilson's Boys of Blur is certainly embedded in a tradition about which I am not as familiar as I should be.  Regardless, I will tread honestly here in hopes that I can offer some insight into this particular novel.

Boys of Blur takes place in my state of residence:  Florida.  Specifically, it is set in the fictional town of Taper (near "Muck City," a.k.a. Belle Glade), deep in the everglades, where nature is often stranger than the people that live there.  That's certainly true of this novel.  When Charlie and his family visit Taper for a funeral, his stepfather, Mack, is offered the head coaching job at the local high school, which at one time was known for its fair share of decent players.  But Taper is a place of worry and concern for Natalie, Charlie's mother, who left Taper after divorcing Charlie's abusive father, Bobby; it also holds worry for Charlie, too:  after befriending his cousin, Cotton, Charlie discovers something wicked living and growing in the swamps.  Something evil.  Something that wants to take Taper for itself.  And it might just be up to Charlie to stop it before "it" and Taper's residents tear themselves apart.

Astute readers will recognize some clear parallels to Beowulf here (or, perhaps, its amusing Norse-style adaptation, The 13th Warrior (1999))[1].  Much of the novel's supernatural elements are of the form commonly associated with the classic epic, which are less direct and more boiled down to a template:  monster threatens town, boy seeks out monster, and boy defeats monster (I'm leaving out a few details to avoid spoiling things).  In fact, one of the things I loved about Boys of Blur was the way it courted the supernatural in order to provide a semi-bildungsroman with Beowulf as its center.  Indeed, from the almost zombie-like creatures that terrorize Charlie and Cotton to the deterioration of Taper as a community to the interesting commentaries on the nature of life and death, Boys of Blur seems like a perfect gateway for young readers who might be curious about the classic epics.  

I must also admit that I personally enjoy renditions of this story type that opt for a darker vision.  Wilson certainly has an eye for the creep-factor.  Though some younger readers may find the novel a little terrifying, many will surely be gripped by the macabre nature of the novel's horror.  When the novel is focused on its supernatural elements, it is at its strongest.  Wilson doesn't always offer the level of explanation I would want, but he does thrust his young protagonist into a bizarre and often confusing world of things that shouldn't exist.  Even the "good guys" are sometimes as creepy as the bad ones, which gives the supernatural a distinctly discomforting feel -- there is no cutesy here.

Wilson also does a fine job of presenting a narrative arc for Charlie that leads to modest, but largely positive changes.  Charlie's family thrusts the reader into an awkward situation (albeit, more so for younger readers than adults):  his mother has remarried a supportive man who Charlie seems to accept, but doesn't fully embrace at the start (a stepfather subplot bonus).  They are a mended family rather than a traditional nuclear one.  This gives the novel an endearing quality, as it tries to court both its fantastic major plot and its family-oriented subplots in different forms:  the former directly and the latter in a more nuanced, deliberately withdrawn sense.  Charlie, after all, is twelve, and so what he understands of adult relationships is less pronounced than his understanding of good and evil.

Even Wilson's handling of sports culture in small-town-America adds depth to the narrative -- this coming from a reader who is bored stiff by sports-heavy sf.  I half expected this book to be reduced to its major plot, discarding any complicated and sometimes difficult material entirely.  But Wilson doesn't do so.  Much like Holes by Louis Sachar, which the cover blurb uses as a comparison, this is a novel with a deep underbelly that offers food for thought, even if Wilson does pull his punches in places.  The epilogue, thus, serves as a positive conclusion to much of the novel's subplots and gave me a sense that Charlie had not simply survived something horrifying, but had also come out of it with a renewed vigor.  This is, I suspect, fairly normal in books for young people.

