Friday, November 1, 2013

A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish (Review by Mark Yon)


Dalglish_ADanceOfCloaks_TP1-300x450

A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish
Published by Orbit, October 2013
ISBN: 978 0 356 50278 6
452 pages plus extras
www.ddalglish.com
Review by Mark Yon

In Veldaren we have different guild factions of tradesmen and women: the Ash, the Spiders, the Serpents, the Wolves, the Hawks and the Mantis Guild. Currently the person holding an uneasy truce between the underworld Guilds, King Vaelor and the three families that make up the city’s Trifect is Thren Felhorn, the leader of the Spider Guild of assassins and generally recognised as the greatest assassin of his time.

In this tale of underworld assassins, rooftop chases, secret passages, devious schemes and counter-schemes, young clandestine heroes, hissable villains and anti-heroes we are pitched at a pretty fast pace from the start.

As a debut book in the series, A Dance of Cloaks is a ‘setting-out-the-stall’ kind of book, where the reader is introduced to characters and places that it is clear will all be developed later, and undoubtedly with paths that will cross at some point. There are quite a few different characters to follow here, some major, others minor, but who may become more important later. Of the families, much of the plot deals with the life-changing events around two main characters. In the Trifect group, Alyssa Gemcroft, is the main heroine, the heir to the Gemcroft family fortune, used as a political device by her father Maynard, available for marriage to the right suitor. As you might expect, she rejects this.

Similarly, in the Guilds, the main plot revolves around Thren’s young son, Aaron, who is being trained to contribute to the family business, but who dislikes his father’s methods of teaching, and rebels against it also.
Thren himself has issued a challenge: in an attempt to secure his position and end the long-lasting battle between the guilds and the city, at the upcoming gathering in the city of merchants, family members, and servants, the Kensgold, he will kill the three heads of the Trifect.

Behind it all we have a religion: the priests of Karak in the religion of Ashur, with a renegade group of ‘disgraced’ women, the faceless, who become involved in protecting Alyssa against the priest’s wishes.
As with a lot of Fantasy novels, the core of the book seems to be the numerous ethical dilemmas that drive the plot. It is a tale where moral consequences are at the forefront. Characters pick impossible choices in difficult situations, sometimes correctly, sometimes otherwise.

It’s all rather reminiscent of Old-School Fantasy. A little less ‘grimdark’ than many recent novels (although there is a fair degree of throat cutting and stabbing, it must be said), it rather reminded me more of Jon Sprunk’s Shadow series than, say, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law novels.

Whilst the characters are nothing really new, and the plot admittedly rather generic, this is a book that revels in, and can be enjoyed for, its familiarity. With such a book, a reader does not need to spend time wrestling with deep concepts or revelatory stylistic touches. Readers can be assured that what they expect is what they get, to enjoy the plot developments as they happen, feel engaged with a story that uses straightforward language and enjoy a tale that basically is done well. Its purpose is to entertain.

Where the book scores particularly well is in its pace, which is energetic from the get go, and in the battle scenes, which are surprisingly fluid and well written and add to the already mentioned frenetic pace. David’s script reads as if he’s been writing this stuff for a long time (this is not his first series), and the pages turn quickly as a consequence. (His pleasingly honest Afterword suggests that the writing may not have been as effortless as it reads.)

By the end, it’s an engrossing read that will leave the reader wanting to read the next one very soon. It’s probably a good thing that the next book in this proposed series of six (A Dance of Blades) will be published a month after this one: not much longer after this review appears. I suspect many readers will want the next one as soon as possible.

Mark Yon, October 2013

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shadows over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft and others (Review by Mark Yon)



Shadows over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft and others
Edited by Stephen Jones
Published by Titan Books (September 2013); originally 1994. Review copy received.

ISBN: 9781781165287
486 pages

Review by Mark Yon

Titan Books are re-releasing this series of books, originally from 1994 by Fedogan and Bremer. The first, Shadows over Innsmouth, would make a terrific Halloween read, if you were looking for something this year.

The book starts big. After an introduction by Stephen, we’re off and running with the inspiration for this collection, one of HP Lovecraft’s longest tales (about 64 000 words), The Shadow over Innsmouth. If you haven’t read it before, it’s an impressive read, showing all the strengths (and weaknesses) of Lovecraft’s writing.

