Archive for November, 2010

The Horns of Ruin — A Wonderfully Dark Tale

Once again, Pyr Books knocks it out of the park with their offering The Horns of Ruin, written by Tim Akers. This book is dark, bitter and absolutely perfect for anyone looking to read about dead gods, mysteries and the anger of one powerful and betrayed Paladin.

The city of Ash had been founded by the brother-gods: Alexander the healer, Morgan the paladin, and Amon the Betrayer. Each god had his followers, and the three brothers maintained a delicate balance of keeping humanity powerful and on top. However, Morgan is betrayed and murdered by his own brother Amon in a jealous rage, who is then killed by the vengeful followers of Morgan. Alexander, the last living brother, rules Ash.

Years later, the cult of Morgan is almost dead. There is one last Paladin guarding the powerful Elders of the cult, and her story is the one we read from the moment the book opens. Eva is guarding the Fratriarch of the cult of Morgan, Barnabas Silent, as they make their way through the city of Ash to meet with another temple of the brother-gods. Eva assumes (naturally) that it is at the temple of Alexander, the only brother-god still alive and ruler of the city of Ash. She is shocked, however, when she learns that instead they are off to visit the temple of Amon the Betrayer.

The story starts off slowly, building together a puzzling series of clues to form a foundation for the novel. Eva and her Fratriarch are quickly attacked after they leave the temple of Amon with a worshipper of the Betrayer, a girl by the name of Cassandra. Eva is separated from the two when they are attacked and she fears the worst when she later finds only the girl and not Barnabas. Then things become even more mysterious when other Elders of the dead god Morgan began to be murdered in their homes and at their temple.

The city of Ash is breathtaking, the details rich and vivid as Akers paints his scenes with a masterful stroke. Eva is a very believable character who I grew to love very early in the book, and her allegiance to her masters and her dead god is worthy of mention. Too often in books does a person who was born and raised in servitude turn their backs to their god in a spiteful rage. Eva does not do this throughout the entire book, despite her misgivings of what the Elders and others are doing around her. It’s a rather refreshing look at commitment and dedication of the last paladin.

I really didn’t have much to complain about with this book, as the author consistently keeps the story moving along whether the character is ready or not. Time does not stand still for anyone, and Akers wisely shows how Eva is fighting both time and her enemies in his style and pacing. I love a dark, gritty tale and Akers resoundingly delivers. He blends magic, steampunk and a solid mystery into one cohesive and wonderful book.

Go buy this book. Heck, go buy two and give one to a friend. They’ll thank you in the end.

Reviewed by Jason

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Connie Willis’s “All Clear” — World War II Exploration Well Worth the Read.

I’d been waiting for Connie Willis’s new ALL CLEAR for the past several months after reading what was supposed to be the first half of one book, BLACKOUT.  BLACKOUT came out last year, and if you haven’t read it, this book will probably not make as much sense to you as it did to me.

A quick summary of BLACKOUT:  Three time-traveling historians, Michael (Mike) Davies, Polly Churchill, and Merope Ward (called Eileen O’Reilly while back in time), travel to World War II as part of their research.  Their teacher is the renowned Mr. Dunworthy, he who has been featured in many of Connie Willis’s time-traveling books and stories , including DOOMSDAY BOOK, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, and the novella “Fire Watch,” among others.  Dunworthy is the type of man who believes history is best understood by living it rather than reading about it in dusty old books (though of course he does both), and it is his sense of humanity that permeates all of Connie Willis’s writing, because Dunworthy truly believes all human life is worth it (no matter how nasty, brutish or short the life in question might be).

In BLACKOUT, the three time-travelers believed they’d somehow messed up the time continuum because they were unable to get home to their own time (that being the 2060s).  Their “drops,” an apparatus that’s never completely explained, will not function — “will not open,” they call it — and they believe themselves lost, marooned in time.  Complicating matters for Polly Churchill, she’s already been to the World War II era twice, so if she overstays her current placement, she’ll be in two places at once — a huge no-no — and will almost certainly die or become mentally deranged due to the unreasonable stress on her body, mind and soul.

While Eileen, Polly and Mike live through various aspects of World War II (including rationing, the Blitz, the huge rescue at Dover, some done by little, barely seaworthy ships, and more), they have this undercurrent running throughout — “did we mess up the time-stream?” is the biggest thought, followed by, “If we did, how will we ever get home?”  Neither of these thoughts are too pleasant for the time travelers, who are forced to subsume themselves in a time that is alien to them and consequently lose their historical and scholarly detachment.  (Dunworthy isn’t big on the latter two things anyway, but it is definitely a part of BLACKOUT that needs further discussion; they’ve become part of the time continuum rather than apart from it, and what does this all mean?)

BLACKOUT, like ALL CLEAR, jumps around in time so you don’t have a constant, steady narrative.  This makes it more difficult to read, and the only reason I can think of as to why Ms. Willis would write it this way is because she wanted the reader to think of the time stream as a continuum rather than a constant, steady pulse as most people tend to view time.   The concept that “all times are one” isn’t quite what Willis is going for, but it’s so close to that in my opinion that I don’t have a better way to put it — and it’s one you need to keep in mind as you start to read ALL CLEAR for yourself.

