Book Review: Golak

This review originally posted on SFFWorld.com.

Golak is Part 1 of The Deadlands Trilogy, a story set in a post-apocalyptic near-future society reeling from a collapse due to ecological, scientific, and political catastrophes. Our main character is Jonah, a young man on the cusp of becoming an adult who fights every rule set before him by his elders. Living in a small, enclosed, god-fearing and sheltered community, this breeds trouble for Jonah and his family.

The story begins with an attack on their village. The golaks, the result of terrible genetic experiments, approach the village walls pleading for food and help. The villagers, along with Jonah and his brother, attack the golaks, driving them off.

In the process, Jonah kills two of the golaks who look a lot like a woman and child instead of the monsters he expected. After the ordeal, once everyone is safe behind the village walls, they realize Jonah’s younger sister, outside the walls grazing her cow, has been taken by the fleeing golaks.

A search party is organized, including Jonah, his estranged brother, and another village boy who is slated to marry Jonah’s sister. They scour the nearby woods, but do not find her. Jonah is convinced if they just keep at the golak’s trail, they’ll find her. Jonah loves his sister and will do anything to save her, but the elders in the search party determine it is too late. The girl is lost. They order that everyone turn back before it gets too dark.

Against their wishes, Jonah and the other village boy run off in the night to hunt the golaks and find where they are. Early the next morning, they find them in a cave, but there is no way he and his friend can hope to enter their lair and/or fight off the golaks, who are described as, basically, ugly neanderthals.

After a long day waiting for the golaks to go back into their cave, Jonah and his friend rush back to the village for reinforcements. Again, a group is organized but Jonah is not allowed to go. For his initial disobedience, he is told he can not go and so he waits.

The party returns, but everyone who had gone are terribly affected by what they have seen and though they have Jonah’s sister’s body, she has been beaten and tortured. She is not the same person and she clings to her betrothed, barely able to function.

The story continues with a devastating turn of events that will scar Jonah for the rest of his life. And throughout his sister’s recovery, Jonah’s mind is reaching for answers about himself and the world around him. Answers that no one will give him.

The society he lives in is based on fear, secrets, and the suppression of knowledge. All things Jonah continually butts his head against while he searches to help his sister and the village. This long, searching story ends with a series of disturbing and horrific revelations about who Jonah is and what he will become.

The author is a seasoned writer in Denmark. Though I read a translation, it is clear that Ms. Josefine Ottesen knows how to draw out the most emotion out of a scene. Many times I found myself on the verge of tears and a few times I shut down my Nook, angry with a decision Jonah’s father made or furious over the self-imposed impotence of his mother. Ms. Ottesen knows about secrets and the harm they can do and she yielded that idea to its fullest in her book. And for a young adult book, I was so happy to see the adults in the book portrayed as flawed (oh, deeply flawed in this case) characters and not used as stupid props to push our hero’s story along.

Despite all this book has going for it and even though I managed to finish this lengthy novel, in the end, I found this book most off-putting.

Incest and inappropriate sexual relations run amok in the town, as does the male-dominated culture that determines not only behavior but marriages, often favoring the men. Women have self-regulated themselves to willing sub-participants in a patriarchal society. In addition, they use religion in its most controlling form to proliferate fear and ignorance. If that’s not enough to leave a very bad smear on your brain, there’s poor Jonah’s fate that will leave you truly horrified.

In my opinion, the story’s greatest failing is all the waffling. Boy, does this boy waffle.

Does he follow his heart and mind, learn new things and improve the village as best as he can, or does he follow the orders from his elders, do as he is told and show no individuality or special knowledge?

Jonah struggles with these questions for the entire book. One day he exalts in learning new things and the next he is self-admonishing himself to be more like those around him. He is a perpetual pendulum and at times during the story’s narrative, I got confused as to whether he was in his manic I-can-do-anything-phase or his depressed I-must-do-what-I-am-told-phase. In fact, I think even the author got confused somewhere in the middle of the novel.

Regardless, the author does do a good job of making us feel how hard and terrible the young man feels about himself and his place in the world. I felt his anguish and was truly sorry for him (and especially his sister). I wanted the boy to rail against his elders and his family for demanding that he be anything but himself.

In the end, however, someone else makes that decision for him.

In a fit an anger over the loss of something special to him, he strikes out, sealing his fate as an outsider. I was very disappointed that Jonah didn’t come to the conclusion to leave on his own, but rather it was thrust upon him by the actions of others, and his uncontrolled reaction to that action. I guess, that’s true to life, but I had wanted it to be his decision to leave that repressive society and not a default condition based on an irreversible action.

