Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review: Already Dead by Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston's Already Dead (US, UK, Canada) takes the prototypical hard-boiled, noir detective template and injects it into a world of vampires. The result is not the Buffy-inspired urban fantasy romp that dominates the fantasy market these days, but a true noir detective tale that happens to star a vampire struggling for independence in clan dominated underworld.

Joe Pitt is fed up with the warring vampire clans and their hierarchy of rule. He ekes out an existence as a rogue living in one clan’s territory (The Society) while performing the odd job for various clients, including the dominant rival clan (The Coalition) of mid-town Manhattan. Clan tyranny and politics make it difficult on an independent in the secret underworld of vampires and Pitt walks a fine line playing the various factions off one another as he struggles to survive.

After an encounter with a trio of squatters infected with a flesh-eating strain of bacteria (aka zombies), Pitt ends up in unpleasant encounters with the leaders of both the Coalition and Society. As a result he is left with a new job through the Coalition – to find the missing daughter of a rich and powerful woman. Relatively standard progression occurs as Pitt investigates with an escalation in complexity and danger that sweeps him away, revealing the man behind the vampire and the sometimes moralistic rage encompassing both.

Huston’s world offers clever and adequate explanations for the how and why behind vampirism other supernatural phenomenon. Vampires are infected with an unknown to science virus colloquial known as the vyrus. It feeds upon human blood and gives the infected superhuman qualities that enable them to become superior hunters. The vampires of Huston’s world laugh at, subvert, utilize, and manipulate pop-culture’s embracing of vampires. Zombies result from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria that animates its dying host with hormones to keep it searching for other food sources (i.e. victims to infect). Brains are craved due to their high content of valuable hormones used to keep the host viable.

Huston envisions the dark side of Manhattan most choose to look past while creating the perfect sense of antagonistic paranoia. This world of the dispossessed, criminals, and others exists and thrives beyond the law with the vampire clans even further beneath this underworld. Here the clans both supplement and replace the organized crime networks common to the noir world where the rich and powerful, human and vampire alike, use and abuse this world to their own ends.

The best part of Already Dead is Joe Pitt – a classic anti-hero, noir detective-who-is-not-actually-a-detective. Pitt’s history brings an extra dimension of depth often missing – a childhood of horrible abuse, an adolescence and young-adulthood of abusing, a role as enforcer within a vampire clan, and finally, a rejection of it all and the attainment of a some-what flawed moral high ground and sense of justice. Much of this comes about in his introspective thoughts surrounding his girlfriend, Evie – a young HIV-infected bartender. She refuses to risk infecting Pitt, and Pitt struggles with the knowledge that his vampirism, unknown to Evie, could cure her HIV with curse of his affliction.

This classic noir story with zombies, vampires, pornography, evil corporate moguls, clan warfare, and a hard-ass, flawed, moralistic rogue vampire proves to be a fast-paced, engaging read that I very much enjoyed. I eagerly anticipate the further adventures of Joe Pitt in No Dominion (US, UK, Canada), Half the Blood of Brooklyn (US, UK, Canada), and forthcoming Every Last Drop (US, UK, Canada). 8/10

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review: Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas

Imagine Mister Toad’s Wild Ride told from the perspective of an alcoholic, mentally unstable, beat poet in 1960’s America. Imagine a Lovecraftian nightmare realized in a stream-of-consciousness as Cthulhu arrives and enslaves the world. Imagine a humanist sociopolitical satire wrapped in postmodernism (or perhaps even post-postmodernism). Imagine Move Under Ground (US, UK, Canada) by Nick Mamatas.

Recovering from a mental breakdown, Jack Kerouac witnesses the rise R’lyeh from the Pacific Ocean. A surreal journey follows through roads of America with Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady, and William S. Burroughs – On the Road (
US, UK, Canada) in reverse during a Lovecraftian apocalypse, all told through the psychedelic point of view of an alcoholic, mentally unstable, beat poet, never knowing what’s real and what’s hallucination.

The premise behind Move Under Ground really grabbed me – it’s interesting, exciting and promising. I find this somewhat strange since I’m not all that familiar with the writing of Lovecraft and Cthulhu lore, and I’ve never read anything by the Beats – and most pointedly, I’ve not read On the Road by Kerouac. With this lack of background I’m sure I missed many a passing reference and limited my potential enjoyment of the book, however, at this point I remain undecided about how much that impacted my reading of the book.

