THE TERRANS by Jean Johnson

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The Terrans
(First Salik War Book 1)
By Jean Johnson
Ace Books – July 2015
ISBN 9780425276914 – 454 Pages – Paperback
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Although set in the same universe as Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series of military science fiction The Terrans marks the start of a new series, with a different thematic focus, which can be read on its own. Having never read anything by Johnson before I can attest that the start of this series does work on its own, though doubtless fans of her science fiction universe will find nods and gems that I couldn’t pick up on. The novel also works effectively enough without its sequels. Its followup, The V’Dan, was published this past winter and the series conclusion, The Blockade, is slated for this coming November.
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This is one of those books that I wouldn’t likely pick up on my own. A mass market paperback of an author I’m not familiar with at all. The start of a series that could compel a commitment to read more. A subtitle and cover that brings to mind military SF, a sub-genre I’m unlikely to get much enjoyment in. Without a recommendation or reading reviews that suggest some compelling part to the novel, I just wouldn’t risk the time.
The Terrans did not blow me away, but it is a better-than-average space opera with some strong assets that will get me to seek out the second book in the series. Unlike the five novels to date in Theirs Not to Reason Why, this first book of The First Salik War focuses on first contact diplomacy more than military culture and conflict. Had that not been the case I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel because the other aspects of the novel I did enjoy would not have made up for an undesirable plot and theme.
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Set two hundred years prior to the events of her other series, the Terrans features protagonist Jacaranda (Jackie) MacKenzie, a diplomat and translator with powerful psychic abilities and training. The prescient members of humanity have foreseen alien first contacts and the coming of a terrible war. Jackie is recruited back into the Space Force to serve as both soldier and politician in a team sent to investigate the threat of the alien race and find a way to delay or prevent conflict. While dealing with bigotry, prejudice, and internal conflicts among the team she has been designated to lead, Jackie must find a means of cross-cultural communication with the V’Dan, a long forgotten branch of humanity that already has been targeted by the predatory Salik aliens.
The Terrans is superb in concept and genre balance. I enjoyed the mixtures of action, romance, social commentary, and politics in the novel. Johnson does a phenomenal job in making her novel diverse in character. She includes technological and psychological details that provide a hit of ‘hard’ science fiction among the space opera and the fantastic. I loved the considerations of quarantine, and the struggles of even communicating with fellow humans, whether the distant V’Dan or fellow members of the same planet with vastly different points of view.
However, the novel really fails in how it executes its grand ideas. The dialogue and exposition are heavy handed, even tedious. The writing is geared more towards celebration of its ideas rather than a more artistic side of literature that would use well crafted lines for nuanced exploration of themes. Seeming almost ‘preachy’ in some regards Johnson makes her characters too clear-cut, idealized or criticized. Jackie in particular is a Renaissance woman type, excelling at so many skills, yet bearing the patience of a saint in the face of harsh, unjust treatment. A small dose of such perfection contrasted with villainy is fine, but here it begins to get frustrating, drawing the reader out of the story itself into a view of the novel as a constructed image of the author of how people treat one another versus how things should be.
And so if you are reader who would like space opera that affirms diversity with feel-good idealism, then this is something you’d probably really enjoy. I wouldn’t want to just read something like that, but I did overall enjoy The Terrans despite its heavy-handedness. The story was compelling enough and I liked the dilution of action with inter-human and human-alien communication. If you, however, feel time away from action makes a novel drag, then Theirs Not to Reason Why may be more the series for you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

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THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

