Tag: worlds without end

My review of Leanna Renee Hieber’s steampunk immortality caper is up over at Worlds Without End.  It’s my first completed book in the 2015 WWE Roll Your Own Reading Challenge.  Woo-eee!

RYO_ClearTheShelvesI picked the Clear the Shelves challenge because I’m slightly addicted to buying 99 cent and $1.99 ebooks on Amazon and I’ve got a few free Netgalley ARCs rolling around too (The Eterna Files is one of those ARCs).

Eleven more ebooks to go, to include the Lovecraftian horror of Tim Curran’s Dead Sea and my long-delayed (I hope I can handle it) foray into Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep.

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

YYEEESSSS! YES! This is what I want to read when I want to read a vampire novel.

And get me: I’m addicted to The Vampire Diaries on the CW, I read Anne Rice when I was in high school, and I still consider Stoker’s Dracula to be one of the finest novels ever written (and I can’t stand epistolary novels!). Near Dark kicks Zero Dark Thirty ass in Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial canon, in my opinion, and if you haven’t read Anne Billson’s novel Suckers, you need to immediately. Hopefully this all suffices to establish my street cred as vampire novel evaluator. Notice I’m not mentioning Stephenie whatshernameTwilight here. At least, I’m trying not to.

First, Barbara Hambly is a thinking woman’s writer. Because yes, there are nonthinking women out there. I should know, I am a nonthinking woman sometimes. I read the first Sookie Stackhouse novel (cringe) and ditched the books for HBO’s True Blood adaptation so I could salivate over Alexander Skarsgaard. And there’s of course Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, who is apparently supersexycool (ok, I’m not really sure if she’s that because I haven’t read any Laurell K. Hamilton, but I’m sure I’d prefer Anita Blake over Bella and Edward). There’s now enough vampteen and hip-chick vampire hunter lit out there to make a bookstack that would stretch from here to the Wraith mothership in the Pegasus Galaxy (yes I’m referencing Stargate Atlantis here, and I’m not ashamed). Speaking of the Wraith, what you get with Hambly’s novels is scary vampires. The ones who want you dead because you’re an inferior humanoid food source. The kind of vampires Stoker had in mind.

Anyway, Barbara Hambly’s James Asher novels. Because Those Who Hunt The Night is the first in a series, people. Get on board. And, if you’re not reading my WOGF reviews (it’s ok I know no one is…. I’m sucking at the polls, no vampire bloodsucking pun intended here), you’d also know that without trying (I swear, without trying), I keep choosing novels with serious bromance going on. This one is no different! Well, it definitely starts off differently, however, both in terms of bromance and vampire-human relationships (as recently depicted in film and teen lit, I mean).

Let’s get to the plot, shall we. Or sort of, because I’m really bad at synopses and reviews (see previous three babble-rant paragraphs). Suffice to say, our undead story takes place when and where it damn well should, in early 20th century Britain. Our hero James Asher is an Oxford professor who has a background in the spy trade and a brilliant, headstrong young wife named Lydia who is training to be one of the few female doctors of the time period. You know James is badass because he rides an Indian motorcycle, and Lydia rocks because she isn’t a wilting flower but a sharpwitted scientist who isn’t afraid to perform autopsies.

At the very beginning of the novel, Asher arrives home to find waiting for him the vampire Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena-Ysidro. No, really. Ysidro’s presence confirms the existence of vampires for our hero, and then he pretty much coerces Asher into helping him find out who is murdering vampires in London. You’d be coerced too by a 300 year old superhuman blooddrinker who knows where you live and threatens your wife. The two reach an uneasy bargain, and sleuthing ensues. This isn’t just a vampire novel, it’s a delightfully tense murder mystery and character study with a dash of mad scientism thrown in. James Asher is courageous and resourceful, and so is his wife, and their love story is as important to the book as the bromance between the noble Asher, tormented by his actions during his spy years, and the lonely, ancient Ysidro, who is nobility of a different sort. It’s inevitable that the two men – though really only one of them is a human man – are going to be allies, and you hope despite Ysidro’s age and his coldbloodedness that they will be friends. By the time Asher calls Ysidro by his first name during their scaaaary foray into the Paris catacombs, it’s clear they’re gonna bond and save each others’ lives at some point. Yay! And yet, there’s still that undercurrent of distrust and wariness, punctuated by moments of sly humor. It’s just electric!

