Monday, March 28, 2011

Genre For Japan - The Bidding is Open!

The bidding is now open over at Genre for Japan for 137 excellent books and other genre-related items (including appearances in books) for support of earthquake relief in Japan. So, go spend your money to get good stuff and support a great cause.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Genre for Japan - Get good/rare books and support a good cause!

You should all check out Genre for Japan - basically a group of genre fans/bloggers/industry people got together to organize an auction to support the British Red Cross Tsumami Appeal for the Japanese earthquake. Tons of books and other great items have been donated for the auction, including a couple from me.

So, what are you wating for. All items are up for bid starting on March 28th. And if you are interested in donating, you can donate through March 25th.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) by Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is one of those fun reads that I nearly let fly by. You see, the title Midnight Riot does nothing for me – it’s too terribly generic. But I saw a bunch of buzz surrounding Rivers of London (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) from my UK blogger brethren. At the time I didn’t realize that Midnight Riot goes by the much more appealing title of Rivers of London in the UK. While I’m generally a bit hesitant to jump onto the blogger buzz bandwagon, it sounded like a short, fun read and I’m glad I picked it up. Midnight Riot is an entertaining, almost pulp-ish urban fantasy that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Probationary Constable Peter Grant seemingly gets the chance that every rookie cops longs for – an exclusive interview with an eye witness to a mysterious murder. Only it turns out the witness is a ghost, and understandably Peter questions his sanity and is hesitant to mention it to anyone. Eventually, Peter gains the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who turns out to be a wizard. The murders start adding up – Peter is both rookie cop and apprentice to a wizard and things get interesting.

Midnight Riot is simply a fun, fun book where magic meets the detective thriller. While I’ve not read them, I think it’s probably safe to sum it up as a British version of The Dresden Files. The book is relatively short, it’s a fast read, it’s addicting and hard to put down, and leaves you wanting more. And the second book of the series, Moon Over Soho (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), is already available and there is already word of a third book, Whispers Under Ground (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), coming this fall.

Peter Grant is a wonderfully believable rookie cop. He’s not cool or terribly exciting – really more of a bland guy that may not be suited for police work, but at least he has a sense of humor about it. But when he discovers that he may have a talent for magic he gets a bit cocky and over confident – not very much, but enough to make him feel even more real. In short, he’s the sort of guy that’s easy to cheer for. And I really enjoy the extra bit that Peter is a bit of geek, making Midnight Riot just self-aware enough to be extra amusing.

My biggest issues with the book have little to do with my enjoyment of it or anything Aaronovitch has control over – buy the book, but you may want to consider buying the UK version rather than Del Rey’s US version. As I go into in greater detail in another post, Midnight Riot seems to have gone through a bit of ‘Americanization’ of its text. Since I haven’t done a line-by-line comparison I can’t say how bad, but I do know that it’s highly unlikely that the word soccer appears in the UK version. I mean really, when someone raised in a rougher part of London thinks about soccer rather than football, I’m literally yanked out of the carefully crafted mood of the novel. This sort of change is unnecessary, insulting, and simply a bad idea.

Additionally, I really am unhappy with the implications of the potential white-washing of the cover for both Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho by Del Rey. I go into a bit more detail here, but it looks really bad – and an already questionable cover potentially becomes something much worse.

So, I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this – Midnight Riot/Rivers of London is a great read. Sure, you don’t want to think too much about it because it all may just fall apart, but it is a fun take on the supernatural detective and captures the atmosphere of London wonderfully. This pulp-ish urban fantasy has a bit of an old-school vibe – just how I like it. 7.5/10

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another White-Washed Cover?

I’ll let you guys be the ultimate judge, but I think this yet another case of a white-washed cover – even if it’s more by omission than outright misrepresentation.

This is the cover of Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) that I originally found:

This is the cover of Midnight Riot that came with my physical book.

The main character, who is a man of color, has been turned into a complete silhouette in the final version. In my opinion this doesn’t add any artistic merit to the cover, especially since I prefer the cover that isn’t completely silhouetted out. And the silhouette doesn’t achieve some thematic representation of the book that I can see. Why do it? The only reason I can see is to hide the ethnicity of the main character.