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The House of Shattered Wings
(Dominion of the Fallen Book 1)
By Aliette de Bodard
Roc Books – August 2015
ISBN 9780451477385 – 402 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Set in an alternate history, late 20th Century Paris that lies in near ruins, The House of Shattered Wings is a dark urban fantasy of competing houses who compete for control of the city. But these houses of noble power set in the ashes of a great apocalyptic conflict are not founded or controlled by humans, but by fallen angels and ancient magic. Once at the top of political influence, House Silverspires is in rapid decline, its powerful founder gone missing decades past, and its current members now targeted by a mysterious, unknown force. As its current leader tries to maintain House Silverspires’ existence, a trio of potent wild-cards fall under its protection: a human alchemist struggling with addiction and escape from past loss, a newly fallen angel, and a strange young man of rare abilities who appears neither human nor angel.
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Those who read the major markets for short speculative fiction and fantasy are likely familiar with Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories set within her alternate history Xuya Universe. Prior to reading The House of Shattered Wings this is the only writing I really knew her from, so I was surprised to find out the novel I anticipated was a fantasy. (I later learned she does have another alternate history fantasy series of novels from Angry Robot Books). This ignorance actually made me start the novel with optimistic expectation because I was curious to read something from her that I could approach more independently from my previous reading experiences of her SF.
Of her short fiction that I’ve read, I consistently find the stories to be beautifully written. A native French speaker, de Bodard’s English prose is spectacular and her dialogue is generally engaging. Despite this, her stories have been very hit or miss in enjoyment for me. Some pulled in my attention, while others I could just never fully connect with the plot or characters. Reading The House of Shattered Wings I felt similarly. Rarely do I feel so ‘wishy-washy’ over a book. I had a difficult time first getting into the novel, but slowly began to develop some more interest as the story unfolded. Yet, overall I never felt strongly connected to its characters (perhaps due to their being so many), and I found myself strongly regretting the absence of certain elements, while still enjoying fairly well those elements that were present.
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Another general way to state all of this: I understand how readers could both really love this book, while also find it a big disappointment despite the obvious quality of the writing and de Bodard’s talent. Because I felt all of this, like a tug-of-war, throughout my reading The House of Shattered Wings. So then, what specifically did I like and what did I feel was missing?
To start with my negative impressions, they stem from the complexity of de Bodard’s universe that she is introducing here. The first volume in a series, it contains a troop of characters of major importance, including multiple protagonists. It is a mashup of several speculative genres while also including a prominent mystery, several angles of romance, and some decent delving into matters of spirituality, culture, and mythology. It is rich and dense: a universe I really want to get to know filled with characters that should become dear to me. But it’s all too much for just this book, the first step in what is to be an even grander series. And despite those statements, I’m going to go on and say that I wished it had something more: a fuller setting. With fewer characters, fewer twists to the plot, and perhaps fewer focused themes there could have been some more room to see more of this post apocalyptic, alternate history Paris that the characters inhabit. Another reader I noticed use the word ‘claustrophobic’, and I think this is apt. The view is so close to the myriad characters that there is little direct sense of the physical world they inhabit.
The added bit of mystery genre to this novel, however, is one factor that really made me enjoy the story, particularly by its closing chapters as I finally also got the plethora of character identities under some type of memory, control. de Bodard incorporates the magic, the fantastic, into the politics of this universe really effectively. Towards another point of the novel’s strengths: I’ve read so many novels where I adore the setup and then become embittered by its ending. While The House of Shattered Wings may try to overdevelop its setup, it does takes all of its plot threads and ties them up satisfyingly well. I finished this pleased with its conclusion, and looking forward to what future books would bring, perhaps with a bit narrower focus.
If you’re familiar with de Bodard’s short fiction, then decisions on whether to read this novel should be easy, particularly if you have strong feelings one way or the other on urban fantasy featuring fallen angels (in a generically spiritual sense). For those unfamiliar with her writing, I suggest you try out some of her short fiction if you are curious, but hesitant, to start a full novel. She has several short stories set within the Dominion of the Fallen universe. Though I haven’t read those – like her other short stories – I suspect they are representative of the high quality of de Bodard’s writing, and also contain style,  plotting, or character that will permit you to judge the ‘fit’ for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

HALF A WAR by Joe Abercrombie

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Half a War
(Shattered Sea #3)
By Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey – July 2015
ISBN 9780804178457 – 362 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