It’s this feeling of uncertainty that dominates my thoughts after reading the book. I cannot even decide if I liked Move Under Ground or not. The prose is dense, the point of view difficult to see through and the short 160 pages read like more than double that amount – not necessarily in a good way. With book’s density and references to works I have little familiarity with, it’s not particularly approachable for me. However, it is compelling in a way I find difficult to express. Kerouac has always been considered a very human author and that comes through here as well – for all I wanted to stop reading, I couldn’t help but continue.

Related to these emotions above are what I’ll classify as the post-modern qualities of Move Under Ground. The satirical edge attacks sociopolitical ideals in the fantastical, unusual, and psychedelic framework of Lovecraftian nightmare. In many ways, we see the deconstruction of that ‘ideal’ American society of the early 1960’s at the same time we see a deconstruction of the Beat Generation that rejected those ideals. These complexities make me want to tag Move Under Ground with a post-postmodernism label, but that would be stretching my understanding of the subject more than a little.

Underlying all this is an almost humanistic exploration of a troubled, scarred, even pathetic American. After all is said and done, we get the first lucid picture of Kerouac and the bitter shell of a man he has become. Is this realism the underlying heart of Move Under Ground? I can’t really say, but it just might be.

As I indicated above, through all this thought and exploration, I still don’t know that I enjoyed reading Move Under Ground. It was equally compelling and a chore to read – I didn’t want to continue reading, yet I did. My emotional response seems as conflicted as the words of the book. However, in the end, it’s these conflicted emotions, this exploration, my uncertainty that make realize that yes, Move Under Ground is great book, if not one I can say that I liked. 4-9/10

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Guess I’m It

I usually don’t go for memes, but Larry tagged me and I figure what the hell.

Grab the nearest book and turn to page 123. Write down the fifth sentence, post it, and then tag 5 others to do this.

I’m at work right now, so this one will be real exciting.

“The pulse test is a modification of the slug test whereby a testing interval within a single borehole is instantaneously under- or over-pressured by removing or adding water.”
-Physical and Chemical Hydrogeology: Second Edition by Patrick A. Domenico and Franklin W. Schwartz

So, misery loves company and I need to tag a few:

Lawrence’s new blog at Count Zero

Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews

Fantasy Book News and Reviews

Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Links for Procrastination

Here is another entry of my entirely erratic link roundups. Today I’m in a bit of a good mood because last night I unpacked The Stack and got it in place on a bookshelf (The Stack was contained in about 11 boxes and I’m guess weighs in at close to 300 books). Anyway, on to the links…

  • Pat over at the Hotlist has caused a stir with his post about hype. I really haven’t followed it and don’t care to. It seems to be the result of his not understanding what hype actually is versus buzz and the fact that people simply have differing opinions more than anything nefarious. Simon Spanton of Gollancz doesn’t seem to come off too well through it all – which is unfortunate, because I think he’s pretty right-on through the discussion. There are plenty of other reactions around the web, but I’m too lazy to search them out since I’ve not gotten engaged in this discussion.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Oh no, not again…

Hell, by my reckoning, it’s been almost exactly 1 year since a zombie uprising nearly ended to the world. And now I wake up to find that there’s another uprising. Apparently all the zombie deaths and attempts at political reconciliation and acceptance of ‘the living-challenged’ haven’t worked. I’m positive that this is the work of zombie Dick Cheney – that guy is just evil.

We moved to the mountains, so we think that the smaller town and high-altitude air should be a good defense to hold out against this uprising. Though we’ll miss the advantage that Phoenix had of spontaneous zombie combustion when temps hit the 110 degree mark. I anticipate that some zombies will come to the mountains to escape that heat.

Last year friends and I brewed beer to pass the time while barricaded in a friend’s house, I think I’ll try that again since zombie ale was a big success.