As ALL CLEAR opens, we see Polly, Eileen and Mike once again trying to make sense of what’s going on all around them.  They’ve all had adventures (usually small ones, such as Eileen keeping alive two War Orphans, Binnie, a girl, and Alf, her younger brother), and they’re still wondering if the time stream has been messed up by their presence.  Mostly, they deal with war-time rationing, the loss of friends due to bombings, and the stress of knowing that if they’ve messed everything up, all the statistics for where the bombs fell, etc., will go for nothing because it’ll be a different end result.  And none of them can believe Hitler will win solely due to what they do or don’t do.

Yet as we see, Mike Davies’s role in particular is absolutely vital to World War II’s positive resolution — he and one of his 1940s-era buddies take a high-ranking German prisoner of war through the countryside and manage to fake the guy out by showing real munitions and real troop movements, but not in the place the German POW thinks they are.  And Mike constantly works in what’s called “disinformation,” trying to make the Germans believe more is happening in England than actually is — that the munitions and troop movements and troop staging areas, etc., are in more than one place by writing fake letters to the editor complaining about the soldiers’ drunken behavior and their overt and flagrant use of prophylactics (condoms, though they can’t say it outright in 1944).  These acts of disinformation, Willis ably shows, were extremely important to the war effort, and should not be dismissed lightly.

But plot, though it’s here in abundance, is really not the reason to read ALL CLEAR.  Instead, ALL CLEAR is an erudite, literate way to understand the importance of the so-called “minor players” of the war — in this case, the English people — and how they, too, “did their part” to keep Hitler and the Germans engaged, yet distracted, so the real munitions, troop movements, etc., would be able to have a chance to be used as they were intended.

You might be asking, “So, Barb.  How do those three stranded time-travelers get home, anyway?  And why show them, when historically it’d be easier just to set a novel in World War II and be done with it?”

I’m going to answer the latter question first: in science fiction and fantasy, it’s sometimes easier to show the narrator (or in this case, the narrators) being bemused by how people act in order to better understand why people behaved the way they did in the past.  In other time-traveling adventures, such as those by late (and much lamented) Grandmaster André Norton, it was a given that if there was time travel involved in the plot (such as in QUEST CROSSTIME or even the story “Toys of Tamisan,” where the past has been altered and the present is unrecognizable), it was in order to show that people do not change.  Only circumstances around the person in question change; how people act does not change regardless of what era they live in.

Connie Willis is famous for this belief; in DOOMSDAY BOOK, her historian/time-traveler Kivrin realized that all life was and is precious and valuable, and she realized this while back in 1348 — the period of the Black Death, where much of Europe was greatly depopulated due to the bubonic plague.

So setting ALL CLEAR in the past, but having three main narrators discussing it at one remove yet living within it, is what Ms. Willis wanted — she wanted the reader to understand fully that the people who lived back then were real, were as vital as you and me, yet didn’t see themselves as important (as most of us do not).  They only saw themselves as people, doing the best that they could, one day at a time.  The same as you and me.

So to Ms. Willis, while World War II was an extraordinary event for its world-wide cooperation among the Allies and the amazing amount of sacrifices that were made throughout the world on behalf of the Allies’ war effort, it is the fact that the people of that era felt themselves to be ordinary that is worthy of discussion.  And that’s the point that often gets left out in World War II historicals — the ordinary “person on the street” is not mentioned, and his or her heroism is not discussed, because the historian is after gaudier things like the pilots’ derring-do and heroism, or what the Generals and strategists were doing, or what the diplomats and world-leaders were doing, or even what the doctors who risked their lives on the battlefield were doing, rather than those who stayed at home but also did their bit “for King and country.”

And as for the time-travelers, never fear; the endings for them all make sense in the context of the narrative and add to the lucid picture of humanity “doing its part” — even historians that are trapped in the past who don’t belong there can still, indeed, “do their part.”

ALL CLEAR is an excellent novel that makes a tremendous amount of sense, and I applaud Ms. Willis for writing it.  I hope those who were frustrated at the lack of resolution at the end of BLACKOUT will read this book; if they do, I am sure they will enjoy it if they keep in mind Connie Willis’s main tenet — People do matter. No matter how small their lives may seem, they do, indeed, matter. And a book with such a positive message, that arose out of such heartbreak and sacrifice, is well worth celebrating even if it was originally intended by the author to be one-half of a 1200 page novel.

In other words, this book is strongly recommended.  Not just for historians.  For everyone.

– Reviewed by Barb.


The Wolf Age — Good Story, A Few Complaints Though

I just finished the third book of the Morlock Ambrosius series, titled The Wolf Way. Written by James Enge, it is another step in the direction of becoming a legend, much like the main character himself.

Morlock Ambrosius is wandering through the north, which has been abandoned apparently as the people struggle to survive. It is an indeterminate period after his final fight with Merlin at the end of This Crooked Way, and he no longer holds Merlin captive. It is imperative that Morlock flee civilization, for he knows that when the conflict between himself and Merlin occurs, many innocents could die.