The conclusion to Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy, Half a War follows a story begun in Half a King (which I reviewed here) and continued in Half the World. The first book introduced Yarvi, a prince born with a crippled hand, who events pull unwillingly onto the throne amid a storm of interstate intrigue that leads to his removal from royal obligations and into literal captivity.
If you haven’t yet read the previous books in this series I recommend that you do. Half a War is an excellent conclusion to an impressive and deceptively simple series. Starting as something classifiable as YA fiction, and filled with a sense of some brightness and hope, the series progresses into greater complexity. Characters increasingly, and more easily make moral compromises for ‘the greater good’, or prove incapable of the heroism that their world – and perhaps the reader – expects of them. By this third book the series approaches closer to fitting Abercrombie’s Twitter handle, LordGrimdark. Not as extreme as some epic fantasy may get, Shattered Sea does pass beyond what I would consider a tone for YA. The sense of hope for a better world, of pursuing any pureness of character falls into decay, leaving settlements with options that are less bad, and acceptance of personal imperfections within a broken, harsh world.
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The series thus has a gritty realism that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to the politics of 2016, in the United States, Britain, or beyond. The strengths of this series of fantasy novels from Abercrombie is the detached, authentic way he deals with characters, allowing them to make immense sacrifices in this story of their lives (particularly Yarvi’s in the full scope). There is little complexity to the plots or the overall goals of the characters. But how are they going to get from A to B? How they are going to rationalize the best path? And what must they allow, or do to themselves and one another, for the betterment of the people they are responsible for? What does success look like? What does failure? And does something lie in between those two outcomes? These are the questions that the Shattered Sea series is concerned with.
In wrapping up the series Half a War focuses fairly equally between the different protagonists: Yarvi who was the focus of the first book, Thorn who was the focus (with Brand) of the second book, and Princess Skara now added as a major component of this third book. Although the series as a whole is clearly Yarvi’s story – and oh what development he goes through! – introductions of each other protagonist never felt disappointing for long to this reader. I didn’t mind pulling away from direct points of view through Yarvi because those providing the new points of view were just as compelling. Secondary characters were equally brilliant, despite their faults, compromises, or failures.
For any fans of fantasy with a ‘classical’ feel, but modern sensibilities, or those looking for complexity and tones of realistic darkness/despair without fully going down a ‘Red Wedding’ sort of route, this series should appeal. If you’ve already read Half a King, but not the others, you really should discover where Yarvi’s journey, his service to his kingdom and its people, take him and those he uses.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via the First-Reads program from Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART by Ben Tripp

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The Fifth House of the Heart
By Ben Tripp
Gallery Books – July 2015
ISBN 9781476782645 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


For fans of atmosphere and adventure stories with a paranormal twist, The Fifth House of the Heart is a marvelously fun summer read. This is one of those book equivalents to the summer blockbuster, and I could easily see it adapted as such for the screen. There is nothing particular intellectual to it, no grand social commentary, no character studies that pull at the heartstrings in explorations of the human psyche. What it does have is a well-told story that mixes horror with an international heist, using delightful characters and a dash of humor and gothic thrills.
Imagine that vampires have existed among us, for generations of human lives. Sure, it’s been done countless times before from Dracula to The Southern Vampire Mysteries. But what I haven’t seen is combining the immortality of vampires with inspiration from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. If one could live for centuries, amass global fortunes, and horde goods like a dragon in your lair, just think what priceless antiques one could then collect through the ages to enjoy beside the coffin where you rest, decorating the castle where you lurk.
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Admired antiques dealer Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang has gained fortune and glory traveling all over the world acquiring some of the finest artifacts known, including items long lost to history. Sax’s ego and success have been built through a secret edge: he knows that vampires exist and he has hunted and killed them to steal their ancient treasures. Now, late in his life, Sax’s arrogance and greed has caught up to him. A powerful vampire from his past has set sights on Sax, putting his loved ones at risk. Together with a misfit team of thieves,  vampire hunters, and a secret order of the Catholic church, Sax journeys to destroy the monster and gain one last score, into what may be a deadly trap for all.
Part of what makes The Fifth House of the Heart work well is the point-of-view of Sax: one part crotchety old man, one part big softie. He has a great sense of humor, even within the deathly serious situations that face him. Filled with guilt over the luck of his past despite cowardice, he finds moments of bravery, bearing acceptance of his faults and pride for his strengths.
I found Tripp’s take on the vampire myth particularly fascinating though. The vampires of The Fifth House of the Heart only superficially resemble the ‘classic’ European creature. Ancient and strong, but not undead or easily killed by special weapons, they are monsters that begin to take on the characteristics of that which they consume. Those that feed on humans will appear human, according to the gender they favor as prey. Those that feed on other animals will take on that form. In a blend of vampire and shape-shifting myths, Tripp writes the vampires as something truly terrifying, creatures that shine in the horror and gore of some action scenes of the novel.
There are many best-selling novels out there that are written primarily for their entertaining story and likable characters. Those in series tend to quickly become formulaic. Others remain popular despite unintentionally poor writing or scenarios that I think may actually lower a reader’s intelligence. (cough, Dan Brown, cough) For all its fun, The Fifth House of the Heart remains smart. Like most of the books from another horror writer – a guy from Maine who everyone knows – Tripp’s novel doesn’t abandon the essential cores to the art of good writing, even though art is not its purpose at all.
Aside from the plot, (anti?)-hero, and monsters at the novel’s forefront, Tripp also nails so many of the background elements. The secondary characters, historical details, sensory descriptions, and general gothic atmosphere all combine contextually as a foundation for the entertaining story that towers above. This is a book that I look forward to rereading again soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

