Monday, February 15, 2016

Chains of the Heretic by Jeff Salyards

Chains of the Heretic by Jeff Salyards is the third book in the Bloodsounder’s Arc published by Night Shade Books. Bloodsounder’s Arc is one of my favorite series of recent memory, and I have been looking forward to reading Chains for some time. Scourge of the Betrayer (review) was a strong, if brief, first entry. Veil of the Deserters (review) was the rare second book in a trilogy that was better than the first. Chains of the Heretic-- without reservation-- is the best of the series as it showcases Jeff Salyards’ skill and growth as a writer.

Both of my prior reviews commented on the story structure and the skill with which Salyards has executed his story. With Chains, Salyards is just as deft but now has two prior books to reference. This depth of prior material allows Salyards to pack additional meaning into each scene and each bit of dialog. Conversations take on dual meaning, both the implicit and the explicit, while references to prior scenes are buried in innocuous language and settings. This adds depth and punch to the unfolding narrative-- a richness missing from prior novels that lends weight and gravity to Chains.

Equally amazing is how Salyards successfully juggles the widely increased scope. Both prior novels were fairly narrow; the characters move from Point A to Point B. In between, they face conflict. This simple structure allowed the characters and dialog to remain front and center. In Chains, the scope explodes as Braylar and crew pierce the Godveil, encounter the Deserters, escape, engage in a coup of the current Emperor, and wage a war of enormous import. Yet, within the dizzying explosion of worldbuilding-- which was unexpected giving the parsimonious nature of the prior novels-- Salyards does not lose site of the novel’s pillars, its characters. They remain front and center and their stories continue.

The ultimate revelation in Chains is how little the world matters compared to the characters. There is no ‘chosen one’. There is no grand plot that imperils the world. There is a far larger story instead: the story of Braylar and Soffjian as told by Arkamandos. Only as Chains winds to a close does Salyards reveal the importance of Braylar’s recounting of his childhood and his relationship with his sister. This story-- a story of children, family, and tribe-- intertwines with the current bloody struggle. As one is brought to a close, so is the second.

What Bloodsounder’s Arc is about is violence. It is about a father who sought to protect his children from violence only to have violence rip them from his protection. Bloodsounder’s Arc is about how this violence defines its participants in spite of their motivations or qualities, damages them, and ultimately consumes them-- even when they ‘win’. Those who witness and record the story, an archivist perhaps, are forever changed by the violence. This story is powerful and its ending is both bittersweet and satisfying.

Chains of the Heretic by Jeff Salyards is a great novel. Salyards skillful use of literary language and plot structure elevates the novel and shines a spotlight on the human element, allowing the rest of the world fade into the backdrop. Chains is a great example of how “fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t” and continues this debate so recently sparked anew by Kazuo Ishiguro. I cannot recommend Chains of the Heretic and the Bloodsounder’s Arc enough. It is simply one of the best examples of modern genre and hopefully foreshadows where it is going. I look forward to Jeff Salyards' next project.

Memorable Quotes:
“You told me not so very long ago that having tasted a touch of grief, I was that much closer to living a complete life. Perhaps I am just further along the road now.”
"...but some vengeance I’d held onto for so many years it putrefied.”
Chains of the Heretic by Night Shade Books
Image Source: jeffsalyards.com
Review Copy: ARC Provided by Jeff Salyard's & Night Shade Press
ISBN: 978-1-59780-813-2

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone


Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone is the first book in The Craft Sequence series published by Tor. Three Parts Dead finds a way to forge new ground in the urban fantasy genre by creating a new world with familiar characters and themes. The end result is the rare book that managed to feel unique and original.

The Craft Sequence takes places in a fictional world not long after a ruinous war between the Gods, real and knowable, and humans who had usurped their power. Three Parts Dead explores the complex relationships that build in such an environment. The Gods bind their followers to them through love and faith. The Crafters works through contracts, i.e. law.

It is this conceit of law that gives the story its legs. Law is after all, all about relationships and the ties that bind people - and entities - together. Crafters, being magical lawyers, are focused on managing those relationships. Every character introduced into the novel is tied into an increasingly complex web of loyalties and obligations. Finally understanding that complex web is the story’s satisfying payoff.