That said, there is one main concern I had with Boys of Blur.  While the narrative deals explicitly with domestic abuse from the perspective of a child, I think Wilson does so by limiting a deeper discussion of that issue.  In particular, the book itself provides little in the way of a resolution for this element, almost as though Charlie should have been too young to understand what has already transpired between his father, Bobby, and his mother, Natalie.  But Charlie is twelve and seems to understand what has happened in his family, even if he was too little to understand when his parents had divorced.  In the end, no significant conversation is had about Bobby, who is undeniably a violent abuser who has shown no real reform, and his involvement in his son's life, despite the fact that Bobby appears to threaten Natalie in the novel.  Charlie does take a stand against Bobby, and the novel try to address the issue, but this is brief and largely forgotten.  If Wilson intended the concluding moments to be one of "going to bed with one's enemy to conquer a greater foe," then he needed to do so with a more deft hand; likewise, if he intended these other mentions of Bobby's past and his abusive nature to be either partially redemptive or even an attempt to nuance an abuser, I think he missed the mark entirely.  Here, I think the novel does more to reinforce domestic abuse as "not a big deal" than it does to address a child's perspective on such things.[2]

Overall, I quite enjoyed Boys of Blur.  Though the novel has a few problems in terms of its representation of controversial subjects, it is an easy and fairly gripping read.  From its spine-tingling creepiness to its Beowulf-ian nature, this is a book that young kids will certainly enjoy.

Side note:  this is the first Florida-based book I have read that really captured what Florida feels like to someone who hasn't lived there their whole life.  A bonus for anyone worried the setting will alienate readers (nope).


[1]:  Itself an adaptation of a Michael Crichton book.
[2]:  Admittedly, Bobby does come off as creepy as the supernatural creatures Charlie is forced to fight.  I'm just not convinced that the novel intended this as a metaphor for the distance between father and son (due to former abuse).  Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, though.

Book Review: Zero Sum Game by SL Huang

SL Huang has a Twitter account. One day, SL Huang talked about her new book, Zero Sum Game. I said, "Hey, why don't I have that in my pile of books to read for review," and she said, "Well, fine, I'll put it in your inbox you complaining whiny person." Thus began a glorious literary friendship. Of course, that story isn't exactly what happened, but it's the version I'm sticking with for now. In truth, I came to Zero Sum Game with a lot of expectations: I wanted a fun, adventurous book with crisp, commercial writing, exciting characters, and a larger-than-life crazy-face plot. And that's exactly what I got. This is the kind of book I would turn to if I needed a break from life. It's the kind of book I can get lost into, like an action thriller that doesn't try to be artsy, but still has a lot of heart. This book is like Bourne Identity, but if Matt Damon were replaced by Michelle Yeoh (or JeeJa Yanin) and all of her extraordinary fighting skills were explained by her superhuman ability to almost instantaneously calculate the physics of the world. Read More

Book Review: Tarnished by Rhiannon Held

(You can see my review of the previous novel, Silver, here.  I've also conducted an interview with Rhiannon about Tarnished.)

Back in 2012, I interviewed then-debut novelist Rhiannon Held about Silver, a new urban fantasy novel involving werewolves (oh noes).  In truth, I was skeptical at the time; I didn't think much of urban fantasy when I started conducting podcast interviews, and so I thought to myself that this book would confirm everything I thought about the genre.  It didn't.  While it wasn't the strongest novel of its kind, Silver provided enough compelling material to keep me riveted until the end.  In particular, I loved Held's anthropological view of the werewolves, taking what could have been another cliche and giving it the kind of rigor one might expect of a secondary world fantasy -- a short one, of course.  Tarnished continues the Held tradition, adding depth to an already compelling and complex world.  If this trend continues, I expect Reflected, which is set to drop soon, will keep me riveted as much as this one.

Set immediately after the events of Silver, Held's second novel follows Dare and Silver as they decide the next course of action:  keep control of the Seattle pack (werewolf alphas assume the name of their pack) or find a new home elsewhere.  But being alphas means eventually having to face your past, and both Dare and Silver are haunted by where they've been and what it might mean for the future.  Now, it's Dare's turn for his past to bubble up and make a mess of things:  Sacramento still holds a grudge due to the death of his son, John, the former Seattle alpha, has sired a child with Susan, a human, and Roanoke, who Dare believes is unfit for leadership, may have dragged something else from Dare's past into the mix, making a challenge for control of Roanoke more difficult indeed.  Handling the complicated social politics of werewolves is no easy task, but together, Dare and Silver hope they'll be able to pull it off...

