Archive for January, 2013

Darkship Renegades — Wonderful and Engrossing

Editor’s warning: This book review contains spoilers for the first book in the series, Darkship Thieves. If you do not wish for the ending to be spoiled, stop here. Unless you really want to know, in which case, read on.

Darkship RenegadesFor any protagonist, one’s spouse being shot in the head less than a year after being married is definitely something that makes the reader sit up. When the protagonist is Athena Hera Sinistra, it makes the reader wonder which world will burn first.

Sarah Hoyt’s latest Darkship novel, Darkship Renegades, picks up immediately after the end of the first book of the series, Darkship Thieves (reviewed here). Athena and Kit, her husband, have just escaped from captivity on Earth after killing her father-clone, the Good Man Sinistra, and triggered an (accidental) beginning of a revolution by releasing prisoners from the undersea fortress of Never Never. Flying their ship back to Eden, they are subsequently detained for being potential spies and collaborators of Earth (something they fought to distinguish against in the first book) once more. The heavy-handed Energy Board committee is beginning to flex their power over the daily life on Eden. Led by a devious man named Casteneda, the Energy Board is tightening the screws of their enemies, which includes Kit and his very extended family. In order to counteract this (and also to prove their loyalty), Athena, Kit, Doc Bartholomeu and the mysterious cat named Zen all volunteer to go to Earth and recover the power tree notes from the brilliant Mule, Jarl Ingemar, Kit’s clone-father, in hopes of recreating the power trees so that Eden would no longer be forced to steal from Earth and risk detection.

It’s right about here when Kit is shot in the head and Doc Bartholomeu, in a desperate attempt to save Kit’s life, performs a strange procedure on Kit’s brain to save him. Unfortunately, this also “uploads” the partial consciousness of Kit’s clone-father, Jarl, who is immediately at odds with Kit and Athena over who gets to control Kit’s body and mind. They journey to Earth and struggle to piece together what is Kit’s brain and what is Jarl’s, while Athena is torn between the man she loves and a man who she hates residing in one body.

This book is heavier in politics than its predecessor, and also (I think) better written. The pacing isn’t as fast as Darkship Thieves, but the characters are deeper, more complex, and their story is far more fascinating this time around. While in the first book Kit was more playful and almost condescending in his attitude towards Athena, in this one he knows of her strengths and respects them far more. Of course, he (wisely) refrains from a condescending attitude this time, because one does not mock one’s wife without paying a hefty price.

Another intriguing facet of the book is Zen. An enigma early on, the reader discovers very quickly why her and Kit are connected and the bond they share. It helps build the potential of a future for Kit and Athena, beyond just their own, but of their potential descendants after them. It also shows a side of Athena (a jealous one) that the reader has yet to really see before. It adds to Athena’s character, I feel.

This book is very, very good. Not quite as good as Darkship Thieves, but better written. It’s hard to explain. Some parts of this book meandered whenever Athena’s mind wandered, which is right on target with what could happen when in a first-person narrative. But it also distracts at times, though not negatively, but building upon things that are evident later in the book. It can drive you crazy if you are not patient, but when all the pieces click together at the end, you find yourself smiling, nodding and wondering why you didn’t see that before.

A must-have book for the spring reading season, and a dark look at what could happen to even the most noble of causes.

Reviewed by Jason

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Clockwork Angel — A Fascinating YA Adventure

Clockwork AngelSome young adult novels are hard to categorize in just one area alone. Such is the case with Cassandra Clare’s effort, Clockwork Angelthe first book of The Infernal Devices series and prequel to her bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, which comes across as a fascinating delve into the magic of urban fantasy while still maintaining a strong steampunk undertone.

Tessa Gray comes from the United States to England at the behest of her brother, Nathaniel, who promises her a good job and pay. In mourning after the passing of her caretaker and aunt, Tessa arrives in London and immediately meets two elderly women, sisters by the names of Mrs. Black and Mrs. Dark. They represent their brother, that tell her, since he is unable to meet her at the time. Tessa reluctantly goes with them and immediately realizes two important things: the two sisters use magic, and that her life is in danger.

Tessa is trained in dark arts as well, though she is reluctant to do so. She learns how to change — to assume someone’s shape, form and memories — simply by touching something they once owned. As she grows stronger, she learns that she is to be given to the Magister — a man of much power and influence in the dark London magical underworld. Tessa tries to escape but is caught almost immediately. The sisters tie her up, but she struggles to escape once more — and runs into a boy, no older than she, who is trying to break in to the house.

Will is a nephilim (a descendant of “relations” between an angel and human somewhere in his family’s past) and is hunting the murderer of a girl Tessa “changed” into to please the sisters. After a brief battle with Will, Tessa and the evil sisters, Mrs. Black is slain but Tessa is knocked unconscious. She is then taken back to Will’s home, called The Institute, where she meets the other “Shadowhunters” and their allies: Brother Enoch, Charlotte, Sophie, Jessamine, Thomas, and the mysterious Jem.

