Friday, October 29, 2010

Review: "Kill the Dead" by Richard Kadrey

Richard Kadrey continues his tale of James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, in his latest efford, “Kill the Dead” ($22.99, Eos).

Stark is a man who has literally been through Hell. A feud with a rival magician sent him there, but he clawed his way out. He now lives in Los Angeles and, much to his disappointment, is regaining his humanity. The layers of scars from wounds suffered in the arenas of Hell that he uses as armor are beginning to fade. He runs a video store and takes occasional assignments from the Golden Vigil, a secret government organization run by an angel that deals with supernatural issues. His luck isn’t going so well. Then he gets a call from Lucifer. He’ll be in town working on a biographical film about himself, and he wants Sandman Slim, a legend in the supernatural community, by his side as a bodyguard. Stark accepts the assignment, but it leads him in even stranger directions.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Review: "Discord's Apple" by Carrie Vaughn

When Evie Walker returns home from Los Angeles to the small town of Hope’s Fort, Colo., to care for her terminally ill father, she gets quite a bit more than she bargained for in Carrie Vaughn’s “Discord’s Apple” ($23.99, Tor).

Walker lives in a world that has broken down. Terrorist attacks have led to martial law in many areas, including her new home of Los Angeles. Most of the nations of the world are at odds with each other and on the brink of open warfare. In this environment, she writes a comic book somewhat similar to World War II-era Captain America that features a patriotic military team and revolves around current events. But she puts her life on hold when she learns of her father’s illness to head back to a place she thought she’d left forever.

Soon after she returns, strange people begin to appear in Hope’s Fort and strange things begin to happen. When a woman shows up asking for something in the storeroom of her father’s house, Evie discovers a warehouse of mythical and magical treasures from throughout the ages. Her family has been charged with guarding the treasures for generations, and she is destined to take up the mantle from her father whether she likes it or not. But things are changing rapidly, and not everyone who comes looking for something from the storeroom has a right to it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: "The Fall" by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan return with the second installment of their trilogy about an epidemic that has turned people into walking vampiric viruses, “The Fall” ($26.99, Harper).

In the first installment, “The Strain,” the scene was set with a creature known as the Master arriving in New York City and unleashing the virus on an unsuspecting public, creating waves of creatures that are part vampire, part zombie. The outbreak has now spread to all corners of the globe, and with governments scrambling to cover up the truth about the virus and calmed panic citizens, the world doesn’t stand a chance.

With the setup out of the way, the second installment starts with a bang. Ephraim Goodweather, a former agent with the Center for Disease Control and now a wanted man due to some political wrangling after he spoke the truth about the virus in the first book, is torn between trying to rid the world of the virus on his own and protecting his son from his ex-wife, who has been turned and is now stalking her son across the city. He’s joined by aging Holocaust survivor and vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, who has been obsessed with destroying the Master since he first met him at a German concentration camp, a former New York City exterminator Vasiliy Fet, who has discovered that ridding the city of vampires is much like ridding the city of rats, and Eph’s CDC partner Nora, who he has a complicated relationship with.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: "The Bird of the River" by Kage Baker

Unfortunately, my introduction to the works of Kage Baker comes with the posthumous release of her latest novel “Bird of the River” ($25.99, Tor).

The book follows the coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl named Eliss, who is caring for her addict mother and her half-breed younger brother Alder. Since the death of Eliss’ father, the family has moved from place to place, living with various “uncles,” some good, some downright nasty. In a last-ditch effort to save the family, Eliss manages to find a captain that will give her mother a second chance as a diver on the Bird of the River, a barge charged with keeping the river clear of snags and obstructions. But a diving accident leaves Eliss and Alder orphaned and having to find their own way aboard the ship.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review: "Dragon Haven" by Robin Hobb

With “Dragon Haven” ($27.99, Eos), Robin Hobb continues her tale of a ragtag band of social outcasts and malformed dragons on their quest to find the mythical city of Kelsingra, where once dragons and humans lived in peace.

