Archive for September, 2011

Ryk Spoor’s “Digital Knight” — A Fun Take on Things that go Bump in the Night

Digital KnightRyk Spoor’s DIGITAL KNIGHT is a fun, fast read about things that go bump in the night.  DIGITAL KNIGHT features Jason Wood, a present-day computer information specialist who is so good at what he does that the FBI and local police departments often come to him for help.  Jason’s love interest is the New Age mystic Sylvia “Sylvie” Stake, who has real psychic powers that Jason knows exist but feels uncomfortable about; that Sylvie does her best to live up to the “fluffy bunny” stereotype of New Age practitioners as a form of camouflage only adds to his confusion.

But Jason’s adventures are only beginning; along the way, he learns that vampires are real and that at least one, Verne Domingo, is honorable.  Jason also learns that werewolves are much more horrible than any book or movie has ever portrayed them, and that both vampires and werewolves have an unusual tie to the Earth that Jason (or the reader) would have never expected.

Jason’s computer information business is extremely high-tech stuff, and Jason himself is very good at putting small bits of information together.  This is perhaps why, when Verne Domingo reveals he’s not what he seems to be, that Jason is able to accept this; the other reason, of course, is that Sylvie has psychic abilities of her own and she knows Domingo is telling the truth.  The trust here between Jason and Verne can happen only because Sylvie is what she is.  That helps to leaven all the adventures these three have, separately and together, and gives the book its emotional center.

This is a very fun and fast read, but what makes it so interesting is the fact that no matter how outré a person may seem, he or she still wants the same basic things: loyalty, love, and friendship.   That Verne (a vampire) encourages Jason to accept his feelings regarding Sylvie was an amusing touch, considering how long-lived he is and how easily he sees right through Jason.  Sylvie herself was a delight, because she seems to enjoy confounding Jason, then enlightening him about certain matters, then once again confounding him.  Jason, too, is well worth rooting for, because no matter what predicament he’s in, he always treats Sylvie with the utmost respect no matter how confused he is as to whether or not this is a friendship, a romance or, as the reader grasps from the start but Jason doesn’t, both.

The structure here is that of linked short stories, which makes perfect sense as this was originally a self-published novel by Spoor that was adapted and expanded once Jim Baen took an interest at Baen Books.  This is the best possible structure for such a book, though, because we get to see Jason change over time due to what life throws at him.  And the human elements that are present — Jason and Sylvie’s relationship, the ancient Verne Domingo who’s done and seen it all, the horrible Virigar (leader of the werewolves, who hates Domingo and thus hates Jason and Sylvie, too, as they are Domingo’s friends) — nicely balance all the supernatural stuff that could’ve easily outweighed the story, but doesn’t.

As for minuses?  Well, there’s a lot of violence here, as you might expect with an urban fantasy about detective work, werewolves and vampires.  There’s also a great deal of what I like to call “fandom lore,” as Spoor is a huge science fiction and fantasy geek (as you’d expect) and makes many references to the authors he’s read and the movies he’s watched to gain any knowledge about how to deal with werewolves and vampires.  To me, these were very minor issues, as I can’t see how the story would’ve been able to be told half as well without the violence or the SF/F “name-dropping,” and did not distract from the story much if at all.

I really enjoyed my recent re-read of DIGITAL KNIGHT, and believe you will, too.  Best of all, the link provided is to the Baen Free Library, where you can download this book for free.  (Baen does this as a form of advertisement, figuring that if you like the author’s free book or books, you’ll enjoy reading the same author’s latest and pay for it next time.)

This is a fine debut novel that does just about everything right, that has some original takes on tropes that in other hands could be old and tired, and has a nifty romance that’s appropriate for all ages.  Best of all, it’s a fun and fast read that doesn’t insult your intelligence.

So what are you waiting for?  Go download the book at the Free Library right away.  (And if you’re interested in one of Spoor’s more recent offerings, please read my review of GRAND CENTRAL ARENA.)

Grade: A-

— reviewed by Barb

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Sophie Littlefield’s “Aftertime:” Hopeful, Dystopian Romantic Suspense

Sophie Littlefield’s AFTERTIME is a well-done dystopian novel featuring a different take on zombies, an interesting post-apocalyptic milieu and a fine romance amidst a great deal of suspense.

AFTERTIME starts out with heroine Cassandra “Cass” Dollar running away from a bunch of zombies, called “Beaters;” she runs at night because the Beaters don’t see well in darkness.  She also is trying to hide from “normal” humans who haven’t been changed by a virus into Beaters because she’d been attacked by Beaters, yet survived without being permanently turned into a zombie.  Cass is a direct, honest survivor who wants to fully recover from being attacked, then go back to get her daughter, Ruthie, who’d been left with friends.

Because Cass is such an appealing character, she mitigates much of the horrific world around her; she sees possibilities in the “aftertime,” the time after a terrible nuclear and biological war has devastated much of the Earth.  She wants to survive, so she does her best to eat “kaysev,” a biological plant-construct that was dropped to various places in the last successful act of the United States government; kaysev has a gingery undertaste and supposedly contains all the vitamins, minerals, and proteins a human needs to survive.  

When Cass is threatened by a teenage girl, she doesn’t hesitate; she turns the girl’s knife back on her, but refuses to kill the girl as Cass fully understands why the girl was worried (as Cass looks a sight due to being attacked by the Beaters).  That’s because the Beaters eat any tissue they possibly can, including their own.  They leave muscle and sinew alone, and for some reason tend to leave people’s faces alone until everything else on their victims’ bodies has been eaten, but this leaves a victim like Cass looking worse than if she were “merely” dead.