However, a werewolf raiding party stumbles upon Morlock and captures him after a vicious fight. They realize he is a “seer” and impale something into his head to prevent him from using his Sight, which helps him see things for what they really are. Hampered and practically blind, he is thrown in a prison designed for werewolves. It is in here that the werewolves discover that Morlock was a bad man to cross after he kills a werewolf.

This book is a great story. I loved the plot, the action sequences and the character relations. It is always heartwarming to see just how the disfigured Morlock Ambrosius interacts with others, how his loyalty to his friends forces him to make the tough decisions. I love the world that the author builds and expands upon, and the subplots which enhance the story. Enge is masterful in his prose, and his style is original and invigorating.

However, Enge is falling into one of the three fatal traps, as I’ve come to label it over the years. That trap, the dreaded “Trap 2”, will be explained fully in a moment.

Trap 1 is relatively old, but of high importance in fantasy. It involves the simple tale of boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy rescues girl from evil wizard. It has worked well in the past but today, most writers don’t know how to pull it off with any semblance of originality. No, the author avoids this one.

Trap 3 is the “too much world building” trap, where so much detail is put into the world that surrounds the characters that the reader forgets that there are characters in the book to begin with. The author avoids this one as well, melding his world beautifully together to work in synch with his creations. No, Enge avoids this trap like the plague.

Trap 2 is one I’ve griped about oftentimes in the past. It is when a fantasy author (or a science fiction author) starts to create names which jar you out of the reader’s trance. Too often I started dropping names in this book due to this, when the similarity of the names blend important characters together. I couldn’t keep track of the names of minor and main characters due to too many vowels and not enough consonants. It became frustrating and annoying, and more than once I found myself staring at my wall wondering “Couldn’t they have easier names, like ‘Shaggy’ or ‘Fang’ or something?”. The desire to have all their names in their native tongue, then translated at the end of the book, really annoyed me. I wish the author could have found a different way to help the reader learn the names of the various werewolves.

All in all, it’s good. Not quite as good as Blood of Ambrose, but easily on par with This Crooked Way. If you’ve become a fan of Enge’s work, you should definitely pick this book up. I enjoyed it, and any fantasy fan will enjoy reading more tales of Morlock Ambrosius as well.

-Reviewed by Jason

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Sherry Thomas Equals Consistent Excellence

Sherry Thomas burst onto the romance writing scene in April of 2008.  She writes English historical romances set right around the turn of the 20th century, and has found incredibly fertile ground in that milieu.  She’s been called “the most powerfully original historical romance author writing today” by Lisa Kleypas (herself no slouch in that category), and has drawn rave reviews from readers, critics, and fans.

I decided to take a look at Ms. Thomas’s work all at the same time, re-reading her novels PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, DELICIOUS, NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, and her newest, HIS AT NIGHT, in order to review them as a set.

PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS is about Gigi Rowland, Lady Tremaine.  Gigi is an independent woman who comes from a very wealthy family and has a troubled marriage with Camden Saybrook, Lord Tremaine — one so troubled that they’ve spent the ten years since their wedding day on separate continents.  Gigi also must deal with a mother in Victoria Rowland whose own hopes of marrying into the aristocracy were dashed when her family fell on hard times.  Victoria is a classic beauty who was widowed over ten years ago; now, all her hopes are settled upon Gigi either keeping her marriage hopes alive (as Lord Tremaine is the sole heir to a dukedom) or perhaps finding Gigi a new duke after Gigi’s impending divorce.

Gigi neither wants nor needs her mother’s help, having entered into an extra-marital friendship (not quite an affair) with Lord Frederick Stuart.  Gigi’s plans are to get a divorce, then remarry the younger Frederick (called Freddie) and be happy for the rest of her life.  But she’s still in love with Camden, Lord Tremaine, and her feelings cannot be denied . . . whatever will become of Gigi, Freddie and Tremaine?  And will Victoria find a duke of her own and stop bothering her daughter about it all?

The plot as summed up does not do justice to Ms. Thomas’s incredible use of language.  Put simply, if you want to learn how to combine words to deepen your plotline, you could learn a lot from Sherry Thomas.

From page 233:

“We were married ten years and five months when (your father) passed away.”  Mrs. Rowland took a small cream cake, set it before her, and cut it into perfect quarters.  “You’ll be married ten years and five months in a fortnight.  Life is uncertain, Gigi.  Don’t throw away your second chance with Tremaine.”

“I would rather we not speak of him.”

“I would rather we do,” said Mrs. Rowland firmly.  “If you believe I have schemed only because Tremaine is in line for a dukedom, then you are greatly mistaken.  Do you think I never came upon you together in the sitting parlor at Briarmeadow, holding hands and whispering?  I’d never seen you so alive and happy, before or after.  And I’d never seen him that way, completely without his reserve, for once acting his age, when he’d always carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

“That was a long time ago, Mother.”

