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.

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Review: A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp

ADiscourseInSteel-largeTitle: A Discourse in Steel (The Tales of Egil and Nix #2)

Author: Paul S. Kemp

Publisher: Angry Robot

Where I Received the Title: e-ARC from Netgalley

Review:

Last year I wrote a glowing review of Paul Kemp’s first Egil and Nix novel. On the surface, it is a classic sword and sorcery tale, with buddy heroes that many liken to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora. The first character, Egil, is a hammer-wielding tough man and priest to a deceased god. His partner in crime is a Jack-of-all-trades smart guy who dabbles in sorcery (sometimes to their own detriment). Together, they are a formidable pair against the most ruthless of enemies.

In A Discourse in Steel, Egil and Nix have settled into retirement from tomb-robbing. But sure enough, trouble finds them soon. It begins when they investigate a strange teleportal known as Blackalley. This magical conjuring feeds on the negative emotions of fear and guilt, putting the men at risk (particularly the repentant Egil).

Meanwhile, their psychic friend, Rose, is in the midst of giving a reading when an assassin shoots an arrow through her client’s neck, killing him instantly. Now, her mind is linked to the dead man and her own life is in extreme danger unless a sorcerer can break their interlocked minds.

Egil and Nix come to the rescue to help their friend, but a mysterious thieving guild who was behind the death of Rose’s client fears that the psychic knows too much. While Egil and Nix seek help for their friend, a band of guildsmen follow after them with a plan to dispose of them.

A Discourse in Steel continues with the same level of action and adventure that we read in the first novel in the series. As expected, Egil and Nix share good banter, teasing one another like long-time friends. Kemp has a strong ear for dialog and it shows in his writing (perhaps it’s a Michigan thing, considering dialog masters Elmore Leonard and Jeffrey Eugenides are also from the area). For a buddy adventure, good dialog is critical and Kemp delivers.

The plot of the novel is rather simple. So from a story perspective, the Egil and Nix novels do not achieve the reward of weaving through the complex twists and turns one gets from reading a Scott Lynch novel. Both of the Egil and Nix novels are relatively light reads. But they are fun reads, filled with adventure and emotion. I love Nix’s key that can open any lock, providing that Nix feeds the key whatever it demands (usually a token vegetable). I also love Egil’s conflicted character, struggling with his past sins and trying to remain a priest with a profession that is considered less than holy.

The second Egil and Nix novel, A Discourse in Steel, is more straight-forward in terms of plot structure than the first, but it is filled with new magic and mayhem that makes it a truly enjoyable read. If embarking on this series for the first time, I The definitely would recommend starting with The Hammer and the Blade. Once complete, run and grab the second novel. It is an entirely new adventure that builds off of the first book and will prove to be  a gratifying experience.

Review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

9519042Title: Zoo City

Author: Lauren Beukes

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Angry Robot

Review:

Non-Western settings are en vogue right now in fantasy fiction, which works out quite well for South African native, Lauren Beukes. My very limited knowledge of the area comes from snippets I’ve seen in television and magazines and of course, the famed novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.

In Zoo City, Lauren Beukes is rooted in real world Johannesburg, but with a fantastical twist. Criminals are magically tethered to an animal that many will liken to the daemon-human pairing of The Golden Compass. But the comparison does not extend much deeper as Zoo City is an entirely unique novel with a very unique premise.

Zinzi December is the novel’s protagonist, a recovering drug addict who finds herself paired with a sloth for a past crime. She is in financial debt and uses her special skill of finding lost things mixed with email spamming to pay back the money she owes.

Beukes writes with elegant prose, hip cultural references (that I fear at times I was too deft too comprehend), poetic metaphors, and a narrative voice that makes you feel like you are reading something literary and cultural, while still thriving as a cool urban fantasy. We are lost in the undertow of Johannesberg, in the dark and dirty streets with prostitutes and drug addicts. We also walk in the light of a cool urban scene with a hip music scene and other animal pairings.

