Archive for July, 2013

Under a Graveyard Sky: Fast zombies, smart survivors

Ed. — Once more we welcome Chris Smith and thank him for reviewing for us. Barb’s been fighting a sort of pneumonia/bronchitis/flu  for the entire summer (a whole world of suck there) while I’ve been slacking off on my reviews. So thank you, Chris, for filling in admirably. Good reviewers are not easy to come by; especially the funny ones.

Under A Graveyard SkyUnless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you may have noticed the fairly large amount of zombie related entertainment in today’s market.  For the rock dwellers, welcome! It’s the year 2013, the country is still in a recession, Obama won a second term, and zombies are extremely popular these days. Oh, and still no flying cars or hover boards. (Personally, that stings the worst.)

Now that everyone is caught up…

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, zombies still seem to be going strong. Books, movies, comics, TV shows, even ammo- they’re everywhere.  Funny, since Romero’s original use of the monster was to satirize American consumerism. I wouldn’t be surprised if ol’ George was praying for death, so he could get started on the ‘spinning in his grave’ process.

What is the appeal? Hard to say, as there are many different, and reasonable answers. Zombies represent an unstoppable force of destruction; They’re the embodiment of the faceless masses, a collective of unthinking, uncaring and insatiable consumers, able to overcome individual free thinkers with sheer numbers and mindless determination; An excuse to use creative killing techniques on something you don’t have to feel guilty about. (My favorite, oddly enough. Redneck and proud, baby!)

Here’s my problem with the genre:  In general, there can be no smart people in zombie fiction. Why? Because the smart people wouldn’t have an issue with the zombies. They’d hole up, figure out the best course of action against the monsters, and get down to the business of survival. This is my main issue (and the reason I scream at the TV) with ‘The Walking Dead’.  In ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Zombieland’, we are supposed to laugh at the idiots/tropes and go along with poking fun at them. It works, because it’s a huge nod and wink at the genre. ‘The Walking Dead’ and the Romero remakes (not the originals) are meant to be taken seriously. That’s what makes the huge, glaring mistakes so difficult to stomach.

Here is my short summary of ‘The Walking Dead’:

“AAAAAHHHH! Walkers! Aaaahhh!”

“Om nom nom”

“Oh thank God, we survived! That was terrible and unforeseen!”

“Yes, thank God it’s over.  Let’s continue on with our lives, secure in the knowledge that it will never happen again,”

“AAAAAHHHH! Walkers! Aaaaahhh!”

I realize the characters live in a world where zombies were unknown. However, we start the series three months into the plague, and are following a group of survivors. They should know the threat, and more importantly, know how to DEAL with the threat. Apparently, the writers decided that, to move the story in its various dramatic arcs, the characters needed to be completely incapable of making consistently good decisions. They make the same lousy choices time after time.  It’s frustrating.

Which–finally, right?– brings me to Under a Graveyard Sky (UAGS from now on).

I like this book. I have recommended it to as many people as I can. This book does zombie apocalypse right. No, wait, let me rephrase that: This book does ZA SURVIVAL right.

We focus on the Smith family (no relation)– Steve, Stacey, Sophia, and Faith. Dad, Mom, older sister, younger sister. They are smart, prepared, and capable. This is a group of folks that would be odds on favorites to survive ANY major disaster, short of the Sweet Meteor of Death. And even then, they may pull through.

Steve is ex-military, and fills the role of team leader. Stacey falls into a mostly support role, but isn’t portrayed as though she is less important than Steve. She is equally important, and vital, to the group’s morale and cohesiveness. Sophia is the team’s medical officer. Then there’s Faith.

Oh, good God, there’s Faith.

If this were a D&D party, Steve would be a Ranger, Stacey a magic user, Sophia the team’s battle cleric/healer, and Faith would be the fighter/berserker. (Roll a 2d-20 for a geek save. If you have 2d-20, you passed it.)