Anyway, Cass and this girl end up in an enclave that used to be a school; this is a big, defensible place and many food stores have been brought there to supplement the omnipresent kaysev.  This is where she meets Smoke, an enigmatic man who believes that the remnants of humanity must choose their own destinies and not have anything forced upon them as some groups, like the Rebuilders, want to do.  These types of groups are more like the Posse Comitatus, or possibly the group that was led by David Koresh in Waco, TX, years ago, than anything resembling a government; they believe in authoritarian rule and nothing but, and individual life and liberty need not apply.

Well, as you might imagine, Cass is a strong individualist and she definitely agrees with Smoke’s worldview.  She figures it was bad enough that America lost nearly everything in the bombing, including any health research, most medical personnel and most prescription medications.  The only thing that can compound all this suffering is for those who believe in “peace through strength” to take over; that’s one reason she throws in with Smoke nearly immediately as she convinces Smoke to help her find her daughter.

But when they get to Cass’s former enclave (in a library, another highly defensible place), they find that Ruthie is gone — she’d been sent along with many other young girls to a religious place that promised to treat the kids well as the people in the library have been beset by the Rebuilders.  But the religious place also has a horrible reputation, and it’s near San Diego while all of this other action has been in whatever is left of California’s Central Valley; Cass and Smoke will need a lot of luck to get there, considering the best way of getting anywhere now is on foot as gas stations are out of fuel and many abandoned cars have been left as obstacles on the roads.

So the race is on: will Cass and Smoke find Ruthie?  If so, should they leave Ruthie where she is no matter how bad those religious folks are, or should they break Ruthie out?  And will their romance survive all of this dramatic action? (While I will not answer these questions, ponder the whole notion of “romantic suspense” for a bit and you’ll find your answers.  Guaranteed.)

The adventures of Cass and Smoke are absorbing, as is their tentative romance, while the suspense is excellent.  Further, I like Littlefield’s writing style; it’s direct, it’s fast-moving, and there’s enough internal monologue going on that I didn’t have to guess at what Cass’s motivations were except for the romance (which made sense; who’d think any sort of romance could happen so soon after an apocalyptic event?).  The various styles of human life after the worst has happened include some awful, atrocious actions which have been noted by Cass rather than wallowing in it (as have some other dystopian novels, including the recently reviewed SOFT APOCALYPSE); this allows for the full range of humanity to be seen, experienced, and understood, yet also allows for hope to win over despair.

As odd as this may seem, AFTERTIME is a hopeful dystopia that focuses on what humans do right — care about their children, form new friendships with worthwhile people, fall in love with other decent human beings, and survive whatever the world throws at them — rather than what humans do wrong.  And as such, I recommend AFTERTIME wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick, fast read with some dramatic subtextual referents.

Grade: A-.

— reviewed by Barb

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George R.R. Martin’s “A Storm of Swords” — Realistic, Gruesome Fantasy

George R.R. Martin’s A STORM OF SWORDS is the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, and is impressive, densely-plotted, gruesome, and gory.   Because this book does not and cannot stand alone, you should first familiarize yourself with the previous two reviews for A GAME OF THRONES and A CLASH OF KINGS before you go any further.

At the end of A CLASH OF KINGS, the “War of the Five Kings” (AKA the “Westeros Civil War”) was still raging, though one of the pretenders to the Iron Throne of Westeros was dead through treachery (Renly Baratheon, King Robert Baratheon’s younger brother).  King Joffrey Baratheon, who is actually the son of Cersei Lannister and her brother, Ser Jaime Lannister (called “the Kingslayer” as he slew Mad King Aerys Targaryen years earlier while a member of Aerys’s personal guard), remains on the Iron Throne even though he is not King Robert’s legitimate and true heir.**  But there are several others who believe they have as good or better claims, including King Stannis Baratheon, the eldest brother of Robert and the person to whom the crown should’ve passed once Joffrey’s illegitimacy was proven by Ned Stark, King Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, and King Robb Stark, Heir to Ned Stark and Winterfell. 

Of course, the best King and most interesting person of the lot at the start of A STORM OF SWORDS has to be Robb Stark, King of the North, Ned Stark’s teenage son.  Robb has proven himself to be a formidable foe as well as an excellent military tactician, and hasn’t yet lost a battle.  Robb is young and headstrong, yes, but has charisma and charm; that his personal seat of Winterfell has been lost due to his foster-brother Theon Greyjoy’s treachery hasn’t stopped his advance on King’s Landing one jot.

But there are plots within plots, wheels within wheels, and once again some of the best men will be killed while evil men still live . . . will Robb Stark succeed in his quest to take King’s Landing, or at least hold the North as his own?  Or won’t he?  This central question is pivotal to understanding what A STORM OF SWORDS is all about.

But just because that’s the central question doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on. 

First, the main subplot deals with the most-legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne of all — Daenerys Targaryen, sole surviving legitimate heir of Mad King Aerys — who is on another continent entirely, Essos, in a place called Slaver’s Bay.  She’s trying to raise an army to return to Westeros and take the throne, and her struggles are absorbing, mostly because aside from Robb Stark, she has the most ability to command men.  But she’s very far away, hasn’t completely come into her own power, and her three dragons are not yet fully grown; for the moment, she’s no threat to Westeros.