And a look into the sequel, Moon Over Soho (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), shows the same thing happening.

Here’s one version:

Here’s the final version:

So, what do you all think?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Something Completely Different

Saw this little guy the other day doing field work - growing up I always called them horny toads. I do believe the more proper term is horned lizard.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Never Knew Another by J.M. McDermott

Never Knew Another (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is J.M. McDermott’s sophomore effort following up on the critically acclaimed, Last Dragon (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), and the first book in the Dogsland Trilogy. Never Knew Another is not your typical fantasy story – call it literary, new weird, urban, or demon-spawn-punk. It’s the tragic dream of finally meeting someone just like you…poison.

Never Knew Another is the story of two shape-shifting outsiders entering a city to hunt down and destroy the taint of demon-spawn. They are blessed by a religious order and hold all the authority of the monarchy. But the real story is buried within – it’s the tale of how two demon-spawn meet, how they are tormented by what they are and their affects upon others and relieved to find another.

Never Knew Another is told from the point of view of one of the demon hunters, the female shape-shifter who is ‘feeling’ the story through the remains of dead demon-spawn. This story within a story allows McDermott to get a bit meta as the narrator is admittedly not (necessarily) reliable in the feelings she gets through these remains. In this deeper story, the book mostly explores the idea of being a completely isolated individual. The demon-spawn literally cannot get close to people and they are so rare that they are very unlikely to ever meet one like themselves. And even though the temptation is to apply this metaphor to some ostracized portion of society, it doesn’t hold up well – the demons and demon-children are clearly infected with pure evil. Their blood, sweat and tears are acid, people who touch them get sick and can eventually die – essentially everything they touch becomes infected to some degree.  But they are also innocent creatures struggling to live and love, lending a real tragic feel to it all.

Never Knew Another is described by McDermott as literary fantasy, which is no surprise for those familiar with McDermott’s writing. The prose is dense, poetic and dream-like. Think of McKillips, but darker and more depressing. However, it’s hard to call it a depressing story – it’s simply too dream-like, too surreal to truly be depressing, in spite of being far from uplifting or happy.

The book description almost reads like two star-crossed lovers meeting, but the love story is actually a very small part of it. It's there, but this is no romance. Or maybe the 'love' story is everything. Think of two people who have been completely isolated their entire lives, who are different from all other people, who literally cannot be close to others because it will kill them. They are drawn to one another because they are the same, they have lived the same challenges, faced the same problems. They can actually talk about themselves with someone who could understand. They can be physically intimate with someone without literal death and destruction resulting (though the physical intimacy is only implied rather than explicitly shown). It's not love and isn't really portrayed as love. It's both more and less.

And everything is shown through a ghostly, dream-like view of the woman who is hunting these demon-children to kill them, burn their remains and burn essentially everything and everyone they have ever touched.

In terms of a traditional conclusion or climax there is none. A good argument could be made for a thematic conclusion/climax or at least major shift, but largely it's unresolved. I think this trilogy will read like three volumes in one book, rather than three books that make a trilogy.

Someone on a book forum saw my description of the book’s style and said something to the effect of ‘so I take it that you really liked it’. My reaction to this was ‘did I?’ I certainly appreciate the style and the way it’s done – it's really quite spectacular. But if I'm truly honest, it's not exactly my cup of tea. But Never Knew Another is one of those books that stuck with me for quite some time after I finished. Is it the tragedy? Is it the interesting view of civilization? Is it love and evil? Is it my wondering just what McDermott is trying to say with it? I really don’t know, but when a book haunts me in such a way it’s a rare and powerful thing. 8/10

Books Received: March 3 - 16

Books Received: March 3 - 16, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Few cities in the world evoke an emotional reaction in the same way as Venice – even for those of us who have never been. Sure, the world is full of great cities like London, Paris, Rome, New York, Tokyo, etc, but none hold quite the same allure as Venice – canals, romance, history, power, money….