The ‘zombies’ in UAGS are bio-type, much like ‘28 Days Later’. They’re still human, infected with a rabies-like virus that degrades brain function down to a feral animal type level. The first act of three concerns the beginning of the infection, allowing us to follow along as the Smiths make their preparations to survive what’s coming. It does bounce around a bit, giving us several viewpoints, but does a good job of adding depth to the universe. This is the more technical section, providing info as to how the virus works, how it was spread, and how it affects the infected. This doesn’t slow anything down, however, as the tech info is worked smoothly into the story with the action, humor, and tension. While all the Smith family members are well represented throughout the section, the focus begins to shift towards Faith at roughly the halfway point. She has the best lines and scenes, and is generally the center of the action. (I still chuckle about her disarming before entering New York-think Mad Max as played by a thirteen year old girl.)

Act two takes place just after the plague has spread, following the Smith’s as they scavenge the seas for supplies. Here we begin to encounter other groups of survivors, setting up the “well, now what?” question. This is the pivotal point that sets the tone for the rest of the series. Steve’s decision to not just survive, but to fight back and rebuild, separates UAGS from most of its contemporaries. We also see groundwork laid for possible future conflicts, as various personality types come in contact.

In something like ‘The Walking Dead’, these conflicts would be met with some hand-wringing “we all have to get along, because TOLERANCE” attitude, until it became a major distraction/threat. Dealing with the distraction would be the perfect time for “AAAHHH! Walkers!” and the inevitable death of the source of the conflict. Until the next time.

In UAGS, Steve deals with potential problems immediately, before they become a threat to the group’s survival. This is what normal people refer to as “smart.” It goes a long way towards establishing the credibility of the book. The characters will deal with issues in a realistic fashion, display the necessary mindset to make the difficult decisions, and the intelligence to handle things before they develop into obstacles. Random and consistent good luck will not become a major plot device. This is a good thing.

Act three has the most action, as the now named Wolf Squadron has grown significantly. Switching the mission from simple survival to search and rescue means clearing larger and larger vessels. More action doesn’t mean less character development, however, even if it is mostly centered on Faith. Beneath the ‘kill ‘em all’ exterior, there is still an innocent thirteen year old, dealing with the reality of her ‘kill, or become lunch’ world.

Be warned, while it wraps up neatly (figuratively speaking- there was nothing ‘neat’ about the big fight scene) UAGS ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.

All in all, it is a well thought out, well written and, most importantly, fun novel. As with other works in the genre, I can see potential for future novels to get bogged down. Concentrate on the politics of rebuilding society, and it gets boring quick. Throw in a lot of zombie killing, and you run the risk of “been there, done that, got blood on my T-shirt” type action.  However, as long as the series continues to build on the personalities of the characters and the strong human element of the story, the desire to see Wolf Squadron succeed where others have failed could override any problems.

Reviewed by Chris

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Lee and Miller’s “Dragon Ship” — Good Storytelling, Odd Story

What, as a reviewer, can be said when you really like two authors but do not like one of their books?

Over the past several months, I’ve been in just this quandary with Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s DRAGON SHIP, the fourth book following the story of Theo Waitley (after FLEDGLING, SALTATION, and GHOST SHIP).  I loved the previous three books in this arc, just as I loved every single one of Lee and Miller’s other books in and out of the Liaden Universe — but I do not love this one.

Before I go on, I will admit right away that spoilers will be discussed.  If you do not want your reading spoiled, stop reading.

Now, let’s get started.

DRAGON SHIP takes up where GHOST SHIP left off.  No time has passed.  Theo Waitley is still the provisional captain of the unusual, sentient ship Bechimo, but is not a “full” captain as the ship hasn’t accepted Theo, nor has Theo accepted the ship.  Her male lover, Win Ton yo’Vala, is still on the ship in a sealed medical unit due to taking a grave illness that seems akin to radiation.  His prognosis remains uncertain.  And Theo’s female lover, a young woman Theo met at Anlingden Piloting Academy, is also resident aboard the ship.

Theo, in effect, has three lovers aboard the ship at once, and one is an AI.  But Theo doesn’t seem to see this as a consideration, perhaps because she’s young and rather driven.

At any rate, Clarence O’Berin, de facto First Officer and relief pilot, is still there, and continues to give Theo wise counsel whenever Theo asks for it.  But he gets very little airplay in this book, which I thought was a shame.

So instead of seeing a straight-up action-adventure — though we do get some of that — this particular novel is all about the love quadrangle between Theo, Win Ton, the woman from Anlingden, and Bechimo the ship/AI.  And as such, I found it . . . well, there’s no polite way to say it except “extremely lacking.”

