Written in Red (The Others #1) – Anne Bishop

15711341eBook purchased by me

Summary:

As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow

Review:

Paranormal writers have it a bit rougher than most fantasy authors. When you’re writing something like traditional or epic or grimdark as long as you hit one or two key structures or themes you can pretty much do whatever you want in terms of content. Paranormal it’s a bit different. If you’re writing about vampires readers are going to expect blood drinkers that (usually) can only exist at night. Shapeshifters and weres are humans that take on a secondary form. Creating something fresh within these constructs that doesn’t get side-eyed (see: vampires that sparkle in the sun) can be quite difficult, which means that most authors usually leave the creatures alone and focus on the story to bring something fresh to the genre.

Anne Bishop, however, didn’t take that path. With one simple change, she managed to make entire genre feel fresh again:

The titular Others were never human. They are animal first, human second.

It seems like subtle distinction, but it’s one that changes the entire game.

Never once when reading this book do you believe that any of the Wolves, Crows, Owls or Hawks were human. There is always something alien about them. Something that feels just off enough to remind you that they wear our shape, but are not us. For example, the crows love the shiny (one of the lone humans introduces one of the Crows to glass cleaner who gets ridiculously excited over it) and occasionally has kleptomania and steals Meg’s pens. The Hawkguard don’t see mice in the Liason’s office as a problem – they see the mice as a quick and tasty snack, and so on. There’ small things, but you notice them, and it works wonders.

It helps too that the protagonist Meg is so likable. She’s very naive – kept that way deliberately by her handler the Controller – but she’s eager, willing to work and willing to learn. After having been so cloistered, she’s so open to the world that she doesn’t have the fears and prejudices that a normal human would to the Others so she’s open to them in a way that almost no one else is. It makes her a great curiosity to the community-  and soon enough the community comes to embrace her and want to protect her, even the most fearsome of the Others, the Elementals (note do not piss of Winter or Fire or any of them really) and Tess, whose form is left a mystery for most of the book, but makes go whoa when you start seeing her in action. So often these kind of characters are grating, but Bishop does a good job with the balance and doesn’t make her too innocent or too perfect to be believed.

This book is one of the best character-driven books I’ve read in ages. It’s characters are so strong that I genuinely remained engaged as Meg went about her job – as a glorified mail person. You know the author is doing something right when you get pleasure reading about a girl in a Box on Wheels (BOW) dropping off the post. It just works. The characters are so much the heart and soul of this book that the plot is almost a throwaway in this as the Bad Guys come hunting for Meg. The main antagonist, Asia Crane, is just plain annoying, but she served her purpose well enough.

A few other things I liked: as much as the Others hate the humans, Bishop made sure that she didn’t just paint them all in a negative light. There are sympathetic humans here, which is nice to see given that humans are definitely not the top of the totem pole in this world. It’d been so easy to just show us the ugly ones and leave at that. Finally, I like how Bishop simply lets the worth breathe. Aside from Meg’s arrival at the Courtyard, almost nothing significant plotwise happens in the first third of the book. She spends the time letting us get to know the characters and the Courtyard. It works because by the time the action does start up, you’re fully vested in this world.

In a genre that practically grooms fans to expect little more than a solid story, Written in Red is a breath of fresh air. I will be getting my hands on Murder of Crows and recommending this to any fans of the genre is an absolute no brainer.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

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YA Movie Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner is an average young-adult science fiction tale, elevated strictly on the strength of its visuals.

Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is a teenage boy who awakens in a freight elevator as its lifted up to a place called The Glade with no knowledge of who he is or where he’s at. When he calms down, the leader of the boys Alby (Aml Ameen) explains what they know of the place and the three rules which they abide by: 1) pull your weight 2) don’t attack one another and 3) don’t go into the maze. The exception to this last rule, of course, are the titular Maze Runners who are “the strongest and the fastest” of the boys, lead by a boy named Minho. Naturally, it doesn’t take Thomas long to upend the natural order of things as he’s not terribly thrilled with the idea of being stuck somewhere forever. There’s a further wrench thrown into the mix when a girl (the first one ever) named Teresa (Kayla Scoldelario) shows up, a note that says “She’s the last one EVER” scrunched up in her hand. Can Thomas figure out what’s going on before they all get killed? You know the answer to this. You also probably already know, or have a guess as to what’s going on and you’re probably not that far off. This movie (like the books) aren’t exactly deep.

