Archive for September, 2010

This Crooked Way — A crooked path to the end?

Ah, medieval politics. Who knew you could be so crazy? Who knew you could be so, well, real? And who would have thunk that an author could make it seem so… good.

James Enge‘s second book of the “Morlock” series, This Crooked Way, begins exactly where the first one leaves off. This is both a good and bad thing for our intrepid hero, who is rewarded with the most typical reward from medieval politics.

After Morlock Ambrosius helps King Lathmar retain his throne (Blood of Ambrose), the boy king declares Morlock (on advice from his grandmother, who happens to be Morlock’s sister… how’s that for family love and bonding?) to be an enemy of the kingdom and expels him. Morlock, instead of being annoyed by the turn of events, agrees with the King and begins a dangerous trek to the wastes, where he can roam about without the eye of the crown upon him. But Morlock immediately finds himself being pursued by some unknown individual, who makes his life (and his companions, who come and go like a bad case of lice) miserable.

This Crooked Way is a confusing jaunt, shifting the point of view regularly and unapologetically. At times in the book one feels compelled to hurl it against the wall when you realize that you are no longer following the person you thought you had been reading about and questioning your sanity when the POV shifts from male to female without you noticing. It’s a reminder (albeit subtle) that just like real life, the world doesn’t revolve around one person. There are characters whose motivations I don’t even begin to grasp, and that was after reading the same scene multiple times. Other shifts from Morlock’s POV to others are sometimes oddly timed, as though they were originally elsewhere in the book.

Despite this, the story grabs you. The main antagonist has been following Morlock for years beyond memory, since the antagonist is older than even the nearly immortal Morlock himself. The conflict between the two is oftentimes subtle, as though Morlock is battling someone else while struggling to survive against the latest threat. It becomes strikingly clear who the antagonist is midway through the book, and from then on out it’s a tense cat-and-mouse game between Morlock and his greatest enemy, his own father Merlin.

The setting of the story is ranges from the hot, deserted plains to bustling cities to the snowy peaks of the mountains, and in each Enge paints a vivid and lively picture of our hero struggling to survive and, in the end, thrive. For as we discovered in Blood of Ambrose, conflict seems to bring out the best (and worst) of Morlock Ambrosius. In this essence the author captures just how lonely Morlock is throughout, showing that while his companions get married, age and eventually die, Morlock is forced to endure. It’s a haunting message (in my opinion) about the downside of long life and immortality.

Plus, Enge just writes one hell of an action sequence when Merlin almost catches Morlock at one point. That alone is good enough to move the reader past the grim and depressing chapters of our hero watching everybody from his enemies to his friends and allies leave him, betray them and try (unsuccessfully I might add) to kill him.

A good read, though a bit of a let down after reading Blood of Ambrose. It holds up to its predecessor well enough, but it does leave some to be desired. I have this on my “must buy” list, however, and I am now eagerly awaiting the third book of the series, The Wolf Age.

Reviewed by Jason

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

There’s something that is markedly dystopian in Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games. It’s evident early on that this book is set in the former United States in the future, after a short period of rebellion by the thirteen districts against the Capitol in the nation of Panem. It’s dark, brooding and starts off with our narrator and heroine, Katniss Everdeen, struggling to keep her family fed and alive.

The lack of food and hunger throughout the early parts of the book are a haunting theme in where the author does not hold back regarding the fears of starvation. The world Collins paints in the novel is not one sugarcoated for kids, as she talks plainly about death, life, struggling to stay alive and those who simply gave in and died. She pulls no punches and I, for one, am grateful that the author does this. Life is not fair, and Collins makes sure that the reader knows this.

The Reaping is when the book really gets going. The Reaping is a time, once per year, when the Capitol demands that each of the twelve districts (one district was destroyed) give them a boy and a girl to compete in what is known as the Hunger Games, a horrible reality TV combination of Survivor and Dirty Harry. Katniss, terrified she’s going to be chosen, is shocked to discover that her little sister is randomly chosen instead. She leaps in front of her sister and bravely (maybe desperately) volunteers to go in her stead. This is highly unusual in District 12, and many of the town’s people give her a silent gesture of honor. A boy she knows (and feels obligated to repay for a past kindness) is Peeta, who becomes her friend as they travel to the Capitol.

Katniss realizes early on while in the Capitol that while they may have better living standards, there is a filthy undercurrent in the city, something that speaks of an uncaring society only interested in the blood and excitement offered in the Hunger Games. She puts on a brave face, determined to not let the Sponsors (people who, for large wads of money, donate items during the games to help the contestant of their choosing) see that she is disgusted by the blatant display of civic gluttony going on around her.

