Book Review: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi's latest addition to his Old Man's Warseries, The Human Division, opens with a bang. A diplomatic ship skips into a system in preparation for a high level meeting with an alien race, only to get blown out of space by an unknown attacker. What follows is a Heinlein-ian thrill ride that tilts the balance of power in the galaxy - that's just the first episode.

Taking place after The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division is notable for a couple of reasons: it’s a long-awaited addition to the popular series, which left on a somewhat ambiguous note. The book – I’d hesitate to call it a novel – is also an experimental one that pulls in the digital and audio logistical footprints in ways that haven’t really been possible before now. And finally, the book is notable because it is an interesting, exciting, and somewhat more mature addition to the series.

The Human Division picks up just months after Earth was confronted with an Alien fleet, led by Major John Perry, who revealed some disturbing truths behind the planet’s relationship with the Colonial Union. Faced with intense competition from over six hundred alien species and the rise of an organized group known as the Conclave, the Colonial Union, which relied on humanity’s home world for a large supply of recruits. What follows in this set of stories is the aftermath.

The sheer scale of The Human Division lends itself to be a difficult one for a conventional book, and this is where the novel’s structure comes in handy. Rather than chapters, we’re treated to thirteen episodes, bookended by two double-size episodes. Over the course of the spring, each of the thirteen episodes have been released on a weekly basis for those with e-readers and the various online retailers. If eBooks aren’t your thing, each episode was available in an audio file through Audible and iTunes. In this way, the episodes don’t necessarily form a linear course like you might find in a novel. Rather, they’re thirteen individual segments of the story that, when placed together, give you a coherent story. It’s not too dissimilar from what you might find with a television series. Indeed – there’s too much for a single novel, and the cliffhanger ending is reminiscent of what you’d find in most SF TV shows at the end of the season.

I like this format. We’ve talked a little about serialized science fiction already, and with the rise of mobile devices and eReaders, it’s a format that works well with the available technology. The story that Scalzi’s presenting is far-reaching, and there’s excellent coverage for the various ramifications of the events in Colonial Union-held space. We see diplomats under fire, hijacked space ships, political discourse, paranoid radio talk-show hosts, terrorist bombings and a truely epic finale.

The central focus of The Human Division the crew of the Clarke: Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry Wilson and Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, Captain Sophia Coloma and Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars. The Clarke stories are the backbone of this tale, and if this were the television series the format emulates, they would be the main cast listed on the opening credits. The side stories draw in other characters: General Gau (seen in prior books), members of a wildcat colony, a CDF fire team, the survivor of a hijacked ship and a political talk show host who finds himself in much deeper waters than he thought. There’s generally a point in most episodes where the characters stand around and explain what’s happening to one another, which is a little annoying when you remember that this isn’t a television show, but a work of prose fiction. It works, in this context, but it feels as though it plays more towards the strengths of a motion picture, rather than a book, which seems to limit the characters a bit (but not so much the action). But, where they have their flaws, they also add in quite a bit of side material that adds to the main action’s context, which was very helpful.

When it comes to the non-Clarke episodes, some are engaging, such as The Sound of Rebellion, which carried forward a couple of interesting, underused characters. Walk the Plank, seemed to exist only to put a couple of things into action. It, along with This Must Be The Place, felt like under-utilized space. These are all small story fragments that in and of themselves are solid, but taken on their own, don’t do much. There’s also points where some of the details are redundant, because each episode is designed to somewhat stand alone. It’s when they’re assembled that a pretty interesting, overarching story comes into focus, and that’s where the real strengths of The Human Division are apparent.

I worked to sample the series in all of its incarnations: audio tracks, downloadable segments, and finally, the full novel, and overall, this works best reading it from start to finish in book form, but the individual ebooks/audio tracks are well worth picking up as well. Reading all of these in conjunction with one another, on a variety of platforms, highlighted the multi-purpose strength of this novel, which is what makes it the most notable literary experiment of its kind. The final version has some added material that doesn’t really add much to the overall storyline, but it was nice to see it included. I also found that while the book was designed to be accessible to newcomers to the series, it helps to have at least read Old Man’s War and more importantly, The Last Colony. They’re not essential, but when I went back to read TLC, a lot of plot elements fell into place, and provided some much-needed context. (Up to this point, I’d only read OMW.)

The most frustrating part of The Human Division lies with the overarching story, and with its similarities to a television show: there’s some good forward movement with the Clarke episodes, but there’s little resolution with the overarching story. Fortunately, a second ‘season’ of The Human Division has been commissioned, and we’ll be seeing more from the story in short order. But fans expecting a clear-cut novel will face a wait until the next book is released. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Scalzi has in store.

The bottom line: The Human Division flat out rocked. It’s a smart space opera novel that weaves together politics, characters and action that surpasses its predecessors in the series. For an experimental novel (and this isn’t the first online attempt at a serialized story), it seems to have mostly worked, and at points, worked incredibly well. More than just an experiment in the delivery medium, this is a fine read, and an excellent addition to the series. Season/Book 2 can’t come soon enough.

Book Review: Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis

In the introduction for The Other Half of the Sky, the book's editor Athena Andreadis describes space opera in less than glowing terms: "Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And therein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination."

They’re harsh words for an incredibly popular genre: after all, when you lump in television and film, you’re essentially describing what most people think of as science fiction. But, they’re necessary words, because she’s completely right: space opera, and most of the Golden Age of SF, has often been described as being the age of 12. Andreadis’s anthology seeks to put together a group of stories that paints a picture of the other half of the sky’s occupants, and this book succeeds at its task in grand fashion.

The Other Half of the Sky is an impressive anthology of 16 stories, with an equally impressive group of authors. Well known authors such as Vandana Singh, Joan Slonczewski, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Martha Wells, and Jack McDevitt are all included in this book, as well as several authors who were new to me: Christine Lucas, Kelly Jennings, Sue Lange, Nisi Shawl, and a couple of others. I first came across this anthology at the 2012 ReaderCon, where several authors held a reading of their works in the book. Then, it sounded interesting. In my hands, the book is an impressive group of stories. The space opera of the 1950s contains a certain formula of characters and plot types: frequently, we’d have stories of plucky scientists discovering something extraordinary, heroes finding themselves in situations from which they had to extracate themselves, and some sort of logical puzzle that was solved through the protagonist’s wits and bluster. That’s an overly simplifed version, to be sure, but after a while, it gets boring. The Other Half of the Sky opens up a range of stories that aren’t necessarily new, but they’re not seen nearly as often.

Political and sociological intentions aside, this is a hell of an anthology. Ken Liu’s story, ‘Shape of Thought’ is an interesting take on family dynamics, while ‘Mimesis’, by Martha Wells, puts together a really cool alien world and society. One of my absolute favorite stories, however, is ‘Velocity’s Ghost’, by Kelly Jennings, following a bounty hunter in deep space. There’s certain value in a book that has positioned itself to make a statement, but there’s a greater value when the focus falls equally on the quality of the stories: this anthology focuses on the latter.

There’s a pointed message in this book: we can do that too, and in light of an entire range of conversations brewing around the SF community as of late, this book should be considered required reading. Far too often, it seems that there’s an attitude that women can’t or simply don’t write the sort of hard SF and space opera that’s traditionally been published. This book utterly crushes that assumption with its incredible range of stories and superior level of writing that’s consistent throughout the entire anthology. The Other Half of the Sky is an anthology that’s long overdue, and I hope that it’ll serve as a good example for future authors and readers in the genre.

Review: Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh

A common trait in science fiction literature is the promotion of the possibilities that are afforded by technology.

The standard of living for much of the population in the United States and other western countries seem to confirm this idea: technology makes our lives better. What’s less understood is how with technology, complications arise in ways that are unexpected. This is never more apparent in Will McIntosh’s latest novel, Love Minus Eighty.

A century from now, humanity has conquered death in some unexpected ways. Cryogenics, a favorite escape in a number of science fiction novels, has been perfected, and the average person can expect a long and healthy life. If you’re wealthy, or critically important to your job, you can expect to be revived in the instance of an accident or suicide. If you meet certain beauty criteria, you can be placed in a Dating Center, where the wealthy can try and find the perfect match, frozen in the minus eighty. It’s a terrifying concept.