“Not long enough for me to have forgotten.  Or you.  Or him.”

I also adored the subplot with Victoria Rowland and Langford Fitzwilliam, the Duke of Perrin; it’s funny, touching, heart-rending and true-to-life, all at once.  Don’t miss PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, one of the best books I’ve ever read in the romance genre, period.

Sherry Thomas’s second novel is DELICIOUS, about a cook, Verity Durant, and a politician, Stuart Somerset.  I didn’t like this book as much, though it has many excellent descriptions of food and I enjoyed the subplot between Somerset’s secretary Will Marsden and Lizzy Bessler (Bessler starts out as Somerset’s fiancée, then ends up with Marsden later).  Bessler isn’t exactly a straight woman — I think in today’s terms she’d be called “bi-curious” — and the seduction between her and Will Marsden is fraught with complexity from the start.   But as this is a romance, once she realizes how powerfully attracted she is to Will Marsden, her fidelity is assured.  (In the real world, things don’t work out so neatly, but I really liked these characters and hoped for the best for them.)

The main reason I wasn’t as taken with the characterization of Verity Durant or Stuart Somerset is that both of them closed parts of themselves off very early in life.  While this is realistic, and their passion for each other felt genuine, I kept thinking they needed modern psychology more than they needed each other.

Still, I liked DELICIOUS, though not as much as PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, mostly because of the subplot.  Comparing the two, the first book had much more life in it than the second — I could see where Gigi and Camden had taken wrong turns in their relationship with each other while delighting in the 48-year-old Victoria Rowland’s courtship with the fortyish Duke of Perrin.   Whereas in DELICIOUS, most of it is a retelling of the fairy tale of Cinderella — and while it’s interesting  (Verity being the stand-in for Cinderella, of course, as cooks work very, very hard), it just didn’t draw me in somehow.  The subplot was much more realistic with Lizzy and her “Sapphic influences” and her near-mistake with a woman of the aristocracy having to deal with her feelings for Will Marsden.  All of that made sense to me, and redeemed this novel from what I’d viewed as above average but not outstanding to far better than average and awaiting what Ms. Thomas would do next.

In NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, we meet physician Bryony Asquith Marsden.  She’d been married to mathematician Leo Marsden (the younger brother of Will from DELICIOUS), and things badly crashed and burned.  She’s now in India traveling about and using her skills as a doctor, while Leo has been sent by Bryony’s meddling sister, Callista, to check on Bryony.  Leo had no interest in doing this until he was told his erstwhile father-in-law is dying (a lie), so of course he had no choice but to go to India after her.

The Marsdens’s marriage was annulled several years ago after Bryony and Leo lied and said it had never been consummated.  (This was the easiest way out of a bad marriage back then).  Yet there hasn’t been anyone for either of them since, and the two of them still haven’t figured out how to communicate with each other, yet have a tremendous amount of affection and passion for each other.

On the trip out of India, which is complicated by getting involved in a war between the British/Indian troops and those opposed to British rule (Leo and Bryony are shot at and take refuge at a local fort, where Leo defends the fort with the soldiers and takes a wound or two while Bryony uses her skills as a physician and surgeon to keep him and the other soldiers alive), they finally figure out how to communicate with each other, and resume their marriage.  Note that while their remarriage is not shown, the end of the book makes it clear they have remarried and are doing fantastically well with each other.

NOT QUITE A HUSBAND was realistic mostly because of the portrayal of Leo and Bryony.  Both were very smart people and very capable people, but had almost no communication skills.    This is something that happens often to extremely smart people who’ve had difficult childhoods (as both had); instead of learning to communicate, a smart person often takes refuge in whatever knowledge he or she can amass rather than learning how to really communicate with his/her spouse.   The Swat Valley uprising of 1897 was the way to throw these two together long enough to be forced to deal with each other, and I think it makes perfect sense from an emotional level and a practical one that Bryony and Leo renewed their marriage in this unusual way.  That the background was well-drawn and the language lively and assured only helped cement these two powerful characters and make me more interested in their eventual fate.

Note that NOT QUITE A HUSBAND is the only one of Ms. Thomas’s four novels to date that does not have a subplot.  I think that made sense in this context; the whole story is about why these two cannot communicate, and once they finally figure it out, their marriage resumes in a much stronger fashion than before.

Finally, HIS AT NIGHT has an intriguing premise also.  Spencer, Lord Vere, is a secret agent for the Crown of Britain and uses the pretext of being an amiable idiot to blunder into places he really doesn’t belong and get away with it, while Elissande Edgerton has been treated horribly by her uncle Edmund Douglas and is a virtual prisoner in her uncle’s house — all she’s been able to do is help her aunt, Rachel, from sinking further into a laudanum-induced haze.  (This was caused by her uncle’s inattention, bad treatment, and a lifetime of being beaten down and battered.  Elissande has great sympathy for her aunt and refuses to abandon her, which is why at twenty-four she’s still in her uncle’s home.)