As enjoyable as the interaction between the characters is in Three Parts Dead are, it was really the thematic elements that provide its heart. In particular, the need for companionship ultimately ties all of the characters together and drives their motives. The Crafters, as they evolve into something more than human, still feel the need for companionship. Worshippers desire the warmth and companionship their Gods provide. Even the Gods themselves require love and affection.

Once you realize this, it makes the novel’s villain that much more enjoyable. Out of all of the characters driven to companionship, one character seeks to be alone and to dominate all those around them. Any relationships this character seeks are one-sided. The ultimate goal is to shed their humanity and move beyond such mundane things.

This focus on relationships allows Three Parts Dead to transcend the typical tropes of urban fantasy. Exploring how all things need the gentle warmth of companionship gives Dead such an earnest and heartfelt quality that is often missing from novels -- especially novels that focus on undying love or similar heavy fare.

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone is an easy recommendation. There is a lot of enjoy in this well crafted debut novel. The intriguing new world and focus on the ties that bind create a captivating read.

Tor Books: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Image Source: MacMillan
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781466802032

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey

Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey is the second novel in the Sandman Slim series published by Harper Voyager. A synopsis can be found here. Dead avoids the sophomore slump and improves in many ways over Sandman Slim. Kadrey, somehow, manages to up the ante with a book that ends up being even more outrageous while still preserving the qualities that made the first book so enjoyable. It is not without its flaws however with a few critical weaknesses that hold the novel back.

Dead continues its urban fantasy noir theme and in many ways finds a way to amp it up to eleven. Kadrey’s voice continues to be utterly unique and simply needs to be read to be believed. The Slim Series inventiveness continues with creations such as the Jackal’s Backbone. In all ways, Kadrey continues to produce the literary equivalent of candy coated crack; its addictive, playful, and probably not good for you but damn its fun.

Where Dead truly shines are the scenes between Stark and Lucifer. Lucifer oozes a sense of coolness that Stark only aspires to. Stark in return, is burdened with frustration, angst, and uncertainty; traits completely out of character for the persona of ‘Sandman Slim’. In many ways, this humanizes Stark and makes him more relatable. It also makes him all the more badass when he steps back into his Sandman persona.

Where Dead falls short is the continued weak handling of female characters and central storyline. Without exception, all of the female characters are victims. Even powerful females with agency, somehow become passive in this novel waiting to be rescued. Bridgette, the Czech Romany zombie hunting porn star, is reduced to little more than cheap titillation. Candy, a jade, does little beyond pine for Stark, and Allegra becomes a wallflower. All in all, its horribly disappointing.

The central storyline, the mystery of the zombie attack, turns out to be little more than a MacGuffin; a tool to move Stark from place to place and drive his interaction with Lucifer and set the stage for a showdown with his nemesis, Mason. As a result, the conclusion of this mystery lacks vitality and wraps up in an unimaginative, Hollywood-action-movie manner that I found unsatisfying.

Despite the negative, Kill the Dead is a blast to read. The setting continues to thrill. Stark’s character continues to evolve in new and interesting ways. I wish the female characters would share in the progress. Kill the Dead is an easy recommendation and I look forward to the next entry in the Sandman Slim series from Richard Kadrey.

Image Source: Harper Collins
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780062063205

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Veil of the Deserters by Jeff Salyards

Veil of the Deserters by Jeff Salyards is the second book in the Bloodsounder’s Arc published by Night Shade Books. My review of the first book, Scourge of the Betrayer, can be found here. Veil is that rare sophomore effort, second in a trilogy no less, that is better in all respects. Veil also gave me a newfound appreciation for Scourge and appreciation of Salyards’ abilities as a writer. Veil’s success lies in two key areas: the narrative structure and the tight focus on the characters. This produces another lean novel with great tension that is chockablock with great dialog.

Veil’s narrative structure, and the series by extension, is really good on a number of levels. The great sense of tension is the the most visible result. Salyards keeps the tension tight via the narrative structure through a series of continually escalating conflicts. Every fight is a little bigger. Every town is a little bigger and more mysterious. Every secret is a little more jaw dropping. As a result, every page turn builds expectation, and delicious tension, as you wait for the next reveal.