Overall, I enjoyed Tarnished, in no small part because I got a lot of more of the things I loved about Silver.  Held's characters remain compelling, especially Dare and Silver, who continue to grow into themselves and their relationship to one another -- yes, I'm a sucker for a well-written romantic entanglement.  Tarnished seems to put a great amount of attention on Silver here, though I'm not sure if that's actually true, since I haven't read Silver in quite some time (I'll talk about this more below).  Likewise, the novel is mostly paced well, with a simple, though efficient style that doesn't get bogged down in description while losing none of the necessary characterization.  Essentially, this is exactly what I want to see happen with a formerly-debut author:  improvement, growth, and efficiency.

Tarnished is, as such, strongest when it focuses on the complexity of werewolf society.  This is particularly true in the last third of the novel, where Held presents us an event called the Convocation, in which werewolf packs meet to discuss and debate werewolf issues on neutral ground.  These were by far my favorite points in the novel, primarily because it served as the perfect space for every major character to come to terms with their position in this "hidden" underworld.  Susan, for example, struggles with what it means to be the only human in a sea of werewolves, and here must contend with worries not only for herself, but also her child and the man she loves, John.  Held uses Susan as a vehicle to show how complicated werewolf social politics can become, particularly if you don't have the enhanced senses of a werewolf -- the senses, in effect, play a crucial role in the werewolf hierarchy.  Though this novel isn't really about Susan, I appreciated the attempts to give her agency in a situation where she might not have had it because she's human.  Likewise, the Convocation serves as a developmental tool for Silver, who is the only other character beyond Susan who is disadvantaged because of her body -- in this case, because Silver's wild self has been lost due to silver poisoning.  To read about Silver using her cunning and facial expressions to manipulate those who underestimate her was a thrill, particularly since she is the one character in this whole series who remains at the greatest disadvantage.

And it's that last point that I think is worth exploring further here.  In the first novel, Silver is portrayed as potentially mad, and most certainly unstable.  That her madness is justified by what happened to her is beside the point:  what matters is the fact that Silver's mental state and her physical limitations are a major source of Silver's frustration and conflict throughout both novels because other werewolves routinely mistake her limited physical abilities and mental quirks as weakness.  Held continues this theme in Tarnished, giving a fuller sense of Silver's formidable qualities and establishing her as the one person you really don't want to cross, even if you have the physical advantage -- even Dare realizes this.  It's not that she's ruthless, but rather that her physical limitations and perceived mental state make her a target for ridicule and dismissal, which invariably ends up being a mistake, as Silver knows (or learns) how to use her strengths and her disadvantages to benefit herself and the people she cares about.  She's not always successful, of course, but she is smart.  I applaud Held for including this aspect of Silver's story in her novels, as it would be too easy to leave behind these developmental elements, but also strangely expected.  Instead, Silver's character grows -- and all for the better.  It feels like Silver is a more secure character -- in the sense that Held, as a writer, seems more comfortable writing as Silver.  In fact, this novel seems like a more character driven one than the book that precedes it, giving depth to folks who previously had been primarily trapped in the background, and I know from reading the first 70 pages of Reflected, this trend continues.

Having written all of this tells me something important about why I liked Tarnished:  my focus is almost exclusively on the characters, their motivations, their interests, etc.  Tarnished succeeds because it is about people who aren't cut out of a magazine and pasted on the wall.  They're people I can like.  People who go through horrible things, but come out on the other ends having learned something (or, sometimes, not making it out at all).  People who may be werewolves, but are also "real" in the sense that they have a culture that is neither alien nor wholly human.  Whatever flaws the novel has, it still kept me engaged on what mattered:  characters.

Regardless, a review isn't really a review if it doesn't at least mention the flaws.  The novel's major issue, in my opinion, is structural.  The plot appears to contain two climaxes:  one centered on Dare's conflict with Sacramento, and the other on his conflict with Roanoke.  While this isn't necessarily a bad thing in principle, I do think having these two plots working at opposite ends of the novel takes some of the impact away from the climaxes.  It also draws some of the energy away from what could be a solid second novel, particularly since the latter half concerns Susan, the lone human in the novel, who must face the consequences of her actions in the first half.  Held does, at least, try to offset this divide by making the climax to the second narrative more intense, but I still think this novel would have benefited from splitting.  This likewise means that certain aspects of the latter half feel rushed, particularly in regards to Dare's relationship to his daughter.  Given the politics surrounding Dare's exile from Europe, the attempt to reconcile Dare's past with the present deserves a more intense examination.

