Monday, February 24, 2020

The Deep by Mira Grant

This wonderful little duology doesn't have a proper series name, but both volumes do have the words 'the deep' in their titles, so that's what I called it. In retrospect 'Mermaids With Teeth' would have worked as well.

Mira Grant (the pseudonym of urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire) tends to be better known for zombie fiction (the opening volume of the Newsflesh series; Feed, is what I describe as zombie fiction for people who don't generally read zombie fiction), this was her first foray into something that wasn't living dead.

Rolling in the Deep is actually a novella, and the two books can be read independently of each other, although Into the Drowning Deep does contain some pretty major spoilers for Rolling in the Deep.

The premise behind the book is that the Imagine TV network (a fictional company that is kind of like a cross between Syfy and NatGeo) sends out a ship filled with reporters, scientists and performers in the guise of proving whether or not mermaids are real. Unfortunately for everyone concerned they find the answer to the question.

Into the Drowning Deep takes place 7 years after Rolling in the Deep and has a different group, a much better prepared one, and they seek to answer the same question, with equally dramatic consequences.

The first book is close to perfection. It completely captures the feel of a mockumentary and it drags the reader into it. It's also a total page turner, just as well it's relatively short, because once someone has started this one, they are literally unable to put it down until it's done. Although short it draws it's characters well and completely and makes them connect to the audience. It's so well done that when I'd finished it I was disappointed and a little surprised to realise that the channel and the mockumentary that they set out to create didn't actually exist. The series as a whole has been optioned for a filmed version (whether or not it will really happen is anyone's guess), but I honestly think they could just do Rolling in the Deep as a one off and it would be a stunning piece of TV. It would require next to no adaptation, either, its that well written.

Into the Drowning Deep is the inevitable sequel. It's a full length novel that use it's extra size and word count to delve deeper into the mysteries that were only hinted at in Rolling in the Deep and to examine the further reaching consequences of actually achieving their objective to prove or disprove the existence of mermaids.

Mermaids have in recent times become one of the monsters du jour. They feature in the TV series Siren as well. However the modern mermaids are nothing like Ariel. These things are vicious, cunning, sea creatures that are used to fighting for survival and don't like any incursions their territory.

I don't know if Grant intends to add to these two slices of horror, but I'd be onboard if she does,

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Adventures in Reading 2019

Another year of reading is done and dusted. I read 78 books for the year, not quite up to the dizzying heights of plus 100 that 2018 reached, but pretty respectable all the same. As always there were some standouts for the year and so here they are:

Jade City by Fonda Lee. I think I purchased this some time in 2018, but it didn’t make its way up to the top of the pile in 2019. It’s one of those set in a low magic world that is very similar to ours, but at the same time totally different. It was actually kind of fun trying to work out where the various locations actually were. The setting itself feels like a 60’s or 70’s time frame. The premise is that certain well connected families on the island of Kekon have access to jade and it gives them physical powers beyond that of the jadeless population. The jade families are rather like the tongs of Hong Kong and the book takes us into one of these families while they’re in the middle of a power shift and a turf war. It was an action packed book with an interesting premise and some strong character development, unafraid to make bold choices in story direction, which kept the reader guessing. Highly recommended.

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire. This is the 4th of McGuire’s Wayward Children series. About children who find their ways into fantasy worlds and while they return to our and their worlds, they don’t forget where they were and this affects them going forward. This episode dealt with a character readers had met before, but explained why and how she found her way into an unreal world and why she would never be the same. McGuire ups her game with every one of these and this one was no exception. We’ve seen glimpses of a number of fascinating and very different worlds through McGuire’s eyes in these books and In an Absent Dream gave readers another one. 

Vultures by Chuck Wendig. In 2012 I read Blackbirds, the first of Wendig’s Miriam Black books, the story of the inventively foul mouthed Miriam Black, a woman cursed with the ability to touch someone and see the moment of their death. Throughout a number of years and 6 books. I’ve loved these from the moment  I first met Miriam in Blackbirds and adored Wendig’s short, sharp, visceral, brutal style of writing. They have a noirish feel about them and for the past few books, possibly because they’ve been set in and around Florida they’ve given me a very Burn Notice feel about them. The conclusion of Miriam’s story in Vultures was damn near perfect and the twist in the ending was a real kick in the guts.

Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly. This was the final of Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier books. The setting and idea behind these is almost unique. Fantasy as written by Len Deighton or Le Carre. The only thing that really qualifies them as fantasy is that they’re set on a secondary world, but that world is not low magic, it is no magic. Not having magic, but an unreal setting allows Donnelly to write about people, not events, and follow their journeys through an always dangerous world. Amnesty brought the whole bloody mess to an appropriately explosive conclusion.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This is the story of two individuals with unique abilities. It follows their lives and how they first met and develop a relationship and then follows their own separate journeys through life until fate demands that their lives once again intersect. It’s a lovely coming of age story which explores people, events and power. It was Anders’ debut and totally astonished me. Leapt easily into my best reads of the year for 2019.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch. This is part of Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series, but it doesn’t have Peter in it. One of the things that I, and I suspect other readers of the series, have asked themselves, is do other countries have police whose job it is to investigate magical crimes and events? The answer is yes and it’s covered in this novella. One of the strengths of the Peter Grant series has been the obvious love that Aaronovitch has for the city of London (I actually felt that the one book located outside of the city; Foxglove Summer, was probably the weakest entry), so I approached The October Man with a bit of trepidation, not only did it not feature Peter, but was also set in Germany. I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed it and the main character Tobias Winter was a welcome change from seeing everything filtered through Peter’s eyes. Things are definitely different on the continent, but in a good way and it’s great to see that the concept has applications elsewhere. Would be interesting to see an encounter and maybe even a collaboration between Peter and Tobias in the future.

To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. I don’t think Chambers is capable of writing a bad book. This novella, while still science fiction, moves away from her Wayfarers series. The two are not at all connected, even peripherally. This is about a manned space exploration and in what is a Chambers signature it’s less about the technology than it is about the people aboard it and how they interact with each other and deal with the situation that they face. Stunning, and it should win the Hugo for best novella in 2020, although I suspect that it won’t.

The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind by Jackson Ford. I picked this up because I liked the title. I knew nothing about it, but that is a very eye and mind catching title. It was a really fun ride. There’s a fair bit of Miriam Black about Teagan, although their ‘gifts’ are dissimilar, they have the same cynical outlook on life and the world, plus neither of them really play well with others. It was just such a thrill ride that kept me turning pages.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire. In things that aren’t her two long running series McGuire is at the top of her game, Middlegame is an example of that. It shares a bit with All the Birds in the Sky in that it’s about two gifted people who first meet when they’re children, separate and then life forces them back together again. It does have a McGuire/Mira Grant (Mira Grant is a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire, it tends to deal with zombies and recently mermaids) hallmark to it, in that the two principals are part of a giant genetic experiment. I think it’s the best thing that McGuire has written under her own name.

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie. Abercrombie returns to the Circleworld, where he set his first 6 novels, after a successful foray into dystopian YA fiction with the Shattered Seas trilogy. Plenty of time has passed between the events in Red Country and A Little Hatred, enough that the characters of the original 6 novels have had families who have grown up and taken centre stage. It’s the coming of the 2.0’s Abercrombie style. I’m not generally a fan of grim dark, but Abercrombie does it with more style and humour than any of his contemporaries and that trademark wit is on display throughout A Little Hatred, it’s also an interesting fantasy look at the Industrial Revolution. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Abercrombie is a one trick pony, but he does that trick better than anyone else with a similar act.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist

I actually read Magician a few years ago for another reread that I was doing. It wasn't totally 'suck fairy' territory back then, but it hadn't aged well when compared to some of the newer works coming out in the epic fantasy field.

The way I see it Feist was part of the 3rd wave of epic fantasy writers. Tolkien was the first, followed by Brooks  and Donaldson 30 or so years later. Hot on their heels were Eddings and Feist.

