Archive for June, 2014

Cedar Sanderson’s “Trickster Noir” — A Solid, Romantic Sequel

Cedar Sanderson’sTrickster Noir TRICKSTER NOIR is a sequel to PIXIE NOIR (reviewed here by Jason), and features the same main characters — Bella, the human/fairy hybrid with amazing powers she can barely control, and Lom, her pixie detective love interest. Lom is shorter than Bella, and recently sustained a major injury that’s drained him near to death.

All of that is relevant because up until now, Lom has, for lack of a better term, been used as an enforcer by his King. He takes on the jobs no one else wants to deal with, and handles them efficiently. But now that Lom is on the shelf while he heals (providing he can, of course), Bella has to take those jobs instead. While she lacks experience, she has so much power, she’s the most logical choice to take Lom’s place.

And everybody knows it. Including the bad guys.

Of course, Bella also is the newest Consort for the King, which isn’t at all the same as being romantically entangled (in an arranged marriage or otherwise). Which is a good thing, or her nascent relationship with Lom would never be able to get off the ground. But that also adds in many more complications.

And Lom has his own problems, as he’s been named a Duke, yet is still weak both physically and magically. He’s a self-sufficient guy, so healing up and rehabilitating would be very difficult for him even if he didn’t have to watch as Bella goes off to do the jobs he used to do.

Worse yet, he’s denigrated at every turn due to his current magical weakness by nearly everyone save Ellie (his housekeeper), his own mother, and Bella. Which imperils not only his Dukedom, but Bella as well…so what’s a pixie detective to do?

And there’s a great deal going on that Bella and Lom — both separately and together — need to deal with, too. There’s the evil Baba Yaga, who’s cropped up at the most unexpected time and in the most unexpected place, for a reason which may surprise. There are some sasquatch, kitsune, dragons, and of course the great Trickster God himself, Raven, and they all make their various marks on the narrative (as you might expect).

While the adventures cannot be faulted, to my mind the romance between Bella and Lom is the main attraction. They are both well-drawn characters with strengths and weaknesses, and seem like the perfect complement to one another. I liked watching them get to know each other through “sickness and in health,” and believed in them as a couple.

Bottom line? The romance is solid and enjoyable, the magic system is workable, and the adventures were sensible in context. I’d buy it as an e-book, read it, and then decide if you want the “dead-tree edition” down the line.

Grade: B.

— reviewed by Barb

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A Cloud in the Desert — A Decent Debut Novel

A Cloud in the DesertA solid first entry into the world of international spy thrillers, Martin Lessem’s debut novel, A Cloud in the Desert, is the first entrant into the Steven Frisk series and offers twists, turns and international espionage to sate the reader’s thirst.

The book opens up with a clandestine meeting in Washington, D.C., regarding an ongoing mission currently taking place along the contested Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Pakistan appears to be ready to move into Afghanistan, and there are few assets “on the ground” in the region that the CIA can rely on, Fortunately for them, one of their best and brightest, Officer Steven Frisk, is on location. But there are other elements at play as well, including some shady individuals who are letting a live nuke “go into play”, as it were.

Frisk, however, is not alone in his attempts at stopping what could turn into a nuclear event in Afghanistan. His junior agent in the field, Ali Hassan Ashwari, code-named “Desert Fox”, is also a CIA operative and working deep undercover in Afghanistan. Together they must work to stop a deep, dark attack which could plunge the region — and possibly, the entire world — into a nuclear war.

Part of the strengths of this book is the author’s intimate familiarity with the streets of London (flashback scenes) and Foggy Bottom, home to the CIA. He paints the scenes here with detailed strokes, masterfully bringing you to the actual location without taking the reader out of the book. His characterization of Frisk as a more action-oriented Jack Ryan (of Tom Clancy fame) is fairly solid, though parts of him are too good, as it were. Frisk, while struggling to complete his mission, does not seem to have any normal flaws that people have. Overall, though Frisk is believable hero, even if he is somewhat overshadowed (in this reviewer’s opinion), presence-wise, by his junior agent, Ali Hassan Ashwari. There is also a noted hat-tip to David Weber and his Honor Harrington series in the book as well, which caused me to chuckle a bit.