When Spencer and Elissande meet, the first thing that happens is that Elissande manages to force Spencer into marrying her by the simple expedient of being caught without her clothes in Spencer’s presence.  Note that Elissande is not sexually experienced; rather, she is desperate, and she will do anything she can to get herself and her aunt out of her uncle Edmund’s clutches for good.

Over time, Elissande figures out that her husband is not the amiable idiot he seems and that her marriage, despite its unusual start, is worth it to her — but can she convince Spencer of the same?  And will Freddie, Lord Stuart (and Spencer’s brother) finally marry the woman of his dreams, Angelica?  (Freddie was Lady Tremaine’s intended in PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS and is a noted painter, while Angelica loves art but does not have the talent to paint.)

HIS AT NIGHT is a good book with much derring-do and intrigue along with a believable romance between Spencer (whose been forced to play the idiot all these years) and Elissande, not to mention a good subplot between Freddie and Angelica.   I do not believe it’s the strongest of the four books Ms. Thomas has written, but it’s enjoyable and solid.

Final rankings of Ms. Thomas’s books:

1) PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS — the first, and the best.  Grade: A-plus.

2) NOT QUITE A HUSBAND — really good in all aspects.  A first-rate novel.  Grade: A.

3) DELICIOUS — the subplot is better than the main plot, but it’s a solid book that will be enjoyed far more if you are a culinary enthusiast.  (It’s been compared to books like CHOCOLAT, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, and others in that vein because of all the intricate and detailed information about food.)  Grade: B-plus.

4) HIS AT NIGHT — solid, enjoyable, and interesting, it still does not match up to PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS or NOT QUITE A HUSBAND.  Grade: B.

In summation, you could do a whole lot worse than pick up a Sherry Thomas novel — any of them — as even the weakest of the four will keep you up long past your bedtime.

— Reviewed by Barb.


The Greyfriar — What Steampunk Should Be… Now Flavored With Vampires!

Okay, this was just… wow. How to start? It just isn’t fair to write a review about something this awesome but hey, I’ll give it a go.

In the year 1870, vampires rose up out of the shadows and pretty much overthrew Western Civilization. Everyone from the US to the British Empire was either driven from their homelands or eaten. Vampires took over the northern hemisphere (it’s colder and they like cold) and left the humans alone in the southern.

Clay and Susan Griffith’s The Greyfriar starts off in the year 2020. For 150 years humanity has lived under the fear of the vampire lords of the north, and now the former British Empire is contemplating a move against them. They are seeking an alliance with the Americans, who are now in the Panama region instead of the good ol’ USA. They are marrying Princess Adele (wasn’t sure until near the end of the book how to say that) to an American politician, Senator Clark (not sure if he had a first name, come to think of it…) to unify the two great nations against the vampires.

In the time being, though, Adele and her younger brother Simon are touring the frontier lands on a dirigible (wouldn’t be proper steampunk without airships) to the north. Suddenly the airship is brazenly attacked by vampires just after sundown and after a vicious fight, the ship goes down. Adele and Simon are almost in the clutches of the vampires when a mythical man named Greyfriar shows up and saves Adele. Her brother Simon is badly injured and the Greyfriar, believing him dead, leaves him behind.

Now, I’m not going to go into the entire story. Suffice to say, this is a tremendous book and highly enjoyable. The characters seem almost normal, especially when the princess is struggling to balance her courtly duties (marrying Senator Clark) and her own desires (has the hots for the Greyfriar initially). The action scenes are intense and chaotic, befitting a true action sequence when everything is going to Hell in a hand basket around them. Some of the technology works in my head because they do a decent job explaining it, but usually everything is taken for granted.

I liked the vampire’s portrayal, how they’re imaged as their own various nations arguing amongst themselves and vying for power, much like humanity. They were very believable in that regard, though I did question their powers. For example… I hate it when people make vampires do anything overt than catch on fire and go all explodey when they’re in sunlight. Why are authors making them sparkle, weakened, and not exploding into pixie dust when vampires step out into daylight now? It’s frustrating because it takes away your greatest strength – the sun.

Another thing I disliked about the vampires (more of a wtf? than anything) is… if they don’t feel as well as humans do, which is why they’re so tough (they can ignore pain), how do they control their bodies when they’re flying? How are they correcting when the winds are about, especially when the vampires attack Adele and her brother on the airship? Just a minor question I had, and I promise this doesn’t take anything away from the story.

There are some other problems (MINOR!!!) in the book, but all in all it was a solid good time. The ending is semi-conclusive, though this is obvious the first book in a trilogy. The Greyfriar’s nature isn’t too shocking but his true identity came as a surprise, and the love story buried in the book makes for an interesting dilemma for the queen-to-be. Does she do her duty or follow her heart?

The villains… ah, here is where the Griffith’s excel in their story telling. Cesare (second son of the vampire king of London) is a complete monster, and thrives on his barbarous reputation. His henchman Flay (henchwoman) is a vicious, opportunistic killer who is looking for someone she can attach herself to and will let her keep hr power. The other vampires all fall into the same bunch, and their sadistic glee in herding their human cattle makes the blood boil.

