Saturday, May 23, 2015

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

A very busy week this time around as I finally found time to catch up on my reviews:

Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

A handfull of new additions this week . . .

Iron & Blood by Gail Z. Martin & Larry Martin
New Pittsburgh in 1898, a crucible of invention and intrigue, the hub of American industry at the height of its steam-driven power. Born from the ashes of devastating fire, flood and earthquake, New Pittsburgh is ruled by the shadow government of The Oligarchy. In the abandoned mine tunnels beneath the city, supernatural creatures hide from the light, emerging to feed in the smoky city known as 'hell with the lid off.'

Jake Desmet and Rick Brand, heirs to the Brand & Desmet Import Company, travel the world to secure treasures and unusual items for the collections of wealthy patrons, accompanied by Jake's cousin, Veronique 'Nikki' LeClerque. Smuggling a small package as a favor for a Polish witch should have been easy. But when hired killers come after Jake and a Ripper-style killer leaves the city awash in blood, Jake, Rick and Nikki realize that dark magic, vampire power struggles and industrial sabotage are just a prelude to a bigger plot that threatens New Pittsburgh and the world. Stopping that plot will require every ounce of Jake's courage, every bit of Rick's cunning, every scintilla of Nikki's bravura and all the steampowered innovation imaginable.

Wanderlust by Adam Millard
London 1902. Renowned art thief and cat-burglar, Abigale Egars, is good at her job. Assisted by contraptions created by her tinkerer and mentor, Octavius Knight, she is a ghost, evading the Met. at every turn. Unceremoniously abducted from her bed in the dead of night, Abigale learns that The Guild, an insidious and powerful organisation, has implanted a device in her head, a contraption that will administer poison directly into her system at the flick of a switch if she doesn't do what they say.

Blackmailed into stealing three priceless artefacts by The Guild, Abigale must avoid being captured by her arch-nemesis, Detective John Wesley Alcorn, but he's the least of her troubles.

Wizards, magic, necromancers, it's all very real, and Abigale is soon up to her eyeballs in it. Can she survive London, Saint Petersburg and Paris in one piece, steal the triptych and return it to The Guild before the wizards take it from her?

Can she stay alive long enough to save the world?

The Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp
Filled with characters as menacing as they are memorable, this chilling twist on vampire fiction packs a punch in the bestselling tradition of ’Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.

Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang, a vainglorious and well-established antiques dealer, has made a fortune over many years by globetrotting for the finest lost objects in the world. Only Sax knows the true secret to his success: at certain points of his life, he’s killed vampires for their priceless hoards of treasure.

But now Sax’s past actions are quite literally coming back to haunt him, and the lives of those he holds most dear are in mortal danger. To counter this unnatural threat, and with the blessing of the Holy Roman Church, a cowardly but cunning Sax must travel across Europe in pursuit of incalculable evil—and immeasurable wealth—with a ragtag team of mercenaries and vampire killers to hunt a terrifying, ageless monster…one who is hunting Sax in turn.

From author Ben Tripp, whose first horror novel Rise Again “raises the stakes so high that the book becomes nearly impossible to put down” (Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother), The Fifth House of the Heart is a powerful story that will haunt you long after its final pages.

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson 
In our rapidly-changing world of "social media", everyday people are more and more able to sort themselves into social groups based on finer and finer criteria. In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities, this process is supercharged by new analytic technologies--genetic, brain-mapping, behavioral. To join one of the twenty-two Affinities is to change one's life. It's like family, and more than family. Your fellow members aren't just like you, and they aren't just people who are likely to like you. They're also the people with whom you can best cooperate in all areas of life--creative, interpersonal, even financial.

At loose ends both professional and personal, young Adam Fisk takes the suite of tests to see if he qualifies for any of the Affinities, and finds that he's a match for one of the largest, the one called Tau. It's utopian--at first. Problems in all areas of his life begin to simply sort themselves out, as he becomes part of a global network of people dedicated to helping one another--to helping him.

But as the differing Affinities put their new powers to the test, they begin to rapidly chip away at the power of governments, of global corporations, of all the institutions of the old world. Then, with dreadful inevitability, the different Affinities begin to go to war--with one another.

What happens next will change Adam, and his world, forever.