Next, there’s the whole issue of The Wall, a far-away, dreary place in the North that’s the last defense against Wildings (free men and women who refuse to live under any lords) and changelings, the latter including dead men who have risen again only to fight against the living.  (While the term “zombies” is not used, you might want to think of them that way even though pieces of them do not fall off and the dead seemingly think nearly as well as the living.)  The Wall is extremely important, even though much of the rest of Westeros doesn’t seem to realize it; it’s only due to the Wall that the Lords and the people who follow them have any peace whatsoever, at least when they’re not fighting civil wars. 

The Wall is important partly because Jon Snow, Lord Eddard’s acknowledged bastard son, is stationed there (more on him anon).  But any lengthy perusal of this series will show that whoever can hold the Wall has an excellent chance of holding the entirety of Westeros, something King Stannis Baratheon has sense enough to grasp even if the other Kings don’t.

Now onto the rest of the story.  We’ll start with the Starks.

Lady Catelyn Stark, Ned’s widow, is Robb’s chief advisor and confidante.  She does her best to keep her son safe, but of course Robb doesn’t always listen to her, which is extremely frustrating.

Arya Stark, Robb’s and Jon Snow’s younger sister, is running from the Lannisters.  She’s escaped King’s Landing clean, escaped a few other nasty situations, and has shown herself to be a competent fighter with some smarts and heart.  However, she’s still only twelve, at best; she is not yet a woman “flowered” (meaning she’s not yet had her menstrual cycle).  This gives her a certain amount of protection as she continues to run, as she’s able to easily disguise herself as a boy when needed.

Sansa Stark is still a prisoner in King’s Landing, though early on in A STORM OF SWORDS she finds out that she’ll no longer be marrying King Joffrey.  While this pleases her at first, she quickly realizes that Joffrey is still fascinated with her. That’s a bad thing, because Joffrey is vindictive at best and likes to see Sansa humiliated.  Sansa has “flowered” and can be wedded and bedded; how can she stop Joffrey when she’s all but powerless?  And who might be willing to protect Sansa when her own father has now been dead a year?

Bran Stark is still in the woods, running away from Winterfell.  He’s now eight, maybe nine years of age, a paraplegic, and has extra psychic talents which might save or damn him, providing they are trained.  His direwolf, Summer, is his constant companion.

Rickon Stark is a lad of four, running away from Winterfell but split off from his brother.  His direwolf, Shaggydog, is black and fierce and will protect Rickon, as will a Wilding woman named Osha.

Jon Snow is now about sixteen or seventeen years old and is stationed at the Wall as a member of the Night’s Watch as he’s “taken the Black.”  But his duties aren’t exactly what he’d imagined, as he’s become a sort of secret agent for Lord Jeor Mormont, the Commander of the Night’s Watch; Jon’s primary task is to find out exactly how many Wildings there are in order to best plan a defense, while his secondary task is to find out what happened to his uncle, Benjen Stark, the Night Watch’s best Ranger, if at all possible.

Now, let’s get to the other Lannisters. 

Queen Dowager Cersei Lannister is still in King’s Landing, plotting and planning.  She sees herself as the full equal to a man, but denigrates most other women in the process; this is probably a realistic quasi-feudal attitude considering the few women who obtained any power.  She sees Joffrey as perfect and does not attempt to check him in any way, shape or form.

Tyrion Lannister, “the Imp,” is still doing his best to save the realm.  However, his exertions at the end of the last book have weakened him, to the point that his father Tywin has come to King’s Landing and has taken up Tyrion’s former duties as Hand of the King.  Worse yet, Tyrion’s about to be married off to a young woman who’s terrified of him; how can he possibly get around this, as he will not force anyone who isn’t willing?  (This is the main reason Tyrion’s patronized whores his whole life; he knows as a dwarf that he’s not an especially attractive man, but whores won’t care if his gold is good.  And that way, he doesn’t have to apologize for who and what he is.)

Ser Jaime Lannister is still a member of the Kingsguard, but has grown more and more frustrated with his sister the Queen.  Jaime does not trust Cersei any longer; he does not trust her fidelity, he does not trust what she’s doing, and he doesn’t trust what she’s saying, either.  He’s also unpleased with the way King Joffrey, Jaime and Cersei’s son, is acting but can’t check him as Joffrey refuses to be checked by anyone.

About the only good thing in Jaime’s life is the developing friendship he has going with Brienne, the Maid of Tarth; Brienne is a fearsome fighter who’s been teased her whole life due to her lack of feminine virtues, yet she finds that she and the extremely attractive Jaime Lannister have more in common than either one of them had thought.

So, once again, there are good characters to cheer for (Robb, Tyrion, Brienne), characters on the road to redemption (Jaime, Tyrion’s companion Bronn the sell-sword), characters to boo and hiss (Cersei, Joffrey, Roose Bolton and his bastard son Ramsay Snow, the latter two who own the Dreadfort and have taken for their sigil an ugly flayed man because they are torturers and make no bones about it), and a whole lot of realistic, gory fighting scenes.  All of this adds up to one absorbing read that resonates long after the last page has been turned.

The one caveat here is this: because Martin is so very good at showing what’s going on, you feel the terror as people’s arms get chopped off.  You feel the pain when someone is tortured by the Boltons, which in its way is worse than being killed outright.  And when you get to a point you think you can stop and “smell the roses,” such as at a wedding which I will forebear to name, you can’t; instead, it’s just war by any other means.