In the first book of the two-part series, “Dragon Keeper,” the dragon Tintaglia led a group of serpents from the sea to cocoon in the Rain Wilds and become dragons, a species gone missing from the world until Tintaglia herself hatched. But the dragons that came from this hatching were small and misshapen, pale imitations of the former glory the creatures once were. After they became a drain on the local towns, the leaders chose a group of young Rain Wilders, marked by their harsh existence with scales, claws and other unusual deformities, to lead the dragons to the ancient city in the creatures’ ancestral memory.

With the setup out of the way, “Dragon Haven” opens on the arduous journey, which finds both the dragons and their human companions growing, maturing and changing. Despite mounting tension among the keepers caused by their would-be leader Greft, who is under the influence of a hunter who has tagged along in hopes of bringing back dragon parts to sell, things seem to be going as well as could be expected. The dragons are growing stronger and more capable as they travel and hunt their own food, as are the humans that tend them. Things go awry, though, when a wall of acid-tainted water cascades down the unpredictable Rain Wilds River and slams into the expedition, dashing their boats and supplies and scattering them. The hardships in the wake of the wave spur the real change in both people and dragons. Secrets are revealed, new bonds are formed, and no one involved in the expedition remains untouched for good or ill.

In “Dragon Keeper,” Hobb presented dragons that were much more human than the average depiction of the mythical beast. Her dragons had weaknesses, failings and doubts, and were more relatable. In “Dragon Haven,” a metamorphosis begins that brings the dragons closer to the haughty, arrogant and proud race of creatures that you expect, but at the same time, there remain flaws that stand out like the chink in Smaug’s armor. Though the focus of the book remains with the humans, it’s almost more interesting to watch the changes that take place in the dragons and how they develop. Then again, it could just be because dragons continue to fascinate me after all these years, and I’m always interested in a slightly different take on them. Hobb certainly delivers that.

Ultimately, though, no matter how interesting the concept, you also must have a good story, and that’s where the human characters come in. The twists, turns, secrets and deceptions do occasionally wander a little too far toward soap opera melodramatics, but in the end it all comes together to create a satisfying story.

“Dragon Haven” leaves as many questions about what will happen to the dragons and their keepers as it answers. I’d be interested to revisit at some point down the road and see how things turn out.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: "Dead in the Family" by Charlaine Harris

I guess everyone needs a break now and then, and certainly Charlaine Harris’ telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse has hit a lull in the series’ latest entry “Dead in the Family” ($25.95, Ace).
It’s not that there’s not plenty of action in the book. Quite a bit happens. In fact, the story is kind of like a supernatural family reunion as more fairy members of Sookie’s family show up, members of the vampire Eric’s family arrive to cause trouble, some secret’s about Bill Compton’s family are revealed and even Merlotte’s owner Sam is having troubles with his family because of the weres and shifters going public.

Among all that, there are also larger problems in the world of the books. Most notably, some are pushing for registration of the two-natured, just as they have the vampires who went public. Eric is still having troubles with his new boss in the vampire world, Victor Madden, and there’s upheaval in the Shreveport pack of weres.

Despite all that, “Dead in the Family” seems to plod just a little. There are flashes of action here and there, but it just doesn’t quite have the same spark that some of the previous volumes had. It’s more like a breather in between the explosive action that ended the previous volume and things that are on the horizon.

It also seems to me that there’s a little more of HBO’s “True Blood,” based on the books, seeping into Harris’ work in this volume. Certainly for those of us who both read the books and watch the series, the differing storylines can get a bit confusing. For example, I was almost sure that Bill had told Sookie in a previous volume how he was turned, but now I’m thinking that might have been in “True Blood,” and either way, the story that I’m remembering differs from the one told in this book.