Veil also has a clear beginning and end. I would argue it is nearly a stand alone title. Yet, Veil expands the world of the Bloodsounder’s Arc considerably. In this way, Veil clearly avoid the trap many ‘middle volume’ books fall into -- being little more than filler before the finale in the third book. This sense of focus, possessing a clear start and finish, also keeps the narrative from wandering around and introducing pointless details, filling the pages up with exposition that adds little to the story. The book is charged with a satisfying vitality and identity that is often missing from the second installment in a trilogy.

The pages are full of dialog-- wonderful, vulgar, hilarious, and heartbreaking dialog. It is hard to overstate how great the dialog is in Veil. At a superficial level, it is simply brain candy. But, the conversations shine in how well they advance the plot, reveal the world, and develop the character. Salyards has an uncanny knack for employing it in a way that feels organic, avoiding the dreaded ‘voice-over’ quality that afflicts so much fantasy. This dedication to dialog ultimately helps draw the reader closer to the characters especially when combined with the first person perspective.

The first person perspective, via the scribe Arki, was a quality I very much enjoyed in Scourge. It continues to be a strong point in Veil. What I found very successful and satisfying is Arki’s evolution. Page by page, Arki is slowly adopting the mannerisms and customs of the Syldoon. It is fascinating watching the delicate restraint employed by Salyards in this long-play plot device. In my review of Scourge, I praised it as a means to create a relatable buffer between the reader and the Syldoon. By slowly evolving Arki, Salyards is bringing the reader closer to the Syldoon and by extension, the ultimate finale and conclusion to the series.

What is did not find satisfying in Veil were Soffjian and Skeelana. The characters themselves were interesting, I just wished there were more involved in the plot during the beginning and middle segments of the book. For the majority of the book Soffjian and Skeelana are primarily tools to advance Braylar’s and Arki’s characters. They are obviously going to be very important in the next book but in Veil, contribute little.

Overall, Veil of the Deserter’s is a great book and one of the best fantasy titles I have read in the past year. Veil eschews elaborate world building, complex magic system, and convoluted plots and instead focuses its efforts on characters and dialog. Along the way, smart choices on narrative structure create a lean, tense, satisfying reading experience that is easy to recommend to anyone. I eagerly await the concluding volume in the Bloodsounder’s Arc, Chains of the Heretic due in February 2016.

Night Shade Books: Veil of the Deserters
Image Source: Night Shade Books
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 978-1-59780-491-2

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first entry in the Sandman Slim series published by Harper Voyager. A synopsis can be found here. Kadrey has produced something unique. Slim is wonderful exploration of the grotesque and beautiful aspects of humanity told in a sensual and harsh prose dripping with a yearning nostalgia for West Coast Americana. It come with a few warts, but they generally add to the allure of the book. Gritty has been the toast of the SFF scene for sometime. Slim isn’t gritty; it’s grimy.

Kadrey lays down a fantastic foundation for a new series. It is fantastic in the sense that it is a delight to read and fantastic in the sense that the setting is unreal. Slim takes place in an LA where magic is a thing. Vampires, demons, and other equally unpleasant non-humans roam the street. Hell is a real place, and Slim is fresh from it. In fact, the novel opens with Slim’s arrival from Hell. The rotting heap of garbage he lands on seems fresh compared to Hell, creating one of the best opening sequences in my experience as a reader. It sets the perfect tone.

Slim is a male teenage fantasy if a teenager had the collective life experience of a hard working, chain smoking, whiskey drinking, blue-collar worker. Slim is full of angst, pain, and poor decision- making skills that are eminently familiar to anyone who survived their teenage years. Mixed in between these poor decisions is smoking, drinking, fighting, and a love of things that go fast.

Tying all of this together is Kadrey’s wonderful authorial voice. Every scene is written through Kadrey’s love of cinema, music, LA, and Americana. If writing had an Instragram app, I would vote ‘Kadrey’ as one of the inaugural filters. Cementing these myriad influences is Kadrey’s grimey word choice and character POVs. In particular, the dialogue drips with an unholy fusion of sleazy and erudite banter that in context makes perfect sense but has no place in reality.

Slim’s plot and pacing stay fairly uptempo and chaotic. The narrative, like Slim, seems to lurch from one flashpoint to the next. Kadrey’s somehow manages to keep upping the surrealism, whether it be a brothel staffed by imprisoned Angels or a magical multi-dimensional key. The only constant is Slim’s desire for revenge and his tenuous grasp on humanity. Even so, the story isn’t exactly cohesive; it is more of a slowly unfolding nightmare.