Set in renaissance Venice, I was excited by the premise of The Fallen Blade (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s first foray into fantasy where a secret order of assassins run by the aristocracy gains a powerful new member and the beginning of The Assassini trilogy.

The Duke of Venice is incapable of ruling, leaving his aunt and uncle to reign as regents, often in opposition to one another. A young Venetian noble fights against her eventual marriage of state, German Prince Leopold (a werewolf) battles to overthrow Venice, a former slave heads the Venetian Assassini, a shadow army enforcing the power of Venice, and a boy without a memory washes up on the docks – a boy like no other, what we know as a vampire.

Ahh…Venice. Grimwood sets the stage wonderfully with his description of a multi-cultural Venice in the height of its power – but it’s a dark, dangerous city haunted by the supernatural and assassins – not the romantic setting of idealized history we know and love today. However it’s a great place to set a historical, urban fantasy – a place for witches, warlocks, werewolves and vampires.

Before the above description sours you to what sounds like another generic vampire-werewolf urban fantasy, The Fallen Blade is more. The supernatural is merely a vehicle, a secondary player in the Machiavellian politics of Renaissance Italy. The powerful city-state maneuvers to stay ahead and of course gain more money and power. And the powerful of Venice use the tools available to them.

However, in all the political intrigue, Grimwood seems to get lost. The city of Venice slowly loses its allure and story suffers greatly when it ventures beyond the shores of Venice. The city should be a major character, yet never becomes more than a cool setting, ever further in the background. And the characters at the heart of it all fail to convince more often than they succeed.

Tycho is a boy without a memory, a boy who slowly discovers he has is not mortal and the desires that make him strong. Tycho is recruited into the decimated ranks of the Assassini, yet he doesn’t know who he is. Tycho is the focus, but he’s also the least convincing of the characters in The Fallen Blade. His motivations fail to feel right – especially once he realizes just how powerful he is.  In combination with an infatuation, or possibly even love, with a spoiled, noble brat it becomes intolerable at times. It’s only the big revelation at the end of the book that begins to make Tycho an interesting character – too little too late.

Other characters hold up better – such as Atilo, the head of the Assassini and the mysterious Duchess Alexa. But many of the supporting characters seem out of place and forced, especially in the way they keep showing up in the most improbable of locations.

After a promising start, The Fallen Blade quickly falls flat and it’s hard to say exactly why. Yes it’s partly due Venice not being fully utilized, and partly due to the lack of believability in the motivations of so many of the characters, but mostly it’s due to something else, something less tangible. In the end the whole of it is simply mediocre. The setting is great (until the story leaves it behind), the politics intriguing, and the premise fun, but it lacks the binding to make it into the novel it could be. And that is unfortunate. 6.5/10

Monday, March 07, 2011

Review: The Dark Griffin by K.J. Taylor

First published in Australia in 2009, The Dark Griffin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is K.J. Taylor’s debut and the first volume of The Fallen Moon trilogy, all of which are now available. In spite of a few good ideas, it is mediocre fantasy at best.

Arren Cardockson, a child of former slaves, manages the impossible and is adopted by a griffin. Suddenly raised to the top class of society, griffeners, he feels more out of place than ever. Arren falls victim to manipulation by those unhappy with his rise in status as he confronts a wild griffin – an orphaned wild griffin with a destiny of his own.

One aspect of The Dark Griffin that is unique feeling is found right in the title – this is a fantasy about griffins – not dragons, elves, orcs, dwarves, or some other well-trodden fantasy species. Unfortunately, it falls flat. The whole first half of the book just feels like someone decided to write about griffins because people don’t write about griffins very often – while that is nice, a book needs a bit more to it. Also, the characterization of griffins, who we see through their own points of view fairly often, feels a bit too human-like. This is particularly evident once we reach Eagleholm where humans and griffins live side-by-side. At first it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between people and griffins, which both confusing and annoying.