What I've always felt sets Magician apart from other Tolkien imitators out there at the time, was the creation of another world, inspired by feudal Japan, the world of Kelewan. The world of Midkemia with its elves and dwarves and medieval inspired pre industrial society, is very Tolkien. Kelewan was fairly new for the time and a good half of the book is set there. Sadly Feist never really utilised Kelewant to it's full extent I felt. He did co write a trilogy with Janny Wurts that was set there and it came up occasionally in some of his other books, before he destroyed the planet, but was never fully explored. Readers never really got to see much of the Thun for instance.

Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon are referred to as the first trilogy in the author's Riftwar which was published over 30 years and as many books. I tend to think of Magician as a big standalone and the other two as a duology, and this reread didn't change that opinion.

Magician is largely the story of Pug and his part in the Riftwar, whereas Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon tend to concern themselves more with events concerning Prince Arutha and his battles with a dark elf who has world domination designs on Midkemia. There are sections of the second two books that do deal with tying up some of the loose ends that Magician left around the characters of Pug and his friend Tomas, but they're really Arutha's story.

I had a lot more problems with the other two books this time around. They haven't aged well, even less so than Magician and the suck fairy had sprinkled a good deal of its dust over their pages. A lot of the problem centres around Arutha. He's just a very bland character and the books rely heavily on the presence of the young thief Jimmy the Hand.

An example of how my thinking about the books is how long it took to read them. They're not particularly big tomes, combined they probably cover the length of Magician. Despite that it probably took me as long to get through them as it did to get through all 17 Dresden Files books earlier this year.

Glad I've reread them to find this out, but I won't be hurrying to read them again. I did still like Magician, but doubt I could put myself through Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon again.

Into the realms of horror and science fiction with the G's.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Band Series by Nicholas Eames

Although Nicholas Eames The Band Series is only 2 books in (a 3rd is apparently in the works), it's quickly made its way to being one of my favourites (I've already read Kings of the Wyld 4 times), and Eames is one of the few E authors that is on the shelves with a series.

Both were in my favourite books of the year, so I'll reproduce those reviews here to cover it:

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Oh my God, this one blew me away! I first read it in March, and I've already read it again since that. The last book to do that to me was Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (18 reads on and I still love that book).

Every so often a reader is lucky enough to encounter a book that is like a shot of nitro glycerine to the head. I get one every so often. Kings of the Wyld was my nitro glycerine book for 2017.

I can't really tell anyone why I love it so much, but I just do. There's the perfectly executed conceit that the mercenary band of Saga are like an old school rock band doing a one last time tour, but going out to rescue their front man's daughter Rose from where she and many other doomed heroes are trapped by a horde of monsters from everyone's worst nightmare.

It's the characters that form Saga themselves, from the lead of Gabe, to the wild, hard drinking ladies man Matrick Skulldrummer, the eccentric and dangerous wizard Moog and the mysterious, ageless hell on wheels Ganelon. Then there's the every man Clay 'Slowhand' Cooper, the glue that holds the band together. Clay is what makes this book, he gives it heart.

The other thing that I loved about Kings of the Wyld was the way it neatly skewered every cliche of grimdark and never took itself too seriously.

So often sequels are the difficult second album and they just don't live up to expectations. I am happy to report that Bloody Rose is not one of those. I still personally prefer Kings of the Wyld (having read it 3 times since I picked it up just over a year ago), but this is a worthy follow up.

Eames resisted the temptation of making Clay 'Slowhand' Cooper and rest of Saga the focus of Bloody Rose and instead gave us a brand new protagonist; Tam Hashford, totally unconnected to Saga, well at least until she joins the band headlined by Bloody Rose, the daughter or Golden Gabe, the front man of Saga.

Kings of the Wyld was very male dominated and Eames redresses that with Bloody Rose by flipping it around. Rose's band is more girl than boy, although she has male associates and they're an important part of her group.