At times it can be a little overwrought, a little repetitive and overdramatic, and yet, with its details of creepy Innsmouth, New England, its weird religions and slimy otherworldly inhabitants, its florid language and relentless sense of unease (not to mention the oft-derided tone of racism), it must be said that even after 75-plus years since its original publication, there’s no denying that the tale still has a certain power, even when there are places where it appears that ol’ Howard Phillips has merely stumbled across his typewriter keys. The bar is set quite high.

It’s certainly no mean feat, but there’s a broad and rich collection of authors chosen to attempt the task, such as Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Kim Newman, Brian Lumley, Basil Copper, Michael Marshall Smith and others.

You might think that a book with seventeen stories all about the same place in New England might be a little limiting. And it may be, although Lovecraft’s detailed setup means that even after 60-odd thousand words there’s a lot of places that the rest of these tales could then go, from the rich historical background of the town and surrounding New England area to the present day weariness that seems to be part of the culture, the undoubtedly creepy backstory of Innsmouth’s inhabitants and their attempts to keep strangers out or alternatively catch unwary visitors.

Some of the tales here take the Cthulhu mythos further: to England (Brian Mooney’s The Tomb of Priscus Brian Lumley’s Dagon’s Bell and Michael Marshall Smith’s To See the Sea), to Ireland (Peter Tremayne’s Daoine Domhain), to Romania (Nicholas Royle’s The Homecoming) and even internationally, over the internet (David Langford’s Deepnet).

The story following Lovecraft’s tale must be a tough choice, because it must stand perhaps the closest comparison to the original. Thankfully, Basil Copper’s lengthy story, Beyond the Reef, doesn’t let us down. It is a pleasantly surprising read, similar in tone to HPL’s tales and a great follow on to the original, but set twenty or so years later. I loved the strange goings on at Lovecraft’s mythical University, Miskatonic U. Sadly Basil died this year. I wish I had read more of his work before his death.

After that, the other fifteen tales go past in some speed, but no major loss of quality. Particularly liked were Kim Newman’s A Quarter to Three (mainly for its horribly bad pun at the end), Ramsey Campbell’s The Church in High Street and Dagon’s Bell by Brian Lumley. All of these writers are as good as I expected, with Campbell and Lumley being well known for their own versions of Lovecraft’s tales. Neil Gaiman’s Only the End of the World Again is an interesting tale combining Deep Ones and lycanthropy.

Of the lesser-known authors, Jack Yeovil’s* The Big Fish is an abrupt change of gear from many of the stories in the collection, written from the perspective of 1942 as a weary and cynical Chandler-esque story (with added Cthulhu). Not to be taken too seriously, and good fun to read. David Sutton’s Innsmouth Gold is also good, and a bit more serious, but leaves matters rather unresolved at the end. In Daoine Domhain Peter Tremayne broadens the Mythos by transporting most of the tale to Ireland to show the mythical origins of the Cthulhu story. Michael Marshall Smith’s To See the Sea tells of a Wicker Man-type event on the English coast, Peter Mooney’s The Tomb of Priscus gives the Cthulhu background a historical and archaeological feel, Brian Stableford’s The Innsmouth Heritage a scientific dimension.

Not all are quite as good, though none are really bad. Guy N Smith’s Return to Innsmouth does well to recap the original Lovecraft story before giving it its own minor twist. If I had not read the original one hundred pages or so previously, I think I would have enjoyed this one more, but in the end my abiding impression was that it mainly summarised Lovecraft’s original tale. DF Lewis’s tale (Down to the Boots) was rather short and thus left little impression.


Nevertheless, the writing on the whole in this collection is pretty strong. There’s enough here to keep the reader happy with more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’ overall. What I also liked was that this is also a collection that pays attention to the extra little details, clearly ‘a book’ rather than an e-book product. The book is profusely illustrated throughout by some admirably ghoulish Cthulhulian drawings from artists Dave Carson, Martin McKenna and Jim Pitts, to whom the book is dedicated. These set off the text grandly.

Finally, to round the collection off, there’s some biographical notes in the Afterword about each of the contributors, updated from the 1994 version. Jack Yeovil’s (aka Kim Newman) biography is quite an imaginative entertainment in itself.