Part of the allure of the story is the cross-mesh between a good steampunk story and an urban fantasy, something that the author does rather well. Her characters are all varying individuals with their own reasons and desires, while they still maintain their friendships and relationships, and don’t come off as trite cardboard cutouts of anyone else. Ms. Clare does a wonderful job with the painting of the character Jem who, despite being sick, is a very skilled nephilim and shadowhunter.

Another compelling piece of characterization comes from Tessa’s motivation: her brother Nathaniel. She is willing to do anything, and go to any lengths, to save him. The twists and turns Tessa must face and overcome throughout the length of the novel makes for a fascinating read, and while it has a few minor bumps (there are some points where the story stalls, albeit briefly), it’s a wonderful introduction to an authors works.

With a twist you don’t see coming and a betrayal you almost wish you’d seen, Clockwork Angel is sure to leave the reader pleased.

Reviewed by Jason 

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Janet Edwards’ “Earth Girl:” Smart, Realistic YA SF Adventure

Janet Edwards’ forthcoming debut novel, EARTH GIRL, is a fun young adult adventure story about Jarra, an eighteen-year-old Handicapped young woman from Earth.  In the not-so-distant future (the year 2788, to be exact), most human beings can portal to other worlds, but someone Handicapped, like Jarra, cannot do so and must stay on Earth as it’s literally a matter of life or death.

So even though most human needs have now been largely alleviated, as everyone has food, clothing, shelter, medical care and as much education as he or she wants — a largely utopian vision — there are still differences.  People like Jarra are called “Neans” (short for “Neanderthals”), “apes” or worse, while the Handicapped call everyone who can portal “exos,” short for those who made the Exodus away from Earth long ago.

Jarra wants to become a historian, which isn’t just a scholar but also is something of an archaeologist, and find out more about what was lost on Earth due to the Exodus.  But she’s tired of thinking of herself as a second-class citizen, which is why she’s determined to get accepted to an off-world university — possible only because every off-world university sends their first-year students to Earth.  She does this, makes up a fake military background for her parents (as having to admit that she has a “ProMom” and a “ProDad” would blow her cover right away) and heads off to school.

Jarra ends up meeting a number of “exos,” including her teacher, Playdon, an extremely well-known young woman, Dalmora Rostha (whose father makes important, wildly popular historical videos), two people from the notoriously hedonistic Betan sector, Lolia and Lolmack, Krath, an obnoxious young man who could be from anywhere and any place, and a good-hearted young man from the somewhat puritanical Delta sector, Fian, who becomes Jarra’s love interest.  Getting to know all of these people causes Jarra to realize that not all exos mean her ill (even if Krath is a pain in everyone’s posterior).

Jarra continues her pretense of being a “military kid,” which allows her to say she’s never really stayed much of anywhere except Earth (the flat truth). Over time, she has a wide variety of adventures,  all dealing with archaeological digs centered in and around New York City.  Jarra has some experience with such things — as much as any underage teen could have, before she turned eighteen and started her university studies — and starts to impress Playdon and the others with her energy, knowledge and zeal for history.

History in Jarra’s time is a fascinating endeavor.  Due to the Exodus,  Earth’s population has been drastically reduced, which is why most cities have been abandoned.  It’s unsafe to dig in the abandoned cities due to the way skyscrapers have settled and/or collapsed (much less the various chemical spills and other assorted problems).   Yet there’s so much to be rediscovered that these latter-day historians/archaeologists view it as being more than worth the risk.

That’s why these first-year students are so vital.  They are learning in a hands-on environment in the birthplace of humanity — Earth — and get to see right away what their careers will be like.

At any rate, all of this backstory would seem to overwhelm Jarra or her importance, but it doesn’t.  Instead, Jarra thrives in this environment and seems just like any other living, breathing kid with a bent for archaeology and the skills to match.  Her coming of age story is powerful, precisely because she’s a smart kid with a bad attitude who wants to be taken seriously despite her Handicap, and we can’t help but root for her.

Of course Jarra can’t get away with her deception forever.  So it can be reasonably assumed that push will come to shove at some point.

When this happens, Jarra must admit she’s from Earth to her young lover, Fian.  This admits her Handicap and gives Fian a reason to run, but will he?

And even if he doesn’t, what will happen to Jarra once her year with the exos is up?  (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Overall, this is a young adult science fiction action-adventure story with just a little romance, one that’s based more on how well Jarra and Fian get along than about how they call to each other romantically.  And while there is a lot of physical chemistry between Jarra and Fian (the romance wouldn’t work without it), I found it to be a smart, engaging and realistic romance.

Which I suppose isn’t a surprise, because I found EARTH GIRL to be a smart, engaging and extremely realistic view of what happens when an intelligent and talented young adult with what’s viewed as a handicap comes of age in a largely utopian society, albeit one with flaws.