And a late addition to the stacks - I hit the used bookstore before heading out on a hike today and scored some L.E. Modesitt Jr., Graham Masterton, and Bentley Little. I'm lucky if I can make it in a few times a year, and I'm always afraid it'll be my last visit (the owner is 79 years young!), but no matter how long it's been he always remembers me, always remember what I'm looking for, and always knows what new additions might catch my eye. You can't get that kind of service online. :)


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

Trial of Intentions by Peter Orullian
Having caught up with Peter's Author Edition of The Unremembered, I'm glad to finally be diving into the follow-up, which I can tell you opens with a little tragedy and a lot of action.

Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews
It's been 2 years since Jason graced us with Red Sparrow, and I'm excited to see Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Intelligence Service stepping to the forefront here.

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Fantasy Review: Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. While I make every attempt to avoid spoilers, please be aware that an ARC synopsis, press release, or review request may disclose details that are not revealed in the published cover blurb.

I know it sounds like hyperbole and hype, but Knight's Shadow truly is a must-read book, a title that I quite literally could not put down. I found myself wandering the parking lot at the office all week, reading through lunch and breaks. I kept it on the seat beside me and read pages while waiting in line at the drive through, Last night I even followed my son around the mall, reading as we walked and he played.

If you read my review of Traitor's Blade, then you know I had some challenges with the first book, and some reservations going into this, but you can forget everything I said. Not only has Sebastien de Castell completely won me over, but he's managed to top The Grace of Kings as my favorite read of the year.

Seriously, it's that good.

With the first book, I found that the flashbacks and history served to overwhelm the story. What happened before, especially regarding the fall of the Greatcoats, was simply more fascinating than the developing story. Here, de Castell really pulls away from those flashbacks, having Falcio, Kest, and Brasti talk about the past, but keeping us firmly rooted in the present. It shifts the focus significantly, and allows for a much better flow to the story. History is still important, and there are still mysteries to be revealed, but they accent the story, rather than drive it.

As much as the characters were the strongest aspect of Traitor's Blade, I felt the book suffered a little from its focus on Falcio. Alone, isolated from his fellow Greatcoats, and developed as much through his past as his present, he conspired with the flashbacks and pacing to drag the story down. Here, we get much more of an ensemble cast. Yes, the other characters are very much defined by how they interact with Falcio, but they share the scenes. More importantly, they have significant moments of their own, allowing them to grow, to develop, and distinguish themselves. Valiana gets significant character development as well, transitioning from spoiled would-be Queen to one of the bravest and most valiant of the Greatcoats, while Darriana takes a long time to reveal herself, but proves to be most of the most intriguing and pivotal characters in the story. Even the Dukes and Knights get their moments, with several of them becoming legitimate characters, rather than just tropes or plot devices.

Once again we have a nice mix of adventure, thrills, dark humor, and even darker cruelty. I laughed aloud at several points, especially the scenes involving the Knights. I'm not sure any class gets skewered quite so effectively throughout the entire series. Just check out this scene in which Brasti politely requests that Knights help Kest determine who to kill first.

"Right. Well, if any of you are wife-beaters, child-killers, perhaps murderers of old people, could you just sort of raise a hand or nod? It would make it a lot easier for us."

"Brasti, that’s ridi—"

But to my utter amazement, one of the Knights started to raise his hand, just for a moment before he saw his fellows look at him. No one ever said you had to be brilliant to wear armor.

I also found myself regularly cringing and cursing de Castell for what he put his characters through, especially Falcio. The battle of Carefal is one of the most powerful I've ever encountered in a fantasy novel, especially in how it impacts the Greatcoats and changes their entire perspective. I won't say much more than that, as the worst examples are pivotal spoilers, but I challenge you to read through the entire Greatcoat's Lament without pausing to catch your breath, punch a wall, and rail against the world.

Finally, what really elevates Knight's Shadow above its first volume is the advancement of the mythologies and world building. We find out much more about who the Greatcoats are, who they were, and who they're destined to be. Similarly, we come to understand just who and what the Dashini are, and what role they have to play in the broader conflict. With the mystery of the King’s Charoites resolved, the story advances to embrace the wider conflicts and betrayals of a world on the brink of war. Every time you think you have it figured out, de Castell reveals another hidden motive or betrayal, turning the entire tale on its head more than once. It's brilliant, it's effective, and it's entirely satisfying.

Thoroughly entertaining and emotionally intense, Knight's Shadow is the kind of historical fantasy that makes everything else pale in comparison. Sebastien de Castell gets inside our heads, inside our hearts, and under our skin. This is a powerful read, one that's full of surprises, and satisfying in absolutely every respect. If there's a problem, it's that it raises the bar so high, leaving Tyrant's Throne with some big expectations to fulfill . . . but that's a good problem to have.