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Sorcerer to the Crown
(Sorcerer Royal Book 1)
By Zen Cho
Ace Books – September 2015
ISBN 9780425283370 – 371 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRoc Stars


Out in paperback this month – if you missed it during its initial release – Zen Cho’s debut historical fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown generated a large amount of positive buzz prior to and immediately following its publication last fall. It has since grabbed a Locus Award nomination for Best First Novel. Sorcerer to the Crown‘s style unquestionably draws comparison to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Accurate as far as genre, setting, and general style, Sorcerer to the Crown happily lacks overwhelming girth and contains enough fun to not take itself too seriously. Also, while it took me several attempts to really get into Clarke’s novel and discover its virtues, Sorcerer to the Crown grabbed me right from its setup.
Yet, Cho’s novel also suffers from an unevenness, despite its shorter length. Following high hopes from its opening my engagement began to languish toward the middle of the novel, before picking back up again for its satisfying conclusion. Although not a perfect novel, it is entertaining and a fairly unique take on historical fantasy. An impressive debut for Malaysian writer Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown makes me warmly anticipate the next volume and any other storyline she may write.
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Sorcerer to the Crown plays wonderfully with expectations, so if you are interested in reading it already, but know nothing more about it than the above paragraphs, maybe you should stop.
Both the name of the author and the book’s cover made me expect that this would deal with courts in Asia. Awful Expectation: someone of Malaysian descent must be writing about something set in the Far East with Asian characters! This is of course absurd, which I realized as I recognized the novel’s setting of England.
Freed slave Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, the respected British society of magicians. Zacharias Wythe, however, is not much respected. Formerly page and apprentice to Sir Stephen, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias’ background and prior social standing make him a difficult figure for the establishment to accept. Complicating matters is the uncertain nature of Sir Stephen’s demise, and how the Staff of the Sorcerer Royal’s office passed to its successor.
Balancing in a precarious position, Zacharias maneuvers to thwart conspiracies to depose him, manage international political crises, and discover the reasons behind the sudden depleting of England’s magical stocks. Zacharias finds an unlikely ally to his position in Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of exceptional wit and talent who would be even more feared and ostracized by the magical establishment for the simple fact that she is female.
Though set roughly in this fantastical Regency-era England, Sorcerer to the Crown thus focuses on themes of class, race, and gender within a framework populated by creatures of intelligence beyond humans, from dragons to the inhabitants of Fairyland. The novel involves a diversity of characters – from Western to Eastern, from realistic to mythical. And Cho writes each with respect. However, she also writes them a bit too statically. Even the main characters show little growth through the novel. A sense of character evolution only comes through the revelation of secrets to the reader, explanations of why the characters are how they are. Their feelings and personality don’t go that kind of evolution and this creates problems in heroes and villains. For instance, introduction of a romantic angle at the novel’s close thereby feels flat and unsatisfying.
After first becoming immersed in the world and plot of Sorcerer to the Crown, I found the novel’s momentum begins to fail. Partly this is from the characterization mentioned above. The plot also drags a bit, with no significantly new information or surprises coming the reader’s way and challenges to the protagonists being summarily overcome without much strain. The ease of the protagonist’s victory doesn’t end, but the plot picks back up amid new discoveries and revelations, climaxing in an end that addresses the social and political themes of the novel effectively.
Ultimately, Sorcerer to the Crown is impressive, with beautiful prose by Cho and a charming, whimsical tone that addresses realistic human concerns with hope, all in a fantastic setting without the grim-dark. If only the Establishments of our Earth could so easily be progressively altered as in Sorcerer to the Crown! A delightful fantasy, but definitely a fantasy in that regard.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via the AceRoc Stars group in exchange for an honest review.