While the world-building and prose were top notch, I did find myself bogged down with the plot. Part of my problem may have been that I listened to this book on audio — which I do not recommend. This would be a great story told as a dramatization (with South African music), but the story as is serves better in print.

Zoo City has received high acclaim and it is well-deserved. Beukes is a talented writer who actually has deeper thoughts to convey beyond the basic story. I enjoyed Zoo City very much and look forward to reading her latest novel, The Shining Girls, very soon.

Review of The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

16071824Title: The Blue Blazes

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Angry Robot

Review:

In the midst of Chuck Wendig’s successful Miriam Black series comes a new series. The first entry, The Blue Blazes, features an equally tough protagonist by the name of Mookie Pearl. He was a mine worker who eventually worked his way to the top of The Organization, a conglomerate of New York’s nastiest street gangs. Beneath the city is an underworld filled with monsters that long to stretch their dominion. There are goblins, ghost, golems, giant cankerworms and these strange shadowy figures that envelop their prey in the folds of their invisible wings. These creatures are invisible to the naked eye — that is unless one is doped up on the underworld powdered drug known as blue blazes.

Mookie’s role is simple — he takes care of business. Whether it’s fighting a pack of goblins (gobbos) or tracking down derelict members of one of the street gangs, he uses his brute strength and street-fighting sensibility to maintain order. The man is impenetrable aside from his one Achilles’ heel — his love for his daughter, Nora.

The word on the street is that Nora’s been spreading information that The Organization’s boss has come down with cancer. His only heir is his grandson, who by most accounts appears unfit to take the helm. These rumors incite disorder among the ranks and Mookie (whose fatherhood of Nora remains secret) must confront her before she winds up dead.

The situation for Nora escalates even further after she is caught on video committing a terrible crime and Mookie finds his loyalty at odds. He wants to save Nora while maintaining loyalty to The Organization, but the task seems impossible. Unless she is innocent.

A rumored drug called red rage holds the key to their survival and Mookie is willing to plunge into the depths of the underworld to get it. Upon his return, he finds that the above world is even less friendly. Suddenly, the entire fate of New York City rests on his shoulders.

Let me state the obvious here before I review the story — the cover art is amazing! Joey Hi-Fi does fantastic artwork for both Lauren Beukes and Chuck Wendig and it keeps getting better with every novel. It is simple at first glance, yet has so much detail and depth that ties into the novel. It probably deserves a review of its own.

As for the novel, Wendig has proven himself to be a reliable and prolific author. What I expect in picking up a Wendig novel is a tough, street-wise, smart ass protagonist with a hard shell and a soft spot inside. I expect punchy dialog, snappy prose, and a gritty narrative voice. With The Blue Blazes you get everything you expect and hope for out of Wendig.

In addition to being an urban fantasy, The Blue Blazes has elements of noir and mystery, with Mookie playing a dual role of an action hero and a pulp detective. His character is strong, but unlike Miriam Black, he isn’t what sticks with you after finishing the novel. For me, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its milieu. Many of the classic monsters from the tabletop RPG’s of yore hide in the mines, sewers and deep caverns below the city. We have been beat over the head with zombies and werewolves and vampires and here comes Wendig with a rich, fantastical world full of fresh, but recognizable monsters to battle. I loved the primitive weapons the gobbos used in fighting (e.g. a fanged, baby goblin strapped to the end of a stick) and the rock golems provide an uncanny twist to the world.

My criticisms of the novel are really quite minor and almost not worth mentioning. I did feel at times that the multiple points of view were a little jarring and it took me awhile to understand the true relationship of Mookie with his daughter and ex-wife. But criticisms aside, you won’t go wrong with this novel. It is inventive, edgy, and a joy to read. There are so many possibilities for the series in the future. The underworld drugs play a vital role in the plot development, turning mere men into superheroes and there are a rainbow of drugs to be discovered in subsequent novels. I also suspect that in the deeper crevices of the underworld we will find even greater foes beyond our wildest imaginations. If you haven’t read Chuck Wendig before, it’s time you get yourself acquainted. Feel free to start with this novel — with good characters, a fascinating world, and a satisfying plot, you can’t go wrong.