Those Who Hunt the Night was published more than ten years after Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, but it’s not a ripoff or some kind of vampire reboot – it’s unique and rewarding. There are three more books in Hambly’s series, which is a wicked little treat! I’m keen to see more of Lydia Asher, whose canny medical know-how helped reveal the mystery at the heart of this story. There are other minor characters in the form of Ysidro’s vampire buddies (and not-so-buddies), and Hambly portrays them as separate personalities, not simply stock villains to be despatched or befriended. One of the best moments of tingly fear comes from a scene in which James meets an abandoned, newly-created vampire thug who has never learned self-control. They have an intense conversation in a dark alley, and Hambly does a masterful job of conveying the vampire’s rage, desperation, and hunger, in sharp contrast to Asher’s brave self-control and quick wits. I was simultaneously terrified, repulsed, saddened, and intrigued.

Hambly has written some great books in other genres as well – you might know her fantasy novel Dragonsbane, and her Benjamin January mystery series. Highly recommended. Me, I’m on to Traveling With The Dead, book 2 in the James Asher series. YES!!!

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

Even though this is a woman-thang reading challenge, I seem to be on a bro-mance roMANce kick lately, witness my lovefest WOGF review of Luck in the Shadows from last month. This month it’s no different, though I didn’t intend to continue the trend. I got The Whitefire Crossing as a free Barnes & Noble download, thinking I’d probably never read it because I already have at least 90 books in my nook library. And yet – I started in on Courtney Schafer’s novel while on the treadmill at the gym, and I didn’t quit (I mean, I quit the treadmill after my usual 3 miles, puh-leeze, but I kept reading the book later at home).

Unlike Luck in the Shadows, there’s no gay love story here, but this is still a tale about the origins of a partnership and a friendship (this is the first book in a trilogy) that two men are both in desperate need of, whether they realize it or not. In the fantasy kingdom of Ninavel, Dev is an outrider, a sort of mountain guide-slash-smuggler between the two magical realms of Alathia and Ninavel, divided by the Whitefire mountain range. He takes a business deal to lead Kiran over the treacherous mountain passes to Alathia with a cargo convoy, assuming that Kiran is just a rich, inexperienced boy, when in actuality the boy is a blood mage with some serious issues, on the run from his scary mage-daddy Ruslan. Though Dev and Kiran come from very different backgrounds, both characters have backstories fraught with childhood abuse and tragedy, both have been influenced by magic, and both have hidden agendas, making them more alike than either of them know.

It was a big surprise to me that I wanted to finish this novel, because right away I was disconcerted by the way the author sets up the two main characters’ points of view.

Lemme break it down for ya: Dev and Kiran’s personalities are distinct, likable, and well-developed, but Schafer writes Dev’s chapters in the first person, and Kiran’s chapters are told from a third-person point of view. I can’t think of any other book where I’ve encountered this, but that doesn’t mean that this trick makes the book unique or better. No, it makes things really confusing, jarring, and disrupts the flow of what otherwise would be a smooth, captivating narrative. I kept thinking my nook was malfunctioning and I’d suddenly switched to a different ebook. I don’t know why an editor would have gone along with this dual-POV gimmick, but TAKE NOTE that I kept reading despite! That speaks a lot to how much I enjoyed the story.

The absolute best part of the book is the setting. One quick Google and you’ll find out that Courtney Schafer is a serious mountain girl with all kinds of badass rock climbing experience. I was impressed that she was able to bring in elements of wilderness skills and survival, as well as a reverence for mountains, and enhance the novel without sacrificing plot, world building, character development, or dialogue.