That’s exactly what happens when Rob accidentally runs over Winter with his car. Both were running from a hard breakup, and devastated, Rob scrapes up the several thousand dollars needed to visit Winter, confess his role in her death, and try to vindicate himself. After several visits, he falls head over heels for Winter, who’s time is slowly running out in the Dating Center. Along the way, he meets Nathan, Winter’s ex, and his friend Veronika, both of whom are dating experts who match people up with their perfect counterparts. What follows is a tangled, intricate dance of relationships between the group that forms, all of whom band behind Rob as he works to save Winter’s life.

This is where McIntosh is in firm territory. His prior novels, the fantastic Soft Apocalypseand Hitchers, are, at their core, about small communities of friends working together for a common cause. In Soft Apocalypse, it was trying to survive as the world declined, and there’s a lot of parallels with this novel (even a minor reference to it, early on). Love Minus Eighty does this well, first at building a group of characters who become friends, and then following them through as Rob pursues Winter and works to save her. Characters are where McIntosh works well, especially with the understanding that we’re not alone in the world: we’re supported and impacted by those around us.

In many ways, there’s no antagonist in this book, nor with Soft Apocalypse: the rotating cast of characters features people with good and bad intentions, but with no single person who’s actively countering the protagonist. Here, Rob fights for time against the big cryogenics companies whose policies will spell an end for Winter. And this is fitting, in this day and age, where we’re at the mercy of major corporations whose services we use all the time.

There’s a neat parallel narrative here as well, with the divide between the ultra rich and middle-to-poor classes very apparent. The uber rich aren’t preoccupied with normal problems or relationships. Lorelei uses both Rob and Nathan in her relationships as a stepping stone to new viewers in her own reality show that is her life, followed by thousands and millions of virtual screens in their augmented world. The men who frequent the dating centers can afford to blow thousands of dollars for a five minute visit with a frozen dead girl to fulfill their own white knight fantasies.

At the same time, there’s the awareness that the cryogenics dating centers and their policies are deeply, morally wrong. People are revived against their will, trapped in a container and brought to life for terrifying, teasing moments of time before being refrozen. It’s a wonderfully terrifying concept, and one that McIntosh is well suited for. Like his prior books, Love Minus Eighty brings together several very different themes and story elements (Dating in the apocalypse, cartoonists with ghosts hitched to their minds, cryogenic dating centers), and while there’s a bit of apprehension as the book is cracked open, that this one might be *too* out there, the pages vindicate the topic.

McIntosh is one of the best new science fiction authors of the last half-decade, and Love Minus Eighty really helps to keep up that reputation. It’s a fantastic book, filled with a rich, interesting world with a compelling narrative running inside of it. Moreover, it’s a visceral, exhilarating read that continually surprises as it plays out, and one that’ll be well worth reading during the hot summer months.

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan's alternate Europe seen in A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, follows a young Victorian girl who has become obsessed with dragons. Writing at the end of a long life, she has begun to write her memoirs about her life's work and adventures: the study of the mythical beasts. In this presumably first volume of many, Isabella journeys to Eastern Europe on her first expedition.

In Scirland (England) a young Isabella is fascinated at an early age by Sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures as common as birds, eventually preserving one in a jar of vinegar. This ignites a passion within her and sets her on a path of scientific exploration. A favored book is ‘A Natural History of Dragons‘, purchased by her father for his library, read over and over again throughout her childhood. Like our own Victorian era at the end of the 1800s, women faced a far more limited existence in society, confined to a regimented social life, and such curiosity is actively discouraged, a major factor that frustrates Isabella throughout the novel.

As a child, her interest with a visit by a drake on her family’s property which brings her face to face with one of the beasts. She grows out of her obsessive streak for years after her encounter, but eventually meets and marries Jacob, a man of some status, and their shared interest rekindles her curiosity. Her father, during the vetting process, ensured that her suitors were in possession of a library of their own, and as a bonus, Jacob happens to own a copy of ‘A Natural History of Dragons’. Isabella and Jacob, a somewhat happily married couple, are unconventional for their time: she’s strong willed, while he tries to keep up. Shortly after their marriage, they meet a notable explorer and citizen-scientist Lord Hilford and are invited along on an expedition to Vystrana (really, the Balkans or somewhere nearby in Eastern Europe), where they’re to study the dragons of the region. There, they find a bit more than they’re expecting.

A Natural History of Dragons is an interesting book with a lopsided structure that will undoubtedly smooth out if another adventure is written about Lady Trent. There’s clearly an episodic nature here, and it’s frustrating at points to see references to other, untold adventures, where there’s clearly the intention to write more later, rather than simply allowing the book to rest on its obvious strengths. The story also has less to do with dragons than I anticipated going into this read: while they’re a central focus of the plot, they’re seen only sparingly, while during the second half of the novel, a subplot with smugglers and local politics is the main driver of the story.

Setting the novel up as a fictional memoir out of the Victorian era is an interesting choice. Steampunk has been an immensely popular subgenre of late, and while this doesn’t have any overt steampunk features, it’s a good example of fiction looking back into the past for inspiration. It’s a particularly well-timed novel, as it features a female protagonist who’s cutting against the cultural grain in a time where women were expected to hold to a certain model. Reading this as the Violence Against Women Act was renewed by the United States Congress is a pertinent reminder that the role women play in speculative fiction is a highly relevant one, and it’s fantastic to read a story led by the strong-willed Isaella, who’s armed with her wits and intelligence to both conduct research and solve a mystery. A Natural History of Dragons harkens back to the era of Science Romances, science fiction written during a time when there was much unknown about the world, before blank points on the maps had been filled. It lends much to the style of stories from Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, with a real modern sensibility. While the story is ostensibly a fantasy, it has the heart of a science fiction novel, in the spirit of exploration and scientific endeavor.

Finally, an added element to A Natural History of Dragons is the artwork. Drawn up by Todd Lockwood, who’s known for his distinctive dragons, this novel has one of the more striking covers to grace the front of a novel in recent years. In addition to that, there are a number of illustrations throughout the book’s pages, presumably drawn by Lady Trent. It’s an added touch to the story and the entire packaged product. In my opinion, the cover alone makes the price of admission worth it.

A Natural History of Dragons is at its heart, a nostalgic book: there’s adventure to be had, with a cast of characters out to find adventure and knowledge at all ends of the Earth. It reminds me much of such stories as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where science and exploration were the central focus and it’s a good viewpoint to have. At the end of the day, Brennan’s novel is a fun read, and I’m hopeful that more adventures of Lady Trent are forthcoming.

Book Review: The Burn Zone, by James K. Decker

The fast-paced world of James K. Decker's The Burn Zone is an excellent example of a growing movement within the genre: a recognition that Planet Earth is a complicated and diverse place. Here, we have a society that isn't a cookie cutter facsimile of the United States and where the protagonist isn't a Caucasian male. Taking place in cyberpunkish Hangfei, Xiao-Xing (Nicknamed Sam) blasts through the city where she's pursued by a number of parties who will stop at nothing to keep her from unraveling their destructive plans.

The Burn Zone takes place sometime in our future, where Earth’s population has swelled to beyond fifteen billion people, and has a new intelligent race on its surface, the Haan. The alien race has apparently come in peace: stranded, they have to roll out technology to humanity in a series of organized stages, and have begun a cooperative exchange program. Starving and looking to become a parent, Sam has become a part of this surrogate program, fostering Haan infants. Her life is turned upside down when a squad of soldiers, led by a female Haan, burst into her apartment and drag off her adoptive father. This touches off an intense read as Sam finds herself tested to her absolute limits and places her in the midst of a plot that could doom humanity.

This book rests comfortably on its well formed characters, and who band around Sam as the Haan and government agents follow closely behind. There’s Nix, an outcast Haan who had been sent to kill her, and Vamp, a hacker, who back up Sam as she tries to figure out why her adoptive father, Dragan, was dragged off for reportedly smuggling some sort of weapon into the country. His efforts to thwart his captors worked, leaving just enough clues to lead Sam and her friends on the right track to uncover the plot and derail its penetrators.