APOV (atheist point of view):

This was a very hard read for me. The story characters surrounding Jonah made me sick to my stomach. From the women kowtowing to a new form of religion to the men taking advantage of their god-given right to guide their folk as they saw fit. The harsh community they set up seemed designed to deliberately punish themselves for what they saw as their failings in society. It is hinted that many of the elders in this group had direct knowledge or were somehow responsible or a part of what caused the collapse or shift in society. They all agreed that going back to a repressive, patriarchal society would be the right thing to do, would set things proper, and ensure that their offspring did not make the same mistakes as they did.

Really? That’s your premise? The best these highly intelligent and educated elders could come up with was re-inventing Christian doctrine at its worst?

Ug. Again, the thought just made me sick to my stomach and Ms. Ottesen does not shy away from playing out that premise to its fullest. From physical to mental control, the elders were the real monsters in this book and not the genetically altered. It really drove home to me why religious dogma is not only wrong, but dangerous.

Given the distasteful setting, Jonah not making his own decisions, and the fact that it took an incredible amount of words to get to the end, this is a book that did not leave me wanting more of Jonah’s story, even though I think it is a story worth telling.

Book Review: The Cutting Room The Complete Season

Review first appeared on SFFworld.com.

This is one of those amazing finds on Amazon that make it worth slogging through all the ‘less than perfect’ self-published novels. Once you start reading, this book is hard to put down. But before I start gushing too much about this time-travel tale of mystery and deception, allow me give you a rundown of the story.

Initially released as a serial, The Cutting Room’s first section introduces the reader to Blake Din’s world, a world where a boy is on the cusp of being brutally murdered – again. But Blake has traveled back in time to stop it.

Okay, wait, back up.

Not our timeline. That’s Primetime, and strictly off-limits. No one goes back to mess with Primetime, but havoc can and does ensue in earth’s multiple, parallel timelines.

So why is Blake visiting a parallel universe to save one boy? Is one boy’s life worth the potential ripples of change that could drastically change that timeline?

Well, yes, it is, because the killer is from Primetime and preying upon the multiverse. It’s Blake’s, along with a cadre of time-travel agent’s, job to stop them.

When Blake arrives a week before the death of that six-year-old boy, his task is to find the killer before the killer can carve up the boy. Blake stakes out potential suspects using 1970’s technology and his instincts. He gets close, but he’s running out of time. He does the one thing that he shouldn’t – contact the victim. Together, the boy and Blake manage to allude the murderer. But when Blake returns to Primetime, his superior informs him that the boy ends up dying anyway. More than ten years later in his timeline, he has a fatal car accident.

Did Blake fail or was his death just fate?

Blake intends to find out. In the process, he tells us his own fate and it includes dinosaurs.

We travel with our hero to a futuristic world where Blake and his new partner, Vette, have seven days to thwart another murder. They soon find themselves embroiled in a mystery that spans multiple timelines. They fail at saving their target, but they don’t give up. In the third part of the series, they travel as far back as the western frontier town of Brownville in hopes of finding the criminal time-travelers that are unraveling that timeline at the source of their meddling. The two find they are always one step behind the criminals. Blake and his partner try to outsmart the rogue elements, but only after spending a lifetime together do they get close to the answer.

A first person narrative that is steeped in hard-boiled detective language, I fell hard for our hero. For me, he’s a great character. Blake Din is nothing like most modern detectives we see on TV or in our fiction. He doesn’t have a drinking problem (thank goodness!), nor is he constantly chasing skirts. He’s smart, dedicated and does right by whomever he encounters. He’s just a good guy up against impossible circumstances. He wants to set the world(s) right. Frankly, he’s the sort I like to read about.

The pacing in The Cutting Room is quick, but the writing is vivid and poignant. I can’t begin to list all the profound and funny one-liners Blake doled out on a regular basis. I laughed out loud many times and was brought to tears a few times, too. Though his writing is spare, the author packs emotion into every scene. When I got to the end of the story, I just didn’t want it to end. Though there is inconsistency in the plot, don’t let it fret you too much. This is a time-travel story, and what time-travel story makes perfect sense? They just don’t. Read The Cutting Room and enjoy the journey through Blake’s many lives. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Book Review: The Eighth Court

This review originally published on SFFWorld.com

11747700This is the fourth book of The Courts of the Feyreurban fantasy series by Mike Shevdon. With a series this long, it is very hard for me to exclude any spoilers. So, you’ve been warned!

For a quick recap, please read my review of the first (Sixty One Nails)second (The Road to Bedlam), andthird (Strangeness and Charm) books to get a sense of how this series has shifted over time. I’ll do a quick summary below (hint: spoilers abound), but there’s so much going on you might get a little lost. My apologies in advance.

The Feyre have long lived among humans. With a strained treaty between them and humans, with one of the Feyre Courts wanting to eliminate humans altogether, and with the fact that Feyre and humans have started interbreeding, there are plenty of problems for our hero, Niall Peterson, to attend to after he realizes he’s one of the dreaded waithkin, the type of aforementioned Feyre that want to end humanity.