Best Book Cover Art – February 2013

In an effort to promote great art and the time and money that goes into producing it, here are two SF book covers for February 2013 that are worthy of admiration.

Hell to Pay Book covers need not have realism or intricate details to be effective. I love what was done with Matthew Hughes’ Hell to Pay. Angry Robot has published a number of superhero novels in the last few years and this cover pays homage to the trope with a comic layout.

This is the third book in the series, so perhaps I am a bit late in gawking over it (the previous two volumes shared a similar theme), but I will admit that it sticks out, giving me the urge to pick it up and read it. I particularly like the masked man kicking the title block with his oversized boots and the dinosaur apocalypse in the lower panel.

Angry Robot Books have made art a key part of their book lineup (notably using Johnny HiFi to design Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black covers). Add some quality writing and you have a publisher worth reading!

Disestablishment I was not previously familiar with Phillip Mann, but I see he is not new to the field. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new title by Gollansz.

And what’s not to love about this cover? Everything is interesting from the gnarly trees to the two-headed brontosaurus to the UFO shooting a beam down into the swamp.

After reading the description of the novel, I fear that the cover may be the highlight of the book, but if it is characteristic of the contents within, it may just be worth a shot.

Gollancz has reprinted many of the classics in their SF Masterworks series and this cover seems to be a slight throwback to the paperback novels of the golden age with a little bit of new weird thrown in.

Review: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

MockingbirdTitle: Mockingbird

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Audio (purchased from Audible.com)

I had a rather tepid review of the first Miriam Black novel, Blackbirds. The book had its issues — an overuse of crassness for the sake of shock value and some inconsistencies, I felt, in Miriam’s abilities at changing the future. But in my review, I was dead wrong when I said that Blackbirds was not a “particularly memorable read.” Here I was, months later, wanting to give the series another shot. Not so much for the plot, but for the character of Miriam Black. She is absolutely unforgettable.

You see, Miriam isn’t a run-of-the-mill, cardboard cutout protagonist. She’s edgy. She’s cool. She lives in the cracks of society where most of us don’t dare to venture. Oh, yeah — she has this unique ability to tell how and when a person is going to die after touching their skin.

In the first novel she was single — a drifter with ever-changing hair and a real hard attitude toward the world. In Mockingbird, she is trying to live a more stable life. Her hair is back to its natural chestnut and she has a place of residence (albeit a trailer on the Jersey shore). In fact, she even has a job working as a cashier, scanning items with her gloved hands in an effort to suppress her gift.

As one can expect, Miriam’s stable life doesn’t last long. It’s just not her and after a run-in with her boss, she takes off her gloves (literally) and goes after her. Through this confrontation, she sees that a killer is about to go on a shooting spree and she steps into her newfound role as heroine. A gritty and scrappy, take-no-prisoners heroine, that is.

Miriam later becomes acquainted with a hypochondriac teacher named Katie at a troubled girls school who wants to know if she is about to die. To Miriam’s surprise, Katie is about to die — of pancreatic cancer of all things. The teacher’s death is but a blip of what is going to happen at this school. Miriam accidentally reads the death of one of the school’s students and learns that a serial killer is loose and this girl will be one of his victims. With the help of her one-eyed trucker boyfriend, Louis, Miriam embarks on a journey to save this girl and rid the world of a terrible monster.

In the first novel, Miriam comes to grips with her hard, loveless attitude toward pretty much everything. She uses her gift for good rather than her selfish devises (originally believing that events are controlled solely through fate). In the second novel, she understands that in rare circumstances, she can circumvent fate’s hold. But it is hard work and rather than embrace her gift, she tries to conform to society. Whether or not to use her gifts is the first bit of complexity in her character.