One of the first things you notice is that the cast is ethnically diverse as is much of the leadership: Alby is black and Minho is Korean. Unfortunately, this does unfortunately give a film a slight tinge of White Man Knows Best as he’s the one that helps Minho keep his head on straight and he’s the one the that helps them find new paths. I’m guessing it’s unintentional, but it is there. Fans of the story will notice how much has been condensed: the first book contained a lot of puzzle solving as Thomas and the others tried to figure out the mysteries of the maze. In the film however, it’s reduced to a solitary scene between Thomas and Minho where he reveals there’s a sequence to how the maze opens and the climatic escape where Minho trying to spit out the code to add some (not really there) tension to the affair. It’s definitely tacked on and you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone. It honestly feels like it’s there as a nod to the fans, a way for the screenwriters to try and show that they really did read the book. Another thing mostly missing from the film is the faux-swearing that drove me crazy in the book. It’s only used once or twice, it’s never really explained, and again, it feels like it’s there strictly for fan service.

Another thing you notice: we still have no explanation as why Teresa needed to be there beyond as a plot device (she carries two convenient tubes of Griever antidote), let alone why she’s female. It’s just there and serves as the basis for some “that’s what girls are like!” jokes that aren’t terribly funny.

Acting here is serviceable at best varying from so-so to decent. O’Brien does what he can with what he’s given. Characters, as in the book, are fairly flat and the screenplay doesn’t give them much to play with, so a lot of the performances are one note. The score is there to provide cues for emotional moments if the script and/or the acting didn’t quite convince you of the weight of the scene. The biggest sore thumbs in this story are Gally (Will Poulter) and Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) the antagonists inside and outside The Glade respectively. Gally’s character is decent concept – yeah, scared kids who see things falling apart are going to be apt to point to what seems like the obvious agent of change as the culprit – but it kind of comes across as a giant temper tantrum. Ava Paige, who leads the experiment, all but rubs her hands together and goes MWAHAHAHAHA because the script demands it. It’s kind of cringe worthy, as is the tag line, “W.C.K.D is Good”

All that said: compared to the genre YA movies that have come out so far (Divergent, Vampire Academy and The Giver) it’s a bit better than most. It doesn’t feel bloated and it moves along fairly well.  Weaknesses in the move really due to the weakness of the original source material. The ending is a bit cringe worthy, but it’s a series and you kind of expect of that.

This isn’t the Hunger Games and if you’re going in expecting a film of that caliber, you’ll be disappointed. If you keep your expectations in check, turn off your brain and watch to see teens trying to outrun giant spiders with mechanical legs and freakishly long stingers you could enjoy yourself.

Just try to see it as a bargain matinee.

Verdict: Rent

Review: We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

76171eBook purchased by myself

Summary:

In the One State of the great Benefactor, there are no individuals, only numbers. Life is an ongoing process of mathematical precision, a perfectly balanced equation. Primitive passions and instincts have been subdued. Even nature has been defeated, banished behind the Green Wall. But one frontier remains: outer space. Now, with the creation of the spaceship Integral, that frontier — and whatever alien species are to be found there — will be subjugated to the beneficent yoke of reason.

One number, D-503, chief architect of the Integral, decides to record his thoughts in the final days before the launch for the benefit of less advanced societies. But a chance meeting with the beautiful I-330 results in an unexpected discovery that threatens everything D-503 believes about himself and the One State. The discovery — or rediscovery — of inner space…and that disease the ancients called the soul.