Niall Peterson came late to his Feyre powers after suffering a heart attack on the London underground. He’s recently divorced, feeling estranged from his only daughter, and a bit out of shape. He’s saved by Blackbird, a several hundred year old half-fey, but only temporarily. For the entire first book in this series, Niall is running for his life and he’s lucky enough to have Blackbird along to help him (and fall in love with).

In the second book, The Road to Bedlam, the overall conflict between the untainted waithkin and the fey-mongrels (half Feyre, half human) is brought to the fore, introducing a new twist. Feyre lines have gone stagnant and since the High Court (made up of seven lords from the Seven Courts) cannot figure out what to do about it, it seems that the fey have been quietly have a sort of sexual revolution. There are half-breeds everywhere. And a secret government branch has started to use and abuse them – including Niall’s daughter.

In Strangeness and Charm, the story shifts to tell Alex’s (Niall’s daughter) story. She has been traumatized by the events that occurred to her during her government incarceration, and being a teenager, she’s having a lot to cope with. She just wants to fit in somewhere and she finds a group of half-fey peers that are willing to take her in (because they couldn’t manage to kill her). But, unfortunately, that proves disastrous because their leader is trying to destroy the world. However, Niall managers to save us all (again), while he learns more about who he really is and the stage is set for the waithkin to make their move.

Which they do in The Eighth Court. The untainted, pure Feyre, are divided into Seven Courts, but with the emergence of the new half-breeds, another one is proposed so as to deal with the special problems that the half-fey/half-humans pose to the Feyre and to humanity. Blackbird, its de facto leader, is negotiating hard with the other court lords to sort out their differences and actually physically create an Eighth Court to handle all the half-breed’s business.

As a court Warder, sworn to protect all the court lords, with no bias and regardless of court affiliation, Niall is, of course, in the midst of all this sea-change in the Feyre culture. Not to mention Blackbird is his wife and mother to his newborn son. If that wasn’t enough, his daughter falls in love with a colleague. Among all this, the waithkin maneuver events so they can move in and finally do want they have been gunning to do since, well, since forever – take over.

The Eighth Court starts out with a mysterious interchange of information. Someone is betraying the High Court (where all the courts gather to settle differences and plot against each other) and offering Niall’s hide. And from there on out, nothing is as it seems. Niall is pulled between his family and his duty throughout the story, making it hard for the story to gain any momentum. We then get yanked from Niall’s trials to Alex’s growing affections for a man she barely knows, and who may be a 1000 years older than her. But, hey, she’s an adult…more or less. And the prophecy first hinted at in Sixty One Nails comes into play, sealing all their fates, while Blackbird makes one of the biggest mistakes in her life as a lady.

Now, I was really looking forward to this last (I thought it was the last) installment to the series. I had put off reading it so that I could savor the story and the ultimate sword fight that I just knew – just knew! – must happen between Niall and Raffmir (Niall’s waithkin cousin). I even forgave the waffling, disjointed story that is the bulk ofThe Eighth Court, anticipating that the final fight would be worthy of all the unnecessary setup.

Meh.

It wasn’t.

I was pretty disappointed in the end, more of a fizzle than a bang.

After reading, I thought my feelings about this book were too harsh and unwarranted. I thought, maybe it was just me. The story just didn’t resonate with me. But then, while writing this review and re-reading my notes on the previous books, I realized how much fun the other books are. Niall is a great character and his magical ability set him apart from most of the other Feyre and half-fey. Not only that, he really struggled to reconcile his humanity with his fey nature. His story up till this book had been vibrant and interesting. But in The Eighth Court?

Meh.

The first three-quarters of the book seemed very disjointed. We jumped from several POVs in rapid succession, making it hard to figure out what’s going on, Niall managed to get a human killed (right under his nose!), and the dreaded waithkin weren’t all that dreadful.

And to top it off, there were an inordinate amount of typographic errors.

Yup. I said it.

I don’t normally mention typos. They’re like errant nose hairs. Best not to mention them in polite company. And I normally do not need to mention them. Any book worthy of my time to write a review for generally do not contain a noticeable amount of typos. Oh, all books have ‘em. Like zits, it is impossible for a few typos not to squeeze through. But when I find myself highlighting line after line because they contain a typo and not because they are worthy of remembrance, well, let’s just say, I noticed. So, shame on Angry Robot for not putting this through the proofreader one last time.

(NOTE: I did not receive a review copy. I bought my copy at its full price on Barnes and Noble – before Angry Robot’s big sale!)

So, should you read The Eighth Court?

If you are new to Mike Shevdon’s work, I would say no. Mr. Shevdon is an excellent writer. I’m a fan and I will continue to read whatever he puts out, but this book doesn’t reflect his talent. Start with Sixty One Nails.