"Tell them the Greatcoats are coming" indeed.

Hardcover, 600 pages
Expected publication: June 2nd 2015 by Viking

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off - The Second Five

With my review commitments once again on track (if not completely caught up), I've had time to sit down and dedicate my reading to second batch of titles in the Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off.

To be as fair and consistent as possible with my evaluation, I didn't want to just sneak these in, one at a time, between other titles. My moods and tastes do change regularly, depending on what I've just read (and whether or not I enjoyed it), so ensuring a measure of consistency was key for me in my overall approach.

As was the case last time around, I committed to reading the first 50 pages (at a minimum) of each title, with the hope that one or more books in the batch would be strong enough to keep me reading right through the end. While the last batch had 3 titles that kept me engaged (which was a pleasant surprise), I'm afraid there were none here that I felt compelled to finish.

VJ Lakshman - Mythborn
In terms of presentation, the editor's preface raised serious red flags for me. He begins by selling himself, convincing the reader that he's a man whose judgement is to be trusted, and then goes on to sell the book, telling the reader what to like about it. Tack an author's preface onto that, which sounds just a little too innocent and eager, and any experienced reader of fantasy is going to wonder what they've signed up for.

I tried giving this more than 50 pages, to kind of distance myself from those early doubts, but none of it ever came together for me. I didn't see much more than very basic world building, consisting primarily of setting, without any sort of significance. The characters all fell flat for me, as did their dialogue. The narrative was a bit simple for my taste, not quite bland but fantasy-generic, although it did have a decent flow to it. Maybe it gets better, and maybe there's more development of the world and its characters as the story goes on, but I couldn't find the hook or the spark to keep me reading.

EJ Stevens – Burning Bright
This one I feel bad about not finishing, as it certainly does have promise, and I suspect might work very well for the right audience. The problem is, it's the third book of a series, and diving in mid-series rarely works for me. I liked the characters, but there were clearly nuances to their relationships that went completely over my head. I kept feeling like I was missing something, and without a shared history to justify it, the emotional aspect of their relationships was just annoying.

As urban fantasies go, this does seem to have it all - demons, witches, and fairy creatures - but it didn't really offer anything new or unique to really distinguish it from the crowd. The first-person narrative had just the right about of snark, with some inventive curses, and the dialogue had a solid amount of flair, but that's just not enough for me. Like I said, maybe it's the characters that really distinguish it, but only if you're already invested in them. Having said that, it was very well-paced, with some great action scenes, and a building sense of tension I could already detect early on.

Anthony Stevens – Shifter Shadows
I'm seeing an increasing tendency within the genre to break a story into bite-sized chunks, as if spoon-feeding a generation that lacks the attention span to read beyond a page-turn (or screen-refresh, as the case may be). That just doesn't work for me. I find it both frustrating and distracting. It's hard to settle into a flow and get attached to a narrative when the chapters are little more than scenes, topping out at 2-3 pages in length.

Maybe that's why the story felt so disjointed to me, and why I struggled to make connections as we skipped so quickly through times, places, and people. The opening scenes were interesting, offering up a glimpse of wild people and life in the wilderness, but then the focus shifts to a couple of kids in high school, and that's where the story lost what little interest it had generated. There were some moments of violence that caught my eye, and some insights into the life of a shapeshifter, but they weren't enough to win me over.

Rob Vitaro – By the Light of the Moons
This is a book that had a very young-adult sort of feel to in terms of the language, the narrative, and the plotting. The characters felt much younger than they were really supposed to be, with dialogue that wavered in terms of maturity levels, creating an artificial sort of feel to the interactions where you could feel the author speaking through them.

The other thing that I took away from the first 50 pages is a lack of world-building and scene setting. I came away from it having very little idea what anybody or anything looked like, or where they fit into the overall world. There was some nice action described, and a few moments of humor, but overall it just felt very young and sort of bland.

Claude Blakhen – The Feather and the Swords
Right off the bat, I should point out that this is a translation, and even the most professional mass-market publisher translations can come across as awkward and stilted, robbing the story of the author's original flair and flavor. This may very well be a much better book in its original Polish, but I kept cringing at things like word choices and changes in tense.