Sam is a neat central character in this book, and it’s nice to see an Asian, female character that doesn’t quite fit into the extremes of ‘tough, unemotional action girl’ and ‘emotional, vulnerable girl’. Rather, she’s somewhere in the middle: not afraid to ask for help from people who are close to her, but also strong enough to make and carry out decisions for herself. There’s a neat point where she’s offered tips to make her more desirable through plastic surgery by AI advertising, only to be shot down without a second thought.

The Haan and their back-story are also a neat element that gets unraveled as the story progresses. Inventing a wholly ‘alien’ alien race is a difficult task. How does one create something for which we have literally no context? Decker does a good job creating something interesting, yet relatable at the same time, weaving in themes of racism and environmentalism at the same time.

Finally, the world and story created here are grounded and plausible, taking equal parts District 9 and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The setting is bright with color, sound and smell as our characters crash through it, while the plot has some interesting points to make with technological innovation and the fate of the human race. There’s also a real sense that the stakes are high: Earth’s on the brink of environmental collapse due to overpopulation, and in a lot of ways, the Haan represent humanity’s only hope to survive, while Earth represents the Haan’s best chance for survival. The role which Sam plays isn’t coincidental, and it reveals quite a bit about the story that unfolds.

Decker does this entire juggling act well: he moves the action and characters along at a breakneck speed, and while his book could probably stand to shed a couple of redundant chapters, it follows a neatly organized plan that brings the reader along on a neatly plotted path. Ultimately, Decker’s characters are moralistic people who strive to do the right thing, heroes that we want to root for, who are in the right place to save their way of life. Dragan, coming across a plot to introduce a biological weapon into the country does what any good person would do: go to great lengths to pull out the firing pin before its too late. Sam is a good person for her role: she’s a rare person who’s been modified to help infant Haan, despite quite a bit of social opposition. It’s actions like these that come in handy along the way for all involved, and which ultimately aid them as the tension ratchets up. It’s a bit simplistic at points, but it’s refreshing to break away from the flood of ambiguous (but ultimately good) anti-heroes that seem to have populated the literary world in the recent years.

The Burn Zone is the equivalent of a fairly smart science fiction movie – Hollywood mechanics, but something that’s a cut above the typical summer blockbuster, and it hits a lot of the right buttons. It’s got plenty of action, a cast of smart characters, an intriguing plot that keeps the story running nicely, and a world that throws out a couple of neat surprises that don’t make me want to throw the book away. In a lot of ways, this book fits alongside some of the other recent SF thrillers, and this novel only adds to the growing ranks of solid science fiction adventures.

Book Review: The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

It's little wonder that Ariel Djanikian's debut novel is being marketed as a novel for the Hunger Gamesgeneration: a futuristic world where conventional society has collapsed is the setting for The Office of Mercy, a utopian/post apocalyptic novel that presents a dark look at the extent of sciences and a twisted form of ethics.

Taking place three centuries after a devastating event – The Storm – that decimated humanity, utopian settlements have grown in the remnants of the new world. These settlements, sealed off from the wilderness are self contained structures, housing generations of citizens who live in an ideal world where technological advances provide food, medicine and everlasting life. Supporting this life is an ethical code that seeks to reduce suffering for all of humanity, guiding the Citizens as they live out their lives. Unfortunately, there’s an enormous population of people, descended from the survivors of The Storm who etch out a living in the wilderness. America-5, Natasha Wiley’s home, and others, have taken it upon themselves to reduce the perceived suffering of those in the wilderness. Just as one might seek to put a suffering animal down, members of the Office of Mercy do the same with fire, guns and bombs.

There’s a horrifying, misguided morality to America-5’s actions, one that slowly unfolds throughout the story. The people of America 5 firmly believe that they’re doing the right and humane thing, and this is where Djanikian really presents an interesting story. All totalitarian societies require a certain level of compliance from its members, and Natasha, stationed in the Office of Mercy, regularly carries out a systematic agenda of genocide against those from the outside world. It’s not called that, of course: their term for it is a Sweep, but murder is murder, as Natasha and a growing number of individuals come to understand over the course of this novel. Natasha becomes troubled by the policies of her office’s actions after a frightening encounter with one of the outside tribes, throwing her against everything that she’s been brought up to believe. Along the way, some dark truths come out about her life and those around her.

The twist on this novel is a deterministic one: what exactly governs behavior? Is it one’s intrinsic nature that makes someone who they are, or is it one’s surroundings that define them? These are philosophical questions that have been asked since Plato, and throughout the story, we see how America-5 works to ensure that it’s citizens are all on the same page: indoctrination from an early age, mental exercises, and a common environment that reinforces positive behavior. Most stories come down on one side, but interestingly, Djanikian comes down unexpectedly with Natasha after some truly unexpected revelations about her past. I’d been expecting something conventional from the book by the latter half, but rather than throw aside the circumstances of her life and upbringing and given a choice, she embraces it in the face of what life outside of the settlement is really like.

In a way, it’s a bit of a disappointing ending for the book, because it cuts against the traditional meme, but in doing so, Djanikian sets up an interesting exchange between a highly technological and science oriented side and it’s polar opposite. On one hand, you have a society that has conquered death, but in doing so, embraces horrific practices to ensure their survival. On the other hand, you have a society that’s desperate to survive, and will go to extreme lengths to do so and it’s never quite clear which side is morally superior, as both engage in some pretty horrific acts by the end of the novel.

The Office of Mercy has a number of similar elements to other recent types of books, most notably The Hunger Games; the will she or won’t she romantic subplots, the violence and overall setting. The novel’s execution has a bit to be desired, and as a result, it doesn’t quite have the spark that The Hunger Games has. But, it’s a darker and more complicated read, and it alternates between surprisingly interesting and unreservedly dull, but it’s a story that has real legs throughout, presenting a number of fairly traditional dystopian ideas and turning them just a bit. It’s not a rehash of the same material, but a slightly new take, which makes the book an interesting and worthwhile read.

Book Review: Fade to Black, by Francis Knight

Francis Knight does what so many fantasy authors fail to achieve: create a fantastic world in which to play.

In Fade To Black, pain-mage Rojan Dizon works in the shadows of Mahala, finding people who need to be found, trying to stay a step in front of the law. When his niece is kidnapped and taken to The Pit, Rojan must follow, where he finds that he’s going to be put up against every boundary he has.

The city of Mahala is built up, not out. Bound by mountains on either side, the Mahala is a tall metropolis that shoots into the sky, with a complex, dystopian society run by a ruling elite. Rojan makes his living in this environment, using his forbidden powers sparingly, to avoid detection from the ruling elite. Journeying to the roots of the city, Rojan is in pursuit of his niece, and comes across a world that he never expected, sealed off from the upper levels of the city. There, he encounters Pasha and Jake, a pair of outcasts who have their own agendas that coincide with Rojan’s.

Fade To Black is an engaging, but flawed read. Knight takes a closed, claustrophobic world and spins an interesting story within the walls of Mahala, populated with some solid characters and underlying themes that come together more or less as expected. The book is hard to put down throughout the first half, and while the middle slows considerably, everything flows along pretty well throughout.

The novel works well as a sort of pulp-thriller. A noir-ish detective is pulled into a mystery that grows as the character digs (or in this case, descends) deeper into their surroundings. Knight has set up Mahala as a neat metaphor for overwhelming corruption, and we see firsthand the effects of this when Rojan does go below. Starting with the disappearance of his niece, he uncovers a horrifying truth to the true nature of the city and just what the city’s rulers have allowed under their watch. Overall, while the plot is solid, Rojan and the rest of the characters feel like they’ve being snapped into a rigid framework that leads them through points A, B and C, inorganically. The result is a quite a bit of treading water through some ‘character moments’ that feel like they’re just biding time in at points. A romance between characters is forced at points, and ultimately, what slows the book down is the distraction from Rojan’s main goal: rescue his niece.

Unfortunately, Rojan feels far more out of water than he should: an archtype anti-hero right out of a ’30s detective story, it feels as though he’s further along in his character development than he should be. When he’s in his element in the upper levels of the city, he’s just fine, but as he drops lower into the underside of the city, it’s clear that he’s far more clueless than previously thought. He’s ignorant of the underworld’s entire existence, he flounders around with two companions for much of the middle of the book before going through a sort of internal dialogue about his willingness to use his powers. It’s frustrating, in many ways, because it feels very backward.