So: fancy giving Lovecraft a try but never got round to it? Or how about having read Lovecraft but wanting to read more contemporary writers’ varied takes on the Lovecraft canon? This book caters to you both. It’s a terrific collection, and worthy of Halloween reading. (Had I not read it already…!)

Well done to Titan for re-releasing this one.

There’s a companion volume, Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, which I’m now going to track down, also due October.

Iä-R’lyeh! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä!


*For those who didn’t catch it before,  Jack Yeovil is a pen-name for Kim Newman, mentioned earlier.

Mark Yon, September/October 2013.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Review by Mark Yon)









Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Originally published in a shorter form in 1977, and as a novel 1985; updated 1991.
Film tie-in edition released October 2013.
ISBN: 978-0356501888
352 pages
Review by Mark Yon.

With a film of this book coming out in November that looks rather good, I thought that the book itself was worth a re-read.

I did read it in the 1980’s, which makes it about 30 years or so since I last read it. (I think I first read it as the novelette that became the novel, courtesy of Analog Magazine, in August 1977.)


Analog, August 1977: the issue Ender's Game started as a novelette
And my initial thought is that there’s a lot here I’ve forgotten.

In the time since my last read, over the last thirty years, things have changed a lot in SF, as you might expect. Since its initial publication Ender’s Game has become a very popular read. Many schools in the US have it on their reading lists, it’s never been out of print since its publication and let’s not forget both  its Nebula Award in 1985 and Hugo Award in 1986 for Best Novel. Estimates suggest that it has sold more than a million copies and this number will no doubt rise due to the increased awareness created by the film. (See also Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, which actually had little to do with the film plot.) So in a detached manner I was interested as to whether the book was worth reading and to try and deduce what the reasons are for its growth in popularity, especially as a Young Adult book, which is where it seems to be these days.

To the plot, then. Ender Wiggins who, at the age of six, is a child prodigy taken from his family to train at Battle School. Humans are currently fighting a losing battle against ‘the buggers’, whose last visit to Earth left it decimated. The only future is the young, like Ender, who are trained in tactics against each other in readiness for the next battle.  The training is hard and brutal, and the challenge, not to mention the risks, is high.

The plot is clearly a plus point, and quite exciting as Ender trains, learns and leads attacks in simulation against the enemy. The ending is not what many readers expect and that too can be a bonus in a book which, at first glance, is generally rather generic.

Ender’s Game is a story about character with some SF trappings. Whilst there are spaceships and aliens, it is really more about adolescence and rite of passage and growing up, something which most of us recognise.
We also get some interesting, if not unusual, views on religion, race and warfare along the way. Our future is not an easy place to live in. It is mentioned that Ender’s mother has to give up her Mormon upbringing and his father  his Polish ancestry as part of the agreement for giving birth, as the third child, to Ender, circumventing the law to have him.

In terms of race there’s also some points made along the way. Card’s mention of a predominantly Jewish troop that Ender meets in training (“the Kike Force”, led by Rose the Nose) and the point that Jews were seen as a lucky group, with also having had “an American Jew… as President and Hegemon of the Alliance”, which highlights that possibly racism is still alive and well in the future. It is one of the motivations for creating outsiders, which Battle School seems to need in order to win.

If you can read the book without taking on the personal views of the writer, which have recently resurfaced, (see HERE and HERE), as most readers would do, I guess,  I can see why it is popular.

 

The book’s quite readable, it’s key ideas are understandable and it’s clearly appealing to anyone who has ever felt themselves to be an outsider, in the same way that the Twilight series or, going back further, A E van Vogt’s Slan, have done. (Slan, on its publication, became a rallying point for SF readers in the 1940’s and 50’s.)

Most importantly, I think that Ender’s Game’s popularity may be that it deals with issues that have or will affect all of us at some time in our lives – at school, work or home. There are a few key concepts which run through the novel, which are decidedly non-SF and yet the reader can identify with. They seem to be:

1)      Children are our future.
2)      Time at school is brutal.
3)      Life is hard, the challenge is difficult, yet worthwhile.
4)      As readers, we like an underdog.