Well, the house is barricaded now and things still seem quite – so I’m confident we’ll hold out. I just turned on the TV – I’m almost positive that John McCain is a zombie, just look at him. It seems that they aren’t satisfied with Cheney’s rein as VP and now they are trying for legitimate election to the President. Of course they are now reporting that Obama’s Kenyan relatives come from a long line of zombie killers and he was recently seen watching re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There appears to be hope.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

S.L. Farrell Answers Questions 5

Author S.L. Farrell has written numerous fantasy novels and short stories as well as science fiction novels under the names of Steven Leigh and Matthew Farrell – I leave it to you to put together what his actual name is from all those pseudonyms, though apparently “hey you” often suffices. He is probably best known for writing the Cloudmages TrilogyHolder of Lightening, Mage of Clouds, and Heir of Stone. His most recent book is both a stand-alone and the beginning of a new trilogy – A Magic of Twilight (review) begins The Nessantico Cycle with A Magic of Nightfall expected in March, 2009 and the concluding book, A Magic of Dawn sometime in 2010.

Farrell moonlights as a professor and musician and I’m very happy that he has taken the time to answer Questions Five.

1. Trips to Ireland and France have inspired the books that you have become best known for – what sort of book would a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee inspire?

SLF: I’ve been to Gatlinburg, I must confess. Heck, several of my ancestors are of Appalachian background (Kentucky, mostly). While the Great Smoky Mountains around that town might inspire someone to a compelling story of Appalachian struggle, or perhaps a thrilling, politically-charged novel about the evils of mountaintop-removal mining, Gatlinburg itself screams “Tourist Trap!” I could not get out of that town fast enough -- mostly because of the gridlocked traffic down the main street.

Gatlinburg might inspire a dystopian novel where the entire Earth has been turned into one gigantic souvenir shop for galactic travelers. There, Bobby Curmudgeon is a lowly clerk, selling tickets for the submarine tour of New York City (now largely underwater since global warming raised the sea levels), and dreaming of quitting his job and going Out: a futile dream since the Great Corporation which now owns the Earth and operates all the concessions only pays minimum wage to its workers...

Somehow, I have the feeling I’m not Gatlinburg’s target audience.

2. Name one thing a pretentious literature professor will hate about A Magic of Twilight.

SLF: Well, it’s fantasy. All genre fiction, especially fantasy, is crap. By definition. Unless it’s “magic realism.” Then it’s OK. (I hasten to add that this is what your pretentious literature professor would say, not me...)

The semi-humorous thing here is that I am an English professor. I teach Creative Writing at a local university -- and believe me, I’m well aware of the general attitude of literature professors toward the type of fiction I like to read and write. I was at a conference once where one colleague from another university came up and asked if I’d written anything myself. I told him that, yes, I’d written published some novels and several short stories. He was very interested then, and asked if he might have read any of them. “Not unless you read science fiction and fantasy,” I told him.

His whole demeanor changed at that point. “Oh,” he said in a voice dripping with disappointment. “I once had a friend who wrote a novel -- a real novel; you know, with genuine literary merit. He couldn’t get it published. Then he wrote a mystery, and the novel sold well and since then he hasn’t written anything except that mystery garbage.”

“Yeah,” I told him, “it’s terrible to actually make money from what you write, and have people actually read it.”

At that point he sniffed and walked away. Didn’t come to my reading later that afternoon, either...

3. Please describe one reason A Magic of Twilight would inspire a reader to strip naked and run screaming into the desert?

SLF: “So many viewpoints! So many viewpoints!”

Well, I don’t know that the number of viewpoint characters would make anyone strip naked even if they did run screaming into the desert. I wrote some of it naked, though, I’m pretty sure. Heck, I’m writing this naked right now. You can tell because the cats are pointing at me and laughing.

And I suppose it would depend on how close you were to a desert at the moment. From where I am, it’s a long run to the closest desert.

4. What other peculiar qualities of A Magic of Twilight should readers be aware of?

SLF: I’m a strong believer in ‘gray’ characters: very few people (in my experience) are either pure saints or entirely evil people. Even the best person has faults; even the worst person has sympathetic qualities. So don’t come looking for “good” vs. “evil” black-and-white conflicts here. You won’t find them. Instead, I think you’ll find an assortment of very interesting, twisted, and realistic characters.

And I do use ‘foreign’ terms and titles now and again. Hey, these people don’t speak English, after all. So expect to have to learn a few new words every once in a while. But you’ll figure it out -- you’re all smart readers or you wouldn’t be reading this kind of stuff!