This isn’t to say that this is a bad book: far from it. At its heart, Fade To Black is a pulpy, noir-ish adventure, one that is engaging and quite a bit of fun to read. While flawed at points, Knight’s debut work is an unconventional fantasy, one that is a nice departure from the pseudo- Medieval European setting and modern day urban fantasy stories that seem to populate the bookshelves now. With two more books (Before The Fall and Last To Rise)set to be released later this year, readers won’t have long to wait before we’re treated to new adventures in Mahala.

Book Review: London Falling, by Paul Cornell

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After Rob Toshack, London crime boss, dies a horrific death while being interrogated, four members of the London Metropolitan Police Service encounter something in a crime scene that gives them the Sight. Transformed, they're now able to access an entirely new London, one that's more dangerous than they ever thought possible.

Paul Cornell’s latest novel London Falling is a fast-paced police procedural with a twist: it’s also a clever urban fantasy novel that brings in all manner of the paranormal to policing. It’s a book that balances both genres superbly, and it’s one that’s hard to put down.

Following a sting operation, officers Quinn, Constain, Ross and Sefton find themselves with paranormal powers. An occultist version of London appears before them: they see ghosts, remnants of the past, and most importantly, a suspect that adds a new dimension onto the case on which they’ve been working. With this new power, they do the only thing that they know how to do: tackle the problem with their tools and knowledge as police officers. The team finds themselves after Mora Losley, a centuries-old witch who has a penchant for the West Ham United football club, and child sacrifices. Helping out mobsters like Toshack, she’s existed in a state of revenge for centuries, using her skills and craft for horrific evil and longevity.

Cornell, who’s worked in the comics, television and literary markets, has been named a triple threat by George R.R. Martin, and it’s easy to see why: London Falling is a deceptively easy novel to start, before he cranks up the pressure, delivering an impressive story that’s complex, emotional and quite a bit of fun to read.

Cornell’s phantom London is a fascinating place, bringing the book into such company with China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods. There are deep magical roots to the city, wholly dependent upon the memories, perceptions and actions of its citizens. Ghosts patrol the sites where they lost their lives; invisible ships travel up and down the Thames, and if you get onto certain buses, you’ll end up in an entirely different world. Cornell weaves this all together in a breathtakingly fresh manner, and it’s quite a bit more interesting than most of the typical urban fantasy and high fantasy magical systems that you’ll see on bookshelves today.

As vivid and interesting as the world is, however, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its characters: Quinn, a cop with a strained home life, Ross, whose father was killed by Toshack, Costain, an undercover cop looking to run and escape, and Sefton, a closeted gay man with his own demons to battle. Apart, they’re a dysfunctional group with their own issues to sort out. The Sight gives them a collective purpose: put down Losley and end her terrible acts that have sustained her for so long. The quartet work through the problems of paranormal powers logically, figuring out the world around them, working out the tools that they can use, all before working to apprehend their suspect.

Memory, in a lot of ways, is the central focus to London Falling. The idea of a collective memory defining a central location is a strong one, and in a place such as London, with its very deep history is a place where stories can literally come alive, so long as enough people believe it’s true. It’s a neat thought, one that sets the book apart from the rest of the pack.There are points where this book is genuinely horrifying and gut wrenching. Losley sacrifices three young children, and their fates alternatively repulsed and riveted me to the book. More frightening than the immediate murders is her proclivity for messing with people’s memories. Not only do the parents of the children over her reign not know that their children have been horribly murdered, they can’t even remember having children in the first place. It’s a terrifying thought.

Cornell does an excellent job putting thought behind the power, and this is a book that gets better and better as you read it, all while blending a story that’s equal parts fantasy and detective thriller. While parts of it seem slightly odd on the surface: witches sacrificing children to punish football players, it comes together in utterly top form, and kept us at the edge of our seats right up to the last page. London Falling succeeds at this wonderfully, and already, we can’t wait for its sequel, The Severed Streets, which will be out in December in the UK.

Book Review: Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Originally published to Geek Exchange.

When a man steals a car and drives to the end of a lane, where he commits suicide, it sets off an unfathomable horror on an English family. The premise of Neil Gaiman's first novel in five years is the basis for a subtle, intense read that may very well be his best fantasy yet.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a man revisiting his childhood home in England, following his memories down a country lane to a house that he vaguely remembered. There, he abruptly remembers his past, and the tragic events that set into motion a horrifying presence that was unleashed against the world. A man stole his family’s car and committed suicide in it. Something has been released, and our narrator comes across a strange family, the Hempstocks, who know things that they couldn’t possibly know. The youngest, Lettie, becomes the narrator’s only hope to staying alive while dangers from around and within come for him. Lettie is a strange young girl. She claims that the duck pond in her back yard is an ocean, while her grandmother claims to remember the Big Bang.

There’s an understated feeling to this short novel, a multi-layered narrative that flows smoothly as the pages turn. It’s a story about memory and stories, and I get the sense that this is a story that is a very personal one for its author. Our young narrator is a shy, bookish boy who’s afraid of the world around him, but taking comfort in his familiar surroundings.

Gaiman strips away the comfort following the upheaval of his world. The death of the Opal Miner stirs up something dark, and unwittingly, our narrator is partially responsible for the utter terror that follows him and young Lettie Hempstock when they go to investigate. There are things beyond the world that simply do not belong in ours, and it finds its way into the places where he’s the safest. There’s a visceral sense of horror that bubbles up and grows as it slowly takes over his life and surroundings, leaving him with a single safe way out. This is a fantasy of a different caliber, one that is both subtle and powerful as the narrator observes an entirely new world around him. This is a raw novel, full of emotion, one that refused to let me go until I finished it.

There’s an almost epic sense of proportions in this novel, a tragic good verses evil story fought on the tiniest level, and it succeeds in the most heartbreaking way. Gaiman is a master storyteller, one who carefully constructs his characters and makes their lives miserable for an incredible payoff for the reader.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a powerful, masterful work of fiction, one that resonates long after the last page has been turned and the book put away on the shelf. Quite simply, this short, incredible novels is one of the best of the year, and is not to be missed.

 

Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

Originally published on Geek Exchange.

A man named Charlie Manx has a special car that he uses to take children to a magical place called Christmasland. The problem is, once they arrive, they can never leave, and they never realize the horrible truth to the man and place. This is the background for Joe Hill's latest novel, NOS4A2. This novel is Hill's magnum opus, an incredible work of fiction that is equally fantastic, horrifying and utterly impossible to put down once you begin.

At some point in the 1980s, a girl nicknamed Victoria, (Brat to her father) lives in a troubled home. Her parents don’t get along, and to escape the arguments, she rides her bike through the woods, where she finds a covered bridge. It’s not really a real bridge, however: it’s a conduit that allows her to find lost objects. She’s soon after introduced to a new world: there’s certain people with abilities to enter another world, one that’s split away from the real world, and powered by their imaginations. Armed with a totem, they can use this conduit to accomplish certain things. In Vic’s case, it’s her bike. Maggie, a librarian, it’s scrabble tiles. For Manx, it’s his terrible car. When Vic and Manx’s worlds collide, it sets them on a path that’s filled with madness, terror and violence.

Joe Hill has established a name for himself when it comes to dark speculative fiction. His collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, is an excellent read, his comic series Locke & Key, as well as his first two novels, Heart Shaped Box and Horns have received wide acclaim. NOS4A2 adds to his superior backlist and it’s easily going to be one of the best books released in 2013.This novel is a long, sprawling narrative that covers decades of the character’s lives, and it’s by far Hill’s most complex novel to date. Despite that, it breezes by quickly, and it’s a testament to Hill’s ability to weave together a number of divergent characters and each of their actions without losing sight of the overarching picture.