The book is not so much about warfare, as the social and psychological effects of warfare. Ender’s rather dysfunctional relationship with his family leads him to rely on his fellow comrades-in-arms rather than the familial. One of the points made by Graff in the book is that as part of his training Ender must learn that he can rely on no-one. The idea that to be a leader, you must be made a monster, is one that will sit uncomfortably with some readers, be identified with by others and be generally seen as a truism by others.
The idea that stays with me most at the end of the novel is that it is mainly a book about bullying – bullying to survive, but also bullying to maintain a position once achieved. It’s tough at the top, yet someone (ie: the children) have to do it. In the school of hard-knocks, that seems to be both traditional school and Battle School, Ender is both a reluctant yet willing participant.  And this is something a reader can both identify with and be repulsed by.
Similarly, as a reader, we do like an underdog. Orson manages to make us feel as if we want to side with Ender, whilst not necessarily liking some of the things he has to do in order to survive.
And the ending neatly subverts what we would expect the outcome of the novel to be. Where we expect victory, it isn’t what we expect.

Ender's Game movie poster, 2013
I think it’ll be interesting to see how much of the book is used in the film. There’s a lot of people out there who will think that Ender’s Game is a ‘Hunger Games’ rip-off, in the same way that Bram Stoker plagiarised those Twilight books, or John Carter copied Star Wars… which is rather unfair. One of the things I find on this reread is how much more there is to this book than I remembered, and not all of it I feel comfortable with. But if it makes you think, even if you disagree with it, that can’t be a bad thing.

In the end, Ender’s Game is a book that deserves its popularity. At one level it is emotionally engaging, quite exciting and readable, and it is this that makes it most engaging to younger readers. As an older reader, and delving deeper, there may be some elements that may leave you a little uncomfortable after you finish it.
If nothing else, the book makes you think after you’ve finished reading it, even if you don’t agree with what is said. Let’s hope the film generates a similar response.


Mark Yon, August-October 2013.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie [Reviewed by Rob Bedford]



Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice tells the story of a woman, Breq, who was once the “soldier” of a space ship–Justice of Toren, or rather the fragment of the ship’s intelligence seeking revenge on the Lord of the Radch who was once her leader.  Leckie’s narrative is told from the first person point of view of Breq in the “present” of the novel and the past. The novel begins when Breq arrives on a cold, distant world, where she rescues a soldier in - Seivarden Vendaai - her service over two thousand years ago. It was a strong, evocative opening to the novel. 

The gender politics and reversed male-female representation are just one element that sets the novel apart. The gender politics on a cold planet evoked Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for me, and I would suspect this was intentional on Leckie’s part.  From there, she takes the story in a different direction that intermingles more technological issues in with the societal issues. The character of Breq is one of the most unique in today’s SF.  She’s female, two decades prior to the “present” of the novel in which the flashbacks take place, she was a part of an AI on the aforementioned Justice of Toren and she is the sole survivor.  We meet her on the frozen planet beyond the boundaries of her former government Radchaai Empire.  The Radchaai overtook many planets through their Justice ships, brought them into the empire and converted a portion of the populace into what amount to zombie soldiers, called ancillaries. 
Leckie has an inventive point of view and injects a lot of originality into the novel.  There’s interesting things to ponder in terms of evolution, singularity and machine intelligence in a far future.  Breq is far from a reliable narrator and her past selves aren’t fully able to resolve themselves and their memories as she progresses through the present. The system of Justices and planetary colonization seems like it could be fodder for a great many stories. Although Leckie isn’t the first to posit intelligent, thinking star ships in a Space Opera setting, her execution and foundation from which the story flows is something she makes her own, it feels fresh.
I also thought she did an exceptional job of relaying the difficulties in communication between the various cultures presented in the book. In this respect, if not in the execution, but the concept of careful and complex communication, I was reminded of the uses of poses in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. That communication/language coupled with the convincing religion depicted in the novel, makes for a future society with great depth.
Where the novel didn’t work for me was the inconsistent pull of the narrative and the continual gender swapping.  Some characters are referred to as both he and she and while I understand the necessity that some characters be less than honest on these counts, it proved to be a more cluttered execution. The shifts between the past narrative and the present proved problematic, it wasn’t a smooth transition for me and I found myself having to re-read back a bit in some cases to get a better understanding of the timeframe in which the story lens was focusing at that time. Although the opening grabbed me, as the story progressed, the narrative and the character’s plight failed to significantly hold my attention.
Prior to reading the book, I’d seen quite a few people who, like me, received advance copies of the book praise the novel quite vociferously.  Perhaps that worked against the book and unfairly raised my expectations.  I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting with Ancillary Justice, but for me the book ultimately did not work. That having been said, Leckie’s got a bold voice and one I’d read again given the opportunity.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this book though I realize it did work for a great many readers.
© 2013 Rob H. Bedford

http://www.annleckie.com/
Excerpt: http://www.orbitbooks.net/excerpt/ancillary-justice/       
Trade Paperback 978-0-316-24662-0 416 pages  
Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Human Division by John Scalzi [Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford]