At the end of the day, “Dead in the Family” is still an enjoyable read and it keeps me interested in the continuing story of Sookie and all of the strangeness that surrounds her. But it doesn’t leave me with that same sense of excitement that some of the earlier tales did. Hopefully things will get back on track with the next volume.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: "Bite Me: A Love Story" by Christopher Moore

In the past few years, I’ve often bemoaned the fact that the fantasy section of the bookstore has become more like the vampire section. While there seems to be a major love affair with vampires right now, I’m, quite frankly, sick of them. So it’s a little strange to me that I find myself immersed in three straight books that feature vampires. The second is Christoper Moore’s “Bite Me: A Love Story” ($23.99, William Morrow).

The book is the sequel to 2007’s “You Suck: A Love Story” and “Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story,” originally published in 1995. It continues to follow the story of vamps Jody and Tommy, a young couple trying to make it as creatures of the night in San Francisco. If you missed “You Suck,” don’t worry, a summary from Jody and Tommy’s minion Abigail von Normal (also known by her day-slave name of Allison Greene), leads off the book. It’s written in her own special blend of goth, valley girl and netspeak, as are all her entries throughout the book.

Abby, her confused goth friend Jared and her geeky boyfriend Steve, who she calls “Foo Dog,” have encased Jody and Tommy in bronze to satisfy her romantic notion of keeping them together forever. While they’re imprisoned in the statue, Chet, an unusually large stray cat, has been busy. He and his homeless owner were attacked by the master vampire that turned Jody in the previous volume. He’s been building an army of vampiric cats that are roaming the streets of San Francisco and killing homeless people.

Unfortunately for Abby and Moore’s colorful cast of characters -- including a homeless man known as the Emperor, a group of vampire hunters that work at the local Safeway called the Animals and a couple of local police detectives who are in on the vampire secret – the horde of bloodsucking cats has caught the attention of another group of vampires who have arrived in San Francisco to eliminate the problem and everyone who knows about it.

Like all of Moore’s work, “Bite Me” has a lot of fun with its subject. While still presenting an enjoyable story, Moore also makes a little fun of the current obsession with vampires and the conventions of the vampire mythos. While I have to admit that the silliness of Abby’s shallow angsty ramblings does get a little tired at points, I’d rather read them than the angsty ramblings in, say, one of the “Twilight” books.

While I much prefer when Moore takes on loftier subjects with his humor, as in my personal favorites “Lamb” and “Fool,” his work is always enjoyable. This one’s a quick, fun read that offers you a chance to have a laugh at the expense of vampire stories that take themselves too seriously.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Review: "Changes" by Jim Butcher

After a series goes on long enough, there inevitably comes a time when a drastic shift is needed to keep it from going stale. That time for Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files comes with its 12th book, “Changes” ($25.95, Roc).

The shift begins with the book’s title, which drops the two-word puns of the previous 11 volumes. It mirrors a shift in the demeanor of the books. Things are about to get much darker and much more serious for Chicago’s only wizard for hire.

Harry gets a gut-punch with the first line of the book where he’s informed that he has an eight-year-old daughter that he’s never known. The news is delivered by her mother, Harry’s old flame Susan, now a half-vampire member of a secret warrior society that hunts Red Court vampires. The child, Maggie, has been abducted by the vampires and, naturally, they have nasty plans for her.

Normally, Harry would have plenty of backup as the White Council of wizards and the Red Court vampires have been at war, but he’s unable to call on the aid because Duchess Arianna Ortega of the Red Court has sued the White Council for peace. The request has split the council, with many seeing a hope to end the war that has decimated their ranks and others seeing a trick by the vampires. It’s up to Harry and a handful of friends to rescue the girl, a task made even more difficult by vampire plots that have led to an FBI investigation into the destruction of his office building among other complications.

I say this book has a more serious tone, but fans of the series shouldn’t be worried about that. Harry is still the wisecracker that he’s always been, and it’s loaded with references to science fiction and fantasy classics like “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Wizard of Oz.” There are plenty of chuckles and light-hearted moments to be had during a more intense story line. Despite all that’s going on around him, Harry is still Harry, after all.