A page-turning SF adventure, a masterpiece of wit and black humor that accurately predicted the horrors of Stalinism, We is the classic dystopian novel. Its message of hope and warning is as timely at the end of the twentieth century as it was at the beginning

Review:

I don’t normally review classics, but sometimes it’s good to look at your past to better understand your present. We is more or less considered to be the first novel acknowledged as dystopian. It inspired the likes of Orwell (who got inspired to write 1984 after writing a review of this book) and Huxley (Brave New World). It not only created the genre as we know it, but was also meant as a pointed critique of the Soviet Union (remember this was written back in 1933). And on those counts, how does it fare?

As satire, it works. The book first and foremost feels like a satire. D-503 doesn’t feel like a human, he feels like a robot. But that’s what the idealized United State would have of its citizens – beings of precision who operate precisely according to their assigned Tables which proscribe when to sleep, when to eat, when to walk and  thanks to medicine, a certain number of Impersonal Sex Visits based on the hormone levels of a given Number. It’s the idealized state, where everyone pulls their part, is happy in their roles, and never questions the Well-Doer.

As a dystopian….eh. The others did it better. The novel this reminds me the most of is Brave New World, because like in Huxley’s novel, D-503 gets to see life outside the Green Wall. So while you can possibly argue that Huxley is a bit derivative, because his isn’t satire, his book is elevated in one very real way: the characters in Brave New World feel human. D-503 does not. You care about the former. You don’t about the later.

Aside from the lack of connection, the language D-503 uses is full of excessive exclamation points and formality, the kind you might see in propaganda. It works for the satire, but I found it alienating and at times, it made it difficult to discern what was going on.

I’m glad I read this book, but I don’t know that I can say I enjoyed it: I think there are legitimate reasons that its successors have stayed in the spotlight. Still, if you’ve read enough dystopian novels that you’ve lost sight of what they should be, this is a good reminder.

This book is an interesting read if you like literary history, but if you want to read classics of this genre, stick to 1984 or Brave New World instead.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: Now

DNF The Thief’s Gamble – Juliet E. McKenna

661318

Summary:

Magic? It’s for the rich, the powerful…the Archmage and his elite wizards and cloud-masters.

Livak is not among them. She haunts the back taverns of the realm, careful to appear neither rich nor poor, neither tall nor short… neither man nor woman. Obscurity is her protection, thievery her livelihood, and gambling her weakness.

Alas, some bets are hard to resist. Particularly when they offer a chance to board a ship for Hadrumal, the fabled city of the Archmage. So Livak follows a minor wizard, Shiv, in an attempt to turn a rune or two, never dreaming that the stolen tankard she wants to sell contains the secrets of an ancient magic far more powerful, and infinitely darker, than any mortal mage’s spells

Review:

I tried folks, I really did. This is an oldie – 1999 to be precise – and side from a female protagonist and a primary male character who casually admits to having a boyfriend (progressive for the year, to be sure) there just isn’t much here here. I have trouble keeping characters apart. The book has a tendency to jump POV in a single chapter (with each chapter being rather long and divisions of time, rather than narrator)  made the more confusing when Livak’s story is told in first person, and everyone else is told in the third person. There’s no good reason for that division either, at least not from a  narrative point of view. I have to wonder if it was a short-cut way to try and draw the reader in? Dunno.

For epic fantasy, the quest is pretty tame and the magic is woefully underdeveloped for a story about wizards and practically not used beyond some parlor tricks – it almost seems more theoretical than real.

Ultimately, this book is worse than bad: it’s boring and doesn’t have enough story to justify the almost 500 pages that it fills, making it impossible to recommend. There are too many other, better, traditional fantasies out there to recommend in its place.

Palate Cleanser: How to Survive a Sharknado – Andrew Shaffer

19288325ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for fair review

Genre: Humor

Summary:

In the apocalyptic world we live in, Mother Nature is angry. Danger waits at every turn, and catastrophes like the Los Angeles sharknados have taught us that we need to be ready for anything. Too many lives have already been lost.