There are some weaknesses in the book as well. Part of it is an inconsistency towards technical details, such as “Her Majesties” instead of “Her Majesty’s” (he meant possessive, and used plural). His imaging of the Middle East is not as rich and refined as his scenes of London and Foggy Bottom were (which is understandable). There was a bit too much “I’m going to slap Frisk upside the head because he doesn’t see this coming from a mile away!” moments throughout (if the reader can pick up on a few subtle hints about things that are going down, then a seasoned CIA FSO should be able to spot it as well).

Reviews like this are difficult, because one can’t give too much into detail without revealing massive plot points. However, I can say that, given time and patience, the Steven Frisk novels can be a worthy contender to carrying on the Jack Ryan spy thriller genre. I’d read it again, and pick it up on Kindle.

Grade: B —

Reviewed by Jason

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Veronica Roth’s “Allegiant” — An Unexpected Ending to a Decent Trilogy

When Veronica Roth’s third book in her Divergent series, ALLEGIANT, came out, there were spoilers galore. And due to the Divergent trilogy’s crossover into pop culture, most people know that at least one character came to a shocking end.

That makes writing a review for ALLEGIANT nearly impossible without giving away the entirety of the plot. So this is your one and only warning — if you do not want your reading spoiled, and you have yet to read ALLEGIANT, look away now.

(Ready…set…go!)

The end of INSURGENT left Tris (née Beatrice) Prior and her boyfriend, Tobias (also known as Four), in a terrible spot.  (Both DIVERGENT and INSURGENT were reviewed at SBR here.) Their near-future Chicago has been rent asunder. The former leader of Erudite, who’d tried to take over everything, has been slain…and Tobias’s own mother, Evelyn Johnson, has come back from a long exile and has taken over. But there are people from the former five-faction system upset over this — the Allegiant — and they are continuing to fight against Evelyn’s rule.

Because Tris’s Chicago was built on the five-faction system (Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Amity), being without factions (or “factionless”) is a challenge. The city is unsettled and quite frankly, on edge. And Tris, because her brother was high up in the Erudite hierarchy despite his youth, is right in the thick of things even though she was all for the downfall of Erudite and the demise of the former five-faction system.

Why?

Well, her brother, Caleb Prior, is being tried as a traitor. And even though Tris has solid reasons to be angry with Caleb and never talk with him again for the rest of his life, Tris does not believe her brother deserves the death penalty. So she’s going to try to save his life, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

While this is only one of the threads of the story, this is the one that resonated the most with me.

The second-best thread was the ongoing romance between Tris and Tobias. They truly care for one another, yet do not agree all the time, which of course is healthy but must feel awful when you’re in a war zone with all of those heightened emotions. And because Tris must somehow save her brother while doing her best to help institute a truly factionless system that doesn’t have all the sturm und drang of the Evelyn Johnson-led version, that adds depth and complexity to the romance.

And the third-best thread was Tobias having to deal with both of his complicated, difficult parents. Evelyn, his mother, was damaged due to Tobias’s father, the former leader of the Abnegation faction — she was beaten, Tobias himself was beaten, and it’s a miracle either one of them survived.

I fully believed in all three of these plot-threads, and wish that the book had concentrated more on them…but, as always, I digress.

The rest of ALLEGIANT deals with stuff like memory serums (which erase memories rather than restore them), death serums (which cause instantaneous deaths, naturally), whether or not you can have “pure genes” (supposedly there was a Purity War long ago, and the people with the most-damaged genes fled to Chicago and other enclaves in order to rehabilitate them), and if being Divergent means you must have pure genes.

The last in particular is vexing because Tobias is Divergent, just like Tris. But he supposedly has damaged genes, while Tris’s are pure. So he starts thinking of himself as a low-class citizen, partly because of some intrigue with the people who’ve been watching the people of Chicago all along — a bunch of scientists and latter-day nogoodniks who watch the goings-on of the factions as if it’s contemporary reality TV — and partly because Tris is going around kicking butt and taking names while he’s been forced into more of a diplomatic role due to his mother’s uneasy ascension to being the unofficial ruler of Chicago.

Eventually, Tobias figures out that his genes being damaged matters a whole lot less than the type of person he is. But by this time, the biggest plot-wrinkle of them all has occurred…

(Big spoiler alert!)

You see, Tris sacrifices herself. She does it to save her brother, because he’s volunteered to keep the memory serum from being distributed to everyone in Chicago in order to reinstitute the five-faction system due to the nogoodniks I mentioned before by infiltrating a lab. Tris has a partial immunity to some of the serums, which is why she and only she can do what she does. And of course, she dies a heroine.