Even Senator Clark comes off as a boisterous, annoying, pompous ass. He reminds me a bit of General Custer and towards the end of the book, I was actually imagining him leading his men into a famous Little Big Horn stand with the vampires. It made me dislike him, and I couldn’t help but imagine this song whenever he came around. But still… he came off like a real person (albeit someone you really wanted to punch in the nose) and rounded out the story. In his arrogance, he balanced the humility of the Greyfriar and made for a very interesting yin-yang duo for Princess Adele to deal with.

The cover and design is simply gorgeous, with artist Chris McGrath hitting a home run with this design. The pacing is fast and furious, and everything clicks inside. I didn’t want to put it down but was reminded that I couldn’t drive while reading a book. Curse you, physics!

Tremendous book, go and buy it without reservations. Pyr Books has found a winning duo in the couple, and hopefully we’ll hear more of the sequel soon. Fans of steampunk will surely enjoy this, as it ranks up there with Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Maybe even surpassing the Hugo-nominated novel? Blasphemous? You decide…

Reviewed by Jason


“Ragnarok” by Patrick A. Vanner — Decent but needs some work

Captain Alexandra “Alex” McLaughlin is not a woman to be underestimated. Under her petite exterior is a spine of solid steel and a disposition to laugh in the face of death…

Okay, if you read the first few lines of the blurb on the back of the book, you would believe that the main character, Alex, is one of those types of women who are “dudes with boobs”. This works with some semblance of success in Patrick Vanner’s first book, Ragnarok (Baen Books, 2010), though it leads you to believe that the character is not an emotional being. I’ve read the book twice now and each time I was left with a nagging feeling that it is missing something very, very vital. So, in order to help with this review, I’ve broken down Ragnarok into sections. This is more for my benefit than anything, and maybe it will help me figure out just what went wrong.

Action: This book has it, and has it aplenty. Vanner has an uncanny sense of timing during his action and battle scenes, which flow with such a grace and ease that it makes the pages fly. His pacing is wonderful and I really can feel the tension on the pages as his characters are fighting to survive. No, this book isn’t lacking action one bit. In fact, I feel there could have been more action, given Vanner’s natural talent at depicting the chaos of a battlefield in a crisp, clear picture. It’s hard to do, and Vanner does it better than anyone. And that’s saying something, given who else is on my reading list. I really did want more action, because it hid some of the flaws throughout the rest of the book.

Characterization: Hit and miss, but to be fair, this is the author’s first book. While some characters I actually felt some sympathy and attachment to, the primary characters were somewhat lacking. When Alex (main character) and Greg Higgins (secondary main, and Alex’s Executive Officer) speak, it’s almost like they’re two parts of one character. While this is vital in military circles (indeed, if the XO is not on the same page as the CO in the real world, Bad Things Happen), it tends to blend the characters together and you don’t get the sense of originality between them. The aliens had some semblance of individuality, but given that this is a bad thing in their society, it’s sort of confusing. Another issue I have is the civilians… if you aren’t a military person in the book, you are an arrogant bitch who complains while Marines are dying to protect you. This irked me a little, since I know quite a few civilians who aren’t like this. It also made me scratch my head and wonder just how far humanity has fallen if, in the middle of a war of survival, civilians are still complaining about the military. Surely if you were on the brink of genocide, you’d be less than complacent about your hallway being covered in the blood of a Marine who just died protecting you?

Plot: Sort of a miss here. On one hand, Vanner does a tremendous job just showing how dire of straights humanity is in during its fight for survival. On the other, it leaves many, many questions and dangly bits all over the place. For example, why did the person who betrayed Earth and humanity do it? There’s really no point to the betrayal except to set up an awesome battle scene in the book (which, as mentioned earlier, completely rocked), and as a reader I was left with the sense that the villain is just doing it for fun. Now, it is briefly mentioned what the traitor has planned but again, why? Also, just what is the story about? A fight for survival, you’d answer. But what else? There’s a feeling in the beginning of the book about how Alex is struggling to overcome her past demons and ghosts, but only briefly mentioned a few times throughout. I never got the feeling that she was truly grieving for the loss of her men, unlike, say, an Honor Harrington novel. In those novels, I always felt like Harrington was deeply affected by the loss of men. However, Vanner does a much better job making the technology simple to understand, unlike other SF novelists.

Story: Incomplete, and I say this with a caveat. The story does not end conclusively, one way or the other. I felt that there was more to it, something other than a cliffhanger ending. I was waiting to see the traitor get caught, or the aliens to sue for peace, or something that would dictate this isn’t the first half of a long novel. Unfortunately, this isn’t Vanner’s fault so much as the editor’s. Someone dropped the ball by cutting so much of the novel apart or, if that isn’t the case, then letting it go without anything conclusive at the ending. If this were a solo novel, I would be furious and throwing this book out to the range for target practice. However, I’m almost certain that this is the first book of a series and that Baen really needs to option the rest, mainly so that we can see just how it ends.