But fear not. How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters is the first and only comprehensive guide to surviving the very worst that Mother Nature can throw our way. Inside this life-saving reference, you’ll find:

• Vital information about dozens of unnatural disasters and ungodly monsters that can injure, maim, or kill you, from arachnoquakes and ice twisters to piranhacondas and mega pythons;

• Easy-to-understand survival tips for avoiding a bloody demise;

• Inspirational words of wisdom from survivors, including Fin Shepard and April Wexler;

• Useful resources, such as the Shepard Survival Assessment Test (S.S.A.T), and much more.

With this essential book in hand, you too can be a hero who laughs in the face of calamity while saving friends and family. Or you can just avoid getting savagely ripped apart by a sharktopus. Either way, you’ve been warned. Now be prepared.

Review:

So do you know to survive a Beeclipe? Or what to do in the event you run into a manticore?

Fin Shepard & April Wexler are here to make sure you do!

The are some great illustrations in this book – you’ll know exactly what your enemies will look like – and there are some fun bits of “history” and trivia about each kind of disaster to be found. There’s a certain level of cheekiness and cheesiness that are the hallmark of the Syfy movies that this book was inspired from, and I think this book captures that pretty well. I do have to knock the book down a bit a peg, because at times it feels redundant like “Avoid Mount Pleasant.” and “If your GPS is routing you through Point Pleasant, find an alternate route.” C’mon, you can do better than that!

Really though, this is one of those books that knows the audience is trying to reach. Fans of the movies will enjoy this book. Fans who don’t, probably won’t because the level of humor in the book is on par of the films and some may not find that quite funny enough.

Still, for what it is, it’s a great little book to keep around as a coffee table book and thumb through when you need a chuckle or as a great source of trivia for Syfy movie buffs.

Verdict: Buy it if you’re a fan of the movies.

Available: Now

Review: Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2) – Anthony Ryan

18138189eBook purchased by myself

Summary:

In Blood Song, Anthony Ryan introduced readers to “a fascinating world of conflicting religions and the wars fought in the name of those faiths” (Library Journal). Now Ryan’s epic tale continues as Vaelin Al Sorna discovers that there is no escape from the call of destiny…

“The blood-song rose with an unexpected tune, a warm hum mingling recognition with an impression of safety. He had a sense it was welcoming him home.”

Vaelin Al Sorna, warrior of the Sixth Order, called Darkblade, called Hope Killer. The greatest warrior of his day, and witness to the greatest defeat of his nation: King Janus’s vision of a Greater Unified Realm drowned in the blood of brave men fighting for a cause Vaelin alone knows was forged from a lie. Sick at heart, he comes home, determined to kill no more. Named Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by King Janus’s grateful heir, he can perhaps find peace in a colder, more remote land far from the intrigues of a troubled Realm.

But those gifted with the blood-song are never destined to live a quiet life. Many died in King Janus’s wars, but many survived, and Vaelin is a target, not just for those seeking revenge but for those who know what he can do. The Faith has been sundered, and many have no doubt who their leader should be. The new King is weak, but his sister is strong. The blood-song is powerful, rich in warning and guidance in times of trouble, but is only a fraction of the power available to others who understand more of its mysteries. Something moves against the Realm, something that commands mighty forces, and Vaelin will find to his great regret that when faced with annihilation, even the most reluctant hand must eventually draw a sword.

Review:

I never properly reviewed Blood Song. I was on vacation at Dragon Con at the time, and well, cons make generally poor times to try and review things as through a lack of food and sleep coherent English can be come something of a rarity. While it didn’t break any molds, I thought it was a fine example of traditional epic fantasy, the richly developed religion and relative eschewing of magic helping to elevate it above much of its brethren. Vaelin Al Soren was a likable and interesting protagonist, further helping it set apart. So yeah, I was looking forward to finally reading it.

I’m kind of disappointed.