Because of this, Roth had absolutely no way to keep telling the story unless she added a second point-of-view character. (The first two novels were told only in Tris’s POV.) Which is one reason we get so very much of Tobias’s thoughts, mind you, as only he can talk about what happens after Tris is dead and the world goes on without her.

Eventually, Chicago comes to a new beginning. Tobias eschews violence, becomes of all things a political aide, and keeps in good contact with all of those who helped him in those last, desperate hours. He is sad, and frustrated that Tris is dead, but his life has gone on and perhaps someday, he will date again.

Now, what do I think about all of this? Mostly, I’m befuddled. There was a good amount of plot, but much of it revolved around Tris and Tobias because of what the other people around them were doing rather than what they were doing.

Or, put bluntly, in DIVERGENT, Tris and Tobias/Four act. In INSURGENT, while they are unsettled and are clearly scrambling and are in panic mode due to being in a war zone, they again act.

But here, they react.  I didn’t like that.

I didn’t like that at all.

Bottom line? The trilogy has a nice, narrative arch, but I don’t truly buy why Chicago’s in this terrible spot to begin with. The five-faction system seems like something that could never work in the real world, but I do believe that it would break up and there would be strife.

While I liked Tris as a character and believe that, as a heroine, she did what was right for her (the action flowed out of her characterization, and thus were authentic), I felt many of the things that led up to her authentic ending were a bit off.

And as for Tobias and his grief? I think his grief was real, but I honestly do not believe it would only take him two and a half years to put Tris and her memory behind him. I think it would take much, much longer than that — something like what’s going on with Katniss Everdeen and her husband, Peeta, during the very end of MOCKINGJAY is much more likely (Katniss does have the love of her life, thank goodness, but she’s still incredibly sorrowful over everything else — and that is realistic).

So I have a real problem here when it comes to grading. I like the writing; I like it a lot. I like the characterization, too. But the actual plotting needed some smoothing out.

Thus, we have some split grades to follow, as well as a grade for the overall series:

Writing: A. Characterization: A. Plotting: C-minus (and that’s being generous)

Overall: B

Grade for trilogy: B

— reviewed by Barb

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Stephen R. Donaldson’s “The Last Dark” Equals the End of the Thomas Covenant Series

 Stephen R. Donaldson’s THE LAST DARK is the tenth and final book of the Thomas Covenant series, which started way back in 1977 with LORD FOUL’S BANE. As such, it’s both the ending of a long-running epic series and the end of the third and final miniseries, “The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.”

And because of that, I’m going to review this in its entirety. There will be spoilers, so if you do not want your reading spoiled, please walk away right now — this is your final warning.

(Ready? Set? Go!)

At the end of AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING (reviewed here), Thomas Covenant and his lover Linden Avery realized the Worm of the World’s End was on the move. The stars were blinking out, and the Sun did not rise due to the actions of the Worm. (That is one big, impressive Worm.)  And Linden had to take full responsibility for causing the Worm to reawaken and escape from underneath the One Tree, because if she’d not resurrected Thomas Covenant, the Worm would’ve stayed where it was.

Now, though, the Land is in desperate peril. Without the sun, nothing can grow. Aliantha, the “treasure berries” of the Land that will restore your health-sense along with filling your belly, are extremely scarce. Without the krill (a magical weapon), no one could see anything (as the fire Linden Avery raises from her Staff of Law is “fuligin,” or the darkest, densest black anyone’s ever seen; Donaldson is fond of obscure words, as I’ve said before), as no one wants to waste the wild magic raised from the white gold as a flashlight.

Why?

Well, the magic raised from white gold can “save or damn” as it pleases, meaning it’s capricious. Maybe you’ll get what you want, but you’ll abhor the way you do it — which perhaps is a mystical reason for why so much of THE LAST DARK and indeed all of the final four books in the “Last Chronicles” needs to travel by caesures, a hole in time that will take you somewhere else, but rips up the Land and forest and everything else in the process.

So yes, the white gold combined with the krill can raise a caesure. But you probably won’t like what you’ll have to do once you come out of it…which both Linden and Thomas Covenant find out over and over again.

In the midst of all of their suffering is Linden’s fifteen-year-old adopted son, Jeremiah. He was and is autistic, and until recently was locked inside his mind in a dissociative state. The only way he could impose any part of himself on reality was to build things, whether it was with Legos, Lincoln Logs, or anything else. And now, his building talents are needed because someone has to keep the stars from winking out . . . and as the stars are the physical manifestations of the Elohim, a deeply magical and also deeply alien race, he has to persuade them that it’s in their best interests to go into this structure he’s creating before they all die and the world cannot be saved. (Because surely, one of the Elohim must be the Sun that shines upon the Land, even though it’s never stated.)