I described Slim as a ‘male’ fantasy earlier for a specific reason. It is one of the novels few flaws, even if I think it is likely intentional. The female characters in Slim are very passive. They exist largely as objects to be managed by the more dynamic and active male characters. Allegra seems to function solely as a means for Slim to remember his humanity and failure to protect women (his girlfriend) in the past. Cherry’s role seems to be a measuring stick to prove how manly Slim is since Cherry literally, as in not figuratively, eats lesser men. A better female cast could have elevated the novel.

My last criticism has to do with Kadrey’s copious and incessant use of cultural trivia. The reader is bombarded with both obvious and arcane references to music, movies, and LA history. When these references work (i.e. the reader recognizes them), they greatly add to the flavor of the novel. When they don’t, they leave a bad taste in the mouth as you stop what you’re doing to perform some Google sleuthing. Kadrey leans too heavily on this tool. I think a better balance could have been made between description and the cultural name-dropping. That said, for readers who fall into Kadrey’s own demographic, they would likely view my opinion as nothing short of heresy.

Sandman Slim is a highly enjoyable read with a very unique voice. The world building may be a little unhinged, but that only adds to the allure. Especially impressive is how much growth seems to be left in the series. Very little is revealed of Slim himself, and I am eager to read more. I am very curious if Kadrey can keep up the constant cultural references without beginning to repeat himself. I definitely recommend Sandman Slim. While the SFF community continues to debate the place of ‘gritty’ fiction, Kadrey has taken it to the next level-- ‘grimy’.

Memorable Quotes:
"Otherwise, I might have crawled back into this world and ended up a charcoal briquette in my first five minutes home."
"She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in eleven years. I want to have monster babies with her right here and now."
“'Hello, asshole.' I slam the bag shut."
Harper Voyager: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
Imagine Source: Harper Voyager
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780061999444

Monday, November 18, 2013

Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter

Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter is the eighth book in the Horus Heresy series published by the Black Library. A synopsis can be found here. Abyss is an ambitious novel that shifts away from planet-wide narrative scope and instead focuses heavily on a small, mixed Legion group of Loyalists. Abyss largely fails in this endeavor, resulting in a clunky book that fails to connect with the larger Horus Heresy series. Worst of all, it fails to capture the unique flavor of the Horus Heresy time period.

Abyss’ bright spot is the characterization of the Thousand Son, Mhotep, and the World Eater, Skraal. This is the first time individuals from either Legion have been covered in any detail. Mhotep in particular was very interesting. The inherent nobility and sense of sacrifice that is intrinsic to the Space Marine character was on full display. The tiny details of his preparation were a fascinating counterpoint to the traditional Space Marine preparation and really brought home the sorcerous nature of the Sons of Prospero.

The characterization of the Ultramarines and Space Wolves unfortunately falls flat. The core issue is that very little is done to differentiate the Horus Heresy era Ultramarines and Space Wolves from the 40K equivalents. It creates a cognitive dissonance that is a constant drag on the story. Compounding this issue is the tendency by Counter to tell and not show in regards to the loyalist character development. Cestus in particular falls afoul of this issue. The end result feels like 40K Space Marines have been transported back in time to the Horus Heresy. Lost is the chance to highlight the subtle differences between 30K Legions and 40K Chapters.

The low point of the novel's cast of characters is the Word Bearers. As the novel’s antagonist, they fail to add much to the story. The Furious Abyss itself is a better villain, and its sinister purpose remains the only effective sense of agency. The Word Bearers themselves are almost criminally inept and border on parody.

The greatest flaw of Abyss is its structure. In particular there is a nasty habit of breaking the narrative tension through deus ex machina moments, cutaway scenes, and abrupt plot changes. I am fairly tolerant of deus ex machina moments. But, there were a few in Abyss that were simply excessive. In particular Cestus, Brynngar, and Skraal miraculously reuniting at the closing moments of the story bordered on comical.