John Scalzi returns to the enormously popular Old Man’s War universe with The Human Division, though perhaps not exactly as conventional wisdom and publishing would have it. I’ve been reading, like many other folks, Scalzi’s fiction since the publication of his massively successful Military SF novel Old Man’s War.  The majority of his fictive output has taken place in that universe, with some stop overs in some stand-alone novels.  Although I felt Fuzzy Nation, a reboot novel (perhaps the first) was a strong effort, his recently Hugo-award winning Redshirts was seen by some as a slight step back.  On the other hand, a step back by Scalzi still results in an entertaining novel.  So, to say his return to the universe where he first made his name is most welcome is an understatement for many readers, myself included.


The Human Division plays in the universe with a drastically changed status quo thanks to the recent events as depicted in The Lost Colony and Zoe’s Tale (same stories told from different points of view, and both very enjoyable novels).  That change to the status quo is that Earth/Humanity now knows they have been living in a universe vastly more populated with intelligent life than they initially thought. The Colonial Union has been using Earth only as a source for military personnel.  Meanwhile, Earth is invited to join the alien Conclave in alliance against the Colonial Union. Enter into this fray our protagonist, Harry Wilson, as well as his friend Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, and their supervisor Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars who make up the “B-Team” aboard the space ship Clarke charged with taking on impossible missions.
However, before proceeding further about the content of the novel, discussing it without mentioning the form of The Human Division is likely impossible, so I’ll get it out of the way now.  Scalzi published this novel as chapters as Episodes on Tor.com forming the first season of The Human Division.  At the end of the “season” the episodes were collected and published as this book, much in the same way TV series are published as DVDs following the conclusion of a season. It was a smashing success, so of course Tor ordered a second season.
Back to the work itself … These thirteen episodes do add up to a cogent and holistic novel, from the opening chapter where a ship explodes to the end which promises more to come.  Harry Wilson is sort of an everyman character; he thinks very quickly on his feet and was part of John Perry’s military class.  John Perry, if you haven’t read the other books in the milieu, is the hero of those earlier books and his actions on the Lost Colony planet of Roanoke have opened up the eyes of Earth, as earlier mentioned. Most of the episodes feature a mission, the first and last episodes being twice the length of those in between the bookends.
The first double episode introduces the main players of Wilson, Schmidt, and their boss Ode Abumwe as they form the B-Team.  Each episode brings the story of an Earth with newly opened eyes forward, with room for little side stories that flesh out the world from some different perspectives.  The one featuring Hart Schmidt’s visit home for Harvest day with his family was a good foundational one to give readers a better idea of what kind of man Schmidt is and wishes to be. 
The book contains stories not released as part of the main first season of The Human Division, a humorous story in which Hafte Sorvalh, an alien ambassador, visits human children in a classroom and also enjoys a churro. This could be a shout out to readers of Scalzi’s blog and his love of churros or it could just be a humorous story about an alien, the innocence of children, and a delicious Mexican Pastry. The other “extra” on this “DVD” of the first season is story published on Tor.com back in 2008 – “After The Coup.”
My only problem with The Human Division is the lack of a true ending or resolution.  Although with a second season of The Human Division on order, I’d rather wait for more of the story than a rushed ending. The Human Division is Scalzi’s strongest novel in a few years (better than his Hugo winning Redshirts, and better than Fuzzy Nation which I enjoyed a great deal and wouldn't mind seeing more in that world) and one that will ultimately be followed-up by the ‘second season’ next year. I can’t wait and just might read the second season in its episodic format rather than waiting for the book / DVD set of the season.
Recommended
© 2013 Rob H. Bedford

Tor / May 2013
Hardcover ISBN 978-0-765-33351-3 432 Pages / eBook 978-1-466-80231-5
Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Tor

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (Review by Mark Yon)



Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton
Published by TOR UK, October 2013 (Review copy received)
400 pages
ISBN: 978 02307 66822

Review by Mark Yon

Drakenfeld is a book that combines a Romanesque mystery novel with the detective work of CJ Sansom, and billed as a ‘fantasy crime’ series.