Most of the plot involves traveling over the mountains and avoiding spies, avalanches, and the evil mage-daddy’s Sauron-style I-will-find-you sorcerer-vision. Too many hyphens there? Too-bad.

There’s a suspenseful ending that of course involves a perceived betrayal, sex, a rescue, and lots of bloody knifey nasty magick (a few times I thought I was watching an episode of Supernatural….Castiel!!! oh wait…).

As a first novel, I could only lament that it didn’t undergo one final edit by someone more ruthless. There’s some incongruous, modern-sounding vocabulary that knocks the tone sideways (a character says “yeah, right” which seemed out of place to me; a thug is nicknamed ‘muscle guy’ – what, is he a bouncer at an LA nightclub? And also the word “pants.” That just bugs. In a sword and sorcery novel, really – pants? Why not breeches or trousers or even leggings?). Also, Dev uses the word fuck a LOT. Now, don’t get me wrong, I use the word fuck ALL the time, so I ain’t offended here. It’s more that the overuse struck me as a total copout by the author. And in most of the instances where the F-bomb is invoked, it was overkill. An S-bomb or even “Bollocks!” would have sufficed.

In closing, let’s talk about all these fantasy novels that go over the top in taking their gods’ and goddesses’ names in vain. Every other freakout, a character’s shouting “By Khalmet’s bloodsoaked hand!” Nightrunner series (it pains me to mock the series, but alas): “Bilairy’s Balls!!” I’m reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana right now, too, and it’s the same thing: “Oh, Triad, I am slain!!”

Hey, fantasy authors who DON’T fall into this sort of overkill, I applaud you – Alan Rickman just called to say, “By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged!!!”

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

Luck in the Shadows was published waaaay back in ye olde 1996, the first volume in the Nightrunner series.  The sixth and most recent book, Casket of Souls, came out in 2012.  I’ve spent the last two weeks gulping down these books in a delirious frenzy.  I’m just starting #5, and also starting to dread having to wait for book #7.

It’s not easy for me to find fantasy series that have the emotional depth of a Robin Hobb trilogy or the intrigue and suspense of the Game of Thrones epic.  Granted, Luck in the Shadows is not as sophisticated as either, but Flewelling progresses wonderfully through her next Nightrunner novels, in both her world-building and in the passionate portrayals of her characters.  There are some minor flaws that I think an editor should have smoothed over, such as clunky shifts in point of view, but for the most part, I didn’t care.

This isn’t merely an adventure novel about nobleman-spy-thief-faie Seregil of Rhiminee and his protege Alec of Kerry.  It’s not just a sword and sorcery tale.  Yes, we’ve got women warriors, wizards, court politics, and archery!  We’ve got secret passageways and dungeons, spells and disguises, minstrels and magic!  But Flewelling didn’t just load up a grab bag of fantasy tropes, shake it up and pop it.  Oh no.  There is story arc and character depth here that unfolds delicately and slowly in this first novel, and truly blooms in the next volumes.

Looking back over the book, it’s amazing how much happens.  Seregil and Alec meet as dungeon prisoners condemned to death.  After they escape, the wily and roguish Seregil takes young Alec under his wing and teaches him the ways of a nightrunner – which pretty much involves spying, housebreaking, singing in pubs and swordfighting, mostly for the greater purpose of aiding the wizards and royals of Skala.  But war is brewing between old enemies Skala and Plenimar, and of course the two men will be caught up in it, and when Seregil becomes the unwitting victim of an evil sorcerer’s dark magic, it’s up to the innocent but brave Alec to save him.

Maybe this all sounds mildly fun, but kind of trite and run-of-the-mill.  It could have been a letdown, were it not for the gleeful, derring-do action balanced with dark necromantic horrors – sort of like Robin Hood meets Lord of the Rings.