The plot itself is way too cliché. Cliché and tropes can be utilized to great effect – after all, they became so in the first place because they seem to have a universal resonance. But, for cliché to succeed, it must be presented well or cleverly subverted – and in The Dark Griffin, it’s all too generic. A young man in a civilization where he is a minority, he’s special (a griffiner), he’s conflicted about his identity, his mentor betrays him, the tired reverence of all things Celtic, etc., etc. The politics are clearly meant to be complex and dangerous, while never becoming anything more than simple and predictable. And the dealing with slavery feels like it came right out of middle school textbook. There are some solid ideas in here, if still predictable and cliché, but the execution is lacking.

Another unfortunate drawback is Taylor’s characterization. For the most part every character lacks the third dimension that it takes to develop a real connection with a reader. Arren is decently well-done, but as I get at above, he’s terrible cliché. The griffins fail to be very believable, and pretty much every secondary character suffers the fate of being one or two characteristics with no flesh to make them real.

As I was doing a bit of background research for this review I learned that Taylor was only 23 years old when The Dark Griffin was originally published. My initial reaction to this was – that explains a lot. I’m not saying that 23-year old can’t write with depth, nuance and subtly – I’m just saying that it’s much more difficult for someone with a relative lack of life’s experience to do so.

Even through all the issues The Dark Griffin has, it does somewhat redeem itself. Taylor’s plotting maybe poor, her ideas often not fully realized, the plot too predictable, but she can tell an entertaining story once she gets past all of the introduction and set-up (the first half of the book). By the end I did actually want to see what happened next. I was curious about where the trilogy would go from book 1. Just not curious enough given the other issues with the book. 5.5/10

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Life Discovered on Asteroid?

Well, there has been an announcement that a NASA scientist has found evidence for bacteria on three meteorites that point to an origin of life that is not Earth. Wow, this is big – even if it turns out to be wrong like the supposed bacteria found on a Martian meteorite back in the 1990s. This will be big new, it will dominate discussions, and we’ll see all sorts of religious nutcases come out against it. Sure, I’m friends with lots of planetary geologists (and married to one), and my view may be a bit different from most, but I love it. I’m setting up a metaphorical lawn chair, setting up the cooler full of beer and getting ready for a heck of a show.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Books Received: February 17 - March 3

Books Received: February 17 - March 3, 2011

Something Completely Different

After a bit of hiatus, I'll try to get back to the every-other Friday Something Completely Different posts.

Once upon a time I had poison dart frogs for pets. This species is commonly called the Bumblebee or Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog. In the trade you are more likely to here them called 'luecs', referring to their scientific name - dendrobates luecomelas.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

It seems everyone loves to complain about books taking too long to get here, that author ___ needs to hurry up and finish their series. The truth is that there is more to the actual end of a series – assuming the series is any good (and you probably think it is if you read to the end), then mixed emotions dominate. Resolution is great, you know the end. However what eventually sets in and tends to dominate is a sense of loss. With the completion of Steven Erikson’s mammoth 10-book series, Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, in The Crippled God (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), the sense of loss is overwhelming, partly because of all those dark, bitter, yet strangely hopeful characters that I don’t want to see go, but mostly because of the weight of a series that titles itself a ‘Book of the Fallen’. Yes, the ending was everything I could have hoped for – I laughed and cried – but the fallen, literal and figurative, haunt me still.

Now comes the disclaimer I give every time I review one of Steven Erikson’s books. I’m a huge fan of this series, and since this review is a review of the tenth book in a series, things I say may spoil events that happen in the first nine. I don’t reveal anything huge, but be warned. Forget objectivity – for one, I don’t believe that objectivity in reviewing truly exists and I also feel that striving for it is a mistake. I embrace my subjectivity, and in this case I’m a Malazan fanboy.

While Erikson has been building to this conclusion for 10 books, books 8 and 9 (Toll the Hounds and Dust of Dreams, respectively) really start to lay out the true scope of the series. In Toll the Hounds we start to appreciate the price, the toll that is being paid by the everyman and woman in a tapestry of events designed to force a conclusion. In Dust of Dreams the resulting suffering of the price is so overwhelming that nearly all hope is lost. In my review of Dust of Dreams I said: “I can hardly imagine anything close to a happy ending for this series.” Erikson answers this in The Crippled God – he gives us hope, he gives us sacrifice, he gives us salvation. And yes, for some, he even gives us a happy ending.