In this world of Vispasia, Lucan Jupus Drakenfeld is an Officer of the Sun Chamber: an official whose purpose is to travel throughout the eight nations of Vispasia and act as representative of the Vispasian Royal Union, adjudicator and keeper of the peace. Such a difficult position has been maintained by the Sun Chamber for decades, despite attempts to the contrary. “We are peacemakers, not warmongers”, Lucan’s father says at one point.

To this world we are introduced, at a point where Lucan’s world is turned upside down. His father, Calludian, also a respected and long-serving Officer, has been found dead in Lucan’s home city of Tryum in Detrata.

Lucan travels home from Venyn City to sort out the responsibilities required of a dutiful son, despite his relationship with his father being rather estranged in recent years. Once in Tryum, Lucan is also involved in a major murder mystery. King Licintius’s sister, Lacanta, is then found murdered in a locked temple room with no apparent means of escape for a murderer. Various motives and suspects are suggested. King Licintius gives Lucan the responsibility of discovering the killer.  

As his investigation continues, Lucan uncovers secrets that have been covered up, as well as complications from his own past. He is also a target for the city’s underworld who try to dissuade him from his searching as soon as possible. Ultimately, Lucan discovers things that may have much bigger consequences than the case might at first suggest.


I know that Mark has been researching the Romans whilst writing this novel, and it shows. The climate is Mediterranean in the main, and although the people and place-names are different, the sense of a Romanesque empire runs throughout. We have much of the intrigue and violence that such a world would involve.

I could sense that the city of Tryum is a proto-Rome, the King of Tryum an Emperor Caligula-type character. Mark manages to convey this world’s environment of kings and governments well, although details are kept fairly light in order to keep the plot moving.

And that is something that plays to the author’s strengths. Whilst the world is fairly well outlined, the element that worked for me most here is the characterisation. Drakenfeld and his female accomplice Leana are most likeable, with some thought-provoking backstory that could be developed later. Leana, a warrior from Atrewen, comes across as an Amazonian Grace Jones – type character to me, whilst Drakenfeld is the cooler, more logical, Sherlock Holmes - type figure. Together, they have the easy banter and camaraderie that you would expect of two people who have known each other a long while and with a mutual respect for each other’s often very different backgrounds. I was reminded of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a little in that respect, often the template for such characters.

Whilst things at the end move fast, and perhaps a little too conveniently to tie things up in the end, these are characters and places I’d happily revisit again. The first few chapters in Venyn City suggest there’s a wider world out there beyond Tryum I’d like to know more of.

Don’t be misled – though there is a lot for a fantasy reader to enjoy, this is not a Tolkien-like medievalesque fantasy, nor a tale filled with magic and wizardry. There are religions and gods, but the mysticism is kept to a minimum, if there at all. I suspect Harry Turtledove fans would like it, even if Drakenfeld is written firmly from the first-person perspective, whilst Harry’s books usually include a broad variety of different points of view.
                                                                                                             
As a Romanesque detective story - an “I-Sherlockius” perhaps? -  there’s a lot to enjoy in this novel. I understand that Drakenfeld is the first of a series, if successful. I sincerely hope that that is the case. This is a solid, enjoyable page-turner with a wide appeal that I would personally like to read more of.



Mark Yon, September 2013.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia (Monster Hunters #2) [Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford]

Some months removed from the epic defeat of Lord Machado and his forces of evil, Owen Pitt and his team from Monster Hunter International is on a mission to capture the Chupacabra.   Unfortunately, a necromancer crashes the party with a horde of zombies and his target sighted on Owen specifically. Things go from bad to worse when the zombie outbreak and necromancer and (basically) the Earthly command of the Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition are stopped and Owen is arrested by the Mexican government.  Complicating matters even further is that his mother and father in law to be, one a Master Vampire, and another a vampire in her thrall, visit Owen in prison hoping to sway him to their side against this necromancer.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, Owen realizes he’s got a bounty on his head for halting the powers of evil in the first one. 