Look.  Theo is drawn as a normal-looking woman.  She is obviously both highly intelligent and has more than her share of what most people would call “leadership.”  But nowhere in any of the previous books was a sign of Theo being irresistible to anyone of either sex, providing they’re of her age and experience.  (Bechimo is of course much older, but is incredibly naïve as he’s had little interaction with human beings or other AIs for centuries.  Not that there are many other AIs extant, but I’m getting to that.)  Yet here she is with all these lovers — one of which, Bechimo, she doesn’t even realize is interested in her as a romantic partner — and there’s nothing in her background to explain why this is.

Getting to Bechimo, there’s every reason to see why he’d want to pair off.  He’s an AI in a universe that doesn’t particularly cotton to such things and he’s not had a whole lot of acceptance in his rather lengthy life.  He wants to share his life and his ship with someone else, and as he’s male, he seems to prefer a female lover/companion to become his captain.

However, the reader doesn’t understand this is what is going on from the first, as the story is mostly told through Theo’s perspective.  (That is, when it’s not giving updates on other people in the far-flung Liaden Universe.  I enjoyed seeing the updates about Miri Robertson, her consort Val Con yos’Phelium, and many others, but they were more of an appetizer — not a full meal.)  And Theo really doesn’t seem to get what Bechimo’s after; she thinks of Bechimo as a machine, even after the only other AI she knows — Jeeves, a friend to Clan Korval for at least fifty years — befriends Bechimo.

There’s some good reasons for this, mind you.  Jeeves, despite his self-identification as male, seems sexless.  He’s an AI, yes, but he has no interest in the opposite sex at all, perhaps because there are no known female AIs, perhaps because he was constructed to be a war-bot.  (That is, a tactical general of sorts in the various high-tech wars of the future.)  And Jeeves has always come across as paternal, too — or maybe to a certain few, like Shan yos’Galan or Theo’s father Daav yos’Phelium, as a sort of brother.

At any rate, all of the adventures that Theo has here mostly go to show what we already knew from the previous three books — she’s intelligent.  She’s a really good pilot.  And she’s an excellent captain, providing she’s getting cooperation from her ship and crew.  So in that way, they are extraneous — nice to see, sure, and well told by Lee and Miller.  But the main plot remains that love quadrangle — and as it’s never fully realized by Theo, that’s not nearly enough.

Then, the main secondary plot is about Theo’s parents, Kamele Waitley and Daav yos’Phelium.  Kamele is worried about her daughter (and doesn’t even realize that Theo’s being courted by a sentient AI, either; Kamele must have a little ESP of her own, methinks), and intends to go to Surebleak to find her, as she knows that’s where the Korval Clan (what Theo is a part of through her father, Daav) has established residence.  I had no problem with this part of the secondary plot.

Daav was in mortal danger at the end of GHOST SHIP, and was  rescued by the enigmatic Uncle, who has what’s best described for non-scientists as a trumped-up cloning machine.  Which means Daav can be saved.

So far, so good.  I’m for Daav being saved, and believe it is plausible.

Then the plot thickens, as the Uncle apparently can move souls from one body “shell” to another, which is why he, himself, has lived for thousands of years.  But as Daav’s lifemate, the deceased Aelliana Caylon, was still around Daav as a ghost — and as the Uncle somehow knew this — the possibility stood at the end of DRAGON SHIP that both Daav and Aelliana would be brought back in new shells.

And I just didn’t buy it.

Even though Aelliana is my favorite character by a mile out of all of Lee and Miller’s wonderful characters, she’s still dead.  And a dead character — whether she’s around as a ghost or not — has lived her life.  So there’s a difference between bringing back Daav, who’s still clinging to life, and Aelliana, who’s long dead — a big difference.

So let me sum it up for you: The writing here is excellent, as always.  But two conscious author’s decisions — one to put Theo in this love quadrangle, and the other to somehow resurrect Aelliana Caylon — put me way off my feed.  (And don’t get me started on how Bechimo actually binds Theo to him as a lover, something that truly turned my stomach.  And hint, hint — it’s not because of the technology.)

