Coming to Television: Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch

The pilot episode of Wayward Pines was shown at San Diego Comic Con this year by none other than M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, Signs). Based on i09’s review of the episode, I gather that it got mixed reviews. The star-studded cast includes Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, Juliette Lewis, Shannyn Sossamon, and a few other actors that appeared familiar. Despite it’s season one filming being complete, the series is slated for a mid-season (winter) start.

Why do I mention the new show? Well, four days ago I never had heard of the trilogy’s author, Blake Crouch. Then while trapped in a Tokyo hotel room with two toddlers sleeping, I came across the first book, Pines, while browsing Amazon on my iPad. I downloaded the book and four days later I had not read just one, but all three books in the trilogy.

0378 Crouch_Thicker Than Blood_2Blake Crouch admits the story’s inspiration comes from Twin Peaks, but I found the first book to be more reminiscent of Hugh Howey’s Wool. Secret Service officer, Ethan Burke, goes to a small town in Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two other officers. He is in an accident and wakes up in Wayward Pines with little memory about who he is.

The townspeople appear nice at first, but Ethan quickly realizes that things just don’t seem right. Worse yet, he can’t get in contact with his wife or the agency. He can’t even find his way out of the city.

Without spoiling any more of the novel, I will mention that like Wool, Pines is a novel about discovering reality. Science fiction elements are present, but slight, and by the end of the novel, the reader will completely understand the circumstances that Ethan finds himself in. I am not sure if it is an homage, but Blake even mentions in the novel revealing the secrets of Wayward Pines is like lifting the wool from people’s eyes.

Pines 2By the start of the second book, the story shifts from a book of discovery to a book of sociology. It is not a zombie book, but I would compare both the second and third books to The Walking Dead. What makes The Walking Dead the most popular television drama is not zombies, but the social interactions that take place in an isolated society. The enemy is more often the people themselves than the zombies trying to infiltrate their town.

The same is true with Wayward Pines. There is an interesting mix of people and relationships with different levels of knowledge about what the town really is. Ethan finds himself thrust in the middle of internal and external conflicts as he continues to dig deeper into the mysteries of the town. He also begins to learn how and why he got there was not just an accident, but a planned event.

As I mentioned, I plowed through the series in four days. I think this shows how readable the books are. They are page turners and also short in length. I found the premise plausible and the action was almost non-stop. The characters were not as developed as they could have been and I think this is a good opportunity for the television series to improve upon. Also, there is some cheesy dialog by the townspeople that withdrew me from the narrative.

Pines 3Despite these quibbles, I found the trilogy highly entertaining. It nicely blends the strange-world hook of Wool, the sociology of The Walking Dead, and the small town mechanics of Twin Peaks. Even if some of the relationships and interactions are formulaic, the premise gives a storyline that has great potential for being a television hit. Knowing the secrets of the town and story do not diminish from the intrigue of the community and I will plan on giving this show a shot this winter. I also plan on checking out some of Blake Crouch’s other novels to see what other worlds and stories he has developed.

If you want a thrilling popcorn read, Wayward Pines is a great place to start. There is lots of action with just enough science fiction to whet the appetite of genre fans while not alienating those who like their reality kept in check.

Recent Reads

I recently finished two novels, that I will offer a few words on.

WoRIf you haven’t heard, Brandon Sanderson’s second novel in the Stormlight Archive  is a long one. Where George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire ushered in darker, more realistic fiction, Sanderson’s epic fantasy series takes world building to a whole new level. There are many magic systems defined by metaphysical laws, making his fantasy almost a type of science. The idea that magic must have rules is common throughout Sanderson’s stories, but his world-building philosophy is not shared by all authors. For instance, writers such as Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss bring us magic systems that are a bit more abstract in their use.

Along with Sanderson’s magic systems are life forces known as spren, which tie into an elaborate mythos and history. Sure, at over 1000 pages in this book, there are a great many of details, but believe it or not, Sanderson’s world feels even larger than the words on the page. His characters, on the other hand, are focused and he sticks to a manageable POV cast.

