Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a hard novel to sum up in a single word or even a phrase. Boneshaker is a blending of at least three sub-genre’s those being; alternative history, steampunk, and zombie. On the surface this fusion of styles seems like a train wreck waiting to happen. Indeed in less capable hands, Boneshaker would likely have been a muddled mess.
Not only does Priest blend three sub-genres, this is also a classic coming of age tale. The reader enters a world where the American Civil War has raged for almost two decades and shows no signs of ending. The location is Seattle, and a Seattle that became a boomtown many years earlier than Seattle did in reality. Priest’s Seattle was wrecked by the machinations of a greedy scientist.
This scientist created the Boneshaker, a massive mining drill, to aid the Russians in mining gold in Alaska. He then proceeded to take the Boneshaker on a test drive through his home town, wreaking havoc and releasing a toxic gas. This gas either kills people, or more likely, turns them into zombies. Thus the majority of Seattle was evacuated and a massive wall built around it to contain both the gas and the zombies.
The events of the novel take place some fifteen years later, when the scientist’s son Zeke goes haring off into the land behind the walls. Zeke does this in the hope of finding some scrap of evidence that will vindicate his father’s actions. Zeke’s mother, who has told him next to nothing about his father or life before the incident, feels she is to blame. Thus she too enters downtown Seattle hoping to find Zeke before he gets hurt or killed.
Priest combines vivid characterizations and frequent action to keep the reader engaged. Boneshaker alternates the perspectives of Zeke and his mother, Briar, thus enabling the reader to come into contact with a much larger cast of secondary characters. Not only does the reader encounter more characters, but the characters that overlap the perspectives are often perceived differently by Zeke and Briar.
All of these things taken together lead to a new and very fun to read novel. As I stated earlier a lesser author probably would have stumbled often trying to juggle all the angles and styles employed in Boneshaker. I tend to not care much for zombie novels as I have said in earlier reviews. Thankfully in this setting the zombies were not a major plot device. Rather the zombies in Boneshaker function as just one of many dangers and trials.
Boneshaker has gotten quite a lot of good press in the past few months. Having, finally, read Boneshaker I would have to say I whole heartedly agree. Priest has crafted a new and exciting blend of genres, and in the process built a very interesting setting to play with. I very much look forward to the next entry in Priest’s Clockwork Century setting, Dreadnought. I give Boneshaker a 4/5.
Elizabeth Moon’s first Vatta’s War novel, Trading in Danger, is not your average space opera. Its’ protagonist, Kylara Vatta, in not automatically the best at what she does. In fact the novel starts out with her expulsion from an officer’s training academy.
Kylara is a very well intentioned person. In fact she is known for getting herself into trouble while helping others. She is also the scion of a very wealthy interstellar trading family, and is desperate to make her own way. Unfortunately due to Kylara’s abrupt exit from military life, that option is taken away from her.
Instead Kylara’s family takes pity on her and sends her off on a “milk run” with an old ship and a very experienced crew. Luckily they expect her to take some initiative and use this as an opportunity to actually make something of herself. What no one expects is that things are definitely not what they seem anymore.
This novel was first published in 2003 and it definitely feels more like a novel from a previous literary era, yet there are still signs of the changes that were occurring in the genre around that time. There is plenty of danger and action, but it is somewhat more blunted or perhaps less viscious than danger in the current literary era. However it is still an enjoyable read.
While this novel has a sound plot arc all its own, Trading in Danger is very definitely the opening act in a much larger saga. This is both the training ground for Kylara as a captain, and a carefully crafted method of giving the reader a lot of background and backstory before the real story arc gets going in the following novel. This is, of course, only my surmise as I have not yet read the next novel. This doesn’t take anything away from Trading in Danger as it is a novel that could stand on its own quite well.
Trading in Danger is a fast paced and fun read. The characters are well crafted and easy to connect with. There are plot twists that the reader doesn’t see coming, and plenty of action. Moon has done a great job building a universe and setting the stage for actions yet to come. I give this novel a 3.5/5.
I am choosing to review The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic (both by Terry Pratchett) together, because they are for all intents and purposes one novel. These are both the first two Discworld novels published, and also the only two novels which have a narrative continuity. There are many novels about the same characters throughout the series, but all the others have a distinct story arc all their own.
That being said, at many times The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic seem more like collections of narratively continuous short stories than true novels. I am not sure whether this is Pratchett just finding his legs as an author, or an attempt to make the novels feel more like a travelogue.
After all this is what they essentially are, the telling of the adventures of Two Flower, the Discworlds first and likely last tourist, and Rincewind the unsuccessful wizard. While both novels do at times feel like a series of short stories, each does contain both a fully realized story arc and the overall plot of the two novels together.
These two novels are much more similar to straightforward fantasy than Pratchett’s later works. I suspect this is for two reasons. Firstly, at the time these were written no one else had taken a satirical look at the genre. Secondly with the main characters being Two Flower and Rincewind there was not much need to stray far from the beaten path. By this I mean these two characters themselves are such a humorous and satirical study in characters that none of the deeper nuances were required.