The cutaway scenes were particularly grating and excessive. The tendency to break the flow of key scenes was even worse. Just as various plot threads were reaching culmination, Counter would frequently break to a cutaway scene that I presume was meant to add depth via a metaphorical philosophical point. Instead of adding depth, it simply deflates the scene, draining it of its tension. The worst offence is when these cutaway scenes hide the death of key characters. Breaking the scene, killing a character out of frame, and then returning back to see the aftermath nearly caused me to put the book down it irritated me so much.

The novel’s greatest flaw is its puzzling and sudden breaks in plot. Just as events seem to be coming to a head, they suddenly fizzle out and transition to several chapters of tedious plot development. Whether it be the original assault on the Furious Abyss, the conflict at Bakka Triumveron, or the final warp passage, each build to a crescendo only to then abruptly stop. The novel feels like several short stories stitched together. The plot is wildly uneven in terms of pacing as a result. It also makes the novel feel repetitive and tedious as the plot essentially repeats itself several times. The protagonists attempt to board the Furious Abyss several times, fail, retreat, and try again.

The end result is an underwhelming novel. Battle for the Abyss attempted to present a change of pace, devoid of Primarchs, Chaos Gods, Emperors of Mankind, etc. In doing so, Abyss attempted to place the spotlight on a small group of Space Marines and how their actions changed the course of the Imperium. It is a very interesting premise. Yet, the novel fails to execute this vision. The novel’s structure and character development are simply insufficient to sustain it. Abyss’ bright points are few and far between. For die hard fans of the Warhammer 40K setting, the book is a worthwhile read simply due to its importance to the settings canon. For all other readers, skip it for the far superior Mechanicum by Graham McNeill.

Black Library: Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter
Review Copy: Self Purchased
Image Source: The Black Library
ISBN: 9780857870339

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fade to Black by Francis Knight

Fade to Black by Francis Knight is the first book in the Rojan Dizon series published by Orbit in the US. A synopsis can be found here. Black is a entertaining read full of wonderful wordbuilding that is held back by a predictable plot and unrealized potential. The book's plot largely revolves around the three main characters: Rojan, Jake, and Pasha in the fantastically realized city of Mahala.

Mahala is such a fascinating setting. It is a city that has grown vertically to great heights. The highest points are occupied by the powerful and wealthy and the lowest are occupied by the powerless and poor. As a narrative metaphor, it works perfectly. Especially given that the strength of the powerful is derived from the exploitation of the poor, which is a fact both central and critical to the plot. Another neat point is that the lowest levels of Mahala are blocked off, hidden from the ‘middle class’ section, referencing the hidden underbelly of the criminal world and human trafficking.

As the story progresses, Rojan descends. He descends into the bowels of Mahala in one sense and himself in another. As the secrets of Mahala are revealed, so are the secrets of Rojan. As Mahala is freed, so is Rojan. Mahala and Rojan are tightly linked. The reason isn't clear by the end of Black, and I hope it foreshadows interesting developments in book two and three of Rojan Dizon. At the end, Rojan is ‘reborn’ as he ascends from the depths to the heights. As a narrative device, I thought Knight used the setting of Mahala to great effect.

Other elements of the story were less well done. The first is the treatment of women. The rest of this paragraph will contain spoilers so please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you wish to avoid them. The central secret to Mahala is the exploitation of young girls to create Glow-- a magical substitute for electricity. These young women are systematically abused to harvest their ‘pain’ and then simply thrown away at the end of their usefulness. I did not feel there was a good explanation as to why it had to be young girls. My take was that this was an attempt to be very shocking and ensure the reader KNEW that the bad guy was EVIL. I think this is a sloppy shortcut that could have been handled differently.

The second thing that could have been handled better was the ending. It was simply too over the top and veered into the surreal. It feels as if every couple pages contains a major revelation. The characters undergo more change in the last few chapters than in the entire preceding book. While thrilling, I wish they had been spaced out more and integrated better into the story. With so much happening in the closing chapters, I feel it diluted the book's ultimate ending.

The biggest weakness of the novel was the unrealized potential of the three main characters: Rojan, Jake, and Pasha. I think Knight had a really interesting setup but was not able to excute it. Rojan is self-absorbed and rarely looks beyond satisfying his own needs. Jake is an abuse victim-- a very attractive one-- who has created an entirely new personality to deal with her trauma. Pasha is an empathic mage who desperately loves Jake. This relationship triangle has so much potential that is largely glossed over. Only in the closing chapters of the book does it start to shine. Abruptly, it's over. The highpoint is Rojan’s self-realization of his shallowness is embodied by his lust for Jake. If that highpoint would have been sustained over the whole novel, Black could have been amazing.