5. Why should A Magic of Twilight be the next book that everyone reads?

SLF: Because if you don’t, you’ll be responsible for my being unable to pay my bills, and my wife and children will starve.

Seriously, Twilight’s received some great reviews. Kirkus said it had “Considerable charm and appeal...“ Publishers Weekly claimed it was a “ and complex story. “ Charlene Brusso at Black Gate contends you’ll be”...happily blown away by the gorgeously detailed setting and intriguing characters. Then there's the tangled knot, knitted up of at least seven different kinds of treachery. All told, this is a fantasy novel to settle down with for a nice, long time...” Drew Bittner of SFRevu said “The craft of world-building has rarely been put on display so ingeniously."

And George RR Martin called it “...a delicious mélange of politics, war, sorcery, and religion in a richly imagined world peopled with a varied cast of haughty lords, scheming courtiers, beggars, priests, heretics, zealots, spies, assassins, torturers, tarts, and seductresses.” How can you resist that?

Actually, I think it’s a pretty good book myself. I would hope you’d enjoy it -- so head off to your local bookseller and grab a copy!

And thanks for the chance to pop in and answer a few questions, Ken! It was a blast!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Link Round Up

Well the miscellany of links this time is rather short and not particularly genre related, but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

  • Forget high gas prices, the high price of hops is causing a travesty in bars around the US. The Wall Street Journal reports that bars are switching out the normal 16 oz. pint glass for a thick-bottom glass that holds only 14 oz. – the price is staying the same and customers are misled. Beer Advocate seems to be attempting to rally the troops of beer drinkers. The same article discusses a call to regulate the amount of foam head on a beer in England.

  • Dave’s Landslide Blog has been following the fascinating fate of a ‘Quake Lake’ that was formed by a large landslide blocking a river in China. A catastrophic failure that would have endangered millions of people appears to have been avoided, though an entire town was destroyed in the process (to be fair, the town was already destroyed by the earthquake itself).
  • Edit: A late addition and something that has been around for a while but is new to me - sex advice from a D&D player. Yes, that is correct and it is even more amusing than you think.

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Magic of Twilight by S.L. Farrell

Well, I am actually an associate reviewer for FantasyBookSpot even though I only write about 4 reviews a year for them. My latest review for FBS is A Magic of Twilight by S.L. Farrell. Now, go and read it - it's a book that will likely appeal to many who read this blog.

Take the political intrigue of various factions of church, state, subjugated peoples of an empire, and religious heretics in a Renaissance setting and combine with magic and a well-realized fantasy setting and the result is A Magic of Twilight by S.L. Farrell, the first, yet stand-alone, volume of the Nessantico Cycle. (full review)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Scott Bakker Answers Questions Five

Canadian author (R.) Scott Bakker hit the SFF world hard to critical acclaim a few years ago with his debut The Darkness That Comes Before (review), followed shortly by the next two volumes of the Prince of Nothing Trilogy (review), The Warrior Prophet (review) and The Thousandfold Thought (review). His epic trilogy delves deeper and more philosophically than typical and tackles some weighty issues surrounding the idea of certainty. A follow-up trilogy (?) is forthcoming with The Judging Eye kicking it off sometime in early-2009.

In Bakker’s newest book,
Neuropath (review), he embraces the psycho-thriller and gets a bit closer to his passions as a philosopher. The basis for the book resides in the reality of cognitive science and just what recent findings say about human consciousness.

I’m very pleased that Scott as taken the time to answer
Questions Five – apparently I caught him in one of his more strident, evangelical moods.

What type of protection do you recommend for genre promiscuity?

SB: KY. It protects against chaffing and the like. Use enough of it and even half-naked barbarians and farmboys-who-would-be-king can be quite pleasurable.

So I’m told, anyway. Ahem.

Fill in the blank: Kids today just don’t appreciate the value of ___. How does Neuropath reflect this?

SB: Self-knowledge. They are told, over and over and over, “to believe in themselves,” and yet nowhere—literally nowhere!—are they taught just what it is they are believing in. Being human isn’t easy. In so many ways, we are our own biggest obstacles, and yet we teach our children to close their eyes and just pretend otherwise. We set them up to fail in all the ways that we fail. We give them little gold stickers.

Neuropath takes this as a central theme.

If Neuropath were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

SB: You are not what you think you are.

Neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science have been amassing evidence of this for decades now, and yet nary a peep makes it to mainstream culture. We send our kids to school, and instead of learning how to evaluate claims, or how to compensate for the myriad ways in which we all dupe ourselves, they are taught the precise opposite: to celebrate our stupidity, in fact.

Turn on the news. There isn’t a single crisis which does not turn on our cognitive shortcomings. Arguably, there’s no single greater cause of human misery, be it terrorist attacks or marital breakdowns, and yet we keep it hidden, and keep on pretending.

And I fear that our future will be far less forgiving than our past.

How would you interpret this fortune if were your own?

SB: That I’m not what I think I am. That despite all my hardwired tendencies to buy my own bullshit, I need to hold onto my doubt. Suspending judgment is the hard road. The high road—I hope.

Why should Neuropath be the next book that everyone reads?

SB: Because all the weaknesses I’ve referred to are factual–only our ignorance, vanity, and fraudulent culture allow us to think otherwise. The whole point of Neuropath is to suss those weaknesses out and to cut against them.

The reader is the real protagonist—or antagonist as the case might be.

Review: Neuropath by Scott Bakker

Scott Bakker’s series, The Prince of Nothing (review), hit the SFF world with critical acclaim and a cerebral approach to epic fantasy. Bakker jumps genre in Neuropath to the realm of psychological and techno-thrillers and the same approach of intellectual depth without sacrificing the entertainment value of reading. Neuropath succeeds at both with its weighty implications of cognitive science and a suspenseful thriller plot.

Thomas Bible and Neil Cassidy have been arguing since college as only the closest of friends can – specifically The Argument that is founded in cognitive science about the root of consciousness and free will itself. Thomas, now a professor at Columbia University, has moved on to a family life complete with an ex-wife and 2 kids. In a drunken evening Neil reveals to Thomas that he has been covertly working for the NSA in neuroscience, making unimaginable leaps in neurosurgery and cognitive understanding without the hindrance of ethical constraints. Thomas is horrified when he realizes that the Neil is essentially a rogue agent elevating The Argument to a new level and now one of the FBI’s most wanted.

For a thriller, Neuropath takes a slower pace – the entire book occurs over the course of about two weeks with only a few bursts of action. The real action occurs internally and in verbal sparring as The Argument is laid out repeatedly and the horrors of Neil’s plan become more visible, if not more clear. The appropriate twists occur along the way, calling the anticipated conclusion into question – and the conclusion itself provides the perfect ending for Bakker’s Argument, if not for a reader’s sense of mind.

Thomas and Neil’s Argument is the point of the book and Bakker’s Argument as well – an Author’s Afterward lifts the veil of fiction to the reality of modern cognitive science. Simply said (and I’m sure not very accurately said), The Argument is that consciousness and all that goes with it (such as free will) is an illusion that our brains trick us into believing. This delusion drives the actions of humanity and its many short-comings. The real kicker is that our brains’ ability to rationalize almost insures that we will never allow ourselves to believe The Argument. Neuropath lays out The Argument, all of its disturbing implications and horrific potential.

Fans of philosophy and deep intellectual debate will eat up The Argument as it consumes them – I lost a bit of sleep and have brought its implications into many a conversation since reading Neuropath. But Bakker suffers some of the flaws of a fire and brimstone preacher relentlessly pounding his point into the reader’s head. This righteous repetition eventually becomes tiresome, further encouraging rationalization of The Argument – of course I think that Bakker in all his efforts to convert the reader to the truth of The Argument is as frightened of its implications as the rest of us.

If you read other reviews and commentary of Neuropath, words like disturbing and horrific abound. The physical act of arguing The Argument does in fact horrify. At no point can I actually say that the book is overtly graphic, but Bakker brings the reader to the brink and lets them imagine the rest – which, at least in my case, does lead to horrifically graphic scenes. The direct assault on common moral code and the human condition drives the reader’s reaction and the truly disturbing horror invoked. However, for those that have followed the building buzz, disappointment may be the result of repeatedly hearing how horrific and disturbing Neuropath is.

With Neuropath Bakker succeeds in having his cake and eating too in this intellectually stimulating techno-thriller. It’s not a book for everyone, but does work on multiple levels and will be a book to talk about. 8/10


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