There does seem to be some decent world-building and character-building here, and I got a sense of the larger story that I liked, but I struggled so much with the language that it really became a distraction It's a shame, because I suspect this could be a much better book than my experience suggests, but it does need a professional writer or editor to make a thorough pass at the translated text.

CONCLUSION: None of the titles in this batch engaged me enough to read through to the last page, unfortunately. I had high hopes for a few, but they all fell short for different reasons. Burning Bright probably has the most immediate potential, especially for those who have read the rest of the series, but I can't recommend it as a stand-alone title, and I think there's a solid story hidden beneath the language of The Feather and the Swords, but it needs work.

I'll be diving into the next batch following my current read, so we'll see what it brings.

Tough Travels with . . . Dead Gods

Every Thursday, Nathan (over at Fantasy Review Barn) leads the gang in touring the mystical countryside, looking for fun and adventure. His Tough Traveling feature picks one of the most common tropes in fantasy each week, as seen in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynn Jones, and invites us to join in the adventure. All are invited to take part, so if you're joining the journey late, no worries . . . we'll save you a spot in the caravan.

This week’s tour topic is: DEAD GODS

Fantasyland had gods, right? And now they are dead. Dead Gods are not forgotten though, often they are still just influential to the land as they were when living.

Let's get straight to the good stuff, shall we? It's one thing to invent a mythology, populate it with fantastical gods, and then kill them off one-by-one. Cool, yes, but perhaps a little too easy. It's another thing entirely to take a known mythology, set your cross-hairs on its figurehead, and kill off somebody billions of people believe in. Yet, that's precisely what a few well-known authors have done.

There are two gentlemen who have killed 'God' for laughs (or, at least, for satirical purposes), and they are James Morrow and Douglas Adams. In Towing Jehova, Morrow actually begins his tale with the discovery of God's naked, two-mile-long corpse, floating serenely in the Atlantic Ocean. The Vatican wants it buried in an iceberg, while atheists want it destroyed. In Blameless in Abaddon, Morrow continues the story, this time with God not quite dead, but a comatose centerpiece of a Florida theme park - at least until he's put on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. The third book, The Eternal Footman, deals a plague of death awareness, with God's skull a in orbit above as a blasphemous sort of new moon.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Adams offs God in a bizarrely comic, ridiculously ironic puff of logic. It's a rather convoluted series of circumstances, all based on the impossible existence of the Babel fish - a symbiotic alien that that burrows into your ear and translates any language in the universe. The existence of such an impossible, yet useful, creature both proves and disproves the existence of God, based on the conflict between evidence and belief. In the last of the original books, Arthur traveled to the end of the universe to witness God's final message to creation. That message? The brilliantly comic, "We Apologize for the Inconvenience" which has more irony and blasphemy in its grammar than should be possible.

The Pantheon series from James Lovegrove, beginning with Age of Ra, takes a broader, more imaginative death-stroke to established mythologies - both contemporary and historical. Just imagine a world in which ALL of the gods who have ever been are real, in which they've gone to war, and in which the gods of the ancient Egyptians have defeated all others. Odin, Zeus, Allah, Jesus . . . all of them are dead and gone, leaving a modern world where men, women, and gods all walk the Earth. Here you have soldiers armed with ancient weapons (flails, maces, and sickles), modern weapons (guns, tanks, and planes), and magical weapons (god-powered staves and bombs), fighting alongside armies of mummies resurrected from the battlefield.

Getting back to invented mythologies and imaginative fantasists, Robert Jackson Bennett does a number on an entire pantheon of gods in City of Stairs. The story opens with a tale of conquest that extends so far as to have seen the conquerors murder the gods who once watched over the land of Bulikov, reshaping the landscape through the chaos of a catastrophic, anti-miraculous event known as The Blink. It killed the gods and destroyed their miraculous works, but there's still a lingering question as to the fate of the gods, especially with their miraculous items hidden away in a mysterious warehouse that puts Area 51 to shame.