Correia’s over-the-top ultra-violent style makes for a quickly paced novel. Since the government endorsed Monster Control Bureau has much to say in things involving monsters on US soil, they have made it their responsibility to ensure Owen is not abducted by the Necromancer, who happens to know very intricate details about Monster Hunter International.  Not only does the Necromancer want a measure of revenge against Owen for thwarting his masters, the Old Ones (as depicted in Monster Hunter International), but because Owen is special. He is a once in era person who can be a key to the Old Ones entry and destruction of our reality. Further complicating matters for Owen, and all of the team of Monster Hunter International, is that the Necromancer hints of traitor in the ranks.

Correia intersperses much of the action with a fleshing out of Owen’s family; the Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition targets Owen’s parents and his brother Mosh.  Fortunately, Owen’s father is a military man and was able to dispatch a couple of the monsters to attack he and his wife.  Mosh, Owen’s brother and lead singer of a popular heavy metal band, is attacked in the midst of a concert. In addition, Correia reveals more about the history of Monster Hunter International and their nemesis, the Old Ones, which are very reminiscent of Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones.

The character I grew to enjoy the most was the government agent Franks.  He was much of an antagonist and foil for MHI and Owen in the previous volume, but here in Monster Hunter Vendetta he is one of the primary agents assigned by the governmental Monster Control Bureau to ‘protect’ Owen and his family. The character says very little, seems indestructible, but begins to show a line of respect for Owen.  I also thought Owen’s father was well-realized.  Correia captured a moment between them that is very symbolic of the father-son relationship. That is, the moment when the father finally has to listen to the son, because the son just might be a little wiser about something than the father, the moment of begrudging respect. Not quite the moment when a child takes care of their parents in old age, but still a poignant moment nonetheless.

Omnibus Edition containing first 3
Monster Hunter Novels
I also enjoyed the deeper exploration of the Old Ones (though Correia hasn’t fully mined this, I think) and more of the history of Monster Hunter International. In other words, I like the mythology for this world Correia has thus far built in the two novels.  Granted, he’s using some ready-made ingredients with the Old Ones clear homages to the Lovecraft/Cthulhu Mythos and the familiar element of a secret black ops paramilitary force fighting against the things normal people would not believe existed.  But the short of it is that Correia is playing a long game with his Monster Hunters books, and look forward to seeing it play out.

I enjoyed Monster Hunter Vendetta  great deal, the pacing was great, the characters are over-the-top, yet balanced by a human empathy that made them more than cardboard cutouts just shooting monsters.  Don’t worry, the characters do a lot of that, too. 

With this second installment, I’m fully on board for where Correia wants to take me with The Monster Hunters.

Recommended

© 2013 Rob H. Bedford

http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/
Part of The Monster Hunters Omnibus: http://www.baenebooks.com/p-1618-the-monster-hunters.aspx  

Hardcover / eBook, / Baen Books, June 2012

Mass Market Paperback of Monster Hunter Vendetta: Pages: 656 September 2010
Sample Chapters: http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/9781451637847B/9781451637847B.htm?blurb    
Copy purchased

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Abominable by Dan Simmons (Review by Mark Yon)

The Abominable by Dan Simmons
Published by Sphere/Little, Brown, October 2013. (Review copy received)
ISBN: 978-0751550283
666 pages in ARC copy.

Review by Mark Yon

The Abominable is rather like the mountainous landscapes it portrays, a novel that is in turns, brilliant, all-enveloping, treacherous and chilling.

It is also a book that begins as part of a great conceit. It is a story-within-a-story, a plot that begins as if it is Dan Simmons recanting a tale given to him by a mountaineer, Jacob (Jake) Perry, uncovered as Simmons was researching his other snow-tale, The Terror.

The story then shifts to 1924, as if transcribed by Jake, successfully blurring reality and fiction. In June ‘24 George Mallory and ‘Sandy’ Irvine disappear whilst climbing Everest. This much is true: until recently their bodies were missing, and it is still a mystery as to whether the two climbers may or may not have made it to the summit and died on their way back.

The Abominable takes this real event but then overlays it with Simmons’ fictional creations. In this tale we follow what happens in the time after the loss of Mallory and Irvine, when Perry and two other experienced climbers, Jean-Claude Clairoux (usually named J.C.) and their leader Richard Davis Deacon (‘the Deacon’), who together attempt to return to the Himalaya the season after in an unofficial ‘rescue mission’ – or rather to find out what happened to another climber, Lord Percival Bromley, who was lost on the mountain whilst trying to find Mallory and Irvine.