She also fights her internal feelings of self-inadequacy, preferring to leave Louis for his own good, rather than dragging him down to the low depths of her morality. She was once uncaring for anyone, but now is willing to form friendships even when it leads to future hardships. Throughout the novel, Miriam reluctantly forms relationships, even with the foreknowledge that it will cause pain in the end.

Mockingbird reads like a superhero novel in that she has supernatural abilities and acts as a vigilante to stop an archnemesis. Her archnemesis, who is unknown throughout much of the book, also has a certain ability that makes Miriam aware that she is not alone in the world. Some might even consider her heroics a mission of revenge, bearing many similarities to the comic book and movie hero, Eric, from The Crow.

The biggest question that remains with me is when can Miriam change fate? After reading two novels, it seems that she can only change fate when the reader has an emotional stake in a person’s death. While this is convenient in plot development, I would really like for Miriam to understand her gift a little bit better (note: see comments for what I oversaw in the novel — spoiler warning) 

There are some unanswered questions that still remain (in a good way) — are there supernatural forces outside of her that are giving her and Louis visions or is it all inside her head? Does she have telepathic abilities to communicate?

After a hesitant start to the series, I will be reading future Miriam Black novels, hoping that Mr. Wendig will continue to push deeper into Miriam’s psyche and abilities — explore who she is on a deeper level and not hold back as she tries to distance herself from those around her. Good improvement in this novel and if you liked the first one, you will definitely like the second.

Review: The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

Title: The Hammer and the Blade

Author: Paul S. Kemp

Rating:

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook

Review:

I must admit my shallow reasons for first turning to this book. After listening to Mr. Kemp on The Functional Nerds, I learned that like me, he is a father of twins and is also a fellow Michigander. Additionally he is the author of three Star Wars novels (none of which I have read, but consider myself a closet fan). Bearing these facts in mind, I decided to give his new series a chance.

The Hammer and the Blade is a novel about two thieves, Egil and Nix. Nix is the leader of the two, a witty, smart-assed treasure hunter with questionable skills in sorcery. Egil is the priest to a dead god with unquestionable skills using his twin hammers. Each knows the other like a brother and they play off of each other’s talents as they invade booby-trapped tombs to collect their prizes.

The novel starts out in similar fashion to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The two men are in a tomb, heavily guarded with enchantments. With strength and magic, they are able to overcome a pool of acid and an attack by a ferocious demon. With their treasure in hand, they return home to a run-down tavern they had recently purchased, contemplating their retirement from the grave-robbing business. But it seems that the demon they killed had made a pact with the House of Norristru. Rakon, the House’s male heir, reacts to the news by forcibly employing the two thieves to rob a hidden tomb with greater dangers than they have ever faced.

If I were to describe my reaction to the novel with one word, it would be “fun.” It is not a particularly complex novel and it makes no claims to try and be serious literature. It is a traditional Sword and Sorcery tale with smart writing, good humor (on occasion I laughed out loud), interesting characters, and great action. There are no prevailing themes or obscure references to ponder upon after reading the book, but it was a true pleasure to read.

Nix’s character is an archetype seen often in fantasy literature. His confidence overflows the brim of his talents and when facing death, he often resorts to chiding his enemy. One particularly humorous moment occurred around a campfire when one of the “doltish” guards asked Nix to tell a story of one of his past adventures. Nix, not wanting to make small talk with a man holding him prisoner, responded,

Once, Egil and I were forced to travel the Demon Wastes with some guards of a doltish cast. One of these, a young whoreson who couldn’t grow a respectable beard, insisted on hearing stories from me. I strangled him while he slept.

Nix is a jack-of-all trades, using his mind, his blade, and a little magic to get them out of the hairiest of situations. In the thieving profession, having a broad blend of talents is a prerequisite.

