Okay, it's time to play catch-up with the old review pile. I've got a small mountain of books that I've read over the past few months (mostly while either my son or myself was sick) just waiting for me to write something intelligent about them. Unfortunately, if I keep waiting for time to do them justice with the kind of detailed, in-depth reviews they deserve, that pile is only going to get larger - especially since I have some freelance projects that are likely to be keeping me busy at night for the foreseeable future.
So, while I apologize ahead of time for my brevity, I am very pleased to finally be able to introduce you to a few worthy titles.
The Martian Marauders by Michael D. Smith
Given the dearth of science fiction in my reading over the past year, I was really excited to give this one a read. I actually started it three times, but decided it was the kind of book I wanted to dedicate myself to, to immerse myself in, and thoroughly enjoy, rather than just sampling chapters as opportunities presented themselves. That meant a long wait for a review - sorry, Michael! - but certainly made for a better read.
Let me set the stage for you. Beset by astronomical disasters, humanity has deliberately raced towards an unhealthy advancement in space exploration. Leaving the ruins of Earth behind them, they have actually found themselves a new disaster, arising from conflict with the Martians they somehow managed to overlook in their desperate race for colonization. This is a dark, paranoid, and largely somber swashbuckling adventure, one that draws the reader in and does a superb job of demanding we sympathize with damaged heroes and traitors. The sci-fi elements are exceptionally strong, especially in terms of military technology, and the development of the Martians as a truly 'alien' race is fantastic.
What really makes the story work, however, is the eventual shift that Smith orchestrates - a shift that encompasses both characters and the reader, transforming the weird into wonderful, and desperation into hope. It's an exciting, action-packed story, but one that's also thought-provoking and intelligent. A great read.
Black Sea Gods (Chronicle of Fu Xi) by Brian Braden
This a book that I really wasn't sure what to think of, at least for the first few chapters. It's an odd sort of aquatic, apocalyptic fantasy, propelled by a deep (pun intended) mythology. It has a feel of the classics, tales where gods and goddesses are made human, and left to mingle with us lowly mortals, often as much for their own benefit as ours. There are, I'm sure, some biblical parallels or inspirations, but I honestly don't know (or care) enough about the source material to comment.
There is a strong Chinese influence here as well, which makes for a fascinating contrast, but which does tend to weigh the text down in places with difficult names and terms, but shouldn't be an issue for readers of epic fantasy. In terms of narrative, the different voices are as strong as they are unique, really adding a poetic flair to things that, again, hearkens back to the classics. Visually, it's a stunning read, with a significant amount of detail imbued in almost everything. It can be overwhelming at times, particularly in its most violent aspects, but in a way that makes you appreciate, rather than resent, the picture being painted.
Above all else, this is an epic fantasy that feels new . . . fresh . . . unique. It's not your typical swords and sorcery epic, but neither is it your traditional historical epic. I hesitate to make the comparison, as it's unfair to hold Braden to such lofty standards, but there's a taste of Guy Gavriel Kay here that promises a bright future. I definitely enjoyed the telling of it more than the story itself, but it's worth the read.
Furies: An Ancient Alexandrian Thriller by D.L. Johnstone
This is probably one of the most intriguing historical crime thrillers I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It's not just a police procedural awkwardly transplanted to the Roman era, but a story of criminal intrigue that belongs entirely in that bygone, almost mythological era. Admittedly, I don't remember a great deal about my University studies in ancient history, but my sense is that Johnstone really knows his stuff.
Let's get the obvious out of the way and talk about the history. The setting here is impeccable, well-developed, perfectly detailed, and nicely balanced in terms of that with which we should be familiar - particularly the darker, poorer side of the city - and the elements most readers likely never encountered in school. The characters are strong as well, playing their expected roles in the world of ancient Alexandria, but also coming alive as living, breathing, individuals with whom we, as readers, interact. I suspect their crassness and vulgarity may be a bit anachronistic, but the genre pretty much demands it.
While more properly described as a thriller than a mystery, this is still a story that manages to build suspense, keep us guessing, and throw in a few twists along the way. Murder, theft, lies, and backstabbing betrayals, it's all here. Aculeo's story could just as easily have been a contemporary one, but likely not half as interesting. Despite beginning the story as a washed-up, bitter drunk, he's a character to whom we quickly warm up. Sekhet is a woman whom I'm sure is an anachronism, but I wouldn't have it any other way. She serves an important role in terms of plot, but also plays well off of Acuelo. There's a large cast of supporting characters, many of whom we only see for a scene, but they're all important.
Overall, probably the most unique read I've encountered in quite some time, and an altogether pleasant surprise. As genre-crossovers go, this one is not to be missed.