Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sci-Fi Review: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett

The first Gideon Smith adventure was one of my top 3 reads for 2013. Exciting, adventurous, and exceptionally well-told, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was part steampunk science fiction, part old-fashioned horror story, and part penny dreadful romp around the world. I enjoyed every aspect of it, from the concept to the characters, and came away wanting more. Fortunately, not only was there room for a sequel, but the cliffhanger ending absolutely that demanded it.

Here we are, just over a year later, and David Barnett has delivered admirably on those sequel demands with Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon. This installment swaps out the old-fashioned horror for old west adventure, but adds even more steampunk science fiction to the mix. It's a book that surprised me several times with the direction it took, avoiding the genre clichés towards which it seemed to be teasing us, and (of course) setting up several plot threads for a third book.

The story opens with a mechanically augmented Charles Darwin, marooned in the lost world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, slowly succumbing to rust and ruin. He and Stanford Rubicon are the last survivors of the HMS Beagle II, with the rest of the crew having either fallen to their deaths or been eaten by dinosaurs. Just when all seems lost, they are rescued by Mr. Gideon Smith, "Hero of the effing Empire," and Aloysius Bent, his chronicler for World Marvels & Wonders. From there, we briefly follow the heroes home to England, only to dispatched just hours later to the shores of America, where the brass dragon (and, presumably, Maria) have been spotted.

It's in the alternate history of America that Barnett's second adventure really shines. The Mason–Dixon isn't just a line here, it's a solid wall to rival that of China's great one. The America to the north is one of skyscrapers and dirigibles, still loyal to the Queen; while Texas, Louisiana, and the Confederate states to the south are lawless, old west towns full of slavery, prostitution, and black magic. As for California, it was ceded to the Japanese long ago, with the remnants of Spanish occupation still putting up a good fight around them. It only takes a few small twists in the history of the American Revolution to create this world, with at least one forgotten hero making a surprise return later in the story.

The fact that Gideon does find Maria and the brass dragon should come as no surprise, but the ways in which she has changed certainly do. At the risk of spoiling the story, I won't say much about her role, except to say the Japanese provide a worthy foe . . . and there is an escaped Tyrannosaurus Rex to be dealt with. Rowena Fanshawe once again gets to play heroine of the airways, while Louis Cockayne's story is brought full circle with a very satisfactory revolution. Bent doesn't have as much to do this time around, but he's an effing marvelous for sarcasm and comic relief.

While I didn't enjoy Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon quite as much as the first book (it's pacing is slower, and America is a distant second to Egypt in terms of setting), it's still a great read that has left me hungry for a third helping. What further surprises or settings Barnett may have in mind, I have no idea, but I'll hazard a guess that the oft-referenced Jack the Ripper may finally pit himself against Smith and team.

Paperback, 336 pages
Expected publication: September 16th 2014 by Tor Books

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mailboxes, Shelves, and What I'm Reading

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.

Just the one new review arrival this week, but it's an exciting one - a paperback ARC of Brian Staveley's second installment in his Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, The Providence of Fire. This will likely be the next big, thick tome I relax with, taking the opportunity to lose myself in his world once again.

On the new purchases front, just one new title there as well, but it's an exciting one. Julie E. Czerneda's Species Imperative omnibus edition is out, complete with the dedication to her loyal biogeeks . . .  including yours truly!


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.

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett
The first Gideon Smith tale was a Victoriana / steampunk mash-up, an old-fashioned horror story, a penny dreadful romp, and an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Can't wait for the sequel!

Consumed: A Novel by David Cronenberg
Probably my most anticipated read of the Fall, I'm anxious to dig in and see if he can capture his screen magic on the page. Early reviews are mixed, but I like what I'm hearing.

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, September 12, 2014

David Blalock's Top Ten Late Summer Reading Recommendations (Guest Post)

To recommend just ten books seems a bit restrictive. I think it would be more appropriate to give recommendations for ten authors and give you the choice to pick what looks interesting of their works. Few of my recommendations will sound familiar to today's readership, that's because I find the mainstream literature of today boring and uninteresting. Even the speculative fiction writers of today have little to offer me that hasn't been done better long ago. Maybe I'm too old to be impressed. Maybe I just know what I like. Whatever the case, here are my recommendations, in ascending order:

10. Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?). Not well known today, Bierce was a pioneering writer of what came to be called the horror genre. His best known work is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” which set the stage for quite a few copycat stories in the 1920s and 1930s. He disappeared without a trace after joining Pancho Villa's revolutionaries in 1913.

9. Robert E. Howard (1906-1936). Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard's work included westerns, poetry, and historical fiction. My favorite character of his is Solomon Kane. He never earned more than $4000 a year for his writing, was always in financial trouble, and had a weak heart. The stress of this and being advised of his mother's impending death drove him to suicide.

8. H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Raised by an overbearing mother when his father was committed to a mental institution, Lovecraft began writing horror fiction at 8 years of age. Never very skilled at any craft, he had difficulty supporting himself all his life. When “Weird Tales” magazine offered him an editorship, he turned it down and it was given to a writer he had criticized. This doomed his own writing, as the new editor refused to accept his stories until after his death.

7. Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). A lover of speculative fiction from his youth, Bradbury spent his entire life learning how to write and write well. His stories and books are pure joy to the science fiction and fantasy fan. It doesn't matter what you choose that has his byline. You will enjoy it.

6. Jack Vance (1916-2013). In his “The Dying Earth” series, which first appeared in the 1950s, he set the stage for many of the mechanics gamers will recognize are used for mages in games like “Dungeons and Dragons”. His world with a population resigned to its inevitable fate is a harrowing statement on the apathy of not only his time but of ours. Technology to him was not something to admire.

5. A. E. Van Vogt (1912-2000). Cited as one of the main influences on men like Philip K. Dick, Van Vogt's work is considered the fundamental basis of science fiction today. SFWA founder Damon Knight hated his work so much he slandered the man at every turn. It took Harlan Ellison to reveal that Knight wouldn't allow Van Vogt to be recognized as a Grand Master before he was. Van Vogt's structure entertains and confuses equally, a chaotic but fascinating and thematically mature manner of story-telling. If you start reading “The Weapon Shops of Isher”, be ready.

4. Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985). “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.” Sturgeon's Law. That certainly can't be said of this man's work. He wrote for television as well as print. He is credited with two Star Trek episodes and many Star Trek innovations: pon-farr (the Vulcan mating ritual) and the Prime Directive among them. He influenced several other well-known writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, and Samuel Delany.

3. John Brunner (1934-1995). Incredibly prolific and published under numerous pen names, Brunner's work was prophetic masterpiece after masterpiece. His “The Traveler in Black” is my favorite, with its precautionary theme of be careful what you wish for. Brunner was always on the cutting edge of writing about technology and warned of over-dependence and the dangers of alienating humanity from itself.

2. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Political and social commentary in science fiction reached its peak in Dick's work. His stinging criticism of modern values helped shape changes that today seem axiomatic. If you read nothing else by him, read “Ubik”. It heavily influenced my own fantasy work.

1. Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). What can I say about Heinlein that hasn't already been said? He's been lauded and vilified, praised and slandered. If you don't love his work, you probably hate it. He's been called a misogynist and a pervert by the feminists, a visionary and a prophet by others. His most entertaining works center around Lazarus Long. I cannot recommend him highly enough.


About the Author

Born in San Antonio, Texas, David Blalock spent the majority of his formative years in Jacksonville, Florida. At the age of 16, his family moved to the Panama Canal Zone where David finished school and entered employment with the Department of Defense as a Powerhouse Electrician.

Hiring into the FAA, he returned with his wife and two daughters to the States and settled briefly in Gulfport, MS. A few years later, he moved to Memphis, TN, as an Air Traffic Controller for the Memphis ARTCC. There he remained until his retirement.

David’s writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, webzines, and writer’s sites. His work continues to appear on a regular basis through multiple publishing houses.

Twitter: @Hdavidblalock


About the Book

The Angelkiller Triad
by David Blalock

Why do bad things happen to good people? Simple. In the ancient war between the Angels of Light and Darkness, the Dark won. Now it is the job of an undercover force simply known as The Army to rectify that.

Using every tool available, The Army has worked to liberate our world from The Enemy for thousands of years, slowly and painfully lifting Mankind out of the dark. On the front of the great Conflict are the Angelkillers, veterans of the fight with centuries of experience.

Jonah Mason is an Angelkiller, and his cell is targeted as part of plot to unseat a very powerful Minion of The Enemy. Mason and his troop are drawn into a battle that stretches from real-time to virtual reality and back. The Conflict is about to expand into cyberspace, and if Mason is unable to stop it, The Enemy will have gained dominion over yet another realm.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Excerpt: Martyr by Rory Clements (with Giveaway)

ROSE DOWNIE SAT on the cold cobbles, cradling a swaddled baby that was not hers.

She leant her aching back against the wall of the imposing stone house, close to its arched oak door. Under any other circumstance nothing could have brought her near this building where baleful apprehension hung heavy in the air like the stink of tallow, but the man who lived here, Richard Topcliffe, was her last hope. She had been to the court of law but the justice had merely shaken his head dismissively and said that even had he believed her – which, he said, with a scowl, was as unlikely as apple blossom in November – there was nothing he could do for her.

The constable had been no more helpful. ‘Mistress Downie,’ he said, ‘put the baby in a bag like a kitten and throw it in the Thames. What use is it alive? I promise you, in God’s name, that I will not consider the killing a crime, but an act of mercy, and you shall never hear another word of the matter.’

Now, outside Topcliffe’s house in the snow-flecked street, close by St Margaret’s churchyard in Westminster, Rose sat and waited. She had knocked at the door once already, and it had been answered by a sturdy youth with a thin beard who had looked her up and down with distaste and told her to go away. She had refused and he closed the door in her face. The intense cold would have driven anyone else home to sit at the fireside wrapped in blankets, but Rose would not go until she had seen Topcliffe and begged him to help.