The real joy of the book – and the reason I love this series so much – is the relationship between Seregil and Alec.  Seregil is an absolute gem (yes, it’s him on the bookcover rocking that awesome mullet), and Flewelling’s skill in revealing his identity and his layers of complexity with wit, emotion, realistic dialogue and internal conflict is pure bittersweet delight, especially as she portrays the growing bond between him and Alec.  As much as Seregil loves the excitement of living as a master of many disguises – and the decadence of a good bath – his past and his future are fraught with perilous journeys and dangerous secrets.  Good thing Alec has the courage, curiosity and loyalty – as well as his own surprise backstory – to stick around.  I don’t think I’ve ever adored a fictional pair as much as these two.  Luck in the Shadows had me hooked, Stalking Darkness (numbah 2) broke my heart, and by book 3 (Traitor’s Moon), I was a goner.

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Master Reading Challenge

Much better than I expected, but as dry as I feared. I don’t usually think “this would make a great movie” when I’m reading a classic, but here I couldn’t help thinking “I wish Ridley Scott would work this up.” I suppose that means a debt is owed to Clarke once again, for his pioneering vision, if not his plywood characters.  I can’t help preferring more current page turners like McDevitt’s Chindi, but he owes a debt to Clarke, and the latter’s science is likely more accurate.  I finished reading Rama with a wish that it had been as “big” a book as its eponymous spacecraft, but aside from a pervading sense of unease and the harrowing sail across Rama’s Cylindrical Sea (with a female captain at the helm!) I didn’t get an epic feeling of adventure as much as I had wanted.

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Masters Reading Challenge

I didn’t expect to read a Heinlein novel as part of GMRC, because I wanted to try more “new” old authors.  But I ended up pressed for time, and so resorted to a shortie, one of Heinlein’s “Juveniles.”  I must be juvenile-minded, because this book was a lot of fun.  The Stone family and their goodnatured bickering really made me grin.  A welcome relief from the stuffy prose and flat characters that I have found to be the key ingredients of most of the Grand Master books I picked (damn me).  I particularly loved Heinlein’s semi-rant about the preposterous reciprocating engine, and the Stone twins, Castor and Pollux, reminded me of the Weasley twins from Harry Potter.  I picked this book not just because it’s short, but because I read about it on the super-awesome website Atomic Rockets, and with good reason is it cited there – quite a bit of info about rocketry, orbital mechanics, and the complexities of space travel can be found tucked away amidst the hilarious bantering of the Stones.  Enjoy.

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Master Reading Challenge.

Afternote: Loved the cover art for this book.  

This one was so promising!  Noir meets Cthulhu! But it turned out to be endless bland dialogue and a muddled ending that had me speedreading to get to the last page.  I always like Wolfe because he has such a range, especially in the short fiction I have read of his.  Come to think of it, An Evil Guest could have been compressed into a great short story.  

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Master Reading Challenge

This book is definitely “Gangs of New York”…on Mars.  Gritty hardboiled pulp with lots of violence, frontier politics, unwashed bodies, brothels, a forced wedding, and terse but decent prose.  Beneath the dome of the Mars colony.   A fast enjoyable read, but definitely less science fiction and more like macho noir.  The hero, copper Bruce Gordon, isn’t exactly pure and good…at first.  Or ever.  Nobody’s really a saint in Marsport, apparently, except the starving masses and the pretty girls.  I got a little lost in the endless parade of men with weapons.  Mostly it’s corrupt cops beating up thugs, mob violence, gambling, a blonde dame who starts out as a feisty fighter and ends up a nice little wifey who helps Brucie take off his boots after a hard day and cries when he strip-searches her.  Probably wicked good stuff if you’re a thirteen year old American boy in 1956.  

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Masters Reading Challenge

An afternote:  Whew – this book definitely set my teeth on edge.  I feel more mellow about it years later, but obviously not when I first read it!

Seriously, the stars his destination? My arse his destination.