Erikson is often criticized for being overly nihilistic in his writing. Yes, things can be dark and yes his characters often come to hard times and wonder if there is a point to it. But to call Erikson’s writing nihilistic is to miss the point entirely. As I so often find with Erikson, quotes from the books say it much better than I could ever.

Hedge was waiting, seated on one of the tilted standing stones. ‘Hood take us all,’ he said, eyeing Fiddler as he approached. ‘They did it – her allies – they did what she needed them to do.’
‘Aye. And how many people died for [it]?’
…’Little late to be regretting all that now, Fid.’
‘…They used all of us Hedge.’
‘That’s what gods do, aye. So you don’t like it? Fine, but listen to me. Sometimes, what they want – what they need us to do – sometimes it’s all right. I mean, it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, it makes us better people.’
‘You really believe that?’
‘And when we’re better people, we make better gods.’
Fiddler looked away. ‘It’s hopeless, then. We can stuff a god with every virtue we got, it still won’t make us any better, will it? Because we’re not good with virtues, Hedge.’
‘Most of the time, aye, we’re not. But maybe then, at our worst, we might look up, we might see that god we made out of the best in us. Not vicious, not vengeful, not arrogant or spiteful. Not selfish, not greedy. Just clear-eyed, with no time for all our rubbish. The kind of god to give us a slap in the face for being such shits.’
…’Ever the optimist, you’
This exchange sums up so much of what the series is about, and it certainly isn’t nihilism – in fact I think you could say it’s the exact opposite. This really is a tale of doing the right thing, saving the world, and finding meaning in life along the way. Only Erikson doesn’t sugarcoat anything – he makes you take a good, long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and face the ugliness in humanity and civilization. And through all the bad, he still sees something worth saving.

At over 900 pages, The Crippled God is a beast of a book. Erikson has become known for being a bit on the wordy side (understatement), and come under a bit of criticism for philosophical ramblings that add to the page count. For me, I often find great enjoyment in those ramblings, but must admit that I’ve only skimmed my fair share of them. In The Crippled God, these are largely absent – there is so much going on there isn’t the time or space. I won’t say this book doesn’t have a bit fluff to it, but compared to some of the more recent volumes in the series, it has much less.

In this series there are endless plots and subplots fans are eager to see through, and this is further complicated by those that will be finished in one way or another by Ian C. Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan world who has written three supporting novels with two more to come. Many of these plots do come to a resolution in The Crippled God, many do not. Some of the resolutions don’t appear to be coming, others may be a bit unsatisfying and still others too short or too forced. However, a good many are absolutely satisfying. The ultimate conclusion offers some very satisfying resolution to some of these plots – we know what happens to these guys (alive or dead), others just seem to fade away. And the deaths, well those can break hearts. In the end, we see the beginning – two gods visit the coast of Itko Kan and a weathered veteran gives advice to a child yearning to be a soldier.

A series coming to an end is a complicated thing – on one hand, it’s over, we know the end. On the other hand, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Erikson’s The Crippled God takes the sense of loss to another level with the sheer magnitude of sacrifice – was the cost to save the world too high, no, but still… The victory is won, but the price staggering. It’s nearly the perfect ending to the series. In a recent message to his fans, Erikson said this:
 I now share something with the Malazan Book of the Fallen: a ghostly presence in the wake of our lives. It haunts me, but in a good way. May it do the same, with a most benign touch, to you all.’
It haunts me too…in a good way. 8.5/10

And now the page before us blurs.
An age is done. The book must close.
We are abandoned to history.
Raise high one more time the tattered standard
Of the Fallen. See through the drifting smoke
To the dark stains upon the fabric.
This is the blood of our lives, this is the
Payment of our deeds, all soon to be
We were never what people could be.
We were only what we were.

Remember us

Untitled poem at the end of The Crippled God

Related Posts: The Lees of Laughter's End review, Interview with Steven Erikson, Dust of Dreams Review, Toll the Hounds review, Reaper's Gale review, The Bonehunters review, Return of the Crimson Guard review


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