About the Author

After a career in national newspapers, Rory Clements now lives in a seventeenth-century farmhouse in Norfolk and writes full time.

Connect with the Author: Website | Facebook


About the Book

Title: Martyr
Series: John Shakespeare
Genre: Historical Thriller
Author: Rory Clements
Publish Date: Sept 9, 2014
Publisher: Witness Impulse


In this ingenious debut, Rory Clements introduces John Shakespeare, Elizabethan England’s most remarkable investigator, and delivers a tale of murder and conspiracy that succeeds brilliantly as both historical fiction and a crime thriller.

In a burnt-out house, one of Queen Elizabeth’s aristocratic cousins is found murdered, her young flesh marked with profane symbols. At the same time, a plot to assassinate Sir Francis Drake, England’s most famous sea warrior, is discovered--a plot which, if successful, could leave the country utterly defenseless against a Spanish invasion. It’s 1587, the Queen’s reign is in jeopardy, and one man is charged with the desperate task of solving both cases: John Shakespeare. With the Spanish Armada poised to strike, Mary Queen of Scots awaiting execution, and the pikes above London Bridge decorated with the grim evidence of treachery, the country is in peril of being overwhelmed by fear and chaos.

Following a trail of illicit passions and family secrets, Shakespeare travels through an underworld of spies, sorcerers, whores, and theater people, among whom is his own younger brother, the struggling playwright, Will. Shadowed by his rival, the Queen’s chief torturer, who employs his own methods of terror, Shakespeare begins to piece together a complex and breathtaking conspiracy whose implications are almost too horrific to contemplate. For a zealous and cunning killer is stalking England’s streets.And as Shakespeare threatens to reveal a madman’s shocking identity, he and the beautiful woman he desires come ever closer to becoming the next martyrs to a passion for murder and conspiracy whose terrifying consequences might still be felt today...

Buy the Book


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Waiting on Wednesday: Revival by Stephen King

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

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is:

Revival by Stephen King
Expected publication: November 11th 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton

A dark and electrifying novel about addiction, fanaticism, and what might exist on the other side of life.

In a small New England town, over half a century ago, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister. Charles Jacobs, along with his beautiful wife, will transform the local church. The men and boys are all a bit in love with Mrs. Jacobs; the women and girls feel the same about Reverend Jacobs—including Jamie’s mother and beloved sister, Claire. With Jamie, the Reverend shares a deeper bond based on a secret obsession. When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, this charismatic preacher curses God, mocks all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town.

Jamie has demons of his own. Wed to his guitar from the age of thirteen, he plays in bands across the country, living the nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll while fleeing from his family’s horrific loss. In his mid-thirties—addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate—Jamie meets Charles Jacobs again, with profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings.

This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written. It’s a masterpiece from King, in the great American tradition of Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.

I was already excited about this one- far moreso than Mr. Mercedes - but a single line in King's latest newsletter really, really, really caught my attention - "REVIVAL is perhaps the darkest and most disturbing tale Stephen has penned since the days of Pet Sematary and IT." Really? If that's the case, then I just may have a late night of release day reading ahead!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sci-Fi Review: Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress

Interesting and thoughtful, but fundamentally flawed, Yesterday's Kin is a book that ultimately fell flat for me. There's no question that Nancy Kress is a woman of ideas, it's just that I don't necessarily agree with (or appreciate) all of them.

My biggest quibble with the tale is how overwhelmingly pessimistic it is. Really, it offers a very dim view of humanity throughout, continually harps on our fears and prejudices, and then wraps it all up with an extraordinarily heavy-handed reminder of how violent and spiteful we can be. While many other authors have used their science fiction to explore our darker side, there's usually a redeeming quality there, a glimmer of hope that at least some of might succeed despite ourselves. Still others throw out that pessimism at the end, as an ultimate sort of twist, but there's no such twist here, just the acknowledgement of the inevitable conclusion.

My secondary quibble - and this one, I admit, may be deliberate - is that there's no sense of wonder or awe to the story. We start it in medias res, with the aliens already here, and their ship already in orbit, denying us that all-important glimpse of first contact. The aliens themselves are very human (that is, in fact, the point of the novel), so there's little sense of wonder there, and we don't really get to see much of their technology (beyond the energy shield, which fields so much of the pessimism). Like I said, I understand that much of that is likely deliberate, in that it help feed the suspicions the characters have as to the aliens' true motivations, but I would have taken a different approach.

My final quibble is that, for a story that's so much about family and relationships, I didn't care for a single character. Seriously, I found them all odd, cold, distant, and unlikable. There wasn't much personality to any of them, and there's so little context to their relationships outside the alien crisis, I found it impossible to connect to them or really care about their dilemmas.

Having said all that, the idea of the aliens is interesting, and there are some nice cultural flourishes towards the end. The story does move at a decent pace, and there is some real tension to several aspects of the story. None of that is enough, however, to redeem the flaws or to endear me at all to Yesterday's Kin. It's not altogether a bad novel, but there's really little to distinguish it.

Paperback, 192 pages (
Expected publication: September 9th 2014 by Tachyon Publications