Egil, on the other hand, is more contemplative and peaceable in his dealings with their enemies. He is the stronger and more intimidating of the two (I know if I crossed a burly priest with the tattoo of an eye on his forehead, I’d be scared), but is also a sort of moral compass, alerting Nix when they are straying too far off the beaten path. He provides unconditional loyalty to both Nix and often to strangers, even when it is to his own detriment. Egil’s physical prowess is his greatest attribute. When facing enemies, he is merciless with his hammers and can fight off multiple foes at a time.

The strength of the novel is in the richness of these two characters. In contrast, I longed for more depth in the antagonists. I never truly came to grips with Rakon’s motivations and his two sorceress sisters remain a mystery (perhaps with more to follow in subsequent books?). The sisters were drugged throughout much of the novel, but we were given hints about their telepathic and coercive powers.

Despite my quibbles, The Hammer and the Blade reminded me once again why I enjoy reading fantasy — it is pure, escapist fun. Even though the novel was not particularly deep, it was far from shallow and the writing was excellent. For anyone looking for a fast-paced adventure with a little of magic and mayhem, this is the novel for you.

Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Title: Blackbirds

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook

Review:

Take a broken, drifting female protagonist — a bit misguided, but tough as nails. Maybe you compare her to Lisbeth Salander (you know, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), but instead of having a hacker-level of tech savviness, she has an ability much like Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone — she can foresee the cause and time of death of everyone she encounters. Throw in some punk frat boys, a gentle giant trucker, a con man and some of the vilest, sadistic people you have ever come across and you have the cast of Blackbirds.

Before I give my thoughts on the book, I think it is necessary that I give a bit of a warning. This book is crass. I’m not talking about several four-letter words being used here and there. This book taught me words that I would have been much happier never knowing the definition (e.g. blumpy). The experiencing of reading Blackbirds is akin to watching the torture porn as seen in the Saw franchise. My comment is more of a warning than a judgment, so let’s begin the review.

Miriam Black is a twenty-something woman with the unique ability to see how and when a person dies whenever she comes into contact with them. Because of past events, she sees this as more of a curse than a blessing. We don’t really come to terms with how she gained this ability, but we learn that it isn’t something she was born with.

She is somewhat of an antihero throughout the first half of the novel. She wanders somewhat aimlessly, stealing money from people whose death she foresaw in previous encounters. When a large, benevolent trucker helps her out during an altercation along the roadside, she is changed. She sees that she is responsible for his death and makes it her personal mission to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

Chuck Wendig’s talent in this novel lies mainly in the narrative voice. The novel is primarily (though not exclusively) told through Miriam’s viewpoint. Her vile thoughts are almost masculine in nature, often drifting to excrement and genitalia, but she is spunky and resourceful — someone the reader can cheer for. There is a trend in fiction for gritty characters and Miriam epitomizes this character trait. She’s cynical and filled with angst, but inside there is a dim light that wants to overcome her internal darkness.

Much of the novel deals with Miriam’s interactions with the various people she meets. We are told the death stories of dozens of characters (some of which leave little to the imagination) and each of these encounters has a burdening effect on Miriam. She grows distant, accepting fate for what it appears to be.

Blackbirds is not the first novel to tackle fate versus free-will, but to be honest, I really don’t tire of the subject. The whole novel hinges on her ability to change the future, which experience has taught her is an impossible task. She has already come to terms with this fact, which makes her keep her distance from others — not wanting to be the cause of anyone’s death (our first glimpse of good in her).

The pacing is quick and the novel is short, making it quite easy for me to finish it in a day. The book is much like what you’d find in an old Stephen King novel, which for me brings back many memories. I enjoyed reading the story, cringed in several places and the ending left me somewhat satisfied. Aside from the vulgarity, I would not call Blackbirds a particularly memorable read, but it was a good book to pick up after making my way through some 600-page marathons as of late. For those who want to read a dark, gritty supernatural thriller (and have the stomach for the vile), Blackbirds is a fast and exciting read.