The Games themselves are something you must read. I cannot do the setting and story justice in a simple review, and the absolute suddenness of characters you had just began to get to know and their deaths are jarring, frighteningly realistic. No brave last words, just there then… gone. It’s disturbing and, honestly, quite wonderful.

Now, that may seem like a very horrible thing to say, but Collins (purposefully or not) uses this to make you love the main character even more, and root for her and Peeta both to win, despite the rules of the Games that only one can survive (Highlander began this, Collins mastered it). Katniss is quite a bitch, maintaining a cold interior while staying friendly for the camera to ensure that people still like the “Girl of Fire” and will giver her the things she needs in order to survive. But because of her reactions to the deaths around her, including the loss of a friend right before her eyes, you can’t help but cheering for the girl to win it all, despite your unease with her attitude.

There are a few problems with the book, but they are minor. Sometimes the narrative voice slips from present to past tense, which can throw you for a sentence or two. And the ending is a definite setup for the sequel, Catching Fire, which I hate when authors do this (re: Jim Butcher, Changes).

All in all, my favorite read thus far this month. It’s a wonderful tale and, as I mentioned before, gritty but solid. Definite must-read.

Reviewed by Jason


Blood of Ambrose — Wow, What A Tale!

One thing I have learned throughout my many years of reading fantasy novels is that the book in question had better knock my socks off, because I am not a huge fan of fantasy. That being said, let me introduce you to the latest fantasy book to literally knock my socks off and had me coming back for more.

James Enge‘s debut novel, Blood of Ambrose, is definitely an Arthurian-inspired fantasy novel. However, Blood of Ambrose casts a dark pall over the brighter legends of King Arthur and focuses more on the actual essence of the characters in the book.

The young king-in-waiting Lathmar VII is a figurehead leader for the Ontilian Empire under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Ambrosia Vivian and the self-appointed Protector, Lord Urdhven. Lord Urdhven is more than the Protector and regent, however. He is also the murderer of Lathmar’s father, and after he arrests Ambrosia Vivian for treason there appears to be no one stop Urdhven from eventually taking the throne for himself. No one, that is, except for the drunkard and legendary wizard Morlock Ambrosius.

You get the feeling early on that Lathmar, unless he grows up in a hurry, is a detriment to both Vivian and Morlock as they struggle to keep him alive and in relative good health. Time and time again during the book I wished I was able to reach into the pages of the novel and strangle the young Lathmar for simply being a prat. After the tenth time or so of my blood pressure spiking to dangerous levels because of something Lathmar does was when I realized that Enge was a better author than I had initially gave him credit for. Enge surprised me and made me care about the story and the characters, something most fantasy authors fail to do while explaining their wonderful and fantastical world. By fueling my desire to see the death of young Lathmar ala George R.R. Martin, Enge helped build a strong emotional commitment to the book.

Blood of Ambrose is slick, weaving a dark tale of despair and death as our heroes struggle to save their kingdom and, as the book moves forward, the entire continent as a darker and far more dangerous adversary is revealed. Enge’s style is more show than tell and for Blood of Ambrose this works magically as the Two Cities of the Ontilian Empire seem to breathe life throughout the pages.

If there were any problems with the book, it was with the initial pages, which were filled with so much frantic energy that I was confused as I struggled to get my bearings straight. Once I knew who was who (and for the most part, easily pronounceable names), the story moved at a brisk pace. It seemed too soon when I reached the end, so well had Enge penned this barbaric and epic tale. I fully understand now why the book was recently nominated for Best Fantasy Book of the Year.

Definitely buy this book, and make sure you let Pyr Books know if you want to see more of Lathmar, Morlock Ambrosius and Vivian Ambrosia.

Reviewed by Jason


“The Course of Empire” by Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth — one of the best books of the past ten years.

For my first review here at our brand, spanking-new review site, I thought I’d pick one of my favorites that I’d somehow inexplicably failed to review as of yet.  This book is THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth, and is one of the best books of any genre written in the past ten years.  It’s not every day that one book can talk about the clash of cultures/civilizations, be a bang-up military science fiction/action adventure thriller due to savvy plot-twists, and give truly insightful viewpoints from the alien perspective — yet THE COURSE OF EMPIRE does exactly this.