One should only read this book whilst very very stoned, or at gunpoint. This is the scifi novel Kerouac might have written, if Kerouac had no soul. I can think of no character in this novel that I cared about whatsoever, in a good or bad way. I wanted to jaunte into the center of the sun rather than slog my way through one more page of Gully Foyle’s obnoxious exploits. If you’re going to tell a revenge tale, at least make me care about the revenge. I am glad Vorga passed him by!! Vorga should have laser cannoned Foyle’s ass and saved me the torment of reading about him. “The damnable frustration of revenge.” Uhh, no… the damnable frustration of slogging through this story.

I want to thank the Worlds Without End GMRC for helping me finish this book. Otherwise, noooooooo. I’ll throw out a bone here, and say that at least, given the time period it was written (1956), this novel isn’t the usual pulp fiction with cheap bad prose; it sports some decent vocab and it’s wildly creative in creating new jargon and cool slang. It throws out ideas that are revolutionary and it feels recent. But that’s really it. And it isn’t enough – must have character development! I can see how jaunting might be disruptive and perhaps that’s why navigating the story structure felt like rocketing through a debris field in space. Big wow. Still bored.

I haven’t even mentioned what everybody else who even mildly enjoyed this novel loves to mention: rape! Oh, why mention it, it’s just an afterthought in the book anyway.

And finally, limp ending. I felt nothing for Gully (and I fail to see how any of the female characters would either) or his transformation from brute into… what was he supposed to be? Humanitarian ultra-jaunter?

I’d rather eat the pages of this book than think about their content ever again.

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Masters Reading Challenge.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this a page-turner with vivid characters. I expected it to be dull and dreary, but instead there’s suspense, a noble hero, and lots of sex!

That said, the plot is slightly transparent, and the ending comes a little too quickly, but this near-future dystopian story of an ailing despot, Genghis II Mao IV Khan (oh, just call him the Khan), and his personal physician, Shadrach Mordecai, pulls the reader into an enjoyable, if mild, parable of intrigue, betrayal and quiet heroism. The story hinges on whether or not the Khan will use his cadre of doctor-scientists to transfer his consciousness (or is it his soul?) into the body of Shadrach, and continue living forever while the people of his kingdom, plagued by a disease called organ rot, wait for a cure that is available, but will never be distributed if the Khan continues to reign.

Silverberg’s use of present tense, which can often be jarring and annoying, here works fluidly, turning the narrative into a kind of sly, urgent aside. The prose reveals the dual nature of Shadrach: his responsiveness as a doctor (and a lover), and his calm, aloof personality. Despite the fact that as part of his position as royal doctor, his body has been implanted with a full range of bio-sensors that attune him to every fluctuation of the Khan’s failing systems, Shadrach possesses a yogic calm (maybe a little too calm – and how come those body sensors never cause him to experience sex from the Khan’s physical perspective?) from the first chapter, when we meet him as caregiver for the dictator, to the end, when he becomes caregiver for the human race.

The novel has a richness to it that you don’t find in too many old dystopian novels, and I think it’s partly because of the vivid allusions to religious history (whether cliched or not – Shadrach’s form of meditation happens to be carpentry) and the global settings. Most post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read take place in a battered America, but Shadrach’s tale spans the globe. And it must be pointed out that you don’t come across too many science fiction heroes in the form of young black men.

Shadrach’s bedroom romps with his two paramours (a man like Shadrach – beautiful, strong, intelligent – of course finds himself linked to two different women, both fierce and flawed) deepen what could have been a boring futuristic medical thriller. A good many racy boudoir scenes provide Silverberg with the opportunity to keep the reader turning pages but also to play upon archetypes and stereotypes (sometimes unsuccessfully). It’s the Valkyrie versus Pocahontas. One of these women will disappoint Shadrach, and one will surprise him.

There’s also some hypnosis-induced recreation in the form of “dream-death,” which is a kind of hallucinatory self-discovery vacation for the non-diseased elite. In a different story, this kind of Huxleyed up mind trip might be overblown and contrived. But the character of Shadrach keeps the story grounded.

Overall, not a bad tale, and surprisingly hip.

book reviews