Bottom line: this is an excellent read (a debut novel, no less) that teens and adults will love.  So when it is released in the United States in early March, go grab yourself a copy, soonest.  (For those lucky enough to live in the UK or Germany, go find this book today.  You won’t regret it.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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The Exodus Gate — A Dark, Methodical Urban Fantasy

The Exodus GatePart of what makes an epic fantasy so wonderful is just that — it’s on an epic scale that brings you deeper into a world not of your creation. It snares you, brings you in, paints a vivid image in your head and makes you wonder how you have never read this author before. That was my first impression upon delving into Stephen Zimmer’s massive tome, The Exodus Gatewhich is the first book of his Rising Dawn saga.

Benedict Darwin is a talk show host which bears some resemblance to late night shows about government conspiracies, aliens and whatnot. Soon afterwards, he comes into possession of a device which, at first, seems to be nothing more than a very detailed virtual reality device. He goes into the virtual realm and discovers that there is something decidedly odd within the world. Perturbed, he shuts it off and leaves it along — until he decides to let his niece, Arianna, try it out with him. Thinking it as nothing more than a game, the two realize soon enough that whatever — or wherever — the VR world is, it is not some fanciful creation. Benedict and Arianna find out soon enough that there is a war going on, and that it was in the final stages. He also discovers that humanity, and freedom, are about to lose all as the nephilim — cursed children of fallen angels and humans, all but wiped out by the Great Flood talked about in the bible — seek to implement their rule over earth once more with the creation of a One World Government.

Caught up a series of events that are quickly spiraling out of their grasp, Benedict and Arianna find themselves as allies to the strange wolf-creatures in the virtual realm, along with new-found allies in their own realm, against a widening array of forces worshiping the darkest evil of all — Diabolos, the Shining One, emperor of the Abyss.

Rich in detail, The Exodus Gate brings to life mythical creatures and thrusts them into the limelight, forcing the reader to examine both the darkness and light without a filtered lens. The author has an excellent premise early on, and builds the tension very slowly throughout (sometimes a bit too slow) as he reaches for the finish, like a tidal wave building p steam before crashing into the beach. The pacing is slow at times, but some of the action is so intense that these slower times feels more like a deep breath than anything else.

Some of the secondary characters feel like mirrored doubles of others, but the vast cast of characters hides this well. A bit long at other points (an editor could have trimmed some off and not lost anything in the story, IMHO), The Exodus Gate is an excellent alternative for those who could not make it through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.

One very good read, though plan on more than one sitting. It is extremely detailed, and not a book to be taken lightly.

Reviewed by Jason

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Cold Days — Welcome Back

Cold DaysFor fans of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, the last offering (Ghost Story, reviewed here) was a bit of a letdown. Harry, the intrepid hero, was dead, and wandering around Chicago in ghost form. It took an act which many reviewers (okay, this reviewer) to declare that the ending was contrived and painful. Nonetheless, Dresden more than makes up for it in his latest, Cold Days

Harry is now the Winter Knight, the ultimate warrior (so to speak) for Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. And after months of “physical therapy” (i.e., trying to kill Harry in every imaginable way possible) she tasks him with his first assignment as the Winter Knight: kill Maeve, Mab’s daughter.

Harry travels back to Chicago to find that the world had changed since his “death”. Friends and allies were no longer such, and those he once counted on in dire circumstances were now his enemies. Harry also learns that a massive war between the Outsiders and the forces of Winter are the only thing which keeps the mortal dimension in one piece, and discovers that something far more insidious — and dangerous — had occurred. Led by the mysterious Cait Sith, Harry must acquire all that he needs in order to complete his mission for Mab before Maeve, or anybody else for that manner, finds out.

Harry is almost immediately beset by the Summer Knight when he reaches Chicago after touching base with all his loved ones — except for one in particular. The Summer Knight is there to kill Harry, as Summer and Winter are wont to do. But Harry manages to convince his old friend Twitch (the Summer Knight) to hold off until the time is right. Harry’s half-brother, Thomas Wraith (white court vampire), also manages to convince the Lady Summer to wait as well. Harry suddenly finds himself trying to figure out just why Mab would need Harry to kill Maeve when the Queen could obviously do it herself. As the plot thickens, so does the danger that Harry and all his friends face.

Butcher gets back into stride after the rough outing in the previous novel, with Harry in full command of his magic and self once more. The powers and influences of the Winter Court are evident throughout, as Harry becomes more and more of a Winter Knight and less of himself. Aware of these inner changes, Harry struggles to keep his identity and sense of self throughout. The author does a magnificent job of pitting Harry’s humanity with the self-gratifying needs and desires of what being a Fae entails. Harry struggles, fails, and struggles again until he finally comes to terms and accepts that while he may be the Winter Knight, he is still Harry Dresden.

Part of the enjoyment of this novel is watching the struggle take place within Harry. He knows it is happening, yet it is careful and subtle while changing his feelings and emotions towards things. He slowly becomes more primal and cunning, while relaying less on his inner set of morals that have helped him stay strong throughout the series. Delving into what may have happened had Harry followed his old mentor, Justin, the author opens up a new side to Harry — one that the character is terrified of being.

Well-paced and filled with action, suspense and a surprise ending that even I didn’t see coming, Cold Days is a wonderful and welcome edition to the Dresden universe. A definite must-buy for any fan of the urban fantasy genre.

Reviewed by Jason

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