Overall, Tarnished is an improvement over the previous book, despite its imperfections.  Held continues to handle her characters and her world like a major league pitcher handles a slider:  with a now-practiced hand.  Tarnished is the kind of urban fantasy book I want to read:  its characters are nuanced, its world deceptively complex, and its handling of its fantastic elements refreshing.  

Keep it up, Held!

Book Review: Breach Zone by Myke Cole

(Note:  There are some minor details about the previous books in this review.  I don't honestly think they're that spoiler-y, but you've been warned.)

I am deeply ashamed that I have not yet written a proper review of Myke Cole's various works.  He's been on my podcast three times, and I have yet to review a single thing.  Today, I am rectifying that mistake by discussing what I'd argue is his strongest novel to date -- Shadow Ops:  Breach Zone (Ace:  January 2014).

Breach Zone opens with an invasion:  Scylla, now free from her prison in FOB Frontier (a now-destroyed illegal military facility in a magical plane known as the Source)[1], has used her negramantic abilities to rip a massive hole between the Source and New York City.  Behind her:  an army of goblins, Gahe, and other monsters.  Her mission:  carve out a place for Latent people (magic wielders) within the United States and end the tyranny of all costs.  In comes down to Harlequin, a veteran member of the Supernatural Operations Corps and an aeromancer, who must keep Scylla's forces at bay while reconciling his past and his conflict with the current state of affairs in the United States, in which magic is heavily restricted and abused.

The third in Cole's Shadow Ops series, Breach Zone concludes the overarching narrative which has guided the previous books, Control Point (2011) and Fortress Frontier (2012):  the rising tension between those who have magic and a government which seeks to control it.  In the previous novels, Cole focused on characters in similar positions:  Oscar Britton's magical awakening in Control Point and Alan Bookbinder's similar awakening in Fortress Frontier.  Both novels revealed varying levels of abuse on the part of the U.S. government in service of (or in illegal contradiction with) the McGauer-Linden Act, which determines how magic may be used within the States.

In Breach Zone, however, Cole takes us into the mind of Harlequin (a.k.a. Jan Thorsson), who has, in the previous books, taken the position of a soft antagonist to Britton and Bookbinder.  Instead of maintaining that antagonism, Cole gives us an in-depth look into his motivations:  notably, his belief in the rule of law and the democratic process for change.  In many respects, Breach Zone is a far more complex work than the previous books because the relationship between "the law" and "what is right" becomes increasingly more divisive, particularly for Harlequin, who struggles with his need to uphold his oaths of office (serving the country), his desire to protect the people, and the very real possibility that he will have to violate (again) some of his core codes in order to save NYC.  Cole teases out this narrative with deliberate slowness, marinating the conflict and tying the various threads together so what occurs in the end is a product of necessity rather than a simple "soldier defies orders and goes rogue" narrative.

This depth is also apparent in the book's structure, which moves back and forth between Harlequin's desperation to save NYC and his former relationship with Scylla, the primary antagonist, who has remained in the sidelines throughout the series.  These chapters are perfectly placed to provide not only the psychological tension necessary to fully empathize with Harlequin and his ethical quandaries, but also to set the groundwork for the conclusion and its horrific qualities.  The interaction between these flashback chapters and the general narrative are perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, not least of all because it tempers the high-intensity action which controls most of the novel's narration.  Without that counterbalance, I think Breach Zone would be a weaker novel, but with them, it becomes a work which turns the landscape gray rather than playing the easy route of good vs. evil.  Everyone in this book has a reason to do what they do, whether it is Harlequin, Scylla, the Selfer street gangs (magic users who have run from the law), and so on.  Rather than give us villains, we're given a sea of people who have to balance what is objectively right against what is ethically sound; they are also people who are complex without being overbearing.  In a novel with this much action, that's quite a feat.