So we have Giants, both Swordmainnir and cooks, along for the ride. We have a few Ramen. We have a last conversation with the toughest and meanest Forestal of them all, Caerroil Wildwood. We see Stave the Haruchai, probably the best-loved character from the “Last Chronicles,” admit that he truly is Linden’s friend after all this time, and unbend enough to show that he has a sense of humor. (Yay!) We have many, many loose ends wrapped up, we get a last, desperate confrontation with the cavewights (who defend Lord Foul’s demense, otherwise known as Kiril Threndor), we get an uneasy alliance with the Lurker (a strange, serpentine creature who seems to dwell in every available swamp in the Land) and the small beings who serve it, the Feroce, we see a Raver unmade (Double yay!), we see death and dismemberment and destruction aplenty…

But the best moment of THE LAST DARK is the quietest.

Finally, finally, finally we see Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery get married. After all this time, and all this travail, with the world about to end and seemingly no way out, they feel it’s about time to “put a ring on it.”

And because they do this one act of love, that makes Linden a rightful white-gold wielder and she’s suddenly even more powerful than before. (Trust me, she was more than powerful enough prior to this despite her self-distrust.) It also helps recharge Thomas Covenant on a primal level, and reminds him that he’s still a man with a man’s needs.

This is by far the best part of THE LAST DARK because it’s tremendously human. It shows the best part of humanity in full: our will to survive and to believe in love despite everything that’s gone against us.

Also, if you’ve read the previous nine books of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, you know full well that Thomas Covenant did not start out as a sympathetic character at all. He was originally a full-on anti-hero. He actually raped a teenage girl, Lena, during LORD FOUL’S BANE, when he thought everything was a dream and nothing he did could hold any consequence. (Why his dreams were so dark and depressing is another story entirely.)

And that rape produced a young and damaged child, High Lord Elena, who Thomas Covenant meets during THE ILL-EARTH WAR. Elena is beautiful, brilliant, and determined, but she’s also heavily damaged and may be insane due to being raised by Lena, who definitely is insane. What Elena does causes both her and the Land great harm, even though she intended only good, and for a time her spirit is captured by Lord Foul (the personification of darkness and despair).

Then — and this was not an improvement — High Lord Elena ended up in the grasp of the ravenous She Who Must Not Be Named, who could be said to be a personification of the Goddess Kali in the worst possible mood. She Who Must Not Be Named believes no man is good, no man could ever be good, and that the women who believed in men are as bad as the men…in short, this particular being is doing much harm in the name of feminism.

(What you want to see in this, symbolically, is up to you of course. Me, I saw it as both interesting and irrelevant. Because again, She Who Must Not Be Named is insane.)

Here, Linden must confront She Who Must Not Be Named as a newly-married woman when the Land and everyone who lives upon it is about to go under, eaten by the Worm. Somehow, she must release High Lord Elena from an undeserved Hell. And somehow, Linden must prevail on her own, as Thomas Covenant has gone to fight Lord Foul while her son, Jeremiah, must discover his own talents.

As always with any work of Stephen R. Donaldson, the writing is stellar. There are a ton of words, but they have emotional power and resonance. The storytelling is first-rate. The characters are people you can love and hate, believe in fully, and want to succeed despite — or perhaps because of — their severe and unremitting flaws.

However — and this is a huge however — the book does not properly end.

Here I was, reading THE LAST DARK and enjoying my experience immensely. Then, all of a sudden, it’s time to defeat the Worm and re-establish the Arch of Time and allow all the Elohim to go back to what they truly are, which will allow the denizens of the Land to see the Sun again…

And we don’t see it.

Nope. Instead, we get a hastily scribbled epilogue that tells, but doesn’t show, that the Sun is about to rise again. The Land is saved, Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery are happy, and Jeremiah is the typical self-obsessed fifteen-year-old as he is quite uneasy with his parents’ public displays of affection (as Covenant has indeed become his adoptive father).

This is nicely anticlimactic. And it would’ve been fine, if we had just seen any of the battle to put the Worm back under the One Tree where it belongs, saw how Covenant, who was once known as the “Timewarden” as he helped hold up the Arch of Time after his death, rebuilt the Arch, or seen anything else of the labor it must’ve taken to allow the Sun to rise after the Land was almost destroyed.