I am generally not a huge epic fantasy fan, but Sanderson’s soon-to-be magnum opus series is a must read for genre fans. It is transformative in its world-building and having completed Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, it is certain that Sanderson will go down as one of the greatest fantasy authors of our generation.

My final verdict? I am enjoying the series, but I find the interludes a bit too stuffy for me and I find myself resisting the urge to skip them so I can return to the main story line. There are supposedly going to be ten books in this series, which would likely add up to over 10,000 pages. This is quite a commitment for both the author and reader, but given Sanderson’s increasing popularity and continually improving abilities as a writer, I think the journey will be worth it.


DefendersWill McIntosh rose to popularity when his short story, “Bridesicle,” won the Hugo. This was later adapted into the acclaimed novel, Love Minus Eighty. Following this novel comes a very different type of novel, called Defenders.

Defenders is a blend of military and social science fiction, written in a similar manner to John Scalzi. It is dialog and idea heavy, which makes for an easy, but still thought-provoking read. The beginning of the novel starts off almost cliche, with an alien species on the brink of taking over the human race. The starfish-like enemies have the ability to read human minds, making any attack completely transparent and predictable. Their only hope is a new form of biological weapon — Defenders. These are three-legged humanoids that are genetically altered to function without serotonin, the neurotransmitters that allow the invaders to read minds. They are built with one goal in mind — destroy the Luyten species.

Humanity’s goal is successful and they are able to fend off the alien species, but now they must deal with the aftermath of their creation. Creatures with a unique sense of morality and social order. A species that can destroy all of the earth at will.

The ethical dilemmas brought up in the book were stimulating to read and the post-war period was unique from a military sci-fi standpoint. The ideas only held me for a while and I struggled with the last 25% of the book. What was a unique social conundrum devolved into a battle of firepower. Unfortunately I failed to connect with the characters in the end and was left a bit disappointed.

As a whole, Defenders is an interesting novel. A new twist on a common trope. I think this novel could have succeeded better if it didn’t try to resolve the fate of humanity, but rather in the resolution of a few key characters. After all, it is through the individuals in stories that are hearts and minds are touched.

What is the Male Equivalent of Trashy Romance?

Perhaps it is a bit narrow-minded of me to make broad generalizations about gender. Particularly in this day and age, when there is a heightened awareness in the genre community regarding gender diversity. Sexual diversity. Ethnic diversity. And so on…

But the fact remains, by and large, that the romance genre is primarily produced and written for women. The genre itself is hard to define, spanning Puritan love stories to BDSM erotica. A portion of this genre is what we could call trashy romance — novels that have little redeeming quality in terms of character/plot development, literary merit, or meaningful themes. These novels serve more to entice the reader with wish-fulfillment and gratuitous sex scenes.

I think men read a lot less widely in the romance genre. Maybe because men are visual creatures, often seeking images rather than emotional connections to fulfill their passions. But that certainly isn’t a rule, nor is it a claim that men have higher tastes in literature than women (I actually suspect the opposite is true).

lonesomeThe subject of a male equivalent of trashy romance came to me while reading the novel, Night in the Lonesome October, by Richard Laymon. This horror novel tells of a twenty-year-old college kid who is dumped by his first love who then embarks on a series of nightly journeys. His travels confront him with some of the most vile humans and most alluring women. Female characters play little more than the role of fulfilling the protagonist’s inner desires while the male characters are stumbling blocks, preventing the protagonist from achieving his goals. The novel is far from erotic and it certainly isn’t romantic. Sexual exploits are purposely visual (blunt) in description and serve to titillate the reader amidst the several try-fail cycles that burden the protagonist.

Despite the paper-thin character sheets, I found this novel impossible to put down and I read it in less than a 24-hour span. Based on my comments, I cannot recommend the novel, but found myself reading page after page after page. The main character, Eddie, is a young man that many can relate to, from the onset being rejected by the woman of his dreams. He is a little reckless and seems to have little trouble finding a replacement for his ex. Even when threatened by more powerful opponents, Eddie is able to demonstrate resourcefulness to escape their hold on him.