Despite the book's title, the story is told through the eyes of Tam, not Rose, and I felt that Tam, not Rose was more the focus. Whereas Kings of the Wyld was about an old band getting back together (can't help thinking it was based more on Led Zeppelin than anyone else), Bloody Rose is about a newbie starting out with a currently hot band, so that gives it a different dynamic.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley

When Star Wars first came out, this was back when the first movie was still called Star Wars and not A New Hope as it was later christened, (I don't think anyone even knew that it was the 4th story, but considered it the first) there was no EU, and kids like me, whose imaginations had been fired by the concept were eager for more content featuring our heroes.

I read Alan Dean Foster's 'sequel' to Star Wars; Splinter of the Minds Eye, as soon as I could get my hot little hands on it, and I did enjoy that, but what I really wanted were more stories featuring the roguish smuggler Han Solo. Solo was the favourite character of many, and I was no exception.

There was no internet then and I didn't live close to any bookstore of size, so the first I heard that Brian Daley had given me my wish was an excerpt from the second book that I found in a magazine at my grandmother's house. Once the genie was out of the bottle I knew I had to get these books, so I tracked them down. I read them and loved them and I'm pretty sure that they only whetted my already heightened appetite for The Empire Strikes Back.

I have read them a few times over the years, and I know they're no longer canon, but I tend to prefer Daley's background for Solo over others that I've read.

As an example of old school science fiction/space opera they still hold up. Maybe it's because I like my science fiction with a lot of cheese, it could also have to do with my love of Han Solo as a character. He has held a top spot in my list of fictional heroes right from the time he swaggered into that cantina in Mos Eisley.

The books are set not all that long before Han and Chewbacca met Ben and Luke on Tatooine. I base that on a short conversation between the Corellian smuggler and the Wookiee at the end of the last book; Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, where Han suggests that they try their luck again with the Kessel Spice Run and the idea of being financed by the Hutts is also mentioned.

Han's back story isn't investigated in great detail, but it is covered briefly in a conversation with a character in Han Solo at Star's End where he says that he lost his spot at the space academy due to an incident with a lady and his superior officer and the only one who could clear Han's name was an off worlder and who would believe a Wookiee?

The books are really old school with Han and Chewbacca going from one wild adventure and money raising scheme to another. There are chases and gunfights as well as shootouts between star fighters and space pirates. While they're very definitely set in outer space and they use blasters rather than six shooters, there's a lot of the Western in these stories. Han's definite matinee movie hero material and he even has a different love interest (all failed) in each book.

They're a huge amount of fun and in my opinion about the best thing to come out of the franchise since the movie that started it all. I would have loved to see them filmed, but I do understand that logistically that would never have been possible and that's without taking into account Harrison Ford's indifference to playing the character.

There are some differences to the Star Wars universe as it existed back then pre The Empire Strikes Back. One is the absence of the Empire (it's too late for it not to be a factor), it's place is taken by a massive oppressive commercial conglomerate known only as The Authority (I assume there were contractual issues around using the Empire). The other departure was the droids. Han does have droids, he acquired them early in the first book; Zollux and Blue Max. Zollux is a fairly old labour droid and his constant companion is the advanced little blue cube who uses the name Max. There's probably meant to be a correlation between them and C-3PO and R2-D2. Max is very R2 in that he is widely regarded by everyone as a child, because of his obvious newness and his voice, which sounds childlike (even Han treats him that way, scolding him for using bad language just because he does). Zollux is less like 3PO, having been a labour droid. I would have preferred he take 3PO's place to be honest. The protocol droid has been little more than an annoyance since the first film. Zollux and Max parted company with Han and Chewbacca at the end of the last book.

I could read these again and again and I probably will.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Reawakening Trilogy by Myke Cole

I first encountered Myke Cole with his Shadow Ops series, books set in a near future world where otherwise ordinarily people start to develop super powers. The powered individuals are then used by the military as super soldiers. Those that don't agree or self report are hunted down and killed. There was never any real reasons given as to why people gained powers/magic, but Cole is a big X-Men fan so it was sort of a fantasy version of the mutant X-factor theme. Myke Cole is also a combat veteran, having served 2 tours of Iraq as a member of the US military and a 3rd as a civilian attached to the Department of Defense. He uses his military knowledge to great effect in his books, they do give them that air of authenticity.