In summary, Fade to Black is a really good opening novel by a first time author. The inventive worldbuilding alone makes the book worthwhile to read. The low points I consider fixable as Knight grows in her craft. I am excited for the potential in the rest of the series and want to see if Knight call pull it off. I can’t strongly recommend the book, as it is uneven and not everyone wants to commit to a trilogy. However, it is a fun read I would recommend to anyone interested in something a little different. My opinion however may change when I finish the series; hopefully for the better.

Memorable Quotes:
"It smelled of ingenuity, something that seemed to ooze from Dwarf like other men oozed sweat."
"See, this is why I don't like other people relying on me, on responsibility. Because dislocating your own thumb to cast a spell really fucking hurts"
"'I'm sorry, I believed me too, and I should know better.'"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780316217699

Monday, October 21, 2013

Control Point by Myke Cole

Control Point by Myke Cole is the first novel in the Shadow Ops series published by Ace. A synopsis can be found here. I found Control Point’s worldbuilding to be uneven but its thematic elements and Cole’s keen eye for action elevate the novel. The thematic elements in particular are arresting given the political importance of late (2013) to ‘whistleblowers’ and ‘traitors’. While this may simply serendipitous, it does highlight a central tension to the life of a soldier.

Control Point’s worldbuilding is an up and down affair. The structure and organization of of the Supernatural Operations Corps is fascinating and demonstrates Cole’s first hand knowledge. There is an inherent logic to the organization that forces a high level of rationalism onto the weak magic system. Thematically critical to the SoC’s structure (and novel) is the intelligence community’s need to control those who manifest. It makes sense. Without it, Oscar Britton’s character would lack agency.

The magic system is a lackluster affair at first glance. Cole creates a magic system that rests on a traditional earth, wind, fire, and water foundation. It is spiced up a bit with ‘prohibited schools’ of magic that are more purposed oriented; Oscar Britton’s claim to fame is that he is a Portamancer. All of the various schools are immediately familiar to even casual fans of fantasy of any variety: comic, movie, TV, or book. Taken at face value, the magic is mundane.

Cole’s professional background and skills as a writer elevate these mundane theoretical underpinnings to something much more interesting. How so? By tightly integrating magic into a functional military unit in a rational manner. Cole’s flair for the tactical aspects of supernatural abilities turns an otherwise flat magic system into something exciting. Visualizing ‘Portal-Fu’ is still a thrill.

Another weak point in the worldbuilding is the Source; the alien world where FOB Frontier is located. FOB Frontier can only be reached via portal which is what makes Portomancers, e.g. Oscar Britton, so valuable. The Source is simply not that exciting in Control Point. Part of the issue is that most of the action occurs at FOB Frontier. There is not much excitement to be had in describing a temporary military encampment.

When the action does showcase the Source and its denizens, it does little to break or improve existing tropes. The native goblinoids are a shamanistic, medieval-level race. Thrown in are a few examples of scary, magical fauna. Neither of these things will grab your attention much, especially against the creativity of the action scenes. Again, its hard to knock the Source too much because so much of the action occurs at FOB Frontier. As the series progresses, I expect more time to be devoted to the Source. Given Cole’s ability to elevate the magic system, I expect similar with the Source.

Somewhat surprising to me, especially given Oscar Britton’s character development, was the underdevelopment of the many supporting characters. Fitzy, Sarah, Harlequin, etc. are all one-dimensional characters. They seem to exist primarily to fill a plot role and to push Oscar’s development. This issue unfortunately weakens the book's conclusion as impact is robbed from what should have been satisfying resolutions to various plot threads.

The element that really elevates the book is the thematic push by Myke Cole. It is an issue I found especially resonates with me as a veteran. It is a theme that crops up in Myke Cole’s social media fingerprint as well.
Does the end justify the means? Is the SoC a friend or enemy? Am I doing the honorable thing? All of these questions are what drives Oscar Britton. Oscar’s struggles to answer them is what elevates the book. Whether via Oscar’s encounter with his father, to his rivalry with Harlequin, Control Point is about answering these questions. Scene by scene, Cole fashions encounters meant to force resolution to these questions.