Overall, this novel has no prevailing themes worth mentioning and frankly speaking, I cannot give it a higher status than trashy. But it still appeals to the base emotions of the reader. There are some brief attempts at wit and scholarship, but one cannot ignore the fact that Eddie is an imbecile, even if we do care for his livelihood.

So to answer the question at hand, what is the male equivalent of trashy romance? I would posit that it is adventure/horror stories where women are objects of affection with little to no agency. Violence and sex are often gratuitous with little effort in trying to suspend the reader’s disbelief. I suspect that it is this type of novel that many of the leading voices in genre fiction are trying to purge from its repertoire, but alas — they still manage to gain a readership.

I don’t mean to bash on Richard Laymon. In fact, I found his novel, The Traveling Vampire Show, to be a great coming-of-age story that I still recall with fondness years after reading it. Furthermore, I have never stopped reading a novel of his that I started and I doubt it ever took me longer than a week to finish one. I wish I could share the same affection for Night in the Lonesome October, but there comes a point — for me, at least — where I need intelligent actions on the part of the protagonist and deeper character development (and plausibility) on the part of the romantic interests. If you are looking for a fast-paced, cheap-thrill horror novel, this one is addicting. But after gorging myself on the literary equivalent of Hostess Twinkies, I must search for something a little more nutritious for my next read. I wish I could tell you that I am giving up on Twinkies, but hey — everyone has their weaknesses.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Library

Review:

There was a lot of hype when The Martian was published earlier this year. It had escaped my radar two years ago when Andy Weir self-published the title. Needless to say, good works gather praise and after good sales and word-of-mouth, the previously rejected novel soon had the attention of publishers. Just one year after releasing this novel for free on his website, Andy Weir had a six-figure deal with Crown to publish The Martian.

The premise of The Martian is that an astronaut by the name of Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after he and his suit are impaled by an object during a sandstorm. He is knocked unconscious and his life support monitor is destroyed, leading his five crewmates to believe that he is dead. Mark awakens to find that his crew has left and he is left alone on the red planet with some damaged equipment and a suit that is barely held together by his coagulated blood.

Most men wouldn’t last an hour in these circumstances, but Mark Watney is no ordinary man. He is one of Earth’s most brilliant botanists and has the survival skills of a Robinson Crusoe or Macguyver. Using the limited resources left on Mars, Watney develops a livable habitat and a sustainable nutrition plan with one goal in mind — to live until a rescue team returns to Mars.

Let me just say that this book was fantastic. I was hooked from the first paragraph with Andy Weir’s great sense of voice and perfect blend of humor, action, and technical savviness. It is very much a hard science fiction novel, with mathematical calculations and engineering know-how, yet it doesn’t read like one. The character of Mark Watney is rich and likable — the kind of guy you’d love to have a beer with, just to hear his thoughts on any subject matter, be it science, baseball, or the best of seventies sitcoms.

The book starts off as a diary-style narrative, with Mark chronicling the happenings of the day with a lot of side commentary that helps paint Mars’s climate and terrain with a sense of realism. Nearly every page is filled with some witty comment or remark that will crack a smile on your face. As the novel progresses, we also find viewpoints from NASA scientists and Mark’s crewmates, bringing the story together.

The Martian reminds me of why I love science fiction. Like Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction, I would classify The Martian as utopian SF — demonstrating how man can achieve success against great adversity. Mark Watney is in dire circumstances and Mars is relentless and unforgiving in how it punishes the astronaut. But ultimately, this novel is a triumph of the human spirit, demonstrating how the greatest challenges and impossible odds can be overcome with ingenuity and resilience.

Where movies like Castaway left me somewhat bored, The Martian is anything but tiresome. Each challenge Mark faces requires unique solutions and the pacing of the novel is quick, but balanced well with brief moments of planning and recreation.

The SF field has been inundated with pessimistic dystopias, blaming man’s selfishness and ignorance for dooming future generations. The Martian is a cool reprieve from these heavy-handed plots and it was a true delight to read. I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to people outside of the genre and think SF fans will like it equally. It truly was a wonderful book to read.

Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

pkd setTitle: Ubik

Author: Philip K. Dick

Publisher: Library of America

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Purchased

Review:

I have long-been a fan of Philip K. Dick, but I am ashamed to say that this is my first read of his wonderful novel, Ubik. It is one of his more popular titles and certainly one of the highest rated — and for good reason. Ubik is a psychological science fiction novel that crams so many ideas into a weird and mind-bending narrative that leaves you slack-jawed the whole way through.

The novel is about a technician by the name of Joe Chip who works with an organization that employs people with the special ability to block spies with parapsychological talents (such as telepaths and fortune tellers) in the sake of privacy. Chip is nearly broke when a woman by the name of Pat comes to his door, offering an unprecedented talent — the ability to change the past. Chip is wary of her, but is pressured to agree that her talents are too great to ignore. Shortly after their encounter, a large contract comes through, sending some of the corporations most-talented “inertials” to luna. Their trip results in a disaster and Joe Chip finds himself lost in time, not knowing who to trust or if the reality he is experiencing is even real.

I really can’t say enough good things about this novel. I LOVED it. I loved how every step of the way — just when I thought I understood what was going on — PKD peels back another layer, revealing a twisted and intricate world that Joe Chip has no prayer of figuring out. His friends around him are dying and the world and its contents are devolving from a “futuristic” 1992 to regressed and often useless products in 1939. Joe Chip’s discernment is top-notch, but he struggles at every turn to know who to trust. Heck, he doesn’t even know who is alive and dead.

I often see criticism of PKD’s prose, with a back-handed compliment applauding his story-telling while remarking that it’s no great literary work. This is a completely unnecessary comment and is as relevant as when I hear that epic fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson, isn’t a great stylist. Some writers seek to wax poetically, describing vivid settings with lurid prose and alliteration. PKD cranked out fiction at a manic pace, throwing in so many great ideas that were harmonious in his story telling and he did this as a very capable and talented writer. I enjoy his prose — making use of quick scene changes and off-the-cuff dialog — which he demonstrates effectively in Ubik.

There are few writers who can pull off this mash-up of ideas. Iain M. Banks comes to mind, blending diverse future technologies in his Culture novels. Neal Stepehenson may be another. But more often, science fiction posits a future that could be, rather than bending reality and technology to make a story that barely leaves the reader with any familiarity to hold on to. This is my kind of story. One that tiptoes the line between utter confusion and brilliance. I haven’t decided if Ubik is my favorite novel of PKD’s works, but it’s darn near close.

Review: Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres

peacemakerTitle: Peacemaker

Author: Marianne de Pierres

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

In a world that has been over-consumed by civilization, Virgin “Ginny” Jackson presides as ranger over the last standing natural park — reminiscent of the Outback (or an Old West-themed desert). Drugs and murder lead to the recruiting of US Marshall, Nate Sixkiller, who is part of an agency that polices mystical events. His experience proves timely when Virgin receives an omen from a supernatural creature from her childhood. As expected, the two law enforcement agents clash, but work together through a series of calamities to bring justice with their peacemakers in hand.

This book truly defines genre blending. It certainly is the space western that is implied with the book’s cover, but don’t expect to find a Firefly spin-off inside. In fact, this book reads much more like an urban fantasy/mystery than a futuristic six-shooter. While the mashing up of genres has become common-place in the last decade, I find it often comes at the expense of the story. In Peacemaker, de Pierres weaves her Sprawl-like setting with the supernatural without jarring the reader.

The prose is sharp and the book is what you would expect from Angry Robot. The short sentences, active voice, and pulpy jargon reminded me of a science fictiony noir novel..

The characters are what help this novel shine the most. Aside from the diverse personalities in Virgin and Nate, Virgin’s friend, Caro, is a bridge between the law enforcers and the law breakers (of which there are many that work with and against Virgin). The individuality of these characters broaden the world that is very different from the one we know.