The Deacon-Clairoux-Perry expedition is one funded by Lord Percival’s mother, Lady Elizabeth Marion Bromley, and not sanctioned by any Mountaineering Society, which is why details of it (according to Simmons) to this day remain less known, if known at all. The rest of the book is then spent attempting to climb Everest, with consequences for all involved.



Dan’s book is one that moves glacially, yet inexorably towards the ending. In the first part of the book we get to know the backgrounds and thoughts of the main characters, their training in the Alps around The Matterhorn and in Wales, the social situation that affects their attempt (which involves trips to Lincolnshire, Switzerland and Nazi Germany), and perhaps, most importantly, the danger, excitement and challenge presented to climbers determined to push themselves to the physical limits.  There is beauty and risk, and Dan does well to try and give the reader some ideas as to why climbers do what they do. This can be complicated, but Dan writes wonderfully about such matters.

As you might expect, much of the feel of the book is created by a lot of technical talk, which gives the impression that it is really a climber talking of his passion. There’s enough belaying and traversing for any climber, I think. I’d be interested to hear what M John Harrison (SF writer and experienced climber himself) would make of this novel. I think he’d like that aspect of the novel.
However, it is well enough written to be followed by a non-climber (such as myself) without losing the plot or sheer impossibility of some of the events that are here. I soon got to the point where I was engrossed in all the book’s twists and turns. It’s not easy for a writer to keep a reader’s attention for such a long while – it’s over two hundred pages before we even set off on the expedition proper – but Dan managed it for me. Although I know fairly little about climbing myself, what worked is that the book felt real, which is quite an accomplishment.

Personally I found the book so immersive at this stage that the pages turned rapidly. Some of the descriptions of the extreme landscapes and climate experienced by our climbers are so good that I was travelling with them, urging them on through all sorts of difficulties. 

I have been at pains here not to mention much of the horror aspect of the story. Many readers may be under the impression, from the title if nothing else, that the book has something to do with that snow creature of legend often reputed to roam the mountain slopes of the Himalayas. I must say that the book itself doesn’t really mention this feature of the story until about 150 pages in and in the end, the idea is not as important as you might think it would be. Much of the book seems to be about secrecy and identity, and so with that in mind the idea of the yeti is perhaps a bit of a mis-direction (although it would be wrong of me to say more).

Where The Abominable works so well is in its continuous blurring of reality and fiction. Real people and events are mixed up with fictional. To my mind, that may create a broad appeal, straddling various genres with ease. Some may just read it as a mystery novel, others by turns an adventure novel, a fictional biography, a tale that in its own way reflects the decadent decline and upheaval of the world in that interwar period between World War 1 and World War 2.  For most, but not all of the time, Dan creates a definite world that works.

So far, so good. However, now we get to my biggest issue with the book, which I think may be a breaking-point for some readers. Having gone through all of the preparation, the travelling and the physical stresses of climbing up Mount Everest, there is a point when the reader (and the characters discover what ‘the abominable’ is. Without giving details, most readers will find the item a surprise. I will say that although personally I found it horrible, but I must admit that when ‘the great reveal’ happens, it is something I found rather unconvincing. Horrible though it is, personally I wasn’t convinced that it was worth all the effort, horror, pain and death it has taken through the book to uncover it. Dan uses it to claim that it may have altered history, a point I wasn’t persuaded by.

Nevertheless, if you can get around that aspect of the book, it must be said that the last part of the novel is exciting and very well written, if a bit more John Buchan than HP Lovecraft.  More The Thirty-Nine Steps than In the Mountains of Madness, if you like.

In summary, The Abominable is a book that works brilliantly well most of the time. There is no doubt that it is well written, engrossing and exciting, although like The Terror before it, it may be too slow, too involved and complex for some. It makes an interesting counterpart to The Terror.


It’s detailed, it’s skilfully done and yet……  I was hoping to type that the book was a resounding triumph. I must say that although it is for most of the book, it’s not perfect, and to my mind some aspects may annoy the reader enormously. There’s a lot to gain and enjoy from reading The Abominable, but I suspect that there are aspects that some readers will dislike and some may see as controversial.

In the end, for me, The Abominable is overall a triumph, though ultimately perhaps not as good as I thought it was going to be.  



Mark Yon, August 2013.