The plot is as follows:  the Jao, aliens that look vaguely sea-lionish, have come to Earth in our not-too-distant future and have conquered us.   But as the Jao have never had trouble before in conquering anyone, they don’t know how to handle the humans (i.e., us) — and worse yet, there’s a truly nasty villain out there that doesn’t care about the Jao, the humans, or anything save themselves — they’re the Ekhat, who are so alien that their struggle to pacify the galaxy barely makes sense to the Jao, who’ve been aware of them for decades, if not centuries.   The humans don’t know anything about the Ekhat, mostly because the Jao viceroy on Earth, Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo, is a brutal thug who doesn’t see any usefulness to the human species — and that’s a huge problem for the Jao, who endeavor mightily to “be of use.”   Oppuk’s belief that the humans have nothing of value to offer against the Ekhat is only one of the problems THE COURSE OF EMPIRE lays out to be solved.

Fortunately, the Bond of Ebezon, a strategic circle of learned and mostly elderly Jao, has grasped this problem, and has sent a young but extremely brilliant Jao named Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak, from a kochan (read: clan) that is known for its gifts for “association” — in other words, they are very good at getting things done, remembering who does what to whom and why, and in seeing how everything “flows” together.  (This has to do with the overall Jao timesense; they do not sense time in the same fashion as humans, to put it mildly.  For example, being “late” for something doesn’t really matter to the Jao if it’s something arbitrarily scheduled; it only matters if somehow someone has missed the “flow” of things.)  Because the scions of Pluthrak are so very good at all these things, that’s the main reason Aille has been sent to Earth in order to work around Oppuk and try to forge some sort of relationship with the captive humans before it’s too late.

Aille learns, grows and changes; along the way, he meets up with an important human, Caitlin Stockwell — she’s the daughter of the President of the United States (the former Vice President, who succeeded to office on the death of the former President due to the Jao attacks), and thus is the daughter of the human de facto head of government.

Oppuk, unfortunately for Caitlin, has plans for Caitlin — plans she’d rather not play a part in, thanks.   So when Aille takes Caitlin into his service, she gains both a measure of security and an equal measure of doom.  Because Oppuk, though brutal and thuggish, is no fool, and he knows Aille is there to undermine his authority (at minimum), which Oppuk will not have.  And sooner or later, these two heavyweights will collide . . . .

This novel is over six hundred pages long, but the plot is huge — how should conquerors behave if they truly want the assistance of the conquered?  Can humans achieve a measure of dignity even being forced to submit as a captive species?  Will Aille succeed, and what will be the repercussions if he does?   And while all the political infighting, most especially among the Jao, is well-done, nothing beats the space battles toward the end with the combined forces of human and Jao against the nasty Ekhat that prove the rightness of Aille’s conduct beyond a shadow of a doubt.

K.D. Wentworth is known for how well she draws alien species; she did a bang-up job with this novel.  Eric Flint is known for how well he shows political struggles, factionalism, and the way humanity doesn’t seem to change much regardless of time and space, and he, too, did an exceptionally fine job here.  Both of these novelists wrote an exemplary novel of conquest, politics, war, upheaval, and finally, an unusual sort of peace that you really need to read in order to understand.

The reason I view THE COURSE OF EMPIRE as one of the best novels of the past ten years, any genre, is because it looks at the human condition from a unique angle — not a skewed angle, as so many aliens-meet-Earthlings SF novels tend to do even when done well.   By showing how the humans view the Jao as well as how the Jao view the humans — including all the permutations of veterans on both sides, long retired, and how they view the formerly opposing side — this is a novel that’s insightful in so many different ways it’s nearly incalculable.

When a novel adds up to more than the sum of its parts, you know you’re reading an astonishing book.  But when it sheds light on our current situation, politically, by sidestepping it — and showing what would be far worse than what we have (at least one thing that’s far worse, those incomprehensible Ekhat) — then showing how the two species, human and Jao, can not just mutually coexist but actually form a new friendship (the truest form of “association,” obviously) despite the missteps of Oppuk and his ilk — well.

All I can say to sum up is that this is one novel that definitely makes itself “of use” in all senses.   Because THE COURSE OF EMPIRE is truly outstanding — a tour de force.

Read this book!  (You’ll be glad you did.)

Reviewed by Barb


Under the Dome by Stephen King

*disclaimer – I like Stephen King. He’s a funny, smart individual who I learned a lot from when I was much younger, before I even started writing books. When he did a book signing in… 1992 or so at my favorite bookstore in California, he took a few seconds to thank me for reading his books. As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to realize that while the books he wrote before I was in high school are amazing, he is not the same writer he was before his accident. I’ll try my best to not compare the Stephen King of old versus the new Stephen King.*

All in all, it wasn’t a badbook.

I was expecting, almost from the start, the nasty, giving the reader the bird twist that he pulled at the end of the Dark Tower series. Thankfully, he doesn’t do that so much as reiterate to a normal person that in life, you are at the mercy of an apathetic bully and hope that the bully decides to quit kicking you eventually. This disturbs me, but I’ll cover that later.