On the one hand, Ryan opens up the world, and initially, that excited me. Instead of one narrator, we get four:  Al Sorna, Brother Frentis, Princess Lyrna, a woman named Reva, introduced here. It works at first, because we get to see more of the world. But it’s quickly squandered. For example, early on the in book, Lyrna undertakes a long and rather dangerous journey to meet with the leader of the Lornak. We get to see some glimpses of that people’s religion and where their ruler sits. But quite literally, after a some-what lengthy conversation, the business is done and they head out. I couldn’t help but react like “that’s it?” a feeling amplified when you realize that the journey was kind of pointless, it could have been done by courier.

Another disappointment were the new characters. We had two main ones: Reva, and a nameless woman who keeps Frentis as a slave for a good chunk of the book. Ultimately they both feel underdeveloped. Although the direction that Ryan takes with them is different, they’re still born of the same single note: a kind of religious fanaticism. With Reva, it’s especially problemmatic as we’re meant to believe that she left a large impression on Al Sorna.I just wasn’t convinced.

Ultimately these combine with a pretty perfunctory plot as the Unified Realm is plunged into warfare. The war takes up a good chunk of the second half of the book, and it ultimately feels a bit of a slog.

As one might expect, this isn’t the final book, so things aren’t really resolved. Ideally, you should be looking forward to (what I’m hoping) is a conclusion, and right now, I’m a bit indifferent.

To me, at least, it’s lost those little touches that elevated Blood Song above the majority of the books in this genre and it’s a shame.

It clearly has its fans, and I’m not going to say they’re wrong, it’s just not quite as special as the first book was. If you liked Blood Song though, it’s still worth a look. It just may or may not be what you were looking for in a sequel.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available: Now

What constitues a “book”?

Like, really?

In this day and age of anyone being able to publish anything, what makes a book nowadays?

I ask this because after finishing The Clockwork Dagger I began my usual hunt for what to read next. While I eventually settled on The Tower Lord (which I am both enjoying and savoring – review won’t be for several days yet likely), I spent about 90 minutes reading a little indie title called Georgetown Academy. When I sat down to review it, I decided I didn’t have enough to say about the actual content to post it here, but I did post a review to Goodreads (which you can see here if you’d really like). While I thought that it was a fast read, even by my standards (I can finish a light YA read in maybe 3-4 hours), I didn’t think much of it.

Then, as I was getting ready to post my review I noticed this in the profile.

page count126 pages folks.

That was the sum total of this “book.”

You know how in the past I’ve complained about there are books that have cliffhanger endings that make you feel like you’re missing the rest of the book? This has that, and you could make a real argument that it literally is missing it’s second half. Books by traditional publishers are at least novel length so you get some value for your money, but this is a short novella!

Seriously?

THIS IS NOT A BOOK.

Now, to be fair, when I got this, it was available for free and free is free. The final “season” – that is, a collection of all four books – is a total of 635 pages, which means each book averages 159 pages.

THESE BOOKS ARE STILL NOT BOOKS.

And the reason I’m getting bent over shape is simple: economics.

Are indie books cheaper than traditionally published? Yes. But you’re also taking a much greater risk with indies like this. There are no gatekeepers of quality and these books generally aren’t professionally edited. For every great indie title out there, there are five that are so-so and a handful more that can generously be called drafts. The higher price you pay reflects the fact that at the very least you’re getting a polished product

These books should be more reasonable to the consumer because the middle man is much much smaller. But what happens when people start publishing “books” like this? The consumer pays as much as, if not even more. To buy the “season” will set you back $10 – and the reader almost has no choice, because for some odd reason book three is no longer available separately, and even if it were, it’s still set you back $11.

IMHO, the easiest way for an author to gain an audience is to offer that cheaper gateway, but when you release insultingly short titles and then make people pay $3/part, eventually the audience will cotton on, and they’ll stop buying. It ultimately seems counter-productive.

Your mileage may vary of course, but it’s something I’m going to be looking at going at when I see that a story has multiple “books” – readers like you and me deserve complete novels, and we shouldn’t be paying for works in progress. At best, it’s a risk. At worst, you’ll shell out money and never get an ending, and who wants that?