Baen Books also really shafted Vanner with the book’s formatting (Trade Paperback, $14.00 retail price) as well, going to median route between paperback and hardcover. If it had been a $7.99 paperback or a $25.00 hardcover, the book would be easy to recommend whether to buy or not. As is, everything about this book is halved. I put this on the publisher though and not the author.

So the final decision is split.  On one hand, I really want to see how the book (and series) ends, mainly because so much energy was spent on getting to know the characters as I read it. On the other, unless you’re military, prior, or really like a good military science fiction story, I don’t think you would find the book entertaining. I did to an extent, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s just something missing from what could have been an amazing book. Too bad, because I have high hopes for this author.

-Reviewed by Jason


Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Cryoburn” — Once More into the Breach, Dear Friends.

(Editor’s note: we know that it’s “Unto” the breach, but I like the way Barb’s title works so please, no emails about how we butchered Henry V again – Jason)
Lois McMaster Bujold‘s signature hero, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. has been the protagonist of eleven books now and several short stories, mostly taken from the books, so he is not unknown to most readers — and that’s a good thing, because Cryoburn starts out with Miles hallucinating and on the run. Apparently, he was given a drug that didn’t agree with him after he was taken, yet despite his hallucinogenic state, he somehow managed to escape his captors. This is probably the most unusual start I’ve ever seen to a novel, and it would not work if we didn’t know Miles so well from the previous eleven books. This sort of start is something very few writers would ever attempt because it’s so difficult to portray Miles’s confusion, yet keep the reader interested and focused at the same time. To Ms. Bujold’s credit, she kept me interested; I wanted to find out what would happen next, and played along with what I knew was an authorial trick.
(As an aside, is it any surprise Baen Books, Ms. Bujold’s publisher, picked Hallowe’en as the best time to “treat” the reader with a new novel from Ms. Bujold about Miles? I think not.)
As the story moved along, I found out that Miles was on Kibou-Daini, a world where there were companies called cryocorps that fought over dead people. Due to the strange laws of Kibou-Daini, the dead vote through the auspices of the cryocorps, and the living most often are far less influential than the dead because of this oddity. Whoever freezes the dead for later revival controls the votes, which is why all of these cryocorps have such enormous power; they fight over the sick or old so the still-living person will pick one of them before he or she dies. The cryocorp the person has picked then controls the dead person’s vote until that person is revived after whatever illness or injury that killed them is now curable.

Emperor Gregor, the ruler of Barrayar’s three-planet empire, had sent Miles to evaluate the cryocorps as a whole because one of them, WhiteChrys, wants to set up shop on Komarr, the richest of the three planets Barrayar controls. Miles was the de facto choice because Miles, himself, had died earlier in his life and been revived (see the book Mirror Dance for further details), and as a Barrayaran Imperial Auditor, he has a great deal of civic and political power (plus the backing of Emperor Gregor), to the point that most companies, countries, and planets know to deal with him calmly, civilly, and politely — except for whatever reason, Kibou-Daini didn’t understand this or just plain didn’t care, which helped set up this adventure nicely.

Miles being on Kibou-Daini is a two-edged sword, as the people of that planet find out; he is incredibly intelligent, very gifted at problem solving, and is a compulsive meddler, just about the last person a corrupt government or set of corrupt cryocorps wants around.  And he promptly stumbles into a major problem, which as usual is brought to him by accident, in fact by the very first person he sees after being drugged.  This boy’s name is Jin, and he takes pity on Miles without knowing a thing about him.  First, Jin brings Miles water, then Jin helps to hide Miles until Miles has all the drugs out of his system. But Miles finds out very early on that Jin’s mother, Lisa Sato, was killed and put into cryo-stasis due to a political fight over whether or not a certain form of cryo-freezing actually works. She’d found it didn’t work, and was about to say so — on a world where your being frozen after death is a major civil right (in order to be later revived), this was a big, fat, major hairy deal — but was killed to keep that information quiet.

Around this time, Miles sends Jin to the Barrayaran Consulate to let them know Miles is alive. The Barrayaran Consulate is headed by Consul Vorlynkin, who is a career bureaucrat and an honest man, someone who is appalled at how Miles Vorkosigan does business. (This is the typical reaction most people have when dealing with Miles Vorkosigan; I suppose Ms. Bujold felt she had to have at least one person be appalled by Miles in this story or it wouldn’t feel authentic.) Then Miles’ bodyguard Roic, called Armsman due to a Barrayaran quirk of naming, gets free of the captors, along with Doctor Raven Durona; Durona is a specialist in cryo-revival, and was seen, briefly, in the earlier Mirror Dance, while Roic has been a character in several novels and stories, most prominently in the story “Winterfair Gifts.”  These two characters help give the reader a sense of continuity amidst unending strangeness.

Cryoburn is the first novel from Ms. Bujold about Miles since 2002. It is paced differently than most of them, as Miles is now thirty-nine years old and isn’t capable of much physical exertion due to his health problems (many of them exacerbated by his death, then revival, ten years before). There are some rousing action scenes here, and a great deal of intrigue, but most of the story is unsettling because of how it starts — Miles in a drugged-out state — and because of what it’s about — the various cryocorps, who vote en masse for dead people, legally.