Breach Zone also includes chapters about Bookbinder, though I think these are there primarily as a gateway between Fortress Frontier, in which Bookbinder was the main character, and this final volume.  This is not dissimilar from the shift between Control Point and Fortress Frontier, so I think I'm justified and thinking this is a deliberate inclusion.  Though Bookbinder plays second fiddle to Harlequin here, I think it's worth noting that his chapters demonstrate more fully the sort of man he has become after the events of the previous book; no longer the paper-pushing career military man, Bookbinder is clearly a veteran, capable and determined even in the face of overwhelming odds -- an aspect of his character which had not truly been present when he first appeared in Fortress Frontier.  There are also, for the action-enthusiasts, plenty of Bookbinder vs. goblins moments, which Cole handles with a deft hand.

I also appreciated Cole's attempts to address the political landscape that would undoubtedly arise in a world suddenly beset with magic.  I particularly liked the wrangling Harlequin has to do and the way the novel positions politics and the military as two different worlds with their own rules.  From Harlequin's perspective, the need for support is not a matter of debate; rather, it is an honest, military assessment of a violent situation.  For those in the political sphere, however, the need is one which, if met, comes with additional consequences, particularly given the climate in which this novel is set -- FOB Frontier was an illegal facility, so it's discovery at the end of Fortress Frontier meant huge ramifications for U.S. global policy.  As a military man, Cole certainly understands the frustration this conflict produces; its representation in this novel, as such, gives Breach Zone not only a more realistic feel, but also a closer connection to a world we can understand.

It's usually at this point that I tell you about things that I didn't like about the book.  I could complain that some of the side characters aren't as developed as I'd like, but if I did that and Cole went and rewrote the book to fix it, I'd have to complain about the book's 5,000-page length.  If there's one criticism I could offer, it's that I feel like series as a whole is missing a deeper look into the lives of the mystical creatures from the Source, even if that is mediated mostly through human magic users.  But none of that would fit into Breach Zone, so I won't suggest it has to be involved here.

In the end, Cole gave me what I wanted:  a fun, engaging, and exciting fantasy with characters who are complicated rather than caricatured.  Breach Zone is to good genre fiction as high quality beef is to good hamburgers.  There are times when I sit down and want to read something that is as exciting as it is compelling, deftly written as it is paced and plotted.  Breach Zone is that book.  It's the perfect balance between a world of magic, war, and the unknown, and a world of real characters living in a place that is just a few steps to the side from our own.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get started on the movie script...


[1]:  For those that haven't read the previous books, the Source is basically an alternate "Earth" where goblins and other fantasy critters live.  It is also the root of all magic on Earth; hence it's name.

On Richard Phillips’ A Captain’s Duty (a Book Review)

Most of you know the story.  In 2009, the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama was hijacked by four Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia.  Her captain, Richard Phillips, was taken hostage and was not freed until several days later when a Navy SEALs team shot and killed the pirates.  It became a national story almost immediately:  the first American vessel hijacked by Somali pirates, a miraculous and brave rescue by the U.S. military (always a hit with the news), and a new-found hero in the figure of Captain Phillips, who, we're told, risked his own life to keep his crew safe.

A Captain's Duty:  Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea is Captain Phillip's personal account of the events.  Beginning days before the hijacking, Phillips lays out a populist account of the politics of coastal Somalia, life on merchant vessels, the history of the merchant
mariners, and the personal struggles he and his wife endured during and, to a lesser extent, after the hijacking.  As a work meant to educate and entertain, it is at times quite dull, and at other times quite fascinating, though not necessarily for the reasons you'd expect.
What I found most compelling about this book were its sections on life in pirate-heavy seas.  Many of the chapters are preceded by quotes highlighting previously successful hijackings, and the chapters themselves provide a fair amount of detail about the procedures for dealing with piracy and the knowledge sea captains like Phillips must acquire before and after they traverse the seas.  These sections were the most interesting in the book, as they highlighted the real problem piracy poses and provided Phillips' personal perspective on the issue.  If anything, these sections do far more to describe who Phillips is than any of the chapters about the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.  They likewise provide a somewhat populist view of the issues in the Somali region, which do certainly add sympathy to an already sympathetic figure.