A delight throughout NOS4A2 is the tiny references peppered throughout: Charlie Manx at one point carries around a silver hammer – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, anyone? Music titles, like many of Hill’s other works, work their way into the prose many times. There’s a character named de Zoet, which in and of itself doesn’t mean much, until one follows Hill on Twitter for a while, where you might have seen that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was one of his favorite books. When the characters get a glimpse into Charlie Manx’s head, there’s a neat reference to Hill’s fantastic comic series Locke & Key on the map with Lovecraft Keyhole. Beyond these references, there’s also Hill’s wondrous preference for the double entendre. The titular car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith is entirely perfect for this sort of story, while Vic’s own ride, a Triumph Motorcycle, likewise is born for the role that it plays in the story.

At its core, NOS4A2 is about a single, basic concept: the importance of loving relationships. Vic comes out of a home that has quite a bit of tension that feels typical for the 1980s (especially if one’s reference point for suburban culture is films like ET and Terminator 2), and has a difficult relationship with her parents. She eventually moves out, taking off on her bike and ending up finding Manx, who attempts to kill her. She’s saved by Lou, a biker fleeing from his own problems. With Manx apprehended, Lou and Vic become an unconventional couple, with a little boy, Wayne.

Through Manx, we see that relationships are far more important. In many senses of the word, he’s a type of vampire, one who’s sustained by the empathy and emotions of the children that he kidnaps, forging an ever-depleting pool that he continually draws upon. His helpers, terrible men who kidnap and murder in his name, are strung along in a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of their own, one that leaves them shriveled up and ultimately, dead.

The problems don’t stop with Manx’s apprehension, and his relationship with his captured wards goes both ways: Vic, now an illustrator for a popular novel series calledSearch Engine, goes crazy as she begins to receive calls from the children of Christmasland, who are going hungry without their master. The episode forces Vic to rethink her memories and childhood, which adds in an entirely new level to the horror that she faces: while she thinks that what she experienced were false memories, they were in reality, completely true. That, to me, is something far scarier than the violence, blood and gore that we see throughout the book. It’s still scary, but Hill knows exactly where to twist the knife to crank up the temperature for his characters.

Amongst this drama is an overarching theme of modernity versus tradition. Manx, by his own admission is over a century old by the time that the book begins, frequently rails against the flaws of women in society: modern dress styles, tattoos, sexual behavior are all lifestyle choices that he feels compelled to work against, and often help him select his victims: children whose parents are deemed immoral are often the ones selected for Christmasland. On the other side of the line are the characters who inhabit of modern society. Vic is a single, tattooed parent who drives a motorcycle. Maggie is a punk-rock lesbian librarian. Lou is an overweight geek who’s willing to go with the flow, and so on. They’re products of their surroundings, and as alien to Manx as the vampire is to them. In a lot of ways, this book works with and without the supernatural elements, as the cultural clash sets up a comparably horrifying motive for Manx’s actions throughout the book.

Finishing the book, it’s easy to see the battles that are waged between the characters, time and time again. On one side, Vic is backed with her loving family, who go to extraordinary lengths to keep her safe, informed and loved. Manx, on the other hand, has his insatiable hunger and his car, and his anger and iron grip on long-gone traditional life simply isn’t enough to sustain him.

Hill balances all of these relationships throughout the novel, building up a convincing base as we follow Vic throughout her childhood and adult life, and looking back, it’s an impressive effort that really succeeds once all the cards are on the table. Moreover, there’s not a single instance when this novel is bogged down with unneeded exposition, explanation or road map. He sets the characters into play, and lets the story take over. It’s a fun, exhilarating ride.

NOS4A2 as a whole is quite possibly Hill’s best book to date, and it’s easily one of the best that will be published this year. Balancing a complicated story, incredible characters and a really horrifying sense of dread and discomfort, this is dark fantasy at its absolute peak. Hill pulls it off seemingly effortlessly, and already, he has us eagerly waiting for more.

Book Review: Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination, by John Joseph Adams

A while ago, I wrote for Geek Magazine's online portal, Geek Exchange. It was a fun gig, and a decent outlet to write a bunch of articles and reviews. Sadly, it didn't last: my editor was abruptly fired, and the internal restructuring left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and I ended up leaving. Checking back the other day, it seems that it was the beginning of the end: the site is no longer there, replaced with something else. All my reviews and articles vanished. Fortunately, I was able to recover the reviews via the Wayback Machine, and I'm going to be posting them up here.

The image of the Mad Scientist is deeply ingrained in our popular culture. It’s a scientist with a plan that none other dare to attempt, due to the sheer insanity and peripheral casualties that usually occur. We can’t get enough of them, from Victor Frankenstein to Lex Luthor to Dr. Horrible. Anthologist John Joseph Adams has brought together 22 stories in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, an impressive book that purports to be guide for the singular, misunderstood genius, and it covers the range and depth of their insanity.

There’s no doubt that the Mad Scientist is a reaction to the great leaps and bounds that science has brought society. Mary Shelley’s titular Victor Frankenstein came at a point with incredible leaps and bounds in the scientific community, especially when it came to biology. Over the course of the twentieth century, we’ve seen advances in modern healthcare with the introduction of penicillin and the creation of the atomic bomb. We’ve gone to the Moon, all the while developing missiles that could destroy a city across the world. It’s interesting that we have such reverence for the character while their real life counterparts are rarely as venerated. The villains of the comic books are funny, bumbling folk, easy pickings for the heroes of the story. They’re funny, ironic, in a way.

As a result, it’s the humorous stories that really stand out in this book:  The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is an unexpectedly hilarious read. Stories such as Professor Incognito Apologizes: an Itemized List by Austin Grossman, Father of the Groom by Harry Turtledove, Ancient Equations by L. A. Banks, Rural Singularity by Alan Dean Foster andThe Angel of Death Has a Business Plan by Heather Lindsley had me in stitches throughout. They’re pointed deconstructions of the elaborate plans that are frequent in the Mad Scientist world, undercut by a dose of reality, some unexamined element, or the workings of those who they depend upon.

Indeed, it’s the stories where the Mad Scientist is taken overly seriously where the volume doesn’t quite work: The Executor by Daniel H. Wilson is a ponderous story to get through, joining a small number of stories that didn’t work well.

Then, there are the outliers: the ones that don’t quite fit between the two extremes. Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder of the Aetherian Revolution by Carrie Vaughn, (joining two other stories, Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris and Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil, published through Lightspeed Magazine) is a fun steampunk adventure story that is equal parts pulp and science fiction. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss is a brilliant examination of the consequences of the scientist’s actions through the eyes of the daughters of some of the well known monsters in literature.

Throughout The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is an appreciation for motivation. Behind every Mad Scientist is someone who doesn’t quite tick in the normal way, and for every plan that they’ve come up with is an elaborate motivation behind it. Sometimes, it’s someone who just hasn’t gotten their due in society. Some are trying to get away from everything, others are trying to remake the world to be a better place (casualties be damned), while some are just mentally ill. Regardless of the reason, it’s the stuff of a fantastic story.

While Superheroes and their nemesi are generally found in the comic book store, there’s been a couple of similarly themed anthologies lately: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, andSuperheroes, edited by Rich Horton. While we always tend to root for the good guys, it’s the bad guys that make for a better story, who tend to have more variety than their lawful counterparts, who generally tend to fall into the Batman/Superman extremes (Vigilante vs. Unambiguously good). Mad Scientists have no such qualms, and run the gambit from bad (but with noble intentions) to really bad (trying to destroy cities). They seem to make for more interesting stories across the broad.

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is the book for anyone who appreciates the stuff of comic books, and it’s a tribute to Adams’ style that the outlandish characters that are usually better suited for a more visual field. While not all of the 22 stories here worked for me, collectively, it’s one super read.  Muwahaha!

* Disclaimer: John’s my boss over at Lightspeed Magazine, but I had no part in the conceptualization, publication or editing of this anthology.

Ebola: The Natural And Human History of A Deadly Virus

ebolaCover I picked up this book the other day: reading up on the ongoing West African Ebola Outbreak has become a focus of research and interest of mine lately. My interests in Ebola go back to the granddaddy of all Ebola books: The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, published back in the mid-90s, and read while I was in Middle or High School. It's been one of those things that's sort of been at the back of my mind in the intervening years, with an assumption that at some point (not an IF), it'll break out into a wider population and cause some real harm. That's what's happened for almost a year now over in West Africa.