While this is a very strong book in Martin’s epic fantasy series, I believe this one isn’t quite as absorbing as the first two books.  I’d buy it, definitely; it bears many re-reads.  But I’d buy it in paperback, as there’s one scene in here that’s so gruesome, gory and violent that you’ll definitely want to throw the book across the room after you’re done — and if you have the book in paperback, you can do so guilt-free without ruining the book in the process.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb


** This is something Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark knew when he was still King Robert’s Hand (or Robert’s second-in-command), all the way back in the first book, A GAME OF THRONES.  Ned Stark said this after King Robert was dead, was arrested for treason by King Joffrey, and was eventually beheaded even though he recanted in order to save his daughter Sansa’s life.  King Joffrey showed a wide streak of cruelty in refusing to allow Ned Stark to be sent to the Wall as his mother, Queen Cersei, and most of the other major Lords of the Realm, had counseled him to do. 

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Rogue — A Thoughtful Review

In the end, they only needed one man to destroy the world.

Now they need that same man to save it.

The premise for Michael Z. Williamson’s Rogue is simple: a dangerous man is murdering people and an even more dangerous man must be sent to stop him. After this, however, things stop being simple for Kenneth Chinran, former Operative for the Freehold of Grainne and currently the most despised man in the known universe for his attack on Earth some years before. Because a man he knew and trusted, trained and infiltrated a hostile enemy world with, is now his target.

It’s a game of cat and mouse as Ken and his assistant, Cynthia, cross worlds in order to track down and stop a psychotic killer. Along the way Ken is forced to look back more upon his role in the attack on Earth during the Freehold War (Freehold) as he tracks his prey closer and closer to Earth.

The action starts off slow but builds with intensity as the story unfolds around you. The pacing is decent, though much faster than Williamson’s earlier work, and the characters are less black and white this time around, which makes Chinran a much more likeable character. In The Weapon, he was a sociopath who cared little outside of being the most amazing badass in the universe. In Rogue, he has something worth fighting – and dying – for: a daughter, born in the midst of war.

One thing that the author does better this time around is show the human side of the protagonist. Before, I always felt like Chinran was just a Ken doll dressed up in super-human abilities and that there was nothing else to him. Now, though… now I actually feel bad for Chinran when he’s forced to endure all the horrors of knowing that he was personally responsible for the death of six billion people.

I’m amazed he wasn’t an alcoholic.

I was pleased with the inclusion of past references that did not dominate the new and original story, but still kept with the “storyline” that the author had established, which is something other writers have ignored. The story is a good one, and will leave you happy for the hero at the end. It’s not quite as “hardcore” as The Weapon was but, in my opinion, that makes this book that much better.

Definite buy and loan. Your friends will thank you.

–Reviewed by Jason

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Candace Camp’s “Affair” is One Fun Regency

Candace Camp’s newest Regency romance is AN AFFAIR WITHOUT END, which stars Vivian Carlyle.  Vivian’s twenty-eight, single, and happy to be so as she’s the daughter of a Duke so she’s both richer than most and more able than most women to live alone by choice.  Vivian swore off marriage long ago, as most of the married couples around her weren’t happy, and besides, she has no wish for any man to handle her affairs (as once she married, her husband would have full control over her finances as was the custom).  However, Vivian likes men a great deal, especially Oliver, the Earl of Stewkesbury.  Because she’s helping Oliver get his American nieces settled (“bringing them out,” in Regency parlance), she’s been around him frequently, and has started to realize that Oliver isn’t half the stuffed-shirt he seems to be, plus he’s much more attractive than she’d ever given him credit for, too.

As for Oliver, he’s come to realize over the past few months (as this is the third book in the Willowmere series) that Vivian is not only a very caring woman as she’s done well for three of his four American cousins, but she’s also extremely good-looking and makes his heart race like no one else.  But he’s worried; she’s a flamboyant redhead who does her own thing and says whatever she likes, and she’s mostly gotten away with it because her father is a Duke and everyone in the ton knows it.  How can he, a predictable, staid Earl, have an affair with her — the affair she wants, the one she approached him over — when it’s just not done?

Despite this somewhat unusual premise, the Regency atmosphere here is excellent; we see the expected balls, walks, outings in carriages, and it’s all quite enjoyable.  But the best reason to read AN AFFAIR WITHOUT END is because of dialogue like this, from pages 134-5, between Oliver and Vivian:

“Surely you must realize there can be nothing between us!”  He spoke in a fierce whisper, leaning toward her.

“I know nothing of the kind.  Why can’t there be?”

“Because you are a woman of genteel birth, a lady.”

“That does not make me any less a woman.”

“It makes you a woman to whom it is offering a grievous insult to kiss as I have kissed you and not marry.    And surely it must be obvious we cannot marry.”

Vivian began to chuckle.  “You think that I would not be a proper wife to you?”

“Good Gad, no.  I cannot think of anyone less suitable to be my wife.”

Note that what Oliver’s objecting to is the idea of a sexual fling between them because he knows Vivian deserves better.  But it doesn’t take him long to acquiesce because the passion there is just too great to be stopped.