If you’ve read all the others in this series, The Eighth Court does (for the most part) wrap up all the story threads, and, for some, that may satisfy.

Book Review: Who’s Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?

Review first appeared on SFFWorld.com.

Who’s Killing The Great Capes of Heropa by Andrez Bergen

Published by Perfect Edge (September 27, 2013)

Jack, an unassuming kid from the street’s of a post-apocalyptic Melbourne, finds himself dropped in a 1940’s era city steeped in glass, panache, and superheroes. And he’s one of ‘em – Southern Cross.

A bit confused and not quite ready, he’s led up into one of the tallest buildings of the city and shown to the lair of the latest heroes trying to keep things in order on Heropa. But Jack soon finds out that nothing is what it seems and the world he had tried to escape from might be better than this superhero filled one, because someone is killing off the capes (both good and bad).

While the resident capes busy themselves with, well, their vanity, Southern Cross takes it upon himself to figure out who it is. Throughout his investigations, we learn more about how Heropa functions and the capes that cause havoc on the city every day. Southern Cross eventually pursues a potential suspect, a blando (a non-superhero in Heropa, and therefore not a real person but a piece of software code). Along the way, he’s joined by a superhero reporter and falls in love with a bank teller.

A homage to the superhero comic book genre, Who’s Killing The Great Capes of Heropa does its best to engage the reader with a fast-paced plot and interesting superhero antics, but fails on several fronts for me. Primarily because I just didn’t see the point of the story. Because it is all set in a virtual world and doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the real world of devastated Melbourne, the story just didn’t feel important to me, even when we find out what really happened to the people who couldn’t make it in Heropa. The second reason is all the tangents on comic book lore. While interesting, there were definitely times I started skimming to get back to the story.

Regardless, Mr. Bergen has a penchant for snappy dialogue and the author does have a vivid imagination that he imparts well to the reader. I can easily recall specific images of some of the scenes of the book as well as some of characters. The Brick is a collection of animated bricks and Bergen’s description of him really brought him to life. And Pretty Amazonia was deliciously creepy. Though the superhero characters might be a bit two-dimensional, they are as unique as the real people behind the masks and are completely relatable. The story line is unpredictable, and I rather enjoyed all the comic book references, though I admit much was lost to me since I’m not a comic book aficionado.

If you can’t get enough of superheroes, then Who’s Killing The Great Capes of Heropa may be one to put on your reading list. It has an unlikely hero in a world awash with superheroes.

Book Review: A God-Blasted Land

Originally posted on Goodreads.

My feelings for this book are conflicted. Every time I see the cover (I have the seemingly generic one featured to the right), there are good things associated with this story. It’s got an interesting premise (gods have not only forsaken this world, but purposely destroyed it), a great mixture of fantasy and science fiction, and it reads well. But then I remember the young-adult story progression, and I shudder. Though I want to continue this author’s The Bastard Cadre series, I just can’t make myself do it. But I will keep this author on my watch list and I look forward to reading any of his more adult-oriented novels.

With that said, let’s get to the story!

The God-Blasted Land is about a young man named Avril. His mentor and guardian drags him around an apocalyptic world that has been Cleansed by the gods. Their world is a mix of fantasy (shape-shifting dragons!) and science fiction (modern cities with motorcycles, cleaning robots, and laser-like guns – oh, and swords, of course).

There’s not much sense to the mix of gods, magic, and tech, but that’s okay because the story is pretty darn good. If you want to enjoy the ride, just ignore the genre-mashup and run with it.

For soon, so too are our heroes running from the gods. Ethan, Avril’s mentor, tries his best to keep Avril from the manipulations of the Lord they are bonded to, but he fails.

This leaves Avril alone and on the run. He encounters a girl, Ranora, who has a special power allowing her to convince people of whatever she wants by just talking to them. They, of course, hook up and now they are both running from the assassins who want to capture Avril and the Lord who wants his bonded man back.

The reasons for both are not entirely explained, but it is hinted that the Lords and gods are manipulating what is left of humanity and Avril is key to those machinations.

This short, entertaining read ends with Avril’s future on the cusp of change. He has returned to his lord, who allows him to decide his own fate. We find out this kid may very well end up fighting the gods.

The author’s writing is professional, clear and easy to follow. This is a quick read and you will most likely enjoy it. Avril, though a bit dense at times, is relatable and Ranora, his new sidekick, is admirable in her determination to avoid the violence around her (though that proves impossible).