Therefore, as much as I enjoy Lee and Miller’s work, I cannot recommend DRAGON SHIP even though I wish I could.  But if you must read it, be warned that this love quadrangle aspect exists, even if it is never fully realized by Theo.  And try to keep from throwing the book across the room once you realize what Bechimo does to make — almost force — Theo to love him, much less the whole thought of the long-dead Aelliana Caylon being brought back to life . . . whether she wants it or not.

Grade: C, mostly because the quality of the writing was, as always, excellent.

— reviewed by Barb

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Cedar Sanderson’s “Vulcan’s Kittens” Is a Nice YA Read

This week, it’s time to take on Cedar Sanderson’s short debut novel, VULCAN’S KITTENS.  A take on the whole “normal kid finds out she’s part-immortal” theme most recently popularized by Rick Riordan, VULCAN’S KITTENS stars Linnaea (Linn) Vulkane, granddaughter of Haephestus (Heff) — otherwise known as the Greek god, Vulcan.  A war between the gods is brewing, and nothing is exactly as it seems.  But at the start of this book, Linn has absolutely no idea that she is related to any immortals, much less that she might have some otherworldly powers herself.  (Of course, if Linn had known all this at her young age of fourteen, I’d have been incredibly surprised.  But I digress.)

Anyway, the kittens come into play because Heff’s good friend Bast, an Egyptian goddess, has had kittens recently, and is staying in Heff’s house out in rural Montana.  Linn’s visiting her elderly grandfather, and since she’s there, she helps take care of the kittens.  Like kittens anywhere, they’re small, cute and defenseless.  And even though Linn finds out the kittens are the scions of two immortals, not just one, that certainly doesn’t mean they came into this world knowing everything they need to know.

Linn has a huge heart, so even before she realizes she might have some additional powers beyond her own essential goodness, she decides she’s going to protect those kittens.  It doesn’t matter to her that other gods are trying to harm the kittens (who can’t be killed, exactly, but can definitely be seriously harmed); that may make her task more difficult down the line, but she will deal with that as it comes.  And as the kits like Linn quite a bit, Bast decides to leave them in Linn’s competent hands as she must try to head off some of the opposing vengeful gods at the pass.

Despite the soon-to-be-war, for a little while — a time that seems almost dreamlike — Linn’s existence is what you’d expect of any city kid thrust into the countryside.  In addition to playing with the kittens and taking care of their needs, she learns all sorts of things about milking goats, skinning small animals like squirrels and rabbits (as Grampa Heff is a big believer in hunting), and a number of camp chores.  But because Heff knows that the war between the various gods is imminent, Linn also learns how to protect herself in both hand-to-hand combat and swordsmanship.

Wisely, Linn learns these things in a realistic, piece by piece fashion, the way any kid learns.  She’s not an immediate expert, something I appreciated mightily.  And because Heff sees Linn as a bright and compassionate young woman rather than “just a kid,” Linn actually is better prepared to face the worst than she might’ve been if she’d been immediately dismissed in the way many teens tend to be, in and out of fantasy books.

Anyway, Linn ends up on the run with the kittens, as the war between the gods erupts in earnest.  She’s not sure what she’s going to do, much less where she’s going to go, but she does know one thing: she will protect those kittens, or die trying.  (Because as a kid who’s only half-immortal, Linn can indeed be damaged, and perhaps even killed.)

The rest of the plotline is for you to read, but if you enjoy young adult books that read well and quickly — and who doesn’t? — you will enjoy the ins and outs of VULCAN’S KITTENS.

There are a few minuses, however, that have to be discussed.  As this is a first edition of a first novel, there are a number of typographical errors, a few grammatical errors, and some outright oddities (like a margin shift on the first page) to deal with.  These are issues like “naiad” being spelled in one place as “niaid” or Linnaea’s full name being spelled wrong once or twice, and are all minor.  But enough of them exist to cause this book to look less professional than it should.

In other words, the writing is professional.  Linn’s coming of age story is a particularly nice young adult read that I enjoyed quite a bit.  But the editing is not up to the same standard.

Were the editing up to snuff, this would be an A-minus read.  But since it’s not, VULCAN’S KITTENS stands as a B-minus.

Young adults of all ages should definitely enjoy VULCAN’S KITTENS, as it’s a fun, fast read from start to finish.

— reviewed by Barb

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