On the other hand, there are events that happen in the book that will, necessarily, change things for Harry forever. I won’t give those events away, but they make it very hard to believe that he’ll come out of this as the same low-rent, high-powered private investigator that he’s been for the better part of the first 12 books. He’s now entangled with far too many greater powers in the supernatural world, and those entanglements promise to make things even more treacherous for him.

The strength of Butcher’s stories continues to be the fast pacing and fascinating characters that he’s delivered throughout the series. The centerpiece of “Changes,” though, may be the final battle which is more grand and sweeping than anything we’ve seen before in the Dresden series. It pays homage to his love of more traditional fantasy and delivers a spectacular finale to the story.

Serious “Changes” are definitely coming for our old friend, but having given me some of my favorite tales over the last decade or so, I’ll trust that Butcher will take the the stories in an even better direction.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: "Dragon Keeper" by Robin Hobb

In the mid-1990s, I was enchanted by Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, which told the tale of FitzChivalry Farseer’s rise from illegitimate son of a noble to master assassin. I also enjoyed her return to that tale in the Tawny Man trilogy. For some reason, though, I was never able to get into the Liveship Traders books, which span the years between those tales in another part of the same world. So I was a little surprised to find myself caught up in her latest tale, “Dragon Keeper” (Eos, $26.99).

The story is much more closely related to the Liveship books than Fitz’s tale, but I still found it fascinating. It begins with great sea serpents, led by the dragon Tintaglia, making their way upriver into the Rain Wilds, where they will cocoon to become dragons themselves. But these serpents should have cocooned years earlier and have spent too much time in the sea. The landscape of the Rain Wilds has also changed since the last group of serpents made their way there to cocoon. The terrain is much more treacherous and the river has turned acidic. The dragons that hatch from the cocoons are too early and mostly malformed, not the great beasts of old.

In the meantime, Tintaglia discovers another living dragon to take as a mate and disappears, leaving the Rain Wilders to care for the fledgling dragons. They soon find their resources depleted, and resentment builds between the people and the dragons. The solution lies in the lost city of Kelsingra, a place in the dragons’ ancestral memory where they lived in harmony with the Elderlings. The Rain Wilders have assembled a collection of misfits, marked by the harsh environment with scales, claws and other deformities, to accompany the dragons and care for them on their journey. Among them, a young girl named Thymara, who, because of her deformities was supposed to have been left to die at birth, but was saved by her father. She joins the expedition because she longs to do something to prove her value and escape her life as an outcast.

Meanwhile, Alise Finbok, the convenience wife of a Bingtown trader who cares little for her, has used a clause in their marriage agreement to push her unloving and often cruel husband to finance an expedition to the Rain Wilds to study the dragons. When she gets there, she finds herself caught up in the middle of the dragons’ journey and the quest for Kelsingra, much to the dismay of her travel companion Sedric, who is keeping his own secrets.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good dragon story, and in “Dragon Keeper,” Hobb offers a view of the beasts that we’ve rarely seen. Dragons, typically, are depicted as magnificent and highly intelligent creatures (which, indeed, the fully-formed Tintaglia is), or as petty tyrants. The fledgling dragons here are given a certain human quality, though. They’re not perfect. They’re not what they were meant to be, and most of them are not sure exactly what that is. They have ancestral memories of soaring in the clouds, but all are bound to the ground due to their ill-formed wings. They are, at times, pathetic, yet they still maintain just a bit of the mystical grandeur of their race, which will bloom as the story goes on. While there are many flashes of their proud and arrogant kind, they also have hopes, fears and dreams, and are, on the whole, a bit more fragile and relatable than your average dragon.