David Quammen's book is an interesting review of the history of Ebola, and an excellent alternative to Preston's book. It's short - this is actually an excerpt from his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections And the Next Human Pandemic, where his publishers asked him to take the various chapters on Ebola and update them a bit in light of the ongoing outbreak. The result is a primer of how Ebola interacted with people since it first erupted in Central Africa in 1976. It's a little opportunistic on the publisher's part, but it provides some good context for what's going on in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Quammen takes a less sensational track than Preston did, outlining his own experiences in Africa as they searched for Ebola, as well as a number of earlier outbreaks that occurred in the region. The end result is a good, if very short, overview of the virus.

I'm not entirely sure if separating out the chapters really work for the greater argument, and it's clear that the greater work here is from his other book, Spillover. The central premise of that book looks at how diseases spill out from an animal reservoir, which is a good question to be asking: not just for this particular outbreak, but for the ones that will come as Africa (and other places around the world) become less isolated and more connected to the global community.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Andy Weir's first novel, The Martian: A Novel, has garnered a lot of buzz lately: it's an addicting, rapid-fire book that runs along with a manic energy that makes it difficult to put down. You know how you slow down while passing an accident on the high way? I had that reaction as I blew through it, waiting to see just how Astronaut Mark Watney would survive.

The plot of the book is fairly straight forward: a low-ranking astronaut, Watney, is stranded on Mars when a storm prompts the evacuation of his expedition just six days after they arrived. When he awakens, he finds that he's alone on the planet, with no way to call home to let NASA know he's still alive, and more importantly, let them know that he needs a ride home. With only the mission's remaining supplies and equipment, he needs to figure out just how to survive until the next mission is scheduled to arrive.

A lot's been made of the fact that this is a hard science novel: there's a lot of technical details throughout the book, from calculations of air volume to chemical reactions to physical engineering. All of this gives the book a technical, grounded feel, and you can imagine that someday, this book will come true, or at the very least, be used by NASA to plan for a Mars mission. It's near-term outlook and reliance on strictly realistic components makes this a safe science fiction novel. It's the sort of book that's okay for the general public to read because it could really happen; there's no aliens, galactic empires or expeditionary backstory that require any great leaps of faith for the reader. It seems to work well, too: the book currently sits at #11 on the New York Times bestseller list for Hardcover fiction, and is ranked #158 in books over on Amazon (#7 for Science Fiction).

That isn't meant to denigrate the book: it's easy to see why it's so popular when it's cracked open. Weir's narrative plays out as Watney recounts his misfortunes in an audio log, occasionally jumping back to Earth and in between to other characters for some outside context. They, like the reader, are captivated by this slowly unfolding disaster. There are some nice touches to this: cable news puts Watney front and center for their own segment. Like Apollo 13, all eyes become focused on the skies above, waiting to see if the astronaut will return home safely. Weir's Watney is a fun character: witty, immature, resourceful and optimistic, it's hard to do anything but root for him to get through the crisis, and you can't help but cheer for him as he overcomes just about everything that Mars throws at him. This is high-tech Robinson Crusoe, with a much steeper difficulty curve.

Space disaster narratives have been popular lately: last year's big film was Gravity, which featured a similar premise: an astronaut, stranded after an accident, must find her way back home, using only what she's got with her. These are good stories to root for, because at their core, they're about humanity against nature.

What holds The Martian back from being a *great* book is what separates it from Gravity. Watney's trials are technical in nature, and Weir never quite spends the time to step back and have him question his survival or do anything but blindly plow forward from task to task. Gravity presented a far more interesting character story that addressed some much larger themes: Stone's own challenges (fall) and eventual recommitment to live life on her own terms make it a much stronger narrative that makes me come back time and time again.

But, I enjoyed the hell out of The Martian. It was an exciting read from start to finish, one that kept me up late into the evening, frantically turning pages to see what happened next. That's what every good book should do, and this does it nicely.

Review: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

The Justice of Toren faithfully served the Radch, a galaxy-spanning empire overseen by Anaander Mianaai, the multibodied, immortal The Lord of the Radch. The empire has stood for millennia, maintained by a militaristic system of ships, human soldiers and undead ancillary soldiers under the control of their ship. The ships, such as the Justice of Toren, are run by advanced AI systems who oversee all parts of their command and mission. With the opening of Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice, we're introduced to Breq, the last individual of the Justice of Toren, whose twenty year mission is almost at an end.

Epic in scale, but intensely character-driven, Ancillary Justice never gets lost in the minutia of world building details that so often befalls most space operas: Leckie is focused and precise with her story and characters, putting them through their deliberate paces as the story advances.

The story unfolds in two narratives: one in the present, the other in the recent past. Breq has arrived on a cold, distant world, where she rescues Seivarden Vendaai, a soldier in her service over two thousand years ago, from certain death. She's on a mission to acquire a weapon that will help her kill Anaander Mianaai. The reasons behind her mission unfold with a flashback narrative that runs about twenty years before the present day, as she and her ancillaries are over the planet Ors, where one of her lieutenants comes across a vast conspiracy that could rock the foundations of Radchaai society.

Breq's very nature is a unique voice, and an interesting choice for this novel. She's everywhere, and the first chapter when we see her in her former glory is a fantastic scene that flows from each of her decks down to the planet's surface, showing just how powerful she is as a tool, and just how resiliant she is as a character. When she's on her own, Leckie gives the distinct sense that Breq is incomplete, formidable as she is as the last Esk from the Justice of Toren.

One of the delights of this novel is the complete flip of gender roles in this novel. Space opera is historically a very male-oriented sort of fiction, and about halfway through this book, I realized that I couldn't pull out a single male character that had been named, or even mentioned. It's an odd change, but that seems to be the intention: changing up a reader's expectations helps make this a more interesting and enjoyable read, because it left me with fewer character memes to work with as I read. Throughout the novel, Leckie is a master with her characters, something made more difficult when they span multiple bodies and at times, with competing factions within one's self.

Leckie pulls the reader along in excellent form, folding in a nice range of interesting characters and their actions. It's a task made less easy when parts of the story sit twenty (and even a thousand!) years apart, but the end result comes together at the end in satisfying and unexpected ways. The story begins as a sort of quest, and evolves into one of the more politically astute adventures that I can think of that's come in recent years. Elements such as societal change become readily apparent as we come towards the end, providing a very real sense of allegory that's all too relevant in this day and age.

Topped with a fantastic cover by John Harris, Ancillary Justice is easily one of the best books that I've read thus far this year (in a year crowded with excellent books!), and it's one of the best first novels of this new decade. Already well known for her work as a short story author and editor, Leckie is now a novelist to keep a close eye on.

The Kassa Gambit

The Kassa Gambit As the new year rolls around, I've been keeping my eyes out for the new crop of books that are set to be released. Already, there's a handful that have caught my eye, including M.C. Planck's debut novel The Kassa Gambit. Set in deep space, with inter-colony intrigue, a smuggling ship and a neat cover, it has all the hallmarks of a book that looks to be a fun read, and for the first two-thirds, it really is. The final third, however, demonstrates just how quickly a book can go from a fun and entertaining affair to one that fills me with the desire to throw the book across the room. It's a shame, because this book looks as through it might have been good, rather than blatantly offensive.

Set in deep space following the ecological collapse of Earth, humanity has taken to the stars by way of nodes, transportation points that allow ships to travel the vast distances of space, and settle on a variety of colonial worlds. The crew of a smuggling ship, led by Prudence Falling, come across Kassa on a routine run, only to find that the planet's population has been utterly devastated by an unknown attacker. Close behind her is Kyle Daspar, a political officer and double agent infiltrating the League, a political movement intent on dominating the planet Altair Prime. The two characters fall into one another's company, and uncover something that is poised to upend the order that's been established in space.

The overarching political elements to this story, the characters and overall universe start out great, and I was reminded a number of times of a favored novel, The Icarus Hunt, by Timothy Zahn more than once. Planck has set up a neat universe, with some good logic behind the people and mechanics of how things run. As the characters move forward, we see that not all is what it seems, and that their groundbreaking discovery has very different implications than they previously thought: it's part of a political movement that's designed to allow the League to gain an incredible amount of political power. Here, it's a neat take on what's generally a blunt instrument in science fiction, and there's a nice blend of space opera and political commentary here.