APOV: I really loved how the author used the concept of gods in this book. The gods are very real in this universe and they deal directly with their on-the-world avatars (the Lords) and shape humanity in ways that are truly frightening. The gods do not directly control people, but they manipulate them and vie for favor as fervently as you’d expect jealous, attention-seeking gods would do. If gods were real, this is how I’d imagine the world would end up, blasted apart for their amusement. I’d like to think our young hero will save what’s left of humanity by getting rid of the very notion of a god. Hmmm, maybe I’ll have to finish the series to find out…

Overall, for me, it has too many of what I see as YA ‘trappings’: Adults are easily foiled (though they are supposed to be great warriors/assassins) by a young adult who can barely keep his thoughts straight. If you don’t mind YA, please do read this book. It’s fun. (And the dragons are super cool.)

The State of The Atheist

Howdy Readers!

2013-Alby

I thought I’d let you all know what to expect on this here blog for the rest of the year. Sort of a state-of-the-blog sort of post.

My aim is to read and review a variety of fiction and non-fiction. Primarily, I focus on books with the following characteristics:

  1. Written by atheists (though I’m not exclusive)
  2. Requests submitted via SFFWorld.com that pique my interest
  3. Things I just want to read (this trumps all, regardless of book review requests and/or whether the author is an atheist)

I post my reviews to the following sites:

  • SFFWorld.com (but only if I think the readership of that site would enjoy the book I read, so that might exclude books that deal specifically with atheist issues or atheism)
  • Goodreads
  • This Blog! The Atheist’s Quill

Occasionally, I’ll also post a review blurb on Amazon.com under my real name. However, it will just be a one-sentence first-impression sort of review.

What’s the likelihood that I’ll read and review your book?

Pretty slim.

Unfortunately, I only read 24 to 32 books a year. That’s two and a half books a month – at best! There are thousands of books I wish I had time to read, but, sadly, there are not enough hours in a day.

Regardless of those scary numbers, take heart. My book reading list for the year is not written in stone. I change my mind quite often and I just might pick up your book to read when I go to bed tonight.

NOTE: if you’ve requested a book review from me, and I’ve accepted a review copy, but you still haven’t seen the review, here are the possible reasons why:

  1. I did not like your book. Sorry. I will not review a book I do not like nor a book for which I cannot get past the first page.
  2. I’m not in the mood for your book. Your book may be great, but it is not grabbing me at the moment. I may read/review it in the future. Maybe.
  3. Your genre just isn’t for me, and would be extremely unfair for me to attempt to review. (No young adult fiction, please.)

With that said, please expect to see two to three book reviews posted here per month.

Thanks for reading.

Book Review: Over the Edge of the World

This review original posted over at SFFWorld.com.

Over the Edge of the World – Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe is an illuminating read. Filled with wonders, betrayal, murder, navigational feats, culture, and more history trivia to wow your friends – this is a book worth a few weeks of your time.

The beginning chapters, in which the preceding events leading up to Magellan’s voyage are detailed, can be a chore to get through, but once you get past the list of players and their interconnections (repeated for memorization, I think), this is an amazing historical account of a journey you will hardly recognize.

In the new world, danger and mutiny abounds on the five ships, manned by an international crew that have little love between them. So little, in fact, it is amazing Magellan got as far as he did. Though in his wake, he did leave many sailors dead and, one way or another, lost four of his ships.

However, the extraordinary Portuguese navigator did make it across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a feat that no other European (that we know of) could boast at the time. In addition, he set the stage for Spanish exploration of the Philippines and the famous Spice Islands that drew merchants and explorers alike with a siren’s call. If nothing else, Magellan’s journey is an adventure worthy of exploration and Mr. Laurence Bergreen does so with depth and authority, highlighting interesting characters on the crew as well as their fearless leader.

Mr. Laurence Bergreen chronicles the day to day hardships the crew endured to survive on a ship cut off from their normal routes and supply chain. We get tantalizing glimpses into the lives of the officers and what it meant for them to be on this voyage. And more importantly, we see what drives a man like Magellan into the relatively unknown with “quixotic delusions of grandeur”.

Though the author does his best to piece together the events of the journey from surviving documents, he is hampered by the fact that Magellan did not survive the journey, nor did his journals. This story of their voyage draws heavily on the journals of those who did survive (and had reason to distort the truth) and the Venetian Antonio Pigafetta.

Pigafetta was a man keenly interested in the new world and decidedly influenced by his faith. He wasn’t a scientist nor a merchant, but rather a traveler. He joined the expedition simply because he wanted to sail around the world. And that he did. Without his journal, we would not have the insight of just how much of a culture clash the Europeans experienced when they finally landed on the island shores of the Philippines.