Every time Oscar seems content to let things go, Cole applies the screws via another plot twist. Oscar often does the ‘wrong’ thing in these situations, sometimes to spectacular effect. Other reviews have called Oscar the anti-Mary Sue. It’s hard to argue that point given the competence that Myke Cole’s public persona exudes. Yet, failure is often the best teacher. Oscar’s failures allow Cole to more completely engage the reader by showing them exactly why Oscar failed. If Oscar had simply made the right choice every time, I doubt the book would be as interesting or tense.

I enjoyed Control Point a lot. The book had a number of weaknesses. It also had many strengths. Critically, its strengths relate to Cole’s writing ability. This gives me hope that as the Shadow Ops series progresses, the books will get stronger and stronger as Cole’s experience grows. I can only hope that Cole keeps the thematic elements in place as well. Why? Because when I set the book down, I not only enjoyed it, but it made me think and question. That is valuable and rare and to me, encapsulates the real power of fiction. I would recommend Control Point to any reader.

Ace: Control Point by Myke Cole
Image Source: Myke Cole
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781101554395

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy published by Voyager. A synopsis of it can be found here. Apprentice, published in 1996, is often cited as a source of inspiration for many modern authors I enjoy. I have not read any of Hobb’s work and thought now would be a good time to fill in such an important gap in my reading. Hobb presents a slow-burning tale that straddles the past and the future of fantasy. I found it enjoyable if occasionally frustrating to read.

The novel centers around Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne. This a classic trope, one that normally leads to the protagonists displaying enormous skill and instantly fitting into the existing social structures. Hobb nips that right in the bud. Fitz is special, but for all the wrong reasons. Fitz is a bastard. His very existence sends his father into exile, which relegates him to a hated outcast by all who should love him. Fitz’s salvation is being noticed by the King, who decides to turn Fitz into a tool--a tool kept under close watch so that none but the King may wield it. In this way, Hobb presages a more modern handling of heros by creating character growth through suffering and adverse conditions.

The highlight of Apprentice is the relationships between characters. Hobb has an almost maniacal focus on character interaction. The result is a complex weave of political brinksmanship, murder, revenge, and greed, centered around a lonely boy wanting nothing more than to fit in. The motivations are all very elemental and very real. Regal’s venality and puff-up sense of self worth is palpable. Burrich’s taciturn nature and loyalty to Chivalry, Fitz’s father, struggle to find balance while raising a child, Fitz, who has turned his life upside down. Lastly, Fitz wants nothing more than to belong. He is given a miserable lot, yet he soldiers on never really knowing why he is destined to suffer so.

Hobb’s pacing has been described by some as plodding. I would describe as it as lingering and bereft of action. Hobb gravitates towards the personal drama of a scene, shunning action and bloodshed. He also has a tendency to linger on each scene which results in a bit more dialogue than perhaps needed. The few scenes of action are short, blunt, and deal more with the horror of the participants than any sense of glorious combat. In this way, Hobb keeps the focus more on the characters and less on the events. The events merely prod the characters along-- a silent conductor to the unfolding drama. Overall, Hobb’s prose has a more stately quality, reflective of earlier fantasy rather than the more kinetic feel of modern fantasy.

The most common source of my frustration with Apprentice is the world building. For all the detailed work devoted to character building, the world of Apprentice feels remarkably sketched in. A lot of the world has an ‘over there’ quality which seems tenebrous. I also found the prose to be frustrating. While very well written, the prose was twee in regard to world building. The descriptions of things-- various mannerisms, cultures, and most importantly names-- were occasionally off-putting.

Overall, I enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice. I understand why Hobb is so often cited as a source of inspiration. Apprentice is a book with a foot in the past and a foot in the future. The more modern elements of Apprentice are the most enjoyable, while the classical elements feel affected. I look forward to reading the rest of the Farseer Trilogy and to see if Hobb steps more firmly into the future. Assassin’s Apprentice is a good book on its own, but I also recommend that all fans of fantasy read it to understand how much it has influenced the genre.

Memorable Quote:
“Take it all. I would die anyway. And you were always good to me when I was young.”
Voyager: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Image Source: NPR
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780007374038