Finally, we come to No Return (and it's upcoming sequel, Shower of Stones) by Zachary Jernigan. This is a story set in a world where the gods are real, and where Adrash, the last god standing, remains floating among the stars, bored, depressed, and idly contemplating the destruction of the world below. He has crafted a series of metal moon-sized spheres, the orbit and rotation of which he shifts ever-so-slightly to keep his worshipers anxious and uneasy. He's already caused two cataclysms by dropping individual spheres upon the planet, but the next (should it come) will be the big one. The first book involves a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet, while the second calls for revolt against him.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Waiting On Wednesday: Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland
Expected publication: September 1st 2015 by Tor Books

America's most distinguished historical novelist steps fully into the realm of fantasy and makes it her own

Where the Cape of the Winds juts into the endless sea, there is Castle Ocean, and therein dwells the royal family that has ruled it from time immemorial. But there is an Empire growing in the east, and its forces have reached the castle. King Reymarro is dead in battle, and by the new treaty, Queen Marioza must marry one of the Emperor’s brothers. She loathes the idea, and has already killed the first brother, but a second arrives, escorted by more soldiers. While Marioza delays, her youngest son, Jeon, goes on a journey in search of his mute twin, Tirza, who needs to be present for the wedding.

As Jeon and Tirza return by sea, their ship is attacked by a shocking and powerful dragon, red as blood and big as the ship. Thrown into the water, Tirza clings to the dragon, and after an underwater journey, finds herself alone with the creature in an inland sea pool. Surprisingly, she is able to talk to the beast, and understand it.

So begins a saga of violence, destruction, and death, of love and monsters, human and otherwise.

I've been a fan of Holland ever since stumbling across a tattered paperback copy of The Valley of the Kings years ago. The idea of the woman who brought King Tut to life turning her attentions to dragons excites me to no end!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fantasy Review: When the Heavens Fall by Marc Turner

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. While I make every attempt to avoid spoilers, please be aware that an ARC synopsis, press release, or review request may disclose details that are not revealed in the published cover blurb.

While I hesitate to call this a throwback or reactionary fantasy, there's no question that When the Heavens Fall has a very late-80s/early-90s feel to it. From the characters, to the world-building, to the story, to the narration, Marc Turner's debut just feels like something I'd almost swear I read 25 years ago. That's not necessarily a bad thing - many of my favorite epics are from that era - but it will certainly present a challenge to readers who've become accustomed to something more polished and more complex.

I've already seen some readers complain about the world-building, but I appreciated both the world itself and the way it's built. What you have to understand is that Turner's style is about as far away from info-dumping as you can get. He throws us head-first us into the story, drags us along, and simply expects us to catch up. The politics, mythology, and magic are revealed in sporadic dribs and drabs, often through conversation or internal monologues. You have to pay attention, and you have to make some connections on your own to have the story come together, and I liked that.

As for the characters, I liked them, and was certainly invested in their fates, but I'll be the first to admit they could have benefited from a little more emotional depth. The Lurker and Jenna were an interesting pair, playing off one another nicely, but neither one grabbed me and screamed HERO! Ebon was a legitimate hero, but a little too good to be interesting - he really needed a just a few darker, selfish aspects to round him out. Romany was pretty much his polar opposite, a legitimate villain, but a little too bad to be truly interesting, although I loved her interactions with Spider. Parolla, on the other hand, was a character about whom I constantly wanted to see, hear, and know more. I loved her as much as I loved her story arc, and I actually got frustrated when the story moved away from her. Had Turner invested as much effort in building out the other characters as he did her, I think this would have been a much stronger tale.

The narration itself was serviceable, but nothing special. Again, like I said, it has that feel of a late-80s/early-90s epic fantasy, when plot came before characters, and characters came before storytelling. It flows well, is nicely paced, and doesn't fall into any of the debut author traps of overused words or phrases, but the switch between POVs is a little harsh at times. There were times I felt like Turner was simply changing POV to give himself time to think, time to figure out what to do with a character next, without advancing too far towards the climactic convergence of magical forces and supernatural powers.

With all of that said, I really enjoyed the story. It not only developed well, but it resolved itself nicely. It's increasingly rare that an epic fantasy can manage to sustain my interest through the climax, and keep me reading closely, enjoying the details and nuances, as opposed to skimming ahead to find out how it all ends. The darkness, the magic, and the very idea of power really appealed to me here, and I felt Turner did a masterful job of building the story towards that climax. It's a story that just got bigger, deeper, and more intriguing with each new revelation.

I'm really curious to see how fans of the genre respond to When the Heavens Fall. I suspect that will largely depend on how long they've been fans, and how wide their reading experience has been. If it comes across like nothing they've ever read before, that might be a challenge. If it seems at all familiar, however, and evokes any feelings of nostalgia, then I think it's those readers who will be clamoring the loudest for a sequel. Either way, I enjoyed it, and I'm anxious to see what Turner does next.

Hardcover, 544 pages
Expected publication: May 19th 2015 by Tor Books