The secondary romance needs to be mentioned as it’s also quite fine, that being the romance between Vivian’s brother Gregory and Oliver’s American cousin Camellia.  Gregory, a Duke’s heir, is tired of being trotted out on the marriage mart; he’s a scholar who loves the quiet countryside and makes no bones about it.  But he’s still a young man, and he wants romance like anyone else; when he meets the plain-spoken Camellia, who doesn’t care about titles or precedence or anything save Gregory the man himself, he falls and falls hard, and it’s completely understandable why.

There’s one more plot element that needs to be discussed, that of a ring of jewel thieves who are causing trouble for the ton.  Vivian loves jewelry, as her father’s favorite mistress, Kitty, taught her everything she knows.  (In our day and age, Kitty and the Duke would’ve married even if Kitty had to divorce her own spouse to do it.  But back then, the best the two could do was a somewhat-discreet affair.)  So when Kitty’s favorite necklace is stolen, Vivian is incensed and vows to do something about it.  This forces Oliver to stay around to make sure Vivian doesn’t get hurt as she’s not known for her discretion, which helps the two figure out a way to communicate without driving each other automatically straight up the wall in the process.  This hastens the romance between them, as communication is the key to any relationship, and greatly added to my reading pleasure.

This last plot element about the jewels illustrates two things that were very important.  First, Vivian has a caring heart as she knows Kitty really loved her father, which is why she becomes so incensed and vows to do something.  Second, Kitty’s presence in Vivian’s life is almost certainly where Vivian learned to successfully flout convention, which is why she would risk an affair with Oliver when she’d never before had congress with a man.  (That Vivian refuses to say she’s a virgin only adds to the fun, as she’s smart enough to know Oliver would never have given her a chance if she had.)

This is a very fun Regency romance, and it’s one “affair” I hated to come to an end.  I enjoyed every single last bit of AN AFFAIR WITHOUT END and will look forward to anything Ms. Camp writes next as it’s obvious she has her stuff together.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Disturbing Dystopia: Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse”

Rarely have I read a book as thoroughly disturbing at Will McIntosh’s SOFT APOCALYPSE.  In it, we meet Jasper, a formerly middle-class man who’s hit the skids in a big-time way.  Jasper has fallen in with a bunch of others in similar positions to his own and has formed a “tribe” which is nomadic, lives in tents, and does its best to gather power from windmills and solar panels in order to fill fuel cells and sell them to the remaining places that need this energy to survive.  But society has more or less collapsed, reasons unknown or untold, and Jasper’s tribe is having a very tough go of it, partly because the people who are still working (anywhere from 60 to 70% of the population are employed at the start of this novel) look down on folks like Jasper with distaste and scorn.

Now, the first question I had was, “Why is so little empathy being shown here?”  Because wouldn’t some of these folks think to themselves, “There but for the grace of God go I?”  Yet they don’t — instead, most people hate Jasper’s tribe, and others like them, right off for no good reason whatsoever. 

Next, we meet Jasper’s erstwhile lover, Sylvia, a woman who still has a job.  Sylvia and Jasper have a more or less platonic affair because Sylvia still loves her husband; apparently Sylvia’s husband just doesn’t excite her any more.  Sylvia’s help and money are the main reason Jasper’s tribe has survived to date.  Sylvia is important to the plot because she’s found Jasper a job in Savannah, Georgia, in a convenience store and brings Jasper a clean, white shirt for the interview.  So there’s at least one good person left; this helped me settle down for a while.

Moving on, as this book is told in a series of vignettes that move in time from weeks to months or years, we see Jasper trying to date as he’s given Sylvia her freedom now that he has a job and has been able to put up his tribe in a one-bedroom apartment. (Nine or ten people living there would be cramped, methinks, but McIntosh skims over this rather quickly.)  Jasper meets an upper-class young woman who gives him reason to go visit a club, something he hasn’t done much of since falling so far economically, only to have this gal reject him once she’s around her friends.  This makes Jasper sting — he can’t help it he’s fallen so far — and he ends up going home in disgrace.

In another vignette, Jasper’s still trying to date (and is thankful he still has his job at the convenience store as unemployment has now risen to 60%), and meets the one woman who’s truly worthwhile in all 256 pages of SOFT APOCALYPSE — Maya, a paraplegic.  Maya is smart, funny, down-to-earth and an economist; she says with conviction that there’s no chance that America will come back and we believe her.  However, Jasper can’t wrap his mind around the concept of dating a disabled woman and we don’t see Maya again, which is a real shame: while she was involved with Jasper, this story made sense and was enjoyable.  But Maya’s involvement here is, at best, four pages in length; obviously she cannot carry this novel.

SOFT APOCALYPSE meanders from place to place, and some of what happens is intensely disgusting, especially with regards to animals.  First, we see one of Jasper’s friend’s dogs getting killed due to being used as an innocent, road-side bomb carrier because, apparently, anarchists are everywhere and they like doing stuff like this to dogs for fun.  Next, we see another bunch of anarchists (or possibly paramilitary men) shooting up a bunch of people who’ve exited an art gallery showing, but they don’t kill Jasper because they know he’s poor.  However, they instead force him to eat a cat fetus, which they’ve apparently been carrying around on the off-chance that they’ll get their chance to torment some benighted soul like Jasper with it, which doesn’t make any sense.

The only real themes here are that Jasper can’t relate to women, nor can he really articulate what the Hell has happened to him or his society despite being a former sociology major in college.  These two things are not enough to carry this novel.  Further, all the terrible stuff done to animals seemed at best exploitative, and at worst was nonsensical; you’d think that with society having utterly collapsed that the only bad thing that would be likely to happen to most animals would be to be eaten rather than tormented or made to carry live bombs for the pleasure of some sick anarchist somewhere.