But we don’t.

Up until the final fifty pages, this was an A-plus read. Everything I expected from a Donaldson novel was there. The copy-editing was stellar. The references to all of the previous nine books were there. The characters were as redeemed as they were ever going to be (not that they think of it as redemption, but I do). We saw love and hate and despair and disgust and achievements beyond all measure…

And then, we skipped to “The End.”

I’m sorry. That’s not acceptable. Most particularly in a novelist the caliber of Stephen R. Donaldson.

So instead of the A-plus I was about to give THE LAST DARK, I am going to give it an Incomplete, something I’ve never before done in the history of SBR. This book needed a proper ending. And it did not get it.

And when you’re completing a long-running series (see the very end of the Wheel of Time epic, started by Robert Jordan and completed by Brandon Sanderson), you have to show the end. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.

Bottom line: This book did not end properly. I am not pleased with that. But everything until the final fifty pages was stellar.

Grade for THE LAST DARK: Incomplete (I).

— reviewed by Barb

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The Fallen Race — A Tale of Two Novels

The Fallen RaceIf you were the son of a traitor and sent out into the border regions of your empire to languish and (hopefully to some) die, how much loyalty would you have if you found out that suddenly those who banished you desperately needed your help when the entire universe is on the line?

This question is just among the many confronted by Baron Lucius Giovanni, commander of the War Shrike in Kal Spriggs’ science fiction novel The Fallen Race. The alien Chxor have completely decimated the Roma Nova Empire and, with his back against the wall, Baron Giovanni is struggling to keep the remnants of its citizens — as well as his make-shift fleet — alive. Assuming his political masters back home allow him to even retain command of his ship, that is.

After keeping his ship alive just long enough to help a convoy escape an ambush of Chxor vessels, the War Shrike stumbled onto a barely-alive Ghornath dreadnought. Surprised, Baron Giovanni discovers that the alien captain is the same one who spared his life many years before. He rescues him and a few of his crew and bring them on board the War Shrike. It is then that Baron Giovanni finds out that there is a human world in the system, one that nobody had known was there. A small world, still loyal to the Imperium, called Faraday.

Part of the charm of this novel is the obvious homage to the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber. This book has it all — aliens, telepaths, pirates, staff meetings… all in direct correlation to a Weber novel. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a straight “filing off the ISBN numbers” book, far from it. The fall of the Roma Nova Empire is something that is fresh and different, and the turning of the main character from ostracized ship commander to military warlord (of sorts) is very reminiscent of a Mad Max in Space vibe (I don’t know why, that was just the feel I had while reading this book). It’s a fun joyride through space.

However, there are some major issues in the first half of the book, enough so that I had a heck of a time just getting through it. There are some minor issues like the changing of the Roma Nova Empire (it goes from Nova Roma to Nova Roman to Roma Nova in about three pages), as well as a very tedious “staff meeting” where the author hits us with an info dump that is oddly placed and ill-timed. There is also mention of the main character’s father being a traitor, but without any context outside of the title “Baron” that the main character has, you really don’t get a feel for just how deep the word really goes (until about midway through the book, when suddenly everything has a much deeper feel to it, and just how poorly the word “traitor” has been used throughout thus far). There is also nothing really setting anything up as the author tries to counter world-building with random action, which unfortunately doesn’t work well initially because there hasn’t been enough time to create any sort of relationship with the main character.

All that said, this is not a bad book, not in any sense. Because while the first half of the book is problematic, the second half of it is simply stellar, and that can be laid at the feet of Kandergain, the psychic pirate captain (yeah, that combination is just as awesome as it sounds). The book, quite frankly, could have been written from her perspective and been an amazing novel. The author handles her much better than he does the main character, and she is a likable, mysterious individual who dominates every single scene that she’s in. It’s almost as if the entire first half was added just to delay her arrival, because once she does, the pacing and action flow smoothly, the dialogue is crisp and fits the characters well, and it changes from being a run-of-the-mill SF novel to being something special.

I’ll give this one 4 stars. I can forgive some of the editing mistakes (as this is an indie novel), and when you have such an amazing character as Kandergain, that can cover and hide a lot of other, smaller mistakes that would normally derail you. Solid story here. I’d definitely buy this one on Kindle.

Reviewed by Jason

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