Granted the very notion of the Discworld, even as it was portrayed back then, is in itself a summation of what Pratchett has become known for. At the same time the structure of the world and its’ characters is much more rigid and closer to a “true” fantasy novel. That is to say the wizards are defined by their “level” in magic and the actual use of said magic is much more pronounced. By the time we reach Unseen Academicals almost no magic is actually “used,” in fact magic is more of a state of mind than an actual occurrence.
What is very interesting going back to these novels is how much of what was yet to come was already in place. In revisiting them I can see the origins of many characters and plot lines, even as far flung into the future as Tiffany Aching. However, the sooner to follow characters like Death and the Witches are much more realized.
While these novels, viewed from the vantage point of today, are clearly not Pratchett at the peak of his skill they are still wonderful novels. I doubt anyone could have foreseen that the Discworld series would grow to become what it is now, but thank goodness they have! Rereading is often the true test of a novel for me, as the first time through I am often in such a hurry to follow the plot line that I miss the nuances and subtleties. I can say with no qualms that The Color of Magic and the Light Fantastic are both worthy of multiple rereads and, it goes without saying, first reads. I give these two books a 3.5/5.
In general zombie novels are not my first choice of reading material. However, I felt I must take advantage of the free online serial release of The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer. While this novel has now been published, in the weeks leading up to publication it was released one chapter at a time on Beamer’s website. As this is her first published work as a fiction author this was probably a good idea.
Aside from the fact that this is a story about zombies (zombies seem to have almost as great a draw as vampires) I am afraid this novel may suffer from how region specific it feels. The setting is the Oakland Hills and Berkeley, California. This is near my home town and while it was pleasant to read about landmarks and such that felt familiar to me, I can’t really see it playing well among people that don’t know the region.
Also the characters are a little too strongly Northern Californian to settle well with the majority of readers. In fact this whole novel really felt like nothing so much as a direct representation of Beamer’s personal fantasies set down on a page. While I am sure Beamer has no desire to be attacked by a zombie, everything else with the exception of one or two graphic incidents very much felt like strong personal desires.
The actual quality of the writing was not that bad. Far better even than several massively popular authors of today, cough Stephanie Meyer cough. However the storyline needs much work and perhaps even a trip back to the drawing board.
Like most zombie tales, the unwitting populace is suddenly besieged by people turned into unthinking killing machines. Perhaps this novel is meant to portray the usual zombie tale in an ironic or sarcastic light. Unfortunately if this was Beamer’s intent she fell far short of the mark. The Loving Dead includes such uber-kitschy notions as the zombies being controlled by the sound of a cracking whip, even one from (massive free product placement) an iPhone app.
Then to make matters worse, just when the story was actually starting to roll a bit, after 15 or so chapters of nearly nothing but down home references and Northern California in-crowd feelings, Beamer wraps up the main story arc in a neat little bow and jumps into the future with an epilogue.
I actually felt this could be classified as a fun little read until this time jump occurred. There was really no resolution or true climax, merely a sudden and very cliché ending and then the epilogue. To make matters worse, the epilogue not only finished the cutesy little packaging job, but also out of nowhere tried to make a major parallel between zombies and discrimination against those of homosexual orientation. Beamer goes so far into this parallel as to name an anti-zombie law Prop 8.
In my opinion Beamer broke nearly every law of writing in this novel. There is nothing that will make the characters or the story appealing to the public. The novel is rife with brand names. The story spins it’s wheels for chapter after chapter, then suddenly resolves. Finally the epilogue introduces new concepts so abruptly and tactlessly that it essentially appears to be little more than propaganda. I give this novel a 2/5.
The latest entry in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is entitled Unseen Academicals. Anyone familiar with the series will know by the title that this is a wizard-centric entry. This is true, but while the novel as a whole is a wizards novel, the main characters are not in fact wizards, but staff members of the university.
Vetinari has decided to reform football in Ankh-Morpork and uses Ridcully and the wizards as the driving force behind his reforms. This requires the re-formulation of a sports program at the Unseen University. Ponder Stibbons is, of course, saddled with the task of putting these things together. Luckily for Stibbons a relatively unknown and also new staffer at the University is a born tactician.
Unfortunately for Mr. Nutt, the new employee, he is also an Orc. At the start of the novel no one knows this except Vetinari, Lady Margolotta, and Ridcully. The orcs were the battle slaves of an evil Ubervaldian empire, and were reviled and hunted to near extinction. Lady Margolotta has decided to try and reform their image through Mr. Nutt, who is at least as bright as Stibbons.
This novel gives Pratchett two targets to aim his satire and wit at, football hooliganism and racism/stereotypical thinking. As I have noted before Pratchett is in top form whenever he operates with primarily new characters. In this novel this is especially true. Pratchett utilizes his new characters interactions with Vetinari and Ridcully to further his exposition of both of those old characters.