As for the characters, I didn’t like Jasper at all.  I found him whiny, self-centered, unable to process what had happened whatsoever even though this book spans ten years (this also is nonsensical), and unable to find many good people to help him rebalance his life.  I did like Sylvia, for the most part, and I definitely liked Maya, but they didn’t have that much to say or do in SOFT APOCALYPSE except play off Jasper’s complete incomprehension; maybe if this story had been written from their viewpoint, it would’ve made more sense.

Next, we get to the biggest problem of all in SOFT APOCALYPSE, that being the lack or omission of important details.  Consider that Jasper starts off this novel walking.  The other members of the tribe mention how hard it’s been to keep clothes on their back, but they never mention the shoes on their feet.  This is completely unrealistic, because if your only method of locomotion is walking, your feet are going to get bigger in a hurry — we know this from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, because peasants who did not have horses to draw carts had to get around by walking and their feet were often much, much bigger than any of the “civilized” Lords and Ladies because the latter group got to sit down for much of the day; the former group (the peasants) had to be standing up most of the time in order to do their jobs, then had to walk home afterward.

Then, there’s the lack of depiction, or any sense of strict delineation, between cities and the countryside in SOFT APOCALYPSE despite much of this novel being placed in Savannah, Georgia.  We should see that the suburbs are having trouble getting power due to all these anarchists (some of whom are called “Jumpy Jumps”) around causing randomized trouble, more so than just at the beginning of this novel when Jasper and the others are obviously floundering.  We should see “brown outs” in Savannah once Jasper is well-situated.  We should see problems getting good quality water.  We should see problems, period, and aside from the disgusting stuff with animals, we really don’t see much of that.

Finally, what bothered me the most about SOFT APOCALYPSE was the lack of there being any hope for the future aside from something that is really jarring — that of an engineered virus called “Dr. Happy” that makes most people calmer, more rational, or at least happier but doesn’t work for everyone.  (For those people, they tend to commit suicide, quickly, laughing all the way down — we see one of those suicides and it isn’t pretty.)  This doesn’t make any sense at all; in other dystopic novels I’ve read, including Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s classic A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ and Sam Landstrom’s recent MetaGame,  there were people to root for in the story as well as against.  There also were reasons to believe that at least a few people would learn from their experiences and become more empathetic; not everyone in these stories were good people, mind, but not everyone was a useless waste of space, either.

What I found in reading SOFT APOCALYPSE was this: it’s disturbing.  It’s depressing.  It’s obviously dystopic even for a dystopian novel, and it’s one of the most disgusting novels I’ve ever read due to the consistent abuse of animals throughout the course of the story.

Mind you, this novel has some fans in high places; Walter Jon Williams really likes this book and wrote a cover blurb for it.  Well-known full-time book reviewer Paul Goat Allen said this:

Bottom line: If Soft Apocalypse isn’t nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award, I will eat the entire book page by page…

And wrote a glowing review for SOFT APOCALYPSE here during April 2011’s “Dystopia Week.”

All that aside, this is a dark, disturbing, depressing and disgusting work of fiction I’d have rather not read.  However, since I did, here are my grades:

Ambience: A-plus.  No doubt about it; this aspect was done well because the story’s depressing and it was supposed to be.

Concept: A.  The idea of SOFT APOCALYPSE, by itself, works.

Execution of story’s concept: F.  The way it’s told didn’t.

Writing: C-plus.  McIntosh told the story he wanted to tell, but missed some vital details that would’ve made this book stronger and more believable.

Plot: F.  Bad detailing.  Good characters like Maya and Sylvia don’t stay around long enough.  No real overarching plot except for Jasper and his friends fumbling around.  Worst of all, the plot was not believable much of the time.

Characterization: C.  Obviously McIntosh can write good characters to root for, as I loved Maya and Sylvia.  He also can write terrible characters to root against, like the anarchists and paramilitary types.  But he wasn’t ever able to give me one good reason to root for Jasper, and that’s a cardinal sin.

Overall Grade: C-, and that’s generous. 

My advice is to read this at your own risk unless you’re an animal lover.  But if you love cats, dogs, or other animals, please do yourself a favor and skip this book.  You’ll be glad you did.

— reviewed by Barb

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Realpolitik, Westeros-style — George R.R. Martin’s “A Clash of Kings”

George R.R. Martin’s A CLASH OF KINGS takes up where the previously reviewed A GAME OF THRONES left off.   Ned Stark, erstwhile Hand of the King, is dead, and his children are scattered all over the place.   Among the most important of Ned Stark’s children is his eldest son Robb, who now styles himself “the King in the North” as he cannot abide taking orders from the teenage king Joffrey Baratheon (who styles himself “King of Houses Baratheon and Lannister”) after King Joffrey gave the order to put Robb’s father to death.  There is a precedent for a King in the North, because in the fairly recent past (within the past several hundred years) there used to be Kings who held Winterfell, not merely Lords.

But Robb Stark is not the only new King to worry about, here; there’s Stannis Baratheon, the eldest brother of the previous King, Robert Baratheon (who was believed to be King Joffrey’s father, but really wasn’t).  Stannis knows that Joffrey is not Robert’s true-born heir (Ned Stark, and the Hand of the King before him, Jon Arryn, had found this out and were murdered, but Ned managed to smuggle a note out to Stannis before he ended up dead).  Stannis styles himself the true King of Westeros, though everyone else calls him “The King on the Narrow Sea” as there’s obviously more than one King to worry about. 