I enjoyed the Shadow Ops series, but unlike the majority, I preferred the opening book in the series and didn't think the following novels quite lived up to the potential shown in his debut.

When I heard that Gemini Cell was a sort of prequel to Shadow Ops I was a little wary, but I did pick it up and was glad I did so. The entire Reawakening trilogy is a high point for Cole as an author. He definitely levelled up and upped his game with each subsequent novel in the trilogy.

Some of the action sequences, while terrifically written, do stretch the believability bone a bit. Mostly around the level of punishment even a magically enhanced and powered corpse can actually take before it just can't continue.

Central character, former Navy SEAL Jim Schweitzer is a hero that an audience can get behind. Someone to whom loyalty and love is everything and who even transcends death to rescue his family. In the Reawekening trilogy Cole gives his readers two fantastic female characters; Schweitzer's wife Sarah and in Siege Line, the character of Wilma 'Mankiller' the Dene sheriff of a remote Canadian frontier town, In many ways Wilma was actually more than main character of Siege Line than Jim was.

Every time I thought he couldn't top himself, Cole did just that with this series. I haven't even had it all that long and I've read it twice. I actually think it was even better the second time around. I don't advise to start reading Gemini Cell before bed because if you do you won't go to sleep that night, this is a compelling book and its hard to stop reading. Also once Gemini Cell is done, you're going to want to find and read Javelin Rain and then go onto Siege Line. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I’d always wanted to do a complete reread of Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files

Part of the problem was that I wanted to wait until the final volume was due out, and while Butcher’s put the estimate at 20 books, he isn’t firm on that and considering that the 15th book in the series (Skin Game) came out in 2014 and there’s still no release date for book 16, I felt that this wasn’t going to conclude any time soon. I did want to do finished series for this reread, but I don’t have many B authors to do and as the Dresdens tend to be relatively self contained (one obvious exception being book 12 Changes and it’s followup Ghost Story) I figured I could break that rule here, and mind you it’s unlikely to be the last time I’ll break it, either.

Rather than being a book by book review of the 15 published novels and the 2 short story collections this is more of an overview of the series and to a certain extent it’s impact on the sub genre of urban fantasy.

I don’t think it’s stretching things too much to describe The Dresden Files as a game changer for urban fantasy. Prior to the appearance of Storm Front (the first book in the series) the genre that people were starting to call urban fantasy tended to be dominated by the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries. Now Anita Blake tends to be thought of as paranormal romance, or as some people refer to it vampire porn, and Charlaine Harris has always thought of the Sookie Stackhouse’s as southern gothic with supernatural elements. Both also feature sex fairly prominently.

Dresden was different. Harry is a wizard for hire, he even advertises in the phone book. While he’s a wizard, he’s more Phillip Marlowe than Merlin. The conceit made was that he was as much a hard boiled private eye as he was a wizard. He did much the same work as a PI, he just used magic to get the job done a lot of the time. The books, especially the early ones, do have a very noirish feel to them. The feel is continued by Butcher deciding to set the books in and around Chicago. He also makes the setting feel older than it should, by giving a side effect to Harry’s use of magic, it also affects most magic users, use of the power tends to foul up complex machinery, mostly anything invented post WW II. It creates some interesting obstacles for Harry and gives him a reliance on his ever growing list of allies.

Two other points of difference were the fact that while creatures such as vampires and werewolves do exist, their existence is not common knowledge as it is in the Anita Blakes and the Sookie Stackhouses. The other was the lack of sex. Harry’s not a monk, and he does have sex, but it never becomes a focus of the story the way it did in other works. To my count by book 15 he’s had 4 significant romantic connections; his adolescent crush Elaine, the reporter Susan Rodrigues, Karrin Murphy and Anastasia Luccio, and he didn’t sleep with them all.