However, these chapters are sometimes overloaded by excessive description.  The book was clearly written for a general audience, yet some sections of the book obsess over the minute details of ship life, most of which have no direct bearing on the events yet to unfold.  One section on the captain's duty to inspect the ship could easily have been left as a short paragraph explaining what the inspection is for.  I'm sure someone who finds ship life idyllic -- or, perhaps, romantic -- will find value in these sections, but I personally felt they drew away from the more pressing concern:  piracy.  Truthfully, I was far more interested in how an actual ship captain views life in dangerous waters than in everyday ship life, as it is difficult to form an objective opinion on such matters from the safety of my computer chair.  Regardless, though there are some rather dull sections in the book, the overall thrust of the first few chapters is worth reading, if only for the reasons I have already stated.

Unfortunately, Phillips' account of the actual hijacking strains credulity.  While one can forgive him for making assumptions about his attackers, mis-remembering details, or even conjuring some up in an apparent dream-like daze, his assessment of his own behavior from the beginning of the hijacking makes one wonder why the U.S. Navy was all that concerned about Somali pirates in the first place.  For example, Phillips reminds us more than once that the Somalis have been enormously successful at hijacking ships and earning ransom as a result.  At no point are we to believe these pirates are completely inept at what they do, even if they are poorly armed, trained, and supplied.  Phillips spends considerable time, as I've noted above, describing how Somalis perform hijackings, their success rate, the politics, and so on, painting a fairly clear picture of just who we're about to deal with; that picture offers credence to the threat of hijacking.

But once the hijacking occurs, the Somalis are presented as dimwitted to the extreme, completely inept at just about everything; they are described like children who only just figured out how to turn on the boat.  They seem utterly perplexed by the boat's machinery, despite clearly having at least a basic understanding of radar equipment.  Worse, throughout the ordeal, Phillips claims to have been in continuous contact with hidden members of the crew via a handheld radio he "snuck away."  Only he repeatedly uses this radio right in front of the Somalis, or at least within sight, such that it's really quite impossible to believe that they haven't noticed.  This is made more unbelievable when we're reminded that the Somalis are rather annoyed that Phillips doesn't know where the rest of his crew is.  One problem:  clearly he does, and even if he didn't, he's clearly in contact with them.

This particular issue doesn't get better over time.  Frequently, Phillips is shown giving away tactical information to the crew -- numbers, weapons, positions, etc. -- while looking straight in the eye of the hijackers.  It's as if we're supposed to believe these Somalis are not only really bad at what they do, but completely disinterested in the fact that their captive is sharing sensitive information with the very people they wish to find (or, in some cases, with the military itself, as Phillips communicates with the U.S.S. Bainbridge while trapped in the cramped lifeboat).  All of this is dropped from the film adaptation -- probably for the exact reason that bothered me:  it just doesn't make sense.

The book's other flaws are in its contradictions.  For example, Phillips tells us that the Somalis let him swim in the ocean to cool off after kidnapping him and fleeing in the lifeboat.  But several chapters later, Phillips tells us the Somalis never let him out.  One of these two statements is true; they both can't be.  These details draw into question other aspects of the narrative, such as Phillips' claim that a Somali boat came to talk with the leader of the hijackers; the Navy, apparently, denies anything of the sort happened, which Phillips rejects for no reason other than because "he says so."  If he were to at least admit that his account is perhaps colored by his experience, some of these details could be forgiven.

Basically, the deeper Phillips takes us into his experiences as a kidnap victim, the less credible his account becomes.  Detached from the experience, he is able to paint a thorough picture of conditions at sea, but in trying to apply the same rigor to the moment of trauma, he invariably paints himself into a corner from which he cannot escape.  This is, quite frankly, an unbelievable book which would fail even as a work of fiction.

In all fairness, I can understand why the book fails as much as it does.  Trauma has a way of fragmenting memory, which might explain why Don Delillo's mostly disliked post-9/11 novel, Falling Man, is largely told in fragments.  Phillips tries to account for these fragmented memories by injecting an illusory voice of authenticity, but instead fictionalizes his own account.  On that front alone, there might be some value, as those interested in studying trauma may find something of value in a book which, in my mind, falls apart precisely because it is an attempt to remove the personal account from the effects of the event.  For me, however, I found myself unwilling to cede narrative ground for a book which exceeds the boundary of its genre simply by failing to adhere to the genre's basic necessities.  At the very least, non-fiction demands the illusion of truth.