However, around the 60% mark, the book loses steam - a lot of it. The characters break down considerably, and the political conflict that felt very nuanced, devolves into a bunch of caricatured villains and half-hearted action that moves along only by momentum. The characters just... drift and bicker to no end. Worse, however, is how Planck completely upends the two characters, absolutely ruining everything that came before it. In the final act, Prudence is threatened by a violent rape that leaves her utterly traumatized  The scene is so poorly thought out and out of place that it feels as though it doesn't belong.

I don't want to diminish the real horrors of sexual assault, and the presence of the actions aren't what bothered me: it was that the scenes felt as though they were simply dropped in as a tool from a menu: threaten main female character with violation, and have the male character that she's previously hated/disliked/attracted to inconsistently throughout the book sweep in to save the day and protect her dignity. The scene is so utterly by the numbers - a smelly, disgusting enemy guard advancing on the stripped naked (Yep) characters, before letting his guard down and being taken down.

There has been a lot of talk about this sort of thing in the geek lit community, from Seanan McGuire and Jim C. Hines in the literature realm to quite a bit in the video game industry. McGuire had a point recently that bothered me: a reader asked her when a main character of hers would be raped. Not if - when. The action seems to have become a tool through which a female protagonist can be almost casually brutalized and I was very bothered to see it present in this book. McGuire had this to say about it: Because it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.  This sort of thing troubles me greatly, and while I don't know what the author's intentions are with the scene, whether or not it's simply an escalation, but the male characters in the book are never threatened with similar trauma.

Beyond that, the action becomes a point where Falling moves from being a strong, confident character in charge of a space ship, to someone who realizes that all she really needs in life is a strong man to protect her from the bad things in the world, which runs completely contrary to everything that ran up before that. It was enough to make me slam the book shut when I finished, never to open it again. I don't know what the intentions of the scene were, or if there was some noble intention behind it, but whatever the reason, it sent the book off the rails to such a degree that there is no return. It's a shame, because the book had quite a bit of promise.

So, The Kassa Gambit turns from a rather fun read to one that's downright offensive to read by the time you reach the end, and ultimately, while it contains a number of interesting kernels, they're never followed up on or capitalized in any major way. It's a shame, because the book was a promising one.

Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

A journalist recounts an encounter with an alien entity that appears throughout human history, a woman creates a creature from her own blood and spit in a can, and a man falls in love with an airship. These are just a couple of the tales to be found in Swedish author Karin Tidbeck's collection of short fiction, Jagannath. The collection has received considerable critical acclaim in the past couple of months, from Tor.com to NPR, and it's easy to see that the attention is well deserved: it's a brilliant book, full of stories that linger long after the words have been read, and the book replaced on the bookshelf.

Jagannath is by far one of the best books that I've picked up this year, a collection of short stories that left me utterly breathless and at the edge of my seat while reading it. More than once, I found myself at the end of a story, only to turn back and begin rereading it immediately. Each story in this short book is a gem, wonderfully crafted and constructed, each leaving me with a shiver of dread and thrill.

What impressed me the most is how utterly normal and natural a vast majority of the stories felt while reading them: normal people encountering something that's just slightly off from what is typically natural. A woman comes out of the woods and marries into a family - supernatural elements may or may not be at play, while a suicidal friend in Rebecka may or may not be insane, or tormented by divine intervention. Other stories are more fantastic, but still utterly grounded, such as the strange call center in Who is Arvid Pekon?, the timeless fairy world in Augusta Prima or the historical encounters with some sort of creature in Pyret. Still others are way out there, such as in Aunts or the title story, Jagannath. In a lot of ways, she does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft ever did himself.

Location figures into this: I've come across several articles and interviews where Tidbeck highlights her home in Sweden, with its long winters as an inspiration for some of the strange occurrences that she's written about. Coming from New England, with its dark geography and short summers, I can certainly relate to the dark atmosphere that has been injected into these stories.

Tidbeck's stories are uniformly haunting, surreal and sublime, and the collection as a whole is a wonder to behold. There's little surprise to see that the book is recommended by such authors as Ursula K. LeGuin and China Miéville, and Jagannath easily falls into the Weird subgenre, as easily as it can be classified into any genre. The stories are a bit odd, and should place Tidbeck on every reader's must-read list from here on out. I for one, can't wait to see what she has coming up next.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

Cover Image Nicholas de Monchaux's Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a stunning history of the development of NASA's A7L EVA Space Suit. Used on the Apollo and Skylab missions during the heights of the Space Race, the space suit is quite possibly one of the more recognizable images of mankind’s existence in space. In this extraordinary book, he outlines what we know in abstract form: that the lunar landings were an event that was the cumulative efforts of thousands, if not millions of people across a huge number of industries. The real triumph of Apollo isn't the steps that made history on the moon: it's all of the steps in the decades before that got them there. Laid out in 21 chapters (the same number of layers that went into a space suit), and covered in a latex dust jacket, de Monchaux methodically drills into the development of a garment that would protect an astronaut in the extreme, inhospitable environment of space. In doing so, he covers far more than just the evolution of the spacesuit: he provides an in depth history of how we went to space and the impact that it had, touching on social, military and political influences.

It's impossible to oversell the book: what de Monchaux has put together an exceptional piece of history, one that's eminently readable and beautiful to behold. Laid out with numerous sources with every chapter, photographs and diagrams throughout, it’s a strikingly engaging read. Potentially dense from the outside description, we're treated to a wide-ranging examination of the background, development and execution of the iconic, all while the book covers everything from the bra industry to the New Look fashion collection by Dior to the military industrial complex and the Cold War.

While these connections seem completely unrelated and separate from Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, we come to find that they are incredibly and intricately intertwined. Spacesuit begins far before NASA and Apollo were conceived of in the 1760s, when mankind was first searching for ways to come up off the ground, first in balloons. What follows is a story that follows mankind's experiences in the extremes, and we find out not only why such protection is needed, but how we figured out that we needed it in the first place.

In a large way, Spacesuit is the story of technical evolution in the much larger context of humanity's greatest technological achievement. NASA was a complicated organization that has its roots in a number of diverse fields. Custom fitted for the Apollo and Skylab astronauts, the research, development and production of each space suit was the product of an incredible organizational structure that NASA oversaw from beginning to end, working closely with partner organizations, such as the International Latex Corporation, among many others. The space suits were constructed to exceedingly minute tolerances, and accompanied by reams of paperwork certifying every single component and step along the way.

Alongside the evolution of technology, Spacesuit contains a parallel narrative of the rise of NASA's organizational structure, in how planners oversaw the development of the world's most complicated machines and processes. The story of Apollo’s spacesuits is a microcosm for NASA as a whole: innovative, but bureaucratic, it shows the enormity of the challenge laid down by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962. Accomplished in hindsight, this history demonstrates just how utterly impossible the task would have likely been had it not been for the expertise in both public and private organizations. In addition to the technical and historical content, de Monchaux looks back philosophically at the end, examining the very nature of systems in nature, and how utterly deceptively complex a project such as Apollo really is.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is the rare extraordinary book that provides such a wide-reaching view of the workings of the space industry that brought us to the Moon and back. Frequently, I found myself almost faced with numerous facts across all number of fields, from fashion and society to computing to military history and the Cold War. de Monchaux's words are deceptively easy to read, dense with information, yet shedding the dry, pedantic nature of an academic text. In telling the story of the space suit, we're treated to something much greater: a story of recognizing and realizing impossibility, and then overcoming it with a clear vision of what to accomplish. This book is a must-read for a wide range of people: those interested in the history of the Space Race, certainly, but also those with an eye towards project management and leadership. This book outlines the complicated nature of NASA and its task, and shows that it wasn't just a handful of astronauts who deserve all of the credit for stepping on the moon.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

Saladin Ahmed's debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon has been getting a lot of attention since its release earlier this year. It's a fantastic novel, right out of the gate, gripping and engaging, but it's also been getting quite a bit of attention for its location. Epic fantasy set in a recognizable Middle East - inspired world; it's a far cry from the pseudo-Middle-Ages-European settings that most worlds seem to inhabit.