I particularly found Pigafetta’s descriptions of the native customs enlightening. In the modern Philippines, much of the population are Catholics. How much different would their culture be today had it not been so heavily influenced by the Spanish and Portuguese? Though the Chinese and Arab traders had long preceded the Europeans, they were not interested in conquest as the Portuguese and Spanish were. Thus, prior to their arrival, the Philippine culture had remained, more or less, intact when Magellan and his crew landed. Pigafetta’s dismay at their sexual practices and social norms clearly show a meeting that changed the course of the Philippines like nothing they had experienced before. For this one reader, Pigafetta’s account, however flawed, brought clarity to the situation and made me appreciate how terribly important ‘first contacts’ are.

At times, this tome does read a bit too much like a textbook. Despite this, Mr. Bergreen’s story of Magellan is worth the read and will change your perception of the navigator. He was both madman and commander. Stubborn and brilliant. Faithful and extremely lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at things). If you like reading about sailors living at the edge of their world, pushing boundaries like no one else had done before, this book will sate your need for historic, high-sea adventure.

Notes on the layout of the ebook: The book includes chapters listing principal characters, measurements and a prologue. The main part of the book is divided into three books, each containing four to six chapters. In addition, there is a section on the historic sources that highlights the controversy surrounding Magellan’s voyage. Also included is a bibliography. And though lacking a linked-index, the publisher did include a ‘Searchable Terms’ section that I found useful.

Book Review: The Wolves of Paris

This review originally posted on SFFWorld.com.

The Wolves of Paris is a short, fun read of murder, mayhem, and werewolves in 15th century Paris. Told primarily through three main characters; two brothers at odds with each other, and the woman they both love;The Wolves of Paris starts out funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but pretty darn close.

Two gate guards, an older, half-blind fellow and his younger compatriot, are freezing as night descends over Paris. The two collect tolls but their minds are decidedly in the gutter, awaiting the appearance of Lade d’Lisle’s bottom as she extends it over the Seine to relieve herself.

As mentioned above, though, one of the guards is half-blind, so he can’t really see her bottom all the way from across the river, but his partner can and he goes into loving detail to describe the young lady’s most fine attributes.

Indeed, this is an amusing opening and the author should be faulted for including it because these two characters do not play a significant role in the book (though one is pivotal), but I just can’t. The description of these two guards enjoying what they can in a terribly boring job hooked me into the story and set the stage for a romping good and eerie tale of bloodshed, men (along with said woman), and wolves.

The guards’ entertainment is interrupted by a late arrival. On his heels is something sinister and dark, shattering their illusion of safety. The next day, Lorenzo and Marco Boccaccio, two Italian brothers, arrive in the city. The two are in town to investigate the mysterious disappearance of their merchant. Lorenzo, a love-struck heretic, is destined to visit the local inquisitor to pay penance, and Marco intends to see about their missing agent.

But no sooner do they pass into the gates of the city center, the two learn of wolves that have attacked the city. And not just any wolves, but loup-garous or wolf-men.

The two brothers take it in stride and continue on their way. This is 15th century Europe, afterall, where the Inquisition grips the countryside like a vice and it is widely accepted that angels and demons are real – why not wolf-men?

Once at the agent’s home, the two brothers realize their suspected truant employee may have run afoul with the local nobility, the church, the wolf-men, or all of the above. They devise a quick plan to ascertain their missing agent’s whereabouts and Lorenzo wastes no time in writing a letter to Lady d’Lisle, the love of his life. The next morning, he visits her only to find that his brother, Marco has beat him to it. Lorenzo is reminded of his penance and church representatives come to collect him.

After a bit of humiliating torture at the hands of a severe prior who has Lorenzo’s soul to save, he and his brother set out on a journey that will have them running for their lives.

In the meantime, Lady d’Lisle is trying to make amends for a deed she sorely wishes she could erase. The wolf-men’s fate and her own are entwined, and if the two brothers do not help her stamp out their existence, more will be lost than her life.

Michael Wallace writes a dashing tale of suspense, religion, intrigue, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. He colors his world with quick and accurate descriptions that keep the story moving briskly while filling out the histories and customs of the land. His characters are well-drawn and likeable, and the situations they find themselves in are touched with equal amounts of horror and humor.

My only fault with this short tale is that I wished it was longer. I also thought many of the fight scenes could have been a bit better developed. Not longer, but maybe more detailed. Some of the things the wolf-men were able to do didn’t quite make sense in my head.

APOV: As an atheist, when reading historic novels or non-fiction, I like my religious zealots to read as realistic as possible. In The Wolves of Paris, with the prior whom targets Lorenzo for penance and later joins the trio to stamp out this new evil plaguing the land, I felt the author depicted his religious fervor in a manner consistent with reality. I also thought the author accurately depicted what a heretic might have encountered from both his family and the church. However, it did feel that punches were pulled. Though subtle, it felt to me that the author was ready to draw individual characters of the church under a bright spot-light, but not the religion itself. In addition, I was surprised how easily the philosophic/religious rift between the brothers mended. That smacked a little too much like convenience.