The first few books were very standalone, and they began the work of introducing and setting up Harry’s support crew, and his list of enemies and frenemies. Some of these form what I feel are the best and most multi layered of the characters (‘Gentleman’ John Marcone and the Leanan Sidhe are two that spring to mind).

Reading them back to back as I did, and it took me the better part of the last 5 months, gave me a fairly good insight into how Jim Butcher developed as a writer, although it has to be said that his characters are largely a case of what you see is what you get. They pretty much remain as they first appear in the books. They do go through some changes depending on their situations, but essentially they’re still the same internally as when the readers first encounter them.

The early books were a little formulaic, Storm Front concerned itself mostly with an evil sorcerer, although it established that a staple of urban fantasy; vampires, were significant players in Harry’s world. The second book Fool Moon introduced werewolves and with book 3 a religious element entered the series when the Holy Knight of the Sword Michael Carpenter made his first appearance. I always liked Michael as a character and his large family, I never guessed how important his pre adolescent daughter; Molly, would become at that time, though, which is a clue to how while the stories have always been firmly rooted in the urban fantasy genre, they’ve become more like a high fantasy epic in scope.

Over the first few books Butcher set up his world and introduced his characters. The first five or so books were quite episodic and this was probably because before that the writers deal with the publisher hadn’t looked that many books ahead. By book 5 there was a significant amount of public interest. Each volume wound up high on the best seller list, the author had a hardback deal and later on there was even a regrettably short lived TV show.

Around book 5 or 6 the major cast of characters had all been introduced. Mainstays like Harry himself, Karrin Murphy and Bob the Skull were always there, and other peripherals came and went: Bill Borden and his pack of werewolves, the fairy warrior Toot Toot, Thomas the White Court vampire, Michael Carpenter and his family, Susan Rodrigues. Ebenezar McCoy and Waldo Butters the polka loving medical examiner. There were also Harry’s animal companions, Mister the cat and Mouse the dog, who turns out to be much more than he originally seems. There were others like Mac the bartender, Father Forthill, Kincaid and Ivy.

That was where I think Butcher decided how big this was going to be and the series arc seemed to be set from book 7 on. They’ve remained quite self contained, except for Changes and Ghost Story, but have become harder and harder to pick one up and read it without feeling as a reader that there’s a fair bit of story unread.

Since The Dresden Files made it’s appearance with Storm Front and succeeded spectacularly, it’s opened up the genre and moved more into a detective style of fiction rather than the more paranormal romance side of things, where the relationships are the focus rather than the plot.

In the past I’ve described the Dresdens as the literary equivalent of fast food. They’re attractive and easy to digest once in a while, but a steady diet of them would ultimately do the reader more harm than good. I still stand by that, and after largely shot gunning the entire 15 novels followed by the 2 short story collections that’s only firmed the opinion. I did enjoy it, but it wouldn’t be something I’d want to do again in a hurry.

When I read the second short story collection: Brief Cases, for the first time last year I tore through it and my overwhelming feeling was that it was great to read about Harry and Co again. Kind of like spending time with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. Part of that was because I do enjoy the books and part of it was that the 15th book; Skin Game came out in 2014 and readers haven’t had another Harry Dresden since, although book 16 is promised.

15 novels and the better part of 20 years is quite an achievement and I think it’s not only a testament to the sheer readability of Butcher’s writing, he’s no prose stylist, but he is easy to read, he has a lot of what author and critic Jo Walton once described as ‘I want to read itosity’. There are also the characters. The cast is diverse from all sorts of backgrounds and they’re quite relatable to the majority of Butcher’s readers.

The books like their major character rose from humble and unlikely beginnings to become quite powerful and much talked about. When people in the books mention wizard, everyone knows that they’re talking about Harry, and now when readers mention the words urban fantasy, Harry Dresden is often the first name of plenty of people’s lips.

I’ve already started the C’s, but you’ll need to wait for a bit to find out who it is, I promise it won’t take this long or be this big.