I found the book enjoyable and fast-paced, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I loved it. There is a lot of action, but ultimately I didn’t form an emotional attachment to the characters and the mystery wasn’t intriguing enough for the plot alone to carry it through. This comment may be a reflection on me as a reader more than on the novel itself, since I am unable to pinpoint any flaws that left my reading experience to be any less than stellar.

But don’t be dissuaded in the least by my favorable, albeit tepid response. Angry Robot continues to put out good fiction and Marianne de Pierres demonstrates in Peacemaker her ability to write engaging fiction that seamlessly spans the entirety of what science fiction and fantasy have to offer.

Review of Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

18209565Title: Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves (Empire and Rebellion #2)

Author: Joe Schreiber

Publisher: LucasBooks (Random House)

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

I have long been a fan of Star Wars and the expanded universe and have also been diligent and enthusiastic in reading both James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse space opera series and Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. So to say I have been anticipating Honor Among Thieves is an understatement.

To make things even more compelling, this novel is about Han Solo. A man’s man. An I-shot-first, fearless rogue who if given the chance, every 1980’s kid would want to be if it wasn’t for Boba Fett’s sweet mech armor. So here I am, finally with an electronic copy in hand, ready to don a set of Star Wars jammies, with a Han Solo action figure to my side, and read this novel in one sitting.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the writing was not quite typical of the Daniel Abraham/Ty Franck duo that penned the wonderful novel, Leviathan Wakes. The punchy dialog that I am used to reading in Jim Holden seems almost artificial when it is transplanted on Han Solo. The Star Wars favorite talks tough, but seems completely unsure of himself in his head, which in a way is inconsistent with the Han Solo character of the expanded universe.

From my viewing and reading, I see Han Solo as a hardened, but still intrinsically good man. A.C. Crispin fleshed out his character beautifully in a trilogy that told of a young boy who had to deal with death and losing a mother figure and then later, a lover that he would have spent the rest of his life with. This portrayal of Han Solo showed how his character struggled to deal with the feelings of loss and how it led to a life as a smuggler and nearly a life-long bachelor. Timothy Zahn also captures his essence well in Scoundrels and Choices of One, giving us some filler adventures from the same period as Honor Among Thieves. And then of course, the original film trilogy first captured Han in his many shades of gray, showing his allegiance first to himself, and then to the Rebel Alliance. It finally took a princess who could match his courage and wits to open his heart to others beyond himself.

In the first book of the thematic trilogy, Razor’s Edge, Martha Wells brought Leia further into the spotlight, showing us her undeniable courage and intelligence. Good characters often struggle to make difficult decisions and Wells put Leia in these types of situations, allowing her leadership abilities to shine. It had an exciting plot with lots of action.

In contrast, Honor Among Thieves was at times dull, with very short action scenes. The book failed to draw on the expanded universe and ultimately left me with a forgettable story that I could barely finish. I really hate to write negative reviews, but given that this book will likely be one of the highest selling science fiction books this year, I feel compelled to mention that science fiction novels can achieve so much more. As can James S.A. Corey (an author combo I still will continue to read without reservation). Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe I was too tired/distracted when I read it, but each page was a chore and much of the story is already lost on me. If you are going to read a book in this series, pick up Martha Wells’ book first. If you are new to the expanded universe and are longing to read of Han Solo, pick up A.C. Crispin’s trilogy. This book is probably good for Star Wars or James S.A. Corey completists, but you will be much more satisfied if you delve into The Expanse series that the duo is writing. In fact, I highly recommend you do — it’s one of the best space operas being written today.

Review of Something More than Night by Ian Tregillis

SMTNTitle: Something More than Night

Author: Ian Tregillis

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: eBook

Where I Received the Title: Amazon.com

Review:

The great archangel, Gabriel has been murdered and like a shooting star, he burns across the night sky. A fallen angel by the name of Bayliss, who has made the Earth his home, is tasked with finding a mortal to replace the slain seraphim. While wandering through a crowd of humans, he manages to knock an innocent bystander, Molly, in front of a street tram. Rather than suffer the fate of death, she is transformed into an angel. Molly tries to come to grips with her new reality, uncover the mystery behind Gabriel’s death. But she still clings to her past, which haunts not only her own memories, but the lives of those she loves.