For all of the hand-wringing lately about how little innovation there is in the fantasy world when it comes to actual world building, Ahmed's story is a nice change of pace; not because an author has bowed to public pressure and recognized that they can break out of the pack, but because he's been writing about this for a while now.

Throne of the Crescent Moon isn't all that notable within the fantasy genre because it's set somewhere besides Europe: it's notable because it's an incredibly strong, character-driven narrative. It’s the first fantasy novel that I’ve read in a while where all of the characters really work to own their destiny, and that *they*, not some long forgotten prophesy has guided their actions to make them realize who they really are. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

The line of storytelling that has been troubled me lately is the prophetic style of fantasy, and it's one reason why I tend to favor more science fiction-flavored stories in general, which tends to avoid it. Far too often, character lives have been pre-determined, with the central focus revolving around the character realizing their inherent importance or internal strengths. Far more interesting to me is when the characters move the plot forward on their own, with their own actions helping or hindering them. Thankfully, this is largely what I've found over the course of reading Throne of the Crescent Moon with its three central characters: Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, a ghul hundter of Dhamsawaat, Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla's assistant, and Zamia Badawi, the shapeshifting protector of her band. The trio is deeply and at times, broadly flawed, but as the novel progresses, there’s an increasing recognition of this, and growth to overcome it.

A murder triggers the opening of the novel, as a powerful dark presence rises around the city of Dhamswaat, draws in the elder Doctor and his young, naïve assistant, and the young protector together amidst the backdrop of political revolution and corruption in the city. Following the trail of the gruesome murders, the unlikely band comes across a much greater conspiracy that threatens their whole world.

The plot isn't terribly original, but Ahmed's richly textured world more than makes up for it. The streets of Dhamsawatt in particular are a delight to read. Vividly written, the city and characters are captured in their entirety. Defined by their flaws, each character essentially works to overcome some of their learned nature (or, it's clear that some of them already have), presenting a nice ensemble of characters that felt very real to me.

Ahmed’s writing is the last main pillar of the novel, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is a deftly written story that pulls the reader along effortlessly. His prose is crisp, detailed and allowed me to burn through the book in just a couple of sittings, something that feels like an ever-rarer joy to do. The book is a short read, but ultimately a satisfying novel, one that has left me awaiting more installments of Ahmed's fascinating world. He’s certainly an author worth checking out and watching for the future.

The Lion The Beast The Beat

The Lion the Beast the Beat Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a band on the upswing. Enormously popular in Vermont from their first album, it's been quite something to have seen a band go from playing small gigs around town to major venues across the country. With their latest album, The Lion The Beast The Beat now out, the band is reaching new heights.

The group's self-titled 'debut' landed two years ago, which came after three prior albums (two independantly produced - Original Soul and Nothing But Water - and their first under a major record label, This Is Somewhere), and was a mixed affair. The production was great, but the album was lacking some of that energy and whimsey that really made heads turn. This latest album still has the major record label fingerprints but they've delivered a superb album that captures Grace's fantastic voice much better. It's a strong album, and bodes well for their future.

In a way, The Lion the Beast the Beat is Grace personified. All of her albums have felt deeply personal, but this one makes the jump over to the singer as a literal mechanical component: a vinyl record. Turntable is a sexually charged number that puts Grace spinning around a record player, while Never Goes Back brings in the idea that a person's life can be scratched just like a record can be.

There's a lot to love in this album with a lot of variety. Title track, The Lion the Beast the Beat perfectly mirror the energy that you'll see at one of their live shows, while Never Goes Back feels much like a throwback to the 1980s and Stars shows out her country influences nicely. There's others still, like Loneliest Soul that are just strange and very different from her usual sound, but very fun to listen to. At the center of it all is Grace Potter and her fantastic voice, which runs up and down the register effortlessly.

There's a little big of everything on The Lion The Beast The Beat, and the entire album feels like it's moved from the safe territory that their last album seemed to drift to. Potter's music has always felt like it's a bit on the edge, and it's nice to see them back to having a bit of fun.

Review: Caliban's War

Caliban's War (Expanse Series #2)Caliban's War, James S.A. Corey's follow-up to the Hugo-nominated Leviathan Wakes takes readers back to the well-realized world of The Expanse. It's an all guns blazing thrill-ride that ups the stakes in the Expanse and keeps me wanting more.

Picking up several months after the events of its predecessor, we find James Holden, who had survived the Eros event and started a system-wide war between the various planetary factions, is now running missions for the Outer Planets Alliance. At the same time, Earth and Mars have returned to an uneasy relationship, with their forces ready to open up on one another across numerous fronts. Praxidike Meng, a botanist on the breadbasket of the Outer Planets, Ganymede, finds his daughter has been kidnapped after a mysterious threat is encountered by UN and Martian Marines. The two groups of Marines are attacked, leaving a single survivor: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, who is ordered to accompany Martian diplomats to Earth to sort out what happened. There, she meets Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN politician working to prevent outright war between various factions of the Solar System.

Where I'd describe Leviathan Wakes as a robust space opera story, Caliban's War strays far closer to the Military Science Fiction subgenre. This book is packed with quite a bit of military action from the get-go, and throughout the novel, it's approached in a well-thought-out way. When the bullets aren't flying, we see a considerable amount of political work that help make up the backend of any military action, which keeps up a certain amount of tension and adds depth to the book as a whole. The result is a military science fiction novel that gets both the action and the motivations for fighting right on.

Following the end of Leviathan Wakes, with the death of one of the central characters, Corey introduces a number of new characters: notably, Bobbie, the Martian Marine gunnery sergeant who survives an early encounter with what appears to be a new form of the protomolocule. In addition to Bobbie, Praxidike Meng, a botanist from Ganymede plays a key role in the search for his daughter and Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN Undersecretary of Executive Administration have come in to accompany New Characters, trying to get everyone to listen to one another. As a whole, the entire group of new faces is a welcome one, keeping the relationships between the existing characters interesting. Each are nicely assembled with some familiar parts: the tough as nails Marine, the somewhat clueless scientist, and the hard ass politician, and have some other points that round them all out nicely: Bobbie suffering deeply from the loss of her platoon, and Avasarala's about face personality when it comes to her grandchildren. Bobbie Draper in particular has become one of my favorite characters in the series thus far. Tough and determined, Draper is a great example of a strong female character that doesn't really conform to a lot of the molds, and one that wasn't thrown into the series to simply fill out the gender balance.

Caliban's War follows a similar formula as Leviathan Wakes did: a girl vanishes, people attempt to find her, Holden tries to broadcast information to the solar system, all while big picture political elements are at work towards their own nefarious ends, before quite a lot of action happens. It's not a bad formula to follow, and while the story doesn't retell the first one, it does make it predictable at points. Following an exciting opening, the predictability allowed some of the necessary setup to slow down the book for a while, before the last act brings all of the diverse elements together and end the book with a bang. As the story accelerates towards the finish line, so to does the stakes, and this second novel becomes a fantastic bridge for the rest of the presumed trilogy. (There are a further four books and several short stories planned at this point). A major cliff-hanger moment down to the last line of the book makes me hope that at some point, HBO will pick up the books for a television series.

Like Leviathan's Wake, the two authors who comprise James S.A. Corey, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, have done a knock-out job when it comes to the world that they've created. Hearty, durable and dripping with details, Caliban's War gives you all of the major food groups and desert. They layer on some new details that weren't extensively covered in the first book through the new characters, and we're privy to new parts of the Solar System that open up the world even more. If anything, Caliban's War does an even better job with working in the world, sustaining the storyline while not having to introduce the reader to a completely new world and storyline. If anything, it's more focused and to the point, while covering a lot of ground towards what is building up to be an epic time in the solar system.

I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, and Caliban’s War is a fantastic addition to what I suspect will be a great series of books. For all of the talk about science fiction going away in favor of urban fantasy or some other spectrum of speculative fiction, it does a great job showing that the stories that can be told in space aren’t going anywhere, all while blending great storytelling and characters, and giving us a new world to look forward to revisiting.