What I appreciated most about Cryoburn, other than Ms. Bujold’s fine writing, was her humanity. We see a lot of Jin Sato, and later, his younger sister, Minako, and the fact of Lisa Sato’s murder — and her eventual planned revival — is one of the highlights of this book. That Consul Vorlynkin likes children, and has a child on another planet he rarely sees due to a divorce, adds to the humanity of the situation; that Miles himself is worried about his wife and children back on Barrayar, and his elderly mother and father — both incredibly effective people, but getting older and starting to slow down — helps keep this book grounded. We also see Miles’s clone-brother Mark and Mark’s long-time girlfriend/partner, Kareen Koudelka, as Mark is a businessman and knows a good opportunity (the cryo-revival side is one that’s been overlooked, it appears, by the Kibou-Daini cryocorps), when he sees one. All good.

But I cannot close this review for Cryoburn without mentioning the very last bit of it, so if you do not want your reading spoiled, please turn away now.

******** SPOILER ALERT ONE ***********

******** SPOILER ALERT TWO ***********

Ready? Set?

******** SPOILER ALERT THREE ************

All right. The very end of this book is the most unsettling bit of all for a long-time reader of Ms. Bujold’s novels, even though if you’ve read her stories from the start, you knew this would have to be coming eventually. It seems that Miles’s extremely able father Aral Vorkosigan, who was an Admiral, then Regent of Barrayar while young Gregor grew up to take the throne, then Prime Minister of Barrayar, then finally the Viceroy (along with his extraordinary wife, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan) of Sergyar, has died in his sleep. The cause of death is found to be a brain aneurysm, and Miles immediately goes into shock.

Now, Mark and Miles are told of their father Aral’s death on Escobar, which is a transfer point to get back to the Barrayaran Empire, by the simple expedient of the Barrayaran Ambassador coming up in his dress uniform (he is a retired member of the military, as are many Barrayarans due to Barrayar’s heightened militarized culture) and asking for Miles as “Count Vorkosigan.” Mark notes Miles going into shock, then reflects on how Miles’ old life is over — Miles is now Count Vorkosigan whether Miles wants to be or not.

The last five viewpoints, including Mark’s, are seen as drabbles — stories told in one hundred words or less — and I suppose this is as good a vehicle as any to describe the shock, horror and rage people feel even when a person’s death is uncomplicated and comes after leading a very rich and full life. I don’t particularly see why Ms. Bujold wanted Miles to say the common Anglo-Saxon word for fornication four separate times in his drabble — perhaps she was a few words short of her ideal drabble? — but it’s obvious Miles is extremely unhappy and is going to let everyone around him know it. Then we see Cordelia’s viewpoint — that extraordinary woman — and her brief fight with Miles over why Aral Vorkosigan will not be frozen for later revival; Aral did not want it, you see, and Cordelia respects his wishes. That she knows, as an older person, that sometimes it’s better to go into eternity than live on as less than what you were, is something she can’t possibly relate to Miles despite Miles actually having died and been revived; she wisely doesn’t even try.

The final two viewpoints are Ivan Vorpatril’s — Miles’s cousin — and Emperor Gregor himself. They are moving, especially Gregor’s, but I personally would’ve liked to see far more of both of them, and far more of the aftermath of Aral Vorkosigan’s passing than I got. These drabbles merely “whet my whistle,” as the saying goes, for more about how Miles Vorkosigan is going to handle being the full-fledged Count . . . and I’ve always wanted to read more about Ivan’s struggle to become fully adult and a capable person in his own right. (That story was told, a bit, in A Civil Campaign, but surely there must be more to Ivan’s adulthood than this?)

So the end of the story, with the five quick drabbles, underscores the whole point of Cryoburn — it’s all about death, and individual choices, and whether or not a person should try to come back — or not — is a choice that should be left up to the individual. Cryoburn is unsettling, lyrical, and has rousing action,  along with much intrigue and humanity, but what it all boils down to is whether or not the individual human life matters. It is obvious Ms. Bujold believes that any individual, whether well-known or not, is worth it, and that gets through despite the unsettling way Cryoburn opens, and the extremely shocking way Cryoburn ends.


Cryoburn is  very worthy, but do not expect it to be light reading. Instead, it is about the weightiest of choices: about humanity, human suffering, loss, and redemption. I admire the craftsmanship of Ms. Bujold and her obvious writing skill, but can’t say I particularly liked Cryoburn in the same way I enjoyed The Vor Game or Mirror Dance or A Civil Campaign.

On the whole, I’d recommend Cryoburn; its unusual premise and strong sense of humanity are praiseworthy, and as for it being unsettling? Life itself is often unsettling, and the death of people we’ve come to know over the course of eleven-plus books (as Miles’s parents had two by themselves, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, now contained in the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor) is merely a part of life that must be endured. Because nothing lasts forever, and no one lives forever — we can only do what we must with the time we have, as Ms. Bujold has so ably shown.

-Reviewed by Barb