Even so, just as it is, I highly recommend The Wolves of Paris for those who like authentic, historical places touched with some dangerous and fantastical creatures.

Book Review: Hollow World

This review originally posted on SFFWorld.com.

Hollow World begins with Ellis Rogers being told he is going to die of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and he laughs. No, he’s not a crazy old man. He just knows something his doctor doesn’t: he’s got a time machine sitting in his garage.

Thus begins Ellis’ journey into a future that is both frightening (to him) and awesome (in the true sense of that word). After learning he’s got so little time left to live, Ellis goes home. His estranged wife, Peggy, is there. Ever since his son’s death years ago, their relationship hasn’t been the same. Ellis thinks she loves the TV more than she loves him. And it seems that Ellis doesn’t feel for her the same as he used to either. Though he doesn’t want to hurt her, that doesn’t make him want to stay. After visiting his best friend down at the local bar, a bigoted, ex-football player, Ellis decides he’s going to do it – he’s going to travel to the future. He tells his buddy, Warren, how he figured out the math to get to the future. Even gives Warren the paper and schematic that explains the impossible machine Ellis’ has built – just in case it blows up. Before Ellis leaves, their last conversation touches on all the things wrong in the world; political oppression, racism, social ineptitude of the next generation, and so on. We get a clear sense that Ellis and Warren are god-fearing, 50′s-loving, old dudes hankering for a world that never was and never will be.

When he goes back home, his wife is gone and he discovers something that catapults him to test the machine now; that very night. There’s nothing keeping him in the present and he’s gonna die anyway, so why not?

Miraculously, the time machine works. Ellis finds himself in a forest so majestic he wonders if he got the math right. Could he be on another planet or somewhere in the Amazonian jungle? He’s expecting a great city with skyscrapers and flying cars, not an ancient forest. Regardless, there’s just enough familiarity in the landscape for Ellis to make his way down to a valley that contains, surprisingly enough, the Henry Ford Museum. He’s in Dearborn, Michigan. As he tries to find an entrance to the museum and reconcile the changes in the landscape, he overhears a troubling conversation on the other side of the walled museum compound. To his dismay, it sounds as if there’s a murder in progress. He runs around till he finds the gate and sees something so alarming, it is a wonder he doesn’t have a heart attack.

I am very tempted to describe what he sees, but to do so may spoil the story for you.

Instead, I’ll just say he sees two people from the future. One is dead, the other is covered in the dead person’s blood. And both are naked. The murderer disappears in a slot that appears in the air. And poor Ellis passes out.

When he wakes, he meets more people from the future, one in particular named Pax, and thus begins his true journey. This trip will show him a world where sex, aggression, and some might even say ambition, have been eliminated. After environmental havoc has driven everyone underground, carving out a hollow in the world where it was safe from devastating storms, bioengineering did the rest – creating a humanoid species Ellis can barely recognize.

Pax takes Ellis to Hollow World where he learns that murder is unheard of (even though he just heard/witnessed one) and the world these new humans have built both exhilarates and confounds a person like Ellis*. The new humans are not like him. They don’t have the same needs. Humans have figured out the source of unlimited power. Procreation is not an issue (either the drive or the need). Humans live pretty much forever so the thought of an afterlife (and therefore, a god) just doesn’t make sense. And there doesn’t really seem to be anything in need of conquering or fighting. To Ellis, he sees a hollow world, devoid of desire. This isn’t at all what he thought the future would be like and he’s not sure what to think of it.

But someone does. And he aims to change it in ways that are barbaric by our modern standards, let alone by the morals held by our future brethren. Who this person is and why a recent spate of murders may be linked to that person is a mystery Ellis and Pax rush to discover before all of Hollow World is destroyed.

APOV: One thing about Mr. Sullivan’s writing that is both infuriating and refreshing is his ability to hide his agenda. Or, rather, his very real exploration of both sides of an argument. He does each side so convincingly and with the utmost sincerity, you really can’t tell where his opinion falls. Instead, he allows you, the reader, to make your own conclusions. In the case of spirituality and the existence (and importance) of gods, what this does is force the reader to contemplate each side, experience the story from an opposing viewpoint – no matter how much you disagree with it. In Hollow World, I asked myself: is a godless world really a utopia? Would I be happy there?

I concluded that I would, but not after really contemplating what religion and god means to us in this world – good and bad. I don’t often like to explore the other side, particularly in terms of religion, but Mr. Sullivan makes it so entertaining to do that in Hollow World, I did.

While the story in Hollow World may seem deceptively simply and some may find Ellis naive in his attitudes towards sexual alternatives and deities, I think Mr. Sullivan has painted very realistic characters. Characters that ring so true, they reminded me of colleagues and neighbors who abhor the very idea of tolerating an open society, let alone living in a world where the very morals they uphold simply wouldn’t make sense. With surprisingly familiar, clear, and poignant (sometimes even funny) language, Mr. Sullivan shows us a world where many of the problems we face today have been eliminated – showing the absurdity of our views. But he also shows us why we hold those views so closely to our hearts.