Also these new characters occupy a previously uncharted part of the Ankh-Morpork social hierarchy. Mr. Nutt and his companions Glenda and Trev are working class people outside the Watch. While the social standing of Watch members is probably about the same as these new characters, the Watchmen are held apart because of their status as police officers. Due to this change in point of view the reader gets to view Ankh-Morpork from a slightly new angle.
I would say Unseen Academicals is one of the best entries in the Discworld series. It manages to integrate both old and new characters. Unseen Academicals also effectively ties together disparate groups, the Wizards, the Watch, Vetinari, and the common people of Anhk-Morpork. As is usual with Pratchett novels Unseen Academicals is witty and thought provoking. I give this a 4.5.
I will admit that I purchased the Warriors anthology, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, almost entirely for the Dunk and Egg novella by George RR Martin. I do not generally like reading short stories or novellas unless they are set in an existing world. I feel that short stories can add and be added to by larger worlds and this is done effectively in both directions with Dunk and Egg and the aSoIaF novels.
The reason I tend not to like short stories that stand alone is that I despise getting to know a character and then a few pages later moving on. In the Legends anthologies, edited by Robert Silverberg, which contained the previous Dunk and Egg stories I read essentially only those stories either by authors I already knew or those I had an immediate interest in. With Warriors this was also my original intent.
However, after reading the foreword by GRRM I decided to stick it out for the whole anthology. In said foreword GRRM writes about how marketing and labeling of fiction has changed since he was a boy. GRRM posits that while such changes were inevitable that they were not necessarily good for the world of literature. GRRM goes into detail about how, in those days before mega-bookstores like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and even when smaller scale booksellers were less available, all of the different genre’s bumped elbows in spinner racks at convenience stores.
The main notion of Warriors is just that sort of cross-genre elbow rubbing. The only real tie between the stories is that each centers on a warrior of some ilk. Within the anthology there are sci-fi, fantasy, western, mystery, historical fiction, and perhaps even some further subdivisions of literature. I must say this made for a unique reading experience.
Dozois and Martin managed to put together a fairly star-studded group of writers for this anthology. Some of them, like GRRM, work in their “home settings” others like Naomi Novik go far afield from the settings in which they usually write. I won’t go into detail about each story. I will say that some stories I loved, some were strong, a few were mediocre, and at least one I didn’t like at all. However, given the range of writing styles, genres, and settings employed here that is to be expected.
I enjoyed stepping back in time to the “spinner rack” with the aid of GRRM, Gardner Dozois, and all the authors who contributed stories to the volume. I would definitely pick up another such cross-genre anthology if it were to be produced. There are some amazing stories in Warriors, and as a result of reading some of them I will buy other works from authors I had never read before. I give this anthology a 4/5.
Laurell K Hamilton’s A Kiss of Shadows begins her rollicking and fun take on the Faerie Courts, the Meredith Gentry series, with several bangs. This universe finds the Faerie in the public eye, but with waning power. Also the Faerie have, for reasons not wholly explained in this novel, been driven out of their historical home in Europe and now hold court in the Midwest region of the United States.
Meredith, or Merry, the titular character of the series is a princess of the Unseelie (or dark side) Court. She is looked down upon because she has mixed blood (full sidhe, brownie, and human (that last bit being the real downer)). Due to her human ancestry she is mortal, which makes the immortals feel she is weak. At the start of A Kiss of Shadows Merry has been in hiding from her aunt, the Queen of Air and Darkness, for three years. During this time Merry has been living in Los Angeles working for a supernatural detective agency.
As events at the start of A Kiss of Shadows unfold Merry is forced to come out of hiding. She is in fear for her life, for very good reasons, but must re-embrace her past. What follows is much political intrigue, numerous assassination attempts, and lots of sex. It seems that the faerie culture pretty much embraces and uses sex and lust as power, status, and fun.
The amount of fairly graphic sex scenes right from the start of the book was at first somewhat off-putting. I know this is a fairly standard part of Urban Fantasy or Romantasy as I like to think of it, but sometimes it can be a bit over the top. However, once I got into the storyline and Hamilton had time to build the world, the sex scenes became a necessary part of the backdrop, even having increasing political and social importance as the novel progresses.
I thoroughly enjoy Merry as a character. Her blend of power, both magical and political, is interesting. This is especially true as she grows during the novel, and as her status changes. Merry is used to seeing herself as other, because of how she was treated historically. During the novel she is required to not only embrace her otherness, but also learn to use it as a tool.
Hamilton is very skillful at both crafting a world that could very easily be our own, if magic were real and faeries existed, and doling out tidbits of mythology at just the right times to keep the reader hooked. Little bits of information are woven in throughout the novel, and even more is hinted at. This is a world that has lots of promise for future entries. Indeed at this time there are 8 novels in the Merry Gentry series.
After resolving my initial feelings about the graphic sex scenes in this novel I came to enjoy it a lot. Hamilton has a pleasant writing style and keeps the plot moving at a good pace. There is plenty of intrigue and danger involved, and most plot twists are not telegraphed or easily guessed at. I recommend this for anyone looking for a bit of light, fun reading. I give it a 3.5/5.