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