THE NIGHT OF THE LONG KNIVES by Fritz Leiber

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The Night of the Long Knives
By Fritz Leiber
Dover Publications – July 2015
ISBN 9780486798011 – 112 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Originally published in a 1960’s issue of Amazing Science Fiction, this Fritz Leiber novella gets a nice thrifty paperback edition release from Dover Publications as part of their wonderful new Doomsday Classics series. If you are like me you’ll vastly prefer reading these as actual copies rather than poorly formatted digital versions.
I have limited experience with Leiber, so I was intrigued by this just as an excuse to read something by a classic, well-known name in SFF. And as a post-apocalyptic story it intrigued even more.
The post-apocalyptic field has become overcrowded, particularly with a boon in entries by mainstream authors who for whatever reason reject classification within the speculative or fantasy genres. In most cases I’ve been disappointed by these newer works because they fail to add anything significant to the corpus already built by genre and mainstream authors alike. Reading Leiber’s story I did not have this feeling at all. A part of me realized that this was written at a time before these stories were a dime a dozen. So to a degree I gave it grace. Still, I enjoyed the novella regardless of any thematic novelty because while familiar, Leiber writes it with remarkable skill, with elements neither overly complex nor simplified.
The Night of the Long Knives comes from an era full of post-apocalyptic imaginings: the Cold War. As typical throughout forms of media, disaster comes to the world via nuclear annihilation. The United States has been transformed into a waste, the Deathlands. Radiation-scarred survivals struggle for resources in competition and deep mistrust. Two drifters, Ray and Alice, meet upon the site of a crashed flying ship that has made an emergency landing in the barren wilderness. The two form a fragile alliance of mutual benefit faced with the opportunity before them: a possible way out of the Deathlands into one of the few pockets of civilization that may remain.
Along with the survivor of the crashed craft, this makes just three characters in a novella with a rather straight-forward plot. Leiber creates a journey for the reader with explorations of the character’s psychology, their words and actions. As with most post-apocalyptic fiction the key interest is how humans react to one another. The most frightening aspect of The Walking Dead is not the zombies, but what the characters – good or evil – are capable of. The most frightening aspect of The Night of the Long Knives is not the nuclear devastation, but the destroyed basic humanity, the impossibility of bonding. The most frightening aspect of the Cold War is not the nukes, but the nationalism of humans.
The dialogue in The Night of the Long Knives is particularly strong, making each of the characters into people that readers can relate to, at least in some significant, deep fashion. Leiber makes you feel the devastation, the hope and the despair in ways that Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series would later do in Epic Fantasy – or Stephen King of course would with his epic post-apocalyptic The Stand. The emotional and physical struggles of the characters in Leiber’s novella will probably not be anything surprising to a reader. Despite that general familiarity, Leiber’s words remain compelling and still relevant to our hearts over half a century after they were written.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

STORIES FOR CHIP: A TRIBUTE TO SAMUEL R. DELANY, Edited by Nisi Shawl & Bill Campbell

Just up today, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

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“Publishing since the age of twenty, Samuel R. Delany is a highly respected novelist and literary critic alike. Familiarly known as “Chip”, Delany has written science fiction and fantasy (SFF) known for pushing boundaries, for challenging the notions of speculative genres, and experimenting with approaches to literature in general. Delany’s writing both subverts conventions and transcends fiction to explore social realities, most notably the existence of the Other. Indeed, as a man who could be described with terms such as academic, homosexual, polymath, African-American, and intelligent, Delany writes from the point of view of the Other, a spectrum of under-represented perspectives within SFF.

Both Delany’s fiction and nonfiction have been hugely influential, inspiring, and appreciated, partly due to this unique vision. However, his works have also resonated so strongly because Delany’s vision is not just unique, but uniquely brilliant, honest, and perceptive. With all of its challenges and transgressions against comfortable familiarity, Delany’s work strikes universal human chords, conveying both beauty and progressive encouragement…” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.