No, my first problem with Under the Dome comes early on, when it appears that King portrayed every single “devout” Christian in the Northeast to be nothing more than a wife beating, power abusing Southern Baptist. I capitalized those letters on purpose, for if you live in the south, you understand what I mean. The main antagonist is a power broker man who is technically the second “mayor” of a triumvirate leadership in a small town in central Maine (I’m assuming that’s where it is… I get lost easily). He uses his front man, the first “mayor” to shield him from any fallout from his illegal political dealings while consolidating his power base. This all comes to fruition when some invisible shield drops down over the town, preventing most air and water from coming in or going out (I don’t recall King explaining if it’s a sphere or just a cover. If it wasn’t a sphere, some good ol’ boys from West Virginia could have had that town dug out in twelve hours. But I digress…). The town quickly devolves into a Lord of the Flies mentality (which is admitted in the book) and divides into two camps: for the power broker man named “Big” Jim Rennie, or for the short order cook named Dale Barbara who was once a military officer.

Maybe I should have had another disclaimer here. King portrays  the military man as one disillusioned with the United States and his senior officers. King claims that the officer carried around Mao’s Little Red Book while he was on tour in Iraq. I’d normally not have a problem with a little creative license with the military (partly because I do it all the time), but in this sense it doesn’t make any sense. No military officer, who was as committed as Barbara was (according to King), would carry around the Little Red Book in a war zone. I asked around to my military contacts and that is, perhaps, one of the worst items to carry around in a religious country where you are trying to establish a democracy. You want to start a religious war? Have an officer who is captured have that book on his or her person.

Before the dome crashes down around the town, Little Jim Rennie, the second selectman’s (“mayor”) son, commits murder. He kills a woman with his bare hands when he grows angry. It is later revealed that he has an inoperable brain tumor growing in his head and leads him to having uncontrollable urges to kill. This character, despite his barbarism and utter creepiness, is one you really wish you could root for to be healed before he does any more, for it is mentioned and reminisced that he was a good boy before the sudden and inexplicable change. He hides the body in her pantry (yeah, that’s a great place to stash a body in an emergency) and promptly goes from angry to afraid to creepy. He later commits more murder to hide the first but, oddly enough, nobody notices that people are missing due to the dome. he then proceeds to start calling them his “girlfriends” and spending a lot of time in the pantry (he shoved the second woman in there too), doing really creepy things to the bodies. I skipped that part a bit. It was… well, disturbing. His brain tumor is leading him to doing these horrible crimes, but that makes some sense to me. It’s the reaction of the townspeople to the dome and the problems that immediately arise that doesn’t.

They are initially frightened but calm, very calm. The nutcases (sorry, religious conservatives… King doesn’t leave the reader to paint their own opinion of the religious side of the town, he does it for them) react as though it’s nothing more than a chance to grab for power for the glory of God (well, that’s the way it seemed to me… I may be wrong) and hide their multiple misdeeds. A girl who lives on the outside of town and smokes a lot of pot and prefers women to men is brutally raped by some good ol’ boys, and so of course the townspeople believe what Big Jim tells them.

Okay, okay, enough with the idealism. Write the f***ing review, Jason.

The plot meanders quite a bit, but that’s typical of any King book. He replaced the necessity of having every person in his book chewing Wrigley’s or some other type of gum to “bumping knuckles”, which is amusing if it wasn’t so mistimed. The story is good, and my expectations of a horrible book were laid to rest around page 500. However, this is a long book and, even for me, not one to be read in one sitting. I actually went back and read a few selected chapters later and realized that my initial assessment was harsher than it needed to be. However, this is one of those books that will leave a mark on you, like The Stand.

The main protagonist isn’t very believable, and some of the characters are so two-dimensional that I’m afraid if they turn sideways they’ll disappear, but King does a good job fleshing out the minor characters. He does a tremendous job with the teenagers and making them slightly off, like all teenagers try to be, while endearing them to the reader. I particularly enjoy reading about the newspaper editor, for her character is a lot like the journalist I think most of them should strive to be. The ending is more than slightly demented, which is expected, but again, it’s good and disturbing.It’s a Stephen King book. Like a M. Night Shyamalan movie, King isn’t satisfied unless he messes with your mind at the end of a book.

Recommended borrow from the library unless you have to have every King book. It’s good, but not something I’d plunk $30 down for at Barnes & Noble. If you insist on buying it, buy the paperback. It’s a big book, and the paperback is a lot cheaper. In the end, you’ll thank me.

Reviewed by Jason

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