The book requires a certain amount of patience in the early going, It starts somewhat slow, as it must, to introduce the various characters and give the reader a full understanding of them and to explain the process by which the sea serpents have traditionally migrated and cocooned to become dragons. Early on, both the humans and the dragons are much less interesting than they become. But by the time that Alise arrives in the Rain Wilds and the dragons begin their hunt for Kelsingra, I became entranced with the story and unable to put it down. It bodes well for the second half of the tale, “Dragon Haven,” due out in May. The background is out of the way now and hopefully we can jump right into the story at full stride.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon" by Cressida Cowell

After enjoying the Dreamworks movie “How to Train Your Dragon” on a rare family outing recently, my son demanded that we add the book to our bedtime reading ritual. As we were just about to finish “The Hobbit” and looking for a new book I picked up Cressida Cowell’s novel and the sequel “How to be a Pirate.”

Just a word of warning to those who enjoyed the movie and are considering picking up the book or vice versa: They are nothing alike. Outside of the setting and names, there are very few similarities. Having watched quite a few Hollywood versions of books I love in the past, it wasn’t surprising to me that there were changes, but the story featured in the movie is unrecognizable compared to the book.

Initially, my son and I were a little disappointed to find out that the Toothless of the book was a very small Common or Garden dragon that was, well, actually toothless, as opposed to the powerful Night Fury of the movie. In fact, most of the dragons of the book are small with some of the largest being described by Cowell as “about the size of a Labrador retriever.”

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that the Vikings of Cowell’s book are not terrorized by the dragons and don’t seek to kill them as in the movie. Instead, for the Vikings of the book, the dragons are utility animals. They catch them and train them to hunt and fish, usually by yelling – loudly. In fact, there’s quite a bit of yelling throughout the book. So instead of training to kill dragons, our hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and other boys of his age must sneak into the cave where thousands of young dragons are hibernating, choose their dragon and bring it out in a basket. Then, on the festival of Thor’sday Thursday, they must demonstrate to the members of the Hairy Hooligan Tribe that they have a mastery over their animal. Anyone who cannot capture a dragon or train it will be exiled from the tribe.

I won’t go any further than that in describing the plot of the book because I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t know what’s coming.

Unlike the movie, the print version of “How to Train Your Dragon” is very much a book for boys. The heroine of the movie, Astrid, doesn’t exist in the book, nor do any of the other girls involved in the dragon training. Instead you have boys with names like Snotface Snotlout, Fishlegs and Dogsbreath the Duhbrain. There are also quite a few jokes about snot, farts and other things that young boys will find amusing, though they’re all fairly innocent and never get too crude.

On a style note, I was a bit annoyed at the random capitalization in the book, and when the adult Vikings are yelling, the text often appears as ALLCAPSRUNTOGETHERWITHNOSPACES, which adds a level of difficulty to reading the book out loud. On the bright side, I enjoyed Cowell's flair for alliteration.

In the end, my son and I found Cowell’s novel entertaining, if not quite what we expected, and enjoyed the original take on the story. It’s a fun story and an easy read, perfect for bedtime reading, and we’re looking forward to starting on the sequel.

It’s really hard to compare the book to the movie as they’re pretty much two completely different entities. Both are enjoyable, though I think this might be that very rare case where, as much as I liked the book, I believe I enjoyed the movie version more. Sorry, Ms. Cowell.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: "The Way of Shadows" by Brent Weeks

As a reviewer, I get more books than I could possibly read. Often, I find myself making fairly quick decisions about what goes on the reading pile and what goes in the donation box. Sometimes, I know, I make the wrong decision. I was reminded of that by Brent Weeks’ “The Way of Shadows,” which I’m sure I received a review copy of at one point.

Recently, I found myself in the Indianapolis airport, facing about three hours in the air and another hour and a half in the Dallas airport. The book that I had read on the flight to Indianapolis had turned out to be a snoozer that I didn’t have any intention of finishing, and I had to have something to occupy my time on the way home. This book caught my eye in the bookstore, and my attention as soon as I started reading.