Tregillis’s novel is written from two very distinct viewpoints, which I will say is the strength in the book. Bayliss is told in heavy noir form, using words that only can be found in classic pulp detective novels. Molly, who recently broke up with her girlfriend and tends to her addict brother, has a more modern narrative voice. The differences in voice help to differentiate two very distinct people. Bayliss is essentially an antihero demon. He is not filled with completely evil motives, but he does have a secret or two and he makes no apologies for his sins. Molly, on the other hand, has a big heart and cares for those around her. She puts up with Bayliss’s antics, likely because she has no one else to turn to.

There is no lack of description in the book and Tregillis writes with elegant prose. At times, the wordiness of the setting bogged down the narrative, but overall I found the writing a delight to read. It is intelligent and witty and his use of language helps build empathy for Molly’s character. One scene in particular involves Molly returning to her past lover, only to discover that her efforts to intervene only cause destruction. Each touch and emotion Molly feels brings the reader a sense of hurt and longing that is difficult to describe.

While angels and demons are the subject of the novel, it largely is an invention of Tregillis’s own mythology. Specific orders of angels (cherubim, seraphim, powers, etc.) are borrowed from Biblical and medieval texts, but liberties are taken with the theology to make it pure fantasy.

I would characterize this novel as a mid-twentieth century urban fantasy with a more literary flavor than the paranormal romances that consume a majority of the shelves. Thematically, I found the premise interesting, but I am not particularly attracted to noir, which runs throughout the novel. Bottom line — if the story sounds interesting, I think you will love it. I liked it well enough and certainly plan to see what other novels Ian Tregillis has in store.

Review and Interview of Hang Wire over at Adventures in Scifi Publishing

Hang-Wire-CoverMy first book review at Adventures in SciFi Publishing is now up. The review is of Hang Wire, a new urban fantasy from Adam Christopher, published by the good folks at Angry Robot. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Adam a few questions about the novel. He has some unique thoughts on the various sub-genres of SFF and discusses a different standard between American and British fiction.

Overall, Hang Wire was a joy to read and Adam Christopher has the skill to create a world that appears much larger than what is in the text. I look forward to see what he has in store for us in the future.

Review of Maul: Lockdown (Star Wars) by Joe Schreiber

lockdownTitle: Maul: Lockdown (Star Wars)

Author: Joe Schreiber

Publisher: LucasBooks (Random House)

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

Without a doubt, one of the most intriguing villains of the prequel trilogy is the devil-horned Sith, Darth Maul. The obedient apprentice to Darth Sidious wields a twin-bladed light saber and is more powerful than many of the best jedi. But in Lockdown, Maul must hide his powers of the force to destroy a space prison that houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the galaxy.

As one can expect from Schreiber, the author of the Death Trooper horror novel, Maul: Lockdown contains some gratuitous violence. The prison is part of an underground gambling ring where opponents are matched for fight-to-death cage matches — a contest in which Maul finds himself a frequent combatant. But Maul’s mission isn’t simply survival. That would be too easy. He must negotiate his way through the prison to broker a deal with a secret arms dealer to procure a nuclear device. And… all this must be done with revealing his powers in the force.

So what are we to make of this death sport novel? I will say this — if the premise interests you, I think you will find the book pleasurable to read. The action scenes are fast and exciting and there’s enough of a plot to justify the action. With that said, this novel is very self-contained, taking almost entirely aboard the space prison. There are some appearances by Jabba and Darth Plagueis and a few other minor characters, but this isn’t a sweeping novel that expands the universe.

Chronologically, Maul: Lockdown takes place after James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis, but to compare these novels is not exactly a fair comparison. They achieve very different things. Maul: Lockdown is a popcorn book filled with battles and action and does very little to provide deep insight into the overall arc of the era. Regardless, I plowed through this book in just a few sittings.

I think this book should get fairly high reviews, mostly for the fact that Schreiber delivers what readers of this book will expect and more. A light plot, lots of fight sequences, and more insight into the character of Darth Maul.