This book made me laugh. It also made me cry. And in the end, it made me think. I highly recommend Hollow World for anyone looking for a book that brushes on and plays out some political and social issues we face today.

* (For my part, I’m ready for Hollow World. Sign me up on the next trip out.)

 

Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades

This review originally posted on SFFWorld.com.

UK VersionThe Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley begins with an ominous prologue: A glimpse into a world where an immortal race once ruled with cold calculation. It is a foreboding start to a series (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne) that will make you question everything you read.

The story begins with Kaden, the heir to the empire, searching for a lost goat near the monastery he’s been attending since a boy. He’s a son of the current human emperor, but he’s treated as any of the other acolytes learning from the Shin monks. The goat must be found and it is his task to do it. What he ends up finding frightens him. But Kaden has learned his lessons well, or at least, well enough to paint a picture. He uses a memory technique, called the Saama’an, to record the exact details of the mangled carcass of the goat. Once back at the monastery, he can then paint the scene in vivid strokes for his umial, his current mentor. However, before he can even eat, he is assigned a new umial, Rampuri Tan, a mysterious monk. His new mentor asks him to paint the scene of the dead goat. But the old monk knows something is missing, and this one is not nearly as nice as the others (he’ll beat Kaden bloody for just any old reason rather than for a good reason). So begins his tutelage under Tan.

We then get to meet Kaden’s brother, Valyn, exploring the remains of a ship and its crew. Along with other cadets of the Kettral, an elite military branch of the empire, they ascertain the ship was attacked by skilled professionals. But exactly who or why is a mystery until Valyn stumbles upon one, near-dead sailor who tells him they were sent to protect him and that there are some within the Kettral ranks plotting against the royal line. He soon finds out his father, the emperor, has been assassinated.

The story alternates between Kaden’s story of growing unease and danger in the remote Bone Mountains, as well as the skills he learns from the hardened Tan, and Valyn’s completion of his training with the Kettral, all the while trying to figure out the mystery of who may be trying to kill him and his brother, along with some other local murders. All this in a richly drawn world that will not disappoint many fans of the epic fantasy genre.

This book has a lot going for it. I know it will become a favorite next year. So…why do I only like it and not love it?

Though this is a secondary-world epic fantasy, the author chose to use the same ethnic trappings that we use in our world: The feisty and sexy red-head, the gorgeous and delicate, almond-eyed Asian, the cocky pilot. Oh, and just about every adult was stupid. Okay, maybe not stupid, but incompetent and ignorant is about as nice as I can put it. Unfortunately, I don’t like young adult fiction. I find that situations young characters in these sorts of novels find themselves in invariably means that all the adults around them are either really incompetent or really stupid. And that’s just how The Emperor’s Blades reads. It’s a young-adult novel couched as an epic fantasy. Nothing wrong with that. Many readers will not see a problem with this at all, and will go on to love this series. But I am not one of those readers. But that’s not all that bugged me.

There are plot devices that look suspiciously like plot holes. Or, that don’t entirely make sense to me. I don’t want to go into specifics and spoil the story, but there are quite a few times when a character acted in a manner that didn’t ring true. And towards the end, a few characters seemed to pop out of thin air for the sole purpose of getting the main characters out of a bind. It all seemed not only a bit convenient, but implausible, too. Given the obvious skill of the writer, these issues may be resolved in later installments, but in the space of 400+ pages, I didn’t come to love the characters. So, I don’t see myself reading the next book.

The APOV:

I thought I’d have a lot to add here in regards to Mr. Staveley’s world-building. The world of the unhewn throne is full of various gods and their accompanying religions, but it all seems like window-dressing. The Shin monks adhere to a “blank” god, much like the Judeo-Christian god, but this god who refuses to speak to its follows, as well as all the gods in this book, and the people who believe in them, only seem to appear for the sake of the providing circumstances for the young main characters to overcome. Again, it is all just window-dressing.

Which, to be fair, is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that as it allows us to concentrate on Kaden’s and Valyn’s inner struggles. But, I guess, I just wanted more out of a world with mythical immortals.

Mr. Staveley writes boldly. His characters live in incredible landscapes and do amazing stunts. The creatures are unique; the writer’s prose evoking both fright and wonder of the world he’s created. The cultural background of the races and people are intriguing. And the author has a knack with witty dialogue and some great world-specific swearing. But in the end, the two brothers’ story didn’t resonate with me. Even so, I think this series will be just right for many readers who like their protagonists head-strong and young (though not particularly astute).