Azoth is a street rat, scrounging and stealing to survive and pay his tribute to the older kids who run the guild. The Big that he answers to is a particularly unsavory character by the name of Rat, who makes life miserable for Azoth and his friends Jarl and Doll Girl. While waiting under the floors of a drinking establishment hoping to catch some loose change falling through the boards, he has a chance encounter with the famed assassin Durzo Blint. Only the word assassin is an insult to Blint. He is what is known as a wetboy, a killer that uses both skill and magic to stalk his prey, and he is almost unstoppable – the best of the best.

After the encounter and seeing a taste of the power that Blint wields, Azoth decides that he will convince the wetboy to apprentice him. The killer, though, has no use for an apprentice. Through persistence, Azoth gets Blint to agree to take him on, under one condition – that he proves himself capable by killing Rat. To escape from the Warrens and save his friends, Azoth will have to give up everything he’s ever known and take on a new life as wetboy-in-training Kylar Stern.

To be honest, I thought I’d read the ultimate assassin tale in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, but the first volume in Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy certainly gives it a run for its money. Weeks’ world is a gritty place – mean, nasty and much more realistic than the usual fantasy fare. He’s populated the world with a set of very interesting and colorful characters that range from heroic to despicable, common to mysterious and everything in between.

Weeks also offers some surprises in his story line. It’s not often that I don’t see a twist coming in a book, but “The Way of Shadows” managed to surprise me in at least a couple of places. Weeks weaves quite a few threads and subplots through the book, but still manages to bring them altogether to give readers a satisfying ending that doesn’t leave them hanging.

The real strength of this book, though, is the beautifully drawn action sequences that Weeks writes. I’ve always been a fan of R.A. Salvatore’s combat scenes, but there are times in this book that Weeks makes him look like an amateur. Heavily detailed and artistically rendered, Weeks’ action will keep you reading breathlessly.

I’ll definitely be picking up the second and third volumes of the Night Angel trilogy, and they’ll move immediately to the top of my reading list.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: "Unseen Academicals" by Terry Pratchett

I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels in recent years. Pratchett remains one of my favorite authors and the early books in the series are some of my favorite ever. But over the last 10 or 12 years, the quality, at least to me, has been up and down. His latest, “Unseen Academicals,” falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It’s not bad, but it’s not one of my favorites, either.

The wizards of Unseen University discover that a large donation to their cause is in danger if they don’t agree to field a football team. The football crowd is a rough and rowdy group, and the game has very few rules. The Patrician, the ever-scheming Lord Vetinari, has also taken an interest in the game and encourages the wizards not only to field a team, but to bring some rules and order to the game. Naturally, that doesn’t go over well with elements of the rough-and-tumble crowd dedicated to the sport.

In the middle of the chaos are a reformed goblin who has been sent to Ankh-Morpork to find worth, the son of a legendary football player who has sworn to his mother he won’t get involved in the game, a beautiful but somewhat dense serving girl who may turn out to be the Discworld’s first fashion model and a no-nonsense cook that tries to hold everything together.

Perhaps if I were a fan of soccer, the sports side of the story might mean a little more to me. Being that I’m an "ugly American" who believes that football is played with an oblong ball and should involve large, heavily-padded men colliding with each other, it doesn’t quite impact me as much. On the other hand, I did enjoy the story of Mr. Nutt, the goblin, who has been reprogrammed and sent into the world to prove that goblins can change. (They’re all innately evil, you know.) Nutt is, quite purposely, one of the most human characters in the entire book, and his journey is both amusing and, at times, profound.

The wizards, as usual, provide their share of comedic moments, whether it be a “traditional” game in which they chase a bird around the university, their ineptness at sports as they try to learn to play football or the head of the Department of Post-Mortem Communications, Dr. Hix’s, constant reminders to the staff that he represents the dark arts. (“Skull ring, remember?”) Most of the laughs come from their misadventures and there are some good ones.

“Unseen Academicals,” while far from Pratchett’s best work, is still an entertaining read and well worth the effort for fans of the author and the Discworld.