Another new King is Renly Baratheon, the younger brother of Robert and Stannis, who’s a much more charismatic figure than any of the other kings including the odious Joffrey, and has a large and well-trained army behind him.  Renly is styled “The King in Highgarden” by others, though as is true of all but Robb Stark, Renly believes himself to be the one, true Heir to the Iron Throne and the best able to wield the power that entails.  Renly, too, knows that Joffrey is not Robert’s true heir as Ned Stark told him before Ned was taken prisoner, though even if Joffrey were legitimate, Renly had told Ned near the end of the previous book that a child on the throne had never been good for Westeros in the past and wouldn’t be now, either.  This made me believe that no matter what Joffrey’s parentage had been, Renly would’ve raised his standard anyway while the other kings taking part in this new Westeros Civil War probably wouldn’t have, providing Joffrey had just sent Ned Stark to the Wall in the first place.

Now, you may be asking, “What on Earth is the Wall?”  The Wall is a very important part of Westeros; while it’s a dark, depressing place at the furthest of civilization in the North, it’s the last line of defense against outlaws and changelings.  Note that it’s further North than Winterfell, and the old Kings in the North knew the Night’s Watch very well.  (The Night’s Watch are those who man the wall.  They wear black, do not marry, and do not raise sons.)  Deposed Lords, like Ned Stark, have often been sent to the Wall before; service there is honorable, as the Wall protects the rest of Westeros from the previously-mentioned outlaws and changelings, much less other threats.  And, normally, a Lord like Ned Stark would be sent to the Wall as a matter of course in order to rehabilitate his besmirched name.  But King Joffrey, being young and stupid, overruled his mother Queen Cersei’s wise counsel to send Ned Stark there, and instead had Ned beheaded in a garish outdoor ceremony.

Confused yet?  Well, in case you aren’t, there’s also the only remaining true-born Targaryen heir to worry about — that’s Daenerys Stormborn, who lost her husband near the end of A GAME OF THRONES but hasn’t lost any of her power.  She somehow raised from her husband’s funeral pyre three living dragons after everyone else in the world felt that dragons were extinct (she had been given some dragon eggs that everyone felt were inert as wedding presents, as the Targaryens had an ancient kinship with dragons and used to brandish dragon skulls in their throne room to point that out).  Daenerys is beautiful, young (fourteen in the books, about eighteen in the HBO series based off the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, which is called GAME OF THRONES), and lives on a wholly different continent across a great sea, but is still the only legitimate claimant left to the Iron Throne and she well knows it.

And there’s one, final King in this new “game” — that’s Balon Greyjoy, who styles himself “King of the Iron Islands.”  Greyjoy is a hard man who believes in hard work, self-sacrifice, and discipline — all good things, in moderation — but takes it way too far and is demanding at best, abusive at worst.  He has two children, a daughter, Asha, whom he wants to be his heir against all tradition, and Theon, who’s been raised by Ned Stark and is Robb Stark’s blood brother.  Balon Greyjoy has a plan, you see, to upset Robb Stark’s applecart and his son, Theon, had best carry it off — or else.

And lest I forget, the other Stark children (who are all important in different ways) are situated thusly: Arya is running from King Joffrey and his minions and has been taken in by a man from the Night’s Watch and is hoping to be reunited with her bastard brother Jon Snow, who now serves on the Wall.  Sansa is still engaged to be married to King Joffrey, though she now hates him and will intrigue against him if she ever gets a chance.  Bran, the second-youngest son, is still at Winterfell, exploring his psychic gifts (that awakened after he became a paraplegic due to the horrible accident that starts A GAME OF THRONES), while Rickon is still a very young child of four whose talents and abilities have yet to be determined.

So now that you know all the Kings, and where all the Starks are, you need to know that the most important and interesting person in A CLASH OF KINGS is none of these people — instead, it’s Tyrion Lannister, called “the Imp,” who’s been sent by his father Tywin to become the Hand of the King as Tywin’s needed more in the field due to his grasp of military strategy.  (In other words, if Tywin leaves the field, Joffrey could lose his seat on the Iron throne quite easily, which would cause the entire Lannister family extreme distress.  Tywin, by the way, is Joffrey’s grandfather, and Tyrion is Joffrey’s uncle.)  It’s Tyrion who must somehow keep those in King’s Landing who haven’t deserted King Joffrey together, and it’s up to Tyrion as to how the defense of King’s Landing will be handled.

Everything else, and everyone else, is much less important than whatever Tyrion can do to hold everything together; Tyrion is the unlikely key to this newest “game of thrones” in that he, alone, knows all the players very well.  And while his sympathies are often with the other claimants (especially Robb Stark, who is the one King who is mostly fighting to be left alone rather than to take King’s Landing for himself — though make no mistake, Robb Stark will gladly take and sack King’s Landing due to what King Joffrey did to his father, Ned), Tyrion knows he has a job to do and does it, which is probably why the resolute, determined and witty Tyrion remained my favorite character two books running.

There are a few other storylines of interest, though; first, Jaime Lannister’s “growth and story arc” has started, and we can now see him for the first time as a man in love who’s made bad decisions rather than the irresponsible blackguard he seemed in A GAME OF THRONES.  We also meet Brienne the Warrior-Maid, one of King Renly’s Rainbow Guard; she’s well over six feet, very much less than dainty, and has never felt like she fit in well before she became part of Renly’s guard.   Brienne was one of my new favorite characters, and her story is well worth watching and appreciating.  And we see Cersei Lannister trying her best, but mostly failing, to give King Joffrey some mother-wit lest his kingdom implode due to Joffrey’s inexperienced truculence.

Once again, Martin has delivered an epic fantasy that is engrossing from beginning to end.  There’s a great deal of intrigue, some nice fantasy elements with Bran Stark’s psychic gifts and of course Daenerys’s bond with her three young dragons, and lots of realistic battle scenes.  There are people to root for (Robb, Tyrion, Brienne); there are people to root against (Queen Cersei, King Joffrey, Tywin Lannister, and many others).  And there’s an excellent sense of place, and purpose, that sets off the whole Song of Ice and Fire like no other fantasy series I’ve ever seen.

In other words, why are you still reading this review?  Go grab A CLASH OF KINGS right now!

Grade: A-plus. 

— reviewed by Barb

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Ghost Story — Transparent, Dull

When we last left Harry Dresden, he was dead.


That’s a hell of a way to start a book.

Needless to say, Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden offering, Ghost Story (Dresden Files, No. 13) vastly differs from any previous Dresden novel. Limited in his form as a ghost, Harry Dresden is sent back to Chicago to save friends from certain doom. He cannot interact with the living very well, so he heads for the only person who could possibly help him — one-time antagonist Mortimer Lindquist, world class ectomancer (which, for those of you unfortunate enough to miss Ghost Busters as a kid, means that he sees dead people).

Unfortunately, Harry is soon informed that he has been dead for six months and much has changed. After his (spoiler alert!) destruction of the Red Court, a vast power vacuum has emerged and there is a struggle in the underworld to control what was once controlled by the Red King. Old creatures have crawled up from the depths and begun to take over, leaving humanity at the perilous brink of destruction.

Harry convinces Mort, after helping him fight off a powerful surprise attack at Mort’s house, to visit Karrin Murphy and convince her that Harry is back (sorta). Mort reluctantly agrees and off they go.

At this point in the novel I started to get bored. I like a quest as much as anybody, but when all that seemed to be happening through the first half of the book is Harry wandering around convincing people it was really his ghost, I grew tired quickly. Anxious for something to happen to drive the story forward. And the pacing of the book drags in the middle, which left me wondering if the novel was ever going to start. Considering how insane Changes: A Novel of the Dresden Files was, I expected Ghost Story to be a tad vanilla in comparison. This, though, is vanilla strained through a mesh filter then bleached just to be certain.

Then mixed with starch.

After a (needless, in my opinion) side quest (damn it, I’m starting to sound like I’m plotting a D&D game) helping some kid who just murdered someone (never claimed that Harry has a real sense of responsibility, something even the author points out throughout the book) escape from an abusive wizard (which you knew was going to piss Harry off, given his background), the story finally begins to pick up steam as Harry realizes that this strange new enemy who is after Mort is none other than an old nemesis he killed long ago and is back in ghost form as well. He has to stop this old enemy from accomplishing what she started off doing a long time ago (hint: remember Sue?).


…damn it, I hated this novel.

I’ve never hated a Jim Butcher book before. I’ve been displeased with what he puts some of his characters through, or some of the things they do in response to others’ actions. But I’ve never looked at a Butcher book (especially a Dresden novel) and ask “I spent how much on this?” The story pacing was brutally slow, so bad that I was beginning to think that I hadn’t expected the Spanish Inquisition this time. I felt that I was being tortured as I delved through the pages, wondering when the hell the story was going to start.

Harry, as a ghost who must think his way through many of his problems (no more blowing them up), seems to have an easier time thinking now that he’s been deprived of his magic. This is slightly out of character for him, though he has shown no small amounts of cunning in the past.

It paints a slow picture of Dresden as being a beast when you see his former apprentice, Molly, struggling to fight against the crushing weight of the enemy and you realize that Dresden did not think his grand scheme through (as I said, cunning doesn’t always translate to intelligent). Molly, after Dresden dies, is left to the ever loving mercies of Lea, the fey godmother to Harry Dresden (and world class bitch), she of the Winter Court. Murphy, who had been in denial about his death (they never found his body, which totally pissed me off, which I will explain later), is crushed to discover that the man she looked up to, admired, and possibly had feelings for was well and truly dead (well, sorta). His friends, who have been struggling to protect Chicago since his death, are frayed to the edges of sanity and yet the enemy still keeps coming.

Now, Butcher does play on the emotional strings a bit at the end, when Harry gets to see that all his friends are okay. This scene in particular actually affected me more than anything else in the book. But then…

…Butcher deux ex machinas the damned book!!


There had to have been a better way to pull off the ending of this book, yet Butcher went and did the worst thing possible. It annoyed me to no end (I actually typed “annoyed me to know end”, which goes to show just how annoyed I truly was) that Butcher did this to the end. A lot of people are going to be pissed at me for saying so, but doing to Harry what Butcher did was beyond crappy (though it does extend the series a bit longer).


It’s written, nothing we can do about it now except hope that the author doesn’t go off and rewrite his own rules to his universe.

Borrow it. If you buy it, you’re going to be mad at yourself for ripping out the pages and throwing the book against the wall afterwards.

–reviewed by Jason